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on 4 October 2008
Rob Gifford, journalist, long term resident in China and fluent Mandarin speaker, takes one last journey along the old Silk Road (modern day route 312) before leaving China for a posting in London. Travelling the route using a combination of hitching, public transport and taxis, he contemplates and talks to the people he meets about the state of China, how it got there, and where it might be going.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. A very easy read (Gifford's journalistic background is amply demonstrated), it seemed to cover a lot of ground, seamlessly passing from travelogue to interviews to background knowledge on aspects of Chinese culture and history influencing the current state of the country, a history that the Communist government has tried to bury, but which it ignores at its peril. His respect for the Chinese people permeates the whole book, along with his ambivalence about its government, castigating on one side its attitude to the 'Old Hundred Names' (the heart of the Chinese population) and widespread local corruption, whilst appreciating the challenges inherent in governing what is, in effect, an emerging continent.
Using his journalistic and language skills and his familiarity with China to the full, Gifford provides a portrait of China that too few westerners (including Michael Palin) could get anywhere near achieving. If you want a glossy travelogue, then this is not the book to read. If you want an intelligent but readable discussion about where the most heavily populated nation on earth might be heading, then it certainly is. It might not go into the sort of depth that some might want (hence 4 rather than 5 stars), but if you are a beginner like me, it's an excellent primer.
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on 9 April 2014
The main strength of this book lies in the author's ability to link the past to the present, the historic China to the modern Chinese nation. Rob Gifford's academic knowledge and his deep understanding of China's history and culture allows him to try and understand modern China within the framework of its 5000 years of civilisation and to offer possible scenarios for China's future political development.
The book is well written and easy to read.
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on 1 January 2012
China Road, One Man's Journey into the Heart of Modern China, Rob Gifford
This fascinating book delivers so much more even than it promises. The Journalist, Rob Gifford is leaving China where he has visited and lived for 20 years with his family. He has now sent his family home and is making one last trip from Shanghai in the east to the Kazakhstan border in far west. His route is the 312 road, which follows for part of its length the old Silk Road.
He undertakes this journey alone in the book (though in fact as pointed out in the notes, the book is a composite of two trips, one accompanied by his assistant), and travels through the highways and byways of modern China. At the start (and indeed the end) he samples the glitz, glamour and technology of Shanghai, but as he journeys westward encounters a very different China, and a range of attitudes from hostility and resentment to resignation. The real heart of this book is his conversations with various fellow-travellers in which he reveals some of these attitudes and frustrations, and unearths the physical changes and astonishing developments. Throughout, he paints the picture of contrasts and contradictions - indeed, near the start of the book he suggests that "how foreigners see China often has as much to do with their own characters and prejudices......as the reality on the ground" (surely actually a good working hypothesis for any situation!). As points out, there is no better way of getting to know some of the reality on the ground than chatting with a long-distance lorry driver barrelling across the Gobi desert!
On his journey he visits many towns and villages - some on the main route, others branched off to see or experience interesting features or to meet interesting people. Throughout, his long affair with China shines through; he wants us to respect and value what is there to see, but as he says towards the end "if you're not confused, then you simply haven't been paying attention".
In the closing chapters, Gifford looks more philosophically at the possible way ahead for China; he tries to make sense of the contradictions and contrasts, and wonders how the country will develop. In the course of the whole book, but especially here, he ranges over some of the critical history of China, to see how that might affect the future. Perhaps he comes to no very clear conclusion, but leaves the reader immeasurably wiser and with a feeling of having been immersed, like Gifford, in a truly wonderful and enlightening odyssey.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 14 May 2008
I'm a fan of travelogues and since I'm trying to get a little more clued in about modern China, this book seemed like a good pick. After spending seven years as a correspondent for NPR, author Gifford packed his bags in 2004 to move back to England and struck out for one last Chinese adventure. Over the course of two weeks, he made his way along "Route 312", which winds a roughly northwest 3,000-mile route from Shanghai to the border with Kazakhstan. Gifford preaces hiss journey with the hope that it will help him answer the question he gets all the time about China: will it become the next global superpower, or will it crumble into chaos? With that in mind, he's off (along with an NPR production crew) on a motley assortment of buses and trucks, meeting all manner of people, from angry poor farmers to slick rich businessmen, and everyone in between (including some zealous Amway reps!). The most memorable of his casual encounters is probably the traveling government abortionist who matter-of-factly explains the need for forced abortions to Gifford.

