Alan Paul takes readers on a spectacular journey in his book, Big In China. From 2005-2009, Paul's family lived in China after his wife became the Wall Street Journal's China Bureau chief. Paul had been making a living as a free lance writer for some time up until their move, primarily writing for Guitar World and Slam, a basketball magazine. With their three small children in tow, Paul and his wife set out for China in the critical years leading into the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Big In China introduces the reader to modern China, a world few of us Americans can comprehend. Since the period in which Paul's book takes place deals with so much change within the country, this allows him to show the change in modern China culture - how it is always in flux with all the construction and growth, and how China still has deep regional cultures tucked within its vast borders. This aspect of the book alone makes it worth reading.
However, the most surprising, yet also the most heartening, aspect of Big In China concerns southern culture and its powerful international reach.
It's important to understand that although Paul has spent his American life north of the Mason Dixon line, he has always been connected to the South through its music. He explains this early in the book as he discusses his time at Guitar World:
I was fulfilling a childhood vision I first had as a twelve year old spending hours on my brother's yellow shag carpeting listening to the Allman Brothers Band's Eat A Peach and studying the psychedelic artwork inside the double album's gatefold.... Twenty years later I was writing historical essays about the band for Allman Brothers' CD releases.
Paul remains a close friend of the Allman Brothers Band. He became a professional writer right around the time that ABB were reuniting in the late 1980s. Paul built this working relationship into a trusted friendship during the years that followed. Paul's deep connection to the Allmans and Stevie Ray Vaughan as well as the southern blues masters who influenced them, such as BB King and Buddy Guy, has long been a deep influence.
Although Paul makes it clear that he and his family took on this journey for its adventure, the most human aspect of it - Paul's connection to the Chinese people - ends up happening through southern culture, specifically its music. As a result of a long, but interesting set of circumstances, Paul forms a blues-based band with a group of Chinese nationals.
What starts out as a minor adventure to repair his guitar leads to the formation of the band Woodie Alan, a combination of Alan's name and that of Chinese guitarist Woodie Wu. By the book's end, Woodie Alan wins an award as Beijing's best band playing in front of thousands of Chinese music lovers all around the country.
Through Woodie Alan and its blues roots, Paul connects deeply with the Chinese people. He saw first hand how music is a universal language. As Gregg Allman says in describing Big In China, "Anyone who doubts that music is bigger than words needs to read this great tale."
Perhaps more important than that thousands of Chinese fans (and a few Chinese groupies who provide a very funny passage in the book), the southern rock and blues that built the musical foundation of Woodie Alan became a bridge between bandmates and bridge between two very different cultures. Paul explains:
I was the son of an upper-middle class Jewish pediatrician from Pittsburgh. Woodie was the working-class son of a Chinese small-business owner. We had both been drawn to the blues, feeling a profound emotional connection to this music born of African American suffering and advanced by white southerners like [Stevie Ray] Vaughan and the Allman Brothers. Woodie was twelves years younger than I, and both of us were born long after the music was truly contemporary, but nothing else touched either of us remotely the same way. The hold this music had on us was hard to explain; that it had drawn us together and bonded us like brothers was impossible to deny.
It's perhaps too easy and cliche to talk about music as a universal language, but Big In China goes beyond by showing how this music serves as an influence for other larger areas of life. Paul discovers something very essential and real - the best qualities in American music represent the best of America's ideals.
The band was always the mutual dream of Woodie with his Stevie Ray Vaughan tattoo and Paul, the music fan and writer turned frontman. Early on though, Woodie's newly found sobriety that was inspired in part by Woodie Alan's formation becomes a double-edged sword as his newly sober ears begin to seek perfection and structure from the band. Paul's experience as a fan helped him understand what was missing creatively as he recounted after an early Woodie Alan gig that was less than satisfying for everyone:
I felt certain this was a developmental stage and the we could regain [our initial] spark by just playing more shows. But I could tell that [Woodie] didn't really know what I meant, so I tried to clarify.
"We tightened everything up and now we have to loosen it back up."
I inherently understood that tight but loose was the key to everything, but it was a difficult concept to explain. I was just going to have to show Woodie and the other guys what I meant.
And show them, Paul did.
Late in the book as Woodie Alan are playing some of their final shows before Paul and his family move back to New Jersey, he and his bandmates begin to reflect on their entire journey together as well as the influence that Paul had on them as their band leader.
Paul is surprised by drummer Lu Wei who explains how Paul's natural musical inclinations were a Woodie Alan's drummer who explains to Paul:
"There is more freedom playing with Woodie Alan than any other band, and I began to understand why this was such a good idea.... With other bands, I often feel like I'm just playing to complete the work. But it is quite different with Woodie Alan - every song has excitement, and I always feel highly emotional."
These words show how deep the soul and culture of the South is. People like to think of blues, soul, jazz, gospel, and rock as American music, but it was all southern music first. The South's blend of individualism that is wound within within its lasting and unique culture serves as a bridge between Paul's America and his bandmates China.
One of the book's most enduring character's is Paul's first Chinese tutor Yechen who soon becomes his friend. Throughout the book, Yechen seeks his own truth on a parallel adventure which has taken him from a teaching job in England back to his home country where he becomes Paul's teacher after which, Yechen decides to become a monk, living an austere life as a way to counter all the consumerist change he sees in his native China.
As his teacher, Yechen says to Paul, "[L]anguage is a bridge to the culture,... [a]nd the culture can stay with you forever." Considering that southern music become the common language between Paul, his bandmates, and thousands of Chinese people, Big In China shows Yechen to be prescient as Woodie Alan and its audience bond, giving all a greater appreciation of the lasting value that the best of the South's culture brings to the world at large.
After finishing Big In China, the reader will be struck at the depth of the story. Paul barely gets to touch upon his Olympic experience, his children's growth, his wife's Pulitzer-winning accomplishments, and Paul's own award winning Wall Street Journal blog covering China from his "Expat" perspective. His experience in China will probably provide him with a few more books in the future.
In Big In China, Alan Paul deserves great credit for his ability to focus on the most important aspect of the book - how we as humans connect through universal truths within lasting cultures. Like China of today, the American South has deeply meaningful, yet often difficult and brutal history, that it fears losing in an era of massive urban growth and change. This book remind us all that there is still great value in the South's history and culture as there is in China's own rich history.
Woodie Alan may only be one band, but the lesson of that band provides an understanding of the inherent connections between people throughout an ever-shrinking world. Alan Paul has provided a compelling story that reminds us all how in learning about others we learn even more about ourselves.
- Jim Markel
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