PROFILES OF FAST-CHANGING LIVES IN A FAST-CHANGING LAND
Though China is currently in the global spotlight, few outside its borders have a feel for the tremendous diversity of the lives being led inside the country. This collection of compelling stories challenges oversimplified views of China by shifting the focus away from the question of China’s place in the global order and zeroing in on what is happening on the ground. Some of the most talented and respected journalists and scholars writing about China today profile people who defy the stereotypes that are broadcast in print, over the airwaves, and online. These include an artist who copies classical paintings for export to tourist markets, Xi’an migrant workers who make a living recycling trash in the city dumps, a Taoist mystic, an entrepreneur hoping to strike it rich in the rental car business, an old woman about to lose her home in Beijing, and a crusading legal scholar.
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The essays cover a panoply of issues facing modern China, and the book’s combination of scope and intimacy is central to its achievement.” Publishers Weekly
“For an outside audience that still sometimes sees the Chinese as the faceless masses, Wasserstrom and Shah have assembled a collection of faces and names and fascinating life stories of a range of Chinese people. The contributors are some of the best-known writers on China today, and from every layer of society and every walk of life, the Chinese characters they have portrayed give readers a privileged glimpse inside a country that is bubbling with diversity and change.” – Rob Gifford, China Editor, The Economist and author of China Road
“What makes Chinese Characters such an enjoyable read is that it is a mosaic of engrossing portraits that allows the endless paradoxes of China to come alive in myriad enthralling ways. While the contributors obviously possess a depth professional and scholarly knowledge about China, what distinguishes their offerings here is vivid and evocative writing that shows rather than tells. You will not only learn from this book, but enjoy it.” – Orville Schell, The Arthur Ross Director, The Center on US-China Relations, Asia Society, New York City
EXCERPT: THE NORTH PEAK
By Ian Johnson
The “voluntary” insurance at the entrance had cost just two yuan, about thirty-five cents, but I had been fleeced all the way from Beijing and somehow this was the final straw. Why did everything have to be so crass and commercialized? I whined to myself. I knew the answers—all the nuanced reasons why so many religious sites in China had been reduced to a carnival—but was in too foul a mood to be rational. The view didn’t help either. Once one of Taoism’s holiest mountains, Mount Heng in Shanxi Province was a denuded wreck, seeming to consist of nothing but broken slate. I grumbled epithets as I climbed the steep trail wondering why I had bothered to come.
Then he appeared on the ridge above me, like something out of a Chinese kung fu thriller: a Taoist priest clad in a blue robe, white breeches, his hair up on his head in a bun. I hesitated for a second. He was moving so quickly that he was almost gone before I could blurt out: “Master, have you seen the priest known as Mysterious Forest?” He stopped, looked at me, and said the priest had moved on.
I didn’t really care about Mysterious Forest. I had come to Mount Heng to meet Taoists and here was one. I told him I was researching Taoism and asked if he knew anything about the mountain. He didn’t answer but immediately strode down the slate slope to my path, oblivious of the mini-landslide he was causing. “I can help you,” he said, turning on his heel. “Follow me.”