A much-anticipated book on China that I had been planning to read for a long time was Evan Osnos’ Age of Ambition, which I finally did thanks to the good old Taipei library. The book takes a good look at China’s development during the 2000s by focusing on people, specifically famous and everyday Chinese who Osnos interviewed during his 8 years in Beijing. Osnos details the ambition and change and resistance that springs up among Chinese. Even so, one can see traces of pessimism and wariness from Osnos regarding China’s political climate and human rights, and looking at how things are now, he is not wrong. Besides the ambitions and changes, Osnos examines the moral void in Chinese society which is best exemplified by the case of the toddler who was run over by a van and whose body was ignored by 17 passersby. As Osnos was a New Yorker writer, he got to do regular in-depth stories about China and he’s able to provide more details and nuance in his writing than your regular foreign correspondent.
Among the famous figures featured are controversial artist Ai Weiwei, blogger and writer (and race car driver) Han Han, and editor Hu Shuli covered, as well as folks like a guy who teaches himself English and has an ambition to spread his teaching methods.
Osnos is optimistic about Chinese bloggers and online netizens who used social media to spread criticisms of their government but unfortunately, recent developments such as the blocking and censorship of more and more sites and services have shown that even the Internet is not a place Chinese can feel free to voice their thoughts.
Meanwhile, a little less modern but still as pertinent is Lu Xun, arguably China’s most famous author. Lu Xun lived during the early 20th century, a turbulent time in China’s fledgling republic (ROC) era which began after the Qing Dynasty was overthrown. I finally read his work which was a complete collection of all his fiction The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China – short stories and satirical novella The Real Story of Ah-Q (Lu Xun never wrote a novel). His stories range from observances of regular life to portrayals of famous ancient Chinese deities and philosophers. What is striking is that some of his observations of aspects of Chinese society are still valid in current times, as Yiyun Li points out in the afterword about Chinese gathering around to observe a suicidal person about to jump from a building with an event in the Ah-Q story. I found some of the stories a little hard to comprehend but perhaps I did not put enough effort.