“Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land”

Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Angilee Shah have done a masterful job compiling and editing this book of 15 essays, each written by the most knowledgeable and articulate China experts on the planet such as Ian Johnson, Evan Osnos, Peter Hessler, Xujun Eberlein and Christina Larson. Each essayist tells the story of one (sometimes more) “Chinese character” — ordinary people whose stories offer keen insights into life in contemporary China.

While each story revolves around an individual, the essayists put their lives in context, exploring the developments in China’s history that help explain how they arrived at their present situation. For example, a beautiful story by Ian Johnson about a Taoist monk trying to hold onto his religion in a changing world offers a snapshot of the history of religion in China that is concise, informative and poetic. It also tells of how the Cultural Revolution nearly wiped out all religion in China. He at first sees the monk as a shyster but soon comes to respect him and to see the beauty in his life. It is the most poignant chapter in the book.

In one of my very favorite essays, Evan Osnos tracks down a student who created a video during the 2008 crackdown on Tibetan rioters that rails against the West and blames most of China’s woes on imperialist forces. This was when nationalism surged in China and when Anti-CNN “exposed” the bias of Western media coverage of China. (I was there for this, and was amazed at my colleagues’ unquestioning embrace of the Anti-CNN propaganda.) The video instantly went viral and received millions of hits, soon becoming “a manifesto for a self-styled vanguard in defense of China’s honor…” Osnos describes the video frame by frame. For example:

A cut then, to another front: rioters looting stores and brawling in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. The music crescendos as words flash across the scenes: “So-called peaceful protest!” A montage of foreign press clippings critical of China — nothing but “rumors, all speaking with one distorted voice.” The screen fills with the logos of CNN, the BBC and other news organizations, which give way to a portrait of Joseph Goebbels.

The young man is obviously full of rage, and I expected Osnos’ essay to focus on his fanaticism and hate. But then there is an odd twist, one that I found jaw-dropping. Osnos meets him at his school, Fudan University, and discovers that this is no ordinary fenqing. Tang Jie, 28, is working on his dissertation on Western philosophy. He reads English and German fluently and is working on Latin and Greek. “He is so self-effacing and soft-spoken that his voice can drop to a whisper.” His room is stacked with philosophy books, and he is “under contract for a Chinese translation of Leibniz’s Discourse on Metaphysics.” Tang explains the reason for China’s outrage, things we’ve all heard before — the West’s obsession with Tibet, CNN’s edited photos, the unfair criticism of human rights in China. As with each essay, this is not just a portrait of a character, it is an overview of the environment and the history that led this man to become what he is.

Readers won’t be surprised to learn that my favorite essay was by Peter Hessler, mainly because he has an astonishing ability to tell a story in gorgeous prose totally devoid of sentimentality. He writes about an artists’ village set up by the local Communist Party to produce paintings to be sold cheaply and en masse to tourists and overseas buyers. The main hero of his story is a young woman from the countryside who paints pictures of iconic locations in Europe such as Venice or streets in Holland, and who has no knowledge of art history or of what she is painting. She just copies photographs or postcards on request. This is simply what she does; she does not see herself as an artist per se. “She had her skill, and she did her work; it made no difference what she painted.”

There’s much more to the essay than that, and he contrasts her with some other “Chinese characters,” like a young man who plays World of Warcraft for a living. The essay is about the lives of migrant workers and how adaptable they are to change, and about how many of them live lives that are far different from Western perceptions.

Other essays include Alec Ash’s depiction of the life of a Tibetan who decries China’s treatment of Tibet while benefiting greatly from China’s development of the region. Xujun Eberlein, not surprisingly, tells of her meeting with former Red Guards who had been vicious enemies during the Cultural Revolution. China’s environmental crises, the impact of development on the lives of Uyghurs, the stunning success of Chinese entrepreneurs, the pressures of the gaokao, the rise of guitar playing throughout the country, the destruction of hutongs in Beijing (another of the best essays) — the book sheds light on all these and many other topics by following the lives of the individuals who are actually living these stories. As the title indicates, the book is all about change, about people’s lives being transformed, for better or for worse.

