Dick Wilson

  • Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train through China by Paul Theroux
    Hamish Hamilton, 494 pp, £14.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 241 12547 2
  • Discos and Democracy: China in the Throes of Reform by Orville Schell
    Pantheon, 384 pp, $19.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 394 56829 X
  • The Star Raft: China’s Encounter with Africa by Philip Snow
    Weidenfeld, 250 pp, £14.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 297 79081 1
  • Ancestors: Nine Hundred Years in the Life of a Chinese Family by Frank Ching
    Harrap, 528 pp, £12.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 245 54675 8

The idea of China is elusive. Not only was its civilisation different from those that shaped the West, but it flowed earlier and more continuously – and mutual contact was tenuous. The picture of China that we carry in our heads is a misleading collage. It builds first on the exaggerated respect paid to Chinese institutions by the French Enlightenment in the 18th century, and is then overlaid by the risible images of China’s feeble response to Western imperialism in the 19th century, and now in the 20th century by the figure of that extraordinary half-god, half-demon, Mao Zedong. Since much of Chinese life today bears no obvious relation to these images, we find it difficult to view it for what it is, instinctively reaching back instead to the things we think we know. As Paul Theroux remarks in Riding the Iron Rooster, ‘China exists so distinctly in people’s minds that it is hard to shake the fantasy loose and see the real China.’

Here, then, are four authors taking different routes to ‘the real China’, each carrying different baggage and each arriving at a different part of the truth. Orville Schell’s Discos and Democracy describes China’s intellectual, artistic and political life during the year 1986. His preconception is that something noble was thrown out with Maoism, to allow all kinds of greed, selfishness, degeneracy and aping of Western modes to flourish. His head swims, he says, with the incongruity between China’s permissive present and its spartan recent past. He opens with the discovery that the old Maoist slogans on the walls of Peking University are beginning to reappear as the Dengist paint that obliterated them a decade ago flakes off with wind and rain and sun. He ends with a reproachful contrast between Mao’s Memorial Hall in Tiananmen Square and the brash Kentucky Fried Chicken establishment, replete with posters of the Statue of Liberty, that faces it.

Schell is captivated by the written Chinese culture. An entire chapter is devoted to a guided tour of the China materials in his own study, culminating in an irritable outburst against cultural change: ‘I suddenly felt grateful to my dictionary for having so insistently served as a reminder of this ... aspect of China, which superficial reforms were unlikely to erase.’ He shows little interest in the peripheral provincial societies (Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan) which made no contribution to Chinese civilisation and yet have piloted a way through the early shoals of modernisation without entirely losing their Chineseness, and may therefore help us to predict China’s outcome. Schell treats the preoccupations of China’s intellectuals as the central reality.

Philip Snow defines his China in terms of a contrast, between what Kang Yuwei, the late 19th-century reformer, used to call the gold and the black. Few people are less like Chinese than Africans, and The Star Raft: China’s Encounter with Africa spells out relentlessly how mutual understanding escapes them whatever political goals they may share. This tells us much about China that is not otherwise obvious but Snow’s obsession is with China’s joining the world and not turning in on itself again – which may still prove to be only a fragile hope.

Another way of defining the China phenomenon is to examine one dominant institution, and Frank Ching in Ancestors chooses the family – his own, which he was able to trace back for 900 years. To review almost a millennium of Chinese history through the single genealogical line which leads to a young American journalist does reduce that history to a human scale. It illuminates how and why the family distorted China’s social relationships into a pattern which the West, with its universal ethic, finds puzzling – suffocatingly close in one way, aloofly anarchical in another. But Ching is lucky. He sprang from a mandarin family of government ministers, judges and administrators, for whom family links and records became a cult. How many ordinary Chinese could boast such a pedigree? There is nothing here on the reasons for China’s economic decline or present social malaise.

Paul Theroux made no previous study of China, and aimed merely to travel as far and as long as he could on China’s limited railway network. This should have enabled him to approach another truth – the wide geographic spread of China – without cultural preconceptions or political hang-ups. But he wears a chip on his shoulder, in the form of seeking to disprove the Chinese saying that ‘we can always fool a foreigner.’ Theroux was highly conscious of the prejudices which ordinary Chinese would entertain about him.

I was the hairy big-nosed devil from the back of beyond ... whom the Chinese regards as the yokels of the world. We lived in crappy little communities that were squeezed at the edges of the Middle Kingdom ... we had noses like anteaters. We were hairier than monkeys. We smelled like corpses.

He gets his own back by trespassing into premises not open to visitors, unscrewing the loudspeaker in his railway compartment to silence its continuous blare, and generally playing the awkward squad.

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