Saturday, May 18, 2019

From Chapter II of A Many Splendored Thing



How often do we read a book that surprises us in with topics and content we didn't expect?  That was the case with this book, A Many Splendored Thing by Han Suyin.  I did not anticipate it would contain some insights related to religion.  My twenty year old self was in mood to read something and this book was available.  On picking it up in my hand, I thought it was a romance novel based on the hit song and movie it inspired, and it was.  But the book is autobiographical and the romance cannot be understood with its highs, lows, and tensions without Suyin's  history as a person living in multiple worlds, Traditional Chinese, Western, and the newly emerging modern East with the rising communist tide on the mainland and burgeoning commercial world of Hong Kong.  In some sense all of these worlds are native to her.  She is specially positioned to perceive people from all angles, intimate with them all.  The following is from the second chapter titled "The Kingdom of God"  The timeline is important and so each chapter is dated by year and month.  The content of this chapter explains her experiences in Hong Kong shortly after moving there from med school in London. She lives in a half-way house for missionaries families who have had to leave China in that disruptive time. 

*Chapter II  The Kingdom of God  March 1949
I had always thought of missionaries as “superior persons” in the Confucian sense; that their fund of goodness, benevolence and knowledge must be greater than the average person’s.  It was with relief that I found they were just ordinary people.  Well-meaning, earnest, hard working, not endowed with more wisdom, knowledge or virtue than anyone else.  Not gifted with more vision and not always more tolerant.  Teaching the Bible was their métier, just as medicine was mine, although I suppose both professions deluded themselves into calling it a vocation.  They were concerned, as all normal, healthily self-centered people are, with family, children, home, security, life insurance, salaries, pension and furlough, all the mechanics of existence.
When I was growing up, occasionally a missionary would visit our church and give a presentation/sermon.  Usually it was a Sunday or Wednesday night so the lights could be turned off to enable a slide presentation.  It was exciting to my young self.  I would for a short time have a romantic desire to go to where ever it was they were living and working.  Of course, with never a thought of the mechanics of existence and all that would be entailed.  I heard few critiques of this.  A great Uncle was a missionary in New Zealand then.  Not long after, a cousin just older than me would move to Kenya where he lives as a missionary to this day. 
In those early months of 1949, they seemed bewildered, confused and indignant.  What was happening in China? 
Some averred that it was only a passing phase of violence, similar to those previous eruptions of xenophobia which flare up from time to time in China.  Some were inclined to think that the Kuomintang government would make a stand and win in the end “if only it would carry out reforms instead of just proclaiming them.”  The fact that the Chiang Kai-sheks were Christians seemed to them a guarantee that the Kuomintang government might still turn over a new leaf and that all would be well again.

Perhaps those who understood the irreversible change which was taking place remained in China until they could do so no longer, but those I met in Church Guest House showed much bewilderment and hurt.

It was a little like unrequited love.  “After all we’ve done for them,” they implied, “look at what they are doing to us.” 
How difficult it must be to be a missionary! In order to convince others, one must be so completely indoctrinated with the superiority of one’s own brand of belief.  To understand, to tolerate, to condone, is incompatible with the very idea of being in possession of a higher truth, a better explanation of the spiritual life. 
I don't remember having an immediate reaction when reading this last paragraph all those years ago but that question of the superiority of "our" brand of belief  would soon haunt me.   This book planted the seed which would grow into my consciousness and cause me to critique my inherited beliefs. 
There were two types of missionaries in Hong Kong.  The first, those that had not been long in China, were still under the spell of their narrow denominational fanaticism.  They carried with them a sulphurous aroma of hell-fire and damnation to the heathen.  They were spiritually intolerant and physically bigoted.  They were inclined to gloat over the possibilities of martyrdom and to emphasize the persecutional element in the pressure against them.  But they were very few.  The larger group was eminently likable.  They had been converted and mellowed to humanity, tolerance and a sense of humor.  They had quietly jettisoned the belief in the infallibility of their own theme of salvation, together with the more wrathful aspects of the Deity they professed to love.  They were far more interested in the social and practical aspects of Christianity.  They were humanists, sociologists, and for them religion became the building of hospitals and schools, the creation of Christian Associations, and picking up abandoned waifs.  But they were the ones most hurt, because they had loved their work, and they had been selfless in their devotion to it.  “What is going to happen to our Christian communities?  Many of our Christians seem to have gone over to the new regime, some have not. Will these be persecuted?  What is going to happen to our churches, our schools, our hospitals?”  They wanted to help China.  And they found that their motives were suspected, and their efforts towards conciliation and understanding misunderstood.  They were no longer wanted. China was throwing them out.
* A Many Splendored Thing by Han Suyin An Atlantic Monthly Press Book, Little, Brown and Company, Boston. 1952 

Saturday, May 11, 2019

I read "A Many Splendored Thing" years ago


We are often encouraged to reflect on important books in our lives.  And reading is recommended for help in coping with life and mental health generally.  I’ve enjoyed reading Deborah Cox’s blog and one recent post discussed this aspect of books:


While considering what new books I might read, it came to my mind to consider which books have been most important to me.  I traveled back in my mind and eventually came upon one that changed my life.  Though, it is only on reflection of my life subsequent to reading it that I now realize that fact.  Had not thought about this book in many years.  It is not about science or religion or philosophy.  It is not recognized as a classic.  The book is “A Many Splendored Thing” by Han Suyin.  It is one of only two or three Romance novels I’ve ever read.  But it came at a critical time with some messages especially pertinent to my young life.  I re-read it a few months ago to help bring back my memories of how and why it has the effect it did.

