Though China is currently in the global spotlight, few outside its borders have a feel for the tremendous diversity of the lives being led inside the country. This collection of compelling stories challenges oversimplified views of China by shifting the focus away from the question of China's place in the global order and zeroing in on what is happening on the ground. Some of the most talented and respected journalists and scholars writing about China today profile people who defy the stereotypes that are broadcast in print, over the airwaves, and online. These include an artist who copies classical paintings for export to tourist markets, Xi'an migrant workers who make a living recycling trash in the city dumps, a Taoist mystic, an entrepreneur hoping to strike it rich in the rental car business, an old woman about to lose her home in Beijing, and a crusading legal scholar.
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. By bringing to life the exciting, saddening, humorous, confusing, and utterly ordinary stories of these people, the gifted contributors create a multi-faceted portrait of a remarkable country undergoing extraordinary transformations.
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
Introduction: “Who Are You This Time?”
PART ONE. DOUBTERS AND BELIEVERS
1. The North Peak
2. The New Generation’s Neocon Nationalists
3. Out of Tibet
PART TWO. PAST AND PRESENT
4. Belonging to Old Beijing
5. Another Swimmer
6. Looking for Lok To
PART THREE. HUSTLERS AND ENTREPRENEURS
7. The Ever-Floating Floater
Michelle Dammon Loyalka
8. King of the Road
9: Painting the Outside World
PART FOUR. REBELS AND REFORMERS
10. The Road to a Better Life
11. Yong Yang’s Odyssey
12. The Court Jester
PART FIVE. TEACHERS AND PUPILS
13. The Great Wall of Education
14. Gilded Age, Gilded Cage
Leslie T. Chang
15. Shredding for the Motherland
Notes and Reading
List of Contributors
Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of books such as China in the 21st Century, Global Shanghai, and China’s Brave New World, and the editor of the Journal of Asian Studies.
Angilee Shah is a freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Mother Jones, TimeOut Singapore, Global Voices, and AsiaMedia, among other publications.
“For an outside audience that still sometimes sees the Chinese as the faceless masses, Wasserstrom and Shah have assembled a collection of faces and names and fascinating life stories of a range of Chinese people. The contributors are some of the best-known writers on China today, and from every layer of society and every walk of life, the Chinese characters they have portrayed give readers a privileged glimpse inside a country that is bubbling with diversity and change.” -Rob Gifford, China Editor, The Economist and author of China Road
"What makes Chinese Characters such an enjoyable read is that it is a mosaic of engrossing portraits that allows the endless paradoxes of China to come alive in myriad enthralling ways. While the contributors obviously possess a depth of professional and scholarly knowledge about China, what distinguishes their offerings here is vivid and evocative writing that shows rather than tells. You will not only learn from this book, but enjoy it."—Orville Schell, The Arthur Ross Director, The Center on US-China Relations, Asia Society, New York City
"Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Angilee Shah have assembled one of the most engaging, compelling narratives about China - past and present - that I've ever read. The contributors take us on journeys across contemporary Chinese landscapes in a wonderful range of tones and voices, mountains and cities. I can't wait to pass this on."—Susan Straight, Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing, UC Riverside
"One of the frustrating challenges of teaching Chinese culture classes to American college students is dispelling the myth of a homogeneous 'Chinese people', supposedly acting and reacting in unison to the events and problems in their country. It often takes students an entire semester living in China to erase this misconception. A short-cut solution to this problem is the new addition to the China 'required reading' booklist, Angilee Shah and Jeff Wasserstrom’s co-edited volume Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land, an eye-opening collection of vignettes and case studies that conveys the great diversity of lifestyles and worldviews in this country of 1.3 billion. Following on the heels of Wasserstrom’s valuable macroscopic cultural handbook, China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, this collection Chinese Characters zooms in for fascinating – and often uncomfortable – close-ups of Chinese individuals and the variegated fabric of their lives. My new list of essentials for students traveling to China for the first time: your passport, your plane ticket, and a copy of Chinese Characters."—David Moser, Academic Director, CET Beijing Chinese Studies
Telling China's Story, One Life at a Time: Panel discussion with Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Xujun Eberlein, Howard French, and Megan Shank at the Asia Society
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