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Chatting with Jeffery Wasserstrom about The China Beat, SILF and China's Development

**Jeffery Wasserstrom** will speak in the [Crystal Room on March 15 at 4pm](http://www.cityweekend.com.cn/shanghai/articles/blogs-shanghai/silf/silf-2009-the-schedule/). Tickets are on sale from [mypiao](http://www.mypiao.com/ticket/22408) ###China's Past **CW: You’re a specialist on modern Chinese history. What aspects of China’s recent history most interest you?** One of the many aspects of China’s recent history that intrigues me, and that I feel typically gets too little attention in Western reports about the country, is the revival of local identities. Throughout the Mao years, the government continually encouraged people to identify not with specific locales but with the nation and with the class to which they belonged. Then in the Reform era, there have been periodic efforts to play to nationalism as well. And yet, despite all of these factors that would seem to work against the persistence of strong emotional attachments to regions and local communities, including cities, those ties have stayed strong.

I’m also very interested right now in figuring out what it will mean for China to become, for the first time in its long history, a country in which more than half of the population lives in or at the edge of an urban center. When I took my first Chinese history class in the late 1970s, I remember a lecture stressing that China was 80 percent rural and only 20 percent urban, and that it had been that way for centuries. Then in my first decade or so of teaching my own classes on Chinese history, I would say basically the same thing. Now, thanks to the migration and urbanization patterns of the 1990s and the last few years, I’ve had to change my tune, since a more accurate figure now would put the divide at something like 60 / 40.

###The China Beat Blog CW: Why did you start writing for [The China Beat](http://thechinabeat.blogspot.com/)? In a way, the blog, which at its start largely ran reactions to how news stories about China were being covered in the media, began as a kind of online extension of the conversations some of us at UC Irvine would have when eating lunch together. We’d sometimes talk about writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper, pointing out a facet of Chinese history or culture that would add more depth to the treatment of an event in the news. The blog provided a venue for getting that kind of information or perspective out to a general readership. By now, though, the blog contains all sorts of pieces, from reviews of books and suggestions of [things Obama should be reading about China](http://yuppiebooks.com/index.php?hl=f5&q=uggc%3A%2F%2Fgurpuvanorng.oybtfcbg.pbz%2F2009%2F02%2Fbonzn-erpbzzraqngvbaf-iv.ugzy), to analyzes of films, to commentaries on the Chinese rock music scene.

CW: Has your blog ever been blocked in China? The blog has periodically been blocked in China, which is very frustrating. Typically, it is not blocked because of its specific content, but simply because it is carried by the blogspot server, and sometimes all sites on that server are blocked.

CW: What has the most popular entry been? Our most popular story in 2008 was a great piece by [literary critic Lee Haiyan called “Kung Fu Panda Go Home!”](http://yuppiebooks.com/index.php?hl=f5&q=uggc%3A%2F%2Fgurpuvanorng.oybtfcbg.pbz%2F2008%2F07%2Fxhat-sh-cnaqn-tb-ubzr.ugzy) Lee also wrote smart [commentaries for us about the novel Wolf Totem](http://yuppiebooks.com/index.php?hl=f5&q=uggc%3A%2F%2Fgurpuvanorng.oybtfcbg.pbz%2F2008%2F06%2Fybeq-bs-jbyirf.ugzy) and about the symbolism of the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics. The Kung Fu Panda post, as its title indicates, was on the controversy generated by one of last year’s most successful animated films. In addition to being informative, the piece was also funny and accompanied by some nice visuals.

**CW: What do you hope to accomplish with your blog that you can’t’ via your print books?** The immediacy of blogging is great. And our hope is that the blog will help some non-academics out there realize that some of the things scholars are writing about China are accessible and interesting to read. Maybe even convince them to check out our books.

**CW: You say your blog’s goal is to “examines media coverage of China, providing context and criticism from China scholars and writers.” How did you decide on this mission statement?** We chose this focus partly because we knew that 2008 was going to be a big year for media coverage of China in the West due to the Olympics. We didn’t realize just how constantly the PRC would be making headlines! One important thing about that mission statement is that it refers to “scholars and writers,” as we were determined to try to do things to bridge the divide between academics who teach and do research about China in universities and freelance journalists we admire who deal with the country. This is why we were very happy that, from the beginning, Peter Hessler and Leslie T. Chang, popular authors who aren’t based at any university but do work on China that many academics respect, were part of the “China Beat” group.

###Wasserstrom's Books **CW: Tell us about your two recent book, China’s Brave New World—And Other Tales for Global Times and Global Shanghai, 1850-2010**China’s Brave New World is a collection of pieces that looks at how history can help us make better sense of the present, and at how globalization is not necessarily making the world a more unified and culturally homogeneous place. China figures in it a lot, but it is not just about that country. Global Shanghai focuses on one important Chinese city and how it has changed over a long period of time. One overlap is that both are concerned with showing that globalization, a key subject of discussion these days, is best understood historically, since this isn’t the first time that people have felt that the world is shrinking. Another is that both are meant to reach out to general readers. They are informed by scholarship, but written in a style that I hope comes across as lively and engaging.

###The Future **CW: Any thoughts on how China will develop?** I guess now that I've published a book that has the year 2010 in its title, I can't say that I'm a historian, not a political scientist. One thing that's important to remember is how often Chinese developments have surprised even the best informed experts. One prediction I feel is safe in making is that China will often surprise us again.

###[Shanghai International Literary Festival](http://www.cityweekend.com.cn/shanghai/articles/blogs-shanghai/silf/?) **CW: What was a highlight of your past attendance at SILF?** I was fascinated to hear travel writer Jan Morris speak, and I met some wonderful people, a couple of whom have since become friends, who attended a session (a rare one conducted in Chinese, as most of the Festival events are in English) on “Shanghai Writers.”

**CW: Why do you think this is an important event in Shanghai?** The festival draws upon talent in different parts of the region as well as from Europe and America. I think it nicely captures one theme in my latest book, which is that Shanghai has often been and now is increasingly not just an “East meets West” metropolis, but an “East meets East” one.

**CW: What's one question you'd like to be asked at SILF?** I'd love it if someone asked me: “If you could bring back to life, for a day, two people you've written about who are now dead, and ask them questions about what Shanghai was like then, who would they be and what would you ask them?”

**CW: So who?** I can't tell you my answer, it would take away the mystery!

###Youtube and Karl Marx **CW: What made you want to record your YouTube video about Karl Marx?** I haven’t actually recorded a video of the song you are referring to, which is called “Oh, Karl,” and which I have been known to sing to classes on occasion (in part to convince students that they need to keep coming to every lecture, since if they skip one they might miss something surprising).

**CW: Can you “sing” us a few lines?** Here’s the way it begins: Let me tell you all a story of a friend of mine
Who’s known from Cuba to Lichtenstein
As the man who set the workers’ blood aflame
‘Cause he told about their exploitation
Increasing fragmentation
His name was “Marx” and dialectics were his game.


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