Wednesday, November 05, 2014

To live in China in the early years of the twenty-first century was to witness a spiritual revival that could be compared to America’s Great Awakening in the nineteenth century. The stereotype of the Chinese citizen content to delay moral questions until he was car-and-home-equipped looked increasingly out of date. The more people satisfied their basic needs, the more they uncovered the truth, the more they challenged the old dispensation. For new sources of meaning, they looked not only to religion but also to philosophy, psychology, and literature for new ways of orienting themselves in a world of ideological incoherence and unrelenting ambition. (308)

I'm enjoying Evan Osnos' book Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China (FSG), whose final section is called "Faith." (The first two are "Fortune" and "Truth.") Osnos was the China correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and then The New Yorker for eight years, and those years gave him the chance not just to talk to people in all walks of new Chinese life but to witness continuing changes in the culture. He wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times in May explaining why he wasn't permitting a Chinese edition: the publisher found many of his interview subjects too sensitive. Having nearly finished the book I can see the publisher's concern. (Notice it's not the government censors but publishers self-censoring to avoid censure.) Indeed, I'm surprised that he requested Osnos only rewr
ite a fourth of the book! The power of the whole comes from the interweaving of celebratory and disturbing, and its upshot is that China, restless as it is, holds together better than Osnos would have thought.

The most difficult part of writing about contemporary China is capturing its proportions: How much of the story is truly inspiring, and how much of it is truly grim? How much of its values are reflected in technology start-ups and stories of self-creation, and how much of its values are reflected in the Great Firewall and abuses of power? It is tempting to accept censorship as a matter of the margins — a pruning that leaves the core of the story intact — but altering the proportions of a portrait of China gives a false reflection of how China appears to the world at a moment when it is making fundamental choices about what kind of country it will become. ... To produce a “special version” that plays down dissent, trims the Great Leap Forward, and recites the official history of Bo Xilai’s corruption would not help Chinese readers. On the contrary, it would endorse a false image of the past and present.

A complete translation of Age of Ambition is appearing, in Taiwan, so Osnos' sophisticated story will finds it way. But the proposed one-fourth-rewritten version intrigues me. Perhaps the editor knew what he was doing - knew how much obviously contentious material would have to be pushed aside in order to allow the book to appear, perhaps with its argument intact. Or, on the other hand, knew that changing the right one-fourth of a nuanced account could disable it. As Osnos writes in the book, censorship works even when people know it's going on; even when they know they're not getting the whole story it's too much trouble to track down the rest of the story each time.

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