I think the problem breaks down into several dichotomies and conundrums. In no particular order:
- Political: democracy vs. communism; the goal of egalitarianism
- Social: rural vs. urban; agrarian idealism vs. capitalism and commerce; demonizing capitalism
- Economic: poor vs. rich; the Iron Rice Bowl concept; entrepreneurship in modern Chinese economy; the 5 Year Plan and a controlled economy; managed growth and expansion; foreign investment; cheap labor; domestic consumerism vs. the Export Economy
- Historic: exploitation by the west and Japan; the legacy of feudalism; Dynastic thinking in modern China
- Demographic: 1.6 billion people; the pyramid of social hierarchy;
- Infrastructure: communication; transportation; power; housing; sanitation; education
- Ideology: the role of ideological thinking in shaping China's social structure
- China under communism: Marx, Lenin, and Mao; Mao and Stalin; Mao and Nixon; The Great Leap Forward; The Cultural Revolution; Tienanmen, 1989; Deng Xiaoping; Hu Jintao
- Chinese food: fried rice vs. sweet and sour chicken; is there more?
My personal reading list for China includes some older and many newer titles. Writers that have been chronicling the changes inside China from a western perspective are very interesting. I recommend the books by Peter Hessler, River Town, and Country Driving. Also one called Factory Girls, by Leslie T. Chang. Pearl Buck's The Good Earth describes life in China of 100 years ago, and yesterday for the rural poor. I have just finished listening to a 48 lecture series from the Teaching Company called The Fall and Rise of China by Professor Richard Baum of UCLA, which has been an excellent review of China since about 1850 through the present, and covers especially well the ascent of communism and Chairman Mao, and the importance of idealism in the crafting the Chinese state under communism. All of these authors are fluent Chinese speakers, and they relate personal experiences in different strata of Chinese society. These strata are very important to understanding the way things work in China.
I ran a test over the weekend. I invited my Chinese friend over for dinner on Sunday and tried the idea out on he and his wife. I told them about our group, and that I wanted to try and have a conversation about China. They were agreeable, and have offered to attend on May 13. So, we are committed to this adventure and now we have to sort through the pile of possible topics and see if we can't make some sense out of it. If you have suggestions please either send me an email, or leave a comment below. Thanks!