Date of this Version
January 15, 2009 in The China Beat http://www.thechinabeat.org/
1. A proprietary approach I use to help assess English journalism books about China is to measure how much they tell me, a Chinese, that I don’t already know. This, needless to say, lacks objectivity, and it can easily undervalue an otherwise excellent book. As an example, Out of Mao’s Shadow by Philip Pan consists essentially of stories I had already read from the Chinese media or the internet. Not new to me, but that doesn’t mean the book is not worth reading for Western readers (in fact, it is).
On the other hand, this approach raises a high bar for journalists writing about China. To find stories not broadly known even to the Chinese requires not only extraordinarily acute ears, but also the admirably open mind of a deep thinker. Thus, I can narrow down my reading list to a few outstanding books. James Fallows‘ new book,Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China, is one of them. Many things he writes about are new to me, but that’s the least of the delightful surprises.
Being an old China foot, having stepped out after growing up there but still keeping a close eye on it, I found Postcards from Tomorrow Square to be surprisingly fresh and deep. Nowadays, with outspoken critics of China shouting from one line, and vocal supporters yelling back retorts from another, it seems there is little room left for dispassionate discussion. This book enquires into the heart of some of the most important issues facing China, and America, rather than picking at them from the sides. As such, it forms one of the best collections of writing on China I have seen.