New Books Network

Miriam Driessen

Tales of Hope, Tastes of Bitterness

Chinese Road Builders in Ethiopia

Hong Kong University Press 2019

New Books in African StudiesNew Books in AnthropologyNew Books in East Asian StudiesNew Books in EconomicsNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in SociologyNew Books Network December 13, 2019 Andrea Bernardi

I met Dr Miriam Driessen at Oxford University where she works at the China Centre. We spoke about her wonderful new book Tales of...

I met Dr Miriam Driessen at Oxford University where she works at the China Centre. We spoke about her wonderful new book Tales of Hope, Tastes of Bitterness: Chinese Road Builders in Ethiopia (Hong Kong University Press, 2019). Through unprecedented ethnographic research among Chinese road builders in Ethiopia, Driessen finds that the hope of sharing China’s success with developing countries soon turns into bitterness, as Chinese workers perceive a lack of support and appreciation from Ethiopian laborers and local institutions. The bitterness is compounded by their position at the margins of Chinese society, suspended as they are between China and Africa and between a poor rural background and a precarious urban future. Workers’ aspirations and predicaments reflect back on a Chinese society in flux as well as China’s shifting place in the world.

I started our conversation asking a short introduction on her background and the origin of the book. We mentioned the influence on her research of the work by C.K. Lee and particularly the book Against the Law. Miriam explained how she ended studying the Ethiopian case and road construction over other sectors. We then moved to her findings on the resistance and agency of African workers and the ‘hopes and bitterness’ of the Chinese workers. We discussed how it is possible to identify different classes among Chinese workers in Ethiopia (as well as in China) and the varieties of migrants, each with different background, ambitions, working conditions and destiny.

We concluded our conversation addressing the controversial topic of China’s presence in Africa and whether this should be defined as neo-colonialism or not. Revealing the intricate and intimate dimensions of these encounters, Driessen conceptualizes how structures of domination and subordination are reshaped on the ground. The book skillfully interrogates micro-level experiences and teases out how China’s involvement in Africa is both similar to and different from historical forms of imperialism.

Miriam also told us about her new project as she is about to move to Ethiopia for another year of fieldwork. Thanks to her bright anthropological skills and her ability to communicate in both Amharic and Chinese, it will be yet another amazing scholarly contribution.

Miriam Driessen is an anthropologist and a writer of literary nonfiction in English and her native Dutch. She is currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate within the China, Law and Development Project, hosted by the University of Oxford China Centre. Miriam completed a DPhil at the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography at Oxford (2014/15), and held a fellowship at Peking University (2014–2016). She has also been a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the School of Interdisciplinary Area Studies (SIAS) and a Junior Research Fellow of Jesus College, University of Oxford.


Andrea Bernardi is Senior Lecturer in Employment and Organization Studies at Oxford Brookes University in the UK. He holds a doctorate in Organization Theory from the University of Milan, Bicocca. He has held teaching and research positions in Italy, China and the UK. Among his research interests are the use of history in management studies, the co-operative sector, and Chinese co-operatives. His latest project is looking at health care in rural China. He is the co-convener of the EAEPE’s permanent track on Critical Management Studies.