Age of Ambition

Evan Osnos

the deepest changes were intimate and perceptual, buried in daily rhythms in ways that were easy to overlook. The greatest fever of all was aspiration, a belief in the sheer possibility to remake a life.

Captain Lin had awoken to a sense of history gathering around him.

the combination of Deng’s charisma, Chen’s hesitation to move too fast, and Zhao’s competence was startlingly successful.

Xiaoping told a Yugoslav delegation that it was “as if a strange army had appeared suddenly from nowhere.” He did not take credit. “This is not the achievement of our central government,” he said.

“Even though a man must have great aspirations, and be aware of his duties beyond emotions and attachments to family, I am more and more homesick by the day.”

From now on he would be Lin Yifu, which meant “a persistent man on a long journey.”

In imperial Chinese law, the courts considered not only motive but also the damage to the social order, so a defendant received a harsher sentence if he murdered someone of a higher social rank than someone of a lower rank. Punishment was collective: judges sentenced not just the guilty individual but also family members, neighbors, and community leaders.

The toy company Mattel opened a six-story Barbie megastore in downtown Shanghai, with a spa and a cocktail bar—only to discover that Chinese parents did not approve of Barbie’s study habits.

The age of ambition sorted people not by their pasts, but by their futures.

In one episode, a Triple Without offered a woman a ride on his bicycle, but she brushed it off, saying, “I’d rather cry in a BMW than smile on a bicycle.”

When Deng Xiaoping declared that it was time to “let some people get rich first,” he didn’t say which people. It was up to them to figure it out.

Any effort to improve one’s lot was not only pointless but dangerous. The Party banned competitive sports, and athletes who had won medals in the past found themselves accused, retroactively, of “trophy mania”—the crime of pursuing victory instead of mass fitness.

Like many of his peers at the top of the Party, he was an engineer by training, a technocrat who had imbibed the belief that “development is the only hard truth.”

He called on his countrymen to adopt an urgent appreciation of every second. “The nation that wastes time,” he wrote, “will be abandoned by time itself.”

the most popular Chinese parenting guide was Harvard Girl, in which a mother named Zhang Xinwu documented how she got her daughter into the Ivy League. The regimen had begun before birth, when Zhang forced herself to eat a high-nutrition diet, though it made her sick. By eighteen months, Zhang was helping her daughter memorize Tang dynasty poems. In primary school, Zhang took her to study in noisy settings to hone her concentration,

To create more opportunities, the government doubled the number of colleges and universities, in just ten years, to 2,409. Even so, only one in every four aspiring college students was able to earn a place.

Li’s cosmology tied the ability to speak English to personal strength, and personal strength to national power. It was a combination that produced intense, sometimes desperate, adoration. A student named Feng Tao told me about the time he realized he had enough cash for tuition to one of Li’s lectures but not enough for the train fare to get there. “I went and sold blood,”

Li associated the ability to speak English with physical toughness based on his fundamental principle: the gap between the English-speaking world and the non-English-speaking world was so profound that any act of hard work or humiliation was worth the effort.

He ordered his students “to love losing face.” In a video for middle and high school students, he said, “You have to make a lot of mistakes. You have to be laughed at by a lot of people. But that doesn’t matter, because your future is totally different from other people’s futures.”

“You can’t change the starting point of your life, but with study and hard work, you can change the



A typical Chinese breakfast consists of a bowl of congee (a rice porridge), a deep-fried cruller, and perhaps a basket of pork buns. In Europe, he warned, in his most tactful voice, “Throughout our trip, breakfast will rarely be more than bread, cold ham, milk, and coffee.” The bus was silent for a moment.

We received Chinese-language welcome cards promising happiness, longevity, and a 10 percent discount.