People who don’t speak Chinese find it very difficult to pronounce Chinese names correctly. Chinese names are written using the pinyin transliteration system, in which some letters of the alphabet have very different sounds to English.
Here’s a handy table of the 25 most common Chinese surnames and how to pronounce them in English.
Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节) is a traditional Chinese festival celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month each year (a full moon night in September). It started as an agricultural tradition (like harvest festival in western cultures) around 1000 BC in the Zhou Dynasty, and was formally acknowledged as a festival during the Northern Song Dynasty (between 960 and 1279 AD).
Today, Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated with moon cakes, family reunions and three days off work. Moon cakes are circular to represent the full moon that always occurs on the Mid-Autumn Festival. Watch the video below to learn about the story behind the festival:
Moon cakes consist of crust, filling and an egg wash. The crust is made from flour, the polysaccharides in which bind together at oven temperatures to form a strong, intricate network (also including proteins) that allows the moon cake to keep its all-important circular shape.
The crust also contains invert sugar syrup, which is chemically similar to both honey and golden syrup. Invert sugar syrup is made by hydrolysingsucrose into its constituent monomers, glucose and fructose. The result is a sweeter-tasting, gooey liquid that doesn’t crystallise during cooking. This gives the moon cake a smooth mouthfeel.
Peanut oil (a blend of mostly monounsaturated triglycerides) is added to the crust for two reasons. First, it is a non-volatile liquid at room temperature, which prevents the moon cake from drying out. Second, the peanut oil molecules disrupt the protein matrix in the crust and give it an even smoother texture (not a doughy texture).
Maillard reactions are caramelisation reactions involving the removal of two hydrogen atoms from a sugar aldehyde or ketone. The resulting compounds are yellow/brown in colour because they contain carbon-carbon double bonds (C=C), which absorb violet and UV light (λmax ≈ 190 nm). The moon cake is usually also given an egg wash, which provides extra protein necessary for Maillard reactions to occur. More egg wash will provide a deeper brown colour to the dough.
Alkaline water (枧水) is a common ingredient in Guangdong-style cuisine. Chemically, it’s a ~0.020 molar solution of potassium carbonate and can be considered as the ‘opposite of vinegar’. It raises the pH in the moon cake, which accelerates the Maillard reaction, which is favoured by alkaline conditions. Alkaline water thus makes the crust more brown!
Finally, the fillings can be very diverse. Lotus seed with salted duck egg yolks is a common filling, but “five kernels”, red bean and green tea (with beans) are also quite popular. Lotus seed filling, for example, is made by soaking dried lotus seeds in alkaline water, pulverising and adding sugar. The resulting paste is then cooked with more oil and sugar before being used to fill a moon cake. ●
This visualisation’s been on my list for a while now: Chinese ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ foods.
The Chinese have an ancient way of classifying foods into ‘hot’, ‘warm’, ‘cool’ and ‘cold’ based on how you feel after you eat them. Watermelon is ‘cold’, for example, and chocolate is ‘hot’. It makes sense, really.
I plotted “temperatures” (in a Chinese sense) of common foods against their retail price in Coles supermarket, Australia. The results are really interesting.
It’s a bit cartoony. Feel free to use it as you wish. Enjoy 🙂
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.) ★★★
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 HarmonyRedeem, 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!) ★★★★★
2312 is a science fiction story of love, politics, and interplanetary terrorism. While the plot is interesting in itself, the futuristic setting in which the story takes place is definitely the book’s main selling point.
This book is set in the year 2312 at a time when humans have already colonized Mars, Venus, and many asteroids and moons in our solar system. Most of them were terraformed before being settled (terraforming is a process of drastic geoengineering that involves removing entire atmospheres, changing temperatures by hundreds of degrees Kelvin or manipulating collisions with other celestial bodies to import necessary resources). Humans travel in hollowed-out asteroids called ‘terraria’ that spin to simulate gravity on their inside walls. Venus now has a giant sunshield, Mars has people living in underground caves, and the inhabitants of Mercury travel perpetually westwards to keep in line with the temperate crepuscule (and thus avoid deadly extremes of hot and cold). Mercurian ‘sunwalkers’ do this on foot, while Mercurian cities move westward on rails that circumnavigate the entire planet.
Genders are diverse in 2312. Hormone interventions before and after birth give rise to about ten different genders between between ‘male’ and ‘female’. The book implies that these intermediate genders are more advantageous than either of the traditional sexes.
Quantum computing has advanced to the point that people can wear quantum-classical hybrid computers as implants or wristwatches called ‘qubes’. Qubes can listen, speak out loud, analyse vast amounts of information and serve as a perfect memory aid for the wearer. They can’t, however, transmit signals to each other. Qubes are too personal for that—they’re used more as implants than as cellphones. I particularly love how the qubes entertain their wearers by playful use of the English language. I’ve learned about exergasia, synathroesmus, anaphora, pretended dubitation, synchoresis, aporia and many more rhetorical devices from the qubes in this book! Qubes might be inhuman in many ways, but they do have their own sense of humour.
Biomedical advances abound. DNA repair, limb regrowth, telomere extensions and wearable pharmacies (controlled by wearable qubes) have increased lifespan to at least 200 years in space. Regular visits to Earth are still necessary, however, for optimum health and longevity. The reasons for this are unknown.
Earth is devastated in this novel. Countries have been decimated into nearly 500 mini-states (and groups of mini-states with varying levels of authority), while China is the only major power. Earth is overpopulated, plagued with poverty and misery, and most progress is stifled by laws, politics and taboos. My favourite criticisms of Earth are that the gravity is “too high” and “nobody looks at the stars”! Protagonist Swan says that gravity is much more comfortable on Mercury and Mars—both are just 0.38 g.
I loved how China was so powerful in this novel. Best of all, heroic protagonist Swan Er Hong, who is both male and female, and capable of interplanetary travel at over 100 years old, has an unmistakably Chinese name. Venus is inhabited by Chinese descendents and Venusian streets are cluttered with slogans written in Chinese characters. On Earth, China has been strong for “most of history” except for the “brief period of subjugation to Europe” (referring to the period between 1850 and 1949). As a massive fan of Chinese culture, all these subtle details make me proud. Even the title of this book, 2312, makes a subtle reference to China’s power: “GB2312” was the code name for the first official set of Chinese characters used on computer systems worldwide in 1980.
The notion in 2312 that space-dwellers should return to Earth every few years to recuperate (called “Gaian replenishment”) is an ironic one. Reading this, I immediately thought of overseas Chinese who return to China to ‘recuperate’ every so often—despite the crowds, the pollution, and the stress that it causes. The idea of ‘recuperating’ in such a dystopian environment reminded me that just as Earth is an integral part of human nature in 2312, China is an integral part of Chinese people today—however irrational that might seem.
I also loved the mixture of writing styles in this book. The author uses ‘lists’ (descriptive poetry that sets the scene much quicker than prose); ‘extracts’ (snippets of scientific journal abstracts that explain science fiction much quicker than prose); and ‘quantum walks’ (which follow the thought processes of a personal quantum computer called a ‘qube’). In my opinion, these diverse writing styles, which amount to about 10-20% of the book, enrich the story, not distract from it. However, some reviewers disagree. Many of this book’s worst reviews make negative reference to these ‘poetic’ chapters. I love them, though.
The broad range of themes in this book should appeal to a very wide audience. Readers with an appreciation for science fiction and human development may enjoy it more than those without; and readers with the patience and imagination to understand poetry will appreciate the chapters written as ‘lists’, ‘extracts’ or ‘quantum walks’ much more than those without. This is one of few books that I can positively recommend for anyone who enjoys reading. ★★★★★
Finally, the blurb for this book on Goodreads is completely wrong.
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 Thought, Mao’s Last Dancer, Bomb, 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:
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.★★★★★
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 Dancer, Wild 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.★★★
Highly educational but disappointingly pessimistic. 608 pages, ★★★
Author Jared Diamond is a genius. His books are so crammed with information that one reviewer humorously remarked:
“Jared Diamond” is suspected of actually being the pseudonym for a committee of experts.
I like to read his books slowly to catch his every last detail and jot it down. That, plus the university assignments I’ve been writing recently, explain why I’ve been slow to review books in the last month. I only did six in May!
I have more time to review books now, and I’ve even started reviewing fantasy novels on another blog. They’ll all be reposted here, too. The first and second fantasy reviews I wrote are already online on this blog.
Collapse complements Guns, Germs and Steel very well. Guns, Germs and Steel documents the rise of civilisations and explains their strengths. Why did Europe suddenly grow strong? Why did China stop developing? Why did Africa not colonise overseas territories, whereas many European countries did?
For the most part, Collapse discusses the rise, maintenance and fall of the following societies:
(3 more islands and Japan)
Haiti/Dominican Republic comparison
Rwanda (just the ‘fall’ in this case)
Each story is fascinating and full of repeatable facts. Each chapter begins with Jared Diamond arriving on scene by aeroplane, describing his birds-eye view of the landscape and his first impressions of the country. Little emphasis is placed on the collapse of these societies—these chapters are more like comprehensive, condensed histories than a series of tragic endings. I enjoyed reading these chapters.
Chapters 12 and 13 are the most interesting. They attempt to explain the ongoing successes of China and Australia. I’m familiar with both countries and didn’t learn much here, but an outsider would find these chapters valuable resources. Both chapters are extremely fact-dense and concise.
Jared Diamond then describes four factors that spell a civilisation’s demise:
Not being aware of environmental degradation;
Doing nothing about environmental degradation;
Short-term outlook (he calls it, ISEP, which stands for, “it’s someone else’s problem”).
The book becomes increasingly negative from this point on.
The ending to Collapse paints a very grim view of basically all human activity. Take this phrase, for example, from chapter 15, titled, “Roadmap to Failure”: “…we face a future with which we are unhappy, beset by more chronic terrorism, wars, disease outbreaks…”
…He’s wrong! Unhappiness, terrorism, war and disease outbreaks have all declined massively in the last 100 years. Collapse is for the most part a highly scientific book, but he overlooked the statistics at the end and concluded with negative, speculative spin. Chapter 15 sounds like it was written by the anti-consumerist warlord Naomi Klein. (Another book on my reading list, Questioning Collapse, attempts to address this issue.)
Just like the societies it describes, this book rose, maintained itself well, but collapsed tragically at the end. It’s needlessly negative. Read it, but don’t take its conclusions to heart. I recommend this book for anyone who enjoys reading purely to learn. ★★★
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. ★★★★★
At last, I have time to read and review a ‘fun’ book this week. Here goes…
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 history, rags-to-riches stories, economic development, Slumdog Millionaire, or Billy Elliot. 🙂 ★★★★★
Amy Chua (a.k.a. “Tiger Mother”) bullies her children into being successful. Her loveable mixture of strict rules, punishments and blackmail locks her children into a world of all work and no play.
“Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:
attend a sleepover
have a playdate
be in a school play
complain about not being in a school play
watch TV or play computer games
choose their own extracurricular activities
get any grade less than an A
not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
play any instrument other than the piano or violin
not play the piano or violin.”
Clearly, Amy Chua loves her children. She sees them as fallen deities, as sleeping giants, who, with enough maternal provocation, can once again prove themselves as prodigies. She sees in them infinite potential, and pressures them immensely to succeed.
Love for her children sometimes blinds her to reality. On page 7, she writes:
“I was on leave from my Wall Street law firm and desperate to get a teaching job so I wouldn’t have to go back—and at 2 months [of age], Sophia understood this”.
Really? That sounds like over-analaysis to me.
On page 8, she continues over-analysing: when her daughter draws what her husband calls “two overlapping circles”, Amy Chua calls it “doing simple set theory”. On page 11, she describes 豆腐脑, a simple Chinese tofu dish, as, “silken tofu braised in a light alabone and shiitake sauce with a cilantro garnish”. (Her description is correct—it’s just pretentious.)
Amy’s propensity to overestimate her ability to raise children is exemplified most clearly on page 82, when she takes pride in having raised a “weakling, underweight” puppy into an adult dog that “excelled on its dog IQ test” despite hating dogs. Clearly, she’s not only blinded by love, but also by pride.
Interestingly, the Chinese version of her book was titled “我在美国做妈妈”, which translates roughly as, “I am a mother in America”: no mention of tigers; no implication of being fierce, and no connotation of being Chinese! The Chinese title makes her parenting style look “normal”. Check out the Chinese cover, below:
While Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was an easy, double-spaced read, it is no more informative than Amy Chua’s famous Wall Street Journal article, Why Chinese Mothers are Superior. You can save time and just read the article (and this) instead. ★★★
Simple, plod-along depiction of rural life from 1949 to today.
552 pages, ★★★★ on an e-reader; possibly five stars in hardback.
Mo Yan is famous for writing novels set in the Chinese countryside. In Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, Mo Yan describes the growth of modern rural China (post-1949) through the eyes of an ever-reincarnating landlord called Ximen Nao (闹西门).
Protagonist Ximen Nao begins the novel as a successful businessman in Gaomi Township, Shandong Province. At the start of the novel, he is tortured and killed as a “capitalist counter-revolutionary” in the 1949 revolution. The story proceeds through the eyes of an ever-reincarnating protagonist; the book’s six parts represent each of his reincarnations. Between lives, Yama, lord of the underworld, determines Ximen Nao’s fate:
Before New China (1949): human
New China (1949) to the Great Leap Forward (1957): donkey
Great Leap Forward (1957) to the Cultural Revolution (1966): ox
Cultural Revolution (1966) to the death of Chairman Mao (1976): pig
Death of Chairman Mao (1976) to Opening Up and Reform (1992): dog
Opening Up and Reform (1992) to the year 2000: monkey, then a child
He lives in the same village throughout these lifetimes, witnessing—sometimes interacting with—his wife, children and friends from when he was a human.
Two aspects of this book were most interesting. First, there’s how China changed suddenly in 1949, not just politically (into a one-party state) and economically (with the onset of Communism), but also socially: people got killed, elevated, and demoted; and romantic couples re-arranged themselves with new society. Legalising divorce resulted in a flood of second-marriages, step-parents and intertwined family trees (I drew a character map for this book, but it looks too messy to be of use!)
Second, we watch China transform from a backward agrarian society led by Chairman Mao into the BMW-driving, hair- (and skin-) bleaching society that we see today. Protagonist Ximen Nao reincarnates himself every time China reincarnates itself (1949, 1957, 1966, 1976 and 1992). Even though Life And Death is fictional, it’s believable and historically accurate, and takes the perspective of an average Chinese rural dweller. (See also Zhang Yimou’s flim, To Live, which also does this very well). Historical texts such as China Since 1949, however, are too dry for many readers, and usually focus on top-level party politics, rather than on ordinary people’s lives.
There’s humour in this book, but it’s too long to read on an e-reader. It gets just four stars from me, but someone with a hardback copy might give it five. ★★★★
Experiment 8: Mr. Einstein is on a railroad car moving to the left with velocity v, and on his car are two light bulbs that, from his perspective, come on simultaneously. To confirm this, he could also rig some sort of detector that would go off only if both beams of light arrive at his position simultaneously.
Question: What will Mrs. Einstein see?
Answer: She will agree that both beams of light reach Mr. Einstein at the same time. However, since from her point of view the light on the right has greater distance to travel, she will see the light on the right come on first!
Conclusion: From the above experiments we see that events which may be simultaneous for one observer can happen in a different sequence for another observer. This leads us to the startling conclusion that there is no such thing as a universal “now” for which everyone will agree on what happens “now”. That is, I can see two events as happening “now” while another observer will see one event happening “now” with the other event yet to occur!
I enjoy these bewildering thought experiments in special relativity. They stretch the mind for its own sake, like riddles, quizzes or a work of art. The more I think about the implications of Mr and Mrs Einstein on moving trains, the more I realise the triviality of our human senses. Our senses and feelings, as beguiling as they are, hardly represent the real world at all.
Recently, the number of books I’ve been reading has inflated my ego. This January, I read 21 books—that’s more than I read between the ages of 0 and 23. I’m also way ahead in this year’s Mad Reviewer Reading Challenge.
Thought experiments brought my ego back to normal again. Not special relativity, this time, but something much more useful…
Guided meditation. Thought experiments that sharpen your worldview.
190 pages, ★★★★★
Two thought experiments from this mid-level Buddhist book stood out for me.
