Becoming China: The Story Behind the State by Jeanne-Marie Gescher. Bloomsbury. £40.
Welcome! I am sharing with you today my jnterview with Jeanne-Marie Gescher, author of the outstanding Becoming China. I was in awe when I picked this book up as it is not only incredibly comprehensive but it is also a dedicated and fascinating account of one of the most influential countries in the world. Thank you to Bloomsbury for arranging this Q&A and I hope you enjoy JMG’s answers 😁
About Jeanne-Marie Gesher
Jeanne-Marie is a British barrister who has lived, worked and thought in China for over 25 years, establishing one of the earliest advisory firms, and the first to include a think tank. She is known for the very human perspective that she brings to complex global questions. She is a SOAS alumna and a Senior Fellow of the SOAS China Institute. Some years ago, she set out to understand how China became the state that it is today: the result is Becoming China, the Story Behind the State (Bloomsbury, 2017).
About Becoming China
One of the two most powerful states in the world, China continues to be seen as a mystery even after decades of an open door. How does China work, what does it want, why does it want it, and what does its rise to global power mean for the rest of the world? As the twenty-first century looks set to be the stage for a battle about competing geopolitical ideals, these are urgent questions for everyone with an interest in what the future might bring.
Epic in scope, this is the story of how China became the state it is today and how its worldview is based on what has gone before. Weaving together inspirations, ideas, wars and dreams to reveal the heart of what it means to be Chinese and how the past impacts on the present.
Despite decades of a relatively open door relationship with the rest of the world, China is still a mystery to many outside it. A world of its own, China isboth a microcosm and an amplification of questions and events in the wider world. China’s story offers us an opportunity to hold a mirror to ourselves: to our own assumptions, to our values, and to our ideas about the most important question of all: what it means to be human in the world of the state.
The Q&A Section
Could you give us your own personal overview of Becoming China and what we should expect within?
Becoming China is the story of China from the beginning of time (when history blurs with myth) to the present day (spring 2017). It is also the story of one country’s pursuit of order (how can human beings live at peace with nature and in the society of others). Each chapter takes the reader forward in the chronology while also reflecting on a particular aspect of that journey, which became a journey to becoming not just China but also Chinese. Of course it is the story of China, but I wrote it because through China’s story we can see very clearly many questions that we often miss in our own, western society, and, whether we like them or not, what kind of solutions China came up with. I have always thought that the question of social and political order was fundamental – with Brexit and Trump, this seems even clearer. In preparing for the book I asked many Chinese colleagues and friends why China thought order was so important – the most revealing answer I got was from a close friend who turned the question around and asked me to explain why the West didn’t think it was important !
The book is written as a story but it is not fiction (thoroughly researched with a full text bibliography of over 60 pages; abridged to just over 30 pages of key sources and further reading). It is written as a story for many reasons. First, my experience as an advisor is that even CEO’s and politicians find it easier to remember stories than strings of facts. Second, to paraphrase Nadine Gordimer, the truth of anything is always more than facts. Third, our silofication of knowledge has created what I see as a huge gap in understanding – I see it as a far greater source of fake news than the simple failings of social media platforms: we don’t know everything, and in assuming that we do, we attribute an unreasonable and even dangerous weight to the ‘facts’ that we do know. As Indian thinkers have always argued, the story of any past has too many strands and dimensions to reduce to a single linear account. This is particularly true of China and, in my opinion, the reason why the West still struggles to understand China: lots of non-fiction books but all of them have concentrated on a particular aspect, so that the reader is in the position of one of the six men in the Indian fable who try to understand an elephant by feeling different parts of its anatomy: instead of an elephant, they see anything but, including a pipe and a fan.
Becoming China is a brilliantly comprehensive history of one the world’s great nations! What was the original inspiration for the book?
I have lived in China since 1989 and wondered about its pursuit of utopia for long before that. For much of my time in China, I have advised businesses and governments wanting to work with China, which has given me a wonderfully wide spectrum of experience: from satellite broadcasting, film, television, the internet and e–commerce, to energy, mining, agriculture and much much more. From 2000, my firm continued to advise global business and governments on investments in China but we also established a virtual think tank to explore the challenges of rapid economic growth, including mass, rapid urbanization, the impact of urbanization on the rural world, the increasing role of technology in driving, human, and policy change and the geo-political impacts of China’s change on the wider world, including Asia and Africa. One of the reasons that we did this was a rising concern that our clients were concentrating on economic facts and missing wider realities (the elephant syndrome).
In 2009, as the global crisis unfolded but businesses, governments and many commentators had not seemed to factor in the wider-than-economic factors affecting the state of the world, I decided to write a book about four important things that I thought were missed in our economically literate perspectives. The four things were order (single top-down mind or voices on the ground, and if the latter, how), knowledge (more than facts), being human (not just for Saturday or Sunday mornings), and the ‘wild world’ (wild nature – is it really wild or is there an inner order; and the parallel world of human beings). That book became four books. Becoming China, the Story Behind the State is the first in what will be a quartet.
