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Lovell, Julia 1975–

Lovell, Julia 1975–


Born 1975.


Office—School of History, Classics, and Archaeology, Birkbeck College, University of London, Malet St., London WC1E 7HX, England. E-mail—[email protected]


University of London, Birbeck College, London, England, staff member of department of history.


Samuel Johnson Prize nomination, 2006, for The Great Wall: China against the World, 1000 B.C.-A.D. 2000; Kiriyama Prize finalist, 2008, for translation of I Love Dollars, and Other Stories of China.


The Great Wall: China against the World, 1000 B.C.-A.D. 2000, Grove Press/Atlantic Monthly (New York, NY), 2006.

The Politics of Cultural Capital: China's Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature, University of Hawaii Press (Honolulu, HI), 2006.

Contributor to Guardian, Economist, China Review, Poetry Review, Globalist, Prospect, Pacific Affairs, International Journal of the History of Sport, and Modern Chinese Literature and Culture.


Han Shaogong, A Dictionary of Maqiao, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 2003.

(With Esther Tyldesley) Xinran, Sky Burial, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 2004, Nan Talese/Doubleday (New York, NY), 2005.

(And author of preface) Zhu Wen, I Love Dollars, and Other Stories of China, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 2006.

Yan Lianke, Serve the People!, Constable & Robinson (London, England), 2007, Grove Press/Atlantic Monthly (New York, NY), 2008.

Eileen Chang, Lust, Caution: The Story, Anchor Books (New York, NY), 2007.


Julia Lovell teaches in the department of history at Birbeck College of the University of London. She is the author of The Great Wall: China against the World, 1000 B.C.-A.D. 2000 and The Politics of Cultural Capital: China's Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature. She has also translated several titles from the Chinese, including Sky Burial, I Love Dollars, and Other Stories of China, and Serve the People!

In The Great Wall, Lovell presents a history of China's greatest structure. Stretching across some 4,300 miles in northern China, the Great Wall was originally built as a defensive wall to protect China from invasion. Over the centuries, it was added to and revised as need arose and, as Lovell explains, should more accurately be described as a series of disconnected walls rather than as a single monolith. Over the years, the Great Wall has come to symbolize China's traditional hostility to the outside world and its desire to isolate itself from outside influences. But it has also become a source of patriotic pride and a major tourist attraction. "Now acclaimed," Lovell wrote in her introduction, "as a symbol of Chinese self-definition, of cultural greatness, of the technical genius and fortitude required to build it, the wall has also carried a range of far more negative connotations: of the bleakness of the frontier …; of the suffering and sacrifice of its builders; of costly colonial expansionism and of suffocating cultural conservatism; of the control and repression of those kept within." In her study, Lovell debunks a number of myths about the Great Wall, including its age (most of the wall is about 300 years old, not the touted 2,000 years old), that it is visible from outer space (not true), and that it is made of brick (much of the wall is merely tamped dirt). "Those who have a somewhat romanticized view of Chinese history (and there are many) may find themselves mildly irritated on reading this history of one of the world's man-made wonders," Geoff Lambert wrote in the Winnipeg Free Press. "It debunks quite a number of myths." Philip Herter of the St. Petersburg Times summed up: "In her scholarly and engaging history of China's most famous cultural edifice, the symbol of its past and metaphor for its future, British author and historian Julia Lovell explains what the Great Wall of China is, what it is not and how it got to be that way."

Lovell's "way of talking about China," George Walden noted in the Sunday Telegraph, "is attractively independent, avoiding the apologetics and deferential cliches we associate with some sinologues. She makes no bones about the unlovely Chinese traditions of insularity, despotism and arrogance, whether in the thinking of the Qin dynasty, constructors of the first stage of the wall in the fourth century BC, in the reception in 1793 of the British emissary Lord Macartney, whose technologically advanced presents were later found in a barn, or in the mindset of the most determinedly isolationist, most murderous and (in academia) most frequently deferred to Chinese leader, Chairman Mao." David Rennie of the Daily Telegraph called The Great Wall a "thorough, detailed history" with "flashes of dry humour and some fine writing." "Lovell is brisk and opinionated," according to Fritz Lanham in the Houston Chronicle, "which makes The Great Wall a generally engaging experience for the general reader." Writing in the Observer, Jonathan Fenby described The Great Wall as "an excellent, fluent history of northern China and the dilemma of successive dynasties as to how to handle the rampaging raiders from its northern frontier." According to Harriet Sergeant in the Spectator, Lovell's book is "a history not only of that legendary structure but also the mentality it represents." "Lovell tells," the critic for Publishers Weekly wrote, "the gripping, colorful story of the wall up to the present day, including a perceptive discussion of the ‘Great Firewall’—the Internet, which has replaced nomadic raiders as the most threatening of China's attackers."Writing in the Socialist Review, Charlie Hore stated: "Lovell's account brings early Chinese history to life, and it's shot through with compassion for those who were forced to build and man the wall." Daniel Levinson in Kliatt concluded that "Lovell's book is a remarkable accomplishment." Martin Jacques of the Guardian concluded: "From its title, one expects a history of the Great Wall, and in that she does not disappoint. But she delivers much, much more. In telling the history of China through the prism of the wall, her focus is China's relations with its northern neighbours. Lovell's book is a very good read. She tells an engaging story and is impressively abreast of her subject."

