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Invisible China: A Journey Through Ethnic Borderlands Hardcover – May 1, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
This odyssey—spanning 14,000 miles in four months—details China's rich diversity in a narrative jeweled with dazzling descriptions but lacking analysis. Legerton and Rawson, graduate students in the region's language and history, meander along the Silk Road, reporting on various hidden minorities and gaining extraordinary access to people's lives and homes. However, they take much of what they are told at face value and provide only superficial analysis of their ambitious undertaking. This is unfortunate because their sources and observations speak directly to the intersection of politics and culture that came to the fore in the days before Beijing hosted the Olympic Games. It is only in the afterword that they make explicit the link between China's official party line on minorities and what they witnessed. Nor do they attempt to explain what forces maintained China's cohesion over the turbulent past half-century. Despite these structural weaknesses, this is a spectacular achievement reminiscent of early 20th-century anthropological monographs by Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, with much to charm readers in search of a travelogue on China's remote border and interior regions. (May)
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Students of Chinese and other Asian languages, Legerton and Rawson took their linguistic skills to the geographic periphery of China in 2006 and again in 2007. They sought members of the country’s non-Han minorities to learn about their lives, paying attention to their attitudes toward the majority Han. Upon arrival in some obscure town or village, they asked for a good place to eat, a query that yielded productive encounters with people and their cuisine as well as with local sites significant to them. As they narrate this method of introducing themselves, Legerton and Rawson interject explanations of policies, historical and current, of the central government toward ethnic minorities, such as religious persecution during the Cultural Revolution. They heard complaints about the Han, but making a livelihood was the predominant concern they discovered among Koreans, Mongolians, Uyghers, and several other of China’s 50-plus officially categorized ethnicities. Seemingly unfazed by rough accommodations and unusual foods, Legerton and Rawson eschew flourishes and hew to description in imparting their experiences for travel readers intrigued by China’s remote regions. --Gilbert Taylor
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The book is very clearly written and divided into a number of short chapters, which means it is really easy to get through. It just flies by -- which is great. What's more, the authors have clearly done their homework. Although most non-anthropologists won't notice, the authors have quietly read and taken on-board the work of important experts in the field such as Magnus Fiskejo, Dru Gladney, and Stevan Harrell. So they clearly know their stuff.
Because the book is a travelogue most of the details about the ethnic groups are 'particularistic' and 'episodic'. There is not a lot of "The X do this... Y houses are constructed this way..." Rather you get "Mr. A gave us a bowl of B" and "the house we entered was like C". This is nice -- you get real stories of real people and learn about various ethnicities through these experiences. This is a much more vivid approach then an abstract description that fills some books. The prose is very clear and quiet, and doesn't go out of its way to emphasize how exotic their experiences were. Although some people may have wanted more commentary or analysis, I think the book's strength is its straightforward account of their travels. Their attention to detail, thoroughness, and desire to engage others is admirable and the book is extremely well done.
Overall I didn't find their travels very exotic since I've had similar experiences, and I didn't learn that much more about minzu than I'd read in the specialist literature, but it did fill in the holes for me -- it's is, among other things, a great introduction to Chinese geography.
That said, I think this book would be great for undergraduate classes, or even ambitious high schoolers. It should definitely be on people's list for intro to ethnography courses. And if you are a businessman, traveler, or just an interested reader, I think this is a great place to start learning about Chinese minorities before you dive into more specialized sources.
Many travel books these days are written by those who, though well-meaning, have little or no knowledge of the country's native language. Rawson's knowledge of Korean and Legerton's of Uyghur, in addition to the pair's mastery of Chinese, has allowed them to have deep conversations about everything from politics to philosophy to hopes for the future with people whose voices are seldom heard in the West.
Combining the best elements of informative nonfiction and good old-fashioned travel writing, "Invisible China" will make you chuckle, raise your eyebrows, and scramble to Wikipedia to learn more, often in the same page. Highly recommended.