China's Sorrows up close

Timeless travelogue will resonate with Thai readers

Books on China are occupying more shelf space in bookstores around the world. More people want to learn about China, the once poverty-ridden nation that has now become the world's second largest economy and is poised to ascend to the status of the greatest superpower.

Two Kinds Of Time by Graham Peck University of Washington Press 735pp, $28.95 US paperback

One book that has escaped the radar and received less than deserved attention is a unique travelogue penned and finely illustrated by Graham Peck, a freelance writer and illustrator who visited China after graduating from Yale University in 1935.

Like other "China hands" Peck planned to backpack from China to Burma, but ended up falling in love with the country and wrote a travel book, Through China's Wall, which received a warm response in the US. Peck returned to China in 1940 and stayed for five years.

Based on his experiences in the country during its political transition and World War II, Two Kinds Of Time was his second book. It was published in 1950, albeit to less glowing reviews than Through China's Wall, simply because the author criticised America's conservative foreign policy in China and denounced the Kuomintang, the Nationalist Party, who were popular in the US.

The book was reissued in 2008, in response to surging interest in China.

Peck was in the media unit at the US Office of War. Stationed in Chungking (now known as Chongqing, a mega-rich city) _ the capital of the KMT regime _ Peck was not content with rewriting press releases that painted a rosy picture of the KMT's achievements and eulogised the party leader, Chiang Kai-shek, and his glamorous wife, Soong Mei-ling.

The then Republic of China was falling apart in every possible way.

The country had been destroyed by war and famine. Although the last imperial dynasty, the Manchu Qing, had been overthrown by the nationalist-led Xinhai Revolution in 1912, poor peasants _ the majority of the population _ realised that the reformers were little better than the feudal landlords.

At the same time, China was engaged in a war against Japan, a much stronger and modernised nation. Meanwhile, a civil war was raging between the KMT and the Communist Party of China (CPC). The US sponsored the KMT _ with money and weapons _ to stop the perceived Red threat.

Despite the chaos, Peck often visited villages to draw pictures and take notes about the life of ordinary Chinese people. The further he walked from the foreign enclave, the more he realised the difference between news in the US media and the harsh reality on the ground.

This thick volume starts with the excitement of Joseph Conrad's river-borne adventure in Heart Of Darkness. Peck travelled to inner China on a local boat. Along the way, pirates stopped the boat to collect money. His prose is vivid and rich in detail.

"Whenever we floated by a village, it was a little like passing a tableau of horror in a tunnel ride at an amusement park. The wall of mangrove and palmetto would fall away, revealing the decayed houses with their shabby people caught in half-in, half-out frozen attitudes of surprise and apprehension, no sound or motion except the scuttling of the giant scavenger crabs on the garbage heaps edging the water."

In Chungking, Peck stayed in comfort in secure barracks. He attended parties and mingled with Westerners, from diplomats to missionaries. Yet his assessment of the expats was harsh. He found American officials and even missionaries to be a prejudiced bunch.

Needless to say, Peck was not objective. Almost the entire book is dedicated to grilling Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his rich clique, as well as lambasting US foreign policy. Peck believed the US government made a mistake supporting the KMT.

"Any revolutionary reformer has been no different from China's warlords and landlords," he observed. He suggested that the wrong policy sprung from ignorance and the bias against Chinese people that prevented US officials from obtaining realistic information. Most of the foreign press in Chungking were taken care of by KMT spin doctors.

They were brought to visit KMT arranged orphanages and chatted with the charming Wellesley-graduate Madame Chiang and they swallowed everything the KMT fed. Most news reports from China published in the US were pro-KMT and less than flattering to the Communists. Apart from the heavy political tone, Two Kinds Of Time is readable and suitable for those who wish to know about the country and understand the Chinese people. The book is entertaining as Peck is an engaging essayist and fine illustrator. His drawings are equally gorgeous and satirical and his prose is peppered with wry humour. Peck described Chiang Kai-shek as "the leopard who said he was not only going to change his spots, but would become a vegetarian".

Apart from attacking the ruling class, Peck criticised traditional Chinese culture, perceiving Confucianism as the root cause of the paternalism and feudalism that bedevilled society. Deriding superstition, he claimed the practice of burying bodies in cemeteries on mountains and in forests as a major cause of deforestation and ecological devastation.

And if that's not enough, he argued that the traditional Chinese system of writing prevented the masses from learning to read and write. He was not alone in this belief. After the Communists came to power, the government introduced the Pinyin system of romanisation to make Chinese easier to learn.

Despite his critical mind, Peck's heart went out to poor people and he tried to analyse their wounded psyches.

"Trickery, malice, cruelty, triviality, delight in petty triumphs, fear of petty defeats: all were the mark of habitual victims. So was that incessant, exasperating laughter, used as a bandage, a crutch, a drug." Peck offered this compassionate assessment to explain why Chinese people often laughed and made jokes, even about themselves.

It seemed that no place in China was too inconvenient. Peck, the son of wealthy industrialist family from Connecticut, stayed in run-down hotels, sometimes even a cave. He also ran for cover along with Chinese peasants when Japanese planes dropped bombs on Chungking.

"When the planes left, up and down the hills rippled the pattering sound of one question asked again and again:

'Pa bu pa? Pa bu pa?' Afraid or not?

Then came the replies, from the children, the old people and the invalids.

'Bu pa! Bu pa!' Not at all! Not at all!

'Pa yi tien!' Just a little.

Or the saddest and most frequent of the cheerful answers:

'Pa! Mei you ban fa." Yes, afraid, but there is nothing to be done about it."

Two Kinds Of Time is a timeless travelogue that can make your feel sad about tragic history of this country, and yet also laugh at the idiosyncrasies of its people.

What happened in China over seven decades ago still reverberates in many developing countries around the world. The problems are not much different _ a charismatic leader with media support and good spin doctors, a corrupt ruling class, the rhetoric of ideology and a helplessly exploited people. As long as these problems exist, Peck's memoir never will be out of date.

Reading the book, this reviewer cannot help thinking of the political distortion in her homeland.

About the author

Writer: Anchalee Kongrut
Position: News Reporter