THE RIVER AT THE CENTER OF THE WORLD by Simon Winchester

THE RIVER AT THE CENTER OF THE WORLD

A Journey Up the Yangtze and Back in Chinese Time
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 Winchester (Pacific Rising, 1992, etc.) depicts the central role of the Yangtze in China's long, tumultuous history in a lively narrative that ranges from the scholarly to the surreal to the truly harrowing. Winchester and Lily, his tenacious Chinese assistant, begin their voyage at the mouth of the 3,900-mile-long river, alighting first at Shanghai, where they find a city fiercely shrugging off its 19th-century colonial past and rushing to 21st-century preeminence. Farther upstream they disembark at the most odoriferous city on the river, Zhenjiang, famous for its vinegar factory; tour a tea institute at Lushan, at which a Kafkaesque meeting with ``sleepy, bad-tempered men'' yields a hilarious session of non sequiturs; visit a famous quack herbalist in Lijang who diagnoses Winchester's problems (inaccurately) at a glance: ``Blood pressure, anxiety, loose bowels.'' They get a firsthand look at the Yangtze's power, viewing the aftermath of a flood. While Winchester has his doubts as to whether the current flood is exaggerated by officials as public relations for the Three Gorges dam project, Yangtze flooding, as he points out, has had a catastrophic history; in 1931 alone, more than 140,000 Chinese died when the river overflowed. Recounting the misgivings that the world community harbors about a project that poses massive safety, environmental, and financial problems, Winchester notes that well over one million people will be forcibly relocated, their land covered by a lake 372 miles long. The project will cost the Chinese some $36 billion. Journeying past the dam site, Winchester and his cohort reach the upper Yangtze at Yibin, where the river completes its plunge from its source glacier to the sea, having dropped some 17,660 feet during its passage. The writing here, as elsewhere in this laudable account, is exact and vivid. Both scholarly and slyly observant, this is a terrific read, which should be savored slowly--perhaps with some Lushan Misty Clouds Green Tea. (maps, not seen)

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-8050-3888-4
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1996




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