Liam D’Arcy-Brown is the author of three books on China: Green Dragon, Sombre Warrior: Travels to China’s Extremes (2003), The Emperor’s River: Travels to the Heart of a Resurgent China (2010) and Chusan: The Opium Wars & the Forgotten Story of Britain’s First Chinese Island. He studied Chinese at St. Anne’s College, Oxford and Chinese history at Fudan University, Shanghai. Liam lives in the Warwickshire town of Kenilworth in the EnglishMidlands, from where he runs the publishing house Takeaway (Publishing).
In about 2008 I came up with what I thought was a wonderful idea for a China travelogue; I would travel the length of China’s Grand Canal, the world’s longest and most historically important canal. Incredibly, no modern travel account of the Grand Canal had been written. And then – slap to the face – I learnt that you were about to publish just such a book, The Emperor’s River. Why hadn’t someone beaten you to this rather obvious travelogue journey?
I often asked myself the same question, and was forever checking that I hadn’t been beaten to it! Before I started researching the canal, a quick trawl through the major library catalogues brought up one brief book written about forty years ago, but other than that the only material was in Chinese. Even then, there were only two comprehensive scholarly works that were worth getting hold of by way of background reading. It’s probably simply because the canal wasn’t being actively studied and promoted until around a decade ago, when the authorities started to see the canal as something that could be easily interpreted, packaged, and sold as an example of Chinese cultural achievement. It fits in rather nicely with the CCP’s rhetoric on national pride. Along with the investment that’s been put into renovating and beautifying it in its urban sections, and the tourist infrastructure that’s suddenly bloomed wherever there’s a temple, an old lock, a tax office, or whatever that’s survived on its banks, this has made it much more visible – and visitable – in recent years.
How much of the canal is in use today and how much is accessible to foreigners?
The canal’s navigable and in use from its southernmost lock, on the Qiantang River in Hangzhou, through to Jining in Shandong. The size of the barges varies from the massive juggernauts on the stretch between the Yangtze and Huai’an, down to the shallow-draught ones that you find on the less well-watered sections in Northern Jiangsu and Shandong. From the Yellow River up to Tianjin sections have been rebuilt as a conduit for irrigation water and there’s no commercial traffic, and from Tianjin to Beijing it’s mostly fallen into complete disrepair and only contains water in short stretches on a seasonal basis. None of the canal is off limits to foreigners per se, and all of it is accessible if you can find a way to get to the remote sections, but there are restrictions on who can travel on working barges on what is, after all, a rather challenging and unsafe industrial environment.
How did you become interested in China?
It’ll sound weird, but the first thing that sparked an interest was when Roland Rat, a puppet on a British breakfast TV show, did an Easter holiday special from Kowloon in 1984 called Roland Goes East. I would have been 13, and I remember thinking I’d love to see Hong Kong before it reverted to Chinese rule. Around the same time I found a copy of Character Text for Beginning Chinese, by John de Francis – I remember being fascinated by the Chinese writing system.
You worked as a tour guide in China. What was that like?
I worked for a while as a tour manager, overseeing the entire trip while local guides did the day-to-day commentary and organisational details. What can I say? Five-star hotels every day, all meals provided, and being paid handsomely to sit and talk China with the travellers over a beer – it was hell, but someone had to do it. The only reason I stopped was because I developed a nasty reaction to a minor infection on one trip and had to stay in England a long time for treatment.
For your first China book, Green Dragon, Sombre Warrior: Travels to China’s Extremes, you travelled ten thousand miles around the country. What were the highlights and low points of your travels?
The lowest point was probably being drugged and robbed on a train from Chengdu to Urumchi. Being shaken awake by a policeman, only to be told you’ve been out cold for twelve hours, isn’t the best start to anyone’s day…. Kashgar was fascinating, and the most memorable point of the journey was attending Friday prayers at the city’s main mosque. I hadn’t intended to, mind you: I’d chosen a spot to sit in in the courtyard, but the crowd grew so big that I found myself in the midst of the worshippers and just went with the flow. I was the only Western face in the mosque, yet not one person gave me a second glance or called out “hallooo!” – it was at one and the same time the most unfamiliar surroundings I’ve ever found myself in in China but also the most welcome I’ve ever felt.
Were you never tempted to make a permanent home in China?
My family’s very close, and while I’ve always loved grabbing a bag and heading off for a few months in China I’ve never contemplated leaving England permanently. My roots have always been very firmly embedded over here.
What was the inspiration for Chusan: The Opium Wars and the Forgotten Story of Britain’s First Chinese Island?
