on August 10, 2011
Peter Hessler first visited China in 1996 with World Corps as a Volunteer, helping out in some of the poorest parts of the country. Years later, his experience in the area landed him work as a Journalist with the Wall Street Journal (among other publications), which seemed to keep him in China. When it comes to Zhongguotongs (Foreigners adept at all things China), he is one of the best and most famous. Not only does his rich understanding of China come through in this book, but his Mandarin is impeccable.
But first, the set up. A few years ago, Hessler decided to get out of Beijing for a while, so he rented a car (as per the rental company, he wasn't allowed to leave city limits). Hours later he was cruising well beyond the borders of Beijing, looking for parts of the Great Wall. On the way he met locals, Great Wall experts, amateur Historians, picks up hitchhikers, and got shaken down my more than a few Government officials (not because of the car, but because as a journalist, he's considered a troublemaker). All of the adventures are detailed here, and that's just the start. Interwoven in his misadventures are rich historical backgrounds on all things China.
After spending extended periods of time outside of Beijing, he decided to rent a house, something small and neat. As a writer, he was looking for someplace peaceful to get his work done. As his stay in the countryside progressed, he met his neighbours and became more and more involved in their daily lives. Armed with his linguistic mastery and astute Chinese sensitivity, he was permitted, even welcomed, into their lives. This book relates to the reader, some of the most intimate records of Mainland Chinese Country life. And since many of the country's people are moving into the city, it allows anyone living in China for the first time, a better understanding at the elusive `Chinese mind.' That, I believe, is the strongest part about this book.
There are countless books on Chinese history, opinion pieces, books on the Tao, books on how Confucian thought has influenced Chinese society. Mountains of this stuff. This book shows, with incredible detail, the level to which the Chinese family supersedes all, and the oft-cited Guanxi (Chinese for `Relationships') can lead one to greatness, or corruption.
Now previously I had theorized that Guanxi was how the Chinese `made up' for not having a strong legal system. I suppose I was half right. There are contracts all over China which are completely worthless. Ultimately Guanxi represents your personal recourse. Backing up those contracts is no one, certainly no court, but rather, the other people in the community who will support you. In a sense, you have to go out and get your jury.
Moreover, guanxi isn't just a form of currency, but a useful re-useable one. Chinese often buy big cartons of cigarettes and pass them to friends and business partners as gifts; you can imagine the cartons of cigarettes getting passed around the city, as one upstart has dinner with a client, who then passes it onto an official, who then passes it on to a good friend, who then tries to start up his own business, and uses it to get favours there. Sometimes, they don't even smoke these gifts, they just pass them around. Sometimes the `gift' is no gift at all, but a favor, or the patronage of someone's business. As you see, these are favors that everyone benefits from, in many ways.
At this point you must be thinking, it sounds like a madhouse, to be so desensitized to corruption. But don't forget, corruption aside, China can be a very strict and locked down place to live. The Guanxi, or palmgrease, is the wiggle room. It may be that the locals don't feel it the way outsiders do, because locals know how to bend the rules. So Guanxi is not only the legal system, and the system of currency, but the valve that makes life liveable. With connections.
Some of those with connections will rise; in fact, those same officials often started as little fish, growing their network to become big fish. To grow their connections even further, they join The Party, and before they know it, they're on the other team. That's one way to go from nothing, to being super famous in China-to leave your mark. And to some, that's the most important thing of all.
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