A Westerner recalls his journey into China’s interior in the late ’80s.
Schwartz’s 1987 journey into China’s interior balances “a China of the mind against the stirrings of a culture hungry for modernization.” It’s clear from the outset that his trip is no vacation. In addition to partaking in the calming meditative practice of zazen, he documents the political and economic discord of a nation in transition, while also exploring his own psyche on the 10,000-mile unescorted trek. The excursion, pursued with academic vigor, is a culmination of his early fascination with China. His intense studies also provide a reprieve from strained relations with his father and struggles with sexuality. He achieves varying degrees of success with his objectives: spending a night in a Chinese monastery, ascending a Buddhist holy mountain and a pilgrimage to Lhasa, Tibet, all against a backdrop of dao (the way), te (innate power) and wu wei (effortlessness). In his earnest writing, Schwartz describes people who have often lost their connection to history in favor of consumerism. The lamentation is mostly detached as he insightfully recognizes sociological and cultural constructs, such as an escaped pet bird symbolizing flight from oppression. Refreshingly, Schwartz doesn’t sermonize; readers will be presented with frustrating travel minutiae—he fibs to obtain a better train ticket and gets annoyed with temporary travel companions—rather than arcane lessons in philosophy or religion. The detailed descriptions of frustrating ticket purchases help illuminate the difficulty in reaching the ultimate destination, geographically and psychologically, yet some details, such as the items on food menus, aren’t as intriguing. Other times, Schwartz’s account is (perhaps unintentionally) humorous when it diverges into seemingly mundane observations, as with the amusing anecdote of Schwartz helping robed monks sweep while he wears his Tang Dynasty T-shirt. (The monks recognize that they’ve got “a live one.”) The 25-year-old account could have benefitted from comparisons to China today. As it stands, the scant one-page afterword is hardly sufficient for giving this journey a broader perspective. Still, the astute religious survey and portrait of Chinese–Tibetan relations will make the book useful for historians, travelers, natives and cultural explorers.
A discerning historical journey that could use more context.