Imperfect Understanding

Imperfect Understanding : Intimate Portraits of Chinese Celebrities

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What did it mean to be a celebrity in 1930s China? Who were Republican China's preeminent intellectuals, writers, artists, politicians, diplomats, and businesspeople, and how were they represented in the popular press? During the heady days of Anglophone publishing in 1930s China, Wen Yuan-ning edited for the Critic a series of "Unedited Biographies" (later "Intimate Portraits") of famous contemporary Chinese personages. Wen and his collaborators--some of whom wrote anonymously--offered readers mischievous and idiosyncratic accounts of the careers and personalities of the people in the news. These idiosyncratic celebrity sketches proved both controversial and popular, with several of them immediately being translated into Chinese. A selection of seventeen of Wen's own contributions to the Critic series was published to acclaim in 1935 as the book Imperfect Understanding. Yet Wen and his contributions to Chinese literary culture disappeared from the historical record after the founding of the People's Republic, likely because Wen wrote in English and had close ties to the Chinese Nationalist Party. The fifty essays (and one reader rebuttal) that originally appeared in the Critic in 1934, recently rediscovered, appear in this book accompanied by a comprehensive introduction to Wen Yuan-ning and his participation in Republican China's thriving Anglophone literary scene.

This anthology brings together fifty rediscovered essays, written in English in 1934, which offer fascinating, close-up profiles of a constellation of celebrities. From the warlord Han Fuju to the Peking Opera star Mei Lanfang to the intellectual leader Hu Shi to the novelist Lao She to ambassador Wellington Koo to the Singaporean Chinese entrepreneur Lim Boon Keng to the deposed Qing Emperor Puyi, the series presents a panorama of Chinese elites. Imperfect Understanding represents an important archival discovery, a literary collection which provides valuable biographical information about major modern Chinese historical figures and represents a unique artifact of the pre-war heyday of Anglophone literary culture in China.

Imperfect Understanding: Intimate Portraits of Modern Chinese Celebrities is both an entertaining work of literature, by turns comedic and touching, and an important historical document. Its fifty sketches represent influential Chinese historical figures warts and all, in the eyes of contemporary observers seeking to provide readers an alternative to the autobiographical puffery of popular books like Who's Who in China. Christopher Rea's introduction offers new research on the forgotten literary figure Wen Yuan-ning and argues that one of the essays published under his name was written anonymously by a young man who went on to become one of modern China's literary giants: Qian Zhongshu. This edition of Imperfect Understanding also includes multiple reviews of Wen's book, brief biographies of the subjects of the Critic series, and a bibliography of further writings by and on Wen Yuan-ning.

Imperfect Understanding's profiles of fifty Chinese cultural and political celebrities offer valuable insights about modern historical personages, delivered with wit and literary flair.
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Product details

  • Hardback | 330 pages
  • 152 x 229 x 22mm | 653g
  • English
  • 8 Illustrations; Illustrations, black and white
  • 1604979437
  • 9781604979435

Review quote

"Satirical, witty, and compulsive reading, these bite-size essays expose the quirks and foibles of China's celebrities. With the clear eye and cutting tongue of an astute observer, Wang Yuan-ning's Imperfect Understanding reveals the weird and wonderful personalities of the famous and the fabulous--be they politicians, generals, artists, teachers, writers, athletes, diplomats, or opera stars." --Louise Edwards, Scientia Professor and Deputy Head of School - Research, School of Humanities and Languages, University of New South Wales

"Imperfect Understanding is an extraordinary artifact of Chinese literary and social history. The people written about are among the most important figures of the Republican era, and the particular perspective on them presented by the essays is of both literary and historical importance. The introduction is excellent, full of the information the reader needs to make sense of the context in which the book was originally produced. This is an important book for scholars in Chinese literature and Chinese history, as well as general readers who wish to gain an understanding of the culture of that period." --Theodore Huters, Professor Emeritus, UCLA; and Chief Editor, Research Centre for Translations

"Wen Yuan-ning (along with his various fellow contributing authors) was the John Aubrey of his age, the author of brief, intimate, and always insightful English-language portraits of some of the most remarkable Chinese personalities of a remarkable era. Christopher Rea--the preeminent Western scholar in this area of Chinese literary studies--and Cambria Press have now rescued this gem from obscurity, making it available once again to readers. Imperfect Understanding is a valuable book for those interested in Chinese literary and social history." --Duncan M. Campbell, Adjunct Teaching Fellow, Chinese Studies Programme, School of Languages and Cultures, Victoria University of Wellington

"The mid-1930s was an immensely important time in modern Chinese history. This collection of pieces is a sparkling set of pen portraits of key figures of the age, covering figures important in politics, culture, and social change. All those interested in the history of the Republican period will be grateful that these pieces have been collected and edited for a new generation of scholars to discover." --Rana Mitter, Director of the University China Centre and Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China, University of Oxford
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