underpants can be made in China and transported to New Zealand, passing through the hands of, and making a profit for, I don’t know how many middle men, and still be sold to me for just NZ$5.99. And as for the pack of five pairs for NZ$8.59, well, the economics of it is beyond me.
This realisation is followed by awareness that, apart from some vague notion of cotton fields, spinning jennys, and elastic, he has no idea how underpants are made, and that this “is representative of a far wider ignorance… about the commercial and industrial processes on which my easy existence depends.”
Where for most of us that would be the end of the story, for Bennett this insight was the first part of an exploration into how a particular pair of underpants came to be, tracing them from his starting point (The Warehouse chain store in Christchurch) to theirs (a cotton field in Urumqi, roughly midway between China’s borders with Kazakstan and Mongolia). Along the way he also learns about the history and culture of the world’s most populous nation, a country without which the global economy would collapse, and about which the West as a whole knows virtually nothing. There are, says Bennett, “plenty of better-informed books about China, but I suspect this is the only one to begin with a pair of underpants.”
Those books are also unlikely to be funnier of more entertaining than Where Underpants Come From. I was sold when I got to page four - after a brief introduction to the agricultural and population might of China, Bennett opens with the shopping decisions that started his quest, and the aspirational nature of his ‘special occasion’ jocks:
Underpants ought to be a swift purchase… but it takes me a minute or two to settle on the Authentics. What delays me is vanity. It is a ridiculous concern. No one will ever see these underpants except my dogs and the occasional sexual partner. The dogs will take no interest, and if a sexual partner and I reach the underpants stage, then, frankly, it’s a done deal. It would take more than pictures of racing cars to halt the momentum. Nevertheless I am clearly not alone in taking aesthetic considerations into account, otherwise there wouldn’t be hundreds of different varieties of underpants.
This combination of self-deprecation, humour and insight continues for the next 254 pages, interwoven with information. While some of this involves the manufacturing process Bennett set out to explore, more of it relates to the culture, history, mores and behaviours of China and her people, both in their own right and in comparison with the West.
For example, Bennett discusses the problem of applying western concepts like queuing to the task of buying a train ticket in China, where there are crowds instead of queues:
The shape [of the crowd trying to buy train tickets] resembles the head of a cauliflower, each customer a floret… and if you look closely at its heart you’ll see a single static floret. That’s me.
There are many aspect of Where Underpants Come From that I want to reference, but if I discussed all of them my review would be almost as long as (and far less entertaining or informative than) the text.
His description of a lunch menu is equally visual:
'Braised chicken intestines with satay sauce’ looks more tempting than the ‘stewed pigs tendons with assorted meats’ but I pass on both. I don’t choose the pigeon soup either… The soup is a broth with a few vegetable slivers floating on its surface. The pigeon is a pigeon. It lies slumped on its side in the broth. The difference between this pigeon and one in the street is that this one is dead and plucked. Its claws poke over one side of the bowl, its head flops over another, its eyes and beak are intact, and its skin is the colour of putty.
Bennett does not shy away from the many distressing aspects of modern Chinese society, from endemic corruption, a long cultural history of (sometimes justifiable) xenophobia and racism that would be wholly unacceptable in a modern Western setting, to a brief discussion about crime and punishment - 99% of people charged with a capital crime are convicted, and trials are rare as most people admit to the crime. For example, a man who initially denied killing his wife confessed “after a few days and nights of polite questioning,” but wasn’t executed, because his wife turned up to rescue him. And the use of death penalty criminals as organ donors is mentioned in passing – “the condemned are paraded into a stadium, made to kneel and shot in the base of the skull. A doctor is usually in attendance” to remove and preserve the organs.
The contrast between Chinese industrial safety and standards in the west is shocking – laws are lax and
[China] competes but plays to different rules. It will cut any corner. An article in the China Daily… announced that fatal workplace accidents had fallen 10 per cent…. This month only 7321 people died at work. That’s a mere 250 people a day…
Although little explored, there is reflection on the changing nature of China’s youth – none of the subsistence farmers Bennett sees are under 30, and a generation of indulged only children who, after 30 years of the One Child policy, will be the end point of two parents, four grandparents and eight great-grandparents.
China, Bennett observes,
is no longer in the grip of any sort of political or social ideology. Those in power have only two objectives. The first, as always and everywhere, is to stay in power. The second is to make China rich. In that aim they are entirely at one with the people they govern. The aim of the second objective is to help them achieve the first objective.
But, Bennett explains, this race is unsustainable – China is destroying the resources on which its vast population depends in the race to increased manufacture combined with minimal oversight, little regulation, active avoidance of what legislation there is, and an official policy of masking pollution problems.
Water is the more pressing issue:
China has never abounded in water. Now the stuff is becoming scarce and dirty, especially in the north. Recently the thirst largest lake in Chian turned toxic. Only half of China’s sewerage is treated before entering rivers and lakes… According to government figures, and the Chinese government is not known for inflating a problem, over 90 per cent of urban water is contaminated by industrial or organic waste… In short, the charge up Industrial Wealth Street is entirely understandable, but what’s further up the street does not look pretty.
I’ve made it sound as though Bennett has been critical and harsh, which is not the case – his approach is clear eyed and sympathetic, to the people if not to the institutions running China. His interactions with the people of China are almost uniformly pleasant and helpful, and I believe he leaves as something of a Sinophile, but it’s a little hard to tell. This is particularly because Where Underpants Come From trails off, rather than conclusively concluding, but the impression it leaves behind, of contradiction, complication and crowds, is appropriate for at least a partial glimpse of China. I’m interested in trying others of his writing. - Alex