Tag Archives: china

“Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom” by Stephen R. Platt

An account of the last few years of the Taiping Rebellion, with a focus on British involvement.  Although sparked by a religious movement, the author characterizes the Taiping as a long-suppressed reaction of the majority Chinese to centuries of (mis)rule by the foreign Manchu invaders, ie. the Qing Dynasty.  The Qing were ripe for overthrow and quite ineffectual by this point; their demise was postponed 50 years or so by two factors; first that the British (eventually) threw in their lot with the Qing against the Taiping on rather flimsy and biased reporting by just a few officials, and second that Zeng Guofan declined to take power for himself when he definitely could have done so.

British policy during this period flip-flopped or otherwise struggled to find a direction.  Technically, they claimed to be neutral in the Chinese civil war … but at one point, they were fighting separately against both parties.  British in Shanghai were defending against a Taiping assault while a British fleet attacked the Qing’s Taku forts and the Summer Palace at Beijing in the climax of what is now called the Second Opium War.  Soon after, the British were persuaded by Frederick Bruce that the Taiping were up to no good and the only hope for stability in China would be to help the Qing stay afloat.

Many others, including historians today, believe the Taiping were on the road to victory and would have done alright, in spite of the somewhat crazy behavior of the founder, Hong Xiuquan.  (Sidenote – not much on Hong Xiuquan’s rise or Taiping doctrine or society in this book; really just about the war.  At one point though it said that Hong Xiuquan was claiming to be the new member of the Trinity, replacing the Holy Spirit…)

A fascinating character when thinking about what the Taiping might have turned into is Hong Rengan, Hong Xiuquan’s cousin.  Long before his cousin’s visions, Hong Rengan was a Christian convert in Hong Kong and worked as an assistant to foreign missionaries.  When the Taiping became ascendant, he was sent to his cousin with high hopes that “true Christianity” would replace the Taiping creole.  At first things seemed to go better than their wildest dreams – Hong Xiuquan heartily welcomed his cousin and offered him the title of “Shield King” and responsibility as the foreign minister for the Taiping government.  Hong Rengan had a grand plan of strong friendship and cooperation with Western powers in a bid jumpstart Chinese industry and technology, much like the reforms of the Meiji Restoration later in Japan.  (Another sidenote – the author points out the Japan profited well by observing China’s problems – first by opening up to the West peacefully whereas the Chinese went kicking and screaming via Opium Wars; second by accelerating technological progress to catch up to the West whereas the Qing stagnated.)  Despite his best efforts, Western perception of the Taiping went downhill and Hong Rengan’s plans were never to be.

Finally we have Zeng Guofan, the scholar-general.  A Qing government official (though not a Manchu) and product of the examination system, he became a local militia leader in Hunan in the fight against the Taiping mainly because no one else at all was left to take the job.  From the accounting in this book, he seemed very methodical in his leadership — he thought deeply about the problems at hand, devised a strategy with much careful deliberation, and then stuck to that strategy no matter what until the goal was achieved.  He became something of a warlord and ignored direct orders from the Emperor when they went against his own strategy — not out of disloyalty, but because he knew that the Emperor didn’t know as much about the “situation on the ground” as he did.  Anyway, at the end of the day, Zeng’s army conquered the Taiping capital of Nanjing, effectively killing the movement.  He very well could have taken his army on to Beijing and toppled the severely weakened Qing, but did not.  Perhaps something of a George Washington character (leaving after two terms instead of becoming King George) or maybe he just didn’t want to take on all the empire’s problems any longer.

Both Zeng, the other Qing, and the Taiping were very brutal in this conflict.  Entire populations of cities, whether the Manchu district if conquered by Taiping, or everyone if conquered by Qing, were murdered upon their capture.  Cannibalism became common in besieged cities and also in the countryside at large, being devasted by a decade of roving armies.  Not a fun time to be alive.


“From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History” by Kenneth J. Hammond

Listened to another Great Courses sweeping history series during my commute.  Plenty of interesting stuff, but I admit I got kind of lost between the Han/Song/Ming etc.  I think I just don’t have the necessary framework.  Plus maybe learning some Chinese characters would help with visualizing different people’s names in my mind and actually remembering them.

