Sunday, February 22, 2009

China Road: A Book Review

I haven’t been into writing much lately. Instead, this weekend, I did things like make a big pot of split pea soup and sat by the fire reading as the snow reappeared (but since we lost most of our snow, there isn't enough to ski).
Rob Grifford, China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power (Blackstone Audio, 2007 release), 10 hours and 37 minutes.

What a better way to end a chapter in your life than to hitchhike across country. Rob Gifford time in China, as a reporter for NPR, is coming to an end. After packing up his family and sending them back to their home in Great Britain, he sets out to cross China on Route 312, the “Mother Road.” His journey leads him from Shanghai and the highly industrial east, through the Gobi Desert and various ethnic regions and on the Kazakhstan. Traveling with a backpack (and a copy of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath), he utilizes all forms of transportation—hired cars, buses, and trucks—to make the trek. As he travels, Gifford draws upon his understanding of the complexity of this vast country, providing the reader lessons in history, religion, language and economics. He continually comes back to the question of what China’s future holds. Acknowledging the positive changes since the death of Mao, he sees great possibilities as well as dangers in China’s future.

Gifford often travels off the beaten path. He visits farmers who’d sold blood for plasma and are now infected with AIDS. On the road in a bus, he talks with a physician and nurses about China’s one child policy and the horror stories of forced late-term abortions including the rumors of children who survive the abortion procedure being drown. In one town, he meets two men who are dressed in ties (a novelty on the desert frontier) and discovers they’re distributors for the Chinese branch of Amway. Astonished, he attends their evening meeting where they tout their luck at selling mouthwash to a nation of garlic eaters. They also proudly proclaim that all the Chinese Amway products are all made in China. One Sunday, he spots a church and decides to visit. The congregation’s pastor doesn’t show up and they convince Gifford to speak. Later, in the Gobi, Gifford spends the night in the dunes, sleeping on a mat and watching the colors of the day fade and the beauty of a desert night and the next day’s sunrise.

My favorite part of Gifford’s tale is the time he spent in the ethnic regions of China. Although the vast majority of the country’s population is Chinese, they mostly live in the eastern portion of the country. As one travels further west, in the less populated areas, the people are not ethnically Chinese. He discusses how modern China, like the dynasties of the past, has tried to woo the ethnic areas. Ethnic Chinese who tour and vacation in these areas see stereotypical views of colorful dressed natives serving exotic foods and performing traditional dances. Gifford find that they’re always dancing interesting, reminding him of Native American tourists’ villages in America.

Gifford explains both sides of China’s vast empire. Certainly China herself doesn’t see it as an empire, but many of the ethnic people do. China tells their nation’s history in order to reflect the party’s stance that the ethnic areas have belonged to China for 1000s of years even though that’s not accurate. His exploration of the ethnic areas provides him an opportunity to discuss the Chinese language. To those of us in the West, the language seems complex, but isn’t really, especially once one gains a basic understanding (there are 200 radicals that make up the characters that one must learn). He notes that in the past, those who lived west of the Great Wall (in the ethnic areas) were labeled with the same Chinese character for a dog. But in the 16th Century, after the Chinese reoccupied these territories the last time, they changed the character in an attempt to relate better to the people there. Gifford also notes that although the Chinese expanded west, that they their haven’t become a conquering power elsewhere and in the 15th Century, the emperor had what was probably the greatest fleet at the time burned, for he wasn’t planning on being a naval power. Unfortunately, for China, the next challenge came from the sea as the Western world made their way to the region.

Gifford interest in China came from reading the stories of missionaries to the nation. He first visited the nation as a student and has come to love the people and the complexity of the country. But he can’t help but wonder if China isn’t condemned to repeat itself. Chinese history is filled with examples of the people revolting and those who obtained power eventually becoming corrupt while ignoring the needs of the populace, which sets the seeds for another revolt. In many ways, the Communist Party (which today has little to do with Marxist economics) is just the latest in a long string of corrupt national leaders.

I listened to the audio version of this book.


  1. It seems like Grifford is a bit more optimistic on China's future than Troost was.

    Your splurb on the ethnic regions of China reminded me of a story that Troost told. While in one of those ethnic areas, he found the people making all kinds of new doors and then beating them up and giving them a finish that made them look old. According to someone who spoke their language that was accompanying Troost, an ethnic Chinese has paid a lot of money for an old door that he saw that looked really nice and since then, the natives have been cranking out these "old" doors to sell.

    Did Grifford talk about how people still talked kindly of Mao and all his "policies"?

  2. Ed, it's a qualified optimism. Gifford points out how a whole generation got screwed by the "cultural revolution," and many of them do long for the old days of Mao. Many of the poor in China have been harmed as the old safety nets of the communist system have been removed.

