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Web magic

I was hit this week with a massive influx of what amounted to listserv spam this week, thanks to someone I’ve had only the briefest correspondence with. The worst part was that when I e-mailed him to take me off the list, I got his spam-filter program!

But there’s a kind of magic to online communications, too. I was talking yesterday to Alistair Michie in London about the Auric Digital China education endeavor he’s working on with Tim Clissold, author of the excellent book Mr. China. (Click here for a review that will appear in the next issue of Guanxi: The China Letter.)

“How did you find out about us?” he asked, and I found I couldn’t remember. I don’t “surf” exactly, but when it comes to China stuff I am always poking around and coming across new things. Finally I realized that I must have been doing a preliminary hunt for fresh, interesting ideas about the media in China, for an upcoming issue of Guanxi, and came across a journal article Alistair wrote. Besides all that, by the end of our conversation we’d discovered that we both know Simon Winchester, author of the Professor and the Madman, who lives in the Berkshires not far from here and whose next book, due out 8 May, is the Man Who Loved China: Joseph Needham And The Making of A Masterpiece. Alistair himself is the first honorary associate of the Needham Research Institute at Cambridge, and and I can’t wait to read the book, after having seen the extraordinary Science and Civilisation in China series Needham created.

Even greater serendipity has come from an accident. I wrote an e-mail before I left Beijing, “From the Bookworm Café in Beijing,” to go to our librarian correspondents. I really wanted to send it myself from China, but in the last hour before leaving for the airport had connection problems and just couldn’t get our mass mailing system to work via the VPN (sitting in the Kempinski Hotel sipping cappuccino and listening to Christmas music at that point). So I emailed the text to Marcy Ross back home and asked her to send it out.

She had her own problems wit the mail system and accidentally started sending the message to everyone in our database—some 25,000 at present, I think. She realized quickly that this was happening and stopped it somewhere in the Bs. We thought this would be a problem, since the e-mail was geared to customers, but to my surprise the result was a slew of warm, interesting responses from people I don’t know at all—some responding to my comment about every town needing a bookstore like that, but most with something connected with China. Anecdotes, offers to contribute, and, this morning, a fascinating letter from Beijing from the father of someone who received the message, about an educational project that could be a great fit with Berkshire’s plans.

Given this positive response, I’m actually thinking of editing the e-mail and send it to everyone else in the database. The chance to spread our China net this widely, and then to become a contact point for projects in different parts of the world, is just too good to pass up, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to extend my own network of people who share a passion for helping people outside China understand it. But I don’t want to get responses like this, from someone quite well-known in the digital publishing world:



This proves that some people have a lot more free time than I! If I dealt with polite but unrequested e-mail communications this way (not to mention the increasingly lurid spam) I would spend much of my day at it.

The review of Tim Clissold’s Mr. China is on the next page.

Guanxi: The China Letter Book Review
Mr. China
Tim Clissold
New York: HarperBusiness, 2004

What makes Mr. China special isn’t the disastrous events it describes—although these include massive swindles, forcible detention, and a stabbing—or the larger-than-life characters who populate its pages. An account of a succession of more or less unsuccessful business ventures in China, interspersed with finely written descriptions of rural landscape and sensitive explanations of Chinese language and perspective, Mr. China offers a literate, thoughtful, cultured approach to China that takes one well beyond the dos and don’ts of who to work with or what to invest in. By the end of Mr. China, you have begun to perceive the qualities of Chinese character and culture and landscape that so attract the Westerners who do become China hands. The following extracts give a little taste.

So what had I learned? From my eight years of hands-on work in China, I knew that I was dealing with a society that had no rules—or, more accurately, plenty of rules that were seldom enforced … rules were there to be distorted, and success came through outfacing an opponent. The irony was that the entire nation seemed to be shadowboxing with itself. Whereas to most foreigners China seemed too centralized, with an all-controlling party brooding at the hub of a vast monolithic state, everywhere I had looked there had seemed to be a kind of institutionalized confusion.

I knew that we would have to find a Chinese solution to a Chinese problem.

A tear had appeared as Shi turned his face to the wall and said waiguoren meiyou renqing gan: “Foreigners have no human feeling.”

These new advisers were veterans of multinational companies, a bit like high-flying factory rats … They just couldn’t grasp that we weren’t in control … At that stage I was more worried about making sure that the electricity wasn’t cut off and the accounting records weren’t thrown into the furnaces in a factory where our most sophisticated human-resources strategy was to invite everyone to an enormous fireworks party.

Clissold concludes, “If by writing this book I can make the Chinese people seem more human, less mysterious or threatening, just flawed and beautiful like us, then the troubles of the past ten years will all have been worthwhile.”

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