Unlike many books I read, this one is about something I have studied for many years and can occasionally claim (often with far too little justification) some familiarity, namely China. My degree is in Chinese and I lived in China as a student in 1983/84, long before the opening up and reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping a few years earlier had really begun to bite. I have read a lot of books about China and Chinese society.
This is without doubt one of the best. Hessler is a journalist on the New Yorker and he writes with an easy, humorous style. But what really makes the book stand out for this reader is that he brings the westerner’s eye to bear with humanity and empathy but also with scepticism; in other words, with exactly the mix that most intelligent observers like to think they employ. But he really does it.
I have spent the best part of 30 years learning Chinese and I am still in the foothills of the language. Hessler clearly has an impressive grasp of the language, even allowing for the narrative requirement to interpret meaning sometimes where a precise and perfect understanding of every nuance of language is missing. But that is part of the book’s appeal – he makes no pretence, as some have done, of getting ‘inside the Chinese mind’. He just writes as he finds.
His account of Chinese driving law is very funny but there are two major settings for the book: the village of Sancha and the boom towns of Zhejiang province. In both cases, he is the outsider and the observer who wins the confidence and trust of people in ways that allow him to tell their stories without patronising them.
His descriptions of how property law works, how people relate to the Communist Party and to government in general, how business works and how social mobility is changing China at an unimaginable pace are succinct and measured. He does not judge China by western values but he does draw comparisons which are instructive.
There a many books about doing business in China, usually called things like ‘Dancing with the Dragon’ or ‘Behind the Great Wall’. I have not read them all, of course, but I have read a few. None of them will give someone interested in understanding China the insights that this book gives. Nor with as much humour and sheer reading pleasure.