As a travel book, The River at the Center of the World is always engaging. The central conceit of the history part of the book, though, doesn't work as the author contended it would. His initial idea is to start at the mouth of the Yangtze and recent Chinese history, and to work backwards in time as he goes backwards.
Trouble is, the Yangtze doesn't lend itself well to this, and he bounces around in time between Mao and the British Imperial project, back and forth, like being swept through the rapids he describes. It would have been better to embrace the randomness, and not claim at the start that he's going to structure the book in a way that never actually occurs.
As a British ex-pat, too, Winchester is largely concerned with British Imperial History, and is often bemoaning how little the Chinese remember of their old connections with the British. He is lively when describing how the English insinuated themselves into China, and how the Chinese pushed back, but there is little reason to expect the people he runs into along his journey to remember the details of another country's exploits he so lovingly details.
The Chinese history he explores in its own right centres around Communist China, and rarely goes any further back than that, except for a few interesting details of legend and myth. I would have liked more on Chinese history itself, not just where it intersected with British imperialism.
But The River at the Center of the World is entertaining, lively, and an interesting read about a part of the world I know very little about.