Book Review: Chinese Characters

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

Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing LandI was a bit lazier with this month’s book: Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land, edited by Angilee Shah and Jeffrey Wasserstrom.

The book is a collection of short stories of “utterly ordinary people who are living through China’s extraordinary transformations.” So by lazy, I mean that I felt that I should’ve tried fitting in another book, but then again, I was preoccupied with listening to Serial for the first time, which by absolute coincidence ends up being in the news the very next week (this one) with a new update: Adnan gets a retrial.

Anyway, I need to rename this series of “reviewing” books, because the phrase “book review” sounds so lofty and academic, but in reality, these are simply my thoughts with some links to further reading and other content related to the books. Ideas?

So in prepping for writing about my monthly books, I like looking at other reader’s reviews, as if I need their opinions to confirm mine. For me, this reviewer puts it best:

The essay by Pete Hessler alone is worth the price of admission, but there are a few other excellent reports in this collection – including the opener by Ian Johnson, one about an environmental engineer setting out to gather data on the impact of China’s plans to divert water from south to north, and the last trio of essays, which make for a strong finish. Like other reviewers my attention flagged at some points – I suspect this is because a broad selection is presented here – the fifteen essays are classed under five broad topics: Doubters and Believers; Past and Present; Hustlers and Entrepreneurs; Rebels and Reformers; Teachers and Pupils – and the reader is necessarily better acquainted with some aspects and not others; a few stories such as that of the old Beijing Hutongers or the Tibetans were less interesting to me, though I am sure they were well researched and written. The ones I liked tended to use a fascinating, off beat anecdote – Ian Johnson’s search for ‘true’ Taoists, for example, or Hessler’s tracing the manufacture of fake European art masterpieces – as a way of exploring well beaten themes (urbanisation, alienation, ultra competitiveness and the pressures of such, generation gaps, tension between old and new values, etc) from a fresh angle. There was also a piece on some of the old Red Guards, and where they are now in life, that was quite interesting.

The most poignant quote (though again not really expressing a new sentiment) is perhaps from Leslie Chang’s essay about a girl in the school system: quoting one of her compositions “I sit in my middle school classroom, and the teacher wants us to say goodbye to childhood. I feel at a loss. Happiness is like the twinkling stars suffusing the night sky of childhood. I want only more and more stars. I don’t want to see the dawn.”

It’s also interesting to look up books after reading them, because you end up finding how much buzz—or lack thereof—they have.

For this one, the editor Angilee Shah was briefly interviewed about the book and posted it on her blog. And there’s a sample chapter online for anyone interested, but not unsurprisingly, this one for me was among the least memorable stories.

A talk at the USC US-China Institute about the book led me to Howard French’s amazing work and provided nice background on the book’s cover.

The main appeal of this book for me was the fact that the collection of stories came from some of the top China experts out there. Peter Hessler’s contribution actually is in his Country Driving book, which I read last month, but reading this story again still kept my attention and interest.

Side note: Somehow found this interview of Peter Hessler by a Xinhua reporter. I’ve noticed with incredulous annoyance the poor production quality of Chinese English-language shows. The show I work on basically has no consistent standards for quality, which only adds to the frustrating nature of what it means to work “professionally” in China.

So although the book on Amazon has a total of six five-star reviews, I would have to agree with the above-mentioned reviewer and give it a solid four stars. Especially as I get into my book for July, another book of short stories on China, I’m already able to see that this next book will be more interesting in terms of literary creativity…

That review coming next month 😛