Destination: China

To understand the last century of this vast Far Eastern country, look to the moving stories of Lu Xun, a celebrated memoir of the Cultural Revolution and an engaging, concise history.

Topics: China, The Literary Guide to the World, Travel, Asia, Books,

Destination: China

If you’re like me, your putonghua (standard Mandarin) could use some work. Without good Mandarin in China, you’re unlikely to be able to ask important questions — including, but not limited to, “Excuse me, but what is this in my bowl and why is it still swimming?” Of course, you can learn a lot in any country just by looking, but especially in China, it helps to know what you’re looking for. The wars and political campaigns of the last century have taken an especially brutal toll on the country’s architecture and other physical history; it’s useful to know what used to be there, and why it’s gone.

Any one of the many books by Jonathan Spence, Yale professor and preeminent American scholar of Chinese history, would be a good introduction to the subject, but “The Search for Modern China” (1999) is perhaps the best place to start. Dedicated to Spence’s students, it’s a concise account of China’s transformation from dynastic empire to modern nation-state, beginning with the apogee of Ming power in the late 16th century and ending with the democracy movements of the 1980s. In what ways did the demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989 echo the May Fourth movement of intellectuals in the 1920s, or for that matter, the 17th century Ming loyalists? What does the Boxer Rebellion have to do with the abdication of Puyi, the last emperor, in 1911? (What was the Boxer Rebellion again?) Spence answers all the obvious questions in such engaging prose that you feel you’ve lucked into a seminar with the best professor you ever had. He is particularly skilled at illuminating the cultural misunderstandings that have plagued China’s relationship with the West for the last 400 years. Among the book’s fascinating illustrations are a Chinese sketch of an English sailor from 1839, sporting a beak and breathing fire, and an 1880s American political poster of a foot booting a slant-eyed Chinese worker across the ocean, under the banner “The Chinese Must Go.”

One of the most arresting portraits among the illustrations in Spence’s book is of the great short-story writer Lu Xun (a pseudonym for Zhou Shuren). It shows him as a young student in Japan in 1904, just after cutting his queue, the long braid that was a symbol of loyalty to the Qing government. In Japan, where he went to study Western medicine, Lu Xun was inspired to change his focus to literature. Although he became an editor and a prolific journalist, he is best remembered for his relatively few short stories — “A Madman’s Diary,” “The True Story of Ah Q” and “Kung-I-Chi,” among others. In his introduction to the “Selected Stories” (2003), the contemporary Chinese-American writer Ha Jin speculates that “Lu Xun has become not only a national hero but also a god. Probably there hasnt been another writer honored with so many statues.”

Mao Zedong praised Lu Xun in public; yet when he was asked privately what the writer would’ve needed to do, had he been alive during the political campaigns of the 1950s, Mao purportedly responded, “He can either remain silent or go to prison.” Although Lu Xun embraced Marxism in the ’30s, and believed in using literature for utilitarian social purposes, he didn’t live long enough to see the implementation of those ideas. His stories examine the brutality and beauty of life in the Chinese countryside of his time, as well as explore the inner conflict of people like himself — educated and ambitious men who both passionately love their country and despair of it ever changing. In his own introduction to his stories, he describes a different motivation for writing: There is “no point in clinging” to the past, he wrote, but “my trouble is that I can’t forget completely, and these stories have resulted from what I have been unable to erase from my memory.”

Maybe no genre of Chinese literature has gotten as much attention abroad as the Cultural Revolution narrative. Jung Chang’s celebrated 1991 memoir, “Wild Swans,” stands out for the way it connects her firsthand experience of the period with that of her mother, a veteran of the Long March, and her grandmother, who became a concubine in 1924 to a high official in Pekings warlord government. The drama of those intertwined stories would make fascinating reading even without Jung’s natural storytelling talent; but the most remarkable thing about this memoir is the way it explains how a perverted government can get inside the minds of its citizens, turning students against teachers, children against parents, and neighbors against each other. Of the buildup to the Cultural Revolution, Jung writes: “My parents never said anything to me or my siblings. The restraints which had kept them silent about politics before still prevented them from opening their minds to us. Now it was even less possible for them to speak. The situation was so complex and confusing that they could not understand it themselves. What could they possibly say to us that would make us understand?”

Unlike Jung’s family, members of the educated Communist elite, the characters in Ha Jin’s early collection of stories “Ocean of Words” (1996), are ordinary people, mostly soldiers, who are simply trying to live out their lives in an extraordinary time. Northeastern China in the early 1970s is not a naturally comic setting, but Ha Jin somehow manages to be very funny. My favorite story concerns a military telegraph operator who becomes obsessed with a female operator in the regional headquarters. It’s his first crush, and Kang falls hard — despite never having seen the woman in question. “The dots and dashes sounded like amorous messages inviting him to decode their secret meanings. How magnificent her telegraphic style was in broad daylight. Kang lost himself in an imaginary melody composed of both the electric signal and the tingling voice — ‘Hello, this is the Military Region Station. Wake up, comrade. Have you heard me on the machine?’” Both here and in his quietly wonderful novel “Waiting,” Ha Jin explores the frustration and confusion inherent in falling in love, making a friend or reading a book at a time when having a private emotional or intellectual experience is a criminal act.

When Peter Hessler moved to Beijing after three years as an English teacher in rural Sichuan, his goal was “to write about average Chinese people.” His ambitious new book, “Oracle Bones,” is the culmination of years of reporting for National Geographic, the New Yorker and other periodicals. Yet while some books by journalists can feel like a series of articles hastily cobbled together, Hessler’s journalism clearly seems meant to have been adapted into this remarkably cohesive and far-ranging work. “Oracle Bones” connects the archaeology of China’s rich past with the ordinary people the author initially set out to describe. Some of the most engaging chapters concern his former students, who have become migrant workers in Shenzhen, and his friend Polat, an Uigur money changer who emigrates illegally from Beijing to the United States in the year 2000. To get a feeling for the texture of life in China right now, in Beijing and elsewhere, there isnt a better book in English than “Oracle Bones.”

My Chinese teacher — between sighs of exasperation — tells me that she’s busier than ever. Everyone wants to learn Mandarin these days, even babies, she says, showing me pictures of her youngest students. Everyone, in any case, wants their children to learn Mandarin, and it’s easy to see why: You can’t open an American newspaper without reading something about China. The more I read, the more I think that a story like China’s requires more context than any article can supply. Conventional wisdom says that there’s nothing like seeing a place with your own eyes; on the other hand, these books give you a much clearer view than the one you’ll get from the taxi window on your first ride in from the Beijing airport.

Nell Freudenberger is the author of the story collection "Lucky Girls." Her novel "The Dissident" has just been published.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>