Chinese Characters: Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land is a compilation of extraordinary stories about China's ordinary people. Photo: CFP
There has never been a lack of good books about the history of China, from detailed analytical narration of its 5,000-year civilization to numerous travelogues depicting the country's vast, grandeur landscapes.
Although the Middle Kingdom has always held allure to outsiders, ordinary Chinese folks, or laobaixing, are often seen as just faces in the crowd. However, those faces are given a chance to bask in the spotlight in Chinese Characters: Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land, a book co-edited by Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a history professor at the University of California, and Angilee Shah, a freelance journalist and editor in Los Angeles.
The book, slated for release in August and published by the University of California Press, is a collection of crafted portraits of 15 people contributed by journalists and scholars who have followed the everyday lives of Chinese people through their years in the country. Contributors include New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos, American Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ian Johnson and journalist Ananth Krishnan from India's English-language daily newspaper The Hindu.
"China is endlessly interesting. All of the contributors taught me something new about China, and most took me to places I have not yet seen," said co-editor Shah, who has reported from across Asia and started to work on the book with Wasserstrom two years ago. The collection of people featured in the book brings to life the harsh, humorous and confusing sides of life in China experienced by average people, while telling "great stories about real people who struggle and thrive in a changing country," said Shah.
"We wanted very much to tell the stories of individuals close-up, and not be pressured to extract broad assumptions from those stories," she noted.
While most coverage of China in the mainstream Western media revolves around the promise and perils of rapid economic growth in the country, few stories delve into the simple though extraordinary lives of the Chinese people themselves, observed Indian novelist and commentator Pankaj Mishra.
"Only journalism that aspires to the condition of literature can do justice to contemporary China; a mode of writing that creates in its readers not certainty of any kind but a profound sense of ambiguity and irony inherent in human desires and aspirations," Mishra said.
"Chinese people were quite open when we were approaching them," recalled contributor and journalist Christina Larson, whose story focuses on an independent geologist studying the practicability of a water diversion project. "Usually, they would come to us for the story ideas or suggest people to profile. They were more open talking about their problems to foreigners."
Although there have always been generalizations about different Chinese people, writers of the book steered clear of tired stereotypes, such as depicting migrant workers living harsh lives and being exploited as cheap laborers. Journalist Michelle Dammon Loyalka, a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, profiled Zhang Erhua, a migrant worker who ekes out a living as a trash collector.
Despite fleeting moments of joy amid hardship, Zhang represents a face of China rarely seen by people in the country. To Loyalka, providing an up close and personal account of Zhang rather than a vague snapshot of his life wasn't easy.
"Once I decided to write about him, I followed him almost everywhere he went for quite some time even though I was pregnant," she recalled, adding she was mistaken as Zhang's wife once while they dined at a small restaurant in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province.
"The nuanced portrait of him came from deep reporting. We did our best to give each contributor sufficient space to tell their complex stories precisely," said Shah.