Tag Archives: history

Aniline Yellow (1861)

yellow powder

Unlike purple and pink pigments, which were rare and expensive enough to be reserved for royalty and high-ranking clergy, yellow pigments were abundant throughout ancient history. Yellow ochre, a powdery mixture of iron oxides, has been used in cave paintings around the world for up to 80,000 years and was still being used by artists in the early nineteenth century. Saffron and turmeric were also used as yellow dyes throughout ancient history. Vincent van Gogh was using mineral yellow pigments such as cadmium yellow and chrome yellow in his mid-nineteenth century paintings. By the mid-nineteenth century, people looking for yellow pigments already had plenty of options. Despite there being no pressure from consumers for a new yellow dye, chemists trying to replicate the fame and fortune that mauveine brought to William Perkin in 1856 were experimenting eagerly in pursuit of that goal.

In 1861, Mêne was reacting aniline with cold nitrous acid to produce a diazonium salt solution. He then added more aniline to the resulting salt solution and shook the flask vigorously and noticed a yellow precipitate formed at the bottom of the flask, which would later become known as ‘aniline yellow’ – the first ‘azo dye’. [1]

The reaction mixture must be kept cool (at around 5 °C) because different temperatures cause different products to form. If the same reactants are mixed warm, then smelly liquid phenol and inert nitrogen gas are formed, both of which are colourless, and neither of which are useful as pigments!

At the time, the ‘aniline yellow’ powder he discovered was considered useless because it didn’t dissolve in water. However, it did dissolve very well in oil. The dye eventually gained some niche uses as a microscopy stain (like fuchsine) but was never utilised by the garment or pigment industry.

After staying relatively unused for over a hundred years, aniline yellow left an unfortunate legacy for itself by becoming the culprit molecule in the Spanish ‘Toxic Oil scandal’ of 1981. A batch of Spanish rapeseed oil had been denatured (deliberately adulterated) with 2% aniline yellow so the company could report it as “machine oil” and take advantage of certain tax breaks. One local refinery obtained the denatured rapeseed oil and attempted to remove the aniline yellow dye so they could sell it on as “pure olive oil” on the market for profit. They sold the oil around much of north-western Spain in unlabelled 5-litre plastic containers.

yellow powder OO PAP map

The first casualty was an eight-year-old boy who died upon arrival at a hospital in Madrid on May 1st, 1981. The rest of his family then presented with an unusual set of symptoms: headache, fever, itchy scalp, lethargy and interstitial lung disease. The hospital diagnosed the family with “atypical pneumonia” and treated them all with antibiotics but they showed little improvement. [2]

Across Spain, 20,000 patients presented with similar symptoms within one month of the incident. Thinking that an unexplained pneumonia outbreak was unfolding, a children’s hospital in Madrid conducted a randomised, double-blind controlled clinical trial on the effectiveness of the antibiotic erythromycin, which is particularly effective on infections of the respiratory system. [3] Unfortunately, they found no difference in recovery or mortality rates between the treated group and the control group and decided to keep looking for potential treatments.

Attempting all avenues, the researchers conducted lifestyle surveys on many patients, which included (among many other things) questions about cooking oil. Sadly, even though the source of the problem was staring them in the face, the results of the oil usage survey questions came back “inconclusive”. [4]

A baby ultimately solved the puzzle. Prognosis for young children was generally worse than for adults after they contracted the strange set of symptoms. Oddly, babies under six months were unaffected even if the entire rest of the family had presented with the pneumonia-like symptoms. Their infants were completely symptom-free. When one baby did get sick, however, this prompted deep and urgent questioning of the parents involved to find out what they did differently from others. One unusual aspect of the baby’s upbringing was that the baby’s grandmother had been ‘supplementing’ baby’s formula powder with cooking oil that was sold in an unlabelled 5-litre plastic container. [5]

Spanish government agencies acted quickly. The Ministry of Health and Consumer Affairs issued a recall of all oil sold in unlabelled plastic bottles within 40 days of the first casualty reporting with symptoms (the 8-year-old boy). Rates of patients presenting with symptoms of Toxic Oil Syndrome, as it would later be called, plummeted after the recall was announced on June 10th, 1981.

OO PAP epidemic graph

The aniline yellow had all been removed. The problem was a side-reaction, completely unknown to the scientists who were purifying the “machine oil”, that formed a new, harmful molecule that was large enough to escape their detection methods.

OO PAP molecule Aniline Yellow plus oil
The culprit: OO PAP molecules

The molecule responsible for Toxic Oil Syndrome is called “OO PAP” in scientific literature. Visual inspection of OO PAP’s structure reveals that it’s quite simply an olive oil triglyceride molecule (triolein) with one of its three fatty acid tails replaced with a large aniline group. [6] When the rapeseed oil was adulterated with 2% aniline yellow to disguise it as “machine oil”, some of the aniline yellow molecules didn’t just blend in with the oil but reacted chemically with it to make OO PAP molecules. ITH, the company who sold the de-adulterated product as “pure olive oil”, was likely unaware of this chemical reaction, and therefore (we assume) also unaware of the poisonous OO PAP that had formed in the oil. While ITH successfully removed the aniline yellow, they failed to remove the OO PAP molecules, which escaped their filtration techniques. [3] Sadly, hundreds of people died and 20,000 more were made ill from OO PAP poisoning, and financial damage was estimated by El País newspaper to be 2 billion pesetas (around 16 million US dollars today). [7] Just like the scandal of the pink fuchsine socks, government and industry were forced to work together to respond quickly to a growing public crisis.

Every chemical – regardless of whether it’s found naturally or created synthetically – has the potential to be beneficial, harmful or harmless depending on the dosage and the way that it’s used. Aniline yellow, like all other chemicals, is incredibly useful when used correctly. It’s a fantastic microscopy stain but totally unsuitable for culinary use.

Today, people use aniline yellow to dye specimens for viewing under a light microscope. Aniline yellow’s dangers are stated clearly on its safety data sheets: handling it today requires training, permits, safety glasses, gloves and a lab coat to avoid all contact with skin and eyes. Now that chemistry has given us a better understanding of the aniline yellow, nobody dare use it to dye foodstuffs. [8]

References

[1] http://www.chemguide.co.uk/organicprops/aniline/makediazo.html

[2] Paz, Manuel Posada de la. 2001. “Toxic Oil Syndrome: The Perspective after 20 Years.” Epidemiologic Reviews 231-247.

[3] Gelpí, Emilio. 2002. “The Spanish Toxic Oil Syndrome 20 Years after Its Onset: A Multidisciplinary Review of Scientific Knowledge.” Environmental Health Perspectives 457-464.

[4] Flores, Juan Casado. 1982. “Sindrome Toxico en Niños por Consumo de Aceites Vegetales: Modelo Clinico de la Enfermedad, en la Fase Aguda.” Pediatrika 22-26.

[5] Flores, Juan Casado. 1982. “Síndrome toxico por consumo de aceite adulterado. Una encuesta alimentaria esclarecedora.” Pediatrika 17-20.

[6] Paz, Posada de la. 1999. “Epidemiologic evidence for a new class of compounds associated with toxic oil syndrome.” Epidemiology 130-134.

[7] El País. 1981. “2.000 millones de pesetas costará al Insalud la asistencia a los enfermos a causa del aceite.” El País 15.

[8] Southern Biological. 2009. “Material Safety Data Sheet: Fuchsine.” Southern Biological. 08. Accessed 12 19, 2016. http://file.southernbiological.com/Assets/Products/Chemicals/Stains_and_Indicators-Powders/SIP4_6-Basic_Fuchsin/SIP4_6_MSDS_2009_Basic_Fuchsin.pdf.

‘Chemophobia’ podcast with Sam Howarth

podcast
Click to listen to the podcast via Soundcloud

In a debut podcast, Sam Howarth discusses with chemophobia research-enthusiast and chemistry teacher, James Kennedy, the evolution of fearing chemicals and the people who are driving it behind the scenes.

Sam Howarth is a self-taught nutrition and fitness enthusiast – a fanatic learned through trial and error over 3 years of research and over 10 years of personal struggles with food and body image.

In the podcast, we talk about chemophobia, its origins and the money that keeps it alive.

soundcloud

Book: China: Land of Dragons and Emperors

photo-1

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: The Future Eaters

The Future Eaters

Australian history in three stages: Geology, Aboriginals, Europeans.
432 pages, ★

The Future Eaters is written in three parts: (1) the geological formation of the Australian continent; (2) the arrival of Aboriginals; and (3) the arrival of Europeans.

Part one is a geological history of the Australian continent. In short, Australia was a unique, vast, climatically stable continent. Australia had no ice ages, little climate change and no human influence, so its plants and animals evolved to be enormous and easy to catch, such as the moa (see picture below). Author Tim Flannery says that Australia’s impressive diversity of animal and plant species can be explained almost entirely by (a) millions of years of climatic stability; and (b) lack of humans.

Moa hunting
Moa (giant birds) prevalent in Australia before the arrival of humans 40,000 years ago.

Parts two and three talk about the Aboriginals and Europeans who arrived 40,000 and 300 years ago, respectively. These two parts are faster-paced and are by far the most interesting to read.

In terms of tone, The Future Eaters is hit-and-miss. Towards ancient Aboriginals, it’s sometimes flattering and sometimes accuses them of ecological recklessness. In some places, it’s wordy and long-winded, while in others, it’s extremely interesting and concise. I’ve summarised the three most interesting parts below.

1. Aboriginals loved fire. They burned forests to such an extent that early European explorers described Australia as the “land of fire”. Women and children started most of the fires. However, the medium-sized Aboriginal fires prevented the massive fires that would have occurred periodically anyway, and researchers predict that the result was no net increase in the annual acreage burned!

2. Australia’s animals have become smaller in the last 40,000 years. Aboriginals hunted the largest animals for food, and put an evolutionary pressure that selected for smaller, faster, and more nimble offspring. Kangaroos, koalas, lizards… everything except the wombat has shrunk considerably in size in the last 40,000 years. Even the Aboriginals themselves have shrunk by 9% since they arrived!

3. Terra nullius was a law that gave all “unused” land to the British. Because the first British settlers couldn’t recognise any “use” of the land (i.e. agriculture), they stole Aboriginal land claiming terra nullius as a justification. (The Aboriginals were of course using the land, but not for agriculture—as it was not required.) This law was only repealed in 1993 in Australia.

Author Tim Flannery is clearly a fan of Jared Diamond—he mentions him four times in this book.

“Jared Diamond is one of the world’s greatest living scientists” — Tim Flannery

I hope that Tim Flannery realises The Future Eaters is almost as information-rich as Collapse by Jared Diamond, which I reviewed two days ago. (Despite the title, I also found The Future Eaters less pessimistic than Collapse, which, taken together, earns these books the same 4 star rating.)

This book was extremely wordy in places but that didn’t stop me from enjoying it. I recommend this book for anyone with an interest in natural history, anthropology and Australia—or anyone in Australia who likes Jared Diamond. Keep reading The Future Eaters even when it seems slow. It’s worth it! 

Book: Collapse

Collapse

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:

  • Montana
  • Easter Island
  • (3 islands)
  • Anasazi
  • Maya
  • Vikings
  • Greenland
  • Norse
  • (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:

  1. Environmental degradation;
  2. Not being aware of environmental degradation;
  3. Doing nothing about environmental degradation;
  4. 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

Book: Eurekas and Euphorias

Eurekas and Euphorias
“The Oxford Book of Scientific Anecdotes” is an apt subtitle. Place this book alongside the Oxford English Dictionary.

Too many anecdotes. Read just parts of it.
356 pages, ★★★

Eurekas and Euphorias is a collection of 181 anecdotes surrounding scientific discovery. Each anecdote is short (one or two pages) and contains large amounts of quoted text (in an annoyingly small font) from external sources.

