China Book Reviews


Mark Anthony Jones, Flowing Waters Never Stale: journeys through China, Zeus Publications, Burleigh MDC, Queensland, 2008.

ISBN 978-1-921406-32-4 (pbk.)

Mark Anthony Jones, Flowing Waters Never Stale: journeys through China.

by Jason Lee

Written over a five year period from early 2002 to February 2007, Flowing Waters Never Stale is one of the most insightful China travel narratives that I have ever read, though it is also the most unusual. Unlike most travel books, this one does not employ the use of a continuous narrative to propel the reader forward, recalling the past not as a continuous, unbroken series of events, “but as fragments, nonlinear, as they spring to mind.” As the “composer” himself explains, his text comprises “little more than a collection of memories, of fragmented versions of reality – snapshots that when viewed together in the one volume, and in any order, can be used to form a broader, more detailed picture” – a collage, but of a China viewed through his eyes, as he experienced it.

“Although the reader may notice some recurring themes,” he adds, “no attempt is made to conclude with a grand unknotting, for ‘China is too big a country, and her national life has too many facets, for her not to be open to the most diverse and contradictory of interpretations,’ as the Chinese writer Lin Yutang once warned. ‘The truth,’ he added, ‘can never be proved; it can only be hinted at.’” (p.5)

In typical postmodern style, the “composer” of this text - Australian high school English teacher Mark Anthony Jones – provides “responders” with a China wrapped in various layers of meaning. In order to convey his multiple readings, Jones builds his narrative around the dialectical relationship he has with his Chinese-born girlfriend, Xiaojing. When, in the third chapter for example, they stroll into a Buddhist temple playing host to a Snoopy doll exhibition, Jones’ initial reaction is one of cynicism and disappointment. “The integrity of the site was seriously compromised the day we visited,” he complains. “The decision to house a Snoopy exhibition, within the compounds of the city’s oldest and most important Buddhist temple, speaks volumes about present-day China. Monks today consider the faithful to be consumers, and their temples as mere money-making ‘attractions’.” (pp.23-24) The legitimacy of his reading is challenged by Xiaojing, who cautions him against the romanticisation of a past that never existed: “…you’ll end up being like one of those New Age Orientalists – a mindless consumer of Shangri-la,” she warns. By reminding him that Buddhist monasteries were never places of “safe transcendent peace”, but were always instead “businesses that ran factories and farms and sometimes even armies,” he is prompted to devise an alternative reading, drawing on the works of numerous historians to help piece together his new line of reasoning: “What I had witnessed in Xishan temple, I realised, was not an example of cultural vandalism, of the subjugation of one culture by another, though on the surface it certainly looked that way. What had taken place instead was the appropriation of Snoopy and friends, exploited in a culturally specific way to reflect the strong entrepreneurialism common among the organisers and advocates of Chinese Buddhism.’ (p.27)

The same device is employed effectively in chapter six, when the two visit the Meridian View Centre, located on the 69th floor of Shenzhen’s tallest building, the Diwang. Jones’ initial response is to interpret his experience of Asia’s “first high-rise theme sightseeing and entertainment scenic spot” via a reading of Jean Baudrillard’s
Precession of Simulacra. Drawing on various historical sources, both primary and secondary, Jones convincingly outlines the various ways in which the theme park mythologizes Shenzhen’s past. “The Meridian View Centre’s entertainment certainly did distort the city’s past and present in the way that it presented a nationalist cause centred on economic development and the country’s One-China Policy,” he writes, “and by its glorification of past anti-imperialist struggles, pitted against successive waves of foreign invaders by hero-pirates. It masked reality, with its claim that ‘the cultures, the style and features of both Shenzhen and Hong Kong have merged here beautifully,’ and that both Shenzhen and Hong Kong share histories as ‘one continuous line, nurtured by the long Shenzhen River’ whose ‘people have grown up on both sides’ – whose common cause and whose shared destinies had been interrupted only briefly, by the colonial exploits of a foreign power. The fact that the Qing navy’s ability to resist foreign fleets had been seriously weakened by their own struggles with home-grown pirates, whose numbers are thought to have exceeded forty thousand, had simply been left out of the picture, omitted from the entertainment.” (p.56)

The Meridian View Centre also “distorted China’s sexual history” by omitting from its infotainment the fact that its most celebrated hero pirate was bisexual, and that homosexuality was common among not only those who took to the high seas, but among the Chinese population in general, with even many of China’s emperors over the centuries having had various male lovers: “Even human sexuality it would seem, our own nature as human beings, has been derealised – substituted instead by a discourse that ‘naturalises’ monogamous heterosexual relationships bound legally by marriage as the only ‘normal’ practice of sexual behaviour and instinct – a discourse which is purely ideological and historical, but which is instead presented as being fundamentally inherent to our collective natures, and therefore unbroken by time. The simulacrum functions not only to entertain, but also to create and to maintain societal amnesia.” (p.58)

It is while staring out over the city from Diwang’s impressive heights that Jones reaches the conclusion that he and Xiaojing had been sold “a fake reality, a conceptual and mythologised model of reality, but with no connection to reality, and with no origin in reality – marketable precisely because it was able to claim itself as being something more exciting and pleasant than reality.” The panoramic view overlooking the “real” Shenzhen that one is able to enjoy from this building’s great height he says, “is simply not inspiring enough in itself, it would seem. The reality of Shenzhen’s cityscape is that it looks little different from all other Chinese cities of similar size. It is nothing special, nothing most people would be willing to pay sixty yuan to catch a glimpse of. The view from the Meridian View Centre is only marketable if the city’s history of economic development itself is mythologised, and if it is packaged together with other ‘attractions’ – a ‘high-rise theme sightseeing and entertainment scenic spot,’ as my brochure proclaimed.” (p.60)

Yet just when we, as his “responders”, think that we have the Diwang building all figured out, his cynicism is once again challenged by his feisty other half, whose lecture prompts him to make a 180 degree turn around, re-reading his experience via Michel de Certeau’s
The practice of everyday life, thereby giving currency to the idea that we can never really know what is true, for his alternative “reading” seems every bit as convincing.

Not only is Jones’ narrative fragmented in time and space, and by a multitude of voices, but also if offers a considerable diversity of style, with the first half of the book written in the past tense, the second in the present. Some chapters are dialogue-driven, and there is plenty of light humor throughout the text to maintain the “responder’s” momentum. At times the writing is even poetic, like that of a Kerouac:

“Here in Mong Kok, pedestrians cross the road in waves, sometimes tidal, flooding the sidewalk and drowning all those who are caught in the flow. Like moths they come – sprawling masses that fly up out of the subway and onto the street, and like me are seduced here, are dazzled by the neon nightscape. Xiaojing and I stroll south along Portland Street, the distant sound of thunder. Young girls in fishnet stockings and high stilettos, colourful in their makeup, stand beneath flashing barber poles, enticing passers-by up flights of narrow stairs that pulsate out onto the street with the bass lines of Cantopop, or with the crashing sounds of hip-hop and acid jazz.” (pp.121-122)

In other places the poetry is more subdued and melancholic, though just as evocative, but with an economy of words:

“Water drips from the eaves, rippling pond waters and pattering on stone – the tranquil aftermath of a storm just passed.” (p.100)

Then there’s this line, on the following page:

“Rising smoke curls, twists through the air – offerings of incense that provide us with some momentary relief from the wafts of rotting river, and in the distance, the laughter of children at play remind us that this is still a living community, in spite of its dereliction, in spite of its dead waterway.”

The chapter on Tibet opens with colorful personification, creating for the “responder” an explosion in sensual pleasure:

“Here in the forests of Diqing, the autumn colours riot furiously as maple soldiers shower the forest floor with their arsenal of leaves – bright yellows and oranges yell loudly as they collide with blood crimsons on the battlefield, all carried by the breeze, they twist and turn against one another as they meet in mid-air frenzy before exploding into kaleidoscopes more beautiful than any fireworks against this backdrop of perfect blue sky on late October day of sunshine.” (p.128)

His views on the Tibet issue are complex and nuanced, and are likely to prove controversial, though his analysis of the separatist movement seems to have foreshadowed recent events: “…for the waves of illiterate young men, becoming a monk is all too often their only viable option in life. Once in the monasteries though, they are easily exploited, for their feelings of jealousy, anger and resentment make them receptive to those who are keen to push the separatist agenda – people who blame the Han for all of Tibet’s social ills, both imagined and real. Their gripe then, not surprisingly, is usually articulated along ethnic lines, often chauvinistically, their anti-Han sentiments sometimes spilling over into racial violence on the streets.” (p.142)

Flowing Waters Never Stale
, if anything, certainly captures much of the diversity of this fascinating country, and is a highly entertaining read, full of colorful characters and plentiful facts. My only real criticism is that its “composer” relies too heavily at times on “other voices” – stitching together in places too many quotes. His writing at times can be academic and dry, though when he relies on his own voice, his descriptions tend to be poetic and moving, even hauntingly beautiful.