Category Archives: China

Book: China: Land of Dragons and Emperors

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As simple a Chinese history as is possible to write. Needs a revamp.
255 pages, ★★

Chinese history is notoriously complicated. There have been 83 dynasties (maybe 85) and 559 emperors (plus about 8 more “chairmen” since the 1911 revolution—but this is debatable), each with their own cultures, palaces and stories. As a civilisation, China enjoys the longest unbroken history on Earth. For five thousand years, dynasties followed the predictable cycle of “conquer-rise-prosper-decline” due to warfare, patriotism, tyranny and corruption, respectively. Dynasties often ruled simultaneously in different locations, particularly in the first half of China’s 5000-year history. With China’s vast population and its fondness of large governments, the number of influential people in China’s history is unfathomably large for most people. To confuse matters further, many important people and cities had several names, and the historical record was destroyed and re-written several times in the course of China’s 5000-year history.

China’s official history of the last 100 years alone comprises several tomes filled with tiny Chinese characters on wafer-thin bible-paper. To make an abridged version of the last 5000 years especially for children, therefore, is a remarkable feat. Adeline Yen Mah (whose other books I’ve reviewed here) writes beautifully and accurately in a way that captivates. She includes anecdotes to keep children interested, and peppers the book with editorials that keep young people’s moral compasses on track during scenes of violence or promiscuity.

This book lacked sufficient detail to make it interesting for me. Zheng He’s story is a really exciting one, but it was glossed over in just a few pages in this book. Only the Qing and Tang dynasties were written in sufficient detail for me. Despite its brevity, though, all the most important people and events were at least mentioned in this book.

Reading this book on an iPad, I found myself reimagining PDF as a real iBook specifically designed for the iPad. Chinese history is an exciting topic, and iBooks on the iPad lends itself wonderfully to the videos, animations, speeches and 3D relics that could help bring this colourful history to life. The current version, a black-and-white scanned PDF, seems very dated in 2013. This book needs a digital revamp.

China: Land of Dragons and Emperors was definitely less interesting than Watching the Tree for several reasons. As someone who reads almost every remotely-interesting book on the “China” shelf, particularly non-fiction, I already know most of what she’s writing. It’s also aimed at children, and I was reading it on an iPad with all its drawbacks. If only the book could be re-engineered to take full advantage of all the features the iPad can offer, this book would be very special indeed.

I recommend this book for young teenagers (aged 10-16) who already love reading but don’t yet know much about China. Its discontinuous, highly-chaptered structure lends itself well to reading in bed. (For those who already know a lot about China but don’t like reading so much, I recommend 1421 instead.) ★★★

Book: Watching the Tree

Watching the Tree

Charming, delightful, concise reflections on Chinese life and culture.
248 pages, ★★★★★

Adline Yen Mah is one of my favourite Chinese authors. Her websites http://www.adelineyenmah.com/ and http://chinesecharacteraday.com/ focus on increasing the awareness of Chinese culture to “anyone who is willing to learn”! She’s even created free children’s books and an iPad app to help spread knowledge of Chinese culture worldwide.

Watching the Tree is a collection of charming reflections about the author’s grandfather and the stories he told. Her grandfather tends to connect Chinese and western ideas: he wants to believe in Confucianism, Protestantism, Catholicism and Taoism at the same time, for example, and couldn’t understand why religious pluralism displeased westerners. The author highlights the similarities between all of them in this book.

The author’s grandfather also describes how Escher’s art, Bach’s music and Zhuangzi’s Daodejing (a text) all tackle the same philosophical conundrums of circular logic and apparent paradoxes. Interconnectedness is a recurring theme throughout this book.

Another example of interconnectedness is when we learn that Hinduism evolved into Buddhism, which evolved into Daoism and also Japanese Buddhism, for example. We learn that China’s lack of scientific progress in recent centuries was attributed to a long-standing tradition of revering philosophers and neglecting mathematics—at least, not adopting a digit-based system of counting, which would have greatly assisted the advancement of maths and science, until the early 19th century. The author also makes connections between the Yi Ching (易经) and Carl Jung, and between hexagrams and binary computing. I love the connections the author (via her grandfather’s stories) makes in this book—it makes this book inclusive, beautiful, and unmistakably Chinese.

I also love how Watching the Tree‘s chapters are named after Chinese famous idioms. Each chapter tells a story that describes both the idiom and an aspect of Chinese life. The tone of these stories is beautiful, charming and uplifting. All the Chinese words are written in Wade-Giles, pinyin and Chinese characters—which makes is accessible for all Chinese learners from all backgrounds.

I recommend this book for anyone who has an interest in Chinese culture. It doesn’t matter how much you already know—this book is beautiful enough to bring pleasure even to those who are already familiar with the ideas it contains. ★★★★★

Book: Choose Life

Choose Life

A vision of utopia shared by East and West
375 pages, ★★★★★

This book entered my reading list via a DVD called Let Harmony Redeem (和谐拯救危机). The DVD is a dialogue between Buddhist monk Ven. Master Chin Kung and renowned Buddhist Dahui Chen. This approximately 12-hour dialogue has had massive influence in Asian countries and in overseas Asian communities by revitalising traditional Chinese culture.

The DVD was modelled on a book called Choose Life. Choose Life is a dialogue between Daisaku Ikeda and the renowned British historian, Arnold J. Toynbee. Their conversations cover all aspects of life and culture and are organised by theme. Like the DVD, Let Harmony Redeem, the authors reach a consensus on all the topics despite their very different cultural perspectives. The result is calming and utopian.

Topics in Choose Life range from subconscious thought process to the social role of literature; from our animal instincts to the ideal property market. Most interesting was the dialogue on the purpose of a school education. The authors agreed that the primary aim of education should be to teach children how to live, and practical benefit should be relegated to just a secondary aim. I agree completely.

Choose Life reminds me of The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang (reviewed here). These two books describe a meaningful life at large and small scales.

I recommend Choose Life particularly for non-Asians who want to explore East Asian culture in more depth (like me!) ★★★★★

Book: Americans and Chinese: Passages to Differences

Americans and Chinese: Passages to Differences

Comprehensive analysis of ALL American/Chinese differences—starting with sex!
568 pages, ★★★★★

Many books are dedicated to the differences between ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ culture. I’ve reviewed The Geography of ThoughtMao’s Last DancerBomb, Book & Compass and many more here on this blog. None of these books are nearly as comprehensive and readable as Americans and Chinese: Passages to Differences. This book covers almost every aspect of culture—starting with sex—and makes The Geography of Thought—to which I naïvely gave five stars the first time around—look especially simplistic by comparison.

The book begins with a premise that American life discourages intimacy. The author goes on to say that Americans chase money, material objects and weapons more readily than do their Chinese counterparts because Americans generally lack the tradition of strong social ties—guanxi—that are so prevalent in China.

While The Geography of Thought over-analysed the simplistic thesis that “America is a line; China is a circle”, this book gives us a more intelligent alternative:

U.S. society is individual-centred;
Chinese society is situation-centred.

This book goes describes differences in:

  • Relationships
  • Love (“how does my heart feel?” vs “what will other people say?”)
  • Raising children (bottom-up vs top-down) and how people celebrate children’s birthdays
  • Art and storytelling (briefly)
  • Education (fun vs rigid)
  • Religion, monotheism and the role of God
  • Attitude to animals
  • Sense of security
  • Attitude towards old age
  • Weaknesses and how they are dealt with

In all cases, this book focuses more on the “what” than on the “why”. It’s very lucid, very readable, and is authoritative without being dry. Basically, this book’s perfect!

Best of all, I love the examples and stories that illustrate these differences. In one instance, the author compares the flood story from the Bible with a flood story from Chinese history (~2500 B.C). The author shows how the responses and attitudes towards fate, nature and the common people in these two stories represent their respective cultures. (Noah was a saved, chosen ‘hero’; whereas the Chinese were supposed to stay put and abate the effects of their flood collectively.)

