Introduced by Frank Dikötter
A vivid portrait of a post-Mao China, from one of the great travel writers.
When Colin Thubron took his 10,000-mile trip across China in 1985, it was to travel a country just emerging from its years of isolation during the Cultural Revolution. From Beijing to the borders of Burma and from Shanghai to the Guilin mountains, he travelled alone, by whatever local transport he could find. The result is a remarkable account of the new China, at a unique time in its history.
‘This transcendentally gifted writer is, of course, one of the two or three best living travel writers’
Thubron visits the obvious attractions, summoning near-mythical landmarks with his beautiful, almost dream-like prose. He describes the ‘commotion of sculptured dragons’ that swarm the marble of the Forbidden City, and how the Great Wall scales ‘the furthest precipices in a megalomaniac sliver’ and disappears ‘into cloud-patterned mountains’. At the burial mound of the first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, he relates how each terracotta warrior, with its unique facial expression, imparts an ‘unearthly living quality’ to this ghostly army. Alongside these popular destinations, Thubron also ventures inside schools, abandoned monasteries, prisons and hospitals, talking and eating and even staying with the people he meets.
Thubron’s sympathetic interactions with the citizens of a post-Mao China uncover stories that are sometimes surprising and often moving. He interviews the ballerina forced to clean the toilets of her own dance school by Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, and meets members of the Red Guard exiled to the countryside when the tide turned against them. He visits Shaoshan, the birthplace of the Great Leader, and finds it largely deserted save for a market selling cheap electronics. What Thubron unearths is a China inexorably reaching for what it has been denied. In the cities, a mercantile tradition is re-emerging; the streets are filled with photography studios and beauty parlours, the roads pressed with lorries disgorging Hitachi televisions and Phillips cassette recorders.
‘I felt I was spying behind stage scenery. The thrones still stood on their daises, thronged with sacred furniture and statuary – the cranes and tortoises symbolising longevity. But they were grimy and faded. The coffered ceiling a hundred feet above them loomed in tarnished green and gold. The heraldic rumpus of dragons over the throne-backs appeared more whimsical than frightening’
Behind the Wall won both the Hawthornden Prize and the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 1988, and was described by Patrick Leigh Fermor as ‘an achievement of great and lasting brilliance’. Frank Dikötter, a leading authority on modern China, has provided an engrossing introduction that explores the context of Thubron’s travels, and praises the writer’s dedication to producing a portrait untainted by his own assumptions. This edition is illustrated with a frontispiece and 24 pages of colour plates, featuring many fascinating images of China in the 1980s, and also includes an integrated map.
Colin Thubron is one of Britain’s foremost travel writers. His early
books explored the Middle East – Damascus, Lebanon and Cyprus – but
he made his name with Among the Russians (1983), his journey through
Brezhnev’s USSR, and Behind the Wall: A Journey through China (1987) which
won both the Hawthornden Prize and the Thomas Cook Travel Book
Award. Other books followed, exploring the land mass that makes up
Russia and Asia: The Lost Heart of Asia (1994), In Siberia (1999), Shadow of the Silk Road (2006), an account of his 7,000-mile journey along the route
of the Silk Road, and To a Mountain in Tibet (2011), about his pilgrimage to
sacred Mount Kailas.
He is also the author of several novels, including A Cruel Madness (1984), winner of the PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award, Falling (1989), Turning Back the Sun (1991) and To the Last City (2002). He is currently President of the Royal Society of Literature. He is a regular contributor and reviewer for magazines and newspapers including The Times and the New York Review of Books.
Please sign in to your account to leave a review for Behind the Wall.