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.
The past is a foreign country.
What is known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre in English is known in Chinese by just two numbers: 6-4, i.e., June 4. On that day in 1989, after weeks of demonstrations by students across China but particularly in Beijing, the Chinese Communist government called in its army. Hundreds of thousands of troops descended on the capital and fired on the unarmed demonstrators centered on that famous square in the heart of the city, killing hundreds or maybe thousands — the precise number will never be known.
1989 — the year when the fates of two parts of the world diverged. In Germany, the Berlin Wall came down. Throughout Eastern Europe, Communist regimes crumbled in rapid succession. By Christmas 1991, the Soviet Union itself dissolved. But on the other end of Eurasia, the Chinese government not only successfully resisted the tide of democracy but tightened its grip on the levers of power.
“You know the Japanese word for ‘thank you’?” Ricardo asked me.
He was missing a surprising number of teeth given that he was four years younger than I. And his hair was already verging on salt-and-pepper. But he spoke with youthful enthusiasm on behalf of all things Azorean. Azorean, not necessarily Portuguese — he favored independence for the islands. His own darker skin tone he attributed to Moroccan descent. The other side of his family was Dutch, he said, reflecting the complex ethnic mixture here.
“Yes?” I said. “Arigato.”
“You know it’s borrowed from Portuguese ‘obrigado’? Apparently the Japanese didn’t have a word for ‘thank you’ until they met the Portuguese.”
In July 1518 in the city of Strasbourg, then a part of the Holy Roman Empire but now in France, one Frau Troffea started to dance.
The hours went by. Then the days. And Mrs. Troffea wouldn’t stop. Then others joined her. Hundreds of Strasbourgers were dancing within a few weeks. None of them cared to stop. They danced until they collapsed or — in many cases — died.
I’ve been reading about the “Dancing Plague” over the last few days, perhaps in part due to my interest in plague narratives from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year to Camus’s La Peste to Jose Saramago’s Blindness. Those zombie movies and shows that are your guilty pleasure? Plague narratives.
In December 1400, just in time for Christmas, the emperor of Byzantium, Manuel II Palaiologos, arrived in England on a state visit.
A professional historian tells the full story better than I can on her blog. In short, Manuel came to Western Europe to solicit aid against the Ottoman Turks who were encroaching upon his territory. He had already stopped in Italy and France, and now he sought the friendship of King Henry IV of England.
Henry welcomed Manuel warmly. But after the emperor’s departure, England (and France and the Italian states) gave the Byzantines very little assistance. The immediate crisis for Byzantium passed because of an unlikely ally: Timur, or Tamerlane, from today’s Uzbekistan, attacked the Turks from the east. But the reprieve was temporary. Constantinople finally fell to the Ottomans in 1453.
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.)
Regular readers of this blog, if any exist, should not be surprised by now that sometimes I nerd out about one thing or another.
Last week I was in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, and it quickly climbed the chart of my favorite cities in the world. I won’t suggest that it was solely because of what Edinburgh represents in the annals of human achievement, but I won’t say that it didn’t play a role either.
On a promontory in Oslofjord, a short ferry ride away from Oslo’s city hall, two parallel edifices encase two famous boats and commemorate their respective creators.
On one side is the Fram, the world’s first polar exploration ship, custom-ordered by Fridtjof Nansen specifically to withstand the pressure of ice that would crush any other ship at the time. On the other is the Kon-Tiki, the balsa raft that Thor Heyerdahl built in 1947 according to traditional Native American methods for him to attempt to sail from Peru to Polynesia.
The contrast as well as the parallels between the two men are presumably why the Norwegians have chosen to commemorate them side by side.
John Polidori has been on my mind.
No doubt this is in part because I happen to be back in Romania, the country that originated the vampire myth. As I type this, I’m sitting only a stone’s throw away from the statue of Vlad Tepes “the Impaler,” the 15th century prince of Wallachia and real-life Dracula with his fabulous mustache, that stands at the center of Bucharest’s old town.
It probably also has to do with my learning just the other day that someone decided to make a movie about Mary Shelley and how she wrote Frankenstein. Apparently the film is not much good. But Polidori was there, present at the creation, when she first conceived of Frankenstein. Or put another way, she was there, present at the creation, when he first conceived of his parallel invention.
Anyone who has watched season one of Netflix’s “The Crown” surely knows that Queen Elizabeth II, back when she was Princess Elizabeth, lived for a while in Malta. At the time, Malta was still a British possession and an important base for the Royal Navy, and Elizabeth accompanied Prince Philip here during his naval service.
But most of us are likely unaware, not before visiting, of the other historical personages connected to this tiny island country.
First up, St. Paul. In 60 A.D., Paul set sail from Crete to Rome to face trial. A storm blew the ship off course. The Acts of the Apostles (Acts 27:27—28:5) tells the story:
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."