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

Angilee Shah
Jeffrey Wasserstrom
Foreword by Pankaj Mishra
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Pages: 244
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  • Book Info
    Chinese Characters
    Book Description:

    An artist paints landscapes of faraway places that she cannot identify in order to find her place in the global economy. A migrant worker sorts recyclables and thinks deeply about the soul of his country, while a Taoist mystic struggles to keep his traditions alive. An entrepreneur capitalizes on a growing car culture by trying to convince people not to buy cars. And a 90-year-old woman remembers how the oldest neighborhoods of her city used to be. These are the exciting and saddening, humorous and confusing stories of utterly ordinary people who are living through China's extraordinary transformations. The immense variety in the lives of these Chinese characters dispels any lingering sense that China has a monolithic population or is just a place where dissidents fight Communist Party loyalists and laborers create goods for millionaires.Chinese Charactersis a collection, as Pankaj Mishra writes in his foreword, "to herald a new golden age of journalism about a ceaselessly fascinating country." Contributors include a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, a Macarthur Fellow, the China correspondent to a major Indian newspaper, and scholars whose depth of understanding is matched only by the humanity with which they treat their subjects. Their stories together create a multi-faceted portrait of a country in motion and an introduction to some of the best writing on China today.With contributions from:Alec Ash James Carter Leslie T. Chang Xujun Eberlein Harriet Evans Anna Greenspan Peter Hessler Ian Johnson Ananth Krishnan Christina Larson Michelle Dammon Loyalka James Millward Evan Osnos Jeffrey Prescott Megan Shank

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95413-7
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Pankaj Mishra

    Looking back four decades later at his years as a journalist in China in the 1940s, the historian John K. Fairbank blamed himself and his journalistic colleagues for “one of the great failures in history”: “We had no knowledge, in other words, and no way to gain any knowledge, of the life of ordinary Chinese people. . . . Our reporting was very superficial. We could not educate or illuminate or inform the American people or the American leadership in such a way that we could modify the outcome.”

    What was this outcome he so regretted? Fairbank not only had...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction: “Who Are You This Time?”
    (pp. 1-12)

    Each time I go back to China, I prepare myself to hear stories of surprising ways that the country has changed since I was last there. I also expect to hear equally surprising reports of personal transformations. It seems inevitable that at least a couple of friends whose lives seemed set to move in one direction will have had something completely unexpected happen to them since I last saw them. During the months since my previous trip to China, a professor who had no interest in business will have become an entrepreneur. A loyal bureaucrat within the Communist Party Youth...


    • CHAPTER 1 The North Peak
      (pp. 15-24)

      The “voluntary” insurance at the entrance had cost just two yuan, about thirty-five cents, but I had been fleeced all the way from Beijing and somehow this was the final straw. Why did everything have to be so crass and commercialized? I whined to myself. I knew the answers—all the nuanced reasons why so many religious sites in China had been reduced to a carnival—but was in too foul a mood to be rational. The view didn’t help either. Once one of Taoism’s holiest mountains, Mount Heng in Shanxi Province was a denuded wreck, seeming to consist of...

    • CHAPTER 2 The New Generation’s Neocon Nationalists
      (pp. 25-39)

      On the morning of April 15, 2008, a short video entitled “2008 China Stand Up!” appeared on Sina, a Chinese web site. The video’s origin was a mystery: unlike the usual YouTube–style clips, it had no host, no narrator, and no signature except the initials “CTGZ.”

      It was a homespun documentary, and it opened with a Technicolor portrait of Chairman Mao, sunbeams radiating from his head. Out of silence came an orchestral piece, thundering with drums, as a black screen flashed, in both Chinese and English, one of Mao’s mantras: “Imperialism will never abandon its intention to destroy us.”...

    • CHAPTER 3 Out of Tibet
      (pp. 40-52)
      ALEC ASH

      When Tashi calls, I am in a temple overlooking Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province in western China. Loud, slurred, distraught, he asks me to come quickly.