First, everyone on earth is either your friend, neutral, or an enemy. Given that Buddhists believe in infinite reincarnation, everyone on earth has, at different points in the past, been your friend, neutral, and enemy. The author gives a political example:
“China was a close friend of the U.S. during the Second World War, then became an enemy during the Korean War, and now is supposedly a political friend again” — page 69
People also make up, make friends, and fall out within lifetimes. Given that all enemies can become friends, and that all friends can all become enemies, in this lifetime or the next, we can choose to mould the kinds of relationships we want in life.
The book phrases this much better (and longer) than I did, but the concluding ‘meditation’ is this:
“Just as I want happiness and don’t want suffering, so this friend wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering. And equally, this neutral person wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering. And equally, this enemy wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering.” — page 81
Irrefutable logic here cultivates your compassion for enemies, friends and strangers alike. So why not all get along?
Next, the ‘moon-ripples’ analogy, as I’ll call it, reminds us that our perception is just a mirage, a vague approximation of reality. The world behaves like the reflection of the moon in a rippled ocean:
“In the blink of an eye, everything is changing. Or, even more subtly, in each three-hundred-and-sixtieth of a blinking of an eye or of a snapping of the fingers, everything is disintegrating. For a Buddha, the realisation of this is still more subtle, but at our level, this measurement affords a glimpse of subtle change. It is said that all impermanent phenomena possess a nature of such subtle disintegration” — page 171
We fixate on false ideals and try to solidify the future. This is an impossible goal, since the world is unpredictably complex; elusive and in constant flux. The future is never certain, nor should it be. When you encounter something you will never understand or see clearly, just think about the ‘moon-ripples’ analogy.
This interactive book is written for people already familiar with Buddhism. Author Jeffrey Hopkins uses his experience from the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center in the United States to formulate these exercises. There are dozens of meditations, and pages of prose provide the supporting logic behind each one. Everyone will find something they need in this book—I recommend Cultivating Compassion for all Buddhists. ★★★★★
Flashbacks of a township’s brutal Japanese occupation.
359 pages, ★★★★
China descended into a civil war in the 1920s. While China was divided and weak, Japan invaded during the 1930s, and brutally occupied some of the eastern regions. Pillage, burning, rape, torture and murder were commonplace during this dark chapter of Chinese history. In Nanjing, some 300,000 people were massacred within just a few days (an act which the Japanese, to this day, still do not acknowledge). Japanese forces retreated from China after the two nuclear bombs that ended the Second World War, which allowed China to focus all its energy on national re-unification (which was easier now the Nationalist Party had been weakened). China’s response to the Japanese invasion thus helped to end the civil war, to unify China under the Communist Party, and gave China a revived impetus to rejuvenate itself as a People’s Republic in 1949, which still exists today.
Red Sorghum is told as a series of flashbacks from this dark period of Chinese history. Like real flashbacks, they’re not recalled in chronological order, but as disconnected fragments that sometimes overlap in time. Characters thus seem to die then re-appear, then die again from another perspective, as time jumps back and forth.
More than half of the characters die by the end, most of whom are murdered by Japanese soldiers. Many of them are tortured before they’re killed, and the book contains vivid descriptions of rape, of body parts being cut off, of people being skinned alive, and of people being mutilated by bayonets and bullets.
At one point, Japanese soldiers destroy the entire village. Only six survivors remain (in the story, at least), and they pick up Japanese weapons and continue to fight to the death.
The Chinese patriotism and historic realism in Red Sorghum helped this book to become a best-selling modern classic in China.
The Japan/China struggle is echoed in the courtroom. On page 117, Magistrate Cao decides who has custody of a chicken—Wu the 3rd, or a “woman” (we never learn her name). Magistrate Cao demands the chicken’s stomach be slit open to see who’d been feeding it which type of grain. Wu the 3rd obeys Magistrate Cao and slices open the innocent chicken to prove he owns it—a harrowing echo of the Japanese treatment of the Chinese. In my opinion, the Magistrate’s verdict—to award the chicken to the “woman”—was based on the temperaments of the two defendants (one brutal, like the Japanese; and one kind, like the Chinese), and ignored the evidence, spilled out on the courtroom floor, entirely.
Red Sorghum is Mo Yan’s darkest book. It’s realistic, though, and should be compulsory reading for anyone who wants to understand modern Chinese history. However realistic it might be, a book this bloodthirsty could only earn four stars from me. ★★★★