Best of the Year of the Ox
Best books, mainland TV show, YouTube channels, newsletter, podcast, drug, religious holiday, website, videogame, and sport
Best Chinese TV: Mushroom Picking
2021 was a fallow year for Chinese tv dramas. Whereas 2020 had some real prestige HBO-level quality stuff (including my personal favorite The Bad Kids), tightening censorship around scripts and COVID disruptions depressed shows’ quality in 2021. With regulatory gale force headwinds prompting leading studios to shut down and leading players like iQiyi and Tencent Video to layoff staff and axe new shows, I’m pessimistic that 2022 will end up any better.
One bright spot was 山海情, available on YouTube with English subtitles as Minning Town. Minning Town tells the story of a poor village in the 1990s transported whole hog from a barren landscape in Ningxia to a desert that the government ultimately irrigates. At a brisk 23 episodes, it’s one of the few Chinese tv shows I’ve watched that’s left me wanting more. The show’s A1 acting doesn’t flatten accents but rather thoughtfully highlights regional variation. It shines in its portrayal of different 1990s workplaces, getting me invested in mining in Xinjiang, piece labor in Guangzhou, and, most memorably, mushroom farming. Yes, it has a propaganda tinge as a noble civil servant backed by understanding Party bosses ultimately delivers the goods, but unlike a lot of Chinese propaganda tv, it has a soul.
The other tv solid drama was 爱很美味, or ‘Delicious Romance’ available on WeTV with English subtitles. It tells the story of three old female friends, all thirty and single. Two of the three leads are superbly written and acted, and I quite like how the show goes out of its way to make fun of contemporary Chinese tv tropes. While most American shows have avoided making COVID a plot centerpiece, this show’s writing leans into it. My favorite plot beat had a husband caught cheating by government contact-tracers who noticed that his mistress was exposed to COVID. Also, because it’s a Tencent show, it can center WeChat in the narrative in a realistic way.
BiliBili in 2021 delivered the world the best mainland animated series I’ve ever seen, 时光代理人 or Link Click. A creative twist on time travel, it brings together tight heart string-pulling writing and with world class animation. The basketball arc in eps 2-4 ripped my heart out. See western Youtuber Gigguk for a video preview if you’re on the fence. Watch here for eng subs on just on BiliBili if you’re a member.
In terms of variety shows, I quite liked 戏剧新生活, a BiliBili variety show where directors and stage actors had to put on plays and sell tickets. It leaned into the struggles of contemporary stage actors in China, and hopefully motivates more people to check out shows. It had a weirdly all-male cast, and I’m looking forward to a second season where presumably it goes mixed gender or all-female. And speaking of all-female shows, 黑怕女孩, an American Idol-style rap competition featuring a wide range of sonic styles, also caught my attention for a spell.
Bold are the books I really particularly recommend, and bold with stars are my top 3.
The Rise of China´s Industrial Policy (1978 to 2020), by Barry Naughton (2021)
Monkey King: Journey to the West, translation by Julia Lovell (2021)
China Under Mao: A Revolution Derailed, by Andrew G. Walder (2015)
Walder’s crisply written telling of Mao’s rule is my new go-to recommendation for where to start understanding the CCP.
The Rise of Tea Culture in China: The Invention of the Individual, by Bret Hinsch (2015)
China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, by Peter Martin (2021)
China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic, Revised and Updated, by John W. Garver (2016)
World History and National Identity in China: The Twentieth Century, by Xin Fan (2021)
Red Roulette: An Insider’s Story of Wealth, Power, Corruption and Vengeance in Today’s China, by Desmond Shum (2021)
Varieties of State Regulation: How China Regulates Its Socialist Market Economy, by Yukyung Yeo (2020)
Deng Xiaoping: Chronicle Of An Empire, by Ruan Ming (1994)
How China Became Capitalist, by Ronald H. Coase (2012)
Liu Shaoqi and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, by Lowell Dittmer (1997)
Agents of Disorder: Inside China’s Cultural Revolution, by Andrew Walder (2019)
Technology, Bureaucracy and Society
*Men, Machines, and Modern Times, by Elting E. Morison (1968)
Before picking this up, I couldn’t imagine a book about technology and bureaucracy featuring such beautiful writing.
