China Beat Archive


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February 2, 2010 in The China Beat


Copyright February 2, 2010 Maura Elizabeth Cunningham. Used by permission.


I made my initial foray into China studies in the fall of 2000, when I took a course called “Travelers in History.” Beginning with The Travels of Marco Polo, we moved forward through the centuries, reading a sampling of China-related travel narratives as well as works by historians looking back at those who had journeyed to and from China (such as The Question of Hu by Jonathan Spence and Peter Hopkirk’s Foreign Devils on the Silk Road). For the “modern” period, we read Paul Theroux’sRiding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China(1988). Although I thoroughly enjoyed Theroux’s book, and thought of it often in later years when I embarked on my own Chinese train adventures, if I were designing a book list for “Travelers in History” in the fall 2010 semester, Riding the Iron Roosterprobably wouldn’t make the cut.

Why? Because in the past decade, there has been something of an explosion in excellent writing by foreigners who have lived and traveled in China — to the extent that an entire semester could now be devoted to discussing only books published in the past ten, or even five, years. In the fall of 2000, the professor teaching “Travelers in History” had just a handful of post-1980 books to consider when he designed the course (Theroux’s Iron Rooster, Vikram Seth’s From Heaven Lake, and Mark Salzman’s Iron and Silk are the three that come to my mind). Today, he could pick from a variety of works that do not fall neatly into a single genre, but which bring together elements of travel writing, personal memoir, and China reportage.

This mini-publishing boom began, as I see it, with Peter Hessler’s River Town(2001), and while the publication next week of Hessler’s Country Driving: A Journey Through China From Farm to Factory does not (I hope!) mark an end of these cross-genre works, it does conclude a China trilogy penned by Hessler (the second title being 2006’s Oracle Bones). Hessler, a New Yorker correspondent, as well as an early China Beat contributor (though I should note that I’ve never worked with him — nor any of the other authors I discuss here), has written so prolifically about contemporary China, in fact, that his work has inspired a humorous blog post, “How Peter Hessler Ruined My China Life.” Hessler, however, is one of a number of authors who have recently produced thoughtful and insightful books that offer a taste of the China experience to armchair travelers — and students. With River Town and Country Driving serving as bookends to the decade, what other titles might I consider for a 2010 iteration of “Travelers in History”?