How to understand modern China

by on December 14, 2017 at 12:17 am in Current Affairs, Economics, History, Uncategorized | Permalink

Ari emails me:

On a completely different note, if I want to understand modern China what books, articles, etc. should I be reading? Do I start with a textbook? Historical scholarship? Fiction? Is Wikipedia the way to go?

Start by asking someone who understands modern China is my first response!  But since you have failed that test, here are a few pointers:

1. Unless your mental architecture is very different from mine, books about sequences of dynasties are mind-numbing and not readily absorbed.  So you first need some context to fit those pieces into.

2. Here is a wonderful syllabus on Chinese economic history, by Dr. Melanie Meng Xue.  Read it all.  I don’t find most books on China to be very useful.  They may be full of true claims, but the frequency of repetition, across books, tends to be very high.

3. Set up a Twitter/RSS feed to follow China today.  Here are seven excellent sources, more are listed at the end.  Set up a separate Twitter account to follow people who cover China, they are more interesting than those who write on U.S. domestic politics.  After all, this is mankind’s greatest story of the current day.

4. Find an “entry point” into China of independent intrinsic interest to you, be it basketball, artificial intelligence, Chinese opera, whatever.  Follow that area, and don’t bother trying to generalize.  Just have fun.

5. Subscribe to the email newsletter of Bill Bishop.

6. Alternate your interest between stories that make China seem quite normal and stories that imply China is pretty weird.  But what is the right balance of those?  Nobody knows!  Experiment, realizing you don’t have a useful feedback mechanism.  Here are a few China stories I have sampled recently:

The Chinese don’t want us to call it tofu any more.

Beijingers read on average an hour a day.

Chinese man repaints road markings to make his commute quicker.

P.F. Chang to open in Shanghai.  But marketed as an American bistro.

Xi Jinping presses military overhaul, and two generals disappear (NYT), an underreported series of stories, try this one too.

7. Travel to every part of China.  The country has the best food in the world (tied with India), is quite safe, has navigable infrastructure, and you can cross much of the country in a day by high-speed rail.  Outside of Beijing and Shanghai, you might find five-star hotels for less than $100 a night.  Go pre-equipped with multiple VPNs, and figure out the English-Chinese translation programs on your smart phone.  They come in handy and many Chinese are already quite familiar with them.  Learn some street signs, with quizzes.

8. Now go back and study all those dynasties.

1 amartya sen December 14, 2017 at 12:30 am

Regarding tofu, its miserable existence and death in this Western world are like that of a tropical plant in Europe. The banks of the Ganges was its spiritual home; there it would have led a peaceful and honoured life among other such terraform. Still, it follows from eternity and for eternity, that its three interior angles are equal to two right angles.

Bonus Trivia Marcel Proust devotes 20 pages of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower to his experience with tofu.

2 Douglas Levene December 14, 2017 at 12:39 am

Read The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, by Richard McGregor. It’s a few years old, but the main themes are still quite accurate.

3 Daniel Frank December 14, 2017 at 1:01 am

For a very short read that provides a great starting point, I recommend how China became capitalist by Ronald Coase.

4 Moo cow December 14, 2017 at 1:24 am

Request – do this for India. Tks.

5 msgkings December 14, 2017 at 1:56 am


6 Anonymous December 14, 2017 at 11:04 am

At least one of the commentators on this blog won’t be happy with this, but this may be of interest:

7 john smith December 14, 2017 at 1:42 am

Check out, The Search for Modern China by Jonathan D. Spence. The book begins at the end of the Ming Dynasty and ends with Tiananmen Square. I believe newer copies than mine might be updated. I once lived in the midst of a close knit Chinese community and after reading this book I became the authority on modern Chinese history. Much to the chagrin to some of my neighbours I might add. Get invited home for dinner. Chinese home style food is nothing like restaurant food at all.

8 Hoosier December 14, 2017 at 8:55 am

I second this book. Read it while living in Japan befire my first and only trip to china and it gave me everything I wanted.

Everything by Spence is great.

