Book Review: Evan Osnos ‘Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China’

ageofambitionThis is a great, accessible read, that offers a map for those interested in picking their way through the minefield of press reports on China, ranging from the “China threat” myth perpetuated by some of the Western press and the “China is the best thing since sliced bread” line served up by China’s state media.

On my first read I felt a little uncomfortable with the same old rhetoric trotted out about China at the start of this book, which set out the argument that China is traditionally a “collective” society in contrast to the “individualist” Western society. The logic seemed slightly confused for me, as the timeline jumped around a bit, citing Liang Qichao’s invocation of Cromwell to illustrate China’s collectivism, and contrasting this to the ideals of Greek society – despite the fact that Cromwell is also “Western”. This became a lot clearer, however, when I heard a Sinica podcast on the subject, which makes the division between wheat growing cultures, herding cultures and rice-growing cultures, and explains that this division is not so necessarily East/West, but also divides different places in China. It also clarified what is actually meant by “individualist” and “collectivist” societies, which may sometimes be slightly counter-intuitive:

Listen to it here:



This also reminded me of an interview that I had subtitled on the differences between Western art and Chinese art that had sparked a long discussion between me and a Taiwanese friend, when she revealed that she thought there was inherent differences between Western and (ethnically or culturally) Chinese people, whereas I’ve always been in the “people are essentially the same” camp – it’s just about relative conservatism. The interview was with Tim Yip, the art director for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, who was talking about differences between Western and Chinese art:



I thought that it was a little inappropriate to contrast Chinese traditional art or furniture to Andy Warhol and concept art, as if that’s representative of Western tradition, but it sparked an interesting conversation with my friend and Yip raises some interesting points on the role of the artist and of religion in traditional Western art and how perceived individualism and collectivism impinges on artistic expression, although I felt his idea of Eastern tradition sounded a lot like Plato’s plane of ideal forms, despite my friend’s protestations that I just wasn’t understanding spacial dimensions of the Chinese word “境界” – which I think I translated as “aura” but could easily have been “paradigm”.

I’ve regularly engaged Taiwanese friends on the cultural exceptionalism they often use to define themselves, but am yet to find a difference that is greater than the cultural divide between me and my maternal grandmother, although in China I thought that the culture gap was a lot larger. I thought Osnos made an effort throughout the book to undermine this cultural relativism later in the book, however, by presenting a wide range of interesting and diverse individuals throughout the book, and I even suspected that this was a deliberate attempt by the author to undermine this kind of generalization. He actively debunks many of the prevalent ideas about Chinese cultural differences, particularly with the common stories featured in the news about accidents or attacks in China which include a heartless onlooker trope, like in the story about a woman attacked and killed in a McDonald’s across the street from a police station by members of a pseudo-religious organization while other patrons just looked on, or this story about a man in Yunnan who was jeered at and told to get on with it, when he was threatening to jump to his death in Yunnan. This is often attributed to a difference in cultural norms, and I’ve even heard some ex-pats insist that China has too many people for individual life to be of any value. Osnos does a good job of undercutting this trope, with reference to the case of a young girl who was killed in a hit-and-run killing, and whose body was passed over by several people before a trash collector found her and tried to get her help. By fleshing out the story and letting us see that the “heartless onlookers” in the eye-grabbing headline are more human than we’d like them to be portrayed, when he visits them and asked them why they failed to help her:


They were conscripted  into a parable, but the morality play did not do justice to the layers of their lives.


Indeed, it’s in his descriptions of people, that Osnos gives us some of the most well-crafted lines in the book, like, when describing a dating site founder, he says of her:


… she was propelled by bursts of exuberance and impatience, as if she were channeling China’s industrial id.


Osnos is very insightful and sensitive in his portrayal of all the people that he presents to us in his book, and they appear completely unvarnished, giving readers an insight into how high-profile figures in the West, like Ai Weiwei are viewed in China. He knows a lot of key figures in China’s art and media scene, which allows him to pepper the book with comments from figures from China’s literary and arts scene, like Wang Shuo and Jia Zhangke, while he still gives equal weight to the Chinese everyman and those whose ambitions were never realized.

There’s an incredible range of facts in the book and lots of interesting detail, which give us the context to decisions announced dryly by the state press, and allow for a more rounded interpretation of the logic and aims of the Communist Party and what dilemmas they face as China continues to develop, along with the ideological impact of the choices they make, like the decision in 2002 to change references to the party from “revolutionary party” to “party in power,” for example.

I was also fascinated to solve a question that I still remember from my third year course in Chinese at Leeds in the UK, when we translated a text with the term “bobozu” (波波族) and there had been a debate as to where the term came from, with one of my coursemates informing us that it was an acronym for “burnt out but opulent,” which didn’t seem very relevant to the China we had left the previous year. Osnos reveals that a satirical sociological book by David Brooks had been translated into Chinese a few years earlier called Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There and had become a bestseller, “bourgeious bohemians” being the “bobo” or “bubo” in question, although I still like my classmate’s explanation better.

