Oliver August, correspondent for the Times of London in China is learning Chinese. His teacher asks him what Oliver means. Oliver responds: ‘Since a man that works on a farm was a farmer, a man who harvested olives was an Oliver’. His teacher then couples two radicals – olive (gan) and farmer ( no ). The 26 year old reporter is thereafter laughingly referred to as Farmer.
“Nobody in their right minds called themselves a farmer. Millions are fleeing the land to become city dwellers, to partake in the industrial revolution, to become richer. When I introduced myself people guffawed to each other. A foreign farmer has come to our China… !”
Oliver August is a sieve of a China in transformation from below. We get the language, the images, the words, the emotions, the slogans, the mixture of groundlessness and lawlessness, the sense that a Chinese being can rely neither on the earth nor on the sky for his limits. “Modern China was a magic mirror: you could see whatever you wanted to see…,” writes Oliver.
The country was both free and oppressed, at once anarchic and authoritarian, totally chaotic yet highly regulated.
Lai Changxing is an emblem of this new country; hence his is the story tracked by Oliver.
But alongside the story of the legendary Lai, a rogue reminiscent of America’s 19th century captains of industry, Oliver gives us the gossip, the rumours, the news. And the only way to report this news is “to get out and report what you saw yourself,” in sideways glances, from overnight trains, from hired cars driven by monks, from the streets and the restaurants…
But still more, Oliver gives us economics, politics, philosophy. Not cut and pasted out of wikipedia but lovely, incisive, pieces of thought, fresh from the sea, still smelling of fish.
The more China modernizes the more ravenous its appetite for the past becomes….
These wealthy Chinese who finally thought it safe to return from abroad “were known as sea-turtles who had finally brought home their nest eggs…”
A myo tan low is a building that scratches the sky…
A big-faced building iDam yam zi dasha is a building that gives the owner a lot of face…