9 mkt42 December 14, 2017 at 1:57 am

” figure out the English-Chinese translation programs on your smart phone … Learn some street signs”

A marvelous very short book that helps with both of those tasks is “I Can Read That” by Julie Sussman. It’s written for American tourists who will be traveling to China but who do not know Chinese. One might think that without knowledge of the Chinese language, it would be impossible — and useless — to learn some of the thousands of characters in Chinese written language. From time to time in the past I had picked up a Chinese or Japanese lesson book in a bookstore and quickly given up, all the characters looked like a mass of squiggles to me.

But “I Can Read That” lives up to its promise — starting literally on page 1 and 2. Because the reader quickly learns that those Chinese characters have a system, including radicals or roots, and thus it becomes much easier to look at a character and see what it’s components are rather than seeing it as squiggles.

By the end of the book the reader has learned … I forget, something like 100 characters including the ones that will be most useful to a tourist. But more usefully, the reader has learned how to “read” Chinese characters, so that even if they don’t know what the word means, they can recognize it (useful for finding your street or hotel name on a sign), look it up in a dictionary (ever wonder how a non-alphabetical language sorts the words in its dictionaries?), or ask someone for help.

It’s quite an experience traveling in China and trying to read signs and posters and actually being able to read some of the characters. Reminiscent of what it’s like to be 5 years old or whatever and first learning to read and being able to recognize words while walking down the street.

At one point I decided that I was tired and wanted to ride a bus instead of walking two miles back to my hotel. The bus stops in Shanghai clearly tell you what bus lines they serve and where those lines go — if you can read Chinese. I knew that I wanted a bus that went to “Sun Yat-Sen” Park —
though the Chinese use characters that directly translate his name as Middle Mountain” — and thankfully the characters for “middle”, “mountain”, and “park” are easy to read and understand.

So I went to what I thought was a correct bus stop and got on what I thought was the correct bus.

And indeed it was. Shanghai’s rush hour traffic meant that the bus travelled more slowly than the pedestrians were, but I did get my restful bus trip and my first successful translation-and-navigation achievement. All this with not a single lesson in Chinese, just that book.

The book also has a load of useful information about Chinese culture, e.g. by reading the book I realized the superiority of the Chinese way of arranging things: name go surname then given name; dates go year then month then date; locations go country then state then city then street then number. Superior because that’s how we sort lists and look things up, from big to small as with American phone books that go surname then given name.

Chinese can also count to 10 using their fingers — of just one hand. (In theory with two hands they could count to 99 but the book doesn’t say if this is common.)

10 December 14, 2017 at 4:26 am

The French counting system is a beauty, 99 = quatre-vingt-dix-neuf = four-twenty-ten-nine

The Chinese system becomes unfamiliar after 10,000, lots of mental conversions when reading economic reports, million = hundred ten-thousand, billion = ten hundred-million.

11 dearieme December 14, 2017 at 11:40 am

Clever them. We used to count to nine on one hand (as a joke, in primary school). Eleven was easy too. I don’t remember us doing it for ten.

12 Gareth December 14, 2017 at 3:17 am

You should read the essays of Simon Leys. Lots of insights into Chinese culture and politics in The Burning Forest and Hall of Uselessness. (Incidentally, the first contains the most damning essays on Western academics sympathetic to Maoism I’ve ever read).

13 Thor December 14, 2017 at 12:50 pm


14 skeptic December 14, 2017 at 4:29 am

If China does not disgust you, you are a weird sexual loser. No exceptions

15 Expat in China December 17, 2017 at 1:14 am

You, my friend, are a complete idiot.

16 jordan schneider December 14, 2017 at 4:39 am

putting in a plug for my podcast, ChinaEconTalk! modeled after Russ Roberts’ EconTalk, past guests have included Jonathan Woetzel, Scott Kennedy, Peter Lorentzen, Matt Sheehan and Cynthia Estlund.

17 jordan schneider December 14, 2017 at 4:40 am

and yes i’m working on getting more chinese national guests…

18 geogavino December 14, 2017 at 6:50 am

On the SupChina link, you can also find the Sinica podcast. I feel like most people studying China would come across this, but highly recommended if not.

