The needler in the haystack.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Big lesson in little Fanshen dumplings


Bill Hinton, author, mechanic, friend
and mentor, taught me about being principled.

A parable for Plainfield.

I am fortunate to count among my mentors and friends the late Bill Hinton, author of Fanshen, the classic study of agrarian reform in a small Chinese village named Long Bow.

Serving in China in the OSS (precursor to the CIA) during World War II, Bill stayed on in China after the war as a technician with UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration).

He was a hero to those of us who came of age politically in the 1960s for having fought the U.S. government to a standstill after his thousand pages of notes were seized by Customs officials when he returned to the U.S. in 1953. It took nearly fourteen years of continuous struggle to retrieve his notes, finish the manuscript for the book which became Fanshen, and find a publisher after many rejections.

Besides being a scholar and skilled mechanic, Bill was a close observer of human nature and an indefatigable story teller. He was a genius at picking stories to illustrate points he was trying to make. (You can find an obituary here.)

I remember in particular he was once trying to show that seemingly trivial incidents can have larger-than-life consequences.

Bill told of the back-breaking toil of peasant farmers in Long Bow village and how important maize dumplings were in the daily round of meals. These would be prepared and brought out to the fields for the laborers. Portions were carefully allotted.

One day a pot of steaming dumplings was left unattended and the dumplings disappeared. No one would admit to filching them.

Though the workers got by that day without the dumplings, the fact that someone among them had stolen them and had refused to come clean rankled all.

Bill used the distress, suspiciousness and animosity generated by the incident to illustrate how important accountability and absolutely meticulous fairness are in the process of social change.

The theme of the pilfered dumplings ran like a colored thread through the story, until finally the mystery was resolved -- with disastrous consequence for the perpetrator -- while a sense of balance was restored to the community.

Bill's telling of the story was not only spellbinding, its moral message was appropriated by myself and other students as a lifelong guide to behavior.

It is a cautionary tale which has resonance even in a Plainfield which has never heard of Bill Hinton or Fanshen, even in these times which are so different from those when he wrote.



-- Dan Damon [follow]


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3 comments:

Pat Turner Kavanaugh said...

Dan: thank you for introducing me and others to Hinton. Interesting the The Guardian bit left out the OSS years

Blackdog said...

Comrade Dan, Marxism and Socialism only harm the peoples who have had them forced upon them.

Blackdog said...

My in laws were OSS . . once a spy, always a spy (until the day you die).

What better cover than a former agent/scholar/farmer turned Marxist to infiltrate and gather intelligence on the radical movement of the 60s and 70s. And that book on Fanshen really lent legitimacy to his cover. Hey Dan, I bet he didn't have much nice to say about the government, did he?