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Weiben W. (Weiben) reviewed Digging to China: Down and Out in the Middle Kingdom on
For the centuries China was the dominant force on the planet, yet its very existence was only a legend in the West. Its capital, too, was unknown other than as the culminating point for the fabled Silk Road. There at its termination stood the city of Xi'an, where Kublai Khan's favorite son maintained a splendid palace. Xi'an was a magnificent metropolis, the largest in the world, set on a great plain "in the midst of level emptiness... flat as a mirror."
It is in that ancient capital, three thousand years after its founding, that J. D. Brown finds himself subsisting on the local economy, a teacher of English; and it is from that vantage point that he probes the enormity into which he has impulsively cast himself, the continuum called China.
It is a startling contact with a part of the planet that could well qualify as another world altogether. Not the garish tourist attraction we are often presented with, but the moody repository of a merciless and endless history. "One is dropped into the well of time: mud villages and villagers unmarked by the press of 23 centuries; molded clay, still fresh and living along the road-side, watching strange caravans pass today as they have always passed on the road to the capital; sights enough to singe the modern senses, to rearrange Western vision of the world and pack it into a crease reptilian in its intensity."
"Any journey worth taking," writes Brown, "is an act of self-excavation." Not since Alex Shoumatoff and Bruce Chatwin hit the road has there been such a literate traveler.
"During the mid-1980s Brown taught English at a medical college in the northern Chinese city of Xi'an; this is his story of the experience, including a coda relating his reactions to two subsequent trips to the Middle Kingdom, the last in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square. An insightful writer, he has an eye for the telling detail and manages to appreciate Chinese culture without being unnecessarily awed, a stance which allows him to maintain objectivity. Brown's sense is that the most enduring of China's national traits is perseverance--that, as a society, it "possesses far more than its share of time" and "with perfect indifference . . . can ride its celestial tracks almost forever." He tends to focus on the personal rather than the political, forgoing a broad portrait for anecdotal images of daily life. There are a few false notes--the author's description of his search for the birthplace of Chinese Buddhism, for instance, reads like a guidebook--but for the most part, this is a charming look at a land where the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same."