Blind Man's Buff

BY XUJUN EBERLEIN
Apr 27, 2010

As interest in China grows with her ascendance, one should think twice about fixing quick labels on this once-mysterious giant.

 

A few years ago, one day my daughter came home from school saying, "Mommy, now I know what country China is." "What country?" "It is a country people eat babies!" I was surprised and asked her where that was from. It turned out her English class was reading Pearl Buck's novel “The Good Earth”. This image of China stayed with my daughter for quite some time. More than once when the country was mentioned in conversation, she would make a face: "Ew, China. People eat babies."

I read “The Good Earth” a long time ago in Chinese and don't remember such a detail. No matter. Granted, that sort of thing is hardly in fiction only. Historically, during severe famines, even as recent as in 1959-61, baby-eating did occur. I myself have interviewed an eye-witness; so did the author of a recent book “The Corpse Walker”. Still, only a child would take one detail as representative of a country. Or so you'd think.

My generation of Chinese are all familiar with the fable "Blind men touching an elephant," because it was in one of our elementary school textbooks. Four blind men, each basing his conclusion on the part of the elephant he touched, view the big animal as a column (leg), a rope (tail), a wall (body), and a fan (ear), respectively. They argue fiercely and no one can convince another.

I had thought the lesson from this fable was clear.

As it turns out, taking a particular part of a thing and believing it as the whole is common in human behaviour, not just in children or blind men – and perhaps even more so among adults with perfectly normal sight.

A few years ago I attended a writers’ conference in Vermont. In my group there was a woman, a Ph.D. candidate, who claimed she had read two books about China. When we worked on a short story of mine, in which a child fed a few rice grains to a sparrow, the woman angrily protested that my story didn't ring true at all. Why? "From the books I read, Chinese people were very poor and didn't have food to eat. How could there be spare rice for a sparrow?" It didn't matter where and when my story was set (or that I had actually done this as a child). There was a particular image of China carved into the woman's brain and that wouldn't change no matter what. And she was hardly a stupid person.

I can tell you many such stories but to what end? There is a Chinese saying, "To move mountains and rivers is easier than changing human nature." I'm an incorrigible pessimist.

So it was a consolation when, last night, I read on the "Frog in a Well" blog a post titled "Lost Stories". The author is a young woman who recently graduated from college. In her post she compared two books that tell different stories and views of the Cultural Revolution.

What is remarkable is that, at her young age, she has begun to realise a simple fact: a country, a history, a culture is not a uniform iron board; it is a huge variation of people, behaviour, and views. There is really no such a thing as a "representative" story. To hail a book such as “Wild Swans” as more historically significant than others is a misleading concept. The author of “Wild Swans” was raised in a high-ranking Party official's family and her perspective was limited to that background. A then-rebellion or Red Guard who fought against Party officials like her father would tell a different story from a different point of view. The two sides had taken turns to be victims and victimizers. They together, along with others, made the history of the Cultural Revolution, not just one side.

 

Though said to make for easy tea-time reading, Pearl Buck's prize-winning book from 1932 presents a narrow and skewed account of Chinese history and culture.

Though said to make for easy tea-time reading, Pearl Buck's prize-winning book from 1932 presents a narrow account of Chinese history and culture.

 

In the comments under the above-mentioned post, some raised the question of whether memoirs are appropriate in undergraduate history courses. However, the issue is not with a particular genre. It is using ONE book, memoir or not, to teach that causes a problem. If a teacher could find books with different views of the same period, I'm sure the students would learn much more. In other words, to be even vaguely close to the real history, a historical teacher ought to teach the concept of variety instead of looking for what is the most "significant" or "representative".

I'm reading “Postcards from Tomorrow Squarer: Reports from China” by James Fallows right now and I applaud his emphasis on the tremendous individualism and non-conformism of Chinese culture. And I'm hoping his book will convince some less rigid-minded readers to realise just that.

 

Xujun Eberlein also blogs at Inside-Out China.