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Iron and Silk is an autobiographical book by Mark Salzman, where he describes his two-year experience of living and working in China. During the period from 1982 to 1984 Salzman worked as an English language teacher at Hunan Medical College in Changsha and this experience became the basis for his novel. The main character of the novel is fond of Chinese lifestyle and culture. After graduating from the Chinese language department of Yale University he decides to leave for China in order to improve his language skills and get acquainted with Oriental life and culture.
Spending much time leaning Chinese language and culture and traditions of this country Mark is sure that he is familiar with this country but reality comes to be quite different from his expectations. The book is a perfect insight into the life of China and its people and this experience is so valuable because we get the perspective of this life from the foreigner, a European man who gets into different world and has to find his ways there.
Mark is fond of martial arts and calligraphy and this opens a lot of doors for him. He meets a lot of interesting people and they teach him their culture, traditions and way of thinking.
When coming to China, Mark is aware about his future role as an English language teacher but he is not ready to find himself in the role of the pupil again. Luckily, he is optimistic and open to new experience and quickly adapts to his new role.
He learns new things and uses every opportunity to broaden his outlook. Every person we meet in our life path can become our teacher if we are attentive to the lessons of the destine and Mark follows this principle and learns everywhere and from every person he meets. His students teach him rules of educational system adopted in China.
Their shyness and politeness becomes a great surprise for Mark, who got used to Western freedom and liberalism in education. This is one of the aspects of striking differences between Eastern and Western cultures. Right after arrival Saltzman is stuck with poor conditions of life in the area where he arrives. Poverty, bureaucracy and bad conditions of life make Europeans think about the situation in Europe in the Middle Ages. Communist regime and political system of China becomes a great surprise for Mark, who grew up in a democratic country.
The way Chinese people perceive Second World War is also very interesting and it will be very interesting for Western readers. The first thing he learns is dealing with closed system and government control, which exists in China. And despite Changsha has a reputation of place, “there is nothing to do, nothing to buy, the people have no manners, the food is terrible and their dialect sounds awful”, people find positive moments and enjoy their life. Another surprise comes to be much more pleasant (Salzman, 15). People in China show much politeness and respect to strangers.
Attitude to children becomes another great surprise for Salzman. Polite and full of respect to strangers, Chinese people are very strict and demanding to their children. It takes time for Salzman to get used to such an attitude but his new friends explain him that such a treatment is usual and even more, “that is the Chinese way. ” ( Saltzman) Saltzman uses this peculiarity of national character in order to get new experience and penetrate deeper into Chinese culture. He knows two popular Chinese dialects – Mandarin and Cantonese and this even increases respect to him.
Salzman uses every opportunity to learn something new and destiny helps him to meet a lot of teachers, or masters on his way. He is lucky to get lessons of Wushu, or martial art, from one of the most popular kung fu masters of the modern time. Mark has learned martial art for nine years before he got to China but only there he uncoveres the true essence of this notion. Under the guidance of Teacher Pan he discovers that learning martial arts can be a kind of spiritual search and way to discover true inner self.
“Do every move as if it were your last,” teaches him Master Pan and with these words expresses not only the essence of Wushu but the very essence of Oriental philosophy. (Salzman, 85) Little episodes and events, which happen to the author, show the readers how ordinary things can have deep meaning and influence the entire life if the person is open to new possibilities and new experiences. That is exactly what happens with Mark, for whom every meeting and every conversation becomes the sources of new information and useful lessons. He learns even from fishermen, who quickly recognize him as their friend and ask him to stay and fish with them.
Learning Chinese calligraphy becomes another new experience, which opens new perspective for the author. Very soon he finds out that Chinese people have completely different attitude to writing that Westerners do. These people can turn everything into mastery, and calligraphy for them is much more than a way to put down words into paper. Salzman finds out that calligraphy is an art, where one hieroglyph can mean more than hundred words. It takes him some time to understand the words of his teacher, who told him that “No matter what the quality of brush or paper one should always treat them as if they were priceless.
” (Salzman, 156) The art to enjoy every moment of life and ability to dedicate yourself to the thing you are doing at the moment is the main message his calligraphy teacher wants to pass to his European student. Written with great sense of humor, Silk and Iron is a very personal account of life of a Western person in strange surrounding. The book gives a glimpse of Chinese politics, culture, history, way of life and philosophy. The book can be interesting for people interested in marital arts, Oriental philosophy and Chinese culture. Sources Salzman, Mark. Iron and Silk, Vintage, 1987.
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