A Thousand Pieces of Gold

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Listen to an interview of Adeline Yen Mah on A Thousand Pieces of Gold

by Jean Feraca of Here On Earth from Wisconsin Public Radio

New York Times best-selling author of Falling Leaves, Adeline Yen Mah shares the soul of one quarter of the world’s population through the story of her Chinese upbringing. For her, the age-old proverbs of Chinese culture vibrantly reflect the legacy of China written on her heart. In her new book, A THOUSAND PIECES OF GOLD: A MEMOIR OF CHINA’S PAST THROUGH ITS PROVERBS (HarperSanFrancisco Publishers; Hardcover; $24.95; October 2002), Yen Mah allows us to look at China’s past through her eyes.

2200 years ago, a divided China was united by the First Emperor. In 105 B.C.E., the legendary historian Sima Qian began to write about the First Emperor’s reign as well as the tumultuous events following his death. Sima Qian’s book Shiji, or “Historical Record,” brings history to life. Many of the words he used to describe life in ancient China have come down to us as proverbs. Now, Adeline Yen Mah wields her gift of storytelling to recreate China’s past in A THOUSAND PIECES OF GOLD. Using her own life as a thread, Yen Mah weaves an intimate connection between Shiji’s First Emperor and readers. She describes the stories and proverbs Sima Qian wrote down in Shiji, and reveals that they are the same proverbs handed down to her by Ye Ye, her beloved grandfather. Yen Mah demonstrates how the proverbs take on layers of meaning as they pass from generation to generation. By following these paths, the reader journeys with Yen Mah to trace her life alongside the life of China.

Yen Mah provides countless insights into Chinese history and culture in A THOUSAND PIECES OF GOLD, but this memoir of a country is part of her own story as well. Her unique perspective, having lived both in China and the West, is the perfect way for Western readers to see the minds and hearts of ancient China alive today.

My grandfather told me that when he was a boy growing up in Shanghai, he saw many large red boxes placed at major street corners. Each had four gilded characters written on its surface: jing xi zi zhi `respect and cherish written words’. Workmen with bamboo poles patrolled the streets picking up any stray pieces of paper with writing. The contents of these boxes were burnt at regular intervals at a special shrine in the Temple of Confucius. These book-burning ceremonies were solemn occasions resembling high- mass at a Catholic cathedral, with music and incense. Candidates who had successfully passed the Imperial Examination were the only ones allowed to participate. They would prostrate themselves in worship and pray to Heaven until all the paper had been reduced to ashes. On their way out, they would further show their respect by placing a donation into a separate red box labeled yi zi qian jing (one written word is worth a thousand pieces of gold).

A thousand pieces of gold by Adeline Yen Mah (HarperCollins) Reviewed by John Bittleston China has too many proverbs, said Jiang Zemin jokingly, surely recognising that he was adding to the tally. It is not a view shared by Adeline Yen Mah who regards the written word as worth more than A thousand pieces of gold, the title of her latest book. As she explains, the reason the Chinese think in metaphors is because the language is pictorial and not phonetic. Thinking in metaphors is a form of lateral thinking. A thousand pieces of gold is based on the historical record, Shiji, written by Sima Qian (145-90 BC). Yen Mah painstaking research and conclusive writing enables her intriguingly to draw together the threads of China First Emperor, of Chairman Mao Zedong and of her own life. The result is a rare cloth of gold. The book shows us how Chinese history is dominated by family ties, close friendships and personal commitments up to, and beyond, Mao. He was called by his friends qi huo ke ju (precious commodity worth cherishing). They deified Mao to such an extent that he made himself an unassailable, and unforgettable, leader. As such leaders are wont to do. So it was with the First Emperor. Legalism, the supposed rule of current law, opposed Confucianism, the rule of precedent and the wisdom of ancestors. A major flaw at the time put the Emperor outside the law. He was thus able to create rules for his own survival rather than for the benefit of his people. Yen Mah illustrates man self-destructiveness with the proverb guo zu bu qian (binding your feet to prevent your own progress), first used by the King of Qin’s Prime Minister Li Si in 3rd Century BC. The flow of talent into the Qin State caused so much resentment that the native population persuaded the King to expel all non-Qin scholar officials. And this in the so-called golden age of the wandering scholar. Her personal experience reminds us that these things have changed little in the past two thousand years. Asylum seekers know the feeling, too. The violence of despotic rule brings its own backlash and it is significant that Confucian beliefs, with their gentler attention to acquired wisdom and attempts to learn from the past has, on balance, achieved a greater hold on the world fastest growing nation than the spasmodic outbreaks of legalised anarchy. Dogma invariably leads to paranoia. From Adeline Yen Mah own, unpromising beginnings so beautifully recorded in her first book, Falling Leaves, she has blossomed to fulfill the proverb she received as a last present from her beloved grandfather: yan que yong you hong hu zhi (little sparrow with dreams of swans). Many books relating the past to the present come as a form of flashback. It is a tribute to Yen Mah skill that her book seems more like history with a tantalising flash forward. A thousand pieces of gold is pure pleasure and education – a great combination.

–from A Thousand Pieces of Gold