Osnos’ book is also very funny, with little tidbits of information that will have you chuckling, such as night schools teaching Chinese to spit liquor into their tea to avoid getting drunk when out with their bosses and the state-media accusing a Chinese nationalist blogger of being a fifty-center (paid by government to keep the public internet debate in line amongst other funny tales.

There’s also a real insight into the power of nationalism in the book, captured by the author in the words of Lu Xun on foreigners:


We either look up to them as gods or down on them as animals.


The way tools, such as patriotism, xenophobia and nationalism, are deployed in China, by the state, the media and individuals is highlighted by the author throughout the book, as well as how the state censorship machine really functions on the ground.

A worthwhile read for anyone with even a passing interest in China who wants to understand what China is really all about, and the people that constitute its citizenry. The book is divided into the three sections that are the three things most discussed in references to China by outsiders – “fortune” referring to is now the cliched “meteoric rise” of China’s economy, “truth” dealing with the media in China and censorship, and finally faith, dealing with what people often refer to as the spiritual poverty of China, and how this is rapidly changing as China opens up and people look for something beyond the physical.

5/5 Must read

Review: The Man With Compound Eyes – Chapter 1 《複眼人》第一章

Been planning several posts, but have been a little busy lately so apologies for the blogging hiatus, though I’ve got a translation of a short story by Roan Ching-yue (阮慶岳) and a review of the amazing Thoughts from Tribeca (《瓊美卡隨想錄》) by Mu Xin (木心) in the works . I’ve decided to review the next book chapter by chapter, so that there will be more regular content on the blog, and so I can give enough weight to each chapter as the story develops.


On the recommendation of Dan Bloom, I started reading the original Chinese version of The Man with Compound Eyes —《複眼人》— by Wu Ming-Yi (吳明益) which has just been published in English translation. I realized later that I’d actually perused another book by the author in a bookshop in Taipei, a short story collection called The magician on the footbridge (《天橋上的魔術師》) , it had looked good but I hadn’t any money on me that day so I couldn’t buy it, and I promptly forgot about it.

The first chapter is divided into three parts. After the first fragment in which the Han Chinese sounding Li Rongxiang (李榮祥) is caught up in what I assumed was an earthquake, comes the second chapter, which tells the story of an island people. The story, seemed to incorporate adapted and more exaggerated, sexed up versions of Taiwanese aboriginal customs (like those of the Amis/Pancah) and those of other Pacific cultures – like women choosing their sexual partners by tickling them in some tribes, which is portrayed in the story through the series of sexual encounters the protagonist is compelled to go through in the bushes with women from the tribe while he searches for the girl he really likes before his departure from the island, as all second sons must depart the island when they come of age – related in a casual tone but in an anthropological register, which reminded me somewhat of the issues raised about the Han portrayal of aboriginal culture brought up in this essay by Huang Yuqian and about the private vs public duality of the famous anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in the film Savage Memory which I watched recently at the Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival. Given the controversy over representation and exploitation of aboriginal people that has surfaced in the past – including that surrounding one of the curator’s of the ethnographic film festival Professor Hu Taili, when she shot a documentary in Orchid Island and was accused by the locals of exploitation despite the clearly sensitive approach her film takes (see a review of it here) – I thought it was interesting that an ethnically Han Taiwanese author would choose to take this approach in describing what is clearly a fantastical parallel to Orchid Island. Following these two parts there is another shift in time and space. Alice, who lives in H county, which seems to be more or less synonymous with Taidong county, is grief stricken and planning her suicide after the disappearance of her Dutch boyfriend and his son in an earthquake while they were mountain climbing. The calm way in which she went about planning her own death reminded me of the Singaporean film 15 in which a young Singaporean goes on a tour round the city to see if he can find a non-cliche building to jump off, so that his suicide can be cool. The character Alice brought up several points which I thought were interesting. The first was her criticism of academia in Taiwan, which she criticizes as overly bureaucratic and she criticizes academics as overly business minded. As I have first hand experience of studying a literature degree in Taiwan I recognized this character as similar to some of the people I’ve met during my studies, as she’s almost a caricature of the typical Taiwanese young woman who wants to write but is sucked in by depression and blames everything around her for her own problems. Not that academia doesn’t have its problems – the sheer amount of work involved means that reading is always hard to fit in to your schedule, and lots of professors in Taiwan seem more interested in how much grant money they can get rather than having any passion for scholarship itself.

The second issue was the idea of development in Taiwan. She mentions that the city has changed and developed into an urban sprawl – which reminded me of a ted talk i saw but can not locate, about a guy who had originally been protesting the construction of the Suhua highway, but who discovered that he was being called a traitor by the local people who saw the highway as bringing much needed development to the region.  The same dilemma is thrown up in the book when after hearing Alice’s complaints at the development being inauthentic, her colleague replies: 「照妳這麼說,那真的應該是什麼樣子?」(According to your logic then what should it really look like?). I felt this was an interesting way to introduce doubt towards the unreliable narrator, as the controversy over urban renewal projects in Taiwan often have two sides encapsulated by this statement. When discussing this issue with aboriginal students in Taiwan I came across two different points of view, some being in favour of economic development which can help the people in terms of earning enough to survive, though it erodes traditional culture, the other favoured cultural heritage but at the cost of many people’s livelihoods.

