“In The Same Boat,” cut paper by Bovey Lee. Photo by Eddie Lam@Image Art Studio.

John Pomfret, the author of “Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China,” is working on a book about the United States and China.

In the late 1990s, a joke circulated in Beijing depicting the difference between a go-go China and the all-too-staid United States. In Palo Alto, a young woman goes out to dinner with a Chinese entrepreneur. Driving her home, he accelerates through an intersection as the light changes to red. When they arrive at her house, she won’t invite him in. He obviously isn’t dependable, she says. He risked her life back there at the crossing. In Beijing, the entrepreneur lands another date and, taking that woman home, slows down at a yellow light. At her doorstep, she, too, snubs him. Why did he stop? Clearly he doesn’t know how to grab opportunities when he sees them.

To say that China has transformed itself over the past several decades is an understatement. The erstwhile “sick man of Asia” now boasts the world’s second-biggest economy and has more trade with more countries than any other nation . Twenty-five years ago, in 1989 — when millions of Chinese marched for more freedom and less corruption in demonstrations that ended with a crackdown around Tiananmen Square — China’s per-capita gross domestic product, a measure of its economic output, was a paltry $403 a year. This year it will top $7,000. When my college classmates in China graduated in 1982, their salaries averaged $100 a month; now they all own at least one apartment and boast flat-screen TVs bigger than my family’s minivan.

But this voyage from Third World basket case to global powerhouse has not been without its challenges. China produces more carbon dioxide than any other country; its air, soil and water are laced with heavy metals and other toxins. The gap between rich and poor is bigger than America’s. And while economic reforms have raced ahead, people are still thrown in jail for speaking their minds.

In the pages of the New Yorker, Evan Osnos has portrayed, explained and poked fun at this new China better than any other writer from the West or the East. In “Age of Ambition,” Osnos takes his reporting a step further, illuminating what he calls China’s Gilded Age, its appetites, challenges and dilemmas, in a way few have done.

Two themes drive this compelling and accessible investigation of the modern Middle Kingdom. The first is hunger. China is living through “a ravenous era,” Osnos declares early in the book. And it’s a hunger not just for meat — the consumption of which has increased sixfold since the 1970s. After 40 years of dead-end Maoism, Chinese are combing the globe for commodities, wealth, experiences and respect. The second theme is the chase. “All over China people were embarking on journeys, joining the largest migration in human history,” Osnos writes, and he doesn’t mean that just in physical terms. He peppers the book with tales of characters making spiritual, economic, emotional and philosophical expeditions that have transformed their lives and the world as we know it.

And it all has happened so fast. As Osnos notes, the 1980 edition of China’s authoritative dictionary, “The Sea of Words,” described individualism as “the heart of the Bourgeois worldview, behavior that benefits oneself at the expense of others.” But today Chinese have embraced the idea that they can be the agents of their own fate with an alacrity that perhaps only an American observer can really understand.

Dividing the book into three sections, Osnos depicts the pursuit of wealth, freedom and something to believe in. Along the way the reader is treated to a series of finely wrought portraits of Chinese searchers. We meet Lin Yifu, who as a young officer in the army on Taiwan makes the remarkable decision to swim to China in 1979, then earn a doctorate in economics at the University of Chicago and, as the World Bank’s chief economist, become one of the principal cheerleaders of China’s hybrid economic model of unfettered capitalism and state control.

There’s Gong Hainan, a peasant who founded a dating Web site in a typical rags-to-riches story that has become central to China’s sense of itself. Tang Jie is a philosophy student at a leading university in Shanghai whose problems with the Western media’s portrayal of China’s treatment of Tibet give Osnos a way to explore the critically important world of Chinese nationalism and its fixation that the West is out to get China. The prominent dissidents Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo also receive deeply insightful treatment. In all, Osnos ranges omnivorously between rich and poor, Christians and Buddhists, the patriotic and the oppressed, moguls and Mafiosi, democrats, dissidents and dogged supporters of the regime.

Osnos’s book brings to mind “Chinese Characteristics,” written by the American missionary Arthur H. Smith in 1894; it was the most widely read book on China well into the 1920s. “Chinese Characteristics” is riddled with the patronizing racism of the time, but it’s also deeply insightful. Smith’s description of the Chinese concept of “face” inspired China’s best-known writer, Lu Xun, to compose his most famous short story, “The True Story of Ah Q.”

Osnos’s examination of Chinese ambition is equally ambitious in revealing the national traits of modern Chinese. While Chinese describe themselves as more cautious than Americans, Osnos notes at one point, psychological research has shown that they take consistently higher risks with their investments than Americans of comparable wealth. In most developing countries, the educational level of parents is a decisive factor in determining how much a child will earn in adulthood; but in China, Osnos writes in another section, “parental connections” — not education — are the key, making urban China one of the least socially mobile places in the world.

And finally, amid all of China’s frenetic energy and miraculous economic growth, Osnos observes that its Gilded Age is an era without any “central melody”; there’s a huge spiritual hole in the middle of the Chinese soul, and, he argues, it makes that great country’s future uncertain and a bit scary for them and for us — an insight Smith would understand.

A few weeks ago, the director Oliver Stone did something leading dignitaries rarely do when they go to China: He spoke his mind. Addressing the Beijing International Film Festival, Stone lambasted China’s movie industry for its censorship and silly offers of joint production with American directors and production teams. “It’s all platitudes,” he said. “We are not talking about making tourist pictures, photo postcards about girls in villages, this is not interesting to us. We need to see the history . . . for Christ’s sake.”

Stone’s comments caused the predictable quotient of defensive harrumphing from the wardens of China’s system. A middling director rushed to China’s defense. But Stone has a point. China’s censorship is clearly holding back its culture and its understanding of itself. The best work exploring China is being done outside the country, mostly in English. The new novel “Kinder Than Solitude,” by Yiyun Li; the stories of the writer Ha Jin; the recent histories by Odd Arne Westad and Rana Mitter; even DreamWorks’ “Kung Fu Panda” are all examples. Now add to those Osnos’s masterful portrait of China’s Gilded Age.

But as with Westad’s book, it doesn’t look as if there will be a mainland Chinese edition of “Age of Ambition.” Writing in the New York Times on May 2, Osnos noted that a Chinese publisher wanted to airbrush several key characters out of his picture of China to pass muster at Party Central.

As far back as Edgar Snow, the Chinese Communist Party has used American writers to sing its praises, wagering correctly on the enormous wellspring of respect for the United States among the Chinese. That Osnos understood this dynamic and declined to play this game makes him doubly unique. “As a writer,” he said, “my side of the bargain is to give the truest story I can.” That’s what we get with “Age of Ambition.”


Chasing Fortune, Truth,
and Faith in the New China

By Evan Osnos

Farrar Straus Giroux.
403 pp. $27