I have a love/ hate relationship with travel literature. As with fiction, it takes an author great skills to successfully transport us on the roads traveled. Fortunately, Rob Gifford's book isn't so much about his excursion across China as it is about the great journey the Chinese people into modernity. Every bus, cab, car he takes provides a new insight into a sliver of China - one person at the time. From afar, China seems the powerful dragon that's about to swallow the world. If only it had cohesion; China is still smokes and mirrors, and hurts itself as much as it makes progress.
Great portrait of the country and its people! R.G.'s journalistic skills served him well in producing a travel book that reveals China as a country not often visited.
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106 of 108 people found the following review helpful
4.5 Stars... Slightly different take on China adds new perspectivesAug. 11 2007
- Published on Amazon.com
I have been reading quite a few books on China, as I am fascinated with and intruiged by the country's amazing economic transformation, and the potential consequences elsewhere in the world, including here in the US. (Among the better ones are China Shakes the World by James Kygny as well as The Elephant and the Dragon by Robyn Meredith). If you listen regularly to NPR Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Rob Gifford will be a familiar voice.
In "China Road: A Journey Into the Future of a Rising Power" (344 pages), Gifford, who has had a lifelong fascination with China and speaks Mandarin fluently, takes us on a journey across China on Road 312, the Chinese equivalent of our Route 66. Starting in Shanghai and working his way west, Gifford meets ordinary and not-so-ordinary Chinese and simply lets them do the talking. It makes for compelling reading. Talking to a well-known radio talk-show host in Shanghai, the host remarks that "morality--a sense of what's right and wrong--doesn't matter anymore".
At some point in his journey Gifford runs into a man holding a big sign that reads ANTICORRUPTION JOURNEY ACROSS CHINA. The man tells Gifford that "You see, in the West, people have a moral standard that is inside them. It is built into them. Chinese people do not have that moral standard within them. If there is nothing external stopping them, they just do whatever they want for themselves, regardless of right and wrong".
When Gifford runs into an Indian national, he hopes to have a discussion about how things are evolving in India versus in China, but the man is not interested in having the discussion. Gifford then dryly writes "So in the end, I have the conversation with myself over dinner and I conclude that I don't want to be a Chinese peasant OR an Indian peasant. But if I have to take a side, despite all the massive problems of rural China, I'll go for the sweet and sour pork over the chicken biryani any day of the week". Gifford spends a fair amount of time giving thought whether China can ever become a real democracy. Looking back at the 13th century, Gifford writes "There are many ways in which China was far head of Europe, in terms of technological development and prosperity. But for some reason, their system never developed any real checks on state power, and since in the West these checks did emerge, it has become a real contention between the two sides".
I could go on giving more quotes from the book, but suffice it to say that Gifford brings story upon story, and observation upon observation about China the culture, the people, the country, just superb. I was in China earlier this year and happen to be in a number of the cities that Gifford talks about in the book, in particular Shanghai, Suzhou, Nanjing and Xi'an, and this book brought back some great memories. This book is not just a "travelogue", but instead a wonderful mix of facts and observations. Highly recommended for anyone interested in China!
67 of 71 people found the following review helpful
Rob Gifford dissects China beautifully.May 30 2007
- Published on Amazon.com
Following the "silk road" is an adventure in itself, and one covered extremely well in other travel books, but here Rob Gifford is cutting across China with one underlying question: Where is China heading? The answers are a little bit scary. As we travel with Gifford (what a great travel partner he'd make!) we meet many people who show by turn resilience, entrepreneurship but also something a lot more desperate: an element that has been described elsewhere not so much as 'dog eat dog' but 'man eat man'.
The writing here is attractive, and often very entertaining, but the picture that Gifford reports isn't always a pretty one. With the world's biggest economy ballooning as it is, there's still a burgeoning, clambering desperation among the poor to get onto the ladder before the opportunities elude them. In some of the poorer, more remote areas, this fact - one can readily see, is already causing sad social consequences. There's a tone of fascinating regret here: a question about whether the price of progress is always worth it. Well recommended.
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Honest and lucid workSept. 7 2007
- Published on Amazon.com
Rob Gifford has writtent this book in a remarkably honest and lucid manner. He strikes a balance between the details he describes and the broader issues that relate to those details. He tries to look beyond the narrow focus on China's stunning economic development that many authors take. He makes abundant mention of the signs of the Chinese economic miracle that he sees on his 3000-mile journey across the country. But he has also tried to present the opinions of ordinary Chinese people ("old hundred names") as well as his own analysis of their problems, hopes, and future.
He highlights the severe problem of pollution in Chinese cities. He mentions the ubiquitous sex-trade that employs 10-20 million women. He mentions the severe shortage of marriage-age women in many areas. He mentions the problem of official corruption. And he highlights the severe political repression and colonization of Muslim Uighurs and Buddhist Tibetans by the Han Chinese.
