Pankaj Mishra, author of ‘A Great Clamour’, refuses to accept Western prescriptions for China at face value, preferring to find out how Chinese society sees itself. He talks to Ajachi Chakrabarti about the pragmatism that is at the heart of where China finds itself today: Tehelka
You have tried to maintain a “careful distance from the instrumentalist worldviews of foreign affairs pundits, security experts and financial analysts” while researching this book. Is there something restrictive about refracting your impressions of China through their distinctly utilitarian prisms? What do conventional narratives miss about China?
The conventional portraits and ideas of China are all filtered through particular prisms, whether they are of national security — which is the case in India at least, to a large extent, or even in the United States — economic rivalry and definitely military rivalry, increasingly, in the South China Sea. So much of the reporting you see on China in the American media is about China’s moves in those particular realms. What I really mean by getting away from that kind of instrumentalist view of China is becoming interested in how the Chinese look at themselves and how society looks at what kind of place it seeks for itself in the wider world. I think that’s an idea of China that can only be accessed through its literature, through its cinema and through its internal intellectual debates. For that, you really have to be interested in how the society sees itself and not what you want to get out of that society, because there is a big difference there.