Books: `The Whole Chinese Language Is Full of Metaphors' ; Adeline Yen Mah, Whose Memoir Dared to Indict Her Own Family, Now Unveils the Historical Secrets Hidden in Chinese Proverbs. Julie Wheelwright Meets Her
Wheelwright, Julie, The Independent (London, England)
THERE IS a passage in Adeline Yen Mah's new book where she describes a miserable adolescence at a Hong Kong boarding school in the Forties. She wasn't allowed home for the holidays: like Jane Eyre, she is the unwanted and unloved child who must fend for herself in a hostile environment. "Often, I was the only student left behind in the convent, incarcerated like a prisoner and wandering listlessly between the vast, empty refectory and the silent school library."
In many ways, Mah's life carries the hallmarks of a fairy tale: the poor little rich girl with the wicked stepmother who manages, despite the odds, to find happiness. Good, in the end, triumphs over evil.
If her bestselling memoir Falling Leaves echoed the literary conventions of Victorian female novelists, her most recent work is, however, wholly Chinese. In fact, A Thousand Pieces of Gold: a memoir of China's past through its proverbs (HarperCollins, pounds 14.99), was inspired after Mah heard Jiang Zemin, President of China, joke that the Chinese had too many proverbs.
"But after making this statement, he went on to quote a proverb, `clapping with one hand produces no sound'," Mah tells me over tea at her exquisite South Kensington flat. "I then realised that Chinese people think in proverbs, and I wanted to explain why the Chinese think the way they do." Chinese, she says, is a language of signs and symbols that is structured around these ancient sayings.
Adeline Yen Mah, diminutive and dressed in a jade green suit that offsets her inky hair and dark eyes, explains the importance of Chinese metaphor in an American accent. (She and her husband Robert Mah divide their time between London and California.) "Like the word `contradiction', which came from Han Feizi, this brilliant philosopher who told the story about the man selling spears and armour in the market place."
The arms merchant brags that his spear is so sharp it can penetrate any object and his armour so tough that nothing can pierce it. But when someone in the crowd asks what would happen if the merchant used the spear against the armour, the dealer falls silent. The two words, "spear armour" then become "contradiction".
Proverbs often operate as a linguistic shorthand, offering a simple and easily remembered phrase to convey a complicated historical event. "The whole language is full of metaphors," she says. "Instead of having to explain everything, the proverb is like a metaphor for the whole experience." Although Mah draws extensively on Sima Tan's 2,000-year-old history, Strategies Between the Warring States, to describe the origins of many proverbs, they often have a more contemporary meaning.
Since the concept of God remained abstract in China (even the images of a chubby smiling Buddha are a relatively recent caricature), the Chinese yearned for a concrete representation. The First Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, who unified China from a patchwork of feudal kingdoms, filled that role and turned himself into a figure with supernatural powers.
Chinese thinking over 2,000 years, says Mah, has changed very little. But until Mao came to power in 1949, the First Emperor had been consistently condemned by historians as a bloodthirsty tyrant who "burned books and buried scholars" to achieve his political ambitions. During the Cultural Revolution, it became dangerously incorrect in China to castigate the First Emperor. As Mao's power grew, he increasingly identified himself with Huangdai.
The Cultural Revolution was Mao's own version of Qin's strategy of burning books and burying scholars. "Mao was so powerful that subconsciously people thought he was the son of heaven," says Mah. "He became more and more paranoid and self-delusional. He thought he was the greatest and only he could save China. Actually, he was destroying it."
Her older sister Lydia, who had married the Chinese academic Samuel Sung and returned to live in China from Hong Kong in the Forties, was tormented by the Red Guards. …