Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Travels in the New China with Alexandre Trudeau

Famous man travels to China for six weeks and writes a book about it. Who is Alexandre Trudeau and why should we listen to what he has to say?


Most of the audience at the Writers Festival event held at the Library and Archives Canada auditorium could easily answer the question. As a journalist, documentary filmmaker and, last but not least, brother to the current Prime Minister and son of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Alexandre Trudeau is not an unknown entity.


Adrian Harewood’s gentle but insistent questions revealed that these labels weighed heavily on Alexandre Trudeau. It was an existential urge that drove Trudeau towards trying to discover the truth within the people he met on travels but also within himself. “You can’t know yourself until you’ve faced wilderness; And lack of comfort; And being pulled out of everything that’s easy.”


China is a deeply complex country that has a long history but is constantly changing. And China will “always [have] questions for you.” For Trudeau, Barbarian Lost is first and foremost a memoir of self-discovery.  Although Sinophiles will not be disappointed in the weaving of historical and socio-political context in the book – an approach that cannot be easily executed in documentary film, explains Trudeau – what will be refreshing is the philosophical transformation of a self-labeled “barbarian.”  And of course, stories of Chinese, young and old, happy, and grappling with the freedom of modernity.


“There’s no real travel unless somehow you’re transformed.”


Harewood’s deft handling of an often-meandering conversation gave the audience an inside look at Trudeau’s feelings about his first book and the journey to get to this point. Acknowledging the influences of his father, and the privilege of being allowed to explore what he calls deep China, Trudeau explains that he has come under the spell of the Dao, which forms part of the philosophical underpinning of his transformation.

Perhaps the part of the evening that was the most telling of what Trudeau gained through this journey, was when Harwood asked Trudeau, why a book, when he had previously "declared the book an antiquated form." Though still committed to film, Trudeau's stance on the book as an art form has changed to "our words make the world." Documentary films can engage an audience for an hour, but words on paper have a sense of permanence. He admitted that he had, in his younger days, "judged too harshly." This self reflection and continual evolution of his own narrative despite and in spite of the legacy of his father's name, is what makes Trudeau's voice interesting and worth exploring.

As someone who has dedicated his life to ideas, Trudeau’s trip to China has given him a new perspective, to be able to look at himself from the outside.  “I’m truly trying to write a book about the human soul… and what great travels that have been in China.”


If we took away his name, would Trudeau’s book still be worth a read? Trudeau made it clear that he wants the public to “choose people for their ideas” and not their names, though judging by the crowd lined up to get their books signed, the name is just as important as the ideas and there is no escaping that in Ottawa.