Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
Colin Thubron is my favourite travel writer. Thubron travelled 10,000 miles around China in 1987 from Beijing all the way down the coast to Guangzhou, to Jinghong on the border with Burma, into Sichuan, down the magnificent gorges of the Yangtze River just months before they were flooded, to see the Terracotta Warriors in Xian and across the edge of the Gobi Desert and Himalayan foothills, all the way to the westernmost end of the Great Wall in Jiayuguan. He travelled by bus in winter with Tibetan peasants carrying frozen sheep carcasses, by hard-seat train with malnourished labourers who spat on the floor and smoked incessantly, by soft-seat train with Communist Party officials who were plump and travelled in luxury, by river boat and coastal ferry. He visited the most important sites for the rise of Mao Ze Dong and the Communist Party. He stayed in tourist hotels when he couldn’t avoid it and guesthouses or the squalid accommodation used by locals when he was allowed. He hired bicycles wherever he went. He stayed in several Buddhist monasteries. He ate cat and snake only when no other options were available but he refused to eat dog.
Behind the Wall – A Journey Through China is the book that he wrote about his incredible journey. As always Thubron impressed me with his understanding of the history, current events and language (he learnt Mandarin for 12 months before travelling to China). Because of this linguistic ability he was able to have casual interactions with locals of all social levels, from remote peasants whose tiny farms he passed on his rickety bicycle to professors in far western China. In the parts of China where Han Chinese do not dominate and Mandarin is not spoken he still managed to get by but the narrative is not as rich. In every interaction he probed about the experiences of that person during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The stories that he hears are as sad as you imagine.
It was particularly interesting for me to read this book immediately after reading Beijing Coma by Ma Jian. Thubron travelled around China two years before the student protests that led to the mass hunger strike and continued occupation of Tiananmen Square. Interestingly, he does not pick up on any dissent, just dissatisfaction. It was good to read the stories collated and retold from the perspective of a seasoned British traveller on the same sad page of Chinese history that I’ve read about from so many Chinese perspectives. I think that Thubron is the first writer I’ve read who presented me with perspectives of peasants themselves. All other writers I’ve read have been part of the Chinese intelligentsia and while family members of those writers were banished into the distant provinces to labour on farms, I hadn’t previously read what it was like for the peasants who were suddenly burdened with strangers living in their homes and extra mouths to feed. Another voice that Thubron presented to me for the first time was that of the infamous Red Guards. These are the youths, often high school and university students, who mindlessly followed instructions to beat and humiliate their own teachers and professors, and much more. Often I have wondered who these young people were and how they could behave in that way.
When Thubron visited the famous city of gardens, Suzhou he was enchanted by an old and exquisite city. He spent two days wandering in the gardens of the city and he found them drowned under sightseers.
Each small vista was different, but each one spoilt. Here a window gave on to a sunlit slant of plum tree – and at its foot a spittoon. There a bridge spanned a glade where two women were yelling. Nearby, on a pool dark with hanging trees, floated a beer-can. A moon-gate led to a lavatory… Only the churlish foreign devil became filled with a revulsion against tourists, as if he wasn’t one.
I can understand his disappointment and distress. Conversely, all of the gardens that we visited in Japan were exquisitely well maintained. It’s a big shame that the Cultural Revolution destroyed the respect in China for heritage. The next day at sunrise Thubron visited the 800-year-old Garden of the Master of the Fishing Nets and had the gardens to himself.
If a man would be happy for a week, ran a saying, he could take a wife; if he planned happiness for a month, he must kill a pig; but if he desired happiness for ever, he should plant a garden.
As usual Thubron entertained me throughout the book with vignettes from his interactions with locals. My favourites were Jianming (Build the Splendour) who impulsively absconded temporarily from his job as a travelling salesman to accompany Thubron to the tomb of 8th Century poet Li Bai. He earned the equivalent of £13 per month and shared a tiny space with his wife and baby. When Jianming and Thubron shared a room in a hotel:
He exulted in everything: the curtains, the television, the sheets. He played like a child with the air-conditioning, twisting its knobs into a paradise of temperatures: he never realised it was broken. Out of deference to the carpets he even stopped spitting. He dashed into the bathroom and raced out again. ‘There’s cold and hot water! ‘
Build the Splendour talked a lot and within a few days Thubron discouraged him from accompanying him further.
My other favourite was the equally irrepressible Li Yun from Canton who Thubron met on the ferry from Xiamen to Guangzhou.
But just as I was dozing off, I was rediscovered. A bespectacled face reared from a bunk beyond my feet, and grinned with a mouthful of teeth so disordered that I had the illusion he could rearrange them at will.
Li Yun misunderstood Thubron’s name and enthusiastically called him Mr Tampon. He was a big fan of Wham! and played their music at top volume.
I fully enjoyed reading this book and I can recommend it wholeheartedly. Have you read this book? Do you have a favourite book about China?
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