From the Dragon’s Mouth: Ten true stories that unveil the real China

By Ana Fuentes

Penguin Press | 2013

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

ana fuentes       

What is Very Chinese?

My friend, Linda Jue, a Chinese-American from the Bay Area, once was describing someone she knew to me: “Well one thing about him, Fred” she finally concluded, “he is very Chinese.”

I thought I understood what she meant by very, and why she gave it such import. I gave her a small nod.

As an African American I have met more than my share of folks who were very black, and I don’t mean in skin color-- with an inner self that I could always detect; that carried over countless generations, the very soul of Africa.

And, believe it or not, I have also run into some very Americans, small as they may be.

Unlike with many of my fellow countrymen, however, what I didn’t know, listening to Linda, was what types of things made someone very Chinese.

I, like perhaps most Americans, know little about the largest population on earth. All most of us know, especially wild-eyed greedy Capitalists, is a huge, endless army of low paid worker drones; and an unbelievable gigantic market for all kinds of goods and services, that had somehow magically materialized out of nowhere. 

However, in my mind, it would somehow behoove us to try and understand what my friend Linda meant by her observation, if we are going to understand who we are now locked together with economically, and who knows what else.

In the book, From the Dragon’s Mouth, we get much insight about what makes a Chinese very Chinese

Ana Fuentes, an award-winning journalist from Madrid, Spain, spent 4 years living and working in China.  Fuentes’ approach, in her ten chapters, is to look into the lifestyles and attitudes of a broad variety of Chinese citizens in a deeply personal way, mainly, by letting them talk.

This choice, as well as making use of many techniques novelists know well, bore much fruit.

We see, among others, Chinese life through the eyes of the spoiled children of the newly rich; a noted dissenter, imprisoned and tortured by the communist government; a woman married to a homosexual; an aging Kung Fu Master; and she hit pay dirt in terms of Linda’s observation, in chapter 5, when she profiles Yang Lu.

Here is how she introduces her subject: “This slender, determined woman became a self-made millionaire giving seminars on how to form corporate teams and motivate them… And speaking about innovation. Only thirty years ago, before the Chinese economy opened up, this would have been unthinkable.”

Later, at Yang Lu’s large, tasteful suite of offices, “located in a skyscraper in the CBD, one of Beijing’s business districts,”the successful entrepreneur outlines her approach to Fuentes; which, in many ways, also gets to the heart of what it means to be Chinese, which had been echoed in one way or another in all of the chapters.

”She told me candidly,” Fuentes writes, “that the biggest burden holding back Chinese …was the legacy of Confucius, which dictate a very rigid hierarchical structure. To Confucius, the interest of the group come before the interests of the individual and maintaining cohesion and harmony had to be the top priority before anything else.

“Yang Lu believed the typical pyramid corporate structure where the bosses give orders and the employees obey fails in the end. In her opinion, the weak point of China’s private companies was their lack of experience. The oldest businesses had been in existence for less than three decades (until 1988, they didn’t even legally exist) and they had to learn so many things in a hurry.”

Fuentes points out that “Today fifty million companies are registered in China, and of those 93% are private. However, the State still controls strategic sectors of the economy through their massive petroleum, gas, cement, insurance and telecommunication firms. Eight of every ten members of the board of directors of these companies are appointed directly by the Communist Party. They are less efficient than private companies, but the major banks, also state-owned, extend the most favorable credit terms to them. Many experts wryly observe that, at the end of the day, they are all part of the same big enterprise: China, Inc.” 


There is much more to be gleamed from this insightful book, and I hardily recommend it. We might as well get to know our new best friend, and From the Dragon’s Mouth could certainly help in that regard.

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