Mini Reviews: Nonfiction about China

The Subplot

Cover image for The Subplot by Megan Walsh

by Megan Walsh

ISBN 9781735913667

This brief Columbia Global Report encourages Western readers to consider Chinese literature beyond the works written by famous dissidents in exile. Such books do not reflect what people in China are reading, given censorship in the country, but artists working under oppressive governments still fight to express themselves. Journalist Megan Walsh focuses on modern Mainland Chinese fiction, albeit still with an emphasis on works that are available in English in some form. The chapters include sections on generational differences in literary tastes, migrant worker poetry, and the paradox of trying to write a mystery novel in a country with Hayes Code-esque rules about how police and criminals can be portrayed. Walsh notes that Chinese online fiction is the largest publishing platform in the word, but the section on web novels is fairly cursory—expected in such a short volume—and surprisingly dismissive in tone given how little oversight the format enjoys compared to print publishing. If you want to know what average Chinese people are reading for entertainment, this is probably the place to look deeper. The other frontier of great interest is science fiction and fantasy, speculative works that take advantage of the genre to try to fly above political turbulence using the guise of the future to offer commentary on the present. Although brief and limited, I still found The Subplot to be a fascinating glimpse into the Chinese literary scene.

Red Carpet

Cover image for Red Carpet by Erich Schwartzel

by Erich Schwartzel

ISBN 9781984878991

Money has always shaped what gets made in Hollywood, but with the American box office stagnating and film budgets ballooning, profits from global markets have become increasingly important. The most powerful of these overseas markets is China, with its large population and rapid expansion of movie theatres for a growing middle class. Author Erich Schwartzel reports on Hollywood for the Wall Street Journal, and in Red Carpet he examines China’s complicated relationship with the American film industry. It begins with two controversial 1997 films about the Dalai Lama: Kundun directed by Martin Scorcese and Seven Years in Tibet directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. These films marked a turning point, with China flexing its increasing economic power to influence releases that were never intended for the Chinese market. Schwartzel proceeds to chronicle the growing difficulty of getting American films into China amidst opaque censorship rules, and the difficulty of predicting which American movies will be popular with Chinese audiences. Meanwhile, the Chinese film industry has been growing, with a better bead on what domestic audiences want, and what authorities will allow. As the skill-gap closes, China is poised to create its own domestic blockbusters, while continuing to influence how it is portrayed to global audiences in American cinema, and which foreign films its citizens are permitted to legally see and financially support. Schwartzel’s in-depth reporting highlights the unexpected effects of globalization on one of America’s most notable exports.

Kingdom of Characters

Cover image for Kingdom of Characters by Jing Tsu

by Jing Tsu

ISBN 9780735214729

Kingdom of Characters chronicles the evolution of technologies for the written Chinese language in the years since contact with the West, with a particular focus on the past century. Western communication innovations have long been based on the Roman alphabet, from moveable type to the telegraph to Unicode. Even non-Roman alphabets such as Cyrillic have been little more than afterthought in these systems; ideographic languages like Chinese were deemed impossibilities, if they were thought of at all. Yale comparative literature professor Jing Tsu dedicates seven roughly chronological chapters to the inventors, thinkers, and advocates for the Chinese language who fought to preserve its script in the face of tremendous pressure to modernize and simplify. Although Western imperialism played its part, the process was not without internal tensions, from rivalries over who would invent to the first marketable Chinese typewriter, to regional disputes about how to standardize a language that has tremendous local variation, and political in-fighting between the Communists in China and the Nationalists in Taiwan over script simplification. While written for a general audience, this book still has a decidedly academic bent reflective of the author’s background, with detailed descriptions of the technologies discussed, and the challenges of their application to the Chinese language. However it tells an important story of how China’s script was—perhaps against the odds—preserved, and continues to flourish into the twenty-first century.

One thought on “Mini Reviews: Nonfiction about China

  1. These all sound fascinating and timely! I already had Kingdom of Characters on my list and I’m happy to hear that it goes into some detail. I tend to like that, although it’s certainly possible for a book to be too academic for me 🙂 I hadn’t heard of Red Carpet, but I’ve been reading a lot about women in Hollywood and have recently learned about the impact China has on films made in the US, so I’d like to pick this one up.

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