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Archive for March, 2010

Reading Chinese Classics (1)

Monday, March 29th, 2010

by Jian Ping 

I’ve been taking classes at the Asian Classics program at the Graham School, University of Chicago. It’s a four-year program covering history, literature and religion in India, Middle East, China and Japan. We have about twenty people, our age ranging from the 40s to 70s and our background differing from lawyers, scientists, school teachers, retired business owners/executives, full-time mothers, and this spring semester, as we turn our studies to Buddhism, a Zen priest. It’s a wonderful group and we meet every Saturday in Hyde Park campus for two sessions, which last for three hours—truly an enlightening and fun experience.

This is our third year, focusing on China. My husband Francis and I are both in the program. Since it’s on China, we participate more in class discussions, bringing in our cultural perspective and understanding. During the winter semester when we were studying Confucius and Mencius in one session and Tang poetry in the other, Francis and I sometimes took turns to read the text in Cantonese and Mandarin respectively, to the amazement of our American classmates—the same text sounded so differently.

I grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China, therefore, never learned Confucius’ Analects. I very much enjoyed reading it. In addition to the English text, I also read the Chinese, and sometimes, compare them side by side. I have to say that it is much easier to read it in contemporary English than the classic Chinese.

This morning, I took out The Analects and thumbed through the first few pages. Once line immediately caught my attentions:


The English translation by Roger Ames goes: The Master (Confucius) said, “When your father and mother are alive, do not journey far, and when you do travel, be sure to have a specific destination.”

This is about filial piety. According to Confucius, a filial child who observes the right ritual, 礼, should stay close to his/her parents so as to take care of them and if he/she has to travel, to tell the parents specifics about the journey so the parents can be relieved of worrying.

I know I cannot qualify as a filial daughter since my mother lives in China and I am far, far away. I do call her every weekend, though. I chat with her and two of my older sisters—Yan has moved back to care for her since Father passed away in 2008, and Wen lives two flights up in the same building and spends every evening with Mother, tending to her needs. Filial children in its true sense!   

Is it because of my astray from the teaching or the next generation who grow up in the U.S. that the tradition is fading into history?

My daughter Lisa and I live in Chicago, in two apartments less than two miles away. But I seldom see her—she is either too busy with her work or her social life, or I, by the same token, too busy with my writing, reading or social activities. However, I think it’s fair to say that my longing to see her is much stronger than her desire to see me.

Last weekend, Lisa went to Florida to join a group of friends for a short vacation.

“Please drop in a line or two and let me know you are okay,” I wrote to her via email. I know she checks her BlackBerry and does texting constantly.

Four days passed, not a single word from her. I have to get on Facebook to check her postings to learn her whereabouts.  

I don’t know I should blame her or kick myself. I wonder when I can ask Lisa to read Confucius’ Analects.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. visit or for more information.

Story Week at Columbia College

Friday, March 19th, 2010

By Jian Ping

This week is Columbia College’s Story Week, an annual event which has enjoyed a history of 19 years. I have attended various events at Story Week for the last three years and found them informative and inspiring. From authors, including big name keynote speakers such as Joyce Carol Oates this year, to book critics, publishers, and booksellers, the topic of writing is addressed from various perspectives.

I attended two panels yesterday. One at the Harold Washington Library Center, and the other at Columbia College’s Film Row Cinema. The first is focused on publishing, moderated by Donna Seaman of Booklist. Panelists include Michelle Brower, a literary agent, Johnny Temple, publisher, Akashic Books, Linda Budon, Women &Children First bookstore owner, and John Dale, author. It is very interesting to hear their career development—what drew them to their profession to start with and their perspective of today’s book industry, including the emerging e-books. Their embrace of e-book, despite still a small market share, is certainly quite different from the general view expressed by panelists a year or two before. As an author, I relish the opportunity to hear four different perspectives on the publishing and marketing of books in one talk. Donna Seaman, as always, did a wonderful job in drawing out critical information and opinions.

The other panel is a conversation between two novelists: Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing. Marcus Sakey (author of The Amateurs) interviews his mentor David Morrell (author of 32 books, including The Successful Novelist). Their conversation is witty, but covers the core of writing, namely, one writes, a lonely profession, because he or she is compelled to do so; and to get a book length project done, one needs the discipline and dedication to write every day. David Morrell states he commits to write five pages every day. He tells the story of once visiting Stephen King at his home for several days. “It is said Stephen King writes every day except his birthday and Christmas Day,” he says. “It’s a lie. He writes on Christmas Day, too.” Laughter erupts from the audience, but the message of consistent writing, every day, is crossed.

