The history of many other countries—Greece, England, Russia, France, Turkey, Egypt, China, to name only a few—is so much longer and more complicated than American history that it’s easy for Americans to throw up their hands and give up any attempt at historical perspective on the rest of the world. If we need to master 3,000 years of religion, philosophy, military and political dynasties, let alone a non-alphabetic language to understand another country, the task seems hopeless. This is where a time capsule may come to our rescue. What if we could visit a foreign country and vicariously experience its life, to see and hear the entire nation in their work and thought, from city intellectuals to those in rural nooks and crannies? Such is One Life in China, which I recommend for the candid overview it gives of pre-Revolutionary Chinese life and thought.
The idea was a simple one, inspired by Gorky’s 1935 One Day in the World. An unexceptional date was selected--not a holiday or a day of great political importance commemorating some national event, just an ordinary day. Then essays were solicited from people all over China, writers asked to serve as witnesses to that day, in town, country or village, wherever they were in the country, and the composite portrait would reveal—what? What had the organizers envisaged? Were they surprised by the picture that came together?
From our present perspective of almost three-quarters of a century, the view is astonishing. Here is China at the point of starvation and on the brink of foreign occupation, with World War II and the Communist Revolution on the horizon but not yet visible to those whose lives are revealed in the essays. We see instead ordinary life events, corruption and cruelty, struggle for the barest survival, small political awakenings, reports on the weather, and, over and over again, those small, poetic observations on nature—so many lives, caught under the lens, preserved not in amber or in photographs but in words. The effect is overwhelming.
Of the thousands of essays submitted for One Day in China, from those published in China, with only a fraction were translated into English for the edition I read, and the picture is somewhat limited by the literacy factor. (Obviously, only literate Chinese were able to write essays.) A disproportionate number of the writers are teachers, and men far outnumber women. Still, there is great variety in the stories, organized in this volume by subject. On May 21, 1936, there were weddings and funerals, police and courts and local officials at work (though generally seen as corrupt), teachers burdened with peace-keeping and propaganda duties, students either bored with their books or excited by unauthorized lectures, parents worried about the next day’s meal, peasants forced from their fields to build roads and told, when they complain, that the roads are for their own benefit, so that their army will be able to protect them from invading Japanese soldiers. Or to make it easier for the Japanese to invade? Who is in charge, and is there a national agenda? That is unclear. Part of the country has already fallen to Japanese occupation. Chinese Communists are represented as bandits or as heroic patriots, depending on point of view, while Christian missionaries are portrayed uniformly as unwelcome, insufferable busy-bodies. Throughout the country, there is great hardship. For example, one young woman reports for work on the night shift only to learn there will be no more night shift. How will her parents eat? Their rice is gone, and they have no money to buy more. The theme “How will we buy rice?” is a recurrent one throughout the book.
Although the day was chosen for its unremarkable date, what comes out in a number of essays is that the date was important on the “old” calendar, the banned calendar, and many in the countryside still keep to the old traditions, honoring the appropriate gods with prayers and gifts (including opium) The poorer and more desperate the people, the more ardent their prayers. Who but the gods will listen to starving peasants?
There is a Chinese saying, “We must draw a lesson from this.” It is the pragmatic equivalent of looking for teleological reasons. What can be learned? One Day in China is rich in lessons, but I leave it to others to read the book and draw their own.