South of the Clouds: Exploring the Hidden Realms of China Review

South of the Clouds: Exploring the Hidden Realms of China
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South of the Clouds: Exploring the Hidden Realms of China ReviewIn the Prologue to SOUTH OF THE CLOUDS, author Seth Faison tells a story about Farmer Yang's discovery of the famed terra cotta warriors near the city of Xi'an. Like much of this revealing look at the China few Westerners ever see, however, Mr. Faison's narrative is more than just a retelling of history. After years of being unrewarded and forgotten, Farmer Yang was hired to sign copies of tourist books about the excavation site. As Mr. Faison soon discovers, there are two Farmer Yang's working at competing stores. Which one is real, or is either of them the true discoverer? Mr. Faison finds the truth, but in doing so, we learn that the real Farmer Yang is being paid a paltry 280 yuan a month, about $35, for his services. Thus, in his first fourteen pages, the author demonstrates convincingly that we are embarking on a true insider's tour of a fascinating country.
In SOUTH OF THE CLOUDS, Mr. Faison describes his experiences as a student at Shaanxi Teachers University in Xi'an, then as a journalist in China for most of 1987 to 1999. He cuts his reportorial teeth at the Hong Kong Standard and the South China Morning Post, then moves to the New York Times where he works as a roving reporter out of Beijing before being elevated to Shanghai Bureau Chief.
Mr. Faison's writings are loosely connected vignettes, drawn from the wealth of people and events he experienced during China's economic and cultural opening in the 1990's. As a result, his stories range widely over the Chinese terrain, not just geographically, but also politically and culturally. We see up close and from the inside the events at Tiananmen Square in mid-1989, DVD piracy in Guangdong Province, the Falun Gong sect in Yunnan Province, the Chinese government's actions in Tibet, illegal immigration to the U.S. from Fujian Province, homosexuality in Shanghai, and transsexuality in Beijing. In each instance, however, Mr. Faison gives us more than just reportorial narrative. His are intensely personal stories, first-hand accounts of Chinese life told by the people who have been living them. We meet a policeman in Xi'an, a gay professor in Shanghai, a video pirate in Guangdong, a renowned transsexual choreographer, a Fujianese woman who risked everything to help send her husband to New York, and a Falun Gong practitioner whose life was changed by their version of qi gong.
The author's personal story connects these various threads into a whole cloth. As Mr. Faison learns more and more about Chinese culture and life, he grapples with issues in his own life: a sense of not being sufficiently masculine, fear of emotional closeness, need for acceptance as a Westerner in China, and a sense of meaning and purpose. His slow discovery of China coincides with his own discovery of self, a journey that leads him through sexual relationships with Chinese women, a near addiction to sauna massages, an intense relationship with the transsexual Jin Xing, and a flirtation with Buddhism resulting from a trip to Lhasa. A return visit to Tibet in search of the opportunity to witness a Whitmanesque sky burial appears to create the necessary epiphany, the "St. Paul struck by lightning" moment, when the author realizes he is ready to move on to the next stage of his life, to accept himself for what he is and to commit himself to another person.
SOUTH OF THE CLOUDS is an engaging and highly readable story of China, its people, and one man's struggle to understand both that world and himself. Mr. Faison gently recaps China's recent history through the stories of individual citizens, exposing everyday elements of Chinese culture as well as selected aspects of its underside. Having lived in China (Suzhou) off and on since 2001, I can attest to his deft touch in bringing the character of the country and its people to life. I sometimes felt I could see the people he met even as I read about them, imagining their faces and body language and behaviors.
As almost anyone who has spent real time in China will say, the experience is life-changing. Seth Faison illustrates how and why. I heartily recommend SOUTH OF THE CLOUDS to anyone seeking a deeper understanding of modern China and the life and culture and hopes and fears and dreams of its people.
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