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Best Books for the Holidays: Experts Pick

From professors to enterpreneurs, renowned book sellers to top travel specialists, Caixin Global asks experts for their favorite must-read titles for the holidays.

Extremism
Francis Fukuyama
Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (September 2018)
Hardcover: 240 pages

Fukuyama points out in this book that the demand for recognition of one’s identity is a concept that unifies much of what is going on in world politics today. He contends eloquently that the rise of identity politics based on nation, religion, sect, ethnicity, or gender in liberal democracies like the United States is one of the chief threats facing them. Populist and nationalist leaders, represented by Donald Trump, claim direct charismatic connection to “the people,” who are often defined in narrow ethnic terms that exclude big parts of the population. Fukuyama warns sharply that unless Americans forge a universal understanding of human dignity, what he calls the “politics of resentment” will doom them to continual conflict.

Wang Jisi, Professor of International Relations at Peking University, is one of China’s most prominent scholars on the U.S. studies. He was named one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine in 2012.

The Transformation of Chinese Society(1849-1956)
John Toland
The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945
日本帝国衰亡史(1936-1945)
Sanhui Books/Citic Press (September 2015)
Paperback: 1,296 pages
Language: Chinese
Originally published by
Modern Library (May 2003)
Paperback: 976 pages

John Toland is an American historian who married a Japanese woman. As such, this history book provides a look into history through both American and Japanese perspectives. This thick, but easy-to-read, book also helps us understand Japan’s war against China in a broader context. The historical narrative is lively and smooth, with a lot of stories about the specific experiences of soldiers, officers, prisoners, politicians and citizens in that cruel war.

Chen Jiaying, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Capital Normal University in Beijing, is widely recognized as a leading expert in phenomenology, especially in Heidegger’s philosophy.

Ouyang Xiu: A Secular Man of Virtue
Steven Pinker
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
人性中的善良天使:
暴力为什么会减少
Citic Press (July 2015)
Paperback: 1,044 pages
Language: Chinese
Originally published by
Viking Books (October 2011)
Paperback: 832 pages

Even though it’s hard to believe, we may be living in the best era in history. Pinker’s book tells us why this is so.

Liu Yu, Associate Professor of Political Science at Tshinghua University, became famous in China in 2009 with the publication of Details of Democracy, a collection of her blogs that described how politics works in America which earned her the moniker among online fans as “China’s de Toqueville.”

What it Takes: Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence
Steven Pinker
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
当下的启蒙:
为理性、科学、人文主义和进步辩护
Zhejiang People’s Publishing House (December 2018)
Hardcover: 621 pages
Language: Chinese
Originally published by
Penguin Books/ Viking Books (February 2018)
Hardcover: 576 pages

Compared with “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” Steven Pinker’s new book is more theoretically sophisticated, though it does not offer new empirical materials. It reflects a broad mind and exceptional intellectual courage. If we would like to understand the world after the Enlightenment, raise criticism, reach compromise after criticism, and move on after compromising, this is the book we must read.

Zhou Lian, Professor of Philosophy at Renmin University of China, focuses on several topics of political philosophy, including political legitimacy, natural law and natural rights, and distributive justice.

Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold
Russell Kirk
“The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot”
保守主义的思想:从伯克到艾略特
Jiangsu Phoenix Literature and Art Publishing (May 2019)
Hardcover: 592 pages
Language: Chinese
Originally published by
Gateway Editions (September 2001)
Paperback: 534 pages

This book is an effort to sort out the genealogy of the Anglo-Saxon conservative mind. The author starts with a concise summary of the core of conservative thought, and then gives a long account of the evolution over three centuries of Anglo-Saxon conservative ideas, before ending with the renaissance of conservatism in modern times. In the portrait of Anglo-Saxon conservatism from history to theories, the author managed to “endow the conservative with identity.” This book is a review of the conservative mind against the backdrop of competition among three contemporary political waves. The three are intertwined, but also show clear boundaries. This book highlights the real essence of conservatism in the interleaved ideological structures. Readers will not only learn about the continuity and consistency of conservatism, but also get a taste of the richness and diversity of the conservative mind.

