Since the publishing of his first travel book, Mirror to Damascus, in 1967, Colin Thubron has travelled and written extensively about Eurasia and its great expanse. From the Middle East, to Russia, Siberia and The People's Republic of China, Thubron has captured cultures, nations and their people at moments of transition or emerging significance and documented their struggle with both their contemporary situation and the baggage of an often turbulent history.
In Among the Russians (1983), for instance, he explored the western states of the Soviet Union, travelling from St. Petersburg and the Baltic states to Georgia and Armenia in the south, experiencing the hardships of ordinary Russian life under communist rule before the Union disintegrated only a few years later. In turn, The Lost Heart of Asia (1994) returned a little over a decade after that disintegration to document the resultant upheaval within the newly-independent central Asian republics while In Siberia (1999) charted his 15,000 mile journey through a bleak post-communist vacuum confronting an uncertain future.
It is a similar concern to reveal something deeper of the regions he travels than simply a series of geographical and cultural sights at a cursory level that Thubron brings to the China that emerges from Behind the Wall. It is a book that manages within its pages not only to chart a physical journey and the experiences which immediately constitute it. It reaches at the same time towards an understanding of the national psyche that pervades the land he crosses and the historical and often political foundation that underlies the individual stories we become privy to along the way.
Thubron's journey through China beings in the capital Beijing and takes as its point of reference the physical and historical spectre of the country's Great Wall which stretches over 4000 miles from nearby Shanhaiguan in the east to its distant western limit in Jiayuguan. Above it lies all that remains counter to China's historical mindset. Disorder and the great unknown lurk malignantly and, as history has shown, not just illusorily, beyond the wall's protective frontier. Mongolia, the Gobi desert and the great Russian expanse unfold as an indefinite northern threat that must be kept at bay in defence of the heart and soul of the motherland. While behind the wall the motherland dozes under a blanket of millennia, enshrouding her children in a history that at the once weighs upon them whilst lending a comforting familiarity to all that is, was and it would hope will be.
Indeed, as Behind the Wall progresses from its Beijing beginning, one does start to get a sense of a country and a people actively - although reticently - attempting to deal with its past in the present; that is, attempting to move on from its past whilst being irrevocably tied to its customs and sedimentations. Moreover, Thubron's main point of interest in the mid eighties when the book was written (it was published in 1987) seems very much the relationship ordinary Chinese have with the major upheavals their society was subjected to throughout the twentieth century and the way in which they have, or are, coming to terms with all that occurred.
From Thubron's conversations we find the ghost of Mao hanging omnipresently throughout the country's consciousness. The Cultural Revolution and its similarly shambolic and ruinous precursor The Great Leap Forward are revealed as still sitting conspicuously in the memories of those old enough to have lived through them. But where one would expect revulsion and a desire for vengeance on those that took part in the turmoil, we find an understanding and a strange acceptance that maybe only one innately privy to “the Chinese way" can truly come to appreciate.
In light of this, it is Thubron's recognition of what seem the irrevocable cultural differences between himself and those he encounters, together with his gradual realisation that though there may be acceptance this need not necessarily equate to apology for past injustices, that stand out most. In one meeting in which his “nagging disquiet about the Cultural Revolution erupt[s] again", for instance, the Chinese priest with which he is discussing the effect the Cultural Revolution had on the Christian church in China suggests that the Red Guards - that mass movement of mostly students and young people mobilised by Mao to spread the “message" of the Cultural Revolution - were essentially “good at heart" and any excesses that may have occurred were simply due to their following an ideal. As Thubron himself suggests, the Red Guards “had withdrawn, perhaps, into an ethos ancient in their history - a womb-world of submission to the group, a family obedience emanating out to the largest family of all, whose father was the emperor ruling by the Mandate of Heaven. " In this state, Thubron writes, the person “relinquish[es] all responsibility, all self. His conscience [is] stillborn. "
It is left to Thubron to wonder whether the priest may not be forgiving the perpetrators for their actions or simply pointing out the fusion of the naivety of the revolutionaries with the seductive power of the ideal that caused the movement to descend into something more sinister. But it is an interesting and perhaps, at Thubron's Westernised remove, an ultimately irresolvable dichotomy. It would seem he maybe erred towards the latter. Yet this did not prevent him seeing himself in the eyes of the priest as “a spoilt Westerner, sentimentally favouring an incontinent sympathy above moral decision. " The difference between one civilisation sprouting from its own Confucian seeds from which over two millennia of hierarchical social law and ethics flourished and another, ancient Greek in origin and largely Christian in history, emphasising the responsibility of the individual in his own comportment with the world, is often too much, it seems, for either side to fully overcome and understand.
