"Iron and Silk" is a delightful book and film. I had the pleasure of reading the book awhile ago; but was delighted to see the film in a local Asian film festival in my community.
The author Mark Salzman plays Mark Franklin in the movie of the same name. It is a memoir (a true story) of Mark's travel and teaching experiences in China (Changsha, Hunan Province). The events took place during 1982 - 1984 and Mark became as much of a student of Chinese life, martial arts, calligraphy, tai chi as he was a teacher of the Middle Aged English Teachers (a group of Chinese Russian teachers at the Hunan Medical College who had been told to forget Russian and now learn English).
Mark always wanted to be a Kung Fu master growing up, and he took lessons from a local teacher; but always felt like the smallest kid on the block. From a young age, he loved all things Asian. His mother was a musician and his father a social worker; but he found that he had developed an exceptional talent for the cello. He was admitted to Yale at 16 because of his cello expertise; but soon decided that he would major in Chinese languages and philosophy (again not much of a surprise). As part of a Yale program, he found himself traveling to Changsha, Hunan Province, China to teach English to a group of Chinese Russian teachers who were being asked to retrain. For two (2) years he lived, taught and learned a great deal in China about the Chinese people and also about himself.
He always wanted to study martial arts from a true wushu master and was fortunate enough to find as his teacher, the grand master himself: Pan Qingfu (known as the Iron Fist). Pan was the best in the world and was known as the Iron Fist because he punched a heavy iron plate 10,000 times a day! Mark was also learning Tai Chi and Chinese manners and etiquette from Teacher Wei and calligraphy as well from other teachers.
Mark soon found that "as a student in America, he had searched for ancient wisdom, as a teacher in China, he learned to find it in himself." Mark Salzman, when interviewed, stated: "Learning about another culture doesn't mean you have to reject your own, It allows you to see yourself from another perspective, see your good side and your bad side and appreciate what you have." Some will say that the book and the movie focus on martial arts and in part that is one of the major themes; but the blending and the co-existence of the two cultures in the classroom and in social interactions is illuminating.
There are many humorous and philosophical revelations in both the book and movie. Telling Mark that he has a big nose by saying, "You have a very 3 dimensional face"...is probably the most diplomatic way of stating the obvious. Mark might have been able to name the book, "Let's Make a Regulation" if he wanted to only focus on the difficult aspects he faced in being a foreigner living in China. The Washington Post reviewed that "Salzman demonstrates with skill and subtlety just how China society works."
This Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1987 is dated; but describes the undercurrent that still exists in part today. The movie's script stayed true to the book; yet the movie was shot in Hangzhou and not Changsha. Make sure to stay for the vignettes and movie credits at the end; they are another joyful experience of the film and you will not be disappointed that you waited. Mark found out that happiness was not a simple thing in China and though he valued being well liked and mastering a skill; his Chinese friend felt that "these goals can be achieved easily. All you have to do is to be kind and work hard. But to eat and sleep well that is a difficult wish, because you cannot control these things yourself."
One interesting note is that on the last night of the shooting of the movie, the brutal crackdown occurred in Tiananmen Square (June 3, 1989).
I loved this book and the movie and the delight that two very different cultures shared in learning about each other. All that I can say is "very well done" (Manhaodilei!)
Mark really learned Qong Fu: a skill that transcends mere surface beauty!