River at the Center of the World: A Journey up the Yangtze and Back in Chinese Timeby Simon Winchester
Simon Winchester's 1995 trip of the Yangtze is more than a travel narrative--to travel up those waters is to go back in history, to sense the soul of China. Based in Hong Kong for nine years, author Simon Winchester had long dreamed of exploring the full reaches of the Yangtze, and this is his saga. Maps, index.
- Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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The River at the Center of the World
A Journey Up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time
By Simon Winchester
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1996 Simon Winchester
All rights reserved.
"Welcome!" spoke the computer, with a tinny amiability that took the chill off the early morning. "You have mail!"
Duly, and robotlike, I then performed the slight mouse movements of finger and thumb that are all that is necessary these days to retrieve inbound electronic letters, and found in an instant the morning's mass of post. Most of it was routine, letters that I wouldn't bother with for an hour or so. But one did seem at first blush more intriguing — a note from someone I clearly did not know, someone who signed himself or herself with the rather unattractive sobriquet of Lima Bean. Peruvian? Surely not. I settled for the likelihood of an American correspondent, someone who was probably from the Middle West.
Everything that follows had its origins in this letter, leading as it did to a cascade of peculiar electronic coincidences. A journey that eventually passed thousands of miles into the remotest regions of a China far, far away from home first came about by way of a phenomenon that admirers of today's communications revolution would heartily applaud. Some might describe it with appropriate grandiloquence: as a serendipitous moment, something that was grasped by happy chance while speeding down the information superhighway. Or as a digitally rendered equivalent of Once Upon a Time.
I had walked groggily into my study one cold morning in early winter, the first mug of Maxwell House in hand. I had switched on the computer and looked to see if there was anything of interest for me. I hoped so: even in the digital universe one still wakes and hopes for letters. The tinny Welcome, the jaunty You Have Mail, caused as always that telltale quickening of the heart. "All long for mail," Auden wrote, "for who can bear to feel himself forgotten?" So with a couple of keystrokes I told the computer to display the note from Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. Lima Bean, and within seconds this uninvited stranger's words were tumbling onto the cathode tube before me.
They seemed to be asking for my advice about Hong Kong.
I could guess why. Some months before I had been asked to write up a list, on a sort of electronic self-portrait-cum-census-form, of what I considered at the time to be things that interested me. My response had been rather glib, and in retrospect not a little pretentious. Borrowing a line from Jorge Luis Borges, I said that I liked hourglasses, maps, eighteenth century typography, the roots of words, the taste of coffee, the prose of Robert Louis Stevenson — and Hong Kong. This last I had added to the blind sage's list, and it was this last that prompted Lima Bean's brief letter.
"Dear Sir," it said, or something to that effect, "I am about to go with my husband on our first-ever journey to Hong Kong. Since you say you are interested in the place, could you give us some hints on where to go, what to do, what to see. ... We are late middle-aged, we think of ourselves as bright, and quite adventurous. ... We leave next week." The writer lived in northern Illinois. She confessed to rarely having ventured farther afield than Boston.
I replied instantly and almost unthinkingly, in the way that electronic mail tempts us to do. A swift tap on the Write a Reply button, then a few hastily chosen suggestions — the name of a temple near Sai Kung, my membership number at the China Club, my son's phone number on Lamma Island, the titles of a couple of good books — followed by a swift tap on Send Reply, and it was done. I returned to whatever work I was planning to do, and promptly forgot all about the exchange.
* * *
Two months later, on the afternoon of a day when I had returned from a trip abroad, a bulky package came in the mail, express, special delivery. It was postmarked Chicago. The return address was unfamiliar; but since it was unlikely that the Unabomber would have any interest in me, I unwrapped the parcel, though gingerly. It turned out to be a copy of the fifth edition of Sherman Lee's classic History of Far Eastern Art, expensively produced by a tony Fifth Avenue art house. The jacket was nicely culturally agnostic, balancing Japanese art and Chinese art with equal weight by showing a Momoyama period screen painting and a Sung dynasty handscroll side by side. It was very elegant: the perfect temptation, no doubt, for the impulsive buyer of this kind of hundred-dollar book.
