Juan Zhong reviews the travelogue of a Frenchman’s journey around China at the turn of the century.
Alfred Raquez, In the Land of Pagodas, edited and translated by William L. Gibson and Paul Bruthiaux (NIAS Press, 2017), 494pp.
When a western traveler and adventurer sets foot on Chinese soil, a “singular country” (6), for the very first time in the end of 19th century, what kinds of “chemical reactions” would arise? In the Land of Pagodas, Frenchman Alfred Raquez presents the spark of the “meeting”. A form of bricolage, this travelogue is comprised of Raquez’s impressions and fragmentary daily logs from his journeys into Hong Kong, Macao, Shanghai, Hubei, Hunan and Guizhou from September 1898 to April 1899, when drastic politic changes took place in China as the country fell prey to imperial powers.
In the eyes of Raquez, pagodas are the carriers of the mystical civilization that he attempts to “pierce” (10). The very first sight of pagodas, nine-story-high towers off the coast of Canton, assures him that he and his party “really are in China!” (10). Deep in mountains, nestled along roads, sheltered by an ancient tree, or erected in the bustling streets, pagodas of various styles mark a refrain in the author’s journey. Ascending to the top of one, one can see farther and better, and in this way Raquez attempts to bring forth a relatively broad vision of China.
Rife with references to newspaper reports, historical records, maps, photos and illustrations, this travelogue gives a convincing account of China. Indeed, a kind of documentary style is discernible throughout the text, interspersed with personal commentaries that are characterized with prudence and deliberation. Actually, the author seldom rushes to judgment hastily. Instead, his personal account is always in parallel with external references, either to dissipate his speculations or otherwise. The language is lively and succinct, exhaustive without being overly general, and hued with a sense of humor. Interestingly, the text is peppered with traditional Chinese songs, invitation letters, and local regulations which all work to enliven the book with a taste of the diverse local cultural flavors that Raquez enjoyed.
To this end, the exotic wonders of China are unfolded in a detailed manner. Filling almost every day with all walks of Chinese people, Raquez discusses his visits to the Mix Court, International Concession, Kiangnan Arsenal, various observatories and publishing presses. He also strolls around tea houses, hotel-cum-restaurant flower boats, temples, and markets. The journey ranges from the dynamic coastal cities of Hong Kong, Macao and Shanghai to the relatively reticent villages in Hunan and Guizhou Provinces. These all give rise to what Raquez describes as the many “strange” customs of the land – and such observations permeate the book.
Marveling at the amount of fresh fish sold in the streets of Canton, he speculates that “[all] Chinese people [must] eat fish two or three times a day” (27). But occasionally, and almost inevitably, there are moments where Raquez describes less pleasurable episodes in his travels – challenging weather, social unrest, and unwelcome news. When informed of the death of the son of a French notary, he sighs uneasily, “This China is such a devourer of men!” (115)
This is then no simple record of a European voyeur’s exploration of an exotic land, for the text is admirably peppered with what seems genuine notes of sympathy and sincerity for China and its people. Between the lines, one sees a sympathetic soul on a journey. A man of feeling, Raquez is compassionate – especially towards the unfortunate child workers he witnesses on his travels, and the reformers’ heroic deeds which he knows cements their miserable fates. In the spirit of camaraderie, he holds that all their names “should pass into posterity” (169).
Following this “kaleidoscope-like” travelogue, the exotic wonders of China and the progress of the civilizing mission of Europeans through the lens of a Frenchman at the end of the nineteenth century are gradually unveiled through Raquez’s joys, frustrations, pleasures, sympathies and lamentations. This travelogue shakes off the dust of one hundred years of history, and in so doing breaths a new freshness and vivacity to our sense of the European image of China.
Juan Zhong is currently a PhD student of English literary studies at The University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include African literature, diasporic writings, Postcolonial literary studies, theatre and performances.