Books

Booklists: things Ming, under-appreciated gems, and over-rated junk

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Emperor, Minister, and Eunuch

A few recommended reading lists that have appeared in the Chinese media during the first two months of the year.

· Ming history

A BQ feature last month around the time of the Ming Dynasty 1566 broadcast delved into the popularity of the Ming Dynasty this year (it was one of several media outlets to use variations on the phrase 今年是"明"年 "This year is Ming year"). Has the Qing been mined to exhaustion as a source for popular culture, or have people simply grown tired of historical teledramas featuring costumed characters wearing queues? At any rate, the magazine offered a list a recently-published (or re-issued) books on Ming Dynasty history:

  • 1587: A Year of No Significance by Ray Huang. An updated collectors' edition. (黄仁宇, 《万历十五年》, 2006.8)
  • Fall of the Ming and Rise of the Qing by Yan Chongnian. A CCTV Lecture Room tie-in. (阎崇年, 《明亡清兴六十年》, 2006.8)
  • Reading the Ming Without Understanding by Xiong Zhaozheng. "Reportedly, this book originated in a discussion that literary historian Wang Chunyu had with novelist Xiong Zhaozheng. Wang said, 'Many real issues have their answers in the history of the Ming. You could say that if you read the Ming (明朝), you'll understand (明白).' Xiong responded, 'If you only use the Ming to argue about the Ming, then there are many areas that are unfathomable. Perhaps this is called reading the Ming without understanding.' As a result, there is this book, which starts out from 'not understanding' and carries on for 13 chapters, narrating and explicating unimaginably strange topics of interest to give us a clear answer." (熊召政, 《看了明朝不明白》, 2006.10)
  • 17 Emperors of the Ming Dynasty by Mao Peiqi. Another CCTV Lecture Room tie-in. (毛偑琦, 《细解明朝十七帝》, 2006.7). Mao's new book is The Yongle Emperor Zhu Di. (《永乐大帝:朱棣》, 2006.11)
  • Emperors of the Ming Dynasty by Gao Yang. A mainland reissue of the book originally published in Taiwan in the 70s. (高阳, 《明朝的皇帝》, 2006.1)
  • Emperor, Minister, and Eunuch by Ten Years Chopping Wood. The Legal Daily reporter, blogger, and author of a commentary on Outlaws of the Marsh offers up a family as an analogy for the Ming court, with the Emperor as husband, the ministers as his wife, and the eunuchs as his concubines. Some pieces are available on his blog. (十年砍柴, 《皇帝·文臣和太监》, 2007.1)

Another net-related Ming book is That Ming Dynasty Stuff (明朝那些事儿) by Dangnian Mingyue (当年明月), which originated in a series of posts on a Tianya forum. The immense popularity of the series (there's a second volume out now) has led the publisher to call the author "the only person capable of rivaling Yi Zhongtian."

· Under-appreciated gems

From Southern Metropolis Weekly comes a list of books you ought to read but probably won't be able to get your hands on.

In January, the Life edition of SMW ran a heavily-promoted feature that introduced readers to the top ten under-rated books of 2006. Most of these are academic books with small print runs; six titles are translations. The list:

  • Becket: Selected Works translated in five volumes by Yu Zhongxian. 5000 copies printed. (《贝克特选集》, 湖南文艺出版社)
  • Selections in German Poetics: serious essays, many of which are translated for the first time, in a year when poetry was roundly mocked. It garnered a bit of attention because of series editor Liu Xiaofeng. (刘小枫, 《德语诗学文选》, 华东师范大学出版社)
  • Freedom of Association edited by Amy Gutmann. Translated by Wu Yuzhang and Bi Xiaoqing under the title "Association: Theory and Practice." SMW notes that this book could be a valuable resource as the Chinese government attempts to carry out the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. (古特曼, 《结社:理论与实践》, 三联书店)
  • A History of Modern Criticism volume 7, by Rene Wellek. SMW points out the vast disparity between the vast numbers of students and professors of literature, and the 2600 copies printed of this text. (韦勒克, 《近代文学批评史》, 上海译文出版社)
  • Treasonous Thought by Achille Bonito Oliva. 3000 copies printed for the Sino-Italian year. (奥利瓦, 《叛逆的思想》, 河北美术出版社)
  • On the "Anti-behavior" of Chinese peasants during the People's Commune period by Gao Wangling. "In 2004, An Investigation into China's Peasants pricked the hearts of many readers. Comparatively, Gao Wangling's [book] has yet to gain any attention. Gao classifies this book as an investigative report or reportage literature rather than a scholarly work. Professional readers may think it too unprofessional, and amateur readers may think it excessively specialized. But to a large degree, the lukewarm reception is due to the fact that the book strikes out into territory that has previously been entirely ignored, like the young woman in the fairy tale who disregards Bluebeard's warning not to open the closet. You might say the young woman is naive, but she saw through to the secrets lying behind conventional wisdom." (高王凌, 《人民公社时期中国农民“反行为”调查》, 中共党史出版社)
  • Society, Economics, and Philosophy: Selected Papers by Michael Polanyi. SMW notes that searching for the title of this book on Baidu returns scant few results, and recommends Polanyi's essay "Collectivist Planning" as an incisive analysis of "collectivism" under central government planning. (波兰尼, 《社会、经济和哲学——波兰尼文选》, 商务印书馆)
  • Social and Political Movements by Zhao Dingxin. SMW notes that Zhao's The Power of Tian'anmen was published to great acclaim in 2001. This book generalizes his arguments for mainland readers who are unable obtain his earlier work. (赵鼎新, 《社会与政治运动讲义》, 社会科学文献出版社)
  • Diary of Wu Mi (continued) (1949-1974). Wu Mi's diaries spanning the era from 1910 to 1948 have been previously published; Joint Publishing issued a further ten volumes last March for "internal circulation" in a print run of 3000 - memoirs of intellectuals during the post-revolutionary period occupy an unstable position in publishing right now. Wu himself died in 1981 at the age of 87, but he essentially stopped keeping a diary in 1974 when that year's edition was lost during an episode of the Cultural Revolution. (《吴宓日记续编(1949-1974)》, 三联书店)
  • A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy by Wing-tsit Chan. Though immensely influential in western Asian Studies, the book in Chinese does not make use of his translation work, leaving it to be overlooked as yet another anthology. Chan's commentary, explanation, and analysis, says SMW, make this more than just a reader. (陈荣捷, 《中国哲学文献选编, 江苏教育出版社)

