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“The Iron Rooster” is but one of the many trains that Paul Theroux rides on the dozens of side trips that filled his year-long journey across the countryside of China. RIDING THE IRON ROOSTER records his visits to major business, cultural, and industrial centers, including Beijing (Peking), Guangzhou (formerly Canton),...

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“The Iron Rooster” is but one of the many trains that Paul Theroux rides on the dozens of side trips that filled his year-long journey across the countryside of China. RIDING THE IRON ROOSTER records his visits to major business, cultural, and industrial centers, including Beijing (Peking), Guangzhou (formerly Canton), and Manchuria, and to out-of-the-way villages along little-used rail lines that crisscross the landscape. Along the way, he converses with hundreds of locals, recording their sometimes funny, sometimes sad tales of life after Mao Tse-tung. In this highly personal narrative, he provides a careful record of his own experiences, too, poking fun at himself at times for his inability to adjust to some of the cuisine and to the bitter extremes of weather that his hosts seem to suffer stoically--and without heat or air conditioning.

Few contemporary writers have achieved the level of sophistication in travel literature that Theroux has reached in his “train books.” Like its predecessors, RIDING THE IRON ROOSTER is much more than a traveler’s diary. In the tradition of Marco Polo, Richard Hakluyt, and the great chroniclers of the nineteenth century, Theroux gives readers a sense of the culture which he visits and an assessment of its present in terms of its past. Thoroughly versed in the immediate background of China, including the painful and disruptive years of the Cultural Revolution, Theroux probes his interviewees for their reactions to the century of changes that have brought China from a closed society to its present condition as a leading Communist power.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIV, April 1, 1988, p. 1291.

Chicago Tribune. May 22, 1988, XIV, p. 1.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, March 15, 1988, p. 442.

Library Journal. CXIII, June 15, 1988, p. 58.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 8, 1988, p. 5.

Maclean's. CI, August 15, 1988, p. 50.

The New Leader. LXXI, August 8, 1988, p. 20.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, June 19, 1988, p. 17.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIII, April 8, 1988, p. 80.

Time. CXXXI, May 16, 1988, p. 95.

Riding the Iron Rooster

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1959

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 still assigned a sort of guide or monitor to follow Theroux around the country—a certain Mr. Fang. Of all the Chinese people Theroux encountered, it was Fang alone who spoke openly and passionately about the Cultural Revolution, and his honesty is perhaps the best proof of change: “We must face the facts. It was a disaster, so what is the point of smiling and pretending we don’t care?”

Most annoying to Theroux were the petty nuisances. He loathed the loudspeakers on the trains, which always barked out useless information, and on several occasions he disconnected these offensive instruments. Theroux found the Chinese rude in their travel habits—they lounged around the train in underwear or pajamas, spit on the floor and other conspicuous places, and passively accepted sanitary facilities (on the trains and elsewhere) that were unspeakably foul: “Every public toilet I saw in China was so vile it was unusable. Every foreigner mentioned them; the Chinese . . . were ashamed and phlegmatic, and preferred to suffer in silence.”

More serious concerns include Theroux’s outrage at the ecological destructiveness of the Chinese, as exemplified by the way they cut down virtually every tree to plant more rice and cabbage, and by their habit of eating rare and endangered species (owl and monkey, for example) for purported medicinal benefits. Theroux angrily dismisses these claims as superstitious quackery, at one point rebuking a confused restaurant manager who believed that he was offering Theroux a delicacy. Furthermore, everywhere he goes, a few people inevitably request that he suggest an English name to replace their Chinese one because English first names are very chic in China. If they do not want a new name, then they want foreign currency: “Shansh Marnie” (change money, as they pronounce the words) might well be taken as the motto of the book.

