My father worked for a Hong Kong conglomerate, Swire, and that helped pique my interest in China. And then in university, as a lark I signed up for Chinese. I became attracted to the language and just kept studying it. I also began to realize that it might have a practical use as well because China was opening to the outside world. People were starting to travel and do business with China. The first wave of U.S. correspondents (Fox Butterfield, Richard Bernstein and Linda and Jay Matthews) had just returned from China and were publishing their accounts. I was already involved in journalism but realized that maybe I could combine the two. I was an exchange student in 1984-85 in China, and after college, I went to Taiwan for nearly two years to study Chinese. I returned to mainland China in 1994 as a correspondent for Baltimore’s The Sun and then for The Wall Street Journal. All in all I’ve spent over a decade in Greater China.
Did you go to China intending to write a book?
No, in fact when I first went to China I vowed not to write a book. At that time, I was kind of fed up with traditional-style correspondent’s books about China and other countries. Typically there is a chapter on the economy, another on politics, one on women, on art or food, sex or culture and so on. Those books made sense in the early years of China’s opening but they tend to be formulaic and become dated quickly.
What changed your mind?
I realized that there was something important to say about China that would go beyond providing a snapshot of China at a certain period of time—something that might be more forward-looking. Most coverage of China tends to focus on either the country’s economic miracle or its political repression. But I began to see that there was something deeper going on that would be interesting to describe. It seemed that precisely because of rising prosperity, the demand for political change was growing. But instead of it coming from the dissidents and intellectual elite, it was percolating up from the grassroots. That seemed to me a fascinating source of tension—and a way of looking at China that would remain relevant for years to come. Years earlier I had read Norma Field’s “In the Realm of a Dying Emperor”, which described Japan at the time of Emperor Hirohito’s death. That title kept coming back to me again and again. Despite all the very real and very laudable material progress in China over the past decades, this is how I see China. People all recognize that something is dying and that change will happen. But no one can quite work out when or how it will happen.
I also began to read narrative non-fiction writers like John McPhee and Jane Kramer. I hadn’t read a non-fiction book like this about China—telling a bigger story through the lives of a handful of people in stories that, like novels or short stories, have a beginning, a middle and an end. Other books had people in them, of course, but none that really went in-depth and developed characters. McPhee does this brilliantly in his books on nature, while Kramer has also focused her coverage out of Europe on strong characters. But I hadn’t seen this in China, primarily I think because for so long the country had been under totalitarian rule. And even for the first 15 or 20 years after Mao’s dictatorship collapsed in 1976, it was still hard to really spend time with ordinary people because of the party’s restrictions on Chinese interacting with foreigners. But during the 1990s this began to change and now it’s entirely possible to spend weeks on end with people and get inside their heads.
Why is this style of writing important?
I think it gives readers an accessible way to understand China. A lot of books aimed at general readers are incomprehensible because they give an introduction to everything from China’s economic Five Year Plan to its policy toward Tibetan monks. Readers are confronted with a jumble of facts and people—an impossible task for anyone to read and digest unless a China specialist. By applying narrative non-fiction techniques to China, I could tell the story of a few people and still tell the story of today’s China. I’m trying to give a broader sweep of where today’s China stands and where it’s heading. I think in the future you’re going to find more books out of China like this—books that focus on strong, interesting yet representative characters instead of snapshots.
You say that nowadays reporters can spend days or weeks with a subject, yet in your first piece you never meet the man you’re writing about.
Yes, in a perverse way this was one reason why I put this story first. I wanted it to be a kind of caveat, to remind people that despite the incredible access we have, we still come up against limits, both personal and professional. I liked the idea of chasing a man who couldn’t be found, trying to find tracks of his existence. I wanted to break down the idea that reporters have all the answers. This is a problem with newspaper writing—you can’t really describe how you got the information or what the people were like when you interviewed them. You just say “said Mr. X,” but because of the conventions of newspaper writing you usually can’t say “and by the way, Mr. X was paranoid and our interview lasted half an hour because of police harassment.” Of course sometimes you can indicate this, but readers often just get this neat, packaged picture of reality. So I wanted to lead off with a messier picture of me not quite clicking with a few of the people I interviewed and unable to visit all the places I needed to see.
Were there any other reasons for the way you ordered the stories?
I also had more prosaic reasons for putting Mr. Ma’s story first. I wanted to start with rural China because it’s where most people live. I believe that change in China is coming from people like Mr. Ma—the tens or hundreds of thousands of “When did you first become interested in China, and how long did you live there? xiaorenwu”, or small people, who are pushing for change on a local level, mostly outside the big cities. It was also a conscious choice not to go to a big showcase city like Shenzhen or Shanghai but to go to a place like the Loess Plateau where Chinese history, both ancient and modern, has some of its deepest roots. I thought the story about Beijing followed nicely because here we are in a completely different place, in fact the most different place imaginable for Mr. Ma’s peasants: the center of power. It also had a bit more humor in it, which I thought was a nice counterpoint to the previous tale. I ended the book with the story of Ms. Zhang trying to find her mother’s killer because it straddled both rural and urban China and deals with, to me, what is the biggest and yet least obvious crisis facing China: the destruction of traditional beliefs and search for a new spiritual meaning.
The stories can be read separately but in my mind they build on each other and I think my book culminates in “Turning the Wheel.” In the first story, the system jails someone for opposing it, in the second, it destroys something and in the third it kills a person. To me, there was a sense of escalation: from imprisonment to destruction to death. Yet all the stories end with a sense of patience, of waiting, that I think characterizes modern-day China.
What does the title signify?
China’s greatest writer of the past century, Lu Xun, wrote a book of prose poems called Wild Grass. One interpretation of the term is the people at the roots of society, those who survive and maybe even thrive even though they are not nurtured and tended. The people I wrote about are most definitely like this: they’re not the “new entrepreneurs” and others who are overly represented in coverage of China.
One of the outsider groups you write about are Falun Gong practitioners. Why does the Chinese government feel so threatened by them?
A couple of reasons. For one, it was a very well-organized group, able to mobilize thousands of people at the drop of a hat. It was to some degree intolerant and badgered critics in China into printing or airing retractions. That couldn’t help but attract government attention. But on a deeper level something else was going on. Falun Gong is a form of exercise or meditation. Because it involves a lot of people doing something in public, the government’s instinct is to want to control it, to have the group register and to have its teachings approved. But this runs up against a fundamental problem: how do you regulate what goes on in people’s minds? On the one hand, the government has made an unspoken social contract with people—live your lives as you wish as long as you don’t challenge the authority of the Communist Party. But it also can’t countenance a belief system outside its control. It’s one of the key conundrums that will have to be resolved if China wants to move forward.
What do you foresee happening in China within the next decade?
I can see the current system surviving for quite a while longer. On key economic issues, for example, it’s quite able to carry out sometimes painful and far-reaching reforms. That’s why we see China growing so quickly and changing so rapidly. But that is only half of the equation. On economic issues, yes, anything goes. The party—a Communist Party, don’t forget—is willing to protect private property and even allow private entrepreneurs to join it. But that’s because its overriding interest isn’t really communism but stifling challenges to its power. The government talks endlessly about political reform, but what it means by that is making its administrative structure more efficient and allowing a few safety valves for people to blow off steam. But fundamentally, the Communist Party will not countenance a challenge to its supremacy. It is like the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early 20th century: a place of incredible change and progress but run by an ossified political system that is out of step with the country’s vibrant, diverse society. This has given China unprecedented prosperity. But this can’t go on indefinitely. People, ordinary people, are demanding more.