A Geek in China


This book is a project I have been working on the past few years. I was approached by the publisher to write this book and it is part of a series that is selling quite well, which includes A Geek in Japan, A Geek in Thailand, and A Geek in Korea. It was an interesting project. My focus was on cultural literacy. In other words, what are the kinds of things that all kids in China grow up with and know about, such as, who was Confucius, what was so great about the Han Dynasty, China’s regional cuisines, who are the biggest pop stars in China today, and so on. The audience for this book is armchair travelers curious about China, and those who know some Chinese and want to better understand all the cultural references that come up in everyday speech and writing. When you speak the language, it is also important that you understand something about the culture—history, politics, important people, myths and legends, literature, music, and so on. It is quite accessible with lots of photographs and short essays on a wide range of topics. Below is the promotional blurb from Amazon. It is scheduled to be released on December 27, 2016, and December 15, 2016 in the UK.

You can get it here (or in the link on the right under Books):


For every fan of kung fu, steamed dumplings, Confucius and giant skyscrapers, A Geek in China is a hip, smart and concise guide to the Middle Kingdom.

Packed with photographs and short articles on all aspects of Chinese culture, past and present, A Geek in China introduces readers to everything from Taoism and Confucianism to pop music and China’s new middle class. A mix of traditional culture, such as highlights of Chinese history, great historical and mythological figures, traditional medicine, how the Chinese language works, real Chinese food, martial arts, and how the Chinese Communist Party works, is complimented with information on what makes China unique today.

Chapters discuss why China is so crowded, what it’s like to work in an office, internet and cell phone culture, dating and marriage practices, top popular movies and movie stars, the contemporary art scene, China’s amazing new architecture and infrastructure, and popular holidays. It also contains chapters on what makes the Chinese tick, such as the importance of harmony in society, the practice of humility, and the importance of hierarchy. For visitors to the country, the author includes sections on what to see, both common cultural sites and off-the-beaten-track sites, and how to get around in China. Sections on visiting Hong Kong and Taiwan are also included.

This China travel guide is a unique guide to the world’s most populous and longest continuous culture. Readers will learn essential information about China’s past and present to be able to understand the many references to history, politics, and pop culture that come up in everyday conversation and in the media.

More on Chinese Poetry (or which translations should I read?)

It was Ezra Pound who really brought Chinese poetry to the Western world. Whether his translations are any good or not has been debated. Some say he was a brilliant poet, but a lousy translator. Regardless,  we do owe it to him for bringing this rich and important poetic tradition to our attention. T.S. Eliot said, “Chinese poetry, as we know it today, is something invented by Ezra Pound.”

There are volumes and volumes of Chinese poetry that has been translated into English, most of it from the Tang and Song Dynasties. Translations range from literal to free. That is a literal translation that stays as true to the original as possible and tries as much as possible to retain the form and content of the original poem. On the other hand, you have free translations that focus on capturing the feeling or mood of a poem with less concern on accounting for every word in the original. When translating Chinese poetry, the first thing you lose is form and rhyme. It is also very difficult to translate the literary and historical allusions without copious endnotes.

I also argue that when you translate a poem you end up with a new poem, the product of the translator. In other words, a Burton Watson translation is very different from a David Hinton translation. I would even go so far as saying that reading poetry in translation is reading the poetry of the translator. In Keats’ famous poem, “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer” he talks about how Chapman’s translation of Homer moved him. He had read other translations of Homer, but it was Chapman’s translation that really affected him; not Homer, but Chapman’s Homer. Thus, when we read a particular translation we are reading that translators version of the poems. Over many years, I have read many translations of the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu (Tu Fu), considered to be one of the greatest of all Chinese poets. His poetry was good, but never really resonated with me. Then in 2009 I bought a new translation of his poems called, Du Fu: A Life in Poetry translated by the American poet, David Young.

du fu book

I had read some of Young’s original poetry and liked it quite a bit so I was interested in his take on Chinese poetry. The book is arranged chronologically following Du Fu’s life. I began reading and could hardly put it down. It read like a biography but in verse. It was fabulous and I couldn’t believe this was Du Fu. For me, David Young’s translations of Du Fu moved me like no other translations I had read before.

With all the translations of classical Chinese poetry out there, what should you read? What do I recommend? Keep in mind that my recommendations are subjective. Some of my colleagues will not agree with me, especially since I am not a specialist in Chinese poetry. I do teach a Chinese poetry in translation course, but that is not my specialty (though I did take several graduate seminars in Chinese poetry). My current favorite poet is David Hinton, a full-time translator of Chinese poetry. He has published a large anthology of Chinese poetry as well as individual collections of the more well-known Chinese poets. I like his anthology, Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology.

Hinton book

I find his translations fresh and accessible. He strikes a nice balance between staying true to the original but creating a fine poem that reads well in English. Two other  anthologies that I like include: The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry: From Ancient to Contemporary, The Full 3,000 Year Tradition, edited by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping and The Shambhala Anthology of Chinese Poetry, translated and edited by J. P. Seaton. Barnstone is a poet and translator and Seaton is an academic (professor of Chinese). If you want something more poetic and perhaps less true to the originals, I recommend, The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, edited by Eliot Weinberger. This volume includes translations by famous American poets, like William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, and David Hinton. This will give you a feel for some of the first translations of Chinese poetry in the West.

seaton book

penguin poetryI also want to mention the translator Red Pine. This is the pen name of Bill Porter who has spent his life translating Chinese poetry and Buddhist classics. One thing I really like about his translations is that he always includes the original Chinese and does an excellent job of contextualizing the poems providing background information about the poets, the historical context, and the situation in which the poet wrote the poem. I like this kind of contextualization. He is one of the few translators who has translated all the known poems of the Tang Dynasty poet known as Cold Mountain. Perhaps his other most important work of Chinese poetry is his translation of  Poems of the Masters (千家詩 qiān jiā shī). This is an important anthology first published at the end of the Song Dynasty.

Red Pine book

Finally, if you are really into Chinese poetry and know some Chinese I recommend How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology edited by Zong-Qi Cai. This book provides the original Chinese, pinyin, and an English translation, as well as exhaustive explanations and commentary on the form of the poem, the literary and historical allusions, etc. It is rather dense and not for casual reading, but well researched and written. Two other important anthologies that should be mentioned are Burton Watson’s The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry and Liu and Lo’s Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry (translated by many different translators). These two are a bit older and in my opinion not as fresh or as interesting as the translations I mentioned above, but worth looking at. Of course, most anyone translating Chinese poetry today owes a debt to Watson for his groundbreaking translations.

Of course there are many other anthologies that are worth reading, but to me these are the highlights.

Decoding China Now Available!



My new book Decoding China: A Handbook for Traveling, Studying, and Living in Today’s China is now available. You can find it on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. There are links on the right.

I started this book back in 2002, put it away for a few years (busy with other projects), then began writing in earnest again and updating the research in 2010. If you get a chance I would appreciate any feedback you might have. I would also appreciate it if you would o a review on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

I have just returned from another trip to China; this time to the Southwest—Sichuan, Guizhou, and Yunnan Provinces. I’ll be posting about that and my trip two months ago to Guangdong and Taiwan.


Pop Culture China!: A Book Review



Latham, Kevin. 2007. Pop Culture China!: Media, Arts, and Lifestyle. Santa Barbara, Denver, Oxford: ABC Clio.

I’m doing some research on Chinese pop culture, so this seemed like a good book to read. When I received it, I immediately noticed the heavy, textbook feel to it.EVen the layout seems very textbook-ish. It really is a reference work for libraries and maybe specialists. The author is a lecturer in anthropology and sociology at the University of London. The book is thorough, and as one might expect from this kind of book, the writing is academic in nature. It is best used as a reference work, and would be a bit heavy to read through from cover to cover. However, I did read it all the way through and found it to be well written and well organized.

Anyone who is interested in such things as the development of rock music in China, the evolution of film, the role of newspapers in Chinese society, how Chinese spend their leisure time, and so on, will find this book a valuable resource. Each chapter ends with a section called “A to Z” which serves as a kind of review of the major names, terms, and events discussed in the chapter. I found this useful. It is obvious that the book is well researched and a valuable contribution to our understanding of pop culture in an ever changing China. It’s a welcome addition to my library, but for most people I would recommend you check it out at your local library.