Anyway, three takeaways:

  • History is always in flux.  China in particular is a series of high points and low points, with frequent takeovers by nomadic invaders like the Jurchen, Mongol, Manchu.  Yet through it all, what remained was still China; albeit changed somewhat by each conqueror.  Still, though, Chinese identity is linked to the Han Dynasty, back in 200 BC, and not to some plains people origin.  A testament to Chinese cultural superiority?  Or just that there are so many of them?  (Yes, a relatively high Chinese population relative to surrounding tribes and the world in general has been a constant feature throughout history.)
  • To continue with the above, China is currently emerging from an anomalous period (200+ years) of backwardness and is regaining its usual position at the head of world culture and leadership.  Kind of exciting.
  • The story of the Tai Ping movement really caught my interest and I plan to read more about it.  The founder read a few Christian missionary tracts (but never the Bible), had a vision and claimed he was the brother of Jesus.  Was a very charismatic leader and attracted millions of followers to a strict, fanatic lifestyle for many years and into a war.  In some ways (except the war part and some details of course), it seems similar to Joseph Smith and the rise of Mormonism going on at about the same time.


“The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu


<Arrrg, matey, spoilers ahead!  Ye have been warned!>

A young astrophysicist, Ye Wenjie, is working at a secret SETI base in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s.  Her professor father was disgraced, beaten, and killed by Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution, and Wenjie had been working at a nearby logging camp before being pulled into work more suited to her talents.  One day she stumbles upon a method of using the Sun as an amplifier for the radio greeting they are sending out into the cosmos.  She thinks it is a failure.  But several years later, a return message comes.  It’s actually a dire warning – “do not answer!!!”  An advanced, militarized race detected the first transmission and any others will give them a firm fix on Earth.    But, Wenjie is still pretty ticked off about her father and the whole Cultural Revolution in general (who wouldn’t be?) … and replies: “Come here!   Our civilization is no longer capable of solving its own problems.”

And thus a mega force of “Trisolarian” invaders is on the way, ETA around 400 years (they travel pretty fast, but still much slower than radio transmissions).  Also, they have “folded” (?) protons into super-AI Sophons which are already at the Earth, messing up physicists’ particle accelerator experiments.  The Trisolarians were worried that human technology, while currently inferior to their own, was progressing just too exponentially to leave alone for 400 years.

The Trisolarians are named such because they live on a planet revolving around three stars (Alpha Centauri) which experiences an unstable mix of super hot and super cold periods depending on relative distance to each star.  Civilization is routinely (yet randomly!) destroyed in either fire or ice.  After millenia of trying to figure out what was going on with their world, then trying unsuccessfully to solve the three-body problem, they ultimately determine to find some better planet and move.  Wenjie’s description of Earth sounds nice…

Wenjie finds plenty of sympathizers on Earth who agree that humanity needs help, or even that it deserves to be eradicated.  I thought this was going a bit too far – are there really that many eco-terrorist types out there who would root for the aliens over humanity, including their own self and family?  Especially the character of Michael Evans in the book was really hokey.  Billionaire tree-hugger who wants all humans to die and leave the birds and bugs alone.

Some of the group more-or-less worship the unseen Trisolarians (some interesting commentary in the book on how even a solitary confirmation that ET exists, and nothing more, would still fundamentally alter civilization) and put together an odd MMORPG, 3body, to tell about the Trisolarian world and history.  It’s through this game that the protagonist (and we the reader) first learn about what’s going on.  Little bit of reveal at a time.

There is a REALLY funny incident in the game, where a 30 million man medieval Chinese army becomes a von Neumann architecture computer: squads of soldiers with black and white flags become logic gates, scribes become memory, and cavalry becomes the bus.  Pretty ridiculous but funny.

“The Diamond Age” by Neal Stephenson


The Diamond Age is set a few hundred (?) years in the future, when mastery of nanotechnology has brought the world into a post-scarcity state.  Massive structures called the Feeds pull in raw materials, break them down to their molecular or atomic levels, then use these ingredients in matter compilers to create items on-demand.  Like 3D printers for anything, or like Star Trek’s replicator.  The catch is that, while Feed lines are ubiquitous, their bandwidth is not.  Only the wealthy tribes can afford massive and quick production of whatever they can dream up.  (Everyone else at least has food and shelter taken care of though, so that’s good.)