19 adrian December 14, 2017 at 7:13 am

I also would recommend the Sinica podcast for anyone who has not heard it. I also found Peter Hessler’s travel books (Country Driving and River Town) to be very accessible and insightful.

20 Dave December 18, 2017 at 4:28 pm

I second this, Kaiser and Jeremy are always topical and insightful

21 Hoosier December 14, 2017 at 7:22 am

Incorrect statement on having the best food. You can’t eliminate cheese and rare meat and call yourself best in the world.

I love Chinese food but it’s very limited . Where are the ovens for roasting a turkey for example? Barbecue? There’s the Muslim street sellers with their roast lamb but do the Chinese consider this part of their cuisine? In general I find China pretty provincial in its attitude toward food. This came up in thr dialogue with Fuscia Dunlop so TC is obviously aware.

Anyway, Japanese is just as good and they also do Chinese food as good as you’ll find in China!

I found Chinese history much easier to understand than many other countries exactly because of the linear placement of dynasties along a time line. India on the other hand seems to move around between religions, rulers, and periods of no central rule that are often ill defined. Everything in Chinese history is super well delineated.

In fact, Chinese history is one of the most interesting aspects of China. So much so in my case that I was disappointed when I actually visited because of how modern and bland a lot of the country seemed.

China is a fascinating country, but the fetushiizing of its culture on this blog is a bit much. I’m still waiting for contemporary Chinese culture to have an influence on the outside world- like Korea and Japan do- before paying too much attention.

22 knownastron December 14, 2017 at 1:01 pm

Roast goose or duck is one of the most popular dishes from China. Peking/Beijing duck for example.

Hong Kong also has a variety of BBQ meats as their most popular dishes. Google “char siu” as the best example.

I am curious why you are not aware of these dishes as someone who loves Chinese food. China has many regional cuisines but southern Chinese cuisine is most popular in America so dishes from HK (char siu) is quite readily available. Honest question, but have you been eating Americanized Chinese food and thinking that was the extent of it?

23 Bradley Gardner December 14, 2017 at 7:23 am

Read everything put out by the Dragonomics crowd. Particularly Andrew Batson, but they’re all stellar.

24 rayward December 14, 2017 at 7:23 am

Americans have difficulty understanding China and its history because Americans have a fictionalized version of America and its history to which to compare. China’s history is punctuated by recurring highs and lows (extreme highs and extreme lows), while our fictionalized American history is one of ascent (destiny). Because of China’s actual history, order and stability have a very high priority today (maintaining China’s current ascent supersedes almost everything). Because of America’s fictionalized history, order and stability are often subordinated to a preference for disruption, which is considered by many intellectuals as the source of America’s strength. If an American wishes to have a better understanding of China today, I’d suggest starting with a more realistic understanding of America. [Of course, this is an unusual time for an American to acquire a better understanding of China today, as China seeks to expand its global reach and influence while America is in retreat (even as America seeks to retain its global reach and influence by an increased reliance on the military). China views America as both its partner and its competitor, but as China’s reach and influence expands, I fear the inevitable clash that often occurs when one power is expanding and the other is retreating (while placing greater reliance on its military to maintain its reach and influence). That’s a history that is concerning.]

25 Ted Craig December 14, 2017 at 7:33 am

I’d add, find a way to talk to an average Chinese person. I was surprised at how chaotic day-to-day life is in China. Many people focus on the efficiency of the Chinese national government, but at the local level, it’s a different story. Developers don’t have to follow zoning ordinances, for example. They’ll through up a subdivision anywhere they have land available.

26 Frederick Colbourne December 14, 2017 at 7:33 am

I suggest starting with the end of WWII in Asia. That would make sense if you wanted to understand any modern country If you start at the end of WWII you will pick up a lot of the backstory en passant.

As an example, you would need to know about James II of England to understand the constitution of the UK. But you could get enough on one page to do the job. Ditto with the dynasties of China. Put them at the end of the queue.

My wife was educated in Chinese-language schools in Malaysia. She did Chinese A-level in the UK to satisfy the requirement to have a UK A-level course for university entrance. One of the books she used was The Contemporary Atlas of China by Nathan Sivin, University of Pennsylvanian. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.1988. Try Abebooks for second hand copies.