His travels touch on pretty much everything someone reasonably conversant with modern China might already be familiar with: rural civil unrest, AIDS epidemics, the sex-trade industry, the shortage of woman in some areas, the pervasiveness of official corruption, ecological catastrophes in the making, the rise of religion, the political repression and cultural conversion of ethnic minorities, and of course the booming economic development and the confusing winds of change that follows in its wake. It's all good stuff, ably reported, however it struck me as somewhat superficial in a sense. These are all stories anyone reasonably attuned to international news and trends has probably heard on NPR, read in the Washington Post or the Economist, or seen on Frontline. The one area he doesn't touch upon, and probably should have, is the Chinese military and its vast role in China's politics and economics. Another quibble I have with the book is Gifford's blithe willingness to trot out all manner of "official" Chinese statistics throughout the book, despite general acknowledgement in much of the world that official Chinese data is hardly a reliable representation of the truth.

In conclusion, Gifford returns to the broader picture of What It All Means, and fails miserably at providing a satisfying answer. Having introduced his trip with the uneccesarily binary "will China rise or fall?" motif, he now reluctantly returns to the question, ultimately sidestepping it. This all smacks of an editor's attempt to impose a larger framework on the book, and Gifford is so obviously uncomfortable in this role that it becomes embarrassing to read on as he flails around in the role of analyst, quoting the opinions of several China scholars and pundits at length rather than providing his own analysis. One can't help but wish that someone with such depth and breadth of experience in China could have arrived at a more insightful conclusion. Still, the book has great value as an easy to read and often fun introduction to modern China for those who are interested but don't know much.
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on 15 August 2011
I only read this after studying in Beijing for a year and Gifford really manages to articulate all the bizarre quirkiness, frustrations and issues I had (and still have) with China and more. He talks not just about the everyday people that live, breathe, experience and (die) in China but the wider global picture of how China fits into our world now (especially in the eye of a free press and fairly-ish transparent Western world)and where China might be headed.

I get the feeling that Gifford tries to be quite neutral about his views but given his experiences and what he picks up along the way I can understand why his accounts often feel almost quite depressive about a country that looks so promising on the surface but is really quite something else underneath.

I've met a lot of starry eyed 'foreigners' (for want of a better word) who absolutely adore China and Chinese people themselves who talk about their 'great and glorious country'. I'm glad that Gifford really seems to understand way beyond that superficial view of China and really sees, observes, gets the Chinese people in a way that I don't think many Chinese people do themselves (I tried talking to a lot of friends in China about some of the issues he raises - alas I'm no journo and being an overseas Chinese, lots of people thought I was a strange Korean asking pesky questions anyway).

In short though, a brilliant read, especially if you've been in China for a bit - I think if you're there on holiday you might only see the 'glory' bits (if you're starry-eyed!) but it's a frank and honest, no pansy-ing about with it story of a country that's got a very very interesting future that really could be great and glorious or go tits up on itself.

If you're at all interested in China, read it!
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on 25 May 2010
Rob Gifford was NPR's correspondent in China for many years, and before he decided to up sticks and return to Europe, he took a long journey on China's highway 312, the Mother Road. It goes from Shanghai to the Kyrgyz border, and takes in every town of importance along the way - Xi'an, Nanjing, Luzhou, Urumqi. At times it follows the Great Wall (and geographically overlaps a part of Hessler's trips) and at others it winds around mountains, fords great rivers, cuts straight across plateaus. Unlike Hessler, Gifford takes buses and hires drivers for his trip, but both men bring the same quality of engagement with their subjects, the same level of empathy, and similar sense of discrimination.

