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Three Stories of Change in Modern China

Written by Ian JohnsonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Ian Johnson


List Price: $13.99


On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 336 | ISBN: 978-0-307-43025-0
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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In Wild Grass, Pulitzer Prize—winning journalist Ian Johnson tells the stories of three ordinary Chinese citizens moved to extraordinary acts of courage: a peasant legal clerk who filed a class-action suit on behalf of overtaxed farmers, a young architect who defended the rights of dispossessed homeowners, and a bereaved woman who tried to find out why her elderly mother had been beaten to death in police custody. Representing the first cracks in the otherwise seamless façade of Communist Party control, these small acts of resistance demonstrate the unconquerable power of the human conscience and prophesy an increasingly open political future for China.


The Peasant Champion

The photo of Ma Wenlin fluttered in my hand, catching the attention of the man sitting across from me on the train.

“He’s a lawyer,” I said. “I’m looking for him.”

The man was silent for a moment and then said, “He looks like a peasant, not a lawyer.”

The black-and-white picture showed Mr. Ma staring straight into the camera, his face expressionless except for his faint eyebrows, which arched slightly in a quizzical expression. His hair was short, almost crew-cut, and he had a light stubble above his lips. He wore a plain white dress shirt, buttoned to the neck but with no tie. There was no effort to engage the viewer, no grin, no smile. It was an old-fashioned photo of a man who didn’t pose for the camera as modern people do, a man who in the first half of his fifty-nine-year life had been photographed just once or twice.

“He represented peasants,” I said. “In a lawsuit against the government.”

Like all second-class sleepers, ours had six bunks and no door, allowing people to wander freely down the car, poking their heads in to visit friends and see who else was on board. But we were alone: the only other person in our compartment, a man in a middle bunk, was snoring lightly and the other passengers bustled back and forth in the corridor, concerned only with finding thermoses of hot water to make tea.

“Those kinds of lawsuits are complicated,” the man said ambiguously.

Then he paused and collected his thoughts. He had a shock of gray hair that hadn’t receded an inch from his tanned, creased forehead. His suit was Chinese style, the sort worn by the founder of modern China, Sun Yat-sen, and popularized by Mao Zedong, or Chairman Mao, communist China’s first leader. Like Mr. Ma, the man wore his shirt buttoned up to the neck, with a fountain pen sticking out of the left breast pocket. It was the outdated uniform of Communist Party cadres from a decade ago, one rarely seen in the country’s prosperous areas. But here, in a slow train leaving a remote county seat, it didn’t look quite so out of place.

“I’m sure he won’t be successful,” he continued, looking at me carefully. “This is a poor part of the country.”

I nodded but disagreed, casting a glance outside for confirmation. The windows of the train were streaked with rain, and through the blurred glass the denuded hills and earth-colored villages of the Loess Plateau rolled by. Once, this had been fertile forests and steppes, one of the birthplaces of Chinese civilization. Nearby was the grave of the Yellow Emperor, mythic founder of the Chinese people. Down in Xi’an, where we were headed, were the world-famous terra-cotta warriors that had been buried with China’s first emperor more than two thousand years ago. He and other rulers had protected this cultural heartland by building fortifications not far from here that later became known as the Great Wall. Seventy years ago the plateau’s mountains and gullies had sheltered the Communist Party for a decade, first during China’s civil war and later during World War II. It was a region oozing in history and significance but now was exhausted, poor and relatively obscure.

One commonly hears that these parts of the country are where change is least likely to happen. Instead, one is always encouraged to go to the prosperous coastal metropolises, such as Shanghai or Shenzhen, to look for China’s future. But the more I learned about Mr. Ma, the more I understood that this region’s backwardness had made it a precursor of change elsewhere in China—the poverty, the intransigence of local officials and the extreme environmental degradation bringing to a boil here problems brewing across the country.

“Well,” I said. “This was a poor place when the communists were here, and they ended up running China. Maybe it’s not so backward. Maybe it’s even avant-garde.”

We both laughed, relieved that we could safely turn the conversation to something less risky. We blew on our tea leaves, hurrying their descent to the bottom of the cup.

My cell phone went off. “If you want any information about Ma Wenlin, I suggest you ask me now,” a man said quickly. “Because by the time you arrive in Xi’an, I’ll be in jail. My phone is bugged.”

“I’ll call you when I get to Xi’an,” I said. “I’m sure there will be no trouble. We’ll have dinner tonight.”

