At the beginning of Once Our Lives, Qin Sun Stubis’s family memoir, the author’s grandmother feeds a beggar because she feels sorry for him. She is pregnant with the author’s father at the time and goes on to break the traditional month-long confinement after giving birth in order to continue giving food to the beggar. What ensues, according to the grandmother, is a curse that plagues her son throughout her life, and the family indeed meets with much hardship. But so did most people in China between the years of 1942 and 1975, the time in which most of the multi-generation story takes place.

An Ecological History of Modern China, Stevan Harrell (University of Washington Press, June 2023)
An Ecological History of Modern China, Stevan Harrell (University of Washington Press, June 2023)

Is environmental degradation an inevitable result of economic development? Can ecosystems be restored once government officials and the public are committed to doing so? These questions are at the heart of An Ecological History of Modern China, a comprehensive account of China’s transformation since the founding of the People’s Republic from the perspective not of the economy but of the biophysical world. Examples throughout illustrate how agricultural, industrial, and urban development have affected the resilience of China’s ecosystems—their ability to withstand disturbances and additional growth—and what this means for the country’s future.

There is nothing, really, in the title of Fortune’s Bazaar: The Making of Hong Kong to indicate that Vaudine England’s new history centers neither the British colonialists nor the (to a greater or less extent) native Chinese, but rather everyone else—Parsis, Armenians, Baghdadi Jews, Portuguese and Macanese and, in particular, “Eurasians” (a term which merits the inverted commas)—who, she writes, “through their lives have accidentally created the place.”

Despite a reputation for abstruse thought, the French intellectual Michel Foucault once explained his research in a straightforward manner: “I set out from a problem expressed in the terms current today and I try to work out its genealogy. Genealogy means that I begin my analysis from a question posed in the present.” Keyu Jin took that approach to heart in The New China Playbook, a work that explains China’s present by tracing its economic genealogy since 1978. 

When this book arrived, I scanned the contents and marked with a tick every individual whose name I recognized. The results were pretty dismal—about 19 out of 100! I was good on emperors and knew one or two literary figures, but of the other categories, namely religious figures, militarists, artists, observers, business people, statespeople, and makers (craftspeople, folklorists and scientists), I was abysmally ignorant.

Lucy Aldrich, sister-in-law to John D Rockefeller Jr. and daughter of Rhode Island Senator Nelson W Aldrich, joked in a letter to her sister that she had an easy out for any boring conversation: “For the rest of my life, when I am ‘stalled’ conversationally, it would be a wonderful thing to fall back on: ‘Oh, I must tell you about the time I was captured by Chinese bandits.’”