Karen’s Letter: Pro-China or Anti-China? A Publisher’s Dilemma
I was up early that January morning in 2006. It was our first time out in the publishing world with our China titles and a China newsletter. The Beijing Olympics were coming; China was on the rise and in the news.
I arranged our flyers and books, straightened the volumes of the Encyclopedia of Modern Asia, the project that had first taken me to China, and checked the banner on the front of the table.
The doors would open soon. Around me the other exhibitors were busy finalizing their displays while a woman in a long skirt came skimming along the aisle with a rolly-cart bumping behind her. She was looking left and right, scanning each stand. A librarian, I guessed, who had talked her way in early to see the exhibits before a committee meeting.
I stepped behind the table as she came to a dead halt in front of me.
“China!” she said.
I nodded happily, thinking she would be our first customer.
“Are you for China or against China?” she demanded.
Without another word, not waiting for a response, she resumed her march down the hall.
“We’re about China!” I called helplessly.
Turning to the Experts
That’s how publishing books about China began for us, and that’s how it continues. We are in a constant struggle to persuade people that the question isn’t “for” or “against” China, but learning enough to think meaningfully about the challenges that face us, at home and abroad.
I was a raw newbie when I first went to China in 2001. All I knew was that I needed to know about China, and I had managed to get a big publishing contract with Scribner’s that would pay for me to take my children to Asia. It’s hard to remember my ignorance at that time, but I went with an open mind, learning the difference between simplified and traditional Chinese characters, what is meant by Han Chinese, and who the Uighurs are.
Over the years, I’ve had a chance to work with and talk to scores of China experts. I’ve spent time with them in China, the United States, and the United Kingdom. I’ve also spent time with Chinese people, sometimes at occasions where everyone but me spoke Chinese. These were opportunities to observe faces and hands, the flow of conversation, the handling of food, the laughter and singing that can turn a staid dinner into a party.
But what is the most important thing to understand about China? I decided to send that question to our network of China experts late one afternoon. Responses started coming within minutes. By morning, I had fifty-nine responses from a breathtaking array of people, well-known journalists and authors as well as scholars. They continue to come in, and we have about 80 responses so far.
A couple points made by many respondents:
China’s scale is vast. Its history is much longer than ours, which makes any current event less momentous to Chinese people. It’s as if they are wearing glasses with a long-distance prescription, whereas we are wearing reading glasses. Geographic, economic, and demographic scale is important, too: China is a little larger in area than the United States, but has four times as many people. (Its economy, while second in the world, is still smaller than that of the United States.
2. China is simply resuming its historic role as a great world power. Think of the situation this way: It’s as if a world-famous dancer has been sidelined with a broken leg; when she returns to the stage, she isn’t hogging the spotlight when she expects to take the leading role again, however much this may dismay the younger dancer who’s had the stage to herself.
Chinese people and Americans have much in common, especially in terms of our daily, personal concerns, and the Chinese have a great sense of humor.
I loved that last point because it was sharing a laugh with someone Chinese that won me over during my first hour in the country, back in 2001.
Click here to read the comments of our colleagues, and feel free to add your comments, and questions, too.
In these polarized times, Berkshire Publishing has the responsibility to ask people to pause and reflect, to ask questions and learn something before forming an opinion, and to keep those opinions nuanced and flexible in our changing world.
When the new Chinese-American CEO of South China Morning Post Gary Liu was asked about the competition, his answer gave me pause, and encouragement. He said that the biggest challenge isn’t competition from other papers but that the people don’t “yet know how important it is to understand China, that China’s policies impact our day-to-day lives here in the United States, impact prices of the consumer goods that we buy, impact the futures of our careers, impact the way that our government relates to other governments that are not China.” (Listen to the interview here.)
Thinking about how China is perceived reminds me of the time when the Washington DC-based Congressional Quarterly Press asked Berkshire Publishing to develop three volumes called Global Perspectives on the United States(which we eventually published ourselves, not with CQP, who wanted to censor some of the authors). This was towards the end of the George W. Bush era, and the world wasn’t exactly crazy about America then. Remember that innocent time? The false arguments for our invasion of Iraq. Abu Ghraib. Waterboarding.
But we didn’t want the discussion to be all politics. I’d spent my twenties in London and wanted to capture global opinion on ordinary things: driving and food, childrearing and music. I came up with a website called LoveUsHateUS.com so people could talk about what they loved and hated about the United States.
It was amazingly popular, generating a great volume of comment and debate, and it even led one of my Chinese publishing colleagues to suggest that we collaborate on a book about what Americans and Chinese think of one another.
“Wouldn’t that be a bit sensitive?” I said. He loved the idea and insisted that it would be fine, but nothing came of it. Now, with Donald Trump and Xi Jinping in power, such an exchange is even less likely, but we are considering relaunching LoveUSHateUS. (Meanwhile, you can read some of the forum discussion by clicking here.)
I suspect the answers to my question about what Americans need to know about China will be shaping Berkshire’s publishing efforts for years to come. If we do revive LoveUsHateUs.com as a forum, perhaps we’ll create a similar place for discussion of what I like to think of as China 101.
As I told the librarian that long-ago morning, Berkshire is about China. Of course the best thing is to go to China and see it for yourself. If you can’t, let us help!
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Karen CHRISTENSEN, CEO & Publisher
The Encyclopedia of China is available in print and online through thousands of libraries, and also at ChinaConnectU.com. We will soon be offering wider variety of inexpensive options for individuals who want to get up to speed on China, including podcasts and audiobooks.
This Is China: The First 5,000 Yearsis only 152 pages and covers most of the points made by our expert respondents. Yale professor Jonathan Spence, whose many books are among the most popular introductions to Chinese history, wrote, “It is hard to imagine that such a short book can cover such a vast span of time and space. This Is China will help teachers, students, and general readers alike, as they seek for a preliminary guide to the contexts and complexities of Chinese culture.”
Our Chinese food publications are great windows into Chinese history and culture, as are the short histories that compose the Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography. Alice Miller of the Hoover Institute at Stanford wrote, “The carefully selected and authoritatively written biographies in these volumes offer colorful introductions to 135 of the most important and representative political, military, and cultural figures from China’s remote antiquity down to the present. Taken together, they offer general readers and specialists alike an engrossing pathway into the broad sweep of China’s long past. I found it hard to dip into any one of these biographies without wishing to read several more just to continue the story.”
And we will soon offer the first-ever English version of the compact edition of the famous Chinese reference work, the 74-volume ECPH Encyclopedia of China.
Karen Christensen is an entrepreneur, environmentalist, and occasional scholar who also writes about how women gain and wield power. She is the owner and CEO of Berkshire Publishing Group, a research associate of the Fairbank Center at Harvard, a member of the National Committee on US-China Relations, and founder of the Train Campaign. She was a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Press, Read Karen’s occasional dispatches from the frontlines of international publishing at Karen's Letter on Substack, and follow her on Twitter etc @karenchristenze.