Monthly Archives: April 2012

Films I Watched in April 2012

Here are the films I’ve watched in April, 2012 neatly summarized in six words.
  1. Beyond Reasonable Doubt (2009) – journalist sets up rogue Michael Douglas
  2. Butterfly on a Wheel – jealousy triggers life-shattering revenge stunt
  3. Cool It – Bjørn Lomborg balances polarized climate debate
  4. London Avenue – these Londoners know something I don’t
  5. Miracle at St Anna – delightful trilingual WW2 movie with love
  6. Puss in Boots – distasteful shallow stupid fake Shrek movie
  7. Stranger than Fiction – boring rendition of Fight Club‘s story
  8. Unser Täglich Brot – beautiful footage of mass food production
  9. War Horse — horse survives both sides of WW2

Book: An Introduction to Modern China History (1840–1949)

I like to reading the English. Do you?

Tragic period of Chinese history made funny by terrible English and production.
191 pages, ★★

An Introduction to Modern China History is riddled with errors, some of which are funny. Fonts and text colours change haphazardly, which indicates careless copy-and-paste jobs from external sources. Fixed-width symbols are used instead of Roman numerals, and the book suffers greatly from bad grammar, repetition and missing punctuation throughout. Historical references are sometimes questionable, too: and are each cited several times. I would have a field day proofreading this book.

Grave historical mistakes are also made. Confucius most certainly did not “invent” Confucianism, and the Taiping Rebellion did not occur in 1950.

The intended audience is explained in the book’s opening sentence: “Generally speaking, this book is provided to the overseas students who study in Jinan University.” The majority of overseas students in Jinan University probably won’t even open this book.

The second sentence is utter nonsense: “As a book of history, the basic historic events should be the most important material of the book”. Delete.

As a proofreader, terrible English prevented me from taking this book seriously. I learned little. Read Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45 instead. ★★

Book: Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion

I read this as a PDF on an iPod. The average eBook review is one-and-a-half stars lower than the average hardback review. The paperback version would probably therefore earn four of jameskennedybeijing's stars instead of three.

Lesson: How to recognize cults.
Thesis: Cults are everywhere and they’re mostly beneficial.
304 pages, ★★★ (probably four stars in paperback)

Cults” is an inaccurate title. This book instead refers consistently to “charismatic groups” with flattering prejudice as the nomenclature suggests. The author mostly analyses “Moonies”, the People’s Temple and Alcoholics Anonymous. Admittedly, it seems inappropriate to lump the outrageous (Moonies), the demonic (People’s Temple) and a recovery group (AA) under one category. The thesis of “Cults” is that cults are everywhere and they’re not all bad.

According to page 4, for a group to qualify as a “cult” (or, “charismatic group), it must:

  1. have a shared belief system
  2. have a high level of social cohesiveness
  3. are strongly influenced by the group’s behavioral norms
  4. impute charismatic (or sometimes divine) power to the group or its leadership

Using the definitions outlined in this book, I could qualify just about any group as a cult. Using these definitions, the Armed Forces, Scientology, Goldman Sachs, Catholicism, Apple, the Hell’s Angels and book clubs all qualify as “charismatic groups” too. And they’re not all bad.

The University of Cambridge, too, satisfies all the four requirements of a “charismatic group”:

  1. they believe they are better than non-Cambridge people, and a high grade will bring satisfaction (a high salary, a PhD, etc.);
  2. they are extremely cliquey;
  3. they have “formal hall”, “bops”, “balls” and other strange rituals found nowhere else;
  4. they boastfully impute charismatic power onto themselves (but not to the leadership).

In my view, universities are definitely “charismatic groups”. When approaching the end of their educational railroad (high-school, graduation, etc.), students panic and apply for a continuation of the same meaningfulness that their old schools used to provide. These people go on to study BA, masters, a second masters, a PhD, and so on. They love the titles, the rituals and the sense of purpose these educational ladder-rungs (and their diplomas) give them. I read Cults book to understand this phenomenon.

The book tells us that charismatic groups (such as universities) provide a “set meal” of meaning to people who lack it. People are likely to turn to such groups when at a “nadir” resulting from sickness or trauma (see my Fight Club review) and embrace the spiritual element that such groups provide them. Surveys show, like the protagonist of Fight Club, that most people try many different groups before settling into one.

Charismatic groups are like spiritual buses: they take you close to your destination, even if it’s not exactly where you wanted to be. The best places are off the spiritual bus-routes, so the last part of the spiritual journey involves leaving the “charismatic group” and going alone.

It teaches you not how to recognize and avoid “charismatic groups”, but how to recognise and use “charismatic groups” safely. Give this book to help anyone who’s been brainwashed and it’ll help them start thinking for themselves. ★★★

Book: A Natural History of the Senses

Each word surprises you pleasantly. Reading this book feels like being tickled. 🙂

An appreciation of all things bright and beautiful. Very Powerful Muse.

352 pages, ★★★★★

Walking back from the gym, I noticed a new stall in the mall: the Demeter® Fragrance Library. Their stall was unstaffed when I arrived, so I went about sniffing over 200 perfume bottles like a kid in a candy store. I smelled classic aromas such as “Rose”, “Lavender”, “Peach”, and “Ocean”, then tried the more obscure ones: “New Car”, “Laundromat”, “Rain”, and “Baby Smell”.

The Demeter® Fragrance Library sells body sprays, bath products and room air fresheners with a single, recognizable scent. Demeter calls them, “single experience fragrances”.

The most interesting part for me was the gift packaging. A quote printed on the gift boxes claimed that Diane Ackermann’s book, A Natural History of the Senses was the inspiration for setting up this playhouse of a store. I wanted to be inspired, so I didn’t buy the perfume, but I did buy the book.

This book is divided into six sections: smell, touch, taste, hearing, vision and synesthesia. Author Ackerman takes thousands minuscule daily encounters with nature, connects them, and amplifies them into vibrant prose. The result is a delightfully indirect journey from violets to neurones, from tattoos to phantom limbs, and from “salty” human origins (in the ocean) to the launch of a space shuttle. Natural History of the Senses is a constant surprise to read—rather like being tickled. The first chapter on “smell” is by far the best.

A Natural History of the Senses belongs beside The Importance of Living (see my review) and 窈窕淑女的标准 (see my review) in the genre of “appreciation of the smaller aspects of life”. I recommend these three delightful reads for anyone with the time and patience to find exquisite beauty in everyday life. ★★★★★

Book: 窈窕淑女的标准(宋尚宫女论语研习报告)

I finished reading this book before finally learning how to pronounce the first three characters of the title. It's "Yǎotiǎo shūnǚ de biāozhǔn", for reference. 🙂

The good life: a beginner’s guide based on Song Dynasty culture.
Written for women but highly relevant for men too.
322 pages, ★★★★★
Language: Chinese

Maosen Zhong (钟茂森) is highly regarded in China. He writes books and essays, and teaches ‘open classes’ (公开课) about traditional Chinese culture. His academic background is impressive, too: he studied undergraduate in Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, then finished his masters and doctorate degrees in Louisiana and Kansas. In 2003, at just 30 years of age, he was awarded a lifelong position as Associate Professor in Finance at the University of Queensland, Australia. Such an impressive degree collection earns one great respect in contemporary China.

Maosen Zhong uses this pedestal of respect to preach the growing movement of Traditional Chinese Culture (传统文化). His books and ‘open classes’ are mostly about history and Chinese spiritualism, with a particular emphasis on Chinese Buddhism. In my view, Zhong’s teachings are an attempt to plug China’s “spiritual vacuum” (a problem to which almost everyone in China acknowledges); China’s “self-racism” (which causes many young Chinese to reject Chinese norms in favor of KFC, basketball, and California); and the “moral breakdown” that’s occurred since the Communist era ended (from which corruption and other misdemeanors stem). To solve these issues, Zhong advocates moral education (伦理道德教育), a greater influence of Chinese religions in modern life and a greater respect and understanding for China’s own history and culture.

[Zhong addresses China’s] spiritual vacuum… self-racism… [and] moral breakdown

Maosen Zhong first convinces us of the need for moral education not just in China, but worldwide. He appeals to common sentiments by referring to the collapses of Enron and Lehman Brothers, and the Financial Crisis of 2008 that followed. Personally, I didn’t need much convincing: I already know that mainland China is morally bankrupt. People are kept in line by the heavy hand of the government, not by an inner sense of doing what’s right. Thank God for that heavy hand.

The Solutions: society is made up of families, which in turn are made up of people. To build a moral society, we first have to carry out moral education at the individual and family levels.

This book therefore starts at the individual level. It tells us to wake up between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., to open the curtains immediately, to stretch, sweep the floor, make a lukewarm breakfast, and wash the tea leaves ready for brewing after breakfast. And so on. He teaches the tiniest aspects of a good life in polite verbatim. I feel more educated than patronized.

The book then progresses to how to look after your family. There’s a chapter on taking care of your children and a lengthy chapter on taking care of elderly parents. The most minute aspects of life are spelled out very clearly.

“Men and women are equal but different” is very clear in this book. It contradicts the Western feminist movement, which was based on the idea that “women can be men, too”. Despite the Chinese title (which intends the book to be read by “fair ladies”), the role of women is a very minor aspect of the book.

To build a moral society, we first have to carry out moral education at the individual and family levels.

Dozens of key ancient texts are quoted throughout this book, each followed by Zhong’s own interpretations of these texts in a modern context. I didn’t fully understand these text excerpts (古文), but I still get the intended message: “the ancient Chinese would have done better”.

I learned two lessons from this book: the first is, “take great care in absolutely everything you do”. The second is, “no matter how morally you think you’re behaving, you’re almost certainly not doing enough”. China should listen. How to get masses of morally-starved, money-obsessed Chinese to listen to Zhong’s teachings, however, is a tricky problem to solve. ★★★★★

Book: Quick Access to Chinese History: From Ancient Times to the 21st Century

Beautifully-produced. The cover feels like ancient paper: it even has imperfections. Made by Chinese authors and Chinese publishers in perfect English. That's rare!

No. 1 Chinese history overview. Basically China’s National Museum in print. A Syllabus.
357 pages, ★★★★★

I’ve been looking for a Chinese history overview for many months now. I tried ancient history authors like Jonathan Spence (too detailed) and Gavin Menzies (wildly outlandish); and also modern historians such as Martin Jaques (increasingly confused). Nothing has come close to Quick Access to Chinese History‘s in terms of a clear overview.

Surprisingly, this full-color book was only $8.50 (¥54) on Amazon China with free delivery. It’s entirely made in China. Since mistakes in language and production usually jump right out at me, I’m proud to say that this book is almost completely error-free! As a proofreader, high-quality editing and production makes me very happy. 🙂

History in this book is exactly the same as that in China’s National Museum: even the pictures are the same. This is important because China, unlike Britain, seems to be very sure of its ancient history. Unlike British authors, Chinese authors seldom present conflicting views or alternative versions of the last few thousand years. Quick Access to Chinese History is therefore the only version of Chinese history you’ll ever need.

Rather than waking up at 6am to get museum tickets, then skipping lunch in order to see everything, this book can be read at home with tea, chocolate and breaks for meals. It’s more relaxing.

Each of the 1000 or so events in this book warrants reading a whole other book. Quick Access to Chinese History gives you more of a reading list, or a syllabus, than an in-depth understanding. It describes the Neolithic Era to the year 2010.

Rather than brainstorm this book (as I do with all books), I made a list of topics I want to research further. My further reading list starts like this:

  • Did Yuanmou Man of 1,700,000 years B.C. really use fire?
  • What was the Ganzhi dating system?
  • Yi Ching (易经)
  • “Upamichad” (Indian philosophy)
  • Spring and Autumn Period (春秋). Mohism, Confucianism, Daoism, Legalism, Naturalism and Yinyang schools of thought all emerged during this turbulent period.
  • Zhuangzi (庄子) and his furthering of Daoism (道教)
  • Taichu calendar
  • Huangdi Neijing (黄帝内经)
  • Communist-style land reform first occurred in 485 A.D.
  • Eight-legged essay…
  • … and many more

This is the best-value book I’ve ever bought on Amazon China. And it would make an excellent starting point for a Chinese history syllabus in a school: not just as an ancient history syllabus, but since the 20th century occupies the last 25% of the book, as a complete modern history syllabus too. I recommend this book as a history starting point for all Sinophiles. A gem. ★★★★★

Book: Measuring Time: A Novel

The cover shows not a world being turned upside-down, but two parallel worlds, inhabited by two twin brothers. Once close, a life-changing decision caused their lives to extrapolate to two diametric extremes.

A book about how the smallest choices impact the next three generations.
Set in Nigeria. Bookended by trees.

383 pages, ★★★★★

This novel starts and ends with a tree. In Measuring Time, only the trees stand still and watch three generations of war, disease and family survival. Everything else changes. The two trees on the cover represent the parallel lives of two twin brothers, Mamo and LaMamo, who live in the small Nigerian village of Keti. Once close, a life-changing decision caused their lives to extrapolate to two diametric extremes.

LaMamo and Mamo and begin as typical twin brothers, playful and mischievous. Their slightly different personalities complement each other: LaMamo is impulsive, and Mamo is cautious. The most graphic portrait of LaMamo and Mamo is when they poison a neighbour’s dog to death to steal its rheum, which they believe, if rubbed in their eyes, will let them “see ghosts”. Helon Habila describes the twins physically: LaMamo has a slightly elongated head that resulted from his difficult birth, and Mamo has inherited a “blood disease” (we later discover to be sickle-cell anaemia) from his late mother. The characters in Measuring Time are vivid and likable. As they grow up, trees are thrown in as the static reference frame throughout.

These twins appear together in the first half of the book. The third act is about half-way through, when impulsive LaMamo becomes a hired soldier, changing his fate forever. In trying too hard to change his life, he fights, travels and loses an eye in battle. His letters to Mamo are garbled and riddled with English mistakes. Mamo, however, the cautious one, stays much closer to home, and managed to change his life far more noticeably than LaMamo without even trying. On page 98, Mamo makes a speech on modernity is remarkably intelligent for someone with no formal schooling. The contrast between their youthful camaraderie in the dog-rheum incident and the lives of two totally disparate adults could not be more striking.

Compare Mamo’s intelligent ‘modernity’ speech…

“Some have accused me of promoting Western ways and making young people forget their tradition and culture. They point out to me the evils of modernity—as if tradition itself is devoid of evil…The rest of the world has science and commerce and prosperity. What do we have? Culture. Most cultures and traditions are devised by society to help it survive a particular threat at a certain time, and once that threat is over, that culture becomes anachronistic.” — Mamo on page 98.

…with this troubled, error-ridden letter from his twin brother, LaMamo:

“All the house are empty, it seems so much fighting has been done here, the village empty, and it smell of dead bodies, we even saw half-buried corpses in the bush. He showed us his house, it had been burned down by fire, and the church where all his family were killed…” — LaMamo on page 154.

Time flies in this book. In the first 20 pages, about three (short) generations pass. The characters are given so much history and justification for their character (such as descriptions of the relations between their parents and grandparents) that I feel I know these characters. I actually care about them. I think the extended character background is as engrossing as it is necessary to fully appreciate the wild character arcs later in Measuring TimeBy page 57, five of the ten characters we’ve been introduced to are dead. All those on Amazon who say the novel “starts slow” can shut up.

Measuring Time reminded me that the smallest choices can sometimes be the most life-changing ones. I learned that everything has a cause (因) and a result (果), sometimes effecting multiple generations. I also learned that you don’t need to run amok like LaMamo to change your life. You are often better off staying at home like Mamo and educating yourself: and that’s exactly what I’m doing. ★★★★★

Films I Watched In March 2012

  1. The Note II: Taking a Chance on Love – Chinese subtitles made this movie interesting
  2. Catch Me If You Can – astonishing fugitive’s rags-to-riches illusion
  3. 饮食男女 (Eat Drink Man Woman) – best grandfather cooks masterpieces for family
  4. Madagascar – animals’ farcical expedition away from captivity
  5. Ratatouille – little rat overcomes kitchen class prejudice
  6. 和谐拯救危机 (Let Harmony Redeem) – Ancient Chinese culture solves world’s problems

Book: Our Hidden Lives: The Remarkable Diaries of Post-War Britain

This book is big (over 500 pages) and very soft. It feels more like a teddy bear than a book. Read this in bed.

Big, soft, and cuddly. Perfect piecemeal bedtime reading.
544 pages, 

Mass-Observation was a government-led initiative to monitor a representative sample of British citizens via regularly-submitted diary entries. Thousands of participants, from youth to old age, of all political viewpoints, consented to the project from 1945 to 1949, documenting their lives during and after the Second World War. The resulting diaries were archived for decades before being compiled in date-order for this book, Our Hidden Lives.

I’m surprised by how little these diarists thought about the war. Most of their musings are about food, family, hobbies and what they’ve read in newspapers (only a fraction of which might be war-related). One diarist, “Herbert Brush”, a London pensioner uses his Mass-Observation diary to play with numbers: on page 32, he looks for a “book of prime numbers”, on page 40, he proves his “law of 37” (incorrectly!); on page 54, he tosses a coin repeatedly to see whether it’s biassed; on page 152, he redesigns the Gregorian calendar so that certain days always fall on weekends; and on page 184, he bores a group of women with a game he invented. He almost never comments on the war.

Food rations changed with weather-like uncertainty. And all diarists commented on the wildly-changing prices of tea, persimmons, and bananas in local stores. There are four times as many entries about food than about the war. And I find that comforting.

There are four times as many entries about food than about the war. And I find that comforting.

B. Charles, a gay antiques dealer, gets audibly giddy from his garden experiments with DDT. He goes on to describe how the British have become accustomed to queueing for absolutely everything (since rations required regular shop visits for small quantities of items).

“This queue business is simply amazing. I can’t think of how it was that there were none of them prior to the war. When I was coming home on the tram, I spoke to a naval officer and his opinion is that, now people have become so queue-minded, they just fall into a queue instead of hanging about the counters of shops, as they used to before the war… a great many women LIKE queueing: the queue is, really, the 1945 edition of the Mothers’ Meeting” – page 138

Does that explain Brits’ love of queueing? Probably. But the Chinese were also taught to queue during the Communist era. What caused them to regress back to primitive push-and-shove tactics? Alight at Beijing Zoo station and you’ll understand.

This book also highlights the uselessness of daily news. And weekly news. And monthly news. News (including financial news) should be read at no more than quarterly intervals. The diarists of Our Hidden Lives illustrate this by occasionally commenting on throwaway news stories in too much detail. On most days, nothing of interest happens, so junk news takes the headline slot. Our Hidden Lives reminded me never to let “news” clog my brain.

Our Hidden Lives was much more interesting than I expected. This book reminds you of life’s tiny pleasures. It reminds you not to dwell on negative events; just as the diarists resisted dwelling on the war. Food, family and hobbies are the most important aspects of life, even in times of war. ★★★

Book: Moab is My Washpot

Moab is My Washpot

Intelligence, gayness and (bipolar) mania. First 20 years of Fry’s life.
384 pages, ★★

I respect Stephen Fry as a man of a thousand talents. Wikipedia describes him as an “actor, screenwriter, author, playwright, journalist, poet, comedian, television presenter, and film director”. Moab is My Washpot was addictive to read, even if it only covers the first 20 years of his life. For me, Moab is My Washpot is about intelligence, homosexuality and a manic episode of bipolar disorder.

When talking about his (slightly sadistic) school, Stephen Fry defines intelligence as an “unappealing quality” and has “never expected anyone to find it appealing in me”. He is stumped by conversations with fans that start with, “Of course, I’m no brainbox like you”, and “I know I’m only stupid but…”. Stupid people are more appealing than pompous braggers, though:

“I might use long words from time to time and talk rapidly or name-drop culturally here and there and display and number of other silly donnish affecations, but if this gives me the impression that I might admire a similar manner or nature in others, then it makes me just want to go ‘bibbly-bobbly-bubbly-snibbly wib-wib floppit’ for the rest of my life, read nothing but Georgette Heyer, watch nothing but Emmerdale, do nothing but play snooker, take coke and get drunk and use no words longer than “wanker” and “cunt”.” — Page 125

Fry defied his “intelligent” image in school with mischief. He played with electric fences and stole money from his classmates’ coat pockets. Personally, I know that pupils with a golden reputation among teachers can get away with anything.

Fry then talks graphically about his first time having sex, also in school. It doesn’t cover much text, but because it’s so descriptive, it seems to jump out and hijack the rest of the book; so that “graphic gay sex” is the first thing I’m able to recall when I’m planning a book review. I didn’t know that he was gay, so this was a shock to read.

Moab is My Washpot ends right in the middle of the manic episode described in the TV documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressiveleaving us hankering for the sequel, The Fry Chronicles: An Autobiography. I look forward to the sequel, his tenth book(!), which documents the vibrant career that followed him being released from jail.

Page 322 explains how he managed to maintain both an exciting career and a distinctively charming personality: “People who can change and change again are so much more reliable and happier than those who can’t”. All things change. ★★★★