Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sunday Salon: A Little China Reading

I have accumulated a small collection of books about China over the last few weeks and I am aiming to read them all before I set off in mid-October.

Today I finished Where Underpants Come From: From Checkout to Cotton Field - Travels Through the New China. This was a hugely entertaining book - a piece of travel writing with a difference. Starting with a pair of underpants he buys, very cheaply, in New Zealand, Joe Bennett sets out to find out where they've come from. At first he lies his way into the country and into factories where the underpants are made, but then, as he repents and becomes more and more fond of the people he encounters, he becomes more thoughtful - and the writing becomes more interesting and humorous as a result.

The bulk of the book deals with China, and he visits the some of the same places as I intend to visit: Shanghai and Guangzhou, and capture the intense heat of the places, as well as the bizarre habits and contradictions of a country that has suddenly become rich. It is an invaluable guide for someone like me: I now feel I know what to expect.

He also visits Thailand - the origin of the rubber in the elasticated waistband - but it is part of the charm of the book that he fails to do this. The people in Thailand are gentle, but also more stubborn than the Chinese, it appears. The nearest he gets is an on-line photograph, an approximate location and a warning:
'You can see the rubber trees along the road and you can take a pix or whatever you want, but do not slit the trees, otherwise your team and you will be killed by the owner. THIS IS SERIOUS!!!

Hope it will be useful for your writing.'
Towards the end of his visit he receives news that his beloved dog has died and this clearly devastates him. He visits a temple and reflects on Buddhism and flies on to Urumqi to find out how the cotton is milled. His descriptions of this place make me want to go there more than ever; but I think it deserves its own special visit.

On the outskirts of Urumqi he finds a cotton mill and the usual band of young workers attracted from the impoverished countryside by the promise of a steady but boring job. As payment he agrees to take one of his guides out to dinner. However, the guide is joined by seven fellow workers, all presumably expecting to be fed by the Joe. He then takes part in a drinking contest (which is hilarious), and this entertains them so much with his antics that they insist on footing his bill themselves.

He finishes the book with some reflections on China and how the journey of his underpants is, to some extent, a metaphor for the development of China in the modern world. It's an unexpectedly interesting book with gentle humour - but also a gratifying depth.

I now have to decide what to read next: either What does China Think? by Mark Leonard or the Cambridge Illustrated History of China by Patricia Buckley Ebrey. But first I must learn a little more Mandarin.


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