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Books - China Trio 3: Shapiro, Mitter, Hucker

Updated on February 5, 2016

We're just beginning

Not only do we want to go to China, but also we want to read about China.

There's plenty to read. There are the books produced by the Chinese themselves, an immense number, even in translation. Then there are the ones by foreigners beginning with Marco Polo and Odoric of Pordenone in the 14th Century. These continue in an unbroken stream and literally flood the market today.

One needs to pick and choose. A little guidance can be of help.

Peaking your interest by providing suggestions in doses that can be swallowed more or less at one time is what we are trying to do here.

Judith Shapiro: "Mao's War Against Nature"

'And so the youth were ordered to hack down the rainforest, in order that China could plant rubber trees, which are native to South America, replacing untold diversity with vast monocultures that are rubber plantations.

That the "the abuse of people and nature are often interrelated" is the central tenet of this book, though it is careful to point out that here is an extreme example.

The book covers many, many ways in which a deeply mindless commitment to short-term modernization can lead to long-term consequences of catastrophic proportion, but perhaps the focal episode concerns a marsh on Dianchi (Lake Dian), one of China's largest freshwater lakes. Dianchi was the pride of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province in China's far Southwest, a city known to the Western world mainly as the home of the Flying Tigers in WW2.

In the name of increasing food production, the lake's marsh, which for eons had provided a filter cleansing the lake, was filled in in an attempt to grow rice. Soil in vast quantities was trucked in and dumped into the marsh.

The cost of the project was enormous, the amount of rice grown was pitiful, the filter was destroyed, and the vast lake's water quality plummeted, probably irretrievably. One is tempted to say, "other than that, it was a huge success."

The other catastrophes are of equal interest, most of them involving pollutants rather than biological diversity. Based on thorough research and interviews with both perpetrators and victims, the book is a classic which despite dealing, in some ways, with exceptional circumstances can be profitably read by those attempting the monumental task of dealing with China's current environmental problems.

'All the catastrophes described in this book are now a long time in the past -- except that the consequences live on and onDown, down, and more down -- any hope? What are you seeing?

Rana Mitter: "A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World"

Might as well start with this quote:

"Under the terms of the Versailles Treaty, the former German colonies on Chinese territory were not to be given back to China, but would instead be handed over to another imperialist power, Japan. By 2 o'clock, the students had had enough of speeches. Carrying placards, they started to march towards Beijing's diplomatic quarter, demanding justice for China in the international arena. As the students became more heated, they moved on the house of Cao Rulin, who was regarded as being close politically to the Japanese. After destroying much of the interior of the house, and assaulting visitors whom they found there, some of the visitors then set fire to it. At this development, the police moved in, and 32 of the protestors were arrested."

The date was the 4th of May, 1919, and this event gave rise to the May Fourth Movement. Cao Rulin was the minister of communications in the government of the Republic of China.

In a sense, Lawrence of Arabia figures in the history of China, too, though only in a parallel way. The great tragedy of Lawrence is that he was sent to Arabia during WW1 to promise the Arabs freedom from colonial rule if they would follow him and attack the Germans. They did, successfully, but at the Versailles Conference Britain and France pretended this promise never existed. These two suddenly had no interest in freedom, and each took colonies of its own.

Promises were made also to the Chinese, not by a charismatic figure such as Lawrence, but promises nonetheless. These, too, were violated when German-controlled territory such as Tsingtao (Qingdao), home of the famous beer, was handed to the Japanese. (The transfer also included islands in the Pacific which later played a role in the attack on Pearl Harbor, though this fact is less well known).

As the above quotation demonstrates, on the 4th of May, 1919, a violent protest against this violation took place in Beijing. Mitter's book starts with the May Fourth Movement and follows it on to the New ,b>Culture Movement which it spawned and which persisted in China long after the violence was put down. This includes detailing the background to these events, Confucianism as a social theory, and the end of thousands of years of imperial rule in 1911.

We learn that the protest was ignited in Beijing and Shanghai and that, as in 1989, the students of China's premier university, Beida (Peking University), were the prime movers in the drama. Important were the writers Lu Xun (admired by Mao) and Ding Ling; the journalist and editor of Life Weekly, Zou Taofen; and a businessman-journalist, Du Zhongyuan.

It is Mitter's contention that however futile the protest movement was in obtaining justice, it engendered a "rich variety of political alternatives," all new to China. He further argues that communist historians have obscured this variety in favor of demonstrating the primacy of the ideas of the victors of 49.

Mitter is less concerned with traditional historical narrative and more concerned with analyzing the ideas behind the political alternatives and their consequences for women, workers (and women workers), businessmen, peasants and for education, relations with the West, and Japan. The alternatives did not just include communism and liberal democracy, but also fascism, anarchism, socialism, and many others. It is this analysis that is first set against the background of traditional Confucianism.

All these alternatives were swallowed up of course by the titanic events which followed: war with Japan, world war, civil war, the Korean War, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. Only in this last catastrophe was there a perverted revival of May Fourth. The role of youth and the rejection of the old were appropriated, as was a role for violence, but the idea of political alternatives was anathema, as was any opening to the outside world.

Mitter takes his analysis down through Tiananmen and beyond, emphasizing in particular that the legacy of May Fourth is an ability to accept competing ideas about China's identity.

A novel and interesting approach, no?

Charles O. Hucker: "China's Imperial Past"

'A classic introduction to the Chinese imperium, four thousand years in a single volume. Though it uses the pre-Pinyin transliterations, it remains one of the best one volume histories.

'Even the Introduction is of interest, as for example in the contrast he draws between China's two great rivers: the Yangtze and the Yellow. He notes that the former is navigable all the way to the Pacific and with its tributaries constitutes a magnificent transportation network, as well as providing millions with jobs working on the river. Its water is always available to make up for shortfalls in rain in a given year, and "it seldom erupts in damaging floods."

The latter, in contrast, has "an awesomely malevolent aspect." It brings much needed mud, but the sedimentation is so great that it creates sandbars which impede navigation. It has no permanent channel and has been confined by dikes, a continuous process involving building them higher and higher due to the sedimentation deposits -- "in places the river flows through aequeducts above roof level." The dikes break, immense areas are flooded, lives are lost, and the building of dikes begins anew. "China's Sorrow" is a name for the Yellow River.

The book is good not just with rivers, but with people, too. Just to take a random example, on page 143 we are treated to Emperor Hsiian-tsung [Xuanzong], having previously been treated to Empress Wu, China's only female empress to rule in her own right. Hsiian-tsung swept house and listened to his new, competent advisors about what the people want. He encouraged scholarship and the arts, setting up institutes to support both. The culture flowered. "But Hsiian-tsung lived too long for his own good, and for China's." He fell prey to sycophancy and made bad decisions about generals. "Then, in 745, at the age of sixty, he fell in love with one of his son's concubines, the deliciously plump young Lady Yang, and became her doting lackey."

All does not end well.

Is this book still worth reading despite having been published in 1975?

Parting facts

All still available. Also on used-book sites like alibris.com and abebooks.com.

Part of a series

Pictures, pictures, pictures

Series within series, actually. Food & Cooking, for example, then -- within that -- series on vegetables, fruits, seafood, meat, etc. Books, too. Ideas, too. Travel, too. Key virtues:. pictures, clear step-by-step text. Delicious -- whether foods or ideas! All of the series, and all of the items in each series, can be found at this link: Lee White's Department Store

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