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.

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