Under my byline

Thubron 1987, China 2009

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 3 October 2009

Colin Thubron, Behind the WallOVERLEAF 49

The People’s Republic of China marked its 60th birthday with a show of manpower. It was as spectacular and heartless as the opening ceremony of the last Olympic Games. These extravaganzas may be doing the nation a disservice abroad, by reinforcing stereotypes of the Chinese as obedient, mass-produced and invisible as individuals; collectively, able to achieve feats of engineering and display; separately, merely well trained. What an appalling public relations burden to carry! At least India and Indians are defined in the foreign imagination by chaos, layers and infinite variety, which seems somehow more human and forgivable.

Both pictures are obviously more or less mistaken. But either because one is reading as a foreigner and outsider or because the Chinese writers available in translation themselves choose to represent the collective struggle for existence and agency through the microcosm of the lone protagonist’s life story, even in writings on China by non-Chinese writers the individual appears to stand not just for himself but as an example, a representative of his species.

In travel writing the observer is, unlike the observed, forever in motion. What seems to work best with a vast and challenging subject like China is a sequence of snapshots — brief encounters with a place or person. Possibly the best travel book on China is Colin Thubron’s Behind the Wall (Heinemann, 1987), an account of the British writer’s journey through China in the mid-1980s, soon after the economic revolution began and China opened its doors to foreign visitors.

Because Thubron is so skillful, he allows the reader not only to look through his eyes but also to observe the observer learning and adapting. Thubron arrived with a smattering of language-school Mandarin and a broad knowledge of Chinese history and literature. Which is to say, he arrived with a set of questions — particularly relating to the Cultural Revolution, that Mao-led puritanical madness which engulfed the country for a decade from the 1960s to the 1970s. “[T]hat is the foreigner’s obsession in China,” he writes, just before his plane lands in Beijing.

At every moment, round every corner, the question Who are they? erupts and nags. How could they be so led? How could they do what they had done? And had they ever changed — this people of exquisite poetry and refined brush-strokes, and pitilessness?

Desperately seeking a path to understanding, a key to unlock the door of history (and also perhaps because he is in an alien environment), Thubron’s early conversations with the Chinese he meets are oddly bloodless. Each question asked and answer obtained adds to his store of knowledge, but the insight he gains nowhere offers a simple affirmation of the facts he possesses about China’s then-recent history. So it is as if each individual he introduces us to is there not in his or her own capacity but as an exemplar, a representative — the woman on the plane, the man who wants to sell him old coins on Tiananmen Square, the man sharing his cable-chair, the man he meets in a public bath, the junior party official… These individuals are the windows Thubron opens onto China.

Only later, once Thubron has spent some time there, does his perspective invert: now, the people he writes about begin to stand out as individuals, their separate identity almost raw, as he writes it, where it has torn away from the Chinese norm. A woman he meets in Nanjing, for instance, the wife of an acquaintance from Beijing, plays the piano and sings opera arias — signs of privilege, and reminders of her isolation. What she cannot do helps define what China is.

Even so, Thubron’s unhappy detachment is never quite erased. Such a traveller must remain lonely: unmoored in the contemporary, he sees the weight of history in every encounter — even the most innocent and fleeting.

One might say that things have changed in China since the 1980s, but Behind the Wall offers a hard-won reminder that, even if the young have a short memory of the past and an eagerness to embrace their imagined future, history always has the last word. Read Thubron to begin to understand China today.

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