The ventriloquist’s dilemma: Asexual Anglo travelogues of China

Emperor's River book cover

Let’s start with Liam D’Arcy-Brown’s Grand Canal voyage The Emperor’s River: Travels to the Heart of a Resurgent China (2010). A great idea, traversing the entire Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, especially as no one else, at least in our day, seems to have tackled the challenge. It is no longer possible to do so by water, with large stretches presently bone dry. Starting at Hangzhou, the author hitched or bribed rides on coal barges that carried him up the canal for brief spells, while taxis and buses took him further along on nearby roads. Elsewhere, suspicious police stopped him and sent him back, forcing him to loop around to get to the next point up the canal, and eventually to its terminus at Beijing.

Despite the fractured route and the monotony of the scenery, there is—as with that other momentous landmark, the Great Wall—much of potential interest: the 1,500-year history of the canal, the sheer logistics involved in the carving out of its 1,115 miles, the number of workers dragooned into its construction (3,600,000 initially), its main functions of shipping grain and luxury items such as silk north to the Imperial capital, and so forth. D’Arcy-Brown delves into a lot of this, though sketchily; I never learned anything about the technical side of the canal, how it was constructed or how a pound lock works (for lifting boats to higher elevations), which is actually what I most wanted to know. But enough interesting anecdotes and historical personages coloring the canal’s history are supplied to weave an entertaining tapestry of tales shifting seamlessly between the past and the present, to carry me through the book.

Much of the narrative muses on the canal’s cultural status as signifier of China’s long journey as a nation. Correspondingly, the canal serves as the author’s thematic launching pad for expounding on the country’s current public and political quandaries. The cast of lowly characters he meets along the way—taxi and truck drivers, barge operators, hotel and restaurant staff, dispossessed youth, migrant workers and peasants, harried Christians—all have poignant stories to tell of aspirations and tribulations of life under Communism and are thus (meant to be) representative of the larger oppressed population to which the author gives collective voice.

So fixated is he on this purpose that his writing threatens at times to devolve into a political tract or manifesto, oddly mirroring Chinese socialist-realist fiction of the 1950s-60s (Red Crag, Tracks in the Snowy Forest, etc.), with its clearly demarcated good-versus-evil characters. We see some of these themes in the following passage, a nicely layered example that packs into several sentences all the necessary stylized moves and presuppositions:

Being in China was like witnessing the making of my own country. Images that might have been stolen from Henry Mayhew’s famous exposés of Victorian London had been all around me since Hangzhou: child beggars had stood imploringly outside the window of Dio Coffee, and then there were the teenage prostitutes, the shoeshiners, and the infants who traipsed behind the parents gleaning from litter binds. Soon China would have more billionaires than anywhere in other than the US, but they shared their cities with the rural detritus of a deferred Agrarian Revolution, toiling in factories that could have been modeled on Hard Times. It was just those conditions, Marx had reasoned at his desk in the British Library, that would lead to revolution. (pp. 196-97)

We have, for starters, the omniscient all-seeing narrative eye, reminiscent of the Victorian novelist, taking in the sweeping view from on high and depicting the totality of a society’s contradictions in a poignant vignette. We also have the highlighting and juxtaposition of social extremes, China’s stunningly rapid modernization and wealth next to its penury and despair (“beggars….billionaires”). This is in order to simultaneously “praise and spank” (Salman Rushdie), as Western journalists are wont to do, to diagnose China’s schizophrenic burden, its brutal nineteenth-century ideology of relentless progress rammed up against the twenty-first century. Finally, we have the identification with the underdog, the new proletariat, which it is hinted, may rise up again in revolution.

While it’s natural to show solidarity with the dispossessed living under authoritarianism, and the author does this as a matter of course, it is nonetheless a curiously Western point of view, one that stands in pointed contrast to most Mainland Chinese, from whatever social strata, who celebrate class differences with unapologetic displays of wealth and seek at all costs to secure educational and financial advantages for their own, who couldn’t care less about the interests of the larger community and society, much less regime change.

Is it a backpacker mouthing truisms about China in a weighty voice or a literary poseur trying on the outfit of a backpacker?

But what I find more salient is the mysterious co-existence of disparate voices proceeding from the author. On the one hand, the laid-back backpacker in dirty jeans, the white guy with the easy rapport among the locals, roughing it and hanging out with truck drivers and waitresses. On the other, the grand statements in the style of erstwhile imperialist men of letters—the “oracular murmur” (Adam Mars-Jones on Henry James)—summing up exotic lands for our edification. Perhaps we are so used to the voice of authority that we take it for granted, are scarcely conscious of its strangeness whenever the informal writer assumes it. Or is it the other way around? Is it a backpacker mouthing truisms about China in a weighty voice or a literary poseur trying on the outfit of a backpacker? Whichever the case, the tension between these contrasting registers is unmistakable. One voice becomes distorted when the other speaks true, and vice versa.

