On Vogel & Kissinger’s “Sino-Americana”

Science fiction author William Gibson has frequently argued that “novels set in imaginary futures are necessarily about the moment in which they are written“; that the real subject matter of ’1984′ was 1948. In the London Review of Books, Perry Anderson reviews three examples of what he calls “Sino-Americana”, a sub-genre whose ostensible focus is China, but which in fact offers a reflected view of its native United States.

The three volumes under the magnifying glass are Ezra Vogel’s ‘Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China’, Henry Kissinger’s ‘On China’ and Jay Taylor’s ‘The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China’.

Books about China, popular and scholarly, continue to pour off the presses. In this ever expanding literature, there is a subdivision that could be entitled ‘Under Western Eyes’. The larger part of it consists of works that appear to be about China, or some figure or topic from China, but whose real frame of reference, determining the optic, is the United States. Typically written by functionaries of the state, co-opted or career, they have as their underlying question: ‘China – what’s in it for us?’ Rather than Sinology proper, they are Sino-Americana. Ezra Vogel’s biography of Deng Xiaoping is an instructive example ….

… Vogel devotes just 30 pages, out of nearly 900, to the first 65 years of Deng’s life. The foreshortening is historically grotesque, but perfectly logical from his standpoint. Of what relevance to policy-makers and pundits in Washington is Deng’s long career as a revolutionary, steeled in clandestinity, insurrection and civil war, and the founding and leading of the PRC under Mao? It is only when he is detached from this history, and can be safely treated as a victim of the Cultural Revolution whose triumphant comeback enabled a turn to the market – and the United States – that Vogel’s story gets underway.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom also points out Anderson’s January 2010 review of Martin Jacques’ ‘When China Rules the World’, Yasheng Huang’s ‘Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics’ and Ching Kwan Lee’s ‘Against the Law’, “without taking stock of [which], no sense of contemporary China is clear-eyed.” See also more on Vogel’s book and a lot more on Kissinger’s, via CDT.