Embracing the Dragon: A Woman’s Journey Along the Great Wall of China
Awa Press, $29.95,
Kidnapped in Yemen
Random House, $29.95,
Travel elsewhere, we’ve long been told, broadens the mind through an engagement with the new, the exotic, the Other. And if the best of that peculiarly heterogeneous category of book we label “travel writing” always offers, in Norman Douglas’ words, something also of an “interior, a sentimental or temperamental voyage” to accompany the exterior one, it is nonetheless the quality of that engagement with strange lands and people that lends the whole enterprise meaning. Once travel becomes adventure tourism, however, the thrill of physical danger, deliberately courted, replaces the quest for knowledge and understanding; it’s more a workout for the pectoral muscles than for the brain. And what must be a fairly meaningless activity in the first place becomes, it seems, even more so in the retelling.
Polly Greeks, sometime reporter with the Evening Post, finds herself in China if not entirely accidentally then certainly ill-prepared, as the consequence of a failed attempt to inhabit another’s dream: that of her lover Nathan Gray, a man obsessed by the desire to walk the Great Wall of China from one end to the other. Greeks herself has “never given a stuff” about the wall, while China too had not previously featured in her dreams. Midway through her book, she poses the question why she went: “The answer leaves me feeling foolish and pathetic. Yes, I love adventures, and yes, I love exploring the planet’s wilderness places, but my dream has always been to return to South America and the Himalaya. China’s never really called to me. I’m here because of Nathan.” Understandably, then, this book, Greeks’s first, tells one little either about China or the wall. This is a pity, in both respects.
China is currently experiencing change of a scale and rapidity unprecedented in human history. For instance, more houses were apparently built there last year than in all of Britain in the period since WWII. But if we have available to us many reports from the urban epicentres of this transformation, little is known about its impact upon the isolated landscapes through which Gray and Greeks follow the Great Wall. Sadly, the latter’s descriptions of the countryside restrict themselves to the picturesque:
Below us China is in miniature – postage-stamp villages linked by a thread of a road. From this angle, humanity is like a colony of fleas on the mighty brown shoulders of a giant … . At sunset the wall glows pink and gold, as if cast in bronze. Behind me, the horizon is a line of ferocious peaks biting into the fiery sky.
To her credit, Greeks is anxious about the linguistic roots of her blindness; whereas Gray can speak some Mandarin, she knows not a word and neither of them can read any Chinese. The highlight of the book in many ways is that moment when she finally gets hold of a Chinese phrasebook which will free her from her dependence on Gray as interpreter and allow her to make her own first attempts to communicate with the people who offer her hospitality along her journey. Sadly again, however, it is only very late in the book, once the couple have been trekking for a good two months, that Greeks “really connect[s] with a Chinese person”, an engaging conservationist and deer farmer called Li.
The Great Wall too is a tale that would have been well worth the telling, and one that is deeply implicated in that complex economy of images that is the currency of travel and its representation. This despite the fact that Marco Polo, that first great China traveller, makes no mention of the wall – a circumstance that has led many to conclude that the Venetian never made it much beyond his family’s trading post at Constantinople. As Greeks readily admits, the two facts that she did know about the wall before she set out to conquer it – that it was long and could be seen from the moon – both turned out to be false. The Great Wall is not one wall but many, some connected, most not, and much of these of different historical provenance, and all of them of dubious defensive efficacy. Although Greeks doesn’t tell us so, it was the American entrepreneur William Geil who first made the latter claim, in 1909, couched in the future tense in his book about the wall.
The Chinese, for their part, have never called the wall “great”, simply “long”, and as an image it has always been freighted with entirely negative connotations, of wasteful and tyrannical government and of military impotence. Writing with exasperation in 1925 for instance, the great modern Chinese writer Lu Xun exclaimed: “When shall we cease reinforcing this Great Wall of ours with new bricks. A curse upon this wonderful Great Wall!” It was the Jesuit missionaries of the 17th century who, in their letters back to the Vatican, began the process of reversing this reading of the image, a process that reached something of an apotheosis when Richard Nixon stood upon the wall in 1972 and declared it “great”. The event served further to reinforce the Chinese appropriation of the Western-derived positive connotations of the wall as symbol of the Chinese nation, and it was soon to be the subject of the huge tapestry China presented the United Nations upon her re-accession to that body. As an emblem of China’s re-entry into the international community, I have often wondered what was intended by this gift.
As national icon, then, the wall has had a somewhat chequered career, but becomes ever more sacred in the popular and contemporary mind. In Red Dust, Ma Jian’s Kerouac-like account of his wanderings throughout China in the early 1980s, the dissident novelist cites a letter from a friend who has heard that a group of foreigners is walking the Great Wall from end to end: “We must not let foreigners be the first to walk the Great Wall. It would bring disgrace to the entire Chinese race.” Reading between the lines of Embracing the Dragon, it is Greeks’s lover who seems to have a better grasp of all this than she does. Rejecting her amorous advances one night soon after they embark upon their journey, Gray explains that to him the wall is tapu and “off-limits for sex”. “I can’t believe it,” Greeks writes:
What’s the point of being lovers if we’re not allowed to touch? “Sex isn’t dirty or defiling, it’s as sacred as any wall,“ I want to say, but Nathan explains that the wall is tapu, the way that cemeteries are. I nod my head but I don’t get it at all.
It is a moment that serves both to presage the eventual failure of their relationship and also perhaps to expose the dislocation between this book and its ostensible topic.
The adventure of Mary Quin’s book is both real and un-courted. She, in contrast to Greeks, is a traveller both well prepared for the trip she takes and knowledgeable about its destination. Above all, she understands the transformative power of a journey; the extent to which, by being forced to face the unfamiliar, we return home, in her words, “more fully human”. And face the unfamiliar she certainly does for, a week after joining a planned two-week tour of Yemen in 1998, Quin was kidnapped by members of the Aden Abyan Islamic Army. A day later and she has been rescued, but four of her fellow travellers lie dead and Quin has found herself ripping an AK-47 out of the hands of her wounded kidnapper.
If this event occasions her book, it does not constitute its real topic. The following two-thirds of the book provide an account of Quin’s indefatigable quest to understand the broader context of the kidnapping, including a return to Yemen and the scene of her capture, and the extent to which her experiences changed the trajectory of her life. Quin’s unravelling of the tangled skeins of this tale is occasionally both slightly naïve and somewhat preachy. “I could never accept your version of Islam,” she tells one of the British Muslims being held in a Yemeni prison on terrorist charges, “it is too limiting on choices for women. I value my freedom and independence too much.” But her account is nonetheless salutary, nowhere more so than in her discussion of the radicalisation of Abu Hamza, the Mullah of Finsbury Park, whom she interviews in London.
Global tourism’s footprint grows ever larger and more ghastly in its impact. One possible justification for travel remains the knowledge (of Self and of Other), both generated and disseminated. In these terms, the contrast between these two books by New Zealanders abroad could not be starker. Mary Quin’s life is changed forever by the experiences she relates. Polly Greeks, having arrived in China “angry at the population for its appalling track record on human rights”, ends her book with the surely vainglorious thought that she “ended up walking further along the Great Wall of China than any Western woman, and possibly any Chinese woman, had ever done before.”
Duncan Campbell teaches Chinese at Victoria University of Wellington.