Now, when the female Other enters the picture, the author assumes a third voice of a more unstable timbre:

As I fell asleep the telephone rang.
“Do you want a girl?” a woman asked.
No, I told her. Hours later, there was a furious banging on the door.
I shouted: “What do you want?”
“Do you want any drinks?”
“It’s 3am! Go to your grandmother! You’ll die without shame!” Those expletives stilled whoever it was, and I slept late the next morning. Only after I had dressed and gone downstairs to check out did I realize I had taken a room in the International Beautiful Women Club. The staff must have wondered why on earth I hadn’t wanted my prostitute. (pp. 189-90)

I myself wondered why this travel writer failed to notice the hotel sign, or why he didn’t know what everyone else does, that prostitutes come banging on your door in most hotels in China. At another hotel, D’Arcy-Brown ventures into the hotel bar:

With a rootless disquiet, a strange mixture of anticipation and deliverance, I went downstairs to find a drink. The hotelier was young, and he enjoyed staying up to talk.
“Do young people here in Wenshang too… have relations before marriage?” I did not want to offend what might have been his rural sensibilities. In the cities, premarital sex was becoming more common, but out here? His immediate reaction answered a different question, though no less illuminating.
“Why? Do you want a girl?”
I began to wish I’d not asked….It was not uncommon back home for women to be trafficked into the sex trade, I said. (pp. 223-24)

The man insisted before finally giving up. For the author, it was out of the question: “I leaned back in my chair and gave a cold laugh at this hotelier’s enthusiasm, and at the iniquities of a globalizing economy that made whores of village virgins here in remote Wenshang” (p. 225).

Here embarrassment, disgust, and the anxious laugh momentarily take over as the new authorial tenor, and they don’t sit comfortably with the foregoing narrative ethos. The traveler who sleeps on filthy coal barges and plays cat-and-mouse with the Chinese police is aghast at the chance of sex with a Chinese woman. To be sure, he is married, and there is the audience to consider back in the English-speaking world, not to mention potential ethical breaches in the publishing industry when a nonfiction writer is personally implicated in what is after all an illegal activity; and if he had received financial sponsorship from a third party to write the book, this would have to be factored as well in the list of reasons why sexual relations with a Chinese prostitute or any Chinese woman for that matter could not be acknowledged or even contemplated.

But to bring up the possibility, to tease and titillate the reader, to create suspense on the precipice of moral degradation, by all means! Here we see the limits, the bourgeois constraints imposed on the contemporary travelogue, the red line repeatedly skirted but never crossed in the polite world of Anglo publishing (the term “Anglo” here referring to the English-speaking countries).

China Road book cover

Another travelogue that mines a famous geographical landmark for its metaphorical significance—what I call the allegorical travelogue—is Rob Gifford’s China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power (2008). The author crosses the country in buses and rented taxis along Route 312, China’s version of US Route 66, from Shanghai all the way to the border with Kazakhstan. In the western half of the country, Route 312 roughly follows along the old Silk Road trail. And like D’Arcy-Brown, Gifford frequently digresses onto issues and problems concerning contemporary China whenever he seems to run out of things to say on the immediate environs and its history. Much of this is critical; the terms “Communism” and “Communist” come up eighty-four times in the book. Yet he also strives for journalistic balance and objectivity in the usual praising-and-spanking manner, e.g., as he comments on a history museum’s anti-Japanese war exhibit:

When you see the exhibition, you can begin to understand the Chinese obsession with becoming strong. You can also understand why many Chinese put up with the Communist Party. There is a mountain of problems in modern China, many of them caused by the Communist Party itself. But after all the humiliation, it is clear that the Party, for all its faults, has gained China a lot more respect in the world (p. 48)

We also recognize another expected move of the Anglo journalist, the splitting of China into two adversarial camps—the rich and privileged at the top and the rest of the country that is locked out, signified respectively by the newly built expressway system and the old parallel roads still used by the disenfranchised:

The two roads are in many ways symbolic of the two Chinas that are emerging across the country. The new freeway, which cuts through the green fields without engaging with them in any way, is the road that the government wants everyone to see and use and marvel at. The old road, intimately connected with the lives of the villagers, is the one that tells the real story of rural China, and it’s a very different story from the dazzle camouflage of Shanghai and Nanjing….Several days before, I had read in my already dog-eared copy of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath a section about the Dust Bowl in the U.S. Midwest of the 1930s…. “[Route] 66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and sinking ownership….” (pp. 53, 62)

Then there is the exemplary Chinese urban underdog figure that Western writers have long identified with and which Gifford latches onto as well, the taxi driver (formerly the rickshaw runner). We go out of our way to chat with the natives and even step inside their homes if invited. Yet we must not forget our obligation to remain in flight while in China, to be only passing through, as the Chinese themselves expect (how many times have I been greeted on the street with the words, “Welcome to China!,” as if just having arrived that day). It is a curious master-slave relationship, as no other Chinese personage are foreign travelers more dependent on for their most basic daily activity, namely getting around town. As negotiations and time spent with the taxi driver is unavoidable, we have developed a kind of empathy with him. He stands in as our symbolic friend, with whom we can pretend to share company and even shoot the shit if we happen to have some ability with the language.