What Chinese Want: A Book Review


Doctoroff, Tom. 2012. What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism, and China’s Modern Consumer. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Tom Doctoroff has opinions and he isn’t afraid to express them. There is no beating around the bush here. I appreciated his direct style and getting right to the point, though he has a tendency to oversimplify things. There is nothing worse than dancing around the issue to the point that you’re not sure where the author stands. Not so with Doctoroff. He also tends to overgeneralize, saying things such as :

“Chinese fear chaos; they are unable to imagine social order without autocratic control.”(p. 26)
“In China, no one invests in status brands unless everyone recognizes them.”(p. 76)
“. . . the imitation and piracy of brands–has become a national point of pride.”(p. 79)
“. . . there are few Chinese labels actually preferred by mainland consumers.”(p. 86)

This may be true for the emerging middle class, but what about the millions who are happy to have consumer goods, period. For them, the cheapest brand will do.

Of the Chinese education system, he says, “It’s primary role is to advance the interests of the nation, as defined by the Communist Party.”(p. 126)

I know many faculty members at Chinese universities that would strongly disagree with this, especially those in the humanities. Again, he is overgeneralizing.

“Surgeons will still be bribed by patient’s relatives to ensure adequate care. Medical equipment will still be manned by inadequately trained and poorly compensated staff. Local banks, while dependable for low-end transactions, will offer no investment alternatives beyond basic savings and high-risk, opaque mutual funds.”(p. 152)

A rather pessimistic viewpoint. China has progressed in practically every area of society in the past 30 years. I see no reason to believe that things won’t continue to change and improve.

“On a personal level, the Chinese admire–are even intoxicated by–US-style individualism. At the same time, they regard it as dangerous, both personally and as a national competitive advantage.”(p. 195)

Again, this is debatable. I have not met too many Chinese that are enamored by Western individualism. Most find it rather odd.

Despite Doctoroff’s tendency to overgeneralize, and his frequent repetition, he is not afraid to challenge the reader; he makes you think, ask questions. Some of what he says may even anger you, especially if you are native Chinese. All of this is okay. I like someone with an opinion even if I don’t agree with it. The best books are those that challenge you.

In sum, this book provides a nice look into Chinese consumer culture. The reader comes away with a better understanding of the dramatic changes in society in China today. I recommend it, especially for those interested in advertising and marketing and want to understand what’s going on in China.

Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Book Review

ref=dp_image_0Dunlop, Fuchsia. 2008. Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company.

First off I should say that I love eating in China. In fact, that is what I most look forward to when I am heading to China. The variety and quality of the various cuisines in China is truly extraordinary. I really related to this book, not only for the eating adventures, but also because I also was once a young student in China trying to figure things out around me. Dunlop was a young girl studying Chinese in Chengdu when she became distracted by the heady smells and tastes that surrounded her. She enrolled in the local cooking school and dove headfirst into the wonderful world of Chinese cuisine, specifically 川菜 chuāncài, or Sichuan cooking, in her case.

What makes this book so readable, and persuasive, is Dunlop’s ability to engage the reader with personal and intimate stories of regular people and homestyle cooking.  As a speaker of Chinese she is able to share experiences with ordinary Chinese that would not be possible without a knowledge of the language. For example, she befriends the cook at the local noodle shop and eventually persuades him to give her the recipe for his famous dandan noodles, which she shares with the reader. I know I have said this before in other book reviews, but knowing Chinese really opens up all kinds of doors and allows one to experience a China that would not be possible if you did not know the language.

She correctly states on page 206, “Food has always been of exceptional importance in Chinese culture. It is not only the currency of medicine, but of religion and sacrifice, love and kinship, business relationships, bribery, and even, on occasion, espionage. ‘To the people, food is heaven,’ goes the oft-repeated saying.” Though the book focusses on Sichuan cuisine, she does give insight into China’s other culinary traditions as well.

The book is engaging, entertaining, and very informative. It is obvious that she has done her homework and knows her stuff. She gets added credibility because she experiences all this first hand while she lived in China and on subsequent trips back after returning to the UK.

The reader comes away from this book fascinated with Chinese food, and really hungry. The food she describes is the real thing. This is a well written memoir and I highly recommend it.

