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One Country, One Book

How Reading Taught a Young Chinese Boy How to Dream

April 28, 2002|DAVID SHEFF | David Sheff is the author of "China Dawn: The Story of a Technology and Business Revolution."

Edward Tian has been called China's Bill Gates, its Steve Jobs. One Chinese journal went so far as to call him "Bill Gates and Steve Jobs rolled into one." As co-founder of AsiaInfo, he helped build that nation's Internet. Then in 2000, he left AsiaInfo for a government-funded start-up called China Netcom. Its mission: to create a broad-band network that would connect China, from its teeming metropolises to its most remote villages, to the global Internet via the fastest network on the planet.

"With our technology, enlightenment can flow through the taps like water," Tian says. "When it does, it will enlighten our whole nation."

Tian's given name is Suning, an uncommon Chinese name that means "Remember Leningrad." His parents met in Leningrad in 1954 at the Forestry Technology Academy. Returning to China in 1960, they were assigned to work as researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. They married in Beijing in 1961; Tian was born two years later. He was sent to live with his grandparents in Shenyang because his parents had been assigned to a research institute in the far-off Gobi Desert.

Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution began in 1966 when Tian was 4. As foreign-educated intellectuals, his parents were denounced as "cow's demon and snake spirit" and were sent to concentration camps. Tian remained with his grandparents, but their home was taken over by Mao's Red Guard. When the Guard forced Tian's grandfather to surrender his beloved collection of world literature to a bonfire in the frontyard, Tian tried to rip a book out of a soldier's hands. "These are my grandfather's!" Tian shrieked, but the guard knocked him to the ground.

There was no word from his parents and almost no food. Tian says that it was the dark age of his life and the dark age of modern China, characterized for him by a single emotion: hunger. "All I remember is hunger," he says. "Hunger for food. Hunger for information."

Approved writings--Mao's works and volumes of Marxist propaganda--were the only books allowed during the Cultural Revolution. As Tian had witnessed, other books--"poisonous weeds"--were burned. As a result, he says that he had never been told any stories and had "nothing to give me a dream." He says, "Without stories, I never learned to dream. I did not dream."

When he turned 11, Tian became gravely ill. His parents, informed that their son was dying, were allowed to travel to Shenyang, where they took turns sitting by Tian's bed in the hospital. One afternoon, his father pulled a book out from where it had been hidden under his coat and he began to read. The book was an old Chinese translation of Jules Verne's "L'Ile Mysterieuse" (The Mysterious Island), originally published in three parts. His father had the first, "Shipwrecked in the Air."

"'Are we rising again?'

"'No. On the contrary.'

"'Are we descending?'

"'Worse than that, Captain. We are falling!'"

It was the first story Tian had ever heard.

His father read the adventure of the escape from a Confederate prison in Richmond, Va., by five soldiers who had been fighting for the North in the American Civil War. They dramatically escaped in a hot-air balloon, but the balloon crash-landed on an island, where the men struggled to find food and shelter. The heroic soldiers miraculously survived.

So did Tian, who grew stronger as he vicariously lived life on the island, where the men, revitalized, prepared a feast of kangaroo soup and suckling pig. In the middle of the meal, one of the men let out a "cry and an oath." When his friends asked what was wrong, the man replied, "I have just broken a tooth!" He drew from his lips "the object which had cost him a grinder" and discovered that it was not a pebble, as they expected. It was a leaden bullet.

His father closed the book. There was no more to read.

Tian was aghast. Who else was on the island? And for 10 years, he didn't know whether these men lived or died. But he recalls, "I lay in the hospital bed and I dreamed. For the first time in my life. I dreamed of many possibilities. Before I had nothing to imagine, but my imagination had been ignited."

All of China began to dream again, too, when the Cultural Revolution ended with the death of Mao on Sept. 9, 1976. The ascension of Deng Xiaoping was celebrated in the streets with drums and gongs. Deng "opened our eyes to the outside world," Tian says. "It was like seeing for the first time after living your life in darkness."

Tian had been a mediocre student, uninspired by the Mao-centric propaganda disguised as curriculum. However, he took to his studies with passion and seriousness and won a place at Liaoning University. The first week on campus, he went to the university's reopened and replenished library.

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