Few subjects must seem as vast and daunting for an author as China. The country has more than 30 provinces, about 650 cities and, of course, that mesmerizing 1.3 billion people.
Jonathan Spence's "The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds," published in the late 1990s, reminds us that Marco Polo, among others, made errors and exaggerations in his narrative of China. Generations of Westerners since have also been baffled by what holds this huge country together, coming to all kinds of contradictory conclusions.
One temptation for writers is to duck the guessing game about China's prospects for global economic domination or democracy and instead take on a more manageable slice.
Even this sensible approach usually comes with disclaimers. Carl Crow's 1937 book "400 Million Customers" begins with one, even though the author spent decades in the country.
More than half a century on, Peter Hessler's entertaining and wise account, "River Town," about two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in a town on the Yangtze, started with the proviso, "This isn't a book about China. It's about a certain small part of China at a certain brief period in time."
It's almost as if authors feel that to tackle the whole country is impossible. So it's not surprising that three recent books take a bite-size approach to China.
Rachel DeWoskin's "Foreign Babes in Beijing" is about the author's experience moonlighting as an actress on a steamy soap opera on Chinese television. The public relations executive uses this episode as a prism through which to look at the country in the mid-1990s.
"One Billion Customers," by journalist-turned-businessman James McGregor, offers plenty of lessons, from Morgan Stanley's problematic first joint venture in the country to Dow Jones & Co. and Reuters' battles with the government after New China News Agency tried to grab their customers.
Brook Larmer's "Operation Yao Ming" is a biography of the 7-foot-6-inch Chinese basketball star, but it is probably better characterized as a book about just about everything: individual freedoms bumping up against the Chinese state, the country's huge sporting ambitions and attempts by Nike Inc., Reebok International Ltd. and the National Basketball Assn. to carve out a new market.
Larmer's important book is a classic example of the microcosmic approach that delivers, in pointillist style, a sweeping panorama of China: Yao's mother, for instance, turns out to have been a sadistic Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. His mother and father, basketball stars who were forced into the sports system against their will, were coaxed to marry in the hope that they might produce a "genetic marvel."
DeWoskin's "Foreign Babes" is the slightest of the three books, with plenty of cross-cultural confusion. After she accedes to the director's request for more passion and gamely claws at her costar's back, she overhears another director whispering, "You see what I mean? Foreign babes are tigers."
"Funny," DeWoskin writes, "I had always thought that was a stereotype of Eastern women."
This is mildly entertaining for a while, but you begin to wonder whether making bold assertions about China based on a TV soap is a bit like balancing a continent-size country on a stiletto. And DeWoskin's expatriate whines, which include the difficulty of getting iceberg lettuce, can be a little tedious. When DeWoskin sees a banner that reads "Marry Chritmas," she marvels: "It is mysterious that Chinese organizations so rarely ask one of the hundred thousand Americans living there to proofread banners." I mean, really.
James McGregor's book, by contrast, is informed by a decade and a half of life in Beijing. The acknowledgments at the end of the volume merit an Olympian record: five pages of names. McGregor knows a lot of people, and he wants us to know it too.
These multitudinous sources result in good details about subjects encompassing Rupert Murdoch's efforts to rehabilitate his reputation in China and the country's efforts to gain the extradition of Lai Changxing, a peasant-turned-tycoon accused of smuggling, after his arrest in Vancouver, Canada.
A Canadian official tells McGregor: "They never, never, never got it that we could not interfere in our own court system, that we could not force the outcome, right up to Zhu Rongji [China's well-regarded former premier]. It was beyond their comprehension."
China is the world's biggest start-up and the world's biggest turnaround, McGregor says -- with all the problems you might expect from that dysfunctional hybrid status. McGregor can be refreshingly blunt: Large numbers of the powerful in China behave like a "thugocracy," he says, because "decades of social chaos, political purges and wrenching Maoist manipulation created a government operating culture in which bludgeoning your opponent into submission and then taking the spoils is a way of life."