Wednesday, February 17, 2010

RTW in books: Getting under China's skin with Beijing Blur

I get to review all kinds of new travel-related books as part of my freelance work, and it means I uncover some real gems from time to time: recently, it was James West’s Beijing Blur. I nearly didn’t even try to review it, because I felt like I’d read so many travel narratives about China in the last year or two, but when I realised West was Australian and worked at my favourite radio station, Triple J, then I gave in – and I’m very glad I did.

China is an interesting country these days no matter whether you’re thinking in terms of travel, economics, culture or politics. They’ve got a different angle on everything. I’ve never been to mainland China – the year I tried, and had flights booked, was the year of SARS and Cathay Pacific cancelled my flights completely – but I can’t help but be interested in it just the same. And reading West’s account of his year in Beijing has just whet my appetite even further.

West is a journalist who goes to work there on a kind of exchange, working in the English section of China Radio International. He quickly discovers that his job involves disseminating propaganda as well as actual news, and from here on in he takes a pretty open attitude to telling us about the real China, and asking locals what they really think. He examines the gay scene (pretty repressed, as you’d imagine, but with the odd spark of hope); dips into the capital punishment debate (he meets a guy whose father is executed for drug crimes); and wonders about the capacity for Chinese to "forget" significant incidents in their history, especially if they took place too long ago.

The whole book just reiterated for me that China is an immensely complex country. For example, just the “three Ts” as West describes them – Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen – are incredibly difficult issues not just politically, but they affect tourism and travellers significantly too, they can’t simply be shoved into the political background. I really don’t know what the future for China and the Chinese will be like, but if you’re like me and curious, I heartily recommend reading Beijing Blur to get another pocket of insight into how this country ticks.

Thanks to .curt. for the pic, via Flickr CC

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