In the introduction to Why China Will Never Rule the World author Troy Parfitt sets out his motivation for writing the book. Neither academic nor journalist, he simply wants to see things for himself. However, Parfitt does not arrive in China as a naive foreigner. Instead he has already spent more than a decade living on the periphery of China in Taiwan and South Korea. This experience, combined with the author’s Mandarin speaking ability, gives the book a refreshing perspective that differentiates it from other travel books about China.
Parfitt’s journey begins in Hong Kong, another place that is on the periphery of China. It is both part of China, yet distinctly different. The opening chapters about Hong Kong and Macau provide a good counterpoint when the author’s exploration of China proper begins.
I am familiar with a few of the places the author visited and I thought that his well constructed prose painted evocative images that brought the places to life. In addition, each chapter is filled out by a substantial amount of historical research. While not academic in nature, it adds depth to the book and also helps inform the author’s thesis about why China will never rule the world. I would have liked to see a little more contemporary political and economical analysis to further support the thesis. This was touched upon in the introduction, but largely absent from the rest of the book.
Each chapter includes details of encounters with people he meets on his travels. Parfitt certainly casts a cynical eye upon all he sees and his frustration with some aspects of Chinese society is quite explicitly detailed. Some readers might find this cynicism too negative, however I found that it reflected a desire to honestly report what he saw and experienced.
After spending a few months travelling around China the author leaves vowing never to return. He then devotes the last third of the book to writing about Taiwan, a place where he lived for a decade.
A trip to Green Island and a visit to the Human Rights Memorial, which served as a prison during the White Terror period, serves as a chance to detail the history of the 228 Massacre and White Terror. From Green Island the author embarks to Orchid Island where he goes to investigate first hand the nuclear waste
dump storage facility.
His visit to Tainan veers off into a discussion of Taiwan’s weird news. The author writes that he amassed a file of clippings from Taiwan’s English-language newspapers on topics such as police corruption and outlandish court rulings. This section included a detailed account of the exploits of notorious criminal Chen Chin-hsing, which drew heavily from Hostage in Taipei by McGill Alexander. Yet there is very little detail about the city of Tainan itself. Similarly writing about Taroko Gorge, the author recounts tales of headhunting and cannibalism. This is compiled from a variety of sources and reads as a collection of gruesome anecdotes while lacking context and explanation.
The chapter about a visit to Kinmen was the most engaging of the Taiwan chapters as the author successfully weaved interesting historical detail into descriptions of his travel around the islands. However, the details and descriptions of personal experiences that made the China chapters interesting are mostly lacking in the Taiwan chapters. I recommend Why China Will Never Rule the World as a well written travelogue of China.
*I took a Chinese language class with Troy way back in 1999. He provided me with a copy of the book for review. More details about the book are available at www.troyparfitt.com. Purchase Why China Will Never Rule the World: Travels in the Two Chinas from Amazon.com (affiliate link).