Cover image of "Age of Ambition" by Evan Osnos, a book about the new China

Age of Ambition won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2014, and no wonder. Nothing I’ve read about the rise of China for many years has immersed me so deeply into the texture of life in that country or more memorably portrayed its yawning contradictions.

Twenty years ago, the extraordinary husband-and-wife reporting team of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn published China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power. Based on five years of work in China — they won the Pulitzer for their reporting on the Tiananmen Square massacre — China Wakes introduced American readers to the dynamism and the clashing contradictions unleashed a decade and a half earlier by the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping. Now, two decades further on, Evan Osnos ably updates the story with Age of Ambition.

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos ★★★★★

Winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction

Osnos brings to bear the insight that comes only with extended experience and facility with the language in an alien culture, the sort of understanding that no reader can glean from the daily news, no matter how deeply reported. “The Party had always prided itself on articulating the ‘central melody’ of Chinese life,” Osnos writes, in a perfect example of this insight, “but as the years passed, the Party’s rendition of that melody seemed increasingly out of tune with the cacophony and improvisation striking up all around it.

“It was impossible to know what ‘most Chinese’ believed because the state media and the political system were designed not to amplify public opinion but to impose a shape on it. Nationalism, like any other note in the melody, might surge to the surface at one moment and fade into the background at another, but was it the mainstream view? The nationalists didn’t think so.”

A selection of representative individuals

Osnos focuses his penetrating repertorial eye on ten or a dozen central figures whose stories resume from time to time through the pages of this brilliant survey of contemporary China.

  • A heroic young captain in the Taiwanese Army who defects to the Mainland and later — much later — becomes one of the country’s most celebrated economists, garnering the job of chief economist at the World Bank.
  • A self-promoting English teacher who builds a nationwide adult education empire based on urging his students to shout English at the top of their lungs.
  • A Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at a leading university who spearheads an ultranationalist campaign online.
  • The sad story of the driven railroad man who rises to preside over one of the most corrupt ministries in a country of legendary corruption, building China’s network of high-speed trains along the way — and is nearly executed for his achievements.

These and so many other fascinating characters bring the reality of present-day China to life in ways that episodic journalistic reports so rarely can. Evan Osnos knows his subjects, and he follows them for years. Read Age of Ambition, and you’ll get to know them, too.

Still shy of 40, Evan Osnos reported from China for The New Yorker from 2008 to 2013. Earlier, as a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, he was part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. Age of Ambition is his first book.

For further reading

This is one of 20 insightful books about China.

Like to read books about politics and current affairs? Check out Top 10 nonfiction books about politics.

If you enjoy reading nonfiction in general, you might also enjoy:

And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.