Chinese history, Tibet, and the lives of ordinary Chinese circa 1985

Dear Reader:

I’m continuing to read 62) Red Poppies: A Novel of Tibet by Alai (1998, recommended by Joy’s father) (HC), 64) China: A New History by John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman (2006, HC) and Merle Goldman, 66) Chinese Lives by Zhang XinXin and Sang Ye (1987) (HC), and 74) Journey into China by the National Geographic Society (1982, HC).

Red Poppies by Alai

I’m just at the start of this book, a few chapters in.  It is the story of a young boy, “The Idiot,” (the only name we have for him) who is the son of the second wife of a Tibetan Chieftan (traditionally, this son is an idiot).  It is a bit hard to tell when the book is taking place, but they have rifles and China is interfering, so perhaps the first half of the 20th Century before the 1949 Communist Revolution? (a look at a review says it is around 1949)

The boy is making his way through life, learning his role in the family and chronicling its stories as his father builds wealth and power.  He is also sleeping with his 18 year old servant (the boy is 13 at the time), this seems like something that might happen under the circumstances.

The book is in translation, Alai wrote it in Chinese although he/she was of Tibetan descent.  It is supposed to be the first in a trilogy and was a best seller in China.  It does give you a sense of how life must have been – something about the language helps you to imagine yourself in the perspective of someone living through this life very different from Western life in 2011.

China: A New History by Fairbank and Goldman

I’m really enjoying this 450 page, fairly small print history.  I’ve made it through the millennia (China has 5000 years of history…) to 1600.  Through the Song, the Ming, the Zhou, the Mongols…  For me this is really fun to read because it is putting together so many pieces.  Now I have a context for “Ming.”  It also helps you to understand China’s perspective.

Obviously, it is tough to summarize 150 pages+ in a few lines.  So, I’ll just say that one of the main aspects of China as an empire/nation/culture is that is was very inward looking.  Although it had the technology to sail long distances many years before Europe did, it abandoned this project fairly early on and never approached it as an empire-building exercise.  Of course, China traded in more or less limited fashion with Europe and other Asian countries, but it never really engaged them deeply.  It defined everyone outside of China as barbarian and unable to rise to China’s level: therefore, why invade them?  Instead, over 1000s of years, “China” ebbed and flowed, enlarging (within the boundaries of what China is today) and shrinking.  It developed an advanced administrative and cultural state by 500 BC (or earlier).

A Chinese friend once told me that China’s history is all about being invaded and fending off (or absorbing, as with the Mongols) invaders.  It never sought to take over other countries.  If you think, as I do, that China is going to be the dominant force of the 21st Century, then you can see Chinese history over 1000s of years as one big super power…with a couple of lapses.  This book is well-written and engaging.

Chinese Lives by Zhang and Sang

Zhang and Sang were reporters who set out to interview many ordinary Chinese in the mid-1980’s.  The result is an absolutely fascinating book from a time when communism was still quite strong, Mao hadn’t been dead long, and China was still quite closed.  The book is organized along different themes: reformers, states of marriage, etc.  Three to five interviews are included under each.  They are labelled things like: Land, Builder, Whirlpool.  And in the chapters one Chinese man or woman tells their story.  It is mostly their recent story and it can be about their career, work, marriage, children.  And it is absolutely wonderful.  There are around 75 stories total and I can’t think of a better way to get a glimpse of “average” Chinese life in the 1980s than this book.  I don’t know where I got it and I’d overlooked it for years because the cover doesn’t look that engaging, but once I started reading it, I was fascinated.  There is the story of the contractor who turned to raising angora rabbits, the dentist on the outskirts of Hong Kong, the wife who is being beaten by her husband whom she is leaving…  a marvelous book with a preface by Studs Terkel.

Journey into China

I am skimming this National Geographic book from the 1980’s.  It has, of course, wonderful pictures with lots of explanation.  It is fun to page through, but I’m not sure that I’m going to try to read it.  I’m also streaming Wild China, a documentary series on Netflix, wow!  What a series.  China is such an amazing, weird, and wonderful place with so much diversity of people, landscapes, and animals.  The things that people have done to the landscape over 1000s of years boggle the mind.

Happy Reading, Ruby

Hard copy is HC and I number books by the order in which they were originally mentioned in my blog.




  1. I think it is often hard for those of us outside China to understand the combination of history the country is built on, yet growing pains still facing this nation as technology, limited capitolism, and population continue to place growing demands on resources. The more I read about and talk to people from the diverse regions of China, the more I realize how little China is understood by other nations and people.

    And once again, you have given me an addtional book or two to add to my one day reading list! Thank you!

    • Hi Christy: Thanks for writing. Yes, it is very hard to put ourselves in Chinese perspectives – the country and culture are so different…

      On the other hand, I think that intellectuals or educated people or professionals (however you want to put it) share a lot worldwide. So, I suspect that (and it has been my experience) that we have more in common with educated/intellectually-oriented Chinese, Ghanaians, Bulgarians etc around the world than some people with very different views within our own cultures and countries.

      This is one of the things I enjoy the most in meeting people from around the world – our experiences may be quite different, but we frequently have an amazing amount in common.

      Happy reading, Ruby

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