Books about China

 I hardly frequent the China section of bookstores or libraries due to sense of frustration with the books. There are hardly any China books on book shelfs that are worth reading. 

The non-fiction books are usually written by pundits or Western journalists, whose views are highly condescending, ideological and usually preoccupied with the blights in China. It seems almost everything that China does is wrong. Every problem that China has is magnified as if the whole system is highly unstable, and where chaos and eventual collapse will ensue. This has been the main theme since the late 1980s, after the collapse of Soviet Union.  It is always about China’s economic problems, environmental problems, lack of democracy, poverty, the great leap forward failure, cultural revolution, lack of human rights, prosecution of dissidents, Dalai Lama  etc.  They fact that they have been wrong in making the prediction or the records have been absolutely dismal does not seem to deter them.  

There are hardly any books in the bookshelves that are written to highlight progress being made in last 60 years, or at least to provide balanced  perspective, bearing in mind where China was 60 years ago, and what has been achieved nowadays.  Hardly anything is mentioned of the agriculture revolution that enable China to feed 20% of world population on 7% of world farming land, the comparatively high literarily rate,  the reduction in child mortality rate, the average life span has increase considerably, the great reduction in poverty rate, the large contribution China gave to other developing countries, the cheap Chinese products  which make products available to poorer people of the world, the world class infrastructures being built etc.  

Most of the writers are just are of their depth or bent on being highly nationalistic when it comes to writing about China. This is hardly surprising, since few are well versed enough in the Chinese language. Thus their references are always books written by other mainstream Western writers, who are just likely as clueless as they are.  This anomaly has been noted by the Singaporean diplomat and thinker, Kishore Mahbubani, who said:

Well I think, the one of the paradox is about the times we live in by the way is that the best educated societies and the best informed societies in terms of the flows of information are the West, but the West lives in a cocoon. There is an incestuous dialogue that takes place among Western intellectuals. They talk to each other, reinforce each other’s notions and they think that their view of the world is real view of the world, but it represents the perception of 12% of the world’s population. The 88% who live outside the West have a much better understanding of the realities of the world than the West does, and this is one of the great paradoxes of our time. The people outside the West understand clearly what the strengths and weaknesses of Western societies are. The good that Western societies are doing and the harm that Western societies are doing: all that is also very well known in the rest of the world. So, I think this is the paradox that we face, that the West which is suppose to be representing the most open society, is the most open civilization, is progressively becoming closed-minded and its approach to rest of the world.

It does not help that China is just too huge. Like the proverbial elephant in the company of blind men, it can be anything.  If one think that the elephant is like a snake, one just need hold the trunk. If there is a debate or even a trial, one will always hear from opposing sides. But in this case, it is always one way communication that sent out  highly biased views in repetitious manner.  

Someone  with the pen name JJ, wrote a comment in China Daily about the similar frustration with regards to the one way communications or undersstanding of China. Here’s how he sees it :


I agree with the writer’s sentiment about the general western attitude towards China and the one way communication between China and western world.I am of Chinese blood and live in Sydney Australia. Every time I go to bookshops, I have a look at the section for Chinese and Asian History and world history in general. In the Chinese section, out of say 100 books, less than 5 books are about Chinese history covering the entire Chinese civilisation. Another 5 books on Chinese history would be written about history of from the 1800’s on and not before that.The rest of the history books are nothing but critique against Chinese policies and Chinese attitude. Some try to analyse Chinese culture and come up with why such culture is inconsistent with modern western values or attitude. Some even suggest that some aspects of Chinese attitude and polices would be the cause of the chaos and fall of Chinese civilisation.Some are nothing but semi-autobiography or pseudo descriptions of the lives of a family over 60~100 years. There are books that are nothing but one person’s experiences over a few years or a few decades in China and they are classified as history books in book stores rather than just travel journals.

These are not history books as such. However the general public buy and read them as they could not bother to read the more academically robust properly written history. Cambridge Press does have a rather good Chinese history book. However, stores tend to hold one copy at a time and people do not get to read them. Such books are so few and many do not bother to read them as they do not contain ‘sensationalism’ at all.

When one has a quick glance of the non-history books about China, it is all about ‘attack’ against China or the ‘fear’ of China’s rise.

Then you listen to the media reporting of China- in newspaper, magazines, radio and tv as well as internet versions of them- in Australia. The bulk of reporting is also in the same vein of critique against China and the going on in China. There is no equal time for China and supporters of China to air their their view.

