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March 1979

In China
by Arthur Miller

It was still early in our Chinese voyage and I did not yet know what I would know soon: Chinese, like the French, have little interest in traveling abroad since their country is the center of the world. It is always drought, flood, famine, some desperate circumstance that sends them out of China, rarely curiosity.

I asked Chiao Yu [a Chinese poet and playwright], “Do you get to see much foreign literature?”

“Yes, a little.”

“Any American?”

“We have one book in the Writers Union translated from America.”

“Which is that?”

Jonathan Seagull. But so far it is only available to Union members, not the public.”

“That’s the only recent American book translated?”

“I have also read Love Story. What do you think of those books?”

It was impossible to tell from his expression whether he wanted a compliment on the Chinese having translated these books or a confirmation of his own low opinion of them.

“They’re all right,” I said, “but we have better ones.” He nodded, still neutrally. “Why were those books selected for translation, do you know?”

“Because they were so popular. It was thought that they would help us to understand the Americans.”

“Ah …”

I was astounded by the ignorance of this writer facing me across the soda pop and the apples and candy on this lovely afternoon, until an old joke about the English passed through my mind, the one about the London headline: “Dense Fog—Continent Isolated.” How many Chinese writers did I know, free as I was to read anything? And had he not a better right than I to provincial sequestration when there were going on one billion Chinese, a quarter of the human race, while there were only two hundred million or so Americans? In fact, he had more compatriots than the populations of Europe, Russia, and half of India combined. Who was the provincial?

I thought about this a long time and decided that he was.

Vol. 243, No. 3, pp. 90–117

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