Our tradition may be in dire need of resuscitation and recollection, and it seems quite possible that the Chinese may help us in our necessity…

Sour Sweet by Timothy Mo (288 pages, Sphere Books, 1982; Aventura Paperback, 1985)

Shenfan William Hinton (785 pages, Random House, 1983; Vintage Paperback, 1984)

mao eva brannThe two books lumped together here have nothing in common but their connec­tion to China. Sour Sweet is a fairly short novel about a Chinese family, “small people,” who come to London to make a living, and also about their incubus, the Anglo-Chinese mafia. It is written in a savory style that bears the marks of the author’s double heritage. Shenfan, on the other hand, is an interminable field report about the peasants of Long Bow village in Shansi province and their struggle to make the land productive under the aegis of the Communist Party. Its diction seems to render faithfully the stale, yet somehow stately, ideologies of the many political meetings the author faithfully attended.

I recommend these books to the St. John’s College community, not only because the novel is a small masterpiece and the report an enormous achievement, but simply because they are, in very different ways, informative about China. I have a personal intimation about the twenty-first century in which the Orient figures largely, though it involves a twist on what is usually said about the salvation of the soul-scattered West by the wisdom of the well-centered East. I too think that our tradition may by then be in dire need of resuscitation and recollection, and it seems to me quite possible that the Chinese may help us in our necessity—not, however, by offering us their tradition, but by returning our own to us, refurbished and revivified. In the deferred but inevitable coming liberalization an enthusiasm for Western literature, music, and philosophy may sweep China, such as will shame our universities, which are now engaged in trashing the goods of our civilization. We may yet buy our Shakespeare (and, who knows, our Adam Smith) in cheap and learned Chinese editions and hear droves of young Chinese with excellent Greek lecture on Homer. It will be a true renaissance: old wine in new bottles, the old substance manifest through a new sensibility. I go by many little signs and portents, such as an unforgettable episode in one of the several films made about Western violinists traveling in China to make music and find musicians (Stern, Menuhin): two little peasanty-looking boys, fiddling away at a two-part invention, bobbing their stubbly little pates at each other and playing together and with the music as if Bach were innate to them. As, of course, he is. The light that will come from the East will, according to my conjecture, be our own, reflected and probably beautifully refracted, and it will be the greatest testimonial yet to the peculiar universality (the oxymoron is intentional) of the Western tradition. That is why it seems to me that we, of all people, should keep a sharp China watch.

Timothy Mo’s Sour Sweet might be regarded as a half-harbinger of the resuscitation, here applied to the English language. English is, strictly speaking, Mo’s mother tongue, since he is English on his mother’s side. But it seems as if having his father’s Chinese in his ear had done something wonderful to his language, something for which “redeeming” is not too strong a word. It appears to have regained a lost mandarin savor, to have become again plain and choice, taut and elegant, wry and dignified. His characterizing phrases are good exam­ples. They have an antique patina and are yet impeccably applicable to contemporary fact. Thus Lily, the elder sister, receives a letter from the younger Mui, who, in Lily’s opinion, is enjoying herself far too flagrantly in the cushy exile where she is awaiting her illegitimate confinement; it is an “insolent missive.” Or Lily’s little son Man Kee gives sporadic signs that he spends his day at the progressive public school living under a non-duress incomprehensible to his traditional mother, who is equally mystified by the fact that so licentious an institution should employ an instrument of torture called a “terror-pin” to which the children are required to bring offerings of lettuce; this school is termed the “academy of misrule.”

I am speaking here of the narrator’s own explanatory English, but there are at least two other kinds of diction in the book. One is the translated Chinese of the immigrants: The denomination of their newly acquired van comes out in English as “Infernal Carapace,” and the version of Lily’s term for contraceptives is “anti-Husband pills.” Against the hilarious precision of their Chinese, Mo plays the anxious absurdities of their slowly gaining English, beneath which can still be heard the ceremonious old dignity of the losing Chinese. It is the same layering that gives the American immigrant idioms their peculiar charm. (Incidentally, Mo demonstrates beautifully how foolish the language levelers are in pitting “dialects” against standard English: It is in comparison with a high literary diction such as Mo employs that one savors the divergences.)

