A Thousand Pieces of Gold - Adeline Yen Mah
Part of my New Year's resolutions this year is to read at least five books on Chinese history and culture, because I feel quite ignorant about most of it. I've finally finished my first one. Yen Mah was born in China, trained in medical school in England, and now lives in the States and has become a writer. Her first book, Falling Leaves, talks about her difficult childhood and persecution by her stepmother and siblings. I know this not because I've read Falling Leaves, but because in A Thousand Pieces of Gold she mentions her autobiography quite a bit, and the resulting enmity between herself and her family. On the one hand, it sounds like she really had been mistreated by her family; on the other hand, it gets a little repetitive by the end of the book, hearing about how much Niang hated her and persecuted her, even from beyond the grave.

The subtitle of A Thousand Pieces of Gold is "A Memoir of China's Character in Its Proverbs." Yen Mah has selected various Chinese proverbs taught to her by her grandfather, and uses their original context to give a brief history of China. Interspersed with tales about the warring states and military intrigue are stories of Yen Mah herself and brief tales about Mao and the cultural revolution, often showing how the proverbs can be used in other situations. The approach is interesting but a little scattered: past and present are often distinguished by the use of italics, but since there are three time periods and only two type styles, it's a little inconsistent. I also found reading lengthy portions in italics to be a little hard on the eyes. The book relies heavily on the work Shiji by historian Sima Qian, which is the source of many of the proverbs. One fact that I hadn't considered before was that the Chinese written language was standardized around 2000 years ago, which makes Sima Qian's history understandable today, something not so easy with the ever-changing English language.

I found most of the history fascinating, full of sneaky plots and arrogant rulers (and the occasional honorable person). I also love Chinese proverbs, and reading about their origins is enjoyable. However, I found myself wishing that there were notes about the tones of the words used, or at least the Chinese characters in a footnote. Yen Mah uses pinyin to spell out Chinese phrases and names, but without the tones, it's often hard for me to know which word is being used, and therefore I can't learn to use the proverbs in conversation. Each chapter has a proverb as the title, and those are written out with Chinese characters, but the others throughout the book are only in pinyin.

Overall, I thought the book was a good combination of history and Chinese proverbs. I could do with a little less of the autobiographical portions, since she's got a whole other book for that, and I would have liked some more pronunciation notes for the Chinese phrases. I may read Falling Leaves at some point, to better understand the references she makes in this one.

Fed to jonathan's brain | April 01, 2003