Review: Iron & Silk by Mark Salzman

My foray into Chinese travel memoirs has been backwards, chronologically speaking. I began with Chang’s Factory Girls, which was written in 2008, then journeyed to 1996 with Hessler’s River Town, and then wrapped up this morning with Iron & Silk by Salzman, the events whereof began in 1982.

Iron & Silk I read off and on throughout a day and a half. Salzman’s style was blunt, crisp, and to the point. He wrote about what interested him: wushu and his study thereof (with, among others, the famous Pan Qingfu), and calligraphy and his study thereof. His friendship with a peasant fisherman’s family was recounted, as were relationships with his various teachers and students, including an interesting young boy who was continually on the run from his family, staying with strangers and stealing trinkets as mementos until officials dragged him home again.

This book surprised me–was even unsettling–because, although it chronicled events that occurred in 1982, so much closer to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s time in power than the events in Hessler’s River Town, when China was still so far from the modern, progress-guzzling behemoth we know it to be today, the Chinese people in Salzman’s books were characterized as much more irreverent, much more unfettered in their language and criticism of Chinese politics than the Chinese citizens in River Town.

The irreverance of the earlier book, the careful close-lippedness of the later book: nothing could be so indicative of the shift caused by the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Not yet a part of history in Salzman’s books, and only briefly covered in Hessler’s, the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the government crackdown afterward nonetheless influenced nearly all of Hessler’s interactions, and caused me to see ghosts in Salzman’s, ghosts of a future that hadn’t yet taken place.

There’s more to be said of this book, certainly, but there’s not much more for me to say. It was a good read, but not a remarkable one, and in the end, it made me feel kind of spooky.


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