It is a marvelous book, both illuminating and a darned good read, about his experiences while teaching English at a medical college in Hunan Province from 1982 to 1984.
Of course, Salzman was not your everyday English teacher. He’d started studying kung fu at age 13 and gone on to majoring in Chinese literature at Yale, whence he graduated fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese. Oh, and one more thing about Salzman—he doesn’t travel light: He took his cello with him to China.
Because of his martial arts background, and because he was clearly an engaging, game sort of fellow, friends and colleagues and people he met on the street introduced him via the “I know someone who might know someone who might be willing to teach you” route to some excellent teachers of Chinese martial arts. The styles he studied ranged from such internal-energy-focused, “soft” styles as baguazhang to one style so “hard” that it involved turning one’s fist into a club by beating it against an iron plate to develop tough calluses.
Because of my own interest in martial arts, I found the tales of his martial arts training fascinating—but his stories about other sorts of experiences were just as compelling.
When I tell friends about “Iron & Silk,” the story I relate is about Teacher Wu, a woman who was 70 and a member of the medical college’s English Department staff when Salzman met her.
Teacher Wu and her husband had studied in America in the 1940s and then returned to China, eager to serve their country as Mao came to power and the People’s Republic of China was born. But they were western-trained intellectuals and soon came under attack. In the late 1950s, to protect his family, her husband apologized for his “crimes against socialism”—and then took his own life. During the Cultural Revolution, Teacher Wu was denounced, and her son was sent to the countryside for nearly a decade.
Teacher Wu told Salzman that she had been a musician, and she invited him to bring his cello to her apartment to play. Salzman discovered she had a piano, brought from America but now badly damaged: Not every key sounded, and those that did were seriously out of tune. The piano had survived a night-time visit of the Red Guards, who had thrown everything else in Teacher Wu’s house out the window and burned it on the street and would have done the same with the piano, except it was too heavy, so they’d contented themselves with beating it.
Salzman and Teacher Wu gave up on their attempt to play a duet. Salzman said he wished he could help her fix the piano, but that while his mother had played the piano, he had never learned to tune or repair one.
A week later, an excited Teacher Wu approached Salzman with a tuning wrench she’d managed to borrow for the day and asked him to tune her piano. He repeated that he didn’t know how. “Try!,” said Teacher Wu.
So Salzman spent the day with her piano, evicting the rats that were living inside, freeing all of the hammers, repairing the pedal system by connecting several wooden rulers with nuts and bolts, and tuning the strings against each other, having set middle C according to a Michael Jackson tape he played on his Walkman.
Salzman had asked Teacher Wu to leave while he worked on the piano. When she returned, she insisted they eat dinner first, and then she sat down and played several pieces on the piano. Beautifully, Saltzman said.
She sat quietly, and then thanked him in Chinese, and then it was time for him to leave. As they parted—and somehow I always get a bit quavery-voiced and teary-eyed when I repeat this line—she said simply:
“In your next letter to your mother, tell her you fixed a piano in China for an old lady.”