Realistic Revolution review

MCLC Resource Center is pleased to announce publication of Brian Tsui’s review of Realistic Revolution: Contesting Chinese History, Culture, and Politcs after 1989, by Els van Dongen. The review appears below and at its online home: My thanks to Nicholas Kaldis, our literary studies book review editor, for ushering the review to publication.

Kirk A. Denton

Realistic Revolution: Contesting Chinese
History, Culture, and Politics after 1989

By Els van Dongen

Reviewed by Brian Tsui

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August, 2020)

Els van Dongen, Realistic Revolution: Contesting Chinese History, Culture, and Politics after 1989 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. xii + 276 pgs. ISBN-13: 978-1108421300.

At a recent conference on Maoist China I attended, a historian gave, in proxy, a presentation on the People’s Commune experiment. The scholar, who was with the school of Marxism at a prestigious Beijing-based university, cited Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper as his inspirations. I was bemused, to put it mildly. “What does a scholar attracted to the doyens of Cold War liberalism,” I almost thought aloud, “have to do with Marxism?” Had I read Els van Dongen’s Realistic Revolution then, I might have been able to put my unease in better perspective.

Writing on the recent past is a risky business for historians. In the case of China, the Maoist era is now a burgeoning field. Yet, the same cannot be said of the decades after Mao Zedong’s death. The dust, it seems, has yet to settle. Van Dongen’s choice of topic and period is a bold one. She focuses on the period from 1989 to 1993, arguably the most tumultuous period in the history of the People’s Republic from Mao’s death up to the current epidemic and all-out competition with the United States. Confronted with the onslaught of the Tian’anmen crackdown, the Soviet bloc’s dramatic demise, and the marketization of society, Chinese intellectuals in the immediate post-Tian’anmen era were forced to adjust their priorities and commitments. The “high culture fever,” as Jing Wang puts it, of the 1980s gave way to a much more sober and somber but no less complicated intellectual culture.[1] This complex development is the subject of van Dongen’s study. Many of the figures van Dongen discusses are not only alive, but are still highly influential in their fields. Van Dongen’s training in Europe and current position in Singapore, both removed from China and the United States, have given her a unique outsider vantage point from which to scrutinize transpacific events. Continue reading

Palace Museum novel

Source: China Daily (7/21/20)
Revised novel on Palace Museum treasure published
By Xinhua |


A revised version of the novel “Shou Zang,” which means “treasure keeping” in English, has been published by the People’s Literature Publishing House to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Forbidden City, the now Palace Museum, in Central Beijing.

Written by woman novelist Xuan Se, the novel tells the story of a group of “treasure keepers” escorting a special train transferring treasure from the Palace Museum down south to avoid damage from the Japanese invasion in the 1930s.

From 1933 to 1947, a total of 13,427 boxes of relics from the museum were transported to Nanjing, now the capital of Jiangsu Province in east China, and then to the west of the country until the Chinese people won the victory against Japanese aggression.

The story is also expected to be put on the big screen.

The Last Kings of Shanghai

Source: Sup China (7/2/20)
A fresh look at the 1930s Jewish refuge, in ‘The Last Kings of Shanghai’
Jonathan Kaufman’s latest book provides an engaging, colorful history of Shanghai’s past that fully explores, but does not romanticize, the cosmopolitanism and colonialism of that era.
By Alex Smith


SupChina illustration by John Oquist

When I was living in Shanghai in the mid-2010s, two very different landmarks became constant tour stops as I played guide to visiting friends and family: the 1920s throwback Fairmont Peace Hotel, and the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, housed in an old synagogue in Shanghai’s Hongkou District, once known as the Shanghai Ghetto. Jonathan Kaufman’s latest book, The Last Kings of Shanghai, provides an engaging history of how the iconic hotel and the Shanghai Ghetto came to be.

