This reading group guide for In the Shadow of the Cypress includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Thomas Steinbeck. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. Introduction
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The mysterious discovery of ancient jade artifacts on California’s Monterey Peninsula indicates an Asian presence in the New World much earlier than previously thought. The idea is breathtaking, and dangerous, as three disparate people find when attempting to bring this information to light across the course of a century.
Beginning with the 1906 journals of a Stanford professor of Marine Biology and ending with the high-tech, deep sea search of a brilliant and determined student in present time, Steinbeck vividly depicts the tense confrontation of science and tradition against a vibrant backdrop of Chinese-American life throughout the twentieth century. Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Which narrative style did you feel was most effective in relaying the mystery of the jade artifacts: Doctor Gilbert’s first person journal entries or the third person Dr. Lao-Hung and Luke’s stories are told in?
2. When considering the events he observed on the day of the earthquake, Doctor Gilbert reports that he has “been plagued with the nagging suspicion that the Chinese knew what was about to happen long before it occurred, and trusted their safety afloat better than they did ashore” (43). How does this statement portray Chinese culture? Why do they consider the sea a safer place than the land? Discuss the bigger concept of the Chinese community being insular and trusting themselves rather than each other. Is the white community the same way?
3. Doctor Lao-Hong finds himself in a difficult position: to the Americans he appears too Chinese; to the Chinese he is too American. What does this say about early 20th century Chinese-American relations? How has this changed in the past hundred years?
4. “The Chinese Empire had only one all-powerful enemy in the world, and it was the Chinese themselves” (77). Do you agree? Do you think that this problem is unique to Chinese culture? Why or why not?
5. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense
was an American Revolution pamphlet arguing that Britain’s rule over the United States was a mistake. Included in Paine’s argument was the idea that America was not simply a ‘British’ nation; it was composed of people from all over Europe. Why did Steinbeck choose to include this particular piece of literature? How does this apply to any resistance that might have occurred as a result of the jade artifacts? Can Paine’s point be stretched globally?
6. Discuss the elaborately detailed fishing scene. How is Doctor Lao-Hung changed by this experience? Does it affect his decision to help the fishing community?
7. Yung Lee appears to simply be a generous hostess; however, later we find out that she is deeply involved and influential in the community. How can this be seen as an allegory to the Chinese role in the Californian community?
8. One of the proverbs Steinbeck includes is: “Wisdom is not a birthright it is a treasured inheritance” (131). Earlier, Doctor Lao-Hung observes that, “There were men and women in this very fleet who could proudly name ancestors who served under great imperial admirals” (102). Do you agree that wisdom can be passed down? Is there evidence of this in the novel?
9. On the saucer given to Doctor Lao-Hung in gratitude for his assistance it reads: “Mankind poses questions for which there are no answers. Without devotion chaos ensues” (120). How could this proverb help Luke reconcile the fact that he is unsuccessful in uncovering the artifacts?
10. Doctor Gilbert and Luke both insist on bringing the truth to light while Doctor Lao-Hung and the fishing community work ardently to rebury it. Which side are you on? How does Steinbeck balance the importance of historical truth with protecting an ancient heritage?
11. Luke argues that “pure science” rises above any cultural or racial bias. Do you agree? Discuss some contemporary examples that support or refute this argument.
12. In the conclusion of the novel, Robert eventually follows tradition and joins the family business; however, he chooses to marry a Vietnamese woman. What does this say about the evolution of this tight-knit Chinese family? Has Robert done what Doctor Lao-Hung was unable to and bridged the gap? Tips for Enhancing Your Book Club
1. Read Thomas Steinbeck’s short story collection Down to a Soundless Sea
; a vivid historical and cultural depiction of Monterey County.
2. For a chronology of Asian Maritime History visit: http://www.maritimeasia.ws/topic/chronology.html
3. For information on the Monterey Bay Aquarium and its ocean conservation efforts, visit: http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/. If you’re local, see it for yourself! (And if you’re not, look up a public aquarium near you at: http://www.aza.org/findzooaquarium/ ). A Conversation with Thomas SteinbeckYou mention that your interaction with Chinese culture and your relationship with your own family were greatly influenced by two childhood friends. Are any of the characters in your novel based on them?
The characters in my stories, whether historical of fictional, usually prove to be a compilation of influences taken from differing sources, but never drawn from one model. I might use the sharp folk humor of one reference, graft that to the abiding anger and frustration of another, and then lash both to the wizened figure of a Portuguese fish peddler, or perhaps a snake-faced Stockton bank clerk. The most important consideration is to assemble character traits that work to serve the purpose of the story overall. Plot makes the character just as history makes the man. Why did you decide to transition from the first person narrative of Doctor Gilbert to the third person narratives of Doctor Lao-Hung and Luke? Which did you find more difficult to write?
When it comes to the form the narrative will take, whether first person, third person, or Aunt Grace’s cat, I usually find that the story tells me which voice it prefers, and that often changes as I go along. And in the end it really doesn’t matter as long as the author can rig those voices all in harness to pull the same load. Sometimes one voice or the other will kick up the traces, but that’s what good editors are for. Is there any historical basis to the scene in which the fishing community takes to the ocean in apparent anticipation of the earthquake?
The Chinese, who have gained an intimate knowledge of earthquakes over the centuries, have been manufacturing unique earthquake prediction and measuring devices for over eight hundred years, and simple versions of these devices were often kept in local temples, and watched over by monks or priests. If one made their livelihood from, and or lived near the sea, common knowledge dictated that a strong earthquake was usually followed by dramatically unusual, and lethally dangerous, tides and waves. To be caught between land and sea at such a time is akin to being placed between millstones. Chinese fishermen often chose the lesser of two evils, gathered up their families, and put to sea if there was time, it was hoped that this precious interval might be supplied by the quake prediction devices. At a reasonable distance from shore, a tsunami is little more than a series of very large swells traveling outwards like pond ripples. It’s when the swells near a shoreline and become crashing super-tides that all the destruction begins in earnest.
But to check off the question, it was reported that a great many crowded sampans were afloat on Monterey Bay the morning the famous 1906 quake struck. Without better information for or against the reasons, I simply extrapolated their purpose and presence from existing sources concerning known Chinese folk technologies. The Chinese also paid very close attention to the conduct of their domesticated animals for hints of impending earthquakes and monsoons. You appear to have a rich knowledge of Tong culture and complex Chinese rituals. How much of this knowledge comes from research and how much from experience? How do you balance research and creativity in your writing?
I would hardly say that I have a rich knowledge of anything in particular, but I do seem to be burdened with an unseemly appetite for intellectual and artistic erudition, which, for the sake of balance, I keep well harnessed to a reliable sense of the absurd. With these principles in train, I must admit that I have always been impressed by the fact that history records, with varying degrees of accuracy, that most of the world’s greatest feats of socio-political, intellectual, philosophical, legal, technical engineering, both civil and military, found their nativity in the vastly diverse, and culturally unique provinces of what is now termed modern China. I just followed the obvious historical implications and allow my readers to make up their own minds. After all, they have every right to expect me to do my half of the job, while I expect them to do theirs.
And when it comes to balancing such mutually paradoxical elements as history (as written by the winners), and social research (as compiled by academics), literary license must take a supporting role when highlighting the interface. To that degree, I believe the creative element and the historical perspective merge and become the same creature for the purposes of the story. However, I have never done anything in the accepted manner. I follow an ancient Persian engineering principle, “daydream first, deliberate second, and do the research last of all”. One way or the other, errors will be corrected by better minds than mine before the work goes to print. Doctor Lao-Hung’s place between Chinese and American cultures offers the reader a unique perspective on second-generation immigrants. Would you say Lao-Hung’s struggle to belong is still relevant in the 21st century?
