Colette Modiano

Overall Rating: 9
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Author: Colette Modiano
Title: Maos Land des Lächelns. Eine Reise durch Rotchina. [Twenty Snobs and Mao: Travelling De Luxe in Communist China]
Time: 1966
Destination: China, some Russia
Length: a few weeks
Type: deluxe travel group

tourists between two layers of hell

[Note: I read the German edition of this book, I think the original is in French.]

The story: CM is working as a travel coordinator in France when she decides to assemble a group of wealthy Europeans and embark with them on a trip to China. It is the year 1966, and getting a glimpse on Mao’s Middle Kingdom from the inside is not easy for foreigners. CM wisely decides to take a sinologist with her, but that doesn’t change much – she still has to do most of the negotiating with the Chinese authorities herself. And negotiations are tough. Her group gets three mandatory tour guides who are with them all the time (much like the tour guides you can apparently expect in North Korea today), and CM has to fight for visits to some of the historical sights when the group is expected to be inspecting industrial plants instead.

The wealthy European tourists prove to be a pain in the ass as well, complaining and ever complaining about everything, the sights, the food, the hotel rooms. But CM manages to pull through, and when the trip nears its end, she finds herself somehow starting to like the country and its people.

Communism through the eyes of Colette Modiano, a tourist

First off, much of the historical information provided in this book is not correct – CM just doesn’t know much about China. That doesn’t make it a bad read, though. When we are being told that the last great famine has swept through China way before the founding of the People’s Republic, there is something we can learn from this: the Communist Party really did somehow manage to hide the millions and millions of deaths during the failed campaign of the Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1962 (just a few years before CM’s visit) from the outside world! Chills down my spine.

And when CM tells us of the endless repetitions of Mao Zedong Thought in all the public spaces, we can – or maybe we can’t – understand part of the madness that the people of China get hurled into during the so-called “Cultural Revolution” just after CM and her group have left the country.

looking for some sex appeal?

But that’s not even what I liked best about the book. CM is a humorous writer, and she is also very honest. She can be critical of China, of her group, and also of herself, and she rarely tries to teach us anything (when she does, she fails). Most of the time she just offers her very personal opinions on things, and this is exactly what makes this book so much worthwhile.

When she talks about the lack of sex appeal in Chinese women at the time (“their jackets look like pants, their pants look like jackets”), or when she muses about the romantic feelings between one of her Chinese tour guides and a European tour member – this is when the people in the book actually come alive. We see a country of hundreds of millions taking a breath between two layers of hell (that of the Great Leap Forward and that of the “Cultural Revolution”). Or at least we see a tiny part of it.

Read this if you like funny travel writing and/or if you are interested in Communist China!

A 9/10.

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