This book makes it easier for westerners to understand Chinese ways. Many books have attempted to do this, and some have succeeded, but this effort outshines the competition by far. For anyone who wants to increase their understanding of Chinese/Western culture, this book is an excellent place to start. I highly recommend this book. ★★★★★

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Book: China Since 1911

China Since 1911

Explains 1911 to 1989 in more political detail than you’ll ever need to know!
315 pages, 

China Since 1911 is told from a purely political perspective. This book is a concise, authoritative historical account of the 1911 Nationalist revolution to the anti-reform protests of 1989. This period of history was one of China’s most tumultuous: warlords fought each other in the 1910s, the Nationalist regime collapsed into mini-states in the 1920s, Japan invaded in the 1930s, then World War II broke out in the 1940s. Widespread famine took root in the 1950s, the Cultural Revolution uprooted what little progress China had made in the 1960s, Mao’s death in the 1970s left China politically divided and spiritually lost, then anti-corruption protests spread across the nation from west to east in the 1980s, the most famous of which took place in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Only the last chapter of this book, when the dust starts to settle, does China show any signs of hope!

You’ll learn almost nothing about Chinese culture from this book. It documents the internal political struggles that gave rise to certain (crazy) decisions, but makes almost no comment on the social implications of those decisions. The text is littered with names of medium-level Chinese officials whom I’ll never remember. For a social history, I recommend reading Mao’s Last DancerWild Swans or the soothing 窈窕淑女的标准(宋尚宫女论语研习报告)(Chinese) instead.

While China Since 1911 is extremely well-researched, there was not enough social emphasis for my liking. This book should be renamed China’s Political Leadership since 1911 instead. 

 

Book: 100 Chinese Two-Part Allegorical Sayings

100 Chinese Two-Part Allegorical Sayings

Perfect material for ProVoc (free language-learning software for Mac)
196 pages, ★★★★

I’ve been studying this gorgeous little book recently.

One of the beautiful aspects of Chinese language is its allegorical sayings. Like idioms, proverbs and set phrases, allegorical sayings enrich daily Chinese conversation and make the people who use them sound more intelligent. Many of these expressions make allegorical references to religion, history, legends or folklore.

Allegorical sayings come in two parts. The first part is an allegory (such as 八仙过海, “Eight Immortals cross the ocean”) and the second part is an explanation that describes  the context you’re in (such as 各显神通, “each displays his/her own unique talents”). This particular allegory is rooted in Daoism.

Some allegorical sayings rely on homophones. For example, 打破沙锅,问到底 is a homophone of 打破沙锅,璺到底. The first part means “break the earthenware pot”. As for the second part, just by changing one character, the meaning changes from “crack it right through” to “get to the bottom of this issue”. Therefore, saying the first part, “break the earthenware pot” can be an allusion to “get to the bottom of this issue” in Chinese conversation. The Chinese adore homophones.

This book explains 100 famous allegorical sayings with explanations and illustrations.

Here are three examples from the book:

  1. 狗拿耗子 – 多管闲事
    Dog trying to catch mice—meddling in other people’s business.
  2. 秋后的蚂蚱 – 蹦跶不了几天
    Grasshopper in late autumn—nearing one’s end.
  3. 小葱拌豆腐 – 一清二白
    Plain white tofu mixed with a little spring onion—as clear as day.

ProVoc is the perfect app for learning vocabulary on a Mac.

ProVoc Screenshot
Full-screen vocabulary slideshows and full-screen vocabulary tests in ProVoc (Free)
  • Create your own vocabulary database or download another user’s vocabulary list from within the app.
  • Click ‘Play’ to view gorgeous, full-screen slideshows of your vocabulary complete with sound, images and videos.
  • Take four types of quizzes based on your vocabulary. Difficult words will automatically appear more frequently than easy ones.
  • Customize just about everything using a simple, aesthetic, high-contrast interface. Create your own quiz styles, customise the slideshow, or share your vocabulary lists for others to use.