Despite this, however, Thubron's desire remains for understanding and to realise answers to his perhaps Occidentally begged questions throughout. Written as China was slowly opening itself up to the rest of the world and the West in particular, Thubron's travels from Beijing to Shanghai, to Canton in the South and then back up again towards The Wall, present a portrait of an unmistakeably great nation at a decisive point in its history as the gradual build up towards its emergence onto the world scene continued to pick up speed. Yet only two years after Behind the Wall's publication, the promise of the bright new future felt both within China and the world beyond was to hit the buffers of reality with a shattering reminder of the history upon which it will not allow us to forget it rests.
Following the massacre of the hundreds of civilians attending pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the government cracked down on protesters and their supporters around China, banned foreign press from the country and enforced a strict censure of any coverage of the events in the media. Just as the modicum of freedom enjoyed by travellers such as Thubron in that enigmatic country offered a glimpse of all that was previously shrouded to Western eyes and notepads, the source of that enigma for much of the century - namely the Chinese Communist Party - seemed to close and bolt the door as quickly as it had gradually let it creak ajar.
Indeed, adumbrations of such disparities as those which came to a head on that early-June day can be seen throughout Thubron's narrative. Mao and the almost unquestioning loyalty and belief he once inspired haunt every page yet he comes across on the whole as a rather reviled figure in the eyes of those we meet. The Communist Party and its proclamations are almost universally recognised yet many only do so for the sake of their careers and to get on in life, well aware of the corruption that is rife. It is the breadth of research and knowledge that subtly informs Thubron's accounts and allows us to paint such a picture, whilst at the same time allowing us to read Behind the Wall simply as a superb travel narrative, that stands as one of the principal achievements of his work.
Behind the Wall is certainly not the presentation of a jolly jaunt round China collecting a camera full of irreverent mementoes of one's gap year. Thubron's commitment to the richness that underlies his narrative and the respect for the cultures he reports upon lends his journey a far greater weight than that. As a consequence, our reading of Behind the Wall leaves a far more lasting impression and results in a far more rewarding experience than a whole shelf of lesser travel books would do likewise.
This is not to say that Thubron does not indulge in his fair share of jollity and abandon himself to the sheer joy of travelling on numerous occasions. His experience of the Chinese obsession with food and the merciless national belief that “nothing edible is sacred", for instance, reaches quite obscene yet memorable excesses on his visit to Canton. One menu, in particular, upon which he attempts to find something more agreeable to his rather less than courageous Western palette offers nothing less bizarre than steamed cat, braised guinea pig with mashed shrimps, grainy dog meat with chilli and scallion in soya sauce, shredded cat thick soup, fried grainy mud-puppy with olive kernels, braised python with mushrooms and so on. If he had wanted the steamed mountain turtle, he informs us, he'd have to wait an hour. But bear paws were regrettably off.
As Thubron has himself stated: “My travel books spring from curiosity about worlds which my generation has found threatening (China, Russia, Islam) and perhaps from a desire to humanise and understand them. " As China enters a century in which it will undoubtedly play a major part - a fact both undeniable and unignorable for the world at large - Behind the Wall remains as enlightening and still relevant a travel book as the discerning Sinophile is likely to find.
Copyright El Gweilo Intrepido 2008
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