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How Berkshire came to China

I’m going to be spending a lot of time talking about the Encyclopedia of China this year, and a question I’m often asked is one I struggled for a while to answer: “How did you get to be so interested in China?” It’s a reasonable question, because there is nothing obvious about this mid-life development. I grew up in Minnesota and the Silicon Valley in California and then lived in London throughout my early adulthood. I was oriented towards Europe, not Asia. I had no close Chinese friends. I did Japanese, not Chinese, martial arts.Here is part of the explanation, from the introduction to the Encyclopedia:

The Berkshire Encyclopedia of China evolved from our landmark six-volume Encyclopedia of Modern Asia, begun in 1998 and published to much acclaim in 2002 with Scribners. It was a project of exceptional complexity, inspired by my lifelong curiosity about Asia and much facilitated by my experience in working with international networks of scholars, beginning with the Encyclopedia of U.S. Foreign Relations, sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and published by Oxford in 1997. During the course of work on the Encyclopedia of Modern Asia I made my first trip to China, landing in Beijing in April 2001, the week China was holding the U.S. Navy surveillance plane, the EP-3, which had collided with a Chinese F-8 fighter jet and then crash-landed on Hainan Island. I was immediately engrossed by China. I could feel the energy and determination of the whole population. I relished the conviviality and humor of the people I met, and the sense of possibility I felt in the air along with an intense focus on what lay ahead—it was all irresistible. As an environmental author, two of whose books have been translated into Chinese, I was acutely aware of the influence, for good or ill, that China would have on my own and my children’s future.

But I knew nothing, really, about China. I decided that I needed to learn, and that I had to find ways to help other Westerners, young and old, learn about China. I hoped that with more knowledge, more ways to understand and connect, they too would feel this excitement—and a sense of shared possibility rather than fear. Having stayed in touch with many of our Encyclopedia of Modern Asia authors, it was fortuitous that the China editor for that project, Linsun Cheng of the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, agreed to join this new effort. He turned to a variety of Chinese reference sources in putting together the original article list, which ranged widely across all periods and knowledge domains, and included many interesting aspects of traditional Chinese culture, such as towpaths and ancient libraries. Although we had to drop some of those topics because of space constraints and lack of recent research, we expect to weave them into online and future print editions as our scholarly network in China continues to grow.

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