Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. His books include Student Protests in Twentieth-Century China: The View from Shanghai and China's Brave New World — And Other Tales for Global Times.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
If you were to ask me a month from now what I’d been reading lately, I hope that I’d be able to tell you that I’d just enjoyed the latest offerings of two of my favorite mystery writers and one of my favorite essayists. This is because the books on my to-read list for an upcoming vacation are Reginald Hill’s Death Comes to the Fat Man (a Dalziel and Pascoe mystery), Ian Rankin’s The Naming of the Dead (featuring John Rebus), and Anne Fadiman’s At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays. I’m eager to make return visits to the always fascinating milieus of Hill’s Yorkshire and Rankin’s Edinburgh — and Fadiman’s book will also involve a “revisit” of sorts, as I first read some of the pieces it contains when they appeared in The American Scholar, during her inspiring tenure as that magazine’s editor.

Since you asked me now, though, I’ve got a less surprising answer to give: I’ve been reading a lot of works about China. At the moment, in fact, I’m midway through two very different sorts of China-themed biographies, alternating which I pick up depending on my mood. One, published last fall, is John Pomfret’s poignant Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China. It is structured around the life stories of some of the people that the author (who went on to do some great reporting for the Washington Post as its Beijing bureau chief) encountered when he studied at Nanjing University in the early 1980s. The opening chapters have made for compelling but also sometimes disturbing reading, devoted as they are to recounting the varied difficulties that Pomfret’s future classmates underwent during the Cultural Revolution.

The other book I’m midway through is an advance copy of Jonathan Spence’s Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man, due out from Penguin in September. It, too, deals largely with a period of upheaval (the decade of the 1640s that witnessed the fall of the Ming Dynasty that the book’s protagonist, Zhang Dai, both served and wrote about), but its tone is generally light. Spence is a wonderful biographer and this latest book, which takes us into the mental world of a talented writer, is a match for anything he’s done when it comes to the elegance of its prose — and for me that is saying a lot as his earlier writings helped inspire me to make Chinese history my specialty. Some of Return to Dragon Mountain’s most striking parts so far find Spence evocatively recounting the love that Zhang Dai had for spectacles, ranging from theatrical performances involving mock battles (the only kind of warfare he knew until the battles between Ming loyalists and the newly formed Qing Dynasty neared his home) to lavish displays of lanterns that temporarily transformed nearby hillsides into brightly lit fairylands.

Before starting these two books, I’d spent several weeks immersed in reading what might be called the “competition”: three just-published works that, like my China’s Brave New World — And Other Tales for Global Times, try to help non-specialists make sense of the confusing changes currently taking place in the People’s Republic. Two are by journalists who, like Pomfret, have Chinese language skills and have spent extended amounts of time covering China: Duncan Hewitt (formerly of the BBC) and Rob Gifford (of NPR). The third is by a political scientist, Susan Shirk, whose biography includes a short trip to China in the early 1970s (as part of one of the first American student delegations to visit the PRC) and a stint in the State Department.

I was relieved to discover that, despite some overlaps (all of us try, for example, to unravel the thorny issue of the nature of contemporary Chinese nationalism), there were plenty of things relating to style and substance that set China’s Brave New World off from each “competing” book. But I was equally relieved to find that I could learn much from each of the three books and find things to admire about each author. In Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China, Hewitt proves adept at using material gleaned from interviews with a range of individuals to give a human face to a complex problem. In China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power, Gifford makes for an engaging traveling companion as he takes his readers through a diverse set of Chinese locales. And in China: Fragile Superpower, Shirk makes the most of her combination of social science acumen and firsthand experience of U.S. actions during recent diplomatic crises. If this is indeed the “competition,” then I feel I am in very good company.
In addition to the books he has written and edited, Jeffrey Wasserstrom is regular contributor to academic journals. He has also written for a variety of general interest periodicals, including Newsweek, The Nation, the TLS, New Left Review, the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Los Angeles Times and the Christian Science Monitor.

Read more about Wasserstrom's China's Brave New World — And Other Tales for Global Times.

--Marshal Zeringue