China Beat Archive


Date of this Version


Document Type



2012 Jan 31 in The China Beat


Copyright 2012 Jeff Wasserstrom.


Every society sees and treats its poorest members differently. The distinctive way that Victorian Britain dealt with poverty is a central theme in many novels by Charles Dickens, the prolific author whose books are getting even more attention as the bicentennial of his birth is being marked. For those more interested in India’s present than England’s past, the book of the moment on this theme seems to be Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, which is earning enthusiastic advance reviews and is due out soon (coincidentally or not on February 7, Dickens’ birthday). For China specialists, the most important new publication on the impoverished is one that neither goes as far back as the days of Dickens nor deals with out own time, but is rather Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953. It’s a very impressive first book by historian Janet Y. Chen, a member of Princeton’s History Department. A blurb by China Beat co-founder Ken Pomeranz describes it as a “surprising and creative work” that is “social history of the highest caliber,” and political scientist David Strand and I also have very good things to say about the book on its back cover. Rather than present my own assessment of the book, though, I’ll let you hear about some aspects of it from the author herself. I recently sent Janet a set of questions by email, which she was good enough to answer as follows.