In 1974, China's Cultural Revolution was grinding to a slow halt, its worst period over but with another two years to go until it fizzled out on the death of Mao Zedong. That year, at their own expense, a group of France's most eminent intellectuals decided to travel to a People's Republic cut off from and at odds with most of the rest of the world.
Of these, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva and Philippe Sollers had international reputations as leaders of the Tel Quel group. Their visit during April and May would become infamous, thanks to breathlessly excited accounts of the new world Mao was supposedly building that were carried back to the West by some members of the group. Barthes would remain largely silent on the visit after his return; but here, some 30 years after his death, he speaks on the matter via the publication of these notebooks, excellently rendered into English.
Travels in China consists of brief paragraphs or single lines of Barthes' impressions of everything from relatively mundane issues, such as the food they were given (highly variable in quality), to their exposure to the finest thinkers available at Beijing University, with whom they had two days of seminars. They were not to know (although it is clear that Barthes suspected) that many of the true thinkers were either languishing in cadre schools (little better than concentration camps in the countryside) or keeping their mouths firmly shut after the trauma of the preceding six years.
For Barthes, the great master of the interpretation of surfaces, China offered something almost unknowable, and a challenge that was clearly far more difficult than that of Japan, on whose rich symbolism he had written a celebrated book. That frustration manifests itself here, with Barthes at one point complaining about "the complete blocking out of information, of all information, from politics to sex". The sexlessness of those around him bemused him, and he was evidently taken aback by the rigid uniformity of the clothing, hairstyles and expressions of those he met.
For two reasons, this book is of great value. The first is that it uncovers just a little of China at one of the most enclosed periods in its history, but in a very particular way. It records, idiosyncratically, what was evidently a closely managed tour around the country, by someone who half believed and half did not really trust what he was being shown. There are plenty of accounts of China in the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, but few contemporary ones in which the evidence of a mildly suppressed internal suspicion that what was presented was not the full story is so strong.
But on top of this, these writings present an encounter between one of modern France's most influential intellectuals and a China undergoing profound change and adjustment, just a few years before it was to embark on the market reforms that have led it to where it is today. All this is achieved in succinct, sometimes disconnected, entries, written at the time of the journey, with the immediacy and rawness of a witness who was a little over-whelmed, a little excited, often irritated, and finally intrigued and puzzled by a journey that clearly changed and challenged him.
Travels in China
By Roland Barthes
Polity, 240pp, £16.99
Published 13 December 2011