Monday, February 18, 2008

End of days

Having just visited Shanghai, I finally pulled Noel Barber's The Fall of Shanghai off the shelf. This one has survived countless book purges over the 12+ years I have owned and now it will be shipped off to a friend in Shanghai.

It isn't the best book you can read on China but it is one of the few to concentrate on the city in the year before the communist takeover in 1949. The city was home to many millions in the late 40s and was the leading commercial center of the country. This was largely due to the concentration of colonial power in the city. Barber's book, while it touches on the Chinese in the city, is primarily concerned with foreigners in Shanghai and the lives they led.

The book's tone is nostalgic, longing for the days of the clubs along the Bund, and for the country of living of some of the foreigners as well. The violence of the war is referenced but is most closely discussed in the case of the HMS Amethyst, a British frigate that became trapped on the Yangtze river in between communist and nationalist troops.

What makes the book a bit peculiar is the emphasis placed on the Europeans when China's biggest national drama was underway around them. That's not to say it isn't covered, but the emphasis is strange. The book's coda, written in 1979 laments the loss of the colorful colonial Shanghai and its replacement by the drab Maoist version. Had Barber lived to this century, I imagine he would be impressed with the activity in the city today.

There are of course a number of good books about China available. The one about which I keep hearing is China Road written by NPR's Rob Gifford. It's next on my list. Peter Hessler's River Town is a readable and thoughtful account of Hessler's two years as a teacher in a small town on the Yangtze river. The interior of China remains far less developed than the coasts and it is interesting to read about how the changes in the economy affect this part of China. Finally, one question that should be on everyone's mind is how green will be China be. Elizabeth Economy's The River Runs Black presents a bleak picture.

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