China seen from the bottom up

As China picks its next leadership in a discussion among a tiny fraction of its elite, the vast majority of Chinese are still just trying to get by.

Sheng Keyi’s novel Northern Girls depicts the lives of migrants from the countryside to cities that have helped fuel the China’s meteoric economic growth. Sheng moved from Hubei province to Sheng to work as a young woman and published Northern Girls in Chinese in 2004; the English translation was released this year. Northern Girls can be seen as a fictional prelude to Factory Girls, based on interviews with migrants.

I talked to Sheng at the last month’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali last month. Our interview vividly portrays the inheritance of China’s new leadership: a society that’s increasingly unequal, where material wealth expands alongside moral bankruptcy. The interview, posted on Asia Times, is also a reminder that many Chinese novelists living in China do their best to stretch the limits of state tolerance. Like leaving behind family and the familiar for the unknown metropolis – as my own mother did, moving from Portland, Maine, to New York City – writing from the heart in China remains an act of extraordinary courage with no guarantees beyond plenty of hard work in a hard place.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.