This Year’s Must Read List

Top Three China Books For 2016

Western Big Publishing continues to exert its influence on China writing, with the usual suspects of 1930s Shanghai-set novels, Cultural Revolution memoirs and socio-political prospectuses from so-called “Sino-experts” reaping the dragon’s share of reviews by their allies in Big Media. But for this well-read expatriate, three of 2016’s most intriguing Englishlanguage titles about Chinese culture were released through smaller, yet more inspired, independent presses in Asia.

Party Members 
Arthur Meursault
Camphor

Decidedly the most disturbing book you will read this year, if not in your lifetime, is Meursault’s Party Members. It is rightly labelled as a “black comedy”, and you WILL laugh, but there is so much distressing material densely packed within its 286 pages that a trigger warning is required for lay readers. Take the most horrible headlines you have ever read about contemporary China, let them ferment like sorghum in the darkest corners of Meursault’s mind, distil into a bizarro-absurdist narrative and you have a novel as intoxicating as a bottle of bottom-shelf baijiu. 

Yang Wei is an everyday civil servant in an everyday industrial Chinese city who “hated the idea of someone else having something he couldn’t have”. What happens next is a perfect case study of Chinese officialdom and the “carefully constructed web of mutually corrupt reciprocity” that still haunts it despite the central government’s best efforts to swat out “flies” like Yang. Between his tiresome wife, a vapid son and his dull life of paperwork, it is easy for Yang to get caught up in “the dream of every single Chinese man and women to be better than their neighbours”.
 
The secret to Yang’s success, or rather, excess, is his talking phallus, a too-obvious metaphor for how cadres seem to view themselves. It is a scientific fact that people who achieve wealth or power develop increased levels of testosterone, which in turn makes them even more aggressive and ambitious. Thus, in a hyper-competitive society like China, being a prick, sadly, seems to be the only way to get ahead (“It’s only by using others that we get stronger”). Meursault profanely exaggerates every literal and figurative tendency to do so through Yang’s ensuing tragicomedy.
 
At The Teahouse Café
Isham Cook
Magic Theatr
Miller eventually realises that he, not the State, is the publication’s own worst enemy, with selfcensorship dictating the day. Cook, who has made a name for himself as one of China’s most irreverent expat essayists, has never had that dilemma. Based in Beijing, Cook’s 2012 experimental writing debut, Lust & Philosophy, didn’t go down as smoothly as his 2014 follow-ups, The Exact Unknown and Massage and the Writer. The latter, which traces his prurient exploits throughout East Asia, ensured that Cook would be blacklisted by mass-market book reviewers but secured him a cult following of libertines.
 
Cook’s latest offering, At the Teahouse Cafe, abandons the erotic for more mundane musings about life in China. In his preface, Cook makes it clear that he refuses to fall into the Western journalist trappings of remaining safely removed from the narrative while catering to “the expectations and stereotypes of Anglo audiences for an oppressed and tragic China.” Instead, Cook “freely implicates myself in my interactions with locals”. He delights in not being constrained by the “mass-market sameness of a major publisher”, unlike, say, Peter Hessler or Evan Osnos, both with whom Cook has a love-hate relationship for their finely honed yet ultimately “monochromatic voice of earnestness and righteousness.”
 
Other topics in Teahouse are less contentious and more edifying, spanning modern and ancient Chinese history, urban life, the art and music scene and even biracial romance. Each one is brilliantly written; some worthy of an academic journal, but all together feel more fragmented than his previous collections of essays. Content with having rattled the Puritans and Victorians who haughtily guard the world’s literary reviews and Sunday book supplements, and perhaps longing to finally get in the good graces of Beijing’s foreign writer colonies, Cook may lose some loyal fans with Teahouse, but it could very well thrust him into the mainstream acceptance that he has for so long shunned.
 
Trickle-down Censorship
JFK Miller
Hybrid
While Meursault is a Westerner writing a fictionalized perspective of the inner workings of Chinese bureaucracy, Australian Miller offers his own first-hand experiences as a foreign writer working for six years in Statemonitored mainland media. His new memoir, Trickle-down Censorship, is a taut account of Miller’s time at That’s Shanghai, “a glorified listings mag with the occasional pretentious outbreak of sober journalism”, which Miller argues may have been under more intense scrutiny due to That’s Magazine’s infamous backstory of having been wrested from its foreign founder.
 
An admitted “middle-roader” about China, Trickle-down is refreshingly fair in its analysis of government censorship (“they don’t tell us what to say, only what we can’t”) and the censors themselves, who Miller describes more as minders than muzzlers. In fact, many of his example encounters end with the censor, not Miller, caving (“They eventually let me run it, but reluctantly”, is a common refrain). If anything, its biggest antagonist is the magazine’s “Mao-esque” CEO, who wants Miller to “make it less good”.
 
With no journalism or editing experience (“No one cares. It’s all about what you can bring”) Miller nonetheless rises the ranks to managing editor of That’s, but not without a number of missteps and clashes with Beijing’s Central Publicity Department along the way. It is a memoir, but Trickle-down thankfully avoids the tired tropes of many expat books that self-aggrandisingly focus more on bar-room brags, romantic dalliances and personal issues (e.g. Mitch Moxley's much maligned media memoir). Selfdeprecatingly, Miller makes himself an afterthought, focusing instead on explaining the complicated machinations (and vagaries) of State censorship, replete with extensive footnotes and citations.