Forty years ago, when China was a lot less consequential our relationship was a lot easier. Now things are different. China is not only a manufacturing powerhouse, but they are also producing top of the line products that threaten us now and into the future. We will be butting heads with them for some time. We need to find common ground.
But to make peace with China we first have to understand them. And understanding China has never been easy for Westerners. I recommend here two movies and some books as a good starting point to mastering the Middle Kingdom.
First the movies. “Crazy Rich Asians” was hailed recently as the first Western blockbuster directed and acted by Asians. It did well here but it completely flopped in China. The Chinese couldn’t believe this is what the West thought ‘China’ was. The movie basically reflected how uber-wealthy overseas Chinese in Singapore behaved.
A much better movie, though not yet as widely distributed, is “The Farewell”. This one has real Chinese characters and reflects real Chinese culture. Family and tradition are at the core of Chinese society. The movie wrestles with what it means to be Chinese especially what it means to be an overseas Chinese who has emigrated but who is still bound by the traditions left behind.
I used to think being part Chinese and part American was the best of both worlds. With America and China more and more dominant what could be better than knowing the Chinese language and culture while at the same time understanding America’s ways. But I now realize it is much more complicated. Overseas Chinese returning to the Mainland are viewed as not quite Chinese while here in America they look foreign. “Where are you from?” is the common question. Nothing is easy in this Global World.
A second film, actually a documentary, was released by Netflix two months ago. “American Factory” follows the story of a Chinese auto glass maker, Fuyao which acquired a shuttered General Motors plant in the Midwest in 2014. The film makers used 1,200 hours of footage over five years to create a very detailed story of the strengths and weaknesses of China and America and the collision of two very different workforces. The film raises important and difficult questions about both countries. There are no easy answers here. This is definitely a must see.
Finally, some books on China. There are many good ones but I especially like anything by two authors, Peter Hessler and Evan Osnos both previous New Yorker magazine correspondents in China. Hessler first went to China in the 1990’s as a Peace Corps English teacher living in a poor town along the Yangtze River. This led to his breakout book River Town. Subsequently he wrote a National Book Award finalist, Oracle Bones and then an amusing story, Country Driving about his experience of renting beat up cars in China for lengthy road trips and discovering some very interesting people and places along the way. Hessler is an entertaining observer.
Evan Osnos followed Hessler as The New Yorker staff writer in China. His Age of Ambition won the 2014 National Book Award for non-fiction. Both Hessler and Osnos’ books are more culture than politics but this is as it should be. Understanding China is first and foremost about understanding the unique culture. Hopefully these recommendations will help.