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The Chinese Evolution | The Nation

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The Chinese Evolution

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There are, however, limitations to what even as inventive and daring a foreign journalist as Hessler can do to capture the texture and variety of life in a rapidly changing China. One drawback is that, perhaps inevitably, he ends up having the easiest time reaching (and hence tells his readers the most about) well-educated people. Many teach at the university or grade-school level, as Polat did before political troubles led him to shift course and go into business. Even the one "worker" whose experiences we learn about in detail, a former student of Hessler's referred to as "Emily" who set off from western Sichuan province to the southeastern boomtown of Shenzhen in the late 1990s, ends up going back to school and getting a job as a teacher before the book ends. In China Candid, by contrast, the cast of characters is much broader in educational background (though most of the people interviewed do live in cities as opposed to the countryside). Another contrast is that here we get Chinese life stories in a less mediated, though by no means completely raw, form. They come to us via interviews conducted by the oral historian and journalist Sang Ye, who was born in the PRC but now lives in Australia. Sang Ye (a nom de plume) has been called China's answer to Studs Terkel, and the comparison fits in terms of style (both favor techniques, such as editing their own questions out of the text, that make it seem as though the people being interviewed are speaking directly to the reader) and in terms of quality (high praise indeed, as many readers will appreciate). In fact, while reading China Candid, which features an excellent introduction by Geremie Barmé, who led the skilled translation team, I was often reminded of Terkel's Working.

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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Like Terkel's classic, China Candid includes memorable interviews--by turns inspiring, funny and disturbing--with people who form a cross-section of their society. We hear from, among others, a bitter Olympic hopeful who describes doping practices and the pressures athletes face from fans to prove that they are worth all the money the state spent on their training; a union representative nostalgic for the respect that workers received in the 1950s; the mother of an abducted child in the city of Xi'an who recounts bitterly the bureaucratic run-around that she and other parents of kidnapped children encountered from state authorities in their efforts to find their children; a poor but tenacious prostitute living in Shenzhen who hopes to make enough money to return to her mountain village, "find a reliable man," marry him and "open a small shop or restaurant"; an eerily philosophical executioner, who invokes theories of international law and Confucian thought; a computer hacker who says that the Chinese should not be criticized for pirating Western software, since China came up with so many things that made the digital revolution possible in the first place ("Who discovered magnetism? Pardon me, it was the Chinese!"); and a People's Liberation Army guide who tells Sang Ye that, for the right price, he lets rich tourists play Rambo (a movie well-known in China) and experience the rush of firing a real torpedo.

Two of Sang Ye's best interviews reinforce Hessler's view that the word jiade captures important features of the PRC. One is with a cynical artist who describes the rackets that he and other self-styled bohemians have developed to take advantage of gullible patrons, especially foreigners. "Let me show you something," he says at the start of the interview. "Just look at this joker's name card. He's damned well put 'homeless artist' on it. Homeless, my ass. He's even included an address and phone number!" The other is with a woman employed by a consumer protection agency who goes so far as to suggest that Maoist and current times differ largely in the forms of fakery they practice. "Phony revolutionaries were going around denouncing fake reactionaries" during the Cultural Revolution, she says, but now "imitation goods" are everywhere, and even the people in charge of protecting buyers can easily be bribed to call false things real. "What I'm saying," she tells Sang Ye, "is that even the Consumer Protection Association is a fake."

* * *

Where China Candid introduces us to ordinary Chinese from different social strata, the anthology One China, Many Paths features a selection of essays by and interviews with individuals of a single type: high-profile intellectuals, nearly all based within the PRC, and most represented in the volume by works originally published in that country. Not surprisingly, the tone of the writing here is more academic and less variegated, yet the book also reinforces one of Hessler's main themes: that the PRC is now characterized by a great deal of diversity, in this case diversity of thought. Chaohua Wang, the former Tiananmen leader (now living in Los Angeles) who edited the book, sets out to show two things: Chinese intellectuals are taking widely varying stances on China's current predicaments, and their viewpoints are worth taking seriously. She succeeds on both fronts, thanks to fine contributions by people such as Wang Anyi (a Shanghai-based novelist who reflects on her good fortune to have been born at a time when China had become a country "where equality between the sexes was always regarded as normal and desirable, even something protected by law" but who came to realize after growing up the various ways that "men and women were not yet truly equal" in the PRC) and Beijing-based social scientist Hu Angang, who bemoans China's increasing social inequality and the rampant corruption--the "scourge of the time," in his words.

Some of the contributors argue for the continuing relevance of Marxism in today's China, insisting that, whatever one's criticisms of the current regime, Marx's writings remains an indispensable source of insight, particularly in an era of increasing disparities of income and opportunity. These intellectuals are known in China as "New Leftists." Other contributors advocate one or another form of liberalism. The question of Marxism's future in China, a capitalist state run by a Communist Party, remains, not surprisingly, a key site of tension among Chinese intellectuals.

All of the writers in One China, Many Paths advance criticisms of the current leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. Yet, strikingly, only a handful would be considered "dissidents" as the term is typically defined. By staking out positions that call for radical change, yet at the same time presenting themselves as working at least partly within the system, they are carrying on a tradition that long predates 1949 but has stayed alive in the PRC--a tradition of which few Western observers are sufficiently aware. Even in 1989, many intellectual supporters of the Tiananmen uprising characterized their struggle (and not just for reasons of self-preservation) as an effort not to displace the Communist Party but to compel it to live up more fully to its own professed goals. It is telling that journals such as Dushu, edited by Wang Hui, one of the contributors to One China, Many Paths, are neither official organs of the state nor "underground" publications operating without any kind of governmental links. The apparatchik/samizdat opposition applied to the Soviet experience obscures more than it illuminates about intellectual life in contemporary China.

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