I found the book Chinese Profiles, by Zhang Xinxin and Sang Ye, randomly at the local used book shop. Dating to 1986, what was written as a book on contemporary Chinese culture has become a book of oral history.
The book is composed of 100 interviews with “ordinary Chinese”, taken over about a year leading up to publication. The “ordinary Chinese” include everyone from recent graduates unable to find work (a huge group at the time) to the brother of the last emperor of China, then a member of Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.
In several of these interviews we see the beginning of present-day China. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms were underway, and many of the speakers are engaged in private (or semi-private) business, working as hard as they can for a few extra yuan, and hoping to become the next 10,000 yuan household.
Another reflection on today is an interview with a magazine editor who mentions plans by “the authorities” to “stamp out ‘indecent’ magazines”, making the recent crackdown on “vulgar and unhealthy” websites look like business as usual.
Many of the subjects recall the cultural revolution, and another theme is the relative openness that allows these Chinese to reflect on those times more freely than before. We hear about “struggle sessions”, “going down to the countryside”, “learning from Dazhai”, etc., with somewhat guarded, but surprising, honesty about both positive and negative results. Probably even when the book was written both the authors and their subjects realized how quickly this openness could be reversed, as happened a few years later.
Definitely worthwhile if you’re interested in understanding Chinese culture and how it evolved to where it is today.