The Phoenix Years: Art, Resistance, and the Making of Modern China

Modern China is much more than tanks confronting protestors in 1989's Tiananmen Square massacre or thousands of white-suited women churning out zillions of TV screens. Australian journalist Madeleine O'Dea saw plenty of the latter in her three decades covering the economic miracle of Deng Xiaoping's liberalization for the Australian Financial Review and ABC television. But it was her inquisitive and dogged access to nine outlaw Chinese artists, poets and musicians that led her into the hutongs where they "drank and discussed, read, painted and wrote poetry, and dreamt up ways to burrow in the cracks that were opening up in society." These artists are at the heart of The Phoenix Years, O'Dea's personal cultural history of China--from Mao's last bloody crackdown on the Qing Ming demonstrators in 1976 to the deportation in 2014 of famous conceptual artist Guo Jian. She was there. She became friends with the young avant-garde trying to express themselves in a state bent on restricting personal freedom.

The Phoenix Years is O'Dea's story of learning as much about herself as of the Chinese bohemians living through the intellectual excitement of the Chinese miracle. As she observes, "I found myself having to have opinions again on T.S. Eliot or Albert Camus or Nietzsche or Freud... I found myself thinking more deeply about my own culture than I had ever done before." Including sample illustrations of the artists' work, a helpful pronunciation guide to their names and a useful parallel timeline of politically and culturally significant events, The Phoenix Years is an essential background history of modern China--personal reporting that shows how economic freedom and artistic freedom must go hand in hand. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

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