Iron & Silk

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.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. hey john,
    i want that movie! when i first decided to come to china my grandma suggested that i read iron & silk (she had read it back when it was first published). like you, i thought it was interesting-but nothing outstanding (if you want a fab book about living in china check out “Coming Home Crazy” by some guy in marshall, minnesota). anyway, she has come to visit me in hz and would get a kick out of watching the dvd. if you find a copy will you buy one for me please…i promise to pay you back the 7rmb! 🙂

  2. I enjoyed reading “Iron and Silk” back when it was a new novel. I recently reread it and enjoyed it again. He has a slightly newer book “Lost in Place” that talks about his years before “Iron and Silk” that is also a good read.

  3. Da Xiangchang Says: March 19, 2005 at 12:29 am

    “Iron & Silk” as a book was good but hardly great. Even Hessler’s “River Town” was far better. It was an enjoyable read, hardly longer than a pamphlet, but it wasn’t too impressive. It had no insights into . . . into anything! I guess the reason Salzman became famous with this book was he went to China so early and then wrote about it. Had the book been published in the 2000s, it would’ve totally disappeared. The movie “Iron & Silk,” however, was fantastic since it was so unintentionally funny, esp. the hokey plot and Salzman’s bad acting. Need to check out Salzman’s other books, though. Maybe he evolved as a writer since then. And I wonder how much money he made from “Iron & Silk”!!!

  4. Luo Dawei Says: March 19, 2005 at 4:41 am

    I wonder how many laowai were influenced by “Iron & Silk” to “head east young man”. I too picked it up when it was new in the late 80’s, about the same time I started studying Mandarin, so it was for me a neat window into contemporary china by an American living there. Yes, the book was successful because it was one of the first of that genre after China’s opening up.

    Big Sausage is probably correct that if the book was published today it would be in the Borders books 75% off cutout bin within a month. It would be hard to get a book deal today lke that. That’s what makes blogging so nice. Beofre I&S my previous reads on China were “Beijing Jeep” (Business), “Discos & Democracy” by Orville Schell (Politcs & Culture) and some stuff by Edgar Snow.

    I have a copy of “River Town” but I have not read it yet. I do not have a copy of “Iron & Silk” DVD but I might check it out for the dated-ness. But remember, when Mark was teaching in the ealry mid 80’s China was a much more closed society. Mark is married to Academy Award winning director Jessica Yu and is a noted author. He has done pretty well for himself.

  5. schtickyrice Says: March 19, 2005 at 10:48 am

    Didn’t see or read I&S, but it couldn’t possibly be any worse than that made for TV movie starring Melissa Gilbert as an English teacher in China. Does anyone else know what I’m talking about? It came out shorting after Tian’anmen.

    Speaking of which, Jan Wong’s book Red China Blues was a much better read: a Chinese-Canadian restaurant owner’s daughter turned Maoist studying Mandarin in Beijing in the 70’s, who could top an experience like that?

  6. Da Xiangchang Says: March 19, 2005 at 2:25 pm

    I wonder how many laowais are in China to study kung fu, and I wonder WHY they’re studying it. I guess it’s for the spiritual exercises. For basic self-defense, kung fu is waayyyy overrated. Kickboxing, wrestling, and even probably Western boxing are probably far more practical. And you can get far superior instruction on martial arts self-defense in America–esp. in California–than you can in China. I think the two three countries to study PRACTICAL martial arts in the world are:

    1. The US
    2. Brazil
    3. Japan
  7. It’s been a while, but I think the one thing that struck me about the movie is that it exaggerated Mr. Salzman’s experience of being clueless. There’s that great scene in the movie where he is caught in outside the studio window imitating moves from Kung-Fu films, but in the book he mentions that he’d been studing martial arts in the US prior to coming over (I think). It works as a movie, though, where I think something like “River Town” would fall flat on the screen.

    Coming Home Crazy was another book from that era that paints a picture that is a bit unfamiliar these days.

  8. I actually really liked Iron & Silk. I read it when I was like 8 or so, and it was one of the things that first got me interested in Chinese.
    It’s been a while, but I don’t recall him claiming to be “fluent” — proficient, perhaps, but that’s only reasonable, as he started doing Chinese in high school, and then majored in it at Yale.

    And c’mon, complaining that the movie didn’t show the dark side of China isn’t really fair: it had to have been one of the first Sino-US productions, and I’m sure the script got doctored out the wazoo by The Powers That Be. I wasn’t crazy about the love story, but I suppose they put that in to make it more marketable as a movie.

  9. Brendan,

    I read the book in college, so I obviously had a different impression, but I’m pretty sure about the claim to fluency.

    I wasn’t complaining that the movie didn’t show the dark side — I sure wouldn’t want to only watch movies about China’s dark side — I was just saying that even the “dark side” presented seemed Disney-esque.

  10. I didn’t find the English corner around the West Lake in HZ when I was there on my honeymoon last year. I’m intrigued to know what happened to John when he did though. Hope you share that with us. May I be a bit cheeky? I’m looking for a good Mandarin lanaguage course in China for a few weeks, perhaps staying with a Chinese family. Can any of you recommend a good college or perhaps a discussion board about different colleges? I’m looking for some immersion before I finally take the leap and jack in my job here in the UK. Much appreciated if you can. Sorry for the short hijack but I’d trust your recommendations more than I would on most of the other tripe out there.

