Connect with us

Backgrounder

50 of the Best New Books on China for the Holidays and Winter 2020/2021

So much reading to do! These are some of the best new books on China.

Manya Koetse

Published

on

What’s on Weibo lists the 50 best China books for winter reading 2020/2021, with China non-fiction and fiction books that have come out in English recently.

What’s on Weibo has previously issued two major China book lists, one Best 30 Books to Understand Modern China (non-fiction), and one Top Best Fiction Books on China. Because both articles were published in 2018, and so many new and interesting books on China have come out since, it’s high time for another list.

This list consists of all new and interesting China books that have come out recently, mainly in 2020, but it also includes some earlier books.

We realize that there are so many books out there, and China’s domestic book market is enormous. But for the scope of this article, we will only list books that have come out in English as original works or were translated into English.

For the fiction section, we have selected modern fiction books by Chinese authors that have come out in English translation over the past two years. For a broader list of modern literary fiction works that provide deeper insights into China, please check our previous list here.

This list is categorized into seven major areas of China General (Popular), China History, Chinese Society & Focus Topics, China Tech/Digital, Academic Publications (China Studies), Chinese Fiction, and For Kids – something for everyone, from very broad China books to very focused subjects. Some books might fall into several categories such as academic and/or history, but have only been placed in one. Since there are many books being published on similar topics, we have tried to highlight different relevant focus topics and styles of narrating in this list. The order of the books is random and for reference purpose only (we do mention some personal favorites at the end of this list).

We have also tried to add relevant podcasts to each book recommendation, so there is plenty to read and listen to during these (pandemic) winter days!

 

ON CHINA GENERAL (POPULAR)

 

#1 ● Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy

By Kishore Mahbubani, Public Affairs 2020

This book by the renowned Singaporean academic and former UN ambassador Kishore Mahbubani focuses on the geopolitical contest that has broken out between the US and China, and invites the reader to critically think about the complex dimensions behind this discourse and the strategic game behind it. Mahbubani writes that “it is curious that no one has pointed out that America is making a big strategic mistake by launching this contest with China without first developing a comprehensive and global strategy to deal with China” (2), and argues that not only does the US lack a sound understanding of its rival and their interests, it also overestimates its own position in a growingly complex international society. Being neither Chinese nor American, Kishore offers interesting perspectives that come from outside the American (or Chinese) thought bubble when it comes to current geopolitics.

Mahbubani is also on Twitter @mahbubani_k. Listen to the SupChina Sinica podcast with Kaiser Kuo featuring Kishore Mahbubani here.

Buy: Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#2 ● China’s Western Horizon: Beijing and the New Geopolitics of Eurasia

By Daniel Markey, Oxford University Press 2020

With the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative being key to China’s present-day foreign policy, this list wouldn’t be complete without a book on this topic. Recently, multiple books came out on this subject. For example, there is The Emperor’s New Road: China and the Project of the Century by Jonathan Hillman and One Belt One Road: Chinese Power Meets the World by Eyck Freymann. One of the recent books on this topic to receive a lot of praise is that by China’s Western Horizon: Beijing and the New Geopolitics of Eurasia by Daniel Markey, senior research professor in International Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. This book, useful for anyone who wants to get a better understanding of the Belt and Road Initiative, aims to make sense of “the decisive role that China’s less powerful neighbors are likely to play as China extends its reach across its western horizon.” This work is mainly divided into three sections, covering South Asia (chapter 3), Central Asia (chapter 4), and the Middle East (chapter 5). The last chapter focuses on US-China competition in Eurasia, with Markey arguing that the US needs a more local strategy in order to compete with China globally.

Listen to the Global Cable podcast with the author here. Daniel Markey is also on Twitter: @MarkeyDaniel.

Get the book here: China’s Western Horizon: Beijing and the New Geopolitics of Eurasia
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#3 ● Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World

By Michael Schuman, Public Affairs 2020

Superpower Interrupted offers a fresh perspective on China and its history for a western readership, focusing on the Chinese view of the Chinese history of the world, and demonstrating that there actually is no such thing as a truly global ‘world history.’ Schuman argues that since history shaped China’s perception of the world and its present-day position in international society, it is crucial for western diplomats, academics, politicians, and journalists to understand China not through the prism of their own world history, but through China’s own view.

Michael Schuman is also on Twitter: @MichaelSchuman. Sinica did a podcast with Schuman on his book earlier in 2020, which you can check out here.

Get: Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#4 ● In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century

By Sebastian Strangio, Yale University Press 2020

There is so much talk about US-China tensions recently, that China’s complicated relationships with its southern neighbors is a topic that often gets overlooked although it needs to be in the spotlight.In the Dragon’s Shadow, by journalist and Southeast Asia Editor at The Diplomat, is a very relevant work centering on the impact of China’s booming emergence and the dynamics of South East Asia. Chapter by chapter, Strangio provides valuable insights into the countries of Southeast Asia, exploring how China’s expanding power affects Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, Thailand, Burma, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

This book was recently featured on the Sinica podcast, with Kaiser Kuo saying the book “is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.” Sebastian Strangio is also on Twitter: @sstrangio.

Buy: In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#5 ● India’s China Challenge: A Journey through China’s Rise

By Ananth Krishnan, HarperCollins India 2020

Ananth Krishnan, China correspondent for The Hindu, moved to China in the summer of 2008 and ended up staying a decade. This book is a result of the author’s own on-the-ground experiences, and, in an accessible and engaging way, presents different perspectives on what China’s rise and transformations mean for India. The book explores political, economic, diplomatic, and military challenges in China-India relations, and also zooms out to the broader implications for international society.

This book was featured on the Grand Tamasha podcast. Ananth Krishan is on Twitter @ananthkrishnan.

Get it here: India’s China Challenge: A Journey through China’s Rise

 

#6 ● China: The Bubble That Never Pops

By Thomas Orlik, Oxford University Press 2020

It will collapse, it will bounce back, financial crisis, yuan devaluation – so much has been written (and wrongly speculated) about China’s economy over the past decade or two that it is hard to believe anything you read anymore. One thing is clear, and that is that China’s economy has demonstrated resilience throughout the years. This resilience is at the heart of this book by Thomas Orlik, chief economist at Bloomberg. Orlik explores how China managed to escape national financial crises in the face of global slowdown and provides a clear overview of China’s economic history since Deng Xiaopeng. In doing so, the author makes it clear that conventional approaches often taken by Western analysts in looking at China’s economy often get it wrong – and he explains why.

China: The Bubble That Never Pops was featured on Bloomberg’s Odd Lots podcast (link) and also on Sinica (link). Tom Orlik is on Twitter here: @TomOrlik.

Get: China: The Bubble that Never Pops

 

#7 ● Invisible China: How the Urban-Rural Divide Threatens China’s Rise

By Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell, University of Chicago Press 2020

This book by development economist Scott Rozelle and researcher Natalie Hell highlights problems that often remain invisible in the face of China’s rapid economic rise. It’s the drama of the rural low-educated workers who were the motor driving China’s growth since the 1980s, but are now more and more left jobless and hopeless in their home villages as low-skilled work is increasingly outsourced to other countries or is taken over by robotics. In many ways, China and the Chinese people are going forward – yet the rural population is left behind, and it’s China’s Achilles’ heel. This book focuses on this invisible side to China’s rise and on how such a big story, with such major implications, could be so little known.

More about this book here and in the World Class podcast here.

Get: Invisible China: How the Urban-Rural Divide Threatens China’s Rise

 

#8 ● The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State

By Elizabeth C. Economy, Oxford University Press 2018

This book by Elizabeth Economy, Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is for anyone who wants to understand how Xi’s ‘revolution’ is transforming China. It goes behind Xi Jinping and his vision for China, diving into the main areas on top of the Xi government agenda, including internal politics, the internet, innovation, economy, environment, and foreign policy. The priorities of the Xi-led leadership and the direction they are taking are not just of key importance to China, but also to the rest of the world – with a focus on the United States. A well-researched and concise work on China under Xi – its background, status-quo, and what lies ahead.

Elizabeth Economy is on Twitter, @LizEconomy. If you’d like to hear more on this book, listen to this CFR Asia Unbound podcast.

Get: The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 
 

CHINA HISTORY

 

#9 ● China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism

By Rana Mitter, Harvard University Press 2020

Rana Mitter is a British historian and political scientist who specializes in China’s history, and we’re a huge fan of his original perspectives and selection of topics. Mitter previously published China’s War with Japan, 1937-45: The Struggle for Survival (2014), which became an Economist Book of the Year and a Financial Times Book of the Year. For this book, Mitter continued to pursue his interest in China’s wartime history, this time focusing on how China’s memories of war have shaped its national identity, both at home and global role abroad. Mitter demonstrates that WWII is very much alive in China today, influencing popular culture and media to the dynamics of international relations.

