China Legacies, Lived and Recalled

By Robert W. Barnett

East Gate/M.E. Sharpe. 166 pp. $24.95

Robert W. Barnett's "Wandering Knights" may be read as morality play, as subtle political analysis, as essay on the human condition or as footnote to a forgotten bit of history. But perhaps, as I expect Robert Barnett intended, we can see it as mixed metaphor of the contrasts that underlie Chinese and American ways of thought.

Best of all you can forget the above and enjoy a casual stroll down a bypath that leads you through the Looking Glass into a quiet Chinese courtyard. There the past is still present and the present is more past than either Mao Zedong or John Foster Dulles would have believed. There, as never should be forgotten, China still runs on China's own kind of time.

The conductor of this delightful tour is a retired foreign service officer with tenacious Chinese roots (born into the extraordinary YMCA-in-China) who came to endure McCarthyite bashing, but escaped the worst by being shunted into a European purdah from which after a decade he emerged to go back to his beloved China field.

It is difficult to imagine a more obscure subject than that chosen by Barnett for this gemlike essay. It deals with his friendship with a Chinese scholar and their shared interest in the Wandering Knights. The reference is to Chapter 124 of "Shih chi," a fabulously long historical epic of China written by Ssu-ma Ch'ien, his father and his son roughly 100 years before the Christian epoch.

Ssu-ma Ch'ien's extraordinary historical work is known to almost every educated Chinese, was much valued by Mao as a guide to the problems of ruling his vast empire but is unknown in America to all but a handful of specialists and ethnic Chinese.

Barnett and Sun Yutang met in World War II Kunming. Amid wartime concerns they undertook an authoritative translation of Ssu-ma Ch'ien's chapter about the Wandering Knights, roving benefactors to the unfortunate and downtrodden, a bit like Robin Hood, a bit like Lochinvar, men of high principle and compassion who lived outside the rules of a cruel and oppressive society, putting their swords and their courage at the service of the weak -- the Dick Tracys and Supermen of their time.

The Wandering Knights righted wrongs, took justice into their own hands and lived outside the Confucian system. They were men of pure heart, tolerant in an intolerant world, incorruptible in a world of bribery, deceit and family influence. They were heedless of danger to life and liberty, never boasted of their achievements, vanished into the distance after doing a good deed. They brought into the classic walled Chinese society a breath of humanism. Often they were captured and executed by emperors who saw them as criminals and a threat to the system.

After their brief meeting in Kunming, Barnett lost track of Sun Yutang. From 1945 onward he had no word of him until one day 34 years later he slit open a letter from Austin, Tex. Sun Yutang had gotten to the University of Texas on a grant.

Robert Barnett and Sun Yutang met again, picking up their talks where they had left off -- about the Wandering Knights, about Barnett's theory of the "China-ness" of China, its unique and persisting continuity through the millennia of its existence. These were the kind of talks that could go on for a lifetime. But Sun Yutang did not have a lifetime left. His health had been ruined by maltreatment during the Cultural Revolution and other tortures of the Mao era. He returned to China and before Barnett could join him for more quiet walks in the garden of China's traditions another letter had come -- reporting that Sun Yutang had died.

This, then, is a chapbook, of two thoughtful men of separate worlds who for a brief time came together and chatted thoughtfully. Not for a moment did their talk make everything clear and simple. They were wise enough to understand that not much in their two worlds was easy to comprehend.

A Chinese who shared many of Sun Yutang's characteristics once explained why Chinese and Americans could come so close. "There are no other persons with whom we can talk so freely," he said. "We can't talk to each other without weighing every word. We share family castes, clans, ranks. We must weigh every word. You Americans are free and easy. Only with you can we be at ease. You don't understand our rigid caveats and wouldn't care if you did."

"Wandering Knights" is a testimonial to the symbiosis of a Chinese-American search for small truths in a vast civilization.

The reviewer has written widely on the Soviet Union and China. He is currently at work on a study of the post-Mao era in China.