Understanding China’s trajectory through the lives of its aggressive yet wary top achievers.
Like many of her subjects, Jianying Zha (China Pop: How Soap Operas, Tabloids, and Bestsellers Are Transforming a Culture, 1995) has a fraught relationship with her homeland. Born in Beijing, she received a scholarship to the University of South Carolina, then returned to China. Since then, she’s established herself intellectually in both societies. Her cultural survey The Eighties was a surprise bestseller in China; in America, she endeavors to “keep focused on the Chinese to explain China.” This book is divided into two sections, “The Entrepreneurs” and “The Intellectuals,” built around narratives and interviews with individuals who have prospered during the last two decades of economic reform, yet remain mindful of the Chinese state’s authoritarianism. The entrepreneurs include a “good tycoon” whose mother was executed during the Cultural Revolution for criticizing Mao; after he’d made a fortune in appliance marketing, he devoted his energy to clearing her name. A chapter on married real-estate developers, nicknamed “The Turtles,” provides a good window into Chinese-style gentrification: “Developers are regarded as China’s robber barons, men who have taken advantage of the muddled transition to capitalism by means of guanxi (connections), bribery, and fraud.” In the second section, the author examines how Peking University (China’s premier university) and esteemed writers and critics are weathering the tides of transformation. She reveals a more personal connection to the country’s ongoing turmoil, in that her brother, once an ardent Maoist, served a 9-year prison sentence for “subverting the state.” The author argues that despite searing recollections of Tiananmen, a new consensus has formed against political activism, given that marketplace reforms have raised 400 million Chinese out of poverty. Overall, she presents a crisply narrated panorama of the strange journey taken by her generation of Chinese, who’ve gone “from being Mao’s little red children to bitterly disillusioned adults.”
An engaging, comprehensible cross-section of the personalities and cultural concerns rising with China’s ascent.