“I won’t be around tonight. I will be in jail.”

“No, you won’t,” I said. “Let’s talk later.”

We hung up and I switched off my cell phone.

The old cadre sitting opposite poured some water from the thermos into our cups, filling them back up. He eyed me curiously.

“Retired?” I asked.

“Yes, going to visit family in Xi’an.”

“Your children?”

“Yes, they’ve moved to Xi’an and work there. I have grandchildren down there.”

I liked him, a retired official still dressed for work but on his way to baby-sit. He reminded me of Mr. Ma, who had also been a doting grandfather. It was hard to explain why I had Mr. Ma’s picture in my hand, and would probably have seemed incomprehensible to the old man if I had tried. He had been dubbed by locals a nongmin yingxiong, or “peasant champion”—a name that conjures up a reckless romantic stirring up revolt among the repressed. It seemed slightly absurd, like something out of a florid South American novel, yet Mr. Ma had scared the government enough to jail him for “disturbing social order.” This was a vague, almost meaningless charge, but what I heard about Mr. Ma before my trip only piqued my interest. People said that he had represented tens of thousands of peasants in a lawsuit against the government. Rumors, too, abounded that he’d led protests, traveling from village to village to whip up the peasants against the government. It all seemed a bit hard to believe, so I had come to find out what he had done. I wondered what it meant, at the turn of the millennium, to foment a peasant rebellion, a specter that for thousands of years has haunted China’s leaders and hastened the downfall of more than one dynasty. It was his history—the facts about who he was and what had happened to him—that I was after. I wanted to uncover one man’s story from the rumors and half-truths that silt up events in China.

We sipped tea and smiled at each other. The old man closed his eyes, trying to sleep. I stared at Mr. Ma’s picture, trying to figure out what I’d learned about him.

My eyes, however, kept wandering to the jagged landscape outside. The yellow alluvial soil that covers the plateau runs up to 300 feet deep and is so prone to erosion that geographers reckon it is the most uneven landscape made of soil in the world, constantly shifting and breaking. Grotesque outcrops rolled by, formed when huge chunks of loess soil break off the side of a hill vertically, like slabs of lava falling into the sea. Standing on top of such promontories, which centuries of human effort have inevitably turned into a small terraced cornfield or the site of a small temple, you can see dozens of other miniplateaus and fields, some just a few hundred yards away, but separated by cliffs and gullies that can fall hundreds of feet to a dried-up creek below. A newcomer can sometimes feel a sense of panic after scrambling along a few ridges in either direction and finding only precipices.

The cliffs sometimes gave way to the flat, dry riverbeds and smudgy vistas of hills beyond. Underpinning this monochromatic scenery was a supercharged environmental destruction. Each year thousands of tons of topsoil wash down the rivulets and streams into the giant Yellow River. The river, which skirts the plateau in a giant northern loop of several hundred miles, takes its name and silty consistency from the plateau’s discharge.

As our diesel locomotive carefully picked its way south, we were embraced by a warm yellow glow, the color of the soil, the water and, on days like this, even the sky. This had been my fifth trip to the Loess Plateau, and I got back about once a year, drawn by the scenery, the stubborn cultural traditions and the tensions bubbling up from below.


I had set off to find Mr. Ma two days earlier, boarding an 8 a.m. flight from Xi’an to Yulin, a small city of 93,000 that boasts the only airport on the Loess Plateau. It was a Monday and the flight was full, a shuttle ferrying small-time officials on coveted trips down south to the provincial capital and back up with booty bought in Xi’an’s relatively swank shops.

Yulin has virtually no private enterprise to speak of, so no one but a bureaucrat or official from a state company could afford the $100 ticket, equivalent to the annual cash income of a Loess Plateau farmer. Unlike the train, there were no retirees on board, no students, no children and almost no women. It was all men, all in two- or three-piece western suits, many lugging consumer goods that were pricier or harder to find up on the plateau. One man had a video disc player in a box bound with twine, another carted a box of apples, a third hauled a wheel rim for a Chinese-made Audi.

An hour later I was in a taxi heading for town. It was only 10 a.m., but in August the sun was already high and we raised a cloud of dust as we raced through the parched streets. After a few minutes we entered Yulin, its roads lined with white-tiled buildings and dusty poplars.

