Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land

Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land

Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land

Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land


An artist paints landscapes of faraway places that she cannot identify in order to find her place in the global economy. A migrant worker sorts recyclables and thinks deeply about the soul of his country, while a Taoist mystic struggles to keep his traditions alive. An entrepreneur capitalizes on a growing car culture by trying to convince people not to buy cars. And a 90-year-old woman remembers how the oldest neighborhoods of her city used to be.

These are the exciting and saddening, humorous and confusing stories of utterly ordinary people who are living through China's extraordinary transformations. The immense variety in the lives of these Chinese characters dispels any lingering sense that China has a monolithic population or is just a place where dissidents fight Communist Party loyalists and laborers create goods for millionaires.

Chinese Characters is a collection, as Pankaj Mishra writes in his foreword, "to herald a new golden age of journalism about a ceaselessly fascinating country." Contributors include a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, a Macarthur Fellow, the China correspondent to a major Indian newspaper, and scholars whose depth of understanding is matched only by the humanity with which they treat their subjects. Their stories together create a multi-faceted portrait of a country in motion and an introduction to some of the best writing on China today.

With contributions from:

Alec Ash

James Carter

Leslie T. Chang

Xujun Eberlein

Harriet Evans

Anna Greenspan

Peter Hessler

Ian Johnson

Ananth Krishnan

Christina Larson

Michelle Dammon Loyalka

James Millward

Evan Osnos

Jeffrey Prescott

Megan Shank


Looking back four decades later at his years as a journalist in China in the 1940s, the historian John K. Fairbank blamed himself and his journalistic colleagues for “one of the great failures in history”: “We had no knowledge, in other words, and no way to gain any knowledge, of the life of ordinary Chinese people…. Our reporting was very superficial. We could not educate or illuminate or inform the American people or the American leadership in such a way that we could modify the outcome.”

What was this outcome he so regretted? Fairbank not only had in mind the American support for the Nationalist Party (Guomindang) and unstinting hostility to the Communists. He was also thinking of the way America reacted to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949: that it had “lost” China to Communism.

Fairbank was targeted for his allegedly Communist sympathies, so he knew all too well that this anti-Communist obsession had serious consequences. the vengeful rage of budding cold warriors found ready scapegoats among diplomats and journalists—the many “China Hands”—who had correctly perceived the strengths of Mao Zedong’s army and the weaknesses of America’s ally Chiang Kai-shek. Promptly branded fellow travelers of Communism, they were purged from positions of influence in the government, universities, and the media—a self-mutilation that led to the intellectual and military fiascos of Korea and Vietnam, when the United States, drawn into ground wars in Asia by Cold War paranoia, could barely see its enemy.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.