Review of English edition of Zhongguo Nongmin Diaocha (Will The Boat Sink The Water?)


A book that we talked about at great length here in the past, Zhongguo Nongmin Diaocha has been translated into English, with an introduction by John Pomfret. This book was a classic example of the Hu administration’s Hamlet complex. At first they encouraged the book and then, once it caught on, they banned it (not that the ban meant much; I hear it’s still available in the mainland if you look for it). It was heralded as a true breakthrough, a hard-nosed look at corruption and the outrageous burdens imposed by local officials on China’s 900 million rural poor.

I’ve just seen the first review of the English edition; here’s how it starts.

Water holds up the boat; water may also sink the boat = Emperor Taizong (600-649 C.E., Tang Dynasty)

If you believe the mainstream media – and why should you be so foolish as to do that? – China will soon overtake the U.S. as a major military and economic super power. Just look at the gleaming cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong, they tell us. Take a look at your local Wal-Mart: Just about everything there is made in China.

Chinese journalists Wu Chuntao and Chen Guidi returned to Chen’s native province of Anhui, one of China’s poorest – and the setting for ‘The Good Earth’ by West Virginia native Pearl Buck – to undertake a three-year survey of what had happened to the peasants there, asking the question: ‘Have the peasants been betrayed by the revolution undertaken in their name by Mao and his successors?’

The short answer is ‘YES’ and the reportage in ‘Will the Boat Sink the Water? The Life of China’s Peasants’ (PublicAffairs, 256 pages, $25.00). Translated by Zhu Hong, with an introduction by former Washington Post Beijing Bureau Chief John Pomfret, the book is a masterpiece of investigative journalism. It’s as if Seymour Hersh’s wife were an investigative journalist as accomplished as Sy and accompanied her husband on their collaborative work.

Then come all the details, none of them very cheerful. Read the review, and then tell me how people can continue to laud the cadre system, a bloated, corrupt, foul creation that rewards freeloaders, failures and liars at the expense of the miserable poor the party was created to protect. Irony of ironies.

On another note, but one still related to this review… A common complaint you’ll hear from the fenqing crowd is that the Western media only portrays the PRC in negative light. This is a colossal misrepresentation that can be obliterated with a simple search of any major news portals. On any given day, there will be a sizable imbalance of glowing economic and finance/trade-related stories, and a couple of stories of human rights issues. Anyone scanning these stories will see China as a wonderland and as the place to be. Most of the coverage is positive in the extreme. I only bring this up in this post because of the opening words of the review, cited above, on how the mainstream media have created a glowing picture of a China that for most Chinese doesn’t exist. The reviewer tells us,

As Pomfret says, the book is ‘an important antidote to the boosterish pablum churned out by many China experts these days. It’s a street-level look at the downside, and the dark side, of China’s economic juggernaut.’

Boosterish pabulum. Pomfret is spot-on as always. (And if you are new to this blog, I urge you to check that last link.)

The Discussion: 11 Comments

Interesting, the paperback version has been available in the UK since June. Only ยฃ5.99 from amazon. ๐Ÿ™‚

August 25, 2006 @ 5:34 am | Comment

Richard, thanks for bringing this to our attention (the English translation, that is). Western journalists must truly be a lazy or incompetent lot. I honestly feel that many must just take the press releases and regurgitate them. You don’t have to leave Shanghai or Beijing to find the apalling conditions that the poor are subjected to. Who do they think builds those “gleaming skyscrapers” and make the incredibly inexpensive Wal-Mart “merchandise?” Just 1 kilometer south of Tiananmen Square is the wasteland of the Qiamen district. Take a look at the living and working conditions of the construction workers who are laying rebar. The “economic” miracle is being produced on the covered backs of the poor. And those are the “lucky” ones who somehow have managed to find employment in the city. Imagine what life is like without any education, medical care or decent drinking water. Now that’s poor and that’s the reality of much of rural China. Richard, I do hope that more people will find this forum and open their eyes to the potential human disaster that awaits China and the rest of the world as long as the CCP is in power.

August 25, 2006 @ 6:39 am | Comment

Thanks Ahmet, I try the best I can. There’s a lot to love about China, and a lot to lament.

August 25, 2006 @ 6:59 am | Comment

Oh tut tut, that review says that the book doesn’t spare any “four-letter-words.”

As some of our commenters have often pointed out, we should all refrain from ever using any four-letter words when talking about the mass murders and organised theft and fathomless lies of the Communist Party.

Sorry, I mean the fucking Communist shitbags.

August 25, 2006 @ 1:59 pm | Comment

As I am sure you read the original book in Chinese, what do you think of the quality of the translation?

August 27, 2006 @ 12:39 am | Comment

Finality, are you genuinely interested in an informed opinion about the quality of the English translation? Or are you just trying to suggest that commenters at TPD can’t read Chinese and so our opinion on China is not well conceived? Because if you mean the later, then you are totally mistaken. I, as a regular commenter at TPD, so happen, not only have read both but are most qualified to comment on translation issues. But before I can give you my informed opinion, you have to indicate to me that you genuinely want to have a discussion about the English translation of Zhongguo Nongmin Diaocha. Otherwise I don’t intend to waste my time.

August 27, 2006 @ 4:07 am | Comment

Finality, where are you coming from? I never make any claims that I can read Chinese (though I am learning to). I never claim to be an expert of any kind on China. In fact, I make no claims at all. I just am intertested in the country and write about my own experiences there and the articles that catch my eye. I am really delighted that people who are proficient in Chinese, like Fat Cat and Nausicaa and many, many others come here and comment and offer their own expertise when it comes to Chinese texts.

August 27, 2006 @ 8:07 am | Comment

Dedicated to people such as Fat Cat—a person who uses four letter words and nasty epithets in other places here to attack posters? Well, this is some blog then.

The question I raised was simple and straightforward: I assumed that you had a view, that you had read both versions.

But it seems that once one asks questions here that are seen as offensive–even though this was not the intention–one gets attacked and called names.

Let’s forget it then. I thought this might be a blog where discussions of China could take place in an atmosphere of collegiality. I should have known better, and I apologize for taking your space and time.

August 27, 2006 @ 8:37 pm | Comment

Finality, or should I call you Not a Quack, readers who are genuinely interested in a discussion at this forum will not post under different names. You are not interested in any discussion. You are just a troll.

August 27, 2006 @ 9:34 pm | Comment

Finality Not A Quack, cut the crap. You came here to provoke, posting under different names and insulting me. Look around – we have a lot of people with opposing viewpoints discussing things in a civilized manner. But when you come in here trolling and looking to irritate, don’t be surprised if you aren’t greeted with loving arms.

August 27, 2006 @ 10:15 pm | Comment

I read the Chinese version, but I haven’t been able to read the English version because the blood-sucking censorship system draining this country of its soul will never allow the English version to be sold in English bookstores here. I am a translator, so maybe I’d have something to say, perhaps you would be kind enough to get me a copy, Finality.
What’s your next question? Where did I learn Chinese? Am I ABC? No. The one thing I can tell you is that your obsession with language and race and “understanding China” is a weak cover for the crimes committed against your own people which you are so quick to ignore.

August 27, 2006 @ 10:24 pm | Comment

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