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Review: Two books provide views of China beyond the Olympics

July 28, 2008

Two books provide views of China beyond the Olympics
July 27, 2008

Over the past 15 years or so, China has been in the throes of an
extraordinary transformation. With astonishing and alarming rapidity,
it has sloughed off both its medieval quaintness and its 1950s-style
drab Communist predictability, and emerged as a vibrant modern
capitalistic power -- albeit sans the democratic trappings that
Americans are used to. This summer's Beijing Olympic Games will
provide the Chinese government a coveted world stage to show off the results.

Yet, as ever with China, complexities and conundrums abound -
unregulated factories clog the air with pollution, beggars crowd the
entrances of soaring office towers, a desperately needed peasant
labor force isn't allowed to reside in the new cities, minorities are
oppressed, and free speech remains a distant dream. For those seeking
insight into all this, two recent books are of interest -- "Dragon
Rising: An Inside Look at China Today" (National Geographic, paper,
$18.95) by Jasper Becker and "China: People, Place, Culture, History"
(DK Publishing, $40) by half a dozen different writers and photographers.

In "Dragon Rising," Becker takes the reader on a richly illustrated
tour of China's many regions and cities, including the Pearl River
Delta, Yunnan Province, the heavily industrialized northeast, and of
course Beijing and Shanghai. He includes a brief historical overview
of each area and spices the text with interviews and stories.
Overall, it's classic National Geographic fare -- colorful,
intelligent and well-paced.

As Becker sagely notes in his introduction, China's rapid
modernization has left "clear winners and losers" in its wake. It's
probably a pretty safe bet that the losers will be shunted from
public view during the Olympics, but Becker has found them in droves
and presents their stories in straightforward fashion. They include
beggars and prostitutes struggling to feed their families and better
their condition. In Shanghai, Becker encounters an old woman
"thrusting forward a four-year-old" and pleading: "We are Anhui
peasants who lost our land in last year's floods. Please give a little."

Yet in the midst of such abject want, a robust, young middle class is
enjoying Western-style amenities, including good jobs, new cars and a
stimulating night life. In fact, according to Becker, "Chinese
consumers now account for 11 percent of worldwide revenues of
luxury-good brands," and in six short years that figure is expected
to rise to 24 percent. Lest anyone doubt these figures, in 2005 China
was BMW's "biggest market after Germany."

"China: People, Place, Culture, History" tells a similar tale, but in
a larger format with hundreds more photographs. The book effectively
explores each of its subtitle's categories in depth, and the reader
comes to an even greater appreciation of China's size and diversity.

Perhaps the most interesting section is "People: A Day in the Life,"
which profiles an array of ordinary and not-so-ordinary Chinese.
These include a Loess Valley farmer who lives in a cave, a
calligrapher who owns a studio and private gallery in Beijing, tea
trade workers in Yunnan, a retired teacher in Shanghai, and an
elementary schoolchild in Shaanxi.

Another is a Buddhist monk in Qinghai, once part of Tibet.
Surprisingly, according to the authors, the governmental hand rests
relatively lightly on this remote area, far from the politically
supercharged atmosphere at Lhasa. Like many practitioners of his
abiding religious tradition, 29-year-old Dhongyu presents a detached
and peaceful countenance to the world. "Even at ten my family thought
I was wise," he says, "and would make a good monk."

The pictures in this volume are a glory. They include panoramic
landscapes -- a mist-filled mountain valley, a parched Tibetan
desert, a walled village alongside the Yellow River, and a colossal
Buddha carved into a cliff face. Other images focus on people at
their daily tasks, who in addition to those mentioned above include a
craftsman making musical instruments, a herbalist gathering roots and
bark, a cricket seller examining his wooden cages, and a jewelry
maker smiling in her shop door.

The overall impression these two books leave is of a gorgeous
landscape peopled by an industrious and warm populace. Neither book
sugarcoats the harsher political realities, but a much fuller
analysis of those lies beyond their purpose. Rather, both succeed
admirably in introducing Western readers to over one billion of their

Rick Bragg will be at the Museum of Mobile on Thursday evening. The
program begins at 5:30 p.m. with light refreshments, and people can
buy their copy of "The Prince of Frogtown" at the Museum Store. At 6
p.m., Bragg will speak. The event is free but reservations are
requested by tomorrow. Books may be purchased and arrangements made
for inscriptions by calling 208-7569.

John Sledge edits the Press-Register's Books page. He may be reached
at the Press-Register, P.O. Box 2488, Mobile, AL 36652.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
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