Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Captain Francis Austen, Royal Navy, commanding the HMS St. Albans, sailed to Canton at one point in the years leading up to the Opium War. The Chinese government obliquely sought his assistance against the pirate queen of the Pacific, but in the end the British sailed away again without helping. Francis, who would eventually rise to the rank of fleet admiral, had a little sister by the name of Jane. That’s right, Jane Austen. Her novel Persuasion, about a naval captain coming home after years at sea, comes to mind.
Jane Austen’s big brother is just one on a long roster of fascinating figures that populate the portrait that the historian Stephen Platt paints of the Opium War. His new book, Imperial Twilight, is terrific reading for anyone interested in this episode in history.
Platt’s central thesis is that the Opium War was a highly contingent event that didn’t need to happen at all and certainly didn’t need to happen in the way that it did. Had the former prostitute Shi Yang, known to history as Zheng Yi Sao or Cheng I Sau (“wife of elder brother Zheng”), not rise to become a pirate queen commanding 70,000 men, the British might not have been impressed with how weak Chinese naval defenses were. Had Captain Austen understood that it was official policy in Beijing not to seek foreign help in dealing with the pirates, so that the governor in Canton could not openly meet with him, he might not have returned home to report on what he thought was insolent treatment by the Chinese.
I have been very slowly catching up on Homeland. Slowly mostly because of the inconsistency of Netflix: in one country, one set of shows would be available, and in another it would be a different offering. So I would follow Carrie Mathison’s adventures for a third of a season and not be able to find out what happened next for weeks or months.
So I was five years late to the remarkably thinly veiled reference to the British bank HSBC in season 3 episode 2 of the series. “HLBC,” the fictional bank on the show caught laundering money for terrorists (as HSBC was charged with doing in real life), one character says, “has been trafficking in human misery since the Opium Wars.”
The Opium Wars! That’s a turn of phrase enough to prick up any pair of Chinese ears. The history of modern China, as told in textbooks both foreign and domestic, typically begins with the First Opium War or simply “the Opium War,” which ended in 1842 with the first of many “unequal treaties” that would plague China for over a hundred years to come — the so-called “Century of Humiliation.” (The Second Opium War or the Arrow War of 1856-60, though also significant, did not mark the beginning of a new era.)
As a would-be writer, I am often filled with self-loathing. It’s okay; it’s an occupational hazard. But today, a very specific failure weighs on me, the failure so far to keep a promise.
Three years ago, I traveled through Xinjiang, China’s massive northwestern “autonomous region” (of course it’s not actually autonomous) that is the historical homeland of the Uyghur minority, a Muslim Turkic population that prefers to call the area “East Turkestan.”
I traveled there to research the book I was trying to write. While there, in the old center of traditional Uyghur life, Kashgar, a kindly man whom I call “Yusup” in the manuscript asked me to make him a promise. “Tell our story,” he said. “Write about us. Let the outside world know what is happening in Xinjiang.”
And so far, as I have failed as yet to publish the book, I have failed to keep my promise.
In my attempt to read in both of my primary languages simultaneously, I recently read the short story collection Taipei People by the Taiwanese novelist Pai Hsien-yung, or Bai Xianyong in Pinyin transliteration. I’d grown up hearing about the book but somehow never got around to reading it until now.
The standard English translation of the book’s title is arguably not the best. I might have translated it as “Taipei’ers,” but for the unfortunate awkwardness of the apostrophe and cluster of vowels. Bai titled his book thus in clear allusion to Jame Joyce’s Dubliners, out of which the story “The Dead” remains the apparent gold standard for what the ideal short story looks like, at least according to the American academia.
And that is one reason that Bai Xianyong remains an interesting writer. Taipei People, written in the 1960s, is an exercise in applying Western modernism to classical Chinese literature, or in fusing the two, a point that Bai underscored by alluding to Joyce.
My post a while back on the real Mulan gave me an idea to do an occasional series on the most badass women of ancient China. You’d think that ancient China was all patriarchy all the time. But there were exceptions in the form of the most ambitious and most talented of women.
