Blogs > Cliopatria > Jeffrey Wasserstrom: The Chinese Evolution

Sep 8, 2006 8:09 pm

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: The Chinese Evolution

[Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine.]

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.

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.

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.

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.

What kinds of conclusions do these books point toward, beyond providing ample evidence that China is far more diverse than the country we often see portrayed in our newspapers and on television? First of all, that it makes little sense to treat the PRC as an "evil empire" or "awakening giant." While the significance of state repression and the economic boom cannot be doubted, we need to pay attention to such things as the resurgence of intense attachment to localities (the nation, but also much smaller communities), the dramatic increase in forms of mobility (the ability of people to swtich from job to job and city to city) and the divergent lifestyles of people belonging to different groups (defined by generation and ethnicity as well as region, class and religion).

The books are also a reminder that we need to free ourselves from the sense, so palpable when the Berlin wall fell, that China's Communist Party is living on borrowed time. It will, of course, eventually lose power. No regime lasts forever. But fifteen years have passed since the Soviet Union collapsed, and the PRC is still run by a Communist Party (albeit one that accepts capitalists into its ranks). If the Party's days have been "numbered" since 1989, the integer is not a small one. Hence one starting point for critical analysis should be asking how exactly the Party has retained control, even during an era when there is considerable popular discontent. Mao once famously said that a "single spark" was enough to "start a prairie fire," but the PRC of today shows that there can be literally tens of thousands of "sparks" a year (there were 87,000 separate incidents of unrest in 2005 alone, according to the CCP's own statistics) without igniting a national conflagration.

To be sure, the CCP's resilience lies partly in its use of force to crush militant protests and to stifle any organization that threatens (or is imagined to threaten) its authority, and its efforts to control the communications media. But force alone cannot explain the party's hold on power. The Communist Party has skillfully appealed to popular nationalism and, perhaps most important, it has presided over remarkably high growth rates, which have led many Chinese to feel that in material terms their lives have improved. The diversity of experience in the PRC, made possible by the reforms, has paradoxically helped the one-party state to stay afloat. China is now a place where people living in different regions, doing different kinds of jobs and belonging to different generations can easily seem to be living in different worlds. And far from dividing the country into "winners" and "losers," recent changes have led many people to feel that they are both winning and losing, but in radically dissimilar ways.

Imagine a scholar who is happy that she has an easier time now accessing translations of works in her specialty by Western scholars and traveling abroad to conferences, but who is furious that the state intends to demolish her beloved old house in the heart of Beijing and relocate her to the suburbs. Is she a "winner" or a "loser"? Or imagine a factory worker in his 50s who is angered after being laid off from a state-run company, where he had a job that was supposed to be his for life, yet who is relieved that his children are not criticized periodically, as he once was, because one of their forbears fought in Chiang Kai-shek's army in the 1930s? Is he a "winner" or a "loser"? Our imagined scholar and imagined worker have both "won" and "lost," but in such different ways that a protest by one would not automatically generate strong sympathy in the other. And neither would be likely to look favorably on protests by Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang who complain of oppression by Han Chinese colonizers. Americans often assume that rapid development, of the kind that South Korea and Taiwan experienced in the 1980s and that the PRC is experiencing now, will automatically work as a democratizing force, with a newly created middle class demanding an increase in political choices commensurate with their increased economic ones. Ironically, though, while there are certainly middle-class Chinese who would like, and in some cases are agitating for, greater political freedom, the principal outcome of rapid development has been a tendency toward social fragmentation that has undermined the prospects of mass resistance to the state. One reason that protests spread easily in 1989, both in China and elsewhere, was that many people felt that the only meaningful divide in state socialist systems was between a small elite group, who enjoyed a privileged lifestyle, and everyone else. This is not true in the PRC today. And this makes it hard to imagine scenarios that would lead to a repeat of 1989.

Hard--but not impossible. For while the PRC's boom has lasted longer than the experts predicted, it cannot go on forever. And at some point growing disgust with official corruption could lead people in widely varied social sectors to conclude that the regime's purported commitment to the nation's welfare is the most jiade thing about it. Then, to play on the title of a classic work of reportage from another era (the 1940s), when corruption was a "scourge of the time" and an authoritarian regime (that of Chiang Kai-shek) struggled to hold on to power, a new kind of thunder might come out of China.

Reprinted with permission from the Nation. For subscription information call 1-800-333-8536. Portions of each week's Nation magazine can be accessed at

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