September 24, 2010 at 10:09 pm | Posted in Art, Asia, Books, China, Ecology, History, Literary | Leave a comment












A Single Pebble

1956 / (1982)

John Hersey

A young American engineer sent to China to inspect the unruly Yangtze River travels up through the river’s gorges searching for dam sites. Pulled on a junk hauled by forty-odd trackers, he is carried, too, into the settled, ancient way of life of the people of the Yangtze — until the interplay of his life with theirs comes to a dramatic climax.

His 1956 short novel, A Single Pebble is the tale of a young American engineer going up the Yangtze on a river junk in the 1920s and discovering that his romantic concepts of China bring disaster.

John Hersey


· Men on Bataan, 1942

· Into the Valley, 1943

· A Bell for Adano, 1944

· Hiroshima, 1946

· The Wall, 1950

· The Marmot Drive, 1953

· A Single Pebble, 1956

· The War Lover, 1959

· The Child Buyer, 1960

· White Lotus, 1965

· Too Far To Walk, 1966

· Under the Eye of the Storm, 1967

· The Algiers Motel Incident, 1968

· Letter to the Alumni, 1970

· The Conspiracy, 1972

· My Petition for More Space, 1974

· The Walnut Door, 1977

· Aspects of the Presidency, 1980

· The Call, 1985

· Blues, 1987

· Life Sketches, 1989

· Fling and Other Stories, 1990

· Antonietta, 1991

· Key West Tales, 1994

The Call

John Hersey


Product Details:

· Paperback: 771 pages

· Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics) First Thus edition

· July 1 1986

· Language: English

· ISBN-10: 0140086951

· ISBN-13: 978-0140086959

It’s a panorama of life in China as seen by an American missionary from 1906 until the 1950s.

The author was the son of a China missionary and most of the events in the book are historical — although the main character, Treadup, is fictional — a composite of sorts for all the missionaries in China. “The Call” achieves a feeling of absolute authenticity.

This is a long exhaustive book. The first hundred pages or so are devoted in Treadup’s early life in upstate New York and the reader may be forgiven if he is impatient with the plodding pace. The story picks up when Treadup gets to China as it details his adventures, doubts, and misteps, all worked into the political and social framework of the time. Treadup’s journeys — both physical and spiritual — are long and arduous and ultimately this is a sad book.

This long novel (700 pages) is a fictional biography of a missionary in China. David Treadup is a composite fictional character based on six actual missionaries to China (one of them being Hersey’s own father). Told like a real biography and including mainly diary entries, but also comprising excerpts from letters, newspapers, staff minutes, and other biographical tools, Hersey traces the life of his main character from troubled days at Syracuse University (he almost flunks out until given a second chance after which he changes his major to science, which becomes very useful to him in China), to his Call to the ministry after a revival meeting, to his experiences in China. The book is not only an excellent account of Treadup’s life in a strange land whose people he comes to love, but also a history of China itself during the first half of the twentieth century. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in Treadup’s life and experiences that you forget you’re reading a novel (it’s one of the few novels that has a “Notes” section appended to it). Hersey’s use of diary entries makes for an excellent approach: we experience Treadup’s personal responses to things more directly and honestly that way.

No other novel probes so deeply and seriously into the life, times, and mind of a China missionary. We live intimately with Treadup and when his life is over, we wonder, as he did, whether it was all worth it.

“…Yes, there on the embankment outside the compound I had a small boy feeling. Chores were over. Only now, aged 65, do I realize how sweet the chores had always been. Inside the barn, inside the compound wall, I had been free — busy, orderly, useful. Released, I felt at loose ends. A great deal had happened to me in Yin Xin camp, and now all I could feel was a paradox: the loss of the freedom of confinement.” p.698

Treadup felt that by awakening the Chinese to the laws of science, he was awakening them to the laws of the Lord. His fantastic success with the lectures brought on self-doubt. He questioned purpose. Was he a science professor or a missionary? Science ceased to be an acceptable role for him to wear if that wasn’t what he was about… there was no connection between his lectures and spiritual redemption. He questioned what he was actually bringing the Chinese, science or religion,… but most importantly he questioned what he wanted to bring.

