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Engineers in Novels No. 2: A Single Pebble

One interesting fact about A Single Pebble is that the engineer in this novel did almost no engineering at all. Instead, he acted more like a folklore collector, who hungrily documented the legends, poems, and songs enchanted by the residents on the ship. A sentimental, somewhat daydreaming youngster, he attempted to paint a peaceful, harmonious, and romantic picture of the lives of native Chinese ship workers. Perhaps the engineer wasn’t able to recognize that the ship trackers lived in neither an eclogue from the ancient past nor a futuristic techno utopia. The reality these ship trackers lived in--early 20th century China--should be familiar to the author of this novel: John Hersey. Hersey was born in China in 1914 and spent his first ten years living there before he returned to the United States. Later he returned to the Far East to cover World War II and won most of his literary reputation writing fictions about the war. Perhaps the author’s close experience with the era of turmoil accounts for the oscillation between the serenity and violent tensions in A Single Pebble?

By: Denver Tang

This past summer, a group of friends and I visited the Shaolin Temple--considered the Mecca of martial arts by many fans. We were able to meet with the Abbot, the father or head of the monastery. The Shaolin Temple gained worldwide reputation after a martial arts movie with the same title was released thirty-three years ago. Less known is the temple’s important role in Zen Buddhism. Several times at the temple, I heard tourists asking the monks about martial arts (or Kung fu), and the monks often eluded the topic and replied with a teaching of Zen.

The day of our visit was hot and damp. We couldn’t stop sweating in the air conditioned car during our drive to the temple. But the heat had not yet spoiled the clear and serene air in the temple, shielded by trees hundreds of years old. The Abbot met us in his teahouse. The door was shut after our entrance. About a dozen people were in the room, but it was quiet. The conversation went on at a low volume I sometimes missed it.

Shaolin Temple

One of my friends made a point about the chair he sat in: “I used to think I can sit in this chair because I am here. Later I learned that’s not the point. I could sit here because the chair is empty. It is the emptiness that accepts me.”

“Our body is the chair,” replied the Abbot.

I could vaguely understand what my friend meant by the emptiness, a concept that’s often recited in Buddhism, but I had no clue what the Abbot meant. I wonder whether something was lost in translation.

At lunch the Abbot’s assistant Mr. Q explained the Zen meditation to us:  “People think that the goal of Zen meditation is some sort of knowledge or enlightenment,” said Mr. Q, “but it’s not. Zen meditation is an art of training your body. Zen could not be reached by thinking; it has to be practiced and performed by the body.” I figured this explained the Abbot’s words: our body is the vehicle through which we reach emptiness.

When I read A Single Pebble by John Hershey, I wondered whether the narrator, a young American hydraulic engineer, had made a similar mistake: he attempted to grasp the life of a group of Chinese ship trackers by observing and speculating. What if the art of ship tracking is like Zen, the only path to which is the bodily experience--the tensed muscle, the pouring of sweat, and the marks carved into the shoulder by the tracking rope?

The American engineer was not sent to study the group of ship trackers, but the river they lived on. He was hired by a company to survey the Yangtze River in China for the prospect of selling “a vast power project,” a scheme that could have changed the pulse of this ancient river at its time, the early 20th century. Charting the untamed terrain in a foreign country is also a theme in the novel I reviewed before -- The Mise-en-Scène. Yet unlike the clueless French engineer Lassalle, who spoke no local language and to whom every alien syllable is a signal of threat, the American engineer--who didn’t have a name in this current novel--was able to understand the conversations among illiterate ship workers in their local dialect after spending merely a year learning Mandarin Chinese. It was probably the two powerful tools, rationality and language, that gave our engineer the confidence to conduct a cultured analysis of his shoddy travel mates, who companied him and enabled his survey on a shabby, primitive type of ship called a “junk.”

With some startling exceptions, the trip was slow, meandering, and uneventful. Instead of attentively surveying the water, the young engineer paid most of his attention to a number of characters who spent their lives on the ship, and for that matter, on the river: a stubborn and authoritative ship owner, the owner’s young and sweet wife, an ambitious and chameleonic cook, and above all, the head tracker named “Old Pebble,” a figure that reminds me of the fatalistic Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick. A charismatic hero among the crew of ship trackers, Old Pebble provided crucial service to this ship through his virtuosity: performing solemn rituals before each dangerous section of water, navigating the ship out of deadly rapids, and leading the crew to haul the ship through impossible cascades. As the most indispensable person on the ship, Old Pebble seemed to ask for too little for himself. He had no family, no home, nor any property. When he got paid, certainly a small amount, he spent the money buying wine and friendship (by treating other trackers). A simple life on the river was all he cared for. Such a life philosophy rejects the explanation by an economic logic, which had initiated the engineer’s trip to the Yangtze River at the first place. A greater befuddlement came from the business of ship tracking--a painful and fatal march by a group of naked men on a footpath as they towed the ship with tons of freight through a gorge. The footpath looks like the road toward hell:

“Men working with chisels had cut out of the steep cliff a running rectangle of rock to make this path. It was scooped out of the flat face of the mountain, which was too perpendicular to permit an ordinary ledge being formed. The path had a ceiling, an inner wall, and a floor of solid rock; all it had for outer wall was peril.”

Ship Trackers

Standing by the freight on the deck, the engineer could only watch the trackers battling the devouring power of nature with the most primitive force--bodies made of fragile human flesh. Such ordeal smashed his dream of a pastoral and poetic river life. In his waking, memories of dams, hydraulic technologies, and the longing for taming the river were rekindled in his engineering mind. Yet when he excitedly announced his vision--dams that calm down the rapids, machinery that lift the ship up the george in seconds--to his travel mates, the same people who had protected, cared for, and entertained the engineer were appalled at the proposal: to change the great river with technology and machines that will render them useless. Futile were the engineer's arguments for safety, efficiency, profits... things they had fervently strived for with rituals, caution, and great sacrifice. All of a sudden, the engineer and his vision became foreign to them. The ship trackers revenged this invasion of foreignness with a similar scheme: they ignored the engineer and started to talk with each other in another dialect which the engineer couldn’t understand. He was returned to an irrelevant bystander, a foreigner.

One interesting fact about A Single Pebble is that the engineer in this novel did almost no engineering at all. Instead, he acted more like a folklore collector, who hungrily documented the legends, poems, and songs enchanted by the residents on the ship. A sentimental, somewhat daydreaming youngster, he attempted to paint a peaceful, harmonious, and romantic picture of the lives of native Chinese ship workers. Perhaps the engineer wasn’t able to recognize that the ship trackers lived in neither an eclogue from the ancient past nor a futuristic techno utopia. The reality these ship trackers lived in--early 20th century China--should be familiar to the author of this novel: John Hersey. Hersey was born in China in 1914 and spent his first ten years living there before he returned to the United States. Later he returned to the Far East to cover World War II and won most of his literary reputation writing fictions about the war. Perhaps the author’s close experience with the era of turmoil accounts for the oscillation between the serenity and violent tensions in A Single Pebble?

My next blog post will review The Coffer Dams by Kamala Markandaya.