One’s Company

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.

ones-companyAnd 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!

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3 Responses to One’s Company

  1. Great that you are enjoying Peter Fleming so much! He gave me a lasting interest in Central Asia. Nowadays you don’t have to be all that intrepid to go there, but it is still a very interesting part of the world.

  2. JaneGS says:

    I have never visited Asia and don’t really know much about the history of that part of the world, except how how it relates to the Western World, which makes me quite ignorant. One’s Company sounds like a good way to get my feet wet–an enjoyable and informative eye-witness account.

    BTW, I have awarded your site for the “One Lovely Blog” award. Visit my site for details, and congrats–I really enjoy reading about what you are reading.

  3. Jenny says:

    Anna — thank you so much for this recommendation! I now am looking for his book about his trip to the Brazilian jungle. What a pleasurable writer he is.

    JaneGS — Fleming’s books are more about the geography than the history, but they are certainly a way to get interested, as Anna says. And a real joy. And thank you so much for the award!

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