The intellectual mood in China

Politics & Current Affairs

Historian David Ownby talks about his trove of translations of writings by mainstream Chinese intellectuals, and his recent trip to China.


Below is a complete transcript of the Sinica Podcast with David Ownby.

Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China, produced in partnership with The China Project. Subscribe to Access from The China Project to get access. Access to not only our great daily newsletter, the Daily Dispatch, but all the original writing on our website at thechinaproject.com. We’ve got reported stories, essays and editorials, great explainers and trackers, regular columns, and of course, a growing library of podcasts. We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples in China’s Xinjiang region to Beijing’s ambitious plans to shift the Chinese economy onto a post-carbon footing. It’s a feast of business, political, and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor.

I’m Kaiser Kuo, coming to you from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.


If you’ve been listening to this show for a reasonably long time, odds are that you’ve heard me and probably heard some of my guests on the program lament the lack of attention given in Western media outlets to what might be called mainstream intellectuals in China. Not surprisingly, the fact that they don’t garner much coverage means that knowledge of and familiarity with them and their ideas, their convictions, their attitudes are very much lacking in the reading public in the West. If you are a regular reader of news about China, odds are you know quite a bit about official ideology, and you have a pretty good exposure to the thought of dissident or critical intellectuals. Unless you go looking for it, you’re unlikely to be presented with the thinking of those in between, who are, I would assert, really the most important when it comes to getting a read on overall attitudes in China, at least among educated elites.

I have often suggested that when it comes to China, as a friend of mine once wittily observed, the central question on the minds of most Americans is something like, why don’t you Chinese hate your government as much as I think you should? Getting a better read on the elusive mainstream intellectuals, I think, would take you far toward answering that question. But if you do go looking for that mainstream intellectual or the body of ideas embodied in the notional fellow that Jude Blanchette once called the David Brooks of China, the good news is you don’t have to go very far at all. One China scholar, whom I greatly admire, who’s made the establishment intellectual, his stock in trade, is Timothy Cheek at UBC.

Some of you may have heard him on the show talking about Wáng Hùníng 王沪宁 some months back. If you want to go to the source, if you want to dive into a huge trove of English translations of the writings of our 中国的大卫布鲁克斯 (zhōngguó de Dàwèi Bùlǔkèsī), then head on over to readingthechinadream.com, where for the last five years, David Ownby, a professor of history at the University of Montreal, has been showcasing the works of a whole range of these establishment intellectuals, from liberals to New Confucians to the heavily statist New Left. I am delighted that he is my guest today on Sinica, all the more so because he has just returned from a three-week trip to China, during which he had many, many conversations with the very sort of Chinese intellectuals he studies and translates. He has much to report on where their heads are these days. David Ownby, a long-overdue welcome to Sinica.

David: Thank you very much. I’m delighted to be here.

Kaiser: Well, I am delighted to have you. Before we talk about your trip and what you found, I do want to spend a bit of time talking about this labor of love of yours, Reading the China Dream.

David: Oh, sure.

Kaiser: It’s such a great resource. It’s easy, for me at least, to lose the whole afternoon just delving into the debates that occupy the folks that you translate. Can you talk about the genesis of the project, first? What drove you to want to create this website and to focus specifically on this group?

David: This happened at a completely random event. I was at a conference in Vancouver with my buddy, Timothy Cheek, maybe 12 years ago. I don’t even remember what the conference was for. I think it was one of the end-of-the-year things where you’ve got a budget and you have to spend it; otherwise you give the money back. He had invited Xú Jìlín 许纪霖, a historian from East China Normal University with whom Tim has worked for years on him and with him, and as you do, he gave me a copy of his latest book. On the flight back from Vancouver to Montreal, which is five hours, I had nothing else to read, and I just pulled out his book and started reading it to pass the time, hoping to fall asleep. But it was a good book.

And not a good book with Chinese characteristics. It was a good book that you felt like reading. I mean, we all know this feeling when you just happen upon something that says, read me, read me. Whether it be a novel, it can be a history book. I think of Barbara W. Tuchman or Simon Schama, people who write these sort of nice narrative history books. His book was that. It occurred to me that, I don’t know how old I was, but I’m 50, 55, I had never happened upon a good Chinese book. The stuff I had read for my research was research stuff. It was always hard. I worked on secret societies and popular religion, and maybe there aren’t good books in those fields, I don’t know. For some reason, I just always thought that would be impossible for political reasons, or it’d be censored or would have to follow a familiar narrative.

But here it was right in front of me a book I wanted to read. I thought to myself, either I have happened to fall upon the only good Chinese book in existence, which seemed to me logically unlikely, or I’m looking at something that there’s a lot of and we’re paying no attention to. That latter idea slowly sunk in. It just sort of took root in my head that this was something really interesting that we knew very little about. I finished up what I was working on at the time, which I don’t remember what it was, and started doing this because when this happens to me, I can’t stop. It felt important. It felt interesting. I was starting to get obsessed, I guess, a little bit. I worked with Jilin over the course of a few years. He picked a set of, or we picked together a set of essays, and I translated them.

It became a book, published in 2018 on Cambridge, Rethinking China. I’ve forgotten what the subtitle is, but the basic idea was a liberal was thinking about what China was losing with China’s rise. He was warning against the dangers of fascism and saying that China was doing some things that pre-war Germany and Japan had been doing. And that if you look at where that wound up, China might want to think twice about following that path. This was a really fun thing to do. I just enjoy translation. Not everyone does. But for me, it was just delightful, just really 乐在其中 (Lè zài qízhōng), that kind of thing. After that, I did his footnotes. This was a whole world he was writing about the contemporary Chinese intellectual scene. He has two faces. One face is a scholarly where he does sort of 20th century intellectuals from any number of perspectives.

Then he also writes as a public intellectual or whatever you want to call them in China, the public-facing intellectual where he talks about things that are in the news or trends that he sees that are important. We did those, not the scholarly ones. Scholarship in any country is what it is, but it’s really fun to read. His stuff was fun to read. That was a new world for me. I had not known that there was this vibrancy of ideas and diversity and debate and just interesting stuff. So, I went through his footnotes, reading everyone, and translating a lot. I find it hard to read Chinese. If I really want to understand something that’s in Chinese, I almost have to translate it. It took two or three years to go through all that. But I think this was a really good bootcamp.

I chose well. I mean, it was by chance that I chose well. He’s a very good writer and a very open-minded kind of person. If I had started with somebody who’s doctrinaire, it would’ve been a different world altogether. Starting with him and working out, I got a good sense of the lay of the land in China, and that’s about when I decided this should be on a website somewhere because most translations wind up on secondary presses printed in small runs. They wind up lost in a library somewhere, and you really can’t find them. I mean, there was that series of translations that Amy Sharp did for a long time, which were very good and available, but they cost a lot. It wasn’t something that an individual could necessarily subscribe to, but a website gets around those problems and makes it available to everyone.