Like D’Arcy-Brown, Gifford meets a lot of taxi drivers, whom he pays to take him across the country when he is not on buses. He meets many other folk as well, typically those with grievances against the Party (e.g. Henan Province AIDS victims, Christians). But once again, the one class of people he is careful not to get too close to, except for short, polite conversations, is women. When the subject inevitably comes up, he confronts it head on (rather than hands on) via the interview and the appropriate politically correct disclaimers:

Two institutions exist in almost every midsize or large hotel in China that show the radical changes in public morality. One is known as the “sauna massage” facility, which, as its name suggests, provides every type of sauna and every type of massage, often I’m told, at the same time. The other is the karaoke bar….I have interviewed several Chinese prostitutes during my years in China. These women frequently have the most compelling and tragic stories about life at the bottom of Chinese society. But I still feel slightly uncomfortable going to the karaoke bars where they work. There is something about looking for a prostitute, even just to interview, that annoys me, because doing so only feeds the Chinese stereotype of Western men as sexual predators. I always call my wife in Beijing to tell her what I am doing in case I get detained by the police (pp. 80-81)

You will note that in all four of the books under review in this essay, it is never the hotel staff, truck drivers or other Chinese acquaintances that have any hesitations about proposing a tryst with a sex worker. Only our respective authors have moral qualms. Gifford chooses the karaoke bar over the sauna, naturally, since the latter would require the removal of his clothes, something British and American journalists aren’t in the habit of doing outside of the domestic hearth, even if in neither the sauna nor the karaoke bar is sex a foregone conclusion. His fail-safe solution is to pay his bar hostess just to talk to him about her job (a method more commonly used by female sociologists interviewing prostitutes for academic research). He leaves once he receives a nugget or two of not very enlightening information: sex would cost another $40, and her arms have scars from a suicide attempt over a tangled relationship. Gifford’s concluding point from the episode is instructive: “We often fail to see that Chinese people are living, breathing, loving, hating individuals, who do things for complex psychological reasons, just like Westerners” (p. 84).

Surely he can’t really mean to say something so platitudinous, or worse, racist—the assumption that the Chinese aren’t quite human, at least not as much as the rest of us (even as he tries to correct this assumption). What we have here is the false stance, the double-voiced quality popping up again, when two inconsistent narrative voices co-exist uneasily in the same persona.

Let’s unpack this a bit with the help of Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of ventriloquism or “ventriloquation” (The Dialogic Imagination). To ventriloquize is to pretend to assume the voice of the Other. Of course, this is something creative writers do all the time; fiction and drama depends on the ability to capture a multiplicity of voices (what Bakhtin calls “heteroglossia”). In the case of nonfiction, however, the writer is bound by a compact with the reader to tell the truth, and by other constraints as well—ethical, legal, financial, etc., as mentioned above. These constraints are amplified in the case of journalists writing for the big publishers, where power and monetary interests are at stake. Here the writer’s relationship with the reader is more complex and bi-directional. He or she is no longer merely the author ventriloquizing the Other, but is just as likely being ventriloquized as the subject and instrument of power.

Thus we have Gifford mouthing the words of his dummies, the Chinese subjects he meets along his trip—authentic words, to be sure, but carefully selected and edited nonetheless—while he is at the same time himself a ventriloquist’s dummy, speaking the barely disguised ideology of his publisher, who shapes and determines what he must finally say (we won’t go into how his Chinese subjects are also mouthing him in turn). When Gifford says, “[t]here is something about looking for a prostitute, even just to interview, that annoys me” (why should interviewing a prostitute “annoy” one?), we suspect he is referring to his publisher’s or editor’s thoughts, not his own.

When the tension between the authentic voice and the assumed voice (whichever is which) is stretched to the extreme, it oscillates and ambivalence results. Is Gifford truly the sanctimonious journalist? Or does he regret not being able to rough it with the girls instead of only with the guys? Here is where we recognize the voice of the dummy at its most distorted and uncanny. At the very moment the author thinks he is ventriloquizing but realizes he is being ventriloquized, he stumbles in the space of this reversal. What comes out instead is the non sequitur or the cliché (“We often fail to see that Chinese people are living, breathing, loving, hating individuals…”).

Country Driving book cover

Peter Hessler’s Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip (2011), takes the Great Wall as its theme. He spends the first part of the book covering much of the extent of the Wall along neighboring roads by rented car. In the second part, he shacks up in a village outside Beijing for an extended stay with a peasant community hemmed in by rapid social change. In the third part, he hangs out in a small factory in Zhejiang Province that makes bra parts in order to observe the mindset of startup entrepreneurs.

Hessler has many virtues as a writer. Instead of pronouncing generalities he tends to focus on what is at hand, on the particular, and the cliché count celebrating the Communist Party’s achievements and condemning its excesses is kept to a minimum. He is engaging and at the same time very thorough, delving into all aspects of each new topic that comes his way, backed up by much homework (with financial backing for his research needs from his heavyweight publisher Harper). On the subject of amusingly inaccurate Chinese road maps, for instance, he goes into engrossing detail on the history of Western and Chinese cartography—something a lesser writer would lack the curiosity or patience to pursue.

This attention to detail makes the book a long one (a smaller publishing firm might have hacked off substantial passages to reduce printing costs), and there are more than a few longueurs, notably in the static middle section in Sancha village. On the other hand, all of this may be fresh for the average reader unfamiliar with the country. As a longtime China resident, my own reading experience is obviously more jaded. While China constantly continues to shock, it no longer surprises. Yet there is always something new to learn, such as the “strange stones” (soft rocks that have been carved into various objects) market that Hessler chances upon and I now know to avoid: “Inside the shop, the first thing I noticed was that the arrangement seemed odd. The lighting was bad, and display tables completely encircled the room, leaving only a narrow gap for entry. A shopkeeper stood beside the gap, smiling….I squeezed past the tables, and then I heard a tremendous crash” (p. 72).

The shops are all scams, set up to entrap customers into believing they are at fault for destroying the rocks and forcing them to pay for them. Not that this kind of thing is unknown to me, but one must be ever vigilant for the infinite variations of Chinese-style cheating.

Being a youngish, good-looking guy, though married (to the Chinese American Leslie Chang, author of Factory Girls), Hessler’s inexorable encounters with the Gorgon’s face are dispatched with dour finality almost as soon as they crop up. This is where his impeccably controlled voice begins to wobble. At one point he meets a group of truckers who are delighted at the idea of the American having sex with a Russian prostitute who works the rest stop they frequent:

His companion laughed and said, “She’s a prostitute!”
Oh God, I said to myself. If there was anything more depressing than a four-bed room in a Gansu trucker’s dorm, it was the knowledge that a Russian woman was turning tricks upstairs.
“Do you want to go see her?” the man said.
“No,” I said. “I’m tired. I just drove five hours without stopping.”
“Come on, let’s go! She’s a foreigner, too. You guys can talk!”
I’m sure she had a story….But I couldn’t bring myself to hear it, or gawk at the woman; and finally the Sichuanese truckers gave up. Sometimes all you want from a two-dollar bed is a little sleep. (p. 111)

Granted, sleeping with a prostitute, like gambling, rock climbing, or bird watching, is not everyone’s cup of tea, and two-dollar beds in China involve a mere plywood board with a sheet. Understandably he was concerned about getting a good night’s sleep. But notice that this garrulous guy is always willing to chat up any Chinese who comes his way. With the glaring exception of sexually threatening women. Moreover, the truckers don’t insist he sleep with her, only talk with her, as he does with them.

Come to think of it, I find the idea of a Russian sex worker hacking out a living all by herself in an isolated spot in Sichuan Province, and maybe even enjoining her life, rather exotic and intriguing and not in the least “depressing.” Fearless women who are not afraid of men turn me on, as a matter of fact. I would have wanted to talk with her, just to see human creativity in action at the margins. Why not too our intrepid journalist?

At another point, Hessler meets an enigmatic Chinese tour guide of Mongolian ethnicity in Inner Mongolia. She appears to have had a few drinks on the job and is tipsy enough to cut through the formalities and try to seduce him:

On the bench she had edged closer, and now I could feel her leg against my thigh.
“Actually,” she said, “I don’t like my boyfriend very much.”
It seemed like a good time to change the subject, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. She studied my face closely, looking into my eyes, and finally she spoke. “Are you a spy?” she said.
“No,” I said. “I’m a writer. I told you. I write articles and books.”
She pressed closer. (p. 88)

He escapes. We’re supposed to experience a sigh of relief, but somehow I feel cheated at this lost opportunity. Perhaps because I’m getting on in years and sexually aggressive women are making fewer appearances in my own life, I sort of miss them. If one is writing a travelogue, this kind of fleeting prospect is ripe for amplification. If this were a novel, the Mongolian might turn out to be an important character. Any person you sleep with in a foreign country is a precious window into the culture, which you reject at your peril.

The most intriguing and poignant encounter with the scary Other occurs when the author gets lost on a country road in Hebei Province and is finally flagged down by an unaccompanied female looking for a ride:

I turned a corner and saw a hitchhiker. She could have been a mirage: high heels, short skirt, pale tights.
“Where are you going?” she said. “Are you alone?”
“Why are you here?” she asked.
Wanr,” I said. In Chinese the phrase is so common that it comes out automatically: For fun. But it’s probably the wrong thing to say on a creekbed in Inner Mongolia. The woman removed her foot from the car.
“I think I’ll wait,” she said.
And that was where I left her, standing on the broken rocks – the only hitcher I met who turned down the City Special [the brand of his rented car]. (pp. 46-47)

Wanr” is indeed a loaded term in Chinese. It literally means “to play,” as something children do and by extension adults as well, in the sense of going out for leisure activities. In certain contexts it is slang for sex. One would never propose to “wanr” with a Chinese female stranger unless she was a prostitute or assumed to be one. This woman was not a prostitute, despite her clothing, much less the unlikely location. Hessler admits as much, and generally about the hitchhiking women he encountered in the area:

Most people I picked up were women who looked almost as out of place as I did. They tended to be of a distinct type: small-town sophisticates, girls who had left the village and were on their way to becoming something else. They were well dressed, often in skirts and heels, and their hair was dyed in unsubtle shades of red. Invariably they were migrants on a home visit. They worked in factories, in restaurants, in hair salons, and they didn’t say much about these jobs. (pp. 44-45)

Yet he addresses the woman as if she were a prostitute; how else might she have interpreted his words? She is understandably taken aback and intimidated by this bizarre specter of a foreign man rudely propositioning himself to her. I suppose he uses the word “wanr” to get rid of her, and it works. On this occasion, Hessler’s accustomed courtesy and altruism suddenly evaporates. The same author who bends over backwards to secure a life-saving blood transfusion for the boy of one of his neighbors in Sancha village (with financial and medical help from the US) is quite crotchety with the women he encounters in his China sojourn, when he reverts to the prototypical imperious Westerner, traveling in the only way the Orient can be made bearable, which is to just be passing through.

The jostling voices, the fraught ambivalence of a talented author writing at a time when American travel writing is at its most banal.

Meanwhile, we can’t help wondering what would have transpired in the awkward event the woman had hopped in, and instead of his dummy in the passenger seat mouthing the cornball comment, “the only hitcher I met who turned down the City Special,” as the ventriloquist gets the car back on the road (but not before getting directions from her), he had her in the seat, this woman he had pulled over for in the first place and then repelled. Maybe she did get in and we’re not being told the truth. Or maybe not, and he regretted it. Whatever the case, the scene doesn’t jive. It represents, once again, the jostling voices, the fraught ambivalence of a talented author penning books at a time when American travel writing is at its most banal.

Chinese Lessons book cover

John Pomfret’s Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China (2007) is not an allegorical travelogue, though it does recount the author’s stays in various cities over several decades, plus isolated trips to remote Yunnan Province and Tibet. Of the four authors treated here, Pomfret has the longest and deepest acquaintance with China. The narrative focus is not on himself but on the career trajectories of five classmates he spent the initial years with and afterwards kept in touch with.

Regarding his own experiences, he has much fascinating material to relate, notably during the early eighties after the Opening Up under Deng Xiaoping in 1978, when the first foreign students and tourists began trickling into the xenophobic country. One gripping passage is his eyewitness account of the army’s crushing of the June 4, 1989 democracy protests, as he leads us on a mad bike run toward Tiananmen Square, where he “climbed the steps of the martyr’s monument to get a better view, phoning in the events as I saw them” (p. 159). He was identified and caught by the Chinese police, and not allowed back into China for another decade until an American ambassador pulled strings to get him visa clearance.

If I may be forgiven the pun, Pomfret has also penetrated the country more deeply than the aforementioned authors in another sense: he is the only one to admit to having sexual involvements with Chinese women. This honesty and willingness to take risks with people make his relations ring with authenticity and interest, though once again the same does not extend to the prostitute. It’s common for Chinese men out on the town to finish off the evening with a massage at the sauna; the sex industry was already in full swing back in 1999 when he relates the scene. But Pomfret opts out of his friends’ invitation and “left them to it” (p. 199). Later in his hotel room we have a bit of déjà vu, that of the vacillating and inarticulate Anglo teetering on the edge:

The phone rang. “Mister, are you lonely?” a smoky voice croaked from the other end of the line. “Would you like someone to come upstairs and play?”
“How much?” I inquired.
“The best are twenty dollars,” she said. Apparently, I was not going to get a discount.
There was a knock on my door. I opened it and a thin girl in a shiny chartreuse tank top, dyed red hair, and stonewashed jeans greeted me with a blast of cigarette smoke.
“You want to play?” she asked, her arms akimbo.
I mumbled an apology and closed the door. (p. 240)

Pomfret met his first girlfriend in China in 1981, at a time when it was prohibited, and would remain so for at least another decade, for Chinese women to date, let alone sleep or cohabit with foreign men. Even on the street women seen with a foreign male could be arrested, and those caught in real or supposed sexual relationships were charged with the same crime as bona fide prostitutes, “hooliganism,” and sent off to re-education camp for several years.

This lends an air of excitement to Pomfret’s trysts with Fay, whom he met at a bar frequented by foreign students. He describes their delicate courtship, more out of caution than bashfulness, their excursions to hidden nooks and crannies, out of sight of prying eyes (though a man, possibly a spy, once took them by surprise and snapped their picture while holding hands); their making love in alleys perched on his bicycle seat disguised in Mao attire; their lengthy trip to the southwest of the country when they had to pretend not to know each other on trains and couldn’t share the same hotel room (Fay was caught by the police trying to get into Tibet with him though fortunately released); her understandable falling for this tall, young handsome foreign man fluent in Chinese and her wishes to marry him, which came to nought.

His next relationship, or fling rather, was in 1988 (when puritanical restrictions on sex were beginning to thaw), with a divorced former actress, Nana, who managed to smuggle Pomfret into her PLA compound residence where she lived and worked. Actors in China have a long tradition, going back centuries, of association with the realm of vice, and she seemed to fit this mold for the author, with her frank sexuality and open relationships with other Chinese men (even flirting with one of them on the phone while having sex with Pomfret):

Nana’s impetuous passion mirrored the society around her, single-mindedly focused on sating various appetites. She approached the world with ferocious hunger; befuddling at times and awesome at others. She acknowledged she had continued to sleep with her ex-husband [and] explained that without her, he would be unable to find anyone with whom to have sex….I continued to see her. She referred to herself as a huli jing (a “fox spirit”) – a demon who inhabits the body of a beguiling woman. (pp. 139-43)

A decade later he meets Zhang Mei, a Harvard-educated Chinese returnee from a long spell in the US, fully conversant in the English language and Western culture. He describes the “love of my life” who would become his wife:

Mei was impressed with my Chinese but also found me arrogant, another one of those know-it-all foreigners who think they understand China better than the Chinese. As for me, my interaction with Chinese women had been pretty much limited to floozies and opportunists. Mei definitely didn’t fit either category. And just as I no longer needed a Chinese woman to get into Chinese society, Mei had no need of a foreigner to get out. (p. 271)

The “floozies and opportunists” refer of course to Fay and Nana (or are other affairs being hidden from the reader?). Of the three princesses, I’m most drawn to the bad ones, the two earlier, remarkably liberated women, than to the good one who wins the prince, Zhang Mei, who comes off as a bit too normal and flat to be of interest, though appropriate for a fairytale ending. Floozies are interesting; their personality is externalized, in technicolor, unless the floozy is a dummy, her voice distorted by a ventriloquist eager to justify his choices under the regime of monogamy that permeates Anglo travel writing as thoroughly as PG-rated Hollywood. We are led to suspect the only reason the Fay and Nana affairs are legitimated and inserted into the narrative at all is Pomfret was young and single at the time. It’s too bad, as he is a good writer, one who allows his characters to breathe. Somehow I just wish his book was a novel and Fay and Nana came back to cause trouble.

Floozies are interesting; their personality is externalized, in technicolor, unless the floozy is a dummy, her voice distorted by a ventriloquist.

In conclusion, let me stress that my objection to these four books is not that I felt cheated out of the expectation I would be lasciviously entertained or that travel writers are somehow under obligation to raise the subject. On the contrary, there is no reason why sex need come up at all in a travel account, any more than the local cuisines or a country’s religious practices. The pattern I began to notice, however, was that the subject did indeed keep cropping up in all four accounts, though in a fraught or frivolous, insinuating, pejorative way, with the spotlight falling on the pathetic figure of the prostitute. The characteristic disingenuous manner of broaching the topic of sex, the implication that any extramarital sexual contact with a Chinese woman is somehow tainted or suspect (possibly on their part, always on ours), called attention to itself and demanded deconstructing. At the same time, I’m sure there are travelogues I have missed, on China or other countries, which would offer a more lively and complex exploration of the erotics of traveling, while others would continue to fit the pattern I’ve described.

That said, China does present a special case, and this is likely why most travelogues on the country can’t ignore it: it is everywhere. China’s sex industry is on a scale that is beyond the comprehension of most Westerners (particularly Americans not living in Las Vegas or New Orleans); they stumble upon it but struggle to take it all in. Consequently they are missing a huge social realm, one that the Chinese themselves take for granted.

Along with the grueling banqueting and drinking regimens with colleagues and clients, white-collar workers are routinely compelled to visit “business” or “relaxation” centers (saunas, bathhouses) as part of their job. One would think some foreign travel writers would want to know more about this vast underworld. Beyond encounters with sex workers, there is the extensive mistress culture of kept women as well. Meanwhile there are hundreds of thousands of foreigners presently living in China, many of whom are in sexual relationships of all types with locals, running the gamut from paid sex to one-night stands to marriage. There is no clear dividing line between the proper and the improper relationship. Those who insist on viewing everything through the lens of vice are blind to a much larger phenomenon.

Over the coming years, I expect we will see a plethora of fiction and nonfiction books, studies, articles and blogs coming out on the topic, not to mention what the Chinese themselves have to say about it, as we leave behind our current quaint neo-Victorian phase of travel writing on the Orient.

The main factors that have thus far conspired to delay this up till now, and to inhibit writers such as the four reviewed above from delving into it more than superficially, is the intersection of two prohibitory gray areas. First, the illegal or semi-legal status of sex work in China (and of all non-monogamous sex up until a decade or two ago), despite its ubiquity. Second, the ethics and legality of Western publishing on sex in foreign countries. While the “legality” of sex work operates very differently in China, being largely a matter of the economics of police and protection money, foreign writers and journalists are still technically committing a crime if they pay for sex with a sex worker, jeopardizing their ability to stay in the country. An American or British press likewise implicates itself by publishing any account detailing such activity. The same applies to non-monetary sexual relations with Chinese, e.g., involving an adulterous affair, a relationship with a superior (a boss or teacher), or ambiguous behavior that could be interpreted as harassment in one country but not in the other, and so forth.

Sexual relations even in the most egalitarian sense are messy enough, all the more sensitive and volatile in asymmetrical contexts. Though this is all very much a reality of today’s China, Anglo publishing isn’t quite ready for it. It’s rough and exciting uncharted territory ahead for the pioneers.

*     *     *


Like this post? Buy the book (see contents):
At the Teahouse Café: Essays from the Middle Kingdom

This post is also published in:
Confucius and Opium: China Book Reviews (available on Amazon)





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28 replies »

  1. Cool article. I write about my experience in China without censoring what I experienced (which is also different from these authors since I’m female), and all along it’s worried me that it’ll upset folks in China. Your post makes me feel more assured that it’ll be okay!

      • Yes and Yes. I quite liked “Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven”. I think the person she was most worried about offending was her friend Claire. CGB is open and honest, but it seems like most of her relationships with folks in China are pretty superficial.

  2. My friend Tom Carter pointed me towards your brilliant post. Among the many aspects you cover, I was most fascinated by the “red line” you discuss for Anglo male travel writers in China. It has heretofore been largely ignored that we seem to have a slew of celibates (Pomfret excepted) traversing the Middle Kingdom like the missionaries of yore. I personally don’t find their discomfort with prostitution itself surprising or suspect (a fairly common taboo for liberally educated Western males); it is the total absence of any apparent sexual desire or sexual activity at all that makes me go “hmm.” While it may be plausible for a married writer of a certain age, making relatively short trips or stays interspersed with semi-frequent returns to the marital bed, for a younger, single guy staying for long period, it is laughable. Which is a long-winded way of saying, it is not Country Driving but Rivertown that raises the eyebrows and begs the question: Why edit sex out? After all, it supposedly sells.

    If I might quibble a bit with your critique, I’d argue that the locus of responsibility for this authorial restraint does not lie with the big publishers/editors. It has not been my experience that they are particularly concerned about the ethics or politics of cross-cultural sex, transactional or otherwise. That is a distant hillock obscured by the immediacy of their shrinking bottom line. I’d bet that Peter Hessler’s publisher would prefer his writing possessed less Oracle and more Bone. I think the explanation is simpler and more specific: If there is a ventriloquist, then it is that American graduate student who lost her temper with your sexual colonialism. Publish on paper that one time you got drunk, ordered up the sexy massage, and enjoyed a happy ending and you are forever marked—and a certain subset of the female population will forever be lost to you. Why would a young single man, who probably plans to come home and find an “appropriate” wife, want to risk that? Far safer to write about ancient Chinese artifacts and leave the wild oats untold. Having written about sex in China myself, I can say that there is a price to pay even if it is done very carefully.

    • I appreciate your thoughtful comments, Matthew. My own feeling is that my argument is limited to the four texts I reviewed, when a more nuanced picture might have emerged if I had investigated a wider range of China travelogues, but then I never would have gotten this written, and it’s now time to move on to the next item on the list of pressing things to write about concerning China.

    • Matthew, to add a few more thoughts. This was something I sensed but couldn’t quite put my finger for years, until I began to see a pattern. It’s not that sex is something that travel writers (or any writers) are obligated to write about. On the contrary, there’s no reason why sex needs to come up in any travel writer’s account, any more than cuisine or sports need to come up. If they happen to be important, then by all means include them – and deal with them head on. But what I began to notice in these four books (and elsewhere it seems) is that sex DOES keep cropping up, as if it’s something that must get its turn, though in a frivolous, offhand, contemptuous way, with the spotlight on the pathetic (and scapegoated) prostitute figure. This is what needed to be addressed and brought out into the open.

