Updated: Feb 26
Rob Gifford’s China Road serves as a personal account of the correspondent’s experiences in China. During his six-year stint in China, Gifford developed a compassion for the people and a sense of responsibility for them. This responsibility shines through each page as readers are brought deeper and deeper into the winding roads and hustle and bustle of China.
Gifford’s China Road follows his journey through Route 312, a road that connects almost all of China, and which he uses to travel through the entire country. While readers receive a millennial experience of China, we also experience China’s history through the lens of first-hand accounts from the people of the country (referred to as One Hundred Names), and through the many landmarks that each holds their own piece of history.
I thought the book was a wonderful tale of China, as it immersed me into the vibrant cities and the unthinkable poverty of the rural back countries. As I read the different personal accounts, I felt empathy for the people and the cage so many of them have felt stuck in. By the end; however, I felt more confused than when I first started the book because many of the questions Gifford poses remain unanswered. He sets out asking readers to contemplate whether China is the next superpower, and whether China is as solid from the inside as it appears to be from the outside. While one of these questions can be answered easily, it appears that the question of China being the next superpower remains as unclear as ever by the end of the book. Keep in mind, as well, that this book was published several years ago, meaning the global landscape has changed tremendously since original publication, which only served to bring about more questions. But then again, isn't that why we read?
Gifford structures his book by starting each chapter with a new adventure. Every chapter begins in a new section of China capped with a landmark or an event in history that marks the city or town he is currently in. With his location comes his opinion, as well as a first-hand account of the current socio-economic climate from some of the locals. Gifford writes poetically about the ethos in China, constantly referring to the atmosphere in the different cities and towns in a metaphorical sense. He paints a beautiful picture of Shanghai, so beautiful that it has caused me to yearn for a trip there. Gifford writes that as a city, neither Paris nor New York City can top Shanghai with its progressive technology and its contagious energy. Readers get the juxtaposition felt in Shanghai between urgency and optimism, writing that
“people are pushing forward, with their feet and in their heads,
building a future, building a country,
moving toward some distant, unseen goal” (4).
The readers grow so immersed into this world because Gifford keeps them in it, even referring to individuals in their Chinese titles, such as the Ocean People (the foreigners) and One Hundred Names (the commoners of China). Throughout his account, Gifford stresses how unique China is for many reasons, one of them being that the massive growth has occurred internally. For most dynasties, growth occurs with outsiders filling the empire in. In China’s case, it is insiders filling it out. Much of China’s financial surge comes from workers who have left the countryside, because they can make more money in a month working at a factory, than in an entire year growing rice on a farm. It is this sad reality for the peasantry that has led to an economic spurt for the “royalty”.
As we travel inland, we learn that factories are a major part of what transformed the nation, and we learn that despite the deep history embedded throughout China, most One Hundred Names want to run from it. Readers see a lot of comparisons to the West, particularly in how Westerners experience their history. Gifford writes that the Chinese have so much history, but don’t seem to know what to do with the sheer depth of it.
Westerners love their history, partly because they’ve won most of it. It’s easy to visit the Parthenon and Pearl Harbor when you know it was the beginning of democracy and so many of the things that the West holds dear. Gifford argues that for China, the history is much more complicated. While he is in Nanjing, he explores China’s history with Japan, and the animosity that stills exists. He visits The Pit of 10,000 corpses, where skeletons of One Hundred Names lie for eternity, dead at the hands of Japanese militants killing for the sake of killing. Readers learn that this struggle began when the Chinese refused to open themselves up to the West. Japan did open themselves; and in turn, gained enough power to assert an authority over China. Although Gifford doesn’t explicitly state this, I grew under the impression that perhaps the Chinese struggle with this part of their history because they doubt their decision, and this doubt makes them feel shame.
For decades, China led in inventions, innovation, and power. Gifford writes that the Chinese believed themselves to be the center of the universe, so them bending the knee to the Ocean People was against the very core of who they were. Japan; however, had submitted to China long ago, so opening up to the Ocean People was not as much of a struggle for them. Despite this pride however, the Chinese despise this part of their history because it led to a massive attack on their people at the hands of the Japanese. Gifford suggests that when you are the on the winning side of history, it is easier to go through and appreciate it. Even if your ancestors did awful things, it is always better to be on the aggressor’s side rather than the victim’s. China is trying to rebuild, but they are trying to rebuild in the old world. The West kept moving until they found the new world, and nothing but prosperity has followed since that discovery.
The problems China has encountered are not as apparent on the outside, as Gifford suggests at the beginning of his book. Once he travels inland, he encounters people who tell him about the money gap between citizens, which has in turn lowered life expectancy. Extortion has reached an all time high, angering the people, and they have no protection from the government. There are no checks and balances, the Communist Party appoints all the judges, and reform through labor is still implemented. The government is lenient towards foreigners, but not to their own people. Prostitution is rampant, and AIDS is an undeniable issue, which the government has tried to cover up time and time again.
One of the most interesting encounters Gifford has is with a young prostitute in Xingyang, who resorts to self mutilation in her despair. He asks her why she is a prostitute, looking for an answer that goes beyond financial necessity. She doesn’t give one. She merely shows the cuts on her wrists and replies with, “It’s difficult being a person, isn’t it” (85).
One of the biggest changes that China has seen is choice. That cage that Gifford spoke of, they are allowed to fly around it now. This has presented a new problem; however, because Gifford shows that choice brings a desire for independence, which can be very confusing for citizens who lived in the era where there was no choice. In my opinion, I did not see as much choice as Gifford claimed to exist. In the beginning of his journey, he talks about the giant television screens in Shanghai which flash advertisements throughout the day, ranging from national events to political ideologies. When I read this, I was shocked at the indoctrination the people of China encounter on a daily basis, not even knowing that they are being indoctrinated. But as I went on in the book, I learned that comparing China to a Western ideology is incorrect. We have to look at China through its own lens, analyzing its history, comparing it to no one else but itself, because China has always seen itself as China. To compare it to the United States would be unfair and untrue to the history of China. This may be why there is so much mixed emotion towards Shanghai, because
“Shanghai grew up in the image of a Western city.
Its name in the Western mind reeked of the
opportunities and excesses, the sensuousness and mystery of the East.
In the Chinese mind, by contrast,
Shanghai bore the stench of humiliation
and contamination by the West.
It was the bastard child of China” (13).
Gifford does an excellent job of painting a gritty, unbiased perspective of the country from a Western point of view. Another book that I read recently, China in Ten Words, gives us the perspective of a Chinese man faced with tough decisions and a sadness for his people, but China Road gives us a different angle entirely, one that is not so emotionally involved. He also reminds us that while China has a long way to go, change has to start somewhere, and if China has taught us anything it is that much can happen over the course of time.
While Gifford may not have succeeded in changing my mind, he was incredibly successful in helping me see things differently. He made me see China in a different, more empathetic light, a more hopeful light. For this reason, I would recommend this book to anyone. Some of the experiences in this book were agonizing. Some of the accounts were haunting, some were uplifting and hopeful. These experiences are a reflection of the current condition of China, and while the country truly has come very far, you can’t help but agree with Gifford:
“But what a torturous, painful, winding road it has been to get here,
and what a road there is still to travel” (24).