“It’s Heaven, Aunt Martha Ann!”

It’s worn and tired. The fringe was chewed away long ago by dogs and vacuum cleaners, but when it was new? My 3 year old niece came into my apartment, saw it, immediately sat in the middle medallion where the two blue dragons fight and said, “This is HEAVEN!” as if she knew Chinese mythology. She’s 41 this year.

I bought it at the Friendship Store — the store where export goods were sold — in Guangzhou a few months after I arrived in China.

There were two things I wanted to buy in China; one was this carpet the other a down jacket. That sounds a little weird considering I was on the Tropic of Cancer, but Chinese down IS the best and such a jacket was very expensive and hard to find in the US at the time. I came home with a down jacket and a full-length down coat. I was glad, too, because that first winter after I returned to Colorado was one of the snowiest and coldest in Colorado history.

The Jacket and the Friendship Store (youyi bing guan)

The carpet was picked up by the college’ van at some point and brought to our apartment. I didn’t open it. I could see it would be easier to bring home if it were still rolled and wrapped. It waited in room in our apartment that housed the fridge for the whole year and I feared mold, moths or worse, that I’d bring home a cockroach.

When the time came to return to America, I had to haul the carpet to Shanghai along with many other fardles. All went well until one of the last legs of the journey — San Francisco to Billings, where my mother lived. We got on the plane. I was sitting in a seat where it happened that I could watch the bags being loaded. My carpet was on top of the baggage cart as it began to drive away.

I went ape-shit. Yes the carpet was an Albatross but it was MY albatross.

“Ma’am, it will arrive in Billings later. Don’t worry.”

“I don’t WANT it to arrive later. I want it to arrive WITH ME.”

The other passengers were thinking, “That screaming bitch is going to make our flight late!”

I cried. In frustration, exhaustion and more. I already didn’t want to be back in the US. I wanted to be in China. The stewardess called back the baggage handlers, and they loaded my carpet.

I showed the carpet to my family in Montana, then rolled it up again. It flew with us to Denver and remained rolled until we finally got our own place. It was there that my niece recognized it for what it is.

Not too many years after returning from China, the Good X and I traveled to Delaware to visit his mom. I wanted to visit Pearl S. Buck’s house in Pennsylvania. I was writing about her at the time. We drove from Wilmington up to Bucks County, PA, over these nauseating rolling hills, surrounded by obnoxious, tall, shady trees that blocked the view of the horizon (I know, I know).

Her house is a pretty two story stone structure filled with her things, but what touched me most was her office. Outside her window she had built a Chinese garden, and it looks like China. On her floor was a beautiful Chinese carpet, worn and a little tattered. I was in the depths of my yearning for China at that time, and I saw Pearl S. Buck’s own yearning in that garden and that old carpet.


A Confucian Parable

“Struggle” was a common vocabulary word in Communist China. In fact, everything that was worth anything came at the price of a “struggle.” The great prize of Communism could not be reached without it. It was a way of justifying the incredible hardships everyone went through from, uh, well, yeah, we’ll pander to the illusion, from Liberation on. It’s a good idea to indoctrinate a people with this idea because it means they will never, never expect life to be either easy or happy. The elderly Chinese I knew did not live with axiomatic “struggle;” whatever terror their lives had held (and that was a universal element of lives lived during WW II and the Cultural Revolution) they still lived with an “…expectation of the dawn.”

Life was supposed to be hard. If life wasn’t hard and you were actually ENJOYING it, you must be some kind of bourgeois loser. To become a modern country, China had to struggle, but the struggle didn’t begin with Mao and it did not begin joylessly.

Some thirty years ago now (?) I was researching and writing a book about Pearl S. Buck as a writer in the Chinese vs. the Western literary tradition. I have/had a good case for this. She, herself, said that her background as a writer was different. BUT…A major element of the Chinese literary tradition is the motive behind someone picking up the pen to write a story. Since, for centuries, novels were severely frowned upon in China, and those who wrote them, if caught, could be punished by death or castration, those people driven to write them wrote them secretly, published them secretly and acted like they’d never heard of it if the Emperor’s men came to question them about it. Novels were written for the pleasure of the writer and anyone he might share the stories with. Pearl Buck insisted this was her world, too. I was so wrapped up in this when I was working on the project that a simple truth didn’t occur to me.

She sought publication for The Good Earth in the United States and became a best-selling novelist then, for the rest of her life, struggled hard to remain a best-selling novelist.

But in this research I learned a lot about China in the early 20th century, the pre-Mao “struggle” to simplify the characters so people could learn them more easily and faster. I learned about people — young people — going from village to village teaching people to read and write. I learned about the protest against foot-binding and how that really played out in action — and at what cost for some young women. I saw absolute shining hope.




