Friday, April 18, 2008

Learning About China

I walked away from National Geographic's Inside the Dragon event the other night with two lessons echoing in my head.

It is impossible to "get" China.

The journalists and photographers who talked about and presented their work demonstrated, if nothing else, the diversity of the land known as the "Middle Kingdom." China is composed of an array of incredibly different places, from mega-cities like Shànghǎi to locations that are as isolated as any in the world. These places are called home by dozens of minority groups (including Tibetans and Uighers), and who knows how many languages and dialects are spoken by these peoples. (Good luck to those of us who are trying to learn the "Queen's Mandarin!") The bottom line is that you can't convincingly boil China down to a 30-second sound bite, no matter how hard you might try.

A useful way of approaching China is from the "bottom up."

Rather than trying to get one's mind around all of these places and cultures by focusing on the country's leadership and what is going on at the very top of government and society, it probably makes more sense to start at the bottom, so to speak. That is, focus on individual people and families, on particular business enterprises, on certain public decisions and events. Chronicle these people and their experiences. In my case, for example, study laws not as they are written in the legislature (there is not much that really needs to be said about the National People's Congress). Instead, track how regulations are developed and implemented at the street level. Who is participating? Does their participation matter?

None of this is to suggest that there can't be a body of cumulative knowledge about China, not by a long shot. But what we ought to be doing is thinking like reporters (i.e., working from anecdotes), and acting like social scientists (i.e., looking for general patterns that come out of individual stories). At least this is how I see things at the moment, thanks to Peter Hessler and company!

~Steve

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