Book Review: “Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China” by Philip P. Pan (2008)

“By almost any measure, the country’s last twenty-five years have been the best in its five-thousand-year history. But the Chinese have not yet escaped Mao’s shadow.” (xv)

While serving as a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post in China from 2000 to 2007, Philip P. Pan earned many unique opportunities to witness and then relate to his general readership an authentic view of China’s hidden lives. In this work, Pan develops eleven of his most telling experiences, experiences which capture not only the far-reaching influence of the powerful, but also the humanity and intense mistreatment of the powerless. With professional clarity, Pan fills these tales with personality, emotion, and even suspense, giving every chapter the feel of a novel.

Although most of Pan’s heroes could be considered “high-profile” due to the international attention they garnered through either their exploits or their sufferings, the background he delivers in each account offers a snapshot of Chinese living and politics that few outsiders have seen. Then, with journalistic care, Pan uses each snapshot to bring to light one major cause for which these Chinese citizens have sacrificed their safety, freedom, and lives.

Take for example Chapter 10, “The People’s Trial.” In the style of a John Grisham novel, Pan follows attorney Pu as he defends two authors sued by a Party Secretary who felt defamed by their publication on the peasants in his district. With unique insight into the legal system of The People’s Republic, Pan recounts the intense back-and-forth between the Party leaders and the people, uncovering the imperfect nature of the system while also offering glimmers of hope for the future of freedom of speech in the nation.

To this reader, it is no wonder that Out of Mao’s Shadow was a Washington Post “Best Book” and an Economist “Best Book of 2008.” I recommend it to anyone interested in gaining a ground-level view of political life in China.

©2014 E.T.

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