I’m going to assume that most of the readers of Lost Laowai are the kind of people who bother to run VPNs and the kind of people who follow the China blogosphere. If so, they may have seen Troy Parfitt’s “Why China Will Never Rule the World” coming up again and again. Peking Duck, Seeing Red in China, China Law Blog, they’ve all written reviews on it and they’ve all covered different but equally valid aspects of why this is or is not the book for you to read.
The job of a book reviewer is to tell you, gentle reader, why you should or should not spend your time or money on a book. I won’t lay down a pronouncement yay or nay so much as give my thoughts and let you make your own decision based on those opinions.
Lots of people are talking about how negatively Troy views China (something sort of to be expected with a title like “Why China Will Never Rule the World”). Others write why it was a fun travelogue type book or even why Troy really wasn’t consistently ethical in the way he treated some of his unknowing interviewees in the book. The one thing that it seems no one mentions in any of their reviews is the writing quality. For that reason, I’m going to focus on nothing but the quality of its writing.
You can’t exactly call it purple prose because that would be doing a disservice to 19th century writers of gothic novels. This is purpler than purple. One adjective will never suffice where 27 will do. I’m a wordy person who tends to repeat herself but this goes beyond even the worst excesses of my own somewhat excessive tendency to not realize I should have shut up with the irrelevant details and gotten on with the story 20 minutes ago.
I’m reminded of entries from the Bulwer-Lytton Contest and am considering submitting sections of the text to their “sticks and stones” section on already published bad writing. Rather than merely saying he flew into Hong Kong at night it instead, “felt as though [he] had been submerged in an ocean of tar,” which I suppose sufficiently indicates the inky blackness of the nightscape if the nightscape is really a thickly clinging substance that spills from tankers and surrounds you until you die from asphyxiation. After “an ocean of tar” we are subjected to the “pitch black void” and “bordered onyx” of the airplane window before fireworks going off below him fall, “into the abyss below.”
The funny thing is his description of fireworks in that very first paragraph is one that, as a writer, makes me itch with delight. I feel the fireworks going off when I read, “a phosphorescent streak shot forth, mutely bursting into a tangle of jubilant purple and glittering green before cascading silently into the abyss below.” Unfortunately, beautiful sentences like this one are dolled up like wannabe beauty queens. Adjectives are used like unnecessary cosmetics hiding what otherwise might be nice to read.
Over the next few pages we get the “mustard coloured glow” of street lamps, “monstrous veneer of moss green tiles” on the outside of a building, a trip on the Peak Tram “up through swaying trees and spastic shadows,” trees “buzzing with insects” and bushes “fidgeting with birds and butterflies.” Never mind the gratuitous use of the word catholicon (which I had to look up in the dictionary) describing the Chinese educational system as a pablum force fed to students, and throwing around nice foreign sounding phrases like raison d’etre.
It isn’t just Chungking Mansions (apparently Hong Kong’s “most notorious building”) that “sticks out like a bad simile when viewed from without,” it’s the whole damn book.
No matter where I randomly open the book to I don’t just find China bashing with an educated veneer, I also find the most godawful overuse of adjectives, similes, and purple prose that you can find outside of something written in a high school creative writing class. Were a decent editor to remove two out of every three adjectives and replace every word that requires a person of average intelligence to use the dictionary with a more common one, this book would not only be a lot shorter, it would also be a lot more readable.
There are plenty of writers who are bad writers, and the problem is that Parfitt is not one of these. He just needs an editor. Someone who can clean out not just the worst excesses of his pretty speech, but who can also fact check or insist on a few references before slinging around assertions that country bumpkins with dirty faces wandering about in Tiananmen Square are actually plainclothes police officers who might throw you into an unmarked mobile execution van at the least provocation. Hopefully, his third book will get that editor because unless it does, I don’t see myself wasting time, money, or energy on another book of his.
If you like Jung Chang’s “Unauthorized Biography of Mao” or thought Gavin Menzies’ book “1421” was one hundred percent true, you’d probably enjoy reading Parfitt’s book. Although he didn’t assert that the Great Helmsman’s failure to brush his teeth for twenty years made them green with moss in any of the parts I have read, nor has he yet claimed that Atlantis was real, Parfitt’s book certainly falls into a category with theirs — badly researched and badly edited but a surprisingly fun read nonetheless. Just don’t get worked up over unproven unprovable assumptions and you’ll be fine.