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Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land [Paperback]

Angilee Shah , Jeffrey Wasserstrom , Howard French , Pankaj Mishra , James Hugh Carter , Alec Ash , Leslie T. Chang , Ananth Krishnan
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)

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Book Description

September 28, 2012 0520270274 978-0520270275 0
An artist paints landscapes of faraway places that she cannot identify in order to find her place in the global economy. A migrant worker sorts recyclables and thinks deeply about the soul of his country, while a Taoist mystic struggles to keep his traditions alive. An entrepreneur capitalizes on a growing car culture by trying to convince people not to buy cars. And a 90-year-old woman remembers how the oldest neighborhoods of her city used to be. These are the exciting and saddening, humorous and confusing stories of utterly ordinary people who are living through China's extraordinary transformations. The immense variety in the lives of these Chinese characters dispels any lingering sense that China has a monolithic population or is just a place where dissidents fight Communist Party loyalists and laborers create goods for millionaires.

Chinese Characters is a collection, as Pankaj Mishra writes in his foreword, "to herald a new golden age of journalism about a ceaselessly fascinating country." Contributors include a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, a Macarthur Fellow, the China correspondent to a major Indian newspaper, and scholars whose depth of understanding is matched only by the humanity with which they treat their subjects. Their stories together create a multi-faceted portrait of a country in motion and an introduction to some of the best writing on China today.

Contributors include: Alec Ash, James Carter, Leslie T. Chang, Xujun Eberlein, Harriet Evans, Anna Greenspan, Peter Hessler, Ian Johnson, Ananth Krishnan, Christina Larson, Michelle Dammon Loyalka, James Millward, Evan Osnos, Jeffrey Prescott, Megan Shank, with cover photos by Howard French

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Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land + Modern East Asia: An Integrated History
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Editorial Reviews


"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

From the Inside Flap

"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

"Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Angilee Shah have assembled one of the most engaging, compelling narratives about China - past and present - that I've ever read. The contributors take us on journeys across contemporary Chinese landscapes in a wonderful range of tones and voices, mountains and cities. I can't wait to pass this on."
-Susan Straight, Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing, UC Riverside and novelist of works such as Take One Candle Light a Room (2010) and A Million Nightingales (2006)

Product Details

  • Paperback: 244 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press (September 28, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520270274
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520270275
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 5.8 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #345,451 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Poignant, inspiring, powerful October 23, 2012
Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Angilee Shah have done a masterful job compiling and editing this book of 15 essays, each written by the most knowledgeable and articulate China experts on the planet such as Ian Johnson, Evan Osnos, Peter Hessler, Xujun Eberlein and Christina Larson. Each essayist tells the story of one (sometimes more) "Chinese character" -- ordinary people whose stories offer keen insights into life in contemporary China.

While each story revolves around an individual, the essayists put their lives in context, exploring the developments in China's history that help explain how they arrived at their present situation. For example, a beautiful story by Ian Johnson about a Taoist monk trying to hold onto his religion in a changing world offers a snapshot of the history of religion in China that is concise, informative and poetic. It also tells of how the Cultural Revolution nearly wiped out all religion n China. He at first sees the monk as a shyster but soon comes to respect him and to see the beauty in his life. It is the most poignant chapter in the book.

In one of my very favorite essays, Evan Osnos tracks down a student who created a video during the 2008 crackdown on Tibetan rioters that rails against the West and blames most of China's woes on imperialist forces. This was when nationalism surged in China and when Anti-CNN "exposed" the bias of Western media coverage of China. What a surprise it is when the reporter tracks down the video maker to discover he is a graduate students working on his dissertation on Western philosophy. He reads English and German fluently and is working on Latin and Greek. His room is stacked with philosophy books, and he is "under contract for a Chinese translation of Leibniz's Discourse on Metaphysics.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Valuable window onto diverse modern China October 1, 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I administer an overseas study program in Beijing, and one of the frustrating challenges of teaching Chinese culture classes to American college students is dispelling the myth of a homogeneous "Chinese people", supposedly acting and reacting in unison to the events and problems in their country. It often takes students an entire semester living in China to erase this misconception. A short-cut solution to this problem is the new addition to the China "required reading" booklist, Angilee Shah and Jeff Wasserstrom's co-edited volume Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land, an eye-opening collection of vignettes and case studies that conveys the great diversity of lifestyles and worldviews in this country of 1.3 billion. Following on the heels of Wasserstrom's valuable macroscopic cultural handbook, China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, this collection Chinese Characters zooms in for fascinating - and often uncomfortable - close-ups of Chinese individuals and the variegated fabric of their lives. My new list of essentials for students traveling to China for the first time: your passport, your plane ticket, and a copy of Chinese Characters.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Warmingly personal, geopolitically necessary January 22, 2014
It seems to me that U.S. culture tolerates a kind of willful ignorance about China, the country quickly becoming its major competitor for global influence. That ignorance could be dangerous, and this book is a much-needed antidote. It's not a survey of China's economic and political capacities, or even a field guide to its culture; I doubt a young State Department recruit or investor would find much of value in it for twisting the Chinese situation on behalf of U.S. interests. The stories it contains, rather, are about ordinary people and for ordinary people. These characters' backgrounds vary, but their lives come across as tellingly ambivalent, and as familiar as they are foreign. Each story is the work of an expert writer, and while the chapters present themselves as profiles, they are really conversations—speaking across cultures, languages, and prejudices. These are the kind of conversation that we all would benefit from having more of—and, if this book is any indication, we will enjoy having them, too.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best book I've read on China in a long time December 15, 2012
By Rasmus
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Short review: this book is great! Of course it's a collection of essays, not a full length book, but it is much more worth reading than most "let me explain China's situation from a Helicopter perspective and tell you what will happen in 2050" type of books.

The single person perspective, the deliberate lack of any predictions or passing of judgement, and the deepth of the profiles make this a good read, even if you have lived a decade in China yourselves.

Favorite essays: "Painting the outside world", Peter Hessler; Looking for Lok To", James Carter; and "The Court Jester", Jeffrey Prescott ... but I really read the whole thing in one go!

/ Rasmus
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5.0 out of 5 stars Truly Insightful and exceptionally well-written March 1, 2013
I have been fortunate enough to visit China three times. I saw many changes from 2000 to 2006 to 2012. The book really captures the changing world within China. As an English teacher, I also fully appreciate the high quality writing. The writers/journalists who contributed to this book have written compelling beautifully written stories of their experiences in China. I loved Ian Johnson's piece about the Taoist monks and longed to read the rest of the story. I was greatly intrigued by the chapters on Chinese education as I compared it to the American and Western educational systems. I really felt for Old Lady GAO in Harriet Evans piece about Old Beijing. If you have any interest in China you should read this book; it is a great read.
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