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The Chinese Evolution | The Nation

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The Chinese Evolution

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Books on China by American journalists (including Nation contributors such as Edgar Snow, Agnes Smedley and Orville Schell) have at times played a crucial role in shaping American perceptions of the world's most populous country. The heyday of what might be called "Whither China Reportage," in the mid-twentieth century, saw the appearance of classic works such as Edgar Snow's Red Star Over China (1936), Agnes Smedley's Battle Hymn of China (1943) and Theodore White and Annalee Jacoby's Thunder Out of China (1946). What had been a steady stream slowed to a trickle under Mao (1949-76), but the flow resumed early in the Reform period (beginning in 1978) with the publication of widely read forays into Whither China Reportage such as Fox Butterfield's China: Alive in the Bitter Sea (1982) and Schell's To Get Rich Is Glorious (1984). And in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen protests and the June 4 Massacre, the genre underwent an even stronger resurgence.

About the Author

Jeffrey Wasserstrom
Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of history at UC, Irvine, is a co-founder of The China Beat (a group blog) and the...

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China has changed enormously since the 1989 massacre, but the Communist Party continues to deny what happened. Americans, too, continue to misremember a complex event.

Among the many books on China published since Tiananmen, none has had a bigger impact than Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn's China Wakes (1994). After Tiananmen, Kristof and Wudunn claimed, the PRC presented the world with "two faces"; their mission was to figure out which was the true one. Should they be "portraying China" as an "evil empire" run by a "disintegrating dynasty" or as a country that, by opening itself to capitalism, was "raising the living standards of its citizens" with astounding speed? Should they focus on "people like Professor Peng Yuzhang," an intellectual jailed for his role in the 1989 protests, or on "people like Ye Hongcheng," a villager who had "toiled as her ancestors had done" for decades, then turned entrepreneur and struck it rich to the point that she could employ sixty laborers? Kristof and Wudunn concluded that China had to choose between its "two faces" and become either the next South Korea or America's next great Communist enemy.

One can only hope that the Manichean portrait in China Wakes will be eclipsed by the far more subtle one presented by Peter Hessler's Oracle Bones. Hessler's stylishly written book provides the kind of nuanced analysis we need badly now, with the return in updated guise of both disorting old China dreams (driven by visions of the enormous number of Chinese who could buy our goods and embrace our values) and distorting old China nightmares (driven by visions of the threat that these same people, and their autocratic rulers, could pose to all we hold dear). Oracle Bones demonstrates just how outdated the rhetorical questions posed in China Wakes have become.

Hessler, who first came to China in 1996 at the age of 27 to teach English in Fuling, a small city in Sichuan, and who is now The New Yorker's Beijing correspondent, belongs to a generation less burdened by the intellectual framework of the cold war. To make sense of today's China, he argues, we need to understand that it has been following a unique trajectory, and that it is inhabited by more than just the four basic types of people who most interested Kristof and Wudunn: successful entrepreneurs; people the reforms were leaving behind (such as the villagers who ended working for Ye Hongcheng and residents of unusually poor parts of the country); dissidents; and the officials who persecute dissidents.

Hessler writes on a range of topics, from the rise of popular nationalism and the extraordinary velocity of urbanization to factionalism within the Chinese film industry and unrest among the country's Uighur Muslims, but he does not offer a sustained, systematic answer to the "whither China" question. His approach is more personal and anecdotal, conveying its insights through the stories of people he has met. Some of his interview subjects make repeated appearances, such as a young teacher, referred to throughout by his chosen English name of "William Jefferson Foster," who shares with Hessler his colorful opinions on topics ranging from dating to international politics. But these men and women (several of whom, like William Jefferson Foster, were students of Hessler's in Sichuan and have since moved to other parts of China) are not presented as "types," and their stories make it abundantly clear that China has far more than two faces--and that one can easily be misled by appearances in contemporary China. Indeed, among Hessler's central concerns is the proliferation in China of objects, activities and organizations that are jiade (fake or phony), a term he uses, appropriately, to refer to everything from counterfeit designer clothes to names for people and groups that do not correspond with what they actually do.

Hessler also reveals that, contrary to much of the commentary on contemporary China, the market reforms since 1978 have not produced discrete categories of "winners" and "losers." It is striking how many of his subjects have both benefitted from and been disadvantaged by the extraordinary changes that have swept through the PRC. On the one hand, the state has become a less intrusive force in many aspects of their daily lives; on the other, it continues to act at times in an arbitrary, even brutal, fashion. The people Hessler meets are increasingly free in terms of where they choose to live and work, what to buy and so on, but the social security network on which they once relied has been progressively stripped away. One is left with an impression of just how contradictory the reform period has been. And this impression is reinforced by two very different kinds of books that have recently been published: Sang Ye's China Candid: The People on the People's Republic, a kaleidoscopic collection of oral histories, and Chaohua Wang's One China, Many Paths, a compendium of assessments of the recent past and future prospects of the PRC by sixteen Chinese critical intellectuals. Oracle Bones stands a good chance of becoming the defining work of Wither China Reportage that Thunder Out of China was in the 1940s and China Wakes was in the 1990s, not only because Hessler's depiction of China cuts through the clichés of an earlier era but because he is an unusually gifted writer. He can be poetic, particularly when he is ruminating on the fragmentary evidence we have of the earliest form of Chinese writing, which provides his book with its title and with which he became obsessed--an obsession that led him to chase down aging oracle bones scholars who have ended up on opposite sides of the Taiwan Straits. He can also be humorous, as in an account of a trip he took to a bizarre tourist town on China's border with North Korea, where one attraction is to peer through a telescope at people living in the mysterious land of Kim Jong Il. What is more, he not only knows how to tell a story; he knows when to step aside and let us hear directly from the mouths of his subjects.

Hessler first achieved prominence with the publication of his 2001 memoir, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, a highly praised account of his experiences as a teacher in China. The memoir-like style of sections of Oracle Bones makes it feel at times like a sequel. In less expert hands, this approach could have raised complaints from readers eager to hear more about China and less about the author's own adventures in Beijing. Yet Hessler's narrative gamble pays off. This is partly because he is merely one character among many others, never writing from a position of feigned superiority or omniscience. It is also because he has spent a great deal of time cultivating relationships with his subjects, earning the trust of people who have reason to be wary of American journalists. One of these subjects is Polat, a Uighur Muslim who brokered deals, sometimes very shady ones, between local and Central Asian traders in Beijing. When Polat immigrated to the DC area, Hessler periodically visited him, and among the many things they discussed was the difference between the anti-Muslim prejudice that Polat routinely encountered among Han Chinese in Beijing in the 1990s and the subtler forms he sometimes faced from Americans in this country in the wake of 9/11, on account of his Middle Eastern appearance.

The timing of Oracle Bones could hardly be better. There are certain moments when Americans become unusually interested in China and this is one of them, as even a cursory survey of recent mainstream magazines shows. In December 2004 Business Week ran an extended report on "The China Price," claiming the phrase had become, for American companies, the scariest in the English language. In 2005 Newsweek, Time and U.S. News and World Report all published special issues on China. In June 2005 Robert Kaplan's "How We Would Fight China" was the lead story in The Atlantic Monthly, while a photo of Yao Ming, the Chinese NBA star, graced the cover of the September/October 2005 edition of Foreign Policy. Some of this press coverage gives a sense of the PRC as a country undergoing complex changes, but very little of it provides as rich a portrait as Oracle Bones of the ways that individual Chinese are living through, responding to and influencing these transformations.

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