Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Iron & Silk” as Want to Read:
Iron &  Silk
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

Iron & Silk

3.96  ·  Rating details ·  3,302 ratings  ·  244 reviews
Salzman captures post-cultural revolution China through his adventures as a young American English teacher in China and his shifu-tudi (master-student) relationship with China's foremost martial arts teacher.

In 1982, Salzman flew off to teach English in Changsha, China. He writes of bureaucrats, students and Cultural Revolution survivors, stripping none of their complexity
Paperback, 224 pages
Published October 12th 1987 by Vintage (first published 1986)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 3.96  · 
Rating details
 ·  3,302 ratings  ·  244 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of Iron & Silk
mark monday
Oct 21, 2010 rated it it was ok
Shelves: he-said-she-said
Salzman is a sweet guy, there's no doubt about it. his tales of his time in china are direct, cleanly written, and rooted in a clear love of the world around him and the people in it. he manages to effortlessly sidestep any potential landmines in terms of race, culture, or class simply by being himself - a warm, unpretentious and rather unsophisticated sweetheart. and Iron & Silk is a great mouthwash after reading the sour musings of the irritable and irritating Paul Theroux. but despite all of ...more
Book Concierge
From the back cover: The much-acclaimed adventures of a young martial arts master in China “take the form of a series of lightly sketched-in episodes; almost without exception, they produce the gulp of feeling you might get from an unusually fine short story, and they reverberate long after you have put them down.” (The New York Times)

My thoughts:
Salzman had been interested in China since the age of thirteen, when he’d first seen the television movie Kung Fu. He had studied kung fu, Chinese art
Jul 05, 2007 rated it really liked it
Before there was Peter Hessler, there was Mark Salzman. This first book of his, Iron and Silk, a memoir of time spent in China, was totally charming. Excellent writing, a keen eye, and a sly, self-deprecating sense of humor marked Salzman as a writer to watch.

His subsequent writing career has been unorthodox, but interesting. I've not read all of his work, but the two subsequent books of his that I did read - Lying Awake and The Soloist – confirmed him as someone worth keeping up with. “True No
Feb 23, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Salzman became infatuated with Chinese culture, after watching the television series “Kung Fu”, at age thirteen. He received college degrees from Yale, in both Chinese language and Chinese literature.
In the early 80s, he lands a job, in Changsha, China, teaching English to students and teachers at Hunan Medical College. This wonderful memoir, covers his time there. He studies martial arts & calligraphy, with various instructors, which is all fascinating but in these beautiful episodic tales, his
Nov 09, 2009 rated it really liked it
I picked this book up because I saw Mark Salzman in the documentary, "Protagonist". I was fascinated with what he had to say about his life and about martial arts, and drawn in by his apparent excitement and zest for life.

I enjoyed the writing style, which was straightforward and easy to follow - it didn't get in the way of the story. I also really enjoyed the gentle humor found in the clash of the East/West cultures. There was a lot of talk about various styles of martial arts, which I found f
Oct 13, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir, travel, asianness
A wonderfully entertaining travel memoir, consisting of anecdotes from author's 1982 stint teaching English in China. I liked it a lot. Favorite parts, when students were describing their happiest moments, martial arts training.

It did strike me how so much of the stories are distancing, framed so that the Chinese are quaint little characters, summed up with some incident or phrase that illuminates yet conceals. The majority of the Chinese individuals that Salzman describes come across as wonder
Jun 09, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I actually just re-read this. Read it like 10 years ago (before becoming involved in martial arts or chinese culture, or travelling to china (or anywhere)) but I enjoyed it then. This time, having become sort of ensconsed in those things, I enjoyed very very much.

Definitely gets inside the duel-natured chinese character in a light hearted and really cool/informative way (a series of short non-fiction stories). Recommended for anyone interested in how chinese culture is different from american cu
Kaethe Douglas
Jul 14, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
I really like Salzman, ever since The Laughing Sutra, which I think no one but me ever read. He's kind of a goofball, so his travel memoir is very generous toward others, and somewhat self-mocking. He amuses me and seems like someone you'd enjoy hanging out with, because, in fine obsessive form, he's done some really cool things in his life, just because he wanted to. ...more
Stephen Gallup
Feb 01, 2012 rated it really liked it
I'd been under the impression of already having read this one, along with practically everything else Salzman has written. I picked it up the other day only because all the books now in my queue are in the Kindle, and I have to share that gadget with another avid reader in the family. It turns out I'd only seen the video for Iron and Silk.

Since Salzman had a hand in making the movie (and played himself), the two versions of the story of his two years in China are probably equally valid. I think
Debbie Zapata
Sep 13, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: saturdaymx
This is the second book by Mark Salzman that I have read. The first was Lying Awake and that lovely book inspired me to search out more of Salzman's works. Iron & Silk was the first book he wrote, telling of the two years he spent in China teaching English in the early 80's.

