My Review of Eight Juxtapositions: China Through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

China is unique, a fact that the authorities very much like to explore, for example, stressing that the country is so unique that the normal practice of human rights or democracy don’t apply to the Chinese reality.

It seems impossible to make comparisons with China because of this. Yet, Jeff Wasserstrom, Chancellor’s Professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, made some highly interesting comparisons in his book Eight Juxtapositions: China Through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo.

Imperfect may be, how nuanced and insightful they are. For example, in the final chapter entitled The People’s Pope and Big Daddy Xi, he compared the Chinese Communist Party with the Catholic Church and the president Xi with the Pope. You may smile when you read the headline. After your tour of the Vatican City, guided by the Wasserstrom, (with a stop-over in front of Raphael’s School of Athens), you’ll laugh, in agreement with him, slapping your leg: “Exactly!”

As a writer, I particularly enjoyed the chapter in which he compared Yu Hua with Mark Twain, two writers occupying similar places in author’s personal pantheon of exalted literary figures. Like Mo Yan, the 2012 Nobel winner, Yu Hua is neither a dissident nor a sell-out.

Through these analogies, the book challenges the perceived either/or convention, as Wasserstrom neatly summarized in chapter 7, entitled Chicken or Beef.

China is a complex place. It’s not going to collapse tomorrow or going to dominate the world any time soon.

It’s a rare skill to explain China’s complexity to the outside world in such an accessible fashion. I congratulate professor Wasserstrom for having done a grand job here.

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