Between September and Christmas 1964, the Dutch sinologist Erik Zürcher undertook a three month visit to China organized by the state travel agency Luxingshe. It was official and exceptional. China was closed for business, isolated and angry at history. Barely more than a decade previously, Dutch troops in UN Command had been fighting the Chinese People’s Volunteers on the Korean Peninsula.
Resting together after an afternoon climb to the hillside Kyoto grave of her father’s great benefactor, the school principal who provided for the 90-year-old Anglican minister when he was just a penniless, fatherless newspaper boy, Joy Kogawa brought herself to speak: “Dad, I know what you did.”
Guo Xiaolu has always been a writer who has worn both her heart and her integrity on her sleeve, whether tearing pages from her own life for her novels, experimenting publically with form or writing in what is for her an entirely foreign language (something which is the cause for astonishment when an English-language writer even attempts it). So it is hardly a surprise that her recent memoir, Once Upon a Time in the East: A story of growing up, is by turn raw, intelligent, compelling, sad, uncompromising and reticent.
Richard Kirkby’s China memoir Intruder in Mao’s Realm has a hint of the nineteenth century about it: frank and scrupulous in recording quotidian detail, it is a refreshingly unrefined book, in the manner of those accounts returned by Victorian missionaries and travellers after visits to unknown lands.
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.