The book is a little dated because 1988 is almost ancient history in modern China. There is a lot about the regional differences with maps. If I recall correctly, my wife spent about 6 weeks preparing for the A-level examination. Knowledge of Chinese history and culture was required plus the ability to read a few paragraphs of Mandarin at the level my wife was reading in primary school.

You should read about recent economic changes. For example, the Chinese claim that most state enterprises have been converted into joint-stock companies with shares quoted on the stock exchanges. If even partly true, this would be the real Great Leap Forward and not the regressive leap promoted by the Gang of Four.

By 2020 the GDP per capita will have surpassed that of Russia. By 2025 the total (NOT per capita) GDP of China will have surpassed that of the US. To understand modern China focus on modern China.

27 Larry Siegel December 17, 2017 at 5:11 am

>the Chinese claim that most state enterprises have been converted into joint-stock companies with shares quoted on the stock exchanges.

They have, but the state (central or local government) still owns a lot of the shares of most of these companies. It’s a pretty good leap forward.

28 Flashman fan December 14, 2017 at 7:45 am

The book that first made me take a genuine interest in China was George MacDonald Fraser’s “Flashman and the Dragon”, in which the old scoundrel Harry Flashman gets involved in the Taiping Rebellion. Fought at roughly the same time as the American Civil War, the Taiping Rebellion cost somewhere between 20 and 70 million lives. A comparison of those two events led me to conclude that I had probably paid too much attention to American history and too little to Chinese history. (A fault that I have still not managed to correct.)

Generally, if I look at the historical events that I find interesting, it is amazing to see how much Fraser’s Flashman series influenced me.

29 Edward December 14, 2017 at 8:19 am

I built a twitter feed of the sources mentioned in the supchina Link:


30 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ December 14, 2017 at 9:03 am
31 jack December 14, 2017 at 8:51 am

Agree with point 7, Indian food is way underrated because what is easily available in the US tends to be unimaginative and compared with the infinite regional variations available in India

32 shrikanthk December 14, 2017 at 8:56 am

Tyler –

Your thoughts on the two volume – “Sources of Chinese Tradition”?

33 Hoosier December 14, 2017 at 8:56 am

Any China podcast recommendations?

34 Edward Burke December 14, 2017 at 10:08 am

To understand “modern China”–is it possible to proceed with NO understanding of the history of Confucianism? is it possible to “understand China” with NO exposure to the history and influence of the Daodejing? is it possible to “understand modern China” with no working appreciation for the Chinese appropriation of Buddhism?

Apart from translations of these foundational documents and explicit studies thereof (to say nothing of the language itself), the account of intellectual ferment found in Angus Graham’s Disputers of the Tao and what insights can be gleaned from David Hinton’s Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology, might well present the only starting points capable of yielding sufficient insight into “modern China”.

35 Peter December 14, 2017 at 10:18 am

I have thought a lot about the question over the years. I’m a westerner, but I’ve lived in various parts of Asia over the past decade or so, including a few years in Beijing and two stints living in Taiwan, among other places.

I would say beware of anyone who tells you they can explain China to you. Of course, you can learn things about China that you didn’t know before by reading books, or just wikipedia articles. And that’s worth doing. But I think you’re asking about a deeper understanding, and that’s where it gets tricky.

First of all, I have bad news for you: the vast majority of popular China books are garbage. Sorry Tyler — that includes many of the ones you have recommended in the past. That’s not to say you can’t learn anything from them. But I think they distort more than they reveal, in many cases. They are fundamentally superficial. But there is this effect whereby people will listen to a westerner who says “you should listen to my analysis, because I’m a China guy, I know all about China, I’ve been there and everything. There is a saying among some literary-minded ex-pats in China: people who live here for a month write a book about it; people who live here for six months write an article about it; people who really live here know better, or wouldn’t know where to begin. In other words, it may take some time to truly realize how little you know. That awareness only comes when you get a small amount of real knowledge and realize just how small it is, and just how wrong or clueless you were before.

