Saturday, January 15, 2011

Iron and Silk

Peter Hessler is one of the most popular writers on contemporary China. I've read all three of his books - Rivertown, Oracle Bones, and Country Driving - as well as several of his articles for the New Yorker and other various publications. I'm a huge fan of all of his work.

Last year, a fellow China blogger wrote a piece entitled - How Peter Hessler Ruined My Life. Here is the beginning of that article:
Peter Hessler, the American writer of bestselling Oracle Bones and River Town, has singlehandedly ruined my China life. I’ve never actually seen Peter Hessler in China, but I live everyday in his footsteps.

I’ve always had an adversarial jealously of Hessler, seeing as how he’s achieved the fame and success as a China writer with Princeton connections that I’d take in a moment. I’ve scoured his writings to find faults and thereby a basis for my rivalry, but I still have yet to come up with anything.

Living in China in the shadow of Peter Hessler is a bit like what a real-life Harry Potter would feel toward J.K. Rowling if Potter were an aspiring novelist and he one day discovered someone had beaten him to the punch—and made a tidy sum in the process. I suspect that nearly every Princeton in Asia fellow has a tinge of jealousy-based grudge-tinged-with-respect for Hessler.

To understand how Hessler has stolen my thunder, it’s necessary to understand one of the most essential benefits of choosing to live in China. That is you get to wrap yourself in the plush, velvety illusion that you’re the first one to experience all of the crazy aspects of China life.

Read On
I can relate a lot with what this blogger is talking about in his post. After I finish reading one of Hessler's books, I often think to myself the following kinds of things:
Why don't I keep up with all of the Chinese people who've passed through my life like Hessler did?
Why didn't I completely dedicate myself to learning Chinese at a more fluent level?
Why did I waste time watching pirated American TV show DVDs while in Xi'an when I could've been doing something productive?
I believe that this sort of reaction to Hessler's writing is natural. One of the most amazing aspects of living in China (or any foreign country for that matter) as a foreigner is the novelty of expanding one's boundaries to limits that before seemed impossible. There were countless times when I was in China where I thought to myself, "I can't believe what I'm doing right now." Reading beautifully written accounts from a first-class writer about his own unfathomable adventures can dampen one's buzz a bit.

Peter Hessler found this blog post about him a few days after it was written. He wrote to the author about his thoughts on the article.

Here is a snippet from Hessler's letter that the blogger published:
It’s a funny phenomenon, and one that I remember when I first came to China. There were certain books that everybody read, and the longer you lived there the more you might be inclined to resent them. It’s a natural reaction in a place like China, where you’re constantly learning and discovering. It’s a very personal process, very intense, and a sense of ownership develops. In “River Town” I wrote about how I wasn’t so charitable when I saw a couple of Europeans in Fuling, the first (and only) “uninvited” foreigners that I ever saw in town. I really did not want them there. I realized it was an unfair reaction, very childish; but I also saw that it was quite natural. After a long period of isolation I felt like it was my city.

During the years that I was in Fuling, “Iron and Silk” was the book that all foreign teachers read, and sometimes complained about. When I sent out the unsolicited manuscript of “River Town,” a lot of reactions were clearly shaped by Mark Salzman’s book. Most agents and publishers rejected it, probably because there was already a successful book about teaching in China. Or they wanted to build on it in narrow ways: one agent wanted me to cut my manuscript down into very short vignettes, like Salzman’s book. I’m glad I resisted; over the years it’s become clear that these are very different books and each has its own place. A couple of years ago, I met Mark Salzman at a literary event, and I told him that the foreign teachers now complain about me as well as him. He laughed; he knew what I was talking about. When I was in Fuling, I really benefited from reading his book, as well as Bill Holm’s “Coming Home Crazy.” The fact that they were so different struck me as a good thing. It reminded me that it’s not simply the experience that matters: it’s the writer. And I noticed that these books shared something in common: a sense of humor.


Of course, it’s not strictly the experience that distinguishes a piece of writing. China has been around for a long time, and experiences have overlapped for years and decades and even centuries. Recently I was reading Archibald Little’s “Through the Yangtse Gorges,” in which he describes a Sichuanese banquet, and then he apologizes because it’s hardly a new story: “Chinese dinners have been described over and over again, but I have narrated this one, as I think few have given an idea of their tediousness and the absence of all that we deem comfort.” Little wrote this in 1887! So I wasn’t exactly breaking new ground with the baijiu banquets in “River Town.”

