At the beginning of this book, there is a Warning to the Reader:
The recorded history of Chinese civilization covers a period of four thousand years. The population of China is estimated at 450 millions. China is larger than Europe.
The author of this book is twenty-six years old. He has spent, altogether, about seven months in China. He does not speak Chinese.
And with that, knowing what you’re in for, you begin Peter Fleming’s marvelous One’s Company. It is the story of his travels, in 1933, through Manchuria and Mongolia — what might be roughly described as Tartary. Beginning in Russia, he takes the Trans-Siberian Express down to Manchukuo, recently occupied by the Japanese, and travels south, partly on horse, partly on foot, through inner Mongolia — places where few Europeans but missionaries had ever visited. He visits Tientsin, Tsinan, and even Nanking, then marches south with a column of Japanese soldiers to Canton (now Guangdong) and Hong Kong.
If you’re not familiar with the history of China, this may seem rather devil-may-care to you, and that’s how Fleming presents it. He says that he made the trip simply because he took it into his head to go: a born adventurer, if he hadn’t gone to inner Mongolia, he would have found an excuse to go to inner Somewhere Else. He doesn’t mind privation or discomfort or danger; he’s good at languages and bluffing; he finds interest and beauty (as well as tedium and the ridiculous) wherever he goes. He’s the perfect traveler, and it’s clear in One’s Company that he’d travel forever if he could, cheerfully alone, with the minimum of supplies, changing ponies and pairs of boots whenever necessary. His descriptions are delightful, detailed, and often very funny. Even while thinking, “I would first get lost and thereafter die,” I envied his happy-go-lucky approach.
But if you’re familiar with the history of China, One’s Company takes on a whole new significance. In 1933, Communism had just begun to become really significant as a force in China, warring in certain provinces against the Nanking government. Fleming, whose job it nominally was to send dispatches back to the Times, gives it as his opinion that Communism won’t spread in China. He mentions in passing an influential political adviser named Mao Tse-Tung, but says that unless the Nanking government falls and no other government immediately takes its place, Communism doesn’t have a real chance. Of course, that’s exactly what happened. Seen with the hindsight of 75 years, this political commentary was riveting. The cradle of Communism and the invasion of the Japanese, witnessed firsthand by a European when so few were on the scene, gave sharp interest to the already-fascinating travel narrative.
I didn’t realize how much I was going to enjoy this. Anna van Gelderen recommended it to me months ago, and I’m just getting around to it now. If you enjoy travel memoirs, or books on exploration, you absolutely can’t do better than this one. I’m just finishing the second book that is companion to this (News From Tartary), so expect a review of that soon!