Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Three Sides to Every Coin

A few years ago, one day my daughter came home from school saying, "Mommy, now I know what country China is." "What country?" "It is a country people eat babies!" I was surprised and asked her where that was from. It turned out her English class was reading Pearl Buck's novel The Good Earth. This image of China stayed with my daughter for quite some time. More than once when the country was mentioned in conversation, she would make a face: "Ew, China. People eat babies."

I read The Good Earth long time ago in Chinese and don't remember such a detail. No matter. Granted, that sort of thing is hardly in fiction only. Historically, during severe famines, even as recent as in 1959-61, baby-eating did occur. I myself have interviewed an eye-witness, so did the author of a recent book The Corprse Walker. Still, only a child would take one detail as representative of a country. Or so you'd think.

My generation of Chinese are all familiar with the fable "Blind men touching an elephant," because it was in one of our elementary school textbooks. Four blind men, each basing his conclusion on the part of the elephant touched, view the big animal as a column (leg), rope (tail), wall (body), and fan (ear) respectively. They argue fiercely and no one can convince another.

I had thought the lesson from this fable was clear. But now I have a new question: can any of the parts, leg, tail, body or ear be called representative of the elephant?

Turns out, taking a particular part of a thing and believing it as the whole is common in human behavior, not just the vocation of children and blind men. Perhaps even more so among adults with perfectly normal sights.

A few years ago I attended a writers conference in Vermont. In my group there was a woman, a Ph.D. candidate, who claimed she had read two books about China. When we workshopped a short story of mine, in which a child fed a few rice grains to a sparrow, the woman angrily protested that my story didn't ring true at all. Why? "From the books I read, Chinese people were very poor and didn't have food to eat. How could there be spare rice for a sparrow?" It didn't matter where and when my story was set (or that I had actually done this as a child). There was a particular image of China carved into the woman's brain and that wouldn't change no matter what. And she was hardly a stupid person.

I can tell you many such stories but to what end? There is a Chinese saying, "To move mountain and river is easier than changing human nature." I'm an incorrigible pessimist.

So it was a consolation when, last night, I read on the "Frog in a Well" blog a post titled "Lost Stories." The author is a young woman who recently graduated from college. In her post she compared two books that tell different stories and views of the Cultural Revolution. She says in reference to Wild Swans:

I had always taken these kinds of memoirs for granted, and I admit, I am still shocked when Chinese people talk to me about their experiences as zhiqing and how they were truly positive experiences that helped to shape their own personas, unlike the way it is painted in Wild Swans. It also made me think of other historical events and how we imagine everyone to have lived the lives of the few whose lives we read about. Do we think of the Japanese army in such a holistic way in World War II because of the Rape of Nanjing? We probably make similar assessments about American history; even though I know it is not true, I can’t help but think of all Americans in the Great Depression as the Joad family from the Grapes of Wrath. Historians claim to know that their are too many narratives to possibly record, and there are millions of interpretations of one similar event; but how do we effectively, especially in a class, show the plethora of interpretations of one 10 year period?

I haven't read Some of Us, the book that started her thinking, though I did hear about it. But it matters little to me whether this young woman's particular opinion on those books agrees with mine or not. What is remarkable is that, at her young age, she has begun to realize a simple fact: a country, a history, a culture is not a uniform iron board; it is a huge variation of people, behavior, and views. There is really no such a thing as a "representative" story. To hail a book such as Wild Swans as more historically significant than others is a misleading concept. The author of Wild Swans was raised in a high-ranking Party official's family and her perspective was limited to that background. A then-rebellion or Red Guard who fought against Party officials like her father would tell a different story from a different point of view. The two sides had taken turns to be victims and victimizers. They together, along with others, made the history of the Cultural Revolution, not just one side.

In the comments under the above-mentioned post, some raised the question of whether memoirs are appropriate in undergraduate history courses. However, the issue is not with a particular genre. It is using ONE book, memoir or not, to teach that causes a problem. If a teacher could find books with different views of the same period, I'm sure the students would learn much more. In other words, to be even vaguely close to the real history, a historical teacher ought to teach the concept of variety instead of looking for what is the most "significant" or "representative."

I'm reading Postcards from Tomorrow Squarer: Reports from China by James Fallows right now and I applaud his emphasis on the tremendous individualism and nonconformisim of Chinese culture. And I'm hoping his book will convince some less rigid-minded readers to realize just that.

(Coin image from


Matthew said...

This is a great post. I've missed reading your writing--fortunately you're no longer blocked by the Great Firewall of China (for now anyway).

I think I'll have to check out the books you mention and add them to my long reading list.

Previous deleted comment was also me...I didn't realize my wife was signed into her account at the time.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Hi Matthew, nice to 'see' you again! Do you think the Great Firewall blocked the entire, or my blog was singled out?

CW Hayford said...

Thanks for the extremely thoughtful points. I've written about The Good Earth in a piece, "What's So Bad About The Good Earth?" for Education About Asia, available in the internet (you can Google it). I completely agree it is not a good introduction to China for just the reasons you explain so well, but it somehow lingers on because it's a compelling read. And I agree that no other one book would be that much better.

But what if the men are not feeling parts of the same animal? What if one is feeling the leg of a dog? Of a kangaroo? How would they know? That is, maybe "China" is not one thing, comparable to a particular elephant, but a number of different things.

Ann Marie Curling said...

Thanks for the post Xujun, I'm going to really have to read your books. I love how your writing reaches for the inside of a person.

Xujun Eberlein said...

You are very kind, Ann Marie. Thanks!

CW, thanks for the tip about your article. I'd be very interested in reading it. And, you are right, China could very well be a number of different things -- all the more important to teach the concept of variety.

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