As in Peter Hessler's Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip, the big story in Gifford's book is of the grand migration of peasantry to industry. Often, entire families uproot themselves, but more usually it's the younger generation that travels thousands of miles for a job in a factory, leaving their under-educated and unskilled (and, in China, unwanted (at least in the industry)) parents behind. There are serious social divisions, a lack of adequate health support, gross underpayment, terrible working conditions, corrupt administrations. Through it all, the migrants manage to find jobs, obtain a semblance of independence for themselves, fall in love, marry, have (one) offspring. As they work themselves up the value chain, they might migrate from Central Chinese cities to the more cut-throat and better-paying cities of the coast, hoping for that pot of gold, that fancy car, that European fashion icon (even if imitation). Sadly, though, for many, economic gain is not forthcoming, and emotionally they cripple themselves. Gifford gives voice to the successful (an agony aunt on Shanghai's most popular TV channel) and the unfortunate (donors of blood for money who end up with AIDS), the chilling (late term abortionists) and the droll (Amway acolytes filled with fervour), the Han (industrious, populous and ignorant of large swathes of their own country) and the minorities (a Tibetan who admits that for him, independence is pointless, and he can only get ahead in life by learning Mandarin and teaching it to his compatriots). In a country that has gone from the kowtow to the air kiss in less than a century, it is not surprising that there are serious problems and equally spectacular successes. Gifford is evenhanded enough to note both, and is humble enough to state that he doesn't know whether China, as we know it, will survive or fail. Another good book, this.
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on 13 October 2007
Like the previous reviewer, I also read this book after coming back to the UK from China. But while it's far from a bad book, this feels more like a missed opportunity. Rob Gifford has obviously spent a long time in China, but sadly his depth of knowledge and love/hate relationship just aren't conveyed.
His journey from one end of China to the other should be a great way to sum up such a complex country, but instead the reader has a string of superficial observations, linked by irrelevant personal info (I'm all for writers making themselves part of the story but there has to be a reason or a lesson - or at least be amusing) as he glosses over a string of stories.
Some are well told and really encapsulate the problems and potential of today's China, but these highlights are few. One brief observation about Chinese Muslims loving Osama bin Laden is glossed over in about three paragraphs - surely there must have been more to say!
Meanwhile he spells out his observations after each event - presumably not convinced that the reader can draw his own opinion - which begins to grate.
It's a shame as this book had a lot to offer - and for someone interested in the country, with time on their hands, it's still worth a read. However, in its place I'd highly recommend River Town/Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler to see what this book should have been.
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on 7 January 2010
This is a fascinating insight into the spectrum of life in modern China. Written with humour and a light touch yet full of interesting historical, cultural and political insights Rob Gifford's travelogue is a delight to read. Highly recommended to those who know about China and those who don't.
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on 26 December 2012
Rob Giffords "China Road" offers a good introduction to modern-day China and is well worth a read. Giffords penmanship provides thoughtful insights and highlights the paradox that is China, where gambling is not allowed but "guessing" which horse will win is OK, where the police will write random fines near government signs that say they shouldn't, and where capitalism and communism can coexist "peacefully".

Starting from Shanghai in the East to the Kazakh border in the West he rides cars, buses and lorries along route 312 and meets a wide variety of people that make his story come alive. Modern China is described through meetings with people who sell mobile phones, cosmetics and even Amway products, while the strong hand of government is described through meetings with minorities, peasants, construction workers, "forgotten" aids victims and even nurses who perform forced late abortions. You can't help feel the ambivalence - admiration for what progress has been achieved as well as some degree of optimism for the future, but shock and horror by the abuse of the government towards its people and its environment.

Where will it end? Continued growth, prosperity and rise as a world superpower ruled by a strong Communist Party, or gradual stagnation that could lead to the overthrow of the Chinese system as we know it? In a country where stability matters more than anything else and where people often think in the long term, fundamental changes could take decades, unless, of course, a sudden shock changes everything. Who knows? Gifford offers some thoughts but no firm predictions.
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on 7 January 2010
Great book, well written and informative, sometimes an eye-opener!
If you want to understand what China is really like, underneath the hype, read this book.
Bought copies for lots of friends. Thoroughly recommend it.
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