Features » April 11, 2008
Book Club of Champions
'We don't understand all of what Vonnegut wrote, but we think reading him helps us understand America. Vonnegut is our window into the American mind.'
Guizhou University sits on the outskirts of Guiyang City, the sleepy capital of China’s poorest province. Undergraduate tuition is the equivalent of $250 per term, books and housing included. A meal of pulled noodles, hot pot or sweet and sour pork runs about $1, while the soup-and-rice special in the dining hall costs a dime. The two most popular courses at the school are Mao Tse Dung Economic Thought and an early morning Kung Fu class that meets on the soccer field.
Life at Gui Da, as the school is locally known, is economically, socially, culturally and politically removed from life in America. Despite this, the school is home to an informal – and unlikely – group: a Kurt Vonnegut Fan Club.
“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.”
Great firewall of China
If it is surprising to find Vonnegut fans in China’s vast and impoverished west, then it is stunning to learn that they are hoping to view America through Vonnegut’s eyes.
The biggest shock, however, is also the most inspiring: Vonnegut’s writing has helped members of his fan club criticize their own history and political system, something still largely unthinkable outside the confines of the club’s monthly meetings.
Vonnegut, who once wrote that the purpose of his writing was to “catch people before they become generals and presidents and so forth, and poison their minds with humanity,” would no doubt be proud. Bemused but proud.
I recently attended an evening meeting of the fan club, known to members as the KC, or Kurt Club. Eight women and one man met in a chilly dorm room on the Gui Da campus. They whispered to each other while thumbing through bootleg copies (acquired via a tiny campus blackmarket of English books) of the British edition of the Vonnegut classic Breakfast of Champions, waiting for the meeting to begin.
Shortly after six, a young woman with a round face and a heavy Cantonese accent stood and introduced herself as Rose. She recited the club’s unofficial motto, culled from the pages of Vonnegut’s 1961 novel, Mother Night: “We are what we pretend to be,” she said in a quavering voice, “so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”
No warning could be more apt for today’s China – a totalitarian, free market, crony capitalist wonderland pretending to be socialist and democratic.
Isabel stood, opening her book to a dog-eared page. She pointed to a few of the simple, felt-penned drawings Vonnegut included in the book, each more ridiculous than the last: an American flag, an anus, underpants, the date “1492,” a vagina. Isabel blushed as she pointed to the last one, but quickly got to her point. “Our authors are always so serious,” she began, “but Vonnegut is outrageous. What is his purpose here, and do you support his strategy?”
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.”
Rose hopped out of her chair. She had rolled her copy of Breakfast of Champions into a tube, squeezing it tightly. “This is all true, and this is the danger for our China,” she said. “If we follow the American path [toward] so-called democracy and capitalism, we will lose any sense of truth. Money is not truth, and Vonnegut recognizes this is the only value in America.”
Rose proposed that China reclaim its lost Confucian values, and “return to the values of family and stability, rather than money and greed.”
An hour later, as the meeting came to a close, one final question caught my attention: “Is it true that Confucius is better than capitalism?” These words came from the youngest woman in attendance, a 21-year-old recent graduate of Gui Da. Her English name, I later learned, was Pea Pod.
“I can’t even understand Confucius,” she continued with a twinkle in her eyes, “but I understand being rich. Either way, we Chinese must learn to be like Vonnegut. He is irreverent, and this is the best way to get people to listen.”
Pea Pod then told the others about her frustration with Great Firewall of China, the government’s massive attempt at Internet surveillance and censorship. As many as 40,000 full-time censors work at any one time in Beijing, lurking in chat rooms and searching for signs of political unrest. None of the other members knew what Pea Pod was talking about – much like the vast majority of Chinese, unaware of government efforts to control information. She continued: “Jokes will let people discuss this topic without feeling it is too threatening. We must learn to view our government and our problems with a sense of humor.”
As KC members filed out of the room, I caught up with Isabel. She was happy about the evening’s discussion. The KC, she explained, has come a long way. It was founded two years ago, shortly after Isabel and her classmates were introduced to Slaughterhouse-Five (the introduction occurred in a class I taught at Gui Da while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer).
“Young people in China are searching for new ways to think,” she told me as we walked toward the main gate of the campus. “But we are always careful. I think I love Kurt Vonnegut because he lets me laugh while also thinking in ways that are not popular in China.”
Isabel continued: “No one laughed at Chairman Mao, and no one laughs at [current leader] Hu Jintao. But Americans laugh at George Bush every day. I think this is the source of your power, and I wish China could learn to do the same.”
Roses are red
We reached the university gate just as my bus rumbled toward us in a cloud of dust. Isabel fumbled for her copy of Breakfast of Champions. “Vonnegut is my guide,” she said, “but there is still a lot I don’t understand. Can you explain these sentences to me before you go?”
She opened to a page I could barely see. As the bus door opened, I made out the sentences, circled and notated with a question mark: “Roses are red and ready for plucking. You’re 16 and ready for high school.”
I hopped on the bus and leaned out the window. “Sorry, Isabel,” I said as we pulled away. “You’ll just have to discuss that at the next meeting of the KC.”
ABOUT THIS AUTHOR
Mike Levy served as a Peace Corps volunteer in China from 2005-2007. Learn more about him at The Other Billion.