So you can’t read your way to a deeper knowledge, most likely. Although you wouldn’t know it from the China non-fiction publishing racket. It seems that every old white American writer guy who doesn’t speak a lick of Chinese wants to write a book about China after visiting — just think of the great material they’ve gathered! All that local color! But it’s superficial. And in many cases, you can just tell they’ve chosen a thesis in advance, and tailored their facts and anecdotes to prove the unprovable: China is going to collapse soon, or China is going to take over the world; the CPC is the greatest threat to world peace, or the CPC is the most enlightened political organization out there; the Chinese are just like us, or the Chinese mind is fundamentally different; the China experience is a picaresque of plucky optimistic/eccentric characters, or the China experience is unremittingly bleak and alienating; and so on.

So just pick your poison, and put down 25 bucks for the hardcover, but don’t expect to gain much in the way of real knowledge. And all that local colour? All those anecdotes? Sometimes exaggerated, often misunderstood, almost always used to illustrate a point that actually has nothing to do with what happened in whatever encounter the author thinks he had. (there are exceptions — Richard McGregor and James Fallows are pretty good I think etc … and I haven’t read all of the prominent authors)

So here’s the truth, as far as I can tell: if you want to learn more about China, by all means read up on it, learn as much as you can about it — but if you want to really understand China in the way I think you mean, you probably fundamentally cannot. That’s not to say you can’t approach something like a deeper understanding, within limits. But you have to live there or spend a lot of time there, at the very least, and you DEFINITELY have to learn the language, which is a very tough challenge (but not impossible with moderate, sustained effort — daily effort being the key, with NO days off).

And even if you do those things, what then? Let’s say you’ve picked up and moved to, say, Xi’an. After a few years, let’s say you’ve learned the language. You get out of the ex-pat bubble often (also an absolute requirement), you have mostly Chinese friends, you eat mostly Chinese food, you are immersed in Chinese pop culture. You learn the history of China, you read the classic novels of Chinese literature. You travel all over the country. Maybe you marry into a Chinese family. Fifteen years, twenty years have gone by. Twenty-five years. So what have you learned? Something very deep indeed: you now know the city of Xi’an quite well, having lived there for a quarter century — a tiny sliver of its history. That’s something. But the city itself can only provide you its own particular lens on China, it offers up only one idiosyncratic facet of China. If you’d lived in Kunming or Beijing instead of Xi’an, your knowledge would be of a different kind. Furthermore, no matter how long you’ve lived there, the facet that was presented to you, which you polished and cleaned and learned by heart, learned the flaws and imperfections, learned to look deeply into … that facet and your understanding of it still and always will be conditioned by your own identity: you are a foreigner, and what you experience will always be different from what your Chinese friend experiences, and the perspective you bring will always be an outsider’s perspective. And your Chinese language skills will never be truly perfect, by the way.

That doesn’t mean you learned nothing. You learned an incredible amount. You still don’t truly understand China, but you’ve gone deep, you’ve made a noble effort, and you’re light years ahead of pretty much any author of popular non-fiction about China. And on top of that, you’ve had an interesting life. Congratulations!

36 JDR December 14, 2017 at 10:48 am

This was a great comment. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

37 dearieme December 14, 2017 at 11:45 am

Fascinating. To what extent is it also true for an American who wants to understand Italy, France, Britain, Russia, Australia ….? Hell, Mexico?

38 Todd K December 14, 2017 at 12:52 pm

I’d say substitute “Japan” for China in the above, and it is the same including the pat about the area that you live in – Tokyo v. Osaka v. City in the countryside, etc. From what I know, Chinese are far more willing to speak to Westerners in Mandarin than Japanese are willing to speak Japanese to Westerners and that sets up a major further barrier in understanding many aspects of Japanese culture.

You don’t need *perfect* language skills but with Japanese as I assume is the case with Chinese, there is a difference between taking two years in college, living in Japan two or three years – which gets you quite a ways – and those who have devoted a decade or more to learning the language and read articles and fiction as well as understand over 95% of the news.

