Pretty Woman Spitting By Leanna Adams – A Book Review

First – HEY, MY INTERNET WORKS! So I have a couple of old posts that I’m just gonna put right here right now…hope you like them. My work these days frequently brings me to Chengdu where I get to stay in fancy hotels with uncensored internet. I know, I know…you’re very impressed at how fancy I am. Seriously though, I’m pretty fancy, but moving on. I hope this means I can get back to trying to post a little more regularly. Now, on to the book review!

I would have never read this book except that a friend gifted it to me on the Kindle store. I would have lost interest in it immediately upon realizing that the target audience of Leanna’s book is China newbs, which also made it an odd choice of gift from that particular friend who is the embodiment of “bitter expat.”

Oh well, I read it anyway and it would have been awesome for someone who hadn’t yet visited China. Leanna doesn’t try to pretend that her book is full of deep insights into Chinese culture, which in my opinion earns her a lot of credit. She wrote her book after teaching English in Anhui….for one semester. That’s it. She was in Anhui for 4 months and wrote a book about it. I thought it was strange that she even got a publishing deal since every white person who comes to China thinks “I should write a book about this!” We all think our experience is unique enough that the rest of the world should know what we’ve done and seen! The market is flooded with that kind of literature. I think her angle was maybe a bit unique in that she was specifically targeting China newbs without any pretense of being an expert. She even included a packing list at the end of the book! I shouldn’t be so condescending though. There was a time when I would have read that book and really enjoyed it. For that reason, I would recommend her book to people who haven’t yet been to China. I think she does manage to understand China and Chinese culture better in four months than some of the foreigners I know who have been here for years. One aspect of China that she described very well was the warmth of the Chinese people and how they will treat a guest. She describes going home for a long weekend with one of her students to see his hometown and describes the embarrassment of realizing that in spite of being from a poor family, his parents insisted on paying for her room at the nicest hotel in town and bringing her for meals at expensive restaurants. We’ve all been there! Being simultaneously horrified and deeply touched is something anyone coming here should prepare themselves for because it’s inevitable.

Another aspect of Leann’s book that I give her credit for is the way in which she didn’t shy away from discussing some of the things that bothered her about China, but then again, she wasn’t one of the idealistic foreigners who comes here with a head full of visions of gong fu masters and women in qipaos running around serving tea. The title, “Pretty Woman Spitting” is obviously from the chapter where she talks about the constant spitting and how gross it is. Again, not horribly insightful, but still something to prepare yourself for if you’re not used to it. She also discusses to some degree how disrespectful people can be at times about trying to capitalize off of foreigners. The prime example of this that she uses in her book is an experience that I think most of us will never have here (hopefully). *Spoiler alert* An Australian colleague passes away from a brain aneurysm while in Anhui and because of the rapid progression, there was no time to transport to another hospital or go home. She describes the frustration of trying to get the doctors and nursing staff to be straightforward with them about the woman’s condition. Unfortunately, she didn’t make it and a funeral had to be planned. The colleague’s family wanted to take her body out of the country and have a funeral at home, but the local authorities got involved and delayed the process of getting her body out of the country and decided to hold a TELEVISED open casket funeral in the meantime. The school didn’t bother to notify her students, but instead hand picked a few students who would look good on TV. Leanne seemed to suspect that the purpose of this was to get publicity for the school or the town. There could have been a lot of reasons for televising a funeral in spite of the family’s wishes, but either way it doesn’t change the fact that someone capitalized on this horrible event that should have been private.

Ok, I guess when it’s all said and done, I liked the book more than I would like to admit, but maybe because it was also kind of nice to remember what it was like when I first arrived in China when everything was fresh and new and interesting. Perhaps I should say this book is a good read for anyone preparing to make their first trip here or for those of us who have just been here long enough to forget what that first trip was like.

“The White-Boned Demon: A Biography of Madame Mao” by Ross Terrill

The White-Boned Demon, By Ross Terrill

The White-Boned Demon, By Ross Terrill

It’s been a long time since my last post!  What have I been doing for the last…nearly 2 months??  I went to Bhutan for 8 days over my Thanksgiving break and that was awesome.  I’ll definitely write a post about that when I get a little time.  I took a ton of pics, but haven’t had a chance to go through them yet.  When I came back, crap kind of hit the fan in terms of homework.  For anyone who has gone to college in China, something you probably learned at some point was that any syllabus a Chinese professor gives you means nothing.  I thought I was caught up and good to go, but upon my return, I learned that I had a ton of papers due that no one had seen fit to mention in their syllabi.  It’s been a hectic few weeks.  I finished all of my papers, but now I’m studying for a history test…the prof gave us 50 terms to look up so he can test us on 10 of them that he will randomly select on test day.  That wouldn’t be so bad except that all of the information is in Chinese, so not only is it slower to go through and read, it’s also harder to remember.  I don’t know if I’m just dumber than other people, but I find that things I read in Chinese aren’t as easy to remember as things I read in English.

Anyway, also for this history class, I had to select a book (written in English, thank God) and then write a book review on it.  I chose Ross Terrill’s “The White-Boned Demon: A Biography of Madame Mao.”  Throughout the semester, Jiang Qing, aka Madame Mao has been a rather prevalent character and I found her fascinating.  She seemed utterly insane, but by the end of Terrill’s book, I found myself identifying with her a lot…so, yeah…

I enjoyed the book and even though it was over 400 pages, I read it in about 3 days because I just couldn’t put it down.  I like reading about hot messes (makes me feel like I have my shit together) and Jiang Qing is definitely a hot mess.  My only big criticism of this book is the complete lack of footnotes or even a bibliography.  Ross Terrill has an excellent academic reputation, so I absolutely believe that his sources were the best available, but I would love to know what they were.  There were parts in the books where he seemed to be using a quote from someone, but without citing the source, then we can’t really evaluate how likely that quote was to have been said by that person.  Or, if it was the author filling in the gaps in information with his own imagination.

That being said, the book really was quite interesting.  I think his treatment of Jiang Qing as a subject throughout the book was similar to how she was treated in real life.  Jiang Qing was a strong female with her own ideas about what role women (specifically herself, she was no feminist as I learned…she was only out to lift herself up, rather than all women) should play in the home, in politics, etc.  She was constantly being put in the corner by men and she seemed to have spent her whole life feeling frustrated with the fact that the only way she could have any power, was to get what she could by riding on the coattails of men around her.  Her big roles as an actress had a lot to do with her guanxi with various directors and male actors and her role in politics only came as a result of her relationship with Mao.  In other words, nothing she accomplished was purely the result of her own hard work, but had everything to do with the men in her life.  I think that Ross Terrill had somewhat of a tendency to write her off as well…in his assessments of her motives and things that she allegedly said, he would often comment on her lack of credibility, but rarely did that with other characters in the book.  Jiang Qing is dead now, but even still, she continues to be written off as a silly female.  It’s quite sad, really.  It made me wonder how this book would have turned out had it been researched and written by a female.

Jiang Qing’s life was very interesting, but also sad.  She spent her whole life trying to fit in somewhere and never really succeeding.  I think that she may have suffered from some kind of delusional thinking that led her to be unable to separate stage life/fantasy from reality.  A lot of her alleged reactions to events and her ability to change personalities depending on the situation makes it seem as if she thought everything was a performance. I looked on youtube for the footage of her trial (after the Gang of Four was denounced and she was basically blamed for the entire Cultural Revolution) and it’s kind of eery how out of touch she seems.  The other people who were being tried seemed fearful, but she seemed to not really understand what was going on, answering sarcastically and being quite dramatic.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Jiang Qing, the role of women in China (sadly I don’t think much has changed), or hearing about the Cultural Revolution from a different point of view.  We have discussed the CR thoroughly this semester in history class, but always from Mao’s point of view or the viewpoint of “the masses.”  If you listen to them, then it’s easy to get the impression that Jiang Qing was evil. I’m not sure that she was evil, but I do think that she was selfish to the extent that she couldn’t see how her actions affected other people.  A lot of her actions were motivated by revenge on people who had criticized her in her acting days, but because of her selfishness and complete lack of political knowledge, she had no idea how far reaching the impact of her revenge missions really was.

Read this book and see for yourself!