The Sunken and Forbidden Islands – Huang Yuqian 沉沒與禁閉之島——黃郁茜

There are many islands strewn across the Pacific, they withdrew from the world, and hoped never to be found. The footsteps of the Han quietly snuck up upon them however, their persuasive words laced with the rhetoric of modernity and development. From Orchid Island to Yap, what does the trajectory of these footprints tell us?

 Islands Spirited Away

Rumung, a name that doesn’t appear on any Chinese maps.

The islanders don’t like outsiders, so Rumung is also nicknamed the Forbidden Island – because outsiders are forbidden to set foot there.

Northwards from the Forbidden Island is Sippin, the Sunken Island. Rumour has it that the islanders were so reluctant to being discovered by foreigners that one hundred years ago, at the beginning of the modern era of world history, they decided to disappear into the watery depths together. To this day, Yap islanders who fish in that area can still hear roosters crowing, dogs barking and human voices. Looking northwards from the Forbidden Island, one can even see smoke from cooking fires rising underneath the low lying clouds.1

They hid themselves for fear of being discovered. Several hundred years ago, the Yap islanders were already proficient enough in the art of illusion, that they were able to conceal the entire island from the Spanish as they explored the Pacific. Compared with Palau, which from the 19th Century onward was to become the headquarters of the German and Japanese Empires for the Pacific region, Yap, “discovered” by the Portuguese as early as the 16th Century, seems, like a pebble, to have skimmed along the surface of world history, watching impassively as the fleets of ships passed by, quietly praying that the outsiders never discovered their island, that they never docked there.

“Field Research” or something like it

After the defence of my thesis proposal, I set out for Yap in Micronesia to carry out my doctoral field research.

Wading through the mud of taro fields there, I often wondered how my classmates carried out their field research? “Observation” seems to be a synonym of “”skiving off”. Apparently French structural anthropologists in the 1970s always carried out field research in small work teams: the botanists would focus on collecting samples, psychologists would employ their erudite techniques to divine the psychology of the native peoples, and the economic anthropologists went about measuring the surface area of the fields and the daily food consumption of the residents and so on. They would stay for no more than three months. After collecting enough samples, they would up sticks and leave.

Of course there was also Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942), who anglophone anthropologists look up to as creating a bench mark for field work; if his return journey hadn’t been delayed by the First World War, a paradigmatic approach involving long term individual field work might not have been created, the indigenous people, I fear, would not have been endlessly pestered by the solitary Pole in his gold-rimmed spectacles and the tribal mountain villages of Taiwan would not be brimming with graduate students, naïve or seasoned, dull-witted or passionate, thinking back to the great anthropologists that preceded them over the last hundred years, while struggling to survive in the field.

Nor would the leader of the anti-nuclear campaign, many years later, on an island named Orchid Island by the Han, called the Island of Men by the islanders, have asked me with gravity, ‘As the ethnic group you are researching and that have treated you as one of their own, reach a critical juncture between survival and extinction; how do you deal with the fact that, whether you’re aware of it or not, your research shall be used as a reference for development projects by government agencies or entrepreneurs?’

(The friendly nature of the islanders prevented them from saying ‘Actually we hate you anthropologists above all, above everyone.)

Why here?

Eight years ago, I was weeding the fields of a little island that locals call the ‘Island of Men’ and that the Han call ‘Orchid Island’. It was for a period of just under six weeks. Every day I would put on sun cream and follow an old couple into the fields, listening to an Mp3 of ‘Country Road’ whilst I weeded. After listening to the melody around forty times on loop I could make my way back home. Or perhaps it was even longer than that? Memory tends to fail me.

One day my father asked me what I was actually getting up to on the Island of Men? I replied truthfully that I was weeding, moving taro, and carrying out interviews.

Due to my father’s swarthy skin, I was never able to read his emotions on his face, but I knew at that instant that his expression had darkened just then.


“If you like working in the fields, I have a one hundred square yard patch of land near our ancestral home in the south, I can give it to you to plant vegetables on.”
“If you like taro so much, you can even plant taro there.”
“Actually, I really quite like taro.” my father would say.

I knew what my father had prevented himself from saying.

I’d already complained to my friend on the island. “My high school classmate is studying English Literature at Cambridge. Why am I here weeding the fields?”

My friend gave a chuckle, probably wondering where Cambridge was. Although he was only three years older than me, my friend still perhaps found it hard to understand the mindset of islanders from mainland Taiwan, just as I, even though I followed in their footsteps everyday as they came back and forth from the fields, found it hard to understand why the old people went to inspect and weed the taro fields and to make sure they were well irrigated, day in, day out – or rather, I only understood it rationally, just as I “knew” that their kinship system was bilineal with patrilineal tendencies. As the old people looked anxiously at the stalks and leaves of the taro plants and the rotten bodies of the taros themselves, inside I was just desperate to clarify the principle on which the social hierarchy was based.

“The taros have gone bad,” one old man said.
“The taro haven’t been good since the nuclear station came.”

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