Tim Clissold is the author of the best-selling memoir, Mr. China, which won the Economist ‘Book of the Year Award’ in 2004 and has been translated into 12 languages. His latest book, Chinese Rules: Mao’s Dog, Deng’s Cat, and Five Timeless Lessons from the Front Lines in China, was published by Harper in 2014.
Why I write
For two reasons: firstly, I enjoy using stories and anecdotes to reveal deeper ideas about China, it’s history and the way it works. And secondly, China can be so confusing and unpredictable, that sometimes I write about it to help me figure out why things happen the way they do. Writing something down on a blank page and then reading it back to yourself forces you to think through ideas in a way that conversation generally doesn’t. So I find writing can be a useful tool to help with living and working in China.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
No, I am very erratic and can go months without even thinking about writing. And then something happens, or I overhear a particular conversation in China, and it sparks an idea that I want to record and share. I am quite undisciplined and rarely write for more than a couple of hours at a time.
Worst source of distraction?
Best source of inspiration?
Things that happen in everyday life in China and then discussions about it afterward with friends who may have a different read on it to mine. Often I notice things happening in China – it could be the Foreign Ministry condemning interference in China’s internal affairs, or a new rule about mine safety or price controls on pork or even some off the cuff comment from a taxi driver – and it makes you think, hmmm, that’s odd, it wouldn’t happen like that at home. And then you start to figure out why it’s different and that can lead to new thoughts about why China behaves as it does. I personally think that China is supremely rational – much more so than Europe or America – and therefore it must be understandable, but it just doesn’t work in the same way as the West. I enjoy peeling away the onion skins to reveal the inner core and I think that everyday observations are the key to doing that.
How often do get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
All the time. Sometimes I can waste a whole morning staring at a blank piece of paper – or worse, filling sheets and sheets with something boring or pompous or just plain wrong, or a subtle combination of all three. I think that most people doubt their own ability – I remember being advised by James Kynge just before Mr. China was published that once it got out into the public domain, I would feel like a tortoise on its back with my feet waving helplessly in the air whilst everyone else stood around and pointed. I think it is important to remember that – it’s called ‘fear’ and it keeps you quite focused on doing the best you can!
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
Favorite Chinese writer?
Lao Zi. He belongs to the very small group of human beings who wrote at the dawn of civilization with a clarity and relevance to the problems of today that is simply breathtaking. We need him now more than ever before if we want any chance of recalibrating our values or acting on what everyone knows deep in their hearts – that man’s attempts to dominate the non-human world are futile and that if we cannot find a way of living in better harmony with nature, we risk the prospect of committing mass suicide.
Best book about China?
It depends what you want. If you want to understand why China is what it is, then I’d go for The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence. But if you want to get the feel of China under your fingernails, it has to be River Town, so I will go for that. River Town is the story of a foreigner first arriving in China, but it goes well beyond that and, in many ways, River Town isn’t just about China at all, but something much more universal about the experience of being human. It is set in Sichuan and tells the story of the writer arriving in a Yangtse River town as a member of the Peace Corps to teach English in a dilapidated local school. The town is still poor and feels in a state of flux before the rising waters. Author Peter Hessler seems intrigued and repelled in turn by these new surroundings; Hessler’s skill as a writer come through clearly as he is capable of taking a story that is in a sense generic and told many times before – a foreigner arriving in China – but tells it in a way that is absolutely unique and absorbing. Although he writes at length about how the experience made him feel separate and different from the people he met, the book also recounts movingly how we are at heart the same. He describes one dreary afternoon in the classroom, when he has been teaching a class some passages from Shakespeare – and he arrives at the Eighteenth Sonnet, I think – and gets a reaction from the pupils that shows that they resonated with the feelings of the author across thousands of miles and four centuries. The idea that they could understand the feelings of a man writing so long ago in an unintelligible language in a country thousands of miles away seemed to illustrate the commonality of the human experience in such a simple but beautiful way.
Very difficult; River Town? Life and Death in Shanghai? Wild Swans? I’ll go for a book that isn’t about China at all, but describes something that you’d often see in China until a few years back. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is about a deeply serious American missionary family that goes to the Congo to spread the good news. It is a superb depiction of a man convinced of his own rightness, who comes to a far off land and thinks there is nothing to be learned from the local people, since he has found them to be less ‘developed’ in the purely capitalist sense of the word. His dogmatism and inability to question his own assumptions about life slowly tear the family apart, and he can’t understand why. It is a brilliantly told story – and not all sad; there are moments in it which are hilarious – but the core message for me was that blindness to the values embedded in another culture or different historical experiences will lead to an awful end; and this is a lesson that has still not been learned but is becoming more and more important in this small and interconnected world.
And I’m afraid there is a very close second as well, which is Koba the Dread by Martin Amis. He has come up with the weirdest idea for a book – part personal autobiography of growing up and part biography of Stalin – which is incredibly difficult to pull off, but he manages it and it is one of the books that has stayed with me for years and years and I go back to it regularly because it is utterly shocking and true and brilliantly written.
Can’t chose. Laozi, Spence, Tom Wolfe, Margaret Forster and, of course, my wife, Lorraine.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith. Smith’s Wealth of Nations is often used by modern commentators to justify the exclusive role of the market… the invisible hand setting the price and leading to perfect efficiency… but Smith also wrote this other book which is about the ways in which the market is brutal towards the disadvantaged and that there is a role for government in curbing its harshest effects. It is based on the idea that humans naturally feel an affinity and affection towards others without automatically expecting something in return… but it’s about time I read it so that I knew what I was talking about!
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
Mildly embarrassing in parts, but not bad for a first go considering who wrote it.
How did you get started writing?
When I first started on Mr China, I needed to figure out in my own mind how the hell we managed to do what we did – I think it helped a bit, but I still look back and shudder.
Does writing change anything?
Yes, I think it changes everything because if you get it right, the reader will think, wow, that’s exactly how I felt, and that means that we aren’t alone.