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February 3, 2010 in The China Beat


Copyright February 3, 2010 Jeffrey Wasserstrom. Used by permission.


I have a commentary that’s just appeared online at (it’s in print as well in Time Asia’s February 8 issue), in which I focus on the distinction between what I call “Big China Books” (with “titles that cry out to be put in bold type”) and the quite different works that take a “worm’s eye” rather than “bird’s eye” view of the country, and which usually avoid predictive assertions. I state my preference for the latter genre, which I call forays into “scholarly reporting,” taking my cue fromAndrew Ross.

While I mention several books falling into each category, the one that gets the most extended discussion is Peter Hessler’s Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory. I spell out my reasons for thinking it an exemplary contribution to the growing corpus of elegantly crafted journalism-meets-ethnography “worm’s eye” analyses of the People’s Republic. No work that take a “bird’s eye” view approach gets as much praise (or, indeed, as much scrutiny), but one that I discuss early in the essay, When China Rules the World by Martin Jacques, is my focus here.

My goal in this spin-off to the Time piece is not to offer an expanded version of my own thoughts on that particular Big China Book, but rather to direct the attention of interested readers to six recent essays by other people that engaged with the thesis of When China Rules the World. Between them, this sextet of reviews and opinion pieces provides, I think, a good sense of both the range of positions staked out in the debate generated by 2009’s most talked about Big China Book, and a sense of some of the ways that writers, including Jacques himself, have taken to claiming that each new event can be used to either prove or undermine its claims.

1. Perry Anderson’s “Sinomania” offers a wonderfully astute critique of When China Rules the World, which is too elegant (and eloquent) to try to summarize here. Like so many of his contributions to the London Review of Books, this is an essay to savor (for the language) and learn from (due to the erudition). Though the piece is totally different from mine in length, form, and focus, Anderson does conclude, as I do, with appreciation for a work of grassroots analysis he admires—in his case not a work of reportage but rather sociologist Ching Kwan Lee’s excellent recent book on social unrest, Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt.