Sunday, March 28, 2004

Journey into a proverbial past
Shalini Rawat

A Thousand Pieces of Gold: A Memoir of China’s Past through its proverbs
by Adeline Yen Mah. HarperCollins. Pages 371.
£ 6.99.

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, " which is to be master — that’s all."

Through The Looking Glass And What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll

A Thousand Pieces of Gold: A Memoir of China’s Past through its proverbsTHE history of a nation, like that of a family, is a question of how you tell it. Just as relationships between family members are made real by the stories that people weave around themselves and each other, writers link disparate events across a range of historical periods into a coherent whole.

Adeline Yen Mah has resurrected her nation’s past as well as her own. With deft strokes she has created a narrative of three concentric circles by pinning the mystery, intrigue and bloodshed of ancient and modern China against the backdrop of the wisdom of Chinese proverbs and interweaving it with the anguish of her own life.

The three narratives could have tripped over each other or their individual energies could have broken up into little shards, each reflecting its own light, since the book spans nearly three millennia. But far from being heavy or stilted, it flows forward in a smooth rhythm, the history of China, the author’s life story and the origin of the proverbs cascading ever so gently, in a singular strand that at once makes it a scholarly effort as well as a coffee table book.

The Orientals’ anxiety to write emerges from the dissonance in their surroundings, since an Oriental may live in ancient times while conversing with his parents, in the 20th century while communicating with his wife and kids and in the 21st century while at work. Therefore, many Indian readers might find reflections of their own history, culture, beliefs, life and even parallel proverbs here. The book also promises to be a delight for planners, strategists, crises managers and those planning for businesses and business schools, as each chapter gives a managerial concept.

While the title suggests that the book is a ‘memoir of China’s past through its proverbs’ the layers of silence interspersed within the text and the sub textual voices, which would probably be interpreted only superficially, or selectively by western critics, merit deeper reflection.

Although the oral tradition of proverbs is not the prerogative of any civilization, its antiquity is certainly an index of its maturity. Today, the wheel has come full circle. In search for that elusive peace and eternal springs of wisdom luo ye gui gen - falling leaves return to their roots.