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 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.


  1. After making the decision to move to China to teach English a friend who just finished two years teaching recommended River Town and I absolutely loved it. After reading this review I am convinced I need to order a copy of this book as well. I also really enjoyed China Underground by Zachary Mexico though it really just a series of short tales of various people in China it does give me a good idea of what to expect.

  2. Actually, I think that Hessler’s ‘Country Driving’ plus Giffard’s ‘China Road’ plus Carter’s ‘China Portrait’ would be the perfect words+photos combination of China travel literature for this summer’s big trip across the PRC.

  3. But Taiwan is NOT a part of China!! At least according to the Taiwanese… Maybe I could persuade my boss to buy this book. Too expensive for me. (Or I’m just too stingy.)

  4. Hate to be a dissenting voice, but from what I have seen of this book it is full of very poorly taken photographs, often over-exposed and/or containing dire, trite content which sheds little fresh light on the monumental complexity of modern China. Gives you very scarce insight into actual lives. He never appears to be anything other than a tourist, as you seem to hint at in this review:

    “So yeah, the author did a nice job going on a little holiday to take some pictures of China.”

    I notice that he is currently doing exactly the same book but this time about India. Surely displays an extremely limited talent.

  5. Hi, this is Tom Carter, author of the book being discussed. I’m not sure if it is proper netiquette for the subject of an article to respond to comments about him, but as I have been an avid reader of Lost Laowai for almost half a decade, I thought maybe it’d be okay.

    In regards to Johnny’s comment, I actually agree with you on most points: a majority of my photos were shot spur of the moment whilst interacting with my subjects. I am not a professional photographer, just a dusty backpacker (or, as you said, “anything other than a tourist”) traveling across Asia. I am entirely self-taught in photography and have absolutely no technical skill. I shoot with my heart, not my equipment.

    Yes, some of my images are overexposed. I used a small 4-mpx point-and-shoot camera to photograph the entirety of China. The camera has been smashed out of my hands repeatedly by Chinese police, dropped down Tiger Leaping Gorge, and battered to no end; I’m positive there were some light leaks in that old camera by the time I completed my travels. Moreover, I heretofore refuse to digitally manipulate any of my images in this book with HDR software. I know it’s all the rage these days to make photos surreal and unrecognizable via Photoshop, but for me I like to show life as it really is.

    The “monumental complexity” of China is right! I would never condescend to claim to have discovered the secret of China through my photos. The goal of this book is only to show China exactly as it revealed itself to me during my travels. No more, no less.

    “Limited talent”: truethat. I simply enjoy traveling and taking pictures while doing it. I saw all of China, now I intend to see all of India. I will photograph what I witness along the way, and perhaps those photos will comprise a future book. I’m not out to impress anyone with “talent”, I’m just having a good time 🙂

    I think the only part of your commentary I take objection to then, Johnny, is the “from what I’ve seen” part. Not sure how you can make such categorical claims like “trite” or “dire” (how does ‘dire’ even relate to my work? 90% of my subjects are beaming with pride!) without ever having actually read my book. Seems a bit presumptive of you, friend. Kind of like reviewing movies and music just by watching the trailer or glancing at the jewel case. I believe there is a tried and true expression about not judging books by their cover.

    So, Johnny, what I am willing to do for you is mail you a complimentary copy of CHINA: Portrait of a People for your perusal. If you can honestly still say after 640 pages and 888 images that you find all my photos “poorly taken” and “dire”, then I invite you to come back here and say so with authority. Haobuhao?

    Please send your mailing address to Ryan (the admin of this website) so he can match your IP address and verify you are the same Johnny who left the above comment, and I’ll ask Ryan to forward me your email.

    Thank you (and especially Matt M.) for taking the time to review and discuss my work. I am very flattered. I’m not sure which has been more challenging: traveling across China, or publishing a book about.

  6. Tom, many thanks for what was a considered reply to an ill-considered comment. My views were a bit rash (the internet seems to encourage such things, bringing out snap-shot reactions).

    I just don’t believe your book turns any new pages on China (and yes, I am only going from what I have seen on your website). Those photos do not move past the cliched (I stand by ‘trite’ even if I take back ‘dire’) and what you call ‘happy faces’.

    Perhaps we simply view photo books differently. To me, they should be revealing, challenging and informative. To you, perhaps, they should inspire and simply provide a record.

    And I should be more careful to realise that both approaches (and more) are equally valid.

    Regards and apologies,


    P.S. No need for what was a very gracious offer of a free book. I will moving soon and the last thing I need is a giant hardback to transport! Be safe in India.

  7. Pingback: Back in China — First Impressions : Pathology of Wanderlust

  8. Johnny,

    Please cite some examples of photo studies of China that are revealing, challenging and informative. I ask because I don’t really understand photography very deeply – probably would not recognize what you refer to – and would like to know more.

    Especially because I’d like to have a more critical POV when comparing,say, John Thompson and Felice Beato’s work Tom’s study.

    Would you say that the photography of Walker Evans in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is the sort of thing you have in mind? Any others?

    Thank you very much,
    James Lande

  9. Pingback: “…journey to undiscovered countries, and boldly go where few have gone before.” A Review of Tom Carter’s China, Portrait of a People | Old China Books Book Blog

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