In The Politics of Cultural Capital, Lovell examines the Chinese longheld concern over why a Chinese writer had never won the Nobel Prize for literature. When, in 2000, Gao Xingjian won the prize, the question in the minds of Chinese intellectuals and government officials still was not settled. Gao Xingjian was living in exile and his fiction criticized communist government policies. The prize was still not Chinese. According to Lovell in her introduction to the book: "The question of why China—a country, so it is often claimed, with five thousand years of culture and a language spoken by one fifth of the world's population—had failed for almost a century to win a Nobel Prize began to be raised with increasing urgency during the 1980s, following the Mainland's reentry into the international political, economic, and cultural realm. The quest for a Nobel Prize was promoted to the level of official policy and Nobel anxiety evolved into a ‘complex’ … that drew in writers, critics, and academics. The task of securing a Nobel Literature Prize—viewed as a passport to world recognition as a modern civilization—generated conferences, a national literature prize, delegations to Sweden and countless articles." Bill Marx in the World found that "Lovell's fascinating though sometimes stiffly written study explores the country's schizophrenia about the august literary prize: China's deep-seated fear that its literature will fall short of Western standards clashes with the country's resentment about having to look for artistic validation outside of its own borders and traditions." "In the course of her study," wrote the critic for Reference & Research Book News, "which includes extensive interviews with the people concerned, Lovell finds significant variances in ways of thinking in Sweden and China, finding that the very issues that mark the search may actually be significant impediments to success." The critic for the Complete Review found that "Lovell gives an interesting account of both the Nobel Prize and China's peculiar quest for it. As a case-study it turns out to be surprisingly revealing about the ‘world literary economy,’ and specifically China's part in it—especially the changes from the pre-Maoist through the Maoist and now current states."

Lovell told Bill Marx in the World that "it was a very interesting moment in 2000 when a Chinese writer finally won the prize. By the time Gao Xingjian, an exiled writer, received the award the desire to win the prize was not as high as it had been in the 1980s and 90s. More important, China's officials were not very keen to see global recognition of writing that was critical of the Communist state. Gao's books are the diametric opposite of socialist realism: he hated Communism and followed a very individual artistic path. Official constituencies were not satisfied with Gao's selection."

Lovell has also translated several collections of Chinese fiction, including the novel A Dictionary of Maqiao, written by Han Shaogong. During China's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, a young man runs afoul of the communist government and is sent to live in the countryside for "re-education." The village is in the southern Chinese province of Maqiao, he finds, and it has its own illogical way of speaking. The term for older sister, for example, is "little big brother," and people do not die, they "scatter." Because he can read and write, the young man makes his living by painting signs featuring Mao's slogans. While dealing with the absurdities of small town life, he begins a dictionary in which he will define the peculiar language of those around him. The novel's story unfolds via this dictionary format, which each term defined leading to a brief incident of life in the town. The critic for the Complete Review found that, "despite the perhaps unpromising sounding premise and the additional hurdles of translation," A Dictionary of Maqiao is an often remarkable read." Ben Ehrenreich in the Village Voice called A Dictionary of Maqiao "a magnificent book [and] epic in its ambitions and sweep." "Han Shaogong's novel has won wide acclaim, and deservedly so," wrote Hsiao-ping Wang in Persimmon. "Through his treatment of language, he not only vividly portrays village life in rural China, but also inspires readers to rethink what they are accustomed to taking for granted." Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Katherine Wolff found that "the book, the winner of several prizes in China, stubbornly resists analysis…. This is a meditation on the trapdoors of language and on the microhistories buried within words." Calling the novel "a literary experience unlike any other," Peter Gordon of the Asian Review of Books believed that Han "paints a detailed, intriguing and amusing picture of what happens when Marxism collides with entrenched village beliefs, and how traditional China coexists with modernity. The book is filled with peculiar, beguiling, tragic characters and scenery so real you can touch it." Roger Gathman, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, claimed that "the best novel of the year … is this ‘dictionary’ of the dialect of a fictitious village, Maqiao, lost in the squat hills of South China. Under the disguise of an excursion in ethnographic linguistics, Han Shaogong creates a compendium of stories, observations and reflections that, stroke by stroke, give the place more textual density, more history and, finally, more reality than all of the county seats of Utah and Montana combined." He also found the book to have been "lovingly translated by Julia Lovell."