      • Prostitution is so ubiquitous to the solo wandering laowai male—you can’t go five feet at night in certain areas without being hit up—that it seems like an unavoidable subject. But I agree that what seems like resentment and disdain is misplaced when directed at the prostitutes. It’s the touts that make life uncomfortable and it’s all the other laowai males who are saying yes and thus creating the market that seem better objects of derision. Still I think if travel writers admitted to their own frustrated longings (no way Gifford is conducting these paid interviews with prostitutes and not wanking afterwards), it would at least have the value of honesty. If they discussed their other romantic or sexual relationships, then it would place their feelings towards the prostitutes in context. Personally, I only half-jokingly put the blame on Mark Saltzman’s Iron Silk, in which he spent two years as a young single man in China in the late ’80s and only once had a romantic encounter, a tantalizing bike ride that ended in a wistful parting. I think the problem is the romantic fantasy of China is that it is filled with these gentle (wen rou) untouchable flowers but then the travel writer shows up and discovers the whole place has turned into Patpong Bangkok and he’s furious—but unable to sort out his betrayed feelings.

      • Yes, and funny how it always White male Anglos who get upset reading about other White male Anglos having a good time. As with my novel “Lust & Philosophy” and a number of my short stories, female reactions (both foreign and Chinese) are much less hysterical, more wry and knowing, recognizing the “predatory” male as simply male and completely ordinary. Chinese females I know who have read my stuff find it funny and entertaining and hardly offensive. It’s White males who are the most threatened by fellow White males who engage in sexual activities while living or traveling in the East (more than any other region it seems). I’m writing a conclusion that I’ll attach to the end of my piece to clear up some misunderstandings from readers on various forums.

  3. Extremely informative and entertaining entry. I enjoyed reading it very much, and I would like to think I’ve learned something from it. Thank you!
    WIth your words in mind, I’d like to ask if you could suggest a (non-fiction/travel) book about China whose author doesn’t project his voice through the mouth of the people s/he encounters. I mention this because: a) I’ve just stumbled onto your blog and have not had a chance to peruse its every entry (if you have already covered something of the sort in one of your other seemingly numerous book review posts, perhaps you could point me to it?), and b) as a student of art and public space, I’m planning to travel to China (Kunming, quite likely) this summer to research and sketch the nail house phenomenon. The topic is a minefield of the very literary and westernized tropes you mentioned in this post, and much, much more. I would very much like to read positive, illuminating examples of Chinese themes treated with fairness and equanimous interest. I hasten to add that I have I am having trouble coming to grips with the fact that my research trip appears to be teetering on the edge of so-called “tragedy tourism” and “look at the wacky Chinese” finger-pointing… which of course I want very much to avoid, while still producing some product of interest. I don’t propose to glean some unparalleled insight into the phenomenon or any such thing, of course.
    Once again, thank you, and consider me a fan!

  4. Chris, my current favorite expat China books are Robert H. Davies’ “Prisoner 13498” and Chris Taylor’s “Harvest Season.” The former is about an English guy in Xinjiang in the late ’80s who got involved with a Uighur woman and the hash trade as well until he was busted and spent 8 years in Chinese prisons. The latter is actually a novel but thinly disguised and based on Taylor’s real-life experiences in a Western hippie community in a Dali-like setting in Yunnan. Both deal with China as it is rather than as they think it should be.

  5. China’s Imperial Way by Kevin Bishop and Annabel Roberts (25 Sep 1997) precedes
    The Emperor’s River: Travels to the Heart of a Resurgent China (2010)

    Seeing how a Pound Lock works I think you will find an illustration by William Alexander ( the British 1793 attempt to establish an embassy with the Qing ) shows how this system was used.
    These paintings were published as a book in 1804.

  6. You gave your own answer in the end to your dilema of travel writers not including any/all of their sexual pleasures along the Silk Road……they want to CONTINUE coming back to China as if they write something TOO harsh both their readers in the Big Nose Universe and more importantly the Chinese government censors will CUT them off from returning or getting another visa. Pomfret had this happen once—so doubtful he will cross any red lines the second time. Even still—it is beyond me how these writers can not simply pass their stories onto someone else to publish under another name in the Big Nose Universe and no one is the wiser……..sad…

  7. I do admire Pomfret though for his honesty regarding the Chinese meaning to the word friendship in regards to foreigners—stating that “rarely had I ever been treated as an equal in China” and quoting LuXun with “We either look up to—foreigners—them as Gods or down on them as animals” as being largely true today with very very rare exceptions. Guys like Hessler would never make such comments….

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