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Posts Tagged ‘People’s Republic of China’

A World Unto Itself: Riding the Iron Rooster through China

Friday, March 26, 2010 @ 07:03 PM  posted by Mark

Paul Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster begins like the first book in our Around the World and Into the Past series, Graham Greene’s The Lawless Roads, with a long train journey to the author’s eventual destination. In Greene’s case, the journey began in Austin, Texas, and wound circuitously down to Chiapas; in Theroux’s case, his year-long journey around the interior of China in 1988 starts in London. Vowing not to fly on his journey, in order to understand the true distance and foreignness of China, Theroux takes rail jaunts across France and Central Europe to the Trans-Siberian Express to the Trans-Mongolian, eventually finding his way to the Shanxi Province of Northern China. There, he begins twelve months of vagabonding, taking in major cities and rural backwaters, unwittingly at a critical moment in modern Chinese history: just before the Tiananmen Square Protests.

Theroux finds a paradoxical China, ill at ease with its own internal contradictions but nevertheless unified by an Orwellian bureaucracy that rules with an iron fist. Nearly everywhere Theroux goes, authorities force him to play their favorite game, whose name translates roughly as “making up new rules on the spot.” Theroux finds that Mao and his successors have wrapped the country in red tape like a Gang of Christos turning China into a communist art installation; yet, he also sees clear evidence of the liberalizing free market reforms that would eventually turn China into the industrial powerhouse that currently owns 25% of U.S. debt. Theroux writes that “the Chinese are the last people in the world still manufacturing spittoons, chamber pots, treadle sewing machines, bed warmers, quill pens, wooden yokes for oxen, iron plows, sit-up-and-beg bicycles, steam engines and the 1948 Packard car.” A mere twenty years later, though, they would be making cutting edge technological gadgets for export to the West, entering into manufacturing partnerships with European and American companies such as Beijing Benz-DaimlerChrysler.

Everywhere Theroux goes, he finds paradoxes: tiny local free markets operating parallel to the central command economy; local cultures and languages thriving alongside the dominant, homogenizing Mandarin and Cantonese cultures; and a simultaneous veneration and contempt for authority among the everyday people he encounters.

Theroux is a charming guide, by turns gruff, worldly-wise, perplexed, and arrogant, and he’s game to try almost anything but the black carrots in Mongolia. He escorts us around a local bazaar in the Uighur town of Turshan, listens to complaints about the Cultural Revolution in Shanghai’s People’s Park, and ascends to the vast plateau of Tibet, where he sympathizes with the Tibetan independence movement. Along the way, he gives us lessons in Chinese etiquette, agronomy and traditional folk beliefs, and he even reads a smuggled copy of a medieval pornographic novel banned by the government but not, after all, very pornographic by Western standards.

Theroux’s journey itself is interesting, and the author is an engaging storyteller; but what makes Riding the Iron Rooster so interesting today is the snapshot it captures of a remote culture still mired in post-colonial politics, but poised for its starring appearance on the world economic stage.

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