Iron & Silk

A friend first recommended we watch the 1990 movie made of this book because it was full of examples of Chinese culture, but in a way that’s accessible to foreigners who know little about China. I barely remember the movie because we watched it in the wee hours of the night while working the night shift at a Hurricane Katrina shelter. But after reading the book, I can see our friend was right.

Iron & Silk is an effortless, PG-rated read that a junior high student could finish in just a couple hours. It’s really a collection of short stories that highlight various cultural differences the author experienced in the two years he spent teaching English in China in the early 1980’s, and this keeps the content varied and interesting. Iron & Silk doesn’t explain anything about Chinese culture, but it’s a clear window into entertaining and unique experiences among everyday Chinese people of that particular time and place. It’s also rather unique among the “I taught English in China” travel books.

Author Mark Salzman‘s experiences were pretty unique for a few reasons. First, Salzman could speak an exceptional amount of Chinese before he arrived, which he learned while completing an Ivy League degree in Chinese literature and doing some serious martial arts training. This means that, unlike the rest of us, he could hear and see what was going on around him starting the first day, and this opens up a whole new world of possibilities among locals that most of us only dream of. Second, he was already rather accomplished in 武术 by the time he arrived, and his experiences of training with some famous Chinese wÇ”shù masters certainly makes for unique reading material. Third, he taught in China for two years starting in 1982; he experienced a China that may not exist anymore (at least I hope it doesn’t… I don’t know if I could stand having to listen to and negotiate that much political-ese every day, never mind imagining masses forced to endure it). And forth, he sticks to narrating and almost completely refrains from commentary; aside from relating how he may have felt at a particular moment, he allows the people to speak for themselves and leaves the reader to decide what to think. Several reviews describe it as unpretentious.

As of today, this book can be delivered to your door for under $5. And in the movie, Salzman and his most famous wǔshù instructor play themselves.

3 thoughts on “Iron & Silk”

  1. I don’t know many white people in China that have ever had to “eat bitter,” at least not in the way many of our older neighbours probably did a few decades ago. We certainly haven’t, anyway.

    One thing about the book – it’s kind of “cute,” like a Disney-style intro to Chinese culture… you’ll see what I mean. Still, it’s a quick read that I thought was worth the time.

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