“Barbarian Lost: Travels in the New China” by Alexandre Trudeau

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One might be forgiven for thinking “Oh no, not another book on modern China… What could anyone possibly have left to say about it?” But Alexandre Trudeau does not simply write about what he observes, but, like all good travel-writers, shows us what effect the journey had on him. And he does so without thrusting himself into the foreground; there is no large talking head loudly proclaiming “look at me” in the foreground and with tiny buildings in the background incidentally pointing to a foreign location.

We do however get a picture of Trudeau himself and what Canadian journalist John Fraser calls his “enthusiasm and restless inquisitiveness”, but always with China itself front and center. His technique, which largely works, is to feature, as a contrast and reality check, the views of Vivien, a Chinese journalist accompanying him on his travels and who, in many ways, personifies the China he is exploring. At the end of the book we are told that she is going to study in the United States, has a fiancé with a job in Europe and may well leave China permanently. When Trudeau questions her about that, she replies, “The things that matter stay with us wherever we are. What I need from China is already with me.”

That sentence (if in fact she really said it) is a good summation of the main theme of the book, the new China trying to find a way forward from the old China without pushing it away altogether; post-Deng China may have had some success socially and economically, but culturally the Chinese found out that they still needed what they already had, namely their history, philosophy and literature.

 

Barbarian Lost: Travels in the New China, Alexandre Trudeau (HarperCollins Canada, September 2016)
Barbarian Lost: Travels in the New China, Alexandre Trudeau (HarperCollins Canada, September 2016)

Trudeau is a Canadian journalist and film-maker; he has spent time in the Middle East, where he witnessed the American attack on Baghdad, and he has written on the Arab-Israeli relationship. He has also worked in Darfur, Liberia and Haiti, and has written extensively about Canadian involvement in various peacekeeping efforts.

In the book, he rather disingenuously refers to the fact that his father was “a politician”; he was, in fact, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and the author’s brother Justin is the current Prime Minister of Canada. However, the reference to the father is not meant to attract attention; Pierre Trudeau had been to China in 1949 and 1973, and in 1990 he revisited it, this time with Alexandre, who had always dreamed of going there. It was the year following the Tiananmen Square incident and Canada had cut diplomatic ties with China, but the visit nonetheless whetted Alexandre’s appetite. Alexandre went to China again in 2006 and 2008; on the last trip, he was greeted by the artist Ai Weiwei with the words, “Long-term resident here? Or just passing through?”

The book revolves around the tension in China between past and present, not just the old imperial past, but also the more recent past, the Mao era and what immediately followed it. China is no longer mysterious or inaccessible, but, as Trudeau notes, it’s very much “inwardly directed” and has “a deep detachment from western ways”, which, together with a formidable language barrier, makes it a frustrating country to navigate or to understand.

He recognizes that in such a vast country the feelings of alienation a traveler’s feelings of alienation will be more marked and much more difficult to overcome than in, say, a trip to France. That is where Trudeau’s guide, Vivien, comes in. But Trudeau sees China through the eyes of his guide Vivien as well as his own; and she plays a large part in the way he copes with what he encounters and its effect on his own way of looking at the world. He can bounce ideas off her, and even disagree with her; for example, he won’t let her show him the Little Three Gorges, an area not destroyed by the Three Gorges dam, and they sometimes argue about politics, though always in a civilized way. They discuss such things as corruption, the punishment of wayward officials, and even the Communist Party itself, to which Vivien appears to belong, though not uncritically.

Vivien represents the new China, the young and educated part of its populace, but, even as she embraces change, she does not forget her past. Trudeau demonstrates that he has read up on Chinese history and that he is, insofar as a “barbarian” can be, familiar with Chinese culture; in no way is he xenophobic, and he embraces China for what it is, not what he, as a westerner, would like it to be. He even argues for some of the things that some in the West deplore; one-party government and some form of oversight in regard to Hong Kong are just two examples of this, but he may well be playing devil’s advocate in order to elicit a response. He even talks the usually fiercely-critical Ai Wewei into agreeing that the Beijing Olympics might have actually been a good thing for China. And he understands that for many Chinese, there is a belief that they “deserve everything a Canadian has.” They are not, in other words, simply a nation of conformist sheep.

The book does not pretend to be philosophical or profound, which is probably why (and, in Canada, with recognition of its author) it will succeed with a general audience. The narrator is cheerful, chatty, and well-informed, at least insofar as a “barbarian” can be well-informed about China. There are, of course, better books on China than this, but Trudeau is an engaging guide to modern China, and his book a good starting-place for anyone interested in this rising super-power, as it is perceptive enough to suggest that our preconceptions about this vast and diverse nation are often wildly inaccurate. If that was all it did, it would be doing a great service to its readers, but it manages to be readable and accessible, too.


John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His latest book is an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012).