China fascinates me. I have spent very little time there– only stops on passage to and from Central Asia; cannot speak the language, and know far more about its neighbors to the north and west. Nevertheless I think a knowledge of China is more important for those who would make decisions than, ultimately, knowledge about any other country. Our current enemies will pass away, and China will be there.
I do NOT mean that China is our enemy– it is more complex than that. I have been accused of being anti- Chinese. On the contrary– I have a mingled awe, respect, frustration, and fury over different aspects of Chinese culture. I read their poetry constantly, am fascinated by their rising skills in biotech (yes, a little scared too), and I am furious at their environmental record and their avid consumption of endangered species as “medicine”. Militarily I fear that they are becoming adventurous, and are watching our reactions to everything carefully– do we talk loudly, then retreat?
I think it is also wise to remember that culturally and even racially the Han Chinese consider themselves our superiors, and that even non- communist Chinese consider they have an absolute right to control the destinies of Turkestan and Tibet (which they occupy) and Taiwan and Mongolia (which they don’t– yet). They also have eyes on, and increasing population in, the Russian Far East.
If you want to understand China, one of our best contemporary commentators is John Derbyshire, best known (at least outside of mathematics) as a commentator for the conservative magazine National Review (online version here.) “Derb”, as he is known to his fans– I am unabashedly one– is a polymath with a formidable range of talents. He writes critically successful novels, books on math (above), translates Chinese poetry, and writes knowledgeably about science, music (opera AND Hank Williams) and building tree houses. But he is also funny, mercilessly politically incorrect, and has the rare trait of saying what he actually believes. He offended the journalist Andrew Sullivan, who believes him to be a homophobe– a bit on that below– but he also regularly ticks off conservatives for his rejection of “Intelligent Design” and his fascnation with evo- bio, never mind his at best lukewarm support for many administration policies.
On China he has some unique perspectives. As a vaguely leftish young man he went to China and ended up marrying a young Chinese woman (who has recently become a US citizen). He speaks fluent Chinese, and continues to visit. He has lived in Hong Kong as well, in a more capitalist incarnation, and was an extra in a Bruce Lee movie!
Derbyshire’s website is here. On it you can find essays on many matters Chinese, as well as good ones of particular interest to Central Asia amateurs like me, on the issues of “Xinjiang” and Turkestan. Just go to “Print Journalism” or “Web Journalism” and scroll down.
But today I am more interested in his Print- On – Demand novel Fire From the Sun. Derbyshire seems almost pathologically modest about it– in his “promotional” column he says:
“Is the book any good? That I can’t tell you. The two professionals and two friends who read through it offered wildly different opinions (they always do), so nothing can be deduced from their readings (nothing ever can). You can read about Fire from the Sun on my web site and also on the publisher’s site. I will only say this: it was not intended as a literary novel. I am not, to tell the truth, a very literary person. I am not very well-read, not in the literature of the last hundred years anyway, a fact that is brought crushingly home to me when I go partying with seriously literary people. My attitude to fiction is close to Benjamin Disraeli’s: “When I want to read a novel, I write one.” I do not read much current Lit. Fic., except when paid to. My impression is that not much of it is any good, though since I read so little, that is no doubt an unfair judgment”.
He is perhaps pulling our legs a little— he reminds me of my friend Peter Bowen, who insists his quirky Montana mysteries are mere “potboilers” when in fact they beat most pretentious “literature” from that state hands down. In fact, his further description may give you an idea about what is wrong with a good bit of Lit- Fic (though he actually likes space aliens in context):
“I can’t see much that is Lit. Fic. about Fire from the Sun. The narrative proceeds from the past to the future. There’s a pretty equal balance of dialogue and récit. None of the characters is an angel, a space alien, or a coprophagic dwarf. Nobody lives to be 200, turns into a faun, or becomes intimately involved with a rutabaga. (Magic realism? I shall die happy if I can believe I have got real realism right.) Most to the point, nobody is me — not even approximately. I made it all up. That’s what fiction writers are supposed to do”.
Fire is the story of two Chinese immigrants (eventually) to the US. William Leung and Margaret Han suffer a star- crossed childhood amidst the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. The three volumes lead them through many other travails and triumphs, ending in each attaining at least a certain kind of success in Manhattan. Every component of the current Chinese experience seems to be suffered by one or the other of the protagonists– internal exile, emigration to Hong Kong, involvement with Tibetan and Turkic “Nationalities” (ie, people)– as well as love, sex, art, death, and loss. The books culminate with the events in Tienanmen square and in Margaret’s subsequent triumph singing “Norma” in New York– for many reasons a bittersweet acheivment.
The “minor” characters are as varied as in a Dickens novel– Margaret’s Red Army brother, more politician than soldier; her Tibetan lover; her gay dancer friend and her voice coach, also gay; her unfaithful but charming Jewish songwriter husband (whom we last see going on a Buddhist retreat in the Himalayas!): her sometime mentor, an uproarious tenor who obviously shares more than a profession with Pavarotti; William’s friends from his childhood, most of whom die; his rescuer and seducer, a roguish, crooked Hong Kong cop; even his first female lover, who returns to help him in his hour of need.
One thing I MUST note given the amount of ill- informed abuse Derb has suffered over alleged “gay bashing”– do you see something there? One of the protagonists, William Leung, is an (eventually) HIV- positive homosexual male. (And he got it —the disease– out of ignorance, not “evil”.) Of the minor characters above, the three gay ones are respectively heroic, good, and equivocal but likable. There is only one nasty gay character, an amoral Wall Street hedonist, in the book, and you get the feeling his type exists equally among heterosexuals. I suspect Derbyshire just wants people to be left alone.
Which doesn’t have a lot to do with China. But the book does. if you read it, you will not only enjoy a great read– you will know a lot about contemporary China, not to mention Bel Canto singing.
While I am on the subject of China I want to recommend one more book: The Retreat of the Elephants: an Environmental History of China by Mark Elvin. This is not a book for the mildly- interested; rather, a massive (564 page) volume by a Chinese- speaking historian of staggering erudition that combines classic sources– plenty of poetry– and painstaking scholarship to show how Chinese civlization has systematically pushed back every aspect of the wild. They might write good poetry, but their “Nature” is A Diminished Thing.