Monday, November 26, 2012

China Shakes the World by James Kynge

China Shakes the World by James Kynge is another hugely impressive book on China.  Like Peter Hessler, James Kynge is fluent in Mandarin.  But instead of looking at the social aspects of life in China, James Kynge concentrates on the economics, and how China's burgeoning prosperity has impacted on the rest of the world during the first few years of the twenty-first century.  Although it was written before the 2008 economic crisis, I feel sure that most of what it says still holds true today.

The first chapter looks at the acquisition of a German steel mill by a self-made entrepreneur on the banks of the Yangtze.  Its owner, Shen Wenrong, was born a peasant.  But having worked out that who you know rather than what you know is important, he worked his way up through a factory until, by the 1970s,  he had risen to a senior rank.  It was a company that needed steel to expand, and since steel was in short supply Shen, with others, made his own secret backyard furnace.  They successfully counted on the Beijing government not noticing.

In the early 1980s China started to become a Capitalist state.  The new Premier,  Deng Xiaoping, allowed some individuals to indulge in a minor private business and become a 'getihu'.
Shen predicted that steel not wooden window frames would be needed for the property boom that China was experiencing then, and sent engineers to leading manfacturers to copy the technology of other Chinese manufacturers.  His company soon became a leading window frame manufacturer.  Shen then took advantage of the decline in Western manufacturing to acquire cast-offs: first an electric arc furnace from a town near Liverpool and then, after a Premier-initiated boom, the steel mill from Dortmund.  His ventures were paid for by readily available bank loans.

Chapter 2 looked at the history of Chinese trade and ecomomics, from its zenith in the Tang dynasty.  Until the end of the fourteenth century the Chinese were more wealthy than people in the West.  The decline set in afterwards. Part of this, it is thought,  was due to isolation from new ideas, but also the stultifying effect of the civil service which took away the brightest people, may also have been important.

Chapter 3 considers the huge population of China, its effect on the economy and market, and how it dictates growth.  China is like 'an elephant on a bicycle'.  If it slows it will topple.  Manufacturers have to keep producing to prevent unemployment and unrest.  Until recently, bankruptcy has not existed in China and so loans are hardly ever called in.  Consequently, there is a massive surplus of goods, which is why places like Tesco and Walmart are able to buy and sell so cheaply.  There was also a fascinating section on fakes and piracy, which is rife.

Wages are lower in China than in the West, partly because the workforce is plentiful.  Wages in the West are better, and every year there are Chinese willing to risk the arduous journey of an illegal immigrant and land a job in a place like Prato in Italy.  Chapter 4 describes how established Chinese workers soon branch out independently to establish factories that compete with former employers by outsourcing to China.  Inevitably, the European firms are put out of business.

Chinese industrialists view Europeans as lazy, relying on services to keep themselves going,  and have little industry left.  They were also sceptical of the point of the European Union.  Western industrialists, meanwhile,  blame their misfortune on unions, and the amount of tax they have to pay for health care.  China has none of these problems.  Communist China is  nowa less socialist country than any in Europe. State-financed social welfare has been eliminated, reduced or privatised.  120 million migrant workers receive no welfare at all.

Chapter 5 looked at the effect of Chinese commerce on the town of Rockford in Illinois.  The small and medium businesses have closed due to Chinese competition and takeover.  Furthermore the town centre has shifted too.  The most popular shop is Walmart which feeds on cheap Chinese manufactured goods and does very nicely thanks to a whopping mark-up on just about everything.

Apart from the cheap labour force and liquidity of funds in China, the Eastern manufacturers have many other advantages: poor safety standards, low concern for the environment, an artificially low price for water and electricity, and something that perhaps angers Western businesses the most: the Chinese fix their currency against the US dollar.  This keeps it undervalued  and gives their exports a greater competitiveness.  

Rockford shows that it is the middle classes that lose out under China's impact.  The work force cannot move to companies that need them, but the top managers do not lose their jobs - they still manage from head office - in fact the upper managers benefit from increased bonuses.  It is the lower levels of management and the factory floor jobs that are lost.

The net result in Rockford (and elsewhere in the West) is that the middle income demographic is shrinking.  This shrinkage has been restricted to manufacturing so far, but service jobs could soon follow.  It is this shrinking middle class that may, ultimately, prove to be the force for change.   It could force the government shut out the Middle Kingdom.  Or it could be that a critical shortage of resources has the same effect.

There is an environmental crisis in China: deserts of the north are encroaching, waterways are drying up, food is contaminated with hormones and chemicals, there are strange new diseases e.g. SARS, air pollution causing premature death. Chapter 6 starts with dramatic accounts of how owns and cities sinking into underground holes and plants and animals becoming extinct.

