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'(His) stories didn't strike us as . . . American. It was just so true, so moving, so touching.' : Chinese Scholar Follows the Call of Jack London

March 03, 1988|BERKLEY HUDSON | Times Staff Writer

Li Shuyan, scholar from the People's Republic of China, is speaking with sheer delight about her favorite American writer, Jack London.

On her lunch break, Li is talking in English. She speaks nearly flawlessly and with great rapidity and complexity about why she has traveled halfway around the world to spend three months ensconced in the muffled quiet of a windowless room filled with rare books at the Huntington Library in San Marino.

A professor in the English department at Beijing University, Li, 50, has for years wanted to immerse herself in the study of London.

At the turn of the 20th Century, the larger-than-life London rose from the working-class poverty of Oakland's waterfront to become a huge popular and financial success. In 1903 he became famous worldwide with the publication of "The Call of the Wild," the story of a dog stolen from his home and taken to Alaska, where he relies on his instincts to survive.

Searches for Clues

Because her time in America is so precious, Li said, she can spare time for an interview only now, at lunch. Morning, noon and night, she pores over London manuscripts, photo albums, scrapbooks, diaries and letters. She searches for clues that will help her understand the writer she has adored since she was a child in China. Furthermore, Li said, she will use her research to write the first Chinese biography of London.

She is the first Chinese scholar, library staff members say, to study at the Huntington. The private library is considered by scholars to have the best Jack London collection anywhere.

As Li speaks, a brown-bag lunch in hand, she walks in the bright sunshine that bathes the manicured walkways and lush grounds. She looks around at buildings filled with fine books and fine art and says: "This is so very rare a chance for me, indeed."

The library brought Li to San Marino as a Huntington scholar, financing her studies on this, her first visit to America. She arrived in December and leaves this month. She spends most of her time at the library, but during the last two weeks of her stay she will visit the East Coast.

Popular in Socialist Lands

With such fixity of purpose, Li said, she has little time to miss her husband, a plant pathologist, or her daughter, a student at Beijing University. A second daughter is attending college in Illinois.

Although it may seem odd that her specialty is Jack London, Li explains that for someone from a socialist country it isn't. As a teen-ager, London became a socialist, and some of his writing was very much influenced by his politics. In 1921 the first translations of his works appeared in China, and during the 1920s London became among the most popular American writers in Russia.

In fact, the London books that Li first encountered in the late 1940s, when she was 10 and 11 and spending her summers reading American writers, had been published in the Soviet Union and translated into Chinese.

In Li's family of seven children, there were always books, she says. Her older brother and sister gave her stories by Mark Twain and Jack London. She read London's "A Piece of Steak," about an Australian prizefighter past his prime and short on money for rent and food.

"This story," she says, as she eats a chicken salad sandwich, "moved me very much as a little girl." She also read London's "The Apostate," about a boy who worked in factories and then ran away from home. "These stories didn't strike us as particularly American. It was just so true, so moving, so touching."

Later, as a college student in the 1950s, Li again read London and decided to become a student of the works of English-language authors.

Chinese 'Too Easy'

"From a very small girl, I was very interested in literature. I was arrogant and thought I had a very good brain. I thought Chinese (literature) was too easy to master because it was only my native language." She laughs at the notion. "I wanted to be a literary critic."

Li chose English as her specialty even though most other language students were studying Russian because of the strong Soviet influence in China then. "They thought English was the language of the enemy, and there was no need to learn it. Nowadays we realize how stupid that was," she said.

Because admission standards to study English were so strict, she says, she became one of only 100 students studying the language in mainland China at that time.

Deemed Unpopular

She read Hawthorne, Twain, Hemingway, Thoreau, Dreiser and her favorite, London. Later, her work as a professor required that she concentrate on American authors who were considered popular among critics, and London was not among them. In recent years, though, she has taught summer courses on London.

In the early 1980s the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences asked Li to participate in a project to introduce American authors to Chinese readers. To the surprise of her colleagues, she wanted to focus on London. "They asked me: 'Do you think you would want to waste your time or talent on this?' I said: 'Why not?' "

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