The Back Blocks of China

traveling China through literature

Walking and traveling has long been an important part of the story of foreigners interacting with China, and Earnshaw Books over the years has published several books which relate the stories of foreigners moving around through this country, describing and commenting on what they see. There is Edwin Dingle’s Across China on Foot and also George Morrison’s An Australian in China — in both cases they walked from Chongqing, in what was then Sichuan Province, roughly southwest to the Burmese border. Morrison did it in around 1890 and Dingle around 20 years later. Another great hero for Earnshaw Books is Isabella Bird, arguably the first modern travel writer, and we have published three of her books which include descriptions of places in Greater China, including the memoir of her trip through western China, The Yangtze River Valley and Beyond, which is one of the classics. I personally have done a fair amount of traveling in China, including a walk across the country that started in Shanghai in 2004 and covered the distance through to the center of Sichuan, episodically. That is, I was not able, like my forerunners, to do the trip in one go, but traveled out on a monthly basis and always resumed the walk to the millimeter from the point where I had previous stopped. The book of my walk, called The Great Walk of China, was published by Blacksmith Books in Hong Kong.

The reason for listing out these titles is that we have just pulled another book which is very similar out of the gloom of dusty library shelves, an almost unknown volume but a worthy complement to these other foreigner memoirs of remote parts of this enormous and fascinating country. The book is called The Back Blocks of China, and it was written by an Australian geologist named Logan Jack. He was inspecting coal mines in Sichuan province in 1900 when the Boxer Rebellion erupted in eastern and north-eastern China, resulting in the deaths of many foreigners. Jack and his companions were advised by the British consulate in Shanghai that it was unsafe to return eastwards down the Yangtze to Shanghai, and their best bet was to make a dash for it to British-controlled Burma. As with other, better-known books, The Back Blocks of China gives clear and entertaining descriptions of all that Jack sees. His account of the many encounters and events on the journey are well-written and illuminating, and have huge historical value because he was the only outsider to pass through that huge region of the world at the time to bother to write it all down.

So what was happening in that part of the world at the time? The answer is that it was changing. Han Chinese were moving in and the various peoples that had dominated mountainous southwestern Sichuan and Yunnan province were, in one way or another, on the retreat. This book is a hugely valuable report on the state of play in the year 1900. Jack also provides his views on the future of China and its role in the world and that makes for fascinating reading in the context of today, in that we know to what extent he was right or wrong. I hesitate too add to much information about that, in the hopes that you will go and buy the book, but he got a surprising amount right and he did that because he was looking at the situation objectively, through the eyes of an engineer, but one with a facility for words.

Earnshaw Books these days publishes very few public domain works such as this one, partly because we have so many good original books coming through the system and also because public domain books have been reprinted in a low-quality way by so many publishers elsewhere. But this one is different and is definitely worth reading.

Leave a Reply