Red Tide

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China-bound friends and acquaintances often ask me what to read to get a fix on the country I teach and write about for a living. So I've always got a set of titles to reel off. However, the occasional interlocutor will interrupt my litany of must-reads to say they only have time to absorb one. I'm often flummoxed when this happens, but fortunately Zha Jianying's Tide Players: The Movers and Shakers of a Rising China has come to free me from the dilemma by covering all bases — in under 250 pages to boot.

The book consists of two sets of three chapters, each a biographical profile. The first set deals with entrepreneurs: a tycoon obsessed with clearing the name of his mother (unjustly accused of political crimes); a husband-and-wife team of developers (one of whom grew up poor in a village, the other a scion of intelligentsia, both now practicing Baha'is); and a onetime barefoot doctor who has launched several businesses.

The second set of chapters covers intellectuals. One is devoted to the tragic story of the author's brother, a founding member of the China Democratic Party who spent a long stretch in prison for his political views (unlike the sympathetically portrayed subject of the following chapter, who has worked with the authorities while trying to preserve some independence). Zha's brother's tale is the book's most moving and the most topical, given recent headlines about Ai Weiwei's arrest and the ongoing crackdown on dissent.

Bookending these two sections are a biographical prelude and an epilogue. The former offers us a sketch of Zha's own life, including an adulthood spent moving between U.S. and Chinese cities and institutions (during which time she wrote China Pop, a 1996 work that was once a mainstay of my list of recommended titles). This peripatetic lifestyle has made Zha thoroughly bicultural. It's completely fitting that her latest book's title plays on both Shakespeare's famous reference to "tides" in human affairs and traditional Chinese visions of "tide players" — people who are both swept along by and help shape the developments of their age.

In her epilogue, Zha explains her uneasiness with both the dark musings of the Cassandras and the overly upbeat pronouncements some commentators make on China. She argues — less unusually than she implies (others have been writing in the same vein) — for a perspective that acknowledges not only the sufferings associated with China's boom but also its undeniable achievements.

These opening and closing sections are fine, but it's the central chapters that make the book special, largely due to the diversity of the tales. Yes, most of the people Zha writes about are relatively well-off urbanites, but they deploy different strategies in challenging or accepting (or, in most cases, a little bit of both) a system characterized by both enduring political constraints and increasing options in everyday life.

If there are common threads connecting the people here, they are the capacity for reinvention, and a tendency for lives to take turns as surprising as those of the country as a whole. Zha's brother, for example, was by turns a Red Guard, a longtime resident of a poor village and a failed entrepreneur. Like many of those profiled, he seems to have lived not one life but several. One reason this book rings true for me is that the same could be said of many people I've gotten to know during a quarter-century of traveling to China. I've seen the exhilaration and disorientation they experience in living through times when a country once imagined as stagnant now seems to be stuck, for better and worse, in fast-forward mode.

Wasserstrom's latest book is China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know