Hemingway's Literary Escape

‘The Old Man and the Sea’ Resonates Both with Political Dissidents and Xi Jinping

One noonday in 2002, a friendly acquaintance of mine—I’ll call him Q—left his office in a Beijing concert hall to go to lunch and never returned. After a series of inquiries, his wife and colleagues learned that he had been arrested. Various charges were leveled—embezzlement, tax evasion—until something was made to stick and Q was sentenced to seven years in jail, the victim of his own success in a music world rife with politics and riven by disagreement over concert hall real estate.

For the first two years in jail, Q did not have reading material other than the People’s Daily and some Marxist materials. But around 2004, prison conditions improved and he was suddenly given access to literature. The book that provided Q with the most sustenance and hope was a small masterpiece by Ernest Hemingway: The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway’s famous fish tale tells of an old man named Santiago who goes out to sea alone with no food, catches the biggest marlin imaginable, and then spends several days and nights fighting off sharks and exhaustion as he struggles (unsuccessfully) to haul the fish into Havana Harbor. The book is popular not only among those who languish in China’s prisons, but among leaders who serve at the highest echelons of its government (and, who knows, maybe also in the growing area where the two categories intersect). Indeed, President Xi Jinping himself has mentioned his passion for The Old Man and the Sea on several occasions, most recently during a speech in Seattle on his September 2015 state visit to the United States.

The Old Man and the Sea was first translated into Chinese in 1952 (the year it was published) under the auspices of the United States Information Service in Hong Kong, which hired the renowned novelist Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing) to do the work. Chang’s translation presumably did not get far in the P.R.C., although it did spark a craze for the book in Taiwan, where more than 40 different versions have been published. However, in 1954 China’s minister of culture Mao Dun (also a renowned writer) convened a National Conference on Literary Translation, which stressed the importance of “enhancing literary translation to the level of artistic creation.” Most of the books subsequently translated were by Soviet realists, but in 1956 a Chinese version of The Old Man and the Sea appeared in a literary magazine. The novella was removed from the shelves in the 1960s, as were countless other works of Chinese and world literature, but still circulated widely among young people. It was perhaps during this period that Xi first read it, as he has explained that he had access to a confiscated library while toiling in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. The book was translated again in the reform era, as were many of Hemingway’s other novels. A 2004 The Old Man and the Sea translation by Wu Lao has sold more than a million copies and been reprinted 22 times; more recently, the translator Li Jihong has become famous for his translation. The book is also widely read in English classes, since its short sentences and simple prose are deemed appropriate for language learners.

The Old Man and the Sea is at heart a hymn to perseverance, endurance, faith, and resourcefulness. It is a paean, in the romantic tradition, to the individual who refuses to give up even in the face of nearly insurmountable odds. “But man is not made for defeat,” Santiago assures himself in the midst of his ordeal. “… A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” Santiago believes that will and skill trump fate. “It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.” Physical suffering, too, shall pass; examining his cramped and bloody hands, which have been shredded by the fishing line, Santiago shrugs off the pain: “It is not bad… And pain does not matter to a man.” It is also a warning—the lesson Santiago takes away from his struggles is: “Don’t go out too far… I went out too far.”

It is not hard to understand why many people in China are drawn to Hemingway’s story and identify with its humble protagonist—whether they are trying to survive jail or remake a nation. But a lesser-known aspect of Hemingway’s popularity in China springs from his visit there in the early months of 1941 when he met both Chiang Kai-shek, who he disliked, and Zhou Enlai, who he called a man of enormous charm and great intelligence. Going to China was not Hemingway’s idea; he had just received a massive advance for film rights to a novel and saw no need to leave his idyllic Cuban retreat to traipse around a distant nation at war. But his wife at the time was the intrepid and glamorous war correspondent Martha Gellhorn and she was determined to visit the Chinese battlefront and report about it for the magazine Colliers. She persuaded Hemingway to join her, and the two ended up in Hong Kong, where Hemingway shot pheasants, got drunk, and set off firecrackers in his hotel room. Gellhorn left him in Hong Kong and flew to Chongqing and Kunming in a DC-2 with most of its seats removed to accommodate the 5,000 kilos of mail and U.S.$55 million in banknotes that were typical monthly freight for China National Aviation Company’s five-plane fleet. Because the planes had to fly over Japanese-occupied territory, they took off only if the weather was very bad (so the Japanese couldn’t see them). Passengers were given their departure time with a few hours notice and handed “a rough brown blanket and a brown paper bag for throwing up” when they boarded. Gellhorn made it to Kunming and back. She reported of the city, “The Japs claimed to have destroyed it but, as they destroyed, the Chinese residents repaired. Endurance was the Chinese secret weapon. The Japanese should have understood that, and everybody else had better remember it.”

