I love reading books where the author makes an effort to find strong naratives within subjects because it makes reading much more engrossing. The problem with this style though is the difficulty in giving an impartial view when following individuals themselves promoting causes. Philip P. Pan is such a writer and Out Of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China is such a book, both engrossing and frustrating.
Pan is obviously experienced with many levels of Chinese life and politics. The book covers the stories of people starting in the 1970s through modern times, from a college student executed for being apologetically “rightist” to the trial of a local political star to the now famous Chen Guangchen. In doing this Pan covers many of the most controversial actions of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The rightist purges starting in the 70s, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, June 4th Tiananmen Square Crackdowns, and modern political issues are all covered; it’s like a greatest hits album of grievances against the CCP.
This strategy of moving through CCP rule and finding ways to show the wrongs they have committed is extremely interesting but also frustrating. Pan chooses as his protagonists the common man, people who have been hurt without any way of getting recourse. It is impossible not to root for them and against the CCP because you see their frustrations (And you know there is no real way of helping either them or the hordes of people just like them). On the other hand this book doesn’t even attempt to give arguments for the other side, the reasons China has progressed or the reasons behind the CCP actions.
In the end this is a book which gives profound looks into the lives of people during many of the most interesting parts of modern Chinese history. I loved this book and recommend it, however this character driven format forgoes nuanced, even handed views though and so prevents this book from being a good solo source of information.