What China was like back in the 1980s

Ma JIAN, Colin Thubron

China has progressed by leaps and bounds since Deng Xiao Ping took charge after Mao died in 1976. These two books are for readers interested to know what China was like back in the 1980s. I read both books on a recent trip in late Oct 2019 to Xiamen to see the Hakka toulous.

Both Thubron and Ma travelled the length and breadth of China. Thubron’s book is better on the historical details of the cities and sights he visited. In particular, I liked his description of the rituals practised by the Ching emperor at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. {see p 53 Penguin 1888 ed}.

Mah’s book is rawer and more emotive. He is an angry man disillusioned with his lot in life. He travelled in search of meaning in life, unlike Thubron who travelled to China to see the beauty in the country.

A caveat. I am not sure if Ma’s book is based on his actual travels or a fictionalised account {according to an entry in Wikipedia page on Ma Jian}. The vintage edition published in 2014 which I have is a reprint of a 2001 publication. The publisher touts the book as an actual 1983 to 1986 trip across China. No such claim is actually made by Ma Jian in his narrative.

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