Friday, March 11, 2011

Five best: Chinese life stories

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, and a co-founder of The China Beat blog. His books include Global Shanghai, China's Brave New World, Twentieth-Century China, and China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.

He recommended some choice "Chinese Life Stories" with Alec Ash at FiveBooks, including:
Heart of Buddha, Heart of China: The Life of Tanxu, a Twentieth-Century Monk
James Carter

It’s cruel of us to allow you only five books. Let’s move on to your second, James Carter’s The Life of Tanxu. Who is Tanxu, and what times did he live through?

He’s a man who, after a fairly ordinary family life, went through a process of religious discovery which led him to become an itinerant monk, establishing Buddhist temples across China. He also lived through many of the most important events of the 20th century. Part of the conceit of the book is to cast familiar events – such as the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s – in a new light, by keeping the focus on an individual’s life, and then telling the story of a nation’s transformations around that.

The last century was such a violent period of China’s history. The choice of a Buddhist monk as the individual through which to relate it seems quite unique.

That’s a good point. In the book there’s a lot of juxtaposition between the quiet contemplation of life in a temple and Tanxu’s engagement with what’s going on around him. But what is striking – and we don’t think of these as going hand in hand – is that Tanxu has to be seen as a nationalist as well as a spiritual seeker. Carter argues that what he was doing was one way to strengthen China – to strengthen its soul as part of the effort to strengthen it as a polity.
Read about another book on Wasserstrom's list.

See Wasserstrom's list of five books that explain the myths & facts about China.

--Marshal Zeringue