Just as artful as the idiom is the structure of Sour Sweet. The title is, of course, a switch on the most popular Chinese dish, sweet and sour pork. The “sour” is the mafia that is infesting immigrant life, the Triad society, whose arcane ceremonies and criminal affairs are traced in most of the even-numbered chapters of the book. These chapters, evidently carefully researched, are red with very graphic violence and not pleasant to read, though fascinating. For the society too is in a state of transition; it has, for example, just switched its training of street fighters from the slowly acquired traditional routines to a more opportunistic assault style. In the odd-and-then-some chapters, the sour is interleaved with the “sweet,” namely the account of the Chens’ home life: Mr. Chen (“Husband”), Lily, Man Kee, and the extended family. Full of hardship as it is, it has indeed a gathering sort of sweetness that comes from the lovableness of these people. The easiest case is Man Kee, whose over-large head is a source of contention between his parents. His stolid exterior is clearly modeled on those cute Chinese dolls­ within-dolls; his intrepid, intelligent, warm little inner person emerges as slowly and occasionally as does his speech, which turns out, to his mother’s horror, to be English. The hardest and most moving case is Lily’s. She is somehow out of balance —“yang-ish “—and the reason is that her father, a bitter and disap­pointed boxer, had trained her, in place of a son, in a particularly harsh kind of fighting. (One of the sweet wonders of this book is that the miseries and misfortunes of the immigrants are never blamed on their host country, which is treated with amused appreciation.) This training has left her, in contrast to moon-faced and flexible Mui, hard, bossy, and bony (and, to her husband ‘s amazement, attractive to Englishmen). And yet she is touchingly full of the desire to love rightly and dutifully. She is, in fact, a quintessential Kantian. Indeed, she finally does her husband in with her ruat caelum dutifulness; by persisting against his orders in sending remittances to his parents she makes it possible for the Triad enforcer to trace Chen and to “wash” him—erroneously, it turns out.

Lily is a person of comical and complex pathos. This complicated comicality is the third marvelous feature of the book, its governing joke: an elaborate inversion of the topic “oriental inscrutability.” Naturally, all those red-faced, blue-eyed devils are indistinguishable as well as incomprehensible to the Chens. At first, only Mui can tell her “aitchgevees,” the heavy goods vehicle drivers to whom she delivers Chinese food, apart from each other. (Incidentally, what the Chens provide in their take-out shop is called lupsup, the rubbish reserved for non-Chinese, a word worthy of admittance to English.) But the true inscrutability is here, as anywhere, among the members of the family. Lily, especially, lives a tragi-comedy of errors concerning her laconic menfolks. In the most moving chapter, she symbolically initiates the uprooting of her family when she tears up Man Kee’s mango plant, never knowing what she is doing. And when Chen disappears and the anonymous remittances from the society start coming, she is comforted by the conviction that Husband has not left in anger but gone to the continent to provide more amply for them all. There is, besides the sad comedy of misapprehension, also lots of simple comedy of error; its high point is Grandpa Chen’s coffin party, which it is hard even to mention without cracking up.

The book ends with the final splitting of the original family “amoeba.” The bulb in the fat little household god Lily had bought and serviced for three years has burnt out. There is some melancholy in the ending, but more stiff-lipped, yet sweet-tempered acceptance: Mui marries, takes out citizenship, and opens a fish-and-chips restaurant; Lily adjusts to an empty bed and feels oddly free; Man Kee gets salutarily sick on his first cigarette, pedagogically administered by his new uncle. This little lover of “mince, jam tart and custard” will make a lovely Londoner. So will they all, for just as our recent Asian immigrants are recalling us to our slipping American virtues, so this family seems in the end to demonstr­ate more exemplary English traits than do their red-faced customers.

William Hinton gave his first report from Long Bow Village in North China the title Fanshen, “turn over,” “stand up,” connoting revolution and liberation. The second is felicitously entitled Shenfan, meaning “deep plowing,” “deep turning.” As the former had given an account of the village during the most turbulent year of the Chinese civil war, 1948, the second traces the efforts of the peasants to turn the land reforms of the Revolution to good account over the next score or so of years. It ends with the aborting of the Cultural Revolution in 1971. This tome of nearly 800 close-printed pages is, according to Hinton’s modest disclaimer, not a definitive history of Long Bow during this time. Now, by my reckoning, its final population of 1,637 persons represents far less than one five-hundred-thousandths of all of China. It, therefore, boggles the mind to imagine what size a definitive history of the whole country might then be by this standard. Surely, in any future history, Long Bow will be less rather than more amply represented. My point is that this book is as dense a socio-anthropological study of a small place as one may hope to find, and that makes it a specially good entry point for someone who is, like myself, totally ignorant of Chinese history. For it seems to me that in reading to learn history, documents, and field studies are mostly to be preferred over broad-brushed conspectuses, if only for mne­monic reasons. While the details imparted by the one get forgotten and the generalizations delivered by the other soon grow dim anyway, at least the impressions derived from the former have the robustness of conclusions worked out for oneself.

