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I’m finishing up “China Road: A Journey Into the Future Of A Rising Power” by Rob Gifford, an NPR correspondent who has been living and traveling throughout China since 1987. His book is about his journey from Shanghai to the border of Kazakhstan on Route 312, a trip that takes 4925 kilometers, or 2998 miles.
It’s a good read, as Gifford exposes a glimpse of daily life beyond cities like Beijing and Shanghai. He gets his hands dirty, hitchhiking in the Gobi desert, riding in crowded red-eye buses and clandestinely visiting a clinic caring for HIV-positive patients. I certainly recommend it to anyone about to travel to China or wants to understand a slice of China before the Olympics.
My only quibble is his how his White Guilt drips through the pages. For example, he visits an archaeological site in northwest China. The caves in Dunhuang had housed many ancient, valuable manuscripts for centuries — before archeologists from Britain (where the author is from), France and Germany descended on the site in the early 20th century and took the precious manuscripts back to their respective countries, never to be returned.
Gifford asks a Chinese woman touring the caves: “Have you forgiven us for doing all this?” Her reply is no. So Gifford tries to “lighten the mood”:
Trying to lighten the mood a little, I tell her that I am about to to London, and perhaps I can have a word with the people at the British Museum and ask them to return the treasured manuscripts.
“Good. You should do that,” she says, her face brightening. “Please do that.”
A theme throughout the book is how badly the Chinese were treated during the 19th and early 20th centuries — by nearly everyone, including their own government. Sure, it’d be nice to see some contrition — especially from Japan over its human rights atrocities — but coming from an individual, it seems forced, inauthentic and ingratiating.
Don’t get me wrong, this is still a wonderful book that deserves to be read and praised. Gifford proves that he’s an Sino-expert and an adept writer, but his personal guilt should’ve been left in the sand dunes of the Gobi desert and out of the book.