The Enigma of Chinese Bookshops

Xin Liu’s `Moralization of China’ (World Scientific, Singapore, 2018: is a provocative book, and written in a provocative way. Readers can’t complain they have not been given a clear warning, when the very first page of the text carries a dedication:  `To the Intelligent Few.’ I wondered whether I could dare imagine falling into this cohort, and then started to worry whether it wasn’t a dastardly authorial trap. Being invited to think you are smart, and then being tripped up by an writer exposing one’s hubris and self over-estimation.

I hope it was Xin Liu being playful. But they take no hostages as the book’s argument proceeds. Social media, Maoist China, contemporary Mainland cinema – they all get targeted assessment. However one assesses the drift of the argument (and there are times when it does become a trifle hectoring) the extent of referencing and allusion is impressive. From Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, to Marx and Foucault, via Weber and a host of other luminaries, the brickbats come thick and fast. I particularly admired the author’s way of continuing the fight not just in the main text but in a series of coruscating footnotes. Great technique. I will definitely try to copy one day.

Round about halfway through the book, on page 78, Liu describes a contemporary Chinese bookshop. This in particular made me lay aside the book and ponder for a while what it is about bookshops in the People’s Republic these days that is so baffling. They are vast places. Chinese people certainly like reading. And going from the number of people in them, they like buying their books in person, not so much online (though I know business there is pretty good). Back in the old days (which for me means the mid 1990s when I was first living in China) there were the cavernous Xinhua bookshops, government run, with vast piles of political tracts, and the usually peaceful acreage devoted to Marxism Leninism and various other ideological matters. On the ground floor though were the more commercially attractive self help and business books. The crowds usually assembled there.

There were smaller bookshops too – and ones that dealt with what passed for second hand books. It was in these, in a place called Book City, that I managed to buy kilos of stencilled and poorly printed leaflets and pamphlets from the Cultural Revolution decade starting in 1966. The Winter day I did that, back in Hohhot in 2000 on a brief visit, meant that finally my doctorate was viable. I had the source material I needed. The shop owner evidently thought Christmas had come early. One other customer jubilantly declared to me while I was leading that the 500 yuan I had spent was a `con’. But in the pavement outside the shop I corrected him. `I know it’s a lot of money’, I said, `but it’s my thesis. I’d have paid ten times this to be honest.’ He looked at me uncomprehendingly, as though I had just achieved the impossible and made my actions seem even dumber.

These days Chinese bookstores are bigger, more commercial and as Xin Liu shows a place where students, migrants, parents, and others can come to while away the time. But they don’t have anything like the aura of the amazing Eslite chain in Hong Kong and Taiwan, whose founder died a couple of years back. These really are places of excitement, full of contesting and contrary ideas in contesting and contrary books by authors from across the world. They have great coffee shops too!

Utopia bookshop near Tsinghua University in Beijing, long since closed down, at least had a certain edginess to it, even if it was busy pushing neo-Maoist and new leftist fare. The `San Lian’  place, linked to the eponymous publisher, issued jewels by writers like the late Yang Jiang (杨绛) and Qian Zhongshu ( 钱锺书). But these days the main offer is either the latest business guru, translations of palatable blockbusters from the West, and then, of course, walls of locally produced political fare.

How you can have such well stocked, popular and, at times, immensely diverse bookshops which at the same time clearly have `edited’ stock – with a lot of material either not available, or available in a form which omits some key issues, is, at every least, symptomatic of the boundaries, visible and invisible, that exist around you in the larger environment of China. Borges could have written something subtle, elegant and revealing about the phenomenon of bookshops in modern China. They are monuments to a certain attitude or disposition, and in a strange way typify the commitment to stability and control which is currently so embedded in the culture. That might be one reason why Xin Liu’s observation is, in my experience, so true: for all the people in Chinese bookshops these days, you sure see a lot of readers who look, for all the world, like they are sleeping.  But of course it is very obvious. They are reading through closed eyes.



The Chinese Countryside: Heaven or Hell?

The vast majority of Chinese people from the earliest times to the last few years have lived in what is classified as rural China. Their lives as they figure in literature or studies have a sort of static, almost unknowable quality.  Rural Chinese under Mao became, at least in the language of the Communists, the masters of their own affairs –    organised into production brigades and patiently feeding the slowly expanding cities as the country was reconstructed and resurrected. In the Cultural Revolution from 1966, because of the phenomenon of sent down youth, the ranks of the peasantry (in Chinese, the less loaded word 农民) were swelled by these new, sometimes hapless agents of revolution. Current president Xi Jinping fell into this category in his years in Shaanxi from 1968.

The Chinese countryside figures in contemporary imagination as a place either of over-idealisation (the simple faithful and innocent foot soldiers for Mao’s sinified Marxist grand experiment) or deep pessimism verging on horror. In their report, `Will the Boat Sink the Water: the Life of China’s Peasants,’ written and promptly banned in China in the early 2000s, and then translated and published in the West in 2007, Anhui journalists Wu Chuntao and Chen Guidi  drew an unremittingly bleak picture of the conditions in the rural areas. This was a world dominated by the struggle against poverty, unfair taxes, and larcenous, all powerful rent-seeking officials. Chinese farmers were victims. No wonder everyone was trying to leave and move to the nearest town or city.

China’s countryside is so vast, diverse and varied that reality must be more complex. And so reading the work of  Australian-based Mobo Gao serves as an excellent corrective to the tendency to regard China’s rural areas as bottomless pits of need, backwardness, and despair.  His `Gao Village Revisited: The Life of Rural People in Contemporary China’ (Chinese University Press, Hong Kong, 2018) ( is the sequel to a work he authored two decades ago on his home in Jiangxi province, south eastern China. Gao himself left to study in Europe in the late 1970s, and has since had academic positions there, and in his current base in Adelaide. But he has evidently maintained close contact with the place of his birth and upbringing, and it serves as a central motif of his work.