The anecdotes are interesting, but there are too many of them. Rather like a dictionary or encyclopaedia, this book contains no narrative and no recurring characters, which makes it unbearable to read in one sitting. Honestly, I didn’t finish this book.

It’s categorised in my library as “popular science”, but I would reassign it somewhere between “humour” and “reference”. These anecdotes don’t serve well as a standalone book. The information is interesting but the compilation is simply too intense. Instead, I think these stories should be blended into regular science textbooks to make them more relevant and interesting to students.

I suggest only reading parts of this book. Choose those parts at random, or pick such cryptic topics from the contents page as “the crackle that made history” or “the physicist’s peregrinations”. You might find a story that’s memorable and that you enjoy.

Anecdote number 31 about barometers was most interesting for me. Start there, perhaps. ★★★

Book: Seeds of Change: Six plants that transformed mankind

Seeds of Change: Six plants that transformed mankind
This is not a biology book.

Like stimulating conversation based only very loosely on six plants.
381 pages, ★★★★★

Seeds of Change is not a biology book. This book belongs alongside The Importance of Living, A Natural History of the Senses, and Home. This book is really a primer for fascinating conversation.

The book starts with exceeding confidence:

“It is gratifying for an author if a book remains in print; it is even more gratifying if no amendment has to be made because of new evidence” — page xi.

Thus, these two outdated statements, left uncorrected by new evidence humoured me:

“The term, “Negro” is used in this book to refer specifically to a West African black with sickle-cell anemia” — page 4.

“The actual population [of India] today is nearly 700 million” — page 11.

But the contradictions stop there. The book suddenly becomes gripping, describing historical events with interdisciplinary knowledge and an excellent arts/humanities/scientific balance. Here are just a few fascinating snippets:

  • Quinine (without quinine, there’d be no WW2, no Panama Canal, and only 100 million people in India)
  • Sugar (cultivating sugar was brutal work; about one slave would die per ton of sugar produced)
  • Cotton (Liverpool was built to cater to the slave-trade)
  • Tea (an interesting history written from a purely colonial perspective)
  • Potatoes (the Irish harvested corn very differently due to the unique climate)
  • Coca (Popeye’s spinach binges were actually shots of cocaine; but Middle America knew no better and per-capita consumption of spinach soared sixfold in a few decades)

Sweet thoughts in this book include:

“Potatoes floating ashore from the wrecked Armada in 1588 were alleged to have colonised western Ireland” — page 238.

Another thought-provoking snippet is this:

“The illegal drug scene is an oddity that if the opiates and the coca derivatives were legalized, the drugs themselves would be cheap and there would be no criminality, no drug scene and much less money-laundering and thousands of addicts would foreshorten their lives and the genes which give rise to addiction (which may or may not exist) would not not multiply as they do now” — page 295.

I think there’s room for a sequel that features another five plants: hemp, cocoa, corn, rice and bananas. Each of them changed the world profoundly, and each come with an abundance of interesting stories to tell.

The topics in this book are so broad, so important, yet so little-known, that they make for excellent conversation. I wish for a sequel. ★★★★★

Book: Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization

Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization
Also available in red. Hardback.

Too technical for me. Sci-fi fans probably understand this better than I do.
320 pages, ★★

Sorry. This is probably an excellent book, but my elementary understanding of Babylonian culture prevents me from appreciating it fully.

I learned three small things from this book. First, amidst a deluge of alien-sounding names, I recognised what looked like a section on a natural history of the Fertile Crescent. It was so-named by one scientist, who shaded the region that received more than 200 mm of rainfall each year. (And that area was crescent-shaped.)

Second, I learned how Babylon pioneered the construction of cities, states, social classes, division of labour and organised religion (it sounds like Babylon in many ways resembled modern society). We have a lot to thank them for.

Third, I learned how the “fight of ideas” has happened throughout history. People probably even opposed early agriculture because it rendered hierarchies in traditional hunting communities useless (the opponents of agriculture were probably the ones who personally had less to gain from it). Agriculture developed nonetheless.

Long-standing fans of sci-fi, or those who studied “Class Civ” in school, might be able to grasp this book better than I can. Babylon and I give each other two stars. I hope you learn more from this book than I did. ★★

Book: Europe East & West

Europe East & West

Gripping accounts of what Norman Davies learned from writing a legendary history book.
335 pages, ★★

Europe East & West isn’t the legendary history tome that the cover alleges it to be. Instead, (the advanced introduction aside) it’s a series of relaxed, organised accounts of the author’s journey in writing a history book. (The book itself is called Europe: A History.)

This book raises many interesting points. It deconstructs “the west”, and told us how “western” is an obsolete term; not just because eastern countries are now catching up economically, but because for much of ancient history, eastern europe has been remarkably successful. The author’s specific interests in Poland and Wales highlight how both the Celts and the Poles were in many ways more advanced than their closest neighbours, the Germans and the English. I like myth-busting.

Some of the facts are surprising. It tells us that “England is not an island”—that’s the author’s Welsh interest becoming apparent. He then argues (more seriously) how Britain never fully adopted the notion nationhood in the way that France did, and missed its last opportunity when the British Empire was downsized. It tells us the Roman roots of the 1054 schism in Christianity which still lasts to this day. It also tells us how George Ludwig made a perfect king because couldn’t speak any English, which allowed for the emergence of a ruling cabinet under a figurehead monarch (which we also still have today). He also argues that the Muslims have long been more accommodating of the Jewish people than the Europeans ever have, and gives plenty of comparisons and examples to prove his point.

I have deep admiration for the author’s understanding of history. His 12-year-old son can name six of the seven European empires which ruled over Muslim subjects:

“I remember asking my twelve-year-old son how many European empires had Muslim subjects. I started off with the British empire, which ruled over Muslims from northern Nigeria to Brunei, and the French empire. Then we thought of the Russian empire. Then he came up with the Dutch empire, which I’d forgotten, in the East Indies. And we ended with the Spanish empire in North Africa and the Italians in Libya. We forgot the Portuguese in Timor, but six out of seven is not bad.” — pages 203-204

I also admire the author’s impartiality. He doesn’t give in to recent cultural and political biases—in fact, he ignores them completely. (I thin much of this comes from his love of both Poland and Wales, both of which are under-represented in most of Europe’s historical narratives.)

If you want to learn about European history, but are basically starting from scratch, then read this Europe East & West as an ice-breaker before cracking the epic tome (Europe: A History) itself. ★★

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: 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: The Art of War (Sun-Tzu)

Poetry about relationships.
(but write your own footnotes)

374 pages, ★★★★

The Art of War is poetry about relationships. It teaches us about romantic relationships, work relationships and family relationships. It is certainly not a book about war.

The original text speaks volumes and the commentaries are not needed, so I’ll keep this review very short. The Art of War serves as a guide, and it guides everyone uniquely. Any generation (in any situation) can easily interpret The Art of War into relevant, timely advice.

The Art of War is written in poetry rather than prose. The Chinese say that ancient texts were written like this for two reasons: first, writing materials were expensive; and second, that the essence of an idea stands the test of time much better if it is stripped of any transient cultural prejudice. Ancient texts are being constantly re-analyzed as can be seen from this book’s sometimes contradictory interpretations at different historical periods. The introduction reminds of the importance of cultural change in the passage,

“he who misunderstands change is like the man who loses his sword in the water, and makes a mark on his boat to denote its position… both are wasting their time!”

This book changes every time you read it. Or, more accurately, your situation and your outlook change. Repeated reading of this book over time doesn’t just teach change; it demonstrates it.

The American military could learn much from this book. “Better to take a state intact than destroy it”; “no nation has ever benefitted from a protracted war”, and “only a foolhardy general conscripts twice” undermine the current Iraq war.

What else did I learn from this book? I learned only to act when there’s something to be gained. Read it yourselves. Everyone will learn unique, personal lessons by reading The Art of War. ★★★★