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white lotus by john hersey

white lotus (1965)

by john hersey

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Title:white lotus
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White Lotus by John Hersey (1965)



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“I began to see religion as a suit of clothing...covering naked barbarity...(p)iety and cruelty were mask and face (p. 385 of the Alfred A. Knopf [© 1965] first edition I just read).”

And this is true in John Hersey’s harrowing account not only of religion! Piety masking cruelty is apparent in almost every aspect of the lives of these white slaves following another ill-defined Great War in which China emerges as the victor — and America, the loser.

Prophetic? In his Author’s Note, Hersey says not. (“This work is not intended as prophesy; perhaps it should be thought of as an extended dream about the past, for in this story, as in dreams, invisible masks cover and color known faces, happenings are vaguely familiar yet ‘different,’ time is fluid, and there is a haunting feeling that people just like us, and maybe we ourselves, have lived in such strange places as these. It is, in short, a history that might have been, a tale of an old shoe on a new foot.”)

But Hersey published this book in 1965 — which is, if memory serves, roughly the year in which I first read it — and what could he have known or foretold about the state of things in 2013?

It was Hersey’s Hiroshima,. which I read and reviewed earlier this month, that convinced me to give White Lotus. a second reading. Hiroshima. is indeed a book that “(e)veryone able to read should read.” White Lotus. is not. If I needed to read all 683 pages to arrive at that conclusion, I must confess that it was only the inertia of the story’s initial conceit that propelled me to do so.

Is White Lotus. badly written? Hardly. Hersey is an eminently capable writer. Perhaps it was only my struggle with his choice of names reflecting character (entirely in keeping with the Chinese way of doing things, which Hersey — born and raised to early adolescence in Tientsin, China — would’ve been entirely conversant in). Juxtaposed to real actions and characters, this becomes both confusing and ultimately annoying over the long haul. Perhaps a randomly chosen example — of which there are hundreds if not thousands — will help to clarify my objection:

“One day while we were walking I had a thought. ‘What about Bad Hog?’
Rock had forgotten all about the fighting cock, he started as if he had been poked with a cattle herder’s prod. ‘We must go and see that turtle Groundnut’ (p. 452).”

Is White Lotus — as Hersey suggests in his Author’s Note — really “an extended dream about (our own) past”? I’ll let you reach your own conclusion from these three (dare I say eerily familiar-sounding) examples:

“Then I realized — and the recognition gave me anger rather than relief, demoralized anger, degrading anger — that the yellows had no interest in the hurts that whites gave whites (p. 545).”

“Perhaps it had to do with the exaggerated, automatic closeness a white person felt with any other white whom he had ever known; we were all fellow members of a league of underdogs (p. 556).”

“‘Every white man for himself, I say, but it takes work. And I don’t know whether your typical white scum can ever bring himself to work hard enough. He’d rather sit around and listen to Old Arm and dream about great days to come…’ (p. 589).”

It would be unfair of me to dismiss—or even judge—this work in any way if I failed to note that when Hersey the journalist makes an effort to be Hersey the stylist, his talent is evident—as I believe the following description of Shanghai (in the brain and person of his mouthpiece character, White Lotus) will make abundantly clear:

“CITY OF WONDER! City of modern times! For three summer winter days we lived on the coppers in Rock’s leather pouch, in ease, walking about. This great port of ocean commerce, seated on a curving riverbank, Up-from-the-Sea, was a far cry from the Northern Capital. In the prosperous part of the port, called the Model Settlement, were buildings that loomed up from the ground two and three stories high and even, in the case of some of the vast white-walled mercantile hongs along the Bund, laminated skyward five and six floors! Enormous crimson or black characters, names and claims, on hanging signs. Globular electric lamps on brackets out from shop fronts, sparkling polyhedral lamps with tassels of crimson cord hanging down. Tea shops, their upper faces adorned with storytelling woodwork, carved, lacquered, and gilded. Shops of healers of sick rich men, stocked with ginseng, angelica, licorice, and powdered deer antler. Pawnshops—hope for thieves! Caverns of grass cloth, silk, satin, brocade, and embroideries whose intricacies whispered in sybaritic tones of the ruined eyes of a generation of white needlewomen.

“And the traffic, the crowds bustling for profit! Two-wheeled conveyances drawn by white men: rickshas, everywhere. And on the thoroughfares named for provinces and for other cities, several of the smoke-breathing, glistening motorcars of which we country tenants had heard but distant superstitious rumors. And thousands on thousands afoot, whites mingling without fear with yellows (pp. 553-554).”

You could do far worse than spend a week or two with John Hersey’s White Lotus. As we all have only one life to lead, live and give, however, I suspect you could also do far better.

Brooklyn, NY

( )
  RussellBittner | Dec 12, 2014 |
This book dramatizes through the eyes of one female role reversal should the Chinese overtake the world and put whites into slavery- an interesting thought experiment. The author uses quite a bit of slang to express the abject situation of the whites such as "sow, boar and pig." Eventually, liberalism emerges with the change of an emperor and the slaves are released from outright slavery. Much discrimination still ensues. A peaceful movement emerges, stating that they will "uncage the finches" as the slaves have been referred to as birds by abolishionists, as well as race heroes of their own. To sum up the whites shall only be free "when pigs fly." Despite this irony the Buddhist teachings that the Chinese are steeped in quickly shame them into advocating better treatment from the whites. The book weirdly casts Chinese society as somewhat in the golden age of the thirteenth century, yet still with the ability to conquer the world. They seem to face the threats of the Roman Empire with barbarians off the North and Muslims to the West. Addtionaly, White Lotus and the white slaves characterization depends almost entirely upon the retelling the history of the African American slavery and civil rights experience. ( )
  elle_em | Dec 20, 2009 |
Interesting examination of the human condition under the oppression of slavery. Strangely hopeful as a dreary dystopian alt. future can be. I completely didn't get the ending. ( )
  hafowler | Feb 18, 2009 |
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For Martin John Ann Baird Brook my beloved sons and daughters
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I must compose my face and push the fear and doubt beneath the skin. Nothing must show on my face today but white skin.
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