Five Biographies Recommended by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

In another China-related selection at Five Books, Jeffrey Wasserstrom—historian, editor of The Journal of Asian Studies and co-founder of The China Beat—recommends five biographies. The books’ subjects range from women of the Qing elite to modern-day factory workers, by way of Mao Zedong.

The choice is overwhelming on the China shelf of any bookshop – everything from macroeconomic tomes to travel guides. Why did you pick ‘life stories’ as your theme?

One of the real challenges for foreigners trying to think about China, and have it make sense to them, is to really get to think of it as a country populated by individuals. There’s a strong tendency in so much of the writing about China to deal in broad generalisations, in which we lose the diversity of the population. So focusing on biography, or life stories, seemed to be a good way to go against the grain ….

Could you imagine someone writing a flesh-and-blood biography of Hu Jintao, or Xi Jinping, or any other more current Chinese leader?

Not one that would make for compelling reading! Though I recently wrote a piece for Time magazine about how when Deng Xiaoping took power after Mao, he seemed in comparison a more down-to-earth, unexciting and pragmatic character – but now, in comparison to Hu Jintao, Deng seems positively charismatic. So we’ve had a kind of steady progression away from larger-than-life Chinese leaders.

Previously featured on China Digital Times are selections from Victor Shih on China’s economy, Evan Osnos on a broad range of China-related reading, Richard Baum on obstacles to reform in China and Xinran on understanding China. Other instalments available in the archives cover popular protest in China, China’s place in the global economy, Uyghur nationalism, the country’s environmental crisis and more.