I had to get beyond this, especially since my goal in that book was to write about everyday observations and experiences. Lots of foreigners shared those things, and there was nothing special about my China background. Fuling wasn’t an important place. Many foreigners spoke the language better than I did, and many people had a deeper knowledge of the culture. But I thought of myself as a writer, not a China expert. My training was more along those lines; before going to China I had worked as an ethnographer in southeastern Missouri, and I had thought a lot about the social sciences and theories of observation. In college I took a lot of courses in fiction and nonfiction writing. I had very few ideas about China, but I had strong ideas about voice, structure, set pieces, story structures. People often don’t realize how technical writing is. It’s a lot harder than learning Chinese or learning about China, that’s for sure. By the time I left Fuling, I had spent only two years engaged seriously with China, but thirteen years engaged seriously with writing. If the ratio had been the opposite thirteen years in China, and two years thinking about how to write that book would not have happened. I might have known a lot, but I wouldn’t have known how to express it, and how to structure it. In any case, that book is more about a learning process; it’s about how language, people, and culture came into focus for me. It’s not about “China” in the strictest sense.

Read the entire letter (recommended)
I really like this response. It's not the experiences that set Hessler apart from others, it's the writing. It'd do all travel writers good to reflect on what he has to say here.

After reading Hessler's response, I was interested in reading the "Peter Hessler before Peter Hessler" book that foreigners living in China in the 1990s complained about - Iron and Silk by Mark Salzman. I picked it up a few weeks ago.

Iron and Silk is 210 pages of short vignettes on Mark Salzman's two years in China. Salzman was a young Yale grad who taught at a medical college in Changsha, Hunan Province in the mid-80s. The book mostly focuses on his teaching experiences, daily life, and his study of Chinese "kung fu."

Salzman took a strong interest in China when he was a twelve year-old boy. He began studying how to speak and read Chinese, painting Chinese calligraphy, and practicing martial arts at that time. Thinking back on the jealousy discussed above, I'm very envious of the fact that Salzman already had such a solid foundation of Chinese culture before he ever went over to China.

A great deal of the book is about Salzman's martial arts lessons. Here is a section of the book going over some of the basics of Chinese "kung fu" from page 30:

Salzman has several different teachers of different styles of wu shu. He's pushed really hard by all of them. It's not exactly like Uma Thurman going to learn with her master in Kill Bill vol. 2, but it's not too dissimilar. Studying wu shu with Chinese masters as a suburban American kid is a great story and Salzman nails many of the passages working with his teachers in his book.

The theme of "gong fu" - 功夫 - or a skill that transcends mere surface beauty - mentioned in the passage is weaved throughout Iron and Silk as well. I appreciated this mode of self-examination. By the end of the book, one has gone on a long journey both in terms of getting into Chinese culture and in the development of Salzman's character.

On the whole, though, I didn't particularly like Salzman's choice of writing a series of twenty-five or so short stories instead of stringing together one longer narrative. For this reason, Iron and Silk doesn't stand up to anything that Hessler's done. The full depth of the experiences just don't quite make it onto the pages of Salzman's book.

Saying that, I enjoyed Iron and Silk a great deal. Reading about Salzman's unique stories taking place a generation ago, just as China was embracing reform and opening, is very worthwhile.


Ramesh said...

Hadn't heard of Iron and Silk. Despite your mixed reviews, I am intrigued enough to go and buy it.

This is a superb post Mark and a perfect illustration of why your blog is such a pleasure to read. Having lived in China, I can relate to every thought in this post. I believe everybody's experience is unique and conditioned by his own background, culture, values, etc etc. I am a great fan of Peter Hessler too, but I am equally a fan of your blog - your experiences and perspectives are as rich and interesting as anybody else. Undoubtedly others will come with even more interesting pieces.

I am thankful for my time in China. Sure I didn't do much of what many of you did. But it was extremely meaningful to me and when I now read books or articles on China, I can understand and appreciate it much better.

China is a popular country these days, but I am sure the experience will be the same whichever country or culture you go to.

Anonymous said...

"I’ve scoured his writings to find faults and thereby a basis for my rivalry, but I still have yet to come up with anything."

Well, the problem with his writing is that its all just a series of unconnected sketches. It took me over a year to read his first book because each time I put it down I thought, what's the point in picking it up again? There's nothing that draws you in and holds you.

Hessler is really a journalist who should stick to publishing articles, then calling his books collections of articles, rather than pretending they contain any kind of overarching narrative?

Bitter? Not really, just bored of all this praise for mediocre writing.

Mark said...

@Ramesh - Thanks so much for your comments. I agree that every person's experiences are unique and special in their own ways.

@Anon - Note that the quote you use here was from another blogger, not me. I'm a huge Hessler fan, but not sure I'd go quite as far as he did in his praises.

Hessler is quite the polarizing figure. I feel like China watchers are all over the map with their assessments of him. The book that I see panned the most - Oracle Bones - is my favorite.

Different strokes for different folks.