- Language Tips
Books on China have never been more popular, but are they teaching us anything?
Few books have polarized opinion in recent years as much as When China Rules the World, but when it was published in 2009, the author, Martin Jacques, was thinking less about kickstarting an international debate than he was simply relieved to have completed a 10-year project marred by misfortune.
"I'd moved to Hong Kong in 1998 with my wife Hari and our 9-week-old son Ravi. We were going to be there for three years and I had ambitious plans for the book as well as a television series lined up," Jacques said.
"But after we'd been there for 14 months, my wife died in terrible circumstances and the book went out of my mind. I was just struggling to survive and I didn't touch the book for five years. I wasn't sure I'd ever be capable of writing it, but it must have somehow stayed in the back of my mind because, by 2005, I started to work on it again."
What happened next caught just about everyone off guard, not least Jacques himself. Despite a small initial run, the book soon became one of the most talked about non-fiction titles of the year.
"I was quite ambushed by the reception the book got," Jacques said. "I remember being told that only 5,000 copies would be printed initially and my heart sank. I was thinking, all that work and hardly anyone is even going to read it.
"But then very quickly things started to change. It was getting extensively reviewed and on the day of publication my editor wrote to me saying that they would be reprinting. By the next Monday they were reprinting again."
When China Rules the World went on to become an international publishing sensation, selling over a quarter of a million copies and being translated into 11 languages. It also proved the culmination of a decade-long shift for China titles from generally academic fields into the mainstream.
But while the reception for Jacques' book was broadly positive, it was not unanimous. The commentator Will Hutton, reviewing it for The Guardian, opened his review with the line: "The first problem with this book is the title."
Yet Jacques remains undeterred by any criticism.
"The book was bound to be controversial as it goes against the conventional wisdom in the West. Inevitably a lot of people are going to come in collision with the book as I'm challenging their mindset. But I want there to be an argument, not for the sake of it, but to try to shift the way people look at China."
Books on China have been growing in popularity since the early 2000s. One of the most famous, or infamous, Gordon Chang's 2001 title The Coming Collapse of China, sold well despite it soon becoming clear that the book's central assertion was flawed.
Chang has remained bullish, republishing the book earlier this year and arguing that his initial claim was not incorrect, but that he had the timing slightly wrong. He declined to comment for this article.
There is a sense that such "all or nothing" claims about China are often the result of pressure from publishers to produce provocative titles that will sell. There is a danger that this process might skew the debate.
"In general, I think that too much of the writing about China is shaped by what have been termed Sinomania and Sinophobia," said Jonathan Fenby, an author and journalist who has written a number of books on China.
"On the one hand we have writers predicting the coming collapse of China and on the other foreseeing the inevitability of China ruling the world. Such predictions are beguiling, especially if they are pitched in headline-grabbing terms."
Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing and the author of Ancient Thought, Chinese Modern Power, said books about China that are written by Westerners can often lack substance and be misleading.
"Most foreigners try to understand China from their knowledge of their own country. I am not saying this is necessarily wrong since it is quite normal. Chinese scholars, in fact, try to understand the United States from their Chinese perspective. It can lead to a lot of misunderstandings, however," he said.
Xie Tao, professor and assistant dean at the School of English and International Studies of Beijing Foreign Studies University, explains the rising popularity of China books, and the vastly divergent views of the authors.
"The sheer number of books on China, fiction or nonfiction, speaks to the fact that China has become probably the most popular topic for the international community. This is perhaps unprecedented since 1949.
"The reason is simple: It's because China has developed into an economic power and is fast becoming a military power.
"I found Henry Kissinger's book On China disappointing. In his awe of Chinese statecraft, he seems to me to overrate its practical outcome," he said. "I also found that his account of his meetings with Mao added nothing to the story as already told by Margaret MacMillan in her book, Seize the Hour. His final prescription for Sino-US relations was vague if well-meaning."
Fenby is more favorable in his evaluation of Ezra Vogel's recent biography of Deng Xiaoping, which he describes as a milestone and by far the most exhaustive work on the former paramount leader.
"The reality of the People's Republic defies simplification. Too many judgments are based on one part or another of the China story; one has to try to take them all into account to form a realistic judgment."
But Cheng Xiaohe, associate professor at the School of International Studies of Renmin University of China, believes foreign authors play an important role in depicting China.
"Certainly, most of the best-selling books concerning China are written by Western scholars and for Western readers, (so) they cannot escape the age-old trap of West-centric orientation. Nonetheless, as many authors come to China frequently and have increasing contacts with their Chinese counterparts, compared with their predecessors from the 1950s to 1970s, they know China much better, and their works - to various degrees - reveal some telling facet of the real China. These authors' ideological bias still plays some kind of role in their writing, but this is becoming less so.
"The books present a benign or malicious image of China to readers and help to shape a popular opinion toward China, which can influence their respective governments' policies toward China. As for Chinese readers, they may disagree with the messages that these book tend to deliver, but through reading these books written from Western perspectives, we Chinese can learn how China and its people are perceived and analyzed by foreigners, and in turn, we can figure out how to redress our weaknesses pinpointed by outsiders."
Troy Parfitt, author of Why China Will Never Rule the World, argues that all too often the good China books are overshadowed by those that make sensational, over-generalized assertions.
"There are still plenty of good China books being published, but it's the mediocre and bad ones that seem to grab all the attention. Good books are often cerebral, critical, and topically specific. They appeal to a small, discriminating audience of China watchers.
"To capture a bigger audience and capitalize on the China trend, publishers have become fond of books that are topically broad, outstandingly uncritical, and plainly written."