As the novel develops, Treadup gains experience and insight, he shifts his focus from science lectures to a literary campaign. With fantastic energy and zeal, he rolls up sleeves and takes on the task of teaching the peasantry to read and write. All over the countryside he sets up local schools. After the literary campaign Treadup introduces agricultural reform. He continues to answer the noble call, but by serving functional needs he is moving further, and further away from addressing spiritual ones. As he was with the science lectures, Treadup is again plagued with doubt. He is not saving souls, and in fact is questioning the legitimacy of his religious calling when so many greater needs stand out.

It is not until Treadup is a Japanese POW that he begins to answer the questions that have plagued him for years. In the prison camp he belongs to a group. The camp depends on him like it depends on all the individuals that make up the whole, the goal is survival. Treadup doesn’t have to identify need, need has identified him.

From his fellow prisoners he hears the Call, and realizes his original draw to Christianity was not religion, or saving souls, but being needed and employing his extraordinary ability to successfully meet that need.

The Wall (1950) dramatized the life and death of the Warsaw ghetto. The War Lover (1959) examined the roots of violence through a self-hating American bomber pilot. The Child Buyer (1960) criticized trends in education, and The White Lotus (1965) took on racism in an allegory that made Caucasians the objects of discrimination.

The origins of Hersey’s instructional impulses can be found in The Call, a novel cast as the biography of an American missionary in China. It is a subject that is close to home. Hersey was born in Tianjin, the son of Roscoe and Grace Baird Hersey, missionaries serving with the Young Men’s Christian Association. Before returning to the U.S. in 1925, when John was eleven, the couple preached a social gospel that emphasized literacy and reform. It was a monumental labor complicated by floods, famines and warlords. Hersey provides the necessary historical overviews, but it is the abundance of detail that reawakens the sorrows of Old China. A short list of levies: “pig-rearing tax, firecracker tax, opium-smoking lamp tax, marrying off one’s daughter tax, narcissus bulb tax, superstition tax, lower-class prostitute singing tax, and, terrible thought, night-soil tax, so that one couldn’t even defecate without paying.”

This is the world that awaits David Treadup in 1905 when his ship docks at Shanghai. He is a big man, good with his hands, though a little slow with his schoolbooks. One of Treadup’s best assets is the ability to immerse himself in % drudgery, a fate he prepared for as a farm boy in upstate New York and an oarsman for Syracuse, where he heard the call to Jesus. Superficially, Treadup is a model of muscular Christianity. But he is also built to carry a good deal of symbolic weight. “What is moving in his story,” writes Hersey, “what may in the end be thought to redeem the obvious failure of his mission in China, is his lifelong struggle to subdue the greater but sicker saint in himself and give himself to a more modest state of being: one of balance, sanity, serenity and realized human love in the face of a shifting and violent and mostly hateful world.”

As such, he can be a charismatic teacher who scoots around northern China on a motorcycle with a magic show of scientific experiments, a dogged organizer and tireless fund raiser, a man of radiant energy and corrosive doubts. This is the sort of character who might be considered larger than life, if his life had not been lived on a stage that dwarfed his best efforts and noblest beliefs.

China, as Hersey portrays it, is the sleeping giant about to awake, and it is ravenous for a dignity that cannot be satisfied by outsiders with their wholehearted urgency. Still, this is the quality that Hersey rightly celebrates. “I have been wrestling with the desperate realization that there are some 300 million illiterates in China,” says Treadup. “We must hurry!”

Treadup’s Christian faith suffers in China, but only in the sense that he comes to reject his mission as simply signing up souls for Christ. When he arrives as a young man the motto is “Evangelize the world in this generation.” After 40 years of rebellions, war, Japanese internment and Communist revolution, his ambition has shrunk to feeding the few people left in his village.

Hersey does not drum up any pious conclusions about the saintliness of humble work. There are some obvious parallels between American evangelism and the politics of Manifest Destiny. With some skillful prodding, the documents and , memories he has rescued from obscurity speak for themselves. Treadup’s disillusionment achieves a rare authenticity because it is earned on every page. Hersey’s slow book to China is worth every word.

