Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports From China

Spence-600 Jonathan Spence reviews James Fallows' new book:

James Fallows knows there are countless Chinas. He is refreshingly aware that one’s interpretations of this vast and elusive country will always change according to the angle of one’s vision and the flash of time one is observing. Over the years, in his writing for The Atlantic Monthly, Fallows has built a reputation as a shrewd observer of human foibles and political quagmires. He is also gifted with a disarming tenacity: he first obtained permission to enter China in the mid-1980s, when visas were still hard to secure, by learning Esperanto, together with his wife and children, so they could participate in the world Esperanto conference in Beijing. At the same time, Fallows has the eye for detail of an experienced journalist, capturing, for example, the spirit of China in late 2006 by noting that when he and his wife went to the local Shanghai Pizza Hut, they were turned away because they hadn’t made reservations.

Yet Fallows remains cautious about exaggerating his own powers as an observer. He tells us frankly that he has never managed to become fluent in Chinese, despite several years of determined effort, and that he tends to rely on interpreters during his interviews and to draw on his previous studies of Japanese to help him read Chinese posters and newspaper headlines. By using the word “postcards” for the title of this lively collection of a dozen reports written between the summers of 2006 and 2008 (11 of which were published in The Atlantic), he seems to be alerting readers to expect vignettes rather than extended essays.