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China at its Limits collage.

To some observers, there are seemingly no limits to China’s rise as a superpower. There are, in our geopolitical world, physical ones, and even those may not be enough to contain China’s influence with its neighbours. In China at its Limits: An Empire’s Rise Beyond its Borders (Kerber), a new coffee-table-worthy volume by authors Matthias Messmer and Hsin-Mei Chuang, the country’s border regions are examined in a rich collection of essays and photographs.

China is the protagonist, but countries such as Russia, North Korea, Mongolia and Nepal – and how they view China from across walls, checkpoints and wilderness – bring this book to life. Vestiges of past revolutions and ongoing political tensions are often overshadowed by the grandeur and speed of Chinese ascent.

Highways are being built over forgotten battlefields and derelict shrines to link the country with the world. The roads – when there are roads – out of China are how Messmer and Chuang let us in.

In this excerpt, the authors show how collage work allows readers to imagine where China has been, and where it’s headed now:

The life of the singer and actress Li Xianglan (a.k.a. Ri Koran), a dazzling personality torn between two identities, included a series of surprising ups and downs.

Born in 1920 to Japanese settlers in Manchuria, Yoshiko Yamaguchi was given her Chinese name by her influential Chinese godfather. Schooled as a coloratura soprano, her beautiful features and exceptional voice attracted the attention of the Manchuria Film Production Company, which was looking for a potential superstar fluent in Japanese and Chinese.

From the 1930s on, she played in several pro-Japan films, where she portrayed Chinese characters and enjoyed great success in Manchukuo, Japan and Taiwan. In the early 1940s, the actress, one of China’s famous seven great singing stars, moved to Shanghai and reached the height of her entertainment career while concealing her Japanese identity.

Soon after the Second World War, however, she was arrested by the Nationalist government and charged as a traitor who had “humiliated China and compromised Chinese dignity.” She escaped death by proving her Japanese identity just in time.

After her repatriation to Japan, Yamaguchi later became a politician and lived until 2014. When will you return? (“He ri jun zai lai”) was one of the most famous songs that the “chameleon lady” covered in the 1940s. For various reasons, it was banned for many years in both China and Taiwan. At times, the ambiguous lyrics were interpreted as a call for enemy armed forces to return, while at other times they were thought to encourage a decadent lifestyle.

Since the 1990s, however, her myth has made a comeback, even on the mainland. Li Xianglan, photographed by the late Japanese photographer Ken Domon in the early 1950s, is set here in the surrounding of Jixi, a city located in Manchuria and once famous for its coal-mining industry. Li’s remarkable life offers a rare glimpse into the turbulence of a past transcultural world.