Fuchsia Dunlop is an active food writer and blogger and is the author of at least three Chinese cookbooks Her blog can be found here:


The Problem with Most Chinese Language Textbooks

One of my areas of research, and where I have published, is in the field of Chinese language pedagogy; that is, teaching Chinese as a foreign language. Part of that is materials development (i.e. writing and reviewing textbooks). I am invited on a fairly regular basis to review new textbooks. Some of these are recently published books and the reviews are published in professional journals, and others are prepublication reviews. That is, a publisher will contact me and ask for a critical review and a recommendation whether I think they should publish it or not. Suffice it to say, I have seen quite a few Chinese language textbooks in my career, and most have pretty significant problems. Of course this is just my opinion, but most of my opinions are based on solid research in Chinese language pedagogy.

1. Too much focus on characters.

The vast majority of Chinese language textbooks have you learning Chinese characters from the very beginning. So you end up learning pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and characters all at the same time. This is a huge overload of information for new learners, especially since the Chinese writing system is non-alphabetic and totally different from Western languages. All people the world over learn to speak and are completely fluent in their native languages before they learn how to read. You do not need to know how to recognize and write characters to be able to learn how to speak Chinese. But most textbooks present dialogues and sentences in characters which means in order to learn how to speak you first must be able to read. Not a very efficient or effective approach. Research shows that if learners first learn how to speak Chinese and have at least a basic understanding of the sound system, they learn characters faster and have better pronunciation than those that learn characters from the beginning. Presenting a Spanish or French dialogue in Spanish or French does not impede a learners progress, but presenting dialogues in Chinese characters does.

2. Lack of contextualization.

Most textbooks present dialogues or other text with little or no context. There is no discussion about the people speaking, their relationship with each other, where the situation takes place, and so on. Learners must then make assumptions about the language and why it is used. Textbooks would be much better if they contextualized the language so learners know why certain language is used. The easiest example of this is with greetings. If textbooks only present 你好, then learners assume it is used the same as “hi” or “hello” in English. Language has meaning only in context.

3. Too much information.

Most Chinese language textbooks seem to have used European language textbooks as their models. This is evident with long vocabulary lists and dialogues. For English speakers, learning 20 or 30 new Spanish vocabulary items in a lesson is not the same as trying to learn the same number of Chinese words. Remember that there are no cognates in Chinese, and the language is both linguistically unrelated and culturally remote. Information needs to be presented in more manageable units.

4. Culture is treated as an after thought.

You simply cannot separate language and culture. Language has meaning only in a culturally rich context. I’m talking about behavioral culture—how people act, communicate, and interact with one another. Memorizing the dictionary and knowing all about the grammar of Chinese will not insure you will be able to communicate effectively. You need to know how to communicate, what language is okay to use with certain people, and so on. Most textbooks treat culture as a separate thing and focus on things like The Great Wall, chopsticks, Beijing Opera, and Chinese paper lanterns. Contextualizing the language entails providing information about things like, how close you stand to someone, what to do with your hands, what kinds of topics are okay to talk about, how you go about greeting someone, do you shake hands, how you apologize to someone based on your relationship with them, and so on. It not just the language that must be learned, but how to communicate, which includes communicative conventions that all natives know subconsciously.

The perfect textbook does not exist, but they are getting better. Most Chinese teachers have spent more time than they would like modifying and supplementing textbooks that they were either required to use, or selected but were not totally satisfied with. There are not too many beginning level textbooks that I would recommend without reservations. However, there are two textbook series that have recently been published that I think are worth looking into. They are:

Kubler, Cornelius. Basic Spoken Chinese and Basic Written Chinese. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing. 2011.

Ross, Claudia, et. al. The Routledge Course in Modern Mandarin Chinese. London and New York: Routledge. 2010.

Both of these excellent textbooks also include workbooks and online resources. In short, what makes these textbooks stand out from all the others, is that they treat the written language separately from the spoken language, the language is presented in manageable units, the language presented is highly contextualized with attention paid to behavioral culture, and they are attractive and easy to navigate. They are both very pedagogically sound and the authors are both highly respected in the field of Chinese language teaching.  They are not really intended for self study, though a motivated learner could probably use them as such. They are much better as part of a formal course in beginning level Chinese.

In the future, I will do a detailed review of each of these textbooks.