Gao has always been a wonderful and often bold contrarian. His earlier work, `The Battle for China’s Past’ written in 2008 was a counterblast against the narrative of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 being an unmitigated catastrophe for Chinese people. For him, as a rural inhabitant then, this allowed the elite, urban narrative to dominate over the less privileged one – for occupants of this other China, the decade from 1966 allowed freedom, and on many levels was liberating. He refers to this a little in the current book by talking of this era, when he was an adolescent, as one of exploration, and of permission to be allowed to attack traditional ideas and  conservative shibboleths. This is contentious, but his interpretation needs to be set alongside the many others of this era to fully appreciate its complexity, and  avoid falling into  easy, moralising frameworks.

The most important point that Gao makes in this work is that far from being a place of victimisation and passive, tragic weakness, China’s countryside in the era of Xi Jinping is one of assertion, agency and optimism. It is also, as he very eloquently argues, a place that does not fit into the usual power-dynamics. Far from being a drain on government resources, and a place where the key imperative is to get out as fast as possible,  Chinese rural dwellers are `looking after China, taking care of the Chinese government’ (p 19). The dependency is the reverse of what is usually expected. Without the hard work, optimism, and  massive energy of this part of China, the rest of the country would not work.

This is a hugely important point to consider. The other is made earlier in the book where Gao argues that `China has to be understood and interpreted on its own terms’ (p. 4). Of course, many would take issue with this, asserting the need to stand up for universal ideas of analysis and assessment. But Gao’s work  appeals to me most strongly because, for fairly self-evident reasons (this is after all the place from where he originally came, and to which he is still deeply linked)  of the strong emotional link between the observer and scholar (him) and the object of his work (his ancestral home). That gives his narrative an extra dimension, and moves it beyond the sometimes cold, and often almost inhumanely calculating social science or anthropological posture one often gets in books about China.

gao village

What IS China?

Ge Zhaoguang, of Fudan University in Shanghai, is one of the most learned and the best translated historians of China and Chinese intellectual history. Like Qin Hui from Tsinghua, he has written across historic periods and dynastic boundaries, and ranges between disciplines. In an era of deeper and deeper specialisation, this is welcome. His work illuminates by making connections and putting pieces of the vast jigsaw puzzle that is Chinese culture and identity together. He should be more widely known and understood outside of China, not least because he is the authentic voice of contemporary intellectual engagement in the modern People’s Republic, and belongs to the same lineage as Hu Shi, and Qian Zhongshu.

There is one question of piercing clarity in `What is China?’ (Harvard University Press,,  a collection of essays derived from lectures that Ge gave in the early 2000s, which really repays attention. `Why,’ he asks, `then is Europe the “universal” and China the “particular”?’  He goes on , `Perhaps the history of the formation of the Chinese nation state was an equally rational and natural process.’ (p 59) Irritation at the universalist claims of Enlightenment European powers has increased in modern China. It’s climax can be seen in the fierce resistance to proselytizing for what is somewhat loosely called `western values’ in the China of Xi Jinping. But Ge’s point is mercifully free of the politicised posturing of other formulations, and throughout this book he proves a consistent, and forensic, critic of what he calls the statism and nationalistic agendas of some of those working in the fields of archaeology or academia. For him, the deeper, and more valid target for enquiry is how best to describe and encapsulate this complex, valid, and often shifting, relationship between the physical entities that have occupied the current geographical space occupied by the People’s Republic today, and the identity of what has now come to be called Chinese culture and civilisation.

In his discussion of this vast, problematic issue, he ranges across questions about the relationship between physical space and territory, the meaning of borders, ethnicity, and the interpretation of history.  All of these are massive issues, and ones that his deeply informed, elegant discussions help to grapple with. Ge’s discussion offers lessons not just for those outside of the cultural and political context that he is addressing, but also for those within it. Chinese exceptionalism these days seems to be reaching fever pitch. The country under Xi Jinping is acquiring something close to a messianic notion of its semi-divine destiny to be a great, strong nation again, restored to a place of mythical centrality it once thought it occupied in the past. ‘All under heaven’ and other formulations try to capture this vague, largely spiritual sense of special destiny. But as Ge sharply comments, `It need not be the case that, because we are Chinese people, we have to heap praise on Chinese culture and feel that every aspect of the culture is good.’ (p 137). To exemplify this he brings in a host of European, American and Japanese writers to illustrate the points he makes, referring at one point to Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher, and his very helpful work on the malaise of modernity’ from the 1990s. Ge in this book shows the uses of comparative material and studies, and the ways that they can be entirely respectful of the particular (in this case, the longevity , plasticity and complexity of Chinese senses of identity) but also take heed of the universal (what the role of common notions of nationalism has been playing in modern China as the nation state of the PRC has grown, matured and developed.

For anyone thinking about tackling the question, `What IS China?’ this book is a wonderful start. Ge’s `Intellectual History of China’ has also just been issued, but that is a far longer, and much more expensive work. This is more accessible, and, importantly, more affordable.


The Curious Anthropology of the British Royal Family: Pope-Hennessy and `The Quest for Queen Mary.’

My grandmother, who died in 2011 at the age of 93, often used to boast about how, while working in Harrods in central London in the 1930s, she had met Queen Mary of Teck. She told me this when I was very young, and then repeated it over the years. Of course, I had no clear idea who this person was, and `Teck’ sounded bewildering. Where was it? Was this some foreign imperial figure? Even now, I have to think a bit about who she actually was – widow of George the Fifth, and therefore grandmother to the current queen. And not remotely foreign: She was born in Kensington Palace, at least according to this book.

