China’s Brave New World – And Other Tales for Global Times
By Jeffery N. Wasserstrom; Indiana University Press; US$21.95
The term “globalization” is often talked about as a great homogenizing force still unfolding.
The near ubiquity of US fast food and pop culture is often held up as evidence of the world’s descent into “Americanization.” Meanwhile, evolving transportation and communication technologies are “flattening” the physical and political boundaries between countries, making people, ideas and goods easier to send anywhere.
The importance of place is becoming negligible.
Yet for all the claims by writers like Thomas Friedman that “a Big Mac is a Big Mac is a Big Mac,” in fact, the same burger can mean different things in different settings. This is highly pertinent in China, where McDonald’s may be a legitimate date spot for Valentine’s Day.
Place, history and culture, far from being subsumed by a bland, homogeneous force, actually jostle, collide and fuse with it, creating a picture of China and other countries that is much more complex and textured than it first appears to be.
Such is the view of Jeffery N. Wasserstrom, a historian at the University of California, Irvine, who examines China’s unique brand of globalization and other phenomena in China’s Brave New World – And Other Tales for Global Times.
As may be expected from a historian, the past has a notable presence in the book. But despite his background, Wasserstrom often evokes it playfully. China’s Brave New World is, after all, a collection of first-person essays drawing on the author’s personal experiences of the last 30 years.
Among the tales are a few fanciful “what if” scenarios that open up discussions of how China’s past still echoes in the present. “What if Mao was still alive to hear ‘The East Is Red’ played as a cell phone ring tone?” he muses.
Other portions offer balanced insights on big events in modern Chinese history, such as the Tiananmen protests of 1989 and the aftermath of the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. This is where Wasserstrom hits his stride, revisiting complex situations and recounting the mixed feelings on all sides, all the while exposing flaws in the media’s simplistic and sound-byte driven coverage.
Though a majority of the book’s 16 chapters deal with China directly, others range considerably – from statue parks in Budapest to heritage festivals in Indiana. And though Wasserstrom says he “always keeps China in [his] eye,” a number of chapters, both in time and place, feel awkwardly placed in the collection.
Furthermore, while providing all-important context for an American audience, the book may feel less-than-cutting edge to those based in China who are familiar with many of the country’s peculiarities. It’s less surprising, for example, to read about Mao’s image cropping up in unlikely places, anti-Communism philosophy books proudly on display in bookstores, or simply mystifying interpretations of American culture.
But one of Wasserstrom’s reoccurring messages – that China’s present is a unique and multi-layered place in time – is useful to all. This kind of deeper, more balanced perspective is an essential part of the mix if we are to understand the forces at work in shaping China.
Excerpt: Re-thinking Tiananmen
[Media] distortion certainly happened back in 1989 – a classic moment when the Americanization myth was dominant. Captivated by the media’s focus on students quoting Tom Paine and rallying around an icon reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty, Americans often failed to realize that those who took to the streets were workers angered by official corruption and their inability to form independent unions – not the absence of elections.
The American media also failed to grasp or to effectively convey that the student activists themselves were inspired as much by patriotism as by foreign ideals. They wanted to get the Chinese Revolution back on track, not derail it, to make China strong on its own terms, not Americanize it.