In 1989, my mother went to China. Her tour group visited Tiananmen Square a week before the “June Fourth” incident. From her trip, she brought me a 3- inch lovely doll which she had watched being made. My mother’s fascination with the country has proved genetic. She would have been as fascinated with the pageantry of the Summer Olympics in Bejing as I was.
In preparing the curriculum for my freshmen world literature class at St. Ignatius College Prep, I knew I wanted to teach the charming book, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie. Balzac takes place during Chairman Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1968. Two “intellectual” teen-aged students are sent to the countryside to be re-indoctrinated. I’ve never taught the book, but have loved it since my first reading of it several years ago.
In doing additional research I’ve read Moying Li's Snow Falling in Spring, an autobiography of a young woman who grew in Peijing during the 1960-1970 period, which has provided many interesting first-hand details. As a child in the late 1950s, she witnessed her neighborhood’s abortive attempt to help move their country into the present by producing homemade steel, using pot, pans, and knives. Later as the Cultural Revolution started she watched gangs of teens denouncing adults and other teens, creating public humiliations, suicides, the destruction of books and break down of the educational system, and dissonants being sent off to concentration camps. There are incredible shades of Hitler’s Youth and the rise of the Nazis.
In my search for a video to support the unit, I remembered scholar of Polonysian literature once said about how it is a culture’s dreams and fiction that tells us about what they who they really are. I at first watched The Road Home, a recent Chinese film which deals with the widow of a teacher who wants the body of her husband carried home in his coffin so that his soul will know the road home. In flashback we learn of their courtship. The film gives a fascinating view of rural China during the same period as the other books. [I found a delightful touch, speaking of the connection between global cultures, in that in the educator’s house two posters of the movie Titanic hang—and are never mentioned or referenced.] I did decide that film might be a little too slow for class.
Being a fan of Chinese fantasy film, I happily stumbled onto the 2005 Warner Bros. release, The Promise [Wu ji]. The film is one of the most expensive ever made in China and has thousands of extras, fantastic sets, and magic realism. With the goddess Manshen’s flying entrance at the beginning, I was hooked. I’m a sucker for flying goddesses, fighting warlords in elaborate costumes who can fight unhampered by gravity, and a hero who can outrun time. It is an interesting tale about the inevitability of destiny and the power of love to defeat it.
I’m looking forward to starting the unit next week.