Stephen Spender

Overall Rating: 1.5
Home » Stephen Spender


Author: Stephen Spender
Title: China Diary
Time: 1981
Destination: China, Hongkong
Length: a few weeks
Type: guided tourism

Three dudes and their guide

The story: At the beginning of the 1980s, during the early years of China’s opening and reform policy, aging English writer SS decides to visit the Middle Kingdom. He takes two friends along, one of whom is a painter (co-author David Hockney = DH). They start their tour from Hongkong, and they get to see Beijing, Xi’an, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Wuxi, Shanghai, Guilin and Guangzhou, then they return via Hongkong. All the while, they have a personal Chinese tour guide and some local guides with them. They visit tourist landmarks, farms, artists, poetry readings and factorie, with SS taking notes and DH taking photographs and drawing pictures. The resulting book is rather large and feels a bit like a coffeetable book, with colored illustrations and photos througout. But is it any good?

Stephen Spender and his fresh view on China

The short answer: it’s alright. Read it if you are interested in early 80s China. The long answer: SS and his friends don’t really know that much about the things that they see, and if you were to be nice, you could call their observations “fresh”. Or you could call them “superficial” if you wanted to be cruel. However, they are doing their best to completely cover everything they see and experience, and they seem to be aware of the fact that they understand only little. Also, I personally found the interaction between them and their guide(s) to be very interesting (because the guide is apparently struggling a bit with the official party line), and they get exposed to some interesting things, like a model farm or Tan Wenxi (谭文西), child prodigy from Guangxi.

why you might want to read this

Pick this up if you are interested in China during the early stage of the transitional period, when foreign tourists were allowed in the country but had to be under some sort of supervision by a “tourist guide” all of the time. SS and his friends are at their best when they are talking to people who are involved in art or poetry, because that’s their own profession. So if 1980s Chinese art/poetry is your thing, this book might be an interesting starting point for you. About the book itself: I liked the idea to intersperse text with drawings, paintings and photographs, but I think it would have been better if they had made the whole thing a bit smaller, because this way the book is just too big to carry around.

A 6/10.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.