So that’s what I just started doing, just put it on the website. Not having any idea that it would attract an audience or a membership. I mean, it’s pretty obscure stuff. My mother tries to read what I write. Bless her soul. She’s 87, but she just said, “David, no, no. Sorry, I’m just not going to read this stuff.”

Kaiser: No, it’s not for everyone.

David: No, I guess not. It just seems easy to me because I’ve been doing it for so long. But it’s true. It can be a bit off-putting at the beginning. So, that’s how it worked.

Kaiser: You have a mission statement, though, on the website where you do talk about explicitly why you think that it’s important for this particular batch of intellectuals to be read, why they aren’t the critical or dissident, they’re critical often, but they’re not dissidents, and nor are they the doctrinaire official intellectuals. Why this group?

David: Sort of like you said in the intro that these people are there with the regime. Sometimes they dislike aspects of it. Sometimes they like what the regime does. They’re in there trying to convince other intellectuals, and the government sometimes, of various points of view. The dissidents that we like to translate and read and admire. I mean, two things happen to a dissident once they’re labeled as such in China. First, they’re imprisoned or exiled, and second they’re translated, but they have no more influence in China. I remember in 2015, I was in China with a bunch of people we were working with, and this woman who was, I guess 45 years old, turned to me and said, who’s this Ai Weiwei (艾未未 Ài Wèiwèi) people keep talking about? She didn’t know. I think she was unusual in her obtuseness, but still…

Kaiser: Or deliberately obtuse.

David: Deliberately obtuse in the way that scholars can be. I don’t know. But anyway, I think she was telling the truth that she’d never heard of Ai Weiwei. So, these guys are in there fighting, developing skills and vocabulary that work in context. To me, it’s the David Brooks of China, or David from, or whoever you want to pick. They’re not as independent and they’re not generally working for newspapers, but it’s the same sort of thing, the mainstream, the people who don’t leave, the people who say, well, if it were up to me, I’d have a different sort of government, but here we are. What am I going to do? I’ve got my kids to think about. Let’s try to shape this in such a way that it will be better. I think many of them see themselves as potential content providers for the regime.

Some of them have told me this directly — they’re writing with Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 in mind. The China dream, as he announced it, was pretty empty. There’s no real content except China’s greatness. It’s just MAGA and China. For them, China’s rise has been an electrifying thing. China can be an optimistic, positive place for the first time since the century of humiliation. This gave them a chance to rethink pretty much everything about China and the world past, present, and future. A lot of them thought long and hard about what China should look like, a lot of them are pitching these ideas in various forms to one another and to the government in the hope that the dream takes one form or another. That’s why they’re important.

Kaiser: For sure. You’ve said this a lot better than I did in the intro, but excellent. There are, however, people who would push back on the claim that these people who are, after all, mainly college professors, albeit, they’re college professors who are 公知​​ (gōngzhī), public intellectuals with Weibo or Weixin followings. They push back on this idea that they are, in any sense, key to understanding China, its politics, its direction. They might read a few posts on your website to conclude that these guys are just rarefied elites talking about highfalutin theory. That’s something so merely academic. There’s really nothing at all to teach us about what China really is today about the attitudes of ordinary Chinese, their mentality. Better to read a good Peter Hessler book, or even one of his excellent New Yorker essays where he talks about real people. How would you respond to that?

David: I’d respond to that by saying that these intellectuals are real people too. The stuff I translate is usually not very theoretical or pointy-headed. The best of them are trying to reach an audience that goes beyond their 15 best friends. I think some of them do wind up. I mean, they’re background noise. They’re one background noise and society’s made up of collections of background noises, you know?

Kaiser: Right.

David: So, they’re important when they’re important. I was talking to Xu Jilin when I was in Shanghai this time, and he mentioned writing a piece in June 2022, I guess, just after when the lockdowns were over in Shanghai and somebody interviewed him, and he just did it off the cuff. It was read 20 million times. It was downloaded 20 million times.

Kaiser: Wow.

David: Then they took it down as they said, “Yes, you’re very moderate, but we don’t want that many people reading it.” Because there was nothing at all radical in it. I managed to find it and translate it. It’s not available in China, but you can read it on my website if you want to.

Kaiser: Excellent. With the caveat that there’s a lot of variation within each of the major categories into which you divide China’s establishment thinkers, a lot of thinkers who defy this kind of categorization too, would you give an overview of the kind of common ideological denominators for each of the three main categories of thinkers in your taxonomy? And maybe give us some representative individuals with quick sketches of one or two, who you’d put into each of the three buckets of the new Confucians, the Liberals, and the New Left.

David: Okay. That’s a big question. That was what my third-year course was this year in my university. The basic categories or divisions go back to the 1990s when there were the Liberals who dominated in terms of numbers, but they were very divided in terms of the way they looked at the world. Liberals, at that time, and still today, to some degree, would include free market people. People who like Edmund Burke, they wouldn’t be Liberals at all in our context. On the other end of that, there would be Bernie Sanders-type Liberals. They were all together as liberals in the 1990s, I would say. Then there was a New Left, which, at the outset, was this mixture of sort of post-modern, post-structural stuff drawn from the West.

A lot of them studied in the West, and China has translated massive amounts of stuff. Even if you don’t go, you can keep up. There was that overlaying, just a genuine commitment that they needed to fight neoliberalism. The ’90s were when the government in China basically destroyed what the socialist order had been and replaced it with a market economy with a speed that is astounding, and vast numbers of people lost their jobs. There was a lot of suffering as they went through that. Yáo Yáng 姚洋 says in one of his pieces, “You may be worried about us now, but if we got through the 1990s, we can get through anything.” The New Left was fighting against that and in a way that I think people fought against new liberal ideas elsewhere in the world. They were committed to keeping socialism alive.

If ever they tire in their daily struggles, they just think about Francis Fukuyama and The End of History, and that riles them up again, they go out and look through the treasure house of socialist ideas from China and elsewhere and come back with another proposition. That’s what they were at the outset. Then there were the New Confucians who were, in a large way, responding to Huntington when Huntington talked about…

Kaiser: Civilizations.

David: … Civilizations. They said, “Oh my God, we don’t have one. China destroyed its civilization over the course of the 20th century.” They were saying, “If we have to fight this battle, we need some ammunition. That was what they were doing, going back to the Confucian tradition, looking for agency. Some of them I think were working to find a cover for benign authoritarianism, but it was a genuine cultural crisis that pushed them to try to revive all that stuff. The ’90s were a time of great debate. As things moved forward, China’s rise, getting in the 2000s, I think that’s when they sort of realized. I mean, I was in China a lot in the 1980s and ’90s, and all I remember is a construction site. It just looked like a bulldozer had gone through and they were trying to put it back together. No one could tell China was arising.

I think it took many years. It was Gān Yáng 甘陽 who said somewhere, he read about it first in Time Magazine, looked around, and said, “Huh, they’re right. We have done something here.” That changed things up in many ways. For instance, as the state grew stronger and more prosperous and dealt with some of the worst of the neoliberal excesses, the New Left moved from being this warrior for the good cause to being quite statist and dropping a lot of its emphasis on social issues. The Liberals who had been the dominant group in the 1980s and 1990s in terms of numbers, in terms of volume in the society, there were a lot of them saying a lot of things, they lost a lot of traction as China’s rise made China look good. They were basically wanting some kind of democratic markets-based order. Once China succeeded, that sort of pulled the rug out from under them. They still don’t quite know what to do. We can talk about that further if you want to. I mean, there are a lot of Trump supporters among Chinese liberals now.

Kaiser: Sūn Lìpíng 孙立平.

David: Yeah. Gāo Quánxǐ 高全喜 is a big one too. That happened. The New Left moved toward the state. The Liberals sort of lost their voice. New Confucians made a big play to get Xi’s ear in the early part of his mandate. There was a lot of writing about that, but he didn’t fall for it. They’re still out there pitching saying pretty much the same thing. I feel like, for the moment, their moment has passed. For typical representative figures in each of those schools.

Kaiser: Cuī Zhīyuán 崔之元 and Wāng Huī 汪晖 for the New Left, either are probably the archetypes.

David: Yeah. Now, Jiáng Shìgōng 强世功 does a lot of talking for the New Left. He’s one of the best statist figures. I talked about him. I gave a course at the Collège de France in Paris last year, and devoted an entire hour to Jiang Shigong. And Jean-Philippe Béja, who studies dissidents just yelled at me, telling me I had wasted my time. Why were I talking about this terrible person? It’s true. I don’t like these ideas at all. It gets quite close to fascism sometimes.

Kaiser: Well, we don’t need to like people to think that they’re important to understand. Right?

David: Well, that’s my point. If we don’t reflect what’s out there, we’re presenting a false image of what China is. So, I’ve translated a lot of him. Yeah. Wang Hui and Cui Zhiyuan, both represent the 1990s version of the New Left very, very well because they’re heavily influenced by stuff from the West. At the same time, they’re dedicated socialists trying to revive something. They’re very interesting thinkers. Wang Hui, certainly the outset, is well worth reading. I haven’t translated a lot of him because people have already translated a lot of him. He’s sort of the darling of the left in the U.S., which is a weird marriage in some ways because Wang himself has become quite a statist, which is not exactly where you want to be if you’re a leftist in the States.

A typical figure in the liberal camp would be, I think, Xu Jilin, who wrote all those very powerful essays, sort of attacking the new Confucians and the New Left in the 2000s, but has since moved away from this because it’s kind of dangerous to do that now. As he said to me this time in Shanghai, and he said it in the past two, “I really like living here, but I really don’t want to go to prison.” I haven’t followed his scholarship all that carefully, but his public voice has moved away from these kinds of issues and toward issues that are less troublesome. Now he writes a lot about youth generations in a way that’s really interesting. He’s not making this up. These are things that really interest him.

But he’s moved away again, from the liberal, near dissident posture that he might have had in the 1990s and 2000, towards something a little bit more marginal. It’s not as pointed as it would’ve been in the past. For the new Confucians, my favorite is Chén Míng 陈明, who is a younger guy with more sense of humor than Jiǎng Qìng 蒋庆, who is the best known of the new Confucians. He’s somewhat scary to read, I think. He imagines entirely a new Confucian order where China’s government is redone in a Confucian sense. It’s a utopian or dystopian one, depending on what you think of it. Chen Ming, he started out as a liberal, as most Chinese did. There’s a good piece that I translated, an interview with him that he did in Taiwan, where he describes the evolution of his thoughts from a very liberal stance, the 1980s because he was in university at that time.

It was a cultural thing. It was the fall of the Soviet Union, and Huntington and all that, that made him think, “Oh my God, we need to go back, hit the books again and get our culture back.” He aggressively pursued Xi Jinping at the beginning of his mandate. I translated another thing of his, where he addresses him as 习大大 (Xí dàdà) in the text, uncle Xi, which other intellectuals just think is, what are you doing? That’s just not done to be that craven. The title of the thing is something like the Confucian version of the China Dream. It’s just right out there. I know him personally. He’s a really good guy and fun to be with. I said, “reading this, it looks to me like you’re hoping Xi Jinping’s going to buy this and put it in practice.” He looked at me like I had seen through some kind of mystery or something. “How did you know that? That’s exactly what I was doing,” he said. That’s the longest answer to a longest question. I think maybe you have other things to follow up on there.

Kaiser: Yeah, I do. One is that it strikes me, it’s really remarkable how each of these schools seems to have emerged as a direct response to something in the West. I mean, you talk about the neo-Confucian’s having emerged as a response to Huntington and his clash of civilizations idea. You talk about the new leftists responding to Francis Fukuyama and to neoliberalism that had overtaken China. With the Liberals, these days with their kind of lamentable embrace, at least among many of them, Trumpism seems to be a kind of response to the West too.

David: Yeah.

Kaiser: That strikes me.

David: The West is central in ways that I hadn’t realized until I started doing this. Somebody, I forgot who it was, a professor at Stanford, I think, who’s not in the field, but he thought, “oh, I’m going to read all Ownby’s translations and find out what’s the core of the Chinese view of the world”. He went through them all and said, “Well, there’s not much China in there. Their language is largely taken from the West.” There are the Jiaotong Youngs and others who attempt to bring back Confucian language and concepts. But the explanatory logic used in Chinese intellectual circles is still largely drawn from the West. They are responding to the West. They know so much more about us than we know about them. It’s just amazing and a little bit frightening, frankly.

Kaiser: I have my own theories, David, as to why the establishment intellectuals, these people that you write about, are so often ignored. I think it overlaps a lot with your own explanations, which you lay out in that mission statement on readingthechinadream.com, which I recommend everybody to read. Can you spell some of those out for us, for the listening audience? Could you share your ideas of how you think our failure to focus on them has blinkered our understanding of intellectual life in China?

David: The basic problem is the heritage of the Cold War, which has taught us that in communist regimes or authoritarian regimes, no one can say anything, which I suppose perhaps was largely true with the Soviet Union.

Kaiser: And more and more true these days.

David: And more and more true these days. Certainly was true under Máo 毛 [Zédōng 泽东], I think, although some recent research showed that there was more agency than I would’ve thought. Anyway, that’s pretty much it. From the get-go, we think that there’s no way they can say anything interesting. The second thing is they write in Chinese, which is understandable, of course, but off-putting for the people who do not write in Chinese. All of our efforts to understand China are directed first, at the official government statements to come out with great rapidity. And there’s enough there for the Bill Bishops of this world to stay occupied for many more hours than he would like to. Then if there’s extra energy available, we look at dissidents. If Cài Xiá 蔡霞 shows up, this exiled former professor at the…

Kaiser: Party school.

David: Party school in Beijing, so she winds up in the U.S., exiled here, of course, we’re going to listen to her and put her in foreign policy. I’m sure someone’s working on the translation of her stuff and more power to them. It’s not that we should ignore these people, but the danger of this approach is that we get nothing, no vision of what Chinese mainstream life is like. Anyone who has spent any time in China knows that there is a mainstream life. There’s TV, there’s radio, there are podcasts. People are not afraid in their homes, sitting in their homes waiting for the world to come to an end. They’re irritated with the government sometimes in the way we are, and sometimes more than we are, but there is what I’ve called this background noise of the intellectuals talking about things in ways that are meaningful.

If you read the people I translate, the feeling I get is that we could easily have a discussion with these people. That common concerns are easily identifiable. I mean, China and the U.S. desperately need to talk to one mother. Although I didn’t start out with this in mind when I was doing the project, by now, I feel like if I can push it anywhere, I would like to push it in that direction, to humanize China. To make Americans and French and other people realize that if we could somehow push our governments to the side or get them out of the room, we’d have no trouble at all discussing many, many things. Most Chinese liberals, for instance, or at least a lot of them are sort of Rockefeller Republicans. When we think of Chinese intellectuals, we think they’re all hardcore socialists, which is a kind of a natural assumption to me, given what the regime is and the basic education everyone has about China, but these guys are not like that at all. I translated a lot of stuff that they wrote about Black Lives Matter, and these were written by friends of mine whom I admire and have spent a lot of time with. I was amazed to find that they were really quite against it.

Kaiser: Yeah, yeah.

David: Because it destroys the possibility of consensus. They’re fixed on this, that any kind of identity politics or politics of victimization just means getting more and more selfish and fragmented and divided. They prefer these guys like Huntington too. The Huntington notion of Anglo-Saxon consensus. It’s a very strange thing to read an entire text praising 19th-century Anglo-Saxon values in the United States. But there they are.

Kaiser: Maybe not entirely surprising coming from a country where 92% of the people are Han, right?

David: Could be. Yeah, there is that right?

Kaiser: Yeah. It’s lamentable. You’ve just advocated for more sort of intellectual to intellectual contact. About four weeks ago you got on an airplane and you went to China, and you did just that. Let’s shift gears and talk about that trip. Before we get into your overall takeaways from your multiple conversations, maybe we can just start with your itinerary. How long has it been since you were last in China? Where did you go this time and what academic institutions did you liaise with and so forth?

David: The last time I was there was in December 2018. I was there just briefly, I can’t remember why I was there, but it was Beijing, Tim Cheek was there too, I believe. We just ran around and saw people. We must have had grant money left over.

Kaiser: Again.

David: Again. Then I went to Taiwan to see Qián Yǒngxiáng 錢永祥, who runs the review, 思想 (Sīxiǎng) which is this brilliant thing that almost nobody knows about. 思想 (sīxiǎng) just means thought. He has been doing in Chinese what I have done with my website. He just follows Sinophone discourse everywhere where people speak Chinese. He mainly does Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and he does it really, really well. Someone should just translate everything he’s done, put it out there. Anyway, I went to see him. I was going to go to China. I had to leave, a sabbatical leave in 2022, ’23. I was going to go to China, and, of course, didn’t because no one could, 2020, whenever the pandemic hit, 20…

Kaiser: Yeah. 20.

David: There we go. 2020. This was the first time back.

Kaiser: Time is so blurred now.

David: It’s ridiculous. I could sort of blame jet lag, but I’m always like this. This time, I still had a tourist visa, so I didn’t have to liaise with anybody in the academic institutions. I could have done it. I had just translated a book by Yao Yang, who’s head of the business school at Beida, and he was in the process of writing, well, he did write the letter, and I was about to apply for a visa, but China changed their mind about having to redo old visas in March when I was doing all this. I could just go on the 10-year visa I had issued, I think, in 2016. That was good because sometimes China scholars have a hard time getting in, as we know. My buddy Tim Cheek has problems now, and I don’t know why they haven’t looked in my direction.

I had no problem at all. I just went through the border. No one checked. I did not use academic institutions. I just talked to my friends and friends of their friends. It was very easy. I had access. I think everyone I wrote to, wrote back responding positively, even people I’d never met before. I was prepared for much more reluctance or “sorry, we’re very busy.” It’s just 不方便 (bù fāngbiàn). It’s not appropriate right now. But no one did that. I met everyone I wanted to, so that was great. I had to go through Hong Kong because I couldn’t find direct flights to the mainland. It was meant to be Montreal, Toronto, Zurich, Hong Kong, which is obviously not your idea of a garden party. But the first flight was late, so I missed my connection to Zurich, so it wound up being Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver with a 12-hour layover, and then Hong Kong. It was pretty awful getting there.

Kaiser: Christ.

David: And the way back was Hong Kong, Frankfurt, Montreal. In the old days, there were direct flights from Montreal to Shanghai or Beijing, either one. They went over the North Pole. So, they were no longer.

Kaiser: No, you can’t go through Russian airspace anymore, right?

David: Yeah. So that was great that these were like 30 hour marathons, or the one coming back was I think 40 hours getting door to door. That was pretty awful. But in China, it was fine. I had a week in Beijing and a week in Shanghai just hanging out and talking to whoever I could find, whoever wanted to talk to me. It was easy and a good trip from that perspective. But the things they had to say were kind of somber, shall we say? It was not a happy time in China. The only happy people I met were rich people.

Kaiser: We’ll talk about them later, but let’s talk about these somber folks you met. How uniform was this kind of malaise that you’re talking about? Yeah.

David: Well, the second or third day I was in Beijing, I went out to meet with a couple of people with whom I’d had arms-length contacts before. I published a book that was vaguely related to something that they did, so we knew one another enough of a pretext to go see them. They are 30-something journalists, publishers, and an independent kind of setup. As soon as I got there, they found a room in their place and shut the door, and then just emptied their hearts or souls to me for about an hour and a half in ways that I wasn’t expecting at all. What they were talking about was the way in which the end of COVID had upset their lives and their very souls in ways that they couldn’t get over. And this is now five or six months later, right? They were both angry, just visibly furious. One of them said to me, “You’d like to think your government cares a little bit about you, but no.” She said, “I have to rethink everything I thought I knew. I have to think about what my parents went through, what my grandparents went through. Has this all just been a joke?”

Kaiser: It wasn’t the lockdowns, but it was actually the volte-face.

David: It was the terrible ending, that sort of horror movie ending where they said, “All right, you want freedom? We’ll give you freedom.” And they just turned off all the controls. Didn’t bother to vaccinate people, didn’t bother to stock up the drug stores, and just declared victory. They just said, “Oh, Omicron is a minor cold. You’ll get over it. If Grandpa dies, well, he was old anyway.” It was done in such a way from the outside, it was obviously incompetent and cynical, and we all saw that. But I had not realized the extent to which it was an existential crisis within China. One of them was mad, the other one was just lost and just kept talking about nothing in my upbringing, nothing in my education prepares me to think about this. I don’t know what to do. He said, “I now understand what 躺平 (tǎng píng), lying flat, really means. Me and people like me do not want to be part of this system. I don’t want a government job. I don’t want to work in some company. I don’t want to become those people. I’m going to just get out of here.” It was really something. It was one of the most intense conversations I’ve had in my life, and with people I didn’t know at all.

