China men portrayed with magic; China Men, by Maxine Hong Kingston. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $10.95.
Maxine Hong Kingston is writing about the search for the Gold Mountain, which , for the Chinese, was the search for the desirable and the pragmatic, made of gold. She writes with poetry, fierceness, history, and legends. One feels that , when she says, "If you are an authentic Chinese you know the language and the stories without being taught, born talking them," she is writing of herself.
She is an authentic Chinese-Americanm , which may give her the advantage of having to listen very carefully to the language and stories.
This is indeed a fierce book. It makes many demands. It is full of horrors, superstitions, occasional obscenities, occasional obscenities, but when one recovers one sees them as metaphors designed to burrow under preconceptions and blandness. It is all about the Chinese fathers -- grandfathers, great-grandfathers -- who, searching for the Gold Mountain, in order to prosper their families, turned east, left their villages, went out into the world, especially the United States, bringing their antiquity, their sagacity, and their legends with them. It matches Mrs. Kingston's earlier book "The Woman Warrior," which won the 1976 National Book Critics Circle Award and told the primary story of the matriarchical influences.
"What I am doing in this new book," she said in an interview, "is claiming America." What she does more is claim the China that is infinitely stronger than any upstart culture of 350 years.
It is the profound disparity between cultures which she has captured so magically. And the China men's efforts somehow to exorcise the disparity is the story of the fathers and grandfathers. The men, far more than the women, tried to forget the old ways as they felled redwood trees, built American railroads, dynamited tunnels through mountains, opened laundries and restaurants. But they too built their legends and sent them back to the villages for the next generation to make malleable and to keep alive in the search for the Gold Mountain.
Three, four, five generations of China men, away from home, showed how these myths are made, how superstitions and belief in the supernatural can be used to ease the pain of living as servants of the "white demons." The exile saw ancient legends in the stars in order to ease the hard and dangerous life; he believed in fate; he longed for home. He dug a hole and shouted his longings into the hole. "Hello down there, China. Hello, Mother.Hello, my heart and my liver. I want home. I want home, home, home."
The story of the China men is the story of wit and survival, of cruel discrimination and Congressional Exclusion Acts. The China men built the Western railroads, yet when the pictures of the workers were taken no Chinese were seen. Still "we are the founding ancestors of this place," as one said, and they assigned themselves prerogatives, made up customs, and endowed memories with esoteric power.
Maxine Hong Kongston is brilliant. Her sense of words is magical. One has to shake one's head now and then to dispel the magic but never to dispel her insight and sagacity, her strength and resolution.