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Book Club: Chang-rae Lee’s ‘On Such a Full Sea’

On Such a Full Sea

Please join us for our third book club meeting tomorrow (Wednesday, April 8) at 7:30 pm, where we’ll be discussing Bookworm Literary Festival author Chang-rae Lee’s highly acclaimed latest novelOn Such a Full Sea (featuring Chinese villagers in dystopic Baltimore). Lee is the Pulitzer-nominated author of five novels, and is currently the director of Princeton’s Program in Creative Writing. FREE

Book Club Announcement

hanging devilsAfter a successful first meeting of the Beijing Bookworm Book Club, we have chosen our next book, local author He Jiahong’s crime novel Hanging Devils. By the way, He Jiahong is coming to the Bookworm Literary Festival in March, so you will have a unique chance to meet the author and share all the ideas you have discussed during the Book Club session. The book is in stock and can be purchased at The Bookworm. 

The date for the next Book Club meeting is Wednesday March 4, 7:30pm, and is FREE.

Julia Boyd on the Lost World of Beijing’s Earliest Expats

Julia Boyd’s latest book, A Dance with the Dragon, is a fascinating glimpse into the lost world of Beijing’s first expats. Drawing on previously unpublished historical sources, Boyd paints a colorful world populated by diplomats, adventurers, scientists, missionaries and Russian refugees. Set against the backdrop of some of the most dramatic decades of the 20th century, it is a story of people willfully ignoring the forces sweeping the country around them, submerging themselves in the whirl of picnics, parties and polo ponies while China reeled from the forces of revolution, civil war and the Japanese invasion.

Mengfei Chen: How did you become interested in this topic?

Julia Boyd: Having met my husband John in Beijing – at a British Embassy picnic in the Western Hills in 1975 – I have always had a soft spot for the city. A few years ago I was looking for an interesting subject to write about and it struck me that this period of Beijing’s history, i.e. from the Boxer uprising in 1900 to 1949, might be just that. I don’t think I was wrong!

MC: Can you give a quick and dirty overview of Beijing’s foreign colony?

JB: Beijing’s foreign community from 1860 (when diplomats were first allowed to live in the city) until Mao Zedong’s victory was never very large but it was a rich mix. Initially it consisted mainly of diplomats and missionaries with the odd journalist, banker, academic and adventurer thrown in. But by the late 1920s Beijing had also become a magnet for artists and writers (Robert Byron wrote “The Road to Oxiana” there in 1935), as well as for scholars and even some scientists.

In my view the 1920s were the golden era for foreigners since “Peking” had modernised just enough to make things reasonably comfortable but not so much that its unique way of life had been seriously eroded. Think of the joys of living in a courtyard house!

Moreover Beijing’s stunning temples and palaces, not to mention its wall and gates, were all still intact. When the foreigners wanted to escape the heat and pressure of life in Beijing, they could retreat to the Western Hills where (cosseted by teams of servants) they could rent a Buddhist temple for next to nothing. Their charmed life, however, came to a distinctly unpleasant end when in 1943 so many of them found themselves in the Japanese internment camp at Weihsien. By December 1948, when Mao’s troops were besieging Beijing, the only foreigners left were the inevitable diplomats and missionaries, a few hardy academics and those who, like the White Russian refugees, had nowhere else to go. The party was over.

MC: You write that Beijing’s expats were a different breed from their Shanghainese counterparts. How so? What do you think accounts for this and do you think this difference has persisted into the present?

JB: Well, the behavioural incentives were so different. Shanghai was developed, virtually from nothing, by Westerners for commerce and business while in Beijing, (where commercial activity was prohibited on any large scale) the diplomats were locked in a wrestling match with the Chinese authorities and where even the most insular foreigner could hardly ignore the city’s extraordinary cultural riches. The International Settlement in Shanghai was huge – around 10,000 foreigners but in Beijing it never numbered more than about 3-4000. I think that because the Beijing lot thought they were more sophisticated and cultured, they looked down on the “Shanghailanders” who in turn probably thought the Beijing foreigners snobbish and effete. This rivalry was reflected in frequent disputes between the diplomatic and commercial views of China’s future.

MC: Why do you think 1920s Shanghai – the setting of innumerable books and films –  has had such a monopoly on the popular imagination?

JB: Shanghai was a volatile place, a classic intersection between East and West. On the one hand the lifestyle was glamorous exuding ‘anything goes’, but on the other there was real suffering, poverty and lawlessness. At a time when the pleasure-loving West was seeking new highs, such a mix provided wonderful copy for films and literature – and of course still does .

MC: Where did Beijing’s expats come from? Why were they here? Did you have a favorite subject to write about?

JB: Diplomats and missionaries always made up a large percentage of the foreign community but Beijing also attracted literati, dropouts, academics, widows, remittance men refugees and explorers from all over the West. The Peking Union Medical College drew many fine doctors and nurses to the city while it was a  particularly exciting period to be an archaeologist or palaeontologist based there. It’s hard to choose a favourite character but, rather to my surprise, I became fond of General Stilwell. Before he was appointed commander of the US forces in China and Burma in the Second World War, he had been a language student and military attache for many years in Beijing. He loved China and its people and, although soldiers don’t come much tougher than ‘Vinegar Joe’, he was very fond of Chinese art and collected ivory fan handles. Just before he left Beijing in 1939, he gave a banquet for 12 rickshaw boys in his courtyard house.

MC: Are there still signs of this era in modern Beijing? 

JB: There are a few but you need a strong imagination to conjure up this period. Having said that, much of the legation quarter still exists including the entrance to what was once the British Legation. The Peking Union Medical College is one of the finest surviving buildings from this period and is still a hospital. I did once manage to talk my way into the old Peking Hotel’s stunning ballroom before going up on to the hotel roof – a favourite dance place for the foreigners. Although I have been to Beijing many times it was only a couple of years ago that I first visited the surprisingly deserted Temple of Agriculture where public executions took place. I was also pleased to discover Sun Yat-sen’s  Russian-made steel coffin in the Azure temple and to spend a reflective hour in the eunuchs’ temple. A number of temples survive in the Western Hills where it is possible to get some sense of why the foreigners loved spending so much time there.

MC: At the end of the book, you write:

Nevertheless (with honourable exceptions) they [Beijing’s expats] stand guilty of a massive failure of imagination. Had they been more astute and less incurious, keener to nurture China’s self-confidence rather than undermine it, had they not lived so insistently in their own bubble and had they been, above all, less convinced of their own superiority, their legacy in China might not now be regarded with quite such contempt and China’s recovery of its former prestige would surely have proven less traumatic.

Can you unpack this statement a little? What is this legacy and what can Beijing’s latest pack of expats learn from it?

JB: The legacy is, I fear, a continuing difficulty in developing fundamental mutual confidence in a world that will only survive on a basis of real trust and active cooperation. Of course it always takes two to tango but looking ahead, I think perhaps the most important message for us expats is never to forget the deep continuity of China’s cultural tradition and behaviour patterns, and to keep on studying them and trying to understand them better.

Q and A with Lester Brown civilizational decline and collapse

On February 14, environmentalist Lester Brown, the founder of the Worldwatch Institue and the Earth Policy Institute, returned to The Bookworm to discuss his latest book World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse.

In the book, Brown warns that the world is facing issues of near-overwhelming complexity and unprecedented urgency and outlines his plan to think globally and develop policies to counteract environmental decline and economic collapse. Join us as Brown discusses the question of can we change direction before we go over the edge?

Pick up a copy of World on the Edge at The Bookworm bookshop.

Mengfei Chen:The world in 2012 is facing a lot of issues. Which is the one keeps you up at night? Why? 

Lester Brown: The issue that keeps me up at night is looming food shortages. Even while world demand for grain, driven by population growth, rising affluence, and the growing use of grain to produce fuel for cars, is generating record growth, farmers are faced with new constraints on efforts to expand production. These include spreading water shortages, rising temperatures, and a shrinking backlog of unused agricultural technologies. In more agriculturally advanced countries, such as Japan with rice or France with wheat, grain yield per hectare has plateaued for more than a decade now. Farmers in these countries would like to raise the crop yields, but scientists do not have anything more to offer.

MC: What is a “food bubble?” What leads to one and have there been any recent examples? What happens when one bursts?

LB: The food bubble with which I am most concerned is the one based on overpumping. As we attempt to keep expanding food production through the use of irrigation, we eventually find ourselves overpumping aquifers. Food production continues to climb, but eventually when the aquifer is depleted the rate of pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of recharge of the aquifer. When this reduction in pumping comes, the bubble bursts and production shrinks.

The most dramatic example of a bursting bubble is in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis were self-sufficient in wheat for more than 20 years, relying exclusively on irrigation water from a fossil aquifer, i.e. one that does not recharge naturally. In early 2008, the Saudis announced that the aquifer was largely depleted and they would be phasing out grain production. As a result, their wheat production at nearly 3 million tons a year has dropped to 1.1 million tons and will soon disappear altogether. Because this involves a fossil aquifer (instead of the more common renewable aquifer), it is a particularly dramatic example of what happens when a water-based food bubble bursts.

MC: Should those living in developed countries be worried?

