THE BLOG
12/21/2011 04:42 pm ET | Updated Feb 20, 2012

Writings on Contemporary China: A Top Ten List for 2011

'Tis the season for best books lists, which -- to invoke a Chinese saying -- sprout up like bamboo shoots after a spring rain. Just in case somebody asked, I was prepared to offer my own: 2011's best books on recent Chinese political and cultural developments. No one asked. And while I knew I could go ahead and simply post my list anyway, it felt a bit late for holiday book buying, so I went another route with a list for the Los Angeles Review of Books, the new online only literary publication for which I'm the Asia Editor.

I decided that what might be most useful -- especially for readers without a lot of time during the holidays -- was to highlight some of the notable short form and long form news reports, reviews, and commentary pieces from the last year. The result was a Top 10 list that I hoped would give readers an enlightening overview of how a variety of writers had been addressing the major events, trends and phenomena in the world's most populous country. And for those who had the time to plunge into a book just now, or were looking for that last-minute gift, I tossed in mentions of one published in the last couple of years to pair with each article I flagged.

You can find the whole list here at the LARB site, but to give a sense of it, here are the first three items:

1. "The Han Dynasty": New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos's profile of one of China's most interesting and hard to categorize intellectuals: Han Han. (Abstract only; full article behind a paywall.)

The subject of this piece, Han Han, made his name as a novelist and racecar driver, but he is now probably most influential as a blogger with a massive following who has become increasingly political in recent years, writing posts that are often scrubbed away by censors soon after they appear--but not before being shared and reposted. Pair it with New Yorker contributor Zha Jianying's book, Tide Players: The Movers and Shakers of a Rising China, which limns the varied political choices being made by entrepreneurs and intellectuals, some of whom, like Han Han, are neither dissidents in the classic sense nor unquestioning supporters of the status quo (for more on the book, see David Pilling's review).

2. "A View on Ai Weiwei's Exit": Australian Sinologist Geremie Barmé's essay, inspired by the famous gadfly figure's detention last spring.

The piece, accompanied by photographs of the artist's work, offers a deeply informed look at how exactly Ai Weiwei's art and political stances have developed in recent years. Pair it with the artist's own commentaries and online posts, published in book form earlier this year (for more about that volume, see Los Angeles Review of Books contributor Alec Ash's "The Last Rant," a review of the compendium).

3. "In Fast-Growing China, A Warning about When Prosperity Isn't Enough": Foreign Policy contributing editor Christina Larson's article following protests over a toxic chemical plant in China's northeastern city of Dalian.

In August, Larson, who has a long-term interest in environmental issues, quickly headed to the metropolis and began interviewing participants. In addition to a valuable early dispatch on the event that went up quickly at Foreign Policy.com, she wrote this longer analytical piece for the Atlantic. Pair it with Chan Koonchang's The Fat Years, a dystopian novel set in a booming yet tightly controlled China of 2013. The Fat Years has been dubbed a Chinese 1984, but is often concerned with the Brave New World question of how far material satisfactions alone can take a society (for more details, see Jonathan Fenby's review of the English language edition, which was published earlier this year)....

To read the rest, jump to the LARB site, where I end by letting slip one fact about my other 10 top ten list (the one I decided not to post): had I published it, I would have noted somewhere in the text that the single best book on contemporary China I read this year was Yu Hua's China in Ten Words. So if you have anyone on your holiday gift list, who is curious to know more about China, that might do the trick, especially if the person in question likes books that are informative and insightful, but also contains poignant passages and laugh-out-loud bits of story-telling.