Theroux’s China

In The Art of Travel, 6. First Book, Shanghai by Mark1 Comment

In the past when I have returned home after a months-long trip, friends and family have always asked: “What’s the craziest thing that happened?” I’m always caught off guard by this. It forced me to consider whether nothing interesting had really happened, or perhaps I was just a bad storyteller. As I read Riding the Iron Rooster, by Paul Theroux, it became obvious that it was a little bit of both. Theroux terrifically balances the mundane with catastrophe, such that it all feels like it’s just life. Indeed, that is his final reflection on long trips: “This Chinese trip was so long and it had claimed so much of me that it stopped being a trip. It was another part of my life; and ending the travel was not a return but a kind of departure” (480).

As compared with my less structured trips, entering Shanghai with an army of hand-holding NYU orientation leaders was as mundane as the first hundred pages of Theroux’s book. He makes the mistake – at least he views it that way then – of joining a group tour with some very annoying personalities: trinket hungry Americans, Aussie’s that compare all distances to a locality in Australia, French that bicker separately, and so on. It’s only after thousands of miles of railroad that the book really enters China, and Theroux escapes this group to create his own adventures. That’s when it really begins. And I can’t help but compare that to my experience here, tied to the enclave of NYU. Of course, for me it’s an open-ended question. More of a prompt that might get me to move on to the middle of my own trip (story).

Once Theroux is off on his own, he takes special care to interview pretty much everyone he finds about the changes in China, and where the country was headed. It was enlightening to read about people’s experiences in the cultural revolution. Since the book was written in 1988, it was a far closer memory. Theroux reports countless stories of high schoolers, Red Guards, berating and beating teachers at ‘school’. Everyone had a hole dug at their home as a bomb shelter. Monuments, even the Great Wall, were taken apart, their bricks repurposed. In some cases dynamite was used, but more often red paint. And the consensus among the free-speaking Chinese he encountered (especially the intellectuals), was “[Mao] set us back thirty years” (89). Now (in 1988), things were much better.

However, there is a dark side to progress. It’s something I’ve witnessed here, and Theroux expertly put words to it. It is a kind of hollowness, literal and figurative. All around Shanghai you can observe brand new and half-empty sky rises, as well as clumsily reconstructed monuments. In the subway, some people won’t hesitate to elbow you out of the way to make it on the train. Store clerks and taxi drivers often could care less whether they retrieve the right item, drop you off at the right destination. Theroux writes:

“It was very easy to say what China wasn’t. […] It wasn’t very orderly, it wasn’t quiet, and it wasn’t democratic. It wasn’t what it had been – particularly here in Canton. That was obvious. But it was hard to say what China was. Perhaps there was an intimation of hope in its complexity, but it was maddening for me to sit there watching the Cantonese rain come down and not to know what this all meant.” (161)

Similarly, last week when we had to write about spirit of place, I found myself staring at the street wondering what the spirit really was. I had the sensation, more than anything, of being on a continuum, yet not being sure where. The ancientness and durability of the Chinese insures they will live on. Things will continue – and perhaps that is enough of an answer for some – but where will they go?

Theroux never quite puts his finger on what China is, but his experience transiting Tibet by car in the last chapter of the book gets close. Theroux rides in a Mitsubishi Galant with a novice and reckless driver, Mr. Fu, into the snowy mountains of Tibet. After the treacherous snow and ice, when the road is clear and Mr. Fu has resumed driving excessive speeds, there is an accident. Mr. Fu loses control of the car, which then careens off the side of the road, spinning fifty meters into thick gravel and winding up on its side, buried three feet deep. With Mr. Fu’s insistence, and the help of Tibetan truck drivers, the mangled car is dug out, dragged to the road, and miraculously repaired. Theroux rides on, now at the wheel, savoring life and the beauty of the landscape. While his own final conclusion seems to be, essentially, a critique of the opaque and almost mystic interpretation by westerners of Chinese decision making, mine is that China feels like that Galant – brushing the dust off, and riding on.

(Image: A wrecked Bentley in Tibet; Source:


  1. Hey Mark! This was a really interesting read! As I have traveled and lived in more places I have started to arrive to the same general conclusion that you and Theroux have: that we really only get to know a place after spending more time there, getting more immersed in the culture and getting exposed to more people, sights and sounds.; the place changes as we live in it, but continues changing even when we’re not there. And I think that’s part of the fun of traveling, that we continue, as you put it, brushing the dust off and riding on, onward unto creating (or stumbling into) new adventures that we will call our own.

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