Friday, April 16, 2010


  Hi there!  Remember me?  :-)

I have a perfect illustration of how the last weeks have been.  Today I sat down at the computer to attempt some real work, and turned on my Pandora page.  It was set to Christmas music.

There are about 30 reasons why, which I doubt very much you want to sort through.  I'll just mention the most recent one, which is very typical of the other 29, in terms of debilitating power.

We got hit with a stomach virus; Spice first, then me.  Not, of course, one of the wonderful "3 day stomach flu" bugs; this one is taking around 3 weeks.  Starts with very thorough vomiting, which is likely to go on for 4 days or so, followed by a week or more of "tight stomach", along with half of your normal diet now making you nauseous.  And, what the hay, exhaustion, right along.

I'm in the tail end of mine; you know, where you feel like you weigh 500 lbs and just had a lobotomy?  Ah, joy.

What I usually do to combat the creeping insanity when I'm in that kind of place- almost able to get out of bed and work- but not really; is read.

I have a longstanding interest in and affection for China; I've been twice, and growing up I learned that my parents had a personal connection to General Vinegar Joe Stilwell;  I read his diary when I was 14 or so.  That was an eye-opener.  Simultaneously I learned what a real general is like, and how difficult it is to be intelligent, moral, conscientious, and still function.  And that China was an excellent model for Hell on Earth from about 1880 to 1950.  And not comic-book hell; the real thing.

Consequently, whenever I've tripped over a novel or diary coming out of China from somewhere in that timeframe, I've always picked them up, added them to my pile.

So during my current convalescence (as opposed to the 8 others since January 1) I picked up the nearest book I hadn't read for several years, and it was Heaven Below, by E.H. Clayton; Prentice Hall, 1944.  I tried to find a link to it- but nothing useful, and one site for rare books.  Some libraries should still have it.

About halfway through it, I realized what I was holding in my hand.  A manual for survival in the midst of cultural and political chaos.  Something a lot of folks have been wishing for.  Then it also occurred to me that many of the other books I have read about China in those years also contain many insights along the same lines; The Joy Luck Club, for instance, something a bit easier to find.

Clayton was a schoolmaster in Hangchow for 30 some years, starting in 1912; and the book was written before the end of WWII.  Hangchow has been called the Venice of China, which is not a terrible comparison; canals, ancient, wealthy, and sophisticated.  In Chinese literature, calling it Heaven on Earth, was a common metaphor.

The book is extremely readable, and Clayton has an acute eye for human nature, and an unusually good grasp of how the world works.  And a sense of humor, mordant at times.

He lived through, and documents, including the details of daily life, the early rise of Chinese Nationalism, the advent of communism, the Generalissimo, and invasion and occupation by Japan.  Plenty of chaos and conflict to go around.  And he can see through his own eyes and culture, and the eyes of his Chinese teacher colleagues, and his Chinese students (boys), in an unusually balanced way.

An example from his early years, when ancient China was still predominant:

Several hundred years ago, a philanthropic Chinese gentleman had left his fortune to provide, in perpetuity, a free ferry across the river, which at Hangchow is a mile and a half wide.  For three hundred years, sails and oars were the motive power, or long poling bamboos stuck in the mud and pressed against the naked bellies of sweating, chanty-singing coolies who leaned against them until they seemed almost on all fours as they forced the heavy junks through the water.  The ferryboat was never started till every last inch of vacant space had been occupied by countrymen with loaded carrying-poles bringing produce to the city market - bamboo shoots, yams, peas, beans, chestnuts, water chestnuts, water nuts, the edible bulrush, and chickens - or returning carrying the precious two-bucket uncovered load of night-soil, which is the chief fertilizer on all Chinese farms.

I can see, and smell that, quite vividly - what a huge amount of information he has packed in.  One of the most significant bits, to me, is the fact that traditional Chinese culture was so stable that a bequest like that could still be working after 300 years- longer than the USA has existed.

He lived there to see the complete collapse of traditional China, both culturally and politically, lived through constant sequential occupations by warlords, then the Japanese- a different phenomenon altogether.  And, he saw the people survive (some of them), and develop a fierce determination among them to make China a modern state.  They developed a sense of community.

One of the scariest things facing us is that we're looking at an unknown future; we can no longer predict or see what will happen next year, and after.  One of the very ominous and real possibilities is the end of any practical rule of law- can we survive that?  How?

Grab a book on China, 1910 to 1960, and you'll start to see what is possible.  In 1938 or so, China's population stood at a mere 400,000,000 - close to the current population of the US of 300M plus.

A huge amount of it is grim beyond the comprehension of white-picket fence small town life here.

I think it can help to know that others have come through such hell, and out the other side to once again live lives they consider worthwhile.

I think it is also a good idea to learn what hell can bring, and prepare for it as much as you can.  A good smack-upside the head with the 2x4 of Chinese history might help wake us up.

Much of what Clayton has to tell is heart-wrenching; reading the book is no picnic if you have an ounce of compassion.  After the Japanese occupation:

A rice kitchen was maintained for adults who could show evidence of complete destitution.   Eight hundred people were given tickets admitting them to a daily noon meal that was almost sufficient to keep them alive.  These people were not all originally poor.  One man had been the proprietor of a shop with a half million dollars worth of business a year.  Several school teachers were in the group.  Twenty years ago the military governor of Chekiang province had given the school a gymnasium, and now his second wife was eating in our rice kitchen, which used the gymnasium as a dining room. 

One day I gave a ticket to a man whom I met on the street.  It was a ticket for a month's dinners; but he misunderstood and thought it entitled him to just one meal.  When he came in he was placed at a table with seven other men.  He ate much more than a man in his condition should eat, then waited until the others had left and cleaned off with his tongue the entire surface of the table. So far as he knew, it might be the last meal he would ever have.

In spite of our work among children, we had many requests for rice-kitchen tickets for young people, and during the last few months we decided that, since the numbers could not be increased, we should try to save the young rather than the old.  This decision forced upon me a responsibility that was very difficult to bear.  Day after day it was necessary for me to say, time and again, to sweet-faced old grandmothers, or to kindly-faced old gentlemen, "No, we cannot help you."  This meant, "Go and starve," and that is what they did.

A horrifingly difficult thing to do.  Slightly easier for him perhaps because his boundaries and necessities were so clearly delineated.  Just so much rice.   5,000 refugees inside his school walls, a school designed for 200 boys- and millions- literally- outside.

Could you do it?    I have to think that coping with whatever comes may be a little easier if we think about it ahead of time.  It may be, literally, a matter of life or death.


Sharlene T. said...

Well, it may just be that you were meant to get sick enough to reach for your book larder and bring this message to us in these frightening times! Did you think of that while you were giving homage to the porcelain god? Did you? Did you? There are higher minds at work here, and they needed your insight. Thank you, so much, for sharing this wonderful book. Gonna go check for it on Guggenheim...

Greenpa said...

Have to confess I was not thinking about it at the time. :-)

I just added another quote from the book- a hard one.

Sparkless said...

Sounds like food poisoning or a real nasty virus. I hope you are all better soon.

knutty knitter said...

Hope you start feeling like you're on a diet soon :) Gotta shed that weight and lethargy somehow!

Had a similar sort of bug go through here last year - very miserable and depressing.
I might add - it tended to recur rather more than I felt was strictly necessary, but each bout was less than the last.

I think it finally left home around Christmas. Maybe it didn't appreciate our wonderful food :)

viv in nz

Annie said...

Thanks for this. A valuable insight into what makes China tick. With that kind of history one begins to understand in a small way where they are coming from. This is a country where they have had to make very hard choices, and continue to do so with or without "our approval".

Hope you are all healthy soon!

Wendy said...

Have you read anything by Pearl S. Buck? Based on your knowledge of Chinese history how accurate do you think her novels are in describing Chinese culture during that tumultous periods? In particular, I wonder if you've read Dragon Seed?

I've found a lot of war-time (particularly WWII) memoirs, histories and novels to be particularly helpful in giving me some insight into what kinds of thing we might end up having to endure.

But it's always really hard while I reading to think that this may be our fate.

Greenpa said...

Wendy- sure, Pearl Buck is basic. She does a very good job of translating Chinese emotions and motivations for western minds. But be wary of thinking she's got it all down pat.

Nope, haven't read Dragon Seed. Partly because I accidentally watched the movie, with Katherine Hepburn playing the Chinese protagonist. Just too weird! I figure that would be highly distracting, while reading the original.

Wendy said...

Ack! Katherine Hepburn as a Chinese peasant? Glad I missed the movie ;).

Don't worry. I wouldn't think that Ms. Buck had it all down pat. It's just that for fiction, hers are the only books I've read. I did read River Town: Two years on the Yangtze, which was written by an American Peace Corps worker/teacher who lived in China for two years. Interesting.

Thanks for the suggestions, and I agree that we could gain some valuable insight ;).

CuriousNomad said...

You with a lobotomy still exceeds 97% of the population.

Glad to know you're feeling better though!

Doyu Shonin said...

Thank you, sir, and glad you're better.

I'm increasingly aware I will be one of the grannies in that last quote ... pandemic triage rules known to emergency personnel already have been written to exclude first eighty-year-olds and over, then sixty-year-olds and over from certain services. So I am trying to make my contribution now while I can, mostly by planting and encouraging fruit trees.

Justin said...

I'll have to check that book out. I just want to add that 1950 was by no means the end of hell on earth in China. The Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution were at least as horrifying as the proceeding events for much of the population. 50 million people starved to death the the GLF, and the cultural revolution gave the entire nation collective PTSD.

K said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
gaias daughter said...

Greenpa, if you have not yet read _Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China_ by Jung Chang, I highly recommend it. Amazing story of three generations of Chinese women. IMHO, it should be required reading in every high school.

Hope you are feeling better and getting ready to update us on the guinea hens -- I've been waiting and waiting and waiting . . . :-)