He mentions his talk with a "family planning" doctor and learns that it is her job to go around in the villages and enforce the one-child policy. This means persuading pregnant women who already have a child to undergo abortion. Sometimes she has to abort 8-month old fetuses, sometimes kill them with lethal injection, and, if a baby still manages to be born alive, to kill it after birth.
He contrasts Hui Muslims in Gansu province with Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang. The Hui Muslims are loyal Chinese citizens, who don't like American and British policy and wars in the Muslim countries, and admire Osama bin Laden. The Uighur Muslims, by contrast, chafe under Han Chinese colonization, they like Westerners more than the Han Chinese, dislike fundamentalist Muslims like Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, and even justify the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He comes across a group of Hui Muslims students cycling across the desert in Western China, trying to explore their country. He comes across Uighur youngsters who dress like their Han Chinese counterparts, even though their mothers wear burqas and headscarves. He comes across Uighur children who have been given the "opportunity" to study in Chinese schools thousands of miles away in eastern China because they excelled in school back home in Xinjiang. He comes across Uighurs who believe that dreams of independence from China are futile and so they must embrace the modernization and economic opportunity that China brings to make the best for themselves and their Uighur race.
Gifford honestly admits that he is a religious Christian who, at one point in his life, was hoping to become a missionary. He visits the graves of two long-dead Christian missionaries, stops by at a church in a remote area, and reminisces about three British Christian missionary sisters who preached on the edge of the Gobi desert about a hundred years ago. He estimates that there are at least 75 million Christians in China, clearly more than the 70 million Communist Party members.
He comes across a prostitute who took up the oldest profession not because of poverty but because she was jilted by her boyfriend. He comes across Han Chinese men who believe that it is ok for married men to have one or more mistresses if they can afford it. He comes across Han Chinese women who despise the darker skin color of ethnic minority people. He comes across a desert town where corrupt government officials have sealed off the town's only well to force town-dwellers to buy drinking water from their private company.
Interestingly he compares India with China, and after some debate, decides that the lot of the Chinese peasants is better than their Indian counterparts. He admires the awesome infrastructure development taking place in China, specially the highways, the buildings, and broadband Internet connectivity. He mentions the 450 million cellphone users, a number that is growing by 5 million every month.
Gifford is not very optimistic about democratic political change in China. But he says that this does not mean that the system will eventually collapse. He notes that with the rapid economic development, the Communist government is effectively trying to "buy off" the people. There is now a "safety valve" to the pressure cooker that Chinese peasants in the countryside live in. If their crops fail, they can always move to the cities to work on jobs where they make several times more than in the countryside. Their lot is much better than the parents' generation. The development of highways and railways means that poor peasants from even remote countryside villages can easily travel to the coastal cities to look for work. And a large middle class is developing in the cities. So, Gifford thinks that it is quite possible that the status quo may continue indefinitely, with relative peace between the people and the government, provided there are no major shocks that disrupt the economic development of China.
36 of 40 people found the following review helpful
I am very glad that I read China Road before the recent earthquake because the background that the book gave me on Chinese culture and politics has helped me better understand the news coverage of the disaster. This is the mark of a book that is truly worth reading, in that it helps the reader deduce meaning from world events.
The premise and structure of the book are appealing. The author, Rob Gifford, an American journalist, hitchhikes across China on Route 312, China's equivalent of the US's Route 66, and writes about the places he visits and the people he meets. Along the way, he muses about China's history, its current building boom, its social structures and traditions, its problems related to its emergence as a global economy and its likely future as a world power. This makes for fascinating reading and, certainly for me, an entertaining way of getting to know a nation and a people who are increasingly affecting the lives of everyone on Earth.
As soon as I heard about the collapse of school buildings in the poorer provinces of China during last month's earthquake, I realized that many parents would have just lost their only child due to China's one-child policy. This, it seemed to me, would be one of the things more likely to create the kind of anger and dissatisfaction that the government will be unable to buy off by putting more consumer goods into the hands of China's growing middle-class. Sure enough. The news continues to be full of stories about the anger and resentment felt by many lower middle class parents whose children died in poorly constructed schools while the children of the wealthy survived because they attended well-built schools that did not fall during the quake. Some of the devastated schools stood right next to others that were barely scratched. That is exactly the type of situation that Gifford warns about in China Road -- an event that exposes the corruption of local governments, the results of which are so heinous that the people refuse to be appeased by more stuff.
Through reading China Road, I also came to better understand the conflict surrounding what is called Greater Tibet, some of which is actually a part of traditional China, and now see that the situation there is not quite as black and white as I once thought.
By the time Gifford reached the end of his tale of Route 312, I felt as though I had received a solid tutorial on a country that I had once only the most rudimentary knowledge about, and I was sorry to see the end of the road. Highly recommended.
