Let’s begin with the doubt I can’t eradicate: How do you write about a culture, and a place, that is not your culture and not your place?
I recently published a novel, Last Days in Shanghai, that takes places in the booming cities of the new China. The story is narrated by Luke Slade, a young assistant to an American congressman, who has accompanied his boss on an ethically suspect junket to Beijing and Shanghai. Luke careens city-to-city — sleepless, wide-eyed — trying to determine the extent of the danger or corruption or misunderstanding he is ensnared in.
While writing the novel, I learned to endure my hesitations about the conception, my angle of approach, the language, the style, the length. But I never made my peace with the question of how to represent China or individual Chinese people. More pressingly, I don’t think any peace is possible — or ethically permissible. I am a trespasser, and there’s no way to think myself out of that trespass. Many days, I still believe contemporary China is best left to Yu Hua and Ma Jian, to Xiaolu Guo and Han Han, to Yiyun Li and Liao Yiwu, to the manifesto of the students who gathered to protest in the streets of Hong Kong, and to the poetry of a desperate Foxconn worker.
Of course, I wrote the book anyway — innocently, out of curiosity; but also guiltily, with a worry that my fascination was no better than an Orientalist gaze, on par with the old 18th-century fashion for chinoiserie pottery and rugs and folding screens. In essence, I tried to act as though two conflicting ideas are simultaneously true: that our cultural bonds define us absolutely and are basically inextricable, and that an outsider can nevertheless imagine a way into those shrouded and private places.
I tell myself that fiction, for both writer and reader, is about pushing past the contingent circumstances of one’s own existence. The ability to briefly inhabit a life not one’s own seems to me a large part of what fiction offers us. Isn’t such imagining the beginning of empathy? Isn’t an expansion of the self necessary for certain forms of political solidarity? If we say that an American can’t imagine China, or that a man can’t imagine a woman, or a woman a man, or a black person a white person, or a woman now a woman of the 18th century, then what’s left for fiction to do? Worse, what’s left of our civic existence? I find it disconcerting to imagine a community can only be made of our nearest psychic neighbors, people more or less like oneself.
And yet, I’ve come to believe that writing about another culture is like being the central figure in a Franz Kafka novel: You need to understand you’re guilty even before you’ve been convicted, even before you can articulate what you’re guilty of. And you must live with the knowledge of that guilt and absorb it into your project rather than seeking to expunge it.
In looking for an ethical way of writing about China as an outsider, I radically constricted the focus of the novel. Last Days in Shanghai is a first-person account, narrated by a young American man, who is in a deep confusion about the China he is experiencing. His claims are partial. He can give an honest account of what he sees, but he’s reporting out of incomprehension. Writing the book was a constant struggle between my desire to give language to the upheaval in modern China — the dislocated and dispossessed and the people who profit from that dispossession — and my sense that I could only in good faith examine China, as it were, through thick smog. I confined myself, for better and worse, to Luke Slade’s account.
If this explicitly narrow aperture excuses some of the narrator’s misunderstanding and ignorance about Chinese life, it still doesn’t let me, the writer, off of the hook — anymore than being unable to read street signs exempts you from traffic rules. In that spirit, I read as widely as I could. I bothered experts. I hounded the few people I’d met on my own trips to China. I still have shelves full of books about Chinese history and contemporary politics: histories of Mao Zedong, histories of Shanghai, histories of Chinese capital cities, the Silk Road, and Marco Polo. I shoveled data and detail into the book, only to watch it swamp Luke’s story. And then I had to make my peace: There were certainly other stories about China, but Luke’s story was the one I could tell. To throw off the blinders of his perspective was to risk the book devolving into a loose weave of dubious ethnographic vignettes. I cut and added, cut and added, read and read.
For the years I worked, it seemed every week a new book appeared claiming to demystify contemporary China. Most of these books, I discovered, were by and for market forecasters or the global business class, useless caricatures written by eager apologists for a commercial atmosphere of corruption and environmental degradation. The books that were essential to me were the ones that resisted the familiar, potted history of Chinese political culture and refused to be confined to headline news about monetary policy, Internet censorship, or Tibet. Instead, the writers discussed below engage in the intimate work of examining specific lives as they unfold against the chaotic political and social restructuring of a country that has now seen a full century of revolution, revision, and economic upheaval. It’s difficult to adequately imagine the contradictions inherent in such a vast place — the competing interests of 1.3 billion people or their quiet strategies of accommodation and dissent — but, taken together, these books provide an excellent primer on the new China, one life at a time. My own novel would not have been possible without them.
Oracle Bones, by Peter Hessler (2006)
During his stint as the China correspondent for em>The New Yorker and in several subsequent books, Hessler established himself as America’s premier chronicler of China at the turn of this century. Oracle Bones is by turns a historical examination of China’s turbulent political culture and a sensitive, sharply written personal account of Hessler’s time in the country. He delves into everything from Shang Dynasty calligraphy — the earliest writing in East Asia, carved into bones that were then charred and examined for their oracular import — to the current plight of the Uigher people in Xinjiang Province. Ever sensitive to China as an immense moving target, Hessler’s attempts to document the country turned him into something of a wanderer himself. “It was necessary to keep pace with everybody who was on the move,” he writes. “I traveled light: I had no family, no permanent home.”
