Recommended Book on China


I’ve just read 520 pages of a 544 page paperback on the flight back from China. If you are interested in sampling the seismic political and cultural shifts in China over the last century, I can’t think of a better book I have read.
It is titled Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by former Red Guard member and then victim Jung Chang.

The book recounts the many miseries and occasional moments of happiness in the lives of three generations of women — starting with Jung Chang’s grandmother who was concubine to an early 20th century warlord. Her somewhat pampered daughter then watches the injustices of pre-Communist China get temporarily righted when the Kuomintang are squeezed out of the country. Rising to become a prominent member of the Communist Party — along with her husband who is a provincial governor — Chang’s mother (and the entire Chang family) observe the injustices and excesses of Mao’s China generate hardship, intense hate, social convulsion, and millions of deaths.
I have a couple dozen pages to go but I want to finish the book fully mentally alert — which is tough to do after traveling for 20 hours.
But this book is a remarkable historical treatment that reads like a novel and that I wholeheartedly recommend. I was pleased to see my friends Gavan McCormack and Herbert Bix — themselves both brilliant writers and chroniclers of political history — thanked in the acknowledgments.
For those who want more on China’s post-Mao history which Wild Swans doesn’t get to, I think that UCLA Professor Richard Baum’s Burying Mao: Chinese Politics in the Age of Deng Xiaoping is the perfect ‘who’s who?’ and ‘who did what to whom?’ follow on to Jung Chang’s masterpiece.
— Steve Clemons


7 comments on “Recommended Book on China

  1. questions says:

    Thanks for such a thoughtful response! And yes, in a way you’ve hit the nail on the head. I am endlessly endlessly torn between Socrates’s paralysis and the political need for action. This is my life’s central problem and I will forever be stuck between the two perspectives. There is never enough knowledge to justify action (that’s Socrates) and action must be taken (that’s politics).
    In defense of Socrates is the fact that if we think we know stuff and we act, we often screw up. We justify absolute horrors for the flimsiest of excuses. That perhaps 1.4 MILLION Iraqis are dead and huge numbers are displaced and girls are prostituted (in a shame society) is horror beyond horror. And why did the country go for this? Provisional, inaccurate opinion masquerading as knowledge. So basically what I fear is this masquerade. Socrates is profoundly concerned with the well respected who feel they have knowledge when they don’t, who can’t structure a coherent argument, who can’t even say what it means to know something (and if you can’t define knowledge, how can you say you know something). The evidence his interlocutors cite is flimsy and blows over at the first question, and they then often respond with anger. These are the very people who ordered his death by hemlock.
    On the other side, sometimes you probably have to DO things and THINK things. But I’d always recommend thinking provisionally and modestly and always being willing to change views and always calling what you have in your head “opinion” instead of “knowledge”. My vision of the world is a more modest one that recognizes deep deep fallibility, and therefore avoids the damage we do to one another.
    If we blame the zios, we must destroy the zios for they are to blame for all 1.4 million deaths. But are we so certain? I’m honestly not certain enough to take action based on the premise that it’s all AIPAC or all the rapture crowd or all corrupt Congress members…. Think about the rampage we could go on were we CERTAIN. But I’m not a politician, and I’m not in a position of action-taking. Were I the president, I have no idea what I’d do. That’s why I’m not running. I’d never want to have to ACT.