· Over-rated junk

That same issue of SMW also had its book critics choose the top ten over-rated books of the year. Some are easy targets - Yu Dan's wildly popular yet roundly mocked book on the Analects, Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat, The Kite Runner while others are more nuanced. Yi Zhongtian's Three Kingdoms explication gets criticized not for his scholarship per se, but rather for his choice of topics:

The ethical notions and use of political power in the ideals of "loyalty," "righteousness," "power," and "strategy" trumpeted in the Three Kingdoms stories have poisoned Chinese people without their knowledge, and their long-term subtle influence has produced a twisted outlook on history, heroism, aesthetics, and human life. Yi Zhongtian has pointed out that his evaluation of the Three Kingdoms ultimately returns to the issues of "humanity," "the institution," "rule of law," and "democracy"; evidently, though he's an "insider," his mind is on the "outside." Yi once wrote a book called Reflections on the Birth of the American Constitution; why did that book not attract followers to the degree that Savoring the Three Kingdoms has?

Zha Jianying's book of interviews with writers from the 1980s is dismissed as nostalgia for has-beens, Su Tong's The Myth of Meng Jiang Nu is compared to recent efforts from Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, and Mo Yan's Birth, Death, and Fatigue receives the following:

Reading this book requires no more intellectual effort than reading Stories magazine, and indeed, it may have been better to have published it in Stories: it really is just a story, not a novel. Mo Yan must realize that the process by which readers connect with surrealist depictions is much more difficult than for realist description, yet it seems he no longer has a need to be surrounded by readers; this is just a form of entertainment.

The Beijing News this week did something similar for its Book Review feature on "Winter Recommended Readings." In addition to suggesting worthwhile books, the paper also listed a few "extended reading" options in each category as well as one or two books to avoid.

Taste varies: SMW brushed off Li Rui's new story collection Taiping Fengwu as unnecessary ("why not just read the current events page in a newspaper?") and overdone, but TBN recommends it for its remembrances of rural life. TBN also lists Yu Dan's book as an "extended reading" book: "First, this is a fully realized example of "inspirational story + guoxue packaging + CCTV authority" cultural marketing. Second, this book transforms the "wandering ghosts" setup of Confucian studies and throws a crazy stone that churns up huge waves in the dead pool of Confucian studies."

But we are warned to read neither A Lai's sequel to 2005's Empty Mountain ("It's obvious that A Lai's a bit tired of writing") nor Houyi, Ye Zhaoyan's entry in the reworked-myth series ("Wang Shuo said that he likes Ye Zhaoyan's short stories; I too feel that he's not cut out for this sort of mythological novel").

Not that any of these books are necessarily bad (and your correspondent is hardly qualified to pass judgment, having read fewer than half of the books the two papers warn against), but sometimes cranky reviews are simply fun to read.

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There are currently 3 Comments for Booklists: things Ming, under-appreciated gems, and over-rated junk.

Comments on Booklists: things Ming, under-appreciated gems, and over-rated junk

Blimey, Joel. If you've read half the non-recommended books, and presumably even more of the recommended ones... where do you find the time to blog? Thanks for doing all this research for us :-)

Phil, you've fallen for my carefully crafted scheme to appear well-read. Actually, I've been lazily buying books off the Internet this year, so I've been exposed to the non-recommended, heavily-marketed stuff, but I haven't yet "gotten my hands on" the books on the academic list.

It is Zha Jianying,not Zha Jianming who wrote book of interviews with writers from the 1980s.

[[EDITOR'S NOTE (JDM): Thanks. Corrected.]]

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