Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Ida Pruitt: Old Madame Yin

After reading her oral history of "A Daughter of Han - the Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman" -- I was more than ready to read this, Ida Pruitt's next book about the women she met in China in the 1930's.

But this one is very, very different.

To begin with -- it's written 40 years later (published in 1979) - when Miss Pruitt was 91 years old -- so this is a very old woman -- digging way back into her memory.

And then -- though she didn't get to know this woman as well -- i.e. she didn't have her over for tea three times a week over two years (as she did with her first subject) -- this elegant woman did seem to have a more powerful effect on her -- as someone whom she admired and perhaps wished to emulate.

So this book is less a sociological study -- and more a self portrait of the kind of woman the author (or - a part of her) nostalgically regrets that she was not : aesthetic, maternal, harmonious, majestic. Not to say that this Baptist missionary's daughter regretted her life as a writer, single woman and pioneering social worker -- but I think that the Chinese girl in her saw Old Madame Yin as a resplendent role model.

Old Madame Yin had led an almost storybook life --- that began as the prettiest girl in her village, the daughter of a small shop keeper -- who caught the eye of a young soldier who had been adopted as a boy into the Taiping army -- and then as a man into Qing army.

Both the pretty young girl and the handsome young man had to marry other spouses -- but after both of those spouses had died --- they found each other, joined their families together, and made a love match. Completely Storybook !

And then to add to their good fortune -- Madame Yin's son by her previous marriage (so he should have remained a member of her ex-husband's family) turns out to be an effective businessman who makes a fortune in manufacturing and pays for the enormous family compound which Miss Pruitt is privileged to visit.

With all the other children -- and their spouses -- and concubines -- and grandchildren from both -- and the extended family of servants -- it's a complex setting that's worthy of another 'Dream of Red Chamber" -- which, regretfully, we can't get because our author only visited the place a few times -- and had to get most of the information from a servant that Madame Yin had pressured her to hire/adopt. One son marries a French woman whom he meets while attending school in Paris (that's a disaster) --- and another is a loser who lives in the world of sex and drugs (his concubine tries to kill herself). There's also the charming story of the attempted marriage arranged between two children from the parent's previous marriages -- but Madame Yin's daughter is too smart but ugly -- while her husband's son is too handsome but stupid -- and they spend their wedding night stubbornly sitting back to back on the wedding bed.

But mostly -- the book is a few long scenes of reminiscence -- like the first time -- and the last time --that the author met her subject -- so the book serves as something of a tribute to a friend that's been living in the author's memory for many, many years.

Something else to note here: though she's now rich, Madame Yin was born into the same urban small-merchant class as the poor working woman whom Pruitt interviewed for her first book -- and she has had just as little formal education. (she claims to be illiterate -- but apparently has no problem reading sub-titles on the movie screen) There's even the delightful moment when Pruitt introduces both older women to each other -- and they must determine relative status to make the proper seating arrangements (they're both from the same class - but the poor woman is a few years older, so she gets priority)

How I wish we could find out what happened to the family in the subsequent decades of war and revolution. The boy adopted to be the son of the second son's wife would be about 20 at the beginning of the People's Republic. I wonder what happened to him ? How I would love to hear his story.

Miss Pruitt was a distinguished woman in China -- invited back to visit even during the most revolutionary years -- so if anyone from that family wanted to contact her, it would not have been difficult to find her. But nothing is said about them in her 1979 book -- so I fear the worst.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Jacques Barzun: From Dawn to Decadence

Jacques Barzun: From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present, 500 years of Western Cultural Life.

Finally made it through my first reading of this magnificent tome -- done intermittently over the past year -- a chapter here -- a chapter there -- as opportunity presented -- in between the Asian material I've been reading.

It's details are my delight -- all the introductions to authors of whom I'd never heard -- or known just barely.

But it's overall theme still eludes me -- it's concluding chapter is a disaster -- and it just seems to be the rant of a fussy pedant -- who's been scolding students for too many decades -- and seems unaware of the culture that lives and prospers outside of books -- and outside the fads of either popular entertainment or professional academia.

Take, for example, his slam on the internet:

"The last 20C report on the "World Wide Web" was that its popularity was causing traffic jams on the roads to access and the unregulated freedom to contribute to its words, numbers, ideas, pictures, and foolishness was creating chaos - in other words, duplicating the world in electronic form. The remaining advantage of the real world was that its contents were scattered over a wide territory and one need not be aware of more than one's mind had room for."

Is that all this cultural savant can say about this extraordinary phenomenon that has made so much knowledge immediately accessible on demand ? Is he just irritated because he's had difficulty getting connected ? (he must have been using AOL as his service provider!)

More serious -- his slam on what he calls "Demotic life" -- where society caters to individual wants, rather than individuals accepting the lead of an authoritative social order -- what he sees as the culmination of a 500-year process of emancipation.

So now we have the welfare state -- responsible to everyone's needs -- instead of the welfare family/clan -- only effective among those families that can afford it. Is this transformation really a sign of decadence ?

I question his vision -- or rather -- I question it when he looks beyond his world of academia -- where I think he's seeing quite clearly -- and is somewhat prophetic to call his profession back from its scientistic specialization -- and leading it back, through his own heroic example, towards generalism.

Here's a man who reads across all the specialties -- in sciences as well as history, literature, philosophy, theology -- and attends to all the arts - including music and painting (though I don't remember his giving much attention to poetry -- perhaps because he's aiming at a pan-European viewpoint -- and poetry is so language specific.)

But he's also a scholar who seems to be exclusively Eurocentric. Oh - I'm sure he would consider such a criticism to be yet another example of the collapse of Western Civilization -- but, to quote a Chinese proverb : "the mountain cannot see itself" -- and I'm really doubting that anyone who never steps outside our narrow, Occidental corner of the world will ever be able to write about it very well.

The fact is - we Occidentals have had our day in the sun --- over running the rest of the planet and bringing our culture to it. But the sun of that day is setting -- and our leading scholars should probably become as familiar with the other great world civilizations -- as their leading scholars have become familiar with us.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Daughter of Han

What a remarkable book ! -- and what a remarkable author , Ida Pruitt, who was uniquely situated to be the perfect cross-cultural interlocutor for old Ning Lao. As I later learned off the internet -- they were actually born in the same town, scenic Penglai, on the Shantung peninsula. There's no indication that they met in those early years, but Ning Lao worked as a servant in the homes of foreign missionaries -- just like the author's Baptist parents -- and certainly they would have been comfortable speaking about old time times together when they met in Beijing 40 years later.

Every "oral history" is a unique collaboration -- because it's not just one person who has stories to tell -- but it's also the other person drawing those stories out, putting them into her own words, and editing/arranging it all for publication.

It's clear that Ida Pruitt was very interested in the details of social customs and beliefs -- and her informant gives us a lot of detail concerning the rituals that accompany marriage, birth, death etc.

But as the story develops -- its the strong, unique personality of Ning Lao that takes over - as her life is propelled forward (or backward) by her sense of family, propriety and what she calls her bad temper.

She doesn't pull any punches in reference to the members of her family. Her husband was an opium addict who would sell his own daughter to get high. (and she would never
get to meet that daughter again) -- while her second daughter was a continuous cause of grief in her life. Her son in law also became an addict and that seems that daughter never forgave mother for arranging that marriage. Is it any wonder that her grandaughter refused to get married at all ? She went ahead to get educated by missionaries and become a college teacher in Beijing -- and later disappears into the countryside to join the Chinese resistance to Japanese occupation in the thirties.

Perhaps the most compelling part of the story is the part we don't know: how it all turned it -- since these interviews are given in Japanese occupied Beijing -- and soon the Ms. Pruitt (who also must have decided to remain unmarried) had to leave the country -- and there's no further contact with any members of the family. Did any of them survive ? What about her son and his children ? Are there any grandchildren - or great grandchildren out there who can connect to the internet and finish the story for us ?

What really separates this book from all the others I've read -- is it's emphasis on family -- where people live as families, not individuals -- a notion completely foreign to myself -- as well as to the Chinese story-tellers born 100 years later.

I couldn't believe how mother Ning Lao was able to run the lives of her adult children -- or was bitterly disappointed when she couldn't.

She herself was spared such domination in her early days because her parents died young and she never had a mother-in-law. So she was pretty much on her own --which was not an easy thing since young women back then were completely unprepared for it. She nearly starved to death -- and had to begin a career as a beggar -- and then later as a house servant.

Some memorable details include:

*examples of semi-organized charity in the town where she lived - i.e. the rich people provided soup kitchens for the poor all through the winter -- and Ning Lao would have died if they hadn't.

*Ning Lao's response to Christianity. She worked in the homes of missionaries (just like Ms. Pruitt's parents) -- so she was always being pitched for conversion. But she
just couldn't see how people were any different after conversion -- except, of course, that converts were paid a healthy monthly stipend.

*the prevalence -- and destructiveness -- of opium addiction in her world.

*the illiteracy of the local high military officials in the late Qing dynasty. The ones she know had risen through the ranks -- but not because they could ever read anything.

*Ning Lao inviting her worthless, thieving husband back into her bed -- so that she could get pregnant and hopefully have a son.

*the story of the young women in a family for whom Ning Lao worked -- where they all got so involved in reading "Three Kingdoms" that one of them was possessed by the spirit of Lord Guan. the butt-kicker (who, conveniently, had a local shrine)

*Ning Lao adopting a mother -- as someone to advise her and help her get jobs around town - although that "mother" --- and the rest of her family - does not seem to figure in Ning Lao's decision to move away from the area. This is the kind of mother who offers the benefits of nurture -- without the problems of control.

*what an interesting woman that educated grand daughter must have been -- as she had to mediate between her mother and grandmother -- and help to support them both. She seems to have had some kind of social or national idealism -- which grandma does not understand well enough to describe -- and since she's fluent in English she could have told us about it -- if only she had survived the civil wars.

*Favorite quote:

"Truly, my destiny is not a good one. I was not born at an auspicious time. The eight words of my birth time are not good ones. My husband spoiled my youth, son-in-law my middle years, and now it is my daughter who makes my old age unhappy"

note: apparently this book is often assigned to college or high school students -- so explanatory essays are sold to worthless, lazy students by a company calledExampleEssays.com If you are one such worthless, lazy student, I can only warn you that the sample essay posted on their site contains a serious, factual error.