Saturday, December 01, 2012

List of the Month - Ideas for China books

Since I am wrapping up my blogs in a few weeks, and planning to finally leave China early next year, I thought an appropriate topic for this farewell 'List of the Month' would be a rundown of all the concepts for non-fiction books about China that I've toyed with trying to pitch to a publisher over my decade of living here - the China books that I'm now most unlikely ever to write.

China books I might have written 
(and that somebody probably should write one day)

Surfing to Shanghai
Blind optimism and millennial despair among foreign entrepreneurs in China

This has always been my favourite of the China titles I've come up with, and I was originally tempted to use it for a novel about expats in China - an idea that I gave up on as I've become more and more convinced that there's nothing that interesting to write about being an expat in China (and far too many people are now trying to). The image was inspired by my viewing some 14 years or so ago of the film Deep Impact (the better of the two Earth-nearly-destroyed-by-a-comet movies to come out that year - although it acquired unfortunate personal associations for me). There's a scene near the end where the scrumptious Tea Leoni has effected a reconciliation with her estranged father, and the two of them are standing on a beach waiting to die together, as an enormous tsunami - hundreds of feet high and travelling at the speed of sound - rushes towards them. I couldn't help thinking (and perhaps the final scene of Point Break was at the back of my mind here as well), There's no way there wouldn't be some surfers out there hoping to catch that wave! Shanghai, of course, is the country's principal centre of commerce, and has long been the focal point for foreigners coming here hoping to make a killing in Chinese business. It's also situated at the Yangtze delta; so, if - WHEN - the huge, hybristic Three Gorges Dam eventually fails, there'll be a BIG tidal wave sweeping down the river all the way to Shanghai. And there's bound to be a few crazy surfers hoping to ride that wave, even though they'll almost certainly kill themselves in the attempt. This image has become for me an irresistible metaphor for the delusional optimism - and selfish opportunism - that characterises so much of foreign investment in this country.

Hu's On First
A bluffer's guide to the inner workings of Chinese politics

We may have missed the window on this one, since dear old Comrade Hu is now on his way out of the top job, after ten years of low-profile mediocrity. Still, it may be some time before Xi Jinping - the "Invisible Man" - becomes at all widely known in the West, so this title might remain workable for a while yet. It seems like too good a pun to pass up.

Thank You For Your Suggestion
China's greatest dumb mistakes

I see this more as a mass-market stocking-filler kind of book than a 'serious' business tome. China has a staggering propensity for really spectacular cock-ups; they are frequent enough, I would think, to supply a whole series of hilarious/horrifying anthologies of this sort. In most of these cases, I'm quite sure, someone has pointed out the possibility of impending disaster - which has, unfortunately, ensured that the disaster will happen, because the 'loss of face' concept here makes it almost impossible for a Chinese person (certainly a Chinese person in some sort of position of authority) to accept someone else's advice (particularly when that advice is so obvious that it unfortunately bears an implication of monumental stupidity on the part of the person to whom it is being proffered). Those of us who've worked for Chinese companies and Chinese educational institutions have heard the dread phrase "Thank you for your suggestion" - delivered through a thin-lipped phoney smile - countless times; we have come to realise that it decodes as, "Your impudent recommendations will be filed in the wastepaper bin. Please don't bother us again."

China's Street Food
The endless variety of cheap eats in the nation that invented fast food

I am something of a curmudgeonly sceptic about the supposed wonderfulness of Chinese restaurant cuisine, but the fabulous street snacks here seem to get mostly overlooked. I'm not a food writer, alas. And it would be a monumental task to try to come up with a comprehensive survey of this field - since every province and every major city, and even a lot of the smaller cities, towns, and villages have their own unique local specialities. And the scene is in constant flux as well, quite faddish: there was a craze in Beijing a few years ago for a kind of 'Chinese pizza', a flatbread with a scant topping of spiced meat (allegedly a speciality of the Tujia, one of the minority peoples from south central China), that became almost ubiquitous for a few months and then completely disappeared again. Visiting the southern province of Guizhou last month, I discovered that chips ('French fries', if you must), fat, crinkle-cut ones, fried in roadside woks (and usually dressed with heaps of chilli powder!), were hugely popular there - but I suspect this must be a fairly recent innovation, and perhaps again just a transient fad.

Almost No Difference
Chabuduo and the problem of quality control in China

Despite the apparent flippancy of the title, this is one of my more earnest suggestions, something that I think somebody should write - and sooner rather than later. Finding the right title, though, has given me a lot of trouble. I had thought From Six Sigma To Chabuduo would be quite catchy. I definitely think chabuduo - the "What does it matter?" attitude so often encountered in China (literally, 'difference not much') - has to be the focus; but the word is probably not recognised outside of China, and so I eventually decided that it would have to be translated in the title and/or the strapline. I fear it still doesn't quite work, though, doesn't grab the attention strongly enough, or declare its subject clearly enough. I suspect most of these titles might have to have 'China' or 'Chinese' inserted into them in order to achieve this.

Blighted Generations
The ongoing traumatic legacy of the Mao years

I have become increasingly convinced that so many of the social/emotional problems we see in China today - the selfishness, the pettiness, the aggressive driving, the volcanic explosions of rage over trivial slights - can be traced, at least in part, to the whole nation suffering a kind of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the horrors that Mao visited on this country, especially at the height of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s. Anyone in their sixties or later fifties today is going to have been caught up in that maelstrom of homicidal lunacy during their teens or early twenties; very many of them will have been members of the notorious Red Guard.  People in the forties to mid-fifties may have escaped direct involvement in the atrocities, but their childhoods will have been blighted by the chaos going on around them. Even the younger generations in their twenties and thirties, mostly born well after this nightmare had come to an end, will surely have been affected to some extent by the mental scars the period left on older members of their families. (Beijing Coma, Ma Jian's novel about the Tiananmen protests of 1989, strongly suggests that the radical fervour of the student protesters - who were only very young children in the '60s and '70s - was stoked by the revolutionary rhetoric of that era, and by the lingering bitterness they felt over the pain their families had suffered during it.) And I worry that it may take a very long time for China to completely recover from this.

The Occidental Tourist
Eight centuries of viewing China through Western eyes

Pun addict that I am, I can't resist this play on the name of Anne Tyler's 1985 bestselling novel, The Accidental Tourist. Initially, I'd been considering taking this as a title for a book about my own experiences in China - or perhaps more generally about the expat experience in China during the Nineties and Noughties, since for all foreigners here, however long we stick around for, however much we try to put down roots, there's always something unsubstantial and impermanent about our tenure, we are doomed to be always outsiders, always only 'tourists' in the Middle Kingdom. But, as I lamented above, I've become progressively disenchanted with that topic: the expat-in-China book is now an overworked field. However, I think this title could still work for a survey of foreign accounts of encounters with China down the ages - from Marco Polo onwards. Essentially an anthology of other people's travel writing, it should be a fairly easy book to write.

Chinese Exodus
Why the middle classes are deserting China

I think the scale on which better-educated and more affluent citizens are quitting this country to settle overseas - predominantly, it seems, in Australia and Canada, although the USA, New Zealand, and many other countries are also allowing them in fairly indiscriminately - is one of the most important phenomena happening in China today, one that raises serious doubts about the real success, or at any rate the continued sustainability, of its supposed 'economic miracle' of the last 20 years. And it's not just a major issue for China, but for the whole world: the impact of this new Chinese diaspora on their host countries is going to have increasingly significant cultural and political effects in the next few decades.

Actually, I think I might possibly get around to attempting one or the other of these last two. What do you think? Any favourites among these? Any suggestions for me?

Afterthought - an actual book recommendation

This week's topic also gives me a convenient excuse to throw in a quick plug for my mate Tom Miller, who has just published his first book, China's Urban Billion - a study of the growing pains the country is going through as it attempts to transform itself from a predominantly rural-agrarian society to a predominantly urban-industrial one in the space of just half a century. It's had some very good reviews, and I'm looking forward to reading it shortly.


Gary said...

You should definitely write one of these. Hell, write all of them.

I think the one on the new diaspora is most needful. Or the chabuduo one, of course!

And you're quitting the blogs?? Nooooo! Come on, dude, this Mayan apocalypse is BS. We'll still need you on the other side of December 21st.

Froog said...

Thanks for the encouragement. I shall tell my publisher that I've got at least one advance subscriber lined up.

No, I'm not expecting Christmas to be cancelled this year (although there might be some fun 'End of the World' parties on the 20th or 21st, I imagine). But I decided about a year ago that this would be a convenient date to call time on the blogs; and once my mind is made up, it stays made up.

Thanks for your support over the years. You have been probably my most consistent commenter, and I really appreciate that.

JES said...

In my protracted online absence of the last few months, not just here but most places, it turns out that a LOT of bloggers who first drew my attention in 2008 have trailed off into silence. I knew you were toying with the idea but had rather hoped you wouldn't succumb. It disheartens.

Well, there's always the hope for a revival of the old blogging instincts later, from elsewhere. Don't you dare try to disabuse me of that hope.

As for China, again, I knew you seemed to have had it some months ago. Not clear to me, though, what your next phase will be. Anything definite on that horizon yet?

Froog said...

My only clear plan is to attempt to run another marathon here on 5th January.

Everything up in the air, after that.

I am only just starting to look for work - and doing my best to resist considering anything in China (although it seems I do have some options in Hangzhou/Suzhou - which are prettier and less polluted than Beijing).

Sorry to be adding to the exodus from blogging. I can see it must get a bit dispiriting when you see a lot of people quit over a short period of time. I wonder if there is some underlying phenomenon driving this? It might be just coincidence, I suppose. Or, if not quite coincidence, there might be certain factors that limit most people's appetite for the hobby: I have observed that most people seem to quit after 3-5 years - so, I'm already one of the more long-lived bloggers out here.

I do fret, though, that the mobile revolution is a big factor. I may write on this later in the week. I think it's trivializing people's interaction with the Internet, rendering their interaction briefer and more superficial. It's impossible to write - or to read at length - on a mobile device; so I think people who use mobile devices a lot tend to grow out of the habit of reading at length or writing online even when they are using the Internet through a PC. I'm pretty sure this is what's killed commenting - and many bloggers are no doubt discouraged by that, even if their habit wasn't already on the wane.