Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Big China Books: Enough of the Big Picture

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, specializing in Modern China. He is a contributor to the blog China Beat.]

A Texas-based media-tracking organization recently announced that it had concluded, via a sophisticated statistical analysis of news sources, that China's leapfrog up the global economic hierarchy was the top story of the past decade. This claim is debatable: the Iraq War, climate change, terrorism and the financial crisis all garnered plenty of headlines. Still, there has certainly been a dramatic upsurge in fascination with and concern over the People's Republic — and a concomitant proliferation of Big China Books, as I like to call works that carry titles that cry out to be put in bold type....

The authors of Big China Books have two things in common: a conviction that they know what will happen next (even though the P.R.C. has been defying the best guesses of pundits and academic specialists alike for decades) and an ability to provide easy-to-summarize answers to Big Questions. The most successful and widely reviewed tend to have theses spelled out in provocative titles that fit into ongoing point-counterpoint debates or give rise to new ones. When China Rules the World is a case in point. Its appearance immediately triggered an expected rebuttal from Hutton, and inspired Big China Articles (yes, there are lots of those too) for and against.

Big China Books vary greatly in quality, but even the best leave me cold due to their bird's-eye view of the P.R.C. Adopting an Olympian perspective, their authors tend to use broad strokes to portray things that actually require a fine-grained touch. For example, most treat China's population as an undifferentiated mass, or one that can be bisected along just one axis: be it the 90% Han and 10% non-Han ethnic divide, the clear ideological fault line between loyalists and dissidents, and so on. And they often buy into the cozy but distorting official myth of"thousands of years of continuous civilization," which suggests that China's borders have remained fairly constant over time and that the"Confucian tradition" has been remarkably enduring. When in the company of even the most astute Big China Book authors, like Jacques, I often find myself wondering if the place they are describing can really be the same one that I regularly visit and teach and write about for a living. For the China I know is one where complex regional divides fragment the population and the views of many people don't fit into either the dissident or loyalist category. It's a country with multistranded traditions, not just a single Confucian one. And it's a country whose long history has been marked by many discontinuities, from the mix of traditions to dramatic shifts over time in just how big China itself is imagined to be....

Will more Big China Books appear this decade? I think it safe to bet that they will. The desire for confident answers to Big China Questions has never been stronger. Will admirable works of scholarly reporting also keep coming out? I'm even more confident answering this question affirmatively. One such work, Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, is being published in February, and it's the best yet from Peter Hessler, whose two earlier books, River Town (2001) and Oracle Bones (2006), were exemplary forays into the genre. Country Driving begins with the author recounting his quixotic efforts to follow the Great Wall by car, depending on flawed maps that sometimes left large sections blank (for political reasons) and often seemed hopelessly out of date right after being issued (due to how fast new thoroughfares are being built). The next section describes Hessler's experiences living in a north China village that is transformed by the construction of a new road that links it to Beijing. The book concludes with a look at the economic dynamics of"instant cities" that keep springing up along a highway south of the Yangtze River....

Country Driving won't satisfy those who like answers to Big Questions that can fit on dust jackets. Still, it captures beautifully the rhythms of life in a nation that is being turned inside out so quickly that it is not just lone American writers, but also Chinese from varied walks of life, who often find themselves struggling to traverse uncharted territory, armed only with their wits and with maps that become obsolete as soon as they are printed.
Read entire article at Time

comments powered by Disqus