The Tribulations of a Chinaman in China, #19 of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary Journeys

Posted on February 18th, 2014

#7 of 54 in the Jules Verne Reading Challenge

The Tribulations of a Chinaman in China, #19 of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary JourneysAround the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne
Series: The Extraordinary Journeys #19
Published by Hetzel in 1879
Pages: 340
Location: China
Mode of travel: Ship, Walking
Buy from Amazon USA
Buy from Amazon UK
Read it on Wikisource
Kin Fo is the man who has everything, youth, health, riches and a beautiful fiancee. Despite all this, life barely seems worth living. When Kin Fo discovers he's lost all his money he's convinced things can only get worse so he decides to commit suicide. He sets up a desperate pact with his friend, the philosopher Wang, to kill him in such a way that he will at last feel a thrill of emotion before he dies. But will he change his mind?

Verdict: OK.

NB: It seems this book was only recently translated into English, the only free copies I could find were in French. I read the book in French, so I can’t comment on the quality of the translation.

Tribulations is not too bad. Actually, it’s better than I thought it would be. The plot idea of an over-pampered rich man who has everything except an idea of what to do with his life still resonates today. Kin Fo’s friend, the philosopher and reformed assassin Wang, is sure a bit of serious hardship will bring Kin Fo to his senses so he sets about providing it. It works, although I couldn’t help noticing that Kin Fo, upper class gent that he is, took care to bestow much of the physical hardship on his manservant and his American bodyguards – but that’s all part of the comedy.

Remembering that Voyages Extraordinaires had a didactic mission, I think Verne gave a fair representation of Chinese history and geography within the limits of his understanding. He displays some unfortunate ideas about racial purity (his hero is pure Han and all but white, none of that Manchurian interbreeding – sigh!), and western superiority (Kin Fo is entirely respectable and sympathetic, because he’s a fan of western technology in all its forms). Verne manages to convince himself that the exotic Chinese diet might not be so bad if you’re used to it but he can’t handle the music at any price…

On the other hand, his descriptions of poverty in China leading to mass emigration, the negative effects of imperialism, especially regarding the importation of opium and the political unrest within China probably do reflect major issues of his day quite accurately. His geographical knowledge of China is a bit limited  – I assume he relied on reports coming in mostly from the westernized trading posts. Consequently, his ‘tour of China’ when Kin Fo takes to the roads and rivers is only worth just so much.

Veronika decides to dieVeronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho: a modern version of the same plot – I think Tribulations of a Chinaman is a worthy book because of its plot, rather than because of the Chinese backdrop so no wonder it reminded me of this more modern version. Veronika has everything but life feels empty so she decides to take a lethal  overdose. When she comes round, she’s informed that while she didn’t kill herself instantly, she caused enough damage that, just like Kin Fo, she has only a few days in which to savor life. (Amazon USA, Amazon UK)

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