Unlike most books by American China specialists about the People's Republic of China, this one focuses not on history, politics, or economics but on the intriguing conflict between Chinese and American dreams -- the cultural myths that shape the perceptions of the people of both nations. The American dream, says the author, is about individualistic independence in a land of opportunity. It is conveyed through stories about pilgrims, pioneers, and declarers of independence. These stories contrast sharply with those the Chinese tell about themselves.
The author illustrates his central thesis with a revealing anecdote. After a sumptuous dinner in the private dining room of a Chinese general, the general tries to convince the author of the validity of the P.R.C.'s claims to Taiwan by invoking a narrative of the unbreakable historical ties between them. "The people in Taiwan speak Chinese, their culture is Chinese, their ancestors came from mainland China." The author replied that "there may be good geopolitical reasons for considering Taiwan part of the P.R.C.," but "if our founding fathers truly agreed with such an argument, we would still be part of England." By analyzing the U.S.-China confrontation in these terms, Madsen provides an indispensable tool for understanding why it is so difficult for the two nations to reach a modus vivendi. The U.S.-China relationship is not just about trade, Taiwan, and human rights; it is also about very diverse cultural traditions. There is a chapter on how the Tiananmen massacres shattered the "liberal" U.S. myths about China, and there is a compelling final chapter appealing for a deeper East-West dialogue.