Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Laughing Sutra by Mark Salzman

Hsun-ching is an orphan, growing up in the care of the elderly monk Wei-ching. Wei-ching has made a lifetime study of Buddhist texts, but there is one that has eluded him: the nearly legendary Laughing Sutra. Only one copy is known to exist, and it is in far away America. Wei-ching is too old to make the trip, so his young apprentice Hsun-ching, after nearly a decade separated from his master due to the unpredictable vagaries of the 20th-century Chinese history they're living through, decides to travel to San Francisco in his place.

Accompanying him on this Journey to the West is the immortal, immensely strong Colonel Sun, who missed most of the 20th Century lurking in his cave behind a waterfall, but who proves himself surprisingly adaptable...

I first encountered author Mark Salzman through his memoir Iron and Silk, his tale of living in Hunan in the early 1980s. I've only made short trips to the People's Republic myself, never venturing beyond Beijing, Hong Kong and Macau, but I have an appetite for historically recent tales of life there. The 1980s were a time when China was just beginning to cast off the insanity of the 1960s and 1970s, and Salzman relates tales of official paranoia and bureaucratic obstructionism as well as anyone who was in China at the time.

Now, The Laughing Sutra is a work of fiction. It is a comedy, often a dark one, and is downright chilling in its early sections when the Cultural Revolution is dealt with unflinchingly. The latter half of the book, set in the United States, is much lighter, crossing almost into sitcom-style comedy territory, but the book works well as an overall unit. Intended for Western readers, The Laughing Sutra has a good deal to teach about late 20th century Chinese history, certain strands of Eastern philosophy, and the pragmatism with which, it seems, Chinese culture can interpret and react to Western culture if official propaganda and existing assumptions are overcome.

And, of course, there's a retelling of the "Journey to the West" (often titled "Monkey" in English translation), one of those literary classics that's as famous as Shakespeare on one side of Eurasia and almost unknown on the other. That story inspired this one.

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