“Tribes?” you mutter?  Yes, the world’s governments have collapsed, and people have organized generally along lines of mutually shared values rather than nationality.  The story mainly takes place in and around Shanghai, but is concerned mostly with the Neo-Victorian “clave” (enclave).  The Vickys (a term they find offensive) reject the moral relativism of the 20th century and instead hearken back to the heyday of the British Empire of the 19th; indeed claiming that the carefully governed morality of that age and people is precisely what made it so great.

Alexander Chung-Suk Finkle-McGraw is a Neo-Victorian Equity Lord (one of those with a non-insignificant stake in controlling and maintaining the Feeds) who is dissatisfied with the life he sees ahead for his granddaughter.  He’s convinced that education fails to instill a certain “subversive” or creative / confident quality that is absolutely essential for innovation — something that the founders of a great endeavor certainly possess by definition, but something that is frequently missing from the second and following generations due to excessive conservatism and lack of real-world trial and testing.

So, Finkle-McGraw commissions a special book for his granddaughter, “The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer,” from one of the greatest nanotechnological engineers of the day, John Percival Hackworth (“Hack”-er, get it?).  This is no ordinary book; it almost magically adapts to the reader and is designed to teach anything naturally and in-depth, while also forcing the reader to learn to solve problems and be self-reliant.  Kind of reminded me of Wikipedia crossed with a massive, personalized computer RPG.  A kind of weak part of the story is the link to and reliance on “ractors” (reactive actors), real people to provide voiceovers for the book’s stories.  The reason given, that a computer-generated voice could never be as realistic, is kind of lame … but maybe the uncanny valley will reign forever, who knows.

A copy of this book ends up in the hands of Nell, a girl among the (still) many poor and miserable denizens of this future world of wonders.  The parts where Nell is reading through the Primer are actually very charming — she has a pretty miserable and abusive real-world existence, but in the Primer she is a fairy tale Princess, and her friends there teach her things that actually help her overcome her real problems.  Nell becomes the ideal leader and innovator that Finkle-McGraw was hoping for, but the Primer didn’t seem to work for some others, so maybe some personal struggle somewhere is required?  (eg. Nell had to escape her life in the “projects.”)

Besides Nell’s stories, the overarching plot of the book was mediocre at best and really convoluted at worst.  There’s a civil war in China, reminiscent of the Boxer Rebellion and Opium Wars, only the “opium” now is technology and the Feeds.  Some want to replace them with “Seeds” which would more directly be controlled by the people.  They try to get there by sending (imprisoning?) Hackworth to the tribe of Drummers, who live in tubes under the ocean and engage in sexual orgies most of the time, and seem half-stoned the rest of the time…but apparently they are really utilizing some STD-like nanotech to become some kind of shared intelligence brain-powered computer.  Or something like that.

With a group like the Drummers in the story, it might be hard to believe, but this book actually made me think quite a bit about morality.  There’s a conversation between characters in the book about how the 20th century rejected the Victorians and basically anyone espousing absolute right and wrong — with moral relativism, the only sins are intolerance and hypocrisy.  But of course, one character contends, it is impossible to always live up to a strict moral code, so everyone is a hypocrite — yet that’s not the point:

The internal, and eternal, struggle between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of morality…determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power.

In other words, moral ideals are just that … it’s ok to not be there yet, but it is important to be on the path!

A somewhat related quote, on culture and how some are better that others (*gasp*, totally non-PC, I know!):

There was a time when we believed that what a human mind could accomplish was determined by genetic factors.  Piffle, of course, but it looked convincing for many years, because distinctions between tribes were so evident.  Now we understand that it’s all cultural.  That, after all, is what a culture is — a group of people who share in common certain acquired traits…  Some cultures are prosperous; some are not.  Some value rational discourse and the scientific method; some do not.  Some encourage freedom of expression, and some discourage it.”

