Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Book Review - 近代中國史綱(下) (A Short History of Modern China, Vol. 2)

I had read Vol. 1 about a year ago (review here).

Vol. 2 covers the period from the establishment of the Nationalist Party under Sun Yat-sen’s leadership in 1912, through the brief Yuan Shikai autocratic reign, then the Warlords Era, the Japanese invasion and occupation of China, right up to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Having gone through annihilating tumults of the 1800s that various foreign powers incited to gain control over Chinese territories and reap economic concessions, by 1912, China was already a very sick nation with deep internal wounds. European aggression showed brief signs of let-up with the outbreak of First World War, but Japan and Russia immediately jumped at the chance to encroach on Chinese territories and seize other privileges. After declaring war on Germany, Japan seized the moment to impose its so-called “Twenty-One Demands” (i.e. territorial and economic concessions) on China.

Yuan Shikai was never a believer in Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People (i.e. democracy) and was always looking for a chance to become the emperor, even at the cost of selling out to Japan. When his schemes were debunked, other factions rose against him. Thus began the Warlords Era which lasted until the establishment of the Communist Party in 1920 and beyond.

In 1919, at the Paris Peace Conference, the major Allied Powers approved the transfer of Germany’s concessions in Shandong Province to Japan instead of reverting them back to China, and this ignited the nationalist and anti-imperialist May Fourth student movement, which demanded the government to abstain from signing the Paris Treaty and to refute Japan’s Twenty-One Demands.

From 1925, the year Sun died from sickness, China became the battlefield between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party and Mao Tse-tung’s Communist Party and the remnant warlords. Chiang was repeatedly criticized for his dictatorial ways within his own Party, while Mao firmly believed that using armed force was the only solution to end his contest with Chiang.

In 1937, Japan, who had already seized and occupied Manchuria in 1932 and had tried to take over five northern Chinese provinces, started an all-out war with China (known as the Second Sino-Japanese War) in Shanghai and Nanjing, using some flimsy excuse. In December that year, Japanese soldiers subjected Nanjing to a brutal massacre and mass rape for six days. This bloody war lasted until Japan was defeated by the Allied Forces in 1945. Meanwhile, Russia was eyeing Outer Mongolia and Xinjiang, and sought to continue its influence on the Communist Party.

After this war, China was again plunged into civil war until the Communist Party finally won out in 1949 and set up the People’s Republic of China, forcing Chiang and his Nationalist Party to flee to Taiwan. Unfortunately, both Mao and Chiang imposed despotic rule and inflicted more sufferings on those under their rule.

These two Volumes of Modern China history are a result of painstaking research by the author, which was supported, apart from Chinese-language sources, by research materials found at the University of Hawaii East-West Centre, Harvard University East Asia Centre and Columbia University East Asian National Resource Center. But the author has also stated that the books are not an academician’s work and are meant for a general readership.

Both volumes chronicle a mind-boggling amount of historical account minutiae. They have helped me understand a lot better Modern China's history. I’m glad that I’ve read the books. This Volume warrants 4.5 stars.


Friday, October 18, 2019

Book Review - "The Count of Monte Cristo" by Alexandre Dumas, pere

Whew, I finally finished reading this much acclaimed French classic. While satisfied that I can now count myself among its readers, I do have mixed feelings about this epic story of one man embarking on a revenge trajectory after being dealt a harsh blow of egregious frame-up which entails fourteen years of imprisonment and the loss of his betrothed.

The novel is one large web of intricate and inter-linking plots, apparently woven with much care and passion and sprinkled with suspenseful and emotional moments. My investment in the convoluted plots did not wane throughout the novel, although some major twists lean a bit towards fantasy and some of the minor turns appear unnecessary. Still, I loved the author’s beautiful descriptions of scenery in various parts of France, and his occasional insights on human nature spelled out in the narrator’s witty observations. I especially like the moral message that a person who exacts retribution and hurts the innocent in the process will end up with more pain than satisfaction.