39 Struwwelpeter December 14, 2017 at 3:13 pm

These are utter banalities applying to anyone anywhere. By the same reasoning a Texan who has learned the American language, has mostly American friends, eats mostly American food, is immersed in American pop culture, married into an American family blah,blah, blah, only knows a “tiny sliver” of American history. And he only “knows one facet of America”. If he had lived in Anchorage “his knowledge would be of a different kind”. On the other hand sanctimonious, pontificating know-it-alls can certainly be found all over America and also on the rest of the planet.

40 Todd K December 14, 2017 at 3:52 pm

There are differences even if the statements in Peter’s post apply to France as well. The greatest difference is that learning French to an advacned level takes far fewer years, two or three, than to reach an equivalent level in Mandarin or Japanese – ten. And obviously it takes less time to learn the differences between two Western cultures than for a Westerner to have a solid understanding of an Eastern culture.

41 Peter December 14, 2017 at 6:32 pm

Struwwelpeter, I agree completely. I know you were attempting a reductio, but I’m perfectly willing to follow that reasoning and double down on the conclusion. This is because I’ve seen what you describe in my own parents, who are immigrants. Even though their home country and their new country share a common language and many other cultural affinities, I feel like after more than 40 years, they still don’t really truly “get” their new home. There are things that I understand as someone who was born and grew up here, which I think they just don’t and cannot understand. And they aren’t necessarily aware of it; they just don’t have a natural feel for it. Unspoken things that we all understand sometimes have to be spoken to be understood by them. Jokes in movies that pretty much any native would understand are sometimes lost on them, etc. Sure their accents have shifted, but even then not entirely, after half a century. And they still feel somewhat alienated from their surroundings, even though they are well-integrated and have friends, etc.

Going the other direction, I definitely feel that I do not understand my parents’ home country, even though all of my extended family lives there and I have been visiting there for my entire life, it’s my second home, etc. I feel that even with my parents being from there, I could go and live there for the rest of my life, and I would still be fundamentally an outsider.

Now back to China: the differences are so much greater. The language difference alone would be enough, most likely. But the cultural difference, well … So based on that, I’ll follow you gladly, and say your example of two Chinese people, one who went to Texas and one who went to Anchorage, will not only have a tougher time understanding their adopted country even after 40 or 50 years of living there than would, say, a local who grew up there, but will also have very different experiences and most likely different understandings of America based on their very different locales (all of this assumes they moved after their formative years). Their kids will have no problem though, since America is their “first language”, culturally.

Now, you could go one further with your reductio, and say: okay, does the reasoning in my comment mean a native and life-long resident of Alabama and a native, life-long resident of New York have the same issue, even though they are not immigrants? I would say yes: their understandings will be partial, conditioned by their different experiences and surroundings, and neither one will be definitive. How fine-grained does this go? People from different counties in the same state? How about all the way down to the level of different individual humans? Yes, of course. Although the difference is smaller at those scales. I think roughly speaking the city or county level is the correct one.

So am I saying that nobody truly understands America, even natives, and that by the same reasoning nobody understands China, even Chinese people? Yes, in a sense. Because an individual’s experience and knowledge can only be partial. But since that is not very helpful, let’s just use the level of understanding of a thoughtful and experienced native of a given country/culture/civilization as the benchmark for “deep understanding”. The Alabaman and the New Yorker and the Texan and Alaskan are deemed to have the same level of understanding and roughly the same character of experience, focusing on commonalities etc. Same for the Chinese person from Beijing, Xi’an, Kunming — we deem them to be the same. Would my original comment still stand, given that slackening of the standard? I believe so. The shared level of understanding that they have will never be fully attainable by an outsider, whether it’s my parents moving to a relatively similar culture, or me moving to a very different one. Of course I can’t prove this to you, but I have to go by my own life and the lives of my parents.

42 CJG December 17, 2017 at 3:55 am

I like your insights, Peter. My daughter-in-law is from Chongqing China, where visited when she and our son were married. Some of our family spent two, some three weeks touring China — Beijing, Chongqing, Chengdu, Kunming, Hong Kong and Shanghai. What an amazing, diverse and unique country! In spite of the contemporary architecture, superhighways, airports, automobiles, etc., underneath was I sensed something fascinating and undefinable — and quite unlike anything I’ve experienced in the United States or Canada.

