Saturday, May 14, 2011

LOST ON PLANET CHINA by J. Maarten Troost


A man travels around China and discovers that it is more complicated and crowded than he anticipated.


This is a detailed and interesting travel narrative about a man who decides to explore modern China without being fully prepared for the drastic changes that have occurred there in recent years. He expects a Cold War-like communist country and instead he finds a nation in the throes of lightning fast industrial development. He finds pollution, blatant capitalism and crowds everywhere he turns. He meets a confident, nationalistic people who know they are gearing up to be the new economic powerhouse where he expected to see chronic poverty.

China is a complicated and enormous country, and trying to understand it, especially while traveling through it and not living there, is a difficult task. It is probably not fair to compare this book to RIVER TOWN because Peter Hessler is one of my heroes, but I think Troost lacked a lot of the humility and patience that made Hessler's work so compelling. He makes astute outsider's observations, but he is providing a survey of the country, not an in-depth look at the people. By the way, Hong Kong is very different from China, so I am not suggesting that I know China either.

Troost's voice is funny and irreverent. He does not shy away from talking about the least savory practices and problems in China, though he does have a tendency to exaggerate. He has very strong political opinions, and in this case they actually made the book feel unnecessarily dated. Although I found the book fascinating, there are better books out there if you want to understand China a little bit better rather than just marvel at how alien it can be. 


Here's an interview with J. Maarten Troost on Rolf Potts' website.


$10.99 for the Kindle edition


What images do you associate with China? What do you think shapes your perception of China?


  1. +JMJ+

    There's nothing like political opinions to date a book (or a movie!).

    My own perception of China has been shaped by the huge Chinese community in the Philippines. They've assimilated into Filipino culture, but remain very proud of their ethnicity and culture. Lots of parents still send their teenage children to China to master the spoken language.

    I once tutored a non-Chinese boy whose parents were sending him to a Chinese school. (You don't have to be Chinese to be a student, but you will have to learn the language.) To him, it was only one degree more "alive" than Latin--but it will be interesting to see what he'll be able to do with his language skills after he completes eleven years of studying it.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comment Enbrethiliel. I think it is very interesting that your tutoring student's parents are encouraging him to learn Chinese. It is becoming a more and more useful language and I'm sure he will be happy about it eventually. I'm trying to learn Cantonese, which isn't quite as useful as Mandarin, but it is what my coworkers and students speak here in HK.


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