The Cultural Revolution: An Interview With Jemimah Steinfeld

By June 3, 2015


[Images courtesy of Jemimah Steinfeld]


Jemimah Steinfeld is a successful journalist and writer, focusing most of her work on Chinese culture. She is currently in charge of the literature programme at Asia House, London.

Jemimah’s interest in the sexual and cultural revolution taking place in China forms the basis of her debut book, Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China. Here, TSOTA talks to Jemimah about her inspirations and aspirations…


TSOTA: What first inspired you to study Chinese Studies and continue a career studying and writing about Chinese culture?
JS: It all started when I moved to Shanghai straight after university. Prior to that, I had not engaged with China, though I was a history major interested in any country with a lot of history and I had spent a lot of time in Asia and was always drawn to it. But that is where my interest in China began and ended. Until that is I stepped foot in Shanghai and from the get-go was totally enthralled. Since that moment I have taken any opportunity to travel there, read about it, talk about it, write about it! Studying at SOAS soon became a logical next step as I wanted to put what I had seen in a more focused, academic context. And after SOAS it made sense to use my new-found knowledge in a related way and hence I moved back to Beijing and from there the book came about.


TSOTA: You studied an MA in China Studies at SOAS, University of London. What was that experience like?
JS: It was great! SOAS is a magical place, full of students who are there because they really feel passionate about their subjects (as opposed to those who are there because they just think they need a degree). It was also at the time of the proposed hike in student fees and SOAS really drove the protests against it. It couldn’t have felt any more political and engaged.
One of my teachers would walk around campus with a massive calligraphy brush. No one even batted an eyelid. It was just that kind of place.
I would do it all again if I could (although maybe a few less exams!).


TSOTA: Tell us more about your book, Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China. What do you hope people will learn from the book?
JS: I hope people will learn that China isn’t this big monolithic landmass that can be easily categorised and pigeonholed. The truth is much more varied and complex and that is what makes it fascinating. For further insights people will have to buy the book.


JEM BK--07950


TSOTA: You have lived in both Beijing and Shanghai. Has there ever been one stand-out event or story that has affected or influenced you?
JS: In my first month living in Beijing the lock of my bike broke with the key in the lock and in so doing it jammed the front wheel – so I couldn’t cycle home. I left it outside a bike store (then closed) and planned to come back the following morning to see if they could fix it. Now bikes don’t last long on a street in Beijing overnight (as with London) and I really expected to come back the following day and that there would be no bike. However, instead when I came back the store was still closed BUT my bike’s lock had been mysteriously fixed and the key was in the basket. So some guardian angel did that overnight. This was a few weeks after a baby girl called Yue Yue had been run over numerous times and eventually died. Loads of people had walked past and not done anything to help her and so the nation was really struggling to understand whether they had lost their moral core.
The bike incident really struck me as proof that there are still plenty of good, community driven people in China and that again it’s important to not use headline grabbing incidents to make sense of China.


TSOTA:If you had to choose one rule to live by, what would it be?
JS: Oh that’s a tough one! It would probably be ‘be nice to people’. You should be nice to people in general, but also because you never know who might help you along the way. People have been amazing aiding me with my book, both during the research and writing stage and the later publication and promotion. I hope that I can repay them all in the future!


TSOTA: What’s next? Do you have any plans for another book?
JS: I am looking into a second book, but it’s very early stages and I am not sure if anything will come of it. Watch this space.


Interview by Sophie Joelle

Jemimah Steinfeld will be discussing Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China at 11am on 6th June at Leeds Central Library as part of The Leeds Big Bookend. Don’t miss it!

Buy a copy of ‘Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China’ here