Book Review: Sailing through China

Sailing Through China
by Paul Theroux
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984

Paul Theroux has authored dozens of travelogues, many of which have made The New York Times bestseller list.  He has traveled extensively by rail on all continents, including lines in Africa and South America that have long since fallen victim to civil wars or economic downturns.  These are journeys that you can now experience only through travelogues from decades past.

Theroux does carry a certain attitude that is off-putting to many readers.  This is especially true if the country he is traveling in is one that’s close to your heat, as occurred when Mark Salzman reviewed Riding the Iron Rooster [link to Salzman’s review], in which Theroux rides the railways of China.  User reviews of Theroux books on have described him as "insufferable" and carrying an attitude "of superiority to everyone he meets."  In Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America [link to my review], Henry Kisor sums up the complaints about Theroux by describing him as “a cranky traveler who rides railroads in order to map the underbellies of societies he despises.”

Yet at the same time, Theroux has been published in National Geographic Magazine.  The guy has talent.  If you can brush aside his tone, then you’ll be rewarded with vivid descriptions and perceptive observations. 

Sailing through China

From the jacket inside flap:

"Paul Theroux sailed down the Yantze with a party of American millionaires. If this at times surprised the Chinese — which it did — both the idiosyncrasies of the company and the impressions of China itself provided rich material for the kind of perceptive, witty writing at which the author excels. One hesitates, in a Chinese context, to describe the book as 'sweet sour', but there could be worse descriptions: good-humoredly observant on the foibles of his fellow countrymen, on the Chinese future he is often disquietingly apprehensive. The text is stylishly complemented by Patrick Procktor's black and white illustrations."

The jacket copywriter seems to be at a loss for the typical promotional copy.  How exactly do you describe Paul Theroux to someone browsing through books at a bookstore, without launching into an essay about Theroux’ misanthropy?  I suppose "disquietingly apprehensive" is about as good a description as any.

This book feels like a prelude to his much longer, better known, and better selling book Riding the Iron Rooster. The opening section presents a sweeping description of the Yangtze that both illustrates Theroux’s powers of observation and gives a taste of his controversial writing style.

"The Yangtze is China's main artery, its major waterway, the source of many of its myths, the scene of its history. On its banks are some of its greatest cities. It is the fountainhead of superstition; it provides income and food to half the population. It is one of the most dangerous rivers in the world, in some places one of the dirtiest, in others one of the most spectacular. The Chinese drink it and bathe in it and wash clothes in it and shit in it. It represents both life and death. It is a wellspring, a sewer and a tomb; depthless in the gorges, puddle-shallow at its rapids. The Chinese say if you haven't been up the Great River, you haven't been anywhere."

This time he traveled with a tour group of mostly-multimillionaires, people who take off for excursions to the Sahara or the Serengeti without batting an eyelash at the cost.  Part of the book is about their foibles and peculiarities, such as the millionairess who drank and played cards throughout the $10,000 trip and never once left the boat.  Much of it is simple ridicule, but some of it is rather trenchant.  Theroux observes that these millionaires love "briefings," in which they get to absorb information from someone who's paid to tell them what's going on, rather than having to work at reading.

Of course, the rest of the book is about the Yangtze and the Chinese people.  There are a couple of pages excerpted from a guidebook that was given to him by Captain Williamson, a Briton who commanded a river boat in the days of Western extraterritoriality.  The guide reads like a railroad route map: here you will find a golden Buddha, and this city has a magic bell in it.  Theroux connects the river to the long continuity of Chinese civilization, placing the thousand-year-old graffiti next to a sign placed by a 1920s warlord.  And, of course, who can fail to be impressed by the majesty of the Yangtze River Gorges:

"One of the millionaires said, "These gorges come up to expectations. Very few things do. The Taj Mahal did.  The Pyramids didn't.  But these gorges!"


The book ends on a characteristically Theroux down note:

"For these billion people this is probably the only system that would work.  Under capitalism, five percent would be conspicuously rich, and the rest rather poor or very poor ...  If there were disorder here, even a slight amount, I had the impression there would be catastrophe."

But this fits in with Theroux's Luddite view of the world.  He looks at the poverty of China's countryside and concludes that this is both the past and the future – that the whole world will look like this once the oil and coal and natural gas have run out.

Then, there is Theroux’s parenthetical note on p. 15 :

("China," Premier Deng has promised, "will be a modern power by the year 2000.")

From the viewpoint of 2004, we can look back at the China of 1984 and marvel at the change that two short decades have wrought.  There is the great wealth of the coastal provinces and the continued poverty of the countryside.  Maybe Theroux wasn’t that far off.

Sailing through China is only 64 pages long, which makes it the best introduction to Theroux.  It allows those who are unfamiliar with Theroux's writing to sample it and decide if they can endure him.  Reactions to Theroux are very polarized.  Either you’ll be put off and vow never to read anything else by this man, or you’ll pick your favorite region of the world and find a Theroux travelogue that passes through.