I recently finished Troy Parfitt’s travelogue “Why China Will Never Rule the World: Travels in the Two Chinas,” and I rather enjoyed it. It was at times funny, shocking, enlightening and enraging.
The basic idea behind the book was that Troy would visit a number of Chinese cities over a few marathon-like trips to China and record almost everything that happened. From this foundation he would add in bits of history and culture from a wide range of sources that, taken together, give fairly accurate accounts of the places he visits. The hope was that this would help shape his opinions and prove his thesis, that China would never rule the world (at least not this century).
Troy’s observations are hit-and-miss, but always thought provoking. If you are looking for “proof” that China is not capable of being a world leader, you aren’t going to find it here. That being said there are a number of points made by Troy that I thought were unique and interesting, and I found myself frequently setting the book down to discuss them with my wife before continuing on.
I also enjoyed his recollection of conversations with expats and fellow travelers, which shed further light on one of the underlying problems of the book: marathon traveling tends to wear one’s patience thin. I’ve done a few trips on a similar scale to what Troy attempted, and have rarely found myself to be at my most tolerant. This shows at times in both his actions and his reflections, but if you keep this in mind while reading, I don’t think it is a fatal flaw.
His approach however means that he misses some of the better aspects of the cities he visits because he only spends a few days in each place. This led to some generalizations that to me seemed completely off base, but seemed to result from his methodology more than a lack of observational prowess (this is true of many positive accounts of China too).
Another problem is that in China, people are often hesitant to talk with foreigners about anything that paints China in a negative light, especially in group settings. This is an issue that he does take note of, but it doesn’t stop him from talking with groups of unsuspecting Chinese students, and then using their statements to “prove” something about China. While it doesn’t provide the proof he claims it does, these prepared answers do show something about China in every instance. It’s for this reason too that his conversations with more or less anonymous taxi drivers are the most interesting.
One of the complaints others have made about the book is that it is a largely negative account of travel in China. While this is a valid complaint, it doesn’t mean that Troy’s descriptions are inaccurate.
For example this is what I saw last night in Nanjing: I went to dinner with my wife, Casey and another friend in an area that has a few foreign restaurants, some expensive Chinese restaurants, and a worrying number of KTV’s and massage parlors. Roughly a quarter of the cars in the parking lot had government license plates. From there we walked down a block of run-down shops just a few blocks away from the city center. There were a number of majiang (mahjong) rooms and brothels emanating a faint pink glow that nearly reached the police booth on the corner. The road was full of potholes, but there were few cars due to the number of outdoor restaurants grilling a variety of unidentifiable meats. As the people ate they threw their garbage on the ground, and squabbled loudly over bottles of beer.
I think what troubled the bloggers who didn’t like the book was that Troy’s descriptions can feel overly negative after reading account’s like mine above for hundreds of pages, but what did they expect from a book titled “Why China Will Never Rule the World”? There is a part of every city in China that looks something like what I described, but at the same time this in no way represents all of China (which one might miss if they only read Troy’s book). There were places that I enjoyed immensely but which Troy had already decided weren’t worth much before his arrival.
So in spite of a few short comings I would recommend “Why China Will Never Rule the World: Travels in the Two Chinas” for expats who have enough experience with China to weigh Troy’s adventures against their own. In this light, Troy’s book makes for a great companion on lazy afternoons, or reliving your own travels. If you read this before you step foot in the middle kingdom though you might find yourself as jaded by some of the highlights of China asTroy was.