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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.

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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 editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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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. Stef

    January 5, 2021 at 10:06 pm

    What a great reading list for the new year

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Backgrounder

Digital Art or Visual Propaganda? China’s New Wave of Online Political Satire

Political, patriotic art mocking Western leaders is welcomed by social media users and propagated by Chinese officials.

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Image by What's on Weibo, highlighting various digital artworks by @乌合麒麟, @半桶老阿汤.

A specific genre of political satire has been gaining popularity on Chinese social media lately, with some images even making international headlines. While political satire mocking Chinese authorities is generally soon taken offline, these online works are brought to the limelight by Chinese official channels. Is it grassroots digital art? Or is it official visual propaganda?

When the parody image ‘The Last G7’ went viral on Chinese social media in June of 2021, it made international headlines for insulting the G7 summit, the West and Christianity, ridiculing ‘double-faced’ Australia, bashing Japan over Fukushima water, and offending India’s COVID19 situation. There was enough satirical symbolism and detail in the image to offend virtually any country that was -implicitly- portrayed in it.

Some media headers suggested the image was created by Chinese state media, others said it was done by ‘Chinese trolls’ or Chinese authorities.

The image was actually created by a Chinese computer graphics illustrator from Beijing who is active on social media, where he also sells his digital art online.

Online political satire in China has been around since the early start of social media in China and is often seen as a form of online activism. In media articles and academic literature focused on online political satire in China, the phenomenon is often discussed within the framework of censorship and dissidence, as a practice of resistance against Chinese authorities. Political satire can exist in many forms, from funny word jokes to catchy songs, from viral gifs to sophisticated cartoons.

Renowned Chinese political cartoon artists such as Badiucao (巴丢草), Hexie Farm (蟹农场), Kuang Biao (邝飚), and Rebel Pepper (变态辣椒) were previously active on Chinese social media platform Weibo, and their accounts were shut down dozens of times before publishing their work within China’s online environment became virtually impossible.

These artists are known for drawing cartoons that criticize and mock Chinese leaders, the central government, or their policies. Their work fits the narrative of online political satire being used as a weapon to resist authoritarian rule in spite of the highly censored online climate they exist in (Shao & Liu 2019, 517).

What exactly is political satire? It is “a specific form of criticism that ridicules political figures, events, or phenomenon” (ibid). Visual political satire is especially relevant within the context of Chinese social media because images allow for a creative form of expression, an outlet to critique political events, that is harder to detect by online censors than the use of potentially sensitive words and terms.

But what if political satire does not critique the Chinese party-state at all? What if it actually does not conflict with party ideology, or even suits the narratives that are propagated by Chinese officials?

 

Recent Examples of Chinese Political Satire on Social Media

 

In late December of 2020, a photoshopped image of an Australian soldier murdering a child stirred controversy on social media and beyond. The soldier, who is holding a knife to the throat of a child, is standing on an Australian flag, the shadows of bodies can be discerned lying on the floor. The image – which alluded to the report regarding unlawful killings of Afghan civilians and prisoners by Australian troops – was shared on Twitter by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian. The controversial post led to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanding an apology from China.

The computer graphic by Wuheqilin that was shared on Twitter by a Chinese official.

In January of 2021, around the time of Biden’s inauguration, another satirical work was shared on Twitter by a senior producer of CGTN (@Peijin_Zhang) and others. Like the earlier image, this political satire was also full of details and symbolism. It shows American President Biden holding a bomb in front of a White House background, while Trump is taken away by officers and Kamala Harris is standing by an open grave reserved for Biden – shovel in hand. The text underneath the image says: “What a paradise of freedom, democracy, and sweet air.”

Artwork titled ‘失乐园·末日余晖’ ‘Paradise Lost-Afterglow’ created by ‘半桶老阿汤’ aka ‘Half Bottle Of Old Soup.’

At the time of the online controversy over the Xinjiang cotton ban by the BCI in March of 2021, another digital illustration titled “Blood Cotton Initiative” made headlines for featuring (BBC) journalists in KKK-style hoods interviewing a scarecrow in a field, cotton-picking slaves in the background.

The image is a response to the allegations of forced labor and human rights abuses in Xinjiang, which various Chinese officials and state media have condemned as being ‘false,’ ‘manipulative,’ and ‘hypocritical’ in light of many western countries’ own human rights records. The image was shared on Twitter by, among others, the official account of China Daily Asia (@Chinadaily_CH) and China Daily Hong Kong (@CDHKedition).

“Blood Cotton Initiative” (血棉花) by Chinese artist Wuheqilin.

In June of 2021, another political satire made headlines, as mentioned earlier in this article. It was the image mocking the G7 members who issued a summit communique that called on China to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms,” especially in relation to Xinjiang and Hong Kong autonomy, and also pushed for a new inquiry into the origin of the Covid-19 virus (link to pdf). The image, which is a parody of The Last Supper mural painting, is titled ‘The Last G7’ (最后的G7).

Image ‘The Last G7’ created by ‘半桶老阿汤’ aka ‘Half Bottle Of Old Soup.’

The image shows various animals sitting around the table, supposedly to represent Germany (left), Australia, Japan, Italy, US, UK, Canada, France, and India. Behind them are oxygen tanks, while the elephant on the right (India) is still receiving IV treatment and is not participating in the table talks. The Akita dog (Japan) is serving a green drink from a radioactive tea cattle while the bald eagle in the middle (US) is turning toilet paper into money. The beaver (Canada) is tightly holding on to a Chinese doll – a reference to Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou who has been in Canada ever since she was arrested during a stopover by Canadian police in 2018. On the table, there is a cake with the Chinese flag on it. 

“Through this we can still rule the world,” the words above the image state, while the text on the wall in the image says: “We have freedom and democracy.” State newspaper Global Times shared and explained the political satire in an article on June 13.

 

The Creators Behind the Artwork

 

Recent Chinese political satire images circulating on social media have been labeled as ‘propaganda’ by many commenters on Twitter, who assume the images were originally published by Chinese state media outlets. But although these images were often shared by official (media) accounts, their creators are seemingly unaffiliated with state media.

Chinese social media has seen a surge of (CG) artists dedicated to creating patriotic art and political satire mocking Western powers. At this time, the two most noteworthy names are Wuheqilin and Bantong Laoatang.

 
‘WUHEQILIN’ 乌合麒麟
 

The aforementioned Australian piece and the ‘Blood Cotton Initiative’ image both were created by Wuheqilin (乌合麒麟), a professional computer graphic (CG) artist with over 2.8 million followers on his Weibo account, which he opened in 2009. Wuheqilin’s real name is Fu Yu (付昱, 1988) – a business owner and art director from Harbin.

Although Wuheqilin became especially famous for his controversial Australia image of November 2020, his work was featured by Chinese state media before that time. In June of 2020, Global Times (English version) called him a “Wolf Warrior artist” who “strives to use new art to spread truth and inspire patriotism.”

Wuheqilin published his first political artwork on his social media account in 2019, at the time of the Hong Kong protests. In this work, titled ‘A Pretender God,’ the artist takes a critical stance towards the demonstrators, showing them bowing to a monster-like figure resembling the Statue of Liberty.

‘A Pretender God’ by Wuheqilin.

Another one of Wuheqilin’s recent viral pieces is titled ‘G7’, an old-looking photograph that was a satirical comparison of the G7 foreign ministers to the leaders of the Eight-Nation Alliance that invaded northern China in response to the Boxer rebellion in 1900. This image was also shared and explained by Global Times.

‘G7’ by Wuqihelin.

Wuheqilin clearly focuses on showing the dark side, hypocrisy, and supposedly bad intentions of Western powers in international politics. Noteworthy enough, he often uses English phrases in his work to emphasize his point, which may suggest he also intends for his art to be noticed by media and politicians outside of China.

Although Wuheqilin is most famous for political satire mocking Western powers, he also makes non-satirical patriotic art, such as the piece he dedicated to Chinese agronomist Yuan Longping (袁隆平), China’s ‘Father of Hybrid Rice,’ who passed away in May of 2021.

“I Always Had Two Dreams” “我一直有两个梦想” by Wuheqilin.

Over the past year, Wuheqilin and his work are often praised by Chinese official media outlets. It is often shared by English-language state media, or retweeted by Chinese officials or media accounts that are active on Twitter. Together with the fact that Wuheqilin uses English in his artwork, his work has gained major attention both in- and outside of China.

 
‘HALF BOTTLE OF OLD SOUP’ 半桶老阿汤
 

The creator of ‘The Last G7’ image and the White House image is active on social media under various names. On Weibo, where he has over 39,000 followers, the artist is known as @半桶老阿汤 (Bàntǒng lǎo ā tāng). On Twitter, he has an account under the name ‘Half Bottle Of Old Soup’ (@Half_soup), a direct translation of his nickname. The artist also has a site under the name Henry Yu. His webshop is under the ‘Laoatang’ nickname, which we will use here.

Laoatang is a concept designer and computer graphic artist from Beijing. On his Weibo account, the artist has been sharing artwork by himself and others for years. Like Wuheqilin, he has an online cloud link where people can download artworks for free, but he also has a site where people can support him by buying digital art files for the small price of 10-15 yuan ($1.5-$2.5).

Like Wuheqilin, Laoatang’s artwork is also often focused on mocking the supposed hypocrisy of Western powers regarding international affairs involving China. ‘The Last G7’ was the first work by Half Soup to make (international) headlines, but he previously did many other works in response to political affairs.

His work ‘That’s What U.S. did'(‘这是你们的愚蠢行径,我们不会’) was published at the time when news over the BCI [Better Cotton Initiative] Xinjiang cotton ban over forced labor concerns made waves in China.

‘That’s What U.S. Did’ by 半桶老阿汤

The image is part of a computer graphic video that shows black slaves working in American cotton fields while singing ‘My Lord Sunshine Sunrise.’ The next scene shows how one black man is held at gunpoint by a white hooded figure, a scarecrow with a BCI logo showing in the foreground. The words “That’s what U.S. Did, Not Us!” come up while two black figures can be seen hanging from the gallows.

In a different style, Laoatang has also created various other political satire illustrations. One from June 2021 is called ‘Investigate Thoroughly! Except Here’ (‘彻查!除了这儿’). It shows members of the WHO research team standing in front of the American army biochemical lab at Fort Detrick which is closed and guarded by Biden. In the background, there’s the scenery of a happy and open Wuhan city.

‘Investigate Thoroughly! Except Here’ (‘彻查!除了这儿’) by 半桶老阿汤 / Half Bottle of Old Soup

The illustration is a response to U.S. calls for a thorough investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus in China, while a possible link between the Fort Detrick institute and the COVID19 pandemic are allegedly ignored. This image was also shared by the Communist Youth League on social media.

 
OTHERS & INTERTEXTUALITY
 

Online creators such as Wuheqilin and Laoatang move in certain Chinese social media circles of artists producing work in similar genres who share each other’s work and comment on it. At times, there is also some kind of intertextuality or connection between these artworks.

A good example of this intertextuality is the work by the artist who is active on Weibo under the name ‘钢铁时代2011’ (Gangtie Shidai 2011). In December of 2020, they published the artwork below that reflects on the international commotion involving the Australian soldier image by Wuheqilin, which was tweeted out by Chinese official Zhao Lijian.

“Damn it, they know what we’ve done” by @钢铁时代2011 [Gangtie Shidai 2011].

The image shows artist Wuheqilin holding up one of his artworks relating to the alleged Australian war crimes in Afghanistan, while Zhao Lijian is holding up the other image by Wuheqilin. In the front, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is depicted turning his back to the images, with the sentence: “Damn it, they know what we’ve done.”

During the controversy over the BCI ban on Xinjiang cotton, there was also an outpour of online (unofficial) political art. Beijing illustrator Yang Quan @插画杨权 (1990) is also among those creating online political/patriotic art. He published an image titled “Cotton is Soft, but China is Strong.”

‘Cotton is Soft, But China is Strong’, by @插画杨权.

The dog has the letters “H” and “M” coming from his bloody mouth, referring to fashion chain H&M which was one of the major Western brands publishing a statement regarding the ban on Xinjiang cotton (read more here). Again, as in most of the recent works produced by the artists in this genre, the message of the image is reinforced through a text in English, suggesting the work is also meant for an international audience to understand.

 

In Between Censorship and Propaganda

 

Propaganda is part of Chinese media, and a ‘new’ kind of propaganda has been part of Chinese social media propaganda efforts over the past few years (also see here, here, here, here).

But separated from those mainstream, more centralized propaganda efforts, the artists mentioned in this article are part of a ‘new wave’ of political satire on Chinese social media because:

– They are independent artists and/or not officially part of state media outlets or the CCP Propaganda Bureau.
– Their style is very different from official (online) propaganda posters and imagery.
– Their works are labeled as ‘art’ and have definite artworks qualities; they are unique, are made with skill and technique, and are filled with symbolism and detail.
– Their works are praised and welcomed by state media outlets and/or government officials, as these are shared and propagated through multiple official channels.
– These artists and their creations are widely celebrated and praised by Chinese social media users.

The phenomenon of artists who are unrelated to official agencies creating political art that is then used as a tool for propaganda is not unique in the history of Chinese propaganda or that of other countries, but it is very noteworthy in the context of the short history of social media in China, where political satire is often targeted at Chinese government officials and policies and therefore censored.

Perhaps you could say it is not surprising at all that the political satire we see most in Chinese social media today is directed at foreign leaders and Western powers, since any images mocking the Chinese government would be censored immediately.

But to solely interpret these political images through this one-dimensional view would not do justice to the artwork, the artists, nor to the art aficionados, since there are several influences at play within the creation of this genre.

> Digital Art & Nationalism

There are many young artists in China today who are patriotic and nationalistic, and who use art as a way to express their political views. They do so in various ways, through personal websites, social media, cloud downloads, etc, providing an alternative to official, controlled media sources. Propaganda sometimes becomes art, and art sometimes becomes propaganda. These dynamics do not automatically turn these artists into ‘Chinese trolls,’ as some foreign media labeled them.

Artists such as Wuheqilin or the aforementioned artist named Yang Quan all belong to the post-80 generation. In this current, post-Mao generation, you find a “fourth generation” of nationalism, as described by Peter Hays Gries in China’s New Nationalism. This nationalism is very much alive in China’s online environment, and it is fused with anti-western sentiment that partly builds on the “one hundred years of humiliation” of China at the hands of the West (Zhang 2012, 2). Although this generation, that grew up amid China’s rapid economic growth, did not directly experience the past humiliations upon which their nationalist narratives are constructed, this history remains central to understandings of Chinese national identity and its place in the world today (Wang 2-11).

As pointed out by Tao Zheng (2012), the articulation and promotion of nationalist views by individuals and groups independent of the state have been a significant part of Chinese online culture for many years, with several online movements and campaigns focusing on pointing out “western arrogance and prejudice.” The current wave of political digital art is just another form of expression of this type of “cyber nationalism.”

> Building Communities

Another reason why it would be too crude to simply label China’s recent online political satire as ‘propaganda’ is because it has emerged from a dynamic digital environment where netizens engage in a participatory activity of creating, sharing, commenting, recreating, connecting, etc. – and it is through these practices that the artworks become meaningful.

In ‘The Networked Practice of Online Political Satire in China’ by Guobin Yang and Min Jiang (2015), the authors argue that the sharing and circulation of online political satire in China is a “networked social practice” that is actually more important than the meaning and significance of the content itself. It is a grassroots political expression that, in their mode of unofficial network operation, could be seen as “popular mobilizations against power” (216). Yang and Jiang also emphasize the social function of political satire, where the reception is just as relevant as the production.

> A Fine Line

In the end, the question of whether these works are grassroots digital artworks or official propaganda pieces is perhaps not one of either/or: they are both. They saw the light as digital artworks and then became tools within a framework of official propaganda once they were praised, shared, and used by Chinese state media and officials to project their own strategies.

The creators of these artworks, however, walk a fine line. When their artworks no longer suit the strategic interests propagated by official channels, they are still at risk of being censored within the highly controlled digital environment they operate in. In that case, their online influence, magnified by official actors, could actually be held against them.

For now, artists such as Wuheqilin are thriving on Chinese social media. In his last post, Wuheqilin drew his own conclusion about the current state of China’s online environment, writing:

For the public intellectuals and those with vested interests who once held on to the power of speech, these are perhaps the darkest times, because their “decade-long campaign for Enlightenment has been lost.” But for ordinary Chinese netizens, for those who love this country and believe in it, we have unprecedented confidence, creativity, and cohesion. These are the best of times, and we are marching towards the brightest future.”

 

By Manya Koetse (@manyapan)

With special thanks to Piervittorio Milizia.

References

Gries, Peter Hays. 2004. China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy. Berkely and London: University of California Press.

Shao Li, Liu Dongshu. 2019. “The Road to Cynicism: The Political Consequences of Online Satire Exposure in China.” Political Studies 67(2): 517-536.

Yang, Guobin and Min Jiang. 2015. “The Networked Practice of Online Political Satire in China: Between Ritual and Resistance.” The International Communication Gazette 77(3): 215-231.

Zhang, Tao. 2012. “Anti-CNN and ‘April Youth’: Anti-Western Sentiment in Youth-oriented Chinese Online Media.” In Hernandez, L. (ed.), China and the West: Encounters with the other in Culture, Arts, Politics and Everyday Life,
Cambridge Scholars, 1-16.

Zheng Wang. 2012. Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations. New York: Columbia University Press.

Featured image created by What’s on Weibo, highlighting and using parts of various digital artworks by @乌合麒麟, @半桶老阿汤.

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Backgrounder

The Concept of ‘Involution’ (Nèijuǎn) on Chinese Social Media

Nèijuǎn (involution) has become a commonly used term on Chinese social media, but what is it?

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Chinese TV drama A Love for Dilemma (“小舍得”) has reignited an ongoing debate about the problem of ‘involution’ in Chinese society today.

A scene from the Chinese TV drama A Love for Dilemma (“小舍得”) has reignited online discussions on the concept of nèijuǎn 内卷, “involution,” which was also a top buzzword in China in 2020.

A Love for Dilemma is a 2021 TV drama directed by Zhang Xiaobo (张晓波), who also worked on other hit series including Nothing But Thirty. This season’s popular TV drama A Love for Dilemma is themed around family, parenting, and China’s competitive education system.

In the series, two stepsisters compete against each other over the school results of their children. The family’s ‘grandpa’, played by famous actor Zhang Guoli (张国立), tries to create harmony around the dinner table between his daughter and stepdaughter, but the rivalry between the two and how they raise their children intensifies nevertheless.

Scene from A Love for Dilemma.

While stepsister Tian Yulan urges her little son to work hard in school and focus on his grades so that he can go to the best high school and university, sister Nan Li places more emphasis on the general development of her children and wants them to enjoy their childhood. Both mothers, however, question their own choices when facing challenges with how their children perform at school.

The specific scene that has ignited current discussions is a dialogue between the husbands of the sisters, who sit outside to talk about the education system and how it sometimes feels like everyone is in a theatre watching a show together until one person stands up from their seat. This makes it necessary for other members of the audience to also stand up, until everybody is standing.

The dialogue continues, with the two talking about how it does not stop at the people standing up. Because then there are those who will take it a step further and will stand on their seats to rise above the others. And then there are even those who will grab a ladder to stand higher than the rest. But they are still watching the same show and their situation has actually not changed at all – except for the fact that everybody is now more uncomfortable than they were before.

Many netizens found it striking how this dialogue explains how the term ‘involution’ is used in China nowadays. After the show aired, the hashtag “How to commonly explain involution” (#如何通俗解释内卷#) became a trending topic in the week of April 19, receiving 260 million views in a few days.

 
What Is ‘Involution’?
 

As explained by Jialing Xie in this top buzzword article on What’s on Weibo, involution describes the economic situation in which as the population grows, per capita wealth decreases. Since recently, this word has come to be used to represent the competitive circumstances in academic or professional settings in China where individuals are compelled to overwork because of the standard raised by their peers who appear to be even more hardworking.

The term ‘involution’ and how it is used today comes from a work by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz titled Agricultural Involution – The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia (1963). In this work, Geertz explores the agricultural dynamics in Indonesia during the colonial period’s Cultivation System, where a radical economic dualism existed within the country: a foreign, Dutch economy and a native, Indonesian economy (p. 61-62).

Geertz describes how the Javanese faced a deepening demographic dilemma as they saw a rapidly growing population but a static economy, while the Dutch, who organized Javanese land and labor, were only growing in wealth (69-70). Agricultural involution is the “ultimately self-defeating process” that emerged in Indonesia when the ever-growing population was absorbed in high labor-intensive wet-rice cultivation without any changing patterns and without any progress (80-81).

When Geertz used the term ‘involution’ to describe the dynamics in Indonesia, he built on the work of another American anthropologist, namely Alexander Goldenweiser, who also used the term to describe “those culture patterns which, after having reached what would seem to be a definitive form, nonetheless fail either to stabilize or transform themselves into a new pattern but rather continue to develop by becoming internally more complicated” (Geertz 1963, 81).

 
The Involution Concept in the Chinese Context
 

The popular use of the Chinese translation of ‘involution’, nèijuǎn 内卷, started to receive attention in Chinese media in 2020. It is deviating from the original use of the term and is meant to explain the social dynamics of China’s growing middle class.

As suggested in the article “‘Involution’: The Anxieties of Our Time Summed Up in One Word” by Zhou Minxi (CGTN), the popularity of the term comes from “a prevalent sense of being stuck in an ever so draining rat race where everyone loses.”

China’s ever-growing middle class is now facing the question of how they and their children can remain in the middle class in a situation where everyone is continuously working harder and doing all they can to rise above the rest. Xiang Biao, a professor of social anthropology at Oxford University, is quoted by Zhou:

The lower class still hopes to change their fate, but the middle and upper classes aren’t so much looking upward, and they are marked by a deep fear of falling downward. Their greater fear is perhaps losing what they already have.”

The term ‘involution’ often comes up together with criticism on China’s ‘996’ work system (working from 9am-9pm, 6 days a week). Although Alibaba founder Jack Ma once called the 12-hour working day a “blessing,” the system is a controversial topic, with many condemning how Chinese (tech) companies are exploiting their employees, who are caught in a conundrum; they might lose their sanity working such long hours, and might lose their job and future career prospects if they refuse to do so.

But the term also comes up when discussing China’s education system, where competition starts as early as kindergarten and the pressure on children to succeed in the ‘gaokao’ college entrance exam starts many years before it takes place.

This image shows the “juan” 卷 character from ‘nei juan’ (involution) changing into a person on their bike with laptop. Image via http://www.bajieyou.com/new/431e6ef39aac4a6da232671122f66ff4

This discussion also came up with a now-famous image of a student riding his bike while also working on his laptop, using every moment to study. This was then also called “Tsinghua Inversion” (清华内卷), referring to one of China’s top universities, where competition is so vicious that students must double their efforts to catch up with others.

 
‘Involution’ Discussions on Chinese Social Media
 

By mid-2020, ‘involution’ attracted the attention on Weibo when popular academic accounts started discussing the term. Recently, ‘involution’ is used so often on Chinese social media that it has already gone beyond its original context, leading to many people discussing its meaning.

“We are forced to work overtime and are unable to resist, and yet it seems that everyone is doing it out of free will,” one Weibo user says, with another person adding: “The abnormal state of inversion has already become our normal state.”

A popular legal blogger (@皇城根下刀笔吏) on Weibo writes:

It is an internal bottomless vicious cycle of competition. For example, everyone used to work eight hours per day, five days per week. Then one company comes up where people work twelve hours per day, six days per week. Then this company will have major competitive strength in the market economy. But the outcome is that other companies are also compelled to do the same in order to compete. As time goes by, all companies will shift to a twelve-hour workday, six days a week, and job applicants entering the market can’t find any eight-hour workday positions for five days a week anymore. So, if another company wants to beat its competitors, it will have to introduce a seven-day workweek. And then other companies will need to follow in order to make a living. That is involution.”

By now, there are various images and memes that have come to represent the meaning of ‘involution’ in present-day China, such as one cram school sign saying: “If you come we will train your kids, if you don’t come, we will train the competitors of your kids.”

“The society’s resources are in short supply and to obtain the limited supplies, people are all madly practicing their skills to obtain them – regardless if they need them or not,” another Weibo user says.

Most comments relating to the discussion of ‘involution’ on Chinese social media express a sense of fatigue with an ongoing rat-race in the education and employment market.

On the interest-based social networking platform Douban, there are even some support groups for people who feel stuck in ‘involution’ and are looking for a way out. The “Center for Victims of Involution” (内卷受害者收容中心) group has over 3000 members, with smaller groups such as “Let’s Escape Involution Together” (我们一起逃离内卷) having a few dozen participants.

The generation that is mostly affected by this sense of socioeconomic stagnation is the post-90 generation. In 2020, a record high of 8.74 million university graduates entered the job market, but their chances of finding a job that suits their education and personal expectations are slim; many industries are recruiting fewer people than before in an employment market that was already competitive before the COVID19 pandemic. It leaves them facing a troubling Catch 22 situation: they will be stressed and pressured if they do not find that top job, but when they do, they are often also stressed and pressured.

It is a recurring topic on social media. Five years ago, a song by the Rainbow Chamber Singers (彩虹室内合唱团) titled “The Sofa Is So Far” immediately became a hit in China. Many young Chinese recognized themselves in the hardworking and tired people described in the lyrics, which started with: “My body feels empty / I am dog-tired / I don’t want work overtime.”

How to get away from the involution rat race is also a much-discussed topic on Weibo, where the hashtag page “How can young people resist involution” (#年轻人如何反内卷#) has received over 280 million views.

Some suggest the answer to ending the vicious cycle is to find a way to get rich fast, others suggest that not getting married and staying child-free is also a way to alleviate the pressure to participate in this zero-sum game.

Tech blogger Sensai (@森赛), who has over 2 million followers on Weibo, advises young people to find their true interest and to invest in it before the age of 30. Doing something that sparks joy, such as learning a new language or working on art, might start as a hobby but could turn into a valuable side business later, Sensai says.

For some, however, that goal seems unattainable. “I am already working 15 hours a day, how could I ever do that?!”

“This is just bringing us into a whole other level of involution,” others write.

In order to watch A Love for Dilemma (小舍得), the show that started so many of these discussions this month, you can go over to iQiyi or YouTube.

By Manya Koetse

References

Geertz, Clifford. 1963. Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Zhou Minxi. 2020. “‘Involution’: The anxieties of our time summed up in one word.” CGTN, Dec 4 https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-12-04/-Involution-The-anxieties-of-our-time-summed-up-in-one-word-VWNlDOVdjW/index.html [20.4.2021].

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.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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