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“Moment in Peking” by Lin Yutang

Weighing in at 951 pages, “Moment in Peking” is a good literary introduction to pre-Communist modern China, when the Chinese were struggling to absorb western ideas without losing their Chinese identities. It is told mostly from the point of view of a middle class Chinese woman, starting from when she was a little girl with her family fleeing Peking (now Beijing) during the Boxer Rebellion to when she, as an older woman, flees Peking ahead of the Japanese invaders while her son joins one of the Chinese armies. I suspect the entire book has a Taoist structure; I will leave it to you to decide if I’m imaging things.

Lin Yutang loves his China enough to have written extensively about it, both fiction and non-fiction, including my favorite aphorism about the Chinese character: that they are so good at making the best of life that they forget to make it better. The Chinese friend who gave me the copy I read told me that Yutang was a feminist; I was skeptical until I realized that Yutang is a feminist in the sense that he likes women. Uniquely, he likes both traditional and modern women (the yin and yang of Taoist femininity?) as long as they are good tempered and educated conversationalists. Even the young woman who takes the “bad girl” path finds new heroism as a spy against the Japanese.

Reading “Moment in Peking” after living in China for nine years leaves me thinking that the period from 1937 (the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong) until 1980, roughly when China really kick started its economy, was an aberration. Reading his book about the turn of the last century, I recognize the corrupt governments, the students who are both idealistic and cynical, and the tightly knit families. The ideological period of Communist rule that ground China down is like a nightmare from which China has awakened, and the Confucian and Taoist character of Chinese psychology has reasserted itself.

Yutang doesn’t have a steady point of view. He’s willing to switch to other characters and freely changes the distance from close POV to a distant, historical view as if this book was the Tao and POV distance a flow between yin and yang. He finds time to have a character expound upon his views, such as promoting the idea that Taoism is a good religion for scientists. The patriarch of the family is also a Taoist version of “Father Knows Best,” rarely ordering his family around but people who take his advice have happier lives. Yutang isn’t a dogmatist about his religion (to be a dogmatic Taoist would be quite the contradiction, but I’ve heard of stranger), giving good scenes to Confucians, Buddhists, and even one to Catholic nuns hiding two Chinese women from Japanese invaders. Yutang drew such close parallels between Buddhist and Catholic monastic life that I wasn’t quite sure which they were until the Mother Superior spoke French.

But in the end, “Moment in Peking” is a family epic, with the plot having more to do with romance, marriage, raising children, and gaining personal wisdom than the great events. The sprawling family has to continually adjust to this complicated period in Chinese history, so the reader will flow between learning about Chinese individuals and Chinese culture the way the Taoist symbol flows between yin and yang.

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