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Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos, book review: Chinese life from the inside

An extended cultural and political trawl through modern China is both enlightening and instructive

There has been talk of a "golden age" of Western reporting on China, as news organisations plough resources into the emerging Asian superpower and resourceful young writers head east. If that's true – and it probably is – Evan Osnos, a former China correspondent for The New Yorker magazine, has been among those mining precious journalistic metal in recent years.

Age of Ambition is an extended cultural and political trawl through modern China, reflecting Osnos's eight years reporting on the country. It's a story, essentially, about people: the people swept up in the cult-like enthusiasm for learning English; the Chinese journalists trying to expose corruption but careful not to push their investigations too far for fear of being shut down; the self-confident young nationalists determined to defend China against Western intellectual subversion.

He meets gamblers, internet entrepreneurs, old-school dissidents, Christian preachers, Buddhist monks, even a poetry-composing street sweeper. He hangs out with the superstar blogger and racing driver Han Han and spends time with the radical artist Ai Weiwei. Osnos becomes a confidant of the establishment economist Justin Yifu Lin and the well-connected publisher Hu Shuli.

Much of the events described in the book will be familiar – the Sichuan earthquake, the high-speed train crash in Wenzhou, the hit-and-run death of two-year-old Yue Yue in Foshan, the incredible escape of the blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng from house arrest. But Osnos mines deep below the surface, often interviewing the protagonists personally and getting to the heart of the meaning of these traumatic episodes.

He writes in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has read The New Yorker's long-form journalism. Osnos tends to let the protagonists themselves do the talking, allowing the bigger picture to emerge gradually through judicious scene selection and poetic description. The author's hand is light. One needs a certain amount of patience for this kind of literature and not everyone will stick with it. But those that do will reap rich rewards.

He documents the mordant humour in Chinese life well. Internet users joke that their subversive words are "harmonised" by the online censors. Migrant workers are "triple withouts" (no car, no apartment, no nest egg). One woman observes that she would "rather cry in a BMW than laugh on a bicycle". He also has a keen eye for the absurd detail of Chinese life such as the internet millionaire from humble origins who parks her moped in the front hall of her mansion to protect it from thieves, or the nightclub with white stools designed solely to seat luxury handbags.

In the run-up to the 2008 Olympics Osnos notices some workers scoring new laid cement on a wall near his home. He eventually realises they are trying to create the impression of new bricks without actually laying any. One passage where Osnos describes a whirlwind succession of businesses (from pancake makers to a brothel) that open up in a single location near his Beijing home, only to close down shortly after, is enthralling.

He has a lovely turn of phrase. The gambling peninsula of Macao in the South China Sea resembles "crumbs flaking off the mainland". A Chinese tourist guide is a "hummingbird of a woman". The dissident Liu Xiaobo is "lean and bony as a greyhound". Gazing on the secret propaganda headquarters in Beijing Osnos wonders "how you negotiate with a building that does not exist".

Osnos writes beautifully and his judgement is sound too. He generally avoids the trap of generalising about China, pointing to the complexity and ambiguity of the country. Asking himself what motivates China spiritually he says: "from my front door I could walk to every point on the compass and find a different answer".

Age of Ambition is, in some respects, a collection of sketches. Nevertheless, a thesis emerges. China is, Osnos says, experiencing an age of ambition – ye xin, or "wild heart". This is an impulse that seems to unite everyone from high-flying economists to street cleaners. It's a material, political and spiritual quest. Osnos likens the country to America in the late 19th and early 20th century, regarding it as a society in flux, a people in the throes of self-actualisation.

Does this theory work? Up to a point. There is certainly plenty of ambition in China – hardly surprising in a land held for so long under the boot of Mao's totalitarianism. People are seizing their belated chance for a better life. But there's also widespread fear, verging on panic, about dwindling economic opportunities, choking air pollution, suspicions about food safety and the evanescent rule of law. In truth this book might have been titled "Age of Confusion" or "Age of Anxiety".

This is not a complete survey of modern China. Though Osnos is strong on politics, Neo-Maoism is barely mentioned. It's also a shame that Osnos doesn't deal with attitudes to race in China, the subject of so much fear-mongering. The feelings of the nationalist youth towards America are examined in detail but not their hostility towards Japan. Yet none of this detracts from what is an important portrait of the country.

So much simplistic twaddle is written about China in the West. Economic writers ogle admiringly from afar at its authoritarian capitalism, glossing over the terrible human cost. Pundits hype China up as a "challenger" to the hegemony of the US. The "Chinese mind" is stereotyped. We often hear that all Chinese are set on reclaiming what they regard as their "rightful position" of world supremacy. Age of Ambition is a welcome corrective to that kind of nonsense. This is a book about China as it really is – not a book about China as we in the West would like, or fear, it to be.

Ben Chu's 'Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You've Heard About China is Wrong' will be published in paperback in September

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