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.

Published August 7, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

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.

By Nell Freudenberger

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

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