Review #6: Three Tigers, One Mountain

I’ve taken a short reading break recently – on top of the relentless day-after-day piling on of terrible news, I have a very small baby and returned to work, so reading for pleasure without instantly nodding off has been challenging.

Whether it’s the lockdown or the lack of sleep, my brain has been drifting abroad and back in time a lot, to happy days of footloose travelling, particularly around China and East Asia. You know the sort of thing – 36 hours on a triple bunk sleeper train across the northern plains, desperately trying to refuse generous hospitality. If I had all the time and all the freedom in the world I would be right back there, perhaps finally achieving my little ambition of visiting every Chinese province.

Three Tigers, One Mountain looked like just the ticket. It is part travelogue, part history, part politics, focusing on the relationships between the three (and a half) East Asian nations, written by a journalist and interested amateur (in the most complimentary, old-fashioned way) enthusiast for East Asia and Japan in particular. Now, I vowed to stay as far as possible away from politics and contentious issues here, and I’ve probably already sailed too close to the wind by implying that there might be a ‘half country’ in East Asia (you know, that mountainous island just off Fujian), so I’ll stay away from some of the arguments here for propriety’s sake.

The first notable aspect of Three Tigers is how little Michael Booth inserts himself into the story. He writes engagingly from his first person perspective, and is open about his assumptions and hypotheses, but this is not one of those travelogues reliant on a journey of (self-)discovery for its thrust and structure. I could tell you almost nothing about Booth from the text alone – this is no Riding the Iron Rooster or Red Dust. It’s more akin to some of my favourite travel writing like Simon Winder’s Germania, in which visiting particular locations sparks associations, thoughts and insights into the country at large. There is also relatively little travelling; it feels more like a research trip, in which Booth travels mostly overland, meeting notable academics and personalities, and visiting appropriate museums. What little ‘colour’ Booth gives us is largely confined to petrol stations. Indeed, at one point he even refers self-deprecatingly to ‘proper travel writers’.

Booth is also something of an open book when it comes to ideas. He expounds a theory at the outset (that all the ills of East Asia can be placed at Commodore Perry’s feet) and ends proposing another (that the Opium Wars are the root cause), but is not remotely wedded to either, and is refreshingly unbothered that his observations are ‘hardly original’. He speaks with academics and experts offering views on all sides of the argument, draws on his observations and avoids firm conclusions. He is equivocal on almost everything, even questioning his own rationale for not visiting North Korea (‘the moral aspect was…probably an excuse if I’m honest’).

It’s refreshing, but can be frustrating. Booth visits Qufu, Confucius’ birthplace, having ‘formed a theory that Confucius’ ideas had brought a uniquely toxic edge’ to the twentieth century in East Asia. He proceeds to offer in some detail all the many points of view for and against the abiding influence of Confucius. He quotes Michael Turton that ‘the word Confucian is just tossed around by journalists, but no one ever unpacks it to see what it means’, but Booth falls victim to this himself – he presents others’ views and arguments, but doesn’t grapple with the text of ideas or Confucius.

As Booth structures the book around his own journey, we progress through Japan, Korea, then China and Japan addressing issues as they are raised by Booth’s interactions with the places and the people he interviews. By the very nature of the book, almost every topic is rooted in Japan’s imperialistic adventures. In Japan this takes us from Kurihama to Fukuoka, exploring the Japanese far-right, Japan’s relationship with its war crimes, the Zainichi Koreans in Japan. In Korea, Booth covers Korean views of Japan, including comfort women, but also recent domestic history, the power of the chaebol conglomerates and pop culture, from Psy to the ubiquity of coffee shops and plastic surgery (he even undergoes a minor procedure). Booth is fascinated by the differences between Korea and Japan, from the small observations (more metal chopsticks, more public farting) to the philosophical (‘the Japanese are better at accepting what fate brings… Koreans brooks endlessly’).

For me, the China section was the most disappointing. Perhaps this is down to a greater familiarity with the country, but Booth appeared to visit fewer places and explore fewer ideas. Aside from the big cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong) and Qufu, Booth’s only other stops on the itinerary are to witness Chinese views of Japanese war crimes in Harbin and Nanjing. He is pleasantly surprised by the Chinese approach to these, and is particularly taken by Wu Xianbing, who runs a private museum to the Nanjing Massacre. Nevertheless, it felt like Booth was skating over many of the complexities of modern China. For instance, there are only passing references to Chinese online culture, which would have been an enlightening place to explore.

Booth also seems to run out of puff in his writing somewhat. Much of the writing is in essay form and not reliant on travel observations, but in the early part of the book I found myself laughing at some of his wonderfully evocative descriptions (‘I feel like one of those Congolese dandies at an accounting convention’…’highly instaggramable sika deer, which saunter like pampered concubines’…’everything looks like a Streatham fried chicken joint’). By the time he arrives in China his observations are much more tired, such as noticing Chinese queue-jumping and that convenience stores are stocked with instant noodles, while he is clearly much more excited to be in Japan, about which he has previously written.

The nature of the Japan fetishist is such that he or she can experience shivering frissons of excitement at the most quotidian of Japanese sights – a billboard campaign for coffee featuring Tommy Lee Jones floaint in a bathing ring, for instance, or a timewarp 1960s shopfront – so it is not great hardship that my first day is a treacly crawl in heavy drizzle for the entire hundred miles to Shizuoka

Booth was an entertaining and informative travel companion, and I found the Japanese section particularly fascinating. I feel like I’ve had an engaging and enjoyable long catch-up with a friend who has returned from a business trip over several bottles of wine, rather than been transported to the area or consulted with an academic expert. If only I were allowed to go out to a restaurant and have a bottle of wine with a friend.

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