LB: Yes. Those of us living in developed countries need to be worried. We need to be worried because our food prices will also be rising along with those in the rest of the world. Beyond this, rising food prices can create political instability in many countries. That instability can affect us all wherever we live. For example, political instability in oil exporting countries such as Nigeria or Iraq can drive up world oil prices, affecting either directly or indirectly the cost of almost everything we consume.

MC: In WOE, you suggest Plan B — a four-prong strategy for preventing the “ultimate recession” aka the collapse of civilization as we now it: massive cut in global carbon emissions, stabilization of the world population, the abatement of poverty, restoration of natural landscapes. If you could add a fifth prong what would it be?

LB: If I were to pick a fifth prong for Plan B, it would be public education on global environmental issues, including climate change. There is a desperate need for a better understanding of what is happening in the world and what the consequences will be if we continue with business as usual.

MC: What are the biggest obstacles to implementing Plan B?

LB: The biggest obstacle to implementing Plan B is a failure to understand the consequences of failing to do so. The alternative to Plan B, or something very similar to it, is civilizational decline and collapse.

MC: What gives you hope?

LB: The thing that gives me the most hope in the world today is the Beyond Coal campaign launched in the United States by the Sierra Club with the support of many other groups. At present in the United States we have 492 coal-fired power plants. Of these 73 are already slated to close. The goal of this campaign is to close every coal-fired power plant in the United States.

MC:If you were a betting man, what are the odds you’d give that the world will act in time?

LB: For what? If the question is can we act in time to prevent climate change, the answer is no. We are already slated to experience some climate change regardless of how quickly we respond. Is it too late to save civilization from all the environmental stresses that are building? I hope not, but there is not much time left. Time is our scarcest commodity.

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians coming to tv

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is one of our favorite novels from the past few years. Fox has bought the rights and is currently developing the novel and its sequels into a tv series. Often described as ‘a grown-up Harry Potter,” The Magicians follows its young protagonists from Brooklyn to an elite university of magic to the gritty post-collegiate years in New York and then to a pseudo-Narnia. A fast and fun read, Grossman’s novel ties together the worlds of magic, drugs, sex, teenage angst and mythical creatures.

While you may need to wait for the tv adaptation, you can continue the story of The Magicians with Grossman’s sequel, The Magician King.



The Beijinger Online Bookclub

We’ve recently partnered up with our pals at the Beijinger for a new online bookclub.

From the Beijinger:

OK, so we dig Chinese films. Chinese art is pretty cool these days, too, and we know Beijingers are all over local indie bands and hot Chinese designers. But what about literature? Are we stuck with the classics about weak, ailing women and misbehaving monkeys? Or sensationalist crap gunning for the “Banned in China!” sticker? Isn’t there more for those of us who want a rich literary look at this nation’s modern milieu?

The answer: Yes, a thousand times yes! (Maybe more like three times.) The current list of good, relevant contemporary works translated into English is small, but it’s expanding. Join our new Online Book Club as we stand at the digging of a new wellspring of wordsmithery, buckets in hand.

The first bookclub selection is The Magician of 1919 by Li Er – just in time for his booklaunch here at The Bookworm on Tuesday, September 27th.

How it works:
Sign up to the online bookclub here or email to with your name and phone number.
Stop by The Bookworm to purchase the book and receive a 10% discount.
Read some of upcoming author Q&As and guided reading questions – and then start commenting in the online forum.

Fall Reading

With the first chill of autumn in the air, we are looking forward to curling up with a great book and a hot cuppa this fall. Here are some of the books on our Fall Reading Lists.


Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt
“Norse Myth written by A.S. Byatt? I’m intrigued.”
Into the Silence by Wade Davis
“It’s about all my heros but set in the history of the Great Wars.”
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
“I really enjoyed Middlesex so have been looking forward to his latest.”


The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
“Did you know that in the Victorian era flowers held certain meanings and a bouquette could be loaded with a secret code? In Diffenbagh’s debut novel, a Lisbeth Salander-esque protagonist used the Victorian language of flowers to interact with people in her troubled life in modern-day San Francisco.”
River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh
“I’ve been looking forward to the second installment of Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy ever since reading Sea of Poppies. This novel, set in the Indian Ocean on the onset of the Opium Wars, continues the epic as all our beloved characters are about to set sail into impending adventure or disaster. My only complaint to Mr. Ghosh? Write faster, please. I can’t wait this long between books!”
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Another much buzzed about debut novel. Baseball, broken marriages and complicated relationships. Plus, any book that gets the seal of approval from both Jonathan Franzen and Téa Obreht is worth a read.”

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True by Richard Dawkins
“I certainly need some science in my system once in awhile.”

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller
“A memoir of her life and her parents’ life in Africa.”


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