What makes Riding the Iron Rooster a remarkable and memorable experience for the reader however, is not the quality of Theroux’s sociological and historical commentaries but the lucid descriptions and rhythmic cadences of his prose. To read the book is to see with Theroux’s eyes, and he possesses uncanny powers of observation. One might dispute his conclusions about Maoism or the Chinese railway system, but it is hard to read passages like the following without being swept up by their utterly convincing beauty, the product of an original and highly sensitive mind:I sat by the window and watched the world go by. Four black pigs, each one a different size, trotting in a file along a hill path. Some hills scarred with eroded gullies and others covered with scrub pine. Deep red valleys, the soil laid bare, and green bushy hills. . . . In a pretty valley town called Shamalada, beyond the solid houses and tiled roofs, ten naked children turned somersaults on a mudbank and plunged into the red river. It was not late, but the sun slipped beneath the mountains, and then the valleys were full of long, cold shadows, as if the slopes had dragging cloaks.

This passage is remarkable for the vividness of its imagery and the precision of its language, but it gains a special momentum in its mimicking of the process of observation from a train window. These are not merely images but images in a strung-out sequence as they appear to the observer on the train. Theroux, the observer, is so caught up in the poetry of the experience that his own language becomes poetic as the ragged shadows on the mountain slopes are magically transformed into cloaks. In like manner, the hills bordering the Yellow River are seen as “the color of corn bread and just as crumbly.” At the end of the journey, when Theroux finally leaves China and enters Tibet, he experiences a kind of epiphany as he is overcome by the transcendent beauty of that strange country: “It was, somehow, a mountain landscape with few valleys—a blue and white plateau of tinkling yak bells and bright glaciers and tiny wildflowers. Who wouldn’t burst into tears?”

Theroux is equally capable of producing more journalistic and workmanlike prose. Like all travel writers, he is constantly making lists of what he has seen, and sometimes the raw notes are transcribed directly onto the page, giving the reader a sense of overwhelming immediacy, as if one were right in the midst of a Chinese bazaar where some bona fide treasures were being sold to the tourists. The list is dizzying and seemingly endless, like the multitude of art objects hawked by market vendors:. . . . filthy little incense burners, cracked jade seals, tobacco boxes made out of hammered silver, rags of silk, very old and beautiful clothes made of silk and embroidery, and bonnets, jade wine cups, old brass padlocks, wooden images of gods and goddesses, . . . pewter jars, pretty teapots, chipped dishes and plates, ivory chopsticks and mortally wounded vases.

As these specimens eloquently demonstrate, the good travel writer is not an impresario or travel agent. Theroux’s job is not to recommend trains or particular routes through China—or even particular cities or sights to see. His mission is a personal and artistic one, finally, because, as he himself points out, “Travel writing is a minor form of autobiography.” If life can be seen as a journey, then certainly the transformation of one’s life into a train journey that crisscrosses most of China is worthy of a written account. The autobiographer must, after all, invent a version of his or her life to put down on the page. What Theroux sees and how he sees it become simultaneously the subject of the narrative and the substance of his life. He responds to the scene and to the people. In the end, he becomes utterly absorbed by the tiniest details of his journey: “I memorized the contents of refrigerators, of travelers’ suitcases, I remembered the labels in their clothes (White Elephant tools and Pansy brand men’s underwear and Typical sewing machines stick in my mind).”

None of this book and none of the rich experience would have been possible without the trains Theroux rode up and down and across the surface of China. For a veteran train traveler who had ridden virtually every important train in the world, Chinese trains represented another tempting opportunity. The most important of these trains is the Iron Rooster of the title—a name that in Chinese might be loosely translated as “the cheapskate express,” but in other respects the name is entirely appropriate: “It squawked and crowed and seemed to flap, as steam shot out of its black boiler and it shook itself along the tracks.” Yet what propels The Iron Rooster is not the cacophonous old train but the insatiable curiosity and expressive power of the author. To read it is to become a bit more sensitive to a larger world so often ignored.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIV, April 1, 1988, p. 1291.

Chicago Tribune. May 22, 1988, XIV, p. 1.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, March 15, 1988, p. 442.

Library Journal. CXIII, June 15, 1988, p. 58.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 8, 1988, p. 5.

Maclean’s. CI, August 15, 1988, p. 50.

The New Leader. LXXI, August 8, 1988, p. 20.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, June 19, 1988, p. 17.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIII, April 8, 1988, p. 80.

Time. CXXXI, May 16, 1988, p. 95.

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