Medieval Technology and Social Change, by Lynn Townsend White Jr. (1966)
Who knew the stirrup was such a big deal! My biggest takeway here was how new weapons systems can reshape not just soldiers and armies but entire societies.
Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software, by Nadia Eghbal (2020)
Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed, by Ben R. Rich (1996)
Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race, by Richard Rhodes (2007)
Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX, by Eric Berger (2021)
The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard, by James G. Burton (1993)
The Last Warrior: Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense Strategy, by Andrew F. Krepinevich (2015)
This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race, by Nicole Perlroth (2021)
Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment, by Stephen Kotkin (2009)
The concepts of a ‘political bank run’ driving the implosion of communism throughout the ‘uncivil society’ of the Easten Bloc’s party establishment are two that will stick with me.
Leninism, by Neil Harding (1997)
Japan Prepares for Total War: The Search for Economic Security, 1919-1941, by Michael A. Barnhart (1988)
Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan, by Tobias Harris (2020)
We Shall Be Masters: Russian Pivots to East Asia from Peter the Great to Putin, by Chris Miller (2021)
The Masters (Strangers and Brothers, #5), by C.P. Snow (1950)
*Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy (1878) Audiobook Maggie Gyllenhall
Inspired by Tyler Cowen’s conversation with poet Dana Gioia, I downloaded Anna Karenina and figured I’d give Maggie Gyllenhall’s audiobook version a shot. Tolstoy ruins reading other fiction that isn’t Tolstoy. Also, Gyllenhall should retire from movies and take up narration full-time. She delivers a masterful performance, refraining from ‘over-reading’ the characters into caricatures and giving as much care to the indirect speech as she does the dialogue. The 1901 Constance Garret translation Gyllenhall uses is the perfect vehicle for the tenderness and sympathy Gyllenhall gives to even the least likable characters. Lastly, this book helped me discover the pleasure of reading fiction simultaneously with your spouse!
Zones of Thought: A Fire Upon the Deep / A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge (2010)
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke (2006)
The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon, by Kathleen J. McInnis (2018)
Iron Widow (Iron Widow, #1), by Xiran Jay Zhao (2021)
My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante (2011)
The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante (2012)
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, by Elena Ferrante (2013)
The Story of the Lost Child (2014)
Land of Big Numbers: Stories, by Te-Ping Chen (2021)
Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James (1881)
After getting vaccinated, the year’s biggest treat was having the opportunity to spend a little time in Italy and walk around listening to some Renaissance books.
Leonardo and the Last Supper, by Ross King (2012)
*The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio (1353)
This book is the most recognizable and relatable cultural artifact over five hundred years old I’ve ever interacted with. The values, sense of humor, pacing, and overall vibe are startlingly modern.
The Lives of the Artists, by Giorgio Vasari (1998)
The Renaissance, by Will Durant (1980)
Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, by Ross King (2001)
The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, by Benvenuto Cellini (1999)
Reading the sculptor’s autobiography felt like watching season 1 of the Jersey Shore in which completely un-self aware characters live their ‘best lives’ and couldn’t care less about what the world thinks. However, the bad behavior Cellini gets away goes far beyond cheating with a housemate and throwing fists at a bar to include a surprising amount of casual murder. His supreme arrogance and self-confidence would fit right in with, say, mid-2000s celebrity culture, before “anxiety” and “depression” started to sell records.
April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against the Medici, by Lauro Martines (2003)
Historians of this era have enough primary sources to spin some fantastic high stakes political drama.
American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850, by Alan Taylor (2021)
American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, by Alan Taylor (2016)
Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West, by Hampton Sides (2007)
Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, by S.C. Gwynne (2010)
Freedom's Forge: How American Business Built the Arsenal of Democracy That Won World War II, by Arthur Herman (2012)
Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands, by Gavan Daws (1974)
Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, by Christina Thompson (2019)
The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History, by Alexander Mikaberidze (2020)
This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, by Alan Lew (2003)
The Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World's Most Coveted Fish, by Emily Voigt (2016)
Trade Wars Are Class Wars: How Rising Inequality Distorts the Global Economy and Threatens International Peace, by Matthew C. Klein and Michael Pettis (2020)
The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, by Michael Lewis (2021)
Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, by Adam Tooze (2007)
Scaling Moore’s Wall: Existing Institutions and the End of a Technology Paradigm, by Hassan Khan (2017)
Best Reading App: VoiceDream
Some light dyslexia and eyestrain issues exacerbated by a concussion some years ago makes reading on paper a real slog. In previous years, I’ve mostly relied Audible for books, of late have been reaching the limit of the platform. This year, fully buying into the Voicedream app, which vocalizes pdfs via a computer-generated voice, allowed me to dramatically increase my reading. The app is buggy and its voices are robotic, but it’s just functional enough to make me stick with it.