This was a moment I’d rehearsed several times. I knew my driver was going to ask me where to go in Yulin and I knew I’d have to lie to him. What I wanted to do was go to a hotel in town, check in and meet a couple of lawyers who had known Mr. Ma. They had insisted on meeting in a hotel because they were terrified the Public Security Bureau would get wind of our talk if we discussed Mr. Ma’s case in public.

Hotels, though, are dangerous places, and I had to stay there for as little time as possible—an overnight stay was out of the question. That’s because guests in Chinese hotels are obliged to give their visa number. Mine was a journalist’s, with a “J” in front of the number. Each night, hotel guest rolls are handed over to the police and in the morning—depending on the vigor of the local police department—they are checked. The presence of suspicious types, including journalists, is reported to the local government, which then checks if the person has applied to visit its town—or is there illegally. By staying at the hotel for just a few hours, I minimized the chance that the Public Security Bureau would know of my presence in town; the bureau would have likely completed its morning check for that day, and it seemed unlikely that the hotel manager would call up the authorities and report my presence. After all, the Great Wall is located just a few miles north of the city and tourists were welcome.

But I couldn’t tell all this to the taxi driver. Taxis are scarce in small towns like Yulin, and drivers tend to hang around hotels waiting for customers. So, too, do security agents, who lollygag in lobbies watching the people go by. If the driver were to wait for me in front of the hotel, he’d likely get bored and go inside the hotel to chat, possibly with an agent, perhaps telling him about the foreigner he’d just picked up at the airport and taken to a hotel and who intended to go on later today to Yan’an—strange travel plans for a tourist. Another worry was that if the security bureau later checked the hotel rolls and noticed me, they might ask the hotel staff how I’d left town. The doorman or the other taxi drivers waiting at the hotel would probably be friends with my driver. A call to the taxi company would give them the car’s license plate and maybe the driver’s cell phone. That would allow them to trace me to Yan’an and spoil the rest of the trip.
Ian Johnson|Author Q&A

About Ian Johnson

Ian Johnson - Wild Grass

Photo © Fotostudio Helga Simon

Ian Johnson is the Berlin bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. In 2001, when he was the Journal’s Beijing correspondent, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Falun Gong. He lives in Berlin.

Author Q&A


When did you first become interested in China, and how long did you live there?

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 “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.



“A captivating and an important study of what is happening on the ground in China today.” –The Christian Science Monitor

“Compelling. . . . Beautifully spare. . . . Johnson is to be commended for his sensitive rendering of his subjects.” –The New York Times

“Illuminating. . . . There is no better [book] on what life is like for ordinary uppity Chinese. . . . Johnson has not only lifted a corner of the curtain which covers China’s reality beyond its glittering eastern cities; he has drawn the whole curtain.” –The Times Literary Supplement

“Memorable. . . . Perhaps more than any other recent writer, Ian Johnson . . . captures [China’s] ‘slow-motion revolution.’ ” –The Baltimore Sun

“Elegant. . . . Through dogged reporting . . . we get an exciting inside view. . . . Wild Grass is journalism at its best.” –South China Morning Post

“A triumph. . . . Compelling. . . . A hopeful book. . . . The author’s reporting skills are phenomenal. . . . An invaluable aid for anyone . . . hoping to understand [China’s] economic and political struggles.” –The Washington Times

“A gripping tale of a very few ordinary people and their extraordinary courage in fighting for their rights against the Communist Party leviathan.” –The Washington Post Book World

“This year’s best general book on China.” –China Economic Quarterly

“Elegantly written. . . . Poignant. . . . Insightful, well-crafted. . . . Likely to find a broad readership.” –Boston Review

“Cause for hope for China’s future. . . . In vivid detail, [Johnson] recounts . . . cases . . . that show that individual Chinese at last have hope that the legal system can help.” –Foreign Affairs

“Gripping . . . taut, perceptive writing. . . . Reads in parts like a John Grisham legal thriller.” –Houston Chronicle

“Johnson is a wonderful storyteller. . . . His book is filled with evocative passages. . . . He captures the resilient spirit of many Chinese people.” –The Christian Science Monitor

“Johnson writes well, wielding a remarkably gentle pen against the grossest injustices or when describing the most remarkable instances of personal bravery. The people written about here could wish for no better chronicler.” –The Asian Review of Books

“This year’s best general book on China.” –China Economic Quarterly

  • Wild Grass by Ian Johnson
  • March 08, 2005
  • History - China
  • Vintage
  • $18.00
  • 9780375719196

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