- China Candid: The People on the People's Republic
This collection of stories-or, more precisely, collection of self-representations and personal narratives proffered by a diverse group of Chinese citizens through their interviews with the veteran journalist and writer Sang Ye-provides a strikingly powerful, moving, and yet unsettling account of everyday life in contemporary China. Anyone who is interested in the shaping of the "new" China over the past two decades, including even those who have closely followed its developments, will benefit from sharing Sang's journey through the various patches and corners of the Chinese social landscape as documented in this remarkable volume. Of the over two dozen people that appear in the book, some are, to be sure, staple characters in the standard accounts of contemporary China long made familiar to us by the popular media. They include, for example, a migrant rural worker trying to make it in Beijing ("Chairman Mao's Ark"), a People's Liberation Army officer utilizing army assets and doubling as an entrepreneur and business manager ("An Army on the March"), and the young mistress of a typical member of the nouveau riche ("Little Sweetie"). Others, however, are individuals about whom we seldom hear, such as the founder of a private orphanage ("Looking Ahead"), an organizer of farmers into "co-operatives" independent of the state ("Just One Party"), and a man who makes his living as an executioner ("Parting Shot"). In all of these cases, Sang invariably brings to his work an unusual sensitivity and subtlety in capturing the voices of his interlocutors, as he proves once again, as shown in his earlier works, to be a master in drawing out the nuances and the complex layers of the human experience. The result is an extraordinarily rich portrayal of how people make sense of their own lives in a period of rapid and often bewildering changes.
The collection was initially intended for publication in mainland China, but its frank discussion of topics such as the use of drugs by Chinese elite athletes ("Unlevel Playing Field") meant that the Chinese-language edition of the volume has managed to see daylight only in the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong. Now through the seasoned and able editorial hands of Geremie Barmé and his team of excellent translators, these stories are available to English readers. Most of the interviews, it appears, were conducted around the mid-1990s (the volume does not include exact information on when they took place), just when China's current system of a strategic partnership between socialist authoritarianism and corporate capital, to borrow Barmé's apt characterization in his introductory essay to the volume (p. xii), was rounding into form. Sang's interviewees, [End Page 507] who ranged from those who clearly benefited from the new system to those who were, as it were, left behind, were not shy about voicing their own interpretations of the changes. Yet it is not, as Sang perceptively reminds readers, that these personalized accounts of his interlocutors somehow represent the "true" story of China's reforms. On the contrary, many of the interviewees might well be deceptive, either consciously or unintentionally. It could well be, in Sang's words, that "what they were telling me was a story they had rehearsed in their own minds so many times that they now believed it was the truth" (p. 2). The issue is not so much the authenticity of their recollection or experience. Rather, in listening to the voices of this motley group of characters, each of whom chose to remember and narrate their individual stories in her or his own idiosyncratic way, the reader is able to get some illuminating glimpses of the multidimensional histories of the reform era and how it provides the referential structures and meanings-or lack thereof-for those who are living through it.
Precisely because of the multiplicity...