China's appetite is also increasing world prices.  One fifth of humanity crowded into 7% of world's cultivatable land.  The newly wealthy Chinese (the Chinese middle class is increasing) are demanding materials not available within the boundaries of their environmentally exhausted nation.  The maintenance of a good fuel supply is also becoming critical.

The world does not have the resources for the huge Chinese population to emulate the American way of life.  In the end China may be forced, for lack of an alternative, to recycle, conserve and use clean fuels.  This will be expensive  and erode the country's competitiveness.  This may take some time and in the meantime international tensions may increase rapidly.

Chapter 7 starts with a very interesting case of identity theft - this is just part of a large and growing underground economy which has been estimated to be one third of official economy.  Dishonesty seems to be endemic: extramarital affairs, paternity tests and private detectives are some symptoms.  More seriously, fake baby food and HIV infected blood have possibly caused deaths.

Chapter 8 considers how China's political system exacerbates the problems outlined in the rest of the book by allowing scandals, controlling the banks and company shares, and contributing to the corruption in the environmental agencies and legal system.  Corruption, James Kynge says, is jeopardising both Party and State and there are increasing number of protests against the problem.  However, complaints are often ignored and only 1 in 2,000 petitions receive attention.  Change in China comes at a cost, and requires a huge amount of patience.

The last chapter weighs up the pros and cons of trade with China.  While many areas of the world have benefitted from China trade, the relationsip with America and Europe has been more tumultuous.  Most people in US and Europe do not appreciate the fact that China has brought down prices although they are aware that competition with cheap Chinese manufacturing firms are responsible for the shortage of middle class jobs.  The West may yet turn away from China because resources are scarce and China and America are likely to find themselves in competition.  For most of the last millennium China turned its back on the West.  In the future it may be the West that turns its back on China.

Next: another novel - The Vagrants by Li Yiyun - another book on my book pile that  I've been dying to read for ages.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

River Town by Peter Hessler

'That book has such small print!'  Tracy, my hairdresser's assistant said.
'Yes, it's pretty long too,' I said, flicking through the 400 pages.

I've been wanting to read River Town by Peter Hessler for a couple of years now.  It came highly recommended to me by a scholar of Chinese literature I'd 'met' on twitter.   In her opinion it was the best book on China that she'd read.  I bought it at once, and since then  I've picked it up, weighed it up and then put it down again.  It seemed so long, so dense, and I'd had the feeling that it was going to be a worthy sort of tome - academic and very serious.

But last week I picked it up and started reading, and was surprised to find it was not what I thought at all.  Although it has serious things to say about China and Chinese society, it is not at all 'worthy' but written in an engaging, honest and witty style.  For instance, he describes how a phrase in an essay from a book he is required to use 'But we should not give up eating for fear of choking' comes to dominate each essay of the class regardless of subject - or whether it is appropriate.  And how, when he innocently encroached on sensitive subjects (e.g racism in China) he was met with a embarrassed silence and a room of lowered heads.  I learnt a lot with a great deal of pleasure.

In August 1996 Peter Hessler and Adam Meier arrived in Fuling in central China to teach English with the Peace Corps.  They spoke little Mandarin, and every time they visited Old Town Fuling were subjected to taunts and jeers from the locals.  Things were different inside Fuling Teachers College, but although they were eventually accepted by a few in the two years of their stay, they found that they never really lost their status as outsider or foreigner or waiguorin.

The other members of the English department have been warned to keep their distance from the Westerners, and the students, although they eventually become friendly and more open, do not become close.  Instead it is with the entrepreneurs of the Old Town, that are not members of the party and are less influenced by the state, that they find kindness and comradeship.  These characters: the Catholic priest, the owner of a local restaurant, and a teacher from the Chinese department are the subject of character studies at the end of chapters in the middle of the book.  They are members of the 'Old Hundred Names' (the common people or peasants) who are not meant to know anything or be responsible for anything. They are used to 'eating bitter' (experiencing hardships) and Peter Hessler learns just how hard their lives have been.  Other chapters are finished with 'character studies' of aspects of the landscape e.g. 'Raise the Flag Mountain' and the Wu River and are a insightful supplements to the chapters themselves.

Peter Hessler says his book is not a book about China as a whole, but a book about Fuling at the end of the twentieth century.  Fuling is a noisy dirty city: a visiting friend calculates that a cab driver sounds his horn thirty-seven times a minute, and when his father comes out to visit he quickly becomes frazzled  by the lack of sleep.  It is part of a valley complex that is due to be flooded when the Three Gorges Dam is built - and Peter Hessler deals with that too.  The locals view the markers indicating the extent of the new river water levels with pragmatism.  Instead of mourning the loss of wildlife and archaeological remains the people are generally content  at the thought of a clean new environment as they are rehoused.

