10,000 miles around China
Buy the Book: You can buy Behind the Wall on Amazon.
A new era in history
1986. Mao Zedong was ten years dead, the Tiananmen Square ‘incident’ was still three years away, and China was optimistic about the future. Only a few years before, the country had been all but inaccessible to foreigners. Still struggling with the trauma of the Cultural Revolution, the thought of opening up to the outside world, let alone having an unaccompanied foreigner travelling when and where he pleased, was all but unimaginable. The country was a mystery, “embalmed in the distance”, buried beneath a sediment of received ideas.
All this began to change, however, when Deng Xiaoping’s policy of reform and opening began to take hold at the start of the decade. Suddenly, hundreds of cities were open to foreign visitors and the enigma that was China could be confronted first hand. It was, Thubron states, “like discovering a new room in a house in which you’d lived all your life.” The false wall had been torn down, and with a year of learning the language behind him, he packed his bags and boarded a flight to Beijing
The China that Thubron encounters in Behind the Wall, was a country taking the first tentative steps towards a new era in its history. Whereas ten years before, the streets of Beijing were still suffocating under the drab puritanism of Maoist rule, now there were advertisements and street stalls, girls in makeup and guys in jeans. Western influences had begun creeping in. Money, not Mao, was becoming the new inspiration.
Yet this was still a country built on Communism; a country whose politics seemed fundamentally opposed to the freedom and diversity Western capitalism takes as given. Travelling all the way down to the Burmese border in the far south west and back up again to the last deserted ramparts of the western Great Wall, it is this essential contradiction that Thubron attempts to understand.
Through conversations and encounters over 10,000 miles of travel, Thubron tries to chisel away at the façade he encounters at every turn, obscuring insight like a screen wall in a courtyard home. There are naked afternoons in public baths, brief encounters with Confucius and Mao, and many other chance meetings along the way. Yet by the end of it, neither he nor we seem any closer to achieving more than a surface understanding, a fleeting glimpse beyond the curtain at a further curtain after that.
In a way, this could be seen as the chief shortcoming of the book. Encounters are too fleeting. Chapters become series of vignettes almost precluding anything more substantial from developing. An early visit to a Beijing kindergarten, for instance, was never likely to reveal much more than the Western prejudice that Thubron himself admits to later on. That the children sang “like mechanical birds” upon his arrival therefore, “vivacious and dead”, seems more like forced cynicism than a sinister precursor to another Cultural Revolution.
The question of the Cultural Revolution
This lack of insight isn’t for want of trying, of course. Thubron’s attempt to get a grip on the reasons for and the effects of the Cultural Revolution is one of the defining themes of the book. Yet in the end, his inability to do so almost becomes the story itself. He had hoped at the start that his impressions of China would eventually “align themselves like the different screens of a printed illusion” to give some sense of the experience. He expected “unblurred lines and real colours”. As his trip wears on, however, you get the distinct feeling his initial fear is close to being realised.
In Nanjing, when relating his conversation with a Protestant priest, Thubron’s “nagging disquiet” about the Cultural Revolution erupts again. His previous meetings, he writes, had been dominated by a feeling that there was “something self-evident” about those ten years of chaos that he didn’t quite get. His questions, he sensed, were “subtly irrelevant”; his Western preoccupation with “suffering and conscience” merely a sign of his inability to understand.
But maybe the fact is, such attempts to understand are beyond reasoning. As the priest rightly argues, such mindless brutality is not a peculiarly Chinese phenomenon. The history of Europe is not exactly a lesson in peace and social harmony. Maybe then the reticence Thubron encountered was simply an inability to articulate rather than a deliberate attempt at collective amnesia. Maybe understanding lay not in attempting to understand what it was to be ‘Chinese’, but the conditions of the time. Yet the same Communist Party in whose name the Cultural Revolution was unleashed was still very much in power. And 1989 was only three years away.
Behind the Wall may be best appreciated by those who have spent time travelling in China themselves; those who have experienced the “nonplussed eyes” of strangers, or who can place that “indefinable but peculiarly Chinese smell” that seems to follow him round the country. There is the “daily battle with bureaucracy” and the “passive war” waged by staff against their clientele; the service industry in which the customer is an “irrelevance, who must attract attention not by discreet coughs or murmurs, but by yelling.”
In Suzhou’s ancient gardens, he encounters not the serenity and idle contemplation for which they were designed, but an army of sightseers obscuring the view and “a glaze of cigarette stubs [which] dimmed the lakes.” The descriptions of his “own kind” seen through the eyes of his Chinese scrutinisers are a particular highlight. So too is the account of his Guangzhou banquet, his horror at the menu and the realisation of what ‘fresh’, in China, actually means. Grainy Dog Meat, anyone?
There are no illusions in Behind the Wall. The constant procession of crowded trains and fume-filled buses, the daily battle for beds and train tickets, as well as the sheer mass of people shouting and spitting and starring relentlessly, begin, after much restraint, to wear thin. Early on, during his journey to the eastern extremity of the Great Wall at Shanhaiguan, he stands staring in incomprehension while “thirty or forty men battered their way into the bus before anyone inside could disembark,” eventually settling down in the well of the folding door feeling depressed. It is a feeling any China traveller can relate to and the honesty with which these experiences are presented reminds us that this, before anything, is still a book about travelling.
Behind the Wall may have been written in 1986, but the China Thubron encountered is still, in many ways, the China that exists today. Yes, the history has been added to and the skyscrapers have gone up, but the people, the places and the experience itself, could have come from any year since. It is, in this respect, as good an account of what travelling in China is like as you are likely to find. And after all, what is travel if not a collection of random encounters and fleeting glimpses? If we can manage to make some small shred of sense of it all after that, then so much the better.
Buy the Book: You can buy Behind the Wall on Amazon.
Related Posts: For more China books reviews, click tag: books.