BOOK REVIEW: Life next to a rising superpower - Taipei Times
Thu, Jun 07, 2018 - Page 14 News List

BOOK REVIEW: Life next to a rising superpower

With evocative photos, thoughtful travel musings and manageable doses of past and recent political history, ‘China at its Limits’ is an aesthetically-pleasing and intriguing look at China’s relations with its neighbors that carries more of a personal touch than one might expect for such a topic

By Han Cheung  /  Staff Reporter

China at its Limits By Matthias Messmer
and Chuang Hsin-mei

Printed in Germany but co-authored by a Swiss sociologist-photographer and a Taiwanese cultural researcher who both reside in China, China at its Limits tackles a topic as equally complex as its authors’ backgrounds.

The previous publication by Matthias Messmer and Chuang Hsin-mei (莊新眉), China’s Vanishing Worlds, looks at how the rise of China is affecting its countryside, providing “a rare opportunity to glimpse China as it once was, and as it will soon no longer be.” China at its Limits broadens the scope, exploring China’s relationships with its neighbors, especially in regard to life in the border regions.

“We wrote this book mainly to help readers understand the complexities and contradictions that China is struggling with in its ascent to superpower status,” the authors state in the introduction.

It’s a tricky topic, as China’s relations with these nations have mostly been uneasy in recent history — especially with Taiwan, which only receives a segment within the book’s eighth and final chapter, “The China Seas and Beyond.” It’s true that Taiwan doesn’t really have an inhabited “borderland” with China, but is a segment enough to explain the nuances of life here under China’s mushrooming shadow?

Despite Taiwan’s small part in the book, a photo from Kinmen is featured on its cover, with a map of Chinese Nationalist Party-era China (which includes Mongolia and Taiwan) in the background under the words, “return my lost land.”

At the very least, the book does not bow to Chinese propaganda, which is made clear with Taiwan shown as a country in the map on the first page. Like its predecessor, this book is also a “protest against the loss of memory,” much of it lost to China’s rapid development but, as the authors acknowledge, some conveniently erased by the government when “diverse viewpoints become a hindrance.”

Publication Notes

China at its Limits

By Matthias Messmerand Chuang Hsin-mei

416 pages

Kerber Verlag

Hardback: Germany


Furthermore, Messmer and Chuang declare their neutrality in the preface: “China at its Limits does not strive to reach specific conclusions or serve a political or ideological agenda,” they write. “We are not foreign-policy strategists who see prediction as part of our job. But, based on our many years of research and study, we believe that China’s rise will probably be less peaceful than its leadership proclaims and hopes.“

The book, while comprehensively explaining the rise of China, does not glorify the phenomenon and in fact remains skeptical in tone throughout the book, pointing out that there are many “unidentified factors” behind Beijing’s “plans and hopeful dreams.”

The preface also states that this book will focus on the human aspects of the subject, and promises to stir the reader’s “feeling of empathy for human beings affected by the vicissitude of world politics.” The evocative photographs that make up a large part of the book mostly feature candid snapshots and intimate portraits, giving faces to the lively, personal and sometimes philosophical prose that at times reads more as informational travel musings, complete with a “places for the curious” section in each chapter. The captions for these photos are more than descriptions, and include context and the authors’ experiences on scene, further emphasizing the human experience.

The authors do a thorough job in explaining the history, economics and politics in these border lands, but also place great value on the unique and often little-known cultures that thrive in these areas, far from the influence of the country’s booming metropolises. They also experiment with photo montages juxtaposing past and present, select poems and quotes to go with certain scenes and muse on topics such the possibility of the “nothingness in history,” creating a unique product that is highly informative yet creative, aesthetically pleasing and most importantly, fascinating to read.

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