China Underground: the Review

Written by Julen Madariaga on March 23rd, 2009

china-undergroundI first read about  “China Underground” last Friday, during my daily browse of the China blogs. I had never heard the name of Zachary Mexico before, but the review on  China Beat made me feel curious, so after work I stopped by the Garden bookshop and got my copy. Only 24 hours later I had been to a speech by the author, queued at the Shanghai literary festival to get his autograph, and finished reading his complete works. I guess this qualifies me as his fastest fan.

Over the weekend I spoke with a few friends about the book and I could  feel some resistance. Some China hands clearly disapproved of the cover’s pop approach to a grave subject like the Middle Kingdom - a friend of mine from New York even warned me against what looked like “an East Village poser”.  All this probably explains why the few  who had actually read the book were so excited about it:  they weren’t expecting it to be readable in the first place.

Not having any kind of prejudice against pop illustrated covers, I found the price tag fair and the promise of a fresh perspective on China exciting enough to give it a try.  Here’s the results.

The best

There are some very good points.  First of all, like the author claims in his foreword, this books tells about an aspect of China that is neglected by most of the China books. These typically divide the Chinese population in two categories: peasants and citizens, forgetting that somewhere in the middle there is a no man’s land populated by strange, colourful characters: the underground world of the unadapted.  Artists, gangsters and other creatures that Zach Mexico, with obvious communication skills, brings to us from a street level perspective.

As should be expected from a work of its kind, Zach’s writing flows. Its short paragraphs take you swiftly through a succession of anecdotes and conversations, intertwined with little bits of analysis. Here the author doesn’t judge, he just tries to explain. An analysis part that is rather light, but it has the virtue of adding some necessary background without breaking the rhythm. This is precisely another strength of the book: it consistently beats the “curse of knowledge”, stopping briefly every now and then to provide some basic information on China, and thus making it useful for uninitiated Western readers.

The book feels like it has been arranged to captivate the reader.  One of the best and most balanced chapter is the first, where we see the daily tragedy of workers and miners in the North East through the eyes of a grassroot photographer.  It is followed by a well dramatized episode with the Qingdao mafia, and an eyecatching -albeit weaker - one about prostitution. Follow a series on artists and bohemians, the best of which are probably the musician chapters, like the one about the Wuhan punks who sing political lyrics in unintelligible Chinglish. It is clearly in this field that the author feels most confortable.

The weaker points

On the weak side, many will probably point at some imprecisions in the book. This is obviously not meant to be a reference work, but perhaps it could have used some more attention to check obvious errors,  like Uygur language as a variant of arabic. As a whole however, the general background  about China is -if unoriginal- pretty accurate, as mainstream China books go.

A more important flaw in my opinion is the somewhat irregular quality of the chapters. Some parts of the book, like the one about the Qinghua University student, are so shallow and out of place that one wonders why they were even included in the final edition. Maybe they were just an attempt to give a more comprehensive view of China, working  in contrast with the gangster chapters — a good idea, but clearly some more field work was needed.

Finally, some instances of misplaced self-consciousness, like in the chapter of the prostitute, render the author’s presence somewhat obstructive. Perhaps the best example of this weak side is the chapter about “the Most polluted city in China”. The author visits Linfen only to run away immediately with the excuse that his throat is sore and the noodles taste bad, failing to interview any relevant person there. Self sacrifice is clearly not in Zach’s agenda, and this chapter can disappoint even the hippest of East Village hipsters.

The bottom line

This is an enjoyable read by a promising new author, which delivers this China book rarity:  a different perspective on the country, together with glimpses into an intense expat experience. Zach is a talented writer,  likeable in print and in speech, as we saw in the literary festival. If he is serious about writing China we should see some good stuff coming in the near future.

For the moment I keep my hard-earned status of fastest fan, and I recommend this book to anyone who wants to enjoy a good read and taste a different side of China.

Sharing is free, support my work:

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • email
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Digg
  • Haohao
  • StumbleUpon
  • Technorati
  • LinkedIn
  • Netvibes
  • Reddit
  • Posterous
  • Live
  • QQ书签
  • MSN Reporter
  • 豆瓣
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • MySpace
  • FriendFeed
  • Print

Comments so far ↓

  1. Mar

    Monday, March 23, 2009

    Zachary Waldman does China: “Chna Underground” Goes Where Few Writers Dare to Tread

    Sex, drugs and rock-n-roll: The China edition.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Mar

    Hi Eileen.

    Thanks for posting, I like your review but please just leave a link here, or if you want you can copy some key lines for discussion. But please don’t copy a whole review with date and header and all from a different magazine, it is confusing. Sorry for that.

    One more thing: Thanks for confirming the real surname of Z. Mexico. He said it was a pseudo during the talk on Saturday but never said which was the real name

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Mar

    Yes, he told Newsweek magazine and a few other reporters that his real name is Mr Waldman, not Mr Mexico. He said he chose a pen name in the tradition of writers and artists choosing pen names or stage names. He liked Zachary Mexico as a pen name so he used for the book, I guess. But he has not been shy about telling reporters for Newsweek and other blog websites that his real name is Zachary Waldman. Lots of famous writers use pen names. There is no problem with it.

    The only probleM I had reading the book here in Shanghai was that Mexico never talked about or writes about the problems with Taiwan and China, maybe because he is an American and he follows the BS one china policy of the BS USA GOVT? In truth, China is China, there is one China, and Taiwan is NOT CHINA, there is one Taiwan, too. AND never the twain shall meet. But why didn’t his book every address this very important subject?

    If a reporter asked Waldman about his feelings on
    cross-strait issues and
    the U.S.’ “one China” policy in terms of Taiwan’s international
    diplomatic space and the communist behometh’s rivalry with this
    democratic island nation, he might be wary of talking publicly about
    such questions and did not respond to them, no?

    Because he is so enamored with Communist CHina and its underground that he romantices the dictatorshop of the CCP and cannot see the forest from the trees? I am a Brit so I can see it all. Long live Taiwan as a free and independent nation and may the CCP collapse soon. IMHO. Brit girl…

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Mar

    Actually, when I said “thanks for confirming” it was not a request, I just meant to say thank you, as you had already confirmed this point with your article :)

    As for Taiwan-China, I don’t understand why you take issue with this. The book is just not about that. In the same way you could say: he doesn’t speak of Tibet, or of the endangerement of the habitat in the Yangtze river, or many other things. It is not meant to speak about every aspect of China, it is just a casual acconut of a certain underground side of the Chnese society. And in general I think he is rather critical of CPC policies.

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. May

    ok, I got your point now…

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. May


    [Reply to this comment]

  7. May

    No…I mean the chinese version

    [Reply to this comment]

  8. May

    Ha, you been trying to read this using the translator flags?

    Good luck man. You might as well translate it into Japanese and understand just as much. At least the translator comes up with some funny puns and faux amis once in a while, which is the only reason why I keep it there…

    [Reply to this comment]

  9. Aug

    Ei Julen, the book sounds interesting, and your blog even more. We met at a bar in Shanghai, Kuluska, some days ago, and then briefly at the Fito concert. Now i am back in spainm, but will try to follow your posts. Will put a link too on my own blog about china - more like a foreign observer blog, i was there only for a few weeks… Wrote something about the xiantandi and shikumens too :)

    Best wishes, jose

    [Reply to this comment]

Leave a Comment

1 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. The Skindle. | Dana M Richardson