Meeting the Common Folks: My April Reading Journey on China- PART A

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I

“April is the cruelest season.” T.S. Eliot so claims right in the beginning of his most renowned poem. This year, the tornado of cruelty swirled all around from terrorist attack of Boston’s marathon to earthquakes in Sichuan, China and Kabul, Afghanistan. In Shanghai, this coldblooded truth is recently manifested in its short-tempered weather volatility. A day before it could be as hot with piercing sunlight as late-April Mumbai. A day after, dramatically, it turned Shanghai into the blowing windy dusk of the Manali-Leh Highway.

Another brutality that lingers longer in my life- and therefore more troublesome- has been the uncertainty of future. I applied for several PhD programs during the end of last year. And March and April are supposed to see the results. Which one is more cruel, blowing off one’s mind with rejections one after another or slowly burning oneself with uninvited yet irresistible anxieties over the last string of hope? Well, the former was the theme of March; the latter April.

My job-hunting as an alternative was not smooth either. So to keep myself alive from the upset, depressive and oppressive bites of the devil “cruelty,” I have to divert my energy. When friends are mostly faraway (which is kind of inevitable for friendship in the era of globalization) and it hurts to pour pressure on your already supportive parents, then few options are better than submerging yourself in reading. (And exercise. Food for thought and food for muscles.)

So I bury myself in books. Written in or translated to Chinese. Written in or translated to English. It is fairly incredible, if you realize that I was never a keen reader from early age. On the contrary, I was so impatient with books that I used to blacken out the Chinese characters on the first pages of all my father’s books that were within my sight. Even though I had stopped being naughty and started to be a “good” student, I barely read beyond what was required in textbooks. The first rescue came with the French fable Le Petit Prince, which I finished at one go in an afternoon when I was fourteen, and cannot help but be touched by this beautiful and delicate story all the way till now.

Then there was a gap of seven years before the final salvation showed up. It rooted in my heart right after my first passage to India. Started with The White Tiger, a Man Booker Prize bestseller which captured nearly all my friends in Delhi, I grew constantly insatiable on every dimension of this incredible country. This round of hunger suddenly made me realize what an inadequate reader I was, which in turn spurred me to devour as much as possible from- and beyond- my classes.

The newly found enthusiasm, together with the inspiring wisdom from Paulo Coelho’s writings, helped wrap, organize and deepen (or disguise?) my hopeless enthrallment to India in academic activities. Through the years I learnt a little bit about India’s urban-rural disparity, about the difficulty and creativity of lives in Dharavi, about those makers of modern India, about the painful and tragic Partition that turned millions of lives upside down, about the growth of a brand that accompanied a substantial part of post-independent India…In a nutshell, I read deliberately and consciously on India. The same curiosity had also driven me to go after U.S. politics and Constitutionalism, the rise of Japanese militarism before World War Two and the intricate labyrinth weaved by the magic words of Italo Calvino…though in a less enthusiastic way.

But I had never thought myself deliberately and consciously reading about China.

II

At first glance, it seems only too natural, because it is too easy for one to take everything in one’s own country for granted. I am most relaxed reading Chinese language. Nor was I a stranger to literatures related to China. I encountered them in undergraduate courses on ancient Chinese literature, Chinese Buddhism, Chinese politics and, more frequently, Chinese economy. I approached them both specifically and through comparative dimensions: mostly China-India but not infrequently China-U.S. or China-Japan.

But when this superficial abundance was challenged by the next question, the negative result almost freaked me out: How much do I know about my country despite so many unconscious or affiliated readings? I stumbled immediately even at the first test I reserved for myself. True, I managed to grab a general picture of China, from the history of ancient times to the current track of rapid economic development. But what about the flesh inside? It was so hard to depict any concrete face. The face of her people. The common folks.

Acknowledging the knowledge gap on other countries often makes one more motivated to learn- a lightness of being an “outsider” would still exist more or less, no matter how long one has dived into the country that hosts one’s interest. But knowledge gap on one’s own country only summons awkwardness and shame out of one’s pride. Discrepancy between what one actually knows and what one ought to know as a native hurts instantly as it is discerned.

Yet on the other hand, there are also practical difficulties in my case that prevents me from seeing my country through- some of which were even generated by the “motherland” herself. Average Chinese people are the most displaced figures in many genres of literature. Fictions are meant to be dramatized by definition; academic works (at least in social sciences like economics) increasingly favors orderly patterns derived from large samples that conveniently abstract out individuality; propaganda claims people as the master of the country, but it reduced these hollow lines as the only place where they can cash in on this power; journalism might be closer to the target (and some pieces from the Southern Daily Family were really good), but it is generally acknowledged that journalism in China is enfettered by too many invisible chains. Nor did it come to help if foreign works perceive China as either a myth or, more recently, a phenomenon. Myth as it was, it aroused distasteful fears and condescending sympathies stirred with fanciful predictions as for when this “sleeping lion” would wake up again and how. Phenomenon as it is now, it involves stereotypical categories just as much as I get the general picture: economic growth lead by labor-intensive export-oriented industries, “sweat-and-blood” factories that are seldom environment-friendly; urban-rural gap which is manifested not only on the income dimension but also in terms of health, education, financial access…

As if to address a doubt, I came across the following books all together in April: Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler, A Single Tear by Wu Ningkun, Soulstealer by Philip Kuhn, Factory Girls by Leslie Chang, Life and Death in Shanghai by Nian Cheng, and China in Ten Words by Yu Hua.

It was only half way through reading them that I realized- for the first time, consciously- that there was actually a theme in my April reading journey: China, as reflected in the lives of average Chinese.

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