This is a beautiful book and one that I read very quickly. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about the lives of Chinese we rarely hear about. It lends nuance to everything we hear in the media about China, and takes us into worlds most of us hardly know exist. It is heartbreaking, funny, uplifting, awe-inspiring and surprising. It’s one of the best books I’ve read on China and it belongs on all of your bookshelves.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 17 Comments

As for the Anti-CNN clod, he still sounds like a fairly ordinary fenqing to me. Most are not outspoken when offline, which feeds their passive aggression. And a preposterous belief that they deeply understand “the West”, particularly when directed to contemplation of the great divide, often augments latent strands of resentment and hatred. I do wonder why we still give such individuals attention. I suppose it may have to do with Leibniz and symbolic logic. After Kripke one needn’t hesitate to pick up anything.

October 24, 2012 @ 8:57 am | Comment

As for the Anti-CNN clod, he still sounds like a fairly ordinary fenqing to me. Most are not outspoken when offline, which feeds their passive aggression. And a preposterous belief that they deeply understand “the West”, particularly when directed to contemplation of the great divide, often augments latent strands of resentment and hatred. I do wonder why we still give such individuals attention. I suppose it may have to do with Leibniz and symbolic logic. After Kripke one needn’t hesitate to pick up anything.

So much ad hominem. Blech

October 24, 2012 @ 9:03 am | Comment

t_co

Just to help you understand:

1) to describe a type is not ad hominem, as it is not servicing a particular argument

2) ad hominem may involve caricature; but caricature by itself is an art rather than an argument
3) the essay clearly involves biographical detail in an attempt to problematize our understanding of the origins and lifeways of fenqingism

Sorry, but your vapid attempts to wave the fallacy card outside the bounds of a particular argument are denied by any of these three points.

October 24, 2012 @ 9:56 am | Comment

Ah the Chinese according to 13 Western post-modern Marxists and 2 race traitors. What could possibly be more enlightening?

October 24, 2012 @ 10:39 am | Comment

Jing, you’re like a shock jock. Do you get a thrill out of saying crap like that?

t_co, I see no evidence of an ad hominem in Handler’s comment. Maybe you thought it was biased or stupid, but I don’t see the ad hominem.

October 24, 2012 @ 10:53 am | Comment

No Richard, it honestly disgusts me to say that because it is an ugly truth that I rather wish didn’t exist. The snark is just my coping mechanism.

Take for example the genetic cognitive deficit of the Negro vis-a-vis, well just about any other ethnic group you can think of. I say this because it is true, but it is “shocking” to the vast majority of Stakhanovites eagerly upholding the glorious party line. Now there are any number of very intelligent apparatchiks who can twist reality into Lysenko shaped pretzels but my message is not for them. It is for the awakened and those only now rubbing the sleep from their eyes. As Jeremiah, it is my unpleasant duty to proclaim the Truth to those who can be swayed, to provide succor to the persecuted by showing that they they are not alone, and to preserve the flickering flame of Reaction in the face of the coming tempest.

October 24, 2012 @ 11:30 am | Comment

As Jeremiah, it is my

What’s this? Careful with your idiom, people might think you’re a damned race traitor.

October 24, 2012 @ 12:33 pm | Comment

I see that Jing has been sniffing his special glue and getting his delusion-of-grandeur on again. Pity the fool who listens to that Jerry. Anyone with cognitive capacity greater than a telephone pole would realize that “the truth” will be anything but what the Jing-ster “proclaims”. LOL.

October 24, 2012 @ 2:09 pm | Comment

It is reasonable, given the authors in question, to accept that these anecdotes accurately portray the 15 subjects in question. What is much less clear is whether these portrayals are generalizable to Chinese people at large.

I don’t think FQ need to be uneducated. I don’t find it surprising that Osnos’ subject is a highly educated FQ. But I agree with Handler that these types may well have a certain repression going on. Calm, perhaps even civilized IRL, only to save the bat-shit for the anonymous online world. Also a sobering example of how education alone does not immunize one against the institutional propaganda of the CCP.

