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"In 30 short anecdotes, Mark Salzman gives a compassionate and humorous account of teaching English and studying martial arts in Changsha, a provincial capital in central China shortly after the opening of the country in the early 1980s. Changsha has the reputation that "there is nothing to do, nothing to buy, the people have no manners, the food is terrible and their dialect sounds awful" - so the book might have become very different from what it is: insightful, very funny, and full of respect for the often strange customs of traditional Chinese culture. In the best manner of innocents abroad, Mark Salzman knows how to make fun of his blunders in a very charming way. He conveys his sense of wonder beautifully, and does not pass judgment on anything he witnesses. Unlike many other authors who write about China, he is able to appreciate traditional Chinese forms of expression and self-mastery like martial arts (wushu) and calligraphy on their own terms. In his anecdotes he catches the essence of these arts: dedication, commitment, respect. "No matter what the quality of brush or paper," explains his calligraphy teacher, "one should always treat them as if they were priceless."What Mark Salzman wrote about China some 15 years ago is not dated in many ways. Strange ideas are still being trumpeted as truths, and bureaucrats still like to harass foreigners (although humiliating unwitting foreigners is not "something of a popular sport in China" anymore; today it may even happen that a young female police officer at a police station first lectures you for half an hour on a minor transgression, but asks you out for a date right after she is finished). Mark Salzman has a wonderful, gentle humor, and an admirable open-mindedness. He combines both to focus not on the ignorance of the people he meets, but on the insight which even ignorance can produce. There is no doubt that one little Chinese boy has no idea about the real Hong Kong, but being asked what he knew about this city, he answers "It's a big department store, isn't it?" Finally, let me say that I have never heard or read of a more charming and polite way of telling a Westerner that he has a big nose than in Mark Salzman's gem of a book: "You have a very three-dimensional face.""
Hope this books gets on high school reading lists
Boris Bangemann | 04/26/1998
(5 out of 5 stars)
"As a Chinese, I read Iron And Silk and am amazed at how much Mark got into the soul of the ordinary Chinese people. Written in simple, elegant language, there were so many enchanting anecdotes in the short-story-like segments, that it moved me to find an American knowing so much about China. As a naturalized American, now raising my children in the U.S., I have seen books such as Joy Luck Club on the reading lists of my children's high school English classes. It disturbs me that Joy Luck Club really presents a psudo, stereotypical China. I hope high school English teachers will take a look at this book, and include Iron And Silk in the reading lists for their students. I want my children to read good books that tell about a real China. In my opinion this book is much better than Joy Luck Club for high school education. The back cover of this book tells me Mark Salzman graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Summa Cum Laude from Yale in 1982 with a degree in Chinese Language and Literature. This book is much more than a martial arts book. While it is fun to read as a series of short stories on an American martial arts student's journey in China, it really teaches so much about how the Chinese society is. I highly recommend it for high school reading lists."
Review the Book, not the Man, but if you want to.......
Selma | San Francisco, CA United States | 12/14/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"When this book first appeared, I used it in an urban adult ESL class that was full of immigrants of all ages from China. They enjoyed it and occasionaly argued about parts. Then, a wonderful thing happened. Salzman was in town and agreed to visit our class. What a dear, sweet, and entertaining person he was--speaking in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English--keeping the students laughing for a couple of hours. He also appeared in a public talk with a very different kind of audience--and kept it just as fully entertained.
When the movie of the book came out, and Salzman played himself, I thought it was a bit much, but I can't deny his acting skill.
In answer to questions in the "review" of Lemas Mitchell (see below):
1. Unresolved characters: Who was the girl with whom he took a bike ride? Is this the one that later became his wife?
----Yes, that -was- unresolved, and we asked him about it. He was reticent, even shy about saying more.
He married a California Chinese-American woman, not the woman on the bike. His wife has been an award-winning independent film-maker.
2. Overly-romantic view of some Chinese cultural habits that would consider inappropriate:
----This was humor.
3. Self absorption: Was he really a kung-fu master? Was it all in his own head? Was his Chinese really that good after an undergraduate degree?
----He never said he was a master; rather, he had a master as a teacher. His study of martial arts was what led him into Chinese studies in the first place. Yes, his skill in the language(s) was good. Chinese literature was, I believe, his major at Yale, from which he graduated with honors.
I'm here reading reviews because I'm thinking of using the book again with college level ESL students and wanted to check out the current attitudes."
Distilled and Tasteful Vision of Chinese People
L. Dann | Philadelphia, Pennsylvania United States | 04/29/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Mark Salzman managed to convey the essence of the Chinese political system and the manner that the basic culture and manners have survived its attempts to remake it. Salzman is able to do this by first exposing his own personal traits, his obsessive need to "keep moving" in order to avoid worries and other aspects of solitude and an unoccupied mind. His quests to learn martial arts, caligraphy and Chinese art and customs were also opportunities to discover the 'hidden' China, the secrets that the people must whisper to avoid waking the dragon of a system and censorship. He met an embittered sculptor whose most valued possession was an old postcard of Michaelangelo's David. He ate in Chinese households, his bowl constantly full, while the children and uncles waited their turn; the leftovers to be distributed when he had finished. Hospitality, respect, the obligation of children to their parents have remained essentially in tact, despite the often absurd connivances of the revolutionary government.For high school students, Salzman manages to distil the history of the cultural revolution, the falacies that are emitted from a highly controlled media and that are part of a repressive and unsympathetic government that led, ironically, to Tienneman Square, the day after, the author flew home. While the government forbade Salzman any more practice time in the specialized martial arts, the people continued to train and honor him. We find repeatedly that these people retain a deep and profound interest in foreigners and especially Americans. That the Chinese looked down upon dark skinned people was easily established when a Sudanese told his tale of a black man living in that enormous country. The best history, is validated by the voice of the people and this book is an exquisite example of the show don't tell maxim. His friendship with Pan, a famed and dying master of the martial arts, is an unlikely and rare sign of hope in a world where the people and not the police states or ideologies prevail."
Easy to read, hard to put down, Chinese culture, martial art
L. Dann | 01/12/1999
(4 out of 5 stars)
"My flatmate was reading this book and I read a bit of it when he wasn't home. I had to keep reading it, so did our other flat mate. The three of us were taking turns to read it at the same time. My flatmates are going to China to teach English, I am interested in martial arts. This book makes you want to go to China to teach English and learn martial arts.This novel is easy to read, funny in parts and discusses some of the political problems that face foreigners in China. The author shares his experiences with the special police when trying to travel with friends, and explains how the police tried to stop famous martial art instructors from teaching him. Salzman also intrigues you with his many different martial art instructors and the styles he learnt, coupled with Chinese calligraphy.A must read, wonderful book."