An Englishman aboard

The River at the Centre of the World by Simon Winchester, Viking, pounds 18

There are rivers, mere stretches of water which flow freely and look lovely. And there are rivers that are highways, the M1s of our imaginations. The Yangtze, the world's fifth longest waterway, is a river of this mighty kind. A battleground, a transport route, a creator of legends, a killer in flood, it flows through the heart of modern China and back through the history of where East met, and fought, West.

Simon Winchester was determined to take on this giant. He made the winding 4000-mile voyage from its gaping mouth at Shanghai to the headwaters in Tibet, most of it in a first-class cabin on a public ferry, unashamedly in search of another time as much as another place. What he sees, and what he has read, are inextricable. Auden and Isherwood's Shanghai is as powerfully portrayed as the neon and McDonald's of the city today.

The author even carries photographs of the past, postcards of a land he wishes he was travelling through. He looks up from his 1931 snap of the Wind Moving Pagoda of Anqing, "its skirts dipping deep into the river, a sailing junk passing gracefully below" to the scene today, with "office buildings ... iron wharves ... oily smoke." The note is one of despair; "ruin" and "ruination" appear frequently. Pollution, ugly architecture, tree- felling, greed, carelessness are among the things blamed for ruining the land of his sepia snaps.

But from out of this gloom shines Lily, a young and modern Chinese woman, and the wisest choice of travelling companion. Lily is his filter on China today. When he berates the Chinese for killing off the Yangtze dolphin, she in turn berates him. Save the dolphins or starve the children, she gently reminds him.

Through Lily, we not only question the author's interpretation but the very things he seeks. Inquiring after the anchor (yes, the anchor) of the British frigate HMS Amethyst, which patrolled the river in 1949, the gateman at the Zhenjiang museum was adamant: there were plenty of Song dynasty pots and pans, but no anchor from a barbarian war vessel. Undeterred, Winchester strikes out to find relics which seem important to him. But when he refused to give up his search for a forgotten memorial to the signing of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, Lily reached the end of her long tether. "Your bloody British Empire again!" she wailed.

With Lily beside him, he is instantly transformed from British bore to a funnel for every Englander's vaguely formed hopes and fears for China. Rather than losing our sympathy, he guarantees it; we, of course, would have made exactly the same mistakes.

In this account with little hope, Lily is our one light. But even this beacon is smothered: for her own safety, Lily is not her real name. This silencing of China's small heroes is, perhaps, the greatest sadness.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas