intense sensations

Pandering to misconceptions about China

Posted on: July 24, 2011

I am going to take a rest from posting book reviews for a bit and instead jot down my thoughts on Chinese books available in English. Many such books portray modern China as a miserable place that is still stuck in the times of Chairman Mao. Those days have gone but it is understandable that people want to publish books about them because people couldn’t speak or write freely at the time.

But China is changing fast.

One of the best selling Chinese-English books in recent years was Shanghai Baby. This book caused a sensation because it was about a young Chinese girl from Shanghai who had an affair with a German. It was supposed to be sexually explicit, bold and autobiographical.

It was banned in China when it was first published in 1999 and that’s one of the reasons it sold a lot of copies in the English translation. A lot of Chinese people who could read English bought copies and passed them around.

In fact the story is very thin and the sexual content is tame by western standards but it hit a nerve for two reasons. Firstly, Shanghainese women have a fearsome reputation in China. In public, every Chinese woman hates and despises those Shanghai babies who can twist men round their little fingers. In private, every Chinese woman wishes she could have that power and wants to learn their secrets.

Secondly, many Chinese women at that time were obsessed with western men. Women like Wendi Deng, who seduced a series of western men on her way up to media mogul Rupert Murdoch, served as a role model. Western men were seen as a passport to the west and a better standard of living.

That’s not the case anymore. Nowadays many Chinese men are fast becoming billionaires and ordinary Chinese people in some provinces can already enjoy a better standard of living than middle-income families in the west.

But because change is happening so fast, prejudices and habits of thought are struggling to keep up. Some Chinese women still aspire to be like those Shanghai babies because they think that’s the only way to a better life. Some westerners still believe Chinese people are either decadent or oppressed.

And Chinese books published in the west still pander to these two major misconceptions.

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4 Responses to "Pandering to misconceptions about China"

This is a very interesting post, Vanessa.

We hear a lot of different things about China and all the changes that have happened there the last 10-20 years.

I was wondering if you’d like to do an interview about Chinese literature (as you see it) today, themes, authors, how your own work fits in, inspirations, etc, along with the changes you have experienced in your life time and how you think life in China compares with that in the UK.

I’m curious about your views since you probably have a lot of stories to tell, and it’s not always easy to get such views since many do not speak English or know the literature from both continents.

Hi Berit. Am I allowed to google the answers?

Sure, no problem. 🙂

It’ll mostly be about opinion, not fact.

Can I send you an e-mail?

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Books by Vanessa Wu

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