China Road by Rob Gifford details one man’s quest on Chinese Route 66, which is 3,000 miles east to west. Going through an umpteenth amount of cities starting with Shanghai and including, Kunshan, Suzhou, Zhenjiang, Nanjing, Anhui, Lanzhou, Zhangye, and the Gobi Desert. Each interaction he has with people along the way is contextualized by an in depth history of China.
Because I am living in Shanghai, the first few chapters very much appealed to me. When he’s first describing it he states, “there is an intangible feel in Shanghai, an urgency, a hope and optimism that hangs in the air all around you from the minute you arrive” (19). This is how I initially felt coming here too. There is constant renovation and things being built up and changed, it always feels like everyday Shanghai is on the brink of something even greater than the day before. He then goes on to involve Shanghai’s history with foreigners, saying that “even though we poisoned them with opium, stole their land, carved up their country, patronized, humiliated and half-enslaved them… the ordinary Chinese people are astonishingly courteous and accommodating to foreigners” (28). I found this really interesting because I notice sometimes I do get special treatment because of the way I look. I did not even fully know the history behind China and Britain. It’s interesting to hear about Western imperial attitudes resulting in internal tension in China, yet, they still give special treatment to those from the west.
Something else that echoed my own thoughts were Gifford’s views on the industrialism he saw as he travelled from city to city. “’This doesn’t feel very communist’ I suggest, gazing out at mile after mile of factories” (56). I have noticed that China didn’t actually seem very Communist as well; however, I simply thought that was due to me living in a metropolitan area. It was fascinating to read that, even outside Shanghai, the ideology of Communism seems contradicted by China’s surroundings.
Along with concepts I was already aware of, I also was able to learn more about specific cultural and historic events that happened in a vast number of towns in Shanghai such as the city of Nanjing. Nanjing used to be a symbol of Chinese strength as it was a powerful city. However, after a massacre done by Japanese troops during the Second Sino-Japanese War. This came to define the city and the city became the city of humiliation. It is all of these historical facts weaved together that shape China, however we rarely hear about these events. I believe it’s important to note every single struggle and obstacle faced by the country when examining the state of the country today.
At the end of this book, Gifford details why he thinks China is on the brink of transformation. “In addition to the economic problems, there are simply too many contradictions in Chinese society. The Party wants to create a modern society, but it doesn’t want to allow too strong a civil society of churches, unions, associations and other social organizations needed to build a modern nation” (362). The idea of China being contradicting is something that I have noticed myself. There’s constantly this clash between old and new which is incredibly visible in just the architecture of the city here. The idea that they can be a modern society while still keeping an authoritarian rule is something that will not continue to work, as Gifford said. Overall, this book allowed me to see the cervixes of Chinese history while also looking forward at what the future of China could be.