Posted in Books, China

Smoke and Mirrors: An experience of China (A Book review)

I had read this  book by Pallavi Aiyar, some time ago. It is based on her experiences in China, where she lived and travelled between 2002 and 2007. With this is an introduction  to China after 2000, I will subsequently add more about books on China or by Chinese authors, and also write something about my  research  on Post-Mao China.
This particular book consists of a series of essays on Pallavi’s experiences in China, seen from an Indian perspective. Smoke and Mirrors thus provides a first-hand account of the new China, where change and development is constant, and money and material wealth the apparent focus.
The essays are diverse, both amusing and insightful. One learns how Chinese students give themselves Western names when attending classes in English, names chosen by themselves, that include Byron, or the more descriptive Better or Fat (because I am fat, the student explains). The makeover for the Olympics, the SARS crisis, industrial zones, rich villages, religion, strange food habits (from an Indian point of view!), and finally Tibet, are some of the essay topics. The author constantly compares India with China, and contrasts the dignity of labour and welfare for the poor in China, with democracy, the caste system, and the different approach in India. However, sometimes one feels she is less in touch with India than with China, and her comparisons are with an India of twenty years ago. For instance she feels that owning a TV, DVD and motorbike in India would classify one as middle class, which is certainly not the case today. At other times, the comparisons reflect a desire to whitewash India’s problems, as when she compares India’s north-east policy with China’s Tibet policy, but totally ignores insurgency in the north-east, instead stating: ‘The North-East might not have figured prominently in the national imagination or policy priority list, but the local governments that ruled these states were genuinely representative.’ There are also too many generalisations, both on China and India. Are the Chinese really as non-intellectual, uncritical and materially oriented as she portrays? Or do they refrain from revealing what they think to a foreign visitor?  These are some of the questions that come to mind while reading the book, but on the whole it presents a fascinating and incredible picture of China as a country on the move.

There are certainly great and intellectual books by numerous Chinese writers, and I plan to look at some of these.



A writer with ten published books and several articles, book reviews etc. I primarily write on history and religion, but also philosophical fiction.

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