Which direction now? A lot of China writers like to think they have the answer

A Texas-based media-tracking organization recently announced that it had concluded, via a sophisticated statistical analysis of news sources, that China’s leapfrog up the global economic hierarchy was the top story of the past decade. This claim is debatable: the Iraq War, climate change, terrorism and the financial crisis all garnered plenty of headlines. Still, there has certainly been a dramatic upsurge in fascination with and concern over the People’s Republic — and a concomitant proliferation of Big China Books, as I like to call works that carry titles that cry out to be put in bold type.

The first 21st century contribution to this genre was Gordon G. Chang’s The Coming Collapse of China (2001), which predicted that the Communist Party was on its last legs (though nine years later it’s still standing). More recent Big China Books include Will Hutton’s The Writing on the Wall (2006), which claimed the P.R.C. would be unable to continue its upward climb unless it converted to Western ways, and Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World (2009), which countered that Beijing is destined to displace Washington as capital of the world’s leading superpower — and will not have to abandon Confucian values or Leninist structures to do so.

The authors of Big China Books have two things in common: a conviction that they know what will happen next (even though the P.R.C. has been defying the best guesses of pundits and academic specialists alike for decades) and an ability to provide easy-to-summarize answers to Big Questions. The most successful and widely reviewed tend to have theses spelled out in provocative titles that fit into ongoing point-counterpoint debates or give rise to new ones. When China Rules the World is a case in point. Its appearance immediately triggered an expected rebuttal from Hutton, and inspired Big China Articles (yes, there are lots of those too) for and against.

Big China Books vary greatly in quality, but even the best leave me cold due to their bird’s-eye view of the P.R.C. Adopting an Olympian perspective, their authors tend to use broad strokes to portray things that actually require a fine-grained touch. For example, most treat China’s population as an undifferentiated mass, or one that can be bisected along just one axis: be it the 90% Han and 10% non-Han ethnic divide, the clear ideological fault line between loyalists and dissidents, and so on. And they often buy into the cozy but distorting official myth of “thousands of years of continuous civilization,” which suggests that China’s borders have remained fairly constant over time and that the “Confucian tradition” has been remarkably enduring. When in the company of even the most astute Big China Book authors, like Jacques, I often find myself wondering if the place they are describing can really be the same one that I regularly visit and teach and write about for a living. For the China I know is one where complex regional divides fragment the population and the views of many people don’t fit into either the dissident or loyalist category. It’s a country with multistranded traditions, not just a single Confucian one. And it’s a country whose long history has been marked by many discontinuities, from the mix of traditions to dramatic shifts over time in just how big China itself is imagined to be.

Fortunately, Big China Books are not the only option for general readers curious about the P.R.C., since many significant works that take a ground-level view of the country, rather than a bird’s-eye one, have also been appearing. I am thinking, for example, of Fast Boat to China (2007). This is a lively account of the human side of Shanghai-based outsourcing by Andrew Ross, who usefully dubs his study a foray into “scholarly reporting” — a term for books that, as he puts it, have “mined the overlap between ethnography and journalism.”

Noteworthy examples have appeared throughout the past decade, but the richest year for them was probably 2008. Two of the most illuminating works published then were Leslie T. Chang’s Factory Girls, which provided a moving account of migrant workers that was wonderfully sensitive to divides rooted in location, gender and generation, and Michael Meyer’s The Last Days of Old Beijing, which offered a poignant look at breakneck development.

A good way to illustrate how works of scholarly reporting differ from Big China Books is to place two 2004 publications side by side: Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China by Ian Johnson and China’s Democratic Future: How It Will Happen and Where It Will Lead by Bruce Gilley. Both are by authors who draw on lengthy experience reporting on China and are interested in democracy and civil society. Gilley claims to know what the future holds for China. Johnson, though, focuses on telling a series of revealing tales about acts of resistance, like efforts by a crusading lawyer to help farmers fight unfair local taxes. He offers some thoughts on where China might be heading, but is generally content just trying to help readers think more clearly about the country’s present.

Will more Big China Books appear this decade? I think it safe to bet that they will. The desire for confident answers to Big China Questions has never been stronger. Will admirable works of scholarly reporting also keep coming out? I’m even more confident answering this question affirmatively. One such work, Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, is being published in February, and it’s the best yet from Peter Hessler, whose two earlier books, River Town (2001) and Oracle Bones (2006), were exemplary forays into the genre. Country Driving begins with the author recounting his quixotic efforts to follow the Great Wall by car, depending on flawed maps that sometimes left large sections blank (for political reasons) and often seemed hopelessly out of date right after being issued (due to how fast new thoroughfares are being built). The next section describes Hessler’s experiences living in a north China village that is transformed by the construction of a new road that links it to Beijing. The book concludes with a look at the economic dynamics of “instant cities” that keep springing up along a highway south of the Yangtze River.

I haven’t been to the places Hessler describes in Country Driving or met the people whose stories he tells with his characteristic blend of empathy, insight and self-deprecating humor. Yet I never doubt for a second that he’s writing about the richly hued and socially variegated country that I know, as opposed to one of the imaginary lands conjured up in Big China Books.

Country Driving won’t satisfy those who like answers to Big Questions that can fit on dust jackets. Still, it captures beautifully the rhythms of life in a nation that is being turned inside out so quickly that it is not just lone American writers, but also Chinese from varied walks of life, who often find themselves struggling to traverse uncharted territory, armed only with their wits and with maps that become obsolete as soon as they are printed.

– Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know will be published in April by Oxford University Press