From a literary perspective I doubt that many book reviewers would consider "A Humble Hero" by Jianxin Huang to be in any way outstanding. It certainly won't be a best seller. This book does not have the eloquence of My Country and My People" by Lin Yutang, and while it does have a somewhat similar theme to that found in "Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China" by Jung Chang, the writing style is much more simple.
"A Humble Hero" is not the sort of book to appeal to the 'feel good' reader since it does not 'edify' and nor is it in any way 'entertaining,' even in a dramatic sense. It is however, for those with a thirst for real knowledge as opposed to popular fictional 'non-fiction,' an excellent insight into the changes that occurred in China during the Twentieth Century.
The author Jianxin Huang grew up in China and emigrated to the United States and the tale he tells is a semi-fictional biography of his grandfather's life. Grandfather Linsen, who died in 1971, was born in 1900 into a typical farmer's family in the Southern Yangtze River area of China. His life spanned the Xinhai revolution, the republic of the Guomindang, the Anti-Japanese War, the Chinese Civil War between the Guomindang and the Communists (Gongchandang), the establishment of the People's Republic of China, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
The book's value is exactly stated in the book summary:
"This book presents a view of the original, authentic and unvarnished China, its people, culture and traditions, which are very different from what people learn from most books and other media."
I have lived in China for 12 years and actually live not far from the places mentioned in this tale, and I am well aware that what western people "learn from most books and other media" about China today, is quite different from reality on the ground. I am confident that this book would not pass the censors in China, primarily for its discussions about Mao Zedong, the Communist Party and the Cultural Revolution. These three topics appear in the final chapters of the book and final chapters of Huang Linsen's earthly life.
The book does jump a bit chronologically which at times is a little confusing, and although I personally am quite conversant in 'Chinglish' -- in this case 'Chinese cultural thinking directly expressed in English, - some readers will, if nothing else, find the English somewhat 'quaint' at times.
For the reader interested in 'reality,' the book offers insight into such things as the traditional relationship between mothers and daughters-in-law, child birth, child brides, wedding and funeral customs and rites, Chinese genealogy, relationship customs, historical information, positive and negative Chinese behaviors, the Japanese occupation, the civil war and events that occurred after the founding of the People's Republic in 1949.
The book abounds with information, much of which I was already aware but which nevertheless provided illumination. Simple little comments like those about dredging canals and using the mud to fertilize the crops answered so many questions I have had, living in a city literally inundated with canals.
Descriptions of sacrificial meals to ancestors at Spring Festival might not have impacted me as much if I had not just this Spring Festival seen an absolutely monumental and decorative sacrificial offering laid out in a village not far from the area in which this story takes place.
Chapters 15 and 16 which relate to the Japanese occupation, were highly enlightening as were later chapters on some of the events that took place during the Cultural Revolution. Who knew for instance that the government even ordered the digging up of coffins to salvage wood?
There is so much to be found in this simple tale of one man's struggle, that it is difficult for me to state what I find to be the most interesting. I think that the answer is to be found in those words already cited in the book summary. The story is real and as such it enables the mind to really grasp a little of what China was like, how and why it changed, and why it is what it is now.
I think the saddest realization is that the culture of the country was deliberately, willfully, passionately and aggressively destroyed and once that was accomplished, and despite the best intentions in the world, upon realizing their error, the government could not truly undo the damage. In a way, the tale of Huang Linsen is the tale of the transformation that the west is now undergoing.
The author has achieved his stated goal of leaving "a little trace of history of those humble people who were beyond those elites' notice before it is completely washed away by the current dreadful political and cultural flooding."
While this book does not have the literary merit of the two books mentioned earlier, I have to say that I was more moved by this story, and do express to the author my thanks for such an enlightening biographical tale.
Dr. Jianxin Huang is originally from China and has since immigrated to the United States, where he practices acupuncture and herbal medicine. He is fond of ancient Chinese literature, poems, Chinese opera and Chinese history. Currently, he serves as adjunct faculty at Bastyr University, Seattle. He is fluent in English and Mandarin Chinese and a member of a Seattle Beijing Opera club. Huang received his master's degree in medicine at Nanjing University, Nanjing, China. For more information, visit www.jianxinhuang.com. The book may be purchased through Xlibris bookstore
"A Humble Hero"
By Dr. Jianxin Huang
Retail price: $16.99