I studied a little Mandarin beforehand and even afterwards, still read what I can find online on China and have studied the I Ching Oracle for 40 years. I would hestitate to characterize modern China to anyone, other than sharing bits and pieces what I observed on my one brief trip. And I do understand cultural diversity and relativity, having grown up in an immigrant family and community, and not learning to speak English until it was time to enter kindergarten; and later, majoring in anthropology as an undergraduate.

43 polly December 14, 2017 at 10:51 am

Work back from the October 2017 Wired magazine article about the Chinese government scheme to rate all citizens, from 2020, for trustworthiness by monitoring what they buy; where they are at any given time; who their friends are; how many hours they spend on-line; and what bills and taxes they pay . Pilot project is running right now 🙂

44 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ December 14, 2017 at 10:56 am
45 Tyler Cowen December 14, 2017 at 2:27 pm

Aylok has been trying to post this: “9. Read a novel by Jin Yong, the god of wuxia and (by far) the best-selling author in the Sinosphere. (A mainstream English publisher is bringing out a translation of the first part of Eagle Shooting Heroes is coming out next year, but his entire oeuvre has already been translated by fans on the internet.)

To a Western reader wuxia novels (like much of Chinese literature) can seem frustrating and crude works, but if you want to better understand Chinese attitudes to patriotism, honour, feminism, transsexualism, romance, non-Chinese minorities, history and much else, the novels of Jin Yong (and his contemporary Liang Yusheng) would be a great introduction. And he’ll help you remember all those pesky dynasties…

46 Maitreya December 14, 2017 at 3:26 pm

The question was about MODERN China. Yet, in his answer, Tyler put disproportionate focus on China’s HISTORY. Now of course any nation’s current behavior is to some extent tied to its past. And not that Chinese history isn’t a good subject to study, it’s an excellent subject.

Yet, would Tyler have done the same if the question was about modern Britain? Or modern France? Would he have recommended books on the Tudors to understand Britain? Or books on the Napoleonic wars to understand France? Why bring up China’s dynastic cycles, when they have no relation whatsoever to modern China?

Tyler could just as well be (subconsciously) following the textbook definition of Orientalism:

the West essentializes [eastern] societies as static and undeveloped—thereby fabricating a view of Oriental culture that can be studied, depicted, and reproduced. Implicit in this fabrication…is the idea that Western society is developed, rational, flexible, and superior


In any case, I will deposit my two cents to the answer:

On a completely different note, if I want to understand modern China what books, articles, etc. should I be reading? Do I start with a textbook? Historical scholarship? Fiction? Is Wikipedia the way to go?

Wikipedia: Yes, correct 80% of the time.

Historical Scholarship: Mixed. It’s never a waste of time to read scholarship. But beware of “populist”/wannabe historians and journalists e.g. Naill Ferguson, John Mann, Julia Lovell, Rana Mitter, the Economist magazine…

Websites: Read the western mainstream media about China, but never take anything at face value. Most stories are ill-researched and seek to portray China in a bad light. This is more widespread than you might think. So widespread, in fact, that take for example the articles that Tyler linked to in this very post, about Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. They express skepticism about whether the campaign is a purge, or a genuine effort to root out corruption. Yet, hundreds of thousands of officials have been sacked, including many senior ones. How could Xi become President if he had so much vast opposition? Some of the officials fired are the ones that he himself hired – directly or indirectly.

Another example was when western journalists predicted the makeup of China’s new Politburo Standing Committee during the run up to the 19th Party Congress in October. Almost everyone got it wrong, in countless ways. Just to take one example, Xi was portrayed as a serial hater of the Communist Youth League, with The Economist helpfully – and gleefully – pointing out that he cut its budget. Yet, 3 former members of the Communist Youth League made it to the standing committee, which has 7 members. Li Keqiang was already a former member, which makes the majority of the PSC from the Youth League. Exactly the opposite of what was portrayed in the western media.

Hint: Beware of weasel words and purple prose e.g. “could” (could just be a Stalinist purge), “might be” (Xi might be planning to stay on for more than 2 terms), “many” (many Tibetans resent Chinese rule), “said a Chinese official who asked not to be named”, “founding myths” (The Opium wars are founding myths of Chinese nationalism), “China says” (China says 300,000 civilians were killed in the Nanking Massacre, China says ) etc.
Also beware of quotation marks and their strategic placement – many phrases are placed in quotation marks to question or mock their existence or importance: Century of Humiliation, terrorist attack, unequal treaties, patriotic education. On many occasions it amounts to semi-racism. Here and here are extreme examples.

Understand that the default western media position against China is negative and largely trope-based. Positive stories do appear – but they are the exception, not the norm. Balanced, objective, fact-based reports (i.e. journalism) – are even rarer. China is Guilty Until Proven Guilty. A little research (Wikipedia is often enough to expose such “journalism”) and common sense goes a long way.

And finally, please stop comparing China to the US, or any developed country. There’s no comparison whatsoever. With only 40 years of reforms, if China still SEEMS comparable to Europe or the US – with their centuries of head start and history of becoming rich by imperialist looting – then that is the highest compliment to Chinese policymakers. If you really want a fairer, apples-to-apples comparison, compare China to any developing country. India is the closest example. In fact, in almost every single metric of comparison, from life expectancy to artificial intelligence research, China already leads the developing world. The developed world is already within sight, and will be left behind soon.

Welcome to the future. 😉

47 Paul December 14, 2017 at 7:23 pm

I have a very idiosyncratic test. I think that humor is the acid test of understanding a country.

Now Chinese humor will be very hard to get for a typical American because for one thing the language lends itself overwhelmingly to puns. English (or God forbid German) does not, really. I’m assuming people think in their native language.

I once showed a Monty Python clip (Dead Parrot) to a class of American undergraduates because I wanted to explain a joke on the cover of the Economist (per the EU a drawing of Merkel and the words “It’s not dead”.) They were absolutely stone faced, every one of them. Oops.

48 mkt42 December 14, 2017 at 9:33 pm

It may very well be true that Monty Python, including the Dead Parrot sketch, is less popular in the USA than in Britain.

But there are nonetheless large numbers of Monty Python fans in the USA, including fans of that sketch in particular.

One piece of evidence of that sketch’s being a part of American popular culture: _Time_ magazine’s review of Terry Gilliam’s “Time Bandits”, which noted that although there was plenty of fantasy and whimsy in the movie, it also portrayed real threats and real death (“real” within the movie obviously, not in actual real life), in particular when the boy’s parents look into the box or whatever it was and blow themselves up at the end of the movie. The reviewer’s comment on that scene:

“These are ex-parents.”

49 Ali Choudhury December 15, 2017 at 4:57 pm

Age of Ambition by the New Yorker writer Evan Osnos is a great book on contemporary China. It made me rather circumspect about what the rise of China meant for human rights, democratic accountability, environmentalism, anti-corruption etc. when a strongly authoritarian government heading a rising, successful economy gives them lip service at best.

50 Jeffrey Deutsch December 16, 2017 at 1:26 pm

Is this also a good approach — mutatis mutandis, natch — to understanding any new topic?

51 Dennis Briskin December 17, 2017 at 1:45 am

Read Orville Schell

52 Han December 18, 2017 at 6:07 pm

Although OP qualified by saying “Modern China”, I’d add a bullet “7.5” before reading the dynastic histories – Read “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”. I paraphrase my history professors but the reasons being. In fact, I personally would call this my #1 before all else.

i) It’s a culmination of both “elite” and “popular” culture. Its stories are known to every Chinese person, regardless if they are illiterate farmers who’ve seen a puppet show, or intelligentsia who’ve studied its histories extensively. You’re likely to encounter allusions, iconography, and locations important to this period all over china.
ii) Its characters, fictionalized, represents the paragons of Chinese qualities like cunning, loyalty (to a fault), and virtue. Arguably much of that may be lost in the modern world, what was and is held as ideals is reflective of the Chinese ethos.
iii) While the West may fetishize “The Art of War”, the strategies used in The Three Kingdoms are more alluded to in mainstream culture and understood by the general population and elites alike (see #1). It is can also be argued that it’s the lens by which Chinese ruling class has viewed domestic and international relations.

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