- The New China
For an outsider’s understanding of contemporary China, few books can match Evan Osnos’s Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, winner of the 2014 National Book Award. The former correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and the New Yorker knows that almost anything to be said about China must be qualified by a myriad of details. Yes, the Chinese of the twenty-first century “have achieved longer, healthier, more educated [and more prosperous] lives” than their predecessors. But, he notes, “The longer I lived in China, the more it seemed that people had come to see the economic boom as a train with a limited number of seats.” And even for those whose fortunes have vastly improved, there remains an unfulfilled appetite for less tangible values—freedom of thought and expression, a hunger for truth and spiritual values. Osnos writes with tact and sympathetic understanding, and he draws upon a number of adroitly chosen case histories to tell his story. Like Thomas Carlyle, Osnos knows that “history is the essence of innumerable Biographies.”
Nevertheless, to understand modern China, one would do well to read Osnos’s excellent history alongside recent narratives by Chinese insiders, above all the country’s two best-known living novelists, Mo Yan and Yu Hua. “If all people could reflect on history and on their own lives,” the narrator of Mo Yan’s Frog declares, “mankind would not display so much idiotic behavior.” Most of Osnos’s case histories exhibit this same dual approach, beginning with Osnos himself. In 1994, the college freshman “wandered into an introductory class on modern Chinese politics, revolution, and civil war” and thereby discovered his vocation. Two years later, he arrived in Beijing for the first time in order to study Mandarin. In 1998, he enrolled at Beijing Normal University. The city had struck him as “a clanging, unglamorous place” on his first visit, so he toured the countryside, looking for “the China of literature and ink paintings.” Gradually, however, he accustomed himself to a city and country undergoing extraordinarily rapid change and development. (A Chinese friend, by way of contrast, complains that whenever he visits New York “it looks the same.”) In his eight years as a reporter in China, from 2005 to 2013, he interviewed a number of individuals caught up in the search for fortune, truth, and faith. [End Page 667]
He begins with a Taiwanese army officer, Lin Zhengyi, the son of a poor barber who instilled in his children a vivid sense of China’s illustrious past, plus a “dream of China’s revival.” His fourth son (named Zhengyi or “justice”) wondered “as a boy … why, despite China’s glorious history, his family could barely feed itself.” In 1979, Captain Lin deserted his army post and swam to the mainland, convinced that “China would prosper again … and he would prosper with it.” (This was at a time when it was more usual for someone to swim from the mainland to Taiwan in search of a better life.) In 1980, the newly renamed Lin Yifu, a student now at Peking University, met Theodore Schultz, a visiting Nobel Prize-winning economist, who arranged for him to pursue a doctoral degree in economics at the University of Chicago, “the crucible of free market thought.” By the time he returned to China, Lin was “convinced that the key to China’s rise was the fusion of the market and strong government.” As an influential member of the Peking University faculty, Lin published several books extolling the “Chinese miracle.” As Osnos notes, “In 1949 the average life expectancy was thirty-six and the literacy rate was 20 percent. By 2012, life expectancy was seventy-five, and the literacy rate was above 90 percent.” Lin’s role in helping his nation to rise out of poverty by promoting governmental and...