Book Review: “Why China Will Never Rule the World” by Troy Parfitt (2011)

“Travels in the Two Chinas.”

Image result for parfitt why china will never ruleTroy 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.

©2011 E.T.

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7 Responses to Book Review: “Why China Will Never Rule the World” by Troy Parfitt (2011)

  1. Pingback: Studying Troy Parfitt using his own words and the opinion of others « iLook China

  2. China Hand says:

    I have read Parfitt’s book and I enjoyed it a great deal. It
    recounts incidents similar to those that I have encountered
    in the years I have lived in China. Usually the critics of his
    book seem to live in a bit of an expat bubble and excoriate
    Mr. Parfitt for too negative an approach, as though he went
    out of his way to find the situations that he wrote about.

    Certainly the critics who host Beijing-based blogs often
    project an image that, to those of us who have traveled and
    lived in smaller cities in China, appear that way.
    Unlike Peter Hessler and his Peace Corps buddy in Fuling in
    1996 when he mouthed off to a crowd and raised their ire,
    Parfitt for the most part simply observes and recounts. I
    found myself laughing and nodding my head to nearly
    everything he wrote. I have experienced similar situations
    as I simply sit or walk passively and watch as the locals
    treat me unbidden.

    There seems to be, and this applies to expats in Asia in
    general, two camps of expats:

    -One fit in, immediately gain the attention of the local ladies,
    have few complaints or simply consider them minor
    annoyances, and for the most part enjoy their posting.
    These men notice that the culture is odd but their
    companion dulls the impact and acts as liaison, cultural
    attache and translator. Her presence also dulls many of the
    local reactions that a single man would encounter.
    -The second, no matter what they do, cannot make a go of
    it. This manifests in China with a clear break between those
    who can date and those who cannot. No one knows why.
    The expats who are with a gf or wife do not know, the
    Chinese women certainly do not know, and the Chinese
    men simply tell you to ‘buy a house’.

    Clearlly Hessler and Parfitt were of this cohort. Hessler and
    all of his PC associates in 2+ years the 7 single men never
    dated a single woman, ever.

    Yet if one were to read blog entries from someone posted to
    BSG on a fat expat package, one would think that Chinese
    women throw themselves at western men.

    In the same vein, those who are living in Beijing or
    Shanghai or a large provincial capital, or those who are
    making 20k to 50k and much more, are insulated from
    much of what Mr. Parfitt writes and think that he has an
    agenda when the fact is that different people encounter
    different experiences in China due to, there is no other way
    to put this, pure luck.

    Certainly earning 15X what a local makes and being
    attached to a huge, well-known, MNC, will affect who one
    talks to, where one goes and how one is treated. But money
    is not the only parameter. I know men who earn 3k CNY a
    month and they have a constant stream of female attention
    and they encounter far fewer cultural annoyances. I know
    men who are over 65 who are the same. Yet I know men in
    identical, or better, or younger, circumstances who
    encounter life as Mr. Parfitt did during his few months in the
    PRC.

    It is all a matter of Luck and no one knows why.

    For Mr. Parfitt, China is as he wrote for himself and for
    many other expats who live and travel within The Middle
    Kingdom.

    Were you on an MNC posting earning 100k CNY per month
    in Shanghai, you would never understand one point he
    made as your reality would never permit you to encounter
    what he did.

    No agenda or bias is required on the part of the author. It simply happens, and the next man will encounter an entirely different reaction.

    • Excellent response. I will tell you that in my 3 years in a small Chinese city, I never made more than 4,000 RMB. I visited plenty of villages (one village had 70 family speaking 11 languages). I even married a Chinese woman (that one was a surprise). But I still believe that Parfitt’s view of the Chinese people was too sweeping and harsh. In response to their admiration, he gives hatred. I simply think it is important for readers to be aware that the sour way Parfitt views China is neither normal nor healthy. His book might make for engaging reading, but it certainly does not offer a reader a balanced view of what China is really like.

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