He takes part in races, celebrations and spends special holidays with locals - noting with disappointment that the average Chinese family spends these days with their family in front of the TV (very much like the average British family in fact).  Mainly he stays in Fuling, although he sometimes takes the opportunity to travel to other parts of China in the holidays.  Like Fuschia Dunlop he is mistaken for an Uyghur in Xinxiang, and he too observes the difference in temperament between the excitable Uyghurs, who are of Turkic descent and the Han colonists.  However, Peter Hessler aligns himself, to some extent, with the Chinese whereas Fuschia Dunlop's sympathies seems to lie more with the Uyghurs.

It is a book I wish I'd read before making my visit to China in 2009.  I would have understood a lot more about the country, and would also appreciated it more.  Reading it now it makes me want to return to see how things have changed in the twenty years since the book was written.  In the meantime, I shall read another novel about China, Women of the Silk by Gail Tsukiyama.

Friday, November 16, 2012

One last foray into China...

...literally speaking.  Probably.

Edisto by Padgett Powell

Simons Manigaults (said 'Simmons'), a  unique manic child ('so far ahead he's behine') is worried. His mother ('The Doctor') and his father ('The Progenitor') have separated.  She to pursue a Bohemian liberal lifestyle with her son, while the father occasionally comes to whisk off his son for more conventional weekends.  Part of the mother's Bohemian lifestyle involves the 'coroners' - a series of suitors of a certain sort, but Simons has developed a successful technique (involving a telescope) to see these off.  The latest coroner, however, is different.  He has proved to be more of a stickler, and furthermore has chased off the mother's maid-of-all-work/nanny, Theenie, by unintentionally convincing her that he was her long- abandoned grandson.  This means that The Doctor will now have to do without her 'holy folded linen and vacuumed floors' but this is not why Simons is worried.  What exactly Simons is worried about comes on page 82:

'I'm worried about puberty.'

But it turns out that the latest coroner, who is given the name 'Taurus' by Simons, can help in this.
He smiled. 'Don't.'
'Why not?'
'It's too big.'
'What do you mean?'
'Like nuclear war.  Nothing to worry about.'
'It either comes or it doesn't?'
'Yes, except here, it's coming.  So there's less to worry about than nuclear war.'

Simons installs Taurus in Theenie's living quarters, an abandoned shack, the two strike up an unusual companionship, and Padgett Powell's novel begins.

Edisto has recently been published in the UK by Serpent's Tail, but was originally published in the US about thirty years ago.  It's not really surprising it has taken so long to be published over here because it is very much an American novel - a novel of the deep south - with southern nuances, references and vocabulary.  For instance, the remnants of slavery - the halls, the market, the attitude to the 'nee-grow' is still evident, and some of it is shocking to modern, more northern sensibilities.  It is, however, surprisingly easy to understand after a little acclimatisation.  It is written with a feverish energy that doesn't immediately make sense if you read it too slowly.  You have to let go of yourself a little, not ponder over what exactly is, for example, a 'jelly glass' and allow yourself to be carried along.  What was a puzzle then miraculously makes sense and you end up 'getting' the jokes (of which there are many) and wanting to share them, but you can't because in order to understand them you have to be immersed in Simons' world (and anyway, no one can tell them like Padgett Powell).  Then you realise: you're part of club with an exclusive membership  - only open to readers of this book.

Apart from being a highly entertaining coming-of-age, the book is a record of life in the south.  It is an era before the stultifying effects of political correctness and has a raw honesty in consequence.  Edisto is clever and sly and funny.  The characters are quirky and memorable -  like, I suspect, Padgett Powell himself.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper by Fuschia Dunlop

Fuschia Dunlop is a courageous woman.  In the 1990s she was in her twenties and she left her job with the BBC to study in China  - and stayed there, independently.  She travelled to several quite risky areas: Tibet, Hunan and the automonous region Xinjiang in the northwest, but it is Sichuan Province which she first made her home and the fiery cooking of Chengdu.  Along the way she encountered chefs, cookery classmates, gourmands, and also a selection of villagers, government officials, minders and policemen.  None of them seem to intimidate her.  Fuschia Dunlop was on a mission - to discover Chinese food and bring back the various regional specialities to the west.  Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper is her 'sweet-sour memoir' of this adventure.

She became the first Westerner to enroll as an apprentice chef, and her enthusiasm for the single Chinese cutting instrument, the cleaver, is described in fascinating detail.  Apart from using the blade to cut in several different ways and directions, the cleaver can also be used to pound, gauge and scrape.  The handle can act as a pestle.  The flat edge of the blade can smash, and also act as a scoop.

Stir frying likewise has many different variants:  according to the temperature (eight are specified) and length of cooking stir frying can be, for example, explosive, or at another time, fragrant.  Flavours are another source of variation.  The off-tastes (fishy, muttony and uriney) have to be avoided, but complicated flavours (e.g. 'fish flavour' consisting of pickled chilis, fermented broad bean, ginger garlic and spring onion) are encouraged.

