Monday, December 27, 2010

Unravelling The Dragon: Books On China

For reasons I've never been able to fully understand, I'm a bit obsessed with China.

The country, not the place setting.

This weekend, after reading this article on Chongqing in the NYTimes, I was perusing our bookshelves looking for a good China tome to read next, and realized in a not-very-shocked-at-all way that I have somehow amassed a shelf of travel- and history-related books about China and the Silk Road, some of which are outstanding reads.

It occurred to me that some of you might be the same sort of armchair travel and history readers and might like a review of a few of these.  So here goes:

Colin Thubron's Shadow of the Silk Road -- This one is a superb read, full of the sorts of intimate details on visuals and smells and tastes that you want from a travel book, with just enough historical references and philosophical arguments to keep it interesting.  Thubron is erudite, if not a bit full of his own intellectual heft, but not so much that it grates.  This one is definitely a keeper.

Paul Theroux's Riding The Iron Rooster: By Train Through China --This is one of the first travel books about China I ever read, and I have since gone back to re-read this more than once just for the sheer hilarity of Theroux's crabby snarkiness.  He goes everywhere, criss-crossing the country by train and spending inordinate amounts of time being both irritated and bemused by the tourists and Chinese alike.  I love this book.  If you like gritty, sarcastic wit, Theroux is fantastic, especially if you are reading him on a long train ride yourself.

Peter Hessler's Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China --This book is wonderfully written, the prose truly sings as Hessler lyrically and effortlessly walks you through centuries of Chinese history and melds its lessons with the unlearned ones we still struggle with today.  Fascinating stuff, especially his insights on politics then and now and how few of the problems present in China's history -- or ours -- have yet to be resolved.

Peter Hessler's River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze -- No surprise here that Hessler's first work on China about his time teaching English during a Peace Corps stint was superbly written, and piercingly crafted at a time when the Three Gorges Dam was being completed as well.  The insights into the lives and struggles of his students are well drawn, but it is the changes that Hessler himself undergoes that are worth the reading time alone.  I only wish that Hessler had shared a few of the recipes he picked up along the way, because his descriptions of food often left me longing to eat at the same dingy restaurants.

Rob Gifford's China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power --This effort, by a foreign correspondent for NPR, covers a lot of the mass economic change in the last few years in China, and the upheaval that has meant across the countryside in farming communities and small villages.  The long-term consequences of such a vast and sweeping change are not yet known, especially the ever-growing disparity between the wages and lives of those in the country and city.  China's revolutions have begun among the peasant and farming classes throughout history -- and Gifford's glimpses into discontent in the countryside ought to give everyone a bit of pause.

Those are just the few I pulled from my shelves to review for you.  But I know I have to be missing some newer offerings or even some older historical context.  So if you know a book on China or the Silk Road that I'm missing here, please share.  I'd love it.

(Gorgeous photo of the Great Wall via WanderingTheWorld.)


mikeinseattle said...

Hi Christy,

If you are interested in some recent photos from a trip to China, there is quite a nice set here.

This is part of a Flickr set I've been following for some time, a retired professor of botany at Rutgers living in Calif. He is a good photographer and I find his photos to be soulful.

He and his wife and some friends spent most of November in China.

Thank you for your blog, I missed you after you left FDL.

mikeinseattle said...

Oops, October.

Christy Hardin Smith said...

Oh wow, Mike -- those pictures are fantastic. What a lovely group of snapshots of daily life from all over the place. Thanks so much for sharing the link!