And finally a bit on education, continuing the thread from Finkle-McGraw’s concerns for his granddaughter:

The difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts.  But that has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent.  The difference between stupid and intelligent people is that intelligent people can handle subtlety.  They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations — in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.

The Diamond Age is available from Amazon.

“The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen” by Lloyd Alexander


Prince Jen of T’ang (a fictional China) undertakes a journey to the far-off utopian Kingdom of Tienkuo to figure out what makes it so great.  He brings six gifts for the king, each rather ordinary on the outside but actually (as we find out) possessing unique magical powers.

In the series of unfortunate events which disrupts the expedition, each gift is lost, given, or used up to get out of trouble.  But, as it often turns out, the journey IS the destination and Prince Jen learns what he needs to from his mysterious teacher, Master Fu/Hu/Wu/Shu/Chu. (did I forget any?  I guess they are all manifestations of the same guy.)

Really a good read.  Some pretty humorous parts.  I loved Moxa, the honorable robber who always follows the Robber Code: basically don’t rob from anyone who doesn’t deserve it.  Unfortunately he is not a very successful robber, since the Code pretty much exempts almost everyone in one way or another.  But at least he has the Eye of Discerning Perception and the Nose of Thoughtful Inhalations!

“River of Stars” by Guy Gavriel Kay


Can we call this historical fiction?  The names of places and people are changed, and I’m sure many other details are changed, but this is mainly a retelling of the fall of the Northern Song Dynasty.  The imperial court is a hotbed of intrigue — the Emperor occupies his time in expanding his marvelous garden, the Genyue, in the capital Hanjin.  He’s generally ignorant of the day-to-day goings-on in the Empire, which is how his advisers like it.  Competing factions jockey for control of the Emperor’s favor.  When a member of one group is installed as prime minister, the other group is sent into exile.  Then vice versa when power flips.

Everyone at the court is very wary of a powerful military.  Past dynasties have usually been overthrown by ambitious military commanders, so the court tries to keep the generals incompetent and the army weak.  This all generally works out ok … at least in times of peace.

When the Kitan Empire hears of war amongst the northern steppe people, some smell an opportunity for advantage.  The loss of the Fourteen Provinces to the barbarian Xiaolu a generation ago still stings.  Now that the Xiaolu are facing their rebellious vassal, the Altai, one faction plans an alliance aimed at recovering the lost territory and thus bringing further imperial favor (which is what really matters).  The Altai are offending at the Kitans’ arrogance, but warily accept on the condition that the Kitan army take the Xiaolu Southern Capital.  When they fail miserably, yet still Kitan officials demand the Fourteen Provinces, the Altai decide to attack Kitai, too.  Not a good idea to piss off a nation of horse warriors accustomed to drinking blood from their enemies’ skulls.  Especially when your army is worthless.

Kitan territory rapidly falls beneath the mighty Altai.  Fortunately, there is one savior – Ren Daiyan, former marsh outlaw, a military genius, and a believer in a personal destiny to defend the dynasty and win back the lost provinces.  His army is the only one to stand up to the Altai.  He manages to rescue a single son of the Emperor when all the rest are captured by the Altai during the fall of Hanjin.  Then he begins to fight back, pushing them north.  Meanwhile, the rescued son tries to regroup the nation by setting up court in the south.  After a year of victories, Ren has the Altai on the run and is just about to retake Hanjin and continue pushing onward to the Lost Fourteen, but the new southern emperor sends urgent word to stop.  A peace treaty has been agreed on.  Ren is incredulous — Kitai is ceding the northern half of the country to the Altai.

Ren’s love for his country threatens to tear him apart.  On the one hand, he is so close to driving out the invaders and retaking long lost territory.  But on the other hand, he has received a direct order from his emperor to stand down.  He wants to press on, but that would be rebellious — he briefly considers starting his own dynasty, with Ren as emperor.  But in the end he yields, and loyally submits.  Part of his reasoning is that if he took power, he would further confirm the court’s stereotypical wariness of ambitious (ie competent) generals that has put, and would continue to put, the army and nation at the mercy of outside forces.

