Tag Archives: World War II

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: Red Sorghum

Red Sorghum
Red with Communism, Nationalism, rage, energy, Japanese soldiers and blood.

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. ★★★★

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. ★★★