Red Tide

In Time, Jeffrey Wasserstrom reviews the new book by Zha Jianying, Tide Players: The Movers and Shakers of a Rising China, which he says, “covers all the bases” for someone trying to understand contemporary China:

The book consists of two sets of three chapters, each a biographical profile. The first set deals with entrepreneurs: a tycoon obsessed with clearing the name of his mother (unjustly accused of political crimes); a husband-and-wife team of developers (one of whom grew up poor in a village, the other a scion of intelligentsia, both now practicing Baha’is); and a onetime barefoot doctor who has launched several businesses. (See why China’s rising production costs are a boon for other Asian states.)

The second set of chapters covers intellectuals. One is devoted to the tragic story of the author’s brother, a founding member of the China Democratic Party who spent a long stretch in prison for his political views (unlike the sympathetically portrayed subject of the following chapter, who has worked with the authorities while trying to preserve some independence). Zha’s brother’s tale is the book’s most moving and the most topical, given recent headlines about Ai Weiwei’s arrest and the ongoing crackdown on dissent.

Bookending these two sections are a biographical prelude and an epilogue. The former offers us a sketch of Zha’s own life, including an adulthood spent moving between U.S. and Chinese cities and institutions (during which time she wrote China Pop, a 1996 work that was once a mainstay of my list of recommended titles). This peripatetic lifestyle has made Zha thoroughly bicultural. It’s completely fitting that her latest book’s title plays on both Shakespeare’s famous reference to “tides” in human affairs and traditional Chinese visions of “tide players” — people who are both swept along by and help shape the developments of their age.

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