It was late summer of 1971 just before the fall term of my senior year of college and my 21st birthday.  So, a time with critical choices on which path my life would take.  I loved science and technology.  I also desired to be as good a Christian as I could be and had always considered Christian ministry in some way as a possible life path.  The previous summer I’d been to Europe on an Evangelistic campaign.  This summer I had been involved in Christian ministry in Europe.  It was late in the summer when I read the book, shortly before coming home.

It is important here to discuss the nature of the devout Christian fellowship which had nurtured me, the Churches of Christ.  My Dad was a minister and a model of love for his family and devotion to his calling. The county where we lived from second grade through the tenth had a population of about 12,000 people.  In the 1960’s there were 16 Churches of Christ in the county if I recall correctly.  In early and mid 20th century, we were amazingly independent of the rest of Protestant Christianity.  We had distinctive ideas about worship, baptism, and church organization.  Looking back, the accusation that we felt we were the only “true” Christians did have a valid basis.  Fortunately, that exclusivism and isolation has significantly waned.  Our distinctive practices are not perceived as the only valid way.  But that was the milieu in which I was raised.  Our lives were built around the Church, attending 3 times a week.  Most of the people who were my close friends were within this fellowship.  I went to a Church of Christ college where immersion in this insular world continued.  And I have many wonderful memories from those days.  While growing up I never questioned the teachings seriously.  We had a strong family history in this fellowship.  I knew the stories.  It was my identity.

That was the young man who began reading the book. 

I did not know that religion would be an important component of this book.  And that it would profoundly influence me. To be continued....

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Spiritual Meaning of Trees - Maya Becomes a Tree

Finished reading A Many-Splendored Thing by Han Suyin this evening.  It is a semi-autobiographical novel about a romance between a Chinese Eurasian woman and a British correspondent.  The action is centered in Hong Kong with some action in China and Korea in 1949-1950.  Read it for the first time in 1971 and it made a big impression on me as I was about to start my senior year of college and turn 21.  Upon this re-reading I underlined and made checks in various places for later contemplation. 

Here is one extended passage that happens to connect with my interest in the spiritual meaning of trees is from Part 3 Chapter 4.

One day I found her sitting at my desk in the office, having fled her bed again and as if it were the most natural thing in the world, she began to tell me about the tree.
Suyin, the main character, is at her job transcribing handwritten medical records using a typewriter when her sick friend, Maya, comes to visit.  She has terminal tuberculosis. Maya describes an experience.
“As I walked here” said she, “something which had not happened before occurred to me.  Halfway up the road I sat under a tree to rest, under a candlenut tree.  Facing it, looking at the straight gray silver trunk, ringed and speckled with a frolic of young days, at the dappled white-flecked leaves, plumaged-mottled birds poised for the gust of light, under the cool green shadows spread over me, and the slanting sunlight falling upon my hand, I became a tree.
You can search and find pictures of candlenut trees of Hong Kong as well as other places.  This is startling beautiful language presaging and amazing passage.  Maya describe existence as a tree.
Insidious and bone-deep the transubstantiation; an enchanted dupe I sat, my heart the tree heart, coursing sweet green sap, sweet fire within my veins, I knew its secret name, its drift of years; I felt my thick mindless roots clutch the live earth, digging through earth and stone groping for water.  I heard each leaf grow out, an unfurling pennant in strong search of that other rain, the light.  I strained my branches, insinuating into emptiness the flourish of my life.  I knew the self-absorption of the tree, the peace acquired at last, its contemplation of the day. I sat on without motion, tree basking in the sun, and all previous awareness a half-remembered dream.
This captivates me. I don't know what it means.  It does not seem like something the author could have completely made up.  She must be conveying to us something she remembers.   I wonder if this identification with trees or other entities is something that happens with some people?
“Suddenly there was a wrench, I coughed, and the division fell between the substance of the tree and myself.  I was I and the candlenut tree stood above, green and dappled with flakes of sun, remote, unknown. I came here.”
Now that this is posted, I plan to come back to it and ponder it from time to time.  It must mean something.

Should also mention that a movie was made of this book called "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing" in 1955.  I was a little tyke but remember the Oscar winning song by the same name, a lush romantic memorable piece that attracted me to the book in the first place years later. 

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