I’ve read a lot of history books. The contemporary historian’s job works as follows:
- Come up with a theory.
- Test the theory against the information
- Change to suit the data.
I don’t know if Xinran really thought of herself as a historian when she wrote “China Witness.” But if so, she didn’t do her job.
She states, several times, that she believes that there is a moral vacuum in China, that there is a spiritual whole in the modern Chinese reality. Although she does not state outright that it was what she was planning to find, it becomes clear in several of her interviews.
She went in looking for a hole, and she carried out interviews with many older Chinese people in order to confirm the existence of that hole. She edited her interviews, she asked leading questions; she knew what she wanted to find, and nothing contradicted it.
This lack of anything to contradict the theory (there’s always at least one outlier), coupled with her failure to openly acknowledge what she was looking to find, makes “China Witness” a bad history. That said, it’s not necessarily a bad book. I don’t know a lot about journalism: maybe, through that lens, it’s a quality work. There are many interesting moments and lovely reflections in this book. But don’t read it alone and think you’re getting a good view of China and its history.