Back in the dead of a New York winter, when I was obsessed with stocking my brand-new Nook  to carry me through five months with no English bookstore, I decided to take full advantage of the “thousands of free e-books” Barnes & Noble advertised. Generous going-away gift cards financed a virtual stack of new books I wanted to read, and I have to admit I’ve mostly indulged in those  — not Balzac’s “Cousin Betty” nor Scott’s “Rob Roy”; not a half-dozen Trollopes ; not the three classics that came with the Nook , “Pride and Prejudice” (hugely popular here, thanks to the Keira Knightley movie), “Dracula” and “Little Women”; and certainly not “War and Peace,” which I loaded just to be safe. Only two free e-books came up when I did a search for “Hunan” – a clue to how remote from Western consciousness this province remains — and I read both during the semester.

              They are missionary tracts, mostly chronicling the 19th century.  “Pioneer Work in Hunan,” credited to Marshall Broomhall and dated 1906, was digitized from a copy in the University of Michigan Libraries. The other, titled simply “China,” by Robert K. Douglas, was published by the Society for  Promoting Christian Knowledge in 1887 and came from the “Harvard College Library,” as a stamp on one page says. To me, following the missionaries’ footsteps into a 21st-century China that seems to worship glitz and neon, they indicated not how much has changed, but how much has stayed the same.

                “For years,” Broomhall writes, Hunan province “has been the closed citadel of a closed land . . . Here have centered Chinese conservatism and antipathy  to all things foreign. . . . Long after the other parts of China were thrown open to the missionary and trader, the Hunanese continued to boast that no foreigner dared attempt to enter their province.” Today’s “missionaries” are people like me, who have come to China to evangelize skills like English, or do business. (There is at least one bona fide  Christian missionary among our foreign teachers.) We do not impose ourselves on the Chinese, but  rather were recruited to come here – which may help explain why the Hunanese have stopped attacking and killing us. Broomhall records a number of such instances; in one, a missionary was about to be attacked, “had it not been for a perfect deluge of tropical rain which came on at that moment and scattered the crowd.” Yes, that’s Hunan.

                The book quotes extensively from the diaries of Adam Dorward, its missionary hero.  “Our progress in Hunan is certainly slow and at times trying to one’s patience,” Dorward wrote, “yet I hope we are making some real advance.”  He was talking promoting the Gospel, but many times this semester I have felt much the same about English. A later entry ads, “The undertaking was not to be an easy one, and as the weeks and months rolled on the strain became more and more severe.” The missionaries couldn’t even escape to, say, Wuhan on the high-speed train and check into a five-star hotel for a weekend.

                Dorward reports on a colleague’s entry into Changsha, “which city, up to that time, had not been entered by any foreigner.” He had come from “Siang-tan,” then long a morning’s boat ride away, now an hour from the bus station next to the spa. “You would indeed have been much amused if you had seen the consternation the officials were in at the thought  of a real foreigner getting inside the city. . . . They plied us with all kinds of questions as to how we came, which gate we had entered, etc., etc.” Much like the students I’ve met on the Changsha bus, who want to know everything about my experiences in China.

                Another passage records a journey to a part of Hunan where there was no inn and, indeed, no village;  a farmer agreed to put up the missionaries for the night. “As beggars must take what they can get, we had to be satisfied with some straw spread on the clay floor in place of a bed. We had no bedding with which to cover ourselves, nor had the people any to lend us, but we kept on our clothes, and a man in the house lent us his wadded gown to us as a coverlet, so that we passed the night with thankful  hearts, and rose somewhat refreshed in the morning.”  It reminded me of those cold winter nights on my hard platform bed covered with just a couple of pads, and even more of the one when I spent  on the living room floor directly in front of the heater because the bedroom was just too cold to sleep.

                Douglas’s “China” comments on the broader Chinese culture. The “wadded gown” in Broomhall’s narrative was echoed in Douglas’s description of Chinese attire, specifically in the colder months: “The main dependence of the Chinese for personal warmth is on clothes. As the winter approaches, garment is added to garment, and furs to quilted vestments, until the wearer assumes an unwieldy and exaggerated shape.” Just like my students back in cold, rainy March and April, coming from their unheated dorms to their unheated classrooms bundled in layer upon layer, and constantly advising me, “You should wear more clothes!” When spring arrived and they finally shed the layers, I was amazed at how slender and shapely nearly all of them were, even the round-faced ones.

                “Traveling in China is slow and leisurely,” Douglas writes. “Time is of little or no object to the fortunate inhabitants of that country, who are content to be carried for long distances by cart, boat, sedan-chair, or on horseback without the least troubling themselves about the pace at which they journey.” The Chinese still have a different concept of time than we do; they tend to live in the moment, as opposed to forever looking ahead. Even on the high-speed trains, they board when called and seem to ask very few questions about arrival times or punctuality. We get there when we get there.

                The exam mentality and the rote learning that drive the Chinese educational system (and sometimes drive foreign teachers to distraction) are deeply ingrained in the culture, according to Douglas. He writes of the five books of literature that, in the 19th century, formed the basis of the system. “This course of instruction has been exactly followed in every school in the empire for many centuries, and the result is that there are annually turned out a vast number of lads all cast in the same mold, all possessed of a certain amount of ready-made knowledge, and with their memory unduly exercised at the expense of their thinking powers.” That may explain why most of my postgrads came to their oral finals armed with material prepared instead of being ready to converse, and why students so rarely offer an opinion on any subject, other than wearing more clothes.

                Later Douglas tackles the highly formatted exams themselves:  “It is by essays that the degrees are mainly determined at the competitive examinations . . .  According to the cut-and-dried model upon which every essay should be framed, the writer, after stating his theme, give a short ‘analysis’ of it, and then an ‘amplification’ in general terms. Next follow an ‘explanation’ with a postscript, the ‘first argument,’ a reassertion of the theme, the ‘second argument,’ and the ‘third argument.’ . . .The inexorable laws of essay-writing, confirmed by centuries of habit, have made their outward observances indispensible; and a competitor at an examination would as soon dream of throwing doubt on the wisdom of Confucius as of disregarding them.” So many oral presentations I heard this semester were  organized in just that way: “Firstly . . . secondly . . thirdly . . .”  (Similarly, he writes of Chinese painting: “The graceful bamboo sketches which appear to be traced with such individual freedom, the birds, the trees, the picturesque landscapes, etc., all of which seem to be the result of inspiration, are, after all, drawn according to fixed rules and after long-continued practice from authorized models.”)

                Few visitors to China can stop themselves from commenting on the food. (Red, hot chili peppers, March 6; Sichuan food: the motherlode, April 7.) It was true in Douglas’s time, and it’s true today: “To begin with, the staff of life in China is rice. It is eaten and always eaten, from north to south and from east to west . . .  the big bowl of rice forms the staple of the meals eaten by the people, and is accompanied by vegetables, fish, or meat, according to the circumstances of the household.” It’s still common to be asked after a meal, “How many bowls of rice did you eat?” Rice is assumed to be the centerpiece of any meal, whereas a bowl a day is probably enough for most Westerners. 

                “Frogs form a common dish among poor people,” Douglas continues, “and are, it is needless to say, very good eating. They are caught with a rod and a line.” It’s just a few weeks since I saw a young man at the pond with the pavilion on North Campus, where you can sit and listen to the frogs, with his lines and small nets. And once sentence took me back 25 years to the day I broke the news to my father I was going to a newly opened China. He paused to think about that, then said, “You know, they eat the goddamn rats over there.”  (Anyone who knew my father could just hear him saying that.) I answered rather stiffly that I did not intend to eat any rats, but Douglas confirms that he was right: “In Canton, for example, dried rats have a place in the poulterer’s shop, and find a ready market.” So I guess the old man was right. As I write this, I’m in Canton, now Guangzhou, but I’m not going looking.

                Douglas addresses criminal justice: for nonviolent crimes, “punishments of a comparatively light nature are inflicted, such as wearing of the wooden collar, known among Europeans as the canque, and piercing the ears with arrows, to the ends of which are attached slips of paper on which are inscribed the crime of which the culprit has been guilty. Frequently the criminals, bearing these signs of their disgrace, are paraded up and down the streets where their offenses were committed, and sometimes, in the most serious cases, they are flogged through the leading thoroughfares of the city, preceded by a herald, who announced their misdemeanours.” Which sounds a lot like scenes I’ve seen in movies of intellectuals and other alleged counterrevolutionaries being paraded in dunce caps during the Cultural Revolution.

                He also writes of the Chinese language and the challenges it presents to foreigners, specifically its four tones, “which add so greatly to the difficulty of learning to speak Chinese.” That hasn’t changed, as my Chinese teacher can verify. Conversely, I can’t help wondering if the women in a photo in the Broomhall book — “Mrs. Keller and Her Class in English” – had the same problems with the rhythms of English as my students do.  It takes a moment to pick out Mrs. Keller, dressed in a Chinese gown, from the five Chinese ladies in her class. It might take a moment, too, to pick me out of the crowd in my end-of-semester class pictures, since we’re all dressed pretty much alike – not in Chinese gowns, but in Western casual wear. In the 21st century, consumerism seems to be the new gospel.

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