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Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China First Edition Edition

4.8 out of 5 stars 19 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0375421860
ISBN-10: 0375421866
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

These three intimate case studies explore how China's recent reforms have opened avenues for dissent. Johnson portrays the upsurge of popular protests as the leading edge of an inchoate grassroots movement that will ultimately threaten Communist Party rule. He is skeptical about whether the Party can accommodate or co-opt expectations arising from a nascent legal system through which grievances are supposed to be channeled. The problem he illustrates is that petitioners too often lose, no matter the justice of their cause-the legal system is hopelessly skewed in favor of the rich and connected. The three cases studies are chosen to represent the variety of experiences of ordinary Chinese. The first involves a self-educated peasant lawyer who takes on the local political elite over the excessive and illegal taxation of impoverished farmers, and mobilizes thousands in the process. The petitioner is encouraged by a court victory in one village, but the demands are defeated and the protagonist jailed when higher authorities realize the danger of his appeals. The second case pits owners of homes in the historic heart of old Beijing against city planners who want to bulldoze nearly everything old to make way for high-rise developments. The third case exposes the persecution and determined persistence in her faith of one woman who joined Falun Gong protests. Johnson won a Pulitzer in 2001, as Beijing bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, for his coverage of Falun Gong. While it offers insight into grassroots activity in China, this local focus makes the book less useful for understanding how factional fighting within the governing elite sometimes opens opportunities for successful dissent.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

From the reporter-returns-from-abroad genre comes Johnson's portrait of contemporary China. Writing for the Wall Street Journal in the late 1990s, he covered such news as the repression of Falun Gong, the spiritual and exercise movement. In this work, Johnson profiles three ordinary citizens whom the government treats as obstreperous nuisances, and whose fortunes from protesting injustice illustrate the government's nervousness at the least manifestation of opposition. Ma Wenlin, currently in prison, is a self-taught lawyer who represented farmers aggrieved by tax rake-offs; Zhang Xueling wants answers about the death of her mother, a Falun Gong adherent, while in police custody; and Fang Ke is an architectural student opposing the razing of historical Beijing. Johnson focuses each personal story on the courageous decision to oppose rather than acquiesce to the caprices of officialdom. A perceptive observer, Johnson ably depicts the personal cost borne by individuals subjected to the authoritarian policies of the communist regime. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; First Edition edition (March 23, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375421866
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375421860
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.2 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #927,889 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Haili Cao on June 5, 2004
Format: Hardcover
As a Chinese journalist, I've read several books on China by foreign correspondents. But this one, Ian Johnson's "Wild Grass" stands out exceptionally and inspirationally. It's based on solid reporting, which had to entail lots of courage, wisdom, patience and critical understanding of China's political system. Even I couln't have imagined to be able to do the same reporting--travel extensively in china's remote hinterland, most of which is unaccessable to foreigners, evade police tracing, more amazingly, track down those falungong practioners. But this book is not just a piece of serious journalistic work, it's also literary. I think the writing is beautiful and delicate. It's also well-researched. The narrative of current affairs is smoothly interwoven with the background of history and culture. I am very impressed by the author's wide and deep knowledge and his profound understanding of China. I also learned a lot from the book.

I remember a former London Times China correspondent once wrote that a lot of western journalists in the past came to China for a sense of mission. I think it's also true with Ian Johnson. However, I think he came to China not only with a sense of mission, but also to understand the country and the people, to experience the history and culture that had already fascinated him. I think he is one of the few western journalists who don't have a prejudiced mind and have set their minds and hearts into the country's painful and unsetteling reality. And by focusing on three ordinary Chinese people and their seemingly futile struggle against the govertment, Johnson has gotten to the core of most paradoxes in china. Indeed, it's a very insightful book with beautiful language. It's worth reading.
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By A Customer on September 10, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I've lived in China since 1999, and I often read stories about

China in the Western media that I simply don't believe. Others

report on abuses that do occur here without giving a reader any

understanding of why. So, China remains "inscrutable." (I'm

rolling my eyes...)

China is a complex subject. How can a Westerner who has never

been here know what's happening? China is so far away and

shrouded in a bit of mystery, some due to the sheer length of

its history and some due to the power of the Party. In my

case, I don't speak Chinese, so getting past the public face is


Ian Johnson of the Wall Street Journal won a Pulitzer Prize for

his reporting on China. He speaks the language. And, he's one

heck of a fine journalist. In WILD GRASS, he recounts the

stories of three ordinary Chinese citizens who find themselves

fighting the repression of the system, risking imprisonment

and even death.

Johnson understands "the big picture," and after reading this

book, so will you. A nation is not just a single entity. It's

made of people. All nations, not just the one you live in. So

what are the people in China like? Read this book, and you'll

feel like you've met some of them. A peasant lawyer, a young

architectural student, a bereaved daughter. Poor farmers in

Yulin and Party officials in Beijing.

Johnson also brings the scenery to life, makes the unfamiliar

familiar, and captures many little details and episodes and

ironies. A compelling subject in the hands of a masterful

Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
This is an unusual book because it gives a picture of China that we rarely see--China off the beaten track.
The author, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of China, tells the story of three people whose unusual stories show how change is coming to China at the grassroots level. I found this more useful than the run-of-the-mill generalizations that one reads about on China, about how it's the next superpower or the next enemy. Instead, we have an up-close look at China by looking at these three people. An added bonus is that the stories are cleverly told so you're wondering what's going to happen next. In a way, they're kind of like three suspenseful short stories, although they are true stories and the author gives references and endnotes explaining how he obtained the information.
As someone who has been involved with China for several years, I also thought that the author shows a deep knowledge of China--his understanding of Chinese religions, traditions and literature shines through repeatedly.
If there's one thing I'd quibble about it is that the author saved the best story for last. The story on the Falun Gong spiritual movement is clearly better than the other two stories: it's not only longer but also seems to have for my money more suspense. Personally, I believe in leading off with your strongest hitter so I think it would have been better to start with this story rather than holding it back. But the other two stories are good, too, and this way the reader finishes this quick-paced book with the feeling of having read something very special.
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