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.
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.