Sunday, July 22, 2007

"China's Brave New World"

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine.

He applied the "Page 69 Test" to his latest book, China's Brave New World — And Other Tales for Global Times, and reported the following:
Most of the “tales” in my book were inspired by trips I took. Page 69, though, comes in a rare chapter devoted to journeys taken by others. In addition, most chapters focus on the present or the very recent past. But page 69 comes in one titled “Around the World with Grant and Li,” which looks back to the 1870s. So, in two basic ways, page 69 is far from representative.

Still, in two other ways, reading it gives the reader an accurate sense of China’s Brave New World. The first representative feature relates to content. A recurring theme in the book is links between China and America, and page 69 refers to the time in 1876 when Ulysses S. Grant (who would soon, after his presidency ended, take a trip around the world) met Li Gui (a Chinese man midway through circumnavigating the globe). And as readers learn from an earlier page, General Grant and Mr. Li encountered one another at a World’s Fair that was held in an American city (Philadelphia) and included an exhibit from China that, according to one guidebook, made visitors feel they “had suddenly landed in some large Chinese bazaar.”

The other thing at least fairly representative about page 69 is its whimsical tone. It is rare for a professor of history to be described as writing in a playful manner, but in China’s Brave New World, I often do just that.

The top of page 69 concludes a series of fanciful speculations about what Grant and Li might have talked about (battles, for example, as the latter’s life had also been changed by a civil war) in 1876. (The historical record tells us that they met at a fairground reception, but not what — if anything — they said to each other.) Then, building upon my earlier quotation of a favorite line by Henry James — which differentiates between the historian (“who wants more documents than he can really use”) and the dramatist (who “only wants more liberties than he can really take”) — page 69 continues as follows:

In the end, there might be so much that a dramatist as opposed to a historian would want to do with Li and Grant that limiting their contact to a single meeting, even one with a lot of conversation, would begin to feel too constricting. Why not, one might wonder, take a very big liberty, while still remaining within the realm of the possible if not the provable or even the probable, and imagine that Grant and Li saw each other a second time, when the General stopped in Shanghai? Li Gui was back in China by then and working nearby in Ningbo, so there is no reason why it could not have happened, even if there is not a single shred of evidence that it did.

A dramatist imagining the dialogue for such a reunion on the other side of the world from Philadelphia could have a field day, as there would be so many things for the two men to talk about…
Read more about Wasserstrom's China's Brave New World — And Other Tales for Global Times.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue