The River at the Center of the World A Journey Up the

The River at the Center of the World A Journey Up the Yangtze Back in Chinese Time Rising from the mountains of the Tibetan border the river that is the symbolic heart of China courses through 3900 miles of rugged country before emerging into the oily swells of the East China Sea Connecting China’s heartland cities with the volatile coastal giant Shanghai the Yangtze has throughout history also linked China to the outside world through its nearly 1000 miles of navigable waters To travel those waters is to travel back in history to sense the soul of China and Simon Winchester takes us with him as he encounters the essence of the nation—its history and politics its geography and climate He engages with the country’s culture and its people in remote and almost inaccessible places Winchester recalls his passionate exploration of the countryside— employing nearly every mode of transportation including boat train jeep and shoe leather—while providing important and engaging historical information This is travel writing at its best lively informative and thoroughly enchanting Simon Winchester is one of my favorite authors especially his geological themed ones Krakatoa The Map that Changed the World and Crack in the Edge of the World since I'm a geologist myself This travelogue up the entire Yangtze river is different from his other books that I've read as it is much personal It is not only about the Yangtze and the history but about the peoples and the cultures that he encounters along the river The history that he covers is much recent and something I'm not really knowledgable about such as WWII and General Mao and the Cultural Revolution I was ashamed that I never heard about the Rape of Nanking Nazi Germany had their share of atrocities but Imperial Japan was just as bad it seems His sense of humour is interspersed throughout making this a joy to read His visit to the Wuliangye distillery made me chuckle A highly recommended read if one wants to know about the Yangtze River At over 3900 miles long the Yangtze is the river that divides China South of the river is the rice growing part of China and north of it wheat is grown But this divide also brings together the nation as it supports millions of people livelihoods and hold the keys to some of China's earliest archaeology and historyStarting at the mouth of the river in the city of Shanghai Winchester and his companion Lily travel through a series of landscapes that are stark polluted varied and at times utterly beautiful Traveling by boat on the river for a lots of the journey he describes the people that he meets the landscapes he sees and writes about the changes that this river will suffer at the hand of manHe is not scared to write critically of the Chinese government in particular about the horrendous treatment of the Tibetan people when he reaches the headwaters of the river But throughout the book he tells of the people that make this country uniue and such a rich assault on the senses This was a disappointing book Like the tributaries of the Yangtze multiple disciplines feed into the narrative geography geology sociology politics commerce and history Winchester admits at the outset that he had difficulty finding a unifying theme for his ungainly collection of material Like the irregular rapids and currents my interest was engaged only intermittently Winchester's journey begins in Shanghai where the Yangtze empties into the East China Sea His goal is to sail upstream to the river's source in the plateau of Tibet The river is perhaps the most significant geographic feature in all of China It divides the country into northsouth regions even clearly than the Mason Dixon line divides the United States To the north the staple is wheat; to the south it is rice The distinction permits Winchester the opportunity to display the vibrant writing style that draws readers to his books “Some geographers and writers like to think of the river as a sort of waistline a silk ribbon that cinches China uite decidedly into two Above the waist are the brain and the heart and the soul of China a land that is home to the tall pale skinned wheat eating Mandarin speaking reclusive and conservative peoples who are the true heirs to their Middle Kingdom's five thousand years of uninterrupted history Below the river waist on the other hand are the country's muscles and sinews the stocky darker flamboyant rice eating peoples who speak in the furiously complicated coastal dialects the men and women whose energies and acumen and cunning — and cooking — have spread the goods and words of China to the world beyond” At the same time the river was the unifier of the vast territory populated by disparate ethnic groups and climate zones To all it was the object of great symbolic significance The melt waters of the Himalayas in far off Tibet affected the livelihood of everyone downstream The second observation Winchester makes is that the Yangtze initially flows in a north south direction much like the Mekong River to the west It is the tectonic ridge forming the Yun Ling Mountains that twists the course of the river in a hairpin turn flowing back north and then from west to east Winchester describes this portion of his trip in a chapter titled “The River Wild” The northward flow is marked by such picturesue sites as Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Yulong Xueshan and Tiger Leaping Gorge The names capture some of the drama of the river's course and its effect on the lives of those living along its banksWinchester's narrative is most interesting when he lapses into travelogue mode describing encounters with the ordinary workers he meets along the way Their voices reflect a surprising diversity of opinion expressed with colorful candor Navigating the harbor at the mouth of the Yangtze their ferry captain points out the site of an unmarked wreck “Only a few people know about it But the fact is there's a great big ship lying down there in just three fathoms of water So easy to hit It'd rip the bottom from a tanker just like a sushi knife Very dangerous” Winchester hears from a fisherman lamenting the extermination of the freshwater dolphin once revered as the “Goddess of the Yangtze” He describes the painful alternative of letting his family starve Not all of China's ills were caused by greed and indifference Winchester encounters soldiers obeying illogical orders peasants about to be displaced by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam hotel workers who provide a meal they cooked in their kitchen at home because he arrived after the hotel kitchen had closed and people so old they still remember the days when teams of naked men trackers hauled freight barges through the rapids There are people who are dismayed by the government's actions in Tibet much to the consternation of his guide Lily and bureaucrats who are cowed by the devoted Lily into allowing the pair passage westward — for a modest fee thanks to Lily's shrewd negotiating skills Local history as well was interesting Lushan for example was once a prosperous center for exporting tea Lushan Misty Clouds Green Tea That trade was ruined when the British started tea plantations in India with its cheap labor and mosaic of local governors Wuhan's outlook is still colored by Mao tse Tung's swim actross the Yangtze With a fervor stoked by home time pride they still stand out as a town unwilling to hear any criticism of the leader I found these local stories of far greater interest than the broader but fragmented histories of gunboat diplomacy and the Great Leap ForwardLike the ing dynasty painting “The Ten Thousand li Yangtze” by Wang Hui Winchester prefaces each section of his journey with a sectional map detailing the locations of his passage Readers will also want to keep a full sized map of China at their side as a further aid in orientation for this book is most engaging as a geographical primer The floods the valleys the navigability of the river the fertility of the valleys and even the permanence of the land on which Shanghai sits are all functions of the geography of the Yangtze watershed This is a long book and is best approached by readers planning to visit China or who have previous detailed knowledge of the country's history I read a previous book by this author which I enjoyed so I decided to try another and I'm glad I did He travels up the Yangtze in this from the ocean to close to its source a bit short of 4000 miles He uses various forms of transport and the travels are interesting However this is not really a travel book per se This is far a journey through China's history really I'd confess to being less than knowledgeable on this subject However this is written in a very accessible way and I enjoyed most of it Much of it relates to Imperialism generally that of China but also that of nations that sought to exploit China It also looks at some issues where China is the one who exploits This would include subjects such as Tibet and the Three Gorges dam so there is balance thereIf I were being picky I'd say I'd have liked some photographs though it might have been difficult to get them he is often out of bounds Eually the very small maps at the start of each chapter were too small to see never mind make sense of Happily recommended to anyone who this interests though

  • Paperback
  • 448 pages
  • The River at the Center of the World A Journey Up the Yangtze Back in Chinese Time
  • Simon Winchester
  • English
  • 08 March 2016
  • 9781554684816

About the Author: Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester OBE is a British writer journalist and broadcaster who resides in the United States Through his career at The Guardian Winchester covered numerous significant events including Bloody Sunday and the Watergate Scandal As an author Simon Winchester has written or contributed to over a dozen nonfiction books and authored one novel and his articles appear in several travel publ

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