Listen to Mitter talk about his book on the Sinica podcast here.

Get: China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#10 ● The Story of China: The Epic History of a World Power from the Middle Kingdom to Mao and the China Dream

By Michael Wood, St Martin’s Press 2020

This brand-new single-volume work (624 pages) presents a chronological history of China, weaving personal, local stories into big historical narratives, from early history to modern-day China. Wood, Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester, previously wrote and presented the short documentary series for BBC and PBS that was also titled The Story of China. This is an excellent and accessible book for anyone with an interest in China’s history and its role in the world today.

Wood is on Twitter here @mayavision. More about his book in this South China Morning Post review.

Get: The Story of China: The Epic History of a World Power from the Middle Kingdom to Mao and the China Dream
Also available as audiobook via Audible here

 

#11 ● China at War: Triumph and Tragedy in the Emergence of the New China

By Hans van de Ven, Harvard University Press 2020

Hans van de Ven is Professor of Modern Chinese History at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of the British Academy. He specializes in the history of 19th and 20th century China. China at War zooms in on the period between 1937 and 1949. Van de Ven emphasizes that this was not just a time when China was at war with Japan, but also with itself, as it was also the time of the revolutionary war between the Nationalists and the Communists. The Second Sino-Japanese War and China’s civil war are intertwined and this history, and how it is remembered, is pivotal to understanding China’s 20th century and its place in the world today.

Check out the Asian Review of Books for more about China at War here. Hans van de Ven is also on Twitter @Jjv10Ven.

Get: China at War: Triumph and Tragedy in the Emergence of the New China

 

#12 ● Eurasian Crossroads – A History of Xinjiang

By James Millward, Hurst Publishers 2021 (2007)

This book ended up on our list here thanks to the ‘Five Best China Books 2020‘ article by Jeffrey Wasserstrom, American historian of modern China, who pointed out this upcoming renewed publication. The book was actually published years ago, but a new and revised edition is coming out in January 2021, adding a chapter on the status-quo in Xinjiang and the so-called re-education camps. With this book, James Millward, author and historian of China & Central Asia, provided the first comprehensive account in English of the history of Xinjiang and its peoples from earliest times to the present. This book is a must-have for anyone interested in Xinjiang and for anyone who wants to get a better grasp of the history and complex dynamics behind today’s Xinjiang.

There’s a recent episode of the Harvard Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies podcast featuring Millward speaking about the history of the crisis in the Uyghur Autonomous Region. James Millward is on Twitter @JimMillward.

Get (still the earlier version, updated book set to release late January 2021): Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang

 

#13 ● China and Japan: Facing History

By Ezra F. Vogel, Belknap Press of Harvard University 2019

Ezra F. Vogel, an eminent scholar of China and Japan, passed away in December of 2020. China and Japan: Facing History is his last book, which Vogel hoped would help improve understanding in that tense relationship between these neighboring rivals. With so many books focusing on China-US relations and power politics, there are relatively few new books that focus on Sino-Japanese relations, even though they are so crucial to both nations and the region. Vogel calls it a dangerous, deep, and complicated relationship. This book is an excellent overview of the relations between China and Japan, from early history to modern times.

The Harvard University Program on U.S.-Japan Relations recorded a podcast featuring Vogel earlier in 2020, which can be listened to here.

Get this book: China and Japan: Facing History
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#14 ● Maoism: A Global History

By Julia Lovell, Knopf 2019

This award-winning book is written by Julia Lovell, Professor of Modern Chinese History and Literature at Birkbeck College as well as an active translator of Chinese literature into English. Maoism: A Global History provides an overview of the influence of Maoism in different parts of the world from the 1930s to the present, with Lovell calling Maoism “one of the major stories of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.” This is a big book, but Lovell succeeds to captures the reader’s attention with her in-depth insights and engaging writing style.

Also check out this History Extra podcast, in which Julia Lovell explores the nature of Mao’s ideology and how it has shaped China and many other countries around the world.

Get: Maoism: A Global History
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#15 ● Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao’s Revolution

By Helen Zia, Ballantine Books 2019

Benny, Ho, Bing, and Annuo were still young when the Chinese civil war was coming to an end and the threat of a violent Communist revolution was looming over Shanghai, the epicenter of a large-scale exodus in the late 1940s. It is estimated that approximately one million people fled through the city around 1949, the year the People’s Republic of China was founded. Through the lens of the personal stories of some of these people, Zia shines a light on the bigger picture of the mass departure of wealthy and middle class Chinese and foreigners from Shanghai. She does so in a very captivating way – a pleasure to read.

In the They Call us Bruce podcast, Helen Zia talked about her book (link) and the tumultuous forces of history and migration. Helan Zia is also on Twitter here @HelenZiaReal.

Get: Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao’s Revolution
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#16 ● The Last Kings of Shanghai – The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China

By Jonathan Kaufman, Penguin Random House 2020

Shanghai’s Jewish history is a fascinating one, and over the past few years there’s been increased attention on the Jewish community of Shanghai and the history of Jews in China (also see our article on this, Memories of a Nearly Forgotten Community). In this book, author Jonathan Kaufman, journalist & director of the Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, tells the epic multigenerational stories of two Jewish families: Shanghai’s famous Sassoon family, who had been doing business in China for a century, and the Kadoorie family, another business dynasty that rivaled the Sassoons. Both the Sassoons and Kadoeries were originally from Baghdad, and these wealthy families accumulated great influence and played a role in Chinese business and politics for more than 175 years. This well-researched book provides intriguing insights into a history that few people know of.

In Northwestern University Library’s What’s New podcast, Kaufman recently discussed his book, link. Jonathan is on Twitter here @jkaufman617.

Get: The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#17 ● Forbidden Memory: Tibet during the Cultural Revolution

By Tsering Woeser, translated by Susan T Chen, edited by Robert Barnett, photographs by Tsering Dorje, Potomac Books 2020 (2006)

The story behind the making of the Forbidden Memory book is an extraordinary one. It begins with Tibetan writer and activist Tsering Woeser finding rare photos taken by her father, who passed away in 1991, of the Cultural Revolution period in Tibet. Woeser’s father, Tsering Dorje, was with the People’s Liberation Army when it entered Tibet in the 1950s. In 1999, Woeser sent these photos to Chinese writer and scholar Wang Lixiong, who had written on Tibet in his book Sky Burial: The Destiny of Tibet. Wang, realizing how precious these photographs were, wrote back to Woeser saying the history told through the photos needed to be told by herself and those on the inside of the history. Six years later, Woeser completed her research and writing, including interviews with over seventy people connected to the history captured in the photographs, and published an edition of Forbidden Memory for the Taiwanese market. Brought together by her father’s photos, Woeser and Wang ended up getting married in 2004. Now, in 2020, Forbidden Memory is finally translated into a revised English edition. Through text and photos, this 400-page book tells the horrible story of the violence of the Cultural Revolution in Tibet. With this work, Woeser uncovers the stories of a past that was previously erased.

Read more on this work here. Woeser is on Twitter here @degewa

Get: Forbidden Memory: Tibet during the Cultural Revolution

 
 

CHINESE SOCIETY AND FOCUS TOPICS

 

#18 ● Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City

By Fang Fang, translated by Michael Berry, HarperCollins 2020

Wuhan Diary is written by the 65-year-old acclaimed Chinese author Wang Fang, better known as Fang Fang, and it is an important book documenting China’s COVID19 outbreak. Wuhan Diary is an online account of the 2020 Hubei lockdown, originally published on WeChat and Weibo. Throughout the lockdown period in January, February, and March, Fang Fang wrote about life in quarantine in province capital Wuhan, the heart of the epicenter, documenting everything from the weather to the latest news and the personal stories and tragedies behind the emerging crisis. Fang’s 60-post diary was published on her Weibo account from late January shortly after the lockdown began, until late March when the end of the lockdown was announced. Although Fang was originally praised as a ‘voice of the people’ in China, she was later bashed for being a ‘traitor’ once it became known that her book would be published in the US and Europe.

Read more about Wuhan Diary and its controversy here.

Get: Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#19 ● Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town

By Barbara Demick, Random House 2020

American journalist Barbara Demick previously wrote a book on North Korea (Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea) (2010), and with this book she explores another closed-off area; that of Sichuan’s Ngaba, a place that is usually a no-go area for foreign journalists due to the many anti-government demonstrations and self-immolation protesters. During the years she lived in China, Demick managed to travel to Ngaba on several occasions and conducted interviews. This book is a result of these interviews and spans decades of modern Tibetan and Chinese history and closely examines the relationships between the Chinese Communist Party and Tibet.

Demick is on Twitter @BarbaraDemick.

Get: Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#20 ● City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong

By Antony Dapiran, Scribe 2020

This list obviously needs a focus book on Hong Kong, as 2020 came with great restrictions on Hong Kong freedom as the National Security Law came into effect – causing alarm among the people that have protested for greater freedom, democracy, and independence from the political influences of Beijing since 2019. In this book, Hong Kong-based lawyer and author Antony Dapiran provides a concise account of the Hong Kong’s 2019 anti-government protests that grew into a pro-democracy movement that engulfed the city for months. This book is for everyone who wants to understand what has happened and is happening in Hong Kong and grasp the protesters’ tactics and how their movement fits into the city’s history of dissent.

Listen to more on this book in the Intelligence Squared podcast here. Anthony is on Twitter here @antd.

Get: City on Fire: the fight for Hong Kong

 

#21 ● The Myth of Chinese Capitalism: The Worker, the Factory, and the Future of the World

By Dexter Roberts, St Martin’s Press 2020

There are many complicated stories behind all the headlines on China’s economic success and its rise on the world stage. This book by award-winning journalist Dexter Robers sheds critical light on the serious problems that China and its people face today; (reverse) migration, an aging society, income inequality, an unfair hukou system, and rising social unrest. Roberts tells the stories of the people behind these huge issues, focusing on the small village of Binghuacun in Guizhou and on Dongguan town in Guangdong.

Roberts and his work recently came on the Sinica podcast, listen here. Dexter Roberts is on Twitter here @dtiffroberts.

Get the book: The Myth of Chinese Capitalism: The Worker, the Factory, and the Future of the World
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#22 ● The Chile Pepper in China: A Cultural Biography

By Brian Dott, Columbia University Press 2020

The Chile Pepper in China is just too hot to exclude from this list. In this book, Brian Dott, associate professor of history at Whitman College, explores the evolution of the chile pepper from an obscure foreign import to a ubiquitous plant regarded by most Chinese as native to the land. In doing so, we learn many new things. Such as that there were no chiles anywhere in China prior to the 1570s – which is surprising when you know how firmly chile is ingrained in China’s national and local gastronomic traditions. The chile serves as a lens through with Dott explains more about Chinese history and the changing components of Chinese culture.

Brian Dott and his recent work were previously featured on the Sinica podcast here.

Get: The Chile Pepper in China: A Cultural Biography (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History)

 

#23 ● Beijing from Below: Stories of Marginal Lives in the Capital’s Center

By Harriet Evans, Duke University Press 2020

Anyone who has been to Beijing pre-Olympics and after will understand the major transformation some parts of the city have undergone during and since that time. This book by Harriet Evans, Emeritus Professor of Chinese Cultural Studies at the University of Westminster, focuses on the disadvantaged residents of ‘Dashalar’, a small popular neighborhood just steps away from Tiananmen. It is the result of years-long research between 2007-2014 and conversations with its old residents, and captures how the rapid pace of Beijing’s transformation is affecting local families and individuals.

Listen to Harriet Evans speak about her work and Beijing in this podcast by New Books in Anthropology.

Get this book: Beijing from Below: Stories of Marginal Lives in the Capital’s Center

 

#24 ● China’s New Red Guards: The Return of Radicalism and the Rebirth of Mao Zedong

By Jude Blanchette, Oxford University Press 2019

China’s neo-Maoists are those who place their belief in that the philosophy and strategies of Mao Zedong can help China navigate the 21st century. In this book, Blanchette zooms in on neo-Maoism as a political movement born out of discontent with China’s current-day political and economic route. Besides shedding light on China’s political system and how the political agenda has shifted since Mao’s death, China’s New Red Guards explores key questions of who speaks for ‘authentic socialism’ and Marxism, “and who the true political inheritors of Mao’s legacy are.”

Kaiser Kuo sat down with Jude Blanchette for the Sinica podcast here.

Get: China’s New Red Guards: The Return of Radicalism and the Rebirth of Mao Zedong

 

# 25 ● Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China

By Jung Chang, Vintage Digital 2019

Jung Chang is most famous for her work Wild Swans, a classic book that virtually anyone who is interested in China will probably have in their book collection. Although Jung Chang previously drew criticism over Mao: The Untold Story, with people questioning the factual accuracy, this new book needs to be here due to its fascinating topic of three sisters who part of a defining moment in China’s modern history as sisters, wives, and mothers. The Song sisters, born between 1888 and 1898, were all powerful and influential women, with each choosing their own unique path. Ailing became a successful businesswoman in cooperation with her husband (a director of the Bank of China), Qingling married Sun Yat-sen, and Meiling married Chiang Kai-shek. In Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister, Jung Chang goes beyond the popular generalizations about the Song sisters (“one loves power, one loves money, one loves the people”), and tells their stories in an absorbing way and highlights the tensions between them. Fun fact: Jung Chang initially planned to write a book about Sun Yat-sen but then decided his wife and her sisters were far more interesting.

For more on Jung Chang’s latest work, check out this episode of the Spectator Books podcast.

Get: Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

CHINA TECH & DIGITAL

 

#26 ● Attention Factory: The Story of TikTok and China’s ByteDance

By Matthew Brennan, 2020

China’s ‘old’ tech giants Baidu, Alibaba en Tencent are often at the center of books that focus on China’s flourishing tech scene, but it is high time that the newer giants get the attention they deserve. Brennan’s book focuses on Bytedance, the company behind super-popular apps such as TikTok, Toutiao, and Xigua. He tells the story of the company’s rise to international fame, with TikTok becoming the most downloaded app in the world in 2020. Brennan explains both the ‘back end’ and the ‘front end’ – shining a light on TikTok’s algorithms, business growth stages, telling the story of Bytedance founder Zhang Yiming and the early years of the company. In doing so, Brennan clearly illustrates the road that has led to TikTok’s emergence as a global hit.

Listen to the FYI Podcast with Brennan here. Follow Matthew Brennan on Twitter here @mbrennanchina.

Get the book here: Attention Factory: The Story of TikTok and China’s ByteDance
(Also available on BookDepository)

 

#27 ● Blockchain Chicken Farm: And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside

By Xiaowei Wang, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2020

China’s rapid technological developments are impacting virtually every corner of society. While mainstream media generally solely focus on how China’s urban people and environments are influenced by high-tech innovation, Blockchain Chicken Farm puts a spotlight on how the lives of China’s rural and poor are changed by technology. In this book, technologist and writer Xiaowei Wang challenges metronormativity and shows that China’s countryside is not just adapting to the rapid technological developments – it is fuelling the technology that’s used every day. From AI farming systems to e-commerce villages and blockchain food projects, Wang provides new insights into China’s tech world, its urban-rural dynamics, and globalization.

Xiaowei Wang talks about their book in a recent episode of the ChinaTalk podcast with Jordan Schneider. Wang is also on Twitter @xrw.

Get: Blockchain Chicken Farm: And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside (FSG Originals x Logic)

 

#28 ● Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall

By Margaret E. Roberts, Princeton University Press 2020 (2018)

We can’t talk about China’s internet or digital environment at large without discussing its censorship apparatus. This work by Roberts zooms in on the dynamics of censorship in the Chinese digital environment and shows that China’s online censorship is not as black and white of an issue as it is sometimes made out to be. Censorship in China is ‘porous’, it is often circumventable, it includes some things and leaves out others. Roberts argues that there is a clear strategy behind this specific kind of censorship and how it differently affects different segments of the population.

Roberts talked about her work on the Sinica Podcast, listen here. Margaret Robers is also on Twitter @mollyeroberts.

Get the book: Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall

 

#29 ● The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet

By James Griffith, Zed Books 2019

This book by Griffith, reporter and producer for CNN International, is a great introduction to the background and history of the ‘Great Firewall of China’ and China’s online environment in general. Jumping from pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and at Tiananmen to discussing Falun Gong and online Uyghur voices, Griffith narrates the story of China’s censorship machine in a compelling way.

Check The Wire China for more on this work, or check out ABC with Marc Fenell here. James is on Twitter here @jgriffiths.

Get the book: The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet

 

#30 ● Tech Titans of China: How China’s Tech Sector is Challenging the World by Innovating Faster, Working Harder, and Going Global

By Rebecca Fannin, Nicholas Brealey Publishing 2019

It is always a bit hard to recommend books on the ongoing tech developments in China, since they tend to be outdated from the moment they are published. Still, this book by Rebecca Fannin (who previously wrote Silicon Dragon) is an informative starting point for those who need an introduction to China’s tech environment, its main players, and most important startups. It explains how and why Chinese tech players and products have become more innovative than their American counterparts, and how they quickly invest and commercialize.

The Inside Asia podcast previously featured Fannin and her book in this episode. Rebecca Fannin is also on Twitter @rfannin.

Get the book here: Tech Titans of China: How China’s Tech Sector is challenging the world by innovating faster, working harder, and going global

 

#31 ● AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order

By Kai-Fu Lee, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2018

This best-selling book by computer scientist and businessman Kai-Fu Lee is often highly recommended within China’s tech book category because it gives a clear overview of the country’s artificial intelligence industry and how China’s status-quo as AI superpower and ongoing ‘AI fever’ will have dramatic implications for global economics and governance. Informative and engaging, this book provides valuable insights into China and AI in general, and the challenges that lie ahead.

Listen to Kai-fu Lee talk about his book on the Lex Fridman podcast here. Kai-Fu Lee is also on Twitter @kaifulee.

Get the book: AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#32 ● China, Africa, and the Future of the Internet

By Iginio Gagliardone, Zed Books 2020

Chinese presence in Africa is an important focus topic that definitely needs to be included on this list, and Gagliardone’s book provides an original and relevant perspective. It examines the extent to which China is influencing information societies in Africa, where the Internet, in various ways, is still taking shape. Gagliardone explores the existing assumption that China is influencing other media systems and is actively promoting its own model of a controlled Internet environment outside of the PRC. Gagliardone makes it clear that African states are not passive recipients of Chinese influence and highlights the complex dynamics of Chinese-African relations and the Internet.

Check out this episode of the China in Africa podcast featuring this author on this latest book. Iginio Gagliardone is also on Twitter @iginioe.

Get the book: China, Africa, and the Future of the Internet

 
 

IN CHINA STUDIES

 

#33 ● The Chinese Communist Party in Action: Consolidating Party Rule

By Zheng Yongnian and Lance L.P. Gore (eds), Routledge 2020

There is a lot of talk about China’s ‘One Party system’ and the Communist Party, with many being unaware of the systems and dynamics behind the CCP. This edited volume explores the role of the Chinese Communist Party as an institution in China today; its strategies, its campaigns, transformations, the interaction between party members, and its policymaking. These thirteen chapters are written by different scholars from various parts of the world.

Get this book: The Chinese Communist Party in Action: Consolidating Party Rule (China Policy Series)

 

#34 ● Afterlives of Chinese Communism: Political Concepts from Mao to Xi

Christian Sorace, Ivan Francescini, Nicholas Loubere (eds), Verso Book 2019

What is the legacy of the Mao era? There is no straightforward answer to this question. This edited volume is a collection of essays discussing the history and contemporary relevance of key concepts from the Mao era. It focuses on the political thoughts and discourse in China from 1949-1976 and revisits the complicated and contested legacies of Chinese communism, with each author in this work writing about this topic from their own critical perspective.

Get: Afterlives of Chinese Communism: Political Concepts from Mao to Xi

 

#35 ● Anxious China – Inner Revolution and Politics of Psychotherapy

By Li Zhang, University of California Press 2020

We first learned about this book via the New Books in East Asian Studies podcast and wanted to include it here due to its original and relevant research on how Chinese middle-class urbanites are more and more turning to Western-style counseling to deal with psychological distress in a rapidly changing China. Li Zhang is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Davis. She argues that China’s profound economic reforms have not just generated transformations in China’s society and urban landscape, but have also generated changes the inner landscape of people in China. Li speaks of ‘a new kind of revolution’ unfolding in postsocialist China, which she terms “the inner revolution.” This book provides valuable insights into the field of psychology in China today and contextualizes the emergence of a new language entering China – allowing people to talk about their emotional distress despite the existing stigmas on mental health.

Listen to the New Books Network here.

Get this book: Anxious China: Inner Revolution and Politics of Psychotherapy

 

#36 ● China and the World

By David Shambaugh (ed), Oxford University Press 2020

This well-organized volume edited by Professor David Shambaugh consists of sixteen chapters by renowned China scholars from various countries with different academic specialties to describe China’s developments to date, focusing on its foreign relations and role on the world stage today. Some examples: renowned Norwegian historian Odd Arne Westad provides an insightful chapter of how China’s past matters to its present-day foreign affairs (chapter 2); founding director of the Manchester China Institute Peter Gries ties Chinese foreign policy to nationalism and social influences in chapter 4; Robert Sutter, one of America’s most respected scholars of Chinese foreign policy, writes about Sino-US relations in chapter 10.

Get this book: China and the World

 

#37 ● Securing China’s Northwest Frontier: Identity and Insecurity in Xinjiang

By David Tobin, Cambridge University Press 2020

Analysis of Chinese nationalism is often focused on the construction of the West and Japan as threats, but in this work, Tobin argues that the position of ‘domestic strangers’ is crucial to understanding nationalism in present-day China. Tobin analyzes how nation-building in China’s western Xinjiang region had shaped and is shaping insecurity and ethnic boundaries between Han and Uyghur populations.

While we’re here, we’d like to sneak another recommendation, namely Land of Strangers: The Civilizing Project in Qing Central Asia by Eric Schluessel, social historian of China and Central Asia (Twitter @EricTSchluessel). Land of Strangers explores the ‘civilizing mission’ in Xinjiang undertaken in the last decades of the Qing to transform Xinjiang’s Turkic-speaking Muslims into Chinese-speaking Confucian.

Listen to the New Books Network podcast with Tobin here. David Tobin is on Twitter @ReasonablyRagin.

Get the book: Securing China’s Northwest Frontier: Identity and Insecurity in Xinjiang

And also: Land of Strangers: The Civilizing Project in Qing Central Asia

 

#38 ● Staging China: The Politics of Mass Spectacle

By Florian Schneider, Leiden University Press 2019

Florian Schneider, social scientist and China-scholar at the Leiden University Institute of Area Studies and director of the Leiden Asian Center, previously published Visual Political Communication in Popular Chinese Television Series and China’s Digital Nationalism. This book deals with large-scale staged events in mainland China and dives deeper into the discourse of power and media politics behind them. The Shanghai Expo, the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony and the PRC anniversary parade are among the high-profile spectacles analyzed by Schneider as vehicles through which China’s leadership communicates its ideologies to the people. This work is interesting for anyone in China studies interested in media, propaganda, and politics, but also for those outside of China studies who would like to get a better understanding of visual political communication and discourse analysis.

Florian Schneider is on Twitter @schneiderfa77.

Get this book: Staging China: The Politics of Mass Spectacle

 

#39 ● The Other Digital China: Nonconfrontational Activism on the Social Web

By Jing Wang, Harvard University Press 2019

In present-day China, there is a large group of social media users and agents who are finding ways to express discontent online without directly confronting state authority. Jing Wang, a scholar at MIT and an activist in China, argues that there are many ways in which online activism is taking place in China’s social media environment – yet there is often a onedimensional of Chinese activism and social media users as if they’re either ‘brainwashed’ or ‘dissidents.’ In this work, Jing shows the multidimensionality of activism on the Chinese internet and tracks its transformations.

Get via Amazon: The Other Digital China: Nonconfrontational Activism on the Social Web

 

CHINESE FICTION

 

#40 ● A Hero Born: The Definitive Edition (Legends of the Condor Heroes 1)

By Jin Yong, translated by Anna Holmwood,

Hong Kong martial arts novelist Louis Cha ‘Jin Yong’ (1924-2018) is probably the world’s most popular Chinese writer. His success is often compared to that of writers such as JRR Tolkien. His wuxia novels gave rise to their own entertainment industry, generating movies, TV adaptations, video games, and graphic novels. A Hero Born is the first book of Jin’s 12-volume epic Legends of the Condor Heroes, originally published in the late 1950s. Blending history and fantasy, the story is set in 13th-century China and follows the trials and tribulations of its hero, Guo Jing, from birth to adolescence.

Now – after just two of Jin Yong’s works were previously released in English translation – the entire Legends of the Condor Heroes series is being translated and published by MacLehose Press. A Hero Born is the first to have come out.

Get the book: A Hero Born: The Definitive Edition (Legends of the Condor Heroes, 1)
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#41 ● Stories of the Sahara

By Sanmao, translated by Mike Fu, 2020

The iconic author ‘Sanmao’ (real name Chen Maoping 陈懋平) was born in Chongqing, moved to Taiwan, studied in Spain, and settled in the Sahara. Decades after her death, Sanmao still has major appeal to social media users, who still post her quotes, photos, and audio segments on a daily basis. Although San Mao published her first book at the of 19, she did not really gain fame until the release of The Stories of the Sahara (撒哈拉的故事) in 1976, which became her most famous work. The book revolves around San Mao’s personal experiences in the Sahara desert together with her Spanish husband Jose Maria Quero Y Ruiz, whom San Mao lovingly called ‘He Xi’ (荷西) and with whom she spent six years in the desert.

Despite Sanmao’s celebrity status in China, none of her works had appeared in English translation. Until early 2020, when The Stories of the Sahara finally came out in English. The book consists of various essays, jumping back and forth over Sanmao’s time in the desert. Read more about Sanmao in our feature article here.

Get the book: Stories of the Sahara

 

#42 ● To Hold Up The Sky (Short Stories)

By Liu Cixin, 2020

This is a collection of over ten short stories by Liu Cixin, the same author as The Wandering Earth and The Three-Body Problem – the award-winning science fiction work that became a worldwide sensation and was called a “milestone in Chinese science-fiction” by The New York Times. Over the past few years, Liu has gained international fame for introducing “Chinese science fiction” to the world.

“What makes Chinese science fiction Chinese?”, Liu writes in his foreword: “For my part, I have never consciously or deliberately tried to make my sci-fi more Chinese. The stories in this anthology touch on a variety of sci-fi themes, but they all have something in common: They are about things that concern all of humanity, and the challenges and crises they depict are all things humanity faces together.”

Get the book: To Hold Up the Sky
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#43 ● Braised Pork


By An Yu, Grove Press 2020

An Yu was born and raised in Beijing, and she left at the age of 18 to study at New York University. Braised Pork is her first novel, which revolves around Jia Jia who finds her husband drowned in their bathroom tub. The young window then sets out on a journey of self-discovery that takes her from whiskey bars to the high plains of Tibet. Along the way, she crosses paths with people experiencing losses of their own, including someone who may be able to offer her the love she had long thought impossible.

Braised Pork is an original debut, which Time called an “engrossing portrait of isolation.”

Get the book: Braised Pork: A Novel
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#44 ● Broken Wings

By Jia Pingwa, translated by Nicky Harman, 2019

Jia Pingwa is one of the most prominent names in contemporary Chinese literature. In Broken Wings, he focuses on rural China and the problem of human trafficking – China has one of the highest rates of human trafficking in the world. The novel centers on Butterfly, a young woman abducted and sold into a “marriage” in a mountainous village. The story follows her struggle to keep herself together while being imprisoned and abused.

Get: Broken Wings by Jia Pingwa

#45 ● Strange Beasts of China

By Yan Ge, translated by Jeremy Tiang, Tilted Axis Press 2020

In a fictional industrial Chinese town called Yong’an, an amateur cryptozoologist goes in search of marvelous spirits and monsters, some strongly resembling humans. Each chapter of Yan Ge’s novel introduces a new creature. While documenting the stories of the beasts of Yong’an, the cryptozoologist discovers more about herself.

Get: Strange Beasts of China

 

#46 ● China Dream

By Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew, 2018

Exiled author Ma Jian has written great works, including Red Dust, Stick Out Your Tongue, and Beijing Coma. His latest satirical work China Dream is about a corrupt senior official in a provincial Chinese city who struggles with his memories of the Cultural Revolution.

Get: China Dream

 

#47 ● Broken Stars: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation

By Ken Liu (ed), Tor Books 2019

This volume contains sixteen short stories with a wide variety of styles from China’s groundbreaking science fiction writers, edited and translated by award-winning author Ken Liu.

Buy here: Broken Stars: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation

 

FOR THE KIDS

 

#48 ● Gobi: A Little Dog with a Big Heart

by Dion Leonard, illustrations by Liza Manuzak, 2017

In 2016, What’s on Weibo covered the story of the Australian runner Dion Leonard who found a best friend in a stray dog who joined him on his 155-mile marathon across China; the dog even stayed with the runner at night and never left his side. Determined to bring his loyal friend back home with him to the UK (Leonard is based in Edinburgh), Gobi started his lengthy quarantine process when the heartwarming story took a new turn for the worse: the little dog suddenly went missing in Urumqi. What followed was an intense search that was covered by all international media, and with dozes of Chinese volunteers ready to help and find this little dog in a city of 3,5 million people.

In Finding Gobi, Leonard tells the incredible story of this mission impossible that eventually had a happy ending that had everyone cheering. The book Finding Gobi – The True Story of a Little Dog and an Incredible Journey was published in 2017, and now there is also a children’s version and a picture board book for the littlest ones which makes a nice gift for kids who can read and then the youngest kids. (Tip for those studying Chinese! Finding Gobi was also translated into Chinese and came out in 2018. This book, 寻找 Gobi, is a fun read and suitable for upper-intermediate and advanced learners of Chinese.)

Get the book: Gobi: A Little Dog with a Big Heart (picture book)
Young Reader’s Edition (2017): Finding Gobi: Young Reader’s Edition: The True Story of One Little Dog’s Big Journey
Get the original edition (2017): Finding Gobi: A Little Dog with a Very Big Heart

 

#49 ● Doctor Li and the Crown-Wearing Virus

By Francesca Cavallo, Undercats 2020

This children’s book was created to combat the rising Anti-Asian sentiment at the start of the pandemic. Writer Francesco Cavallo wanted to let kids around the world know that the first hero of the pandemic was a Chinese doctor named Doctor Li Wenliang who first raised the alarm that a novel coronavirus was spreading in Wuhan. This beautifully illustrated book is about a smart 7-year-old, May, who learns about Doctor Li’s courage and, inspired by his example, takes action in her community to cultivate hope, resilience and positivity through a difficult time.

Get: Doctor Li and the Crown-wearing Virus

 

#50 ● My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder

Story and illustration by Nie Jun, translation by Edward Gauvin, 2018

This is a graphic novel, a manga-style illustrated storybook, that follows little Beijing girl Yu’er and her grandpa. They live in a Beijing hutong neighborhood full of big personalities. There’s a story around every corner, and each day has a hint of magic. The book has some beautiful sketches that anyone who loves Beijing will appreciate – more than a comic book, this is a piece of art. Although the book is suitable for kids (age 7 and older), adults with a love for Beijing and its charming old neighborhoods will definitely also love this cute book.

Get it here: My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder

 

There’s so much reading to do! Where to start?

There are many books in the list above focusing on many different topics, so it all depends on the areas you want to explore the most.

We’ll share some of our personal favorites.

They include Rana Mitter’s Good War and Helen Zia’s Last Boat out of Shanghai in the history section; Wang’s Blockchain Chicken Farm and Brennan’s Attention Factory in the tech category; Strangio’s In the Dragon’s Shadow and Roberts’ The Myth of Chinese Capitalism in the popular/focus sections, and lastly, Schneider’s Staging China and Wang’s The Other Digital China in the China Studies section.

 
EXTRA MENTIONS
 

We can’t fit them all in one list but we’d also really like to point out the following new books since they’re worth it!

Inconvenient Memories – A Personal Account of the Tiananmen Square Incident and the China Before and After by Anna Wang, Purple Pegasus Inc 2019

Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World, by Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg, Oneworld Publications 2020

Mao’s Third Front: The Militarization of Cold War China by Covell F. Meyskens, Cambridge University Press 2020

China’s Revolutions in the Modern World: A Brief Interpretive History by Rebecca E. Karl, Verso 2020

Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai, by James Carter, WW Norton & Co 2020

The Book of Shanghai: A City in Short Fiction, Jin Li & Dai Congrong (eds), Comma Press 2020

An American Bum in China: Featuring the Bumblingly Brilliant Escapades of Expatriate Matthew Evans, by Tom Carter, illustrations John Dobson, Camphor Press 2019

And lastly, we did not include travel books here, but for those planning to travel to China and looking for the right travel book:

Travel to China: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go, by Josh Summers, edited by Leeanne Hendrick, Go West Media 2019

Happy reading!

By Manya Koetse

Enjoy this article and like to help keep What’s on Weibo going? Please consider donating to the site.

This is not a sponsored post. When you purchase an independently reviewed book through our site, we earn a very small affiliate commission at zero extra cost to you – it helps us in maintaining this site. Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

Continue Reading
2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: 50 of the Best New Books on China for the Holidays and Winter 2020/2021 – What’s on Weibo – 9ja.org

  2. Avatar

    Stef

    January 5, 2021 at 10:06 pm

    What a great reading list for the new year

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Backgrounder

More Than Just a Visit: Explaining the Chinese ‘Cuànfǎng’

‘Cuànfǎng’ became a popular word on Chinese social media and in official Chinese discourse this year. But what is it?

Jin Luo

Published

on

By

Since Pelosi’s stopover in Taiwan, the word ‘cuànfǎng’ has been all over Chinese social media to refer to this controversial visit. But ‘cuànfǎng’ is more than just ‘visiting’ alone. Jin Luo explains.

It was a sleepless night for many Chinese people when U.S. House Speaker Pelosi flew to Taiwan on August 2nd of 2022. A new Chinese word created in recent years, cuànfǎng (窜访) appeared in the official statement that was issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry at 11 pm that night, and subsequently it appeared all over social media.

Meanwhile, a pop song released more than 30 years ago titled “Tonight, Are You Coming or Not” (“今夜你会不会来”) suddenly became a Weibo hot topic before it was taken offline. What is this word lost in translation, and why did people suddenly get nostalgic over an old romantic song?

 
Cuànfǎng: A ‘Sneaky Visit’
 

Here is the original wording in Chinese and the official translation to English from the statement of the Chinese Foreign Ministry on the evening on 2 August:

In disregard of China’s strong opposition and diplomatic discontent, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi visited China’s Taiwan region” (“美国国会众议长佩洛西不顾中方强烈反对和严正交涉,窜访中国台湾地区.”) The word ‘visited’ in Chinese that is used here is “cuànfǎng” 窜访.

While the English verb “visit” is a neutral word by itself, the Chinese “cuànfǎng” 窜访 has much stronger connotations. According to the Wiktionary, the word is a derogatory, officialese way to say “to visit.” But it is not an easy word to translate, as there is no direct equivalent in English, and both the literal and implied meaning of the word need to be understood.

Cuànfǎng is actually a compound word: cuàn 窜 refers to fleeing, escaping, hiding, or running away; fǎng 访 refers to inquiring, seeking, or visiting.

Cuan as a compound character (Sohu).

To make matters more complicated, cuàn by itself is also a compound character. It is written as ‘竄’ in traditional Chinese: the top radical ‘穴’ means ‘hole,’ and the lower part is the character ‘鼠’ which means ‘mouse.’ The character, having the shape of a mouse hiding in a hole, therefore has the meaning of ‘hiding’ and ‘escaping.’

The origins of the character ‘cuan’ explained, image via Sohu.com.

The mouse or rat is an animal that is more often associated with negative things in Chinese culture. They are often considered sneaky, dirty, running around everywhere, and able to reproduce quickly. With mice so often carrying a negative association, cuàn ‘窜’ also refers to a kind of hiding and escaping that is negative or objectionable.

The second character fǎng 访 is a neutral word that simply means “to visit.”

At the New York Times, Chris Buckley captured the underlying meaning of this word in writing: “The Chinese word used in the official statements for ‘visit’ — cuanfang — connotes a sneaky or illicit encounter, not an aboveboard meeting.”

 
The Evolution of Cuànfǎng
 

Although it is a relatively new word, cuànfǎng already existed before the Pelosi incident and was not created in light of this controversial visit.

Since the word’s first appearance, translators have had some difficulties in properly translating the term into different languages.

Research papers in translation studies and international relations in China suggested that cuànfǎng is a “new derogatory term invented in recent years, specifically for the purpose of maintaining national security and unity, and condemning and exposing the national separatists” and “demonstrated the big wisdom of Chinese diplomatic discourse users; vividly described the image of the separatists, that they go on the run sneakily, just like thieves and mice” (source, in Chinese).

Other sources interpret it as “the unjust, improper visit conducted in order to reach hidden political agenda, to agitate and peddle the separatist ideas,” and:

1. You went somewhere where you were not supposed to go;
2. The visit was not accepted or welcomed by the (Chinese) government;
3. The purpose is to shake justice and create conflicts
” (source, in Chinese).

Cuàn was mainly meant to add an emotional aspect to the term and shows the contempt of the person who uses it.

Image via Wainao.

The word was first prominently used in Chinese official discourse when the Foreign Ministry in 2006 referred to the Dalai Lama’s visit to Israel. Since cuàn has the meaning of fleeing, it is especially suitable when referring to political dissidents who went into exile overseas.

Since then, it has been used again for further visits of the Dalai Lama to other countries (US 2014, Mongolia 2017), as well as for Rebiya Kadeer, Lee Teng-hui, Shinzo Abe, Joshua Wong, and others.

Although it is clear that the term is not only applied to Chinese dissidents, it is generally applied to those who conducted visits that were perceived to be hostile towards China, with Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit serving as a clear example.

Since the Dalai Lama has been living outside of China and conducted numerous visits to other countries, cuànfǎng was previously mostly used in this context until Pelosi’s visit, which ended up being good for more than 80% of the search results of cuànfǎng on the Chinese Foreign Ministry website.

If cuànfǎng is a word with such strong emotional connotations, why was it simply translated as “visit” in official English-language documents? Some say it is because of the mere difficulty to translate this word, while others say it is the routine sanitization of English translations by the Foreign Ministry.

David Gitter, president of the Center for Advanced China Research based in Washington D.C., said that the external goal of Beijing can be different from the internal goal towards the nationalist domestic audiences, and that “more accurate yet counterproductive translations … [often] breach normal diplomatic language.”

At this point, it remains up for debate whether this is a linguistic constraint or a political choice.

 
Tonight, Are You Coming or Not?
 

While the term cuànfǎng has been widely used in official discourse, it has also become a popular online word. Chinese netizens seemed to be as passionate as the Chinese Foreign Ministry – and perhaps even more so –  in condemning Pelosi’s Taiwan visit and demanding radical countermeasures.

Chinese netizens were watching the entire event unfold with mixed feelings – on the one hand, there was a strong sense of patriotism and anger, on the other hand, the massive attention to the event also turned it into something that was almost as exciting as a celebrity drama.

On that specific evening of Pelosi’s nearing arrival in Taipei, Chinese netizens were doing two things: watching real-time tracking of Pelosi’s flight, and listening to a classic pop song released in 1991 titled “Tonight, Are You Coming or Not” (今夜你会不会来) (video). Back in the previous century, Hong Kong singer Leon Lai expressed the emotions of someone waiting for his lover to arrive in this melodic song, singing:

“你是否愿意为我停留

Would you be willing to stay for me

今夜你来告诉我

Tonight, you tell me

你是否愿意陪我走过我的梦

Are you willing to accompany me through my dream?

我的所有

My everything

(Chorus)

今夜你会不会来

Tonight, are you coming or not?

你的爱还在不在

Is your love still there or not?

如果你的心已经离开

If your heart has left already

我宁愿没有未来

I would rather not have a future

今夜你会不会来

Tonight, are you coming or not?

你的爱还在不在

Is your love still there or not?

别让我所有的等待

Don’t let all my wait

变成一片空白

Go all in vain

 

In the middle of the uncertainty about whether Pelosi would come to Taiwan or not, this song served as entertainment for netizens and became a “collective carnival” of people jokingly applying the song to Pelosi, turning her into a ‘mysterious lover’ that might or might not show up. (Later, some were unable to play the song anymore, although it remains unclear if this was due to geographic restrictions or because the song was actually taken offline by censors.)

“Taiwan has been preparing for your cuànfǎng ‘sneaky visit’, are you coming or not tonight?” some netizens wrote, combining the title song with the cuànfǎng term. In doing so, Pelosi became both a ‘sneaky mouse’ and ‘mysterious lover’, both a target of condemnation and subject of fun and banter.

All jokes and cuànfǎng references aside, Pelosi did end up realizing that visit, and its aftermath, including a second Taiwan visit by a U.S. congressional delegation, has had a substantial impact on U.S.-China relations that were already strained before the move.

Will there be more cuànfǎng to Taiwan? It’s likely not an issue of if, but when. For next time, at least we’ve got cuànfǎng covered.

 

By Jin Luo 

Featured image by Alexa from Pixabay

 

Get the story behind the hashtag. Subscribe to What’s on Weibo here to receive our weekly newsletter and get access to our latest articles:

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.
 

Continue Reading

Backgrounder

A Baby for Sale, a Mother Chained Up – How Chinese Netizens Are Pushing Specific Social Issues to the Forefront

The stories of Liu Xuezhou and the Xuzhou mother both developed in real-time while netizens pushed them to the front page, making them too big for state media to ignore.

Manya Koetse

Published

on

It only takes a spark to start a wildfire. From Liu Xuezhou to the Xuzhou mother, China’s online spheres have seen multiple major trending topics this year that started with one short video and then caused a social media storm with netizens highlighting and amplifying specific stories to address bigger social problems.

 
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China, visit Yi Magazin: WE…WEI…WHAT? Manya Koetse erklärt das chinesische Internet.
 

It was December 6th of 2021 when a teenage boy posted a short video on Chinese social media. With a straight back, clear voice, and serious face, he looked directly into the camera and said:

Hello everyone, I am Liu Xuezhou and I am looking for my biological parents. I was born in between 2004 and 2006 and around the age of three months old, I was bought by my parents, my adoptive parents, in Datong in Shanxi. I am healthy. I don’t have any congenital physical defects or diseases; I don’t have any obvious birthmarks or scars. At the age of four, my adoptive parents passed away due to an accident. I am now living in Nangong, Xingtai, in Hebei Province. I study in Shijiazhuang. I wish I’d found my biological parents sooner, to make up for what I missed. I hope you can help me spread my message so that those who suspect they might be my parents can see it.

This video would be the start of a story followed by millions of Chinese netizens. It is the story of Liu Xuezhou (刘学州). The search for his parents and his death became one of the biggest topics on China’s social media of the past months.

Why did the tragic story of one teenage boy capture the entire nation? There are multiple reasons. By posting his call for help in finding his biological parents, Liu involved Chinese netizens in his journey from the start, allowing them to follow his story in real-time through his social media and news reports. Another aspect of Liu’s story is the resilience he showed despite his tough life, something that many admired about him.

But more importantly, Liu’s story is part of a recent broader interest in the stories behind the widespread problem of trafficking in women and children in China, with more people raising awareness on the tragedies caused by these practices and demanding justice for the victims.

Besides Liu’s story, the story of a Xuzhou mother-of-eight being tied up and living in abominable conditions in a shed also dominated online discussions for weeks on end.

 

Liu’s Story: Sold, Orphaned, Abandoned

 

After Liu Xuezhou posted the aforementioned video on Douyin, the Chinese version of the popular TikTok short video platform, it soon went viral and various Chinese news sites started reporting on Liu’s search for his biological family.

Liu’s resilience was impressive. In interviews, he said that his story did not define him and that he was determined to make something of his life. Since 2018, the young Liu was working to earn money while also going to school. His plan was to be admitted to university.

Liu Xuezhou, picture posted on his Weibo account.

After his adoptive parents died in a firework explosion, Liu was raised by his grandparents and was sent to boarding school. Liu’s childhood was not a happy one. Being so young without parents, he was a target of school bullies and had to change schools at least four times until, by grade six, he had finally found a school where he could thrive.

Many people supported Liu and wanted to help the teenage boy, who was thought to have been kidnapped as a baby and then bought by his adoptive parents through an intermediary at a Datong hotel for 30,000 yuan ($4735).

Although Liu’s birth certificate said he was born in September of 2005, nobody was sure how old Liu actually was, and his grandparents did not remember the details surrounding his adoption. By late 2021, as a 16-something-year-old, Liu felt it was time to get some answers and find his biological parents. How did he end up being adopted? Was he abducted? Were his parents still out there searching for him?

Through his own efforts – sped up by finding his vaccination records – and with some help of the police, Liu was able to trace down his biological parents. On the evening of December 15, Liu sent a message to a journalist reporting on the case: “I found my mum and dad.”

His parents’ story, however, was not what Liu had expected at all. After DNA tests confirmed that they were in fact his biological parents, Liu was ready to meet them. But what was supposed to be a happy reunion turned out to be a bitter disappointment.

Liu’s biological parents, who were living in Datong, were not together anymore. Liu soon learned that he had not been abducted as a child, but that he had been sold on purpose by his father. His parents were unmarried when they had him, and Liu’s father turned out to have used the money they earned by selling their baby to marry Liu’s birth mother. They married and had another son, but then ended up divorcing. Both remarried again, and Liu’s father even got divorced two more times after that.

Although some of the unhappy circumstances surrounding Liu’s reunion with his parents came out through his posts on social media throughout January of this year, most of the details surrounding his situation only became clear when Liu posted a farewell letter on his Weibo account on January 24th, just a few minutes past midnight.

Liu Xuezhou’s last Weibo post including a farewell letter.

Titled “Born with little, return with nothing,” Liu posted a lengthy letter explaining his situation.

In this letter, Liu said that besides being sold as a child and becoming an orphan at the age of four, he was also severely bullied by classmates and molested by a teacher at school. His aunt, whom he loved as a mother, also left him behind after she moved away due to a broken marriage.

As he spiraled into depression, Liu felt a spark of hope when he saw the news about Sun Zhuo (孙卓), whose story became one of the major trending news stories of 2021. In 2007, when Sun was only four, he was stolen off the street by a human trafficker. His biological parents never gave up hope they would find their son again and sacrificed everything to be able to fund their search efforts. The Chinese film Dearest (亲爱的) was partly based on their story.

After a years-long search, Sun was found in 2021 due to the help of authorities and face recognition technology that helped trace the person suspected of abducting him. In an unexpected twist, Sun stated that he would prefer to stay with his adoptive parents, who had raised him for a decade. The story triggered many online discussions and raised more awareness on the issue of the trafficking of children in China in times of the country’s one-child policy. Sun’s biological father spoke to the media saying: “For 2022, my biggest wish is that all the abducted children can finally be found.”

Image of the reunion of Sun Zhuo with his parents, who never stopped searching for him (image via Sohu).

It was Sun Zhuo’s story that inspired Liu to search for his own parents, and it was also Sun Zhuo’s story that brought more attention for Liu’s initial video, which struck a chord with many who hoped that he could also be reunited with his parents and actually stay with them.

Liu described how his biological father did not seem happy when Liu first contacted him, and seemed reluctant to meet. His biological father eventually did come to see him, but their communication afterward was not smooth. When his father told Liu that he was sold as a baby so that he could pay for the bride price to marry Liu’s mother, Liu was heartbroken and could not sleep for several days: he was not kidnapped, and his parents never searched for him.

Liu and his biological father on December 26, 2021.

His mother also was not elated that her biological son had found his way back to her. Liu felt unwanted, again, and was also searching for a home to live and was not sure who to turn to anymore. After he asked his biological father for help in buying or renting a place to live, he was blocked on WeChat. Liu then decided to take his parents to court.

Sharing screenshots on social media of the developments between him and his parents, Liu was condemned and bullied by netizens, who accused him of only wanting to find his biological parents for financial gains.

It was all too much for the teenage boy. In his farewell letter, he expressed the hope that the traffickers and biological parents would be punished for their deeds. Liu was later found to have committed suicide at a beach in the city of Sanya, and could no longer be rescued. Liu passed away within a month after meeting his biological parents at the age of just 15 years old.

By now, Liu’s farewell letter has been shared approximately 174,000 times on Weibo, it was ‘liked’ over 2,4 million times and has received thousands of comments.

The topic of Liu’s death exploded on social media and led to national outrage. Many people sympathized with the boy and were angry at all who failed him: “Poor child, abandoned and sold off by his parents, bullied and humiliated by his schoolmates, molested and discriminated by his teacher, cyberbullied by keyboard warriors. Now he’s dead!”

The injustice of Liu’s situation – starting with how he was sold as a child – is what angered people most. China Digital Times recently described how on the Weibo page of Dr. Li Wenliang, one of the doctors who raised the alarm about the coronavirus outbreak, many people also mention Liu Xuezhou. Dr. Li Wenliang was one of the eight so-called ‘whistleblowers’ who tried to warn his colleagues about the Wuhan virus outbreak in late 2019, but was censored and reprimanded by local police for making “false comments.” He later became infected with the virus himself while working at the Wuhan Central Hospital and passed away on February 7th of 2020, sparking a wave of anger and sadness on social media.

Illustration that went viral on social media at the time of Dr. Li’s death (read more here).

Over the past two years, Dr. Li’s Weibo page has become a digital Wailing Wall where people send little messages to remember Dr. Li, tell about their own anxieties and worries, but also address social injustices. As recorded by China Digital Times, one among thousands of comments said:

Two years ago today, I had a sleepless night because of you, and my Weibo account once got shut down because I posted something about you. Over the past two years, I’ve often wondered: will this world become a better place? But between the Liu Xuezhou incident and the woman in Xuzhou with eight kids, I’ve been disappointed time and time again. If you happen to see Liu Xuezhou, please be good to him.

Looking at Dr. Li’s Weibo account today, it is not just Liu Xuezhou who is brought up by commenters; ‘the woman in Xuzhou’ is also mentioned by dozens of people as someone experiencing injustice. But who is she?

 

The Chained-Up Mother in Xuzhou

 

In late January of 2022, right around the same time when Liu Xuezhou was one of the biggest topics on Chinese social media, a TikTok video showing a woman chained up in a shed went viral online and triggered massive outrage with thousands of people demanding answers about the woman’s circumstances.

The video, filmed by a local vlogger in the village of Huankou in Xuzhou, showed how the woman was kept in a dirty hut without a door in the freezing cold. She did not even wear a coat, and she seemed confused and unable to express herself.

Other TikTok videos that came out around the same time showed how the woman’s husband, a man by the name of Dong Zhimin (董志民), was playing and talking with their eight children in the family home right next to the hut where the mother was confined.

The video caused a storm on social media. Many netizens worried about the woman’s circumstances. Why was she chained up? Was she a victim of human trafficking? Was she being abused? How could she have had eight babies? Was she forced to have so many children? While netizens were speculating about the case and venting their anger, Weibo shut down some of the hashtags dedicated to this topic, but the topic soon popped up everywhere, and people started making artworks and writing essays in light of the case.

Following public demands, local authorities started looking into the case. An initial statement by Feng County, where the village of Huankou is located, was issued on January 28 and it said that the woman, named Yang (杨), married her husband in 1998 and that there was no indication that she was a victim of human trafficking.

The woman was dealing with mental problems and would display sudden violent outbursts, beating children and older people. The family allegedly thought it was best to separate her from the family home during these episodes, letting her stay chained up in a small hut next to the house.

The first statement raised more questions than it answered and more people, including influential Weibo bloggers and media insiders, started investigating the case. Meanwhile, it became clear that husband Dong Zhimin was giving interviews to other vloggers flocking to Huankou. Besides talking about his eight children (seven sons, one daughter) as future providers for the family, he also used his newly-acquired ‘fame’ to make money through social media. This only led to more online anger about Dong exploiting his wife and children.

Screenshots from the original Douyin (TikTok) video.

As the social media storm intensified, more official statements ensued. On January 30, Feng County local officials responded to the controversy in a second statement, in which the Xuzhou mother was identified as Yang *Xia (杨某侠) who allegedly once was “a beggar on the streets” in the summer of 1998 when she was taken in by Dong family and ended up marrying their 30-something son Dong Zhimin.

Local officials did not properly check and verify Yang’s identity information when registering the marriage certificate and the local family planning department also made errors in implementing birth control measures and following up with the family. The statement said that Yang had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was now receiving treatment.

A third, fourth, and even fifth statement issued by authorities on February 7th, 10th, and 23rd confirmed what many on Weibo had suspected all along, namely that Yang had indeed been a victim of human trafficking. Xuzhou authorities said their investigation had brought them to the village of Yagu in Yunnan, a place that was mentioned on Yang’s marriage certificate.

Yang was identified as Xiaohuamei (小花梅), born and raised in Yagu. Yang’s DNA had been compared to that of the family of Xiaohuamei, and the DNA match confirmed that Yang was indeed Xiaohuamei. According to the statements, Xiaohuamei married and moved to another city in 1994, but she divorced and returned to her village two years later, which is when she allegedly also showed signs of mental illness.

Her parents, now deceased, then allegedly ordered a female fellow villager to take their daughter to Jiangsu to get married there. According to the woman, she took Xiaohuamei with her on a train from Yunnan to Jiangsu’s Donghai, but she allegedly ‘went missing’ shortly after arrival. The woman never reported her as missing to the police and she never notified the family.

That woman, along with another man and Dong Zhimin, are now held criminally responsible for illegal detainment and human trafficking. Xiaohuamei was reportedly sold to a man in Donghai for 5,000 yuan ($790) in 1998. Though Xiaohuamei managed to escape, she was sold twice again, eventually ending up with the Dong family.

One of the many images shared on Chinese social media to raise awareness of the case of the Xuzhou mother and other women like her.

While details surrounding the case of the ‘chained Xuzhou mother of eight’ are still being discussed on Chinese social media, it has become clear that by now, ‘Yang’ has come to represent many more women like her. Over the past few weeks, the stories of other women who also might be a victim of human trafficking have surfaced, and the public outcry demanding justice for trafficked women is ongoing.

 

One Social Media Spark Starting a Wildfire

 

Both in the case of Liu Xuezhou and the Xuzhou mother, it should be noted that their stories initially did not catch the public’s attention because official news media reported them, but because of first-hand videos being posted on TikTok (Douyin) and then being picked up and shared by bigger accounts.

Both Liu’s video and the short video featuring the mother of eight were posted on accounts that were not necessarily very popular: starting as a small spark in an online environment with over 900 million social media users, they were shared, commented on, and then spread like wildfire.

Both stories developed in real-time while netizens were following the case, both stories eventually became too big for Chinese state media to ignore, and both Liu and Yang highlighted bigger social issues in contemporary China, mainly those relating to human trafficking.

Since these cases went viral, there has been a heightened focus on the problem of human trafficking, which mostly occurs in China’s poorer areas with weak governance. The trafficking of especially women and children has various purposes, including forced marriage and illegal adoption in areas where there is a shortage of women (along with a preference for baby boys).

China Daily recently reported that lawmakers and advisers are now pushing for heavier punishment for human trafficking crimes, suggesting that the current penalties imposed on the buyers of women and children are too weak; the maximum prison sentence for those who purchase abducted women and children is three years.

In the case of the Xuzhou mother, there has been online censorship but the ongoing intense public outrage eventually did lead to higher-level research into the case. The mother was rescued from her terrible situation, the human traffickers involved are being held responsible, and so are 17 officials, who will be punished by authorities for their wrongdoings in the case.

As for Liu Xuezhou, his adoptive family members have recently filed a request at the Sanya Public Security Bureau to launch another investigation into his case. Their request was accepted on February 23rd, with multiple people being suspected of criminal offenses, eventually leading to his death. On Weibo, many people are now demanding punishment for Liu’s biological parents.

In late January of this year, following the tragic ending to Liu’s story, Chinese state media1 emphasized how the widespread attention for these kinds of stories in the social media era is also changing how government agencies should interact with the public.

According to Dr. Liu Leming, associate professor at East China University’s Political Science faculty, government agencies need to follow up and respond more quickly to social incidents like these in the internet era: “When public issues emerge, people who are involved in social problems or incidents want to know, more than anything, whether their requests have been seen and who will handle their concerns.”

In light of these recent stories, the public is happy that actions have been taken, but they are not satisfied with how these cases were handled. Many argue that authorities have failed in being transparent, that local governments have not done enough to prevent these cases from happening, and that China should do more to put an end to human trafficking.

And so, they are still posting the stories of children like Liu and women like Xiaohuamei to keep raising awareness and to keep pressuring local authorities and lawmakers to take more action to eradicate these practices.

As Liu is no longer alive and Xiaohuamei, still hospitalized, cannot defend herself, Chinese netizens keep raising their voices for them. In doing so, they have not just impacted how authorities dealt with these specific cases, but they are also changing how cases such as these will be handled in the future.

One Weibo user discussing Liu and the Xuzhou mother wrote: “We need to get to the bottom of these kinds of stories: who is to blame, who made mistakes, and where do we go from here?”

In the meantime, online posts, videos, and artworks honor both Liu and Xiaohuamei, so that their stories will not be forgotten. “Dear little one, springtime has come,” one among thousands of messages still flooding Liu Xuezhou’s Weibo page says: “You have endured too many things that you should have never experienced. It should have been us, the adults, taking care of these things for you. You please go and rest now, we will finish the rest for you.”

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

For information and support on mental health and suicide, international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

1 Cao Yin and Li Yang. 2022. “Policymakers, Lawmakers Respond to Opinion Voiced Online.” China Daily Hong Kong, January 28, Page 1-2.

Featured image by Ama for Yi Magazin.

This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Facebook

Contribute

Got any tips? Or want to become a contributor or intern at What's on Weibo? Email us as at info@whatsonweibo.com.
Advertisement

Become a member

Get the story behind the hashtag. Subscribe to What's on Weibo here to receive our weekly newsletter and get access to our latest articles.    

Support What’s on Weibo

What's on Weibo is 100% independent. Will you support us? Your support means we can remain independent and keep reporting on the latest China trends. Every contribution, however big or small, powers our website. Support us from as little as $1 here.

Popular Reads