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Behind the Wall: A Journey Through China Paperback – August, 1989

15 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

"Like a classical Chinese scroll, this book follows a meandering, atmospheric course through China's landscape," reported PW . As the author rambles from exuberant urban centers to farmlands, small towns and villages, "he creates images that linger in memory."
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

After studying Mandarin so that he could communicate, Thubron traveled extensively on his own to many of the less visited (but no less interesting) places in China. Displaying a knack for recording conversations with the ordinary people he met on trains and in monasteries, Thubron is both perceptive and nonjudgmental. His book, reminiscent of Mark Salzman's Iron & Silk ( LJ 2/1/87), is less touristy than those of Paul Theroux and other travel writers. A top choice in a crowded field; for both public and academic libraries. Literary Guild alternate. Harold M. Otness, Southern Oregon State Coll. Lib., Ashland
Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 306 pages
  • Publisher: Harpercollins (August 1989)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060972564
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060972561
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.3 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #684,585 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By M. A. Krul on February 7, 2010
Format: Paperback
Colin Thubron is one of the most prominent living travel authors and his journeys through Asia are justly praised by fans of the genre. He has a peculiar approach to travel writing, by generally going to one country only and then trying to visit as much of it as possible while talking to the maximum amount of people, unlike for example Paul Theroux, who generally writes about travel across many societies. In this book, "Behind the Wall", Thubron takes us on a tour of China, and then I really mean all of China (except Tibet and Manchuria), as it was when he visited it in 1987.

The result is an interesting overview of Chinese society as it was just opening up to foreigners after the long periods of war and revolution. Thubron was by no means the first tourist to do a tour of China since 1949, but he did travel when European tourists were very rare and limited to expensive package deals and the corresponding upper class environment, be it by Chinese standards. He studiously avoids following in their footsteps, and instead tries to take the cheaper hostels, the lower class train carriages and so forth in order to get an impression of real Chinese society as the Chinese experienced it. The degree to which one can do this as a total outsider is still always limited of course, and as any anthropologist knows the very act of being an observant as a stranger can and will change people's behavior. Nonetheless, the rarity of a white foreigner in the places Thubron goes greatly aids him in conversing with a number of random Chinese he meets, and this leads to some interesting conversations and good insight into the diversity of the Chinese peoples as such, 'even' under Communism.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Kevin M Quigg VINE VOICE on June 15, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This is a rather dated book about Thubron's journey through the Red China of the 1980s. The Wall he is referring to is the Great Wall and he visits both ends of it and meanders around this vast country. As a travel experience, Thubron treats his travel experiences by jumping around. First he tries to describe the countryside, with some flourishing descriptions and this tends to confuse the reader. Perhaps he is writing this for a British audience, but those of us on the other side of the Atlantic have a hard time digesting some of his wordings. He jumps from one experience to the next, so the flow of his writing is rather jolting. Some of his experiences make for good stories, but for the reader to mine this, he is in for an uneven read.
This is an average read because of the flow of the book. For those interested in Red China, this may be of interest. For those interested in travel, there are better travel books out there.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Igor on November 4, 2006
Format: Paperback
Very informative adventure/travel book about what life in China was like in the mid 1980s. Rare in the sense that the author can actually speak Chinese (Mandarin), so he's not as limited as to who he can speak with as some other travel writers. We get a pretty good cross-section of Chinese people--farmers, businessmen, city dwellers, homemakers, university students. Also of interest is the author's exploration of the generation that came of age during the Cultural Revolution, and that missed out on the usual educational opportunities. I like the details, like how eating an owl, feathers and all, is supposed to cure epilepsy. This is a great read if you are interested in learning more about such an important place.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on January 12, 2013
Format: Paperback
What differentiates the travel writer from the tourist is not merely an eye for detail. It is also a willingness and humility to accept and appreciate the new, unusual or strange. And what elevates the accounts of a traveller is an ability - such as in this case - to express and explain this alien world eloquently with words that sparkle. (When talking about a woman who lives in an imaginary world of an opera diva, Colin Thubron describes her situation as "the narcissism of the emotionally deprived." In another passage, when a bunch of villagers stare at him as the first foreigner they had perhaps set eyes upon, he visualises how he would look in the eyes of the locals. "To this trim, slender people we could seem a waxwork collection of coarse and distorted variety, barbarically, often luridly fat or tall, and made up as if life were a Beijing opera...") This is my first book of travel by Colin Thubron and I would rank it among the very best in this genre.
Like all perceptive and insightful travellers, Thubron observes people with an open mind with unfailing empathy. He makes use also of the infrequent opportunities "when someone would talk more intimately [with a stranger] than with one of his own." The China he witnesses during his treks is also so palpable, he is afraid towards the end that he may have become indifferent to the country's poverty and harshness and its "terrible obediences".
Colin Thubron is in essence like a literary artist who also happens to travel and has the felicity to write about his peregrinations in language that at times verges on the lyrical. I read somewhere that Thubron is a descendent of John Dryden. Dryden's poetic genes are more than evident in this book.
Admittedly, the book was first published in 1987. Hence, China has admittedly changed in some aspects since then. However, when the book has such great literary merits, this lack of contemporaneity does not seem to matter so much.
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