Book Reviews

The China beyond Bicycles and Baozi*

China Vignettes: An Inside Look at China by Dominic Barton with Mei Ye. Talisman Publishing Pte Ltd (Singapore) 2007. 336 pages, ISBN-10: 9810580916; ISBN-13: 978-9810580919. List price: $25.00; $16.50 at

Reviewed by Andrew Kaiser

As I prepared for my first visit to China in 1990, I had a clear vision of what China would be like. I expected to see crowds of elderly Chinese men in matching Mao suits performing unison Tai Chi exercises through the morning mist of a lush, green Chinese park. Needless to say, it did not take long for me to realize China was more complex than I had imagined.

When I began my one-year teaching stint in southern China two years later, I was grateful for my previous experiences. I expected that on campus I would find large numbers of bright students from the countryside. Politically informed post-1989, their poverty and idealism would propel them into the future. A few months into the semester, I felt the scales fall from my eyes as I realized my classroom environment was more complex than I had expected.

Another few years passed, and it was time to return to the Middle Kingdom once again. Now I was looking to relate more to China’s local church. This time I was wise: I knew China was vast and varied. I expected a wide range of people within the church, though I was certain of one thing. From the few believers I had met previously and all the reading I had done, I was excited to get to know a church that was holy and pure, having been cleansed by the fires of persecution. While it took a little bit more time, the process was the same. After a few years of interaction I realized things were not so simple, and that the true nature of this congregation was far more complex than I had originally thought.

In hindsight, my experiences seem obvious. Of course a country as large and as old as China should be every bit as diverse and complex as our home countries. Yet, for many expatriate workers in China, it is often difficult to divest ourselves of convenient simplifications. Without intending any harm, we often reduce the vastness by applying simplistic labels that enable us to create patterns, thus making the bigness of China somehow manageable.

Unfortunately, this natural bent towards reduction causes problems when we use those same simplifications to analyze and strategize.

A Helpful Aid

As a corrective to this tendency, Dominic Barton’s and Mei Ye’s China Vignettes does a tremendous service to China workers. Barton, in his capacity as director of McKinsey & Company’s Asia practice, has taken his consulting skills and applied them well in an effort to capture a snapshot of China circa 2007. The result is a fascinating and informative collection of 30 interviews and 13 essays all focused on illuminating where China’s people are today.

The literary essays by prominent Chinese authors are informative though not especially unique attempts to illuminate various aspects of life in China today. Each story has a different flavor and a different focus, using one imaginary individual’s experience to highlight some of the pressures and tensions affecting people in contemporary Chinese society. Often emotional, in some cases reflective, these short stories never seem to draw the reader in as much as the snapshots of real people that make up the bulk of the book.

The interviews themselves produce a reasonable sample of Chinese society. Though most seem to have been pulled from only three or four geographical locations, the age, economic status, profession and family position of the various interviewees yield a great deal of variety. With reasonable statistical documentation included in the back, it is in these individual tableaus and their startling diversity that the strength of this book is found.

For each interviewee, Barton and Ye provide a handful of basic statisticsage, marital status, profession, income, basic living expenses, even a photobefore reproducing a “day-in-the-life-of” diary page in the subject’s own handwriting, complete with translation. This human touch highlights one of the great strengths of this work. Rather than statistics or abstract types, these are fellow human beings that we meet, their stories complete with the kinds of emotions and details that resonate with the reader. They are real.

Following the diary page, the authors supply us with a three or four page transcript of the interview proper. Barton and Ye obviously made an effort to allow their interviewees room to wander while still maintaining a focus on a few key themes. The results are typically fascinating, with the uniqueness of the individuals holding its own in the face of some clear commonalities. In selecting and editing down the no doubt lengthy interviews, change, and the challenges of dealing with change, are common points for inclusion. It is striking to see how all the factors that make these people so different yield surprisingly similar responses to change. One unasked question that lingers as the book progresses: to what degree are these people simply unaware of the massive scope of the changes still yet to come?

Future dreams and expectations also receive much attention in the interviews. One standout section focuses on a young Shanghai middle-school student. Her daily struggles, when viewed in light of her hopes and dreams, provide essential background knowledge for any outsider hoping to “understand China.” While the scope of the work necessitates that each interviewee only receives five or six pages worth of attention, one hopes that the desire to know more about a given subject will drive readers to seek further understanding from local Chinese friends and neighbors.

Families in Crisis

For any outsider who has spent a year or more as part of a local Chinese community, few needs seem more pressing than those that center on relationships within the family. Scratch beneath the surface, and almost any Chinese family will begin to unravel. Most Chinese will readily admit the difficulty of pointing out even one positive example in their community that they themselves would recognize as a healthy family. Many expatriate workers see this need and are eager to reach out and bring healing into all of these broken relationships.

For those expatriates who have spent a significantly longer period of time living in Chinese communities, the situation is acknowledged to be even more dire than originally understood. However, with time has come knowledge, and the result of most of this knowledge is a hesitancy on the part of the more experienced overseas workers to give wisdom and counsel across cultural boundaries. With an increasing number of overseas Chinese included, this population of longer-term outsiders has come to realize the many, many, many kinds of pressures bearing down upon Chinese families, pressures that do not necessarily have equivalents in the West.

This is precisely where a book like China Vignettes can prove so useful. To the degree that it is read and digested by newly arrived expatriate workers, the themes it emphasizes, along with the tremendous social variety to which it testifies, can serve as a vital warning to the outside interloper. “Be patient. Observe: this is not what you think. There are things happening here that you have not fully understood.”

To those who heed the warning, the book also offers a fantastic foundation upon which to build a far more complex and potentially more accurate understanding of this fascinating country and the people who live in it. Whether you are a novice China worker or an old hand who feels out of touch with the new China, China Vignettes offers a valuable opportunity to broaden all your definitions of China.

* A round steamed bun with meat or vegetable filling.

Image credit: lunch delivery bike by Hsing Wei, on Flickr

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Andrew T. Kaiser

Andrew T. Kaiser, author of Voices from the Past: Historical Reflections on Christian Missions in China, The Rushing on of the Purposes of God: Christian Missions in Shanxi since 1876,  and Encountering China: The Evolution of Timothy Richard’s Missionary Thought (1870–1891) has been living and working in Shanxi with his …View Full Bio