In Age of Ambition, Evan Osnos has written an interesting overview of contemporary Chinese society. Osnos has lived in China for many years, and has spent a lot of time researching Chinese society and interviewing citizens. I don’t think that the book succeeds in the claim of its boastful yet rather patronising blurb that it ‘reveals China as we have never understood it before’, but that’s not Osnos’ fault. Even though I enjoyed the book, I felt that it took me a massively long time to get through. It was like reading one very long newspaper article; it was informative but relentless. Although it is compelling, and I feel I learned a lot about contemporary China, it does often feel like a selection of journalistic articles rather than a coherent book.
Age of Ambition is subtitled Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China, and its chapter are divided into those subjects. Characters are introduced, disappear and return to the narrative, giving the effect of real people getting on with their lives. One of the most fascinating stories here is that of Lin, who defected from Taiwan to China. Lin swam from the Taiwanese island of Quemoy to the Chinese mainland one night in 1979, leaving behind his pregnant wife and child. Lin’s story is revisited throughout the book; his personal story reflects how much China has changed in recent years. For instance, the one-party system still exists in China, but contemporary Chinese communism is very different from Mao’s communism. One of the people Osnos interviewed said that they ‘know their government is lying to them’ whereas people in the west think that they are being told the truth by their governments.
There were a few references here that went over my head. I would have preferred a timeline or a brief overview of recent Chinese history because I would have liked to learn more about Mao and the dismantling of his system; also, there were references to some dates and names that perhaps an older audience might be more familiar with. Details of the things the Chinese government have kept and changed, even a small timeline would have been valuable to me. Of course, this is all available online so I didn’t mind too much.
Ultimately, Age of Ambition is a good book for people interested in reading about contemporary China, and best for those who prefer a journalistic style.