Kaiser: Let me make sure I understand this. This is sort of a loss of confidence in the kind of exalted competence of this technocratic leadership that was delivering…

David: The goods.

Kaiser: Yeah. Yes.

David: I think that that’s what it is. We focus, in our media, on Xi Jinping and everything he does wrong. But in China, that’s just baked in. They’ve lived with authoritarianism forever. Some like it, some don’t, but it’s not their daily fair. I know some intellectuals for whom it is, but for most folks, you’re born, you grew up there, you just deal with it, right?

Kaiser: Yeah, what’s water here?

David: Exactly. And China’s performance in general has been quite good. China looks good. The subways run, the restaurants are open, things function. It was just the manifest, cynicism and incompetence of the ending of all that. The first year was rough, but okay, because China was doing great things and fighting the virus in such a way that kind of worked. You could see China as leading the world for the first year of the fight against the pandemic. Second year was more like the first, but with a little bit less confidence and success, and people were getting tired of it, but it was very heavy-handed. The third year was just awful because the third year, the rest of the world was omicron and getting over it, and China had lockdowns and constant testing and you just couldn’t live your life anymore.

And with that came, of course, the cost of propaganda that “we’re doing the right thing, we care about the people, if we do something else, everyone will die,” etc. And then they just did that. They just, on a dime, reversed the policy, everyone got sick and a lot of people died. Those two people just said to me, “I don’t know what to think about my life anymore. I just really feel off kilter.” It sounded like they were mourning, one of them was mourning something. That’s what occurred to me later. Mourning some sort of confidant or he’d lost an exalted leader somewhere. And these are journalists, so they’re cynical people. You can’t be a journalist without being cynical.

Kaiser: I’m trying.

David: They read the news. They know what’s going on in the rest of the world so they weren’t naïve. But something about that ending in December just marked their soul in a way. The next day I was having lunch with a professor I had never met. I had been really struck by those conversations, by just the manifest pain they revealed. I can’t remember ever doing that to a stranger, revealing an intense pain that I was suffering. But anyway, I thought maybe they’re just weird. Maybe that’s just their thing. So I asked this guy whom I’d never met, I said, “I met with people yesterday and they said,” what I just told you, and then also they can’t talk about it because China succeeded. If you talk about how bad you feel, someone will tell on you, and you’ll get in trouble for not being with the program.

It’s like millions of Chinese are sort of living post-traumatic stress disorder, and they’re just walking time bombs. And this guy whom I never met before that, said, “Yep, that’s pretty much it. Everyone in this room, at some level, is living that.” They all said, you see it at work. People, they don’t function anymore. They’re angry. They get in one of those faces. It’s just really like the guys who came back from Iraq or something. I said, “I walk around the streets and I go on trains and everyone’s normal.” And he said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, everything looks normal, but we’re all trying to do all this in one way or another.” It was confirmed over and over again with other people I talked to..

Kaiser: When I’ve talked to people who’ve shared similar sentiments, and I have, what they’ve often said is that, “If it weren’t for the hubris, if it weren’t for just all the sort of shameless braggadocio about how well we were doing compared to the rest of the world, it wouldn’t have felt so bad.” That’s what really, really sort of put the nail in for a lot of people.

David: Yeah. Like, what do you take us for? Right?

Kaiser: Yeah.

David: They didn’t talk about that, but I’m sure they could have. They just didn’t go in that direction. No one mentioned His Royal Highness in this context. They just talked about the state in general, how it didn’t take care of them, and in fact abused them.

Kaiser: Has the end of the zero COVID strategy that abrupt dropping of all the measures affected the public’s trust, do you think, in other key national strategies? Is there a ripple effect on perspectives toward technological autonomy or common prosperity?

David: I think people have just basically clocked out. They’re just not paying that much attention. I was struck over and over again, and it disturbed me greatly that no one’s reading anymore. Lots of intellectuals just said, “Ah, it’s all nonsense. I don’t want to read it.” Of course, my project is based on the idea that people write and read more to have some influence. They just read in their WeChat groups. Sort of in the way that we do here on Facebook or whatever. I’m a modest person so I wouldn’t say this normally, but I was better read than most of these intellectuals. Even books written by someone else in their direct field, they hadn’t read them. I just think they’re kind of worn out.

Kaiser: And who can blame them?

David: One guy I met, a 70-year-old, kind of a Bernie Sanders socialist type, just burned out and said, “I don’t even want to subscribe to the journals anymore, but my wife made me because she thinks they look good on the coffee tables.”

Kaiser: Just to be clear, this isn’t just the Liberals either. This is all three of your main categories and the miscellaneous others as well. This is pretty uniform except for, as you say, the rich people.

David: I didn’t see any new Confucians this time, I don’t think. Although the guy that I confirmed the story about PTSD was kind of a new Confucian, but we didn’t go there in our conversation. Probably most of the people I talked to were liberals of one stripe or another. I did hang out ahead one evening with China’s New Left, some of the celebrities.

Kaiser: Oh, the boozy dinner.

David: Yeah, it was a kind of boozy dinner. There was some talk of Mao, but there was more talk of wine, how to grow it, where to buy it, where the best bargains are. I was kind of stunned. It was not an intellectually vibrant evening at all. We talked about taxes in the way the rich people do. Shenzhen is offering 15% taxes to anyone who wants to move there. And apparently a leverage part of Beijing’s intellectual elite is considering making some moves.

Kaiser: Yeah, I think with the top tax rate in Beijing is over-

David: 45%.

Kaiser: It’s over 40%.

David: So they figured, hey, I’ll just hang up my shingle down there and send my kid to college easier, right?

Kaiser: Yeah.

David: That’s what we talked about with the New Left that night. If it’d only been cigars, I would’ve been back in my country club atmosphere in rural Tennessee where I grew up, but we didn’t have the cigars.

Kaiser: Oh, how funny. How has this shift in perception affected the intellectual community’s relationship with the government and with each other? Do you think there were new kinds of alliances forming or existing ones breaking down? It’s clear to me, just from talking to people, that there’s less willingness, there’s way more trepidation in actually talking about the government, about Xi Jinping himself obviously, about the political leadership in general. Is there a sense like this moment might mark a…

David: A turning point of something?

Kaiser: A turning point, yeah.

