“Chinese Characters” begins with a cautionary tale of the prominent American historian John K. Fairbank, who looked back over his years in China in the 1940s and described the era of reporting as “one of the great failures in history.” The journalism he and others produced was surface-deep.
Seven decades later, the 15 scholars and journalists whose articles comprise “Chinese Characters,” aim to prevent a repeat by penetrating the lives of ordinary Chinese. There are 15 pieces here, with profiles ranging from a Taoist mystic to a Tibetan married off as a teenager who must navigate a world dominated by Han Chinese.
Co-editor Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese history at University of California, Irvine, writes that the collection of essays deliberately steers clear of making predictions about a country which time and again “makes fools of prognosticators.” The point is to avoid statements which generalize how “the Chinese” feel about any given issue. It’s surprising then that all the contributors to the volume are foreign, bar one Chinese writer who emigrated abroad.
Still, the editors manage to deliver a compelling product because the contributors they assemble have impressively understood China by spending time there. Journalist Ian Johnson won a Pulitzer for his work on the Falun Gong, while Leslie T. Chang’s “Factory Girls” on migrant workers was widely acclaimed in the West. Some articles included here have already appeared elsewhere.
Each profile is about a different personality or number of personalities, but if there’s a recurring theme, it’s how rapidly China is changing. As the editors point out, China today can be compared to America of the late 19th and early 20th centuries because of both countries’ vast migrant labor forces. Of course, in China’s case, men and women are travelling from, say, rural Sichuan to Shanghai—not from Italy to New York—but there is a common sense of continual reinvention.
This churn sometimes means parts of the book are dated as the characters have moved on, but their experiences are still relevant. Wu Zengrong, profiled by Peter Hessler, alternatively makes a living as a cook, a factory worker, and a “gold farmer”—those who play the video game World of Warcraft professionally for cash. When these opportunities dry up though, he hears Italy is lucrative: Soon, he is applying for a passport to head to a country which he knows nothing about.
One of the book’s main goals is to dispel stereotypes and it does this well, including in politics. In “The New Generation’s Neocon Nationalists,” New Yorker correspondent Evan Osnos tracks down Tang Jie, the creator of an amateur nationalist online video which went viral in 2008 when China’s youth became defensive about outside criticism of Beijing’s Tibet policy.
Bravado dominates the video, including Mao’s mantra “Imperialism will never abandon its intention to destroy us.” But Mr. Tang is a Western philosophy student at Shanghai’s top university who speaks English and German, wears a crisp Oxford shirt and knows how to circumvent government censorship. He may be patriotic but he also has a puppy-like gratitude that a foreign journalist is taking the time to listen to his views.
The editors have also chosen pieces well to draw out contrasts. In Ms. Chang’s “Gilded Age, Gilded Cage” the schoolgirl Bella has her days taken up by endless piano practice, homework assignments, and extra tuition. “If you don’t continue to upgrade and recharge, you’ll be eliminated,” her father says.
On the other hand, Mr. Hessler focuses on Chen Meizi, a rural migrant in a third-tier Chinese city who produces mass oil paintings for a foreign market and has few ambitions beyond earning a good living. Ms. Chen totters in stilettos in front of her easel, churning out paintings of Venice and, bizarrely, Native Americans at top speed for rock-bottom prices. This is a practical girl who has few pretensions about the paintings she creates.
China’s contradictions are most evident in “Out of Tibet.” Free-lance journalist Alec Ash profiles his friend Tashi, a Tibetan he meets while teaching English in Qinghai province, home to a large Tibetan population. The 20-something is ambitious but can’t hold down a job, loves his girlfriend but cheats on her, and bemoans Chinese rule while he also takes up the opportunities it presents.
Hardly the spiritual Tibetan of Western stereotypes, Mr. Tashi (not his real name) was married off at 15 and divorced before the age of 20. He is both political and prosaic. At one point, Mr. Ash teaches him how to circumvent the Great Firewall. First, Mr. Tashi looks up Radio Free Asia for coverage of the 2008 Tibetan uprising. Next he Googles “American girl sex.”
Such intimate, funny and touching portrayals are what give this book its bite. They also help accomplish what the book sets out to do. “Chinese Characters” sidesteps hackneyed generalizations of China as a country of either great promise or perilous menace. It is at its most nuanced when the characters simply speak for themselves.