China Road

In The Art of Travel Fall 2015, Shanghai, Books (2) by Sammy SongLeave a Comment

Here I might compare both travelogues I read during our course this semester: the former namely J. Maartin Troost’s Lost on Planet China; the following namely Rob Gifford’s China Road. Whereas Troost reckoned with his experience abroad from the viewpoint of an unapologetic foreigner, both Gifford’s education in Chinese culture and fluency in Mandarin enabled China Road to resemble more of a ground-level, pith-helmeted ethnography. Indeed throughout his roadtrip Gifford would rub shoulders with busmates or hitchhike with Persia-bound teamsters. Hence whereas Troost’s cluelessness paired with his stand-up personality conduced entertaining situations, say, among Chinese prostitutes at karaoke bars, Gifford could sit down in privacy with those same prostitutes for a frank airing of grievances about Chinese morality and modernization.

Among the most interesting interviewees included those of the Uyghur minority from borderline Kazakhstan, whose weariness of China’s land exploitation and minority brutality reminds Gifford of the same in the United States. Just as Gifford refers to Chinese appropriation of the Uyghur lifestyle not unlike commercialization into shopping centers and theme parks, so too Marxist intellectual Slavoj Žižek critiques China’s “American-style socioeconomic transformation” of Buddhism whereby the Chinese marketize “Lhasa into a Chinese version of the Wild West with karaoke bars intermingled with the ‘Disney-like Buddhist theme parks’” (Žižek, par. 6). The private exchanges with locals enables Gifford to bring focus to their grievances against such colonialism and occupation, let alone critique the hypocrisy of China’s officialdom perhaps equally opinionated against imperialism otherwise.

Indeed for Gifford since China has wrestled with an inferiority complex following their humiliation versus Western superpowers, a lot of the infrastructural development throughout China bespeaks self-conscious, aspirational overcompensation to meet images of modernity from the reverse face of the globe. Gifford offers imagery of China’s transition from the kowtow to the air kiss within no more than a century. Perhaps among Gifford’s descriptors most relevant to me includes the comparison of present-day Shanghai with 1920s-era New York City. Yet whereas the immigrants fresh off the boat into New York City hailed from the old world to restart anew, Shanghai’s influx traceable to innermore China consists of refugees at work to modernize China’s old world into the new.

Here Gifford spells out the hesitancy towards China’s exponential growth rate whereby for instance although China’s industrialization wreaks havoc upon the environment, worldwide reliance upon China’s booming economy entails that nobody can afford for China to no longer consume at the current rate. This entails for Gifford the contradiction whereby the world wants China to stabilize and flatten out on the one hand and continue like so on the other. Gifford concludes with the recent movement to rediscover China’s essential heritage, contrary to the Maoist program to rid China of the old. Whereas Mao talked about the blank parchment of China’s people whereupon to inscribe socialism, the present-day situation bespeaks that China’s people strive for both the rediscovery of ancient Confucianist teachings and the self-sovereignty to inscribe that parchment themselves.

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