Iron & Silk
18 Mar 2005
In my junior year of college I decided that I wanted to go live in China after graduation. Around that time I picked up a well-known book called Iron & Silk by Mark Salzman (1987). It was the story of an innocent young American with a love for kung fu who went to teach English in China in the early 80s. It was a simple story.[Sidenote: While I found the story to be a reasonably entertaining introduction at a time in my life when I knew very little about China, the one thing that put me off was the author’s claim to be fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese simply through four years of study at Yale. I didn’t buy it. But then, “fluent” is a very subjective word, and it’s frequently used casually in this kind of story.]
A few weeks ago I found the movie Iron & Silk (1990) here on DVD in Shanghai, so I just had to pick it up. This movie holds the distinction of being one of the few movies where the author actually plays himself in his own autobiographical story. What makes this especially interesting is that we get to see Mark Salzman demonstrate on camera his alleged mastery of both Mandarin and kung fu.
The movie was OK. I’m no expert in kung fu, but I studied it for a few months once, and I’ve seen professional demonstrations, and Mark’s 武术 looked pretty good to me. His Chinese was also not bad (although it doesn’t measure up to the other Mark‘s).
After living in China so long, though, I couldn’t help but find the story Disney-esque. The interactions, the cultural lessons learned, the forbidden love (which was never allowed even a kiss)… it all just seemed so cute. Even the “dark side of China,” like when Mark was forbidden entrance to the compound where his teacher was because of a crackdown on “spiritual pollution,” seemed parallel to the level of horror you experience when Bambi’s mom is shot.
Now don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying the only cinemagraphic window into China should be movies like To Live or Blind Shaft or something…. It’s just that I don’t think this movie has much to offer those already acquainted with China besides a few smiles.
One thing that made the movie interesting for me was that although the original story took place in Changsha, the movie was filmed in Hangzhou. So I got to see imagery of Hangzhou c. 1990. Much of it looked familiar, but some of it reminded me of ugly streets in Beijing. It was fun seeing the protagonist put his moves on the girl at West Lake — a place where I’ve been on quite a few dates myself, back in the day. The movie even found the extras that played Mark’s English students at the Sunday morning English corner at 六公园 beside West Lake. I made the mistake of blundering onto that group only once, long ago….
Lastly, I’m a little disappointed that the title of the movie was never explained as it was in the book. The explanation that Mark’s kung fu teacher gave him, as I recall it, was that he needed to punch an iron plate many times a day to make the bones in the hand thick and strong. He needed to punch raw, rough silk in order to make the flesh of the hands tough.
I’d recommend this movie only to people who have read the book and are curious, or to people without much knowledge of China who are thinking of coming and teaching here, or are just plain curious. One should keep in mind, though, that China changes fast, so this movie is dated. Also, the English levels of Mark’s students are artificially high, and Mark is forced to conduct most communication in English (even with his Chinese teacher, for example) for the benefit of the English-speaking audience.