Customer Reviews: China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power
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on April 26, 2002
While there is much to criticize about China Wakes, there is also much to recommend it. There is ample reason that it has become one of the classic "must reads" China books: it is an easy, accessible read that assumes the audience knows little, if anything, about China, and it covers very attention getting "human interest" type stories.
The latter fact has drawn much fire in other reviews, that murders and scandals are hardly representative of any country. While I concur, it also reveals the major problem of Western journalism on China: ignoring the big picture in favor of the exciting story. I have enormous respect for Kristoff and Wudunn as professional journalists, and for their colleagues now working for the NY Times in China. The current Beijing correspondent has done amazing work on the cover-up of the AIDS epidemic in China, the Shanghai correspondent has broken ground with his coverage of organ harvesting in prisons, and another of their staff has done notable work on labor unrest. Those stories are important and provide insight into the larger workings of the machine that is China, but compiled together would create a rather skewered version of the very complicated entity that is China. Unfortunately, what the average American wants to read on China is such sound bytes.
I read this book five years ago for a college class, just after returning from my first trip to China. Even then, it was outdated. A deeper criticism, though, is the book's Beijing bias. I, granted, have my own bias as a Shanghai-lander, but it's frustrating reading books by Beijing-based expats. In Beijing, politics is everything and everything is politics, and foreigners, especially journalists, are sequestered into isolated compounds. After exposure to too much coal dust and so uptight an environment in Beijing, one starts to see conspiracy theories and political boogeymen under every bush. The rest of China is not like that.
Nonetheless, it is a good overview of China in the early 1990s, and if you're a bit of a "China virgin", China Wakes coupled with a few Jonathan Spence books should break you in.
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on March 30, 2000
Although I was skeptical at times of both of the authors' views and sometimes found their views simplistic, I thought they offered an informative and insightful view of the different stories and themes we often hear about China from the news. The authors are obviously not scholars or academics, but journalists; there were times when I wished that the authors would have provided a little more "evidence" to support their contentions (which I thought were necessary for a book and that maybe weren't as necessary for their NYT articles....) I also thought their use of numbers and statistics was a little too loose to be entirely relied upon. However, Kristoff and Wudunn acknowledge their own biases and their own limitations in understanding and reporting on China and they do an excellent job of giving context to the personal stories of various Chinese. They paint a vivid portrait of China as a nation - bringing color to the various provinces and the people dispersed across them - and as a member of the international community. An excellent job of transforming China from a gigantic unknown country populated by Mao suits to one teeming with ordinary and extraordinary people confronting life in modern China during the Deng years.
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on March 7, 1999
The book was unique with the couple writing alternate chapters that give 2 views each, from a Caucasian and a third generation Chinese. This made a startling difference from other books. That perhaps was what made it such a riveting read, making it difficult to accuse the author of being biased. The contents painful for me to see the many wrong doings of people of my race, as well as the many innocent people who suffered for the wrong causes. Shattered idealism is perhaps the paramount reason for such a crumbling dynasty. The authors were a bit harsh with references to the system in certain parts but the depth of discussion balances in views made the book focused and objective. China's history is fascinating and endless. Reading the book without prior knowledge about China's history long before this modern era may do injustice to the Chinese people and their leaders. I loved the analysis and discussion, along with some strong insightful comments made by the very knowlegable authors. Nonetheless, people should not use this reportage to quickly make assumptions about China because every country, no matter how big, powerful and advanced, has skeletons in their closets.
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on June 4, 2006
Written by two New York Times reporters, "China Wakes" provides a very penetrating view into Chinese culture, but at the same time, adopts a very selective and sensationalistic tone that in the end tends to exaggerate both the problems and the pluses of today's China.

By the time I read this, in 2006, the book was already over a decade old, and given how fast and drastically China has been changing over the past several decades, it's easy to dismiss this book as already irrelevant, and indeed, many of the topics it discusses are already dated. However, I still enjoyed reading China Wakes because it was an interesting exercise in comparing the authors' predictions with the results, more than 10 years later.

My personal verdict? I think as reporters for a world renowned newspaper, Kristoff and WuDunn had both the vigor to find fascinating stories and the writing skill to really capture the emotions and issues evolved, but at the same time, I think the unique position as reporters detracted from their credibility in making predictions for China's future. Exactly because they were reporters, they met the richest of the rich, the most corrupt of the corrupt, the poorest of the poor, and the most persecuted of the persucted. This self selecting, though admitted (albeit in the final chapter) by the authors, indeed does present a rather skewered, extremely bipolar image of China: in fact, the running theme of the book is reconciling the dual images of China as a vibrant economic miracle and China as a brutal and repressive "thugocracy." Unfortunately, because of this, it seems as most of their sensationalistic predictions, and the confidence in which they foresee the coming "collapse of the Communist dynasty," are misguided. Despite Deng Xiaoping's passing, despite Jiang Zemin's transfer of power to Hu Jintao, despite everything, nothing has changed; not the repressive government, not the economic boom. The reporter duo seemed to have missed their mark.

