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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POEM: Pillar Rock

enshrouded in cloud,

a Chinese painting transplanted to India,

gnarled evergreens grow from cracked granite

like the bonsai that twists into a broad bloom of foliage,

i’d have thought the great white space, simple shapes, and gorgeous deformity

wouldn’t appeal to the Indian mindset —

so taken with vibrancy and fullness,

and yet crowds throng round,

staring in wonder,

ensnared by the same scene as

Shen Zhou when he painted, “Poet on a Mountaintop”

or

Fan Kuan as he painted, “Travelers Among Mountains and Streams,”

like two lovers fixated on one moon.

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: 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

img_2688 img_2610

 

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: Pirate of the Far East by Stephen Turnbull

Pirate of the Far East: 811-1639Pirate of the Far East: 811-1639 by Stephen Turnbull

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Unfortunately, the first thing one notices about this book is what seems like a typo in the title. Instead of “Pirates of the Far East,” it’s Pirate of the Far East, which suggests piracy wasn’t so much of a problem in the region because there was only the one pirate—and that the author isn’t a fan of either definite or indefinite articles. I’m sure this was done intentionally, but it does read oddly and sounds tinny.

This slim book is a typical edition of the Osprey military history series. All of these books are less than 100 pages, illustrated, and focus on a specific class of warfighter over a defined period. In this case, the book presents a class of pirates called wako for the period from 811 to 1639. Wako literally refers to Japanese pirates, but–in fact–these marauders of the high seas were often mixed nationality crews. The book also provides information about counter-piracy activities and those groups of warriors, such as Shaolin monks, who fought against piracy back in those days.

This book covers a range of topics including: the life of a pirate, pirate ships, strategy, tactics, and weapons—as well as the history of these groups. The book has five actual chapters, but there are short units providing important information that would usually be appendices, e.g. a chronology, a discussion of museum exhibits, and an annotated bibliography.

The illustrations are mostly drawings, but include maps and photographs as well. Some of the art is drawn in the present-day by the illustrator Richard Hook, but some are historic pieces from art collections. The photographs also include some present-day photos of locations that were once bases of piracy, as well as photos of museum exhibits (e.g. topographic and other models.) The graphics are helpful in showing how pirates dressed/armored and were armed. The maps and drawings are particularly helpful.

I’d recommend this book, but I do think it’s overpriced at full price. At a mere 64 pages—a pamphlet more than a book–paying $10 or more seems a bit pricey despite the useful graphics and the fact that the author is among the most renowned authorities on Japanese warriors and medieval military tactics. All that said, there are relatively few books on the topic, and it’s not easy to get this information from other sources.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Sayings of Confucius by Confucius

The Sayings of ConfuciusThe Sayings of Confucius by Bc- Bc Confucius

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

There’s no one more firmly associated with Eastern wisdom—particularly in the form of aphorisms that fit nicely onto a fortune cookie—than Confucius. This is a book of such aphorisms.

I must admit, I’m not a wholehearted devotee of the Chinese philosopher, and am more likely to side with the Taoist sages who mocked Confucian ideas at every turn. In short, I’m not a big fan of the Confucian idea of societal hierarchies based on some elements of society accepting being infantilized in exchange for the protection and goodwill of others. It’s not just that I’m a youngest child that causes me to ask, what if the younger brother is smarter?

Once one gets beyond what is probably Confucius’s best known teaching—the five relationships—one sees a great deal of solid wisdom that even a Taoist would be hard pressed to refute.

Many of Confucius’s sayings aren’t novel or unique. Like Socrates, Confucius advocates knowing what one doesn’t know—which implies accepting that there are things one doesn’t know and not acting like one knows it all. (A common enough vice in modern times as in ancient.) Like the Indian sages, Confucius emphasized that one shouldn’t chase fame or act out of a desire for the fruits of one’s actions. Like the Stoics, Confucius said, “A gentleman knows neither sorrow nor fear.”

One of the most quoted sayings in this work is, “A gentleman should be slow to speak and quick to do.” This contains two bits of wisdom rolled into one: a.) Think before you say something stupid. b.) and, Get off your ass and do it, already. Of course, Confucius also produced an early (if not the earliest) formulation of what is usually called “The Golden Rule.) Confucius say, “What I do not wish done to me, I likewise wish not to do to others.”

I think everyone should read this short book of even shorter sayings.

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