Subject of interest

Updated: 2012-05-04 08:47

By David Bartram (China Daily)

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Jonathan Holslag, from the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies, agrees that popular books on China tend to sensationalize the issue.

"Across the board publishers that aim at large audiences require manuscripts to be counterintuitive or sensational," Holslag says. "If you want to get into the big bookshops there's no way around it.

"There is a wide range of very sophisticated pieces of research on China, but unfortunately they do not make it as best-sellers."

Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing and author of Ancient Thought, Chinese Modern Power, says books about China written by Westerners can often lack substance and be misleading.

Subject of interest

From left: Marysia Juszczakiewicz, founder of Peony Literary Agency; Yan Xuetong of Tsinghua University; and Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World. Photos Provided to China Daily

"Most foreigners try to understand China from their knowledge of their own country. I am not saying this is necessarily wrong since it is quite normal. Chinese scholars, in fact, try to understand the United States from their Chinese perspective. It can lead to a lot of misunderstandings, however," he says.

"With China, however, you have a vast country with a special culture and with a history and problems not experienced by any other foreign country. There is a strong argument therefore that only the Chinese understand these problems and how to solve them. That is the essential difficulty between someone like me and Western experts."


Xie Tao, professor and assistant dean at the School of English and International Studies of Beijing Foreign Studies University, explains the rising popularity of China books, and the vastly divergent views of the authors.

"The sheer number of books on China, fiction or non-fiction, speaks to the fact that China has become probably the most popular topic for the international community. This is perhaps unprecedented since 1949.

"The reason is simple: because China has developed into an economic power and is fast becoming a military power.

"Of course, these authors do not speak in a single voice. So you have books that sound alarms about China's threat to international peace (such as Chang's), and you have books that portray China in a much more favorable light (such as Jacques'). Then you have fiction about China that brings readers into past and present China."

The recent blockbuster China titles have been a mixed bag, says Fenby, whose latest book Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today, How it Got There and Where it is Heading has been met by positive reviews.

"I found Henry Kissinger's book On China disappointing. In his awe of Chinese statecraft, he seems to me to overrate its practical outcome," he says. "I also found that his account of his meetings with Mao added nothing to the story as already told by Margaret MacMillan in her book, Seize the Hour. His final prescription for Sino-US relations was vague if well-meaning."

Fenby is more favorable in his evaluation of Ezra Vogel's recent biography of Deng Xiaoping, which he describes as a milestone and by far the most exhaustive work on the former paramount leader. He hopes his own book resists the urge to sacrifice balance for headlines.

"The reality of the People's Republic defies simplification. Too many judgments are based on one part or another of the China story; one has to try to take them all into account to form a realistic judgment.

"There are as many minuses as pluses and sheer uncertainties in a vastly varied nation where society is evolving at a very rapid pace and old certainties that easily beguile foreign observers are becoming outdated by the onward rush."

But Cheng Xiaohe, associate professor at the School of International Studies of Renmin University of China, believes foreign authors play an important role in depicting China.

"Certainly, most of the best-selling books concerning China are written by Western scholars and for Western readers, (so) they cannot escape the age-old trap of West-centric orientation. Nonetheless, as many authors come to China frequently and have increasing contacts with their Chinese counterparts, compared with their predecessors from the 1950s to 1970s, they know China much better, and their works - to various degrees - reveal some telling facet of the real China. These authors' ideological bias still plays some kind of role in their writing, but this is becoming less so.

"The books present a benign or malicious image of China to readers and help to shape a popular opinion toward China, which can influence their respective governments' policies toward China. As to Chinese readers, they may disagree with the messages that these book tend to deliver, but through reading these books written from Western perspectives, we Chinese can learn how China and its people are perceived and analyzed by foreigners, and in turn, we can figure out how to redress our weaknesses pinpointed by outsiders.

reading these books written from Western perspectives, we Chinese can learn how China and its people are perceived and analyzed by foreigners, and in turn, we can figure out how to redress our weaknesses pinpointed by outsiders."

Troy Parfitt, author of Why China Will Never Rule the World, argues that all too often the good China books are overshadowed by those that make sensational, over-generalized assertions.

"There are still plenty of good China books being published, but it's the mediocre and bad ones that seem to grab all the attention. Good books are often cerebral, critical, and topically specific. They appeal to a small, discriminating audience of China watchers.

"One such title is Richard McGregor's The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers. It's as revealing as it can be and allows readers to get a sense of how China's government is structured and how it functions. The tone is not toadying, nor is it alarmist. It's an honest, well-researched, thoughtful account penned by a journalist with a couple decades of China experience.

"To capture a bigger audience and capitalize on the China trend, publishers have become fond of books that are topically broad, outstandingly uncritical, and plainly written."