Why China will never rule the world – Book review

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.

Read the first chapter for free on Troy’s site

Read China Law Blog’s meta-review

6 responses to “Why China will never rule the world – Book review”

  1. […] 中国见红博客:关于《为什么中国不会统治世界》的书评——该书作者的观察并不总是很准确,但是他的发现都不免令人深思 […]

  2. China is off to a good start, claiming now the strategic archipelgos of the Spratley and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea which rightfully belong to Vietnam. They have HK back, they have Macau, next stop Taiwan.


  3. Anonymous says:

    Tom, have you come across any other reviews that were as (somewhat) tolerant of Parfitt’s book as you were? Most that I have read tended to tear him a new gan men.

    • Tom says:

      To be honest I only read a couple of reviews for the book because I didn’t want my own review to be influenced. If you read the Peking Duck review he does compliment the same parts that I did. He went into more detail on some of the flaws of the book, that really didn’t bother me as I read it. Troy is an English teacher traveling through China, not a historian, anthropologist or China expert, I expected some problems, and when I came across them, they didn’t bother me as much as I had thought.
      In Peking Duck’s review, he points to a scene where Troy ambushes a few students in Nanjing and asks them what China has to offer the west. It would be a crazy question to ask random Chinese students, but it seems slightly more appropriate when you realize it is two foreigners who have put their lives on pause to come learn Chinese. If someone were studying ethno-musicology you would probably ask “Why?” and expect some kind of thought out answer, but when these people are asked why are they learning Chinese they are unable to answer, which Troy uses mostly to argue his point that people have simply accepted China’s dominance without really questioning it.

      • XYZ says:

        I think that’s a really racist question. The obvious answer is, because China is an important economic entity, the second largest in the world, and learning Chinese is useful.

        If he asked, why should we care about black people, what do black people contribute to the world, there would be a gigantic uproar. But because he is bashing China, and being racist against Chinese, there’s no such uproar. Being racist against Chinese has no negative consequences.

        Likewise, it is because Chinese are tolerant that he gets to write this book. If he asked Russians, “what’s so great about Russia? Why should anyone learn Russian” they’d kill him, and he wouldn’t be writing this book.

      • Tom says:

        But you completely ignored my point. If You asked an African studies or Russian studies major, “why are you studying X? What does X have to contribute to the world?” you would expect some kind of answer. It isn’t racist to expect a student to be able to explain why they are interested in something.

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