THE fact that I had read Toni Morrison before I left China in 1996 seems a miracle in retrospect. I was a college student in the early 1990s, and a frequent visitor in the Beijing Foreign Language Bookstore.

I had collected the woks of the American authors available on the shelf : Hawthorne, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Roth, Updike and Bellow.

These books, published by Chinese presses, were accompanied by a translation or at least footnotes to explain for cultural references. The books of Toni Morrison, who died on Monday, were not among them.

An English teacher from America introduced the name Toni Morrison to me, but I took some maneuvering to find her books.

The best place to try was the Peking Library [now the National Library of China], which had started to exchange books with the library of Congress in 1979. That library was not open to the public.

Through a friend's father, a rocket scientist who was privileged enough to be granted access, I got a copy of ''Beloved,'' the American edition.

''124 was spiteful. Full of baby's venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children.'' My English was decent enough that I did not need a dictionary to read these opening lines, yet there was something beyond language, which I didn't grasp.

The history of American slavery was taught in Chinese schools when I grew up, but only minimally. The American civil War, in our textbooks, was driven clearly by the greed of capitalists in the North, who were seeking to turn black slaves into cheap labor for maximum profit.

Twentieth-century African American lives offered a useful tool to attack America.

I once read a newspaper article about a black American orphan dying from hunger and cold, paired with a story in which a Chinese orphan prospered among people who loved him.

These contrasting tales, no doubt an easy creation for politically alert propagandist, appeared in the weekly Young Pioneer's News, under the headline ''Good is Communism : Bad is Capitalism.''

In middle school our music teacher, a man prone to melancholy, pedaled on a pump organ and taught us ''Old Black Joe'' - a parlor song by Stephern C. Foster that was considered a successful example of white writer truthfully depicting African-American life - in English and in Chinese.

I liked the sang, sad and heavy, a contrast to the propaganda music we grew up with.

Sometimes, when I washed dishes I would sing the song in the kitchen. I did not know who Old Black Joe was. or where the cotton fields were.

By the time I emigrated to the United States, I had read ''Beloved,'' ''Sula,'' ''The Bluest Eye'' and ''Song of Solomon'' - the rocket scientist never tired of making trips to the library for hungry young minds like mine.

It was through Mr. Morrison's novel that I first learned an important part of American history, which until then had been largely unknown to me.

I had sought to educate myself, but reading her was more than education of literature or history.

The honor and serving of this brilliant work by author Yiyun Li, continues. 


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