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Published on: 05/15/20 12:05 PM

Book review: Behind the Wall by Colin Thubron

Photo: Sheila Kumar


Just when the first lockdown was enforced,  I started on one of my fave travel writer Colin Thubron`s 1988 China travelogue, Behind the Wall. And I only just finished reading it. It`s not an easy book to read, and it`s even more difficult to review.

Oh, Thubron is at the top of his game here, traversing Beijing, Shanghai, Hanzhou, Wuhan, Suzhou, Canton,   many little villages between the cities, and ending up at the Great Wall in Jiayuguan; he has enough  Mandarin at his command to astonish the locals (this was when China had only just opened up for the foreign devils) and get  into conversation with them; he casts a characteristically dispassionate eye at everything and everyone that swims into his view.

Thurbon`s visit was just a decade after the terrible cultural revolution had met its end, after the death of Mao Zedong,  the man who wreaked havoc on a supine citizenry of many  millions; estimates peg the numbers at between 30 to 80 million victims through starvation, persecution, prison labour and mass executions.

And so we read repeatedly of just what the Red Guards did across the land to petrified people, we learn of a people cautiously revelling in their newfound freedom   but still looking over their shoulders.

Thubron strives to be meticulous and even-handed in his reporting, and his description of the Yellow River is fascinating. Sample this: the Yellow River twined (across China) for three thousand miles. So intimately was it identified with the land that its peace or turbulence had once mystically reflected the fate of the ancient empire. In myth, it flowed down from the night sky as an extension of the Milky Way , and its waters yielded up the plan for the I Ching on the back of a giant turtle. But it was so capriciously violent that in early times, every year, a young woman was  committed to its depths as an appeasing bride for the river-god.

And this: During the Tang dynasty, the Yangste had been nostalgically celebrated. To poets it became a symbol of evanescence, of time passing. Its rush and echo make a noise through all their verse. At its most savage, it filled voyagers with a numinous awe. The unearthly wail of gibbons haunted them from its cliffs. Here the water-demons had shed their ancient scales and appeared as nymphs wrapped in aqueous   light. The crags took animal shapes and names, or became petrified goddesses. Their feet were strewn with sacrificial wreckage. Often the river stilled to an aisle of uncanny beauty. Then the slopes eased to lonely farmsteads, and a few sampans took to the water.

This is not a book to be rushed through, even though I did take an inordinate length of time with it. The reader pores over every page, looking for insights into this difficult land and its complex people.

Ultimately though, whether Thubron intended it or not, the peg is one of strangeness: a strange land and its strange people. And the account of the wet markets in Canton (now Guangzhou) with its puppies/ kittens/ raccoons/ monkeys/porcupine/owls, the last one of which the author bought to free it,  as well as of the author`s visit to an apothecary in Shanghai, where the medicine he is offered runs the gamut of caterpillar fungus/ dried lizards/ tiger bone/ oxen penis extract/ deer`s tail extract/ snake wine/ essence of frog,  all cross the border of strangeness and become  downright nauseating.

A most informative read, then, though not the most entertaining of travel books.


Behind the Wallbook reviewChairman MaoChinaColin ThubronCultural RevolutionMao Zedongtravel writingtravelogue

Sheila Kumar • May 15, 2020

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