    And on to the China book, the endless changing of the guard in the section I’m reading — kuomintang, communists, the emperor before — each group is CERTAIN that its political views are correct and they slaughter one another over that very certainty. Others use the chaos to gain spoils, others try to survive, others try for status, to curry favor…. You can see the whole run of responses to power. Again, it’s not a simple story of the, say, evil kuomintang, or the evil Japanese, or the evil Russians or the evil communists/Maoists/reformers…. It’s a multifaceted story like all others. And so, again, to slaughter in response to blame is foolish or worse.
    When we see our own foibles, our own weaknesses in political behavior, when we are less self-certain, we may have some chance of being less awful on the planet.
    On the WWII example, where I’d differ slightly with you account is that yes we can see the war, but there has been so much scholarly revisionism about the causes that I no longer feel I could give a coherent account of why it happened. It’s not the events themselves I have problems singling out, it’s the causes.
    Did the US adopt a range of unjust policies towards the middle east? Yes. Did we do damage to the Palestinians by supporting Israel? Well, yes. Do we desperately need to alter policy and become more humane? Absolutely. Should the Palestinians have recognition, a workable state, territorial integrity? Of course. I coldn’t possibly venture to say that there will be peace in the ME because of this. I would say though that we would likely be more humane simply by helping the Palestinians have a working state and a working economy.
    So it’s not that I can’t be definitive on issues and it’s not that I’m in such a theory-laden fog that I’m too numb or dumb to see horror. My view all along has been that the zio/neo argument is too simplistic, that it echoes a lot of traditional anti-semitic tropes that we’re better off not awakening, that if we have the wrong causes, we’ll end up the horribly wrong solutions that will do more harm than good.
    An old time doctor had a few choices — bleed ’em, make ’em puke, chill ’em, heat ’em. The problems were misunderstood, the solutions were either useless or deadly.
    Let’s get the causal chains closer to accurate and then our solutions will be better. Policy is full of attempts to change things for the better, but the solution causes more problems. For example, anti-lock brakes seem like a fabulous idea. Mine kick in every winter several times a week. At first, rear end accidents went down. Wonderful! Then rear enders started jumping. Hmmm. Turns out that people engage in what’s called “off-setting behavior”. They feel safer with anti-lock brakes so they speed and drive more recklessly and tail gate more. Oh well. Failed solution to a misunderstood problem. It was never the brakes, it was always careless driving in icy and wet conditions.
    Getting rid of Israel seems more dramatic than the anti-lock brake thing, and may well be just as ineffective.
    A milder solution, just stopping the BFF relationship may well be tantamount to getting rid of Israel.
    An even milder solution, say, covering your ears whenever an AIPACKER enters the room is probably closer to bias than we should want to go. Forbidding lobbying by “them” whoever they are doesn’t seem to be so great either.
    And on the issue of patterns, I would say that I see a different set of patterns. As I’ve noted before, the Palestinians aren’t the only people we’re unkind to in favor of others. It’s actually perhaps the defining trait of the US — to pick a right wing regime over an indigenous people. We do this all around the world without any help from zios and neos. It all makes me think that blaming the zios and neos (language I had never come across til this site, by the way) is such a reduction and such a simplification that in fact it masks huge huge patterns in US policy.
    So the policy wonk in me wonders what kinds of domestic changes, what kinds of international changes, what kinds of indvidual and group changes might be needed to encourage a shift in US ME policy. And here we are back at the complexity thing, full circle.
    Thanks for reading and thinking! And for the decency and kindness of your tone. And I can understand the fatigue thing! I’m feeling it myself, but I find myself needing to respond despite the sense that the discussion is at total loggerheads. Perhaps I need one of those walks in the woods! (And given that the two books I’ve most recently been reading are read as relevant to this discussion, maybe I really need a walk!)


