To imagine the Shanghai of the 1930s is to frame art-deco frontages on chiaroscuro streets, behind which noirish figures from a polyglot demi-monde sip whiskies and soda. The city in this era has an imaginative power in the Western mind beyond that of any other place in China, fuelled by an intoxicating cocktail of equal measures myth and reality. Paul French, a long-time resident of the city, now returned to London, offers two complimentary portraits of the place and those westerners pulled inexorably toward it in his new books, City of Devils and Destination Shanghai.

Writers of all stripes tend to dislike discussing their formative years and experiences. Getting to grips with the job of translating one’s understanding of a subject into something publishable tends to be painful enough, without then raking over the process in retrospect. This can lead to a sense, however, that somehow writers arrive fully-formed, with a gift for observation and understanding which requires little practice or refinement. This feeling can be particularly acute in regard to those who write on China, the “university in which no degree is ever granted”, to adapt Stanley Karnow’s phrase, where the gulf between ignorance and understanding often appears so vast.

How does one quantify something as ephemeral as faith? We have become familiar with accounts of China which predicate their analysis on statistics—hard numbers seeming one of the few means of offering an objective view of the scale and complexity of the country. And certainly when it comes to faith in modern China the numbers are striking: 300 million people, or thereabouts, now consider themselves a follower of a faith of some kind—almost a quarter of the country.

One need look no further than Britain’s impending departure from the European Union for an example of how once apparently dormant elements of a nation’s self-image can be reawakened. An abiding historical sense of aloofness and suspicion of Europe, which seemed to have been quelled by the forces of globalisation in recent decades, has emerged in the last year with renewed vigour. Evident also in the appeal of Trump to persistent American notions of exceptionalism, the flattening of specific cultural characteristics engendered by globalisation seems not to have greatly shifted the fundamentals of how these countries view both themselves and the outside world.

Integral to the misguided conception of China as unknowably complex is the sheer scale of its history. While historians of the United States, for example, need to cultivate a knowledge base which extends back a few centuries or so, scholars of Chinese history must contend with a national story of anything between three thousand and five thousand years, depending on what you consider “China” to be. Either way, the terrain of Chinese history seems deeply forbidding to the non-specialist, who is left asking the question: how much of China’s history do I need to know in order to understand the country today?