Peking - I Love You
Image by Nod Young used under a Creative Commons license.

Jonathan Tel, The Beijing Of Possibility (Other Press, 2009).
This collection of short stories is not just set in the Chinese capital, it is of and about the city. Tel’s Beijing is a city is close to the country, in a China which is not far from the West, and set in modern times which do not leave the past behind. Tel is fascinated by the different lives which come together in the city, by the forks which bring people to where they are now and the turns in which lives are changed and left behind — by all of Beijing’s possibilities. This Beijing is populated by messengers in gorilla suits and pick-pockets, opera composers and buskers, executives and factory workers. The disparate strands are tied together in the last story through a clever device, an effective bit of playfulness that seemed neither contrived nor obtrusive. The stories also are accompanied by Tel’s black-and-white photographs of Beijing.

Via Scott Esposito, here is one excerpt (Zoetrope)and here is another (if that link doesn’t work, try this one), and another. Terry says Tel’s Beijing is a vast, unknowable stage where opposites clash. Mark H. says Tel takes the everyday mundane life of typical Beijing residents and shares their dreams, humour and irony. L. Dean Murphy says it captures the essence of China’s rapid change. Simon Fowler says Tel’s writing shows a subtle and playful humour, and a sense of Chinese history and culture.  Barbara Ardinger says these stories are hypnotic. Jonathan Shock calls the stories windows into the split second pieces of action you see every day on the streets of any big city, and adds that in Beijing you know that the truth is much more interesting than what your imagination can muster. Publisher’s Weekly calls it a glimpse into the complicated, vibrant world of Beijing. Matthew Jakubowski interviewed Tel for The Quarterly Conversation. Here are questions for discussion and the publisher’s reader’s guide. Tel talks about taking the photographs which accompany the stories. Marshal Zeringue caught up with Tel, who’s been reading about China.

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Black and white.
Photo of Largo de Senado by Erman Akdogan used under a Creative Commons license.

Jonathan Porter, Macau: The Imaginary City (Westview Press, 2000).
A quirky portrait of Macau, a former Portuguese colony that reverted to Chinese rule in 1999. Porter is a historian, and much of the book takes a historical perspective, but he has been there as well and writes with some familiarity of modern Macau. The organization can get in the way, but there aren’t many books in English on the place. The paperback edition contains an epilogue written shortly before the Chinese takeover. Macau continues to reinvent itself: Since Porter wrote this, Macau has surpassed Las Vegas (by some measures) as the world’s gaming hub, and “reclamation” expands the contours of the islands.

Google BookSearch lets you check out a preview. Here is Porter’s bio at the University of New Mexico. If you have JSTOR access (I don’t), here is a review by Linda Cooke Johnson in The American Historical Review. James Hayes provides this reading guide to Macau.

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Early Tai-Chi on the Bund
Photo of Shanghai by le niners used under a Creative Commons license.

Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (W.W. Norton & Co., 1999).
In Salon’s Literary Guide to the World, Nell Freudenberger recommends this

concise account of China’s transformation from dynastic empire to modern nation-state, beginning with the apogee of Ming power in the late 16th century and ending with the democracy movements of the 1980s. In what ways did the demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989 echo the May Fourth movement of intellectuals in the 1920s, or for that matter, the 17th century Ming loyalists? What does the Boxer Rebellion have to do with the abdication of Puyi, the last emperor, in 1911? (What was the Boxer Rebellion again?) Spence answers all the obvious questions in such engaging prose that you feel you’ve lucked into a seminar with the best professor you ever had. He is particularly skilled at illuminating the cultural misunderstandings that have plagued China’s relationship with the West for the last 400 years. . . .

This is not a small book, so you might want to do some weight training before you read it.

Here is Spence’s bio at Yale, and here is a more narrative version at the American Historical Association. Vera Schwarcz reviewed it in The New York Times. So did Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. Here is Richard Seltzer. Reviewing it in the National Review, George Jochnowitz praised the book but picks some bones as well. The book appears on many lists of recommended reading on China, like this one. Here is something like an interview with Hanchao Lu (.pdf). Spence is giving the 2008 Reith lectures; this BBC article discusses him and his work and links to audio recordings of the lectures.

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Photo by bradburyjason used under a Creative Commons license.

Ruth Earnshaw Lo and Katherine S. Kinderman, In the Eye of the Typhoon (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980).
A memoir of the Cultural Revolution by an American woman, Ruth Lo, or Xia Luteh, who had married a Chinese man, Dr. Lo Chuanfang, in 1937 and lived there for forty years. They were at Zhongshan University in the suburbs of the city then called Canton and now called Guangzhou. From the uncommon perspective of a Westerner inside China, she writes about the period from 1966 to 1978. Lo and her family were ostracized because of their Western connections, and her husband died after he was denied medical treatment.

Here is a review by Jun Zhang, who suggests that Lo’s status as a foreigner makes the book distinctive but also leads her to misconstrue some events. If you have JSTOR access, you can read this review by Steven I. Levine in The Journal of Asian Studies.