BOOK REVIEW: A Song for China by Ange Zhang

A Song for ChinaA Song for China by Ange Zhang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page [Available September 3, 2019]

 

This short biography (under 100 pages) tells the story of the man who wrote the “Yellow River Cantata.” The subject, Guang Weiran, lived through interesting times during the early and middle 20th century when China experienced civil war, Japanese invasion, and post-revolutionary turmoil. Guang Weiran was heavily involved in the arts as a poet and leader in the arts community, but he was also a militant leader during the fight against the Japanese. The author, the subject’s son, wisely sticks to the more intriguing times of Guang Weiran’s life – particularly through his writing of the poem that would become song lyrics – and doesn’t get lost in the mundane.

Besides the short biography, the book also includes a great deal of art as well as a copy of the poem that served as the lyrics for the “Yellow River Cantata” in both English and Mandarin script. There are photos of the subject during some key life events, but the most common graphics are woodblock prints in which red is the only color displayed, which makes for an eye-popping visual effect. There are also some yellow-toned paintings interspersed with the poem / lyrics.

I found this little book to be interesting, and I enjoyed the art as well. If you’re interested in 20th century Chinese history, you might find the book worth a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: Trying Not to Try by Edward Slingerland

Trying Not to Try: The Art of Effortlessness and the Power of SpontaneityTrying Not to Try: The Art of Effortlessness and the Power of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book’s paradoxical title is perfect for its paradoxical subject matter, which is famously expressed in such quotes as, “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone” [ver. 48 of the Tao Te Ching.]  Slingerland lays down the ancient Chinese wisdom of wu-wei and de, but provides something novel by putting it in the context of the positive psychology and neuroscience of today. Wu-wei literally means “no doing,” but can be more meaningfully defined as “effortless action.” De (pronounced “duh”) is a charisma seen in people who have mastered the effortlessness and spontaneity of wu-wei.

While the book is built around the varied approaches of four Chinese philosophers—two Confucians (i.e. Confucius and Mencius) and two Taoists (i.e. Laozi and Zhuangzi)—the author relates this philosophy to the present-day thinking found in Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s conception of Flow, and the neuroscience of the subconscious.

The book consists of eight chapters. The introduction and the first two chapters outline the concepts of wu-wei and de using both Chinese and Western stories and examples to help clarify these arcane ideas and put them in the context of the social and spiritual spheres. Chapter 1 offers an extensive discussion of the operation of the brain as it relates to the discussion of effortlessness and spontaneity.

Chapters three through six make up the core of the book, and present the approach and thinking of Confucius, Laozi, Mencius, and Zhuangzi, respectively. This “boy-girl-boy-girl” Confucian-Taoist organization offers the reader sound insight into the varied approaches and allows one to see the evolution of thinking. Confucius gets the first cut, but his approach to effortlessness and spontaneity involves a great deal of effort and planning. It might seem that Laozi’s approach–which does away with effort and planning–might be more apropos, but it’s hard to imagine anything of benefit actually being spawned by such a loosy-goosy approach. The more nuanced approaches of Mencius and Zhuangzi offer additional insight, but do not eliminate the paradox. It’s this paradox that’s the subject of chapter seven.

The final chapter examines what the reader can take away–given that the paradox of wu-wei seems inescapable. The author proposes that, paradox or not, there is value in pursuit of effortlessness and spontaneity, and progress can be made by understanding and accepting said paradox.

The book has no graphics, but is annotated and has a bibliography–as well as an appendix table that summarizes the various approaches to wu-wei.

I enjoyed this book and found it fascinating. It’s highly readable, having humor and a wide range of examples from ancient myths to pop culture. The book offers a great value-added by considering the relevance of modern science and psychology to this ancient concept. I’d highly recommend this for individuals interested in Chinese / Eastern philosophy, as well as anyone hoping to bring a little more effortlessness and spontaneity into his or her life.

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BOOK REVIEW: Monkey: A Folk Novel of China by Wu Cheng’en

Monkey: A Folk Novel of ChinaMonkey: A Folk Novel of China by Wu Cheng’en
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

If you’re familiar with any Chinese folklore, it’s probably this story. But you probably know it as “Journey to the West.” It’s not only been released in numerous editions as a novel, it’s also been adapted for film, stage play, and I’m sure there must be a video game of it out there.

If you’re thinking, “Chinese folklore? Sounds boring.” Think again. This is a superhero story. Monkey, also known as the Monkey-King and “Great Sage Equal to Heaven,” is an immortal who has all manner of supernatural powers. He can fly. He can make copies of himself. He can transform himself—either disguising himself as another being or appearing as an inanimate object. He has an iron truncheon that can be the size of a sewing needle or a mile long and which is indestructible. Wielding said staff, he can defeat armies or deities.

In fact, the flaw in this story isn’t a lack of adventure or thrill. On the contrary, it’s one adventure after the next. If anything, the flaw is “Superman Syndrome.” That’s what I call it when the hero is so ridiculously overpowered that even when he’s fighting gods, dragons, or whole armies there’s still no doubt about the outcome.

Of course, the Monkey does eventually meet his match in the form of the Buddha. The Buddha defeats Monkey not in combat, but in a bet. That event shifts the direction of the story. In the early chapters, Monkey is goes about heaven and earth arrogantly wreaking havoc. He’s not altogether detestable. He does have his redeeming traits, but he’s insufferably arrogant and mischievous. After he’s imprisoned following his run-in with the Buddha, a monk is assigned to go to India to bring back scriptures (hence, a “journey to the west”) to China. Monkey is assigned to be the monk’s guardian and along with two others that they pick up along the way (Pigsy and Sandy) the monk is escorted on his journey. The party faces one challenge after the next, and the trip is long and arduous. Some of the challenges require brute force but in many cases they are battles of wits. So while Monkey may be overpowered, he does experience personal growth over the course of the story.

The story is told over 30 chapters, each set up with a cliffhanger. I enjoyed this translation by Arthur Waley. It is end-noted, which is useful given the historic and cultural nuances that may not be clear to readers.

It should be noted that this is unambiguously a Buddhist tale. There is a bias against Taoists and other non-Buddhist religions evident throughout the story. It’s not just the fact that the Buddha easily defeats Monkey when no other deity or group of deities can, there’s a steady stream of anti-Taoist sentiment. So, Taoists and Chinese Folk Religion practitioners be warned, I guess.

I would recommend this book for fiction readers, particularly if you have an interest in the superhero genre or Chinese literature.

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DAILY PHOTO: Guardian Lion, Singapore

Taken in Singapore in November of 2016

Taken in Singapore in November of 2016

 

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BOOK REVIEW: Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan

Life and Death are Wearing Me OutLife and Death are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This strange title turns out to be a perfect summation of the book. The narrator / protagonist was a wealthy land owner named Ximen Nao who was executed when the Communists gained power in China. In heaven, Lord Yama (the judge in Chinese folklore’s version of the afterlife) sentences Ximen Nao to be sent back to Earth as a donkey, and—in subsequent lives—as an ox, a pig, a dog, and, finally and briefly, as a monkey. He’s always sent back to the family of one of his former underlings, Lan Lian, and the story follows that family over the course of several decades through the Cultural Revolution and China’s grand reforms.

The early parts (the lives of donkey, ox, and part of pig) are centered on Lan Lian’s decision to remain an independent farmer. Mao Zedong promised all farmers the right to remain independent contractors if they wished, but there was great pressure—first from the community and later from his own family—to become part of the commune. This ends up dividing the family, and ultimately Lan Lian ends up on his own. The latter part of the book (i.e. dog and monkey lives) deals with Lan Lian’s children (and eventually their children), and—particularly–with Lan Jiefang who shares a birthmark and a stubborn streak with his father. Lan Jiefang’s stubbornness is revealed as a desire to divorce his wife and to marry a younger woman. His equally stubborn wife refuses the divorce, and Jiefang and his young lover become ostracized. At the tail end of the book we see how Lan Jiefang’s son is afflicted by the same dogged determination to pursue a costly path—as a respected member of the police force he falls for a former classmate who has become a pariah.