When I was studying at Fudan in the early ’90s I visited the island of Putuoshan, which lies just off Chusan, and it was mentioned to me that Chusan had once been occupied by British forces. When I was researching for Green Dragon, Sombre Warrior I read several accounts by people who’d lived on Chusan under British rule during the 1840s, and was surprised by how much unpublished primary material there was on the British occupation, and by the fact that nobody had yet written a detailed history.
What are some books that you’ve thought about writing but never actually written?
I toyed with the idea of approaching China through its karaoke bars, but I eventually decided that it would amount to being forced to drink baijiu by over-friendly, middle-ranking businessmen while fending off prostitutes, so I thought better of it…. I do have a travelogue idea up my sleeve, but it would demand a massive amount of research and a rather demanding journey. I could tell you what it is, but I’d have to kill you.
Can you tell us about your publishing company, Takeaway Publishing?
After The Emperor’s River was published, I began promoting it by giving talks to organisations whose members were interested in its broad topics; there are thousands of societies and clubs in the UK which revolve around local canals, history, further education, and so on, and most have monthly lectures by invited speakers. Though I was selling plenty of copies of The Emperor’s River, I’d had to buy them from the publisher and wasn’t making much money when I sold them on. I decided to set up a publishing imprint so I could publish Chusan myself, mainly because there’s a much higher margin on direct sales, which make up the bulk of what I now do. My wife, who’s a professor of law at Warwick University, had had great ideas for books that would appeal to family historians, but the effort of writing them wasn’t going to be repaid by the modest returns of the traditional publishing model, so we decided Takeaway would publish her first family history title, Marriage Law for Genealogists. It was astonishingly well received by the genealogy market, which is enormous both here and in North America, and is far and away our bestselling title. We’ve since published Divorced, Bigamist, Bereaved? for the same audience, which has been similarly well received. Takeaway also has other titles, which sell a small but steady number online, overwhelmingly through Amazon. I use Adobe’s DTP software, which lets me produce book-blocks and covers that are up to the standards of the big publishing houses.
Are you optimistic about niche publishing in the next ten years?
Yes, very. Anyone who has an idea for a book that might only sell a few dozen copies worldwide can get it into print or on Kindle without spending so much as one kuai. Platforms like CreateSpace mean that writers don’t even need their own ISBNs, and the algorithms that recommend titles are getting spookily accurate. Companies like Amazon have an obvious incentive to make the process as simple as possible for complete novices, and even though they take a hefty cut of the sale price they do provide a massive, worldwide shop-window. Their absolute dominance in the book market might make things hard for the small publishers who rely on them if they decide to squeeze every last cent from us, but at present the balance is working, for me at least.
What are your thoughts on POD (Print on Demand) books?
If you’d asked me fifteen years ago when I started writing, I’d have equated POD with vanity publishing, or with the kind of self-published books that only the author wants to read. Now, though, the technology has improved so much that the quality’s comparable to a traditional litho print-run. Yes, there are drawbacks such as the tendency for the covers to curl up, but within a few years I think we’ll see such issues ironed out completely. I’m surprised by how often I’ll order a book online only to find that it’s a POD title, and this even for major publishers. The POD model’s ideal for small publishers like myself, who don’t want to hold stock; Lightning Source, who print from my digital files, will fulfil an order from me for hard copies in less than a week, and I can order a single copy of a title and still make a profit selling it on direct to the public. That’d be unthinkable in traditional publishing.
What do you like to read in your free time?
Oddly enough, I’m really not a reader…. I must have been in my late teens before I picked up a novel to read for pleasure, and even now I’ve only read a couple of dozen or so of the classic works of English literature. If I do read, it’s invariably non-fiction; for the centenary of WW1 I’ve been working my way through the diaries of soldiers on the Western Front. My childhood was spent reading nothing (I kid you not) beyond a weekly comic called The Beano, plus the few stories we were required to read for school. I didn’t even study any Shakespeare at school back in 1980s England, which is probably why I now really enjoy watching him performed at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, just a few miles from where I now live: I was never “put off” his plays by being forced to study them as a child, and I first saw them as an adult with a much better ear for language and more experience of life.
What are you working on at the moment?
Bit left-field… I’m researching the practice of “wife sale” in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England, with a view to publishing it the traditional way, with an academic publisher. The digitisation of millions of fully searchable pages of historical newspapers and books means that I’ve been able to amass several hundred contemporary accounts of men publicly “selling” a wife to her lover by way of an informal divorce. It was widely reviled at the time, and seen as the barbarous conduct of an ill-educated underclass, but it does seem to be well attested. Some of the stories of women being led to market with a rope around their neck, being “auctioned” off, and the husband, wife, and lover then drinking themselves blind in the local pub are incredible!
Links to Liam D’Arcy-Brown’s books on Amazon.com: