Book Review: Iron and Silk by Mark Salzman


Author: Mark Salzman
Title: Iron & Silk
Narrator: Barry Carl
Publication Info: Recorded Books, Inc, 1987
Other Books Read by the Same Author: Lying Awake, The Soloist, Lost In Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia, and The Laughing Sutra
Summary/Review:

When I was in high school, Mark Salzman came to speak to members of the National Honors Society (his father worked in development for my school).  I was not a member of the National Honors Society (long story – still bitter), but my English teacher had been at our talk and said he was “wonderful,” and that we should all go down and crash the NHS meeting instead of having English teacher.

I remember entering the library as Salzman was telling an animated story about astronauts that involved him walking across the top of a table.  I enjoyed his stories and his positivie attitude about embracing life, so I got a copy of his memoir Iron & Silk.  It soon became one of my favorite books and for many years I read each new Salzman book as it came out.  Since I’m trying revisit books on my list of Favorite Books of All Time, I figured it was due for a reread.

Mark Salzman grew up in suburban Connecticut and at a young age was drawn to kung fu (more properly termed “wushu”) and from there a more general interest in Chinese culture and language.  Earning a degree in Chinese studies from Yale, Salzman travelled to China in the early 1980s to work as an English teacher for two years at Changsha Medical University. This was at a time when China had been shut off from the United States for decades, so Salzman was among the first Americans to get a taste of everyday life in China.

Much of the book is about the cultural exchange among Salzman and his students and the other faculty.  There are many humorous stories of the differences of expectations in a classroom setting and the different understandings of history from Chinese and Western backgrounds.  Salzman becomes something of a local celebrity for being a tall, blond man who can speak fluent Chinese.  Some of the warmest parts of this book involved a fisherman Salzman meets who is amazed by the foreigner in his midst and basically welcomes him into the family.

Salzman also takes the opportunity to study his own interests including learning Chinese dialects and calligraphy.  The core of the book, though, focuses on the martial arts, as Salzman receives instruction from two different wushu masters whose different styles are the metaphor in the title of the book, iron and silk.  The “iron” teacher was Pan Qingfu, a legendary grandmaster who starred in Shaolin Temple, China’s first blockbuster film released in 1982.

Rereading this as an adult, I’m more aware of the gravity of the stories Salzman’s acquaintances tell of World War II and the Cultural Revolution.  I also notice when Salzman’s biases creep in.  But by and large, this is still the same charming, humorous, and inspiring book I remember reading as a teenager, albeit now it seems more of a relic of the 1980s than current.  I remember also seeing a movie adaptation of this book that somehow included a romance that doesn’t exist in the books, and wasn’t very good, even though Salzman and Pan Qingfu.  So read the book, ignore the movie.

Recommended books: The Silent Traveller in Boston by Chiang Yee, The Roads to Sata by Alan Booth, and An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie
Rating: ****1/2

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