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The River at the Center of the World: A Journey Up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time    by Simon Winchester order for
River at the Center of the World
by Simon Winchester
Order:  USA  Can
Picador, 2004 (1996)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In The River at the Center of the World, Simon Winchester takes us with him on a journey back in time up the Yangtze, the river that intersects China. Along the way, he visits both relics of history and issues of modern times in that great country. I love the 8th century Li Bai poem quoted at the beginning, which includes: 'Like reading an ancient scroll - / Pictographs of man's flailing / Against the eddies / Of oft told histories ...'

Winchester begins his impressive journey (which he made with the assistance of strong-minded Chinese Lily) in Shanghai, the most modern region through which the river runs. In this port city (whose famous Bund I strolled along in 1985, watching early morning tai chi) the author visits 'the most up-to-date harbor control system in the world', and discusses the potential of the city as a true gateway to all of China, and its implications for the future of Hong Kong. In Zhenjiang, the 'East's greatest river' intersects the 'Grand Canal', built in the seventh century at great human cost. There too, the author finds out why the little white dolphin, the 'baiji', is disappearing from the Yangtze.

The author gives us a rousing account of the fate of the HMS Amethyst in 1949, and fails to find its lost anchor. He finds the old home of author Pearl S. Buck. He visits Nanjing, site of repeated atrocities, including a 'biological experimentation camp' where men, women and children were treated as 'logs of wood'. He tells us the story of Cornell Plant, an Englishman fascinated by the Yangtze, who became 'a one-man river survey', and describes the antics of otters, who catch up to 33 pounds of fish a day for the humans for whom they work. There's a very early hominid, possibly 'the ancestor of all Asian mankind', found in the Yangtze valley. And there's a discussion of the huge, unstoppable - but highly controversial - Three Gorges Dam project, 'A New Great Wall'.

The great journey ends in the river's headwaters in Tibet, where the author is accompanied by a Chinese man sympathetic to Tibetans' plight. Winchester makes a comparison between the potential drowning of people in middle China by the dam project and the drowning of Tibetans in an 'opiate ocean of the purest Han ethnicity.' The River at the Center of the World is an example of the best in travel literature - a challenging, exotic adventure, used as a base to explore both past and present. It's most informative as well as entertaining.

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