The Other China

The Other China is not the China of stentorian slogans, cutting barbs, sarcastic put-downs. It is not the China of clichéd patriotism and exaggerated public performance; nor is it the China of crude stereotypes and bottomless grievance. It is a China of humanity and decency, of quiet dignity and unflappable perseverance. It is a China that finds expression in myriad ways in a country dominated by a political party that would bend all to its will; it is a China that survived the depredations of the Mao era (1949-1978) and increasingly flourished during the decades of reform from 1978 to 2008. For decades, Hong Kong was a global nexus for The Other China (for more on this, see Hong Kong Apostasy in this journal).

The Other China, or what could also be called ‘Other Chinas’, is not limited to the People’s Republic of China, for it is part of a global culture unique to itself but also with universal aspirations and appeal.

Throughout the Xi Jinping era Official China has strained to impose uniformity on the Chinese world, be it in the People’s Republic or internationally. Despite its tireless attempts to discipline, corral and silence the voices of difference, The Other China/ Other Chinas, or what elsewhere we have referred to as the Invisible Republic of the Spirit, an ‘inland empire’ if you will, persists. Cowed at times, The Other China is resilient. Long after the droning monotone of Xi Jinping and his minions has died down, The Other China will flourish in variegated and ever-newer ways. The Xi Jinping autarchy has, if anything, contributed to the international presence of The Other China, just as other periods of repression in China Proper led to a flourishing of Chinese possibility elsewhere.

China Heritage is devoted to listening to and understanding aspects of The Other China. Many of our essays, translations and commentaries offer access to, as well as insights into China’s parallel worlds and in this section of China Heritage we focus on works and creators who advance our understanding of the rich and evolving Chinese multiverse.

Our interest in The Other China is a continuation of the work of China Heritage Quarterly, the predecessor of China Heritage, where we first introduced readers to T’ien Hsia Monthly and The China Critic, both of which were early outlets for voices from The Other China.


‘How would you explain the three Covid years to a rabbit?’ Painting by Lao Shu 老樹, late winter, Year of the Tiger


It is over forty-five years ago since, after three years at Maoist universities in the mid 1970s, I had my initial encounter with ‘The Other China’. It was in the home of the renowned translators Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang and, through the warm embrace of their friendship, I was granted entry to a realm that existed both in parallel to, and often in spite of, Official China:

‘From the dying days of the Cultural Revolution, Xianyi and Gladys’ sitting room became the scene of a unique and unforgettable salon, for Chinese and non-Chinese friends and visitors alike. It was also something of an alien realm, a post-colonial ‘extra-territorial zone’, for although the Yangs were still under constant surveillance, even their past minders, keepers and in some cases oppressors would out of curiosity and wonderment come calling, sometimes sincerely to pay their respects. As time went on and as the shrill nonsense of Maoist revolution faded both from reality and from memory many who had shunned the Yangs in the past, or those who had been given the cheerless task of making their lives a misery, began to sense that what had been of such moment was merely transitory folly, while the world of letters and conversation, understanding and engagement represented by Gladys and Xianyi would outlast them all.’

The People’s Republic of Wine, China Heritage Quarterly, March 2011

In China Heritage ‘The Other China’ both celebrates and strives to introduce readers to that invisible republic of the spirit.

The lively tension between Substance, Shadow and Spirit 身、影、神, as revealed in the poetry of Tao Yuanming, best reflects my notion of The Other China. While aspects of the The Other China can be conveyed in words 言傳 yán chuán, others call for an intuitive appreciation 意會 yì huì.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
January 2023


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Inside the Wall of Stagnation 

The party can control and weaponize information, but dissenters are also surprisingly well entrenched. Aided by digital technology, they are also far more nimble than their Soviet-era counterparts. Among China’s educated elite, many persist in opposing the regime’s version of reality. Even though they are banned, virtual private networks, which allow users to bypass Internet controls, are now widespread. Underground filmmakers are still working on new documentaries, and samizdat magazine publishers are still producing works distributed by basic digital tools such as PDFs, email, and thumb drives. These efforts are a far cry from the street protests and other forms of public opposition that attract media attention, but they are crucial in establishing and maintaining the person-to-person networks that pose a long-term challenge to the regime.

In May, I visited the editor of an underground magazine in a relatively remote part of south Beijing. He publishes a fortnightly journal featuring contributions by academics across China, who often use pen names to protect their identities. Their articles challenge the party’s account of key crises in its history, filling in events that have been whitewashed. Some of the editing work is now done by Chinese graduate students working abroad. This model of underground digital publishing was adopted last year by protesters, who used VPNs to upload videos to Twitter, YouTube, and other banned sites. Such online platforms function as storehouses, allowing Chinese people to download information that the state is trying to suppress.

In this case, the editor commissions the articles, edits them, and sends them abroad for safekeeping in case the authorities raid his office. The journal’s layout is also created abroad, and volunteers inside and outside China email each issue to thousands of public intellectuals across China. The magazine is part of a growing community that has been systematically documenting the party’s misrule, from past famines to the COVID pandemic. Although his journal and similar efforts may ordinarily reach only tens of thousands of people in China, the articles can have a much larger impact when the government errs. During the COVID crisis, for example, the magazine’s editor and his colleagues noticed a spike in readership, and others found that their essays were even going viral. In good times, this pursuit of the truth might have seemed quixotic; now, for many of the Chinese, it is beginning to seem vital. As they spread, these anonymous informal networks have opened a new front in the party’s battle against opposition, the control of which now requires far more than simply throwing dissidents in jail.

I sat with the editor in his garden for a couple of hours, under trellises of grapes he uses to make wine. The skies were deep blue, and the sun was strong. The cicadas of a Beijing summer day drowned out the background noise. For a while, it felt as if we could be anywhere, maybe even in France, a place that the editor has enjoyed visiting. He has published the journal for more than a decade and has now handed off most of the work to younger colleagues in China and abroad. He was relaxed and confident.

“You can’t do anything publicly in China,” he said. “But we still work and wait. We have time. They do not.”

Ian Johnson, Xi’s Age of Stagnation — The Great Walling-Off of China,
Foreign Affairs, September/October 2023


晴耕雨讀  日知所亡 ‘Work the fields when the skies are clear and read at home when the weather is inclement. With each passing day you will learn something new.’ Calligraphy by Dasheng Liu Chan 大生劉蟾


Also published in China Heritage

明月飛上天際 潮頭湧到門前 ‘The shining moon flees to heaven’s horizon as the tide surges at the doorstep’ — after Matsuo Bashō 松尾芭蕉 and in the hand of Dasheng 大生 (Liu Chan 劉蟾)