I flipped through it for a while, stopping occasionally to look at color plates of places I knew — temple gardens in Kyoto, a fresco at Borobudur, an elephantine sandstone Buddha in China's Shanxi province. Then a handwritten note fell out: it was from someone called Andrea, thanking me for the advice I had offered her and her husband all those weeks before.
They apologized for what seemed an unconscionable delay in expressing their gratitude, the note began. They had had an unforgettable time: the China Club was wonderful, the Austin Coates book was unforgettable, my son's phone number was always busy. The enclosed was the very least way they could express their gratitude. Enjoy.
I was astonished. For what had taken me perhaps three minutes' thought — all this? I flipped through some more pages, pleased at the generosity of strangers — and then, quite suddenly, I stopped. For there before me was a reproduction, in black and white, and spread across the upper half of two pages, of what I knew to be a remarkable work of Chinese art. And more than that: I knew, the very moment I saw it, that this was a creation that, in some way or other, was going to change my life.
It was part of a picture by a Qing dynasty court painter named Wang Hui — part of it only, because the entire thing, if unrolled, would measure fifty-three feet from end to end. It was called Wen Li Chang Jiang — the Ten thousand li Yangtze. It had been painted in about 1680. It was a fanciful ink and pastel realization of the entire course of the Yangtze River — which the Chinese generally called Chang Jiang, the Long River, or simply Jiang, The River.
Every mile of the stream, every town along its banks, every tributary, every rapid, every rockpool, everything from the mouth to the mountains was said to be there, in a more or less recognizable form. It was very beautiful, even in this fragment — the delicate brush strokes of more than three centuries before had produced pagodas, sailing junks, mountains, tree-covered rock pillars, reeds, fishermen, ancient city walls. ... Even had I not been grateful for the book, I was hugely glad to be seeing the picture. For — and herein lies the most important of the cascade of coincidences — the river of the painting was the river at the center of my world.
For the very day that the book came so unexpectedly and so pleasingly in the mail was the day that I had returned from China, and, more specifically, from the river itself. And I had made the journey along the river purely and simply because I had been casting about trying to work out how best to write a book about it.
I had been fascinated by the Yangtze for many years — at least since the mid-1980s, when I first went to live in Hong Kong. I remember vividly the first time I saw it. I had traveled out to the colony by train, all the way from Liverpool Street to Kowloon, and although our various expresses had thundered over some fine rivers on the way (the Volga, the Ob, the Yenisei) and even though we had crossed the Huang He, the Yellow River, which I knew they called China's Sorrow because of the huge amount of heartland she ripped out to sea each year — despite all of these mighty crossings, nothing quite prepared me for the thundering roar of the bridge that took the train from Hanyang to Wuchang, across the vast brown winding-cloth that, to my unlettered English mind, was still known as the Yangtze Kiang.
One moment there were the lights of a city, and then came the rumble, rumble, rumble of the bridge girders and iron railway ties, and there was blackness below, and just nothing. It was like roaring on a railway in outer space. Once in a while a firefly of a light sped by underneath, or there was a line of little lights, some red, some green; and as my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom I could see the glint of rushing water, lit by the umbery sliver of soot-polluted moon. The dark and pinpricked river swept by below for minute after minute until suddenly, with a great relieving gush of silence, the girders dropped away, the rails became welded and seamless once again, and the lights of the steel mills of Wuchang turned sepia night into orange morning. We were past the Yangtze now: and though it was not apparent in the night we were in a different geography, in almost another country, and among quite another people.
Some geographers and writers like to think of the river as a sort of waistline, a silk ribbon that cinches China quite decidedly into two. Above the waist are the brain and the heart and 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, more 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.
