Review: A Boy of China, Richard Loseby

A Boy of China, Richard Loseby

A Boy of China, Richard Loseby

A Boy of China
Richard Loseby
HarperCollins, $37

China's superpower status and New Zealand's close financial and cultural ties to the nation of just short of 1.4 billion often dazzle us to some of the country's stranger moments.

The Long March, for example, is effectively Red China's creation story – a two-year 13,000km trek undertaken by Communism's fledgling founders led by Mao Tse-tung and his 200,000 fighters and followers, while being pursued by Chiang Kai Shek's nationalist army.

Plague, famine and fighting meant only one in five survived to regroup in the relative safety of China's desolate northwest in 1936 – but ultimate victory meant Chairman Mao could resurrect the marchers as martyrs and retell the hellish journey as a heroic Odyssey: the birth of his new nation.

Amazingly – well, at least to our Western peacetime morality – Mao forced his wife He Zizhen to abandon their son at the start of the march and, in the chaos of civil war, the whereabouts of "Little Mao" was lost.

It's seems barely credible that the offspring of one of history's most renowned and recognisable figures could be mislaid – and that the official explanation ("whereabouts unknown, no further information available") hasn't provoked more interest.

And it's somehow even more wonderful that a creative director from an Auckland advertising agency should be the one to set out to track him down. Fortunately, not only does Richard Loseby have a traveller's tenacity to overcome the many obstacles that modern China throws in his way during his own long march, but also an advertising exec's eye for interesting selling points and an entertaining turn of phrase when retelling his story.

Loseby's travelling companions in the thoroughly enjoyable A Boy of China include a fighting cricket and an angry goose, and there are amusing side-stories concerning giant basketballers, prostitutes and teenage love-triangles as he negotiates his way through cultural, language and timetable barriers to a touching and wholly satisfying ending.

By visiting key places along the route of Mao Tse-tung and He Zizhen's journey, Loseby – who has already penned two travel books about his journeys in Afghanistan – is able to meld historical anecdotes with his own observations and adventures to explain a side of China which is far, far removed from the tourist trail.

He's also adept at revealing the emotions of both famous figures (presumably these are the author's own educated invention) and those he meets on the road – managing to flesh out characters which range from a cancer patient on his hospital deathbed to a bolshie, flirtatious language student.

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And by mixing this intimate detail with broad-brush history and an element of suspense (could Little Mao possibly be alive still?), A Boy of China becomes an eye-opening travel story which inks in a section of forgotten Chinese history.

 - Stuff

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