This part gets me angry — Ren was the savior of Kitai, but what is his reward?  Prison.  Turns out that there was a secret deal behind the peace treaty . . . If Ren had pressed on and crushed the Altai, then he would have undoubtedly recovered the captured Emperor and others in the imperial family … others ahead of the new Southern emperor in the line of succession.  The new emperor (and his advisers) would surely be deposed and likely executed for prematurely snatching the reins.  The Altai agree to end the war, and keep the imperial family hostage for the rest of their days, thereby keeping the new emperor safely in power.  Along with gaining a good chunk of territory, the Altai also demand that Ren, who they consider to be the spoiler of their total victory, is executed.  Luckily, a sympathetic prime minister allows Ren to escape, commanding him to go far away and live an anonymous life.  Well, he actually gives him the choice of that or drinking poisoned wine; the book is ambiguous about what choice Ren makes.  But his love interest is known to have traveled far to the west after all this — probably to be with Ren.

I was surprised at how much of the book was based on actual events.  The barbarian invasion, fall of the capital, splitting of the country in two, the captured emperor, the loyal general commanded to turn back — truth is stranger than fiction.  Here’s a cheat sheet:

“Japan at War” by Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook

The book’s format is inspired by and identical to Studs Terkel’s “The Good War” – a collection of oral histories of soldiers and others involved in World War 2 – only this time we hear from the Japanese perspective.  And there is absolutely no way that this collection could have shared Terkel’s title.  This was one of the saddest, most depressing books I have read in a long time.

Some of the things that happened in the war are indeed stranger than fiction.  And much more horrifying:

  • Infectious disease research on local populations in Manchuria by Unit 731.
  • Ghastly vivisections and practice battlefield surgeries – like amputating both arms and reattaching them backwards, just for kicks – on Chinese prisoners by military doctors.  Oh yeah, and no anesthetics either.
  • During the Firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945, the fire-stoked wind was so intense that people were blown away into the flames.  One mother was carrying her baby on her back while trying to reach safety – the baby burned to death while still attached, badly burning the mother, too.  The mother survived, even though several of her children died.  In later years she poured water on their graves, saying “You must have been so hot.”
  • During the invasion of Saipan, soldiers and civilians hid in caves from the devil Americans.  Mothers were ordered to kill their crying babies so as not to alert the enemy.  I don’t know how they brought themselves to do it, but many did so.
  • Similarly on Okinawa, many civilians committed suicide or killed family members rather than face the horrors they were told would be inflicted on them when captured by the Americans.  The kids in one family killed their mother by hitting her head with rocks.  Then the older boys killed their younger brother and sister.  They were deciding which of them should kill the other when they were found by American soldiers.
  • Kaiten and kamikaze pilots.

The final oral history in the book is very fitting.  Long after the war ended, a man is giving a tour of a bombed-out Mitsubishi factory in Nagasaki.  He says that the torpedoes used in the attack on Pearl Harbor were manufactured there, in the same place where an atomic bomb would destroy everything several years later.  “We fought a stupid war, didn’t we?”

There is one similarity with America’s experience as in “The Good War” – the common man in Japan felt like he was doing what must be done to save his country.  Sadly, the common man was misled by the de facto military dictatorship of Japan.  Questioning the Emperor’s will was a crime, and the Emperor delegated his authority to the military.  The Emperor, being divine, could never be wrong, so everything had to be justified even by lying.  Sometimes even military planners didn’t know the true situation on the battlefield due to all the false stories and propaganda in the newspapers and official reports.  “The closer you got to the front, the less often you found a burning and unflinching belief in victory.”  The Army and Navy planners stayed mainly in Tokyo.

The war against China demanded oil, and Japan needed to seize that oil from the Western colonies in the Pacific, and stop America from interfering, in order to keep up the fight in China.  Japan’s industrial capacity was 1/13th the size of America’s at the outbreak of war.  It never really stood a chance.  As a Zero ace said, “You need altitude, speed, and firepower to win an air engagement.  No amount of bushido will help.”

