Journey to the Middle Kingdom
"What distinguishes this everyman’s tale is its clarity of observation, its attractive prose and its honest and wise reflections… Vivid and lyrical."
Robert O’Brien, Hampstead and Highgate Express
"Christopher West’s first book is a gem."
Michael Wigan, The Scotsman
This was my first published book, and I still love it. (I reread it the other day, with a feeling of dread – Oh, God, it’s going to be awful – but actually it wasn’t awful at all; quite the reverse.)
In our global, connected 21st Century, it can be hard to imagine how remote and strange China felt to a young Brit growing up in the 1960′s. There was the culture, of course: the writing, the names, the food (I remember my parents taking me somewhere very exotic for a special treat, to a ‘Chinese’ restaurant). The politics: if Russia was Communist, China was super-Communist, especially once Mao’s Cultural Revolution had kicked off. The inaccessibility: hardly anybody ever got to go to China, and if they did, they were herded round by grinning minders, unable to experience anything unplanned or unofficial. China was vast, unknown, unknowable and scary. So, of course, fascinating to a gawky, slightly rebellious teenager…
Fast forward a decade and a half, to 1985. China is changing, albeit slowly. Mao has been dead nearly ten years; his replacement Deng Xiaoping has started talking about ‘reform’, ‘responsibility’ and ‘modernizations’; foreign travellers are to be allowed in on their own, for the first time since the Revolution… And meanwhile I’ve fallen in love with backpack travel, having done two journeys round India. (Otherwise, however, my life is hitting a bit of a wall: a PhD is going nowhere; I’m scraping a living as a musician, playing in various dance bands.) Then one of my bands gets a ‘gig’ in Hong Kong. The fabulous enigma that is China will be a commuter-train-ride away.
I cancel all engagements for months after the Hong Kong one. I start learning Mandarin and boning up on Chinese history and philosophy. My life becomes taken over by this upcoming venture. I do not, however, plan a book – just an adventure, to get as close as I can to this strange culture and learn as much as I can from the experience.
The time to leave arrives. We do the ‘gig’; I wave the rest of the band off home from the old Kai Tak airport. Next morning, I’m off to the People’s Republic of China…
This book is the story of that journey.
I wrote it because I experienced so many things on that journey and when I got home wanted to read other books that recalled them for me. But I couldn’t find any. So I gave myself a year to write one of my own.
It took rather more than that. The year ended, and I had a passable manuscript, but not a wonderful one. And I wanted it to be wonderful, because the journey had been wonderful. So I gave myself more time.
A college friend, Clare Kennard, knew a literary agent (I had no such connections), Rivers Scott, and I approached him with the manuscript. He liked it; he sent it to a few publishers; Maureen Waller at Simon and Shuster UK liked it too; I signed my first publishing contract!
The rest is history – real history, where nothing much happens. The book came out (the weekend after it did, I bought all the Sundays, expecting to see reviews). It sold adequately, got some nice comments, went out of print… Later, when I became a more successful crime author, I persuaded my publishers to reissue it in paperback, and bless them, they did and it’s still in print. Number 1,300,000 on amazon’s bestseller list when I last looked, and that’s partially because I occasionally buy the odd copy for myself.
Still, I think it’s a good read. It’s of real historical interest. 1986 was the time of China’s great change: tiny shoots of enterprise were beginning to peep through the cracks in the Communist concrete – shoots which are now massive forests. Journey… presents a unique view of this era. Other China travel books from this time are suffused in misery, while I found a lot of energy, resilience and optimism in the people I met (as well as some truly terrible stories of suffering). History seems to have borne my view out.
I guess Journey… is also a ‘rite-of-passage’ book. I think a lot of people found, and still find, filling a rucksack and discovering the world a life-changing experience. I’ve not read too many books that honour this experience (if you know of any, please email me and tell me.) Journey to the Middle Kingdom does this, and I’m proud of the fact.
"A broad canvas, vividly illustrated by a man who travels with his eyes open and has the talent to put it all down in an absorbing manner."
Grant Dean, Yourkshire Post
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