25/12/2016 – 1/1/2017
On the cover of this book Tom Keneally warns: ‘Let no one speak of China who has not read The Phoenix Years.’ I talk a lot about China, as a Chinese language teacher and as someone deeply interested in China. So this book caught my eye in the bookshop and I bought it immediately. I’ve read it across the lost week that spans Christmas and New Year, when I’ve had the time and tendency to think back on my time in China. Although it’s been about 20 years since I read Geremie Barme’s book New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices (1992), I suspect there is some commonality, although Madeleine’s book spans the 1970s to the present.
Madeleine tells of her experiences in China, primarily in Beijing as a journalist since the 1980s. She looks at politics and social issues, but all wound around the story of the development of contemporary art in China, told mostly through her experiences and conversations with a range of Chinese artists across decades. She describes the swelling activism through the 1980s, the trauma of June 4 1989, and the ‘waves’ of art movements in China – the peaks of momentous work and troughs of government crackdowns.
The book is thorough and pacy. I wonder if people with no China experience would be able to follow everything, but maybe I’m wrong. I really enjoyed being reacquainted with the goings on of Chinese politics since the Cultural Revolution – something I studied in detail in the 1990s. Some of the artists I know of, others I recognise their work, and others are new to me. What I mostly enjoyed were her descriptions of details and places. In parts I felt like she was describing my experiences, my observations of change and detail and landscape and people as I travelled all over China between 1996-2003. However her descriptions of government crackdowns and control in Xinjiang, particularly the old city of Kashgar, have broken my heart. I don’t want to believe that is all gone. I spent wonderful weeks there in 1998, and have always planned to head back one day. (I do tend to say this about many places in China that I’ve as yet never returned to, but with Kashgar I mean it!) The colours, the dust, the smells and tastes, the architecture, the open landscape and the freedom to roam for adventures. Is it really gone? Is it worth the loss?
I recommend this book for anyone with an interest in contemporary Chinese art, and also for those who want to understand the detailed historical context for Tiananmen Square in 1989. For a different perspective of Kashgar, another book I loved is A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar (Suzanne Joinson, 2012).