China Candid: The People on the People's Republic, by Sang Ye. Edited by Geremie R. Barmé, with Miriam Lang. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. xxvi + 338 pp. US$50.00/~32.50 (hardcover), US$19.95/£12.95 (paperback).
China Candid's author Sang Ye is a journalist and oral historian, well-known both within China and in the realm of translated sinological writings. He has made a name for himself with his forthright presentation of everyday Chinese voices, much in the manner that Studs Terkel made depression-era laborers and African-American migrants in America accessible, compelling and relevant to a general public. In fact, both editor Geremie Barmé and Sang invoke Terkel as a comparison for Sang's oral history projects. Sang's latest captivating venture into the world of oral history, China Candid, is a fascinating and compelling collection of interviews and conversations with a broad range of Chinese citizens that pays homage to the disparate range of experiences and sentiment in the contemporary era.
The book begins with an introduction by Barmé, who sets the tone of the volume with reference to Cultural Revolution storytelling of "surreptitious ... private tales" that elicited "sympathetic response[s]", "reminiscences of sufferings" and "absurdist tragedies" (p. ix). Sang Ye's 26 interviews continue this trajectory, evoking the sufferings and absurdities of the contemporary era. Culled from over one hundred original conversations, these interviews were recorded over a four-year period in which Sang visited over one hundred cities and villages. These are people, as Sang notes in his introduction, who are members of the "unremarkable", the "normal, everyday and uncelebrated" populace (p. 1). While never represented as the immutable prototype of contemporary Chinese existence, those featured are indeed part of the cast of millions of "average" citizens who, in the poignant words of one interviewee, will never appear on television "unless I suddenly murder someone or am murdered" (p. 1). They are neither famous actors, nor prominent politicians, nor noted intellectuals, but rather itinerant workers, disillusioned Communist Party members and panic-stricken parents of a kidnapped child, to mention only a few. Echoing Terkel' s writing style, the chapters are formatted so that the interviewer's voice and questions are largely removed from the manuscript, making it appear as if the voices are speaking directly, in unmediated fashion, to the reader, an "organic" representation of everyday reality.
China Candid's stories of this everyday reality evoke a range of reactions and emotions. At times humorous and inspirational, at others tragic and disheartening, the voices defy typecasting and categorization. The volume begins with an interview with an erstwhile petty criminal who, upon release from jail, began trading in used clothing and after a series of fortuitous and sometimes marginally legal business ventures emerged a millionaire. Other chapters similarly chronicle citizens' relationship to the changing economic order, detailing for example the experiences of a migrant laborer who compared his contemporary life to the pre-Mao era: "We were really no better off than people had been under the old society ... it was even worse than it was in the past" (p. 30), and a retired college professor involved in an English-language teaching program scam. "I know", he argues, referring to traditional philosophy that would reproach his business dealings, "Confucius said that to die of starvation is a trifle compared to losing your integrity, but in my opinion we'd better try and avoid starving first" (p. …