Thursday, November 01, 2007

Brave New World

Book Review: China: People Place Culture History

In a dangerous and exciting experiment, China’s rulers have allowed large segments of the country’s economy and society develop ab novo, absent the restraint of a comprehensive legal structure, devoid of the guidance of a deeply rooted and widely respected ideology, and without the feedback loop of a democratic process.

New frontiers are opened and the past is rediscovered and repurposed.

China’s brave new world is beautifully documented in a lavishly illustrated large format book China: People Place Culture History (Dorling Kindersley Ltd., New York, DK Publishing, 2007) published by Dorling Kindersley, the people behind the Eyewitness guidebook series.

In the signature DK style, the visuals are stunning. The first 60 pages are a gorgeous photo essay using double-page images to depict majestic Chinese landscapes—many of which will be unfamiliar to travelers or students of China--from the Far West to the coast.

The rest of the book is illustrated with hundreds of images, large and small, that reflect both wide-ranging work in the photo archives of the world and the efforts of photographers Christopher Pillitz and Chester Ong, who spent months in China getting the shots.

As is typical with DK, the text, though often ignored by coffee table book aficionados, is also first rate.

Authoring duties were split between four top flight academics--Alison Bailey of the University of British Columbia, Ronald G. Knapp of SUNY New Paltz, J.A.G. Roberts of the University of Huddersfield, U.K.; and Nancy Steinhardt of the University of Pennsylvania—and an experienced guidebook writer, Peter Neville-Hadley.

The History section offers more than the customary overview. Drawing on recent scholarship and archaeology, it uses text and graphics to highlight the flux within tradition and ventures away from the traditional Sinocentric narrative to portray China within its Asian context.

The Culture section, though forced into the “Han China’s Greatest Hits” format by the need to cram 4000 years of artistic and intellectual achievement into 45 pages, makes a lot of smart choices with text, illustrations, and excerpts to evoke for the reader the emotion as well as the sophistication underpinning these great works. In this respect, the poetry section is exemplary.

As befits a book co-authored by two heavyweights in the field, Professors Steinhardt and Knapp, a big chunk of the book—75 pages—is given over to a review of Chinese architecture. The text is authoritative and accessible at the same time, and the pictures, of course, are superb. The essay on Shanghai’s Jin Mao Tower—an 88 story head-on collision between traditional Chinese architecture, the Chicago School, and commercial feng shui culture—is fascinating.

Nevertheless, I wish the editors and authors had followed up on the apparent organization of the photo essays into residential, official, and religious structures and done more to provide a narrative framework placing the 16 essays—running the gamut from Hakka roundhouses to the Great Wall to Daoist temples and the majestic Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar--in a social and human context.

The heart of the book, both physically and emotionally, is a section entitled People: A Day in the Life. As the title implies, it consists of profiles of 14 contemporary Chinese individuals practicing occupations traditional (cricket seller, calligrapher) to modern (entrepreneur).

Most of the occupations—like “Festival Host”, a trusted, energetic local figure who works his cell phone, motorbike, and social connections to pull together the yearly procession of a Buddhist idol--are depicted as a combination of past and present that goes beyond the usual exoticizing Orientalism.

This commingling of old and new is the most evocative element of the book.

China’s history, culture, and future are all in play in a way they didn’t seem to be a few years ago.

So the sections of the book on history, culture, and the physical setting came together for me in a way that they wouldn’t have in the old days, when we regarded China’s physical and mental context as artifacts of a past time as China marched on to socialism, capitalism, or whatever.

The sense of excitement and uncertainty that pervades China today and its attitude towards its past is very much on display in this book.

For the inevitable cavils:

With the extensive amount of new photography, this book was necessarily prepared with the acquiescence if not assistance of the Chinese government (on its website for the book, DK makes a point of thanking their local “fixer” for getting the necessary approvals and cooperation during the three-month photo shoot).

Therefore in the modern history section we get an obligatory nod to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, as well as a somewhat jarring reference to the government’s “mishandling” of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations.

For a full picture of Chinese society, it would have been fascinating to see additional photo essays on representative contemporary figures like Factory Girl, Sex Worker, Underground Christian, Tibetan Loyalist, Army Officer, Corrupt and Lascivious Bureaucrat, Seriously Disgruntled Peasant, and The Thug Who’s Always Hanging Around the Railroad Station.

But, for the time being at least, we’re not going to get that.

So we will have to be satisfied with a snapshot of China’s astounding diversity, and not the whole picture.

Fortunately, DK’s snapshot is beautiful, informative, and evocative.

Overall, China: People Place Culture History is a model of conception, rigor, aesthetics, design, and production. It is a superb guide for an armchair voyage to China and its future.

It can be purchased—at a discount!— here .

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