Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Guizhou University Kurt Vonnegut Book Club

Originally posted 12 May 2008...

In light of all of the ultra-nationalist rhetoric from both the CCP and angry young Chinese men regarding the Tibet riots and the Olympic torch relay, this give me hope for our relations with China, and for China's future.  Students at Guizhou University not only smuggle in copies of Kurt Vonnegut books to read and discuss in a very serious manner.  They seem to want a better understanding of the United States.
“We don’t understand all of what Vonnegut wrote,” the club’s president, Isabel Yuan, told me, “But we think reading him helps us understand America.” Isabel and I spoke over a steaming pot of bitter pu’ er tea in a restaurant not far from the Gui Da campus. She sat upright, her black eyes focused on the porcelain cup in her hand. “Vonnegut,” she continued, “is our window into the American mind.”
The students give each other writing assignments before meetings in a way that students at elite American schools are reputed to, but that I have a hard time imagining of my community college or university undergrads.
KC members had posed these questions at last month’s meeting, and each member had prepared a written answer, which they took turns reading, occasionally correcting each other’s pronunciation of uncommon English words (“paradigm,” “subversion,” “granfalloon”).
The most insightful essay came from the only male in the club, a 23-year-old with thick, wire-framed glasses. He went by the name Little Dragon (in honor of martial arts actor Bruce Lee), and read in slow, halting English: “Intellectuals in America and intellectuals in China serve different roles. In China, the role is to serve the state. In America, the role is to serve the truth.” Little Dragon paused, looked nervously at me while pushing his glasses up his nose, and continued. “But it is said that individual Americans feel lost. They have material excess but no equality, and democracy but no power. So Vonnegut sees there is no truth worth serving, and simply behaves ridiculous.”
Among the most interesting items are that few students have an awareness of the Great Firewall of China, which censors Internet traffic in and out of the PRC, unless you are savvy enough to use a proxy server or VPN to get around it.  That, and that the leader of the Kurt Club believes that Chinese students need to learn to mock their leaders in the way that Americans mock theirs.  I would suggest the British model myself, as it seems more tolerant of dissent than our own ultra-nationalistic and partisan mode.

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