David: A lot of people talked about turning points, but they all said it’s too early to tell. And also they can’t talk about this turning point. It’s too dangerous and it’s too painful. Someone would’ve to articulate it in some way, or the government would’ve to make other fumbles that went in the same direction, it seems to me. Most of them, as I said, they’re just trying to do something else. My liberal buddies in Shanghai, who are about my age, so 60 and older, the ones with any kind of motivation and talent get out of the university setting and talk to entrepreneurs and make money. The university environment is not very inviting. That’s where most of the authority over them is exercised. They just get out and talk to somebody else. That’s what the good ones do. They’re always finding entrepreneurs who will invite them to give a talk about something. They find talking with the entrepreneurs interesting too. They find the entrepreneurs extremely intelligent, which makes a lot of sense, of course, because they’ve been out in the real world fighting their battles all these years, and they know some stuff. I might mention in passing that one of my buddies who does this a lot, said that none of the entrepreneurs have any sympathy for America anymore.

Kaiser: I was going to ask about that, about attitudes toward the United States. What was your sense about that?

David: America was well-viewed until a few years ago — through popular culture, through people of people exchange. The general atmosphere in China 15 or 20 years ago toward, or attitude toward the States would’ve been largely positive. It is no longer the case at all. These entrepreneurs blame the States for any bad thing that happens in China. And it’s hard to get mad at them for that. The way the Biden administration talks about China is utterly one-sided and very imperious from a Chinese point of view. What they say to him is, “Look, they need to give us some way out.” I’m sure Sun Tzu (孙子 Sūnzǐ) said something about this in The Art of War, about not…

Kaiser: Boxing them in.

David: Not boxing in your opponent in a corner, but that’s what they feel like the States are doing. It’s hard to argue with them on that. That does seem to be exactly what the U.S. wants to do. This is, I think, a fairly big change over the last few years.

Kaiser: This is the entrepreneurs you’re talking about. What about the intellectuals themselves and their attitudes toward the U.S.?

David: Intellectuals, I don’t know if they would tell me. I mean, I am an American. I don’t know if they’d say that kind of thing outright. A lot of them move toward Trump and this kind of “make America great again.” There’s this book they published in Taiwan last year, American Order, put together by a bunch of well-known Chinese intellectuals. I mean, these are not hacks, including Gao Quanxi, who’s a constitutional scholar in Shanghai. A very conservative liberal. He’s one of those Burkians who thinks that the world was best in mid-19th century England when the government was small, the markets were big and no one protected labor or anything like that. I think he’s disgruntled or disappointed now with Trump. But that book is just amazing. It’s complete Trumpism.

Kaiser: If you’re interested in that topic, we did a Sinica Podcast with Ian Johnson and with Lin Yao.

David: Lin Yao wrote great pieces about that kind of stuff.

Kaiser: That’s right, about beaconism and whatnot.

David: That kind of liberal thinks it’s a disaster for the world if the United States falls apart. They’re angry, but they’re not angry because we’re being imperialists, they’re angry because we don’t get our house in order and rule the world through a good example.

Kaiser: You’d think that dissatisfaction with Beijing would translate into maybe a more positive attitude toward Washington, but it sounds like they’re kind of where I am, where both my parents are fighting and they’re both [beep].

David: I think that’s pretty much it. There were some positive people. There’s a young historian and scholar named 施展 Shī Zhǎn. He was born in ’77, I think.

Kaiser: Yeah, ’77. He’s the person, by the way, you translated most recently, just a quick potted bio, he’s the author of this kind of controversial work of history called The Hub: 3000 Years of China. It’s 枢纽 – 3000年的中国 (Shūniǔ – 3000 nián de zhōngguó).

David: That’s sold…

Kaiser: A liberal. Right.

David: He’s a liberal of sorts. Yeah. It sold 450,000 copies.

Kaiser: Huge solid.

David: Which, as he said to me, “that gave me enough money to be above some of the problems that a lot of my colleagues face.” He now has a position in Shanghai while he lives in Beijing. And he said, “Well, I can always be elsewhere when I want to.” But anyway, he had all sorts of really interesting intellectual projects that he’s working on. He is not clocked out at all. He’s still very much plugged in. And he’s a huge media presence too. China is such a media place now. Everybody and anybody has their channel on Bilibili and everything else. They spent a lot of time with this. So, he was positive. He already has in mind a saga of Chinese identity from day one through now that he’s going to write in 10 years.

He’s already got it outlined. This is someone with a lot of chutzpah, shall we say. I’m going to follow him because I think it’s important to follow someone who is positive. The other people who were positive. This is an interesting kind of thing. I spent an afternoon with the editorial board of the Beijing Cultural Review, 文化纵横 (wénhuà zònghéng), which is a major journal in China. I’ve translated a lot of their stuff. They wanted to know who I was because they wondered why I was translating all their stuff. They couldn’t figure out what my motive was. I told them it was world peace. I said, “I’m doing it for world peace.” I said it kind of laughingly, but it’s true at the same time. That comforted them. The notion that I was doing it for the cause of better American-Chinese understanding or Chinese world understanding. They are incredibly statist, however. I can’t imagine a journalist anywhere else in the world being quite that enthusiastic about what their state was doing. Most journalists are thoroughly cynical people trained to look for the worst in everything. That’s not what they were doing at all. They are-

Kaiser: Cheerleaders.

David: Well, they’re really smart cheerleaders, though. They were very gung ho pro-China throughout the entire interview and could not quite understand. They were missionaries about it. Since I translated all that stuff, they wanted to know why I didn’t want to get fully on board. And we would do all these projects together. I said, well, once I do that, people will not read because I won’t be seen as independent anymore. And they said, “Oh yeah, that makes sense.” But they’re positive. They’re still doing; they do quite good work. At various times in this odyssey, I’ve been tempted to just read and translate them because they seem to have their hand on, the finger on the pulse of China in the sense that they identify really important issues.

They either commission or I don’t know quite how they do their work, but they find really good people who write things that are not cheerleading. Their self-appointed role seems to be that of addressing the problems of the day in a pragmatic, hopeful, and yet critical way. For instance, I have translated, and I’ll finish it up for tomorrow or the next day whenever I update the website again, one of their pieces. They recycled it, but it was on youth issues. They know that Chinese young people are walking around like time bombs, and they’re trying to do something about it. The piece is fairly good, well, it’s a very good analysis of what the problem is. There’s no cheerleading in it at all. And it’s from last year when all this was kind of…

Kaiser: Youth unemployment touched 23%.

David: Unemployment and just general dissatisfaction with things. The fact that young people are, on the one hand, very patriotic, but also deeply concerned about their individual futures and not plugged into family with no sense of meaning beyond a sort of empty patriotism. It’s not bad at all, really.

Kaiser: I look forward to reading it.

David: They’re positive and they are moving forward and doing their kind of thing. So, they’re worth reading, as are the other journals that are like those, like 开放时代 (Kāifàng shídài). There are four or five really good journals like that that are worth reading, although they are all statist in various ways. It was an interesting afternoon.

Kaiser: It sounds like you had a pretty mixed experience, although I think your overall takeaway is still that there was a pervasive shell shock. But also, with the possible exception of Beijing cab drivers, we know that nobody grumbles more than Beijing intellectuals.

David: Oh, that’s for sure.

Kaiser: So we have to take some of this with a grain of salt. Still, though, this to me does seem to represent a pretty significant shift. Are you ready to draw any firm or firm-ish conclusions based on your time in Beijing and Shanghai? Was your sense that this negativity, this is a passing thing? Or do you think that there’s lasting damage to their confidence in the capabilities of leadership?

David: I think the older generation, I mean, one of them said to me when I asked about this walking time bomb stuff, “Yeah, we had our June 4, right? We’ve been there. This has happened to us already. We lost our faith a long time ago.” So they’ll just soldier on in the way that they’re doing, making money by talking to entrepreneurs, writing what the market wants to see. The younger folks, I think that there could be a real crisis brewing. There’s this mix of disenchantment, utter cynicism, mourning, lack of jobs, these kinds of explosive workplaces where people are not functioning well. And then no outlet at all to deal with this, no way to talk about it, no way to vent.

Kaiser: Sounds to me like a good mixture to create some excellent rock and roll.

David: There may be a new wave of punk screaming in China that will develop out of this. It’s entirely possible. Yeah.

Kaiser: But David, this isn’t your first rodeo, not mine either. We’ve seen, what seemed at the time, major moments of disillusionment in the leadership. I mean, ’89 maybe was exceptional, but there was the Wenchuan earthquake, there’s the Wenzhou high-speed rail collision.

David: Sure. Absolutely.

Kaiser: The banning of Under the Dome in 2013 or something. The apartment fire in Daxing, the death of Lǐ Wénliàng 李文亮. Where does this zero COVID volte-face fall in the sort of rankings of league tables of leadership failures?

David: Well, I think the thing is it hit pretty much everybody in a way that a train crash does not. You mourn that when you see it on the news, but that’s an individual incident in one place. But I think everybody, I don’t know what the rural area is, but anybody in a big city lived this pretty much the same way. They all lived through it. Chinese are not stupid. They’re plugged into what goes on in the rest of China, the rest of the world. Still, like you say, the weight of the history of path dependency is pretty strong. People have an immense capacity to forget things. I mean, that’s why people have more than one child. You forget how bad it hurt the first time.

If I were a betting person, I wouldn’t bet that this would just go away over the course of the next two or three years to show up in somebody’s excellent novel, excellent, but obscure novel five to 10 years down the road. But they were really upset. It just upset me for a long time, the conversation I had with those two youngish people was really quite something.

Kaiser: They really set the tone too, because that happened like your second day in the country, huh?

David: Yeah. And it was followed by the, I think it was that same evening I had… No, with the wine New Left crowd, I can’t remember exactly what the schedule was, but I think it may have been the day after. So, that was quite the interesting contrast.

Kaiser: I would love to have been a fly on the wall at any of these conversations. The last thing that I want to ask you about, though, is sort of this big-ish idea of mine. For maybe the last year or so, this idea has been gestating in me. I’ll try to give you the simple version and assume that you have read your Joseph Levenson. I have always bought his assertion that the question that’s been at the heart of modern Chinese intellectual history goes something like, how do we create national wealth and power? And his assertion also that any satisfactory answer has to pass the tests of being both true. That is, does it actually deliver the goods? Does it create wealth and power? Just as importantly, of also being mine, that is something that feels Chinese, is consonant with what Chinese intellectuals believe to be their own inheritance, whether that’s cultural or intellectual.

I’ve begun to think that now a critical mass of the Chinese intelligentsia believes, maybe without even having realized it or really thought much about it, that this has actually been achieved, that the question has been answered, that China realized it was rising now. They sort of feel it’s risen. China’s obviously not going to be pushed around so easily anymore. It’s not going to have to retreat in every instance where it faces the armed power of the West. The answer seems to be delivered in this weird syncretic amalgam of technocratic, Confucian Leninist market-driven socialism with Chinese characteristics, of course. It’s totally clumsy. It’s totally hard to name neatly, but arguably, it’s delivered the goods. It does feel Chinese. I keep asking myself, okay, if we assume that the old question is answered, the wealth and power question, or will be answered soon, then what is the new question? Is there a new question? I have my idea of what that might be, but I’m curious to know what you think the new question might be, or if you think this is a bunch of hooey in the first place.

David: No, I don’t think it’s a bunch of hooey. I wonder what China’s leading entrepreneurs think. I don’t know, some of them probably write books that I don’t read. I think that kind of self-assurance might be found there in their writings or maybe the writings of military generals if they do such things. For my intellectuals, I think they feel something, they feel success, but when they start to write it, they have a really hard time because their conceptual baggage, the vocabulary they use, still is deeply, deeply Western and reflects their training and their thinking over these years. Whenever they reach toward Chineseness or questions of agency, the language gets really slippery. What I think might happen is the younger generation, they just won’t talk about that. Like you said, they’ve made it; that it’s not a big deal. Xu Jilin has written stuff like, yeah, we’ve got wealth and power now, but we’ve become just like the other guys. I mean, we lost their soul. And I think of people like Xiang Biao with whom I’ve worked a lot, the guy who was at Oxford, he’s now at Max Planck, he’s a social anthropologist. I translated a book of his.

Kaiser: Such an interesting fellow.

David: I don’t think he worries about that. Once you’ve made your name out somewhere else, you don’t necessarily worry as much about Chineseness, you just be Chinese. I hope to work with him in the future, I’m about to retire and move to Switzerland, actually.

Kaiser: Oh, congrats.

David: I might work with him. I’m an associate at his institute. He’s working on common concerns, meaning how to bring the world together, how to bring people together in meaningful ways that fly under political borders and stuff like that. He seems not to be concerned at all about Chineseness. And he’s born in ‘74, I think, so he’s a youngish type. When the people from the 1990s generation start writing, I don’t know what they think. By all accounts, these young people are just a different breed altogether, having grown up on the internet without brothers and sisters. We’ll just have to see. That’s my prediction. It’s just that they’ll get enough self-assurance that the question will sort of go away.

Kaiser: Resolve itself.

David: I mean, the next big question should be how this China lives in the world.

Kaiser: Exactly.

David: Doesn’t mean that’s what it needs to be. And the best thinkers say that. Jilin says, ‘Look, we’re all modern now. There are different kinds of modernity. There’s Chinese or Confucian modernity, there’s Islamic modernity, these all coexist. “In China,” he says, “we need to stop worrying about our uniqueness, and instead put our cards on the table.” Say, “Look, guys, you’re doing X thing in Y context, and this is not working.” China has a Z idea that might solve this. This makes sense to me that instead of trying to identify and protect some sense of uniqueness, just be who you are in the world and exercise influence without worrying about it.

