“AM I MAD or is this society mad?”
One young Chinese man’s miserere echoed a nation’s widespread disillusion. In an online essay, the young man expressed feeling lost among peers devoid of traditional values. He had discovered that the academic environment lacked intellectual earnestness, and the political climate seemed bereft of meaningful vocation. Only the internet proved he was not alone — his 10-page screed garnered thousands of reposts.
The young essayist is one of many compelling figures to appear in the ambitious collection, Restless China, edited by Perry Link, Richard P. Madsen and Paul G. Pickowicz, a trio of Southern California–based scholars, the first of whom teaches at UC Riverside, while the latter two teach at UC San Diego. The third book in a series, it follows Unofficial China (1989) and Popular China (2002), both widely taught and oft-cited collections of essays by specialists in different fields of Chinese studies. China’s transformation during the quarter of a century since that first volume appeared has dazzled the world and presented its people — political leaders and dissidents, as well as ordinary residents of villages and cities — with great opportunities, new challenges, and many questions about Chinese values and civic life. Concerns about food, air, and water safety, frustration with a lack of safety, justice, and accountability, disgust with structural inequality, and distrust in public officials, among other grievances, have led to a restive population. This has in part instigated the rise of individualistic youth culture and a growing band of seekers craving god, sex, and political agency. It has also persuaded the Chinese government, since 2010, to designate more of its annual budget to domestic weiwen (stability maintenance) than to national defense.
Thirteen knowledgeable academics trained in diverse disciplines and based around the world explore this theme of disquietude in a dozen chapters, clusters of essays on “Legacies,” “A New Electronic Community,” “Values,” and “Global Standards.”
The book begins with one of its liveliest chapters. In “When Things Go Wrong,” historian Jeremy Brown traces today’s development-related calamities and subsequent cover-ups to Mao-era practices, such as an accident-reporting system that encouraged the systematic repression of information and disregard for victims, and shows how the Party has long prioritized profit over people.
Many readers are familiar with the dramatic high-speed train crash outside of Wenzhou in 2011, but Brown shows how common such flawed engineering is in China, how preventable the fatal transportation and manufacturing tragedies are, and how, even after catastrophe strikes, cadres concern themselves more with “stability control” than correcting the systemic failure that led to disaster, or punishing the wrongdoers. People reacted with outrage when they realized that authorities were burying the trains outside of Wenzhou, but Brown writes that such practices of subterfuge first emerged when the Communists came to power. They condemned the imperialist and capitalist systems for their indifference to workers’ lives and safety and modeled a new “safe production” regime (anquan shengchan) after the Soviet Union’s, which rewarded managers for safety and punished them for accidents. In practice, however, the managers just dissuaded workers from reporting injuries, in order, they suggested, to protect the honor of the unit. Many such workers’ stories came to light during the Hundred Flowers Movement in 1957.
But that didn’t put an end to official misinformation. Local officials face penalties for accidents that happen on their watch, so they often fail to warn the public about potential dangers or dramatically minimize the toll of death and injury afterward. Brown writes about the 1975 collapse of 62 dams in Henan province that killed tens of thousands in the waves and led to more deaths by disease and famine among those stranded by floodwaters. No public report was released. No reckoning was made about the faulty construction or the failure to notify the public about the potential danger.
No one is safe. As Hong Kong–based sociologist X. L. Ding writes — in “The Only Reliability Is That These Guys Aren’t Reliable!” — even China’s gold-collar class realize the tenuous agreement they’ve made with officials. The majority of China’s super-rich are voting no confidence with their feet and moving their families and assets abroad, Ding writes, and as anthropologist Yunxiang Yan illustrates in his chapter about food safety, the rich avoid many risks in China; wealthy individuals, government agencies, and state-owned enterprises contract farmers and companies to produce safe food for their own private use. Still, as the infant milk scandal proved, no one can guarantee the safety of even China’s most vulnerable population. Brown recalls the chilling stories of two fires that killed hundreds of children. In one, the children were told to “Let the leaders leave first!” Perhaps unintentionally, some of his tales come across as morbidly humorous. (There are two stories about toilet accidents involving hapless officials.) Indeed, as historian Paul G. Pickowicz’s chapter, “Political Humor in Postsocialist China,” explores, laughter has proved a release for many anxieties — even if in China it often appears in the odd form of Soviet Union settings. China isn’t a socialist system anymore, but its legacies — especially in the way the government handles accidents and human rights and seeks to control and spin news — make invoking the former Soviet Union pointed and funny. (A sample joke: “Question: ‘Rabinovich, are you a regular reader of our newspapers?’ Answer: ‘Of course! Otherwise, how would I know about the happy life we enjoy today?’”)
As for that greatest release — sex — it too has created turbulence, writes ethnographer William Jankowiak in “Chinese Youth.” Even though young people are more willing to have premarital sex and declare their love, the evolving cultural norms have left them uncertain about how to pursue and maintain a lover. It also makes them question the qualities that make for a good partner and a good life. In one of the book’s most engaging chapters, literary scholar Shuyu Kong, who teaches in Canada, explores how the popular dating show “Are You the One?” has instigated electric public conversations among Chinese youth about individualism and social responsibility.
