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An American boy, son of Presbyterian missionaries, was born in Shanghai early in this century. The boy lived two lives, one within the pious church compound, the other along the canal and in the alleys of a traditional Chinese city. There he faced the alley brats' Lady Bandit, heard the shrill screams of a child's foot-binding, learned rank obscenities from passing boatmen, and, while still in short pants, chewed Sen-Sen and ogled snake-charmers in the old Native City. He sailed up the Yangtze to attend boarding school, and along with his Boy Scout patrol, met Chiang Kai-shek. And when John Espey grew up, he wrote about his years in China.
This memoir is the story of those years, and while it is a wry, affectionate account, it also conveys an often overlooked picture of China in the years before communism. Seen through the eyes of a child, the interplay of religion, commerce, and American colonialism that took place during this period is revealed more tellingly—and more lightheartedly—than in many an analysis by an "old China hand."
Espey's bent is to use a "Chinese" approach to his subject, that is, to hide a second meaning within his words, to speak in parables. This he learned from both his single-minded missionary father and the family's Chinese cook. The result is that the reader of Minor Heresies, Major Departures will learn a great deal about the Pacific Rim while having a rollicking good time.