“Travels in the Two Chinas.”
Troy Parfitt’s thought-provoking travelogue on modern China is certain to offend any reader at some point, though oftentimes with bitter truths. While Parfitt is certainly a fantastic and entertaining writer who has a penchant for recognizing cultural undertones that too often get blended into the background and, therefore, go unnoticed by the masses, it seems quite obvious that his talents come more from an irrepressible cynicism than from a true concern for searching out the heart of the matter.
Parfitt’s writing truly is engaging, but certain aspects of it are a bit off-putting. For example, he opens each chapter with a poetic flair, which quickly turns into the intrepid musings of the annoyed traveler. Because this non-poetic side is obviously his honest character, I would have preferred he lost the poetics and stuck with the raw, angry writing. At least then I would not get the impression that, although he seems to hate everyone he meets, he still wants people to like him.
Parfitt’s theme behind his title-statement, the theme which underlies the entire book, is that the Chinese people are too uneducated and ignorant to handle the responsibility of sustaining their nation as a world power, let alone as the world power. He focuses the majority of his research (i.e. traveling in China as a tourist from Taiwan who, unbeknownst to the Chinese around him, is fluent in Chinese) on interminglings with the rank-and-file Chinese one might meet on a bus, at a cafe, or on very touristy tours. While many in China are uneducated due to poverty (and what Parfitt rightly pegs as the “third-generation curse”), and many are ignorant simply due to how the government manages things, it does not seem in keeping that considering the “rank-and-file” of any nation is a sure way to decipher the nation’s leadership potential. He also quite obviously hates that average, rank-and-file Chinese person, a quality heavily uncouth in a travel-writer. He despises their stares, considering it to be their own form of hatred to the “outsiders.” Parfitt’s been living in Taiwan too long to recognize that it is not 1970 in mainland China anymore. He misunderstands their sentiments, for although the average Chinese person (mainly in the smaller towns and villages, not the big cities) may find a foreigner to be wildly amazing, much like he would a giraffe in a zoo, he does not hate the foreigner, does not want to steal the foreigners camera and cash, and would probably kill his prize chicken just to invite the foreigner to his home for dinner. Had Parfitt quit his complaining for a day, he probably would not have missed this shade of Chinese culture. But then again, how many books might hospitality and pleasantness sell these days? Not enough if the book is pegged as a travelogue.
I might recommend this book to a foreigner who has traveled any length of time in China, specifically so he can bounce his own experience off that of Parfitt, but this would be the extent of my recommendation. The author was spot-on in many areas, but the baggage he took along on his little research trip (baggage like the preconception that the mainland Chinese are a bunch of ignorant thieves too illiterate to ever lead, for example) prevented him from writing a solid piece of travel literature that could actually serve as a useful tool for an outsider seeking to learn more about China. Sadly, this just was not his goal.