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.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Falling Leaves by Adeline Yeh Mah

Victim of a cruel stepmother

My challenge in reading this book was to to discover what was specific to its setting -- when it mostly seems to be a timeless Cinderella story . (and indeed, the author subsequently adapted it as such into a book for children)

The problem is --- that when a person feels pain --- the world shrinks to the location of that pain -- and not much can be observed about anything else.

And this girl grew up in a lot a pain -- as something of an orphan within her own large, wealthy family in Tianjin and Shanghai --that came under the control of an unusually wicked and cruel French/Chinese stepmother.

So .. though she grew up in interesting times (born 1938) - that saw foreign invasion, civil war, revolution, and cataclysmic social/cultural change-- the magnitude of these events pale beside the misery of the emotional neglect and abuse that she was feeling -- thanks to one very mean stepmother and the complicity of her father and siblings.

Which makes this a very self-centered book: see how I suffered --see how I triumphed -- and everything else becomes a dim shadow cast in the background --including some intriguing characters --like her grandfather and great aunt.

Her grandfather had built up a successful export business -- only to retire at about the age of 40 -- leaving everything in the control of his very talented son. But why did he do this ? Was he just sick of working? Did he want to devote his life to something else ? This remains a puzzle.

And her great aunt had an extraordinary career in finance -- beginning as a teller -- and eventually starting her own bank devoted strictly to women -- while living with a woman in a luxury apartment above the bank she had built. Did she identify herself as Lesbian ? How did she relate to the changing world around her -- other than, eventually, to have everything she built be taken away by the communists ?

And what about her father ? Obviously -- a very bright guy -- a wunderkind in business -- did everything else about the world really just confuse him? How did that nasty wife of his manage to hold on to him ? It couldn't have always been sexual attraction -- he could afford whatever he wanted -- and she wasn't young and sexy forever. He was Catholic -- did he take that seriously ? What did he really care about ? All this remains a mystery.

Somehow - the cruelty of the Japanese and the Communists and eventually the Red Guards -- just pale in comparison with that incorrigibly mean old stepmother -- who goes to the grave still hating and trying to hurt Cinderella -- even after Cinderella has grown up and found success with a medical career and a very loving, supportive husband.

Mother/daughter were a sadist/masochist team until death did them part.

"Stop it!" ---"Leave your mother alone!" --- "Stay away from that family" --- that's how I was talking back at the book in chapter after chapter ---- but still our poor author kept going back for more punishment -- still hoping to be accepted by parents who never really wanted her.

She often mentions her Confucian family values -- but so much of it seems to be about the money -- the inheritance of a (once) very large estate -- the distribution of which frames the story (i.e. in the first chapter --- Mom steals Dad's estate -- last chapter -- Mom cuts us out of her will, while we discover the Dad's will cut us in)

And it's not that the estate is all that big any more ( 30 million dollars among 7 children) -- or that the author needs the money -- she and her husband are both successful physicians.

It's just that the estate represents the emotional connection of one generation to another -- and she will always be cheated out of it.


Is this a story of cultural dissolution ? It's set in the foreign concessions of the coastal cities (eventually ending up in Hong Kong) Is it all about a family whose Confucian values are destroyed by foreign intervention ?

Or is it -- as the character's beloved aunt believes -- a traditional Chinese story of a "fox-devil spirit" -- that takes the form of a beautiful young woman -- and then wrecks havoc among all concerned.

That same beloved aunt also believed that the Communists -- despite the destruction that they caused to her family (she ended up living in a hovel) as well as the country as a whole -- were eventually going to "save China" -- and that the 21st C. would belong to China -- just as the 19th and 20th had belonged to Great Britain and America.

And perhaps she was right.


A few assorted details of interest:

*the picture of Hong Kong -- as it grows over those decades into a financial center -- and it's bizarre dependence on the mainland.

*the gradual but relentless attack on the commercial class. The author's great aunt is still running her bank a year after the revolution -- but eventually she will be dispossessed and end up destitute.

*the off-hand comment about healthcare in America: how Medicare was such a bonanza for the physicians - where they could bill the government for anything.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee by Robert Van Gulik

What a strange little book !

Robert Van Gulik (1910-1967) was a Dutch diplomat, born in the Dutch East Indies, who worked in both China and Japan. Apparently, he found the original 18th C. novel about the Tang Dynasty official, Di Renjie , in a small used book store in Japan -- and then translated the first part of it into this volume.

But the story telling is so good -- one can't help but wonder if he made the whole thing up ---especially since he went on to create a whole series of "Judge Dee" books of detective fiction.

Well -- diplomats never lie ! (and he did rise high enough to become the Dutch ambassador to Japan), so I'm assuming that the original, anonymous 18th C. text did exist --and what a wonderful thing it was -- introducing us to a Chinese world of cops and robbers from the perspective of the cops (instead of Water Margins , that Robin Hood epic so popular with Chairman Mao)

(note: Van Gulik does refer to specific manuscripts and publishers -- so we can assume that the story is not completely of his invention. He also tells us that the original book came in four parts, of which he is presenting only the first. But as we know from "Dream of Red Chamber" -- Qing Dynasty fiction was accumulative -- with one anonymous writer adding chapters to the work of another -- so later editors should feel just as free to trim and edit however they choose)

Van Gulik's introduction also serves as a survey of Chinese detective fiction -- which turns out to be a magnificent lost world of florid imagination that began, like this book, in the 18th C. -- i.e. during the long and prosperous rule of the Qianlong Emperor.

I've yet to find a better introduction to Chinese civil life in the Confucian legal system that rambled on for about 2000 years -- even into the Communist era.

And it's hard to imagine the character of an official like Judge Dee --who is, on the one hand so thoughtful and compassionate towards the victims of crime -- and on the other --personally supervises the debilitating torture and eventual dismemberment of suspects/criminals.
(and there are no innocent convicts in China --everyone is tortured until they confess)

I just can't imagine how a person can torture and kill that many people --and still remain sane -- and yet, Judge Dee is eminently sane -- if perhaps something of a work-a-holic (and there is no reference to his personal family life --no wife, no children, not even any parents to care for)
Just a man who is devoted to justice -- and the three episodes in this novel give such a good picture of the variety of skills that are involved -- including acting --for the judge must sometimes go in disguise, and pretend to be a physician or silk merchant.

Some various comments as follows:

*Did every businessman have to learn martial arts back in those days ? It certainly seems like a necessary skill for those who do a lot of traveling -- and fighting skill seems much more common than in European civilization. The story gives some quite detailed accounts of fisticuffs:

"Djao sprang towards Ma Joong swift as an arrow, aiming a long blow at his heart region, using the stance called "a tiger clawing at sheep". But Ma Joong dodged the blow by withdrawing one step to the left, a trick called "enticing the tiger out of his forest"; at the same time he hit Djao's outstretched arm a sharp blow with two fingers exactly on the vein inside the elbow. Djao's right arm was temporarily lamed, his attack was stemmed, and he was trying to regain his stance when Ma Joong followed up his success with a sharp blow below Djao's ribs. Now Djao was fully aware that he had an expert opponent and went on strictly according to rules. Using his lamed arm to protect his body, he quickly caught Ma's right wrist with his left arm. But before Djao could twist his arm and place a kick, Ma countered with the trick called "Phoenix bird spreading its wings"; he sprang two feet in the air, thus loosening Djao's grip, at the same time aiming a left kick at his face. Djao, however, had expected this move; he quickly ducked between Ma's legs before he had come down, and threw him on the floor with a crash"

Can you imagine this much detail in any European literature ? Obviously, the writer, and his intended audience, were familiar with such things (and from what I know -- it does seem like a plausible interaction)

*The female villain in this story is really an interesting character: a young, smart, attractive woman who's stuck living in a hovel with an underachieving husband and his stupid mother.
She contrives to find a smart, handsome lover and murder her husband. And then, when captured by the ingenious, indefatigable Judge Dee -- she endures every extreme torture without confessing. (and when she passes out from pain --they wake her up -- to torture her some more) An incredible woman -- who also, though uneducated , figures out enough about the legal system to put Judge Dee in a real bind.

The cover of the Dover edition shows this beautiful, naked young woman while being tortured/interrogated by the good judge. Apparently Van Gulik himself did the drawing in an adaption of plates from the original book -- I wonder just how much this sexual sadism served as an attractive feature for the original text and its original audience.

Not to mention --misogyny.

There are no positive female figures in this book -- the women are either evil or stupid -- and if the crime was not committed by a woman -- it was committed by a man on behalf of a woman -- like the silk merchant who murdered his traveling companion in order to raise the cash to afford a woman.

*Which brings us to the issue of the "rights of the accused" in Chinese jurisprudence -- which seems to coincide with whatever the accuser or accused can get away with. For the accused - that usually means flight. So Judge Dee must be very careful not to tip his hand before the suspect is under his control, or else the suspect can run to places where the Judge cannot find him. Judge Dee does not need a search warrant to obtain evidence -- but he cannot barge into the homes of the well-connected -- so subterfuge is required (i.e. -- one of the judge's assistants can break in as a thief -- which then gives the judge good reason to search for any evidence regarding that "crime")

Needless to say -- no suspect has "the right to remain silent" -- and no legal representation is ever available.

And needless to say -- that without an extraordinarily honest judge like Dee -- this is a legal machine made in hell -- where one man sits as judge/jury/executioner -- and his job is so much easier if he quickly finds the most powerless, convenient suspect and tortures that person until he gets a confession. After which -- he can can confiscate the convict's property and distribute the assets as he wishes. No wonder so many people fled to the mountains to live as bandits.

*And which also brings us to the issue of criminal psychology - of which there is zero. The murderers have no depth -- their betrayals of spouse or companion seem to have no effect on their character -- because the story is not about them -- or the police who catch them -- but only about the progress of the investigation and the execution of the law.

*It's interesting to note the difficulties that are encountered when Judge Dee pursues his suspect into another jurisdiction -- where the officials there must be convinced that they benefit more by helping him instead of the criminal who has many local connections. The solution -- is to set up a situation where the local officials can claim credit for the capture (without actually having to do anything) It's also interesting that author notes, in passing, that the military garrison is there more to control the local, impoverished/predatory population than to defend the mountain passes from invading enemies.

*It's also interesting to note the connective tissue of the story -- how the narrative records so many ordinary events (like dinners and making hotel arrangements) -- that stretch the story out and make it seem more real.

*Perhaps the strangest -- and most wonderful -- feature of this genre of Chinese literature -- is the Interlude -- or intermission -- in the middle of the story that separates the problems from their resolution -- and that involves similar -- but different-- characters acting out a similar, but different brief story.

Here -- it's a woman dallying with two men -- and begins with the song "Only sing of beauty , only sing of love, never think of duty, when you think of love". Yes -- where is beauty -- or danger -- more apparent than in sexual attraction ?

*And let's not forget the supernatural -- which, as the introduction explains -- is present -- but not critical to the plot -- so it serves as a kind of mysterious incense.

When a ghost or dream speaks -- it functions just like a horoscope: it effectively predicts nothing until after the events have already happened . Needless to say -- I like that approach -- as it keeps the story feeling real.

Apparently -- there are currently over a hundred historical Chinese detective novels now available -- but only one more has been translated into the English -- and obviously, I'll be reading it very soon.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Fortress Beseiged by Qian Zhongshu

Qian Zhongshu was apparently one the great minds of the 20 th C. -- proficient in classical Chinese literature -- as well as the occidental languages of Latin, German, English, French, Spanish (and maybe a few more).

This very popular novel was written in his thirties ---- about a young man (his own age) returning to China in 1938 after several years of study in Europe (just like Qian did)

So... like all of the Chinese novels that I've been reading from the later generations -- this is a fictional variation on the author's own life -- presenting the kind of people whom the author knew.

And these people are rather repulsive-- even the protagonist -- who is a Holden Caulfield kind of fellow --utterly cynical about the phonies of the world --but not really doing much himself --
a total washout --who has managed to get himself recognized as a scholar without learning a damn thing about literature, people, or how to live his life.

In a way-- it's kind of refreshing to have the central character of a story be such a loser -- after reading so many first-person-non-fiction accounts (like "Wild Swans") where the protagonist has a healthy respect for herself and her family.

But ..... who wants to spend 400 pages of dense reading with such a loser surrounded by more of same? How much nihilism can a reader endure ? (and the reading was indeed dense -- with 50 footnotes per chapter - packed with references to Chinese literature)

Well -- I endured about 100 pages worth and gave up. I just couldn't spend any more time with all these phony intellectuals, preening their self esteem while the country around them (during the Japanese occupation) was going up in flames. The "stinking ninth class" indeed ! Perhaps Mao was right -- and they did all need to be re-educated by the peasants. (and BTW -- in addition to being pompous bores -- several of the characters were distinguished by how badly they smelled -- oh, for a whiff of fresh air !)

The protagonist was thoughtless and self-centered -- but there was kind of honesty about him --i.e. he would fool others , but he wasn't fooling himself --and so there were some poignant moments between him and the women who found him attractive ( but would eventually be bitterly disappointed.)

And there were some very funny moments of interaction in their little dinner parties -- like the one pompous fellow who claimed to be a philosopher and a personal friend of "Bertie" (Bertrand Russell) who had actually come to his Chinese friend with several questions (though neglecting to say these questions were something like "how was your trip?")

(And I especially liked the author's description of a university degree as a "fig leaf to hide one's ignorance")

I suppose that if the reader were mired in the university world himself, especially the study of Chinese literature, this book would be outrageously funny (and it was recommended to me by one of scholar-characters in another book, "February Flowers")

But for me -- 100 pages was enough.