Monday, December 17, 2018

A Painting and Late Qing History

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, has recently blogged about how an amazing gem of a Chinese painting came to land on the museum’s doorsteps. It is a moving story, and the serendipitous find in question is a lovely painting of the Garden of Nurtured Harmony 頣和園. In the 1880s Empress Cixi ordered this imperial garden restored, which was located near the site of the Old Summer Palace 圓明園.

One paragraph in the middle of the blog post reads:

“At the time, Wang was in the very early stages of planning for the Empresses of China’s Forbidden City exhibition. The donated painting, now on view in the last gallery, helps tell the story of the influence wielded by Empress Dowager Cixi within the Qing dynasty. In the 1880s Cixi personally oversaw the restoration of the property, which had been pillaged by Anglo-French troops some 20 years earlier.”

But the unvarnished official history behind these imperial gardens is far less palatable than that indicated in the above paragraph. Around 1860, the Old Summer Palace 圓明園 had been vindictively burned to the ground by Anglo-French troops under orders of British Commander Lord Elgin, in what came to be known as the Second Opium War (1856 – 1860). All this violence was in retaliation for the Chinese people trying to resist opium trade and the British invasion of Guangdong in the 1850s.

Willfully oblivious to her subjects' long sufferings during the two Opium Wars and foreign countries' relentless military offensives on Chinese soil, and the crippling penalties they imposed, Cixi took the funds earmarked for the modernizing of the Qing naval fleet and lavished it on the restoration of the Garden of Nurtured Harmony 頤和園 for her own private pleasure.

Perhaps this infamous act paled in comparison to her later wicked persecution of patriotic reformists in 1898, it was nonetheless a direct cause of the Qing court’s defeat in various naval battles with France and Japan between 1884 and 1894, which effectively turned China into a sitting duck vis a vis foreign aggressors and set the stage for the 1900 Boxer Rebellion and the invasion of Beijing by the Alliance of Eight Nations (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Japan, U.S., Italy and Austria), and then the 1911 Revolution.

It makes me think that world history is a super complex chain of causes and effects. Without going deep into our history, we would never be able to understand the conflicts that plague international relations, much less our present human condition.


Sunday, December 16, 2018

Qing Empresses Exhibition Named Best Show

Trying to pique Westerners' interest in Chinese history through historical fiction is hard, as the genre is just way too Eurocentric. It's a good thing that this exhibition of Qing Empresses has caught some eyeballs. I hope this will help spread the word about early Qing history, and about Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang as a key (but probably forgotten) female leader, whose influence was inexorably tied to the successful rise of the Qing Dynasty.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Book Review: 近代中國史綱(上), 郭廷以著

I've finished Volume One (of two Volumes) of A Short History of Modern China by Kuo Ting-yee (it's written in Chinese and published by the Chinese University of Hong Kong 近代中國史綱(上)). This volume covers the time period from the 1830s up to the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, and it coincides with the period covered in Stephen R. Platt's new book Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China's Last Golden Age. Volume Two covers the timeframe between 1912 and 1949, which I will read at a later date. I thought it sensible to read a history book about Modern China written by an ethnic Chinese historian.

It was a difficult (painful) read for me (probably the same for any ethnic Chinese) because it was a blatant case of Western countries (Britain, France, Germany & to a lesser extent, the U.S.) plus Japan and Russia scheming to bully and split up China in the name of fostering trade. Of course a feckless, self-serving and rotten Qing court (with Empress Cixi and Yuan Shikai as the main culprits) not only didn't help matters but actually emboldened foreign countries’ covetous ambitions. Honestly speaking, the causes leading to the debacle of the Qing Dynasty were not spectacularly different from those that helped to wipe out Ming, or Yuan, or Song, or Tang or Han. It was always a matter of internal rot, corruption and internecine fights at the ruling classes’ level and their gross neglect of subjects’ grievances that initiated the process of rapid decay at the core. Unfortunately, it is also true that the lessons of history have never been well learned even with endless repetitions.

Having said that, I am of the view that neither should those foreign aggressors be let off the hook for their nefarious behavior and shameful actions that caused unspeakable sufferings to the common people of China. History and international relations are a complex chain of causes and effects. Learning and understanding world history is the first step towards understanding our present human condition. 

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Jason Pym's 5 star Review of The Green Phoenix

This latest five star Review of The Green Phoenix by Jason Pym, a British artist resident in Dali, Yunnan, who is well versed in Chinese culture and history, just blew me away!

"For me this was not only a gripping read, but expanded my knowledge of an important part of Chinese history that I was not familiar with."

"All in all, Green Phoenix is a stunning, epic tale, yet showing how individual personalities and relationships of just a handful of people can shape nations and the destinies of millions. A thoroughly enjoyable read."

Full Review

(The review contains spoilers.)

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Swindon Books in Tsim Sha Tsui

I went to Swindon Books yesterday and saw The Green Phoenix on the Bestsellers~New Arrivals Shelf. Honored to be in esteemed company!

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Empress Wu Zetian - A Film in the Making!

Thursday, November 1, 2018

In Commemoration of Jin Yong

Jin Yong (aka Louis Cha), the larger-than-life literary inventor of the “rivers and lakes” universe (江湖), my all-time favorite author and idol, and beloved novelist of the Chinese cultural world, passed away two days ago at the age of 94. His mesmerizing martial arts and chivalry novels were an integral part of my growing up. My summer holidays in the primary school years were spent either burying my head in rented paper editions of his novels, or dueling with my cousins with makeshift swords in games of acting out those stories. He has been and will always be my hero.

Perhaps one person is better placed than I to pay proper tribute to my hero. He is the one who translated the late Mr. Cha’s first novel The Book and the Sword (the translated version was published in 2004 by Oxford University Press) and he is Graham Earnshaw. He has just written an article in the SCMP explaining his approach to the translation and reminiscing his exchanges with the iconic novelist. He made this trenchant remark: “The integration of Chinese culture into world culture is very important, and it will eventually happen. When it does, Mr. Cha’s stories and characters will be an important part of it.” I cannot but agree with him.

Monday, October 22, 2018

My Choice of Two Poems to Illuminate Characters in "The Green Phoenix"

For readers who have read The Green Phoenix, they will have noticed that I had incorporated in it two famous Chinese lyric poems (“ci” , i.e. lyrics that are set to tunes): “Reminiscing Red Cliffs” 念奴嬌之赤壁懷古 by Song dynasty poet Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037 – 1101) and “The Immortals by the River” 臨江仙 by Ming poet Yang Shen 楊慎 (1488 – 1559). I would just like to say a few words as to why I had chosen them.

In the opening chapters, the first poem appears in a scene where the young Bumbutai performs a recital of it to entertain her two Jurchen (Manchu) royal guests in her Mongolian home estate. This poem is about the poet's nostalgic memory of the ancient hero Zhou Yu from the Three Kingdoms era, and it was chosen to reflect Bumbutai’s love of Chinese culture and history, and, in a premonitory way, her sense of humility in face of history as the big picture and her belief that chance or fate works on the individual and collective levels to make history happen.

Near the end of Part Two, the second poem is presented during a second meeting between the young Shunzhi Emperor and the beautiful but already married Lady Bombogor, who is to become his favorite Consort Donggo. By brushing the poem on a painting that Shunzhi just finished working on, she shows her intelligent understanding of his thwarted dream to live a commoner’s simple and peaceful life. The poem laments the futility and emptiness of worldly pursuits and the transience of life itself, with an implied Buddhist mantra of letting go (放下). It mirrors Shunzhi’s escapist mentality and presages his later decision to become a monk.

念奴嬌之赤壁懷古 -蘇軾



My Translation: Reminiscing Red Cliffs – Su Shi:

The Great Yangtze scurries forever east, many an ancient hero buried in its sweep.
West of the old forts, they say, was fought Zhou Yu’s Battle of Red Cliffs.
Rampant cliffs that pierced clouds, angry waves that ripped shores, churning up snowy foam;
Such a picturesque country, so full of gallant men in times of old.

Thinking of Zhou Yu in that distant past, he must’ve looked valiant with Xiaoqiao his new bride.
Feather fan in hand, hair tied in silk, his enemies crushed to dust as he joked.
Such was my dreamy tour; mock me as maudlin, but I’m just a young white-haired bloke.
Life is but a dream; let me offer wine to the river moon.

臨江仙 -楊慎


My Translation: The Immortals by the River – Yang Shen

On and on to the east rolls the Great Yangtze,
Burying in its current hordes of gallant men.
Right or wrong, shame or glory, all comes to naught.
Only the green hills linger, after many a glowing sunset.
White-haired men by the river, mind the seasons not;
All they care is in the bottle, and meeting with old friends.
Stories new and old, come alive in their witty repartee.