I’ve just finished two China books that really give two different views about China, but they have something in common: they’re both about foreigners’ time in China.
The first one is an absolute classic. 400 Billion Customers by Carl Crow is the quintessential business book about how to sell your products in to the China market. Written by Crow in 1937, the book’s main principals still stand today and have been repeated by countless successors who — some rightly and some not — consider themselves modern Carl Crows. The unique thing about this book is that Crow has a unique and admiration for the Chinese in all things. Even when he is writing about sneaky business deals and shady characters, you can almost hear the admiration in his voice — the funny cartoons in each chapter help as well. Crow doesn’t let you think business in China is easy, but he definitely let’s you know that it’s fun and an adventure.
Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler on the other hand while it is an adventure — and a superb piece of writing — is much darker. Hessler, who is the Beijing correspondent for the New Yorker, doesn’t cut the corners when talking about modern China, he shows the advancements that his former English students have made (they were originally profiled in his last book, River Town) and a Uigher trader that he befriends when he first moves to Beijing and he also writes about homes being destroyed to modernize Beijing and corruption that occurs in people’s drive “to get rich first”.
Though dark, this book is one that I savoured and really took my time with. I read it over three weeks and enjoyed it like a good meal — a very filling one. I found myself only reading a chapter at a day, maybe two or three on the weekend. I had to stop and let each chapter digest the images were just too vivid to go back for another helping right away. The images were just too ingrained in my mind. And it’s those ingrained images that are going to make me go out and buy Hessler’s next book.