Two books on China

I didn't plan it this way, but I ended up reading two books on China over the last week. Both, in different ways, address the dramatic changes in the country -- from the cultural revolution to today's one-party market economy.

Ha Jin's Waiting is about an army doctor who, ashamed of his rural wife's bound feet, never brings her to live with him in the hospital quarters. He has a girlfriend, a nurse, but hospital regulations prevent them from having sex. And, this being China, they wait and wait -- the doctor can't even imagine the consequences of not following the rules. The prose style is slow, but it draws you into the manners of thought and society of China even as the economy opens up and life changes dramatically.

Colin Thurbin's Shadow of the Silk Road is a travelogue of the author's trip from Xian, China to Antioch, Syria. He'd been to China, to the province of Xinjiang, nearly two decades ago. He looks up old friends, and observes the changes in attitudes between generations. The old, he notes, wish to forget the horrors of the past. The young (who are mostly cossetted products of the one-child policy) are nationalistic, having never faced up to their country's history. Everyone looks forward expectantly to the future.

One book informed the other and I started to imagine the military doctor in the streets that Thurbin observed ... ashamed of his meekness, jealous of the corrupt men who are making it, and wanting the best for his child. China, it seems to me, is full of such men.

Of course, the travelogue is not quite about China -- it is about the mingling of cultures and confusion along the Silk Road. The Chinese thought, extrapolating from silk, that cotton was produced by an insect. The Romans thought, extrapolating from cotton, that silk was from a plant. And yet, they traded. Through dozens of intermediaries. And knowledge did get passed back and forth, leading to catasclymic events on either side. The stirrup was a Chinese invention, and made possible the Middle Ages of highly armored knights. So was gunpowder, which brought the era to a close by providing a way to lay siege to fortified castles. And when the Portugese discovered a sea route, they disintermediated the Azers, Uzbeks, Kazhaks, Uighurs and all the other societies along the Silk Road. Until oil was discovered in Central Asia, the Soviet Union fell apart leaving independent Turkic republics in its wake, America went on a consumerist binge for cheaply made Chinese-junk and China decided to solve its Muslim problem by shipping Han Chinese into its northwest frontier.

Interesting books, both of them. I can't view the Olympics, and Chinese nationalism, in quite the same way again.


  1. If you want to observe something truly fascinating. Stand in a crowded room here and casually refer to the country of Taiwan. And then duck and run for your life.

  2. I remember talking to a Chinese scientist once. She felt that Taiwanese, Tibetans, etc. were being brainwashed into thinking they were not Chinese. This is a well-educated scientist, so I can only imagine what the man on the street thinks.