Adventures in China Watching

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Professor of History at the University of California at Irvine, reviews UCLA Professor of Political Science Richard Baum’s memoir, China Watcher: Confessions of a Peking Tom. From the Huffington Post:

It’s a concise survey of recent Chinese political history. But it’s also a potted history of the American China studies establishment — or, rather, that establishment’s social scientific wing of which Baum is part, since humanities fields such as history and literature get only glancing attention. And it’s a memoir of one leader of that establishment’s life in Chinese studies, a coming of age and career highlights tale that often showcases the author’s puckish side. One choice anecdote, for example, involves a young Baum’s ultimately unsuccessful effort to fast-talk his way into a visa for travel into mainland China, back in the 1960s when Americans could very rarely get them. His ploy was to make the most of a mislabeled photograph in a pro-Communist Hong Kong newspaper that referred to him as a “friend of China” enamored of Mao’s writings, and also described him as a French merchant seaman rather than a graduate student from California.

Due to its hybrid nature, different sorts of readers are likely to move through the book in varying ways and at varying speeds. For it’s hard to imagine any single individual who will find each of the three books-within-a-book equally interesting, and it’s also hard to imagine any readers, even one intrigued with the book overall (as I was), failing to grow impatient with it at times. For example, as a fellow specialist (albeit one working in history rather than Baum’s field of political science), I buzzed through his lucid recaps of famous events like the Cultural Revolution, but as I did so I was well aware that those were the very sections that many non-specialists would want to read most carefully and would find most valuable. Conversely, I tended to linger on Baum’s opinionated commentaries on prominent figures in Asian studies–but readers who aren’t in the field may well want to skim those sections, feeling that they have too much of an inside baseball quality.

Further description of the book, from the University of Washington Press:

This audacious and illuminating memoir by Richard Baum, a senior China scholar and sometime policy advisor, reflects on forty years of learning about and interacting with the People’s Republic of China, from the height of Maoism during the author’s UC Berkeley student days in the volatile 1960s through globalization. Anecdotes from Baum’s professional life illustrate the alternately peculiar, frustrating, fascinating, and risky activity of China watching – the process by which outsiders gather and decipher official and unofficial information to figure out what’s really going on behind China’s veil of political secrecy and propaganda. Baum writes entertainingly, telling his narrative with witty stories about people, places, and eras.

China Watcher will appeal to scholars and followers of international events who lived through the era of profound political and academic change described in the book, as well as to younger, post-Mao generations, who will enjoy its descriptions of the personalities and political forces that shaped the modern field of China studies.

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