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Beijing Confidential: a Tale of Comrades Lost and Found (2007)

by Jan Wong

Series: Jan Wong (3)

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1858110,614 (3.69)12
A journalist's search through Beijing for the classmate she betrayed during the Cultural Revolution reveals three decades of Chinese transformation.



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Part confessional memoir and part travel book, Jan Wong revisits the sins of her past self, and in the process discovers a China much changed from the one she knew from decades ago. A Canadian of Chinese ancestry, Wong's youthful exploration of communist philosophy had led her to seek out the Maoist application of it first hand, being one of only a few Westerners allowed into China at the time. There, through what she later recognises as her own blind fanaticism, she tattles on a fellow student, reporting them for subversive activity. Over thirty years later, now disabused of her earlier zealotry, Wong returns to find out what happened to this individual, and in the process discovers a China much changed by modernisation and free-market capitalism. A fascinating and insightful read.

Gareth Southwell is a philosopher, writer and illustrator.
  Gareth.Southwell | May 23, 2020 |
Not a great book but worth reading if you are going to Beijing as I am. The story is based on her trip to Beijing in 2006 so I expect things have continued to change rapidly in a decade. Her Beijing sound plastic and nouveau riche. So much of the old Beijing has been destroyed as they rushed to put in six lane highways, the Great Mall and huge new high rises. it sounds like most of the best of old Beijing is gone. :-( ( )
  SigmundFraud | Apr 2, 2016 |
Wong is a Canadian journalist of Chinese heritage who has been a correspondent for many major newspapers around the world. But in the early seventies, just out of high school, she went to Beijing to continue her education at Beijing University. The Cultural Revolution was in full swing and Wong was a disciple. She was taught Mandarin, the official language, she did manual labor in a factory and in the fields, she was housed with the other, few, foreign students and potential friends were vetted, and in one instance, she ratted out a girl who asked for help getting to America. It's that action that brings Wong, now with a husband and two teenage sons, back to Beijing thirty-three years later, in hopes of finding the girl she wronged, or at least finding out what became of her, as she disappeared from school soon after Wong turned her in. With only a surname to go by, Wong tries to track down this woman in a city of millions, in a place where no one wants to remember what they did and what was done to them during the Revolution.

This story is not only about Wong's search for the person she turned in, but an inside look at how the Revolution worked under Chairman Mao and the Communist Party, and how China and Beijing have drastically changed in modern times with the country becoming "the factory of the world". Wong re-connects with friends, roommates and enemies from her university days in an attempt to track this girl, but leaves nearly each meeting feeling that a cover-up is in progress, turning this non-fiction into a mystery. I had a hard time putting this one down. ( )
  mstrust | Jun 11, 2014 |
Definitely not in the same class as Red China Blues, which was an excellent book by Wong, this entry is basically a travelogue. Still, it is very readable with Wong's wit, humour, and ironic sense. It should be taken for what it is though, not a definitive history of Beijing, but one person's experience. In that sense, it is very entertaining.

My one reservation was that throughout the book, I did wonder if the purpose of the trip truly was to apologize to this one indivdiual she wronged so long ago, or was the apologize just the preconceived premise for writing this book.

Still, I would recommend it. ( )
  Scotland | Sep 26, 2012 |
Journalistic writing is more likely biased than an academic monograph, but the latter is often not as readable. What I don't like about, what I call the "journalistic style" is that it starts from a particular pitch, that details used to describe distort rather than render a true picture of reality (a journalist's portrait is almost always like a street artist's caricature), and may contain certain other gross exaggerations included to create a certain effect.

For example, a few years ago I read [[Jan Wong]]'s [Beijing confidential. A tale of comrades lost and found]. The basic outline of the book is that the author came to China during the Cultural Revolution and feels that she betrayed her classmate. Apart from the fact that Wong shows herself to be an extremely narcissistic writer, constantly emphasizing her (supposed) naivete, she weaves a tale of lies and deceit. The emphasis on naivete is a ploy to shrug off culpability. She is clearly deceiving readers with her claims of being the first foreign student in China. She only went there to do a language course. There is no actual moment she lies about it, but her writing is never straightforward, and creates a particular, purposeful impression. There are two details, I want to high-light.

At some point, half-way, she described a scene at the reception office of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), in Beijing, saying that visitors and reception staff are separated by a glass screen, and communicate by screaming at the top of their voice. This is a clear exaggeration that creates a negative, supposedly typical and derisive image of China, calling post offices, banks, and any other number of service desk situations to mind. [[Wong]] knows that nobody of the general readership will ever in their lives enter that particular office, and be able to verify the (un-)truthfulness of her description.

At the end of the book, she describes a scene in which her friends see her off in a taxi. She describes how her friend hails a taxi, then scrutinizes the driver through the window, and rejects the taxi. [[Wong]] claims that this is standard practice in Beijing, that Beijing citizens can judge the reliability of taxi drivers at a glance, and that this is an essential procedure to guarantee a safe trip home, and avoid rape or robbery. This is a totally preposterous claim, and an absurd story.

The problem with journalistic writing, especially about countries 'closed to foreigners' is that many of these writers are not objective guides. They have a pitch (Wong clearly has a chip), and a purpose to lead the reader to think in a particular direction. This, however, is not clear to the general, non-specialist reader. This is one reason why the Chinese government keeps foreign journalists on a short leash. ( )
  edwinbcn | Feb 17, 2012 |
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