  11. Though I am Chinese,I don’t even have any tiny concept in my mind about .Maybe just as U’ve said,it came out in the 80s,and at that time I was just a kid (I was born in 1983).

  12. I didn’t care for the movie that much, although it did satisfy my curiosity to see Salzman, as well as to see his Chinese wushu teacher, who also played himself in the film.

    The book has value on many levels. It is Salzman’s personal story. It is as much a document about “us” as Westerners who fall in love with China as it is a document about China itself.

    Anyway, all of us (laowai’s) have fascinating and unique personal stories as students of Chinese and as visitors to China. If your stories are written well in book form, I’m sure I’ll enjoy them just as much as I enjoyed “Iron and Silk”!

  13. trevelyan Says: March 20, 2005 at 2:37 am

    Is the movie worse than “A Great Wall”? That gets my vote for the most goddaweful Sino-US friendship movie.

  14. trevelyan,

    “A Great Wall”? Never heard of it, but you’ve piqued my curiosity.

    I never said “Iron & Silk” was bad. I’m sure it’s great for certain audiences. As for me, I mostly just wanted to satisfy my curiosity.

  15. Phil,

    Basically, I was pounced upon by the “stars” of the English corner who asked me question after canned question (“Where are you from?” “Do you like Chinese food?” etc.) while a throng of onlookers literally completely surrounded me, making it difficult to escape the interrogation.

    As for studying in Hangzhou, I don’t know anything about homestays, but you may find an old entry of mine helpful:
    (Sorry, the images seem to have been lost in a host transfer.)

  16. I thought the book was a lot better than the movie, in which he comes off looking like a real dork. And wasn’t that romantic interest totally invented for the movie? It’s been years since I read the book, but I don’t remember that being in there. I think that’s when I lost the last remaining bit of respect I had for him.

  17. Prince Roy,

    There was a tiny subplot in the book involving a girl; the scene during which he gave her a ride on the back of his bike was the extent of their sexual tension in the book. Obviously that was expanded upon considerably for the movie.

  18. John,
    Love your website. This post reminded me. I’m wondering if you would record your spoken Chinese (readings of Chinese literature?) in mp3? I thought that’d fit into that Learning Chinese section of your website.
    (Also, I’m curious as to what your Chinese voice sounds like. :p)


  19. “A Great Wall”? Never heard of it, but you’ve piqued my curiosity.

  20. Da Xiangchang Says: March 22, 2005 at 1:46 am

    I don’t remember “A Great Wall” being all that bad, but I saw it when I was like ten or so. It had its funny moments. I remember “Iron & Silk” the movie being far worse, though it’s still FAR superior to “Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl” and “Beijing Bicycle.”

  21. I would recommend “A Great Wall”. Like “Iron and Silk”, I saw it when it was new in the 80’s. It isn’t perfect, but it is unique and does have it’s funny moments. Some memorable scenes:

    • the serene older Chinese man doing his morning taiji form, topping it off with a noisy fart.

    • two young Americans sitting with a young Chinese girl getting the evil eye from a table of old Chinese cadres.

    Wang Zhengfang was the writer, director and played the father in this film. He happens to have been a classmate and aquiantence of my wife when they were children in Taiwan.

    I bought the film last year on I don’t know if they still carry it or not.

    After I got the DVD, I shared it with a young Chinese friend of mine in his late 20’s. He enjoyed the film very much because of the scenes of Beijing life in the 80’s, the Beijing of his childhood.

  22. Alaric,

    OK, thanks for the info. I’ll keep an eye out for this movie.

  23. I enjoyed A Great Wall back when. The scene is still vivid in my memory where the visiting Dad and Son were sleeping in the same room with the Chinese host/relatives (a curtain or something in between) and the son couldn’t fall asleep because he hadn’t had the daily shower.

  24. I really enjoyed that movie! But, I saw it when I was about 12. I also may have been predisposed towards it since I used to play the cello, I was taking Kung Fu lessons at the time, and the main character was named Mark… All I really remember well are the part where Pan Laoshi said, “No, EVERYTHING’s like wushu!”, and the part Mark punched through the stone wall. Man, I wish I could do that.

  25. STARLONE Says: May 8, 2006 at 10:31 pm

    Both ‘Iron and Silk’ and ‘A Great Wall’ are fabulous films and should be seen by those who profess to love China and the Chinese. Sure, these films are dated, but they illustrate emphatically how far China has come since they were released. I’ve lived in China almost fifteen years, and in many ways, I long for those blessed days of innocence and purity of heart.

  26. I watched Iron and Silk last night and I quite like it. I am a native Chinese have lived in the U.S for 6 years. I think it is a very good moive to people who know nothing about China. Of course China has changed a lot since Mark has been there but I can imagine some of the things he encounted in early 1980s. Of course not everything in the movie is ture but you have to remember it is a movie.

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