Ten Best China Travel Memoirs

China has always been big, but today it is big like never before. No matter where you are in the world, if you turn on the TV or open a newspaper you’re almost guaranteed to come across another top story about the Middle Kingdom. The subject might have to do with 2008’s Beijing Olympics, the 2010 Shanghai World Expo or China’s phenomenal economic boom and the huge challenges that come with it. It might be the growing prestige of Chinese art and film or the latest architectural marvel to make the scene in Shanghai or Beijing. It could be wilderness treks in Tibet and Yunnan or the joys of Sichuan hot pot or Beijing’s Imperial Cuisine…. The list goes on and on.

Fortunately, it has never been easier to visit China and see for yourself how this ancient land—famous in the annals of history for its sages and wandering poets, humble peasants and powerful emperors, golden dynasties and periods of upheaval and rebellion—is transforming itself into a modern nation squarely in the center of twenty-first century global affairs. And China’s people are eager to welcome you and share their pride in both the ancient traditions and the contemporary achievements that make today’s China one of the most talked-about and fascinating places on earth.

Ten Best China Travel Memoirs

Ten Best China Travel Memoirs

Given all that media exposure, if it seems cliché to cast China as a land of contrasts—the old versus new, the capitalist and the communist, the third-world rural village and the high-tech metropolis—it’s only because it’s true. China is a land of astonishing contrasts, ones that must be seen firsthand to be appreciated. From within the ancient walls of the Forbidden City or the majestic heights of the Summer Palace you’ll see Beijing’s gleaming new towers stretching toward the heavens. You can reach the once remote Tibetan capital of Lhasa via a new high-tech and high-altitude train, passing in comfort through harsh yet beautiful terrain only recently accessible to foreign travelers. Shanghai’s colonial-era Bund architecture is dwarfed by the looming space-age skyline of Pudong. If you wander through the classical Chinese landscape of Guilin, with its green mist-shrouded limestone peaks towering above fertile rice paddies and you’re as likely to come across a robed monk as a mobile-toting businessman. Again, the list goes on and on.

All this adds up to amazing adventures for visitors willing to set aside preconceptions—whether they come from history books or yesterday’s headlines – and meet China and its people face to face. Following are the ten best China travel memoirs, written by authors – both foreign and Chinese – who know China (its geography AND its culture) better than anyone else.

1, Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip by Peter Hessler

In his latest feat of penetrating social reportage, New Yorker writer Peter Hessler again proves himself America’s keenest observer of the New China. Hessler investigates the country’s lurch into modernity through three engrossing narratives. In an epic road trip following the Great Wall across northern China, he surveys dilapidated frontier outposts from the imperial past while barely surviving the advent of the nation’s uniquely terrifying car culture. He probes the transformation of village life through the saga of a family of peasants trying to remake themselves as middle-class entrepreneurs. Finally, he explores China’s frantic industrialization, embodied by the managers and workers at a fly-by-night bra-parts factory in a Special Economic Zone.

2, Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux

Theroux’s penchant for train travel is well knownhis Great Railway Bazaar and The Old Patagonian Express are modern travel classics. On his latest jaunt he takes almost a year to crisscross China, traveling on 40 trains from the southern tropics to the wastelands of the Gobi in western Xinjiang to the dense metropolises of Shanghai, Beijing, and Canton. What emerges is a curious melange of ancient and modern: while some things are literally changing overnight, the Chinese still manufacture spittoons and steam engines. For Theroux, traveling is both about peopletheir thoughts, customs, and peculiaritiesand a form of autobiography, and here we learn as much about his own quirks and fancies as we do about the intriguing world of contemporary China.

3, CHINA: Portrait of a People by Tom Carter

There are more than 1.3 billion people in China. Besides the majority Han Chinese, the population includes 56 ethnic groups numbering over one hundred million. Over the course of 2 years and 35,000 miles, photojournalist Tom Carter captured it ALL on film. Carter’s anthropological-like study of China stands apart in its genre, as it focuses expressly on the PEOPLE of China. In addition to documenting the everyday life of “ordinary” people, Carter also backpacked to the most remote areas of China to observe reclusive ethnic minorities. From Inner Mongolian nomads to newlyweds in Hong Kong, from the teenage girl living in Chengdu dressed like an American punk rocker to the soot covered coal miner in Southern Shanxi, Carter’s camera documented the complexity and diversity of China like no other book ever has.

4, The River at the Center of the World: A Journey Up the Yangtze by Simon Winchester

British born author Simon Winchester lived in Hong Kong before setting off on a journey up the Chang Jiang or Yangtze River as it is most often referred to in the West. In The River at the Center of the World: A Journey Up the Yangtze and Back in Chinese Time, he chronicles his adventures across China along the 3,964-mile River. Employing nearly every mode of transportation–including boat, train, jeep and shoe leather–Winchester recalls his passionate exploration of the countryside, while providing important and engaging historical information. His recollections of the Chinese people are often less complimentary, as he exudes an air of disgust at the country’s apparent disregard for pollution, its awkward modern architecture and decaying historical monuments.

5, China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power by Rob Gifford

National Public Radio China correspondent Gifford journeyed for six weeks on China’s Mother Road, Route 312, from its beginning in Shanghai for nearly 3,000 miles to a tiny town in what used to be known as Turkestan. The route picks up the old Silk Road, which runs through the Gobi Desert to Central Asia to Persia and on to Europe. Along the way, Gifford meets entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on China’s growing economy, citizens angry and frustrated with government corruption, older people alarmed at changes in Chinese culture and morality, and young people uncertain and excited about the future. Gifford profiles ordinary Chinese people coping with tumultuous change as development and commerce shrink a vast geography, bringing teeming cities and tiny towns into closer commercial and cultural proximity; the lure of wealth is changing the Chinese character and sense of shared experience, even if it was common poverty. Gifford notes an aggressive sense of competition in the man-eat-man atmosphere of a nation that is likely to be the next global superpower.

6, Lost on Planet China by Maarten Troost

In his latest, veteran traveler Troost (The Sex Lives of Cannibals, Getting Stoned with Savages) embarks on an extended tour of “the new wild west,” China. Troost travels from the megalopolis of Beijing to small, remote trails in the hinterlands, the fabled Shangri-La and all points in between, allowing for a substantive look at an incredibly complex culture. He does an admirable job of summing up the country’s rich history, venturing to Nanjing to learn about China’s deep-seated animosity toward Japan; he also visits the Forbidden City, and the tomb of Mao Zedong, still very much revered despite his horrific record of human rights abuses. Gross disparity in wealth, omnipresent pollution and the teeming mass of humanity that greet Troost at every opportunity wear on him and the reader alike; the sense of claustrophobia only relents when he gets into more remote areas. Throughout, Troost is refreshingly upbeat, without a hint of ugly American elitism; he often steps aside to let the facts speak for themselves, and rarely devolves into complaints over the language barrier or other day-to-day frustrations.

7, The Great Walk of China: Travels on Foot from Shanghai to Tibet by Graham Earnshaw

What kind of people would you meet if you decided to walk across the world’s most populous country? The Great Walk of China is a journey into China’s heartland, away from its surging coastal cities. Through surprisingly frank conversations with the people he meets along the way, the Chinese-speaking author paints a portrait of a nation struggling to come to terms with its newfound identity and its place in the world. Earnshaw’s writing passes through characters and commentaries in much the same rambling fashion as the vehicle for his tale. We join him on a walk due west from Shanghai to Tibet, reliving his encounters with energetic youth, old men who reminisce about the times of Chairman Mao and police who still think that it’s illegal for foreigners to be in China. The strength of the book is not in the characters or the descriptions of the road he treads, but in Earnshaw’s insights from decades of living in China, which he uses to weave these encounters into a meandering tapestry of the various aspects of modern China.

8, Behind the Wall: A Journey Though China by Colin Thubron

Colin Thubron is one of the most prominent living travel authors and his journeys through Asia are justly praised by fans of the genre. He has a peculiar approach to travel writing, by generally going to one country only and then trying to visit as much of it as possible while talking to the maximum amount of people, unlike for example Paul Theroux, who generally writes about travel across many societies. In this book, “Behind the Wall”, Thubron takes us on a tour of China as it was when he visited it in 1987. The result is an interesting overview of Chinese society as it was just opening up to foreigners after the long periods of war and revolution.

9, Red Dust: A Path Through China by Ma Jian

In 1983, squirming under constant government scrutiny and mourning a failed marriage, writer and photographer Jian abandons his home in Beijing to journey to China’s western border with little more than a change of clothes, two bars of soap, a notebook, a camera and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It is the beginning of an arduous three-year voyage that takes him not only through little-traveled regions of China, Myanmar and Tibet, but through a careful examination of what it means to be a Buddhist, to live in post-Mao China and to exist in his own skin. A skilled storyteller, Jian narrates in prose that is spare and often beautiful his encounters with people who live in a region that “even today… is a place of banishment, populated by political prisoners, descendents of Turkic migrants, and the ghosts of buried cities.” From the night he spends crammed under a bus seat next to a pile of dirty socks and clucking hens to his escape from Chinese militiamen who mistake him for a Burmese spy, Jian tells a powerful story that is no mere travelogue. Indeed, his journey exposes him to so many risks getting bitten by sheepdogs in the grasslands along the Yellow River, drinking foul lake water that knocks him unconscious that the sheer number of life-threatening incidents begins to dull their impact. Still, Jian offers a revealing, riveting portrait of a Chinese citizen who seeks truth and honesty in a society in which such a quest can be grounds for punishment.

10, Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud by Sun Shuyun

Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud is a beautifully written account of Sun Shuyun’s journey to retrace the steps of one of the most popular figures in Chinese history — the monk Xuanzang, who travelled to India searching for true Buddhism. Xuanzang should be known as one of the world’s great heroes. His travels across Asia to bring true Buddhism back to China are legendary, and his own book provides a unique record of the history and culture of his time. Yet he is unknown to most of us and even to most Chinese, whose knowledge of Buddhist history has been eradicated by decades of Communist rule. Sun Shuyun was determined to follow in his footsteps, to discover more about Xuanzang and restore his fame. She decided to retrace his journey from China to India and back, an adventure that in the 8th century took Xuanzang eighteen years and led him across 118 kingdoms, an adventure that opened up the east and west of Asia to each other – and to us.

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2 Responses

  1. The lack of fatal gunplay wouldnt be unique to this movie from the 1930s. Usually a good old fashioned fist fight sufficed for violence in movies of this vintage.

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