I lived in Hong Kong for six years and visited many different places in mainland China. I was sure however someone writing a book about China would have traveled much more extensively in the country than I had. Not so. Trudeau visited well-known cities like Shanghai, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Beijing and Chongqing but really saw just a small part of China. He didn’t even go to places like Xian or Kunming or Zhongdian or Yangshuo. If you are going to write a meaningful book about modern China you need to see more of the nation than Alexandre Trudeau did.
I lived in China till 2011. Since the book had the word “new” in the title I was expecting to be enlightened about the changes in the country since I left but Alexandre is basically writing about a trip he took there in 2006 almost a decade ago. My friends who still live in China say it is changing at lightening speed but you won’t find out about those recent changes from reading Barbarian Lost.
Alexandre struck me as a bit moody. He changed the carefully arranged plans of his hired guide if he didn’t feel like doing something. I couldn’t believe it when he declined to take a boat trip through the Bamboo Gorges because he was feeling blue. I’ve done that trip! What an experience it was!
The historical synopsis of things like the dynasties and the Cultural Revolution were pretty pedestrian and didn’t offer much I didn’t teach in my middle school Chinese history classes and I have to say my lessons were a little livelier.
The experiences Trudeau describes- eating snake, spending time in a rural Chinese home, cruising the Yangtze with a Chinese crowd, watching mahjong games, eating restaurant meals with locals, picking your food live before you eat it…. are all things many people who have been to China have experienced. They aren’t really all that unique.
After reading books like Peter Hessler’s River Town or Rob Gifford’s China Road or Jan Wong’s Red China Blues by authors who spent an extended time in China and really make China come alive in their writing, I am afraid Barbarian Lost just didn’t measure up. Kind of makes me wonder if it would have been published if the author wasn’t the brother of one prime minister and the son of another.