The Dark Underbelly of China

In The Art of Travel Fall 2017, 6. Book #1, Shanghai by Rachel2 Comments

The key to understanding China is that there is always something more going on behind the scenes. In his collection of short stories, Jack Livings takes the representation of China that most travelers have heard of, like high work ethic, gang violence, and the myth of locals eating dogs, and flips it over, exposing a more nuanced and stirring portrayal of the country.

The story that most fit my current understanding of Shanghai was called “The Pocketbook,” and tells the narrative of an American girl studying abroad in Beijing. She experiences the divide between the easily-digested, glossy pamphlet study abroad experience and the dirty, confusing, and chaotic “authentic” experience of living in China.

“She unlocked her bike, mounted up, and pumped across campus, cutting through courtyards and taking blind corners at suicidal speed, spouting a slew of bad Chinese at terrorized pedestrians. Outside the front gates she swung into an alleyway bordered on one side by the college wall, a ten-foot concrete slab topped with broken bottles, on the other by a public bathroom, a long row of pit toilets attended by an ancient man on a folding stool. The alleyway jogged left at the corner of the wall and passageways branched off into the hutongs behind the college. The students had been warned not to use the alleyway as a shortcut to the market. Claire used the alley every chance she got.” (93)

The girl ends up getting pick-pocketed and has a weird run in with the police where the reader can’t really tell if she’s in trouble or if she’s being protected, partially because of the language barrier. She is held in captivity for a few hours, yet is brought tea and smiled at. The incidents and themes in this story have somewhat influenced my impression of how foreigners, especially American foreigners, are treated in China as compared to their Chinese equivalents. It seems as though despite issues of censorship and government transparency, the Chinese people tend to be very nationalistic and want their country to be depicted in the most flattering light towards outsiders. However, when local people make the same mistakes outsiders might make, they are treated unfavorably internally. For instance, in a different short story, an Uyghur man is a gruesome victim of police brutality. There is a stark contrast between how an American girl and an Uyghur man were treated by the police, especially when considering both only had run ins with the police through misunderstandings.

A common thread between the stories is this hint of corruption and bribery present in China, regardless of how cosmopolitan or rural the region might be. In the first story, a woman struggling to impress her husband’s family bribes a marketplace vendor for fish. In some stand-out stories, the police accept bribes from gang members, an elderly reporter is basically forced to retire, a factory president refuses to publicly donate to a cause because he knows some of the money will end up in the wrong hands, and in the last story, passengers of a bus expect there to be some sort of bribery or tax they must pay when the Public Security Bureau shows up on their route.

Ultimately, Jack Livings creates a portrayal of China in The Dog that shows what goes on behind closed doors. In Livings’ representation, China is seedy and suspicious, but there are still moments of compassion and human decency amongst the chaos.


  1. Hi Rachel,

    Your post was great at explaining the divide and layers that exist when attempting to discover how to perceive China as a foreign location. It sounds like the short stories in the novel were incredibly insightful and impactful regarding your own discoveries and depictions of the nuanced nature of China. In many ways, its true that experiencing the divides and layers present throughout Chinese society and the self-concept they have for themselves is part of the “authentic” experience of visiting China. It’s very interesting to note the underlying themes of bribery present throughout the majority of the short stories. It must be quite an experience to live or visit a country that may seem extremely chaotic on the surface, but in reality, functions coherently and collectively as one of the most influential countries in the world

  2. Hi Rachel, I really agree what’s behind the scenes is the key to understand China. Also being a foreigner in China will certainly have totally different experiences from a Chinese in China. I was once in a famous old town in Yunnan Province, sifting through souvenirs and little gadgets to bring home with. And then when I asked about the price, they gave different answers to different people. If you are locals, they give you the cheapest price but if you are foreigners, the price will be ten times more. This experience strikes me the most and it is definitely something not often seen or heard elsewhere in the guidebook.

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