Understanding China

A temple in Kunming, Yunnan.

It was nearly four years ago that I enrolled in my first Mandarin class at Princeton University, gradually began to transition my dissertation project from a study of women in the Pentecostal movement in Mexico (I still plan to get to that one day!) to one about the lives of foster mothers and orphans in Southwest China, and ultimately embarked on this great journey to understand the perplexing, elusive nation that is China.

I’m at the stage in my research where I’m starting to pack up and stare down the oodles of notebooks and scribblings that I’ve made over the past two years.  And because I didn’t know where to begin, I returned to a familiar sage, Fei Xiaotong, and his deceptively simple From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society.

Lahu minority villagers.

I’m continually amazed how this short book, a collection of lectures from the late 1940s is so eerily descriptive and prophetic of the present-day divides between urban and rural China and Eastern and Western cultures.  Fei puts a name to the social structure and phenomena I’ve been observing firsthand over the past few years, and his descriptions Chinese culture and personhood are provocative.

On a more popular note, this past week NPR‘s famous radio show, This American Life, ran an episode on Americans in China, that lends such insight into not only expatriate life here, but the great differences between Eastern and Western cultures.  I highly recommend it to anyone who wants a glimpse into life in China, and I’m impressed with NPR’s at once critical and nuanced take on the challenging topic of contemporary Chinese culture.

There are still days where I scratch my head and wonder what I’ve really learned over the past two years here, but both these sources have started to put together some of the puzzle pieces for me about this complex, beautiful country.

Yet another view of the dragon back rice terraces in Guangxi. Photos by Evan Schneider.

For more recommendations on readings about China, see my post or consult the menu from Seeing Red in China.

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2 thoughts on “Understanding China

  1. Hi Erin,
    Thanks so much for placing the link from your Dec. ’11 post of book recommendations. I just ordered some from Amazon…….as I’m trying to soak up as much as I can about Chinese culture over the next few weeks. Your suggestions sound so intriguing! Can’t wait to read them……
    Take care,
    Donna P.

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