“Life and Death in Shanghai” by Nien Cheng

Nien Cheng worked for Shell Oil and so was branded a pro-foreign “capitalist roader” during the chaotic Cultural Revolution.  In 1967 her house and possessions were trashed and she was soon thrown into prison, accused of being a spy.  She was in more-or-less solitary confinement for six and a half years.  Poor nutrition caused her to lose all her teeth.  At one point her hands were immobilized behind her back in handcuffs for several days, causing permanent nerve damage.  Her daughter was also persecuted and murdered.  Throughout all of this, the authorities tried to get Cheng to confess her crimes.  She steadfastly and courageously protested her innocence.  In the end, however, it was not a matter of justice that freed her but rather a shifting in the political winds.  What was once good was now bad, and what was bad was now good….

More than anything, this book helped me feel the frustration and appalling madness of the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong’s communism.  Mao’s China, land of official lies and neighborhood spies.  It seems like China has gotten a bit better since that time … but you never know.  Rampant censorship and imprisonment of many pro-democracy activists (including the recent Nobel Peace Prize recipient) make me wonder.  What would Nien Cheng think of today’s China?

p. 30 – “The Communist officials always rewarded a person for his usefulness to them, not for his virtue, though they talked a lot about his virtue.”

p. 55 – “When the penalty for speaking one’s mind is so great, nobody knows what anybody else thinks.”

p. 90 – About the communist overthrow of the upper class – “…such a society was only a dream because those who seized power would invariably become the new ruling class.”

p. 407 – “You were locked up because you don’t understand China.”  Back door system, going along with the Party line

Speeches – always a virtual repetition of what higher-ups have said.  “To speak at the study group was an art.  Obviously one could not afford to be original, and there were only a limited number of ways of saying the same thing over and over again.  We generally chose to be boring rather than different.”

p. 489 – “I realized I would be granted rehabilitation simply because the policy of the Party had changed.  It had nothing to do with redressing justice.”

EDIT: I found a speech Nien Cheng gave in 1998.

On the Red Guards: “(Mao) turned to the high school kids, because those high school kids grew up since 1949 or they were very little when the Communists took over. They were brought up under Mao. They were brainwashed because they all had to go to Government schools. There was no other school to go to, and they were brainwashed. They were taught that Mao Zedong was their God, and they were taught songs like, “My mother is dear. My father is dear, but General Mao is the dearest of all.” Think of it. Little kids. And when they were given a cookie in the day-care center or kindergarten, they had to hold it up and say “Thanks to General Mao” in front of his photograph. They were brought up that way. So he thought these kids would be reliable to carry-out what he wanted to be done. And also, you must remember China was isolated. China’s door was closed. These children had no knowledge of the outside world except what was told them.”

On the future of China: “So at least the Chinese is 50 percent free, economically, they can now have a dream and work towards their dream. But politically, they’re still enslaved by the Communist Government….I will not be around, but one day, China will become a democracy. You young people will remember that Nien Cheng said so.”

“Chinese Lessons” by John Pomfret

The author spent time as a university exchange student in Nanjing in the late 1970’s, shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution.  He became a journalist covering China for Western news media until being ousted following coverage of the 1989 Tiananmen events.  He was able to return to covering China about 10 years later, and got reaquainted from some of his Nanjing classmates, as well as marry a Chinese wife.  As such, he is in a unique position to report on the changes and situation in China to the Western world.

China has indeed made great progress in the last few decades, but at great cost and with plenty of room for concern about its future.  During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards actively destroyed links to established Chinese traditions through public humiliation and torture of the educated or the well-off.  Families were torn apart when children were forced to denounce their parents.  The Cultural Revolution in particular, and the Communist Party takeover in general (and probably the decades of instability prior to that) resulted in a distinct lack of a moral compass for China today.  Corruption in government is rampant and actually seen as acceptable, so long as the perpetrator is not found out.  Once in the book, Pomfret states that the driving force behind social stability in the West is guilt (not doing bad things because you will feel bad if you do), but in China it is shame (not doing bad things because people will find out – with the implication that if you can hide your actions, all is well).

China has whole-heartedly accepted capitalism and is communist in name only.  (Pomfret says that the main goal of the Communist Party is no longer to push a particular ideology, but rather to remain in power for as long as possible.)  “Man-eat-man” capitalism reigns, destroying the environment and exploiting the workers with all the gusto of the pre-Progressive industrial West.

Two other recent books on China that I liked (both by Peter Hessler):