A Million Truths: A Decade in China; Street Life China

In This Review

A Million Truths: A Decade in China

by Linda Jakobson
M. Evans, 1998
224 pp. $24.95
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Street Life China

by Edited by Michael Robert Dutton
Cambridge University Press, 1999
320 pp. $54.95
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What is life like today for the ordinary Chinese? China's opening to the outside world has greatly improved Western understanding of the country's political and economic developments, but its daily life remains largely unexamined by outsiders. These two books seek to provide answers, though by quite different methods. Jakobson personally immersed herself in Chinese social life, first as a student, then as a teacher, and finally as a journalist. After years of living with Chinese families, trusted to the point of becoming a godmother in one and an intimate friend of several Chinese women, she is able to recount the joys, frustrations, hopes, and fears of ordinary citizens in both urban and rural China. Her book has the rich context of a good novel. Meanwhile, Dutton captures the dynamics of Chinese social life through translations of Chinese writings on daily life: descriptions of life within a work unit, personal complaints about various public policies, and ruminations about everything from shopping to Mao's impact on Chinese culture. In different ways, the two books succeed in giving a human dimension to what has too long been the vast abstraction called the "Chinese people." Both Jakobson and Dutton avoid either romanticizing or demonizing the Chinese. At the same time, they underscore the unique qualities of Chinese culture that make its social context so different from the West.