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Why China Will Never Rule the World by Troy Parfitt

Why China Will Never Rule the World by Troy Parfitt is something of a chimaera in that we have a travelogue with political attitude. As a yardstick, my favorite travel writer is Jan Morris. When she walks you through a town or city, she’s giving you a fully realised insight into her own experience, picking from the details to reveal the occasional incongruous note. Troy Parfitt is both more and less ambitious. Rather than a city, he aspires to survey an entire people by travelling to all the provinces of modern China. In some senses, therefore, this becomes more a journey reported by anecdote than through a detailed journal. Sadly, this task was performed more elegantly in Coast to Coast by Morris, but this book is nevertheless an interesting effort, in the main because the writing style is engaging and betrays a man of sophisticated sensibilities.


So, after a short introduction, we’re off on the first leg of our whistle-stop tour through China by deviating through Hong Kong for a permit, and then on to Macau and Guangzhou. For the first fifty pages or so, there’s a reasonably entertaining summary of our traveller’s experiences as he plumbs unsuspected depths and comes up with the slightly seamy side of life. As to the man, he admits a brief experiment with opium when younger — it’s always better to discuss the Opium Wars when you have some personal insight into what they were fighting about. Now heading for Hong Kong, he elects to stay in Chungking Mansions, one of the slightly more notorious places. His idea of a “good place to start” is to explore a red light area in the hope of rediscovering Nam Kock Hotel and The World of Suzie Wong. From this you will understand this is not a travel book in which our intrepid explorer moves without preplanning, sometimes landing on his feet and sometimes having adventures. Troy Parfitt knows where he’s going and has expectations about all the must-see places if you want to do all aspects of the history of China.


However, quite early on, we see signs of real attitude in his summary of China’s history as it bears on the status of Hong Kong and, later, Sun Yat-sen’s life. I have no particular brief for truth which, in most cases affecting China, is always a matter of opinion based on which sources you happen to have read. But Troy Parfitt seems somewhat contemptuous of China as a country and of a man whom some describe as the “Father of the Nation”. Indeed, referring back to the title of the book, our author has found evidence of China’s impoverished state and confirms a prejudice that the weaknesses he observes will prevent China from making a positive mark on the world. Motives are always complex and I wonder whether this book is genuinely inductive. We have observations of the world and then there’s extrapolation to generalisations. It’s a form of probabilistic reasoning. The issue as this book unwinds is whether the inductions are weak or strong, i.e. they offer genuine insights into the truth of what China is really like and what that means if China actively follows a path intended to lead to hegemony.

Troy Parfitt more at ease with the world


Then we’re off and running again, this time to Guilin and Yangshuo, then on to Kunming and Xoaguan. It’s all a little perfunctory with a few snapshots of people met and scenes observed. The only consistency comes from the reinforcement of the lack of cleanliness and the sheeplike quality of the people who kowtow to authority figures and lead (un)quiet lives. The tone doesn’t change when we get to Tibet. Indeed, it turns into another history lesson. It’s curious to find the travelogue stop and start in this way. It feels as though the descriptive journal of a traveller must be subordinated to the author’s more general opinions reflected in these historical summaries. As it unfolds, the mixture loses some momentum and grows more serious in tone. The only moments I smiled came when he reports the comment of a US ex-pat in Beijing who thinks the Chinese more friendly than the French, and when he discovers the delights of the Tsingtao Brewery.


Whereas others might see China as a country trying to dig itself out of a pit, he only sees the pit. This gives the tenor of the descriptions a relentlessly monochrome view. Most places have black and white qualities at the extreme. When you visit or actually live there as an ex-pat, you try to inhabit the shades of grey in-between. That’s where there’s some hope and you can try to fashion a normality out of the cultural strangeness around you. This is a man who has spent some ten years as an ex-pat in Taiwan teaching English to the local Chinese and learning Mandarin in return, not something you do unless you find the experience reasonably convenient to continue. Yet, by the time he’s visited seventeen of the twenty-two provinces of China, he’s had enough. Curiously, he’s not only disillusioned with the mainland Chinese, but also out of sorts with the Taiwanese. He ends the book by returning to his native Canada. In a sense, his modern anabasis and consequent writing of the book give him an opportunity to reflect on his life. This is not to say his peregrination was militaristic, but it does acquire a veneer of hostility as it continues. Cultures are strange beasts. Often they lie supine and unobserved until you rouse them into life. Only at that point does the nature of the beast come clearly into focus. For Troy Parfitt, prolonged exposure to the Confucianism implicit in the Chinese psyche has proved too much. He wants to feel comfortable again and decides this means reimmersion in a Western academic environment, surrounded by people with whom he feels more immediate affinity.


This is not to say his view of China or its people is wrong. I would not presume to make such a judgement. But I feel he writes without a sense of balance, i.e. the inductions are weak. Books are at their most persuasive when they rehearse a proper set of arguments for and against a proposition. When the author arrives at a reasoned conclusion, we can see the force of the winning argument. This feels more like a book written by a man who’s falling out of love with a culture. He’s convincing himself of the rightness of his decision to leave and go back to his roots. Hence, he paints the picture with a broadly negative brush. If you want to read a book telling you why not to visit China and/or what mistakes were made by leaders in its past, this is the book for you. The title, Why China Will Never Rule the World, sets the tone, the editorialisation is consistent, and you will not be disappointed by the finished product. But if you’re looking for nothing more than an engaging travelogue through parts of China and around Taiwan, or you want a book analysing the history of the late Qing Dynasty and the last century, find something else to read.


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


As a completely irrelevant aside, this is the first occasion on which I have ever seen an author not reserve copyright from the year of publication. The first edition is shown as published in 2011, but Mr. Parfitt only wishes his copyright to run from 2012.


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