And the grandmother of badass Chinese women has to be Empress Wu Zetian, although I don’t necessarily mean this as a compliment. In over three millennia of monarchy, the emperor was always a man, except her. Although sometimes women dominated politics from behind the scenes, often in the capacity of mother of the emperor when the emperor happened to be a child, none but her openly took power for herself. You can imagine the level of political acumen and ruthlessness required to do this. Cersei Lannister is but a pale shadow compared to her.
Wen Tianxiang has been on my mind from time to time since the November 2016 election.
If you’ve never heard of him, that’s okay, I didn’t expect that you have. But like Chinese school children in the seven hundred years before me, I grew up reading about him as the paragon loyalty and patriotism, virtues that today’s Americans can use. To me, he was a Chinese Boethius.
So imagine the frown on my face when I came across this description of him: “[H]e was too inflexible to be a great politician — passionate, intolerant, arrogant and a complete pain to work with,” whose refusal to surrender to the Mongols even after all was lost, even when he languished in prison, was “masochistic.”
This is an old tale, and many of you may have heard it already. But as it is Hanukkah, I can be forgiven for repeating an otherwise well-known story about the Chinese Jews.
Jews might have migrated into China over the Silk Road since as early as the height of the Roman Empire. One tradition states that the first of them left Jerusalem after the Roman emperor Titus conquered the holy city, arriving in China eventually via Persia.
Ethnographers have also previously identified a population in China that they thought might be of Jewish descent. And because they did not observe Hanukkah, it was inferred that they left the Holy Land before the Maccabean Revolt. But this theory has turned out to be questionable.
So Disney is filming a live-action remake of the 1998 animated Mulan, actually casting an Asian woman in the role of an Asian woman (because you never know with Hollywood).
This news prompts me to revisit the ancient source of the story of Mulan. Certain aspects of the source material now seem surprising in light of departures made in the Disney version, and I don’t just mean the little dragon Mushu that works as a cartoon character but in fact does not exist in the original.
The 1998 film sets the action during the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), and the invading enemies are said to be the Huns. The Han Dynasty did fight protracted wars against the Huns. But these battles took place centuries before the figure of Mulan first appeared in Chinese literature.
Thor (the Norse god, not the Marvel character) is remarkably similar to its Chinese counterpart, Leigong, so much so that I intuit a long-lost cultural connection, even though I am unaware of any scholarship establishing it. If the distance between Scandinavia and the Far East makes you skeptical of this possibility, I’ll note that the Hellenistic inspiration for Asian Buddhist sculptural art is well-established.
Leigong, literally “Lord of Thunder,” is an important figure in the Taoist pantheon. He is, like Thor, depicted as a strong warrior type who wields a magic hammer with which he can send thunderbolts. He is a positive but blunt character, broadly on the side of right but sometimes blunders in rushing to judgment. Much as Thor stands opposed to Loki, Leigong is opposed to characters of mischief such as the Monkey King (who, incidentally, has been shown to be derived from the Hindu monkey god Hanuman).
In the early-15th century, the Chinese government sent the so-called Eunuch Admiral, Zheng He, on a voyage of exploration that reached East Africa and perhaps beyond. A muslim of Mongol-Uzbek extraction, he was often known by his honorific name “Sanbao,” and he may have been the inspiration for Sinbad in the Arabian Nights.
Six hundred years later he is the poster child of contemporary China’s foreign policy. Called “One Belt One Road,” the policy calls for China to reconstitute the ancient Silk Road across Eurasia as well as to build supposedly mutually beneficial relationships with many of the countries that Zheng visited. And the building of relationships mostly involves the construction of factories and bridges and roads and other capital projects for these countries. Zheng left a stele in Sri Lanka commemorating his visit, so now China has built an international airport and a deepwater seaport for Sri Lanka.
I’ve been seeing and marveling at many indications of China’s “OBOR” policy around the world for some time. There was the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, for example. And there were the children in Ethiopia crying “China, China” upon seeing me, which annoyed me until I learned that, with so much Chinese investment in that country, the children thought that all foreign-looking people were Chinese, even if they had blonde hair and blue eyes.
And most recently I have been in Kenya.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."