Over the past decade, few people have influenced our view of China more than Orville Schell. To some degree, this is true by default; few people publish more than one book before fading out of view.
But Mr. Schell has become a near-fixture on the China-watching scene. Every three or four years he comes out with a well-received, highly praised book on China that -- by the standard of books on China -- sells well.
His latest book, "Mandate of Heaven," promises to be a similar mini best seller. In it, he continues where his previous book, "Discos and Democracy," left off -- just before the Tiananmen Square student protests and the massacre that followed, in which hundreds of anti-government activists were gunned down when the People's Liberation Army tried to reassert control over Beijing in early June 1989.
As in his other books, Mr. Schell gives us small portraits of the people who have helped shape the events, and vignettes of others who exemplify trends. His chapters are short, easily digestible nuggets that are grouped into sections, helping the book's 400 pages go down without much effort.
Even more alluring, this book is the first one published that incorporates the Tiananmen massacre into a larger framework, therefore promising to illuminate how stock markets and underground novels stemmed from a blood bath.
But after reading Mr. Schell's history of China's past five years, one may get the feeling that it lacks some spice and flavor. Like the McDonald's that tourists flock to in Beijing as a haven of familiarity, Mr. Schell's book fills one up and does what it does with admirable competence -- but is vaguely dissatisfying.
Of course, one has to wonder whom this book is meant for. If it's read by people who haven't followed China much, it's probably useful.
Mr. Schell spends half the book explaining exactly how the student protests got started, why they attracted broad support among ordinary Chinese and how the government used unnecessarily harsh measures to crush them. He also traces the fate of a few dissidents after the June 4 massacre.
Later he goes through the post-massacre clampdown on other forms of dissent, chronicling how people were forced to "study" the government's version of things. Importantly, he shows how few people believed the government, only going through the motions of toeing the line so they could be left in peace.
By now, though, the book is nearly at page 300, and the discerning reader may start wondering what happened to the book's subtitle: "A New Generation of Entrepreneurs, Dissidents, Bohemians, and Technocrats Lays Claim to China's Future." This actually sounded like the juiciest part of the book -- after all, many other people have chronicled the Tiananmen massacre.
To sort of justify the subtitle, Mr. Schell gives us a whirlwind tour of China's underground art scene, introducing us to pop artists, rockers and the "book kings" who use technology and pizazz to bypass censors and publish illegal books.
The chapter on underground publishing is the best part of the book -- although subscribers to the New Yorker could have read it a couple of months ago. He gives a fascinating glimpse into how the kings publish racy love stories, subversive tracts on politics and trashy kung fu potboilers.
After this section, though, the book's level drops. The final 100 pages are a de rigueur description of China's economic boom, with chapters on the stock market and the successful 1992 gambit by China's top boss, Deng Xiaoping, to revive his reform program.
What's so frustrating about this book is not that the chapters are bad, but that they don't seem to go anywhere. Mr. Schell describes too much and doesn't analyze. How did this ferment )) stem from the massacre? Or did it? Why doesn't the government clamp down? Or can it?
Many of these problems stem from the fact that these chapters and sections are culled from Mr. Schell's work as a magazine writer. As with his other books, this is essentially an anthology of articles, presented as a cohesive whole.
In this form of literary recycling, the author has not reported on the whole era he is trying to cover, so he relies on rewriting other people's reports. Mr. Schell gives credit to these sources, but at some junctures, especially during the massacre, when Mr. Schell seems to have been out of the country, every other paragraph seems to start or end with "as so and so reported . . ." In fact, the whole section on the massacre seems to stem from "Tiananmen: The Rape of Peking" by Michael Fathers and Andrew Higgins, two journalists from the British newspaper the Independent. Some readers may just want to skip the first couple of hundred pages and try to find Mr. Higgins and Mr. Fathers' account.
When Mr. Schell recounts his own experiences, the book is on sounder footing. Here, though, readers who were brought up with the stylistic rule that one shouldn't always write in the first person (because it's distracting, unnecessary and possibly egotistical) may heave a sigh and wonder what happened to modesty.
Still, if you're planning a trip to China and haven't been up on things, this book will prove a reliable guide to the key period between 1989 and 1994. It may not be the most incisive account ever published on this era of upheaval, but it's the first and so the only one available.
Ian Johnson is The Sun's Beijing Bureau chief.
Title: "Mandate of Heaven: A New Generation of Entrepreneurs, XTC Dissidents, Bohemians, and Technocrats Lays Claim to China's Future"
Author: Orville Schell
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Length, price: 464 pages, $25