Friday, September 23, 2011

Why China Will Never Rule the World: Travels in the Two Chinas

Why China Will Never Rule The World: Travels in the Two Chinas
By Troy Parfitt

This is actually two books in one.

Good and bad.

At its best, Parfitt has written a readable, often witty account of his travels through China and Taiwan. His prose is decidedly readable and I found the book difficult to put down once I settled in. Each chapter catalogues a particular leg of the journey and provides fascinating historical subtext that fits the narrative. Some of the highlights include profiles of both Chiang Kai-Chek and Mao Zedong, a riveting account of cannibalism during the cultural revolution and the revolting account of Chen Chin-hsing, Taiwan's most notorious criminal. His travels include stops in Hong Kong, Macao, Lhasa, Shanghai, Harbin, Beijing, Chongqing, Kunming and Xiamen in china and virtually everywhere (except, mysteriously, Kaohsiung) in Taiwan over a span of a few years. The breadth of travel gives Parfitt a unique perspective on the wider Chinese world.

Parfitt pulls absolutely no punches when it comes to what he sees as the deficiencies inherent in Chinese culture. He refuses to accept the "you just don't understand the Chinese way of life" argument that gets bandied about by Sino-apologists (both Chinese and Western). He seems little interested in accepting Confucian ideals, communist rhetoric and the over-used "5000 years of tradition can't be wrong" argument. Instead, he attacks it head on and often comes to very erudite conclusions, many of which I have arrived as well (especially on the third of the book that pertains to Taiwan). I appreciate the no-holds-barred approach to writing and I got the feeling that if this book had been about 100 pages shorter, it would have been a really good book.

Unfortunately it's not....

Well, not entirely....

At its worst, Parfitt has written a nit-picky tract that seems to hold no real purpose beyond vilifying two nations of people. I felt like he could have written a similar book about Canadians or Finnish people or the Masai tribe. It's easy (if not cathartic) to be critical. If he had stuck to his larger, more sweeping conclusions and left his day-to-day irritants out it would have struck a grander chord. The ninth time he complains about being solicited for a massage in the middle of the night I just wanted to grab him and tell him to unplug his damned phone and quit complaining about non-issues. It lessened the impact of his valid conclusions.

Indeed, much of his writing comes across as an exhaustive rant against China (and sometimes Taiwan) which left a slightly foul taste in the my mouth. I understand that it is difficult to write a book such as this without falling foul of the politically correct crowd (of which I am not a member). But there are moments in this book where I found Parfitt flirting far too close to the line of what is acceptable to print and what should be better left unsaid. Parfitt is a classic example of an author lacking in subtlety. I realize that this book was aiming for the jugular, but there are a few instances that felt as if he was hitting below the belt.

Ofttimes, I found that Parfitt allowed his subject matter to get away from him and he allowed far too much emotion to seep into his narrative. As someone who, in a former life, worked in the publishing industry, I wonder about his editorial process. His editor was either unqualified or entirely unfamiliar with the subject matter. A good editor would have checked his emotional tirades and reigned in his rants (sorry if you read this Troy Parfitt's editor).

Overall, I recommend this book, but with a caveat. If you only plan to ever read one book about traveling through China and Taiwan, don't bother with this one. It's hardly objective. But if the subjects of China and Taiwan are of particular interest to you, it's worth the read. As an example of one man's journey through this part of the world and his frustration, it deserves a place among the growing bibliography of travel literature on the subject of the Chinese world.

In the beginning Parfitt implies that because he has no vested interest in China, his take on the subject would not be skewed by agenda. He's but a simple English teacher who lived and worked in Taipei who wanted to see for himself the rise of a global player. As a long-time resident of Taiwan I must challenge this notion. It is really difficult to live in Taiwan for an extended period of time (and be as well read as Parfitt seems to be) without having some preconceived notions about the Mainland. It's simply not possible.

In the end, I didn't expect any clear answer as to why China will never rule the world and I didn't get one. You won't get one either, but you'll probably enjoy a lot of the stories along the way. For anyone who has spent any time living inside the Chinese world, there will be much in this book to make you nod in agreement, and just as much that will make you furrow your brow in consternation.


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