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Travel Books - Thubron's China

I recently decided to re-read one of my favorite books about China, Colin Thubron’s Behind the Wall. As I cracked open the cover and saw the inscription, I realized that the book had been given to me by my grandmother, now long dead, on my twenty-eighth birthday, just before I left for China in February 1990. Perhaps this was the reason I enjoyed the book so much: Thubron was describing the China I experienced. Again and again, as I reread the book, I would find myself saying, yes, that’s exactly how it was. Well, not exactly, for Thubron had travelled to China in 1985 and I had arrived in 1990, seven months after the student protests in Tiananmen Square and the ensuing massacre. As a result, my own travel was much more restricted than his. Nevertheless, his observations matched my own. China was colourless, grim and crowded. The rivers ran like ink and the air was almost unbreathable. Everywhere you turned, something was being torn down and something else erected in its place. China was a land of black bicycles and conformity. And in every private conversation there lurked the ghost of the Cultural Revolution.

Thubron travelled for four months in a great loop, starting in Beijing and then moving south along the coast, through Shanghai and Canton, inland to Guilin, Kunming and Chengdu, then down the Yangtze to Wuhan, where he turned north to the Yellow River and west to Jaiyuguan at the end of the Great Wall. He learned to speak Mandarin, an impressive feat (one I was never able to emulate), so that he could communicate with the people he met. The result is a series of private conversations, for Thubron discovered that the Chinese, so guarded in conversation with their peers, were often willing to open up and describe their real sorrows and frustrations to a foreigner. This was my own experience as well. In the classroom, my students spoke with one voice, parroting the Party line, but in private, they expressed their true feelings. At times, I felt like a priest in the confessional. I was a safe listener. They knew that nothing they told me in confidence would ever get back to those in control. They would not be punished for expressing unorthodox opinions. One thing I admire about Thubron is his ability to keep his ego out of the narrative. It is his journey, but he is far more interested in reporting what he sees and hears than in expressing his own emotions. Oh, he complains of substandard hotel rooms and surly service in state-run enterprises, but these were common problems at the time, and to leave them out would not paint a true picture of China on the cusp of change.

For the China which Thubron described and which I experienced, no longer exists. Today the streets of Beijing are choked with automobiles, not bicycles. The consumer goods my Chinese friends could only dream about owning thirty years ago are now available in every shopping mall—and there are a lot of shopping malls these days; a new one seems to be opening every week. Political protest has been replaced with rampant consumerism. (“To get rich is glorious,” quipped Deng Xiaoping after Mao’s death). The old neighborhoods Thubron describes, in places like Beijing and Shanghai, are gone, replaced by modern high-rises. The air pollution today is, if anything, worse than it was thirty years ago, because all of these consumer goods—these refrigerators, air conditioners, laptops, cell phones, and television sets—require energy, and most of that energy comes from burning coal. Behind the Wall is a time capsule, and I suspect the least-read of Thubron’s many books today, even though it was awarded the Hawthornden Award and the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award when it was published. It has become an historic document, an eyewitness account to a moment in history. But then many great travel books are.


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