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
Gives a very interesting Western view of ChinaNov. 23 2007
Paul P. N. Tung
- Published on Amazon.com
China Road By Rob Gifford, Published 2007
Rob Gifford has written an interesting and worthwhile reading book. I read the book, from cover to cover, very carefully, so careful that at times I would re-read a passage several times making sure that I did not misinterpret his ideas and intention. Yes, his intention which I analyzed with great caution and observed the body-language of his language used throughout the book that revealed a great deal what he had in his mind that he did not want to come right out stating his thoughts that he might not even aware of.
Spent about two decades of his Youngman hood in China did help him to be familiar with the history of China but his view of China, along with her history, is always shadowed with his, I regret to say, his very colored perspective or just plain bias.
The kind of initial love for China is quite common among many Westerners after reading the books by Pearl Buck a daughter of a Presbyterian missionary family in the 1890s in the then small city Zhenjiang a short distance east of Nanjing. Rob Gifford was also deeply inspired by an English missionary James Hudson Taylor who had been in China some forty years earlier before Pearl Buck, also did his missionary work in Zhenjiang area. Taylor, at the early age of twenty-two, felt a sense of divine calling to China and devoted about 50 or so years in his work there with a style mingling with the people there refusing to be separated from the locals in more comfortable houses for the Westerners. All of these deeply touched Rob and, reading between his lines we can see that Rob went to China with similar zest to ¡°save¡± Chinese with his Western vision, richly wrapped into Western religion, Christianity, but he was not allowed to be a missionary in China today and this is where his body-language seeps through all throughout the his book.
Rob¡¯s mental makeup is so deeply soaked in his Christianity background that this is principally his yardstick to measure so much in contact with him in China. His frequent, often quite lengthy, analysis and criticism about Chinese tradition, culture, history, political system, wither current or historical, are all based on his personal background in England as a young man, almost about the same age as Taylor 160 years ago. But it is amusing that he gathered very little about how most of the educated Chinese are rather resentful of foreign religious missionary and this is not something existing only China today since 1949. It is important for the average Westerners to understand that not being religious, such as being a Christian, is a sign of ¡°backward¡± but such is not the case with the much better educated Westerners and slowly more better educated Westerners realize that Chinese were very fortunate not being so culturally dominated by any religion, Muslim or Christianity such as what we see the terrible struggle between the Fundamentalists and the more Secular directed Americans in the U.S. today. With his contract with NPR, an American organization, as a correspondence, he would frequently speaks as though he were an American, or perhaps he thinks the two are really just one.
His arguments against current Chinese political system very much as an extension of the very ancient political and cultural systems are surely quite upsetting to many Chinese but I think the Chinese have nothing to lose if the arguments are taken as something to ponder over with open mind whether they agree or not.
Rob¡¯s many encounters with the Chinese ethnic minorities almost always with some hidden with to stirrup troubles and he seems disappointed if the Chinese ethnic minority he met did not blast all the Han Chinese. But he did report that one Tibetan school teacher who teaches Chinese language to other Tibetan students and saying that the Tibetans are doing better today under the current government than staying as the traditional nomads as in the past. As one born in China and deeply concern and sympathetic to all the ethnics around the world I was uplifted by the forward looking Tibetan young teacher Rob had encountered in Gansu Province. The story Rob has told about this Tibetan teacher echo my wish for the Navajos in Arizona where I have had some wonderful contact with since the 90s and I tried hard to convince my Navajo friends to strive for the best to complete a solid education while also trying to preserve their traditional culture.
In a fleeting passage Rob briefly mentioned that Zhao Zi-Yang was attempting to initiating even before the 1989 Tian-An-Meng protest and the policy released was fully approved and supported by Deng Xiao-Ping. It is a profound regrettable event that the students in Beijing were very impatient with the progress made in political reform and the demonstration turned out to be one of the greatest political set back in modern China. Despite of the fact that Deng was the paramount leader he had to deal with the still very powerful old CCP members from the way back in their 80s or 90s and Deng still, of course, remember the two political purges and what he was put through by the wild students Red Guards during the so-called Cultural Revolution, the fear is very real for one at his age he gave in to the hardliners headed by Li Peng (ÀîÅô) to crash down the protest with Liberation Army. Rob is one of the few Westerners mentioned this factor but filed to provide any degree of evaluation of Deng¡¯s role and only his endorsement of economical development.
The expressions Ocean People and the Old Hundred Name are used very frequently in the book but both terms are very important to the Chinese than to the Westerners and the loss of the Chinese flavor here is a real substantial missing elements. Rob should have explained at the beginning and use Yang Ren for Ocean People and Lao Bai Xien (ÀÏ°ÙÐÕ) for the Old Hundred Name because the term is used to denote the common folks, not really the surnames much like when we say that we are the taxpayers in this country because we are so heavily taxed and barely able to get by unlike the top 1% particularly under George W. Bush government. .
Rob¡¯s final chapter is an extensive analysis that I wish he had save for himself for perhaps another 30 years then he would be able to make some revision. But I would not be telling the truth to say that I did not enjoy reading this book. I did, and very much so.