FROM THE CENTER OF THE EARTH: The Search for the Truth about China by Richard Bernstein

FROM THE CENTER OF THE EARTH: The Search for the Truth about China

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Together, the reports of Time magazine correspondent Bernstein and the New York Times' Butterfield (below) should go far to damp American infatuation with the New China--a process touched off by Simon Leys' 1977 Chinese Shadows and advanced erratically thereafter. But though Bernstein and Butterfield sound most of the same notes (including Chinese disillusionment), the way they sound them differs considerably, and so does the scope of their books. Bernstein, appalled, offers brief impressions of squalor, inequality, regimentation, and repression; Butterfield fills out the picture and pins down the facts--while also seeing things more from the Chinese point of view. (Thus, both write of the pervading ""backdoorism""--Bernstein as a form of corruption, Butterfield as a way of coping.) Bernstein's book, indeed, could almost be called the flip side of Shirley MacLaine et al.--to the point of his pronouncing acupuncture an outright fraud. (He does make sense, though, of the ""wishful thinking"" involved.) ""Too many people, cramped, stuffy living quarters, an enforced idleness--these are the conditions of daily life in most Chinese cities."" We also hear frequently of ""dilapidation""; of ""dim, grimy common bathrooms,"" ""dim, seedy"" department-store aisles, ""seedy, grimy"" restaurants (these, in six pages). And there is a certain monotony, also, to Bernstein's difficulties getting news or eliciting confidences--even a certain predictability to the stories of genuine suffering during the Cultural Revolution. On the other hand, Bernstein does convey how little a visitor sees; his account of a day in the life of one Peking family (with the near-mandatory single, fussed-over child) is telling in its glum particulars; his tracking of petitioners from the countryside does point up the crushing cost of a single misstep. And he does proffer some worthwhile explanations--re Mao's ""revolutionary monumentalism"" or ""the wounded intellectual."" All of this is somewhat compromised, however, by his tendency to write of China as yet another failed socialist experiment (as well as his disregard of even the bona fide ""material benefits""). It is presently overcast, too, by the greater breadth and depth of Butterfield's book.

Pub Date: April 26th, 1982
Publisher: Little, Brown