      Tongren, or Rebkong in Tibetan, is eight bumpy hours south, high on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, and the next bus is at noon. When I arrive, it is dusty evening. Tibetans in cowboy hats or Adidas beanies walk the markets, where Hui Muslims in characteristic white hats sell fried chicken and chilled Coke to Han Chinese immigrants. Monks from the Tongren monastery stretch their legs, trainers poking out from underneath...


    • CHAPTER 4 Belonging to Old Beijing
      (pp. 55-66)

      Old Lady Gao is the oldest “Old Beijinger” I know. She is eighty-nine and has lived on ahutongnear the Guanyin temple off Dashanlanr’s West Street for seven decades. She used to be quite tall and imposing, but when I meet her now, she is hunched, painfully thin, and can no longer walk. Her thin gray hair is tied back in a bun, revealing a broad face and eyes dimmed by age, but she is alert and her memory is sharp. Occasional smiles light up her face when she greets visitors or shares a joke, but most of the...

    • CHAPTER 5 Another Swimmer
      (pp. 67-78)

      When I first met He Shu, he wanted to know how my sister Ruo-Dan had died. He was painstakingly collecting historical facts and stories about the pitched battles between rival factions during the Cultural Revolution era in China, and he thought that my sister must have been killed in one such skirmish.

      I was visiting my hometown, the booming riverfront metropolis of Chongqing, in August 2006. He Shu was a scholarly man in his late fifties and was working on a book about the city in the late 1960s. We sat at a plastic table at a teahouse downtown—well,...

    • CHAPTER 6 Looking for Lok To
      (pp. 79-88)

      Perhaps the statue caught my eye because of the weeks I’d spent chasing calories.

      Guoqing Temple, nestled at the base of Tiantai Mountain in Zhejiang Province, was an idyllic setting. The midsummer heat, or perhaps the doctrine, encouraged everyone to move slowly, giving the impression that it was impossible to be either early or late. The exception to this serenity came at mealtimes. Monks’ daily schedules are long and full. Rising before 5 a.m., they spend their days moving among prayer, meditation, and chores, with little time to rest. Meals are one of the only unstructured times of the day,...


    • CHAPTER 7 The Ever-Floating Floater
      (pp. 91-102)

      Zhang Erhua sleeps in a cardboard-lined metal box perched above a mountain of old newspaper. When he wakes up in the morning, he leaps from his bed and slides surfer-style down the towering mound of scrap paper. His ten-second commute finished, his boss hands him a steaming bowl of noodles, which he slurps down with loud, lipsmacking enthusiasm. Then he rakes his fingers through his wildly tousled hair, tucks a cigarette behind each ear, and pronounces himself ready for work.

      There’s not all that much to do just yet though, so to pass the time, the 28-year-old Zhang hurls himself...

    • CHAPTER 8 King of the Road
      (pp. 103-113)

      At a bus stop near Beijing’s Dashanzi Art District, shoppers swayed with bulging bags. Coughing, a middle-aged man lit a second cigarette from a still-burning butt. “Soon, soon,” cooed a young woman to her boyfriend, who stamped his feet impatiently. Horns swelled. Trucks rumbled. Saturday. Six o’clock. Stuck.

      Beside me, my friend, 27-year-old Wang Shuyue, murmured in the lyrical Mandarin of the capital city, “The traffic in Beijing is really over the top.” She kicked a pile of ashy fallen leaves. It was November 2010. The days had grown short. We waited in the dark.

      “You want a picture of...

    • CHAPTER 9 Painting the Outside World
      (pp. 114-130)

      In the countryside southwest of the city of Lishui, where the Da River crosses a sixth-century stone weir, the local government announced, four years ago, that it was founding a Chinese version of the Barbizon. The original French Barbizon School developed during the first half of the nineteenth century, in response to the Romantic movement, among painters working at the edge of the Fontainebleau Forest. Back then, the French artists celebrated rural scenes and peasant subjects. This wasn’t exactly the mood in Lishui: like most cities in eastern China’s Zhejiang Province, the place was focused on urban growth; there was...


    • CHAPTER 10 The Road to a Better Life
      (pp. 133-144)

      When Alim first attended a lecture by the economist Ilham Tohti, he was stunned. Alim had spent most of his student life in sterile, cloistered classrooms where the lessons were, without exception, stale and uninteresting, infused with the unappealing political rhetoric of Communist Party propaganda. The 26-year-old student never took his lessons seriously; he gave them just enough attention to ensure that he got good enough grades.

      But Tohti’s lectures were different. Alim listened with rapt attention from beginning to end, absorbing every word and furiously noting the smallest details. Indeed, everything about Tohti was new. Even his appearance was...

    • Chapter 11 Yong Yang’s Odyssey
      (pp. 145-155)

      In January 2007, an independent geologist named Yong Yang set out from his home in Sichuan with five researchers, two SUVs, one set of clothes, and several trunks of equipment for measuring rainfall and water volume; a camping stove, a rice cooker, canned meat, and more than sixty bottles of locally made hot sauce; a digital camera, a deck of cards, and several CDs of Tibetan music; and as many canisters of fuel as his team could strap to the roofs of their vehicles. No roads cross the part of China to which Yong was traveling, so he also brought...

    • CHAPTER 12 The Court Jester
      (pp. 156-174)

      In the spring of 2009, China’s most outspoken law professor, He Weifang, was ordered to report for duty at the edge of the Gobi desert. For the next two years, he would teach in Shihezi, a windswept military outpost in Xinjiang, three thousand miles from his home in Beijing. He (pronounced Huh) is on the faculty at Peking University, and the transfer meant trading one of China’s best schools for one of its most remote. The relocation recalled the punishment that Chinese emperors once reserved for serious criminals and the most wayward scholars: exile to “an insalubrious region”(yanzhang).



    • CHAPTER 13 The Great Wall of Education
      (pp. 177-191)

      We gather for national day at a local kindergarten in downtown Shanghai. Outside, in the yard, tiny chairs are set up in a semicircle facing the country’s red flag. The teacher stands in the center. Microphone in hand, she tells her young pupils of the great giftszuguo mama(the motherland) has given them. We all stand at attention as the flag is raised and China’s national anthem, “The March of the Volunteers,” is played—too loudly—over a scratchy PA system.

      “Arise! Arise! Arise! A million hearts beat as one. Brave the enemy’s fire, March on!” I know the...

    • CHAPTER 14 Gilded Age, Gilded Cage
      (pp. 192-201)

      At the age of four, Zhou Jiaying was enrolled in two classes—Spoken American English and English Conversation—and given the English name Bella. Her parents hoped she might go abroad for college. The next year they signed her up for acting class. When she turned eight, she started on the piano, which taught discipline and developed the cerebrum. In the summers she went to the pool for lessons; swimming, her parents said, would make her taller. Bella wanted to be a lawyer, and to be a lawyer you had to be tall. By the time she was ten, Bella...

    • CHAPTER 15 Shredding for the Motherland
      (pp. 202-216)

      In the fall of 1990, less than a year after the crushing of student-led protests in China, the U.S. government dispatched Vic Trigger to Beijing. Trigger’s mission? To teach China’s youth to shred.

      “He had the hair, he had the clothes,” recalls R. Bin Wong, a professor of Chinese history at the University of California, Los Angeles, who happened to be seated next to Trigger on the plane. “His only carry-on was the guitar.”

      Tall and lanky, with dark wavy hair tumbling around a mousy face, Vic Trigger had been tasked, at that delicate moment in Sino-U.S. relations, with showing...

  11. Afterword
    (pp. 217-222)

    I met with Megan Shank on the Upper East Side of Manhattan when we were making final revisions to this book. Over Darjeeling in delicate teacups, she explained compound annual growth rates and the ins and outs of an initial public offering. This quick lesson in finance was prompted by Ray Zhang, the founder of the car rental company eHi. Zhang had just told her that he planned to take his company public in the United States, and Shank realized that she needed to make some changes to her chapter.

    It should not have come as a surprise: China’s fast-changing...

  12. Notes and Readings
    (pp. 223-226)
  13. List of Contributors
    (pp. 227-230)
  14. Credits
    (pp. 231-231)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 232-232)