Life in the Middle Kingdom
In the dust jacket blurb for Mark Leonard's What Does China Think? rests an important pair of sentences: "Very few things that happen in our lifetime will be remembered after we are dead. But China's rise is different, like the rise and fall of Rome or the Soviet Empire, its after-effects will reverberate for generations to come." In a scholarly (but by no means dry) treatise, Leonard explores the conundrum that is modern China, through the views of the thinkers, movers and shakers who are leading the recently backward land into a position of prominence (and perhaps dominance) in the 21st century. In one essay titled "Meritocracy vs. majority rule," Leonard quotes Beijing University's Pan Wei, who believes Westerners have it wrong in assuming that their countries are prosperous and stable because of democracy; rather, he suggests prosperity and stability spring forth from the rule of law, and law and democracy are like yin and yang, in constant conflict with one another. What Does China Think? should be on the short list for anyone who wants insight into China's idea of its rightful place in the world order.
Every now and then one's radar is blipped by someone or something that should have been taught in school, but somehow wasn't. Such is the case with Englishman Joseph Needham, who went to China in the 1930s and embarked on a lifelong project to catalog all of the inventions for which the Chinese were responsible. Big deal, you say. That's what I thought as well, until I had the opportunity to read Simon Winchester's The Man Who Loved China. This unforgettable (and unputdownable) book is a major revelation both about Chinese ingenuity and the remarkable man who spent his life unearthing and cataloging it. Among the notable inventions credited to the Chinese: paper, the compass, gunpowder, chopsticks (OK, that was probably a given), the toothbrush, toilet paper, the abacus, the bellows, the cannon, canal locks (as in the Panama Canal), paper money, grenades, the suspension bridge, vaccinations and the wheelbarrow, to mention but a handful. Whew! In the end, Needham produced 17 exhaustive volumes, rendering him a legend in the annals of encyclopedia. The Man Who Loved China should appeal strongly to fans of John McPhee or Michael Sims, or anyone interested in the history of China as seen through the eyes of an inquisitive Westerner.
The land in pictures
If a single picture is worth a thousand words, then Yann Layma's China should be worth at least 210,000 descriptors. The pictures are first-rate, of National Geographic quality. Each rates a two-page spread, without margins or captions to distract from the images (the pictures are all reproduced in thumbnail size in the back of the book, along with descriptive captions). Layma displays a rare sensitivity and humor in depicting daily life in China. One picture shows stately houseboats wending their way down a misty canal; another depicts the elaborate geometric pattern of a rice paddy. Still others offer glimpses into the daily lives of such diverse groups as falconers, runway models, fishermen, factory workers, religious figures and martial arts practitioners. Also included are essays by five noted Chinese writers: one section deals with the teachings of Lao Tzu and Confucius, another with famous Chinese inventions; a third covers Chinese calligraphy, a fourth gives a brief look at milestones in Chinese history. The other books in this article each illustrate a facet of the modern miracle that is China, but this is the one that will make you long to pay a visit to the Middle Kingdom.
What's on the menu
No report on modern-day China would be complete without at least a look at Chinese cuisine. Of course, everyone in the West is familiar with the staples: egg rolls, sweet and sour pork, General Tso's chicken and egg foo young. Less known are such culinary delights as red-braised bear paw, dried orangutan lips (I am not making this up), camel hump and the ovarian fat of the Chinese forest frog. For a historical (and often hysterical) glimpse at these and other fascinating facets of Chinese cooking, look no further than Fuchsia Dunlop's Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper, a tale of travel in modern China, with appended recipes for meals that tend more toward the delicious end of Chinese cuisine spectrum, rather than, say, the aforementioned orangutan lips. Dunlop's writing style is conversational and engaging, and she poses several perplexing questions (for instance, when she inadvertently cooks a caterpillar along with some homegrown veggies in England, should she eat it, as she has done many times in China, or shiver in revulsion, as befits her upbringing?).
This could happen to you
And now for the fun part, the book that made me laugh out loud more times than I can remember, J. Maarten Troost's Lost on Planet China. After spending too long in Sacramento ("a little corner of Oklahoma that got lost and found itself on the other side of the Sierra Nevada. . ."), Troost decided a new place to live was in order. "I'm thinking China," he suggested to his wife, Sylvia. "I'm thinking Monterey," Sylvia countered. Clearly a compromise was required, and so it came to pass that Troost set forth on a solo exploratory mission to Old Cathay. After learning some vital Chinese phrases ("I am not proficient at squatting; is there another toilet option?," "Are you sure that's chicken?"), Troost found himself waving goodbye to his family. He would soon be saying hello again, though, as he had forgotten his backpack containing his passport, plane ticket and traveler's checks: " 'I'm trying to envision you in China,' Sylvia said, 'and I can't decide whether to laugh or weep.' I empathized. It's a thin line that separates tragedy from farce." As you might imagine, it only gets more frenetic and exponentially more humorous from this point forward. Troost is already being lauded as the new generation's answer to Bill Bryson; in my view, his writing is markedly different, but it will definitely find an appreciative audience among Bryson fans.