In common, I imagine, with most residents of Taiwan, I feel no pressing urge to make a leisure trip to China just at the moment. Travel books, however, are primarily written for the benefit of those who never plan to go to the places described. So this new travel book, Green Dragon, Sombre Hero, about China is as welcome as ever.
It proclaims at the start that traditionally China was described as lying between the Green Dragon of the East, the Scarlet Phoenix of the South, the White Tiger of the West and the Black Tortoise (otherwise known as the Somber Warrior) of the North. When in addition you read that the book is "a journey around China's symbolic frontiers" you're naturally led to expect something all-encompassing, a trip right round the periphery, perhaps (such as Paul Theroux managed both for the Mediterranean in The Pillars of Hercules and for the UK in Kingdom by the Sea). But no.
What you get are trips to four places at the four extremities of the People's Republic. This is initially a little disappointing. But still, you think, the style, as Flaubert said, is the man. Everything depends on how it's written. It could turn out a masterpiece of hilarity and scholarship mixed, as you'd get from Redmond O'Hanlon, or of incisive outspokenness and sardonic observation such as Theroux himself could be counted on to serve up.
Being positive ...
Let's look at the good things first. Brown doesn't only describe his four cardinal points -- he describes the places he travels through in order to get there, albeit sometimes impresionistically. The book follows the usual procedure for travel writers.
You travel around the area in question, making notes assiduously on everything and anything that occurs. Conversations with ordinary people often make good copy, as do the views from the train or bus window. What may be ordinary to the point of boredom to locals is certain to be far more exotic to readers on the other side of the globe.
And then you splice in digestible sections of background history -- in Brown's case of things like the origins of Taoism, the history of Hainan island, and the stories of the Uighurs and Manicheism. The book also covers interesting areas in the topics discussed. The author talks about Mao to an educated man in the soft-sleeper waiting room on Chengdu station, and evaluates religion in the People's Republic with a temple guardian in Guangxi.
He not surprisingly has many caustic observations on the means of transport he employs. The ferry over to Hainan bears no relationship to the luxury liner depicted on his ticket, though the sunrise he watches from the rail is glorious indeed.
China's trains have been frequently depicted and Brown doesn't offer any new insights, though his descriptions are many. And he rents a bicycle to reach the outskirts of Kashgar. As for the "standard service" bus, he encapsulates that experience as sitting on a urine-stained bench while the driver plays pop music to drown out the noise of caged cats fighting on the back seat.
The time of his visit to Hainan coincided with the downing of the US spy plane there. The local response, he discovered, was generally good-natured. One worker remarks that the only reason his colleague is upset is that the government didn't employ him in the search for the lost Chinese pilot.