Gellhorn then dragged Hemingway from the pleasures of colonial Hong Kong to the privations of war-torn China. They sailed on a filthy boat, anchored outside towns where the black cholera flag flew, slithered up mud banks, and switched to horses that were so small Hemingway claimed he could walk and ride simultaneously because his feet touched the ground. When Hemingway’s horse fell in the mud, Gellhorn said he picked it up and started to walk with it. In her memoir, Travels with Myself and Another, she recounts their conversation: “‘Put that horse down.’ He said, ‘I will not, poor bloody horse.’ I said, ‘You’re insulting the Chinese. Put it down!’ He said, ‘My first loyalty is to this horse.’” They battled swarms of mosquitoes and so many bed bugs Hemingway yearned for a pistol to shoot them; subsisted on boiled water and whiskey; and passed through paper arches with signs like “Welcome American Friends Directing our Defective Points” and “Warm Welcome to American News Reporters” (which angered Hemingway, who considered the label “reporter” an insult). All along the way, they visited training camps, barracks, and classrooms where Hemingway gave rousing speeches to beleaguered KMT soldiers, many of whom were teenagers clothed in rags. When Gellhorn complained about the atrocious conditions, he responded witheringly: “Who wanted to come to China?”

Upon meeting Chiang Kai-shek, they were startled by his lack of teeth; a U.S. diplomat later told Gellhorn “It was the highest compliment to be received by the Generalissimo with his teeth out.” When Gellhorn asked Madame Chiang why more help wasn’t given to lepers who roamed the streets begging, she was told lepers liked to beg and that “China had a great culture when your ancestors were living in trees and painting themselves blue.” An amused Hemingway asked if she had learned not to mess with “The Empress of China.” Their meeting with Zhou was a cloak-and-dagger affair that involved following a tall blonde European woman through a Chongqing market and riding in a rickshaw blindfolded, but they were both extremely impressed by the debonair and intelligent Communist leader. The U.S. Secretary of Treasury had asked the pair to report how Chiang was spending all the money America sent him. According to Gellhorn, they later advised, “that the Communists would take over China, after this war. Why? Because the Chiang lot were hell … and the people would welcome any change, even two-headed men from Mars, but as it happened the best man in the country [Zhou] was a Communist and it was safe to assume he had some comrades like him.”

Hemingway had essentially promised the U.S. government not to say anything bad about the KMT, so he wrote little about China. One admiring piece does stand out, in which he compares the construction of a Chengdu airfield by 100,000 workers to the building of the Great Pyramids. When the trip ended, it was none too soon for him. “Given more time and without me around, groaning and sighing steadily, [Hemingway] might have developed into a happy Old China Hand,” Gellhorn later wrote.

As it was, this never happened. Instead, China became a happy Old Hemingway Hand. And Chinese Hemingway Hands are a particularly loyal breed. Indeed, on two separate trips to Cuba, President Xi went out of his way to visit the house where Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea, and the bar where the author loved to sip mojito cocktails. And Q, who was released from jail after five years, cleared of charges, and plunged back into the music world with aplomb and success, celebrated his freedom by having 100 bronze busts of Hemingway’s head cast at a Chinese foundry. He then presented the sculptures to those who had somehow supported him in his trials; one of the busts sits on my desk, gazing at me as I write this piece.