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The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China

3.94  ·  Rating details ·  616 ratings  ·  91 reviews
A revelatory and groundbreaking book chronicling the complexity of modern-day China from the perspective of its border regions.

In 1949, Mao Zedong announced the birth of the People’s Republic of China, a proclamation to the world that, after centuries of war and social conflict, China had emerged as one nation. Since then, this idea has been constantly propagated for the b
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published July 15th 2014 by Bloomsbury USA
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Aug 05, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: china
If one were looking for a single book on China's ethnic minorities, it is hard to imagine that this would be the one to pick. Author David Eimer clearly has guts and is an enterprising traveler, working his way around the most remote corners of modern China - Xinjiang, Tibet, Yunnan, and Dongbei. But while he gets to some remarkable places, at some risk to himself, Eimer doesn't achieve many real insights into the minority cultures, and he consistently seems to have trouble getting folks to open ...more
Revisiting the places that captured your heart when you were young is always unwise. You hope they remain trapped in time and that their magic is still potent. But invariably they have changed, just as you have, leaving you questioning your memories and wondering if they are wishful thinking or merely imagined. (58)

I wish I'd gone into this with more knowledge of China -- I've read very little nonfiction about China, very few novels set there. And here Eimer's focus is those on China's fringes,
Larry Bassett
The many parts of China that are not Chinese

This book focuses on the minority populations of China that are not Han Chinese. The Uighurs in western China, the vast area of Tibet. the Korean Chinese that live in the northeast across from North Korea and the region in southern China are explored.
I could tell this was a fascinating book even before I finished because of the number of people I told about it. It is a chronicle of a journey around the borders of China, the places where ‘the emperor is always far away’. I learned a lot of fascinating things. China today is much larger than China 100 or 200 or even 300 years ago. Most people know about Tibet, but it’s far from being the only recently acquired land (and people). In many ways it reminds me of the USA in the 1870s. The whites wa ...more
As a lot of other people have remarked, this is a weird book. But I enjoyed it and read it much more quickly than I usually finish anything. It’s more a travelogue and memoir of someone who has an interest in China’s minorities, rather than about them per se. I’m not sure if I’d exactly call it reportage either. Anyway, the narrator is an odd person but he certainly does get himself into interesting situations. His identity as a white western man is partly responsible for what he is even able to ...more
Oct 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing
In Deep South, Paul Theroux is dismissive of travel writers whose books tell their own story rather than the story of the places they visit. He's often guilty of that himself so it's an odd criticism really. It can't be levelled at this book in any way. This isn't just travel writing. It's an intelligent and interesting account of the many ethnic minorities living on China's borders, evading attempts to immerse them in Han culture and remove their identity. These are often small minorities in Ch ...more
Nov 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing

The Emperor Far Away takes readers on a journey along China’s outer rim, beginning in the western steppes where the ‘Chinese’ are a minority, and following it south to the Tibetan plateau, the jungles of the Golden Triangle, up to the Korean border, and ending in the far north, where the snow only melts for three months of the year. Eimer’s travels would be fascinating in themselves, given the variety of landscapes and people encountered, but also shed light on the Chinese state’s interactions
May 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The mountains are high and the emperor is far away…goes the Chinese proverb. China is the world’s 4th largest country and the most populous country in the world. We tend to think of it as ethnically and culturally homogenous (mostly because it is how it’s traditionally presented) and it is, to a huge, something like 92%, extent the case. But when you’re talking about such numbers, even 8% of the world’s most populous country is still millions and millions of people. China’s minorities, living in ...more
Beth Diesch
Aug 05, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Eimer's self-referential autobiographical text takes the reader around the furthest borders of China, beginning in the Xinjiang Province and neighboring middle-eastern countries, continuing through Tibet and the Golden Triangle, touching briefly on the space between Beijing and DPRK and finishing in far northern Manchuria and Russia. Eimer has travelled to many of these regions in previous decades and so has an insight to share how the government in Beijing has begun paying greater attention to ...more
Jul 19, 2018 rated it it was ok
I really, really wanted to like this. When I picked this book, I was quite excited because Chinese minorities are rarely heard about, unless of course there are Uighur or Tibetan protests. But the book was disappointing in such that it seemed like just a list of all the minorities that live in China, the geographical description of places they live in and how they do not like to talk honestly to foreigners about the government. Now most people know the last part and for the first two, I could ha ...more
Kayla Tornello
Jun 17, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: giveaways, adult
This book offers a glimpse of China that is usually hidden away. The border lands and ethnic minorities in China are rarely visited by westerners. This book gives a brief history of the different border areas that the author explores. I was amazed by the differences in climate and culture.

This is a well-researched book and is more serious in tone than a typical travel memoir. You will learn a lot of new facts.

I received this book as a Goodreads First-Read. Yay!
Ashley Bergman Carlin
Jul 21, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
I loved this book. Once I got into it, I couldn't put it down. I was especially mesmerized by the parts about Tibet and the Dongbei Province.

Read the review I wrote for work here--
can y
Apr 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
I think while writing a review for this book, one must first keep in mind the purpose of the book. This is not supposed to be a sociological study, in fact it doesn't make any claims to scientificity. It is meant to be as a travel book, and it is pretty good at what it claims to be.

This book, without giving away too much, is about the minorities of China, but while investigating this rather broad topic which at first sight might seem very specific, the book investigates nearly all regions of "As
Shariq Chishti
May 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
"Mountains are high and the Emperor is far away" - Chinese Proverb

Hans constitute more than 90% of the world`s most populated country and hence its easy to forget the numerous ethnic minorities (55 recognized by the government) living in China mostly on the edges of the country along often contentious and porous borders. Most of the times these minorities have a substantial interaction (both financial and cultural) with their brothers across the border.

The relationships between the Hans and th
Apr 16, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The multitudinous ethnic minorities living in China's geographic periphery make for a fascinating topic. With the exception of the Tibetans, these peoples are seldom reported on here in the west and this book offers a good introductory overview of their customs and socio-political realities. Alas, the book contains two major drawbacks. First, this is a subject that calls out for a LOT of pictures, and it doesn't have them. Second, the getting-from-here-to-there parts of Eimer's travelogue become ...more
Sep 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
The first half on Tibet and Xinjiang wasn't very original... The second half covering Yunnan/the golden triangle/Shan state and Dongbei/Russia/North Korea were very interesting! ...more
Thomas Barrett
Feb 21, 2021 rated it it was amazing
I learnt something new on nearly every page. Love his style with just the right amount of autobiography.
Jul 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is about the lives and geography of the ethnic minority’s of China. The book has a feel of a textbook combined with a travelogue.

It was not an easy read to start, but it eventually flowed. If China interests you, you should consider reading this book.
Jul 16, 2014 rated it really liked it
If you're looking for an academic work, move along. This falls somewhere between travel literature and light anthropology, in my view. The author is getting along in years, but he's an intrepid tourist and a keen observer. He's also amusing, no stranger to mind-altering substances - at one point, he smokes copious quantities of cheap methamphetamines with a Wa warlord - and a bit of a ladies' man.

The book opens in Xinjiang, home of the Uighurs. The relationship between the Han and the Uighurs is
Jul 27, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: first-reads
I received this book as part of GoodReads First Reads program.

This interesting travel memoir recounts the experiences of a writer making his way across China, border-to-border. He relates his opinions of the various locations and people that he meets along the way. Each chapter is about a different region, and he gives a brief cultural history of the area he is visiting.

