Restless China

Edited by Perry Link, Richard P. Madsen, and Paul G. Pickowicz

Reviewed by R. Bin Wong
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright December 2013)

Book cover for Restless China

Perry Link, Richard Madsen, and Paul Pickowicz, eds.
Restless China.Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 2013. 298 pp.
ISBN: 978-1-4422-1510-8 (Hardback);
ISBN: 978-1-4422-1511-5 (Paperback);
ISBN: 978-1-4422-1512-2 (eBook).

This is the third edited volume by a troika of distinguished contemporary China specialists that began with Unofficial China published in 1989. Collectively, the three volumes trace different components of the country’s changing social scene. This volume of twelve chapters is organized into four sections of three chapters each, the first of which considers the legacies of earlier socialist policies and practices on more recent attitudes toward accidents and safety issues, business culture, and political humor. The second section looks at the characteristics and consequences of internet use, while the third addresses different kinds of personal values, from the search for religious meaning to the pursuit of romantic love. The fourth and final section evaluates Chinese environmental issues, aspirations in higher education, and food safety issues in the context of international concerns and global standards.

Individually, the essays draw upon printed materials as well as those found on the internet; some use interviews or informants, while another focuses on television shows. The abundance and diversity of materials exposes rich veins of information that did not exist a quarter-century ago when the first volume by these editors was being researched. The challenges of evaluating such revealing and thought-provoking essays lie in creating methods to combine the insights that each offers to build a larger and more coherent picture. The editors make clear in their introduction that the twelve chapters of the book cannot cover all the ways in which Chinese today feel “restless.” Their subjects are anxious or angry about many issues, some of which, like the environment or food safety, involve direct critiques of the government, and others, like finding love or companionship, are individual and personal concerns shared by large numbers of young people. Acknowledging the particularities of the topics treated in each of the twelve chapters and avoiding any claims of representativeness for the subjects treated in the book, how can we proceed to interpret the well-documented case studies in this volume?

The three essays of Part I, entitled “Legacies,” locate the contemporary issues they address in the context of particular features of Chinese Communist political institutions. Jeremy Brown’s study of accidents addresses the collision between the growing likelihood of accidents amidst rapid growth and the persistent tendency to cover-up information about mistakes and failures responsible for accidents. X. L. Ding addresses the abuses of power under “red capitalism,” while Paul Pickowicz considers the government’s persistent antagonism to jokes about the Soviet Union since those critiques of a fallen socialist state also challenge the legitimacy of the Chinese party state. The framing of these three essays as problems and possibilities created from past practices confronting new realities is quite distinct from the three essays in Part II, entitled “A New Electronic Community.” In all three of these essays the role of the media in creating new kinds of content and communication presents at least implicitly—when not explicitly—a sharp break with past realities. Perry Link and Xiao Qiang address the emergence of rights-conscious citizens expressing their opinions on the internet, while Yang Lijun ponders the popularity of Han Han’s blog, and Shuyu Kong recounts the internet debate surrounding Ma Nuo’s materialistic rejection of a suitor on a TV dating show for inviting her to ride bicycles with him. The internet locus of the chapter topics in Part II situates them within a cluster of connections to rights-conscious expressions in other parts of the world and to the phenomenon of public intellectuals and celebrities made famous through the internet. The global present looms large in the present-day China of Part II, while a very particular past informs the Chinese present in Part I.

The three essays of Part III, entitled “Values,” move us across an emotional terrain that includes both the in-depth reworking of cultural resources in a contemporary moment and the common challenge of dating shared by young people across many cultures who face similar difficulties regarding romance, sex, living together before marriage, and informing parents of their activities. Richard Madsen’s essay on religious power and cultural creativity identifies China’s restless creative urges in its repertoire of religious beliefs and practices that he finds expressed in rituals to exorcise evil, heal the sick, and inspire the masses. The interplay of the stately “sacred” (聖 sheng) and the charismatically powerful “holy” (靈 ling) figure in both mixes of Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist practices and in the evangelical Christian and Catholic religious experiences of Chinese. David Moser’s study of Buddhism in contemporary China recognizes the influence of traditional Buddhist beliefs on society but at least as importantly argues that contemporary China is creating a new urban Buddhism. The synergy between active religious faith and dynamic social conditions suggests a kind of restless new China that draws on its own cultural resources in order to fashion its own kind of modern scene. William Jankowiak’s essay on Chinese youth reminds us that many Chinese are far more concerned with a social life involving a human partner than a divine spirit. Together the essays of Part III give us a picture of values that we can see as simultaneously particular to China and as representing a spectrum of concerns found in other contemporary societies.

The sense of China facing contemporary concerns shared everywhere is affirmed in the Part IV essays, grouped under the heading of “Global Standards.” Su Xiaokang and Perry Link consider Chinese concerns regarding pollution, water shortage, garbage, depletion of farmland, megaproject impacts on the environment, and climate change. Hsiung Ping-chen looks at the challenges of raising educational standards in universities simultaneously under party control and awash in financial resources that would make most American universities envious. Less desirable no doubt are the Chinese problems with food safety presented by Yunxiang Yan, who delineates the particular features of China’s development into a risk society in a way that enriches our understanding of postindustrial society in general.

As a collection, the essays in this volume succeed in highlighting two distinct dimensions of China’s contemporary situation. One is its simultaneously problematic and positive relationships to its political past and cultural resources. The other is its experience of problems and possibilities common to societies undergoing industrialization and moving into a postindustrial world in rapid succession. Most essays in this volume cleave closely to one or the other of these two dimensions of China’s restless present. The structures shaping people’s lived experiences and their own active efforts to formulate their own lives materially and meaningfully exist in a social space that is simultaneously part of Chinese history and a global present. Future scholarship can aspire to teach us more about the problems and possibilities that this rapidly changing society confronts at the intersection of its own history and an uncertain global future.

R. Bin Wong
University of California, Los Angeles