The River at the Center of the World: A Journey Up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time
Simon Winchester is one hot literary property these days. In the
past several years he has produced such splendid nonfiction books
as THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN, THE MAP THAT CHANGED THE WORLD
and, most recently, KRAKATOA. Now the Picador branch of Henry Holt
has issued a paperback reprint of Winchester's riveting 1996 paean
to the majesty, history and folklore of the Yangtze River, THE
RIVER AT THE CENTER OF THE WORLD. It is still a superb read.
Winchester determined to travel the length of the 3,964-mile river
(third longest in the world) from Shanghai, where it empties into
the Yellow Sea, back to its source in the remote and forbidding
mountain fastnesses of Tibet. Being a curious and observant fellow,
Winchester stopped at cities large and small along the way to
sample atmosphere, probe local history and meet interesting people.
He darted off-course now and then, sometimes of necessity, at other
times simply because there was something nearby that piqued his
As traveling companion he enlisted a resourceful and intelligent
Chinese woman whom he disguises (for fear of official retribution
against her) under the name of Lily. She plays a hardheaded and
outspoken Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote, and brings a revealing
personal dimension of her own to Winchester's story.
In addition to being a fine writer, Winchester is a born reporter.
Nothing seems to escape his notice. He has done his historical and
literary homework thoroughly and is not shy about intruding his own
strongly held opinions into his narrative. Most of those opinions
oscillate between nostalgia for the rich pageant of China's past as
reflected along the river and utter disdain verging on disgust for
what has become of the country under its Communist rulers.
As in most good travel writing --- indeed, like the Yangtze itself
--- the "tributary" digressions in this book are fully as
interesting as its main course. We learn the exact process for
making Chinese brown rice vinegar and the history of tea as a major
Chinese product. We learn the stories of intrepid but largely
unknown westerners with names like Cornell Plant and Joseph Rock,
who were early explorers of the river. We are fed many fanciful
legends from Chinese mythology and a number of facts --- often
depressing but always interesting --- from Chinese history.
The famous Three Gorges dam project is examined in detail and the
area itself described fully. Winchester considers the whole monster
project a defilement of one of China's most beautiful areas, a
venture meant more to glorify the government that planned it than
to help the people who will be affected by it. Many of those
people, he feels, will simply be made miserable.
Chinese national pride, in fact, is a major theme that runs through
the book. From the dawn of its history, China has regarded
foreigners with suspicion and mistrust. They are "foreign devils"
and "barbarians," and as a matter of pride they have to pay more
for just about everything than do the native Chinese.
Winchester sent me scurrying to my unabridged dictionary a score or
more of times to look up unfamiliar terms that seem routine to him.
A few of them --- nunataks, portolanos, ayurvedic --- were nowhere
to be found, but I did learn something about haars, skerry,
compradors, corvees and kentledge, among others. My only tiny
complaint about this reprint is that the maps, so sorely needed as
the upriver journey continues, are inadequate.
The only addition to the book's 1996 text is a four-page afterword
in which Winchester speculates about the future of the great
Chinese cities. Beijing will continue to be the country's capital,
its Washington D.C., he says. Shanghai, sitting grandly at the
mouth of the Yangtze, will be its New York City --- and poor Hong
Kong down in the south of the country, will be merely its New
Unless there is some sort of unimaginable government upheaval in
China, this fine book is likely to remain a classic account for
many years to come. For a "foreign devil," Simon Winchester has
done the Yangtze proud.
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 23, 2011