Barge train on the Grand Canal
Arched bridge in Chongfu
Tank barges in Siyang
Dry canal in Cangzhou
A street in old Dinghai
Old Dinghai South Gate
Dinghai South Gate today - a KFC!
Memorial to the Three Loyal Generals - killed when the British invaded Chusan
Buddhist monks go to prayer in Dinghai's main temple
Green Dragon, Sombre Warrior
Travelling to China’s extremes
Daily Express Book of the Week
In 2000 I began months of research in the British Library in preparation for an 11,000-mile, twelve-week journey around China’s four most far-flung places.
My first goal, the tiny fishing island of Shengshan, lies 56 miles offshore from Shanghai. Though not geographically the easternmost point of China (that prize goes to an uninhabited river-island in Manchuria), Shengshan is the last populated island you’ll reach along China’s curving east coast before making landfall again in Japan.
Next came Jinmu Point at the tip of tropical Hainan Island. Here again, the maps disagreed with me as to where exactly the farthest compass-point lay. Because of their cultural associations, the Chinese consider the rock formations at Tianyahaijiao beach to be the southernmost place in China despite their lying some miles to the north of Jinmu Point. To complicate matters, in terms of sovereignty the People’s Republic lays claim to pretty much all the islets and sandbanks of the South China Sea, making the miniscule James Shoal, 50 miles off the coast of Malaysia, China’s southernmost point. The Malaysians, it scarcely need be said, disagree.
At the extreme west of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, on the slopes of the Pamirs close by Kyrgyzstan, sits the tiny settlement of Ulugchat. Sadly, I singularly failed to reach this point, having been drugged and robbed on the train to Urumchi . . . Instead I satisfied myself with the old Silk Road oasis of Kashgar as the westernmost point of my journey.
My final destination, the log-cabin village of Mohe, is nestled beneath the forested slopes of the Amur River that forms the border with Russia. China’s lowest ever temperature was recorded here in the winter of 1969—a parky 62° F below freezing.
“D’Arcy Brown’s debut is a moving and chilling book. Let us hope there are many more to come.”
“This familiar type of book is enriched by the depth of D’Arcy Brown’s sinology and the acuity of his observations.”
D’Arcy Brown marshals an enjoyable selection of anecdotes and legends to set his destinations in historical context. But by far the most absorbing part of his travelogue consists of conversations with travelling companions. An engaging combination of travelogue and history.”
Times Literary Supplement
“A beautifully written travelogue attaining the perfect balance between social comment and personal experience.”
“Highly readable and well-informed. A short but incisive book that deftly weaves in some fascinating historical background. Although some parts are grim, the author has a lightness of touch which makes it an evocative read.”
Michael Rank, Beijing reporter
“A moving account of D’Arcy Brown’s three-month, 10,000-mile journey across China.”
Daily Express Book of the Week
“A delightful book, and one only someone with an excellent knowledge of Chinese history and culture and command of Chinese could have written. Absorbing and entertaining, punctuated by historical anecdotes and plenty of evocative descriptions of passing landscapes, written with a great deal of affection and insight and in a flowing, erudite style that will have you reaching for an English dictionary, let alone a Chinese one. For anyone who is even remotely interested in China, Green Dragon, Sombre Warrior is an absolutely essential read.”
The China-Britain Business Review
“Historical insights, Chinese mythologies, modern commentaries are all deftly interwoven with the narrative of his own odyssey. D’Arcy Brown has penned a perceptive portrait of modern China in all its bewildering diversity as it seeks to reconcile itself to the failure of idealism and the re-emergence of its oldest traditions. Along the way, he has captured its soul”
Stanley Stewart (author, Frontiers of Heaven; a journey beyond the Great Wall and In the Empire of Genghis Khan)
“D’Arcy Brown is no sentimental Sinophile: some of the places and people he encounters are tawdry, unpleasant, even threatening. Yet his penetrating, funny observations make for a fascinating read, even for those who have no intention of visiting the People’s Republic.”
The Emperor’s River
Travels to the heart of a resurgent China
—the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal
The Grand Canal of China is the world’s longest—it stretches farther than from London to Tunis—and also
its oldest, first dug in 483BC while Confucius himself was alive. The sole waterway running north-south in a country where natural rivers run from west to east, it long ago shifted China’s centre of gravity, even dictating the site of its capital since the thirteenth century. South of its summit in Shandong province, today’s route dates back to the seventh century; to the north, from the reign of Kublai Khan of Xanadu fame.