Hinton’s book can engage the reader in a number of ways. There is, first, the sheer interest of entering into the daily life of a far-away spot on earth. Since Hinton knows farming and machinery there is much significant technical infor­mation. The emblematic example is the technique alluded to in the title “Shenfan,” “deep digging,” a laborious and disastrous mode of turning the soil in broad and excessively deep furrows, which the commune leaders impose on the peasants in the vain hope of high grain yields—an object lesson in the evils of politicization (“Judge Kao… headed off any discussion of the value of deep-digging by making support for it a political issue,” and calling opposition to it “lazy, cowardly, bourgeois thinking”). There is a vivid cast of characters, civilians, and “cadres,” of whom the (unintendedly) most memorable are two not always separable types: the unregenerable village bums and the unregiment­able rogue-peasants, who won’t be socialized. For those interested in Christi­anity in China, there are the incidental but persistent traces of those local spooks, the Catholic priest and his flock, and the tales of his apparently inerad­icable counterrevolutionary influence. However, the book weaves together so many strands as to defy summary.

For my own part, I had picked it up to learn something about that strange purist convulsion, that revolt in heaven in which Mao turned against the Com­munist Party in the name of a more pristine communism, the Cultural Revolution. I was not disappointed. Hinton gives an absorbingly concrete account of the carmagnole of increasingly interminable, boring, and brutal mass meetings, culminating in humiliating public self-criticisms and occasional devastating refusals, of more and more bottomlessly casuistic dialectic and opportunistic persecution, until the whole movement collapses into unprincipled factionalism, nearly wrecking Long Bow.

However, the more I read, the more I found myself puzzling over the author himself, who must be an amazing man. To begin with, he throws to the winds all the cautions concerning a researcher’s reticence and involves himself enthusias­tically in the affairs of the community he is observing; he is a “participant observer” (in the terms of the trade) with a vengeance. He returns to a Long Bow already altered by the previous publication of Fanshen, which had attracted the attention of the provincial authorities, and he comes attached to an ideological rectification team (which sets up shop in the old Catholic orphanage). He works in the fields, attends political meetings, takes sides. The unorthodox procedure seems to have worked beautifully (surely an object lesson to the above-the-fray school of research). But how did he get away with it in the turbulent climate of the Cultural Revolution? Perhaps because he is an anthropological genius and an ideological innocent. Is there anyone else in the world who mourns Mao’s second revolution for not being pure enough? He has a genuine, utopian love for collectivity, prefers communes to collectives, and unceasingly scores the peasant’s retrograde tendencies to private enterprise. The only poetry in the book occurs in descriptions of vast human masses rhythmically at work.

These convictions affect the style of the book, a remarkable style. At first, I thought that the authorial interstices amongst the many verbatim reports of political conversations and speeches (translated for Hinton by his China-born and bred daughter) were a kind of dead-pan mimicry of the evidently pervasive Maoist idiom spoken publicly in the commune, whose main features seem to be folksy slogans encapsulating a labyrinthine “line” (“Get on the horse of cooper­ation and ride boldly onward”) and a primly stilted didacticism. Not so: It is the author’s own willing voice, which has the stiff charm of a hieratic tongue.

On finishing, I found myself left with one huge residual question, which the book did not so much frame as intimate. To my mind, philosophy is the sound core of the West, and ideology is its specific pathology. What they share is their intended universality, and indeed Mao, in his “Thoughts,” repeatedly makes a point of the universal aspirations of Marxist ideology. Perhaps, then, the univer­sal West was bound to enfold the East. But why did it capture the world’s oldest and vastest civilization precisely through its most defective mode?

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from the St. John’s Review (Volume 40, No. 3, 1990-1991).

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