Author: Even Osnos
Title: Age Of Ambition
Length: 7 years
News with the smart guy
The story: EO is an American journalist who, after studying China and the Chinese language in the mid-90s, arrives in Beijing in 2005. He is well educated, and he takes his job seriously. He moves into a Hutong, and over the years gets to know a lot of Chinese people from all walks of life. Some are rich, some are poor, some are famous, some are obscure, some are in the government, some are opposed to the government, etc.
He writes his articles, and when he eventually leaves the country in 2013, he decides to craft his experiences into a book about the China that he has seen, a place that reminds him of the American „Gilded Age“, when the United States were transforming themselves through a phase of rapid economic growth and social unrest.
a work of journalism
One thing is important to know before you decide whether you want to read this book or not: it isn’t trying to tell a continuous story. Instead, it focuses on certain aspects of Chinese life, on careerism in one chapter, on spirituality in another, and so on. Some of the people that EO introduces us to as protagonists of a particular chapter can reappear in a different context later. Also, he always makes sure to provide us with extensive background information on Chinese politics and social issues. This is not a story book.
Evan Osnos, explaining China
But I have to say, it is an astonishing feat! EO’s implicit goal is to provide the reader with a comprehensive view on modern China, and he actually comes very close to achieving this goal. He sheds light on many seemingly contradictory aspects of Chinese life, and he is sharp in his observations and balanced in his judgements. Reading this book feels a bit like watching the news with a very smart dude. But is it perfect?
superlatives and historical comparisons
Sadly, it isn’t. It is very good, but EO tends to do two things that many people do when they are talking about China, two things that can get tedious after a while. The first thing is the superlative: „China has the largest [insert something here] in history!“ „China is the biggest consumer of [insert something here] in the world!“ You get the picture. Superlatives like these are like viagra for journalists, and they can often be traced back to the one original Chinese superlative: China simply has the biggest population in the world.
The second thing is the historical comparision. It is sometimes valid, sometimes anachronistic, and sometimes just not right. For example, Chinese society is often said to have been historically about the collective, not about the individual. Confucius or Mencius are evoked, EO also uses classical Chinese paintings to make this point. But I think that there is a problem with this on at least two levels. First of all, you could make a very strong argument for Chinese individualism by pointing to the Chinese admiration for their poetry or for their Four Great Classical Novels, most of which highly emphasize the individual. Secondly, even if Chinese society was typically governed by a value system that emphasized the collective, is that really a typically Chinese thing? Just think about how long it took Europe to reinvent the idea of individual authorship, or to get rid of feudalism.
There are other examples for this line of thinking. Like when we observe that marriage in China has historically never been about romantic feelings, then what they are saying is – for a large part – true. But was it any different in Europe? It seems to me that we tend to make anachronistical conclusions when we look at historical China.
But anyway, this was a great book. If you want to get a balanced view on modern China, read it!
[Edit: revisited this book a bit over than a year later and deducted one point. It used to be a 9/10. But it isn’t anymore.]