- A Call to China:Daoism in Modern American Fiction
I began graduate studies at University of Chicago in 1966, in theology. By the end of the first year I decided against theology and joined the field called History of Religions, studying with Mircea Eliade, Charles Long, and Joseph Kitagawa. Deciding that Chinese religions was my first interest, I began taking classes in Classical Chinese, learning the language in the backwards fashion championed by H. G. Creel. I studied the first year with a disciple of his, then under Edwin Kracke for the second year. Finally, in the third year, I began to learn spoken Mandarin.
After finishing basic class work, I left for Taiwan in 1971 to study at the Stanford Center in Taipei until the end of 1972. I completed my dissertation and graduated in fall of 1973, beginning at the same time my teaching career at University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
I did research in visual aspects of Buddhism, studied a sectarian group in Taiwan that practiced spirit-writing, and continued my work on Beijing as a sacred city. Already in the 1980s I had the desire to work on a subject that would be of interest to ordinary Chinese people, so I changed my focus to investigating how Chinese were attempting to carry on their ancient moral tradition in public schools, first in Taiwan, then in the PRC. It worked. While left speechless by the sacred city ideas, almost everyone I talked to was eager to discuss the (Confucian) morality as it was presented in textbooks and classrooms.
In the early 1990s, I was asked to be chair of the department, so I gathered a lot of research material, mostly mountain histories of Wutaishan, [End Page 153] which had become the focus of my interest. I worked on that material as much as I could during the next three or four years, enjoying especially the numinous interventions and miraculous stories sections of the histories. In 1996 I was diagnosed with emphysema, and I realized that I would never be able to actually go to Wutaishan. That ended my interest in pursuing the research. I found I couldn't do it as purely bookish endeavor.
I had expanded my dissertation on Beijing a few years earlier, and this work was published as Dragons of Tian'anmen by the University of South Carolina Press in 1991. A few years later, I chanced to meet Jane Freundel Levey in Washington, the editor of the journal Washington History. She had spent some years in China, and we talked about the similarities between the two capitals, Washington and Beijing. She wanted a comparative article on the subject, which I wrote, and this work led me eventually to publish, in 2001, Myths in Stone, a study of the symbolism of architecture and planning of our capital.
I retired from teaching in 2008, having had, in retrospect, a rather scattershot career in all sorts of subjects. I thought about continuing in one or another of those fields, but eventually realized that, because of the limitations in the academic study of religions, I felt led to try fiction instead. I have loved every minute of it, feeling engaged in a way that I had not felt before, a work that engaged my heart as well as my mind. The result is this novel, A Call to China.
The beginnings of this novel go back to 1988, when my wife and I began to discuss the possibility of adopting a child. I was uncertain about it until we thought about a Chinese child and the rightness of it struck me suddenly and powerfully. Of course! It was not the result of a rational process but an intuitive "given." That realization helped me to understand that my love for China couldn't be completely described through academic and scholarly endeavors, but needed a more emotional expression. So we did adopt Julia, now 28, shown below at age 16, with me before a portrait of Mao at Tian'anmen. And although I was not able to write fiction until I retired, I have been happily doing so ever since. [End Page 154...