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China’s brave new world explored by UC Irvine history professor


Jeffrey Wasserstrom has watched China’s history unfold over the last 20 years – witnessing Starbucks gain popularity in Shanghai and photographing a student protester in Beijing wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.

“Sometimes I get wrapped up in the uniqueness of what I’ve experienced,” said Wasserstrom, a UC Irvine history professor.

With his new book of essays, China’s Brave New World – And Other Tales for Global Times (Indiana University Press), Wasserstrom shares with readers his unique experiences and observations of Chinese cultural changes. Part memoir, part history lesson, China’s Brave New World takes a deliberately non-academic tone as Wasserstrom recounts his visits to Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Nanjing, Taipei – 10 trips in the last 20 years – seeking better understanding of China’s past and future.

Wasserstrom warns against simple interpretations of the changes he’s observed: a Shanghai bookstore now sells works by American philosophers such as John Dewey, Mickey Mouse is a beloved household figure, and McDonald’s is a popular restaurant for special-occasion dinners. But this does not signify the Americanization of China, Wasserstrom says. China’s history, like the history of globalization, is complex, nuanced and “messy.”

In his chapter, “All the Coffee in China,” Wasserstrom visits Chinese Starbucks, comparing the coffee giant’s context in China and the U.S., and how its role varies between Chinese cities. In Beijing, controversy followed the opening of a Starbucks at the edge of the Forbidden City. But in Shanghai, Starbucks opened without fanfare around the corner from the location of the Communist Party’s founding congress. With Japanese-style coffeehouses and artsy cafés abounding in Shanghai, Wasserstrom describes a growing nostalgia for the pre-Communist era that makes the new Starbucks seem to locals both “a novelty and a resumption of an old cosmopolitan trajectory that was interrupted for a time.”

Another sign of the changes in China can be found in a popular Nanjing bookstore with a name that translates as either Vanguard or Avant-garde. The bookstore recently added works by Western philosophers. Again, Wasserstrom cautions against quick judgments about this development and wonders what the former communist leader Mao Zedong, if magically brought back to life, would think of the changes.

Would Mao, browsing in the bookstore, be disappointed to find works by non-Marxist philosophers? Would he feel nostalgic, since he enjoyed reading Western philosophers of all schools as a young man? Or, more cynically, would he be pleased to note that works by Chinese dissidents remain conspicuously absent from the shelves?

Wasserstrom said the addition of more consumer choices in China is part of a new social compact between the Chinese government and the people. “The government said, we will give you more choices in many realms of life, if you will give up pushing for more choices in the political realms of life,” Wasserstrom asserts. “And that has been the compact that has held since Tiananmen.”

Wasserstrom also looks at how the U.S. and China have viewed one another over time. He offers a first-person account of being in China during a 1999 wave of anti-American protests. And in the chapter, “Around the World with Grant and Li,” Wasserstrom imagines what a conversation might have been like between Chinese globetrotter Li Gui and President Ulysses S. Grant, when the two met at the Philadelphia World’s Fair in 1876.

With China hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics, Wasserstrom sees an opportunity for Americans and the world to learn more about China. “What I worry about is that we may be tempted to put what we learn into the oversimplified categories that have often shaped American perceptions of China.”


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