China is a country both ancient and brand-new—and, to judge by this revealing portrait, likely to be increasingly at odds with the U.S.
Social scientists, writes New Yorker correspondent and longtime China resident Hessler (River Town, 2001), describe the 1990s as China’s true Industrial Revolution, a time when more than 100 million Chinese moved from the countryside to booming industrial cities along the southern coast, “the largest peaceful migration in human history.” The experience has been both dislocating and empowering, as China increasingly emerges as a major power economically and a geopolitical force—often squarely against the U.S. So it is that Hessler opens with the nationwide demonstrations and riots when an American bomber destroyed China’s embassy in Belgrade; not hesitating to identify himself as an American journalist, he is swept along by a huge Beijing crowd that chants, in turn, “Don’t eat Kentucky,” “Don’t eat McDonald’s” and “Down with American imperialism,” just as in the heyday of the Cultural Revolution, though now, one Chinese man remarks, “bin Laden is even more famous than Mao Zedong.” Against this modern swirl, Hessler looks at a distant past whose details are now emerging: the origins of ideographic writing fire-hardened “oracle bones,” long-standing rivalries among various ethnic and economic groups in China’s backwater, such as the Uighurs of Xinjiang and the country folk of Inner Mongolia. Hessler’s fascination with things past does not always add up, but the temporal back-and-forth turns up some interesting phenomena; for instance, many young people, now adrift in a nation with an ideology grounded in money-making and materialism, are turning to the classics to get their bearings—and sometimes never finding them, as when one young man tells his sister “that if she read Mencius, she would become more beautiful, because the truth would shine through in her face.”
A remarkable travelogue documenting aspects of a country still little understood.