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.
During the months since my previous visit, a professor who had no interest in business will have become an entrepreneur. A loyal bureaucrat within the Communist Party Youth League will have turned consultant to an international corporation. Someone who considered all forms of religion mere superstition will have become a fervent Buddhist and then a devout Christian. An earnest graduate student who once said that a visit to Hong Kong was probably the closest that she would ever get to going “abroad” will now regularly be traveling to Europe.
China has become what the US famously was a century ago, a land of reinvention. Rags-to-riches stories are as popular there now as they were in America in the days of Horatio Alger – and for similar reasons. I often feel that many of the people I know in China have lived out several lives while I have been making my way through just this one.
Consider the case of a longtime friend whom I shall call Ms Liu. Before I met her in 1986, her life had already gone through dramatic twists and turns. She grew up in Shanghai, the child of intellectuals, but was sent to the countryside to learn from peasants late in the Cultural Revolution. She was then trained as a Russian-language teacher, only to have that career derailed by the dominance of English-language study. Ms Liu was reassigned to the waiban (foreign affairs unit) of her university, where she took care of foreign teachers and students.
That would be enough reversals of fortune to constitute a life of ups and downs, but in the years since, she has continued on a protean course. By turns, Ms Liu spent a year in central Europe as a visiting scholar, worked as a nanny in California, and lived for a time primarily on what she made as a day-trader on Shanghai’s new stock exchange.
The shifts in her beliefs, ideological and spiritual, also mark changes of the sort that we in the West might expect to see over generations rather than of one life. China is now a place where identities can be taken on and shed with surprising ease, in ways that can be exciting or exhausting, traumatic or confusing, or, in many cases, all of those things at once.
Beyond the script
Thinking of the people I’ve met like Ms. Liu, there are two kinds of questions I’d be happy to never hear again. The first involves Chinese people, upon learning I’m from the US, wanting me to tell them what “Americans” think about a subject. The subject could be President Obama, the economy, Arab Spring, but most often they are curious what people in my country think about China. The other variety involves Americans wanting me to fill them in on what “the Chinese” think about, again, you name it: Mao, today’s Communist Party leaders, the Arab Spring, or, most often, the US.
I realize why people ask me both sorts, since they think that I might know some useful things about the big, important and mysterious country across the Pacific from them. It’s just that I’ve gotten tired of the pair of scripts I have down pat by now. The version of the script I follow in China focuses on explaining how diverse Americans are – so diverse that I can’t generalize about their opinions. The version of the script I follow when in my own country is similar, with some slightly different inflections. For example, I tend to emphasize the importance of regional loyalties and the divide between rural and urban settings when talking about China.
It is normal for people to generalize about foreign populations, of course. Still, there is something unusual and yet completely understandable about the tendency of many Americans to underestimate China’s diversity and many Chinese to underestimate that of the US. For older people, who were either schooled at a time when “Red Menace” fears were at their peak in the US or when tirades against American imperialism were central to textbooks in China, there is bound to be some carryover from propaganda portraying the other nation as an undifferentiated set of faceless enemies. In more recent decades, there has been more space for Chinese to admire some things about America (whether our consumer lifestyle or our political liberties) and for Americans to admire some things about China (its ability to build things quickly or the value its people place on education). This has not always led to increased appreciation of heterogeneity.
What is to be done? As a person merely answering questions in China, I can’t do much beyond following my script, embellishing it with some specifics, trying if possible to confound stereotypes. With Americans, though, I can do a bit more. I am always looking for ways to convey to students and other audiences how much more diverse China’s population is than Americans often imagine it to be – and than official Chinese state media often portrays it to be, e.g., through statements that present veneration for Confucius is something that links the people to one another and to a government committed to “harmony.” I stress some obvious things, such as that, while more than 90% of the population may be classified as “Han,” that still leaves an enormous number of people affiliated with other ethnicities. I stress that “Confucian values” are not the only ones with deep roots in China; yes, there is a strand of Chinese tradition that values order and stability, but one of the best-loved popular novels, “The Journey to the West,” which revels in upheaval and the overturning of hierarchies, taps into another deep and equally “Chinese” cultural vein.
I also never miss a chance to draw attention to how generational variations matter, even where supposedly enduring traditions are concerned. Those born in the 1990s may find Communist Party praise for Confucius unexceptional, as they have heard it all their lives, but those born in 1950s grew up with this same Party denigrating the Sage’s ideas; and those born in the 1920s may remember a time when China was governed by a Nationalist Party that was pro-Confucius and anti-Communist.
Another thing I do is steer readers toward books that treat members of specific subsets of the country’s population as individuals. Even if some useful points are made in Henry Kissinger’s “On China” or Martin Jacques’ “When China Rules the World,” I don’t point Americans toward these works, since they rely so heavily on broad generalizations. Instead, I recommend books like Leslie T. Chang’s “Factory Girls,” Peter Hessler’s “Country Driving,” and accessible works by academics, such as the collections “Popular China” and “China Beyond the Headlines,” that share a determination to foreground variations in a way that leaves the reader with a sense of the impossibility of generalizing about what “Chinese people think/feel about x” or dividing citizens of the PRC neatly along any single axis.
This concern with working to explode visions of Chinese uniformity is at the heart of my most recent venture, “Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land,” an anthology I co-edited with journalist Angilee Shah. The book is made up of life story-focused chapters by a varied set of authors, including established journalists such as Chang and Hessler, up-and-coming members of their profession, and some academics writing in a footnote-free fashion. Their chapters, when read together, convey a sense of China as made up of many different sorts of people.
Not all of the life stories that make up this book have much in common with Ms Liu’s when it comes to the details, but they all involve surprising transformations. The China revealed in this volume is a place where lives can suddenly be turned inside out as opportunities are seized or squandered, and change is by turns liberating and unsettling. The essays all beg a common question of their characters: “Who will they be next?”
These individuals are nothing if not varied. After spending time in their company, even readers who have never experienced China’s human diversity firsthand should find themselves pausing whenever they come across statements that generalize about how “the Chinese” feel about a given issue.
Abridged and excerpted with permission from Angilee Shah and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, eds., Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land, University of California Press, 2012.
Jeffrey Wasserstrom is history department chair at the University of California, irvine, and author of “China in the 21st Century: What Everyone needs to know.”