How long has it taken you to get Becoming China out for us to delve into?
Given that it began as an even bigger book (!), it has arguably taken about 6 years. I wrote two-thirds of the original book before splitting it into four. That was in 2012, so we could say it took about three years and then a process of editing and publishing. We could also say that it has taken all of the nearly 30 years that I have been working in China (certainly much of my experience before beginning the book has gone into it).
What is it you particularly love about China and it’s history?
I have loved China since the day I first arrived in Beijing, on my way to teach at Peking University. That was in 1987 when the airport was tiny, there was only one road in and out, flanked with willow trees and traversed by pony carts. Of course that is a very romantic image. But what I really loved about China was the understanding that asking questions is a very human thing to do and that while we think of ‘intellectuals’ as rarified creatures, really they are anyone who has read a book and has a question. I was born in Canada and went to 13 different schools, moving almost every 2 years. I have recently married an Indian, but I have lived in China far longer than I have ever lived anywhere else.
What do I love about China’s history ? It is a fabulous combination of serious thought and soap opera events. I think most of life is like that but for the reasons given above we rarely get to see the past that way. In fact, it is impossible to understand China’s past unless one understands that. As a result, if one wants to understand China’s history, it is essential to read some of the great classical novels – not least the Journey to the West (the story of the Monkey King) and an enormous book called the Dream of Red Mansions which tells an epic 18th century tale that is in many ways a story of our times. Within its pages are words that I heard when I first began to study Chinese and I have never forgotten: ‘shenme shi zhende, shenme shi jiade’, what is real and what is not real ? We think we understand reality, but we really don’t. At best, if we are lucky, we understand that we don’t. As we move into an increasingly virtual world, those words are taking on a whole new meaning.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when writing Becoming China?
So many challenges. I guess the fact that no one believed it was possible was one. But fortunately I had no idea of what I had to cover so I went ahead anyway. The greatest challenge was probably publishing it – some publishers wanted to categorise it as fiction, others wanted me to separate out the strands and write a series of books on cultural history, beliefs, business etc. One of the points of writing Becoming China, was to show that we could look at the past as a fabric. And that if we did that, we might understand more both about the past and the present.
How much research was involved in writing Becoming China?
Almost unquantifiable. All of my years of working on China, which (particularly in the think tank) was generally a combination of disciplined desk and academic research and serendipitous going-out-to-discover (remember that China was changing far too quickly during most of that time for any academics to have had time to research it). And then the research that I did in writing the book – scouring academic texts across history, archaeology, anthropology, society, culture, beliefs, geography, politics, philosophy …. the list felt endless; looking for novels and poems and diaries that would fill in the human features; talking with Chinese friends, colleagues and experts, including older people with memories of the twentieth century before I came to China or with their own experiences of the time that followed.
Fortunately, I trained as a barrister – I learnt to read quickly and I learnt not to be frightened of volume. And equally fortunately I had a lot of experience in research for our think-tank, where our work was effectively defined by having as few boundaries as possible: when we did the first work on urban China we looked at everything from the question of what a city was to architecture and construction, transport, civil society, migrants, technology, the environment … again the list goes on.
When you’re not writing or researching, what do you do to let off steam?
If I’m lucky, I’m with my husband in Trivandrum. He is a Gandhian who believes in a very simple life. I swim outdoors, do yoga and watch movies (Kerala has a huge film life). If I’m in the UK I would probably go to our home on the Isle of Skye, where Highland life is a great correction. If I’m in London, I’ll go to a film. If I’m in Brighton I’ll go to my favourite café. Any chance I get, wherever I am, I’ll go to the sea or any other wild expanse of nature.
Have you got any other projects coming up that we should know about?
I start my second book next year. Which means that I go back to the second in the series of the books, the one on knowledge. It is told through the story of India. Once again, everyone is saying its impossible. But, as with the text that is now Becoming China I have already written two-thirds of it and, even though there will be a complete and utter rewrite, with a lot more research to do (the research that enables one to write the story as a story rather than a set of facts) the arc is there and it is very exciting.
Have you read a book recently that you would personally recommend to the readers of this blog?
I would highly recommend two novels that I read over the summer: The Woman Who Lost China, by Rhiannon Jenkins-Tsang, and Belonging, by Umi Sinha. I have very little time to read: those two I not only couldn’t put down but haven’t been able, or wanted, to forget.
Thank you to Jeanne-Marie for answering some questions about her fantastic new release Becoming China. It is a behemoth of a book but it shows JMG’s dedication to China and her love for writing. I can’t wait to get further into Becoming China in the future, may take some time due to the volume of content within, and keep an eye out for a review in the future. Keep coming back everyday in November for more NF posts about lots of epic books.