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.