One thing James Pope-Hennessy does clear up in `The Quest for Queen Mary’ (Hodder, London, 2018: was something that had greatly impressed my grandmother during the brief moments when she presented herself before the Queen – and that was the pure, smooth quality of her skin. I’d always considered it hyperbole imposed in hindsight, but no: Nan was right. May, as her few friends who dared use this familiar term called her, did indeed have pellucid, fair skin even into old age.

This book is not the formal and officially approved biography Pope-Hennessy wrote in the 1950s,but the edited notes, collated and adorned with explanatory references by Hugo Vickers. They are, as other reviewers have noted, utterly hilarious – written with a subtle, and often subversive humour, and giving a glimpse of a lost world. The jaded tour of the intimidating and unlovable Norfolk pile of Sandringham alone is worth reading the book for. But there are other deeply comical encounters and pen portraits of the vestiges of European royalty, all delivered with a gentle but nevertheless often mocking prose style.

My very very peripheral engagement as a diplomat with British royalty confirms that Pope-Hennessy’s point about it not so much being them that makes them difficult to deal with but the courtiers and flunkies around them is bang on the money. A decade and a half ago I had to accompany one around China. His staff were an incredible menagerie of indiscreet, often anarchic, deeply obsequious creatures, but the tales they told of shenanigans back at home base was even more unsettling. They really did sound a queer bunch – obsessing half the time about the slightest daily needs of their patron, and the rest of the time taking lumps out of each other, or, to not put to fine a point on it, sleeping with them.

Blissfully, my life has been largely free of this sort of burden since then. I always look with the greatest sympathy on social media posts of smiling royals having their latest visitation that former colleagues still in the service put up. I know the  price everyone has had to pay to get the events they are advertising successfully dispatched and out of the way.

Pope-Hennessy talks too of the weird networks of people who hang on to royal associations – he calls them lichen’ which clings to stone in dark and damp places, and in his book deals acidly with a couple of examples. About a decade ago I was on a bus travelling down the Strand and this remarkable middle aged neatly dressed man and his mother got on. I know it was his mother because as she cursed him in some blood curdling sounding foreign language he would translate her words calmly so the rest of the bus passengers could hear. `No Mother, you cannot kill me by pushing me off a cliff. There are no cliffs in London.’ Even more unsettling was the way he interjected these translations by what sounded like a highly informed commentary of the links between every place we passed and some member of the Royal family. `And here is where Her Royal Highness the Princess Alice graced the merchants of this shop with her presence in 1958.’  I guess he proved in a melancholy way that the British Royal Family literally can send some people insane.

Because of the emotions invested in them, however, it has proved fruitless to display republican inclinations too openly in contemporary UK. And in a way Pope-Hennessy’s marvellous accounts of his Royal tour to interview figures in the late 1950s proves that for sheer eccentric comic value they probably do have a role.  He himself, as Vickers writes in his introduction, enjoyed a less comical ending, tied up and beaten in the early 1970s by thieves,  by then already a well progressed alcoholic, and dying a few days later of the effects of this crime. His brother lived longer and himself enjoyed a distinguished career latterly as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Someone I know who worked with him in the 1970s referred to him tartly as `The Pope’ recently. For a moment I thought they were talking about the real one. But as this book shows, real’ is negotiable.


Queen Mary

China’s Greatest Challenge: Taming the Chaos of the World Within

When one looks at the career of a figure like Mao Zedong, leader of the Communist Party from the 1930s, then, in effect, despot for the new country he had been so instrumental in bringing into existence after 1949, one has to ask what sort of psychology he had. The testament of his doctor Li Zhisui showed a man who was lascivious, indifferent to regular sleeping habits, and sometimes heedless about his personal hygiene. He may have been an indifferent to callous husband – enduring the execution of one of his four wives, and the abandonment of another – but as a father he seemed kind and caring enough. In the early years too, he had the ability to be loyal to friends, though with time and greater power that faded fast. One thing that even the most cursory examination of his biography shows though is that this was a man who had been through more than enough to send him slightly insane. The violence, insecurity, and general chaos of his first half century on earth explained some of his paranoid and often cruel attitudes as he grew older. He did not come from an easy world, and unsurprisingly, did not end up as an easy person.

This is an extreme. But I was thinking about it as I read Jie Yang’s new, and very clear and concise, study,  Mental Health in China (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2018). In Mao’s China, as she alludes to a number of times, people we would now understand to be schizophrenic, bipolar, or depressed, were mostly labelled as deviants, and more often than not dealt with with great cruelty. The stigma of having a mental health problem is something Jie Yang gives plenty of evidence of in China today. I remember direct experience of it, when living in a medical college in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia in the mid 1990s next door to a young woman who had a series of physical and speech disabilities, and was largely confined to home. The way that people talked about her, even medical professionals at the time, was laden with a sort of prejudice and fear., Oh, they would say, you live next door to that girl.

Jie Yang’s book is rich in the modern terminology of mental illness in China. Most of these conditions can be explained easily enough by the rapid economic development of the country since 1978, and the social and cultural changes these have entailed. With almost daily physical and material transformations, is it any surprise that people have ended up disorientated?  Just as there is socialism, and capitalism, with Chinese characteristics, so there is a series of mental health issues with Chinese characteristics. Princess Syndrome (single female children of families spoilt to such a degree they demand multiple flats and other benefits before even considering marriage partners), `empty hearth syndrome’  (for cadres and others whose social usefulness means people only ever come to them with some practical design in mind rather than to know and understand them), and then very specific conditions like smog blues, unemployment syndrome, petitioning addiction, and the more easy to understand (but slightly dubious) internet addiction.

Mapping out these separate conditions gives a view of China that one doesn’t hear enough about. We are forever learning about economic and political and social conditions in China. But about the real toll that everlasting fast change and development has on the inner lives of the key actors involved – Chinese people – there has been precious little. The work at Harvard on Deep China from a few years back started to address this. Jie’s book continues it, and deserves to be read widely. Not the least of the reasons for this is the vignettes that are presented throughout the book of the suffering and trauma that so many suffer as a result of conditions that, at least in Europe and the US, are now understood better and have treatments available for.

Perhaps too we should accord China, and its leaders, a bit of mercy. From 1978, of course, the world has been assiduous in encouraging China to industrialise, and use capitalism. Half the deal was honest enough. This has made the country wealthier and more developed. But no ever did, or could, claim, that any of this would make Chinese people happier. And now they are learning, in a way just as hard and merciless as the rest of us, that being well off and living comfortable lives may make you live longer, and suffer less physical pain – but it surely doesn’t make you happier.

mental health china

What the Dickens? The Literary Response to the Victorian Industrial Revolution and the Modern Transformation of China

Reading Charles Dickens when travelling around contemporary China is always a disconcerting experience. Much of the coruscating disdain the great Victorian writer showed for the high levels of inequality and social injustice in the new society emerging at his time has resonance in a China undertaking its own breakneck modernisation. When Dickens writes of the degradation of the environment by polluting factories and the general chaotic progress of mechanisation and its disruptive impact on society it’s easy to lift ones eyes from the page and look at the smoggy air that frequently descends on Chinese cities, or the waves of garbage that cling to the surface of almost any water way in the country, and feel like one is back in his time.  Is the People’s Republic just going through the same turmoil the England of Dickens’ did, only on a vaster scale and more quickly? And if so, is there a writer of his stature who is giving the same testament to these issues that he so magnificently gave?

For sure, Chinese society now is simply brimming with topics and issues that a writer with even the most modestly fecund imagination might want to dwell on. But comparing something like one of Dicken’s most complex works,’Bleak House’ with anything produced by Mo Yan or a contemporary Chinese writer arouses, at least for me, a feeling of a story unfolding before our eyes with no one there quite up to adequately rendering it into the same cacophony of different voices and registers that Dickens managed. The   slip between Esther’s narrative and that of the narrator in  `Bleak House’ has proved contentious amongst critics. Even so, and even on that kind of very straightforward level, the one thing even the most inattentive reading of the book will bring out is a diversity of different voices, and different perspectives – a trade mark of the novelist’s work, but one which gives a novel like this from his maturity a complexity and depth which is unique.

Perhaps the one Chinese contemporary novelist who does strive to reach these standards is Yan Lianke. A recent New Yorker profile of him described his remarkable journey, from rural Hunan to Renmin University, Beijing. Yan’s sometimes almost hallucinatory style, according to many of his readers, captures something of the almost surreal, dreamlike quality of contemporary China. In that sense, like the best of Dickens’ work, it holds a mirror up to what it perceives.

Comparisons to Yan, however, also show a very obvious difference. Dickens was able, throughout his career, to write and publish freely, no matter how fierce his social criticism became. That gives his work not just its literary but its historic value. It does pay witness to both the moral and material impacts of fast, uneven, growth, on a society that had never undergone these things before. Not a single word of his work, as far as I know, was ever censored. And he died as a much feted and honoured citizen, even though one who had been deeply critical of the establishment of the time. Yan’s work, as the profile (available here: makes clear, has been unavailable domestically for the last decade or so in China. That means that unlike Dickens, who was able to enjoy a vast audience deeply informed and situated in the world he was writing about, Yan has been deprived of this. His main readership, it seems, is outside China, where the reasons for reading him and the causes for enjoyment of his literature are different.

That raises one clear question about contemporary Chinese fiction and how it can really respond to the extraordinary changes in Chinese society now. The Victorian era industrial and social revolution happened largely in a society where there were wide freedoms and censorship from social conservatism rather than any particular political reasons. Without that latitude Dickens’ great work would never have been written. The answer to the question of where the Dickens the great chronicler of contemporary China is is the somewhat sobering one that if they were there, it is unlikely they would be heard. And what a loss that is.



Yan Lianke



Parallel Lives: Xuanzang and St Cuthbert

St Cuthbert was always a figure of fascination to me. Bede, less than half a century after his death in 687 C.E., wrote a biography of the northern British saint that made him more than just some austere venerated figure. A kind of wild man of the lonely places, swimming with otters in the sea, going off despite the offer of worldly inducements to first one small island accessible during low tide from the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne (one of the photos below) then one even further out, which is a bind to visit even today – let alone 1400 years ago ( But he had a warmth and a charisma that seem to reach out from deep within the so-called Dark Ages, and his life illustrated, in a harsh time, the perpetual struggle to be better.

All the talk about the new Silk Road (aka The Belt and Road Initiative, a somewhat less emotionally appealing title, which shows, despite the vast resources at their disposal, just how limited the imaginations of the current leaders of China can sometimes be) should have made Westerners more alert to the phenomenal career of Cuthbert’s near contemporary, though in another geography the other side of the world, running parallel to Northern Europe during the era of the decline of the Holy Roman Empire, but almost wholly unknown to it. Born at the dawn of the great Tang dynasty, the Buddhist monk Xuanzang  (玄奘) lived a life as committed to ideals embodied by his religion as that of his European Christian counterpart. The way in which they expressed their devotion however was very different. Xuanzang’s life was not spent largely in stillness on isolated islands conversing with his deeper self and nature, but in almost a quarter of a century of epic journeying, travelling across deserts, speaking with kings, queens, princes and emperors, guided by this mission to bring back the great documents of Buddhism from India to the Chinese empire.

Xuanzang is one of the truly great lives humanity has produced – an extraordinary tale of individual heroism and endurance that probably had a more lasting impact on more people than any other figure in the millennium from 500 C.E. The only real mark he has made, very faintly, in western consciousness however is to be the lead figure in the epic Ming novel Journey to the West' or `Monkey’ as it was translated into abbreviated form by Arthur Waley.  The quality of his vast pilgrimage, and the stage on which it was performed, is perhaps simply too massive to easily conceptualise. Perhaps that is why the Monkey figure often comes across in television portraits played in the Chinese speaking world to this day as somewhat other worldly and almost naïve in their commitments and faith in others.

One thing that does link Cuthbert and Xuanzang is their connection to this day to very particular places. For St Cuthbert, it is the natural landscape in and around Lindisfarne island, off the coast of the Northumberland area of Britain. For Xuanzang, his shadow still haunts the ancient city of Xian, despite competition from the Terracotta Warriors and the terrifying figure of the First Emperor, continuing to traumatise the historic memory nearly 2300 years after his rule (the faces of those figures of soldiers, all individual, all frozen – do they suggest reverence fear, or simply abject nullity?). The other wonderful thing about knowing of their lives is that, for me, they solve this persistent problem of trying to relate what was happening in the Chinese imperial world to what was happening elsewhere. The Dark Ages for Europe, which Cuthbert lived towards the end of, are parallel to the rise of one of the greatest of all Chinese dynasties. Xuanzang, alongside figures like Du Fu the poet, and Wu Zetian the great empress, bring that history to life. Cuthbert and Xuanzang, therefor, continue to inspire and fascinate many centuries after their very different but equally epic and moving lives ended. In that sense, despite all the differences between out world and theirs, and between their own separate lives, they live on.

(Below: An early depiction of Xuanzang, and the small island Cuthbert lived in off the coast of Lindisdarne, at high tide.)

(For more on Xuanzang, see Sally Wriggins, The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang,' Basic Books, New York, Revised Edition 2003, and Huili (a contemporary of Xuanzang), `Histoire De La Vie De Hiouen-Thsang Et De Ses Voyages Dans L’inde Depuis L’an 629 Jusqu’en 645′ , Wentworth Press, 2018.)

Leadership: Where Bad to Awful is the Historic Norm

In the UK, across Europe, in Australia, and in the US, there are many who bemoan the simply terrible set of leaders the world has been saddled with at the moment. Trump in the US takes debasement of office, and sullying of discourse, to new lows; Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK offer voters the electoral choice between metaphorical cholera and the Black Death; Malcolm Turnball in Australia delivers disappointment with the same generosity as his immediate predecessors in a country of such wealth and stability it is hard to know how it could be misruled in the first place. Russia’s Putin and China’s Xi at least offer superficial order – but imposed, we all know, at what is likely to be a shocking price, racketing up each day.

All of this is happening while the impact of climate change is scorching the believers and doubters in equal measure, with temperatures soaring across the world. The UK and America in their domestic politics remain divided, often bitterly so, with Brexit looming like a nightmare no one in the UK will ever escape from even after it happens, and Trump steering what was once the world’s most admired and influential country towards a new iteration of culture wars that threatens to be even more intractable than those of the past. All of this is vividly mapped out in the fractiousness of social media. From all of this, the world seems to be in a sorry state, and its leaders look like they have never been more mediocre, more clueless, more benighted.

An inspection of the great `Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ by Edward Gibbon however serves as at least a philosophical corrective. In fact, as the almost endless list of leaders competing with each other for greed, cruelty, ignorance and savageness Gibbon gives shows, appalling leadership has been the norm, not the exception. In his annals, Augustus and Constantine the Great were about the only ones in a four hundred year span that made any impact. The rest were at best mediocre; at worst, they were catastrophically bad. And in the latter category, there were many, not a few.

In British history, only one monarch since the seventh century had earned the label `Great’ – Alfred, who battled with the Danes in the ninth century, fortified urban Britain, and made the hugely important, rational move of establishing a navy – rational because the greatest threat at that time was from the sea, and not land. His successors were either insane (George the Third), murderers (Richard the Third et al), or paranoid psychopaths (Henry the Eighth). William the Conqueror, despite his grand title, was an illiterate (he signed the charter designating Canterbury as the chief religious site with a cross rather than his own name), whose murderous rampages through northern Britain would constitute genocide today. Edward the Second had famously costly perversions that reportedly ended in his own savage death; John’s reign was so bad it haunted the next eight hundred years. Even the saintly Oliver Cromwell visited unimaginable cruelty during the campaigns of his armies in Ireland. Only since the British royalty have been robbed of all power have they become bearable – as entertainers, rather than rulers.

As for China, the record is longer, and as bad. The first emperor Qin Shi Huangdi may have unified the disparate states that existed in the territory now occupied by part of the People’s Republic in the third century BCE, but he also had a memorial erected to him so vast historians believe it bankrupted the Qin state he had created only a couple of decades after it was founded. According to one study I looked at recently, of the sixty or so imperial leaders of China over 2000 years, by far the most common form of death was murder or assassination. Zhu Yuanzhang (the Hongwu Emperor) visited a purge on his elite when he rose from being a beggar to celestial Son of Heaven so cruel it is hard to face even today, nearly seven centuries after he ruled. The Yongle Emperor, his successor, repaid the doubts about his rights to being emperor (he had usurped an older brother in contentious circumstances) by the scholar official Fang Xiaoru by annihilating his family to the tenth degree, and having him executed by surgical dismemberment. There were thousands more who had similarly horrific fates. We need not dwell on the list of those equally brutal that followed, right up to the era of Mao Zedong. The record is so powerful it even gave rise to the idea of `oriental despotism’ – though, to be honest, despotism is a universal phenomenon – nothing Oriental about it.

