A Thousand Pieces of Gold: A Memoir of China’s Past through Its Proverbs
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A Review of A Thousand Pieces of Gold
Review of Adeline Yen Mah, A Thousand Pieces of Gold: Growing Up Through China’s Proverbs (2002)
Adeline Yen Mah, the author of the best-selling autobiography Falling Leaves, in A Thousand Pieces of Gold: Growing Up Through China’s Proverbs blends historical anecdote and personal history in a book of eighteen chapters about Chinese proverbs. Each chapter title is a proverb, given in both Chinese and English translation. Mah proceeds to elucidate the proverb’s words by frequently referring to historical figures and episodes recounted in Sima Qian’s Shiji (Chronicles of the Grand Historian). Sometimes, in explaining the application of a certain proverb, Mah refers to incidents in the Shiji and relates them to recent historical occurrences involving Mao Zidong, especially because Mao himself took lessons from Sima Qian’s history and her family was so affected by events presided over or unleashed by Mao. One instance occurs in Chapter 8 concerning the proverb “Words that Would Cause a Nation to Perish” (Wang guo zhi yan亡國之言) in which Mah sees a parallel between Li Si’s moral weakness and that of Zhou Enlai’s amoral accommodation of Mao’s ruthlessness. In many of the book’s chapters, Mah movingly inserts aspects of her own autobiography and comments about her own troubled family relationships, thus weaving together ancient history, more recent history, and personal history. The penultimate chapter “The Human Heart is Hard to Fathom” (Ren xin nan ce人心難測) particularly addresses the difficulties between Mah and certain family members that arose because of the publication of her autobiography. But she sees those personal troubles as corresponding to Sima Qian’s account of the treacherous relationships between the founder of the Han dynasty Liu Bang and his powerful generals. In A Thousand Pieces of Gold: Growing Up Through China’s Proverbs Mah offers testimony that China’s ancient sayings will continue to inform Chinese relationships perhaps for centuries to come. Her book gives the Western reader a glimpse into China’s rich world of proverbs and history.
A Great Resource for Teachers
Mah's book is a unique blending of her own personal experiences growing up in China and the cultural history of her nation. Each chapter of the book outlines an ancient Chinese proverb, and Mah explains its use within the context of her own life and the historical background from which the proverb originated. Mah spent the first 14 years of her life in China, and the majority of the vignettes are set in based on her childhood in 1960s China. She compares her experience with each proverb to historical anecdotes that date as far back as the year 90 BC. Many of the proverbs Mah describes are traced to quotes from "Shiji," Sima Qian's historical account of Ancient China, published over 2000 years ago.
While each chapter of the book describes a different proverb, and each can stand alone as a basis for a lesson in the classroom, there are overarching cultural themes throughout the text. One of the themes in the book was education and its relationship to race and gender discrimination. Mah's father told her "A daughter should never be too well educated" because it would "spoil" her chance at marriage (p. 3). Mah also describes the proverb, "binding your feet to prevent your own progress," which originated from a phrase used by the King of Qin to describe hindered the productivity of the Qin nation when non-Qin workers were expelled from the kingdom. Mah experienced a similar situation over 2200 years later. When she arrived in America she "found that [her] gender and ethnic origin were still a hindrance" when she was looking for a job (p. 40). Even though she was the most qualified for a position in an American hospital, she was denied the job because of her "Chinese face" (p. 39). I think that this chapter was one of the most applicable for use in a classroom, as it touches on large issues that many people from Asian backgrounds may still be facing in the present day.
"A Thousand Pieces of Gold" was not only a well written and enjoyable read, but it was also very educational about Chinese culture. Mah carefully constructed both modern and historical contexts for understanding the proverbs, and her writing clearly demonstrated "that ancient proverbs still shape the thoughts and behaviors of Chinese people today," (p. xxii). My favorite part of the book, and one of the most useful parts too, was the short guide to the pronunciation of the Chinese names included before the preface. I have not seen any book provide such a comprehensive list, and I was a little embarrassed to learn that I had been pronouncing many of the names incorrectly. For example, "Zhao" should be pronounced like "Jow," and "Zheng" should be said like "Jung." When Chinese names come up in a lesson, it is important to know correct pronunciation. While some of the content in the book was a little too graphic for an adolescent audience (quite a few of the historical backgrounds refer to torture, castration, concubines, suicide and graphic depictions of war), I would recommend "A Thousand Pieces of Gold" to any teacher.