Crash Course in All Things China
January 19, 2017 8:58 AM   Subscribe

Current events has made me realize that I need to learn more about China, it's history, it's politics and particularly what it's doing in the world right now.

I've started doing some reading but sourcing has been a challenge, particularly being unfamiliar with sources both inside and outside of China so I don't know where bias and POV lie. Also the issue navigating through propaganda both Chinese and as I have also discovered US and Western based propaganda.

So I'm looking for help with sources, ones that are good at sorting through the crap. More bias sources are also fine with the bias explained. Learning about Chinese media and it's relation to the state would be good. If any one has any must read books on China would be great as well. I'm also particularly interested in what China is doing in Africa.

What do I need to become and expert on all things China?
posted by Jalliah to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know about expert, but The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence is a very well-regarded overview of the past 200 years of Chinese history. It's a good jumping off point for more current events sources that may presuppose knowledge of the recent-ish history of China and the PRC.
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:07 AM on January 19, 2017

Michael Pettis is an extremely well-informed source on strains on the Chinese financial system.

He used to have an independent blog, but was moving away from that because of spam issues. Looks like he moved to Seeking Alpha. But he's never written from an avaricious perspective.
posted by Coventry at 9:10 AM on January 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

I recently read Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China while traveling in Beijing and really enjoyed it.

More sociological than historical, but it follows six 'millennials' from their birth to their 20s/30s in the context of contemporary China - musicians, academics, working-class laborers, etc. (From the book's tagline: "This is the generation that will change China") While it's clearly a small sample, I found really helped to understand China and its future, and was much more in tune with everything I saw in China than some other historical books I perused that smacked with hints of Orientalism. It's also well-written, and a very quick, fun, poignant read.
posted by suedehead at 9:19 AM on January 19, 2017

I enjoyed this lecture series on the whole sweep of Chinese history, and I've heard good things about this book on the Cultural Revolution. On the politics of the current regime, I'm a fan of this book. The lecture series attempts a very neutral stance on the issues, and gets into culture more than politics. The other two are explicitly political and critical, but they include enough facts that they are worth reading even if you disagree with the conclusions.
posted by Aravis76 at 9:24 AM on January 19, 2017

Peter Hessler lived in China for a while, and wrote 3 books about his experiences: River Town, Oracle Bones, and Country Driving . These are much more about human experiences in China rather than where the country is at in the world right now, but they are really good reads.
posted by Fig at 9:35 AM on January 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

Honestly, I don't know if this is what you're looking for. But my grandfather and grandmother were medical missionaries (read: helped sick people, not preachy) in China during the Second Sino-Japanese War and were put under house arrest while she was there, and she wrote a biography now in the public domain and archived by the Internet Archive about it. My uncle also wrote a book called The Year China Changed. Not meant to be Pepsi Blue, just mentioning it in case it is of use to you.
posted by WCityMike at 9:43 AM on January 19, 2017

Both The Economist and The Wall Street Journal have sections devoted to Asia, and they talk a lot about China. They're both in favor of free markets and capitalism, but they're also usually full of fairly smart analytical journalism--not just reporting on the superficial facts. Both magazines are sort of locked down online, but your local public library probably has subscriptions to them if you live in a medium or large town.
posted by colfax at 10:20 AM on January 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've been coming across a lot of articles on The Diplomat while doing more China-related reading lately, and they seem to be a good platform for takes on current events with mostly good writers, I've just been taking the extra step of some quick reading up on the authors as I read their articles to get a better sense of author biases and credentials.
posted by jason_steakums at 10:43 AM on January 19, 2017

Studying how the Chinese think seems to be a critical step. The obvious places to start seem to be: Seeing as how they're all over two millennia old, they are a little hard to read today. On the other hand, I think it's worthwhile: I found the Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu to be life-changing, and I revisit them often.

I recommend Stephen Mitchell's (controversial) adaptation of the Tao Te Ching as a starting place.

Be advised that China is a very big, very old place. Becoming an expert without spending a lifetime doing so seems impossible.
posted by ragtag at 11:08 AM on January 19, 2017

There is a free online version of Harvard's famous core curriculum course on China, which would effectively give you the overall picture. (Start with Part 1, etc.)

I 100% agree with ragtag about looking at the fundamental texts, only adding that you should also read the Confucian Doctrine of the Mean and Great Learning, probably both before you read the Analects, since they are both more focused in their message than the remarks of the master that make up the Analects.
posted by bertran at 11:33 AM on January 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

Lemme just stop you right there because Xunzi was the greatest Confucian philosopher of all time. OF ALL TIME!
posted by soren_lorensen at 12:35 PM on January 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thanks all. This is great. Overwhelming but great. I'm thinking I'll start with regularly reading some of the periodicals suggested while methodically going through the different suggestions regarding history, social commentary and Chinese thought.

The variety here is awesome. Will keep me busy for months.
posted by Jalliah at 1:21 PM on January 19, 2017

Deborah Brautigan for China in Africa.

All the rest you have to read with an eye to their agendas and ideology. The OECD's stuff and UNCTAD stuff seems fine in this regard.
posted by infini at 1:58 PM on January 19, 2017


Thank you for taking the time to think about it in such detail. This is so, so helpful. :D I'm excited!
posted by Jalliah at 2:08 PM on January 19, 2017

More than any of the English-language sources about China I've seen, I most appreciated the 2015 documentary A Young Patriot (trailer) which I think I saw subtitled on PBS or BBC America some time in the last few months. It follows a young Chinese man for five years.

I feel as though from other sources I've gotten a tiny bit of understanding of the perspective of an average person who lived through the revolutionary period and remained in China through tumultuous decades afterward, that of some Tienanmen-Square and subsequent Chinese dissidents, and that of some of the people involved in the race for capitalism and prosperity in the wake of Deng Xiaoping's southern tour, but this documentary felt like the first thing that let me get a bit of empathy for and understanding of someone who is perhaps a representative of the equivalent of a young Trump voter reconciling his ideals with his life and his future and his country's future.
posted by XMLicious at 3:26 PM on January 19, 2017

I recommend listening to the Sinica Podcast.
posted by bradf at 4:06 PM on January 19, 2017

qcubed, you should do a China megapost FPP, your comments in this thread have been great!
posted by jason_steakums at 4:20 PM on January 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

Seconding the Sinica Podcast - it's very informative.
posted by movicont at 4:27 PM on January 19, 2017

You guys beat me to it - thirding Sinica.
posted by chainsofreedom at 7:11 PM on January 19, 2017

I don't have a specific reference for this, but one thing I think everyone who studies China should be aware of is the Great Famine, which resulted from the Great Leap Forward. From 1959-1961, somewhere in the realm of 30 million Chinese people died of starvation. It's a tragedy/disaster that is not often spoken of (at least in the West - I don't know about in China) but its scale is such that I think it's important to have awareness of it in the back of your mind as you're learning about China.
posted by imalaowai at 9:20 PM on January 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

Even more broadly, it's notable that more than a half-century has now passed without an episode of famine killing the equivalent of the entire population of a European country. Which is a novel thing in Chinese history, and must give a different tenor to many topics as compared to nations where famines are in the more distant past and beyond living memory.
posted by XMLicious at 11:09 PM on January 19, 2017

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