  3. I'd very much like to hear his "sermon" to the church!

  4. Once again, you review a book which I now have dutifully placed on my wish list. I need to stop reading your reviews.

    Re: China's one-child policy. My wife has student at the community college where she is a professor who, before emigrating to the states, was a physician in China. It was that policy and the attendant consequences together with her Christian beliefs which caused her to emigrate. She is now a convenience store clerk, having abandoned a lucrative career.


  5. It was all good till I read the sentence, "but he can't help but wonder if China isn't condemned to repeat itself." - you gotta be kidding me, that's EXACTLY how Asians (not Chinese alone, but Asians in general) think of the west. The Asian view is, they - the west - will freaking repeat the same history and thereby condemning themselves! If you want to be philosophical, it's called Fengshui, the ups intertwine with downs, all because most of us humans, especially those in powers, fail to reach a certain level or awareness and be enlightened enough within the few decades we live on earth. All leaders, from the East to the West, are corrupt. And don't you tell me that there isn't any "corruption" going on here!

    PS: I think the one-child policy is great. The world, this world that we all share, simply cannot sustain that many human beings! Those who think the policy is bad are folks who don't want to make personal sacrifices for the greater good of all humans!

  6. Qualified optimism... Saw a Chinese Dance theater performance a few weeks ago in St. Louis. It's a company based in NY that travels worldwide with hundreds of performers, mostly from China.

    Their mission is to share their values and advocate for the human rights and traditional viewpoints, as well as trying to show cultural nuance they see as repressed or silenced through the revolution.

    Spoke with one of the managers- and I queried about the growth in business and world economic influence. She described their view that it has been growth through extreme greed not balanced by moral or traditional considerations, but she also expressed guarded optimism for the future.

  7. Kenju, he wrote about what he said, but I can't recall it now.

    Randall, that has to be a shock, going from being a physician and now attending a community college.

    Mother Hen, certainly both the East and West repeat history and certainly both sides produce our share of corruption. Maybe Gifford is guilty of some Orientalism, but I think he also has a good insight into China. As for the one child policy, it makes sense to me to restrain population growth, but there are horrors in how its been done in China, as he points out. BTW, they do allow the 'ethnic people' to have 2 children. Also, he discussed how 911 was a gift to China, allowing it to treat their ethnic minorities harshly and color it with the broad brush of eliminating terroism.

    Beau, Gifford does discuss the loss of traditional restrains in Chinese society.

  8. The subject of how many kids a person or family can have is so fraught...

    I do want to know more about the ethnic Chinese, what they look like,how they live You really made me interested

    I'm forever boycotting Chinese products for one reason or another yet it's one of the few countries i would run to if I could--talking about China my WV is porklike--maybe tofu--or what Jews call pork products while eating in a Chinese restaurant

  9. Ed - thanks for the heads up on Troost coming out with a book on China - I loved his first two books.

  10. Oh please! You should know that there is always a good and bad side to everything, including how people deal with other human beings. It isn't right to kill a child because of his/her gender. But those poor farmers honestly believe that they have NO other options, due to lack of education/ resources/ knowledge/ common sense perceived by the West, or a combination of all the above. On the other hand, let's say if the Chinese government allows those poor farmers to choose the gender of their only child, then what's the West going to say? That China plays God in gender selection? Violating the rights of unborn child? Com' on, China is condemned either way. And of all the people who gossip about the horror stories, how many of them actually stand up and go to educate the poor? Probably ZERO!

  11. China both terrifies and intrigues me. Since I never plan to visit, I'll jot down the title of this book for future reading.

    I have a tough time listening to books on tape. Princess, the true story about a Saudi Arabian woman, was the only book on tape I ever finished. It was narrated by Valerie Bertinelli and I loved how passionate and expressive she was all the way through it. (Btw, I highly recommend it if you haven't read it.)

  12. Wow. I'm stuck on how different we are. I'm going BLECH!!!! over the split pea soup and thinking how much I would have preferred coming home to NO snow!!!!

  13. I read the book and I think it paints the perfect portrait of China. I have visited China, and I am very familiar with their policies and government. I have vast knowledge in this realm that you are speaking of.

    For those who think killing is the answer, I have some questions. You think taking another's life is ethical and worth the cause? Exactly what cause is worth dying for? That's very selfish and cruel. To what extent would you go before it's too far and is this even measurable? What if it was your life that was being taken? Or your loved one? Are you willing to destroy human life, the world, etc.? Just how far are you willing to go and allow corruption to continue? Are you willing to sacrifice your own life? I think that the citizens of China have been wronged, especially the poor. And who are you to judge who should be killed?