Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Angilee Shah & Jeffrey Wasserstrom, eds., "Chinese Characters"

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of books such as China in the 21st Century, Global Shanghai, and China’s Brave New World, and the editor of the Journal of Asian Studies.

Angilee Shah is a freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Mother Jones, TimeOut Singapore, Global Voices, and AsiaMedia, among other publications.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new edited volume, Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land, and reported the following:
Chinese Characters has 15 disparate chapters. Some profile specific individuals: an elderly woman facing eviction from her longtime home, in one case, an environmentalist setting off to search for the origin of the Yangzi River, in another. Some chapters, though, focus on two or three interrelated people. For example, one looks at a teacher of classical guitar and a teacher of rock guitar techniques, each of whom is convinced that having more people play like him will be good for the nation. The authors of the chapters are also a varied lot, ranging from New Yorker staff writers Peter Hessler and Evan Osnos to academics. No single page of it could hope to be fully representative. And yet, page 99 does draw attention to themes that show up in many sections. The protean character of many Chinese lives and many Chinese communities is one of them. Another is the degree to which many Chinese people depend on relationships that are novel in nature yet rooted in old-fashioned kinds of ties.

Page 99 finds Michelle Dammon Loyalka profiling Zhang Erhua, a migrant worker living in the crowded Gan Jia Zhai district at the edge of Xi’an, a city best known as home of the Terra Cotta Warriors. Zhang has changed jobs often and now works in a recycling business run by a woman named Liang. The page begins with Loyalka noting Zhang’s dependence on the network “of hometown mates” (men from his native village) that “he’s cultivated over the years.” They help him out in hard times; the fact that one is Liang’s husband helped him secure him his present job.

Zhang’s dependence on such connections makes him a typical denizen of Gan Jia Zhai, Loyalka claims, for it’s a place “where a mishmash of people from every corner of the country take refuge” and migrants get little help from the local authorities, since they are technically not supposed to be living there. A network of “hometown mates“ can function as a “makeshift safety net” in tough times, and this sort of web of connections can also prove mutually beneficial to members of the laobaixing, a common Chinese term of ordinary folk. Here’s how Loyalka writes about the phenomenon, moving from the particular to the general and back again:
The system has become so integral to the inner workings of China’s cities that entire markets are often run by entrepreneurs from a single village, entire streets are canvassed by peddlars from a single county, and entire industries are sometimes dominated by people from a single province. In Gan Jia Zhai, there are sixteen recycling outfits like Liang’s, and all of them are run by people from the same corner of Henan Province. The result of all this laobaixing backscratching, Liang says, is that their hometown is now thriving financially. ‘Now the villagers all have a lot of money. They have cell phones, motorcycles, vehicles—everything,’ she says…

But the ironic thing for Zhang is that for all the focus on money, for all the conniving and wheedling to get ahead, he doesn’t see many migrants attaining a significantly better life… Most peasants now enjoy a host of modern conveniences, but in the city migrants’ living spaces are too cramped and their stays too uncertain for such luxuries…Liang is a perfect example: she has lived in Xi’an for nearly a decade and has never been downtown, much less to see the Terra Cotta Warriors and other local historic sites. Sometimes months can pass without her stepping out of Gan Jia Zhai…
Learn more about Chinese Characters at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue