Sunday, October 2, 2011

Jan Wong's China

My first book on China by Canadian journalist Jan Wong was her Red China Blues, a look back on the author's complicated relationship with China. As a student during the Cultural Revolution, Wong swallowed the Communist Party line unquestioningly and traveled to Beijing to become one of the few capitalist bloc residents to study there.

Her faith in the Communist Party managed to continue for a couple of years, but it didn't last forever. Wong ended up quite disillusioned with the whole Communist experiment.

Years passed. In the second part of the book, Wong describes her return to China in the 1980s as a journalist, now cynical and no longer willing to accept the Chinese government's viewpoint uncritically. Red China Blues' climax comes when Wong describes the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which she witnessed, in graphic detail.

Not quite so autobiographical is Wong's later book, Jan Wong's China, a collection of stories of Wong's experiences working as a journalist in China in the 1990s. The book was published at the end of that decade, so the impression I got of China was already a decade out of date. One should hope that impression is somewhat divorced from present-day reality, because the picture Wong paints is a grim one.

My total experience inside China (excluding Hong Kong and Macau) amounts to five days in Beijing in 2003, so I have little personal experience to draw on. My own thoughts on China are somewhat ambivalent; as I wrote earlier this year, China lurks on a great barely-known entity on the edge of my consciousness. (Living in Taiwan, I can hardly help it.)

I read books about China fairly often, and they tend to paint a rather alarming picture in terms of life within China's borders, particularly in the less wealthy areas. Jan Wong's stories of China in the 1990s, which I read two months ago (which is why I'm a bit hazy on details), do a good job humanizing the the individuals who live in China, while not shying away from the grittier details of life there.

After the generally grim view of China presented elsewhere in the book, the chapter on Tibet presented a remarkably - and unexpectedly - balanced picture. The Chinese authorities are not depicted as the benevolent liberators they would like foreigners to think they are. But neither are they depicted as evil overlords determined to stamp out Tibetan culture. I'm no expert on Tibet so I can't judge where the truth lies (it's probably really complicated) but Wong's treatment of Tibet, a land with half-Han, half-Tibetan citizens who voluntarily choose to remain officially Tibetan in the state records because they find it advantageous under Chinese law, hits a plausible note of fairness.

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