New Yorker staff writer and former China correspondent Osnos offers nimble, clever observations of a country squeezed between aspiration and authoritarianism.
From 2005 to 2013, the author lived with his wife in China. In his debut book, he meanders among stories he pursued concerning Chinese of all strata striving to make a living in, and make sense of, a country in the throes of staggering transformation. Osnos groups his human-interest profiles under the themes of fortune, truth and faith, and he explores how new economic opportunities have challenged traditional ways and opened up Chinese society to unheard-of liberties and “pathways to self-creation”—emotionally, intellectually and otherwise. Osnos befriended many of the new strivers—e.g., idealist soldier Lin Yifu, who defected the “wrong way,” from Taiwan to China, in 1979, determined to prosper with the new China; and Gong Hainan, a restless villager who traveled to the big city in the mid-1990s to study and ended up starting a hugely influential dating service. The “age of ambition” required new skills, like learning English (Osnos recounts hilarious adventures in Li Yang’s popular “Crazy English” class), getting one’s child into an Ivy League school and learning how to travel in the West—i.e., by bus tour, which took the author and his Chinese group to visit such sites as Karl Marx’s birthplace. In the part entitled “Truth,” Osnos gets at the nitty-gritty underneath China’s authoritative and censorious front, such as the rather miraculous vitality of Hu Shuli’s international finance magazine Caijing, the work of artist and architect Ai Weiwei and the human rights manifesto Charter ’08, written by Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. Osnos finds that the Chinese are just as ingenious at finding ways to circumvent authoritative repression as they are at filling the spiritual vacuum left by the cult of Mao.
Pleasant, peripatetic musings revealing a great deal about the Chinese character.