OCTOBER 2002

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"Fabricated Chinese Culture" And the Continuation of Tradition
From Singtao Daily
From September 15, 2002

Upon observing that Amy Tan signed her name only in English at a book-signing ceremony yesterday (September 10th), a disappointed Chinese parent quipped, "To say that it’s necessary to broadcast Chinese culture, and yet to be capable of only an English signature, it’s quite evident that though her skin is yellow, her heart is white."

Thereupon the parent, a Ms. Zhang, decided not to wait on line for an autograph and promptly left with her son. The American-born Tan, who unabashedly admits to knowing hardly a single word of Chinese, has been known to have said, "My Chinese handwriting is really sloppy."

Chinese readers have repeatedly criticized Tan, whose works deal primarily with inter-generational conflict within Chinese America, for "creating a false Chinese culture" due to her apparent ignorance of true Chinese traditions.

Yet Amy Tan does not deny her poor understanding of the turf where her parents were born and raised. "My knowledge of Chinese culture comes primarily from listening to my mother’s accounts of the past and reading works of reference. When she was still alive, Mother would often say, ‘You don’t understand China, so how can you even write about it?’" said Tan.

Yet she does not want to be a spokesperson for Chinese culture, but only wishes to reflect on her own background:

"My works are based solely upon my experiences growing up and discussions with my mother, both of which are emotionally rooted; I never expected the need to take up the responsibility of introducing Chinese culture to the Western world. In addition, I feel that no single person could write enough to describe all of China and Chinese culture; it’s a huge country inhabited by plenty of ethnic groups; how can one book possibly encompass all of it?"

To tell the truth, however, many Westerners derive their knowledge of China entirely from Amy Tan’s books. The fates of the matronly protagonists of "The Joy Luck Club," the novel which made Tan famous, have moved many readers to tears of pity, some of whom probably couldn’t point out China on a map. And the object of yesterday’s ceremony, Tan’s book "Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat", will probably be the first step for many children in the development of an interest in China.

At yesterday’s book signing, the reporter met a white Indiana mother, Jamia Dixon, and her adorable six-year-old Chinese adoptee daughter, Annie. Ms. Dixon expressed the hope that her daughter, born in Anhui province, would grow up to appreciate Chinese culture and to remember her Chinese identity. Her daughter wasn’t much interested in what she had to say, and seemed quite annoyed with the Chinese classes which her mother makes her attend. However, ever since Annie started reading "Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat" last year, she has persisted in questioning her mother about ancient China and has demonstrated greater effort in her language studies.

"We live in the Midwest, which does not offer as many Chinese cultural activities as New York does. ‘Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat’ is Annie’s sole source of interest in and understanding of China. I feel grateful to Ms. Tan for writing such a meaningful book," said Dixon.

As far as whether the China depicted by Tan is accurate or not, Dixon said, "Even though those details known only to native Chinese inhabitants are glossed over, the book is good enough for foreigners interested in China."

A consultant for Girl Scouts of the USA present at the ceremony, Weiyi Zhu, agreed with Dixon’s pronouncement. As one engaged in promoting Chinese culture to mainstream American society, she often encounters many difficulties. "Whenever cultural activities come up, most Americans are drawn only to the fun, and would never take up a real interest in Chinese culture. That’s why I often think of my work as hopeless," said Zhu. However, from her long-standing experience, she has discovered that combining Chinese culture and American attitudes is a more viable route.

"Chinese food brought over to the U.S. has undergone improvement to fit American tastes. The same should be done with culture. Although Amy Tan’s books have been accused of providing false depictions of Chinese culture, one cannot deny that they have inspired many Americans’ interest in China," she added.

Tan’s works may also offer lessons to Chinese in addition to American families. Girl scout extracurricular activities sometimes don’t inspire the greatest enthusiasm among Chinese parents, said Zhu. They believe that time spent outside of school for their children should be devoted to such activities as piano lessons or studying.

Zhu often cites "The Joy Luck Club," and the failure of the strict measures which earlier generations imposed upon their children concerning education, when attempting to make Chinese parents understand that by participating in more social activities, their children become well-adjusted members of American society. "The majority of parents have seen or read ‘The Joy Luck Club.’ They often immediately grasp my meaning when I mention the book," said Zhu.

Weiyin Zhu added that the Girl Scouts will launch a series of events to promote Amy Tan’s "Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat," nationwide beginning with next year’s Lunar New Year. New York will be one of the locales where activities will take place.

Translated From Chinese By Kelvin Wu

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