For those who haven’t tried listening to books, I really encourage you to give it a shot! While you likely at first listen slower than you read and not capture as good marginalia, it opens up perhaps a thousand hours a year spent walking, cooking, cleaning, shopping, commuting, and exercising to reading.
Next year I hope to substitute out some time I have spent reading for writing, doing more serious study of difficult texts, and reading a book or two in Chinese.
Best Drug: Moderna Vaccine
Getting shot up with Moderna in a Duane Reade was my most emotional experience of the year. Yes it could’ve happened faster, yes half the world still isn’t vaccinated, and yes here we still are a year later dealing with variants, but I’m still incredibly grateful I’m living in the 2020s and not in any other time in history when I couldn’t count on medicine to keep me safe from a pandemic.
Best Life Development: Reconciling with Aging?
After my vaccine kicked in, I spent a night with close friends wandering around the East Village. After entering the back room of a club full of college kids, the first twenty minutes being in a crowded poorly ventilated space dancing to Lady Gaga and Migos was ecstatic. By minute twenty-five, I was over it.
My knees now ache after playing basketball. I’m happiest when weekend nights end by 11. Ten years ago a life without loud music, first dates, global adventures, and beer seemed not worth living. Now, the dream evening is listening to the Gramophone 50 Greatest Bach Recordings playlist, drinking baicha and reading on the couch with my wife. And I’m perfectly fine with this!
Best Website: YouTube
Youtube is the best content platform on the internet, and my first stop to learn almost anything non-China-related. The channels I most enjoy are experts willing to go deep into niche topics where video is a superior learning vector than books or articles.
My favorite channel was Channel 5 News, which provided some of the best American journalism over the past two years. Andrew Callaghan’s straight man interview style and editing have surfaced humane portraits of hood saviors and Utah rap fans, while giving space for qanon supporters and antivaxers to show how out there they are. Andrew’s content would not have found a home even on cable tv.
Thanks to the Bills getting their act together over the past few years, I’ve fallen back in love with the NFL. NFL Film Session, where everyone from star WRs like Davante Adams to random offensive linemen talking with real sophistication about how they do what they do, helped me start to appreciate the game at a deeper level.
Putin’s Palace by the Alexey Navalny crew made me dream what a documentary like this would look like in the China context.
Stuff Made Here’s engineering hijinks is the sort of thing that STEM education should lean on during remote learning.
Music playlists! Aside from beautifully-named playlists like ‘A Playlist to Feel Like a 19th Century Villain Who Won the Game’ or ‘japanese trap when destroying the world with your inner demons,’ the long tail of classical music like this Japanese saxophone Goldberg Variations is one of the great blessings of living in the 2020s.
The Smarthistory youtube channel. Instead of hours-long explorations into eras, Smarthistory gives you these ten-minute bite-sized appetizers perfect for exploring a new medium or era.
The best youtube-y art criticism I saw was a feature-length documentary on Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi by a digital artist which, despite some weird editing choices, was some of the vest visual best analysis I’ve seen.
Corridor Crew’s explorations of stunts and special effects in movies are a great accessible window into a profession that without youtube would be completely a mystery to outsiders.
Best Youtube Videos: James Cahill’s Chinese Art Lectures
James Cahill, dean of American Chinese landscape painting scholars, passed away in 2014 at 87. In his final years, he recorded dozens of hours of lectures sitting in his office voicing over powerpoints while stepping through two thousand years of Chinese painting. Video lectures are my favorite form factor for learning about visual art—reading art books takes time away from staring at paintings, and AirPlaying the 1080p videos to a TV gives you a sense of scale of works that even an oversize art book can’t hope to compete with.
Cahill comes from a generation of academics who seem to be less scared about having strong opinions. His frank judgments about artists and paintings (“well, not everyone agrees with me, but I’m absolutely convinced this is a forgery”…“this era’s figure paintings really fell off from the last dynasty”) make his lectures much more comprehensible and engaging than contemporary artspeak. Chinese landscape painting is a wonderful window into exploring China’s history as, aside from these paintings’ inherent beauty, each era’s leading painters and styles teach you new nuances about the times they lived. Cross-era comparisons in Chinese landscape painting are particularly revelatory as the tradition is constantly referencing and building off past masters. More broadly, starting to appreciate the different aesthetic emphases of Chinese painting, which differ in important ways from the western tradition, open up your eye to a new way of looking at art.
Even more important than Cahill’s erudition, it’s such a pleasure just getting to hang out with the guy. Having had all my grandparents pass away long ago now, the enthusiasm with which he shares his stories and wisdom is a real treat, bringing a perspective back into my life I haven’t had for a decade. Watching these videos made aging seem less scary, as Cahill brings to the camera the sort of wisdom and outlook you seem to only get to enjoy towards the end of life. If I can build up enough knowledge and keep the active mindset to record some epic-length metaverse lecture in my 80s, I’ll know I’ve done something right.
Cahill has a beautiful riff talking about a Tang Dynasty scroll of scholar Fu Sheng in old age which I encourage you to watch here. Fu Sheng lived though the Qin Dynasty’s attempt to snuff out Confucianism through burning books and burying scholars. Amended excerpt from Cahill’s lecture below:
Fu Sheng managed to hide a copy of the Shujing in the wall of his house. After the Han Dynasty started up, Fu Sheng came out of retirement and was able to deliver lectures on the text to an emissary sent by the Emperor. It’s a very moving painting. As the old man leans on a table, he can barely support himself. He’s holding a scroll and explicating the text in it, giving his lecture. The age of the figure and the scroll are both in harmony. With all the cracks in the silk, washes of reddish color on the figure, he can barely hold his head up. But, he’s smiling because he’s delivering his lecture, and knows he has managed to save this important text and pass on what he knows about it to future generations.
Early in my career I took part in a conference on Confucianism, and gave a paper entitled ‘Confucian elements on the theory in painting’ back in 1958. In it, I tried to trace a theory of the arts that’s based on the Confucian idea of the transmission of wisdom and knowledge downt he genreations. Making the point that in their belief, some knowledge could be transmitted in text and writing, while others are best in poetry and art, the things that embody the feelings, thought, and inner workings of the artists. Fu Sheng becomes the emblem of the Confucian ideal of passing wisdom to the future generations, the old scholar taking a role as a link in the transmission of cultural material. This became the basis for literati painting on an ideal level.
For me, it represents much more than that. Whenever people used to ask me about my religious orientation, I used to say, somewhat facetiously, ‘I’m Neo-Confucian.’ There’s some truth behind it! This ideal of passing on wisdom, whatever I think I know, to younger people, is indeed the ideal that drives me to record this lecture series while I still can. To set down for younger generations and posterity something of what I think I understand and know, which is in danger of being lost unless I do. I don’t mean only my own knowledge but something of what I’ve learned from some of my great teachers, however imperfect my understanding and transmission of their teaching may be, it’s still supremely worth doing for me.
For my 80th birthday, a painter friend Wang Qingli painted this of me as a Chinese scholar, my ideal self-image if you will, posing as a later day Fu Sheng, more overweight than emaciated, about to be 83, much reduced in mobility after two heart attacks, using a new medium to pass on an old person’s wisdom.
Best Religious Holiday: Shabbat
I’ve gone on and off trying to observe Shabbat over the years, and for whatever reason this past year gave it another shot. I’ve started to unplug from the internet until noon on Saturdays, and try not to send emails or do anything that feels too much like work before sunset. Using Judaism as a springboard to find some space in the week to disconnect and think about weightier things than me and my work has been a real treat.
Newsletter of the Year: Chaoyang Trap House
Chaoyang Trap House, a collectively produced zine-cum-substack, is the best thing to happen in a while to English language China coverage. They take on topics like Chinese murder mystery games, indie video games, senior-citizen fashion and masculinity in an oral history style that revels in the odd corners and eccentricities of modern, internet-adjacent China. It humanizes where other writers too often exoticize, all the while bringing a sense of flair to my inbox that nothing else consistently matches. I wish I was cool enough to write for them.
Best Zoom: Communism Reading Club
Early on in Return to Dragon Mountain, Jonathan Spence’s profile of “late Ming man” Zhang Dai, gets really into clubs. Inspired by his grandfather’s history club and his dad’s etymology club, he first founds a football club, then a music club, before moving onto a cockfight club, a crab-eating club, and finally settling down for the long haul with a poetry club. Over this past year, it finally made sense why adult clubs had such an appeal to him.
In 2021, every two weeks I ingested two hundred pages of Communist history and ideology to prepare on a Sunday afternoon Zoom. After I finished school I thought I was done with group learning, but this reading group of young China analysts was far more engaged than any college or grad school class I was a part of. Everyone put in the time and was there because they wanted to be. Thanks to the soft peer pressure, I found myself pushing through difficult books I would have put down otherwise and learning tremendously from the discussion. I hope that the ChinaTalk CCP Open Source Initiative, whatever it turns out to be, is able to replicate the vibe that this reading group has cultivated.
Best Podcast: The Constant
The Constant is a rigorous, comedic, and thoughtful exploration into weird corners of history. This year’s two three-part series Long Story Short on humanity’s centuries-long efforts to improve navigation by sea and How to Solve a Murder on the nightmare that is forensic science were my best hours of podcast listening this year.
Honorable mentions go to:
Centuries of Sound: Hours-long mixes of music and talk radio covering each year from the 1880s—now that we’re in the 1930s and the audio quality has improved, it’s really hitting its stride.
The Rocky Ruggiero podcast: the passion project of an American art historian based in Florence, gives fantastic accessible yet high level intros to Renaissance art and architecture.
Dunc’d On Basketball: the NBA contains multitudes.
Best Videogame: Xbox GamePass
As COVID abated and I could spend more time outside, I toned down my videogame consumption this past year. Instead of going deep into any particular title, the most fun I had was playing a new Xbox GamePass title for a few hours twice a month with an old college friend. At this point, I’m more interested in keeping up with videogame design innovations than getting lost in a world or a mechanical system. For that purpose, watching thoughtful youtube review channels like SkillUp on 2x saves a ton of time.
Going forward, I’m trying to limit myself to playing video games either with friends or in Chinese so that the time can double as language practice. I’ve had fun exploring Sword and Fairy 7 and want to get back into the Cyberpunk 2077 Chinese dub now that the game seems to be a little more stable. I’m also open to other recommendations! Friends, of course, include readers of this newsletter. I have a small ChinaTalk Discord going—if you’d like an invite just respond to this email.
Best Sport: Rock Climbing
For most of my life, I’ve been invested to various levels in American pro sports. In the past two years, rock climbing has provided a new outlet I’ve quite enjoyed diving into.
It’s a much more wholesome scene with fewer dirty underbellies than mainstream pro sports. Although there’s far less money in it, there are no ‘teams’ and owners limiting athletes’ freedom, far fewer career-ending injuries and few if any concussions. Rock climbing’s ethic ties very neatly into conservation such that I really do think the world would be a better place if more people got into it.
I also quite like the diversity of definition of success in climbing. Even if you’re not a freak hypercompetitive athlete, you can still find a niche that suits your body and attitude. Some athletes can fly around the world competing in sanctioned bouldering competitions, and others chose to live for months out of vans in Yosemite or remote Norway. It’s also truly a global sport, with top climbers hailing from Germany, the Czech Republic, Japan, Serbia, and Italy.
Adam Ondra is the consensus best climber alive and Alex Honnold, thanks to his free solo Dawn Wall climb, is the world’s most famous. Hearing them two in dialogue is a perfect encapsulation of how the climbing world has a home for everyone. Adam, who trains religiously, opens the conversation saying, “when I go climbing I always want to do my best.” But Alex is perplexed, “I can’t try that hard, at all! I find climbing relaxing, meditative. I don’t like trying my hardest.” He then goes on to describe the time during promoting his movie where he trained hard and climbed his first 9a, but was left underwhelmed and bored by the process of getting stronger. To Alex’s comment, “I like giving 75% effort,” Adam responds “but I like giving 100% effort!” Adam: “well I don’t like giving 100% because it’s hard and painful.” The disappointment in Adam’s facial expression says it all.
As a first video, I’d recommend checking out Adam’s climb of Silence, the world’s hardest route. Next check out the Ascetionism channel for a deeper exploration into the sport. Or just show up at your local gym!
Best wishes in the new year,