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Book Review: China in Drag by Michael Bristow


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It’s an icy Wednesday afternoon in February, and I’ve just had a tooth taken out. Cold and with a throbbing jaw, I half-heartedly decide to spend a couple of hours reading BBC journalist Michael Bristow’s new book, China in Drag, before calling it a day. By page six, I’m sold.

The book opens with some context – a theme Bristow sticks to throughout. During his time as a correspondent based in Beijing, he had decided to learn Mandarin, and employs a local elderly man, known only as the Teacher, to help.

Over the years the two become friends and, whilst on the road, Bristow is surprised to learn that he is a cross-dresser. The friendship culminates in the only way a writer knows how: with Bristow writing a book about the man’s life, travelling with him, and most importantly, the country’s recent history.

I wasn’t at all convinced it would be a page turner – the Teacher is initially described as either Mr Nobody or Mr Everybody, so I didn’t have high hopes, but as I began to get into the story I realised why he is the central figure.

I knew virtually nothing of China’s modern history before this book, and that was fine. Its ups and downs, twists and turns were mirrored by the life of the Teacher and, by the time we reached Fuxingmen, I realised that Mr Nobody is very much a Somebody.

It’s not nearly as dry as you would expect an educational read to be – Bristow’s wit has seeped through and it’s clear that the eight years he has spent in China has prepared him to write such a novel. Continuously providing context for the Western reader and making the unconventional tale more palatable, Bristow yanks us back and forth through periods of history smoothly, always relating it back to the Teacher and his seemingly mundane life.  

Before I knew it, hours had passed and I came away feeling just as I should after a good read. It wasn't just the ice pack strapped to my face, numbing my butchered mouth, that took me out of my dreary Wednesday. That sought-after escapism transported me all the way to China, and all the way through a man’s life that taught me more about the realities of the country’s history than any history class could have.

It’s not one of those books that sits on a bookshelf, worn and tired from endless thumbing and re-reads, but it’s almost better. It’s the book you pass along. To friends, family, colleagues – there aren’t many that won’t take something from it, and it’s exactly this that makes China in Drag worth the read.

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