While some reviewers may have an issue with how he portrays his experiences, I always kept in mind that as a travelougue, thi
Oct 15, 2014 rated it really liked it
"The mountains are high and the emperor far away." (frontpiece, Chinese proverb)

"'We say China is a country vast in territory, rich in resources, and large in population; as a matter of fact it is the Han nationality whose population is large and the minority nationalities whose territory is vast and whose resources are rich...'" (quoting Mao, 11)

"In the parlance of the time [Qing dynasty], the barbarian minorities were either shufan, cooked and therefore tame, or shengfan, raw and savage." (19)
Excellent introduction to a wide variety of the various ethnic minorities (as according to the Beijing government) of China. Eimer spends his time traveling through four ethnic borderland areas of modern China, Xinjiang, Tibet, Yunnan and Dongbe; visiting the homes and institutions of the non-Han people. During these travels we hear directly from people who self-identify as Uighurs, Xibe, Khampa Nomads, Amdo , Dai, Wa, Chinese-Korean, and many others. The relations between the Beijing government ...more
Oct 21, 2015 rated it really liked it
I'm ashamed to say I knew very little about the 21st century superpower, other than where it interacted with the 19th century superpower, so I found this book both fascinating and surprising. The book is excellent in describing the relationship between the Han and the various types of "barbarians" around China's borders, and in describing the history and politics of those relationships. The author has a great eye for detail, meeting people and immersing himself in whatever questionable local cus ...more
Feb 23, 2020 rated it liked it
I picked this up wanting to learn more about the situation of the Uighars in China, which I did. It also covers the author's travels in Tibet, southern China near the Golden Triangle, by North Korea, and by Russia on the Amur river. Interesting to get a look around in these places, but the more I read the less I enjoyed the company of the author, which is not a good sign in travel books. ...more
Nov 10, 2015 added it
Now that I'm done inhaling this book, I need to go back and re-read it slowly. Five stars for the journey behind the tale, two for the telling. Five for how this book is a great starting point for further reading. ...more
Sep 25, 2017 rated it did not like it
Just awful. Another clueless white middle class man who doesn't seem to have a clue and shouldn't have been commissioned to write a book. There are multiple other books about minorities in China, I suggest you read one of them instead. ...more
Jul 29, 2014 rated it liked it
For all the politicking and fearmongering about China's status in the world--its massive military, volatile relationship with neighboring countries, gluttonous economy, and adept but secretive intelligence agencies--one constantly overlooked fact is that no nation, not even one as rapidly modernized as China, can survive as such without radical change. China is, for lack of a better metaphor, an army marching blindly towards the very same precipice that has claimed so many empires of centuries p ...more
Oct 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
What the author leaves out in insights is more than made up for in the shear geographic area he is able to cover in some of the most remote parts of China. David Eimer's experience of visiting the numerous border regions in China highlights the diversity of China and also the plight and differences that exist between the numerous non-Han minorities that live in the borderlands. The Emperor Far Away moves at a fast pace as Eimer moves around China from the high tension regions in Tibet to the chi ...more
Nov 09, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: china, travel
Very interesting collection of travel notes from journeys around various corners of the Middle Kingdom. While it is without a doubt that Eimer's experience was truthful to life in these borderlands, I nevertheless find his analytical discussions a bit awkward in that they often lack sufficient factual evidences and were mostly based on impressions and experiences. As the topic itself is easily politicized, I also find it very difficult to draw clear lines between honest expressions and ethnic bi ...more
Wes F
May 13, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating account of Eimer's seven plus years of living in China & traveling around its very edges--where most of the minority peoples live. Section on Xinjiang was very intriguing to me, as we lived there for many years. Things have gotten even worse now across Xinjiang with the government detaining millions of Uighur in labor/re-education camps, with the intention of repressing the Uighur's culture, religion, and ethnic spirit. Tibet has been repressed for years as well. This was an enlighte ...more
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134 likes · 49 comments
“There are around 100 million people in China who are not Han. They belong instead to fifty-five officially recognised ethnic minorities scattered mainly across the borderlands: a vast area that takes up almost two-thirds of the country, much of which was absorbed into China relatively recently. There are another 400 or so groups with fewer than the 5,000 people needed for them to be acknowledged formally as minorities by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).” 0 likes
“Nothing illustrates the CCP’s success in rewriting history more than the irony that all Han will acknowledge how the people and landscapes of Tibet and Xinjiang are so unlike them and anywhere else in China. But they will never admit that those regions have ever been anything but part of the Chinese empire.” 0 likes
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