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Books newlight on 03 Nov 2011

Book review: Henry Kissinger’s On China

My review of Henry Kissinger’s On China for China Today. This was written in Chinese and later translated into English.

2011-06-05. Henry Kissinger On China

On China

Author: Henry Kissinger

608 pages, hardcover

£30.00

Published by Allen Lane in the UK on 17 May 2011

HENRY Kissinger’s latest book, On China, an ambitious combination of his memoirs as a professional diplomat and his understanding of Chinese politics, culture and history, attempts to fit Chinese leaders’ strategic intentions and diplomatic approaches into a historical and cultural framework. Opening with a look into the deep past, the book discusses the important influence of Confucianism on Chinese politics, then sweeps through the rise and decline of dynasties, the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, moving on to the Korean War, Taiwan Strait crisis, the China-Indian border war, and the geopolitical challenges China faced after China-Soviet relations deteriorated. It is here, in the ninth chapter, that Henry Kissinger appears on the scene.

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Books newlight on 10 Sep 2011

Book review: When a Billion Chinese Jump

My review of Jonathan Watts’s book When a Billion Chinese Jump for China Today. This was written in Chinese and later translated into English.

2010-09-11. When A Billion Chinese Jump

When A Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind – Or Destroy It

Author: Jonathan Watts

496 pages, paperback

£8.46

Published by Faber and Faber

THE book’s title comes from a childhood experience of its author in the 1970s. On learning the concept of one billion, he was introduced to the nation with a population of that size, and warned: “If everyone in China jumps at exactly the same time, it will shake the earth off its axis and kill us all.” After that whenever he prayed for family and friends at night, he would usually sign off with the plea: “Please make sure everyone in China doesn’t jump at the same time.” Thirty years on, the boy who used to worry about the fate of mankind was a journalist on a respected British newspaper and did come to China.

Jonathan Watts was a reporter for the London-based Guardian, and that newspaper’s correspondent in Japan before being sent to China in 2003. The rocket-fueled economy and dramatic transformation in the social environment attracted him to the country – this was where it was all happening. Living in China reminded him of his childhood fear that a billion Chinese are jumping at the same time, but instead of jumping the fear is now of them embracing Western consumerism. A billion Chinese jumping simultaneously might produce a small earthquake, but if they all followed an American lifestyle, the resources consumed and the ensuing environmental damage would lead catastrophic destruction.

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Books newlight on 12 Jul 2009

UK book charts review

I’ve started a weekly UK book charts review on my Chinese blog (taohuawu.net) a couple of weeks ago. This is aimed to Chinese readers who are interested in the latest trend in English language book publishing. An increasing number of Chinese readers are bilingual and keen to know more about English language books. Meanwhile there have also been more and more books being translated into Chinese. You’ll be amazed to see the level of interest, and I hope this weekly review will help them know better about books published in the UK.

I’m also writing book reviews for various Chinese publications. They are not necessarily in the charts though. The selection is based on what I think are relevant to Chinese readers, as well as my personal interest.

My weekly UK book charts review (in Chinese).

Books newlight on 29 Feb 2008

Is there a Chinese Jane Austen?

Mariella Frostrup asked in her Open Book programme on BBC Radio 4 whether there is a Chinese Jane Austen, whose work a listener’s fourteen years old daughter could enjoy. There are several authors instantly pop into the mind. Eileen Chang (张爱玲), whose short story Lust, Caution on which Ang Lee’s film is based, is the obvious candidate. But I think her work is often too cold. Her sharp words could coolly pick up the shortcoming of the protagonists piece by piece. Her view of the relationship is perhaps too cynical for a fourteen years old. Qiong Yao (琼瑶), the Taiwanese female author published several dozens of romantic novels in the seventies, many of them have since been adapted into films and TV series. Many will regard her work too superficial and melodramatic though. One contemporary author is Hong Kong’s Yi Shu (亦舒). Her stories rarely happen outside the world of rich and beautiful, but the wittiness is very enjoyable. Zhang Xiaoxian (张小娴), another female writer from Hong Kong, is many people’s favourite romantic novelist.

The problem is novel had not been a highly regarded form of art until the turn of twenty century. In the first half of the last century, when the country suffered never ending civil wars and foreign invasion, writers were often urged to come up with patriotic novels instead of romantic ones. Added into this is the less freedom women enjoyed than their counterparts in the west in this period. So it’s no surprise that there was no Jane Austen kind of figure in early Chinese literature.

But if you don’t mind the gender, Lin Yutang’s (林语堂) Moment in Peking (京华烟云), about a big family in early twenty century Peking (Beijing) is a good read, and it was written in English by the author.

For English readers, some of Eileen Chang’s novels have been translated into English, like Lust, Caution (色戒), Love in the Fallen City (倾城之恋), The Rouge of North (怨女), Written on Water (流言). She also wrote in English such as the novel The Rice Sprout Song. I haven’t seen any English translation of Qiong Yao, Yi Shu, and Zhang Xiaoxian’s novels.

Books newlight on 30 Jan 2008

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

A Thousand Years of Good PrayersA Thousand Years of Good Prayers is a collection of ten short stories written by the Chinese author Yiyun Li. The sharp observation of human relationships, the sometimes punchy, sometimes minimalistic dialogs, as well as the warmth and empathy underneath, all make the reading very enjoyable.

Yiyun Li is at her best conveying the strange sense of alienation and liberation. In the two stories I like the most, Extra and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, the protagonists were all thrown into an unfamiliar situation. Unable to communicate with or without the language barrier, but still trying to understand, the characters at end all manage to find their way out, reaching some kind of inner peace and freedom while the outside world remains largely indifferent and incomprehensible.

What strikes me most in those stories is the freedom gained by using a new language. Being able to, or being forced to use a new language, looks to have the unexpected effect of making one be freed from the inhibitory restraint of the mother tongue, instead of just providing the possibility of make yourself understandable. The author herself once said that she feels using English to write gives her the freedom to better express herself. In A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, we witness Mr Shi’s daughter’s transformation from a distant, silent figure into a vivid, laughing, animated person once she’s on the phone, speaking English. We, as Mr Shi, are astonished.

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Books newlight on 31 Jul 2007

China Road: A Journey into the Future of the Rising Power

Rob Gifford’s China RoadIt is a bit strange to find Rob Gifford’s China Road in the travel section of my local bookshop. Route 312, where the author traveled from end to end, is not exact your typical tourist route. Nor is it associated with some significant historical events, for example, the Long March – which has become popular lately. However, Route 312 does connect Shanghai, the most cosmopolitan city of China, to Urumqi, the provincial capital of the most remote part of Northwest China, two very different social and natural landscapes indeed.

Rob Gifford is not a normal tourist or explorer either. He’s been living in China for many years as a journalist working for BBC and American public service radio network NPR. This trip, which he did just before leaving China for a new job in London, not only reveals a society of huge diversity which is undergoing rapid social and economic changes, but also summaries the author’s understanding of Chinese people, culture and history. The contrasts in terms of cultural and economic development neatly reflect on the way Gifford travels, by train, car, taxi, imported 4×4 and overloaded truck. In one instance, the car he traveled on was caught by police for speeding, resulted in a strange encounter with the law enforcement and hot discussion of English Premier League.

You would be disappointed if you are looking for tourist attraction in the book. What the author attempts to do, however, is to inject his insight of Chinese society into the travel story, which really distinguishes this book from other similar travel logs. The subtitle gives it away: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power. It’s combination of travel writing and commentary of culture and history. The down side of this approach is that the author could not write about one issue for too long, because the journey has to move on. Unlike another recently published book about present time China, Duncan Hewitt’s Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China, the social observation in China Road does look scattered sometimes.

This is a funny and insightful book. An enjoyable read.

Rob Gifford’s China Road

Books &Chinese Culture newlight on 08 Jun 2007

Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China

Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing ChinaIn the introduction of his new book Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China (Chatto and Windus), Duncan Hewitt wrote that when he sat at the cafe of Shanghai IKEA, he can see cars and trucks were rushing around outside the window in the three level elevated roads which also tangled with a light weight train rail. When I was reading this, I was sitting beside a window in a quiet corner of one of the large Waterstone’s in Edinburgh. Outside the window is the cobbled back street, where a pigeon was fighting hopelessly against a seagull for some leftover chips. Incidently, Edinburgh is where Hewitt’s journey started, as one of the students learning Chinese in Edinburgh University who were about setting foot in China in late 80s.

An often heard complaint among the youngests who came to the UK from China is that this place is just a bit dull. People can cite me many things they used to do in China, eating out at a newly opened restaurant, karaoke at a new KTV, or exchanging some latest American tv series are just the common ones. There seems to be endless supplies of new ways of consuming and entertaining. Things are moving rather fast there.

This fits well what Hewitt said, that it almost like the 60 years of post war development in the West has been compressed into 20 years in China. BBC’s Andrew Marr, in his History of Modern Britain, describes the make over of Birmingham in the 60s – the old Birmingham almost completely disappeared while people can’t wait to see a New Britain. Imagine that in a much bigger scale, repeated every five years. That’s what’s happening in China.

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Books &Chinese Culture newlight on 13 May 2007

A Chinese week: Chinese in Britain and Getting Rich First

Chinese in Britain reveals untold stories of early Chinese migrantsBBC Radio 4 last week broadcasted two programs about China and Chinese. Anna Chen tracked the lives of early Chinese migrants in the UK in her 10-part series Chinese in Britain, while Duncan Hewitt read his new book Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China in Book of the Week program. The two programs provide sharp contrast: one is about how the early settlers from China survived and adopted to an alien land, the another is about how the young and old at the present time struggled and prospered when the old rules and value gone out of the window. And yet, both programs give some clues of how Chinese deal with changes, our fondness of “progress” and embrace of the “new”.

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Books newlight on 28 Feb 2007

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers
by Xiaolu Guo
Xiaolu Guo's A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for LoversI have to admit I didn’t read the whole book. I borrowed a copy from my friend but only had enough time to have a quick glance. I read the beginning when the protagonist Zhuang Xiaoqiao is on a plane to the UK, some bits in the middle, including an excerpt appeared on The Times, and the last several pages. So this is not a review, rather my impression on this book.

The plot is simple. Zhuang Xiaoqiao, a young woman comes to the UK to study English, with little knowledge of the country, and the language. She meets an artist in London. They becomes lovers and she moves into his flat in the rough side of London. She explores the culture, language, and sex through him. She feels increasingly lost when she knows better about the English (in the broad sense) and decides to go back to China. The circle ends. The story is narrated solely from the Zhuang Xiaoqiao’s point of view, using a dictionary-like structure, hence the book title.

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