Already a master of the travel book by virtue of having published such modern classics as The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia (1975), The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas (1979), and The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around Great Britain (1983), Paul Theroux hardly required any encouragement to write another one—especially one about a country as grand and inscrutable as China. Besides, he was piqued and challenged by the Chinese proverb “We can always fool a foreigner,” since he was a sophisticated and well-traveled foreigner with a free year to spend in that vast country. He had anticipated boarding a series of trains, leaving London and traveling through France, West and East Germany, Poland, the Soviet Union, and the Mongolian People’s Republic until he arrived in China. Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China is the record of how those well-laid plans went awry, for the journey proceeded by fits and starts. Theroux describes his traveling as a sort of surrealistic experience, not unlike falling down an endless staircase: “Down I went, bump-bump-bump . . . and down again, bump-bump-bump, until I had fallen halfway around the world.”
Most readers might assume, as Theroux clearly did, that the old stereotypes of Chinese culture still apply. He expected to meet a well-mannered, meditative folk, shy and withdrawn, always self-effacing and eager to help the foreign visitor. He expected the mystery of the Orient, the daily application of Taoist wisdom, and the ubiquitous presence of imperial majesty (as symbolized by the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City of Peking, or Beijing). He was shocked to find filthy trains, rude passengers (who spit on everything), poorly constructed hotels, and wanton exploitation of art treasures and scarce natural resources. Even more tragically, he found a China still reeling from the psychosocial aftershocks of Chairman Mao Tsetung’s Cultural Revolution, a country that has had to deny its recent past in order to embrace a somewhat perplexing present in which televisions and bicycles are more sought after than spiritual enlightenment and inner peace.
Theroux is disappointed to make these discoveries only because he is keenly aware of the Chinese contributions to world civilization, including steel, the spinning wheel, porcelain, pumps, movable type, books, suspension bridges, playing cards, whiskey, parachutes, the rudder, paper money, fireworks, and the wheelbarrow. Yet current Chinese technology lags woefully behind Occidental and Oriental counterparts. Chinese locomotives, fountain pens, and automobiles are excellent examples of mid-1950’s technology, and many tasks on the farm and in the city are still performed by hand.
Coloring all these perceptions is the dark presence of the Cultural Revolution, that insane period in the mid-1960’s when the Red Guards brought the country to a virtual standstill by insisting that every school, factory, and communal farm be run according to strict Maoist guidelines. Teachers, artists, and political figures were ridiculed and even tortured. Again and again, however, Theroux found that Maoist slogans and even statues of Mao himself have been eradicated. He met Professor Phan, a University of Cambridge graduate and member of the history department at Fudan University in Shanghai. Phan suffered numerous indignities during the Cultural Revolution: His house was taken over by the Red Guards for six weeks, and he was subsequently sent to prison for six years, where he was forced to memorize Mao’s speeches. The professor was eventually restored to his former position, and many of his former tormentors became his students and colleagues. Theroux never quite comprehends the fatalism of the Chinese—he seems to suggest that they have had to forgive and forget this horrible chapter in their recent history because the alternative would be internecine warfare. Every city Theroux visited contains subtle reminders of this painful period. No one speaks well of Mao any longer, and even the official museum of Mao’s accomplishments pointedly underplays this period in the dictator’s life. Thus, everything in China seems slightly off-key to Theroux: The ghost of Mao is everywhere, yet everyone works hard to deny its existence.
China has changed for the better in some ways. The standard of living is clearly higher than at any time since the Communists gained control of the country. Although a list of forbidden books (known as the neican) still exists, it is largely ignored; George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), one of the forbidden titles, was available at many bookstores and libraries. Many of the Chinese had no qualms about speaking to a foreigner such as Theroux. Yet the Chinese government...