However, I enthusiastically give China Wakes a 4 out of 5 because the predictive element of this book is the only thing about it I elect to criticize. As I have mentioned, their skill as writers and journalist have lead them to capture and describe some of the most poignant, emotional, suggestive, and entertaining aspects of modern Chinese culture, and their book is organized in a succint factor that will help any newcomer to China break down Chinese affairs into digestable topics. All in all, this book provides an excellent window into seeing what China is and has to offer.
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on January 11, 2006
This book was published in 1994, when both writers--a married couple--were working for the New York Times out of their Beijing offices. The book does a great job of highlighting the awful record of human rights in China and is an overall outstanding work of reportage.

Among the topics discussed are China's human rights record, corruption, Tianamen, the booming economy, andthe fate of the communist party among others. This book is incredibly eye-opening and i recomend it not only for the China enthusiast, but for anyone who is a fan of good writing in general.

This book provides two outstanding perspectives. One, of Nicholas Kristof, an American, the view of a foreign journalist trying to explore and describe a country. And of Sheryl Wudunn, a Chinese-American, who is not only an outstanding reporter in everyway that Kristof is, but also has the unique insight of being of Chinese descent. This often allows her to gather information that Kristof (although they are married and share information) would not have been able to gather simply because of being recognized as a foreigner.

This book also does a wonderful job of showing 2 Chinas. the first, the China portreyed to the world by the Communist Party; and the other the China found in the poorest villages in china, telling the story that is often hidden from ordinary view.

A Great Read!
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on May 29, 2001
A startling and intimate look into China and its ever-changing culture. The book alternates between the writings of Sheryl Wudunn and Nicholas D. Kristoff, and provides a good cross-section of what China is really about: From its politics and traditions to popular culture. The authors' first-person narrative of the night of the Tiananmen Square massacre is equal parts riveting and calamitous - an affair that abruptly and definitively altered history's course in modern Asia. The narrative moves swiftly and is not shackled down by reams of history. I highly recommend it.
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on May 24, 2007
As a chinese who grown up in the late mao era, experienced the 89 movement in person, I have never seen a book (or article) on china that is so true to the reality and have done so well in presenting and dissecting the complexity of the transforming China.

Great book, except now is the time for a second one as the country has morphed so fast some chapters can be collected into history writings.
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on May 5, 2008
At the recommendations of friends, my wife and both read China Wakes before taking a 3 week tour of China in March 2008. We were sensitive to issues we might not have been. Their insights appeared to us to be "right on." This is a great book whether or not one plans to head to China because China is continually in the news and China affects us all.
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on April 1, 2002
This book is defenitly worth the time for those who would like to get a better understanding of China and cut through all the silly propoganda one is forcefed by Chinese tourist agencies and so-called scholars who never leave the comfort of their five-star hotels. Having lived in China for some time I found that many of the stories here were quite similar to those I have myself encountered (some personally, and some through Chinese and foreign friends). Some of the situations described here seem a bit extreme. However, most are reallistic accurate discussions of the kind of things that happen everyday in China. Of course, the average citizen may not suffer as badly as some of the individuals mentioned in this book but the governmental and social systems of corruption are very real and pervade most of Chinese soceity.
Chinese commoners ignore them or try to work around them becuase they are impotent in terms of chaning the system.
I hope this review doesn't sound like a review of a review but having lived in China and seen the things this book talks about first hand I would just like to ward off those who would criticize it as unrealistic.
My one main criticism of this book is that if fails to mention many positive aspects of contemporary Chinese society. Especially for expats and students interested in China, there are many fascinating and exciting things to see, learn about and experience in China today. Also it is already a bit out of date as there have been some significant changes in China since it was written.
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on May 11, 2005
With a good general history and a range of historical, cultural and personal insights, this book is a gripping and informative read. Only problem: It's now a decade old! Those who have lived in China, as have I, typically agree on one thing: it's a constantly changing place. Yesterday's observations frequently have little to do with today. Being so old almost makes this book a history rather than a contemporary cultural observation, but still it is a fantastic read all the same. Contrasting it with other books can be a magnificent way of gaining a much larger perspective (as measuring change is one way to observe stability). Those who know a bit about China (through reading or travels) should read this book for its insights on yester-year. Those who wish to know more about China should read it for similar reasons, but they should realise that much may have changed since this book was published. All this being said, the book is still full of many observations that will probably never lose their validity. Part of the fun of China-watching is discovering these truths for oneself, and 'China Wakes' is a more-than-acceptable means to doing so.
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