The far-out east

<strong>What the Chinese Don't Eat

</strong>Xinran <em>Vintage, 224pp, £7.99</em>

ISBN 009950152

The Chinese eat anything that flies, swims or has four legs (providing it's not a table or a chair). But Xinran's thoughts, observations and stories will tell you a lot more than that.

Her dialogue between western and Chinese culture began in a Guardian column in 2003. Soon she was inundated with questions such as "Are there any swimming pools in China?", "Do Chinese people go Christmas shopping?" and "Where do Chinese university students think babies come from?" This collection of her writings bridges the gulf by mixing humour and eccentricity with terrifying facts and insights. She talks of how China's 1976 earthquake claimed double the number of lives lost in the Asian tsunami, and of Chinese mothers' unspoken anguish at the loss of their daughters. We glimpse many different faces: the old peasant who still venerates Mao, the cleaning lady whose daily wage is the price of a cup of tea, the overzealous middle-class mother.

Xinran writes with a fine balance of economy, compassion and wisdom, and manages to be at once proud, critical, forward-looking, nostalgic, sad, angry and hopeful. She has chopped this vast, complex country into palatable bite-sized portions, without losing any of its subtle flavour.