Jeffrey Meyer's Blog

May 22, 2019

China: Center of the World

I've finished a manuscript for a second novel. That took up much of my time for the last few months. Now I have more time as I wait for some reviews of it to come in. It has a connection to traditional China, not always obvious--but more on that later.

First, some thoughts about contemporary China. When you think of how the nation was a disaster and a wreckage after World War II, it is amazing that the country is now on the verge of overtaking the U.S. in some aspects of world leadership, and has already overtaken us in others, like manufacturing. What is amazing is the speed at which this happened. Even Deng Hsiaoping, around 1980, predicted that China would overtake the U.S., but only in 2050. How modest!

That China should be the leading country of the world, however, is not a recent idea, but a very old one, over two thousand years old. They have always called themselves Zhongguo, "The Middle Country," meaning that they are central and all the other countries were ranged around the periphery, tributary nations, or pejoratively, "barbarians." Down to the 18th century, China carried on trade under a fiction, as if it were part of the tribute system. Trade implies some kind of equality between the trading parties, and that the Chinese government could not allow. They explained it this way: all the nations sent their goods to China as "tribute," and of course, in his largess, the Emperor would send "gifts" in return, for the ruler of the Central Kingdom could not be outdone in generosity.

The implications of this grandiose self concept of China have had a powerful influence on Chinese political thinking in recent times and continues to do so today. I'll discuss some examples next blog.
1 like ·   •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on May 22, 2019 17:25 Tags: china, trade-and-tribute, world-leadership

August 23, 2018

China: Where's the beauty?

I first visited mainland China in the late 1980s. The spartan ideals of the Mao era had been discarded by that time and the nation was sailing under a new flag described by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping: to get rich is glorious. I remember how shocked I was to see Christmas trees appearing in the new hotels and stores. Mao and his communist ideals had been overthrown by Santa and his capitalist senarios.
I was doing research at the time on how the ancient moral tradition of China was being passed along in the elementary and middle schools. I'll touch on that subject later, but at the same time I was looking for some of the beautiful cultural objects of old China, if any could be found. It was not easy. Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian temples were mostly still in a sad state of disrepair, although the process of rebuilding had just begun. The old landscape paintings, sculpture, ceramics and fabric art had been banned as decadent. Beijing's old hutongs, the ancient and charming one-story domestic private dwellings of the city, were being torn down rapidly and replaced by multi-story apartment blocks of socialist planning. What hutong neighborhoods remained were a mess--what had been a one-family home was now crammed with many families, dismal shacks now filling what had been spacious courtyards.
I remember riding a train from Beijing to the old summer palaces at Cheng De (now destroyed), northeast of the capital, looking out at dismal villages we passed by, many of them nearly abandoned as able bodied workers had flocked to the big cities to get jobs. Where is the beauty to be found? And then the train passed some prosperous small farms, the fields neatly carved out of the yellow clay, filled with neat rows of cabbages, lettuce, turnips, celery, greens of every sort. Truly a work of art, the farm as a place of beauty, the many shapes of the plots and small fields, the different colors of green, the well tilled and weeded soil, tended by farmers for literally thousands of years and still beautiful, still bearing crops for the people. That is the beauty I saw portrayed in The Good Earth, as the earth responded to the toil and loving care given by farmers like Wang Chung and his cohorts, down through the centuries.
 •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on August 23, 2018 14:04 Tags: beauty, beauty-of-farming, china, housing, hutongs

August 4, 2018

Women in THE GOOD EARTH

No doubt that traditional China was a patriarchical society. Pearl Buck's novel, The GOOD EARTH, documents this clearly, yet shows great sympathy for the plight of women in it. O-Lan is Farmer Wang's first wife, and the author portrays her as hard working, loyal, intuitive, and though slow to speak, sometimes wiser than her husband. In traditional China, women had to leave their birth family and become "daughters" of their husband's father and mother. The only route to domestic power was through giving birth to sons. In Farmer Wang's concubine, Lotus, we see an second route to status and power--turning the heads of men with their beauty and cleverness.

In my novel, THE CALL TO CHINA, I tried to indicate two other ways that women might seek to escape domination by a man and his parents, and both are religious in nature. A women could achieve a position of power and independence by becoming a Buddhist nun, joining a society of women, and rising to whatever level of competence that their personal merits might achieve, such as Abbess Gaoyun. There is also the route to status as portrayed in the character of Guzhi, who is the co-leader along with FourOnes Daoist sect. She has achieved this position because she has the ability to work as a medium between sect members and the spirits.

The character of Mingling intersects with the time when the old patriarchal Confucian order is challenged by Chinese youth of the May Fourth Movement. She is a sort of Chinese Eliza Doolittle, but does not marry her teacher. She is strong and independent, realizing that her teacher is impractical, idealistic and haughty. She goes through life skeptical of institutions, even those like Buddhism and the FourOnes, which have given her support. It was a joy to develop her character in this new world that began about 1920, realizing that if she had been born just twenty years earlier, her life would have had to be completely different.
 •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on August 04, 2018 17:48 Tags: new-freedoms-of-the-1920s, patriarchical-family, women-in-china

July 26, 2018

Contact with "The Good Earth"

Fifty-five years after reading Pearl Buck's THE GOOD EARTH, I have re-read it. I knew it had been very influential as the first encounter I ever had with China when I was just 13 or 14 years old.

I was prepared to be disappointed, but was not. The novel, which received a Pulitzer Prize and was the main factor in Buck's Nobel Prize for Literature, and as a sympathetic look at the traditional peasant/farmer, holds up very well. Buck, a daughter of missionaries who spent much of her first 40 years in China, knew what she was writing about. The other book I read at the time, Lin Yutang's IMPORTANCE OF LIVING, was a kind of anthology of Chinese lit, therefore the reflection of the lives and thoughts of China's elite and privileged class, the male literati or Mandarins as they are called in English. Buck's novel looks at the poor, uneducated and non-privileged class at the bottom of the social order, but whose back-breaking work was the material foundation that made the lives of that tiny elite possible. Even in the 1980s when I went to live in China for the first time, approximately 3/4ths of the population were farmers (a percentage which is now rapidly decreasing) whose lives were played out, as Buck's heroes in her novel, grappling with the hardships of drought and flood, often reduced to eating their seed corn/wheat/rice etc., then eating the bark off of trees, grass and even the earth itself, and sometimes starving to death. Some consider Buck's novel is too "romantic," but she documents all the disastrous possibilities just mentioned as well as the joys of working with the "good earth."


So it is surprising that the Chinese government, sometime during the Great Cultural Revolution period, condemned Buck's writing, although the very mark of Chinese (as opposed to Russian) Communism was the central role of peasant/farmers in the Revolution. Premier Zhou Enlai, it is said, prevented her from getting a visa that would have allowed her to accompany Nixon on his historic visit to China in 1972. Her reputation has gradually improved and in recent years there have been conferences held in China on her work.

Much of the world's "great literature" describes the lives and thoughts of the upper classes. The GOOD EARTH celebrates those at the other end of the social spectrum, perhaps doing for the Chinese what Charles Dickens did for the English in documenting the lives of the underprivileged and penniless of 19th century London.

So I can clearly seen how I was affected by her novel as I wrote my own A CALL TO CHINA, with so much of the focus on life among the underprivileged peasant/farmers of the countryside. I can thank Pearl Buck for creating that interest in me, the feeling that in the rural countryside is the "real China." My next two blogs will describe two other dimensions of her novel which have stayed with me over the many years since I first read it.
 •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on July 26, 2018 13:23 Tags: chinese-peasant-farmers, communism, pearl-buck, the-good-earth

July 16, 2018

Destiny in A Call to China

One of the central themes of the novel is the idea of destiny, Chinese: ming or yuanfen. Some people would take these terms to mean nothing more than luck or chance, others, religiously inclined, would think of them as implying something more, a great force or power that determines the events of our lives, call it God's will, pre-destination, karma, kismet, or the influence of our stars.

In the novel, destiny can refer to a direction or overall pattern of life--as Olivia's growing determination to return to China, or her becoming a Catholic; or to more specific events in her life, such as her meeting with Kaiyuan at the site in Beijing where their old Presbyterian manse is being demolished.

Of course, it is always a matter of how to interpret such things. A non-religious person will likely say that such life trajectories or specific events are simply a matter of chance or coincidence, no reason for their happening need be sought outside the individual involved--her or his DNA, brain capacity, endowments, types of intelligence (mathematical, social, artistic, etc.). A roll of the dice.


