China Studies Book Club

Every year lots of great books about China get published, books that deserve to be widely read and discussed. Book reviews are helpful, but take months or even years to come out. To make it easier for China scholars to discuss with each other some of the recent English-language books they are reading, the University of Washington China Studies Program is starting a virtual China Studies Book Club. We think it will be fun to have conversations about books we find exciting, provocative, or moving and invite China scholars elsewhere to join us.

UW TEAL Main Room

Tateuchi East Asia Library Reading Room

Part of our motivation for starting the club is benefiting from the online programming that so many Asian Studies groups are now making available to scholars everywhere—we would like to contribute as well, but do something a little different. Like any book club, ours will give those who participate a chance to discuss with other people interesting books that they all have read. And it will probably lead them to read some books they might not have otherwise. During the online meetings, only those who have actually read the book will be invited to join the conversation or ask questions. The meetings themselves will be primarily open discussion rather than presentations. Since we all see ourselves as overly busy, if not seriously behind in our obligations, we will space out our meetings. Two months between meetings should give those interested time to get access to the books and read them. We will favor books with ebook versions to make access easier. We are not asking participants to commit to reading every book we pick, but think that those who attend regularly will get more from the experience.

The books for our first two meetings are listed below. These are obviously very different kinds of books, and that is part of the plan. We want a mix of great research and more essay-like books or major syntheses. We have lots of ideas of books for future meetings, but haven’t yet narrowed them down, so are open to more suggestions.

If you would like to receive announcements of Book Club meetings, Click here to be added to the email list and to submit book suggestions.

Links to register for Zoom sessions will be available two weeks before each meeting. Those on the email list will receive reminders.

China Studies Book Club steering committee: 

Patricia Ebrey, Stevan Harrell, Madeleine Yue Dong, Zhijia Shen, Susan Whiting, Rachel Silberstein, and James Lin.

Sign up here for the book club mailing list or to give us book suggestions!

Upcoming Meetings

Tuesday, October 12, 2021, 3:30-5:00 p.m. PDT (Fifth meeting)
Peter Lavelle, The Profits of Nature: Colonial Development and the Quest for Resources in Nineteenth Century China (Columbia UP 2020).

The Profits of NatureIn the nineteenth century, the Qing empire experienced a period of profound turmoil caused by an unprecedented conjunction of natural disasters, domestic rebellions, and foreign incursions. The imperial government responded to these calamities by introducing an array of new policies and institutions to bolster its power across its massive territories. In the process, Qing officials launched campaigns for natural resource development, seeking to take advantage of the unexploited lands, waters, and minerals of the empire’s vast hinterlands and borderlands.

In this book, Peter B. Lavelle uses the life and career of Chinese statesman Zuo Zongtang (1812–1885) as a lens to explore the environmental history of this era. Although known for his pacification campaigns against rebel movements, Zuo was at the forefront of the nineteenth-century quest for natural resources. Influenced by his knowledge of nature, geography, and technology, he created government bureaus and oversaw state-funded projects to improve agriculture, sericulture, and other industries in territories across the empire. His work forged new patterns of colonial development in the Qing empire’s northwest borderlands, including Xinjiang, at a time when other empires were scrambling to secure access to resources around the globe. Weaving a narrative across the span of Zuo’s lifetime, The Profits of Nature offers a unique approach to understanding the dynamic relationship among social crises, colonialism, and the natural world during a critical juncture in Chinese history, between the high tide of imperial power in the eighteenth century and the challenges of modern state-building in the twentieth century.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021, 3:30-5:00 p.m. PDT (Sixth meeting)

Event Information

Meeting Dates: The second Tuesday of every other month, beginning February 9, 2021
Time: 3:30 PM Pacific time (6:30 PM New York; 11:30 PM London; 7:30 AM China the next day)
Expected Length:
 1 to 1.5 hours

**To view books the club has discussed at previous meetings, click here or navigate to “Past Meetings/Books” in the sidebar at the top of the page**

Fourth Meeting – August 10: Xiaowei Wang, Blockchain Chicken Farm: And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside (October 13, 2020). 256 pages.

Description (Amazon): In Blockchain Chicken Farm, the technologist and writer Xiaowei Wang explores the political and social entanglements of technology in rural China. Their discoveries force them to challenge the standard idea that rural culture and people are backward, conservative, and intolerant. Instead, they find that rural China has not only adapted to rapid globalization but has actually innovated the technology we all use today.

From pork farmers using AI to produce the perfect pig, to disruptive luxury counterfeits and the political intersections of e-commerce villages, Wang unravels the ties between globalization, technology, agriculture, and commerce in unprecedented fashion. Accompanied by humorous “Sinofuturist” recipes that frame meals as they transform under new technology, Blockchain Chicken Farm is an original and probing look into innovation, connectivity, and collaboration in the digitized rural world. Click here to read more about the book, available in Kindle, Audible, and Paperback formats (Amazon).

Third Meeting – June 8: Charles Sanft, Literate Community in Early Imperial China: The Northwestern Frontier in Han Times (May 1, 2019). 276 pages (167 excluding notes).

Description (Amazon): This book examines ancient written materials from China’s northwestern border regions to offer fresh insights into the role of text in shaping society and culture during the Han period (206/2 BCE–220 CE). Left behind by military installations, these documents―wooden strips and other nontraditional textual materials such as silk―recorded the lives and activities of military personnel and the people around them. Charles Sanft explores their functions and uses by looking at a fascinating array of material, including posted texts on signaling across distances, practical texts on brewing beer and evaluating swords, and letters exchanged by officials working in low rungs of the bureaucracy. By focusing on all members of the community, he argues that a much broader section of early society had meaningful interactions with text than previously believed. This major shift in interpretation challenges long-standing assumptions about the limited range of influence that text and literacy had on culture and society and makes important contributions to early China studies, the study of literacy, and to the global history of non-elites. Click here for the book listing, available in Kindle, Hardcover, and Paperback (Amazon).

Second Meeting – April 13: Chris Courtney, The Nature of Disaster in China: The 1931 Yangzi River Flood (Dec 19, 2019). 304 pages.

The Nature of Disaster in China - Book CoverFrom the publisher: In 1931, China suffered a catastrophic flood that claimed millions of lives. This was neither a natural nor human-made disaster. Rather, it was created by an interaction between the environment and society. Regular inundation had long been an integral feature of the ecology and culture of the middle Yangzi, yet by the modern era floods had become humanitarian catastrophes. Courtney describes how the ecological and economic effects of the 1931 flood pulse caused widespread famine and epidemics. He takes readers into the inundated streets of Wuhan, describing the terrifying and disorientating sensory environment. He explains why locals believed that an angry Dragon King was causing the flood, and explores how Japanese invasion and war with the Communists inhibited both official relief efforts and refugee coping strategies. This innovative study offers the first in-depth analysis of the 1931 flood, and charts the evolution of one of China’s most persistent environmental problems. Click here for book listing (Amazon).

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