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Reviews of the reviews: East-Asian non-fiction in 2016

2016 was a particularly good year for China books, with a wide variety of books of both academic and general interest. Here is a selection of East-Asian non-fiction reviews from 2016, which cover China, Hong Kong, Macau, Siberia, Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia, on subjects ranging from World War 2, travelogues and memoir to art and literature, general history and conservation, works both in English and in translation from Indonesian, Hungarian, Korean and Russian.

Reviews of the reviews: East-Asian non-fiction in 2016


The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China by Jeffrey Wasserstrom (editor)

A compelling case for beginning one’s investigations into the genesis of the modern Chinese state with the gradual decline of the Ming dynasty in the late sixteenth century.... the best place to start for those who wish to get a handle on modern China.


The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History by Frank Dikotter

The concluding volume of Dikötter’s “People’s Trilogy”, which offers a now chronologically complete account of the years of Mao’s rule over China: a compelling, lucid and authoritative delineation of this most labyrinthine revolution, and proves a fitting conclusion to Dikötter’s great project.  


Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens by Laszlo Krasznahorkai

Of all the “China books” one may read this year, or next, or possibly the rest of the decade, none is likely to be as confounding, or enthralling, as László Krasznahorkai’s Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens.


Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China by Alec Ash

Despite the fact that they live in one of the world’s most important—and most rapidly changing—economies, the motivations and beliefs of the “post-80s generation” largely remain a mystery. They are certainly not “democrats-in-waiting,” as many hoped they would be. But nor do they unthinkingly support the Chinese state.... One of the best explorations of the topic that I have yet read.


Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road by Rob Schmitz

At arm’s length, Street is a compilation of mini-biographies of several people who happen to be connected to Shanghai’s Changle Rd. But it’s vastly more than that, in that Auntie Fu, Ms Zhao the flower-shop owner and the others we meet here become portals into a more nuanced understanding of China, rendering the country’s people, richly, in an all-too-rare three dimensions.




Lee Fook Chee’s Hong Kong: Photographs from the 1950s by Patricia Chiu and Edward Stokes

A remarkable book with many levels of meaning. It tells the story of a lone immigrant photographer and presents his collection of photographs portraying 1950s Hong Kong. A photo book, and of the highest standards at that, it also brings sharp and fresh research into the social history of the place that invites scrutiny on how it compares itself sixty years later. The entire book, its sum greater than its parts, will delight not only photography aficionados but anyone with a serious interest in Hong Kong.


A History of Modern Chinese Fiction by CT Hsia

Those with an academic interest in Chinese literature are undoubtedly aware of the CT Hsia classic History of Modern Chinese Fiction which has just been reissued by the Chinese University Press. Those who aren’t might find the thought of a 600-page tome of literary criticism to be more than a little daunting; that would be a pity, for the volume is an example of erudition and clarity of expression.




Wartime Macau: Under the Japanese Shadow, edited by Geoffrey C Gunn

While Hong Kong’s War years have been the subject of countless studies, novels and films; the information on Macau—especially in English—has been much harder to come by... Whether by accident or design, Wartime Macau’s combination of the personal and political stimulates intellectually and emotionally.


Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City by Peter Harmsen

When we think of Republican-era Nanking today, rape, pillage and massacre come first to mind. But there is much more to the story of the city’s fall to the Japanese invaders. Peter Harmsen’s new book tells the whole story in great detail. Only the last ten percent of the text deals directly with the subsequent occupation and its atrocities.


MacArthur at War: World War II in the Pacific by Walter R Borneman

As global geopolitics increasingly focuses on Asia, and the United States pivots to the Asia-Pacific, there is renewed interest in the life and career of General Douglas MacArthur, whose reputation rests largely on his command of US forces in the southwest Pacific during the Second World War, his military administration of postwar Japan, and his military leadership and conduct during the Korean War. In the last two years, at least four books have been written about some aspect of MacArthur’s career, including Walter Borneman’s excellent new book, MacArthur at War.




A Career of Japan: Baron Raimund von Stillfried and Early Yokohama Photography by Luke Gartlan

Gartlan engages the reader with the breadth of his scholarship and the fact that he wears it lightly enough to make this book a thoroughly enjoyable read... Gartlan has rescued a great artist from comparative oblivion.


Across the Ussuri Kray: Travels in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains by Vladimir K Arsenyev

Translator by Jonathan C Slaght has done Arsenyev proud. The smooth translation doesn’t read like one: it is seamless and colloquial while remaining entirely in tune with the style of period in which it was written... Vladimir Arsenyev deserves a place on the shelf next to such writers as Peter Hopkirk and Wilfred Thesiger; if he ends up there, he’ll have Slaght to thank.


The Great Soul of Siberia: In Search of the Elusive Siberian Tiger by Sooyong Park

Siberia has generated few books relative to its size, at least in English. No one book can cover the region. As a memoirist, Park doesn’t compare with the philosophical Sylvain Tesson and his Consolations of the Forest. Jacek Hugo-Bader is a better travel writer and observer of humanity and Anna Reid a more exacting ethnographer. But Park brings, first, a non-Western perspective: Korea is after all right next door and shares some ecology and heritage, including tigers, with Primorsky Krai. And Park spent longer in Siberia, it would seem, that all these other writers combined. He brings extraordinary patience and communicates a sense of belonging.




The Face: Strangers on a Pier by Tash Aw

Aw always writes well, but this small volume is particularly lyrical. The extended essay format suits him: long enough for some structure—the chronology is not linear, and he bounces from story to social commentary to introspection—and to explore issues in depth, while short enough for immediacy. He covers a tremendous amount of ground: his family history and his not-always-easy inter-generational relationships, the language politics of Malaysia and other countries, the dislocation of economic development, the effects of globalization.


Revolution in the City of Heroes by Suhario Padmodiwiryo

Surabaya, capital of East Java and Indonesia’s second largest city, is known as Kota Pahlwan, “The City of Heroes”. The name—and the starkly modernist monuments that stand at its busy intersections—commemorate Surabaya’s totemic role in the early months of the Indonesian revolution. As a first-hand account of a period of high drama, Revolution in the City of Heroes is a genuinely gripping read.