Boom Country: Evan Osnos’s China

Age of Ambition

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China

American sinophiles have a tough time of it. Even painting in the broadest strokes possible, the complexity and breadth of China’s political and cultural history can be migraine-inducing. There were eleven major dynasties – Xia, Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing over the thousands of years between 2100 BC and 1911, not to mention multiple periods of general political disorder, conflict, and outright war where no one is really remembered to have had a good time. The end of the Qing dynasty was brought about in large part from two colonial incursions from the West, the First Opium War and the Second Opium War, which led to domestic rebellions, a short-lived Kuomintang government, and ultimately the Chinese Communist Party we know today. Fast-forwarding through the Cold War, the Cultural Revolution, and Mao Zedong, we get to 1978; the beginning of rapid industrialization, urbanization, and change driven by economic reform that made China into what it is today: a country with a whale of a past that is growing frenetically into a burgeoning global superpower.

The figures associated with China’s rise over the past thirty or so are mind-numbing in their own right.  Since 1978 absolute poverty dropped by 40%. GDP growth rates clocked consistently between 9.5 and 10% bringing China’s total GDP to a figure ten times larger than it was at the outset of its reforms, with total factory productivity gains accounting for 40% of these increases. To offset the 2008 global financial meltdown, the government pumped a stimulus package of $589 billion into the economy. There are many more numbers that demonstrate the progress of this country of nearly 1.4 billion, by village, township, city, and province; so many that John King Fairbank, one of America’s seminal Chinese historians, once called China “a statistician’s nightmare.”

The overview of modern China, then, in Evan Osnos’ new book Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China provides welcome guidance. Though the book draws heavily from Osnos’ time as a China correspondent for the New Yorker’s Beijing bureau, Osnos ties together his five years of experience in the country while teasing out the main challenges facing modern China in each of the book’s major sections.

The section titled “Fortune” explores China’s strengthening embrace of capitalism. Increasingly, the Chinese have newfound access to opportunities entirely unimaginable to previous generations. The attainability of a middle class life has spurred young people to rapidly migrate to cities and factories for work while leaving behind the support structures of their ancestral hometowns.

“Truth” illustrates the remaining limitations on free expression. China’s Communist Party remains committed to strict enforcement of censorship of journalism and the arts. Expanding access to the Internet and curiosity on the part of the Chinese people has created tension between the Party and the Chinese people as the artistic community continues to probe the boundaries at their own risk.

“Faith” finds Osnos at his most ambitious, inspecting the use of religion, spirituality, and philosophy by the Modern Chinese to make sense of the ever-changing world around them.

Broad strokes like this might have made for a truly head splitting time if it weren’t for Osnos ‘ use of human examples to ground his analysis. Age of Ambition discusses individuals from across the spectrum of Chinese life. Osnos follows recognizable faces like the artist and activist Ai Wei Wei through his ongoing legal tangles alongside total unknowns.

What’s more, these stories are rarely without emotional complexity. Osnos grows close enough to his subjects to show us their highs and lows, the humor and sadness that can come hand in hand living in a country going through growing pains. The full John King Fairbank quote goes on to comment that China “has more human drama… per square mile than anywhere else in the world.”

Take Michael, who Osnos meets outside of an incredibly popular English study seminar called “Crazy English” that toured China. Michael was working as a security guard, though he had studied under the “Crazy English” method, which was similar to your standard course in English except that it required that students scream English while practicing in order to gain confidence with the language. The program also made sketchy pedagogical claims, such as connecting shouting to easier memorization. But Michael was a diligent, even obsessive, student that submitted to any and all methods that promised to improve his English. He saw study as his conduit to a better life.

By the book’s end Michael is working on an English textbook, but struggling to find his place, living in a tenement-like city apartment with so nine or so roommates.  He returns to his hometown after butting heads too much with his employer over the direction of his textbook, constantly wracked with a sort of existential fear of being consigned to an “ordinary” life. Michael’s story pulls double duty in constructing Osnos’ portrait of both fortune and faith in China through his English ventures and ontological distress, though he drops out almost entirely from view in the book’s middle “Truth” section.

Some of the people Osnos meets are more capable of being made instructive in some sections more than others, and he demonstrates an ability to make those distinctions more often than not. Still, this doesn’t hide the artifice built into compressing five years of experience into three broad categories.  Even when the stories fit what Osnos is trying to articulate, the way he frames his book limits the impact of his project, making the work feel at times like a collection of his published work in The New Yorker tied together mainly to motivate his point.

Osnos isn’t the first to write on China in The New Yorker or in books of his own either. Since the publication of his 2006 memoir River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, Peter Hessler has been the reigning champ of non-fiction writing on China. In the years following that book’s release, Hessler has published Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China and Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip. Hessler shares Osnos’ background as a New Yorker alum of the Beijing bureau. Like Osnos, Hesser also drew from his published works, often profiling individuals, in the magazine for his books as well. But Hessler’s books tend to have a narrower scope and are in some ways standard fare travel literature: Hessler spends a lot of ink sharing what it’s like to live in China, describing the places he visits, and the people he meets. Though Hessler’s books have received universal critical acclaim, they’re particularly fun for sinophiles who have traveled to or lived in China and can see their own experiences in the details of his books. Anyone who has had the hair-raising experience of crossing the street in a country where cars are still fairly novel and “rules of the road” are more like “suggestions of the road” can appreciate Hessler’s journalism in Country Driving. Hessler finds signs to turn right on the left side of the road. During the first few years he had a license, it was commonly held to be poor form to use your headlights at night. For everyone else, they have all the appeal of listening to someone well traveled and incredibly knowledgeable about a foreign country. Hessler provides commentary on China’s direction, but when he does the reader more or less reaches the same conclusion he’s going to make before he even has to say it since it’s typically the natural conclusion of hundreds of pages of observation.

Osnos’ narrative approach doesn’t achieve that same level of natural intimacy. It’s an incredibly human project, but by organizing his book by his three theses, the reader is made constantly aware of the argument he’s conscripting his characters to substantiate, which comes at the detriment of the readers’ appreciation of his stories on their own merit. The point remains, though, that there’s something more interesting and, in the same way, more skillful when the moral of each story and its details isn’t telegraphed as heavy-handedly.

Here’s the tradeoff, then: Osnos sacrifices some of the book’s authenticity to form a clear portrait the culture and country’s overall topography. Especially for the uninitiated to modern China, Age of Ambition can be an excellent guide. The struggles over livelihood, information, and religion are, by and large, emblematic of China’s changes over the past decade.

By the same token, the book does a good job of framing these issues for more serious students of China. Osnos framework provides just as ready a backdrop for further reading in modern China. Though Osnos largely focuses on the years under President Hu Jintao, his analysis sets the stage to understand the country at present under Xi Jinping and all the analysis to come over the next few years.

Watching China grow can be a wild but entirely fascinating ride, if only for how much there is to know and how much of that will likely change within a year or two. The junkies and wonks of very few countries can claim so much dynamism in their object of interest. To see a country grow and the hopes, souls, and struggles of the people doing the growing, even through Osnos sometimes contrived narrative, is a difficult opportunity to pass up.