Tag Archives: maura elizabeth cunningham

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The Other Shore: On Virginia Pye’s River of Dust

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Virginia Pye wrote her debut novel, River of Dust, in only 28 days. But as she recently explained during a session that I moderated at the Shanghai International Literary Festival, the book was a hundred years in the making.

Pye’s family has a long history in China. Her grandparents served as missionaries on the dry, dusty North China plain in the early twentieth century, an inhospitable environment that challenged even the staunchest believers in the missionary enterprise. Pye’s grandmother suffered two miscarriages before a daughter was finally born, only to die as a young girl. Reverend Watts O. Pye died a year later, leaving Virginia’s grandmother a widow who remained in China to raise her only surviving child, Lucian. Lucian grew up in the mission compound, then departed for college in the United States. (He would later become a prominent political scientist and leader in China studies.) Her grandmother stayed until she could not stay any longer, reluctantly leaving after Pearl Harbor put the United States at war with Japan.

For decades, Virginia Pye admits, she wanted nothing to do with this family history; a child of the radical 1960s, she distanced herself from her grandparents’ involvement in colonial missionary work. Only when she was cleaning out her father’s papers as he moved to an assisted-living facility did she discover Reverend Pye’s letters and journals, in which he described the stark beauty of rugged North China and his observations of daily life among the Chinese. A self-proclaimed “sucker for a good writer,” Pye found inspiration in these old documents and drew on her grandfather’s lyrical writings to create the setting for River of Dust.

Although River of Dust contains echoes of her grandparents’ lives, and snippets of Reverend Pye’s writing, the book is a work of fiction. Set in 1910, it follows an American couple as they grapple with the challenges of reconciling the ideals of missionary work with the reality of life in North China. Reverend Watson and his young wife, Grace, arrived in China with a clear vision of their role and confidence in the absolute correctness of their worldview. But the kidnapping of their toddler son and their desperate search for him turns the Watsons’ world upside down. Reverend Watson spends more and more time away from the mission compound as other foreigners whisper that he has “gone native,” while Grace, weakened by grief and a risky pregnancy, withdraws further and further into her own interior world.

It’s not a happy story, but Pye tells it skillfully, her complex plot drawing me in so completely that I stayed up far too late one night finishing the book so I wouldn’t fall asleep wondering what happened to the Reverend and Grace. Because she had her grandfather’s words to guide her, Pye has been able to offer a fully formed view of life on the North China plain, one that incorporates both its small beauties and large tragedies.

We find it difficult now to look on the missionary work of a century ago as anything but arrogance, borne out of a conviction that Westerners could “fix” the Chinese by introducing them to Christianity. The missionaries in River of Dust undoubtedly see the world from a high-handed and often condescending perspective. But they also have a deep appreciation, even love, for China and the Chinese in their community. Like Virginia Pye’s own ancestors, her characters question their assumptions about the differences between East and West and find their previously rock-solid convictions on shaky ground.

In many ways, I think Pye could not have written River of Dust if she hadn’t previously rejected, and later become engrossed in, her grandparents’ missionary work in China. If she’d been an uncomplicated supporter — or uncompromising opponent — of her family history, her novel would have been far less nuanced and sensitive. By coming to the story via a circuitous route, however, she enjoyed the benefit of a balanced perspective that lacked any particular ideological agenda. For a story this subtle, a century is not too long to wait.

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Hong Kong, Beyond the Neon Lights

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

I doubt anyone goes to Hong Kong specifically to explore the Ping Shan or Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trails. After all, this former British colony (now a Chinese Special Administrative Region, or SAR) offers visitors a plethora of other attractions: world-class dining, exciting nightlife, a spectacular skyline, and high-end shopping, just to name a few. The two heritage trails, both located in the outlying New Territories section of the SAR, lie far from the center of Hong Kong’s gravity.

I’m not really into shopping or eating fancy meals, and I’ve already done most of the standard Hong Kong tourist items (traveled up to the Peak, visited Chungking Mansions for Indian food, crossed the harbor on the Star Ferry), so when I arrived for a long weekend in the SAR earlier this month, my itinerary was pretty much blank. I wanted to relax, eat good street snacks, and explore Hong Kong beyond the neon lights. The two heritage trails (both listed in the Lonely Planet Hong Kong guidebook) fit the bill perfectly: easily accessible by public transportation, yet still far enough off the beaten path to provide peace and quiet while I soaked in some of the territory’s lesser-known history.

The Ping Shan Heritage Trail is undoubtedly the more popular of the two, and I saw several other foreigners and a couple of organized tour groups during my excursion there on Saturday afternoon. The trail, a little over a kilometer and a half, winds through several old villages that formerly all came under the oversight of the area’s Tang Clan, which settled in Ping Shan around the twelfth century. The trail links together a number of older structures (or rebuilt versions of the same), such as the Tang Ancestral Hall and several temples, that together provide insight into traditional life in a Hong Kong village.

I was even more interested, however, in present-day village life. As I walked along the trail, which leads visitors through small clusters of apartment buildings, little details captured my attention: the vaguely familiar music emanating from a storefront Christian church opposite a temple dedicated to a local god; colorful flowers planted in container gardens outside nearly every apartment; the incense burner attached to someone’s mailbox. The residents of these apartments appeared comfortable with the large number of visitors that the trail had brought to their community, and nearly everyone I encountered smiled or said hello to me (one man added, presumably at random, “Are you from California?”).

I encountered a very different situation the next day when I set off on the much longer, and much less polished, Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail. While the Ping Shan trail had a visitor’s center and numerous signs to guide me from one historic landmark to the next, Lung Yeuk Tau featured only spotty signage, and both the starting and endpoints of the trail were unmarked. (I found the former with the help of Lonely Planet and decided on the latter when I came to a bus stop and saw that the minibus waiting there would take me back to the metro station.) The trail passes by a number of old walled villages and takes the visitor on a pleasant, though not physically taxing, hike along tree-lined roads.

In contrast to the outgoing community of Ping Shan, the Lung Yeuk Tau area seemed reserved, even unfriendly. Few people paid me any heed, and no one made any attempt to speak with me. I was virtually the only person traveling by foot, though people regularly passed me in cars and minibuses on the single-lane roads of the trail. No one mingled on the tiny concrete town squares, while a gleaming new basketball court lay empty and silent. Everywhere I looked, homes were surrounded by fences: three-story apartment buildings were encircled by walls whose tiles matched the homes’ exteriors, while residents of ramshackle single-story dwellings favored chain-link fencing topped with barbed wire. The walled villages of old had given way to the walled houses of today.

But the quiet that hovered over the trail enabled me to hear what was going on behind those walls, and I realized that the area was far from deserted. Someone was cooking, I could tell, by the rhythmic sound of a knife hitting a chopping board; in another building, the plastic clack of mahjong tiles made me wish I could take a seat at the table and join in the game. Television sets offered forth snatches of Cantonese that my Mandarin-speaking brain couldn’t begin to decipher. I usually like to listen to music on my iPod while taking long walks, but I left the device in my bag while hiking the Lung Yeuk Tau trail, focusing instead on the small sounds of daily life around me. I finished the four-kilometer hike feeling grateful for the anonymity and peace that the trail had offered—a rare thing to find in China.

Readers may have noticed that I’ve said comparatively little about the historic sites that are the reason for these two trails’ existence. To be honest, I didn’t find many of the sites particularly interesting; perhaps I’ve been jaded by my time in China, but small temples and ancestral halls are a dime a dozen, and nothing about the ones I saw along the trails stood out in any special way. The real pleasure I found on both of the trails came from the opportunity to wander around the contemporary versions of traditional villages and get a glimpse of life in the New Territories.

Would I recommend that a traveler with a free day or two in Hong Kong consider filling that time with a visit to these trails? Absolutely. The gleaming skyscrapers and bustling streets of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island are exciting; no first-time visitor to the SAR should skip them. It’s just as fascinating, however, to explore the territory’s quieter areas — only a short train ride away, but a world apart, from the neon lights of central Hong Kong.

Further reading: Since the 1960s, anthropologists James L. Watson and Rubie S. Watson have conducted research in the New Territories village of Yuen Long, which is similar to the towns I visited along the heritage trails. Many of their articles about the region have been compiled in Village Life in Hong Kong: Politics, Gender and Ritual in the New Territories.

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Troubled Waters

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

On a recent visit to Beijing, I spent a few hours one Saturday afternoon wandering the grounds of Yiheyuan, or Summer Palace, in the city’s northwest. The “palace” — generally called the “New Summer Palace” to differentiate it from an earlier one that foreign armies destroyed in 1860 — is not a European-style royal complex, with one massive central building anchoring the site. Rather, the grounds are sprawling and dotted with small pavilions where the emperor would relax in the company of his family and friends. Kunming Lake serves as the center of gravity in the garden, inviting visitors to sit and contemplate its depths or venture out in one of the boats available for rental.

I, as always, wound up at the lake’s oddest feature: a marble paddleboat permanently “docked” along the northern shoreline. The Marble Boat is a legacy of the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908), one of the most reviled characters in modern Chinese history. Cixi entered the imperial household as a concubine before rising to serve as co-regent for her young son upon the Xianfeng Emperor’s death in 1861; when her son died in the mid-1870s, she installed her toddler nephew on the throne, assuring herself another regency period. Cixi, therefore, was de facto ruler of China for almost all of the latter half of the nineteenth century, an era when the country faced unprecedented foreign threats and mostly failed to handle them. Even before her death, which would come only three years before the Qing Dynasty fell, Cixi found herself the object of blame for the country’s troubles.

The Marble Boat has long served as shorthand for all that was wrong with Cixi’s rule. A scenic spot for small parties, it was constructed with funds intended for the imperial navy, which Cixi convinced her nephew’s father to divert to the Summer Palace project. Cixi hoped that the palace would be completed in time for her sixtieth birthday in 1894. The celebration had to be canceled, however, when China became entangled in a war with Japan that year — a war that China would lose, in part, because the Japanese were the superior naval power.

It makes for a good story: “We needed a navy, and all we got was this marble boat.” But it’s a simplistic narrative that draws Cixi as a one-dimensional Dragon Lady, a demonic figure who seized power and then didn’t know how to wield it. Further contributing to this sinister vision of Cixi is her allegedly insatiable sexual appetite, rumors of which were spread by Sir Edmund Backhouse, a British con man who claimed to have had an X-rated affair with the empress (recounted in a lurid memoir not published until 2011, Decadence Mandchoue, though his stories circulated earlier).

Make no mistake: Cixi was certainly a ruthless politician, and it’s possible that she played a role in her nephew’s death, which preceded her own by a day (in 2008, forensic scientists found that he died of arsenic poisoning). But over the past century, Cixi’s reputation has been so blurred by a film of “Confucian chauvinism and Orientalist aspersion,” as Orville Schell and John Delury aptly put it in their new book, Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century, that few inside or outside of China have recognized her efforts to right the country’s course, halting and incomplete as they were.

Cixi is the only female figure that Schell and Delury spotlight in their book, each chapter of which is a capsule biography of a personage who sought to further China’s pursuit of wealth and power between the early nineteenth century and today. The pair present an evenhanded assessment of her rule, pointing out that while Cixi failed to sponsor a massive overhaul of the Chinese government similar to the Meiji Restoration in Japan—which might have helped steer China through the rough waters of the late 19th century—she did approve smaller reform projects and was far from the knee-jerk conservative that her detractors, both past and present, have claimed. Cixi’s biggest shortcoming, Schell and Delury suggest, was not a blindness to China’s struggles in a changing world, but a lack of decisiveness concerning how best to address them.

Schell and Delury make a solid, if cautious, case for rehabilitating Cixi, but their chapter on the empress dowager will likely be overshadowed by China-born but longtime Britain-based author Jung Chang’s just-released biography, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China (which I have not yet read). Chang, author of the mega-bestselling Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China and co-author of a controversial biography of Mao Zedong published in 2005, promises readers a complete reassessment of Cixi, one that emphasizes the empress’s forward-thinking, outward-looking moments. She speaks of Cixi as a champion of women’s liberation and China’s modernization, and absolves the dowager empress of guilt for all her alleged sins, including her nephew’s death.

It is surely past time for new insight into Cixi, to look beyond the Dragon Lady archetype and consider her years in power with a fresh eye. But to give her credit for “launching” modern China seems to me a step too far. Popular opinion might have allotted Cixi a disproportionate amount of blame for the Qing Dynasty’s fall, but she does deserve at least some of it. Though she tried to navigate China through the turbulence of the late 19th century, Cixi’s efforts were hindered by her blind spots and hesitations, as well as her desire for personal glory and love of luxury. The Marble Boat’s presence in the New Summer Palace stands as an all-too-real reminder of Cixi’s shortcomings and Marie Antoinette-like episodes.

In interviews linked to her new book, Jung Chang makes clear that she wants us to see Cixi as a fearless seafarer, heroically leading China as the country embarked on an epic journey. Schell and Delury favor the view that I also support: of Cixi as a nervous sailor, curious about what lies beyond the horizon but unable to shake the conviction that in the end, she and her country would be safer if they remained at port.