Iron & Silk: A Young...

Wakeman has taught English literature for three years at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. Her most recent book is "To the Storm: The Odyssey of a Revolutionary Chinese Woman" (University of California Press).

Ever since the 13th Century, when Marco Polo described his journey to the Mongol court, travelers to China have written memoirs of their encounters with this ancient and enigmatic culture. The decade since China's most recent opening to the West has vastly expanded an already extensive literature. Whatever the length and purpose of their stay, foreign journalists and celebrities, scholars and teachers have kept careful diaries of their weeks in the Middle Kingdom, hoping both to preserve their experiences and to unlock the secrets of a people still unfathomable and intriguing to the Western observer. Yet, all too few of these accounts succeed, sometimes because of an author's limited exposure, sometimes because of intrusive, if unstated, polemical designs.

What is remarkable about "Iron and Silk" is the charmingly unpretentious manner in which it penetrates a China inaccessible to other foreigners. Mark Salzman, thanks to his understanding of Chinese poetry, his skill at martial arts, and his knowledge of the cello, speaks languages that traverse cultural barriers and bring him into intimate contact with a fascinating array of "swordsmen, bureaucrats and other citizens of contemporary China."

His evocative vignettes, conveyed with warmth and wit, acquire special power from their brevity and understatement. Encounters with intransigent officials in the Canton railroad station playing their favorite game of Let's Make a Regulation, and with a bored hotel clerk determined to charge him the five yuan entrance fee for a dancing party when he wants only a cup of coffee, suggest the pettiness of life in Chinese society. On the other hand, encounters with teacher Wei who waits outside the college gates to welcome him back from a weekend trip; with a medical student whose fondest memory is of a roast duck dinner not eaten but only described to him by his wife; with Old Ding, the boatman who tries to give him a rowboat in exchange for a charcoal sketch; with Prof. Jin who though bedridden and near death steadfastly imparts the art of calligraphy, expose him to the sensitivity, the endurance, and the extraordinary generosity of the Chinese people.

This utterly compelling account of a young Yale graduate's two years as an English teacher in the provincial city of Changsha thus captures both the frustration and the joy of life in China, a country where most foreigners are treated as "honored guests," few as genuine friends and equals. When Salzman returns home, his formidable martial-arts teacher bequeaths him, in a symbolic gesture of trust, respect, and friendship, a long sword that is one of a pair. Observes Master Pan slowly, " 'I brought two swords tonight. I am taking only one back with me.' " Salzman has clearly carried something of China away with him, just as he has left something of himself behind.

Another young martial artist, Deng Ming-Dao, has recently engaged in a far more didactic effort to plumb the depths of Chinese civilization. "Seven Bamboo Tablets of the Cloudy Satchel," the second volume of the Chronicles of Tao series, narrates with considerable embellishment the experience of his master, Kwan Saihung, a Taoist monk now living in the San Francisco Bay Area who spent his youth on the sacred mountain of Huashan. Against the backdrop of Japanese occupation and civil war, the story of this aristocratic young man's spiritual apprenticeship unfolds, culminating in his descent from the lofty peaks of monastic asceticism to experience the world in all its excitement and depravity.

The teachings of the Grand Master of Huashan had never fully taken root in Saihung's soul; always an inner restlessness, a craving for action and sensation, had distracted him from total commitment to seclusion and contemplation. Moreover, his martial exploits in the service of his master instigated a craving for the life of the knight-errant, which in turn led him to Shanghai and to work as a guard at gambling and opium dens. His love of violence and physical mastery sated, he became an opera star until a chance meeting with two itinerant Taoist monks enabled him to grasp life's essential paradox. Through their teaching, he came to recognize that truth emerges not through books, not even through mastery of the sacred text of the "Seven Bamboo Tablets," but "only by transcending the self."

Deng Ming-Dao's attempt to capture the mysteries of Taoism for the uninitiated Westerner is often tedious, his language ponderous and self-consciously image-laden. Interspersed descriptions of the ancient capital of Xi'an or the contemporary gangster-hero Du Yuesheng or the iconography of Chinese opera makeup seem a rather contrived effort to extend the cultural and historical scope of this saga of a modern-day warrior's quest for enlightenment.

But when at the conclusion Saihung's two Taoist masters instruct him to build a pyre in preparation for their self-appointed merging with the Void, the book achieves at last a gripping force. Before his eyes, allegedly, his masters will their own death. The process lasts about 20 minutes. "Within each master, a flow of energy mightier than any other each had ever manifested was rushing upwards into the skull. Slowly, their bodies were passing into night." Alone, Saihung fulfills his duty and watches the bodies consumed by flame. Then once again he leaves the mountain top, this time to travel abroad to the United States, where he now teaches the martial arts to pupils like the author, who evidently accept as factual these accounts of the Taoist mysteries.

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