“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.