Xinran's novel Sky Burial is based on a true story. The novel tells of two married doctors in 1950s China. Kejun feels compelled to join the People's Liberation Army and ends up fighting in Tibet. He is later reported killed, but his wife, Wen, insists on learning what happened. She journeys to Tibet and spends some thirty years investigating her husband's death. According to Stedman Mays, writing for Good Short Novels. com, "what she ultimately finds out when she solves the mystery of her husband's disappearance is one of the most fascinating revelations that you're likely to read in any book." "The book opens a window onto a world where patience, perseverance, and faith have a strength rarely seen in the West," according to Erin Ferguson in dharmalife. "In crystalline prose as measured as the breath of a yogi," Donna Seaman wrote in Booklist, "Xinran perfectly renders the emotional evolution of a mourning woman alone in a mysterious land." Writing for BookLoons, J.A. Kaszuba Locke stated: "Every reader crosses paths with an author who touches their heart, mind, and spirit. Xinran Xue did that for me in Sky Burial."

Lovell also translated I Love Dollars, and Other Stories of China, a collection of five novellas and a short story written during the 1990s by Zhu Wen. Zhu's stories capture the transitions that modern China is undergoing as it moves quickly from a state-controlled socialist economy to a capitalist system that is nonetheless still tightly run by a communist party hierarchy. He especially enjoys portraying the darker side of his society. In one story, a computer engineer is trapped in a government construction project that seems never to end. A story set at a Workers Hospital where nothing works mocks the lack of both Confucian respect for elders and socialist camaraderie. In the title story, a son tries to insure that his visiting father enjoys his stay by hiring a prostitute. "The stories set in the power plant and hospital seem especially emblematic of the systemic problems China faces with fueling its economy and protecting citizens so vulnerable to state calculations," wrote Wingate Packard in the Seattle Times. Barbara Nolan, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, found that, "although he has been compared to Jonathan Swift, Wen's work is far less furious, far more resigned. Wen's China is complicit in its own destruction, content, at some level, with its corruption." Lovell "illuminates the social milieu in her lengthy translator's preface. Reading it ahead of time—even if one is not so usually inclined—sharpens the effect of the prose," Wes Stevens wrote on the Asian Review of Books Web site. "The gritty pieces are sprinkled with profanity, violence, and sexuality," according to Shirley N. Quan in the Library Journal. A Kirkus Reviews critic praised the "bitter, tragicomic, poetic fiction." World Literature Today contributor Philip F. Williams found that "Lovell does an excellent job of placing Zhu Wen's writings within the broader social and cultural context of 1990s urban China." Sebastian Veg, writing in China Perspectives, stated: "The timely publication of this collection, with the help of an excellent translation, enables us to hear the voice of an innovative writer and filmmaker, who has contributed to shaping the present-day Chinese literary world." According to Bradley Winterton in the Taipei Times, "The translation and introduction, both by Cambridge University's Julia Lovell, couldn't be of higher quality." I Love Dollars, and Other Stories of China was a 2008 finalist for the Kiriyama Prize for translation.

Serve the People!, a novella written by Yan Lianke and translated by Lovell, tells the story of a love affair between a military commander's wife and an orderly during Mao Zedong's bloody Cultural Revolution. "Serve the People!" was a communist political slogan of the time. But whenever the wife moves the family's "Serve the People!" sign, the lowly orderly is expected to attend to her sexual needs. In a supposedly classless society, the high-ranked military class enjoyed certain unacknowledged privileges. Ray Olson in Booklist called the story "funny, sad, and bitterly ironic on nearly every page." The reviewer for Publishers Weekly noted that "Yan's satire brilliantly exposes the emptiness of Maoist ideals and the fraudulent ends for which they were used, but also relates a sorrowful tale of compromised relationships and modest hopes left unfulfilled." "Yan's thoroughly entertaining, farcical plot," wrote Christine Thomas in the Chicago Tribune, "immediately takes off like a controlled breeze, pausing in the exact places you want it to pause and moving over events where you don't want to linger." "Yan's work certainly contains its share of double entendres and may even be perceived as comedic at times," wrote Shirley N. Quan in the Library Journal, "but on a deeper level, it offers a sociopolitical commentary on a way of life generally unfamiliar to Westerners." The critic for Kirkus Reviews pointed out that "the Chinese Central Propaganda Bureau banned the book in China because it ‘slanders Mao Zedong … and is overflowing with sex’: You couldn't ask for a better blurb than that."

Lust, Caution: The Story, written by Eileen Chang, is a story of political intrigue over several decades. An assassination plot is concocted in 1930s Hong Kong by several radical actors, including the actress Chia-chih, who want to kill a Chinese man who is collaborating with the Japanese enemy. Using their acting skills to impersonate a wealthy family, they hope to get close enough to Mr. Yee and his family to murder him. But the Yees leave town suddenly and the plot fails. In 1942, the Japanese have conquered Shanghai and Mr. Yee is now head of that city's dreaded Chinese secret service. Chia-chih becomes Yee's lover so as to have an opportunity to kill him. But things change when he shows real affection and buys her a diamond ring. Realizing that she too has feelings for him, she warns Yee of the armed men who are after him. The ruthless Yee arrests his would-be assassins, and Chia-chih. Moira Macdonald of the Seattle Times believed that Chang's Lust, Caution, "about a young woman who enters a dangerous game of espionage in 1940s occupied Shanghai, is written with a quiet precision; its sentences sparkle like the diamonds on the fingers of the mahjong-playing ladies who open and close the story."

In a statement posted on the School of History, Classics, and Archaeology, Birkbeck, University of London, Web site, Lovell wrote: "My research has so far focused principally on the relationship between culture (specifically, literature, architecture, historiography and sport) and modern Chinese nation-building. I am currently working on a new history of the Opium Wars that will examine the conflicts themselves from both the Chinese and British sides, and trace the impact they have had on the subsequent century and a half of China's relationship with the West. Exploring the historiography of the wars up to the present day, I plan to plot out the foundational influence they have had on modern Chinese nationalism and on Western perceptions of China, as well as the complex historical realities that have been obscured by the processes of national myth-making."



Birmingham Post, March 18, 2006, Neil Connor, review of The Great Wall: China against the World, 1000 B.C.-A.D. 2000; January 5, 2008, Claire Dupuy, review of Lust, Caution: The Story.

Booklist, July, 2005, Donna Seaman, review of Sky Burial, p. 1903; March 1, 2006, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Great Wall, p. 59; February 1, 2008, Ray Olson, review of I Love Dollars, and Other Stories of China, p. 27.

Bookseller, December 16, 2005, Caroline Sanderson, review of The Great Wall, p. 37.

Chicago Tribune, June 7, 2008, Christine Thomas, review of Serve the People!

China Journal, July 1, 2007, Song Geng, review of The Politics of Cultural Capital: China's Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature.

China Perspectives, Number 69, 2007, Sebastian Veg, review of I Love Dollars, and Other Stories of China, p. 118.

Daily Telegraph (London, England), April 1, 2006, David Rennie, review of The Great Wall.

dharmalife, Number 35, winter- spring, 2005, Erin Ferguson, review of Sky Burial.

Foreign Affairs, May-June, 2006, Lucian W. Pye, review of The Great Wall, p. 173.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), August 27, 2005, review of Sky Burial, p. D13; April 29, 2006, Diana Lary, review of The Great Wall, p. D4.

Guardian (London, England), July 28 2006, Martin Jacques, "From the Other Side of the Wall."

Houston Chronicle (Houston, TX), March 26, 2006, Fritz Lanham, review of The Great Wall, p. 19.

Independent (London, England), January 4, 2008, Aamer Hussein, review of Lust, Caution.

Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2003, review of A Dictionary of Maqiao, p. 937; September 15, 2006, review of I Love Dollars, and Other Stories of China, p. 929; March 1, 2008, review of Serve the People!

Kliatt, May, 2007, Daniel Levinson, review of The Great Wall, p. 38.

Library Journal, March 1, 2006, Charles W. Hayford, review of The Great Wall, p. 103; January 15, 2008, Shirley N. Quan, review of Serve the People!; March 1, 2008, Shirley N. Quan, review of I Love Dollars, and Other Stories of China, p. 77.

New York Times Book Review, August 31, 2003, Katherine Wolff, review of A Dictionary of Maqiao; August 14, 2005, Ada Calhoun, review of Sky Burial, p. 14; May 4, 2008, Liesl Schillinger, review of Serve the People!, p. 10.

Observer, March 5, 2006, Jonathan Fenby, review of The Great Wall; March 11, 2007, review of The Great Wall, p. 25.

Persimmon, summer, 2003, Hsiao-ping Wang, review of A Dictionary of Maqiao.

Philadelphia Inquirer, April 20, 2008, Barbara Nolan, reviews of I Love Dollars, and Other Stories of China and Serve the People!

Publishers Weekly, January 9, 2006, review of The Great Wall, p. 47; September 18, 2006, review of I Love Dollars, and Other Stories of China, p. 31; November 5, 2007, review of Serve the People!, p. 40.

Rain Taxi Review of Books, winter, 2003-04, Lucas Klein, review of A Dictionary of Maqiao.

Reference & Research Book News, August, 2006, review of The Politics of Cultural Capital.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 2004, Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas, review of A Dictionary of Maqiao, p. 139.

St. Petersburg Times (St. Petersburg, FL), March 19, 2006, Philip Herter, review of The Great Wall, p. 6P.

San Francisco Chronicle, August 10, 2003, Roger Gathman, review of A Dictionary of Maqiao.

Seattle Times (Seattle, WA), January 21, 2007, Wingate Packard, review of I Love Dollars, and Other Stories of China, p. K10; October 5, 2007, Moira Macdonald, review of Lust, Caution.

Socialist Review, April, 2006, Charlie Hore, review of The Great Wall.

Spectator, March 18, 2006, Harriet Sergeant, review of The Great Wall, p. 49.

Sunday Telegraph (London, England), March 19, 2006, George Walden, review of The Great Wall, p. 54.

Sunday Times (London, England), September 10, 2006, Michael Sheridan, review of The Great Wall, p. 52.

Sydney Morning Herald, April 14, 2006, Claire Scobie, review of The Great Wall.

Taipei Times, February 11, 2007, Bradley Winterton, "Zhu Wen Makes a Laughingstock Out of China," p. 18.

Times (London, England), March 18, 2006, review of The Great Wall, p. 8.

Village Voice, September 16, 2003, Ben Ehrenreich, review of A Dictionary of Maqiao.

Winnipeg Free Press, April 23, 2006, Geoff Lambert, review of The Great Wall, p. B5.

World Literature Today, September-December, 2004, Fatima Wu, review of A Dictionary of Maqiao, p. 85; November-December, 2007, Philip F. Williams, review of I Love Dollars, and Other Stories of China, p. 66.


Anchor Books Web site, (June 14, 2008).

Asian Review of Books Web site, (September 16, 2003), Peter Gordon, review of A Dictionary of Maqiao; (March 13, 2007), Wes Stevens, review of I Love Dollars, and Other Stories of China; (May 10, 2007), Bruce Dalbrack, review of Lust, Caution.

BookLoons, (June 14, 2008), J.A. Kaszuba Locke, review of Sky Burial.

Columbia University Press Web site, (June 14, 2008).

Complete Review, (June 14, 2008), reviews of A Dictionary of Maqiao and The Politics of Cultural Capital.

Constable & Robinson Web site, (June 14, 2008).

Good Short, (November-December, 2005), Stedman Mays, review of Sky Burial.

Grove Press/Atlantic Monthly Web site, (June 14, 2008).

In the News, (December 6, 2007), Rebecca Amir, review of Lust, Caution.

Kiriyama Prize Web site, (June 14, 2008).

Literary Review Web site, (June 14, 2008), Caroline Moorehead, review of I Love Dollars, and Other Stories of China.

Mostly Fiction Book Reviews, (May 15, 2004), Poornima Apte, review of A Dictionary of Maqiao.

School of History, Classics, and Archaeology, Birkbeck, University of London, Web site, (May 22, 2008), brief biography of Lovell.

That's Beijing, (April 25, 2008), Lisa Liang, review of Lust, Caution.

Three Percent, (June 14, 2008), E.J. Van Lanen, review of Serve the People!

University of Hawaii Press Web site, (June 14, 2008).

Virginia Quarterly Review Web site, (June 14, 2008), review of The Great Wall.

Washington Observer, August 23, 2006, Jianlin Liu, review of The Great Wall.

Waterbridge Review, (June 14, 2008), Madeleine Thien, review of I Love Dollars, and Other Stories of China.

World, (December 4, 2007), Bill Marx, interview with Lovell and review of The Politics of Cultural Capital.

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