  2. Paul Norheim says:

    “questions”, I`ve been watching your discussion with POA
    during the last days, and though I`ve occasionally been tempted
    to argue both against his and your position, I have resisted that
    temptation, because I`m a bit tired after my involvement in
    related discussions recently.
    I observe that you`re basically arguing within a scientific and
    theoretical context (but obviously with convictions beyond that
    framework), while POA is talking like a political activist, but
    using several kinds of facts, arguments and documents (the
    “scientific department” so to speak) to prove his case.
    It looks like you`re basically saying that the world is a hell of
    a complex place, and please don`t serve me simple answers or
    explanations. While POA seems to say that hey, there are some
    values, and some obvious patterns, and as a zoon politikon we
    have to make some choices, and not make the world so
    complex that it obscures those obvious patterns.
    Thus this is not only a disagreement about AIPAC, Zionism
    and “US interests”, but obviously also a gap between to very
    different languages, approaches and temperaments, as
    demonstrated also by your monikers: “questions” reveals a more
    “scientific” or exploring mind, while a “PissedOffAmerican” may
    be angry, but also have a desire for action.
    I do not think that you`re deliberately trying to obscure an
    obvious pattern. I also disagree with those who have claimed
    that a certain group is the root of all evils in the world. But isn`t
    there a limit to how much you can be an advocate for the
    complexities of world phenomena and still act or argue on a
    political level.
    Taken to the extreme, you may say that for example the second
    World War is just a huge simplification of several disparate
    events, nothing more than a platonic idea or metaphysical
    concept. You had this imaginary community called Germany and
    a Nazi organization, and than you had Stalin and Russia and
    Churchill and England, the Japanese etc. – but you also had
    millions of individuals doing a lot of things for millions of
    different reasons and motives, and all that complex interaction
    can not be simplified into something called WW2. If you look at
    it from an individual, statistic and psychological perspective, the
    whole war will be rather difficult to see. With such perspectives
    you`ll surely discover a lot of things that would be impossible
    to see using the common concepts. But if you`re acting in the
    middle of it, you are forced to assume a lot of things. See what I
    This issue was not the reason why I wanted to comment on this
    thread; regard it a a digression that became to long…
    I initially wanted to comment a bit on your statement above:
    “So to get on topic, how do cultures and their members deal
    with sudden radical changes?” (China in the 20`th century)
    This is relevant when you talk about China: the shocks related
    to enormous social changes etc, but regarding middle class
    suicide bombers, I think I would put it a bit differently: how do
    cultures and their members deal with simultaneously living in
    different worlds? How do you cope with having several different
    “identities” at the same time – let`s say one rooted in an ancient
    rural world with respect for traditions and religions (through
    family), and another connected to the modern, more secular
    world (through work, friends, travel or TV? This directly related
    to those middle class suicide bombers.
    I traveled in Ethiopia for eight months nine years ago, and what
    struck me was not that it was an old, or for that sake a new and
    modern world, but that traditions that went back tens, hundreds
    or thousands of years back lived side by side with things and
    habits that were introduced just a few months ago. Donkeys
    AND SUV`s in the streets of Addis Abeba. Type writhers AND
    computers in banks and offices. Middle class Ethiopians in
    swimming pools at international hotels, meeting someone they
    knew, and exchanging greeting rituals that probably went back
    thousands of years. Going to church to pray in the morning, and
    to the cinema in the evening. And no connections between
    those to worlds. They are just beside each other, but
    incommensurable. I would guess that this is a daily experience
    in places like India, but also in the Middle East – even China.
    You know, if we se an oxen or a horse doing the same work as
    a tractor on a farm, we would call it an anachronism in America
    or Norway (when the tractor came, we got rid of the horses). But
    in most parts of the world, those things we call anachronisms
    are so common that they are not anachronisms anymore. And
    this create different kinds of confusions than we see in New
    York or Oslo. I think this is somehow related to your comment
    above. It of course also raises the question of what exactly
    “westernisation” or capitalism implies in Beijing, Nagasaki,
    Nairobi or Dubai.


  3. questions says:

    I picked up a copy of Wild Swans — thanks for the rec, Steve! What I find amazing is the social change that a few generations can witness. The elaborate shows of honor that dominate at the very beginning of the book give way pretty quickly. The concubine system and foot binding are rejected w/in a generation if not sooner. (I’m not super far into the book, so I don’t know how much comes back again.) How does one adjust to that level of change in such short order. (This theme shows up in a Shakespeare where the father makes assumptions about the child and the child refuses obedience.)
    I started musing about my family and the changes over the century plus — from pogroms near Russia to Canada and New York, from horse and buggy to cars and rockets and computers. But I don’t have a sense that social relations have altered quite so dramatically. Gender and race issues have moved, but a lot seems more static over this same period.
    So to get on topic, how do cultures and their members deal with sudden radical changes? One line of research on suicide bombers is that they have experienced the other culture just enough to develop both familiarity and wild discomfort. It’s not the poor and disenfranchised, it’s the middle class who have traveled between places and don’t entirely like what they feel or see.
    Anyway, thanks again for the rec! A nice way to spend another summer week!


  4. Helena says:

    I live in China and have an interest in this history. Jung Chang’s bio came under a lot of fire for her seething invective, really quite personal, that seeps out of every page in the book. She and her husband did spend 10 years interviewing people in her tracking Mao’s march to total control and power of this country; her work has value.
    A book like this, holding such extreme opinions, is a backlash to beliefs that Mao is a god, a god who made admittedly made some mistakes, but still a revered figure.


  5. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Hmmm. Speaking about Chinese readables, my partner just brought home a chew toy for Jake, our adolescent Aussie/Shepard mix. It lasted all of about thirty eight seconds. However, the label survived;
    “Made in China. Not a food item. Should not be used without supervision. Replace if worn or damaged.”
    Fat chance. Not in this lifetime.


  6. Matt says:

    The Mao biography was atrocious. See the following review:


  7. Helena says:

    Thank you, Steve, for posting the name of this excellent book. It is a good primer for all things Chinese. Also, Jung Chang’s biography on Mao Zedong, “Mao” is excellent, although makes for some pretty ghastly reading.
    I have been reading this wonderful blog for some time now….thanks for posting and many comments are insightful and interesting too.


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