I could see nothing of this, of course, from my seat on the Shanghai Down Express. But I had been to Hong Kong before, and I had been to many of China's northern towns as well, and had been only too aware there was a certain facile truth about the geographers' theories: in summary, and superficially, one can readily observe that Northerners don't like rice, and they don't like Southerners, and the Yangtze is as convenient a line as any to draw between them.
And yet there was a paradox, too — in that the river that separates the nation also manages to unite it. The Yangtze divides the country in two by its sheer and barely bridgeable width. But at the same time and on another level it also manages to weld the country into one, at least in part by virtue of its vast and barely imaginable length. All Chinese, whether they are from Hainan Island in the far south, or Mohe in Manchuria in the far north, or whether they live in Kashgar in remotest Turkestan, or on the Korean borderland near the lake at the summit of Mt. Paektu — all Chinese have a feeling of ownership for and kinship with their Long River. It is all China's river — a sacred icon revered and respected by all.
All Chinese know they are fed by the Yangtze and flooded by the Yangtze; they know the river is their country's gateway and its major highway; they write poems about it and sing songs to it, they fight battles on its banks, they sign treaties on its shores, they draw water for fishing and washing and making power, they dump rubbish in it, they drown babies in it, they scatter ashes in it and pollute it with coal and sulphur and naphtha and the excretion and decay of every animal known, and of humans too. They respect it, fear it, welcome it, run from it, hate it and love it. More than any other river in the world — more even the Nile, which also cradles an entire country and nurtures a civilization — the Yangtze is a mother-river. It is the symbolic heart of the country, and at the very center, both literally and figuratively and spiritually, of the country through which it so ponderously and so hugely flows.
* * *
If the Yangtze valley were to be a country it would be the second most populous in the world, after India. Out of all the people in the world, one in twelve lives in the river's watershed. There are almost 500 million people whose homes and workplaces are scattered along the miles of river cliffs and mud banks between the Tibetan Plateau and the East China Sea. And although two other rivers, the Nile and the Amazon, are marginally longer, their importance — social, economic, even cultural — is almost nothing by comparison.
The Mississippi-Missouri might seem a real rival, for length, power, industrial might; and yet there is a signal difference, for Old Glory exerts none of the popular unifying power over America that the Yangtze does for China. A man in San Francisco feels precious little for the river that he or his ancestors might once have crossed to get to his present home; by contrast a man in Canton knows only too well the power and the might of the river that he or his forebears crossed in their sampan or their wupan to bring him eventually from the heartland to the coast.
Even from where I lived down on that southern coast, a thousand miles away, it is impossible to be unaware of the Yangtze's presence, of the import of this slumbering dragon of a river. It has a commanding existence, a lowering geographical reality. It was easy to be captivated by its power and stern visage: and for many years before the morning when I first gazed down at Wang Hui's masterpiece, I had indeed been captivated, quite truly. I had wanted to write about the Yangtze almost from the first moment I caught sight of it.
* * *
But if the kernel of an idea of writing an account of this great river was there, then how best exactly to write it remained a problem. Except that as I studied the picture before me that day, and looked ever more closely, an idea occurred to me. Something about the picture seemed unusual — something about its construction, its composition. It was something that hinted at a way to explore the river, a way to write the book. Perhaps, I thought, if I could actually find his picture, if I could see the original, the full-size version of the fragment that was so tantalizingly displayed in Sherman Lee's great book — if I could see the entire thing in its pristine state, then it might provide the clue. But how to see the picture? Where exactly was it?
The caption gave the name: H. C. Weng Collection, New Hampshire. A couple of phone calls — one to the publisher, another to the Department of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — brought a further name, Wan-go Weng, and the vague thought from one of the Metropolitan's staff that he did indeed live in New Hampshire, quite probably near a university town. But as to exactly where, infinite regrets, no idea.
I had once visited Dartmouth College, near the town of Hanover, and I had a hunch this might be the place. I called directory information and my luck was in: there was indeed a listing for Weng, W. G. Within moments I had Mr. Weng on the line, his barely accented Chinese voice thin, educated, precise, cheerful. I introduced myself, first in poor Chinese to suggest some credentials, then in English.
Yes, he said, he had the picture. It was one of his most precious possessions. It was locked away in a bank vault. He took it out every few years, to gaze at it, just as handscroll paintings are meant to be gazed at. Would I like to see it? He could easily take it out of the bank on a Friday evening, in time for a weekend when I might be free. He suggested a Sunday a week or so after Christmas. Would I come in midafternoon? "You are English, yes?" He gave a courteous little giggle of pleasure. "Teatime, yes? We'll see you for tea. I've no doubt we will have a lot of snow by then. I will send you a map. You must take care driving in the weather we have."
Wan-go Weng and his wife lived at the end of a rutted lane in the low hills above the Connecticut River valley. Their house was new, made of warm polished pale woods like pine and butternut, and it was well insulated against the bitter cold that in these parts lasts long into the spring. Mr. Weng came to the door — a slight, kindly-looking figure, he smiled easily and often. He led me indoors, through an airy living room on whose walls hung a number of small ink-brush drawings. There was a spare elegance about the place, everything tidy and bright and clean, everything chosen for a purpose, no clutter.
"I have the scroll," he said, and pointed to a neat cherry-wood box, maybe two feet long and eight inches wide and deep, sitting on the kitchen table. "We'll look at it in a moment. But first it's important to know how I came to get it. Part of the magic of a handscroll is in its history — in how many hands it has scrolled through, if you will. Best only to see the picture when you know its story."
Excerpted from The River at the Center of the World by Simon Winchester. Copyright © 1996 Simon Winchester. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
- New York; Massachusetts; Scotland
- Date of Birth:
- September 28, 1944
- Place of Birth:
- London, England
- M.A., St. Catherine¿s College, Oxford, 1966
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Winchester is almost thunderstruck by the river's majesty. He loves the wild grandeur of Tibet, and fully appreciates the Yangtze's importance in world history. It's just that he finds China's cities of the 1990s ugly, dull, and distasteful. Partly for diversion he's repeatedly drawn to every available relic of British colonial days, till his Chinese assistant Lilly cries "Oh God, your bloody British Empire again!" About half the book concerns tales of times past. It's half travel adventure, and half history. Clearly Winchester wrote this for a non-Chinese audience, highlighting what seemed relevant or appealing to foreigners, in the years just before the economic boom. --author of A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization
I can't say enough about how wonderful this book is. The fabulous information about the geography and hydrology of the river and, indeed China, are amazing. As you travel up the river, it is truly a trip back in time. His adventures with Lily (imagine coming upon someone who can fix a busted radiator in the middle of nowhere), seeing China through their eyes (and Lily's feelings and thoughts on China are ambivalent and complicated) and discovering the people and culture are just some of the high points. You absolutely can't go wrong! I've passed the book around to several other readers who felt the same way. So far, 5 thumbs up!! Also, if you're into China, try Paul Theroux's 'Riding the Iron Rooster.' Another excellent book and writer.
You can read the other reviews if you want to hear about the writer's credentials. What I want to point out to you is how this book illuminates a forgotten and oft-misunderstood aspect of the Chinese people. Their culture is one of the oldest on the Earth. By this fact, we should have lots to learn from them, and we do. Their creativity and resilience astounds even in the face of modern monstrosities and sometimes because of them. What you will find is that the China that Winchester depicts is always in dichotomy. the yin-yang pull of life lives and breathes in every action and inaction. Far too often, the simple and pragmatic Chinese people are written off as mired in nostalgia and tradition. Winchester proves that they choose that path and perhaps might be better for it. This book is truly a remarkable glimpse of an unknown China written from the perspective of one at once in love with and bewildered by its people as Winchester rightfully should be.
She drives up to the house. First she detachs the trailer and puts it in back. Then she grabs the bags and unpacks.