China Rising

China is in its own gilded age, says The New Yorker writer Evan Osnos, into a second generation of ultra-modern tech, a still-developing country bristling with billionaires. On the eve of Chris’ trip to China, we’re wondering how a country with nearly a century of poverty, collectivism, and authoritarian rule adapts to its explosive (and vastly unequal) wealth.

Guest List
Evan Osnos
China correspondent for The New Yorker, author of Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China.
Amb. Chas Freeman
U.S. Foreign Service lifer who rose to top jobs in State and Defense. He was translator for Nixon, Kissinger and Mao back in the 1970s, and author of Interesting Times: China, America, and the Shifting Balance of Prestige.
Eugene Wang
professor of Asian Art at Harvard University and author, most recently, of Sterling Ruby: Vivids.
Yiyun Li
Chinese-America writer and novelist of, most recently, Kinder Than Solitude.

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  • sidewalker

    I hope this discussion is not carried out in the monolithic language of international politics and that at the end we are left even more in puzzlement about the complexity of this socially and physically diverse space.

    • Chris Lydon

      Because I so cherish your ROS comments over the years, I want to be sure I get your point before we plunge into China talk tonight.

      Evan Osnos has written a good book about the transformations in China ― about the money and self-reliance transformations, not much at all about the geo-politics of East Asia.

      Chas Freeman is a policy guy, fluent in Chinese language, a translator for Nixon, Kissinger and Mao back in the 70s. He’s wary of the US alignment in to many minor disputes ― with the neighbors against China.

      Yiyun Li is a prize-winning novelist (now American) who grew up in Shanghai and is prepared to talk on American misconceptions of Chinese people and culture.

      Eugene Wang is an art historian of China, now at Harvard, who wants to point me to tell-tale artifacts and buildings in Shanghai that tell cultural stories to visitors like me.

      I’m not clear yet just what traps you want to warn me away from, so I hope you’ll spell it out in an extension of your comment this morning. I don’t want to get it all wrong!

      Warm greetings to you, Sidewalker, on a beautiful morning in Boston.

      • sidewalker

        Dear Chris,

        Thank you for taking the time to write and respond to my concern. As you probably know, I greatly appreciate the way you bring such interesting voices, questions and humanity into the public discourse. Your interviews are always so thought provoking and informative for me and push my thinking in new directions.

        Now that you tell me about your guests I have less concern, but I hope the show avoids what has become it seems to me the growing reification of China, mostly in negative terms. The international politics discourse, which primarily talks about the world as nation-state players and in comparative and rivalrous terms, provides over-generalized and simplified summations of diverse and complex societies.

        Maybe I am more sensitive than I should be, but I live in Tokyo and almost daily in the press and in the pub I hear people talk about China in such disparaging terms while they are eating food made from the sweat of farmers and wearing clothes made by the tired hands of garment workers there living much less comfortable lives.
        I feel that if we heard more about the lives of these people and migrant workers or those living by polluted rivers, etc., and less about China as a growth machine and rising power to rival the West, we could lose the labels and walls, and find threads that tie us together in this transformative moment and at least raise awareness if not mosaics of understanding.

        I’m not sure if I’ve clarified or muddied my earlier point, but thank you for asking and giving me the chance.

        Kindest regards,


        • Potter

          I hope I am not budding in here, but we came back from Japan a couple of months ago and this negative feeling about China was unmistakeable in our Japanese guide. It may have also to do ( I know it did) with the territorial dispute and the bullying on the part of China in the South China Sea. There were many tourists from China. The (written) language is based on Chinese. As we went through the countryside I imagined I was in China for much of the domestic architecture that emulated the Chinese and the rice paddies. And the more I read about Japanese history the more intertwining and influence I see- especially in the arts, particularly ceramics, my special interest.-not to forget Buddhism, tea, and rice culture. That is not to say that Japan and the Japanese are not very different in so many ways that are wonderful. This is just my impression from a two week journey around the country- but we were just getting an inkling of this animosity… probably exacerbated by the dispute. Sort of a love-hate?

          So I understand your reaction,Sidewalker, from that angle.

  • Cambridge Forecast

    ‘Perspectivalizing’ China, Then and Now:
    Perhaps the greatest work of scholarship of the twentieth century is Joseph Needham’s massive “Science and Civilization in China”.
    A classic “synoptic overview” of the interaction of China and the West is Joseph Needham’s “The Grand Titration”, 1969 which was reviewed as follows:
    “The historical civilization of China is, with the Indian and European-Semitic, one of the three greatest in the world, yet only relatively recently has any enquiry been begun into its achievements in science and technology. Between the first and fifteenth centuries the Chinese were generally far in advance of Europe and it was not until the scientific revolution of the Renaissance that Europe drew ahead. Throughout those fifteen centuries, and ever since, the West has been profoundly affected by the discoveries and invention emanating from China and East Asia.
    In this series of essays and lectures, Joseph Needham explores the mystery of China’s early lead and Europe’s later overtaking.”
    Europe’s later overtaking, just mentioned, is demonstrated here in terms of Shanghai’s modern urban history:
    Professor Leo Ou-Fan Lee (Harvard), in his “Shanghai Modern” (Harvard University Press, 1999) argues for
    the following perspective on material aspects of the West implanting themselves in modern China via Shanghai:
    “What has not received sufficient scholarly attention until recently are the material aspects of Western civilization….
    In fact, most of the facilities of modern urban life were introduced to the concessions, according to Tang Zhenchang, a leading scholar on Shanghai history, proved easier to accept than the “spiritual” aspects…
    In fact, most of the aspects of modern urban life were introduced to the concessions soon after the mid-century; banks (first introduced in 1848), Western-style streets (1856), gaslights (1865), electricity (1882), telephone (1881), running water (1884), automobiles (1901), and trams (1908).
    Thus by the beginning of the twentieth century, the Shanghai concessions already had the infrastructure of a modern city even by Western standards. By the 1930s, Shanghai was on a par with the major cities of the world.”
    (“Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930-1945”, Harvard paperback 1999, page 6)
    Shanghai modernism as just surveyed might well be supplemented
    by bringing in the classic Chinese novel “Midnight”, 1933, by Mao Dun which describes the ferocious economic intrigues and struggles in Shanghai of the early thirties:
    “In those days government bonds were the chief object of speculation on the Shanghai Stock and Bond Exchange. (footnote “Midnight” 1976, paperback, 1976, Hong Kong, page 48).
    The rest of this footnote on page 48 of this English-language translation of the 1933 novel “Midnight” sounds eerily and weirdly like a version of the contemporary Michael Lewis financial expose books, “The Big Short,” “Moneyball,” and “Liar’s Poker”.
    In other words Shanghai real estate and stocks and bonds speculative manias of 2014, are precedented and not entirely

    The ‘grand titration” of civilizations and their material and commercial aspects flowing into each other, is a very deep and long story.
    Richard Melson

  • Cambridge Forecast

    ‘Perspectivalizing’ China, Then and Now II
    Part II: Some Materials

    For ROS listeners to “China Rising” who might want to delve deeper into “the grand titration” between and among civilizations (China and global history in the long view and along the entire arc) as well as global history seen through Chinese eyes (Wang Hui), etc., the following materials might be helpful and eye-opening for Sinologists-in-the –making as well as the curious whose interest has been piqued by the stimulating ROS China discussion:




    5. China’s New Order

    Society, Politics, and Economy in Transition
    Harvard University Press by: Wang Hui

    “As the world is drawn together with increasing force, our long-standing isolation from—and baffling ignorance of—China
    is ever more perilous. This book offers a powerful analysis of China and the transformations it has undertaken since 1989.
    Wang Hui is unique in China’s intellectual world for his ability to synthesize an insider’s knowledge of economics, politics, civilization, and Western critical theory. A participant in the Tiananmen Square movement, he is also the editor of the most important intellectual journal in contemporary China. He has a grasp and vision that go beyond contemporary debates to allow him to connect the events of 1989 with a long view of Chinese history. Wang Hui argues that the features of contemporary China
    are elements of the new global order as a whole in which considerations of economic growth and development have trumped every other concern, particularly those of democracy and social justice.” (review of Harvard University Press book)


    Mao Dun (author of “Midnight”)

    Richard Melson

  • Pnfriel

    Thank you Chris! Outstanding discussion, I will be thinking about this for a long time.

  • Potter

    Once you get to Shanghai you should definitely have a martini.

  • Cambridge Forecast

    China Rising and the Rising Sense of Chinese Grievance: The Long Fuse

    The superb ROS panel discussion “China
    Rising” needs another dimension, namely, Chinese anger rising.

    One handle on this tremendous sense of Chinese humiliation by the West is provided to us tangentially by Somerset Maugham’s 1919-1920 China travel sketches where an eruptive Chinese anger reveals itself unmistakably in Maugham’s interesting conversations with leading Chinese personalities and intellectuals. The collection of Maugham’s sketches was first published as a book in 1922 with the title, “on A Chinese Screen.”

    “On a Chinese Screen is a collection of fifty-eight short sketches of
    people and places in China.William Somerset Maugham takes us from the coastal treaty ports to the Great Wall and far up the Yangtze River. As a famous writer basking in the recent success of his novels Of Human Bondage and The Moon and Sixpence, he enjoyed rare access to the Chinese and expat elites. Urbane yet adventurous, one moment he’s chatting with consuls and scholars, the next rubbing shoulders with Chinese coolies at a rustic roadside inn.
    “Originally published in 1922, it’s a beautifully written book, evocative of a lost age of travel and the last days of Old China, and is often wickedly funny. Much of the humour comes from Maugham’s caustic treatment of Western expats whom he scorns for their pomposity, insularity and hypocrisy.”


    The following excerpt from Maugham’s book sketching his conversation with a leading Chinese intellectual will reveal the tremendous sense of frustration, humiliation and grievance:
    The Philosopher

    “I am flattered that you wished to see me,”

    he returned. “Your countrymen deal only with

    coolies and with compradores; they think every

    Chinese must be one or the other.”

    I ventured to protest. But I had not caught

    his point. He leaned back in his chair and looked

    at me with an expression of mockery.

    “They think they have but to beckon and we

    must come.”

    “I took the Ph. D. in Berlin, you know,” he

    said. “And afterwards I studied for some time in

    Oxford. But the English, if you will allow me to

    say so, have no great aptitude for philosophy.”

    “Have you studied the modern developments of

    philosophy in America ?” I asked.

    “Are you speaking of Pragmatism? It is the

    last refuge of those who want to believe the in-

    credible. I have more use for American petroleum

    than for American philosophy.”

    His judgments were tart. We sat down once

    more and drank another cup of tea. He began to

    talk with fluency. He spoke a somewhat formal

    but an idiomatic English. Now and then he helped

    himself out with a German phrase. So far as it

    was possible for a man of that stubborn character

    to be influenced he had been influenced by Ger-many.

    My host lit a cigarette. His voice at first had

    been thin and tired, but as he grew interested in

    what he said it gained volume. He talked vehemently. There was in him none of the repose of the sage. He was a polemist and a fighter. He

    loathed the modern cry for individualism. For him society was the unit, and the family the foun-dation of society. He upheld the old China and

    the old school, monarchy, and the rigid canon of

    Confucius. He grew violent and bitter as he

    spoke of the students, fresh from foreign universities, who with sacrilegious hands tore down the oldest civilization in the world.

    “But you, do you know what you are doing?”

    he exclaimed. “What is the reason for which you

    deem yourselves our betters? Have you excelled

    us in arts or letters? Have our thinkers been less

    profound than yours? Has our civilization been

    less elaborate, less complicated, less refined than

    yours? Why, when you lived in caves and clothed

    yourselves with skins we were a cultured people.

    Do you know that we tried an experiment which

    is unique in the history of the world? J We sought

    to rule this great country not by force, but by

    wisdom. And for centuries we succeeded. Then

    why does the white man despise the yellow?

    Shall I tell you? Because he has invented

    the machine gun. That is your superiority.

    We are a defenseless horde and you can blow us

    into eternity. You have shattered the dream of

    our philosophers that the world could be governed

    by the power of law and order. And now you are

    teaching our young men your secret. You have

    thrust your hideous inventions upon us. Do you

    not know that we have a genius for mechanics?

    Do you not know that there are in this country

    four hundred millions of the most practical and

    industrious people in the world? Do you think

    it will take us long to learn? And what will

    become of your superiority when the yellow man can

    make as good guns as the white and fire them as

    straight? You have appealed to the machine gun

    and by the machine gun shall you be judged.”

    ON A CHINESE SCREEN 1922 book Somerset Maugham


    Richard Melson