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Behind the Wall (1987) by Colin Thubron

Arhat statues surfing at Qiongzhu Temple,
(c) Li Guangxiu (c.1890)

A stunning travel book in the best aristocratic tradition of wandering about talking to people and expecting monasteries to put you up unannounced. But it's as much moral as geographic or historical. China had only just opened up to foreigners, again; the Cultural Revolution, just 15 years past, looms large. A lost generation. In fact the book is obsessed with the difficult question, "How could they do that to themselves?", a focus which makes it excellent, informal long-form journalism as much as gentleman's what-ho travel narrative.

The man went on: 'We found a porter who had been reading novels with a love interest. I don't mean porn. Just a personal story. This was decadent. We beat him unconscious, and burnt the books. Then he died.'

I looked at him in astonishment, mesmerised, for some reason, by his immaculately pressed trousers. Once the armour of social constraint had been stripped from him, the person inside had been exposed as a baby: conscienceless. Was that China, I wondered, or just him? In any case, where was that feeling of pity which Mencius said was common to all men?

The question isn't as simply answered as it is for Hitler's Germany (answer: "Because the merest dissent by any German meant death") nor even as it is for Stalinist Russia (since the unbelievable violence of the Holodomor and gulags was meted out by a comparatively small number of people). Millions of educated Red Guards brutalised millions of untrendy people without much central control at all (indeed, they often revolted against and scared the shit out of the PLA and the apparatchiks).

Thubron's important points include: that the Party cadres are nothing more than the latest garb of the long, long line of elite mandarins. So the poor Laobaixing got all the downside of an absolutist bureaucracy plus all the incompetence and terror caused by people who think that violent unending revolution is desirable. Another large theme is the appalling state of women: The patriarchy there was without even the paltry sweetener of chivalry - married off at 14 if not murdered as infants; old women sitting in the aisles of busses while young men lounge, etc, etc. Many of the people he meets (mostly lower-middle-class) were (are?) unbelievably obsessed with class, even after forty years of 'communist' rule; the brief, cursory glorification of the nongmin bounced back as soon as the big sticks went away. He calculates the cost of things - TVs, train tickets, hotel whiskies - in that most decent of measures, fractions of an average worker's monthly wage.

There is, already in 1987, an ambitious, irreverent, apolitical youth which any graduate of a Western university will now recognise readily.** The modern Modern China - Deng's China - is visible here, just. Thubron watches the future radiating out from the city:

Under the enormous vault of the station hall there resounds the tramp of a newly mobilised peasantry. I have seen them before all over the city: families arrived to buy or trade, sleeping under bridges or in shop porches with cap over their eyes. Now they step on to the escalators as gingerly as Western eight-year-olds, laden with rope-trussed boxes, newly bought televisions, chickens in hampers, radios, bags spilling out fruit and biscuits - bearing El Dorado back to the village. They overflow the waiting-rooms and camp against every wall behind their baggage palisades, snoring open-mouthed through the din with the detachment of Brueghel swineherds, their children in their arms.

His wit, compassionate anger, gravitas, and grasp of the detail of how messily old collides with new: all recall my favourite critic, Jonathan Meades. (Though Meades is a bit too refined to be easily imagined sleeping fifth-class amidst spit and melon rind, or buying a barn owl in a meat market just to set it free.)

He reports much local bullshit, sarcastically (e.g. Northerners' notion that 'moral integrity' decreases as you go south). This makes it sometimes difficult to know which reportage he endorses: thus, a couple of outlandish claims are possibly deadpan jokes (e.g. only '100' cars on mainland China in 1987?? Human flesh on sale in Canton?

Unsurprisingly, the book received a dab of cursory post-colonial critique.* This is unsurprising because he is interested in testing stereotypes out - in particular, finding out if innate cruelty enabled the Cultural Revolution; it is thus not unfair to imagine the book as a Eurocentric hatchet job. But this dismissive cynicism is only possible before you've heard his frank encounters with a hundred vivid, intelligent, and mournful locals, seen his solid grasp of the history of the dynasties and of 'pedantic and kindly' Confucianism. (Which is the best description of it I've ever seen.) Those interviews are novelistic - impossibly sincere, compressed, tragic, poetic - and far beyond anything I could elicit as a foreigner, in my summer there. But you believe him even so.

Anyway he doesn't pretend to have answered his burning question:
'This sort of thing isn't peculiar to my country,' the priest said: he might have been thought-reading. 'Look at Germany, Russia. Of course, those countries are not old civilisations like ours, but still...'
      Of course. I was wading into an ocean. He was listening patiently, but I could not assemble any coherent thoughts. I wanted to explain that it was not the presence of cruelty which surprised me, but some imbalance between obedience and mercy, the collapse of domestic compassion in the face of official demand, the refinements of tortures practiced against teachers and friends, the denunciation of parents - but I stumbled into inarticulacy. I was juggling only with my own values, not with theirs. I knew nothing.

I oughtn't skimp on the book's adventure-story side just because it happens to be a beautiful and humane psychological portrait; the prose is persistently gorgeous, the sights are dryly and comprehensively evoked, and Thubron presents himself as a very fine comic character to boot. My favourite China book.

* Anti-Eurocentric writing used to minimise totalitarian genocide can be found in the critical discussion of Thubron here, the snob passage around the dismaying line: "In Thurbron's mind, the Cultural Revolution reached the epitome of atrocities in terms of intensity and scope..." (emphasis mine). That author also takes the prize for most dishonest truncation of the week, since Thubron's monologue goes on to display cultural sensitivity in the face of cultural horror (see "This sort of thing", above).

** There must be a better word for 'occidentaphile' than that itself. (We used to call it simply 'being civilised' - but let's be civilised about it.)