Colin Thubron is one of the most prominent living travel authors and his journeys through Asia are justly praised by fans of the genre. He has a peculiar approach to travel writing, by generally going to one country only and then trying to visit as much of it as possible while talking to the maximum amount of people, unlike for example Paul Theroux, who generally writes about travel across many societies. In this book, "Behind the Wall", Thubron takes us on a tour of China, and then I really mean all of China (except Tibet and Manchuria), as it was when he visited it in 1987.
The result is an interesting overview of Chinese society as it was just opening up to foreigners after the long periods of war and revolution. Thubron was by no means the first tourist to do a tour of China since 1949, but he did travel when European tourists were very rare and limited to expensive package deals and the corresponding upper class environment, be it by Chinese standards. He studiously avoids following in their footsteps, and instead tries to take the cheaper hostels, the lower class train carriages and so forth in order to get an impression of real Chinese society as the Chinese experienced it. The degree to which one can do this as a total outsider is still always limited of course, and as any anthropologist knows the very act of being an observant as a stranger can and will change people's behavior. Nonetheless, the rarity of a white foreigner in the places Thubron goes greatly aids him in conversing with a number of random Chinese he meets, and this leads to some interesting conversations and good insight into the diversity of the Chinese peoples as such, 'even' under Communism.
Thubron has been particularly praised for his good descriptive writing with regard to places and landscapes, and this is fully borne out in the book. He manages to be almost poetic about many of the remarkable sites he visits without either sounding over the top or like a travel brochure, which is quite a feat. His somewhat cynical detachment from the actual society probably helps in that regard. Nonetheless, this can get quite irritating too. Even though the year is 1987, he insists on asking every single person about the Cultural Revolution, obviously fishing for horror stories - and when a poor farmer tells him the Cultural Revolution for him meant an improvement, he simply refuses to believe it. Generally Thubron seems remarkably hostile to the society he is travelling in, not just politically, but also with regard to culture and habits. He is duly impressed by China's history and architecture, but seems to find most Chinese people he meets easily boring and backwards, and even helpful officials lazy and corrupt. There is probably some truth in this, in both the culture shock and the political cynicism, but it does make Thubron seem like a closed-minded conservative diplomat sent to some outpost of faded glory and poor manners.
Overall though, the book contains sufficient memorable descriptions of both famous and less familiar places and sites in China to make it easily worth the read. One could object that sometimes Thubron is so selective in what provides his inspiration that many a large city or 500 km trip passes by without much description, but he can be forgiven for this by the rule that a writer should be allowed to use only that raw material he can work with. And when he does it, he does it well. Much has changed in China since "Behind the Wall", and foreign travel will now not be so remarkable and lead to such friendly bemused responses among the Chinese as in those days, but perhaps for just that reason this book is a good portrait of a China that is past.