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White Lotus

John Hersey


Product Details:

· Hardcover

· Publisher: Buccaneer Books

· June 1994

· Language: English

· ISBN-10: 1568495323

· ISBN-13: 978-1568495323

Book Description:

In a world in which whites have been enslaved by Orientals, a young girl named White Lotus is captured in Arizona and transported to China. After being sold into slavery, she survives a vast Chinese civil war and is emancipated upon its conclusion. Later she abandons her life as a tenant farmer and moves to the white district of a large city in the North of China in search of a better life.

White Lotus by John Hersey was published in 1965.

First off, I’m not really sure in what category this book should be placed. It’s nominally an alternate history story where China won WWI  – it’s only referred to once as the ‘Great War’, and other internal evidence places the start of the story somewhere in the early ’20’s.

In any case, the story traces the life of a young American girl who, along with all the rest of her village, is forcibly kidnapped by a version of the ‘Mob’ and sold into slavery in mainland China – the pre-Communist version of China, which in the ’20s had seen very little of technological progress, a society that had changed very little in the prior 1500 years.

Upon reaching China, the story follows White Lotus (her Chinese name) as she is transferred to various owners, starting with a near-upper class mandarin, to a ‘mid’ level plantation owner, to a poor cotton farmer, to ‘freedom’ as she escapes to a province that has outlawed slavery, but finds herself just as desperately bound by her limited job opportunities, to life in a ‘free’ white community where the ‘yellows’ still own all the land so her only choice is to work as no-hope share-cropper, to industrialized life in the big city, where job choices for whites are still very limited, and finally as a civil rights agitator/activist. With each change of locale, White Lotus becomes attached to a local strong man (Nose, Peace, Dolphin, Rock), each of whom is the personification of a possible ‘answer’ to life as a slave/dis-enfranchised minority (become totally worthless, give the owner no value for his slave; stage an armed revolt; run to ‘freedom’, try to build a life based on self-respect and inner fortitude), each possible answer is demolished by the events as they unfold (executed for supposedly starting fires in Chinese houses; revolt is crushed and leaders executed; runner is caught and ripped apart by dogs; each attempt at building a better life is met by impossible economic demands and job restrictions till there is no hope left).

As you go through the story, it becomes increasingly obvious that Hersey is re-telling the history of the Afro-American in America, from the initial forceful grab in Africa, to the ‘genteel’ society of the early South, to the heyday of large cotton plantations, to the Civil War and through the Reconstruction era, to the move to urban America and the ghettos, and finally right up to the civil rights movement of the ’60s, all compressed into 20 years of White Lotus’ life. Along the way, he draws some striking portraits of the reasons forso-called ‘black’ behavior, of the self-blinding hypocrisy of the ‘owners’, of each individual’s struggle to make sense of life, and grindingly destroying all superstitions, (white/yellow/black), heaping copious quantities of lotus petal dung upon them (and most religious beliefs also). If this book was only an exacting mirror of the White/Black struggle, though, it would not be much more than a well-told polemic. But there is an added dimension here: Hersey’s portrait of the Chinese culture. The glimpses we are given (looking at it from the perspective of the very bottom of the society) of this China are impressively authentic.

Hersey was born in Tienstin, China, in 1914, spent his first 11 years there, and spent much of his early adult life as a journalist in various places in the Orient, and this experience clearly lands on and illuminates these pages. And because the Oriental culture really is different, it provides an odd ‘side’ look at the whole issue, giving it a whole other dimension of realization. And the final ‘solution’ of his protagonist, her method of finding her own self-worth and a possible better life for all whites, is uniquely Chinese in character — shame the yellows into recognizing them as human, by imitating a sleeping bird. This portion of the story is told within an enfolding prologue and epilogue that form a complete (and very powerful) self-standing story, including a very recognizable portrait of Gov. George Wallace as a Chinese warlord (though he never speaks a word).

White Lotus is a view of the future that provides the reader with insights into slavery and the black experience in America. The machines and technology once a part of world culture are gone. American civilization as we know it is gone. A young white girl is captured from her Arizona enclave and marched to the sea. She’s transported as a slave to the east to serve the now powerful Chinese.

The story is beautifully written and reads well on all levels. The heroine’s many experiences mirror the history of the African-American experience leading up to the civil rights movement. White Lotus should be required for reading and discussion in schools and deserves to be reprinted.

John Hersey


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