Salzman has a wonderful way of describing the people he meets. They become as real to the reader as they were to the author. He is honest about his reactions to the country, and he shares his adventures
as a martial arts stude
Jul 24, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This memoir of the two years Salzman spent teaching English in China quietly wins you over. It's a series of anecdotes introducing you to a wide range of Chinese people, from the powerful to the poor, the obstinate to the kind, the proud to the humble. Many of the tales show Salzman's characteristic ear for humor. What I liked best? I felt like I understood the culture of the Chinese people better after reading it. They are incredibly different from Americans and yet... the ties that bind. Human ...more
Aug 24, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: east-asia, i-own
Save yourself some trouble and read River Town: Two Years on the Yangtzeinstead. Iron and Silk is essentially a watered-down, less intellectual version of Hessler's classic read on China's recovery post 1978 yet not post-Mao. It's not a horrible book, but it wanes in comparison to River Town. Essentially, the only unique quality that Mark Salzman brings is his experience with gong fu and marsial arts. Additionally, some of the Mandarin and cultural aspects citied in the book are very localized t ...more
Oct 21, 2009 rated it really liked it
Surprisingly lovely and personal vignettes. I was really tempted to resent this author, at whose feet all of 1980s China seemed to fall on account of his white skin and youthful charm. But it's sort of impossible not to be won over... a fearlessly social soul armed with a sense of humor and a lifelong dedication to Chinese martial arts / language, Salzman comfortably slips into all the crannies of a very closed society. Beautiful, honest writing about the intensity and absurdity of living abroad ...more
Oct 16, 2007 added it
damn! the guy speaks Chinese, does kick-ass gong fu (sic) AND can write?

dated but in an interesting, pre-boom China way
need to read some new travel writing to compare
very funny, concise, well-written. a quick, satisfying read.
Kerstin Rosero
Dec 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book was a quick read that made me laugh and want to know more with each page. There were no unnecessary descriptions (“info dumps”), no long-winded attempted summaries of cultural history (which often precedes a culture-based memoir)—the reader starts right in the middle of Salzman’s misadventure on a train and gets sucked into his story from the start. Instead of a history/culture lecture, the author weaves bits and pieces of info into the story, which makes it run smoothly.

I see where a
Dan Redford
Jan 22, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
As someone that spent 7 years living in China, I really enjoyed this book as it was very relatable. Mark and my time in China was separated by almost 30 years. It was very interesting to read about what it was like to live as a foreigner in China in the 1980s when few Americans were living there.

I took note at many of the similar interactions with Chinese people that I often had. So much has changed in China over the last 30 years, and yet, there are some pervasive attitudes and ways of doing th
I have known of this story since I was a child; I remember watching the movie version. That was years before Grandmaster Pan emigrated to Canada, and years before my sister became one of his martial arts students. While I wasn't as scared as Mr. Salzman, Grandmaster Pan was still an intimidating, yet charming and gregarious presence when I first met him. He talked to me about the book, the filming of the movie ("Who else could play me but myself?"), and the premiere (he kept the hat he wore in t ...more
Christy Joy
Apr 08, 2019 rated it liked it
Reading this after Peter Hessler's "RiverTown" made an interesting contrast. In many ways "Iron and Silk" is an easier read: there's less description and the narrative anecdotes are shorter and more punchy. It's also hilarious at parts: I laughed out loud at his matter of fact description of the ridiculous situations he finds himself in. Salzman also learns different forms of WuShu (martial arts) from a variety of teachers and his descriptions of his training are fascinating, and offer a window ...more
Jenny K
Feb 23, 2021 rated it it was amazing
This is what a book can do! What a lovely window into a point of time in a particular place in the world so different from where the reader is. This is Changsha (Hunan) in the early 1980's, a whole 40 years ago. As someone who has been to China twice, in 1995 and then in 2009, I have seen just how fast it has changed; I am sure this Changsha is long gone, just as I saw very little of 1995 in 2009, and I'm sure if I were to go back now, what I saw in 2009 would be long paved over, and with everyo ...more
Michael W.
Mar 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
An autobiography about a twenty two year old and his two years in the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) He was learning Wu-zhu. The Chinese martial art. The portraits of the Chinese he meets are clear and crisp. He was frustrated with the P.R.C. bureaucracy and China’s misperceptions of the West. Still, he showed great affection for most of the individuals he described. He appreciated their struggles dealing with the rigid systems of the P.R.C. and the difficulties of daily life there. The mar ...more
Paula Rothman
May 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is a fascinating and artfully written book. Though tiny, the book is immediately absorbing. Captivated by martial arts in his childhood, Salzman is a thoughtful and very funny guy. His humility and integrity despite his accomplishments are profound.

A Yale graduate, with unusual martial arts credentials, in his early 20s, he lives an austere and focused life embarking on a Yale teaching commitment for 2 yrs. to rural China. The clash of cultures and the amazing human episodes he encounters
Jul 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
I loved this book, mostly for its subject matter and its sensitivity to cross-cultural issues. Plus it's also the story of a personal journey, and one man hitting his own limits.

The book reflects China at a time when it was much more cut off from the world; I'm sure it's quite different now. He's aware that as a blond male, he attracts an unusual level of attention in a sheltered society.

If people complain that this book misrepresented China, I just want to say: I have relatives from China and
Courtney (courtney & books)
Something about this book rubbed me the wrong way. It was a quick little book, and I found it interesting. But I've never been really into memoirs. And, for me, it's just odd reading about a white guy who is slightly criticizing and appropriating another culture ( although I'm sure I'm just as guilty as he is in doing so). This book also has a lot more telling of events then showing; the episodes also don't seem to be linear but rather similar events are grouped together, which I found weird. I ...more
Sarah Rigg
Nov 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
This memoir of an American teaching English in China in the 80s is probably what he's best known for, but I actually read two of his other books first - "True Notebooks," which is about him teaching creative writing to juvenile inmates, and "Lying Awake" a novel about a nun who questions whether she is truly divinely inspired when she finds out her "visions" may be the result of a brain tumor. I really liked this memoir a lot. It doesn't have a strong narrative arc and is more a collection of sh ...more
May 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
(1986) As a new graduate from Yale in 1982, Salzman headed to China to teach English at a medical college. In the midst of Communist rule (& rules), he experiences the culture and more. Salzman seeks out martial arts teachers, a calligraphy teacher, and shares in short vignettes so many of his experiences. It is a wonderful set of stories about his experiences in this country at a time it was very closed to the western world.
Jul 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
I just finished rereading Iron and Silk and, if possible, enjoyed it even more than the first time. It's the story of Mark Salzman's 2 years in China, teaching English and learning martial arts. I found myself laughing out loud in places. Salzman meets a panoply of characters who leave him changed forever by his experience. This book is for anyone who is interested in China, in wushu (martial arts), or travel. It's a good companion to American Shaolin, which I also enjoyed tremendously. ...more
Dec 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
Some amusing anecdotes from a guy who taught English and learned martial arts in China in the 80s.

I didn't have any major issue with this book specifically, but since it's the second book in a row I've read on the theme of "white people explain foreign countries" I need to switch genres for a while...
Audrey Malachowsky
May 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
Enjoyed this fast read. Snapshot of the experience teaching English in China over thirty years ago, from the perspective of a passionate marshal arts student. Loved his immersion into the culture, rather than observing from a distance.
Erik Surber
Apr 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is a great essay about a med student with a passion for martial arts living and working in China. I loved learning about the modern-ish Chinese culture and all the great martial arts the author had been fortunate enough to experience.
Sep 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The storytelling was probably closer to a 4 than a 5 for me, as it did get somewhat tedious and repetitive by the end...but the unique look at Chinese culture during that time period made up for it. Really fascinating.
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 next »
topics  posts  views  last activity   
What's the Name o...: Movie help! American goes to China, learns Wushu 51 530 Mar 14, 2016 06:40PM  

Readers also enjoyed

  • In Xanadu: A Quest
  • On the Rez
  • Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present
  • Heir Apparent (Rasmussem Corporation, #2)
  • From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet
  • Miles from Nowhere
  • Hunting Mister Heartbreak: A Discovery of America
  • Coasting: A Private Voyage
  • Notes from The Century Before: A Journal from British Columbia
  • Travels in Alaska
  • Pictures from the Water Trade: The Extraodinarily Evocative, at Times Erotic, Story of a Westerner's Discovery of Japan
  • Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings
  • Bad Land: An American Romance
  • I See by My Outfit
  • The Roads to Sata: A 2000-Mile Walk Through Japan
  • News From Tartary
  • A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf
  • Going to Extremes
See similar books…
Mark Salzman is an award-winning novelist and nonfiction author who has written on a variety of subjects, from a graceful novel about a Carmelite nun’s ecstatic visions and crisis of faith to a compelling memoir about growing up a misfit in a Connecticut suburb – clearly displaying a range that transcends genre. As a boy, all Salzman ever wanted was to be a Kung Fu master, but it was his proficien ...more

Related Articles

Happy Women's History Month! One of the undisputedly good things about modern scholarship is that women’s history is finally getting its due....
117 likes · 20 comments
No trivia or quizzes yet. Add some now »
“Every moment a beginning. Every moment an end.” 3 likes
“This book," he began, "is very, very unsuitable." He paused, then went on. "In fact, in my whole life, I have never read or even imagined something so unsuitable." Here he stopped, still staring at me. He held the book up slightly and pointed at it with his chin. "May I keep it?” 1 likes
More quotes…