Life in China: Living the Big Changes

In “Chinese Characters,” authors Angilee Shah and Jeffrey Wasserstrom explore the ordinary stories of the Chinese people and connect China’s past political leaders to its people of today.

| December 2012

Though China is currently in the global spotlight, few outside its borders have a feel for the tremendous diversity of the lives being led inside the country. Chinese Characters (University of California Press, 2012) is a collection of compelling stories that challenges oversimplified views of China by shifting the focus away from the question of China’s place in the global order and zeroing in on what is happening on the ground. Learn about how political leaders such as Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong have shifted the country’s cultural and economic landscape for better — and worse — in this excerpt taken from the introduction, “Who Are You This Time?” 

Each time I go back to China, I prepare myself to hear stories of surprising ways that the country has changed since I was last there. I also expect to hear equally surprising reports of personal transformations. It seems inevitable that at least a couple of friends whose lives seemed set to move in one direction will have had something completely unexpected happen to them since I last saw them. During the months since my previous trip to China, a professor who had no interest in business will have become an entrepreneur. A loyal bureaucrat within the Communist Party Youth League will have turned consultant to an international corporation (and now be a bit embarrassed by his earlier commitment to Marxist economics). Someone who considered all forms of religion mere superstition will have become first a fervent Buddhist and then a devout Christian. An earnest graduate student who once said that a visit to Hong Kong was probably the closest that she would ever get to going “abroad” will now regularly be taking trips to Europe.

China has become what the United States famously was a century ago, a land of reinvention. Rags-to-riches stories are as popular there now as they were in America in the days of Horatio Alger—and for similar reasons. I often feel that many of the people I know in China have lived out several lives while I have been making my way through just this one.

Consider the case of a longtime friend whom I shall call Ms. Liu for her privacy’s sake. Before I met her in 1986, her life had already gone through dramatic twists and turns. She grew up in Shanghai, the child of intellectuals, but was sent to the countryside to learn from peasants late in the Cultural Revolution, an experience she still remembers with some fondness. She thought it instilled a respect for hard work and the ability to enjoy simple things that some people born later seem to lack. After returning to Shanghai, she was trained as a Russian-language teacher, only to have that career trajectory derailed by the dominance of English-language study in China. Ms. Liu was reassigned to the waiban (foreign affairs unit) of her university, where her main job was to take care of arrangements for and keep an eye on the activities of foreign teachers and students.

That would be enough reversals of fortune to constitute a life of ups and downs, but in the years since, she has continued on a protean course. By turns, Ms. Liu spent a year in central Europe as a visiting scholar, worked as a nanny in California for about the same amount of time, and lived for a time primarily on what she made as a day-trader on Shanghai’s new stock exchange. She’d once assumed she’d always live in an apartment owned by her work unit, but the last time I saw her, she was the proud owner of a flat on the outskirts of Shanghai. The shifts in her beliefs, ideological and spiritual, also mark changes of the sort that we in the West might expect to see over the course of generations rather than of one life. And her child’s life—like many of her generation, she has just one—has matched hers in its unpredictability. Her daughter studied in New Zealand and then worked in jobs that did not exist in China before the 1990s, often employed in the marketing divisions of international companies that until recently never expected to be making money selling their products in China.

Not all of the life stories that go to make up this book have much in common with Ms. Liu’s or her daughter’s when it comes to the details, but they all involve surprising transformations of individuals and communities. The stories in this book remind us that China is now a place where identities can be taken on and shed with surprising ease, in ways that can be exciting or exhausting, traumatic or confusing, or, in many cases, all of those things at once.