I walked away feeling inspired, knowing what I need to do, starting right away.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China.,

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For Women’s History Month: Honoring my Mother-in-law

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

by Nancy Werking Poling


During Women’s History Month we like to recall women who have made significant contributions. Last week’s trip to Maryland to visit my 98-year-old mother-in-law got me to thinking about women whose very survival merits remembrance.


My relationship with Virginia got off to an inauspicious start. For Jim the weekend was a chance to introduce his girlfriend. For me a chance to be with him and escape the college campus. For Virginia, a working mother, an imposition.

Saturday was cleaning day in the Poling household. I picked up a dust cloth, expecting her to say, “No, you’re company.” But she didn’t. And when I offered to help in meal preparation that evening, she gave me the task of mashing potatoes, which Jim’s bratty nine-year-old sister loudly mocked at the dinner table for being sticky.

As friendly as I tried to be, I don’t recall Virginia matching my efforts. My most vivid memory of that weekend was her getting upset over Jim and me teaching his siblings a card game. In fact, upset was an oft-used word among family members, as in “Don’t upset Mother.”

She opposed our marriage. At the time I assumed it was me she objected to. Later I came to understand that yes, twenty was too young to make that huge commitment.

On subsequent visits, both before and after Jim and I married, his father would draw him aside to relate how The Change was upsetting Virginia (symptoms that lasted at least fifteen years). Naturally Jim sympathized with him and passed on to me the conviction that dealing with his mother was a challenge.

For one thing, a small incident could ignite an emotional outburst. And she was a scrapper. She would not be told what to do. To her, even a hint came across as a command. Her feistiness was mainly directed toward Jim’s father.

She wasn’t a nurturer. I don’t remember her cuddling her grandchildren. I doubt that she took pleasure in being a grandmother. Yet she expressed affection in ways congruent with who she was. A quilter, she once made long patchworks skirts for her daughter and the three daughters-in law. She made a puffy bed cover in pink and red for our daughter, a wool comforter for our son.

Once Jim and I discovered a clue about the possible cause of her obstreperous personality. A few questions about her father evoked a shrill, “I don’t want to talk about him.” She never said much more, except that he’d been domineering.

Not until I myself had matured and become a little wiser did I begin to sympathize with Virginia. An intelligent woman, she graduated from college in the thirties, during the Great Depression, with a major in French. The only job available was as a secretary at a church’s national headquarters west of Chicago. For her it was a time of independence and close friendships. She was in daily contact with people who were traveling abroad. When she was almost thirty she met and married Jim’s father, a seminary student. Within a short time she found herself the mother of three boys. A daughter came along later. Virginia’s adult life was marked by hard work and stringent expectations about what the pastor’s wife should be like. Her husband’s salary could barely support a family, and the small parsonage was overcrowded.

Jim’s father died in 2002, leaving the family stuck with a cantankerous old lady. An old lady who’s blind and can only hear if someone yells in her ear.

An old lady myself now, I’ve become more understanding of Virginia’s nature. I see her as a survivor. Maybe a genetic disorder made her subject to emotional outbursts, and her father didn’t know how to deal with her. It was, after all, an age of Spare the rod and spoil the child. Or maybe he was an abusive father and she survived by fighting back. Or maybe something terrible happened when she was young, a traumatic event she’s repressed in an effort at self-preservation.

What were her dreams? Did anyone ever ask? Last Saturday, in her room at the nursing home, she asked Jim where I was. He told her I was introducing myself to area bookstores, familiarizing managers with my novel. “I always wanted to write,” she said. She went on to tell him she’d long had ideas for stories. Sunday she asked me for a full account. I leaned close to her ear and described Saturday’s venture.

How is it that age has finally offered us the wisdom to accept each other? After nearly fifty years she seems to recognize that I am no threat. I have come to admire her strong will. She said on Sunday she’s going to make it to one hundred, which wouldn’t surprise me.

These thoughts lead me to extend my musings to a wider circle of women, women labeled as screwed up, bitches, whores, bad mothers. Some live in self-protective shells; some lash out from an intense fury; some try to dominate. We don’t know their stories. We do know that by the time she is eighteen, one in four girls has been sexually abused. Too many grow up in violent households. Too many are denied the opportunity to pursue their dreams. Yes, trauma and neglect can have a lifelong impact.

Can I, in my new wisdom, find ways to accept and support women whose lives are marked by anxiety, fury, a fear of being controlled? Women who are hard to like?

When we said goodbye Sunday, my eyes watered over the possibility that though Virginia is determined to make it to a hundred, she may die before we again make the long trip to see her. If that is so, I can’t picture her dropping off into a peaceful hereafter. No, she’ll exit this earthly life fighting.

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The Miracle Worker

Thursday, March 18th, 2010
I went to New York City last weekend and watched the revival of William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker at Circle in the Square Theatre. The play stars Abigail Breslin and Alison Pill as Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan. Other stars include Mathew Modine, Jennifer Morrison and Elizabeth Franz. It is directed by Kate Whoriskey.

I knew Helen Keller’s story, but had not seen the play or the film before. I was deeply touched by the wonderful performance, with tears welling up in more than one occasion. Alison Pill rendered Annie’s role superbly. The play not only demonstrated Annie’s dedication teach Helen the “language” that will enable her to express herself and make connection with the rest of the world and the challenges Helen faces in the total darkness of a world without vision and sound, but also the impact of Helen’s blindness and deaf on her entire family.  The powerful story is staged with powerful and dynamic acting. Check it out if you visit New York City.  Definitely worthwhile to see. Here is the website of the show:

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China.,

Movies for the Masses – Oscars for the Few

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010
2010 Academy Awards Oscars Poster

Image by Geek Tonic via Flickr


I’ve always been a movie buff, as is my wife.  She is even more serious than I am, having watched 40 films at this year’s Palm Springs International Film Festival.  She loves watching the Oscars.  I’m not always as keen, because I think the process over the years has become rather boring and predictable.  This year however was, to my mind, considerably more entertaining.  The double act of Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin – while not Martin and Lewis, or Abbott and Costello – was certainly entertaining, and their patter at the expense of many of the big stars was slick and amusing.  The opening number, which was more Las Vegas than Hollywood led by Neil Patrick Harris, provided the necessary grand spectacle, although Harris was no Gene Kelly. 

What has however become increasingly interesting about the Oscars is, that the awards are handed out year-after-year to the “small films,” those low-budget often foreign-made movies, with superb acting, outstanding direction and for the most part, a lack of special effects and hundreds of millions of marketing dollars.  Films like recent winners, “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Queen” are good examples. 

Movies are nevertheless mass entertainment.  They were created for that purpose, and that is the basis on which Hollywood was built.  It is interesting therefore that the Academy would choose “The Hurt Locker,” a small budget picture with virtually unknown actors and a director who had limited success to date, over “Avatar,” which within a few months has become the most financially successful movie of all time, based upon its innovative special effects and the first successful use of a 3-D process. 

Other “small” movies to be recognized included “Precious,” a dark painful look into the very realistic lives of the black underclass in America.  However, a movie such as “Up in the Air,” with the star power of George Clooney, a worthy entry for many of the award categories, failed to win even one Oscar. 

So the Academy is, to my mind, doing its job.  It is handing out awards for quality production, direction, story, music and acting.  The movies that it honors however are not the movies which bring in the big bucks for the industry, or to which the public flocks every weekend.

I suppose James Cameron can take some comfort in his defeat for Best Picture and Best Director by his ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow, in the fact that Avatar so far has taken $2.5 billion in world-wide sales against the “Hurt Locker’s” ticket sales of $19 million. 

Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden:

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Thursday, March 4th, 2010
German Late Medieval (ca. 1370s) depiction of ...
Image via Wikipedia

by Nancy Werking Poling


Humankind shared a common language—until a group decided to build a great city and a great tower, an action God sabotaged by confusing their communication. The story of the Tower of Babel has been used to explain why the earth is inhabited by people who speak different languages.

Women, too, once spoke a common language.


There was a time when sorrow was the language that connected women. Some held the hands of sisters and friends as they died at childbirth. Many wept at the graves of their children taken by disease or hunger. Those who did not lose sisters or friends or children still grasped the horror and mourned with women who survived.

Wars claimed the lives of husbands, brothers, sons. Women’s homes were invaded, their bodies raped. Those who did not witness war still grasped its horror and mourned with women who survived.

Yes, it used to be that women everywhere understood the language of sorrow.

Then some migrated, found a place to the west. There they said to one another, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower that extends to the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves so that our wealth will be recognized over all the earth.”

When they had built the city and the tower, the women said among themselves, “See what great feats we are able to do.”

But God looked down upon the city and its tower and said, “Look, those women have built this grand city and think they have made a name for themselves. But they have forgotten the language that used to connect them to others. They no longer recognize the sorrow of those who lose sisters and friends at childbirth. They are not longer familiar with the agony of women who weep at the graves of children who have died of disease or hunger. They no longer understand women whose homes are invaded, their bodies raped when war spreads over their land.”

For that reason God named the city Babel, which means confused.


Saturday is International Women’s Day. In Half the Sky Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn make the case that developing countries can most be helped by educating girls and supporting women’s entrepreneurial efforts. They list “Four Steps You Can Take in the Next Ten Minutes,” the first being “Go to” I just donated, designating that the money go as a business loan to Nicaraguan women. Please join me in responding to women’s needs in distant countries.

Also check out Kristof’s blog:

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Reading a Mother-daughter Story

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

By Jian Ping

Travel with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story

It was by chance I came across Travel with Pomegranates by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor over the weekend. Since I am working on my next book with my daughter Lisa, also a mother-daughter journey, I started reading it right away. I couldn’t put it down. I pushed my own writing aside and re-arranged my other activities so I could keep my nose in the book.

I was very touched by the deep level of reflection both Sue and Ann demonstrated. They each embarked on a journey of self-discovery: coming to terms with aging for Sue and finding a direction/vocation for Ann. The first-person narrative shifted seamlessly between the two, and the writing, beautiful. On several occasions, I was so moved that I found tears running down my face. What touched me most was the mother’s awareness of her distance from her daughter and her attempt to shorten it, meanwhile, learning to let her child go; and the daughter’s understanding of her mother and the love and trust she placed in her mother, despite her own fierce pursuit for independence.

The story, however, almost presented a perfect mother-daughter relationship—no direct conflicts, no misunderstanding, no resentment. They were both angels! A teenager’s coming of age, a young woman sinking into depression, an ambitious career woman pursuing her writing dream. Could such a relationship be realistic? Or is it glossed over? I wonder. It may not be their focus or intention to deal with their conflicts, but as woman reader and a mother, seeing the subtitle “a mother-daughter story”, I would have loved it better if it had addressed more of their relationship and the process of revelation over the years—how they grow closer and form a deeper bonding by their joint exploration.

Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book to mothers and daughters. Actually I went to a bookstore today and bought a copy for my daughter and another copy for a close friend.  

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. visit,


Monday, March 1st, 2010

Helene Hegemann, From an Article - Berliner Zeitung

In the rapidly changing world of the internet, streaming, blogging, Kindle, and instant headlines, it appears that what was considered unforgivable sins in the literary world of the past, is now acceptable technique.  I read an interesting article in the Sunday New York Times by Randy Kennedy on the modern view of plagiarism.

Over the past hundred years or so in modern literature from around the world, copying passages from another author was unforgivable.   But now, a new sensational German teenage novelist, Helene Hegemann, has been named as a finalist for a prestigious literary prize for her book about Berlin’s club scene.  The announcement prompted a blogger and another novelist to inform the world in general that Ms. Hegemann had included chunks of other people’s work in her book. When faced with these accusations, she announced that appropriating passages from other people’s books had always been her plan.  So, there was not the usual remorse on being accused of plagiarism.

Ms. Hegemann’s claim is that she believes that she has the right to use anything at hand to help her in her creative process, and she believes that her generation, bombarded with instant resources of information, should take advantage of the information age and not be bothered about original sources.  So far not unexpectedly, her ideas of communal creativity is not shared by either those from whom she has borrowed, or the literary world in general.

There are those who will argue that “borrowing” prose, ideas, and historical announcements, has been the foundation of writing throughout the centuries, and many in Ms. Hegemann’s generation will argue that creative writing is years behind other creative arts, who appropriate ideas, scenes and real life props into their work.

There are of course legitimate arguments in this area, particularly in the visual arts of, say, Andy Warhol’s use of a Campbell’s soup can, the pirating of classical music for modern pop, and many a legal battle has been fought over plagiarism in the literary world.. 

Sometimes, the use of other people’s writings or information is hard to avoid.  I personally was extremely upset when Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose historical biographies I had always enjoyed, was accused of plagiarism in her writings about Roosevelt.  When one is writing either fact or fiction, it is sometimes difficult to know whether thoughts that are written down are original or are based on something one has read or heard in the past.

There is going to be a considerable amount of soul searching on these issues from an ethics and legal point of view.  My personal view is that to attach your name to any literary work provides you with an obligation to be responsible for its creative originality. 


Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden:

Jian Ping/Jennifer Hou Kwong–Introduction Video

Monday, March 1st, 2010

Please click below to view introduction video on Jian Ping/Jennifer Hou Kwong:

Introduction Video

Thank you.