Editorial March 2007: Windows on China By Hilary Williamson
Traveling through Asia in the 1970s and 80s, I visited many Buddhist temples, where I was struck by the way in which windows (often circular) gave focused views of an adjoining room or surrounding scenery. They drew me in to discover more. In the same way, the written word gives us focused insights into other countries and cultures. China, in particular, can be difficult for foreigners to comprehend, but books in many genres give differing viewpoints, just as those simple but elegant temple windows spotlight particular scenes.
Let's start with non-fiction. I recently enjoyed Matthew Polly's American Shaolin, 'An Odyssey in the New China'. In addition to covering 'Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch', it shows a humble American working hard to understand a culture very different from the one in which he grew up. In Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China, journalist John Pomfret (once an exchange student at Nanjing University) gives another modern perspective, recounting the life histories of five classmates, and revealing a country in flux.
For the myriad of Westerners - and increasing numbers of Chinese - fascinated by Tibet, I highly recommend Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land, a balanced though sympathetic perspective, whose author Patrick French makes the point that, sadly, Tibet must await reform in Beijing to re-assert its unique identity. Another remarkable read, Leaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood at the Edge of the World by Yang Erche Namu & Christine Mathieu, portrays just one of China's many diverse ethnic groups (and disappearing cultures), the matrilineal Moso, whose Country of Daughters lies in the mountains that border China and Tibet.
Simon Winchester is always a well-informed travel guide and his River at the Center of the World takes readers on 'A Journey Up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time'. Winchester visits relics of history, while also exploring modern issues, as he journeys with strong-minded Chinese Lily from Shanghai towards the river's headwaters in Tibet. Philip Wilkinson's Yangtze is an equally informative (coffee table sized) book that takes the same trip in the opposite direction, illuminating it with glorious photographs.
Mysteries can also help us connect to a place often opaque to our understanding. Peter May's series - starting with The Firemaker - matches Chinese police Deputy Section Chief Li Yan with American forensic pathologist Margaret Campbell, in both professional and personal life. Qiu Xiaolong, originally from China, takes us to 1990 Shanghai, a time when new rules were being written and it was hard to know how to act, for her Edgar winning Death of a Red Heroine. When Chief Inspector Chen Cao investigates the death of a former national model worker, he finds many similarities between her closeted life and his own.
And, back to Tibet again, for a wonderful, though at times unbearably painful, series - from The Skull Mantra to Beautiful Ghosts - that takes a disgraced veteran Chinese police inspector into Tibetan imprisonment and exile. There Shan Tao Yun befriends Buddhist monks and solves a variety of mysteries, while exploring his own spirituality. What I like most about the series is that Eliot Pattison avoids the trap of demonizing individuals for a government's actions, no matter how reprehensible they might be, and portrays good and bad in both Tibetans and Chinese.
There are excellent YA books as well, equally enjoyable for adult readers. In Forbidden City, William Bell takes a Canadian teenager to be swept up in 1989 events in Tiananmen Square, where he learns that war is very definitely not a game. Ting-Xing Ye, who grew up in China, tells the true story of her childhood and coming of age during the cruelty of the Cultural Revolution in My Name is Number 4. And The Diary of Ma Yan is another true tale of 'The Struggles and Hopes of a Chinese Schoolgirl', a child whose Muslim family lives at subsistence level in remote rural China, and who fights for an education.
Though any one book cannot give the full picture of such a vast and complex country as China is today, such volumes as these - like Buddhist temple windows - offer readers intriguing, focused glimpses into different aspects of that great and varied land, filled with people who are perhaps not so different as our poor vision has led us to assume.
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