ProVoc and this book are a perfect combination for anyone wanting to improve the quality of their spoken Chinese! ★★★★

Book: Wild Swans

Wild Swans
A Modern Chinese Classic

Bloody, detailed, action-packed account of Chinese history from the warlord-ridden 1920s to the reformist 1980s from the perspective of three generations in one family.
666 pages, ★★★★★

Through the eyes of three generations of women in one family, we learn about China’s tumultuous transition from the corrupt “warlords & concubines” era in the 1920s, to the “heaven on earth” 1950s, to the rough 1960s to the “post-Mao, reformist era” of the 1980s. Together, over six decades, their stories document China from both urban and rural perspectives, from both coastal and inland perspectives, and from the perspectives of every rung on the social ladder. Wild Swans covers basically every aspect of China’s transition—it’s an excellent starting point for studying modern Chinese history.

There’s also focus on Chairman Mao in this book. This is inevitable, as he dominated every Chinese person’s life from the Lei Feng cult (1962) to the end of the worst of the Cultural Revolution (1972). Jung Chang’s next book is a 1000-page biography of the Chairman himself, and it’s on my reading list.

[The next 984 words are omitted. After I wrote them, I felt uncomfortable about putting them online. Email me if you want a copy.]

In conclusion, while Communist China was bloody, violent and imperfect, Wild Swans suggests it was a more progressive and much happier place to live than the Nationalist China that preceded it. This conclusion isn’t obvious, however, from the number of pages that Wild Swans devotes to graphic descriptions of each historical episode. Wild Swans also paints a more flattering picture of the Communist regime than does Mao’s Last Dancer, whose author was born after Nationalist rule had ended.

I strongly recommend this book for anyone who loves modern Chinese history★★★★★

Book: Mao’s Last Dancer

Happy Easter, everyone! 😀

At last, I have time to read and review a ‘fun’ book this week. Here goes…

Mao's Last Dancer
Mao’s Last Dancer

China’s reforms from the perspective of one Shandong family.
528 pages, ★★★★★

I chose this book because I love reading about China’s tumultuous transition from a chaotic, agrarian backwater to the economic powerhouse that it is today. Rather than reading history books, which give you a top-down perspective, novels give you the perspective of one of millions of Chinese families—like Zhang Yimou‘s To Live (film), and Jung Chang‘s Wild Swans (review coming next).

Protagonist and author Li Cunxin was raised in the 1960s in Li Commune in the outskirts of Qingdao. Despite poverty, despite not liking dancing, and despite growing up in a country with a nationalised hatred for all things extravagant and Western—especially ballet, Li Cunxin was selected for world-class ballet training at Madame Mao’s dance school in Beijing. This led to an international ballet career—and the fame, fortune and international travel that follows. All of this was unthinkable for most Chinese at the time.

China was full of contradictions under Mao’s rule (1949—1976). During the Cultural Revolution, officials issued “self-criticism” assignments to ballet students who indulged in such unnecessary extravagances as eating sweets. But why isn’t ballet itself considered extravagant and unnecessary? The “Criticise Confucius” political campaign included arguments such as, “Confucius was a feudalist whose theories described an ideal society for feudal leaders at the expense of the populace”. But during the Cultural Revolution, wasn’t the Communist Party doing exactly the same thing to its own people? Irony was everywhere, and it propelled Li Cunxin to fame.

His first trip to Houston revealed the true extent of the lies he’d been told back in China. Americans were not poor and unhappy; nor did they all carry guns; nor did they “kill coloured people”, as his family and fellow villagers back in China had warned. In America, he discovered the combination of happiness and wealth 1960s China was craving so much—and he instantly fell in love with it. He even got married, albeit hastily, to the first Western girl that he kissed.

Li Cunxin’s journey represents the journey that China took as a nation. From the 1970s onwards, China became increasingly infatuated with the west, started enjoying some political freedom (communes were dissolved), promoted cultural exchange (intermarriage is on the increase), got richer, emigrated (many Chinese with the means to emigrate have already done so) and started sending money back home (Chinese companies are investing in large western companies—sometimes purchasing them outright). It’s not just millions of Chinese who are following in Li Cunxin’s footsteps, but China as a nation-state, too.

Li Cunxin’s autobiography isn’t just about one man’s lucky journey. It instead describes the tumultuous transition to modernity that millions of people—and China itself—took in the last 60 years. Highly recommended for anyone who loves Chinese historyrags-to-riches stories, economic developmentSlumdog Millionaire, or Billy Elliot. 🙂 ★★★★★

Book: 钟博士讲解弟子规

弟子规(钟博士讲解)
Maosen Zhong’s annotation of Dizigui (“Rules for Children”). Written in Chinese.

Recommended for all under 40 years of age. Study the original text intensely before reading.
196 pages, ★★★★
Language: Chinese 

I’m already a fan of Maosen Zhong’s teachings. Recently, I finished reading his annotated collection of classical excerpts on femininity called 窈窕淑女的标准 (which roughly translates as “How to be a Fair Lady“). I gave it five stars and recommended it for men, too.

Dizigui (pronounced ‘deetzergway’)  is an ancient Chinese classic that teaches children and adult students how to behave in daily life according to ancient Confucian principles. It focuses mainly on how to treat ones parents and teachers with “禮”, or “lǐ”, which is roughly translated as “respect”. Since Confucius placed so much emphasis on 禮, a book that fully expounds its meaning comes as a great relief.

Among the 360 rules in this book are:

  • Don’t be picky about food
  • Always get enough sleep
  • Stay away from drugs (including alcohol and karaoke bars)
  • Don’t be lazy
  • See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil and read no evil.
  • …and many more, with stories to illustrate each rule.
Zhong interprets and illustrates these rules using his own (usually exemplary) experiences and the (usually erroneous) actions of others.

The original text consists of 360 lines of three characters each, which form a beautiful poem just 1080 characters long. Zhong has printed this original text in full at the beginning of the book, which you should study meticulously before reading. The author expounds each line in great detail (sometimes too much detail) later on in the book—so I strongly recommend trying to make your own interpretation of the text before reading the author’s.

All children under the age of 40 should read this book. It should be taught in all Chinese schools (and it is starting to be introduced). Accessible English versions, however, are still hard to come by. The Pure Land School of Buddhism offers the best English version, available free for download hereBetter still, I think this book should be translated as poetry. So I started. ★★★★

Book: China’s History

$45.99 on Amazon USA. ¥56.90 ($9.01) on Amazon China. I bought this from China, of course.

Read Quick Access to Chinese History before this.
210 pages, ★★★★

China’s History was first written (or at least planned) in Chinese before being produced in English. The paragraph structure and rigid coherence to China’s official historical narrative screams “China!”. All Chinese history books, including this one, tell exactly the same story. This is reassuring. 🙂

However, having already read Quick Access to Chinese History, I didn’t learn much new from this book. It just reinforced what I’d already read. There’s a little more detail on several historical events, but this could be too complicated for absolute beginners. I strongly recommend reading Quick Access to Chinese History (a clear, event-by-event summary) before reading this book. ★★★★

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: answers.com and blogspot.com 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: 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: 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance

The new iPad adverts look remarkably similar to these photoshopped pictures of me holding books. The ink on my paperback has 4x the number of pixels as a Retina display. The paper is wonderfully responsive to two-handed multi-touch, has infinite battery-life, and supports bookmarking, annotation and sharing. Despite the new iPad out today, there will always be a market for real books. 🙂

Scrapbook of an obsessive historian threaded with a wildly outlandish thesis and bookended by a convincing introduction and conclusion. I’m in.
368 + 32 more pages, ★★★★

The introduction is speedy. We’re whisked through the prequel’s thesis (1421) and the incredible (and widely-accepted) story of Emperor Yongle (written 永樂, pronounced “Yong-ler”). The thesis of 1434 is wild: that China started the Renaissance, invented the helicopter, and settled on New Zealand, becoming Maoris.

1434 is very different from its prequel, 1421. First, the writing style is different. Whereas 1421 was a well-paced historical narrative, 1434 is a more like a fascinatingly-annotated scrapbook. It’s loaded with excerpts from different ages and languages, some italicized, some capitalized, and others indented in a smaller font. Abundant sources are glued together with commentary and original research.

Second, 1434 is so brave that it borders on “wildly outlandish”. Apart from the book’s highly provocative thesis―that a Chinese fleet sparked the Renaissance in Italy—author Gavin Menzies calculates that Admiral Zheng He had up to 2020 ships in his fleet. The museum at the Ming Tombs, Beijing, however, tells us that Zheng He had only 60 ships in his fleet.

The most controversial twist hits us on page 170. While telling us that the Chinese gave Leonardo da Vinci absolutely everything that he invented, we’re told that:

“[Joseph] Needham describes a number of examples of rotating blades being used for flight, often in the form of flying cars” — 1434, page 170

Whoa! Flying cars in 15th century China? Let’s check the footnotes. Unfortunately, I’m led on a wild goose chase through the references before finally being led to to an ancient picture of a Chinese man wearing a parachute. I want proof of flying cars being built in China before Leonardo da Vinci designed (or “copied”) them.

It goes on… On page 222, the author claims that the ships of Admiral Zheng He (who we know to be an introverted, pacifist, castrated muslim) were actually armed to the teeth. They brought (get ready)…

  • Flamethrowers (“incinerates the opposition”)
  • Poison grenades
  • Chemical mortars
  • Feces mortars
  • Iron shrapnel bombs (“cuts men to pieces”)
  • Sea mines (“to protect his ships”)
  • and Rocket batteries (“to terrify [his enemies]”)
Incredible. Widely-accepted history is listed on page 226, which describes the “bamboo fire kites”, and other gunpowder-based inventions that were, and still are, used ceremonially and as toys. Chinese students have told me that the ancient Chinese invented gunpowder but never used it for the purpose of warfare. This issue (and the issue of flying cars) is yet to be explained.

More incredible facts follow:

  • Zheng He took Yongle Dadian (a giant collection of encyclopaedias) with him on his voyage. The library would have required half a ship-deck.
  • In the 14th century, Guo Shoujing calculated the lunar month to be 29.530593 days. This is accurate to 0.000001 months (or 2.55 seconds).
  • Columbus had detailed maps of the Americas before he set sail. They were copied from Chinese maps.
  • A Chinese gave the Europeans the printing press, which helped spread information about the plague quicker than the plague.
  • A Chinese fleet was destroyed by a comet and the resulting tsunami off South Island, New Zealand in the early 15th century. While some ships were slammed against the cliffs by 403 m.p.h. winds, some sailors swam ashore, planted rice paddies and settled there. They would later become known as Maoris.

I love China so I want everything in 1434 to be true. If you love China, you’ll love this book regardless of whether you believe it to be true. Even though 1434 approaches my threshold of believability in many places, “incredible” doesn’t necessarily mean “false”. I believe it.

I respect Gavin Menzies as an explorer, as a writer and as a historian. And as an optimist, I’m thinking that Gavin Menzies’ work is as understated, as controversial and as ahead of its time as the ancient China he describes. I believe 1434 and I believe that this theory will catch on. If the 1434 theory were a penny stock, I’d put a grand on it today. Good read. ★★★★

Book: The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why

Original Pirate Material, just $2. If I had read an authentic edition of this book, I might have taken its thesis a bit more seriously. Instead, I look at this pirate edition and laugh.

Simplistic and unscientific. But it’s fun to read and a great conversation piece.
288 pages, ★★★★★

Richard Nisbett’s previous work had been criticized for having an overt Western bias. He admits this in the introduction. The Geography of Thought was, in part, an attempt to repair the author’s image. This book is essentially a collection of ways in which “Easterners” are the exact opposite of “Westerners”. Cultural differences are exaggerated ad absurdum, while both sides are treated with great respect.

Despite this, The Geography of Thought suffers from classic mistake of “Oppositism“, where the author falls for the erroneous assumption that every aspect of life in the East must be the exact opposite of that in the West because, well… “East” is the opposite of “West” in the dictionary.

According to this book, Westerners are individualistic, narrow-minded, focussed, racist (in favor of Caucasians) and scared of contradiction. Easterners think in groups, are broad-minded, holistic, racist (in favor of Caucasians) and embrace contradiction.

There are experiments, statistics, and pictures that help portray East and West as laughably diametric opposites. Having lived in China for several years, I testify that China is neither Western nor the opposite of Western. It’s something else entirely. To compare China with the West is helpful (and entertaining), but it’s a very simplistic philosophical approach.

Another weakness is that the book’s definitions of “East” and “West” keeps changing. At the start of the book, “East” refers to ethnically Chinese college students in the United States, and “West” refers to their ethnically European counterparts. But in the rest of the book, “East” refers to either Korea, Japan, Thailand or some unspecified part of China; while “West” invariably refers to the United States.

This book is really wrong. But it’s polite, respectful, exposes the weaknesses of the scientific method )(unknowingly) and, most importantly, is really fun to read. It will spark some lively discussion. But in 50 years’ time, when China rules the world, we will look back on this book as satire; just as a book from 100 years ago that describes Europe and America as diametric opposites would likely be looked upon with ridicule today. ★★★★★

Book: 1421: The Year China Discovered the World

This book should have been called, "2001: The year Gavin Menzies discovered that China discovered the world"

Original research with enchanting results. Even if 1421’s thesis isn’t true, I want to believe it.
649 pages, ★★★★★

Perfect timing. 1421 is full of local history, which proved useful when accompanying my family around Beijing. Emperor Zhu Di (Yongle) is discussed at length in this book, ordered the capital to be moved from Nanjing to Beijing, and ordered the construction of the famous Forbidden City. His reign oversaw some of China’s greatest historic achievements (e.g. the Beijing—Hangzhou canal, large parts of the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs) as well as some of China’s most incredible feats that were largely forgotten (e.g. exploring the North Pole, the South Pole, India, Africa, the Americas, and Australia).

1421‘s thesis is that Chinese explorers such as Zheng He, Hong Bao, Zhou Man, Zhou Wen and Yang Qing collectively explored the entire world between 1421 and 1423. See the book’s map below.

Map inside 1421.

Explorers returned to find that the old emperor had died, and the new emperor didn’t appreciate of world exploration (he punished the crews); that there’d been a deadly fire in the Forbidden City (an ominous sign from the Heavens); and that China’s Treasury had been almost bankrupted in various outlandish construction projects (which, thankfully, are still standing). Foreign travel and foreign language learning had been made illegal and China was to remain “closed” for hundreds of years after the explorers returned. Nobody returned as promised to give support to those who had already settled overseas.

Gavin Menzies is extremely confident about the accuracy of his thesis. It was mostly Menzies’ own work, and his evidence is explained extensively in the first (100-odd page) appendix. Among other things, he claims the Chinese built an sundial in the eighth century accurate enough to determine the day of the year, which, once calibrated, could be used on a ship to determine longitude. He also claims that the Chinese constructed 142 furnaces in Greenland to smelt copper to bring back to China. And I believe him.

1421 has attracted mixed reviews on Amazon because some people don’t want to believe it. The American edition was provocatively titled, 1421: The Year China Discovered America and most Americans are unappreciative of anything that erodes their drunk-man superconfidence, especially the idea that a castrated muslim discovered America before Columbus.

The only thing that could make this book better would be if the editor included the Chinese names of people and places to accompany the pinyin and English translations. ★★★★★