I have been reading Han Suyin‘s The Crippled Tree – a delightful account of her eurasian family during the tumultuous years of the last century. I have always wanted to read an account of China written by Chinese themselves, but for some reason has never been able to find a suitable text. Han Suyin represents a rather different brand of Chinese – her father is a “returned student” who married a Belgian woman. Han Suyin speaks French and Mandarin proficiently. Her Chinese family is a landed gentry in Szechuan (currently Sichuan) province of China. Whenever I read a book, a stage comes when the books becomes too interesting. Then no effort is required to focus on the book, every moment is awake and the whole story is vivid in my mind’s eye as if I myself was there. Then, I cannot stop from reading the book – it’s almost a punishment. I read and read and then read some more.
The books is now old, having been published in 1965. However, the details are intricate and we get a rare glimpse of China from within China itself. I have been very curious about China for sometime now. Perhaps it is because of the large number of Chinese students at my University. I learned Chinese for like a month and a half during which my confidence in learning languages (which had been pretty high until then) took a deep blow. Chinese is just damn hard. There is nothing you can relate to – usually when you learn something, you can say things like – “that word is like ‘Blanch’ in English but with a ‘v’ sound at the beginning..” but Mandarin is so differen! Sounds and vowels are very alien to the uninitiated with having to do gymnastics with our tongue just to pronounce them. Think “rui” for rain..( By the way, Pindin does not phonetically represent chinese pronunciation making it unbearably difficult to remember these words)
But then the Country began to fascinate me, more so when I discovered that I knew next to nothing about China – given that my knowledge of world history is not so archaic, I simply wanted to update the oriental section of my personal library as well.
Today, drawn by the book and it’s numerous references to Sun Yat Sen, the Hakka, Szechuan, Manchu’s, Taipeng, Returned Student etc, I plunged into the abyss that is Internet and was lost for a considerable number of hours. Having begun with Sun Yat Sen, I found myself at “Chinese Cuisine” of which there are four major styles – the Cantonese, Szechuan, Huandong and Hunan. I never knew that China had the next best thing to a meritocracy for centuries and a gentry class…or that ancestor worship was(is) very common in China. That the Chinese travelled far and wide to gain knowledge (and hence “returned students”). How much Confucianism played a role in setting the social mores of this class and how bloody Chinese history seems to be when compared to Indian history and in particular the history of the more tranquil South India.
A few months back, when the China fever was setting in, I happened to read Amitav Ghosh‘s The River of Smoke, which is the sequel to his Sea of Poppies. The new book is set in Canton (now Guangdong) province of China. This book is as fascinating as the first one and I’m sooo waiting for the third book.
The River of Smoke set my China fever on fire, it provided a massive visual to Canton and how life there was like before the Opium wars. I’m always drawn by food and apparently so is Amitav Ghosh- there is almost exquisite account of food from those times, no doubt greatly researched. I won’t be surprised if Amitav Ghosh hasn’t tried making all of them just to be able to write about them authentically.
China is fascinating but is a too giant of a country – more complex and varied than India. I get the feeling that Indians can be understood – in that if you know an Indian enough, you can predict their thoughts to a certain extent – but China eludes any kind of generalization. Maybe I’m wrong.
I remember a quote attached to Napoleon Bonaparte in The River of Smoke – “When China awakens all the world will tremble”. I will go to China and learn Mandarin – one day.