I’ve been a student of things Chinese for many years, via heaps of basically-Orientalist books and articles following decades of modernization efforts and historical context. That used to be a leisurely pursuit, with plenty to read and meditate upon, and things seemed not to be happening all that rapidly until the last five years or so. But now the global importance of the juggernaut of China’s development is a whole new ball game, with daily updates across the spectrum of concerns, and pretty much every product that one buys these days is (or anyhow has components that are) Made in China. America’s addiction to consumables is the basic fuel of that juggernaut, and few pieces that I’ve read are more eloquent expositors of that point than Jonathan Franzen’s “The Way of the Puffin” in the New Yorker of 21 April. The full text of the piece isn’t available online, but there’s a detailed abstract and a very worthwhile audio interview (13 minutes, downloadable).
Franzen’s writing is a pleasure for its illustrative digressions. Here’s the second paragraph, a pretty unique mise en scène for an article about China, and even more so for an article about bird watching in China:
My difficulty with golf is that, although I play it once or twice a year to be sociable, I dislike almost everything about it. The point of the game seems to be the methodical euthanizing of workday-sized chunks of time by well-off white men. Golf eats land, drinks water, displaces wildlife, fosters sprawl. I dislike the self-congratulations of its etiquette, the self-important hush of its television analysts… (pg. 90)
Franzen drops other charming bits of description:
Xu’s teeth were beautiful. He had the fashionably angular eyeglasses and ingratiating eagerness of an untenured literature professor… (pg. 92)
(of Shanghai) …on the ground, the brutally new skyscrapers and the pedestrian-hostile streets and the artificial dusk of the smoke-filled winter sky: it was all thrilling. It was as if the gods of world history had asked, “Does somebody want to get into some unprecedentedly deep shit?” and this place has raised its hand and said, “Yeah!” (pg. 92)
…southeast Asia: a region well on its way to being clear-cut and strip-mined into one vast muddy pit, since China itself is hopelessly short on natural resources to supply the factories that supply us. The Chinese people may bear the brunt of Chinese pollution, but the trauma to biodiversity is being reëxported around the world. (pg. 105)