China Book Reviews


Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, China's Brave New World - And Other Tales of Global Times, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2007.

ISBN: 978-0-253-21908-4


Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, China's Brave New World - And Other Tales of Global Times, Indiania University Press, Bloomington, 2007.

by Jason Lee

Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom argues that the simplistic views of China commonly produced by our soundbite-driven media serve us poorly, preventing us from understanding China's real place in the world. He challenges the often held belief among globalization critics that China, and much of the world, is becoming increasingly Westernized, which itself has become equated with the idea of Americanization. "The media," he says, "continually measure the economic and cultural distance the Chinese have come in recent years in specifically American terms - the number of KFC franchises or Starbucks outlets per city, for example." (pp.4-5) This however, suggests Wasserstrom, "obscures the extent to which China is being influenced by many foreign cultures, not just America's; karaoke bars are more numerous than bowling alleys in Shanghai, for example, and sushi is as popular as Starbucks." (p.5)

Like Mark Anthony Jones, whose book Flowing Waters Never Stale I reviewed earlier in the year, and Frank Dikotter's Things Modern: Material Culture and Everyday Life in China (which Jones draws heavily from), Wasserstom too is clearly influenced by the works of Michel de Certeau, whose classic book, The Practice of Everyday Life, invites us to favor the role of human agency in the processes of consumption. To consume, argues de Certeau, is to appropriate - ordinary people have a habit of subverting the rituals and representations that institutions seek to impose upon them.

Even the "most seemingly 'global' or 'universal' symbols can end up meaning very different things in different places," says Wasserstrom. "One should never assume that buying a stock or watching a Disney cartoon has the same significance in China as in the United States." (p.7) Just as Jones uses the example of alcohol consumption and Dikotter the example of mirrors, Wasserstrom draws our attention to the way Mickey Mouse has been appropriated by the Chinese. "Mickey's fame, plus the fact that the 'laoshu' in his Chinese name can be translated as either 'rat' or 'mouse', made it natural that when an official effort to eliminate vermin was launced, some local artists began showing him being stabbed through the heart with a stake and being subjected to other violent fates that the creator of such cartoons such as Steamboat Willie never imagined his best-known character suffering." (p.7)

Like Jones, Wasserstrom also refers to Yan Yunxing's study on the Chinese appropriation of McDonald's, taken from the now classic Golden Arches East: McDonald's in East Asia, noting how this study demonstrates further the "creative process by which people react to new products and practices and put localized spins on transnational phenomena." (pp.10-12)

This may be so, but it is important also to recognize, as Douglas Kellner does, that Yan's study valorizes McDonald’s as bringing "modernity itself" to China,  by praising as it does McDonald's "for its efficient production methods, its cleanliness and orderliness." In doing so, argues Kellner, Yan promotes McDonald's as a commodity spectacle. McDonald's food may very well be consumed differently in China, "appropriated in ways that are culturally specific", as Jones says, but the flowering of the Golden Arches across China's visual landscape surely nevertheless represents a form of both economic and cultural imperialism? For  Wasserstrom, it is a mistake to view globalization as a process that is reducing the world to a drab state of Americanized conformity. Globalization, from his perspective, is a complex process that runs in multiple directions and so is always subject to localization. While this is a very sound line of reasoning, Wasserstrom's problem is that he, like Jones and Dikotter, spends too much time accentuating the positives of globalization while largely ignoring its more destructive and homogenizing effects - though he does at least admit that "Chinese children are more familiar with the face of Colonel Sanders than that of any current political leader". (pp.13-14)

Despite its shortcomings, Wasserstrom has produced a brave new book - one that is certainly well worth a read, for his text is full of fascinating insights, with his browsings through China's bookstores for example, revealing much about China's current academic trends. The philosophy sections for instance, are no longer dominated by the works of Marx and Lenin as they were in the 70s and 80s, but are now full of postmodern texts - the works of Heidegger, Foucault and Barthes - works by Barthes, apparently, have even "sold more copies in Chinese than in French." (p.18)


12/14/2008 11:54:14 am

I'm not aware of the books by Jones, and Dikotter, nor have I read this book by Wasserstrom, but I have read Golden Arches East. Does it valorize McDonald's? Does it promote McDonald's as a commodity spectacle? I didn't think so. The essay by Yan Yunxing simply details the various ways that McDonald's has been localized in China, and other East Asian countries.

3/29/2009 12:23:15 pm

Ricardo, the Yan Yunxiang study is interesting and useful, but I think he overstates his case. I have walked into McDonald's outlets on countless occasions during my various trips to China, and I really haven't noticed any real differences in the way that local Chinese consume the Big Mac. Young Chinese may very well use McDonald's as a place to date, or to chat, or to study, but so what? Plenty of us Americans can also be seen meeting up in McDonald's on dates, to read, to surf the net, etc. Plenty of Chinese people duck in for a quick snack too - they don't all "take the fast out of fast food", as Yan Yunxiang claims.

Both Wasserstrom and Jones seem too eager to draw on Yan's findings to support their own lines of argument: for Wasserstrom, globalization doesn't destroy local cultures, and according Jones, China has a long history, going back at least as far as the Han Dynasty, of consuming foreign ideas and products in ways that are culturally mediated - in other words, China has never been as xenophobic as many Western scholars would have us all believe.

Although their arguments are strong, they are undermined a little by the failure to consider adequately evidence that goes against their reasoning.

5/12/2009 07:46:04 pm

Thanks for these very measured and sober reviews. They remind those of us who are sometimes bogged in the narrowness of our own discipline the importance of keeping our horizon wide and our ears close to the ground.


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