A religious or spiritual person will believe that there is some greater power or force that operates in their lives beyond the confines of one's individual boundaries or limitations. The novel suggests such an interpretation of the lives of its main characters--Olivia becomes a Catholic, despite the fact that her mother is inclined toward Buddhism, Victoria is kidnapped by a Chinese sectarian group that is mostly Daoist in its orientation, but is hidden in a Buddhist nunnery because of the dangers posed by Japanese occupation of north China, so that when she does not quite fit in with the sect's plan for her, her Buddhist training helps her adjust. And when she has a kind of enlightenment experience it is Buddhist in nature. In the final scene, when the two sisters finally meet, the earlier events of their lives allow them to come together in a realization of a spiritual family that transcends blood ties.

The call to China, for their father, is his missionary call. For Livia it is her inner urging to return to find her sister, and finally it means the call of both sisters to find in China the unity and belonging they could not find in their blood family.

But when I came up with the title for my novel, I realized that it refers to me as well, my own call to China, which began at age 13 when I read a book called "The Good Earth," by Pearl Buck. At the time I knew nothing about China, nor were my parents interested in it. We moved into a new home and the book was left in it by the previous owner. It made a deep impression on me but I didn't realize it at the time. Some twenty years passed, including seven years in the Franciscan Order, and I can still hear my academic advisor at U. Chicago saying: "you must study religion in a particular culture. Will it be India or China?" Although I was strongly attracted to Hinduism, without knowing exactly why, I replied without hesitation, "China."

Then I began learning the language, the history, the art, the religions of China, passing tests, writing a dissertation, getting a job teaching at UNCCharlotte, and forty years after reading "The Good Earth," my wife and I adopted a Chinese daughter. Maybe that was what it was all about, the real purpose of so much that came before. Then I wrote a novel about it, and now, almost 80 years old, I'm blogging about it! One thing is certain for me. I can't believe that this hole chain of events, is just chance, luck, co-incidence, a roll of the dice.
1 like ·   •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on July 16, 2018 04:39 Tags: china, chinese-culture, destiny

July 9, 2018

Hate China, Love China

"I hate China," said the woman to me across the table at a small dinner party. I had mentioned something about writing a novel about China, and that was her immediate response. An embarrassed silence followed, while various counter arguments to her statement flashed through my mind. Wrong venue for that, I immediately thought, responding instead from my gut: "Well, I love China." Stalemate. I finally asked "Why do you hate China?" and she said "Because it was a Communist country."

I needn't go into the discussion which followed. For me the woman's works brought home an important insight. After my forty plus years of studying about China, its culture, history, religions, politics, art & architecture, I realized that I had never taken a clear look at my own personal feelings about China. Because of the requirements of academic study and discourse, I had never thought about that something inside myself that pushed me to blurt out "I love China."

Many years ago, my wife and I were going round and round about adoption. She was in favor, I was full of doubts. Then, and I don't recall whether this was mine or my wife's idea, the thought of adopting a Chinese child came up, and I knew immediately, without any doubts at all, that this was what we should do. The clouds of indecision blew away and as Quakers say "way opened." Looking back on it I now realize that this sudden conviction came from this same something inside myself.

As I go on with this blog I hope to begin by exploring my love for China, when and how it began, where it led me and how it changed me. Revisiting my experiences, over a forty year career. Occasionally jumping out of the pages of a book, most of the insightful or inspiration moments happened
in Taiwan or China during the three or so years I lived there.

For me there is a mystery to these deep attractions we have in our lives. I hope to explore this in the blogs which follow.
 •  6 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on July 09, 2018 19:06 Tags: china, chinese-culture, destiny

July 4, 2018

Exploring China

I’ve decided to begin this blog because I wrote a novel, A Call to China, which was published ten months ago by IngramElliott Press. Since then I have received many responses and reviews (currently 28 on Amazon and 15 on Goodreads), and many personal communications, email and postal, and at book signings and book club discussions I have attended. These have touched on some of the main issues raised in the novel: religion in general, and specifically in contemporary China; sectarian groups in China, religious experience, pilgrimage, mediums and spirit writing; the position of women in society, both in China and America, explorations of different understandings of the meaning of “family” today; history and myth; politics and the individual.
All of these and other topics have come up at one time or another in discussions and reviews of the book. I would like to explore some of these ideas, and others, in more depth, and that is the reason for this blog. I would very much like to have your opinion and insights into these topics, which are important today, and hope we can develop a dialogue and discussion, between you and me, and among everyone who cares to participate. On my end, I plan to write another entry in a few days on a more personal note, trying to explain my love for China, its people and culture, and some of the remarkable experiences I have had over the years while living in Taiwan and China.
1 like ·   •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on July 04, 2018 12:49 Tags: china, contemporary-religion, fiction