US writer’s book on Beijing appears in Chinese 7 decades later
Marian Cannon Schlesinger, 104, can still recall what Beijing was like in the 1930s, when she visited China to see her sister, Wilma Cannon Fairbank, and brother-in-law, John King Fairbank.
“I fear that old Peking and all its wonderful atmosphere, the hutong (alleys), mud houses, sounds and daily life, as I knew them, have long disappeared,” Schlesinger writes in her introduction to San Bao and His Adventures in Peking.
The book’s Chinese translation, published by Beijingbased Zhonghua Book Company, was released in October, 77 years after the original in English was first published in the United States.
“I think what I caught in my little book is almost a historical record,” she adds.
Schlesinger arrived in Shanghai in 1934 after a 17-day ship journey from the US having completed her college education.
Together with the Fairbanks, she traveled to Fuzhou, Xiamen, Shantou and Guangzhou before arriving in Beijing in 1935. On that trip, she also went to Hong Kong.
In Beijing, when then-budding Sinophiles John King Fairbank worked hard on his Chinese language skills and Wilma Cannon Fairbank researched the restoration of Tang Dynasty (618-907) rubbings, Schlesinger took Chinese painting lessons, and attracted curious onlookers while she and her sister painted. They also rode little Mongolian ponies to nearby villages.
“With all this material and a vivid memory of a unique experience, I decided to write and illustrate San Bao, the story of a small village boy who goes to the big city, Peking, and all the adventures that befall him,” Schlesinger continues in her introduction to SanBaoandHisAdventuresinPeking, the Chinese book.
San Bao, the novel’s protagonist, is a boy from a nearby village. He comes to Beijing on a donkey with his father to sell food but gets lost halfway. Then he meets Xiao Qing, a boy from the city, and together they enjoy dough figurines, watching people walking on stilts and others dancing with swords at a fair. Finally, San Bao finds his father and returns to their village, with a dragonlike kite for his friends.
Schlesinger made more than 40 illustrations for San Bao and his adventures in olden-day Beijing.
In the 1940s, she wrote other children’s books.
Zhao Wuping, vice-president of Shanghai Translation Publishing House, discovered the English-language book by accident last year when he met Holly Fairbank, a niece of Schlesinger, in New York.
At the time, Holly Fairbank had mentioned the book to Zhao, who then translated it into Chinese.
“Unlike native Chinese, Marian observes local culture and customs carefully, which are beyond her original experience. Her artistic paintings and poetic language make old Beijing come to life,” Zhao says of San Bao and His Adventures in Peking.
Cui Daiyuan, a writer from the city, describes Schlesinger’s depiction of old Beijing as faithful and says the illustrations have “great flavor”.
Cui has been living in Beijing for more than four decades, and he gets a sense of deja vu when reading the book, he says. His grandfather was born in the same year as Schlesinger, and his father was born one year after the book was first published.
“The old Beijing has left us like the setting sun, but I can see the shadows of my father and grandfather in this book,” Cui says.
Cui thinks the book explores cultural exchanges.
“Schlesinger’s view of Beijing is different from that of local people who might not find many things unusual the way she does,” he says. “The value of culture is reflected in such experiences.”
Wu Yue contributed to the story.
Marian Cannon Schlesinger and Zhao Wuping, translator of her book at Harvard University in October.