The show, which features 24 female contestants who determine, based on the performance of a single male contestant, whether they want to become his “girlfriend,” began with a bang. In response to a male contestant’s question as to whether she would go bicycle riding with him, female contestant Ma Nuo replied she would rather cry in a BMW. A public maelstrom ensued. Some condemned Ma; others applauded her for her honesty about the role of materialism in young women seeking a mate. On a later episode, a so-called “second-generation rich kid” contestant poked the sore when he flashed his wealth and invited Ma to cry in his BMW. Finally, a contestant named Luo Lei eviscerated Ma for her shallowness. The episode went viral and tens of thousands of posts accumulated on the show’s online page and elsewhere. Ratings soared, and the show commanded an enviable price for ad spots. As with reality television anywhere, much of the drama was likely manufactured. But the hubbub didn’t escape the attention of the authorities, who criticized the program for its unhealthy ideas and immoral participants. The network that produces the show adjusted it and managed to create a platform for conversation between, as Kong writes, “the rock of commercialization and the hard place of political censorship.” Aside from materialism, that discussion has included issues about Chinese values involving filial relationships, philanthropy, and the environment. While these issues may appear superficial, Kong points out that they evidence an emerging civic discourse in China that may one day have stronger implications for state-society relations.
Restless China, while striving to engage both an academic audience and a general one, is at times more effective speaking to the former, with some chapters easier to see being used in the classroom or mined as reference material than, say, discussed at a book club. Further unpacking would have made it more accessible to the lay reader. Sometimes writers fail to identify people and events, their allusions to other scholars or Chinese newsmakers. The book’s material, culled from personal interviews, Chinese-language periodicals and websites, and other sources, is remarkably rich and wide-ranging, as is the expert analysis of its 13 contributors. But the authors’ scholarly approach — the expositions on methodology, the minute analysis of surveys and interviews, the constant qualifying — sometimes detracts from the driving urgency these important topics demand. The work feels strongest when it is the most tangible, when the authors hook readers by first introducing restless individuals whose lives have experienced the impact of China’s changes and then step back to sketch the historical, cultural, scientific, and political forces that led to those changes.
For example, the chapter “A Collapsing Natural Environment?” — a collaborative effort of Su Xiaokang, a dissident-in-exile and one of the makers of the legendary documentary River Elegy that helped inspire the 1989 protests, and Perry Link, a leading scholar of Chinese language and literature and one of the co-editors. It immediately grabs the reader with an anecdote about a hydrologist who is sent to a reform-through-labor camp in Jiangxi province during the Cultural Revolution. On a stroll along Lake Poyang, the hydrologist recites a Tang Dynasty poem for his visiting daughter. The daughter thrills at the idea that the lake was as pristine in 1970 as it was in 675. But 40 years later, the authors write, the lake is gone.
Other chapters provide similarly visceral accounts. As I said, the desperate young essayist in Hong Kong–based professor Hsiung Ping-chen’s chapter sticks out. And in the chapter by Ding, there is a story about the relationship between a hotel manager and a deputy mayor in a midsize city in central China that clearly and concisely epitomizes the distrust and gamesmanship central to dealings between entrepreneurs and officials. In “Han Han and the Public,” Yang Lijun, a sociologist and media studies scholar currently working in Singapore, crafts an interesting profile of Han Han, the puckish Chinese writer. In “An Invisible Path,” about Buddhist revivalism, Beijing-based linguist David Moser writes in an engaging first-person voice that feels like a conversation with an interesting friend. He weaves together anecdotes from Chinese people speaking in their own words about their religious views and experiences.
Some characters that make cameo appearances in Restless China are so fascinating they deserve their own books. A case in point is the “Healing Woman” discussed by co-editor Madsen in his chapter, “The Sacred and the Holy.” The sociologist describes this complex village figure as a “magician” or “witch” (the term used for her, “wu,” can be translated either way, he notes). She engages in a variety of practices — including “the laying on of hands” to “transmit a powerful qi energy” with curative effects — that were “supposed to be strictly prohibited by the Communist government.” And yet, Madsen stresses, “local officials appreciate some of the benefits that the Healing Woman has brought to the area,” including visitors to her ever-growing temple complex who “bring in money to the impoverished local economy,” after hearing tales of such things as her having restored the eyesight of someone who could not see — an act that led the grateful patient to donate the money for a new pavilion. These benefits make the government willing to turn “a blind eye to the religious activities of the temple,” Madsen writes, especially since they realize that, while what she does may reflect “indifference to the state,” none of it is really in opposition to it.
The editors clearly created this book for classroom use, and so it would have been interesting and helpful to include a glossary of the Chinese terms defined in individual chapters; a vocabulary list would enable students of Chinese language, history, and culture to better acquaint themselves with terms central to current events. In particular, internet scholar Xiao Qiang and Link’s jointly written chapter, “From Grass-Mud Equestrians to Rights-Conscious Citizens,” demonstrates the importance of semantics in understanding the depth of Chinese restlessness, and it outlines how gutsy, creative netizens are evading online censors with linguistic innovation involving sound, grammar, and double meaning.
The new language explored in the “Grass-Mud Equestrians” chapter has created new communities — certainly not the intention the State had in its attempts to control the Chinese internet. In China, “official” and “unofficial” Chinese differs greatly. Official Chinese is abstract and stiff. Unofficial Chinese is concrete and flexible. The Party realizes that to win over, or at least keep partially in check, its restless population, it has to spice up its language. Recently, official newspapers have used internet slang in headlines and Party members have spouted hot memes in an attempt to prove they are swag. The effect may be lost on the intended audience — savvy, largely urbanite web uses who continue to lampoon Chinese society and politics with cutting sarcasm. The authors wisely refuse to unpack whether language influences thinking or thinking influences language. But they do illustrate how the normalization of certain phrases can alter one’s view of reality and explore how publicly spewed bile may either just be a safety valve and game or may lead to real changes.
When it comes to the young essayist’s question, Restless China has a more straightforward answer. Both are mad.
Megan Shank is a freelance writer and translator, Mandarin Chinese tutor, and Asia co-editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books.