FEBRUARY 4, 2022
If you had 15 minutes in the Oval Office, what book on China would you urge the President to read? I first posed this question to students in a final exam I gave in a course on Chinese history I taught in the 1990s, while Bill Clinton was President. In 2004, I began an essay for Boston Review by making the case for trying to get Clinton’s successor to read acclaimed journalist Ian Johnson’s Wild Grass, describing it as “an elegantly written collection of tales of a few of the ‘thousands of ordinary Chinese’ pushing forward a ‘slow-motion revolution’ by making increasingly insistent claims against the government for things that it is often unwilling — and sometimes simply unable — to give them.” And late last year, I asked the same question of three of the many participants in an upcoming symposium that is being hosted by UC Irvine’s Forum for the Academy and the Public in partnership with LARB. Here are the suggested books for Biden proposed by the trio I queried, a group whose diversity of background and location reflects that of the event as a whole: Cindy Yu, a British Chinese journalist and podcaster working in London for The Spectator; Jorge Guajardo, a D.C. lawyer and former Mexican Ambassador to Beijing; and Yangyang Cheng, a physicist and cultural commentator who was born and raised in China and is now a fellow at Yale Law School.
YANGYANG CHENG: The book on China I would recommend to President Biden is The Songs of the South: An Ancient Chinese Anthology of Poems by Qu Yuan and Other Poets. Masterfully translated and annotated by the late British sinologist David Hawkes, the verses were composed around the third century B.C.E. in the kingdom of Chu. Noting that both the President and the First Lady are fans of poetry, I must also admit some selfishness in this suggestion, as my ancestral hometown, Jingzhou, was the capital of Chu for over four hundred years before it fell to Qin, who established the first Chinese empire in 221 B.C.E. Scholars and statesmen of the distant past contemplated the origins of the universe and the conundrums of governance, and their wisdom resonates today. Amidst global calamity and geopolitical divisions, words that have withstood the test of time are a reminder of our common humanity. The anthology is a testament to the transience of state authority and the lasting power of language.
JORGE GUAJARDO: If I could recommend one book to President Biden on the country in Asia I lived in for a long stretch earlier in this century, it would be journalist Joanna Chiu’s China Unbound: A New World Disorder. I pick this book assuming that the President is well versed in US–China bilateral relations, as well as in the economic situation in the country. However, I have long believed that the US–China component of the P.R.C.’s engagement with the world is the least interesting aspect of its international relations. In order to better understand China, it is helpful to see how the country approaches other countries, including smaller ones — ones where it can get away with bullying and interfering in domestic affairs. Therefore, I think President Biden would be well served to understand how China abuses countries to 1) not do the same, and 2) be aware of the situation when he talks to his colleagues from around the world. Chiu’s book is very well written and researched, with plenty of firsthand accounts from the author. I recommend the book for everyone interested in China.
CINDY YU: The recent publication of Rush Doshi’s The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order has caused waves even on my side of the Atlantic, with the British foreign policy community of the view that Doshi has the ear of the President. If that is the case, then I’d recommend a new work on the other side of the debate. Lee Jones and Shahar Hameiri’s Fractured China: How State Transformation is Shaping China’s Rise paints a picture of a Chinese government that, like other governments, is often more prone to cock-ups than conspiracies. By closely looking at the political structure itself, Jones and Hameiri show how a foreign policy directive from above can be variously interpreted by local governments, departments, and state-owned enterprises, sometimes even in ways that directly contravene orders from above. In particular, the book looks at the situation in southeast Asia, which will be of interest to the President in his pivot to the Indo–Pacific. As the world moves into a multipolar era, it’s important that the U.S. correctly identifies the capabilities and weaknesses of its rising challenger.
In case readers are interested in what book a fourth participant in the symposium, yours truly, would recommend to the current president, I would be tempted to choose Land of Big Numbers, a wonderfully varied and illuminating collection of short stories by Te-Ping Chen about which Anjum Hasan wrote beautifully in LARB last year. I have hopes, however, that Biden may already be aware of that book, as his former boss, Barack Obama, included it in his list of summer reads for 2021. I would, therefore, pick something else, which might be of particular interest to a President who refers to the importance of his religious beliefs and could benefit from a primer on the diversity of Chinese ones — namely, Ian Johnson’s most recent book, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, which is even better than the one by the same author I suggested George W. Bush read back in 2004.