So why exactly was it dug? Before it was superseded by the railways, its primary purpose was to transport grain from China’s rice-growing regions to the capital, and at its height as many as 18,000 barges carried 600,000 tons of grain each year. With that grain China’s emperors bought their kinsmen’s loyalty, paid their scholar-officials, fed their armies, and filled the imperial granaries. It carried luxuries, too: porcelains, silks and satins, ivories, pearls, wines, paper, prized minerals, and the abundance of the tropics: sugar, liquorice, bananas, tea, hardwoods, medicines, incense . . . Along with those cargoes travelled ideas, customs, and dialects: over its 2,500 years of existence, the Grand Canal has been a powerful force for unifying Chinese culture.
Today its 100,000 vessels carry 260 million tons of freight each year—three times more than Britain’s entire railway network—including coal for China’s power stations, construction materials for growing cities like Shanghai, tarmac for their new motorways, and fuel for the cars that ride them. Just as importantly, the Grand Canal is earmarked to become part of the South-to-North Water Transfer Project that will carry water from the Yangtze to drought-ridden Beijing.
In 2006 I travelled the length of the Grand Canal, the first Westerner to do so for more than 200 years. As I made my way north I was surprised to discover that the Chinese were reinterpreting their canal in an unexpected way.
After their wartime victory over the Japanese and the founding of the People’s Republic, the Chinese began to forge a sense of national identity after a century of defeats at the hands of foreign powers. Today one of the clearest social trends in China, now that people are no longer motivated by the message of communism, is the rise of nationalism amongst its majority ethnic group. ‘Han nationalism’ is being encouraged as a means of holding China together in difficult times. Beijing’s reaction to Tibetan and Uighur demands for autonomy is a good example of how the government is imposing a unified Chinese culture upon its entire population. As part of this policy, the Grand Canal is being promoted as a symbol of Chinese pride and cultural achievement.
The Emperor’s River, the story of my journey to trace the Grand Canal of China, is published by Eye Books.
In search of Britannia’s first Chinese island
One project I’ve been working on is the history of the island of Chusan (now Zhoushan, Zhejiang province).
Chusan, commanding a strategically important position on the trade route to northern China and the Yangtze, felt the early effects of globalization as one great empire came upon the shores of another and forced it to adapt to the modern world. What happened there tells us a great deal about Britain and China’s entwined pasts and allows us to reflect on the changing flow of history at a time when our nineteenth-century roles are being reversed.
Trading ships of the East India Company first arrived in Chusan in 1700 to buy tea, silk and porcelain. Life for the English merchants was never easy: the articles they desired were so highly prized that the Chinese could name their price. But things changed forever when it was realised that the Chinese would pay good money for British opium. When in 1839 the Chinese destroyed Britain’s stockpiles of the drug, the two nations were plunged into conflict.
With the outbreak of the Opium War, Chusan’s principal city, Dinghai, became the first piece of China to be invaded by a Western army. Only with the handover of Hong Kong in 1997 would the last Western occupiers finally leave Chinese soil. For the next six years Chusan became home to thousands of Britons—soldiers, sailors, merchants, missionaries, doctors, botanists, educators and more, and not just men but women and children, too—all under the protection of the Union Jack. Many left detailed records of life on Britannia’s first Chinese island.
Their writings describe how two civilisations slowly moved from incomprehension to admiration. The story of Chusan began with warfare, kidnappings, beheadings and murderous reprisals; but by the time the British flag was lowered in 1846, regrets were being voiced at Whitehall’s choice of a barren Hong Kong over beautiful Chusan to be its principal Chinese possession. If only history had been different, skyscrapers might now be rising above the cities of British-administered Chusan.
Today the Chinese Communist Party is reinventing Chusan’s history. The island has been woven into the new mythology of how the Chinese opposed foreign invaders: the three generals who failed to hold back the British have become glorious martyrs; brave farmers have become icons of socialist struggle. As the Party tries to unite a fragmenting nation, the island where the first broadside was fired in the long battle for China’s modernity offers inspirational field-trips to today’s schoolchildren.
Having visited Chusan three times in the course of my research, I plan to travel there once more to look again at how the island’s history is being reinterpreted. With a little diligence, I hope to complete the story of Britannia’s first Chinese island and have Chusan in print within the coming two years.