"If animals could speak, the dog would be
a blundering outspoken fellow; but the cat
would have the rare grace of never
saying a word too much."
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In 1939, Winston Churchill said, "It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma . . ." He was describing the Soviet Union, but he might as well have been speaking of modern China. A nation steeped in history and tradition, China's modernization in just the last twenty years has left most Westerners scratching their heads. Seemingly overnight, the Middle Kingdom morphed into an economic powerhouse dotted with metropolitan centers to rival the West's. In an unholy alliance between Maoist communism and free-world capitalism, China has transformed itself from a nation of 1.3 billion peasants to one of 1.3 billion consumers, while maintaining deep roots in its past: a past of dynastic glory, dystopian regimes, rampant starvation and state-imposed slavery. A hybrid like none other the world has seen, Modern China is foremost to the Western observer, a nation of contradiction.


Shadow of the Silk Road
by Colin Thubron
HarperCollins, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-06-123177-3
$15.99, 363 pp

Colin Thubron was born with the chops to be a travel writer. John Dryden, England's first poet laureate, occupies space on his mother's family tree, while his father descends from Samuel Morse, inventor of the Morse code. With that kind of lineage, it was only a matter of time before he'd be mixing adventure with writing, tramping across the globe decoding the places and people he meets along the way. In 1967, with the printing of Mirror to Damascus (Random House, $16.95) Thubron's future was realized, and he's never looked back.

The Eastern Terminus
The Silk Road is a miracle. No stranger to the author, he previously traveled a portion of its northern route, and found the people and landscapes fascinating, which he gives an accounting of in The Lost Heart of Asia (HarperCollins, $15.99) and Behind The Wall: A Journey Through China (Random House, $12.19). Then, he found the city of Xian - China's equivalent of Babylon - dusty, drab and brown; a backwater. Eighteen years later, having undergone its own miracle, Xian has been transformed with the hustle and bustle of the West; McDonald's and strip malls standing beside dynastic monuments, all elbowing each other for space. The sleepy, ancient capital of the past, whose only draw were the myths swirling around its founder the Yellow Emperor, was a center of commerce again, hinting at its glory days as the eastern terminus of the Silk Road.

The Silk Road is perhaps a misnomer. Rather, as a trade route it was a network of many roads, with two main east/west routes: southern and northern. From these main roads, additional routes cleaved off of it carrying goods north in the direction of Moscow and the great Mongolian Steppe, and south to the Indian subcontinent, the Arabian Sea and North Africa. On Thubron's prior visit, he traveled the northern route through central Asia, one of more permanence and considered less dangerous than its southern side-kick. For Shadow, he chose the latter route, and drew up an itinerary to cover the entire length of the Silk Road, a feat undocumented in modern times.

Thubron's writing is captivating. For the most part - especially on the Chinese leg of his journey - he writes from a point of neutral observation, writing about the people and places without judgement of them or their situations, or the people and policies at fault. One gets a sense that isn't easy for him as a Westerner, bullied as he is by authorities throughout his journey. Whether being quarantined as a precaution against SARS (his trip coincided with China's 2003 outbreak), or standing firm under pressure from corrupt customs officials, there's a sense of humanity in his writing that lends even the most scurrilous characters dignity. Rather than letting judgment get in the way of his re-telling, he relies on the people he meets along the way - their stories, their words - as proxies of fact. Often, more revealing is what they don't say.

As the Silk Road advances west, it traverses the mountains of Tibet. Here Thubron encounters a resilient people, steeped in faith. The West - though their Holy leader the Dalai Lama is in exile there - is as fanciful to most Tibetans as Disneyland. Though Tibet is but another province to be tamed in the eyes of Beijing, the monks he encounters don't relay a smidgen of resentment toward their usurpers. Systematically, Chinese authorities have attempted to dismantle Tibet's Buddhist institutions, but like the Hydra of Greek mythology, they come back resilient as ever.

The Middle
Beijing's reach westward is massive. Beyond Tibet's frontiers, China has laid claim to Turkic regions lying within Xinjiang, its northwest province. It's a massive slice of real estate, comprising one sixth of China's land mass. Once a frontier inhabited by nomadic peoples of Turkic descent, Beijing now claims it as their own, using its oil fields to fuel a modern industrialization program. Thubron notes billboards along the route encouraging China's push west; others stating (falsely) China's ethnic connection to the people of this frontier. Xinjiang, though mostly empty, is also home to the embattled Uighur people, who long before appearing on the West's radar, have faced unwarranted persecution from the Chinese.

The further west Thubron travels, the more open he is in his writing about the politics of the region. Here, on the vast frontier of Xinjiang, people are more open when speaking about the Chinese. Through the grit of dessert in their teeth, their speech is more practical; less guarded. So much so, the author suspects he's being baited. Though thousands of miles from China's center, he recognizes there are ears here as well. The frequent checkpoints for SARS is proof enough of that. It's a sad picture he paints of the wild frontier; a frontier whose taming is accomplished through the opression of its inhabitants.

Once out of China, traveling the Silk Road becomes a thing of chance. Though the spirit is palpably lighter, corruption is not confined to China. Though the Silk Road is no longer the commercially viable trade route it was in the days of Marco Polo, it's still an attractive means for moving contraband. As it courses its way through former Soviet Republics, many hard-up for cash, corruption becomes an irresistible temptation for some. And less pervasive law enforcement tends to attract unscrupulous characters, a phenomenon that grows the further west the road goes. So too does the feeling of freedom.

Crossing into Tajikistan, the author finds himself at a crossroads of theology. Here religions converge where Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism have each, vying for influence through the centuries, left distinct impressions on the land and its people. It is a land familiar with invading forces, traditionally made up of nomadic populations of various ethnicities that nobody until the formation of the Soviet Union was capable of holding. Today, the author notes, Tajikistan is unified along the lines of national identity because, ironically, the Soviet experiment failed.

East Meets West
From Tajikistan, the author swings south to Afghanistan. Bear in mind, he had to delay this leg of his trip for a year; it was a bit of a hot spot in 2003. It was a bit of a hot spot in 2004 too, and though he made a good leg of his planned journey through the war-torn land - a land where although people expressed optimism for American success, you get the feeling they don't really care who comes out the victor - officials wouldn't approve a sizeable chunk of it. War is hell. Next stop: Iran.


      Western films are officially a no-go, but pirated movies are available the day they open in American theaters. Western dress - for women - carry penalties, but 'neath every burka, denim jeans.

Entering Iran through its northeast extremity, the Silk Road hugs the northern border. By contrast, Iran holds an optimism Afghanistan lacked. Although the nation is considered a pariah by much of the world, and is largely isolated - in policy if not in practice - from the West, Thubron discovers a nation full of hope. Run by mullahs - local and state government officials beholding to the principles of the revolution - whom the people generally abide with patient tolerance rather than support, in Iran he finds a nation of opposites. On one hand, the Islamic government demonizes all things Western; on the other, the people can't get enough of the West. While satellite dishes are banned, there's one on every rooftop. Western films are officially a no-go, but pirated movies are available the day they open in American theaters. Western dress - for women - carry penalties, but 'neath every burka, denim jeans.

Thubron's arrival in Meshad corresponds with the birthday celebration of a Shia saint (or should I say the Shia saint) who vanished in 874 AD amid mysterious circumstances. Called the Awaited One, the Twelfth Imam, or the Mahdi, the faithful anxiously await his return, honoring the anniversary of his birth with mourning on pious festival; a festival that attracts pilgrims from throughout the Islamic world, both Shia and Sunni alike. Thubron hitches a ride with a retired merchant seaman who speaks candidly about his nation:

    Ninety percent of our people hate these mullahs, I'd say. We just want them to go. They only teach us to weep. We're a country of martyrs. Every town has its tomb for some relative or other of Hussein [son of Islam's first caliph, whom Shiism is structured on]. I'm a Shia, but I think the Sunnis are better. They don't have all this mourning. We have no singing or dancing. Only sorrow.
It's an eyebrow-raising sentiment, and one the author hears time and time again. Like China, where the government pursues a secular agenda and the people practice their faith in secret, so too with Iran; just the other way around.

From Iran, the Silk Road enters Turkey, skirting the northern borders of Iraq and Syria. Here Thubron finds a people drunk on freedom. During this phase of Desert Storm, the Kurdish people were assisting Allied forces - a coalition of the willing, in G. Dubya's words - a promised autonomy their reward. Along Iraq's border with Turkey, where Kurdish populations are historically concentrated, a fragile peace was currently being enjoyed.

Here, Thubron meets Abdullah, a Kurd of about eighteen, willing to give him a ride through the night. Due to martial law, buses weren't running after dark, but private cars were. Abdullah is inebriated with the prospect of a free Kurdish state, and behaves as if it's already happened. The further they travel, the more arrogant Abdullah's words and driving becomes. Also, the more frequent Turkey's soldier-manned checkpoints, 'til at last the car is flagged down and Abdullah is roughed up and fined for reckless driving. His concept of freedom, apparently, is one without rules. Thubron writes of their parting:

    By now he had declined into querulous self-pity: not the Kurdish freedom-fighter of my ideal at all, but an incompetent boy, hoping I would pay his fine.
The western terminus of the Silk Road is Antakya (Antioch), a stone's throw from the Mediterranean Sea. Once the Asian capitol of the Roman Empire, and an important early center of Christianity, today it's better known for tourism. Sitting on the cusp of the West, modern Antioch continues to embody in its wares and customs the spirit of the Silk Road. A spirit that meshed East with West, remarkably captured in Shadow of the Silk Road.


The Good Woman of Setzuan
by Bertolt Brecht
Random House, 1966
ISBN: 0-394-17109-8
$1.95, 144 pp

Bertolt Brecht wrote The Good Woman of Setzuan in the late thirties while living in exile with his wife, a Berliner, in Scandinavia. Hitler, through his massive propaganda machine, was turning Germany into an echo chamber for his message of conquest, and Brecht, like most artists of the day, wanted no part of it.

The play centers around the village of Setzuan (it's presumed the author was referring to Szechwan - a Chinese province famed for its spicy cuisine - but thought the province was a city) and the characters who live there: drunks, dreamers, shopkeepers and out-of-work relatives. The play is comical, farcical and all the while teetering on tragedy. Given the times in which it was written, Brecht appears to be asking: Why do good people do bad things?

The protagonist of Good Woman is Wong, the village drunk. To him, three gods appear, seeking to discover if there remain any good people in Setzuan, or if they should destroy the world and give themselves a do-over. Their edict reads: "The world can stay as it is if enough people are found living lives worthy of human beings." An edict somewhat along the lines of Job's on his visit to Sodom and Gomorrah, or the Elders of Tralfamadore's in Kurt Vonnegut's Hocus Pocus (G. P. Putnam's Sons).

It's been rumored the gods would be coming, but most people have written it off as idle gossip. The gods seem hardly confident they'll find a single good person in all of China. Then Wong introduces them to Shen Te, the village prostitute, who graciously puts the gods up for the night whom with the jingle of a coin purse, change her fortune.

Brecht is no simpleton. He might have created a character wholly good for this parable, but instead he endows Shen Te with complexity, fleshing out his ingenue with multiple dimensions. On the road to improving herself, there are set-backs. Some obstacles are generated by others; most are of her own doing. For Shen Te, the right thing - being compassionate to others - presents stumbling blocks for her others are eager to take full advantage of; a devil behind every door. In order to successfully do the right thing without losing oneself, Brecht acknowledges humans need to wear two masks: the one, the mask of good works; the other, the mask of self-preservation, even when that mask means doing very bad things.

posted 08/23/22


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