The need to belong is hardly an unusual trait in socially aligned creatures, and “safety in numbers” is possibly the oldest recognized medium of human survival, both mentally and physically. But that instinct is often tempered by circumstances that influence individual experience and background. For an illiterate Ukrainian or Irish peasant farmer, born into centuries of serfdom and unending toil, and lacking all sense of history beyond a few passages recited from the Bible and possibly the names of his grandparents, becoming an American and belonging to the greater wealth of potential was a true blessing sent from heaven, and as such, it was to be wholly embraced without question, if not complaint. Belonging brought benefits unknown to their ancestors, notwithstanding the fact that life in America was often a very difficult, brutal, and dangerous business for each new wave of immigrants.
On the other hand, if a wealthy, multi-lingual Ukrainian noble, handsomely educated in Paris and widely traveled, were to come to America, the gentleman would find his standing and importance much reduced, only his wealth would make him acceptable. Comparisons with life on his estates, under the care of fawning servants, would soon dull any enthusiasm for the American experience.
But Doctor Lao-Hung is of a different stripe altogether. Though born and well educated in America, his patrician family has hardly stinted on his Chinese education. He is more than aware that he comes from a culture that was, in all manner of human endeavor, manifestly superior to the West a thousand years before the birth of Christ. His place of residence is all but irrelevant, whether California or Timbuktu, Dr. Lao-Hung will forever be Chinese first and everything else second. Any desire to belong to some greater mechanism has been amply satisfied by that one fact alone. The doctor may speak perfect English, and dress like a wealthy Harvard don, but at his core there remains a soul that perceives the world through a lens of Chinese sensibilities that are only marginally influenced, or buttressed by western philosophical thought.Luke maintains a strong belief that “pure science” has the potential to overcome any cultural or ethnic biases. Do you agree? Does the ‘truth’ always deserve to be known?
Luke’s belief that pure science should intrinsically exclude the influences of all cultural or ethnic bias is hardly new. It is the standard that all wide-eyed, young scientists salute, and a topic that rich scientists debate with their bankers. I, for one, believe that mixing myth and science makes for great fiction now and then; i.e. Ray Bradbury’s ‘Martian Chronicles’, but in general that concoction taints what we improperly term ‘pure science’. Whether purity of anything is even possible or practical is another question, but one way or another, it doesn’t bring much joy to the world of literature, where character is often textured with complex imperfections for the sake of plot and entertainment. And the one remarkable thing about scientific truth is that it exists free of mythological interpretation, and requires no public consensus to maintain its viability. Whether people really wish to know the truth or not is another thorny question.
Admiral Zheng He and his early voyage to the Americas is the constant center of the novel. What research has been done so far on this encounter and how much of the novel is based on this evidence?
There are a number of very credible books concerning Admiral Zheng He’s global voyages. A simple computer search will highlight all relative sources. Luke emerges as a brilliant, head-strong and thoughtful character. Will we be seeing any more of him in the future?
Whether Luke ever appears in my work again is more a matter of circumstance than anything else. If I need him to serve the purposes of a story, then yes, but that would be the only reason. There is only one character in this book that has inspired me to create a broader role in a subsequent work, and that is Lady Yee. She now inhabits a novella, and will soon occupy her own book. In the epilogue, you tease the reader with the mention of “great stone, helmeted Olmec heads” and the possibility of a book on maritime connections between Africa and South America’s Olmec civilization. Can you give us any more to look forward to?
I am often drawn to historical speculations concerning possible cultural connections between distant peoples. Having sailed since childhood, and having witnessed numerous singlehanded crossings of all the world’s oceans, I see no conceivable reason why a ship manned by experienced African fishermen couldn’t have crossed the Atlantic very easily. Making landfall on the coast of present day Mexico, or points further north and south if they wished. We have a tendency to express a form of cultural bias by discounting the brilliant achievements of Stone Age societies, and there is every reason to believe that their skills afloat were equal to their considerable skills ashore. The Olmec connection appears an interesting trans-oceanic perspective, especially if it can be traced to eastern Africa, but whether or not I ever get the time to delve into the subject in greater detail is open to question. For now the concept occupies the netherworld of speculation and daydreams. I’ll wait and see what sprouts after that.