It’s progress of sorts, in view of this record of leadership across cultures and times, that the most it seems our current batch can do is be disappointing, crude, clueless and mean-spirited in their words. The sad fact is that compared to a vast majority of leaders from our written history era, Trump is no more than a lightweight. One cannot imagine how Qin Shi Huangdi, William the Conqueror or Genghis Khan would have regarded him, before they embarked on another extermination campaign that left territories barren, wiped out whole communities,  and added another scar to the wounded body of humanity.



Kerry Brown 金鑫

清文人曹雪芹与高鹗创作的这部巨著共百二十回。最著名的英文译本由霍克斯与闵福德翁婿二人耗时十余年译成,共五卷。(1)  而宏篇巨制并非《红楼梦》(又名《石头记》)鲜为人知的唯一原因。尽管现状如此,本文作者仍主张阅读此书是解读中国社会机制最有效且真实的方法之一,也许熟读此书便能够了解中国人的共同回忆,解答“中国人究竟信仰什么”这样一个令人望而生畏的问题。



诸多红学家将主人公贾宝玉的故事看作是作者自述。然而这只能说是一种揣测。该书在作者生前身后仅有手稿传抄流通,且在曹去世后方声名日盛。坊间通常认为前八十回由曹公本人所作,后续四十回则由高鹗续笔。时至今日,红学界就前八十回与后四十回是否文采相类仍各执一词争论不休。到了十九世纪,该书出版了较正式的版本,读者日众。中国在二十世纪进行了大规模扫盲活动,到了2000年,该书被誉为五大中文小说名著之一,其余四部分别为《三国演义》、《水浒传》、《金瓶梅》和《儒林外史》。美籍中国文学大儒夏志清(C T Shia)在这五部书中首推《红楼梦》,这是因为该书叙述密致、行文高妙,很多主要回目直指人心,唤起读者深远的情感共鸣. (2)

虽经百年来多次挑战,该书的魁首地位依旧稳若泰山。曹雪芹不惜笔墨、工笔细绘的大家风度、贵族阶层,以及所谓下里巴人无从一见的这个世界,使得1949年共产党执政之后,此书常被扣上“封建”的帽子,在那个年代这个罪名足可以兴起文字狱。尽管如此,毛泽东的妻子,左翼激进派政客江青仍在1970年代初用阶级斗争观向美国记者维特克(Roxane Witke)粗陋地阐述了这个故事 ,称其尚可宽宥。(3) 因此该书也仍在出版销售。到了1980年代,在更加开放自由的大环境里,该书重获新生,还拍成了几部影视作品,风靡程度史无前例。
















  1. Cao Xueqin, `The Story of the Stone’ Volumes 1-3 tran David Hawkes, vols 4-5, John Minford, Penguin Books 1973-1986.
  2. C T Hsia, `The Classical Chinese Novel: A Critical Introduction’, Columbia University Press, New York, 1968.
  3. Roxanne Wittke, Comrade Jiang Qing’, Little Brown and Company, New York, 1977.




How Reading `The Dream of the Red Mansions’ 《红楼梦》Can Help Understand China Today

Kerry Brown and Jin Xin

It has been called one of the world’s great unreadable books – the Chinese version of Tolstoy that is read with almost religious fervour by many in China, and largely unknown by the outside world. Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹) and Gao ‘E’s ( 高鹗) great Qing novel of manners, in standard Chinese editions takes up for its 120 books (in effect the equivalent of chapters) several volumes. In English, the best known translation by David Hawkes and his son in law, John Minford, occupies five, and took over a decade to produce. (1)  Length alone however does not explain why `The Dream of the Red Mansions’ (or, as it is known in some versions, `The Story of the Stone’) is so neglected. Even so, as we shall argue, for one of the most effective and authentic ways to work out how Chinese society operates, what lies in the collective memory of Chinese people today, and how one might answer that formidable question `What Do Chinese people believe’, there is probably no better place to start than getting acquainted with this novel.

The history of the novel and how it came to be so successful

For a writer whose prestige and centrality in Chinese culture is often equated with that of Shakespeare in the English speaking world, Cao Xueqin is if anything even more elusive than the famously mysterious great British Elizabethan playwright. Born in Beijing between the dates of 1715 and 1724, Cao died in 1763. Next to nothing is known of his life, except that he came from a family that had been relatively prosperous but was largely in decline. The era in which Cao lived coincided with the high Qing (1644-1912), during the reign of the three great emperors, Kangxi , Yongzheng, and Qianlong (康乾盛世). Regarded as a golden age of China’s modern history, at this state the country was relatively stable, the period of consolidation of its western and northern borders had been completed, and its economy prosperous.
Many scholars of Cao’s great novel see in its protagonist, Jia Baoyu (贾宝玉), the life story of the author himself. This can only, however, be speculation. What is certain is that it existed only as written manuscripts which were circulated and became increasingly popular in the period after Cao’s death. The 80 chapters most often attributed to him were supplemented by a concluding forty by Gao E. Argument to this day rages over whether the quality across these two portions is the same. By the 19th century, more formal editions started to appear, with the book reaching a wider audience. Mass literacy in the twentieth century in China meant that by 2000 it became to be regarded as one of the five great Chinese extended novels – next to `The Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ (三国演义), `The Water Margin’ (水浒传) , `The Golden Lotus’ (金瓶梅), and `The Scholars’ (儒林外史). No less an authority than American scholar of Chinese literature C T Hsia ranked it as the best, because of the density of its narrative, the sophistication of its writing, and the depth of emotion attained in many of its main passages. (2)

This status has managed to endure a number of challenges over the last hundred years. The world that Cao so meticulously describes of courtly manners, aristocratic social hierarchies and a universe largely bereft of people who might be described as farmers or peasants meant that in the era of the Communists from 1949, the `Dream’ attracted the often deadly description of `feudal.’ Despite that, it was still available, with Mao Zedong’s demagogue wife, the radical leftist Jiang Qing, offering an almost infantile class based interpretation of it to the American journalist Roxanne Wittke in the early 1970s, but still granting that the work was tolerable. (3)  By the 1980s, however, and a more open, liberal atmosphere, the book gained a new lease of life, with a number of dramatisations. It has probably never been more popular.

