A FEW GOOD FIRST-PERSON INTRODUCTIONS TO CHINA

Nowadays, almost every Westerner returning from China has a tale to tell. So it is a relief to discover a number of first-person accounts over the past few years that go beyond the "I played Frisbee on the Great Wall" narrative and yet introduce the novice to the country.One of the more upbeat books to appear is Mark Salzman's "Iron & Silk" (Random House, 1989). A Yale graduate fluent in Chinese, Salzman taught English in Hunan Province for two years, and studied Wushu, a martial art. As a result, he had more odd experiences than most, and he relates them in a charmingly direct style. Best of all, you can see the movie, too. Also useful is the book by popular novelist Bette Bao Lord who has written "Legacies: A Chinese Mosaic" (Knopf, 1990). As a Chinese-born American and the wife of Winston Lord, a Kissinger aide who became ambassador to China for 3 1/2 years until 1989, she has a foot in two worlds. In this book, her well-placed Chinese friends divulge their deeper sentiments about life in China. (I also love her description of her husband "who speaks only snippets of Chinese and is the quintessential WASP, [but] had alway s had a unique affinity with Chinese that transcended language.") Out of print, but not to be forgotten is one of the earliest - and best - forms of the journalist-in-China genre, Orville Schell's "Watch Out for the Foreign Guests! China Encounters the West" (Pantheon, 1981). Schell, a trained China scholar, has a sharper tongue and deeper sense of irony about China and the Chinese than most. Yet he loves the country. The book is still relevant 10 years later. While his book is not a first-person account, for those interested in digging more deeply, Yale Professor Jonathan Spence has written one of the most readable histories of China, "The Search for Modern China" (W. W. Norton, 1990). Beginning with the rise of the Qing Dynasty in the 17th century, he walks the reader through the Opium Wars and the lavish lives of the Emperors, to the 1949 Revolution and the present. Spence is noted for balancing lively prose with fine scholarship, so it is worth wading thro ugh his 747 pages.

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