Kaufman traces the interconnected histories of two entrepreneurial families: the Sassoons, once known, due to their wealth and influence, as “the Rothschilds of Asia” — a term Kaufman notes the Sassoons themselves considered somewhat of an insult, since the Rothschilds were mere nouveau riche — and the Kadoories, depicted as the Sassoons’ less connected but determined distant cousins. Continue reading

Hu Jie, excavating Chinese history

Source: NYT (6/28/20)
Excavating Chinese History, One Harrowing Film at a Time
The work of Hu Jie, who has made more than 30 movies, is little known even in China. The release of “Spark” and “The Observer” should make him better known abroad.
By Ian Johnson

The filmmaker Hu Jie in “The Observer,” a documentary about Hu, directed by Rita Andreetti. Credit…Icarus Films

For more than 20 years, the filmmaker Hu Jie has been trawling the deep waters of Chinese history to create a series of harrowing documentaries about the early years of Communist Party rule.

Though Hu is largely unknown outside Chinese intellectual and foreign academic circles, two films, to be released on June 30, should increase the visibility of his work and help make it accessible to outsiders. “Spark” — a film that has undergone many iterations, alternations and expansions — reconstructs the fate of a group of young people who started an underground journal 60 years ago. And “The Observer,” a documentary about Hu by the Italian director Rita Andreetti, is at once a sympathetic portrait of the filmmaker and an introduction to his films.

Both are being distributed by Icarus Films as part of dGenerate Films’ collection of independent Chinese movies, curated by the American film producer Karin Chien. Their release — along with three other important Hu works that Icarus has released — makes it possible for audiences to see the sweep of his body of work. Continue reading

Li Zhensheng dies at 79

Source: NYT (6/25/20)
Li Zhensheng, Photographer of China’s Cultural Revolution, Dies at 79
With his camera and red arm band, Mr. Li captured the dark side of Mao’s revolution at great personal risk.
By Amy Qin

Li Zhensheng in a risky self portrait taken during China’s Cultural Revolution on July 17, 1967, when people were expected to put party before self. His photographs offer a rare visual testament to that tumultuous period in Chinese history.  Credit…Li Zhensheng/Contact Press Images

Li Zhensheng, a photographer who at great personal risk documented the dark side of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, producing powerful black-and-white images that remain a rare visual testament to the brutality of that tumultuous period, many of them not developed or seen for years, has died. He was 79.

His death was confirmed on Tuesday by Robert Pledge, a founder of Contact Press Images and editor of Mr. Li’s photo book “Red-Color News Soldier,” who said that Mr. Li had been hospitalized on Long Island. He lived in Queens. Further details, including the date of his death, were not released.

Mr. Li was a young photographer at a local newspaper in northeastern China when Mao started the Revolution in May 1966. Wearing a red arm band that said, “Red-Color News Soldier,” Mr. Li was given extraordinary access to official events. Continue reading

Chinese archaeology goes abroad

A just-released new article (“Chinese Archaeology Goes Abroad” by M. Storozum and Y. Li, Archaeologies, 2020) describes how Chinese archaeologists go abroad to places like Uzbekistan and Kenya, to dig for traces of past Chinese presence, in order to “help China achieve its geostrategic objectives,” while “weaving other countries’ past into a more Sino-centric narrative of world history.”

On the semi-hidden agenda of such projects in Central Asia, the article says that “the implicit goal of many of these archaeological projects is to gradually rewrite the history of the ancient Silk Road with China as the historical driver of prosperity, peace, and political stability.”

The article wholly omits the ongoing campaign to physically erase Uyghur culture, including architecture and sacred sites in Chinese-dominated East Turkestan now being bulldozed by the Chinese authorities, even though this, too, explicitly mobilizes an openly politicized archaeology, and is accompanied by a barrage of supporting claims by the Chinese authorities: That the indigenous peoples are not distinct but just an amalgam of whatever, that their religion is actually not the religion of their choice, that China always owned everything anyway, and so on. Continue reading

A Stormy Petrel review

Source: The International (4/28/20)
‘A Stormy Petrel’: Hong Kong Governor John Pope Hennessy
P. Kevin MacKeown’s biography ‘A Stormy Petrel’ (City University of Hong Kong, 2020) argues for John Pope Hennessy as a character full of contradictions, bridling against his historical circumstances but never quite transcending them.
Reviewed by Nicholas Haggerty

The only physical vestiges of British colonial governor John Pope Hennessy in Hong Kong, other than a street or public space named after him, is the foliage. He pioneered a reforestation campaign, planting over a million trees along the avenues and hillsides.

