Picks and Pans Review: China Diary

updated 04/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Stephen Spender and David Hockney

When Lord Byron left England and headed south for Italy, he kept a journal. In that honorable literary tradition, British poet Stephen Spender did the same on a three-week trip to China in 1981. His traveling companions were the painter and sometimes photographer David Hockney and Hockney's assistant, Gregory Evans. The mix of Hockney's and Spender's talents has resulted in this generously illustrated and absorbing if not entirely satisfying book. On a 2,400-mile, seven-city spin from Peking to Canton, the trio, like the hundreds of thousands of tourists who have swarmed into China since the late 70s, gawked at the great sights. They saw Tian An Men Square, the Forbidden City, the Wall and the enchanting larger-than-life stone unicorns, camels and elephants lining the sacred roadway to the Ming tombs, northwest of Peking. Spender's descriptions of them contains some fine moments. He found the Ming horses, for instance, "like fat ponies at the seaside waiting for children to ride them." But the high point of the expedition was Hockney's moving encounter with a genius boy painter, Tang A-hsi, 8, in the city of Kweilin. Spender apologizes to the child in his journal for describing his modest home and desk—a board supported by packing cases and lit by two naked bulbs dangling by wires from the ceiling. And he writes touchingly of the gifts Tang A-hsi and Hockney exchanged—some crayons for the boy, a couple of A-hsi's drawings for the Western visitors. The combination of Spender's prose and Hockney's drawings, photographs and watercolors (some of which show signs of too hasty execution) whizzes the reader nicely along. The main shortcoming is that Spender seems to have censored the trio's more intense and personal reactions to their whirlwind tour. How did they really feel, for instance, about the regimentation they encountered? (Abrams, $28.50)

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