In late 1974, the thirty-four-year-old Bruce Chatwin departed New York to begin a journey through Patagonia. He was engaged upon a postmodern quest: a voyage to a place tellingly named “Last Hope Sound”, where, he hoped, he would find some last remaining relics of the long-extinct Mylodon, or Giant Sloth. Inside his grandmother’s Victorian house in Birmingham had been a “cabinet of curiosities”; of its many treasures, a small, bristly piece of Patagonian Mylodon skin—said to be Brontosaurus, and sent from South America by a distant cousin—was that which most fascinated the young Bruce, who “set it at the center of my childhood bestiary.”

Most book milestones are measured in time—six months to deadline!—or word count. For Nicholas Kitto, author of Trading Places: A Photographic Journey through China’s Former Treaty Ports, the pertinent metric was step count: in the process of searching out the subjects for his photographs, Kitto walked 2,784,010 steps in the course of fifty-one different journeys from his home in Hong Kong—which must have amounted well over a thousand miles on foot.

Titling a book The Myth of Chinese Capitalism invites prospective readers to expect an unraveling of this singular, definite-articled story. It also suggests, to this reader at least, weighty theoretical contents, including perhaps tables and pie-charts. Dexter Roberts’s book is no work of dense economic theory, however, nor does it pretend to have uncovered some singular narrative of China’s development. Rather, it is lucid, personal, nuanced—and rather difficult to summarize. 

China’s National Day is a carefully orchestrated occasion. Each year on October 1st, rigorously rehearsed celebrations take place nationwide, with those on Tiananmen Square broadcast live across China. On the decadal anniversary years, the display of pageantry is ramped up further, though these commemorations of Mao Zedong’s announcement on October 1st 1949 that the Chinese people had “stood up” have often been marred by events outside the careful control of the party leadership.

In his introduction to this new biography of Yuan Shikai, Patrick Fuliang Shan makes reference to the long-held view of Yuan as a stereotypical historical villain—or, in Chinese, fanmian lishi renwu. The Chinese phrase is perhaps the more apposite, as one literal translation would be “a person on the wrong side of history”. Whatever one’s view of Yuan Shikai, who rose to governmental and military power in the late 19th century before becoming China’s first permanent president in 1912, it is fairly uncontroversial to assert that he ended up, on a few occasions, on what would later come to be viewed as the “wrong side” of various historical moments.