Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Cited as a scholar on China the public should heed

Historians in the News

LOS ANGELES — America needs more people like Prof. Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a heretofore humble academic here on the West Coast. Let me explain.

Understanding China is going to remain irritatingly difficult. It's an obviously important but intensely problematic place, with a possibly fabulous or possibly tragic future. We maybe have a better shot figuring out the future of India, or even Mars.

If we leave the job of thinking about China to our general mass news media, we will wind up with mainly superficial portraits of that part of China that's most visible to the eye and to the camera, while losing all sight and sense of that part of China that is clandestine or at least well beneath the surface....

Exhibit A would be to have more observers like Wasserstrom, history professor from the University of California, Irvine. His publisher (Indiana University Press) is offering us his new book, titled "China's Brave New World And Other Tales For Global Times." It penetrates with a lightly knowing eye and ear into the interior mind, heart and soul of giant China and the innumerable Chinese.

The good professor's main approach to getting us deeper into China's DNA is to not act like the typical professor — that is, forget the fudging footnotes and the dodgy theories. Instead, dip into the easy writing and clear expression, the common touch of forcing you to come with him into the coffee shop to chat with students or stick with him as your guide as he takes you down China's event-filled memory lanes.

In his collections of essays, Wasserstrom helps us understand more about China in a way that inoffensively suggests how little we know and by implication how little the professor knows, despite in fact knowing so much — relatively speaking.

"I ask," he writes, "Does it mean the same thing when a Starbucks or a bowling alley opens in Beijing as opposed to Boise, the Canton of China as opposed to the Canton in Ohio?" His emphatic answer, you quickly find out, is that it dramatically does not and you find out exactly why.

Although he admits to exceptions (as do I), hard-core Western academic "experts" declaiming on China generally leave him cold. And although he agrees that there are some excellent American foreign correspondents working on the mainland (as do I), he has little love for their editors back in the U.S. and or in Europe, who resist originality and force their copy into preconceived pigeonholes with the size of the pigeons getting smaller with every corporate tightening of the news hole.

"China's Brave New World" is full of insights over a broad China canvas. "Too often," the professor writes, "Americans curious about China feel they have only two options: accept the overly simplistic answers to big questions provided by a sound-bite-driven mass media, or look for alternatives in stuffy academic works that can be off-putting due to the style in which they are written. I want to offer a third option: a playful look at serious issues."...

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