Then you look at the sections of history books on other nations and the world. Such disproportion against any nation is not there at all. Even the old cold war enemy of Soviet Union and Russia do not have so many ‘history’ books on the shelves that are against these systems. Not even the brutality of Japan against western troops in WW II get as much attention. There are lots of books praising Japanese economic prosperity and how their industries have in many cases surpassed western competitions in technology and quality. But such praise for Chinese industries and economy are simply missing in book shops.

I have spent over 30 years in Australia trying to understand the difference between China and Western history. I have seen such evolution of attitude.

1) Up to the late 70’s, most Aussies thought China as wonderful in that it was a myth at all. The stereotyping of Chinese is that of Cantonese speaking Chinaman in Chinatown. The only thing they knew about China was Chairman Mao, the little red book and chopsticks used in Chinese restaurants.

2)The in the late 80’s something happened and the whole ‘I do find China really interesting’ attitude transformed to “China is horrible the way it treated the Tibetans and Dala Lama’.

The Dala Lama and Tibet issue became the rally point of anti China sentiment. Most Aussies that had found China interesting only a few years only all the sudden turned against China at this point.

There is another incidence which the western media basically exploited to the full. And the whole attired towards China just becoming toxic to say the least.

The fall of Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union somehow transformed the Western governments’ focus from it to China. Western governments’ need to find another ‘ENEMY’ to justify their nationalistic attitude and their huge spending on military. So China is the next target.

Chinese people are still tolerated and more Aussies want to know about China by late 1980’s. However the opinion makers, the politicians, the media and the loud mouths start to berate China. Most of these were only the same people that supported China only a few years earlier. China suddenly become the ‘enemy’ to have to be part of the greeted western alliance.

(Guess what, this was also the period when the ‘global climate’ issue became popular. Before that no one significant talked about it. I certainly was not aware of it at all and I read a lot of newspaper.)

3) From early 90’s, more and more books and more and more reporting of China are against China. China-Bashing for the sake of China-Bashing becomes, as Aussie would say it, a sport. A sport to do as there is nothing ‘intellectual’ to prove, so a lot of people jump into the band wagon and get stuck into China. It is just like a man start talking about how he loves animals and trees so he could get into bed with a girl who is a true greenie. The fever is intense.

It is at this stage that the sentiment against China becomes widespread and any contrary view is regarded as anti-human rights, anti-freedom, anti-peace, anti-Tibet etc etc etc. It is like you are for us or you are my enemy type of sentiment which still persist today. It is like the global warming debate- if you do not agree with it, you are putting your own kids in danger. Pure blackmail and Nazi in approach that people use to put others down.

4) When Chinese cheap labour started to make huge amount of consumer goods, people start to look at China another way. A place of cheap products that become more and more quality. People seldom criticise this aspect of China. Now and then some people try to lampoon China on the food safety standard, but it usually dies away quickly. However, the media and book stores continue to report and sell ‘bad news, bad things’ about China. Low costs mean people are happy so they are ok with buying cheap goods from China.

5) Then the 2000~2010 period came, people continue to criticise against China. The ambiguous attitude towards China continue.

People in western world fall in love with Tibet and Buddhism as another evolutionary phase of the hippies’ revolution of the 1960s’. However the same ‘democratic’ people of west conveniently forget that Dala Lama would have been the absolute dictator of Tibet if China vacated Tibet altogether. So anything about China-Tibet, China loses out in westerners’ mind.

Why is this?

This juggernaut of opinion among most western people is results of massive attack by western media, western book publishers, and indeed western governments.

There is not any conspiracy, however silence by politicians in the west for supporting China and criticise media’ hysteria against China is loud enough. No one is brave enough to stand in front of this locomotive of falsity against China. The same people in the 1970s’ vocally supported China now are sometimes the loudest critics or the most silent of supporters as they have to maintain their relevance as it were.

The communication of view and understanding of China is indeed one way. Westerners should just go to their local book stores and check the tittles of books in Chinese history section. They just have to count the number of media reporting that are against China in nature. They could not deny it altogether that the communication is more about critique against China.

Lastly, most of us are hypocritical especially about our past and history. Westerners are no exceptions. Exploitation of child labour, exploitation of peasants, lack of votes for women, lack of rights for women etc etc were common in western nations till the late 70’s.

In all English speaking nations, women did not get equal pay till the 1970’s, and did not get full legal rights till the 1960’s such as property rights. Women in Australia still needed their husband, brother or father’s written letter as consent or de-facto guarantor to get a loan till the 1970’s.

People however are quick to forget their own history and even personal experiences. They turn around and criticise China and other nations for the sake of it is a ‘sport’ for them.

The communication is indeed one way mainly against China from the western world’s directions.




About kchew

an occasional culturalist
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