Ren Jiantao, Professor of Political Science at Tsinghua University, is an active public intellectual whose primary research interests include political philosophy and moral philosophy, political and administrative culture in ancient China.

By Force of Thought: Irregular Memoirs of an Intellectual Journey
Luo Xin
Rebels Who Do Not Do Something
有所不为的反叛者
SDX Joint Publishing Company (May 2019)
Hardcover: 280 pages
Language: Chinese

At the beginning of last year, professor Luo Xin published “From Dadu to Shangdu: Rediscovering China on the Ancient Road.” And this year, he published “Rebels Who Do Not Do Something.” With the former, the author presents us with the length and depth of Chinese history. Readers are entering the scene of history as if they are seeing it through his eyes and following in his steps. A collection of personal historical essays, the latter’s coming-out this year is timely and is of great value — though this form of writing lacks novelty. With a strong sense of philosophical thinking, the book seeks to review the contemporary society from a perspective of history. “Rebels Who Do Not Do Something” is one of many such history books to come out this year. Others include Mao Haijian’s “The Way of Narrating History,” Luo Zhitian’s “Modern China: The History of a Great Power” and “Wind and Rain Chicken Song: The Scholar of the Changing Era,” and Wang Ruilai’s “Determined Mind: Political and Cultural Essay of Scholar-Officials in the Song Dynasty.” With the publications of such works, historians in China managed to make a comeback, returning to the center of public discussion and reassuming the their role as public intellectuals.

Liu Suli, Founder of the All Sages Books, one of the most popular independent booksotres and a cutural spot for booklovers in Beijing.

The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union
Ya Hsien
Memories of Ya Hsien
痖弦回忆录
Jiangsu Phoenix Art Publishing House (July 2019)
Hardcover: 276 pages
Language: Chinese

Born in 1932, Ya Hsien is the pen name of Wang Qinglin, a native of Nanyang, Henan province. During the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War, he spent his teenage years displaced. He finally moved to Taiwan and settled down there. In his memoir, I can read about not only the legendary story of an “orphan” becoming one of the most important poets in the Chinese-speaking world, but also the changes in Taiwan's culture and literary world over the past 70 years, and vivid descriptions of the fun side of many cultural and political figures in Taiwan. But what I value most are his memories of his hometown Nanyang, from local customs to the ordinary villagers there. Those memories are interspersed with the great changes in China’s countryside in the decades before he returned to his hometown, and the decades-long experience of his parents and the villagers. Although it is a slim book, it includes the rapid changes on both sides of the strait over the past half a century, in which histories of individuals, families, culture and nation are all condensed.

Lei Yi, a renowned historian of late-Qing and modern China and researcher at Chinese Academy of Social Science’s Institute of Modern History.

The Soviet Mind: Russian Culture Under Communism
Tian Xiaofei
Visionary Journeys: Travel Writings from Early Medieval and Nineteenth-Century China
神游:早期中古时代与十九世纪中国的行旅写作
SDX Joint Publishing Company (October 2015)
Paperback: 288 pages
Language: Chinese

Descriptions of ancient cultural exchanges in Chinese travel writings by Xiaofei Tian, professor of Chinese literature and chair of the Regional Studies-East Asia program at Harvard University, has contemporary significance as Chinese tourists have now turned away from duty-free shops and Disneyland to visit western museums and universities. “China has got involved with the other half of the world, which brings tremendous changes not only by introducing foreign words and business transactions, but also through the inflows of foreigners and multicultural integration. These raise concerns about missing cultural identity, but there is some call for openness and incorporation of alien ideas into local culture.” Words like this in Tian’s book about ancient China can be applied almost exactly to modern China.

Ye Ying, Editor-in-Chief at The Art Newspaper (Chinese Edition), is a leading Chinese contemporary art and cultural critic, named one of the “40 under 40” most inspirational young people in the Asia Pacific art world by international art magazine, Apollo, in 2016.

The Soong Dynasty
David Servan-Schreiber
Anticancer: A New Way of Life
每个人的战争:
抵御癌症的有效生活方式
Guangxi Normal University Press (September 2017)
Paperback: 360 pages
Language: Chinese
Originally published by
Viking Books (December 2009)
Hardcover: 274 pages

I’ve never had cancer. But I agree with Professor David: when facing cancer, you should be positive and practical. Twenty-four years ago, I was diagnosed with lumbar hemangioma (benign spinal tumors). I couldn’t walk and sleep well. I was told during my treatment that I could be paralyzed and spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair if I had a hemangioma rupture. So I was advised to scale back my exercise as much as possible to reduce that risk. Then I thought: before I become a paralyzed man, I should go visit the Everest Base Camp. I started my preparation for the trip to Tibet. I did not reduce my exercise; on the contrary, I increased it. Now, I’m very well and have climbed Everest twice. I found my positive attitude towards illness was in line with David’s experience; so was the dietary adjustment. In this fast changing and uncertain world, cancer could happen to anyone. Thus I pick this book both for those who are healthy and those fighting cancer.

Wang Shi, Founder of China’s largest real estate enterprise Vanke, was named by Fortune Magazine in 2011 as one of "Fifteen Business Leaders Who've Changed China." He loves mountaineering, gliding, seafaring.

The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War
Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Brothers Karamazov
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (June 2002)
Paperback: 824 pages

Very soon — in 2021 — we will celebrate the 200th birthday of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky’s birth. No one has reached deeper into the dark inner chambers of human soul than this pale, thin Russian novelist. “The Brothers Karamazov” is his last and greatest work. This story of a murdered father and his three sons is well known, but for Dostoevsky, the story is merely a backdrop for the human souls — in their most raw, unfiltered form, exposed to microscopic scrutiny. Some have used Roman Rolland’s quote — “there is only one heroism in the world: to see the world as it is and to love it” — to describe Dostoevsky’s work. But Dostoevsky would never have asked us to love the reality of the human condition — with all its suffering, cruelty, injustice and torment, while God — if He does exist — seems determined not to intervene. Through this seminal work, he forces us to face the human reality, presses upon us the difficulty to make sense of it, yet implores us to rise above it — however impossible it may seem at times — despite it and because of it.

Christina Zhu, the first woman who was appointed in 2015 as President for Fonterra Greater China, helps the Fonterra brand become the leader in imported milk in China.

On the Judicial Power of the Final Adjudication of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region
Georgia Freedman
Cooking South of the Clouds: Recipes and Stories From China’s Yunnan Province
Kyle Books (September 2018)
Hardcover: 288 pages

To most Chinese, it’s a surprise to learn that Jewish Americans go to Chinese restaurants for moo shu pork every Dec. 24. Yes, that used to be the predictable Chinese food scene, closely linked to fortune cookies and chop suey. But that is changing. Regional cuisines from China are bursting onto the international food scene with different flavors and forms. Geogia Freedman’s “Cooking South of the Clouds” is the most exhaustive collection of recipes from South China’s Yunnan province. She writes with passion and love for the people and traditions of the region. Then she skillfully explains foreign things with words everyone can relate to. For example, she explains that rice noodles can come in a wide variety, with some “as thin as angel hair pasta or as wide as handkerchiefs.” She is also helpful in pointing you in the right direction to locate equivalent ingredients in the west, e.g., rice cakes may be found in Korean stores, sometimes labeled as “ovalettes.” One warning: it’s a mistake to read this book when you are hungry.

Zhang Mei, Founder and CEO of WildChina, a Beijing-based luxury sustainable travel company. She is also a travel columnist at Caixin Global.