This longevity contrasts with Pope Hennessy’s short-lived political vision. He was neither an especially effective political operator nor an anti-colonial visionary. His plans were typically flustered by his ease at making enemies or, more often, just the structures of colonial rule.

The biographer P. Kevin MacKeown’s purpose in A Stormy Petrel is not so much restoring Pope Hennessy’s reputation as an important historical figure but an appreciation of him as a fascinating character. He makes for an intriguing comparison with Carrie Lam, as she likewise makes decisions with an eye toward their reception in a distant capital. Continue reading

Leibniz, 300 year-old China hand

Source: China Channel (4/18/20)
Gottfried Leibniz, the 300 Year-Old China Hand
By Matthew Ehret-Kump

Title page of Novissima Sinica (public domain).

A scientist, sinophile and bridge between east and west – Matthew Ehret

Many people would be surprised to discover that Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), a German polymath and logician best known for his discovery of Calculus, was one of the most important sinophiles of the 17th century, whose writings were instrumental in bringing the idea of Chinese culture and civilization to Europe.

Leibniz recognized the value of Chinese culture after an extensive study of Confucian texts provided to him by Jesuit scientists in Beijing. Inspired by the moral and practical philosophy that kept this ancient civilization alive (while European societies suffered nearly constant warfare), he created a journal called Novissima Sinica (News from China) in 1697. The journal was followed by an organizing effort across Eurasia to bring about a vast dialogue of civilizations, driven by the pursuit of scientific discovery and economic development. Continue reading

Creating the Intellectual review

MCLC and MCLC Resource Center are pleased to announce publication of Sebastian Veg’s review of Creating the Intellectual: Chinese Communism and the Rise of a Classification, by Eddy U. The review appears below and at its online home: My thanks to Nicholas Kaldis, MCLC literary studies book review editor, for ushering the review to publication.

Kirk Denton, editor

Creating the Intellectual:
Chinese Communism and the Rise of a Classification

By Eddy U

Reviewed by Sebastian Veg
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright April, 2020)

Eddy U, Creating the Intellectual: Chinese Communism and the Rise of a Classification Oakland: University of California Press, 2019. xix + 226 pgs. ISBN: 9780520303690 (paper).

Eddy U has been studying intellectuals in the communist and PRC context for a number of years, and it is very pleasing to see many of the strands he has previously explored collected and reorganized into a new monograph. Creating the Intellectual is devoted not so much to the people usually called “intellectuals” in various contexts as to the category of zhishifenzi (知识分子), which U argues is mutually constitutive with Chinese communism. Rather than examining a pre-existing group, the book investigates how Chinese communism instituted a top-down reordering of people into class subjects based on Marxist ideology, and how this reordering defined the party’s governing practice. U adopts a theoretical approach that he terms “institutional-constructivist” (4), in which he examines how the category of zhishifenzi was constructed both through institutions of classification and registration that “objectified” intellectuals, and through the representations that made the category visible and meaningful in social interactions. In his argument, classification is a tool of domination, but also the result of ongoing negotiations within society. From an early date, the party felt a need to harness expertise and at the same time to contain the political threat posed by the holders of that expertise. For this reason, it became expedient for the party to define communism against the ideas and lifestyles of intellectuals. This in turn stimulated an oppositional identity among intellectuals, and the imaginary enemy became real, in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Continue reading

Maoism–A Global History talk

Maoism – A Global History: Prof Julia Lovell and Prof Harriet Evans in Conversation
University of Westminster, Contemporary China Centre Talks
Date: 1 April 2020
Time: 1800-2000
Venue: Cayley 152-153, University of Westminster, 309 Regent Street, LondonW1B 2HW

All are welcome but registration required for non-Westminster staff and students:

In this book event, Prof Julia Lovell will be talking about her new book on Maoism as a global phenomenon with Prof Harriet Evans as discussant.