Back to modernization.


Warlords tear the fledgling nation apart, subvert efforts to educate the people and move the “nation” forward. Famine, drought, flood, oppression


The Japanese.

Fate. In stories written by Pearl Buck’s Chinese contemporaries there is often an old woman, an Amah or an Old Mother, who lifts up her hands in resignation at some point, utters “Ay-yah!” and puts the whole thing down to fate. In earlier Chinese fiction, the inescapable fateful situation is set up in the beginning of the story where a human’s will comes up against supernatural powers and loses, but not immediately or there’d be no story. The story is, then, about the protagonist’s “struggle” against fate.

At one time in my life I owned every one of Pearl Buck’s novels and other writings. I don’t think I have any now. I think they were jettisoned with my move. But I do have a copy of her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, autographed (and stolen by me from the San Diego Public Library) and her translation of Shui Hu Chuan (The Water Margin retitled as All Men Are Brothers) a very old Chinese novel about conscientious, poetry-writing, sometimes cannibalistic bandits and their overthrow of a corrupt dynasty. It’s a great book.

I found the project yesterday in the garage. It’s in one of those very-common-in-my-generation blue canvas binders, printed out on old-style computer paper with a dot-matrix printer. The computer of the era was an Amiga. Yesterday I thumbed through the pages and thought of picking up where I left off but soon realized the struggle to retype that whole thing would be more than I wanted to undertake.

Apropos of this post: “China Buries Memories of the Cultural Revolution.”


The Best Story Tellers — Lao She and Pearl S. Buck

Daily Prompt Spinning Yarns What makes a good storyteller, in your opinion? Are your favorite storytellers people you know or writers you admire?

The best storyteller is the person who tells a good story well. The story has to be good and the teller has to be skillful at getting and keeping the attention of the audience.

In the early 20th century a little boy lived in Beijing and he loved — more than anything — to go listen to a story teller. Traveling story tellers in old China captivated everyone with ghost stories, history stories, adventure stories, and love stories. The stories were long — serialized — and the children and adults would come every night to listen until the story was over. Some of the stories were hundreds of years old. The story teller punctuated his story with the sound of bamboo sticks — special equipment for story tellers — clapping together. He used his voice, too, exaggerating the already highly inflected tones of whatever Chinese dialect he was speaking — for little Lao She, it would have been Mandarin.

Sometimes the stories concealed (well or not) social and political messages. If the story teller wanted to keep his life, he probably did a good job hiding the messages so only his listeners — those with ears to hear — could get their subtle drift. Certain old Chinese stories are, in their very nature, political messages. For example, the very popular tales from The Water Margin tell of a rebellion that ended a corrupt dynasty. The rebellion itself is a quiet thread running through one great wild story after another throughout the long episodic tale.

When Lao She grew up, he wanted ONLY to be a story teller. He reached manhood in perilous times. Non-Chinese culture was making inroads into the ancient customs of Beijing, and while much of the change was — even in the eyes of Lao She — for the good, he could see that his world would NEVER be the same. He began to write the stories of a world that was vanishing. He followed the practice of the old story tellers he admired, hiding bits of political comment in the conversations between characters. With poverty and hardship all around him, he created a different kind of protagonist — as in the character of “Camel” who pulled a rickshaw and struggled to make a life in old Beijing.

Lao She recreated his childhood and the life in the courtyard “hutongs” where he’d grown up — ordinary people, old teachers, a tired old man with a pipe, a screaming Amah, a cheap, flashy, greedy woman who steals the soul of a good man, a little girl who becomes a prostitute so her family has food, even a work of science fiction that openly criticized Communism. When the Japanese invaded his city, Lao She wrote passionately against them (and against Chinese collaborators) through the actions of characters in his novel Four Generations Under One Roof. It is a vivid picture of the Japanese occupation and reveals all of the sinister stragedies (including opium laced cigarettes) used by the Japanese to conquer the Chinese, body and soul.

Another great storyteller — Pearl S. Buck — grew up in a similar China — the same era, a different geographical location; south China — Hangzhou and Nanking. Her attitude toward writing was similar to that of Lao She. She, too, had learned from the story tellers. At the end of WW II, she invited Lao She to come to America to which she had returned in the thirties, fleeing the Japanese. Lao She came to the US on a State Department Cultural Grant, thinking he might live here, but it didn’t work. He could not be happy outside of China, and so he returned to Beijing. During the Cultural Revolution, he was hounded and punished by the Red Guard. The humiliation he suffered led him to kill himself — a dignified action according to old Chinese values.

One of the most amazing stories I have ever heard was Lao She’s play, Teahouse. It came wandering through San Diego sometime in the 80s and I got to see it at a local art theater. In the play is a story teller. I wish so much I could find that film again.