Kaiser: Right. But the fact that he needs to say that; that he needs to enjoin people to not obsess on Chineseness suggests to me, it’s like that old song, it’s like if they’re saying don’t spit, that means people are spitting. Right? So, don’t obsess on Chineseness means people are obsessing on Chineseness. I completely agree with you that it’s, how ought China be in the world? Now, that is the new question. How does it operate in a world of near peers or peers? The reason why that is not an easy question to answer is because this is a civilization that just spills over the little Westphalian nation-state cup that it’s been poured into. There’s goop hanging out the sides of the cup. That’s where the pain points are. That’s where, when you put it in the cupboard with the other cups, it pushes up against those things. It’s that inability to confine Chineseness just to… It’s not congruent, right?

David: It’s deeply felt, I think, in a way that I’ve never felt my Americanness. But I never had the century of humiliation. I never had to think about that. I think, for all of them, it’s still deeply felt in a way that is sometimes hard for the rest of the world to understand.

Kaiser: Yeah. That’s really the first step in exercising that cognitive empathy. If you don’t get that, if you don’t get why that is deeply felt, then you’re kind of lost.

David: Right?

Kaiser: Yeah. You’ve already missed the first button. David Ownby, thank you so much for your generosity with your time and even bigger thanks for doing what you do…

David: My pleasure.

Kaiser: With the readingthechinadream.com website. It’s just such a great resource. Cannot recommend it more highly. Speaking of recommending highly, let us move on to recommendations. But first, a very quick reminder that if you like the work that we’re doing with the Sinica Podcast and with other shows in the network, or with things like our YouTube, The Signal with Lizzi Lee, which if you’re not watching that, that’s just amazing. Lizzi is such a great colleague and such a brilliant interviewer. Please support our work by becoming an Access subscriber to The China Project. You’ll get our newsletter, the Daily Dispatch. You’ll unlock the paywall, read all the great stuff on our website. And do your part, become a subscriber. Thank you. On to recommendations. David, what do you have for us?

David: One book I read in the last little while really jumped out at me, it’s a novel by Domenico Starnone, S-T-A-R-N-O-N-E, called Ties. It was written in Italian. I found this because I was reading Jhumpa Lahiri.

Kaiser: Yeah, Jhumpa Lahiri.

David: Who states that she grew up in the States. I think she’s from some part of India. She’s an immigrant, but grew up in the States, and then wrote in English. Then she fell in love with Italian, moved to Italy and wrote in Italian. And then translated her own work back into English and wrote a book about doing that. That book is called Translating Myself and Others. I had read her stuff, her stories, and always liked her. And I read this. She talked about translating Starnone, the book, Ties. This is where I ran across it. I thought, oh, that’d be fun. So I just got it on Kindle, and, everyone listening to this, stop doing what you’re doing. Go to the Kindle store, buy this, clear an afternoon and read it. It’s just the most fantastic thing.

The story starts with an affair, family, husband, wife, two kids. The guy has an affair, leaves the family. The first part of the book is the letters that she writes, the abandoned wife writes to him trying to harangue him into coming home. It’s done with just such grace and wit and such anger. It’s just amazing. The second part of the book, this is a bit of a spoiler alert, but the couple gets back together. This is like 50 years later. They’re an old couple and it goes through what they’re like now after they got over the affair. The third part of the book is just the kids who are now grown up. It’s just astonishing. The writing is out of this world. I don’t read Italian, but I like this so much that I read the same book in English, Portuguese, Spanish, and French.

Kaiser: Oh my gosh.

David: In the way that, you’re a musician, you’re probably listening to covers of the same song done by different artists.

Kaiser: I do. Yeah.

David: So that’s what that was like, just doing paragraph by paragraph through the work.

Kaiser: Wow. I’m buying it right now. I mean, I’m on Amazon right now.

David: Well, seriously, clear your afternoon.

Kaiser: I will.

David: I read it almost without breathing. It was just that good. And he has two more other things as well.

Kaiser: She’s translated another book of his called Trick?

David: Yeah, that’s good, but it’s not as good in my view. I think a third one is also called Trust, maybe.

Kaiser: She’s a fantastic writer. And that’s what you need to be, to be a good translator. This is what I’ve always thought. I mean, my favorite translator from the Italian was always William Weaver. He did all Italo Calvino books and the Umberto Eco books. You just know the man himself is just a fantastically talented writer. So, that’s what makes for it. What a great recommendation. That’s one of those ones I’m instantly going to go for because I really like her writing. She’s so good.

David: Oh, you’ll love this.

Kaiser: Oh, I’m sure I will. My recommendation is sort of a weird run. I went down a strange rabbit hole after I had read this John le Carré novel that I recommended just actually last week on the show with James Crabtree. It’s called A Perfect Spy, you may recall.

David: Mm-hmm.

Kaiser: There’s a book that the protagonist, his name is Magnus Pym, carries around with him. I won’t spoil why, but it’s called Simplicissimus. It’s a 17th-century German novel by von Grimmelshausen. It takes place during the Thirty Years’ War. I got to thinking, my daughter is sort of a history nerd and she loves to just, after we finished dinner, put some massive question to me and just sort of test me.

David: How nice.

Kaiser: The first time she did this, she was like in junior high, and made me offer my explanation for the outbreak of the First World War. She’s going to, at some point, ask me, ‘Explain the 30 years’ war to me, Dad.’ I would be so hard-put to offer anything more than your most basic, well, it was the Protestants and the Calvinists.

David: Right. Your enemy.

Kaiser: I don’t know about that.

David: Oh, I know about that.

Kaiser: It ends, ties up really neatly in a bow with a Treaty of Westphalia and everybody is in a nation-state and blah, blah, blah. Something about the Defenestration of Prague, but Habsburgs and their bid for… Anyway, I decided to bone up and so, maybe five years ago or so, I had read this very old sort of stodgy old-school history book by this guy named Wedgewood. It’s sort of the classic one on the Thirty Years War. But then I thought, I’m sure there’s a more up-to-date good sort of modern history that involves all the new scholarship. Sure enough, I found one and it’s great. It’s by Peter H. Wilson. It’s called The Thirty Years War. Not a very imaginative title. I’m maybe a fourth of the way through it. It’s a slog. It’s difficult. I have had to go back and reread many, many paragraphs. But okay with the caveat that I’m not quite ready for my daughter to ask me about it, I will change the subject if asked. But I’m way better prepared already than I would’ve otherwise been. So, that’s my recommendation for this week. I may put that aside, though, to read Ties.

David: It will leap out at you more than Thirty Years War, I think.

Kaiser: Okay.

David: The first sentence will just make you sit down if you’re not sitting down. It’s just stunning.

Kaiser: Well, David, thanks once again. What a wonderful conversation. It’s great to hear the sort of take from the ground from somebody, especially whose work I so admire and whose sort of mission in life aligns so very much with my own. Thank you so much.

David: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

Kaiser: The Sinica Podcast is powered by The China Project and is a proud part of the Sinica Network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you would drop us an email at sinica@thechinaproject.com or just give us a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts as this really does help people discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at @thechinaproj, and be sure to check out all of the shows on the Sinica Network. Thank you for listening, and we will see you next week. Take care.