For decades, the West has dismissed Maoism as an outdated historical and political phenomenon. Since the 1980s, China seems to have abandoned the utopian turmoil of Mao’s revolution in favour of authoritarian capitalism. But Mao and his ideas remain central to the People’s Republic and the legitimacy of its Communist government. With disagreements and conflicts between China and the West on the rise, the need to understand the political legacy of Mao is urgent and growing. Continue reading

A Sensational Encounter with High Socialist China

A Sensational Encounter with High Socialist China
Paul G. Pickowicz with a Preface by Xi Chen
220 pages, papaerback
HK$198/US$29 ISBN: 978-962-937-433-4
City University of Hong Kong Press
Publication Date: October 2019

Purchase/Website Link:

A Sensational Encounter with High Socialist China is a recollection of the historic visit of fourteen American students (and one Canadian) to China in 1971. The visit was one of the first approved for American scholars after the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949 and occurred prior to President Nixon’s famous trip (as well as that of a second group of scholars) in 1972. One of these students, Paul Pickowicz, kept a journal and photographically documented the trip. This book is a personal account of the events leading up to their visa approvals as well as those that occurred during the journey itself. The five senses are used to connect the reader to his experience and are placed in the context of a theatrical production. The images included have been selected from an archive at the University of California, San Diego, which digitized the author’s images as well as those of others in the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars (CCAS) taken during both the 1971 and 1972 delegations. Continue reading

What history teaches about the coronavirus

Posted by: Wah Guan Lim <>
Source: The Diplomat (2/12/20)
What History Teaches About the Coronavirus Emergency
Lessons of transparency and transnational cooperation from the 1910-11 Manchurian Plague are still relevant to China and the world today.
By Wayne Soon and Ja Ian Chong

Accounts about the disease started sporadically. Somewhere in China people were getting sick in unusual numbers. Then press reports started appearing. Large numbers of people were getting seriously ill along main transport axes. News of deaths soon followed. In a few months 60,000 people would die before the disease came under control. This was not Wuhan in December 2019 and January 2020; it was northeastern China from late 1910 to early 1911. The Manchurian Plague, as the incident came to be known, was the first instance of modern techniques being applied to a public health crisis in China. Lessons of transparency and transnational cooperation from that event more than a century ago are still relevant to China and the world today. Continue reading

Fantasy and the Forbidden City

Source: China Channel, LARB (2/4/20)
Fantasy and the Forbidden City
China’s most popular costume drama tells more about the present than it does about the Qing dynasty – Tobie Meyer-Fong
By Tobie Meyer-Fong

Story of Yanxi Palace

During the summer of 2018, The Story of Yanxi Palace (延禧攻略), a soap opera set in the Forbidden City, mesmerized audiences with its sumptuous costumes and lavish sets. Media analysts celebrated the protagonist – a concubine rising within the ranks – as a bold female exemplar, and noted that it provided a promising vehicle for education about China’s cultural heritage both at home and abroad. The show was made and initially screened by iQiyi, a Chinese internet streaming company owned by Baidu, although it was later also broadcast on conventional and cable television channels. (A version with English subtitles can be found on YouTube.) It proved hugely popular, with episodes streamed over 15 billion times by Chinese viewers. The BBC online breathlessly announced that Yanxi Palace was the “most Googled TV show of 2018 globally,” even though Google is blocked in China. Continue reading

The Great Leap Backward

The Great Leap Backward: Forgetting and Representing the Mao Years
by Lingchei Letty Chen
Cambria Press
Cambria Sinophone World Series (General Editor: Victor H. Mair)
Hardback  9781604979923  $114.99  304pp.
Order direct from Cambria Press by 02/29/2020 and save 25% (Use coupon code SAVE25).

It is now forty years after Mao Zedong’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, and more than fifty years since the Great Leap Forward and the Great Famine. During this time, the collective memory of these events has been sanitized, reduced to a much-diluted version of what truly took place. Historical and sociological approaches cannot fully address the moral failure that allowed the atrocities of the Mao era to take place. Humanist approaches, such as literary criticism, have a central role to play in uncovering and making explicit the testimonies of both victims and perpetrators in “memory writing” in order to recover the truth of China’s history.

In this unprecedented study The Great Leap Backward, inspired by Holocaust studies, memory work such as fiction, memoirs, autobiographies, and documentary films that have surfaced since Mao’s death are examined to uncover the many aspects of the forces underlying remembering and forgetting. These are significant for they also embody the politics of writing and publishing traumatic historical memories in contemporary China and beyond. Beginning with a scar literature classic and ending with popular Cultural Revolution memoirs that appeared early in the twenty-first century, this study provides us with another important way through which memory studies can help us grapple with traumatic histories. Continue reading