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Authors: Mark Salzman

Iron and Silk

BOOK: Iron and Silk
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“Evocative … Salzman is a gifted storyteller, able in short order to capture the look, the feel, even the smell of everyday … life in the People’s Republic.”

—Philadelphia Inquirer

“Lucid, accurate, and compelling … Salzman has begun to capture the peculiar and poignant pulse of life as it is actually lived today in the Middle Kingdom.”

—Chicago Tribune

“Salzman is a master storyteller.… A tender, heartwarming, laugh-filled, rewarding volume that is universal in its appeal.”

—The Oregonian

“An engrossing, beautifully written tale … a rich portrait of life in contemporary China that even the most seasoned sinologist will find engaging.”

—Foreign Affairs

“It’s hard to imagine how anyone could fail to enjoy this book.”

—San Diego Tribune

“There have lately been dozens of books about the new China … but none … has the charm of this one. Mark Salzman is a delightful writer with a keen eye. He’s full of compassion and humor.”

—St. Petersburg Times

“Salzman writes wonderfully observed anecdotes and sketches of his Chinese acquaintances and of the moments of humor, pathos, and cultural confusion arising from their meetings and conversations.”

—Pittsburgh Press

, J

1986 by Mark Salzman

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc, New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto Originally published, in hardcover, by Random House, Inc, in

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Salzman, Mark
 (Vintage departures)
Reprint Originally published:
New York: Random House, c
1 China—Description and travel—1976—
2 Martial arts—China
3 Salzman, Mark—Journeys—China
I Title II Title: Iron and silk
245      1987      951 05
eISBN: 978-0-307-81423-4

Author photo copyright
by Jill LeVine

Calligraphy by Mark Salzman


Her swordplay moved the world.

Those who beheld her, numerous as the hills, lost themselves in wonder.

Heaven and Earth swayed in resonance …

Swift as the Archer shooting the nine suns,

She was exquisite, like a sky-god behind a team of dragons, soaring.

From “On Seeing a Pupil of Lady Kung-sun

Dance with the Sword,” by Tu Fu, (712–70); translation by the author.


or some reason I always had bad luck in Canton. In August 1984, on my way out of China after two years in Hunan Province, I was delayed at the Canton train station for half a day because of the seven-foot leather bag I carried. It contained five swords, four sabres, a staff, a halberd, two hooked swords, some knives and a nine-section steel whip. I had receipts and photos and a manila folder full of Foreign Affairs Bureau correspondence to prove that the weapons were all either gifts from my teachers or had been purchased in local stores, that none of them was an antique, and that I was the legitimate student of a well-known martial artist residing in Hunan, but the officials right away saw an opportunity to play their favorite game, Let’s Make a Regulation.

“This bag is too long. You can’t take it on the train. There’s a regulation.” We discussed this point for a while, and eventually the regulation was waived. “But these weapons are Chinese cultural artifacts. They cannot leave China, that’s a regulation. You can take the bag, though.” In time it was determined that the weapons might conceivably leave China, but I would need special permission from a certain office which would require a certain period of time to secure, so wouldn’t I stay in Canton for a few days and come back with
the proper documentation? My flight from Hong Kong to New York left in two days; I was desperate not to miss it. As I walked around the train station trying to think up a new strategy, I happened to bump into a Cantonese policeman I had met a year before. When I told him my problem he took me by the arm and led me back to the train station, where he began arguing on my behalf. He talked with the officials for over an hour about this and that, occasionally touching on the subject of my bag and its contents, then gently retreating to other matters. He eventually suggested that I give a short martial arts demonstration there in the train station—“Wouldn’t that be fun?” He asked the people sitting on the long wooden benches in the station to make room for a performance, then helped them move the benches out of the way. I warmed up for a few minutes, took off my shoes and began a routine. Somewhere in mid-air my pants split wide open, from the base of the zipper to the belt line in back. A crowd of giggling old ladies rushed forward with needles and thread ready, followed by an equal number of old men with incurable illnesses who believed that I must have learned traditional medicine as part of my martial arts training, convincing the officials to let me through without further delay. The policeman helped me get on the train, then sat with me until it began to move. He hopped off, wished me well, then saluted as the train left the station.

don’t know exactly when the loudspeaker woke me up, but it was early, and the song was “Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China.” I tried wrapping a pillow around my head, but one of the conductors tapped me on the knee and told me if I wanted any breakfast I’d better get to the dining car fast. It was 96 degrees already and rising. I stumbled over to a sink, splashed some water on my face, drank a few mouthfuls, then noticed the sign over the faucet
. I found my way to the dining car and sat down with my three friends, Bob, Jean and Julian, also on their way into South Central China to teach English. An attendant urged us to try the Western style breakfast. It cost three times as much as the Chinese style breakfast, but I figured it might be the last Western food I would eat for some time, so I ordered it. It turned out to be a ham sandwich—a single slice of ham on two squares of dry bread, with no butter or mayonnaise, served with a warm glass of sweetened powdered milk. I heard a People’s Liberation Army man behind me muttering to his friend, “Look at the foreigner—how can he eat that at seven in the morning?” After a few minutes the attendant returned and asked if I wanted the Western-style dessert, too. I said no, but that I would like to try the Chinese-style breakfast, a steaming bowl of noodles with a fried egg on top. “Ah yes! An international breakfast!” he said, and disappeared into the kitchen. “How can he eat so much?” the PLA man mumbled.

The four of us had had a difficult time in Canton the day before. A China Travel Service representative had approached
us as we got off the train from Hong Kong and insisted that we would require his services if we expected to reach our destinations in China. China Travel Service, China’s only travel service, specializes in imposing services on foreigners and then failing to carry them out properly, thus creating a need for more services. We would “need” a dolly to move our bags from the customs office to the waiting room; once hired, it turned out that the dolly could not leave the customs building parking lot, so we “had to” hire a taxi to carry them the rest of the way. We would “have to” buy the most expensive bunks on the train, since they were “the only seats left.” The CTS man led us to an empty waiting room and told us to sit there and watch the luggage while he arranged everything. My three companions, who had all lived or traveled in China before, sensed disaster and insisted on going with him to the ticket office. I did not feel like sitting alone with the bags in that miserable room, so I asked Jean to stay with me.

Not long after Bob and Julian left with the CTS man, an angry little woman in a blue uniform stalked in. “Where are your tickets? What do you think you are doing here?” We tried to explain that we didn’t have any tickets, that a CTS man had told us to wait there while he bought them for us, but she would not let us even finish a sentence. “Where are your tickets? You can’t sit here if you don’t have any tickets! Let me see them.” After several rounds of this, Jean and I stopped answering her and stared at the floor in frustration. The woman turned maroon, glared at us and marched out, only to return after half an hour to repeat the interrogation. This scene recurred four times over the next three and a half hours, until at last Bob and Julian returned. At the ticket office, the CTS man had tried to convince them that what he meant was there were no tickets at all for that night, that we had to buy the most expensive tickets on the next day’s train
and spend the night in a foreigners’ hotel in Canton. In the end, Bob and Julian managed to get the tickets for that night, but the CTS man had his revenge: just as we prepared to find a restaurant and buy some dinner, a Public Security Bureau official appeared with the CTS man and demanded to see our tickets and visas. He snapped them open and shut, then pointed at me. “You can go. Those three cannot.” I asked why not.

BOOK: Iron and Silk
11.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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