Travel literature review: The Emperor's River

The Emperors RiverThe Emperor's River by Liam D'Arcy-Brown

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3.5 star

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Reviewed by Steve Waters

Steve Waters works in LP’s Melbourne office and has a fascination for obscure Chinese border-crossings.

Oxford scholar D’Arcy-Brown dumps his newly married wife at Heathrow and takes a solo honeymoon tracing the 1,794 kilometre (1,115 mile) route of the world’s longest artificial waterway — China’s Grand Canal. Dating from the 5th century B.C. and rivalling the Great Wall as a symbol of Han achievement, this hand-dug, engineering masterpiece stretches from Hángzhōu in Zhèjiāng province, through Jiāngsū, Shāndōng and Héběi to Běijīng.

As he travels across the sometimes lush, sometimes toxic landscape, D’Arcy-Brown attempts to peal back the veneers of Modern China to unearth obscure relics from the canal’s ancient past. Like the Great Wall, there is  not “one” canal, but a maze of channels that have sprouted and withered over the centuries, dragging along cities whose fortunes ebbed and flowed with the water levels. We’re introduced to characters like the baby-eating Ma the Barbarous, the 11th century spy-come-travel writer Lou Yue (who haunts DB’s dreams), and the last Englishman to attempt the journey, Lord Macartney.

The Emperor’s River is D’Arcy-Brown’s second China offering and is less travelogue and more history lesson. His archaeologist’s eye digs up forgotten temples with enthusiasm and tenacity, though sometimes his prose is equally dusty. The travelling is secondary (apart from the odd barge, DB’s mainly on the bus); this is about one man’s obsession with the past – “... wishing I could’ve seen China as Macartney”.

This book won’t suit everyone. The overall tone lacks emotion and the “dream debates” seem contrived (when viewed through western eyes). Bereft of illustrations, I found visualizing the canal descriptions difficult (and I’ve travelled a portion — was finding Sūzhōu’s Precious Belt Bridge difficult?) and the rather poor map bears an uncanny resemblance to Wikipedia’s.

Yet D’Arcy-Brown is at his strongest when he focuses on the present. His conversations with everyday people — taxi drivers, bargemen, students and retirees — bring a unique insight into the post-communist state. “Times have changed and the iron rice bowl has been broken.” He discovers both rising nationalism and rising subversion, and fears that the unspoken contract between the Communist Party and the people — “we’ll take care of you if you leave the politics to us” — is about to unravel as corruption runs rampant and the gap between rich and poor grows ever larger. Sound familiar?

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