Book Review: Tide Players by Jianying Zha

by Wayne Ferrier

225b2_CHN665 The dichotomy of economic globalization and traditional culture is contributing to a worldwide identity crisis. But crisis and change often go hand-in-hand together. In China change is happening on an unprecedented scale. And, when the tide rushes in, as in all places, individuals rise to the challenge and play that tide. Fifty years of Soviet style communism has left a bad taste in China’s mouth, so it has turned its face to the West. But this isn’t a face that wants to be Western. It isn’t a blank slate either. It is a Chinese face and behind that face is a Chinese identity.

One of Mao’s little red children, who grew up in China and in the United States, is Jianying Zha, self-proclaimed Beijinger and New Yorker. She belongs to a generation that embraced democratic liberalization when China opened its doors to the West in the early 80s, and became disillusioned after Tiananmen Square. Zha received her BA from Peking University, and then applied to the University of South Carolina where she got her M.A. Later she got her M.Phil at Columbia University. Now Jianying Zha is an author, a writer, a media critic, and a China representative of the India China Institute. Her latest book is titled Tide Players published in the US by The New Press. Some of the chapters were previously published in the New Yorker.

While Tide Players is a collection of stories—stories of the entrepreneurs, the street revolutionaries, the elites, and the intellectuals who played the tide—Zha reflects, at the end of her work, that some philosophers and historians, such as Li Zehou and literary critic Liu Zaifu, have observed that attempts to bring sudden radical change in China has either resulted in tyranny or disaster. Zha is aware that China is too enormous in size, its numerous problems too complex, that incremental reform is more preferable right now rather than the instant change her own brother advocates. Her brother, Jianguo, spent several years in prison as a dissident and revolutionary. Zha acknowledges economic progress as the first step of reform, while individual freedom, social justice, and democratic liberalization will follow. Still she feels for her brother who, she once felt, threw his life away for a dream that couldn’t come true. She is comforted by her liberal friends, who have told her that it was people like her brother that set the parameters; people like Jianguo tested the water and alerted the rest what was too dangerous water.

Zha also bemoans what she sees as a lack of dialog between Chinese and American writers. She states that Americans fall into one of two schools of thought; those who fear China and those who are inspired by it. What we see in Tide Players is a China surfing economic materialism yet fearing the sharks who will steal away its soul in the process. Confucius was China's first great social critic. He did not refrain from life's pleasures; he sought balance between the extremes, and to avoid excess. His way of life was based on the golden mean of equilibrium. From beginning to the end in Tide Players, Zha weighs the pros and cons of everything she has witnessed and thought about. As Confucius is claimed to have said “Balance is the perfect state of still water. Let that be our model. It remains quiet within and is not disturbed on the surface” even as the tide rushes in.