Oriental self-portraits: an oral history of contemporary China

Chinese Lives, by Zhang Xinxin and Sang Ye. New York: Pantheon. 368 pp. $18.95. In ``Working,'' ``Hard Times,'' and ``Division Street,'' Studs Terkel gave us a series of amazingly insightful takes on the American people. Now in ``Chinese Lives'' (with a preface by Terkel), Zhang Xinxin and Sang Ye, two gifted young Chinese journalists, have done the same thing on those who live in today's Middle Kingdom.

In this oral history of contemporary China, the interviewers and their editors and translators, W.J.F. Jenner and Delia Davin, offer us a set of colorful self-portraits by those they encountered on trains, in factories, on city streets, and in the countryside of that vast land.

By skillful questioning and the judicious editing of their notes, Zhang and Sang succeed in conveying a considerable amount of information about individuals who seem to have been plucked out of the masses visitors see but rarely meet. As we read, China - and its people - open up before our eyes.

Perhaps what is most striking and illuminating is the way Zhang and Sang's subjects collectively indicate how idiosyncratic life is even for those who live in the highly controlled People's Republic of China. Their gentle probes get those they interview to bare their souls, to express their innermost feelings, to talk about - and tell about - themselves.

The ``voices'' we hear are varied. Some speak haltingly; some in staccato sentences; some in flowery detail. Some are funny; others are sad. All are interesting. Whether reading about the mundaneness of everyday life, various attempts to go against the grain, or the persistence of tradition, we come to feel a growing sense of familiarity with these strangers.

There is the old woman who says, ``That's how it used to be: men took the imperial examination and women [like her] had their feet bound.''

There is the candidate for such an exam today who has failed once and is forced by her parents to try again. Speaking of the nearly unbearable pressure, she tells the interviewers, ``I wish I were dead. If only I could kill myself. But I'm an only child, and I'd hate to hurt my parents that much.''

There is a former Red Guard who joined the movement in 1966. After some prodding, she described how she helped ransack homes not even knowing the charges against their inhabitants, then candidly admitted the sheer excitement of the overall experience: ``It's something I'm rather ashamed of. It's funny though, when I do talk about it, I remember all sorts of things. I remember cutting off a girl's plaits; giving out leaflets; ... endless activities and meetings.''

There is a middle-aged boss of the Harbin New Sun Construction Company who says, ``As a company manager I have a lot of power. People are hired or fired on my say-so.'' There are nearly 60 others, including a knitter of woolly hats who won a prize on a television-sponsored knitting contest; a 13-year-old popcorn popper whose patrons supply the ingredients for him to do his job; an old woman sold into prostitution years ago who said she ``knew'' thousands of men before being rehabilitated, marrying, and having a daughter who now attends a university. There are prison guards and Red Guards; bureaucrats, bankers, and booksellers; media personalities and misfits; peasants and Communist Party bigwigs.

To put their varied lives in a broader context, the editors offer a useful introduction and a capsule chronology of the principal events between the revolution of 1911 that overthrew the Manchus and the present.

Peter I. Rose was a visiting scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Peking in 1986.

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