What Happens in the Novel?

Those who visit `Prince Gong’s Palace’ (恭王府) in Beijing to this day can get some sense of the world in which `The Dream’ is set. Though unlikely to be the actual lodging of Cao as a young man, this set of courtyards and refined buildings around water, carved stone and within red walls would have been typical of the time in which he lived, and was reportedly owned by a branch of his family. Often overwhelmed by tourists today, in the past it was a place of peace, tranquillity and seclusion. That physical setting gives a clue to the novel itself, with its overwhelming concentration on meticulous and intricate descriptions of the large cast of characters, with Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu  and their friends, family and servants at the heart of this.

While intricate and complex, the main plot of the novel is easy enough to summarize. A stone left over from a god called Nu Wa’s effort to mend the sky is given the opportunity to be incarnated as Jia Baoyu, favorite grandchild to Jia Mu, matriarch of the Jia family. Baoyu lives the life of a spoiled aristocratic youth as a member of one of the four most powerful, prestigious and interconnected families of a fictional dynasty. The novel describes the Jia families’ rise to the peak of might and wealth, and their decline as they fall out of the Emperor’s favour. One of the most central aspects is his often tormented love for his talented and frail cousin Lin Daiyu, and his ultimate failure of her, resulting in her death. This is then followed by his marriage to another, equally talented but much more sociable cousin Xue Baochai. Through mourning and hardship, he realises that wealth, beauty and human pursuits are all but a dream, and graduates from this experience in the mortal world to an act of renunciation where he turns from his family and severs all earthly ties to become a monk. That is where the novel ends.

Why is the Novel So Difficult?

For a western reader, there are two aspects of `The Dream’ that make it a hard book to read. The first is the immense complexity of the interlinks between characters. This is not a problem that `The Dream’ alone has. In many ways, in the extraordinary range of different figures and voices, it resembles the great masterpiece of Marcel Proust from the early twentieth century – `Remembrance of Things Past.’ As with Proust’s work, a large part of `The Dream’ is taken up with dialogue in social settings, involving reading of poems of discussion of art and society, by the key figures in the novel. And as with Proust, there is a large amount of knowledge assumed on behalf of the reader by the author about social behaviour, ranks and protocols organising life between people. Much of this is difficult even for Chinese readers for whom there are plenty of cultural similarities that at least help them navigate the novel. For western readers, they have to add not just the often alien nature of the social world described, and the very different family structures involved (often much more extensive than in Western contexts) but also deep cultural differences. These will be discussed later.

While the first set of problems alluded to above are partially surmountable by good, but succinct exegesis, the second challenge that makes `The Dream’ difficult is much harder to solve – perhaps it is insoluble. And that is the fact that much of the pleasure that Chinese native readers gain from reading Cao is through the immense delicacy of the language he uses, and the almost constant cross referencing and subtle allusion within the language itself. In many ways, one of the most striking things about The Dream is the sheer drama of its language, and the way this offers almost perpetual pleasure to readers. It is the quintessential case of what Roland Barthes called `the pleasure of the text.’

Many Chinese revere this book, loving it so much that it goes on the list of three things they would hope to have if left alone on a deserted island. Those that read it for the first time aged eight and then read it forty, fifty more times throughout life, each time they feel that they are learning something new. A child receives their first lesson in love and sexuality, those of poetic temperament read something that they feel is intensely poetic; a gourmet finds recipes; a Buddhist discovers enlightenment. Even designers are presented with palettes and textures that inspire them in their own visual creations.
Cao writes in hundreds of voices, each as distinct and believable as the next. One could imagine him sitting facing an open window, watching people carry on with their lives, hearing their voices and faithfully recording them in his story. These voices go from the most beautiful, delicate `Song of the Flower Grave’ by the talented young Lin Daiyu, to the vulgar, laughable dinner table rhymes by the unlearned rich boy Xue Pan. Nothing is kept a secret from the reader; on the contrary, everything in the plot is laid out in the poems and songs in Book Five. These poems and songs are of course riddles for the reader to figure out, as they dive deeper into the story, but they are also the writer’s gift to the reader, to carefully unwrap as the reader reaches the delightful moment when they can experience the joy of surprise. This mutual act of creativity by author and reader is something wonderfully collaborative about the novel. It involves those that enter its world into be a participant in that world, rather than a passive observer.

One example of the subtlety of the language in `The Dream’ will suffice. The reference in the very first part of the novel to snow, and its recurrence, right at the end, when Jia Baoyu as a monk, in a final act of renunciation, walks out into a snowscape reminiscent of the first mention on one level, but now in a wholly different context – in which the tragic experiences that have intervened between these two snow moments have inwardly transformed him. There is much more one might write about the symbolism of snow, and of the connection it has to a set of symbols and language referents that relate to a Buddhist view of the world. In any case, all of the richness and mystery of this inter-textual link is largely impossible to convey in English.

This is no aspersion on the great translation by David Hawkes and John Minford. They brought rich literary talents to their rendition of `The Dream.’ It is simply a testament, in a very extreme example, of the huge distance between a Chinese language and English language text, and the kinds of information the surface features of one can convey that are not easily, or even possible, to render in the other. Translators of Shakespeare into Chinese suffer the same massive problems. But it does mean that a large part of the reason why `The Dream’ is so loved and so often reread by Chinese readers is hard to appreciate by those that read the novel in English. For them, its lack of narrative structure, and the almost static quality of the text, can be irritating and offputting.

What are the Key Things that a Reader Can Learn from `The Dream’

Despite this, studying `The Dream’ for non-Chinese readers has never perhaps been more useful. At a time when appreciation of Chinese culture and identity in increasingly necessary because of the country’s new prominent and international role, getting insights into the inner life of Chinese and the heart of Chinese culture through a novel almost universally recognised as the most important and influential produced in the Chinese language in modern times would seem an uncontroversial statement. Those that really want to understand Russia do, in the end, have to engage with novels by figures like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. For Britain it would be Shakespeare. For France, Moliere or Balzac. And in Germany the poetry and novels of Goethe. Cao Xueqin stands amongst these globally important figures, and his work while seen as intrinsically local and Chinese, is also about humanity and the nature of human experience. That transcends the boundaries of a particular language and the context in which the novel was written and set.

There are three key things that `The Dream’ teaches us. The first is the ways in which Chinese society is one of profound networks, where the individual or person sits at the heart of a whole array of linkages. This is often referred to as `guanxi’ when speaking about how interpersonal networks work in China. But that has become a term so overused as to be an almost meaningless cliché now. `The Dream’ shows the centrality of the extended family in China, something that remains a feature today as strongly as it did in the time Cao’s book was being written. The complexity of relationships, the ways in which those relationships are conducted, the different obligations they place on people, and the kinds of negotiations they involve – all of these are things that become clear as one reads `The Dream’. Even the most cursory reading would allow someone to appreciate the complexity and subtlety of these relations, and the ways in which they demand a delicate understanding of appropriate standards of behaviour and modes of conduct. `The Dream’ has been called a novel of manners, and in many ways this is true.

The second thing that `The Dream’ teaches us is something about the belief systems and the inner worlds of Chinese people themselves. One of the perennial questions for those from Europe first visiting China in the Ming and Qing period from the 17th century onwards, largely to serve as missionaries, was what things did Chinese people believe in. There was never an easy answer to this. Some Chinese followed folk religion. Some were Buddhists, some Confucianists, some followed the Dao. Such diversity of belief systems challenged what the great historian of Imperial China F W Mote called `the European commitment to a single, unifying truth.’ The hybridity of Chinese beliefs however remains the same to the present day, with public observance of Sinified Marxism-Leninism, and then a whole market place of other faiths underlying these. `The Dream’ is not an overtly religious work, but its opening books, from the moment when the Stone itself speaks, allude many times to another order of reality, and the whole development of Jia Baoyu’s fate, ending through the tragic love and loss of Lin Daiyu, is one that illustrates the working through of destiny. A sense of a meaningful order to life’s events, and to the development of what might be called the individual soul of everyone that lasts beyond the confines of the current life, stands out as a core belief in `The Dream.’ It more than any other work, illustrates what might be called a humanistic, secular Chinese spirituality.

The third important lesson `The Dream’ illustrates is the very different traditions of telling stories and structuring narratives that exist in China. Throughout the world, people live their lives through constructing narratives. National narratives are extremely important, and in China, particularly at the moment, the story of a nation which is undergoing a renaissance after a modern history that was often tragic and chaotic has proved increasingly powerful. `The Dream’ has no straightforward plot, as such, but rather develops through the interactions of its characters and the dynamics between them. It places humans at the heart of a story of the development of fate, partly as its servants, partly as individuals who because of issues and flaws within themselves are driven towards almost pre-determined ends. `The Dream’ is lacking in the kinds of dramatic events that typify novels produced up to the 20th century in Europe. The location of the story is the two compounds of the families, the members of whose lives are described as the book unfolds. Frequently large parts of the book have an almost static feel to them, with no movement, and no action apart from dialogue between specific figures and the recitation of poetry. This reveals something about the nature of story telling in China, and about the way that practice of storytelling shapes the Chinese view of the world.

Be Humble

There is a final lesson that `The Dream’ conveys. Like great art, it unveils new things, and new ways of seeing the world, and while never overtly aiming to make readers look small and lacking in knowledge, in the most gentle way this is precisely what the book achieves. That means that in reading the book, through the reader’s awareness of these limitations and the process of learning from them, they are also given an opportunity to grow and develop. The `Dream’ to a sensitive western reader is a revelation of the immense sophistication and subtlety of Chinese culture, and of the Chinese view of being human and of life. It offers a different kind of narrative, and the description of a different set of core beliefs, by which to live.

More than this, the simple fact is that while many millions of Chinese know at least some things about Western art, from the paintings of Leonardo to the work of Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Goethe, Europeans and Americans would largely know nothing of the poetry of Li Bai and Du Fu from the Tang era, or the great novel of Cao Xueqin. This is a remarkable lack of cultural validation, often underwritten by a conviction that European culture is better worth knowing than that of a civilisation which is longer established and has a literature going back hundreds of years before the time of Christ. That Cao’s masterpiece is not known is one of the clearest indictments of western complacency and indolence towards a better knowledge of Chinese culture and a consignment of it to the `too difficult to spend much time on’ category. That is a huge pity. A knowledge of `The Dream’ teaches fundamental things about the Chinese world view, the structure of Chinese society and the nature of storytelling and communication in China, and these are still valid to this day. Rather than attend classes on cross cultural understanding, therefore, an attentive read of even some of `The Dream’ would be rewarding, possibly even life changing. And that is why, in the second decade of the twenty first century, this long, complex and immensely important novel still repays engagement and study, even for those who are not Chinese.

  1. Cao Xueqin, `The Story of the Stone’ Volumes 1-3 tran David Hawkes, vols 4-5, John Minford, Penguin Books 1973-1986.
  2. C T Hsia, `The Classical Chinese Novel: A Critical Introduction’, Columbia University Press, New York, 1968.
  3. Roxanne Wittke, Comrade Jiang Qing’, Little Brown and Company, New York, 1977.