The book mixes humor with tragedy. The animal incarnations of Ximen Nao each have its own personality, but retain some of the landlord’s character and memories. The animal stories are both part of and comedic counterpoint to the tales of woe experienced by Lan Lian’s family. Mo Yan has cameo appearances throughout the book, though in the dog’s life section he plays a more substantial role. References to Mo Yan’s character invariably come with self-deprecating humor. The author creates characters that the reader is interested in. What I call stubbornness is really a tenacious willingness to suffer for the principle of pursing one’s own happiness. In the case of Lan Jiefang and his wife, the reader is likely to be torn by the gray situation. The wife seems the more sympathetic character, but, still, one can’t help but appreciating the tenacity of Lan Jiefang and his willingness to suffer so greatly on the principle that “the heart wants what the heart wants.”

In addition to a good story with vibrant characters, this book offers a birds-eye view of China in the latter half of the 20th century. What is happening in the lives of the characters isn’t divorced from what is going on in the world, but is shaped by it. One notices this most vividly across the three generations over which the book’s story unfolds—with the middle generation (Lan Jiefang’s) serving as hinge point. When Lan Jiefang’s half-brother goes from being a Communist Party apparatchik to the wealthy CEO of a large firm, it’s a reflection of the societal undercurrents.

I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it for readers of fiction—and particularly translated literary fiction.

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DAILY PHOTO: The Shore of Pangong Tso

Taken in August of 2016 at Pangong Tso in Ladakh

Taken in August of 2016 at Pangong Tso in Ladakh

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With each change in cloud and sky, Pangong Tso looks like a different lake.

 

Pangong Tso is a long, narrow lake that crosses the border between India and China. By length, the majority of the lake falls in China, but these photos were all taken on the Indian side of the border.

 

It’s actually substantially higher than Lake Titicaca in Peru, which claims the title of highest navigable lake in the world. Pangong Tso is 4,350 m (14,280 ft) while Titicaca is 3810 m (12,500 ft.)

 

Don’t ask me what constitutes “navigable.” My wife and I tried to figure that out when we visited Titicaca several years ago. We didn’t see anything bigger than the boat we were on–nothing that would be called a ship. Of course, we saw not so much as an inner tube on Pangong Tso, and the fact that it’s so narrow in places may mean that a boat would have to have an exceedingly shallow draft to make it down the lake’s length. That is if one could travel the lake’s length without trigger happy Chinese or Indian military forces freaking out and blowing your boat out of the water.

BOOK REVIEW: A Guide to Chinese Martial Arts by Li Tianji & Du Xilian

Guide To Chinese Martial ArtsGuide To Chinese Martial Arts by Li Tianji
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This is a brief guide to the martial arts of China. The bulk of the book (about 150 pages of the book’s 178 pages) tells the reader about three major branches of Chinese martial arts: Chang Quan, Tai Chi Chuan, and Shaolin Kung fu at a general level. (The book devotes space to those arts in the same order–i.e. the largest number of pages discuss Chang Quan, then Tai Chi, and the smallest number to Shaolin. This may be surprising as your average non-Kungfu practitioner is least likely to have heard of Chang Quan—by name anyway. Chang Quan is a general term that encompasses several Northern Styles—some of which might be more familiar to general readers [of martial arts books.]) The book also has a brief chapter that describes the history of martial arts in China from ancient times through the modern era, and one that talks about the many schools of martial arts of China (in no great detail because there are so many of them) as well as the various strengths and purposes of these arts.

The bulk of the illustrations are line drawings used to show typical sequences for each of the three major branches of martial art mentioned above. However, there are some black and white photographs and copies of relevant art works and documents as well.

I found this book to be interesting and informative. There’s a bit too much space devoted to describing techniques for my taste. However, I realize that I may be in the minority in that regard. I don’t believe that martial arts can be taught via books or media, and, therefore, there’s a diminishing value to detailed descriptions of technique. In this sort of book one only needs to get a feel so as to be able to see how the martial arts compare and contrast with others.

I’d recommend this book for someone who wants to learn a bit about the nature of Chinese martial arts. It may not be of much value for an expert, but for a kungfu neophyte it provides some interesting information about the history, tactics, and training methods of Chinese martial arts. It’s originally published by Foreign Languages Press in Beijing, but I don’t suspect there is any more bias than there would be if it was published by anyone else (i.e. it’s the rare martial arts book that doesn’t present the martial art under discussion as the ultimate fighting art.)

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