Minjian: The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals, Sebastian Veg (Columbia University Press. April 2019)
Minjian: The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals, Sebastian Veg (Columbia University Press. April 2019)

Who are the new Chinese intellectuals? In the wake of the crackdown on the 1989 democracy movement and the rapid marketization of the 1990s, a novel type of grassroots intellectual emerged. Instead of harking back to the traditional role of the literati or pronouncing on democracy and modernity like 1980s public intellectuals, they derive legitimacy from their work with the vulnerable and the marginalized, often proclaiming their independence with a heavy dose of anti-elitist rhetoric. They are proudly minjian—unofficial, unaffiliated, and among the people.

Chinese writer Jia Pingwa is rooted in his own origin story. He says in the Afterword to his most recent novel in English translation, Broken Wings, “Your birthplace has determined who you are,” and that here, “I have written about myself, and only myself.” Jia is from Shaanxi Province, which has places so remote that they can barely even be said to be forgotten, as they exist suspended in their own time and space.

Andrew Shaw was for many years a “trouble shooter” television journalist in the employ of the BBC. His job required him to pick up and fly to wherever whatever piece of news was breaking. After what many would regard as an enviable pursuit of exhaustive and widely varied paid foreign travel, he tired of it largely because his calling denied him the underlying exotica of his destinations.

Under Red Skies is being plugged as the first English-language memoir by a Chinese millennial, which already sets it apart from other books about China’s younger generation. Books like Alec Ash’s Wish Lanterns or Zak Dychtwald’s Young China, for all of their merits, were written by expats. In contrast, Chinese-born Karoline Kan tells the story of her life from its beginning in her own words.