October 24, 2012 @ 2:21 pm | Comment

@SKC. You comment like the grand inquisitor. Look, on forums like this most folk indulge in a bit of bs craziness.

What do you want? A Greek chorus echoing each and every one of Richards posts.

Jing and The Clock’s latest are not without their psychotic amusement value.

I think you would have been a very self-assured Salem witch burner in your previous incarnation.

October 24, 2012 @ 3:44 pm | Comment

To KT,
not sure what you mean. I’m actually disagreeing with Richard here. The morals of those stories by those authors will either reinforce one’s preconceived notions about Chinese archetypes, or they won’t. But I’m not sure they’re of much probative value in determining what a Chinese person is or isn’t, or should or shouldn’t be. That said, this observation should be inherently obvious, so you can certainly ask why I’m pointing out something that’s plain as day.

If Jing’s and Clock’s raisons d’etre are to amuse, no argument from me that they discharge those duties exquisitely. I’m a science guy, and as liberal as they come, so I don’t believe in witches, nor would I have bothered burning them if witchcraft was what floated their boats. But hey, Salem is a decent town in more modern times, though I preferred going to Gloucester for clam-chowder when I was in that neck of the woods.

Osnos’ subject matter here is particularly of interest to me. It’s always fascinated me how apparently educated and likely intelligent folks like Allen Yu from his FM days could go absolutely ape-shit and lose all grasp of logic when the topic of China came around

October 25, 2012 @ 2:11 pm | Comment

@SKC
I suppose I was arguing for a broad church approach to the forum. Even bad scholarship psychotic-types like The Clock and Jing have the right to exist.

When making that comment, I was thinking of political correctness and the way it controls the ‘what is permissible and not permissible’ to state. A practice which makes me think of eugenics. Get enough of that here in Oz.

And as you claim to be liberal-to-libertarian, I will pull that remark.
………………………………………………………………

I know I’m doing a 360, but that piece by Osnos on the whole fast rail empire was positively brilliant, such that railway contractors became prisoners of their own system of corruption. Making structural changes to the economy is all but impossible when such grand scale malfeasance prevails.

Similarly, reducing the reach of SOE’s is never going to take place when you have wealth concentration like the following:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/26/business/global/family-of-wen-jiabao-holds-a-hidden-fortune-in-china.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

October 26, 2012 @ 5:49 am | Comment

Comment number 6 is a clear example of how polishing a turd still just leaves you with a turd.
Writing crap like a pseud doesn’t make the crap any better.

October 26, 2012 @ 10:55 am | Comment

SKC: Osnos’ subject matter here is particularly of interest to me. It’s always fascinated me how apparently educated and likely intelligent folks like Allen Yu from his FM days could go absolutely ape-shit and lose all grasp of logic when the topic of China came around

I totally agree. Such smart people simply lose it when it comes to China and its alleged victimization.

October 26, 2012 @ 11:17 am | Comment

To KT,
nice link. You have to be a greasy rat to be able to claw your way to the top of the rodent-infested heap that is the CCP, but it’s a lucrative position to be in once you get to be the king of that pile of crap. No wonder people like the Clock “admire” those who make it to the top, as he so graciously admitted on that other thread about CCP grease-balls.

It makes me wonder again, when Deng said some have to get rich first, whether this is what he had in mind.

October 26, 2012 @ 11:32 am | Comment

You can claw your way to the top of the food chain, and you can also get the slippery slide.

Bo just stripped on legal immunity acc to BBC. Expect a trial next Monday and two digits in the Qincheng big house on Tuesday. Wonder if he will get conjugal visit to Kalai also housed in the same institution. They might get the opportunity to trade STDs.

The Bo family team are alleged to have squirreled away around 1 billion
US. Will it be retrieved by the Chinese govt and feed into consolidated revenue. Divvied up among Bo’s shaftees. ????

October 26, 2012 @ 12:18 pm | Comment

I guess the take-home then is that it pays to be Wen, and it sucks to be Bo. Aspirational CCP types should take heed of the lessons that lie therein, and go about their corruption accordingly so as to end up like one and not the other.

October 26, 2012 @ 12:56 pm | Comment

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