A Review of China: Portrait of a People by Tom Carter

CHINA: Portrait of a PeopleWhat Peter Hessler did in his memoir River Town, Tom Carter does with China: Portrait of a People.  A new wave of camera-toting expats will soon come to China hoping to follow in Carter’s footsteps.

I write this within a week of coming back to America after a year of teaching English at university in southern Hunan.  While it was a wonderful experience, I was eager to get back home and move on to bigger and better things.  But then Carter’s book came in the mail from Amazon.  My immediate reaction:  every expat coming to China should have one for the inevitable day culture shock strikes; the book should come wrapped in white paper with a red cross and the instructions: “For prevention and treatment of culture shock.  Open if you have any of the following symptoms…”   Just paging through it compels me to return to see what I can see, do what I can do, and meet whoever I can meet.

About the size of a Wendy’s ¾ Pound Triple with Cheese and just as juicy, Carter’s China: Portrait of a People is the perfect gift for old China hands and armchair explorers alike.  But before I tell you why, let me first say that I have beef with his book.  While the author has clearly gone above and beyond the duty of any artistic photojournalist, he has neglected to document two very important regions: China’s renegade province Taiwan and the California Special Economic Zone.  Despite these glaring omissions, I give the book five red stars.

The photography pulls the reader along a journey filled with joy, wonder, sadness, awe, and cognitive dissonance.  What fun!  Pictures of people from all social strata doing all manner of things capture the essence of this unique time in world history.  As I read between the lines (or looked between the photos?), it struck me just how social savvy the author must be and how much social support he must have had in order to complete such a journey.  The photography is intimate; like good literature, readers see into another’s soul, feel another’s feeling, and experience a moment in the life of another person.  Nine out of ten Confucianists agree China: Portrait of a People cures autism.

While each picture is worth 10,000 words as one Amazon.com reviewer astutely noted, the well written prose complements the imagery.  Captions provide snippets of the subject’s story and interesting tidbits of Chinese history, culture and trivia.  The prose is informative, witty, literate, and peppered with anecdotes about some of the hardships endured during the author’s travels.  The factoids presented herein will make any reader an instant MVP on China Trivia Night and gain beaucoup face with Chinese friends and acquaintances.

Carter backpacked 56,000 miles and visited 200 cities and villages to gather material for this book.  So yeah, the author did a nice job going on a little holiday to take some pictures of China.   But I still have two questions.  Does he like Chinese food and does he know how to use chopsticks?


You can purchase CHINA: Portrait of a People on Amazon.