Reading: Janet Chen – Guilty of Indigence

Unlike Iain Banks, Janet Chen’s Guilty of Indigence — The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953, has more in common with Gail Hershatter’s The Gender of Memory, and shall not be inhaled in a 24 hour period. It’s possible, but I suspect I’d lose any attempt.

I read about Guilty of Indigence on The China Beat, where the author was interviewed, and figured there would be a lot I’d find interesting. For a start it’s Chinese scholarship written by a women, and having spent more than a decade reading predominately this field written by men before discovering Hershatter, Susan Mann and others, it’s obvious to me my renewed interest has been entirely due to women academics.

Secondly, it covers an era that I find has in general been under-represented – certainly in more popular writing on China – being sandwiched as it is between the Qing Dynasty and Mao. Too often this is referred to as the warlord era – even Wikipedia does, (and it irritates me immensely I can’t refind the brilliant essay deconstructing the term in the context of its use in Afghanistan, as it is eminently applicable to China during this era), used to cover the entire Republican era rather than just the twelve years post-WW1 when the country was split under various military fiefdoms (cliques, hegemonies, etc). I don’t have an alternate suggestion for a name for this era, but I find not reducing it to the preconceptions inherent in the word ‘warlord’ helps to think and write about it with a little more subtlety.

As for the China part itself, Janet concentrates mostly on Beijing and Shanghai, which in general in almost everything I’ve read on China is what is meant by ‘China’; a cluster of provinces, Hebei to Zhejiang, and rarely further west than Henan. Yes, I have a fondness for the Southern Barbarians, and all things border-ish, so experienced small but not unexpected disappointment at absence of Canton in the index, though of course if any book tried to be even slightly all-encompassing when it came to Chinese scholarship, it wouldn’t be finished in this lifetime.

Anyway, it’s beautifully bound, the cover and layout are very attractive, and I think I shall take a pause now to begin reading.