Behind the Wall

Thubron begins his book with a conversation he had with a young Chinese woman as he flew into China: “She smiled her set smile. Perhaps she was wondering what the foreigner could ever understand of her nation.... What could he ever learn?” The biggest obstacle to Thubron’s understanding is the Cultural Revolution; everyone he talks to has been affected by it, yet many of them are remarkably forgiving and many seem reluctant even to acknowledge the depth of their suffering. To some younger Chinese the Cultural Revolution seems remote: “History, she had said.... Suddenly they Mao Tse-tung, Zhou Enlai seemed to have been gone a century.” By the end of his trip, Thubron is no longer completely perplexed, though he still, perhaps, does not understand.

One of the blessings of BEHIND THE WALL is that Thubron is content to recognize his own prejudices and inability to understand; he does not attempt to explain Chinese culture in Western terms. If his initial reaction to the masses in the streets of Peking, all of them dressed in blue or green, is that “they conspired to fulfil Western cliches of themselves: inscrutable and all alike,” he is not afraid to acknowledge the stereotype. Yet he is not content simply to see surfaces; his travels are not those of glossy brochures. He bicycles and walks and takes rickety buses and crowded trains, meeting and talking with ordinary Chinese citizens. They are curious about him and he about them. Some of his contacts are arranged; these meetings are often with teachers, writers, and others whose positions made them special targets of the Cultural Revolution. All are interesting.

Thubron writes fluidly and with keen perception; his impressions of China evoke a curious mixture of old and new. He makes no attempt at political judgment, but reports, movingly, both the struggle for change and the sense that nothing ever will. Dengming, a young man who has studied computer science in England, wants to copy Western technology, yet Thubron also visits country villages which “could have belonged to any time.” Thubron’s account is an excellent look “behind the wall.”