Writers of all stripes tend to dislike discussing their formative years and experiences. Getting to grips with the job of translating one’s understanding of a subject into something publishable tends to be painful enough, without then raking over the process in retrospect. This can lead to a sense, however, that somehow writers arrive fully-formed, with a gift for observation and understanding which requires little practice or refinement. This feeling can be particularly acute in regard to those who write on China, the “university in which no degree is ever granted”, to adapt Stanley Karnow’s phrase, where the gulf between ignorance and understanding often appears so vast.
In his new book, The Road to Sleeping Dragon, Michael Meyer endeavors to show us how the sausage gets made. This is the third book in a “China Trilogy”, preceded chronologically by The Last Days of Old Beijing and In Manchuria. Both of those books offer a portrait of a figure already embedded in Chinese life, in the city and countryside respectively; in The Road to Sleeping Dragon, Meyer takes us back to his early days in China, as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Sichuan, when his knowledge of the country extended to
the Great Wall, pandas, one billion people, fortune cookies, and the indelible image of a man standing in front of a tank
and his command of the language was so limited he resorted to writing key phrases on his arm in marker pen.
The book was inspired by a line from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, Meyer tells me: “We had the experience, but missed the meaning.” The quotation got him to reflecting on his early journey from innocence to experience, and asking himself
what lessons could I pass on to the next generation interested in learning its language, its culture, and writing about it for the wider world?
He decided he wanted to write a book
from the beginning, when I arrived in the country knowing nothing about it, not even how to use chopsticks.
One of the challenges in recreating those formative moments on the page is of course the passage of time, over which new truths set hard in the mind, and the specifics of experience and emotion tend to dissipate. Luckily, Meyer had an invaluable resource in the letters he had diligently posted home to his parents in the States, and which they had kept safe for the last twenty years. “I was struck, of course, by how naive I sounded,” Meyer says of reading them again, two decades on,
but also how engaged and willing to learn. When you’re a novice you take nothing for granted: you ask why people do what they do, and what the correct word is, and you note how people are reacting to your presence, and you to theirs.
The letters were also a reminder not to airbrush out the uncertainty and vulnerability which are inevitable companions during one’s early days in any new country; as such, he drew on Martin Amis’s unvarnished memoir, Experience, as one model.
Like Experience, Meyer’s book is a coming-of-age tale, and the challenges which face him are not just those of a China novice, but more generally of a young man endeavoring to find his way in the world. The struggles of fostering a fledgling romantic relationship and the seeming indifference of the world to the individual are both prominent subjects of the work—but are given added piquancy by the reality of navigating these formative youthful experiences thousands of miles from home, in a radically unfamiliar culture. However, Meyer found consolation in the fact that many of the young Chinese around him were also facing new challenges:
It wasn’t only the foreigner who had to figure out how to rent an apartment, find a job, navigate public transport, pay utilities, ask someone on a date, get online, do investigative reporting—Chinese my age were doing this for the first time, too. In many ways, we were all of us beginners.
What advice would he have given his younger self, given the chance?
I would have learn to say “no” faster. I would also have made a point to learn to read Chinese alongside learning to speak it, which would have spared me a painful remedial year of university coursework down the road.
Meyer is planning a book on Taiwan— “I think it’s time to write a book when the book you want to read doesn’t exist,” and wishes he had gone there earlier
to see that it wasn’t “Chinese” culture that I was experiencing and writing about, but the People’s Republic of China’s culture.
His advice to contemporary writers on China is to trust the validity of their observations, and, crucially, to try to get away from writing about China as if it is monolithic:
Very little writing captures the country’s geographic and linguistic and cultural diversity.
In one early chapter of The Road to Sleeping Dragon, he notes a linguist’s observation that asking the question “Do you speak Chinese?” makes about as much sense as asking a European ‘Do you speak Romance?’
The opening of The Road to Sleeping Dragon quotes the writer Lin Yiutang, who asked in 1935, “Who will be China’s interpreters?” Meyer acknowledges that he is himself an unlikely answer to that question. The subtext of much of The Road to Sleeping Dragon, and Meyer’s work more generally, is that a period of immersive discomfort is key in understanding and writing about China— you need the experience to access the meaning.
In the end, though, these hardships pay off, both literally and figuratively; a fact that slowly became clear to the young protagonist whose journey we follow along the road to Sleeping Dragon: