Sunday, January 25, 2015

7 continents reading journey, part 1: China (+winter)

Reading this week: the first books for the "7 Continents, 7 Billion People, 7 Books Challenge", and the story of a winter journey on foot:

"A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" by Yiyun Li
My 7-continents reading journey around the world is starting in China, the country that ranks highest in the list of countries by population. About 1,37 billion people live in China, that's about 19% of the world population. (In comparison, the current population of Europe with all its countries is 742 million people, about 11% of the world population.)

But numbers don't really tell too much about the daily life in a country, and it was interesting already to go looking for books from China. In 2012, when Chinese author Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, I read one of his book "Red Sorghum", a book with multiple timelines that reach back to the time when Japan invaded China. The red in the title refers both to the Communist party, and to all the blood that was shed. (more here: book fair days),

For the 7 continents, I looked for a more contemporary read - and found it in "A Thousand Years of Good Prayer". Here's the book summary from the Guardian book list "Best books on China":
"Li's prizewinning debut collection of 10 stories delves into the lives of everyday Chinese – both at home and in the US – struggling to cope with a fast-changing, new China." (more: Guardian list book list: The best books on China)
It's not a thick book, but it is a moving read, with every story conveying a different angle. One thing that becomes clear when reading through it: there are countless layers to China and the steps the country has gone through in the recent past, with Mao and his communism campaigns, and then the opening to communist-capitalism, the one-child-laws, and the student protests.

The most touching part of the book is the afterword by Yiyun Li, with her reflections on growing up in China, from the days of kindergarden and school, the witnessing of executions, and the time after the Tiananmen Square drama. Yiyun Li was a student in Peking at that time, and like many others, had to spent time in a military camp afterwards:
"It was the winter of 1991, and I was one of the freshmen of Peking University in the middle of a one-year brainwashing in a military camp in central China. The Harvard of China, as the university advertised itself, Peking University had been the hotbed of every student movement in Chinese history, including the one in 1989 in Tiananmen Square that ended in bloodshed. For the next four years, to immunize the incoming students to the disease that was called freedom, all freshmen were sent to the military for a year of brainwashing, or political reeducation, as it was called..."
You can read the whole afterword/essay online: "What has that to do with me?"


"Wor(l)ds Apart" by Smitha Murthy and Dorothee Lang
Yiyun Li's stories and notes on life in China made me start to re-read "Wor(l)ds Apart", the book I wrote together with Smitha Murthy. The book, it started when Smitha was in China as a teacher, and I just had returned from India - and we happened to get into mail contact. "How is China? How does it feel to live there?" I asked in one of the first mails. And was amazed when she wrote back with notes from her journey. I still am stunned by the coincidence that brought this contact, and by the exchange of travel moments and stories it inspired. Below, the start of Smitha's journey notes. For more about the book, try these two links: the book page + the goodreads page: Worlds Apart.
"Bound by some hopes and spurred by some dreams – that’s how I arrived here in China. The earliest memory of China is of Beijing. Landing in Beijing, the first thing that strikes… having never travelled outside India is that the land smells different! Strange but true. The air has a different feel to it and the people… you realize that you are surrounded by people who don’t seem to be like you at all. People whom you realize only later are just the same… just like you. 
And the second thing that strikes you is the language. I hear sounds of a language unlike anything I have ever heard. I assume immediately, considering how difficult it was to carry on a normal conversation with even an average English speaker, that I would hardly be able to make friends here. How wrong I would be!..." 
Reading those pages also made me think that the things that remain are the things that feel fleeting: Journeys. Encounters. Words.

Revisiting books, that's also something I want to do more often this year, together with reading more globally. Yes, there are so many new books - but then, it's also a joy to revisit books and stories, and to see how reading them again feels different, and also brings back memories of the first reading, and the place / circumstances of that.


"Germany, a Winter Journey" by Willi Winkler
In contrast / combination to the world books, I read the hike memoir from Willi Winkler, a German journalist who walked from Hamburg in the North of Germany to a town in Bavaria, in the South of Germany.
The thing that made his walk special: he walked in winter time, and followed the suggestions of his navigation guide. So he didn't take the most scenic route, but walked along all kind of roads and trails. Which lead to seeing the everyday-Germany, not the touristic / fancy one, not the most interesting cities and their attractions, but the usual small towns, villages, common roads, industrial areas, and the small suprises and encounters they hold. All this is accompanied by short reflections on life in Germany in these days.

A thoughtful, humorous and reflective read, and a reminder that most people in a country live in the not-wellknown places, and that the scenic tourist images you arrive at when you google "Germany winter" don't really show the way this season looks like in this country.


Global Reading Challenge 2015 + Currently Reading:

For 2015, I try to read books / authors from different countries, the idea is to visit all continents. If you want to, join the reading challenge: 7 Continents, 7 Billion People, 7 Books - or just join the international facebook reading group.

In the previous book post, I put together some reading statistics and book memories of 2014 - so if you are into geeky reading statistics, try this link: A year in reading in geek statistics +  book memories

For more reading notes, click here: life as a journey with books. A reading list by regions is online at: World Reads by country

No comments: