I have been thinking about China lately, with the unrest going on in Hong Kong. These two books come to mind.
Despite the large gap in setting (dissident in prison in 2012 vs 1900s peasant life), and the difference in genre (non-fiction vs fiction), I found both to be culturally insightful.
A few things still stand out to me:
- Both authors are not typical as Chinese voices, in my opinion. As the daughter of missionaries, Pearl Buck spent most of her life in China. Being raised in China, with American Presbyterian parents, you can imagine she has an interesting perspective. Jiang Qisheng, on the other hand, is a Chinese national. I find his social commentary direct and honest.
- Saving Face. I could go on for days about this topic. Qisheng was angry that the prison shows a “pleasant” side to visitors (prison tours… interesting). He points out that this whole pretending this is a systemic thing, and that Chinese people pretend to each other every day.
- Status of women. O-lan’s primary source of pride is that she bore her husband sons. That’s it, that’s all.
- Envy, Competition, and Freedom. Everyone wants to get ahead, and this idea is certainly not limited to the past or to China. The farmer initially hates those rich snotty jerks who look down on everything, but eventually builds up his land and becomes one himself. Hmm. Could this be same the love/hate relationship China has with the West?
- Shut up and don’t rock the boat. It’s a cultural expectation that the best thing to do is to keep your head down and do the best you can. The other inmates’ all say the same thing: you wouldn’t have ended up here if you’d just kept your big mouth shut. Likewise, O-lan is treated badly most of the time, but she accepts these injustices, and never goes against status quo. The tone is that many other women are treated worse, so not only was this normal, she could have done worse. Fast forward to Hong Kong, 2014: the “Silent Majority” that supports the police. There you have it – keep your mouth shut and support the group that won’t land you in prison.