As much as the portrayal of the key characters enabled me to have a good grasp of the motives and reasons behind their actions and reactions, I found that they still neatly fall into either one of two distinct categories - good and bad – with very little nuance. The good stay good, the bad stay bad, throughout. But I guess that's one way of  looking at human nature.

All in all, this was an enjoyable read and I am giving it 3.4 stars, rounded down.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Book Birthday Giveaway Entry Ends August 31!

Oct. 1, 2019 Update: The winners were notified and signed copies of the book were put in the mail to them on Sept. 26, 2019.

Please use the contact form (on the right) to enter your name and address for a lucky draw on September 1, 2019.

Deadline for entries is 5:00 pm Pacific Time on Saturday, August 31, 2019. Good Luck!

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Li Xiangjun and "The Peach Blossom Fan"

As I previously mentioned, Li Xiangjun 李香君 (1624 – 1653) is one of the three leading characters of my upcoming novel. She was among the Eight Beauties of Qinhuai 秦淮八艷 and the subject of Ming scholar Hou Fangyu’s 侯方域’s literary essay titled Biography of Lady Li 姬傳.

The premises where Li used to reside and ply her trade as a courtesan (she was a celebrated kunqu opera singer) were called Villa of Alluring Fragrance 媚香樓, which was located along the banks of the Qinhuai River, a glitzy pleasure district of Nanjing in the late-Ming dynasty. The above photographs show the reconstructed building at No. 38, Bank Note Vault Street, Qinhuai, Nanjing 南京秦淮區鈔庫街三十八.

If you have read Kong Shangren’s 孔尚任’s iconic historical play The Peach Blossom Fan 桃花扇, you would already be familiar with the real-life heroine Li Xiangjun. This classical play is a dramatized narrative based on Hou’s essay Biography of Lady Li and is a poetic weaving of the tragic love affair between Hou and Li with the collapse of the Ming dynasty.

I’ve recently stumbled across a poem written by renowned writer and philosopher Lin Yutang 林語堂 (1895 – 1976), which gives a reflective and laudatory description of Li Xiangjun’s character, with gibes targeting men in general. He inscribed this poem on a scroll portrait of Li Xiangjun that he had privately commissioned.



My Translation:

Lin Yutang’s Ode to Xiangjun:-

Xiangjun is a woman, her blood spilt on the peach blossom fan.
Her moral virtue lights up history, and shames the macho men.
Xiangjun is a woman, and she has grit aplenty.
I have her painting hung on the wall, to teach me humility.
Take a look at all the men, is there any with intrepidity?
They’re all wishy-washy; what have become of them!
The world these days, is filled with crooks and shams.
I can’t go wrong admiring, beauties in a distant time-span.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Book Review - "The Family Romanov" by Candace Fleming

A breezy and concise historical account of Russia’s last imperial reign of Tsar Nicholas II, this non-fiction history book reads a lot like a novel.

Like with many other similar stretches of history, when viewed in retrospect, the course of events would seem to be so natural and predictable that it makes one wonder, had things been handled with more compassion and less hubris by those in power, if the odds of averting tragedies and disasters could’ve increased.

The Family Romanov gives an intimate account of the lives of the Romanov family members, namely, Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, and their four daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia and one son-and-heir Alexei. The account starts with the 1884 courtship between teenagers Nicholas and Alix of Hesse (who was Queen Victoria’s granddaughter), and carries us through to the tragic end of the whole family in July 1918.

Juxtaposing narratives of the opulent, hedonistic lifestyle of the Imperial family side by side with anecdotes of the peasant class’s everyday scourge of abject poverty, oppression and despair, the author presents a poignant picture of two diametrically opposite worlds, worlds inhabited by two classes that are distinguished by birth and destiny. Exaggerated sense of entitlement and obtuseness of the privileged ruling class becomes the cause of its own ultimate undoing.

I’m just puzzled as to why the French-educated Romanovs had not learned from the downfall of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

It is interesting to note that it was not until July 2007 that the remains of Alexei and of one of his sisters were finally found. (The remains of the other five family members had been uncovered in 1991.)

I’m giving this well-researched book 4 full stars.