I learnt a lot about Chinese cookery and also about China in Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper (there are a few recipes, but these are not really the focus of the book - and one she admits is just there as an illustration since the main ingredient is a bear's paw).  I learnt that Monosodium Glutamate (derived from seaweed) has been found to have a flavour of its own - umami (to go alongside, sweet, sour, bitter and salty), that the great famine caused 'starvation cuisine' in China (i.e a propensity to eat everything) is a myth, that the Chinese humoural system entered China with the Buddhists in the first millennium (where it chimed with the more ancient ying and yang), and may have had the same source as in the West.  I also found out that milk is becoming more popular in China (which debunks yet another myth that I'd heard - that Chinese adults are allergic to milk) and that the grandparents that knew starvation in the great famine now stuff their grandchildren (or grandchild) with western food.

All sorts of facets of Chinese eating are explored, and towards the end of the book there is a particularly thoughtful section on Chinese medicine and esoteric cuisine involving rare and endangered species, and a gruesome encounter with an unscrupulous cook who will acquire anything short of a panda to feed her pot and please her customer customer.  These are the undesirable characteristics of a new and prosperous China - a country that is becoming so increasingly polluted  that Fuschia Dunlop comes close to losing her enthusiasm for its contaminated cuisine.  It takes an encounter with the old China - the one miraculously preserved in Yangzhou - for it to return.

In a warming world of climate change where there are far too many people to be sustained on a western diet of dairy produce and meat, Fuschia Dunlop sees the old Chinese traditional diet of noodels or rice, seasonal vegetables and a little meat or fish offering hope.  It is, she says, a good model for world eating.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham

What makes food fattening?  It is not just the calorific content.  The way it is processed can count for a lot.  For instance, when rats are fed a pellet which has been aerated so that it is easy to break down with the teeth, those rats become fat compared to rats fed pellets that are identical to the first but without the aeration.  How we process our food is becoming more and more important, but our earliest experimentation - the application of fire - was perhaps the most revolutionary of the lot.

I learnt about the rat food experiment in Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham.  It is a short book - barely 200 pages - and yet it is the sort of book that you end up talking about for days - and will probably think about for a lot longer.  Apart from the central idea (that the discovery of how to make and control fire shaped the latter years of our human evolution) there are lots of interesting snippets which are ideal for discussion over, say, dinner.  I learnt why chocolate tastes so good, for instance, why women like to go shopping while men go straight for the kill,  and humans have the largest primate brains.

After looking at the evidence that all humans need to cook - an exclusively raw diet tends to lead to an energy shortfall and infertility - Richard Wrangham then goes on to examine the way the human body seems to be adapted to a cooked diet.  Our teeth, jaw and digestive system are much smaller than other similarly sized primates.  A smaller digestive system requires less energy  to operate - energy that could be diverted to the brain, which in turn could become larger....   All by evolution of course.

Until two million years ago the earth seems to have been a culinary-free planet.  After that came only three periods of rapid evolutionary change: Homo erectus evolved 1.8 million years ago, Homo heidelbergensis 800,000 years ago and then, finally, Homo sapiens came along 200,000 years ago.  Richard Wrangham explains that since the last two the changes are small they are not likely to correspond to change in diet, and so it is most likely that the first tentative steps into barbecue culture came with the habilines who evolved into Homo erectus.  Homo erectus had left the relative safety of a nocturnal nest in the trees for a campsite on the ground next to the fire, consequently he would have been able to lose his insulating layer of fur which in turn means he would be able to travel long distances, quickly, in the warm part of the day.   Huddling around a fire would also have selected for calmer individuals more able to tolerate, and be tolerated by, others.  This could have led to increased social interaction and eventually language, which in turn could have led to male-female bonding.

The division of labour between men and women is ubiquitous across all human societies.  Women gather and process the vegetable and small-animal staples while men go after the more desirable meat and honey.  They then share the food.  Women share with close relatives, men share out the spoils of a hunt  amongst other men who in turn share their portion with their close relatives.  This pattern of behaviour  is unique to humans. A shared male-female bond ensures the male has a meal after a day's hunting, and the female cook is protected from other males stealing her cooked food.

This week I read a very interesting article on the BBC News website by James Friel posing the question 'Why are couples so mean to single people?'   According to Catching Fire the singletons in human society are pitied because they do not have a partner to do their cooking for them.  The singleton hunters come home hungry, and since they have no mate their only option is to beg or steal from someone else's pot.  Sex has little to do with it - promiscuous behaviour is tolerated more than an empty hearth.  It turns out that the old adage is right: the way to a man's heart is through the stomach - as long as what is offered to that stomach is well-cooked and ready on time.

Thanks to Profile Books for my copy - and my apologies for taking so long to getting round to reading it!