Professor Hanchao Lu is the author of Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Shanghai in the Early Twentieth Century and Street Criers: A Cultural History of Chinese Beggars.
Why I write
As a college professor writing is part of my job. But I won’t say that the academic imperative to “publish or perish” is what drives me to write. Rather, I find writing to be one of the most fulfilling things in life. Fundamentally, writing involves two things: releasing yourself and influencing others. Although few writers (academics in particular) can touch the lives of millions by what they write and most of what we write will probably soon be forgotten, I tend to think that writing in general is among the most enduring creations of man, outliving even monumental works of architecture. If one day the Great Wall crumbles to dust, Shima Qian’s Shiji will still survive.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
Well, with responding to emails being a daily routine I might claim that I write every day. But for academic writing, the answer to this question is “no.” From time to time, I need a period of retreating from writing, which I call “recharging.” As a historian, a big chunk of my time is devoted to research. Writing usually comes at the end of research, and I consider it the most fruitful and fulfilling part of the process.
Worst source of distraction?
Stuck in Atlanta traffic and nothing intersecting on the radio.
Best source of inspiration?
Beethoven’s music plus a cup of Longjing tea.
How often do you get writers’ block / doubt your own ability?
I have not yet experienced writer’s block. There are many fascinating topics on my wish list but I just don’t have enough time and energy to explore each one of them.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
I like the work of Fareed Zakaria and read every piece of his writing that comes to my attention.
Favorite Chinese writer?
Lu Xun. Some would say that he has been overrated or that his works are now irrelevant. The resurgence of Confucianism as an emblem of Chinese culture in recent years does seem to have made Lu Xun and the May 4th generation of “down-with-Confucianism” writers an archaic group. But Lu Xun’s work, especially his early writings, still causes me to laugh heartily and think deeply.
Best book about China?
There are many excellent books on many aspect of the country; I don’t think there is any single one that deserves to be called the best book about China.
Hong Lou Meng (Dream of the Red Chamber). It is such an encyclopedic work that I can read it again and again. It is intellectually satisfying and entertaining.
Honoré de Balzac.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
The Lotus Sutra.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
My first book published in Chinese was a biography of Sir Robert Hart, a Briton who served as the Inspector General of China’s imperial maritime customs for nearly half a century. Recently a Shanghai publisher was interested in bringing out a new version of the book so I had a chance to reread the book, which was written in the early 1980s, in preparation for revising it. To my surprise, I found that little needed to be changed as far as the writing is concerned. Have I made no progress in 20 odd years? I asked myself but got no answer. Anyway, I just received a copy of my slightly revised biography of Hart, titled A Man of Two Worlds, published by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences Press, and I think “it’s pretty nice.”
Does writing change anything?
Oh yes. It changes one’s lifestyle and it becomes a habit. Practically speaking, writing is part of my livelihood since my job requires it. But even if I were retired, writing would be the quintessence of my life.