The first impression of Annie Dillard’s Encounters with Chinese Writers, on glancing at title, table of contents, and jacket blurb, is this: How can this person purport to write about China? She is not a specialist; she knows nothing about the Orient. One can learn nothing about China; perhaps one will learn something about her. Famous writers, one may grouse, can get anything published.
But wait, someone says. Remember, this is Annie Dillard, the Dillard of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) who shared with readers the epiphanies of the sun breaking through on Mount Rogers while she pats a puppy, or the tree with lights in it that the newly sighted are enabled to see, who taught readers how to stalk a muskrat and how to bloom indoors like a forced forsythia through winter reading. This is the same Dillard who wrote Holy the Firm (1977), which, in contemporary terms, told readers again of the insights of medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, who immolated self in the higher Oneness like the moth in the candle flame. This is the Dillard of the poems in Tickets for a Prayer Wheel (1974) and the mystical experiences of Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982). She knows herself; she knows the Via Negativa; she sees with the inner eye of perception.
Since Dillard can see, feel, and read a situation with the doubled vision of the mystic, it matters not that she knows no Chinese, that she is not recounting a mystical experience or an epiphany, nor writing autobiographical reflections. The book is less about Dillard and more about others. Inasmuch as she has trained herself well, she is able to measure a situation, catch the importance of a particular anecdote, and—quickly in her few weeks in China—communicate something illuminating about the people and the culture.
All of which says, again, that the most important variable in any description is the observer. What an individual sees depends totally on who he is. The perception of the writer is what matters most in writing—not content, not style. Encounters with Chinese Writers is an amazing book because Dillard wrote it. She is an observer, a student (in the broadest sense), an introspective person who has the ability to capture the essence or the reality of a situation without knowing in a rational, left-brain fashion. Her way of knowing is intuitive, right-brain.
The book is arranged in two parts; first, anecdotes from her trip to China in 1982 as a part of a delegation of American writers and publishers, and second, incidents from a similar exchange the same year in which Chinese writers came to the United States. Both of these visits were relatively brief, and the same people were not involved each time. The incidents are related in no particular order, but there is a cumulative effect, a building up of layers of insight about China, so by the end one can say, “Yes, I have a greater understanding now of a different culture.”
Dillard says in her introduction that her purposes are modest—“to depict precise moments precisely,” to narrate the situation with humor and delicacy. She continues here her exploration of a new form of writing, a “nonfiction narration—a kind of Chekhovian storytelling which might illuminate the actual world with a delicate light.” Her style is to eschew comment or generalization; she teases out the paradoxes, the humor, the cross-cultural absurdities, but lets the reader make the connections. In the first anecdote, for example, Dillard explores subtle differences in body language, how the Chinese will not lower their gaze but instead gauge a person by means of long, eye-to-eye looks—looks that in the West would be considered either sexual or combative. The Chinese delegation leader, says Dillard, “is going into my soul with calipers. He is entering my eyes as if they were a mineshaft; he is testing my spirit with a plumb line.” This look, this...
(The entire section is 1614 words.)