The Corpse Walker, by Liao Yiwu (2008)
The lives of the itinerant and adrift comprise the bulk of Yiwu’s book, a compendium of oral interviews with, among others, a human trafficker, a professional mourner, a grave robber, a former Red Guard, a migrant worker, and a Feng Shui master. A retired official recalls starving peasants during Chairman Mao’s rule who resorted to eating “a type of white clay called Guanyin mud.” “In those years,” the official reflects, “the lives of ordinary people were worthless.” A present-day migrant worker Yiwu speaks with, in the last interview in the book, suggests little has changed for the poor during China’s swerve from Maoism to capitalism. “When my stomach gets empty and the cold air moves in,” the migrant worker says, “all I crave is a restaurant job where I can get a bowl of noodles for free…Being frugal can save me from future starvation.”
Out of Mao’s Shadow, by Philip Pan (2008)
Among these books, Pan’s offers the most incisive journalistic account of the shrewd, corrupt maneuvering that governs official China. He’s particularly attentive to the noxious overlap of government and private business that enriches elites at everyone else’s expense. Of China’s glimmering new city skylines, Pan writes, “The more stunning the cityscape, the more likely that it was built by developers and party officials who ran roughshod over the rights of ordinary residents.” Shanghai, the new skyline of which soars from the muddy banks of the Huangpu River, is perhaps the worst offender. “More than a million families were evicted in the drive to remake the city,” Pan writes, “and when large numbers tried to resist, city officials crushed their campaign with little regard for legal niceties. Residents were jailed without charges or committed to mental hospitals.”
Factory Girls, by Leslie Chang (2008)
Accustomed as we are to stories like the one Pan tells about Shanghai — ordinary citizens steamrolled by China’s experiment in state capitalism — the true surprise of Chang’s book is the intimate view it gives us of the factory girls themselves. The girls turn out to be far more complex than the exploited provincial teenagers we might imagine. Chang follows several ambitious, smart, and stubborn girls from the provinces as they hop factory to factory in Shenzen and Dongguan, chasing better pay, better food, better treatment, and better lives. The more time Chang spends in the company of these young women, the more nuanced her view of these factories, the linchpins of our global consumerism, becomes. The hours are long, sometimes abusive, and the conditions uncertain at best. And yet compared with subsistence farming or paltry educational options in their home villages, many of these girls find factory life to be not a dire dead-end, but a ladder upwards. We can and should be rigorously critical of the abuse and exploitation that continues to thrive in these factories, but the work also offers money and mobility in a place where young women have long lacked both.
China Underground, by Zachary Mexico (2009)
Mexico’s book plants itself firmly in the territory of the new youthful China: Rock bands, KTV girls, prostitutes, hustlers, drug dealers. It’s ground level, gonzo reporting, though never sensationalistic or self-aggrandizing. As such, it’s filled with information on the kinds of business you won’t find discussed in market round-ups. “Prostitution has become such a massive industry,” Mexico writes, “that Chinese police have adopted a seven-tier system with which to classify prostitution-related activity.” The implicit thesis of Mexico’s book is that if we want to ponder China’s many possible futures, we should look not just to its history, its officialdom, or inside its factories, but also to its outcasts, criminals, artists, and dreamers.
Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, by Xiaolu Guo (2008)
Guo’s novel opens at Beijing Film Studios, where a young woman searches for work as a film extra. This preoccupation with an extraneous life, a small existence seemingly destined to be forgotten or overlooked, never leaves the novel. Fenfang is a peasant girl from the countryside who doesn’t know “how to do anything except dig up sweet potatoes, clean toilets, and pull levers in a factory.” Her arrival in Beijing is turbulent, inside and out — an uncertain mind meeting a chaotic, changing city, “the least romantic place in the whole universe.” Twenty fierce, brief chapters stop-motion the reader through Fenfang’s life as she scrounges for work, falls in and out of love with an American boy, writes screenplays and fails to write them. Fenfang’s life follows the contours of many of Chang’s subjects in Factory Girls. It’s a novel that emanates from this historical moment when an entire generation is uprooting itself, trying to find purchase in the new China. Fenfang’s search for a life where’s she’s more than another extraneous girl makes for a rapturous book. I read it twice and bought copies for friends.
Will the Boat Sink the Water? The Life of China’s Peasants, by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao (2006)
This brief syllabus would feel incomplete without mentioning Guidi and Chuntao’s work — a blistering, politically explosive look at the bullying and corruption of the small time officials and bureaucrats who rule over the 900 million Chinese who don’t live in major urban centers. Local tyrants impose arbitrary taxes, embezzle the funds, and in many cases beat and imprison anyone who raises a voice to oppose them. “The rural cadres,” Guidi and Chuntao note, “are highly organized…legal representatives of state power in the countryside,” and as such they often act with impunity, shielded from official scrutiny by their sheer distance from the centers of power. Every year, aggrieved villagers descend on Beijing in droves, bearing petitions for the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, seeking redress for beatings, confiscatory taxes, wrongful convictions, and a thousand other outrages. Guidi and Chuntao’s account of these crimes was officially banned by the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee — which, one hopes, guarantees it a long black market life.