The sum of two years’ travel, Taylor’s ambitious travelogue considers the complex history and vagaries of contemporary China.
In this geographically arranged guide—with three parts: “North of the Yangtze,” “South of the Yangtze” and “The Wild West”—an opening note encourages readers to “jump from Shanghai to Sichuan,” since there’s “no need to read these chapters in sequence for there is none.” But in execution, this lack of structure isn’t terribly compelling. Taylor’s writing can be lyrical and full of detail, with descriptions of the natural world that are pleasant, if a little overblown: “the twisted fangs and crenellated ridges of 70,000 karst peaks—shadowy growths in the gathering gloom.” He’s also skittish and untamed in transitions. A given section will jump between the history of the region and personal observations, made mostly from the window of a train or bus, little of which contributes to a larger purpose in the book. The “Guangxi” chapter, for example, begins with a dig at Chinese music and jumps directly to a description of karsts—“strange, otherworldly limestone hills that dot the province”—the history of Chinese banknotes, forgery, a joke about “a flatulent Mao,” Taylor’s dislike of a zoo, George Lucas, speleology, the history of Daoism, the small size of Chinese fields, the length of Chinese women’s hair and the conventions of a Guilin breakfast—all in the first 10 pages. Given that the subject here is the most populous nation on Earth, the book—which sprawls to over 600 disorganized pages—needs a guiding principle or thesis. To tie together the disparate strings of a few dozen journeys, it might have helped for Taylor, who originally traveled to China to teach history, to further develop himself on the page as someone for readers to follow. Then his learning would be ours.
An intriguing but overreaching effort that struggles to become more than a mess of details.