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Down and Out in the Middle Kingdom

by J.D. Brown

Pub Date: June 6th, 1991
ISBN: 0-939149-51-6
Publisher: Soho

 Colorless recounting of the author's experiences as a teacher of English at the Medical College in Xi'an, China, and of a couple of subsequent visits to the People's Republic. Alternating between relentlessly earthbound prose and flights of turgid rhetoric, Brown tells of his duties in the classroom, of his American and Chinese colleagues, and of trips off-campus to visit such sights as the terra-cotta army of Qin Shi Huang Di, unearthed in the 1970's. He complains about the food, about the heat and cold, about the general ``greyness'' of Chinese society. Readers may feel a similar urge to gripe, for he brings neither the settings nor the people he encounters to life. Brown tells, for example, of several Americans who also teach at the college, and of a Chinese compatriot, Dr. Fu, who, separated from his wife by bureaucratic red tape, contemplates suicide. But these figures remain little more than ciphers, and one pair, a married couple with whom Brown was apparently quite friendly, disappears inexplicably from the narrative while on a trip to Tibet. Brown's handling of nature is somewhat better, however: his description of a pilgrimage to Hua Shan, one of the five sacred mountains of China, manages to build up suspense as the pilgrims inch their way up a narrow ledge to reach the peak. But his attempts at humor, as in his recounting of a visit by Queen Elizabeth II to Kunming, fail to come off: ``the Queen passes by me a second time, her hand stretched through a half-open a limp flyswatter.'' And when Brown tries to add philosophical resonance, he falls into rhetorical obscurity: ``Our shadows score the earth until the dark creases fill with level dust; decomposed, we too are rendered wordless by our passage.'' Brown didn't dig far enough; for a far more penetrative look at modern China see, for example, Paul Theroux's Riding the Iron Rooster (1988).