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London Smith Club bookgroup

Page history last edited by Katie Day 11 years, 8 months ago

Original thoughts from the group -- spring 2009:


As predicted, we three (Barbara, Marjorie and I)  over a delicious meal in Marjorie's garden, agreed that China would be an interesting theme for next year.

There's all sorts of fascinating contemporary stuff available but I haven't had time (sorry again) to do much research on the ancient aspects. I've got out of the library CHINA, prehistory to the nineteenth century, by J.A.G. Roberts, who has lots of other books on the China shelf, but that feels a bit stodgy and academic for summer reading.

More appealing is Bamber Gascoigne's A brief History of the Dynasties of China; pleasantly readable, just over 200 pages, with a nice selection of photographs.

There is also Will and Ariel Durant's Our Oriental Heritage (Confucius to Chiang Kai-Shek) volume from their Story of Civilization series; a bit old fashioned perhaps for 21st century readers, but a good overview.

On the fiction front, there are things like Van Gulik's Judge Dee mysteries (The Chinese Gold Murders, The Chinese Lake Murders, etc) which are based on a 7th century (I think) real judge.

Or Pearl Buck (Dragonseed, et al)

I also fouind on Amazon Lyn Hamilton's The Chinese Alchemist, which has an archaeological slant, but that's all I know about it.

Diane Wei Liang's The Eye of Jade and The Paper Butterfly, are two of a series which a classmate at U3A recommends, about a private investigator in modern day China.

And Eliot Pattison's Bone Mountain and following titles are well written novels/mysteries based on monks in Tibet with the current Chinese occupying government as the main villain.



Books and reading recommendations re China:


<<<Re China AND Smith -- just read a great book -- easy read, interesting, etc.  One of Simon Winchester's (I'm sure you've read one of his already) -- this one was published as "The Man Who Loved China" in the US and as "Bomb, Book, and Compass" in the UK.  Re Joseph Needham and the Needham question re why modern science didn't develop in China given its historical record of invention and discoveries.

Funnily, the woman who inspired his interest in China (and became his mistress, muse, and eventually his wife) was a young student from China...

[p. 36] "in 1922 [Lu Gwei-Djen] won a coveted place at a newly built American-run college that would soon be famous -- Nanking's Ginling College for Girls, the 'little sister in the Orient' of Smith College in Massachusetts" ...

Never heard of it -- have you?


From Beth:

I'm in the lounge at the airport and jotting some thoughts off the top of my head.
My readings have been more concentrated on Ming to present and not necessarily fiction either. 
Some of the nonfiction I have mentioned reads like fiction.

Should include at least one Jonathan Spence:


* The Search for Modern China--textbook-like 

* Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K'ang-Hsi (1974)

* The Death of Woman Wang (1978)

* To Change China: Western Advisers in China, 1620-1960 (1980)

* The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (1984)**

* The Question of Hu (1987)**

* Chinese Roundabout: Essays on History and Culture

* The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution 1895-1980

* The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds**

* God's Chinese Son (1996), about the Taiping Rebellion

* Mao Zedong (1999)

* Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man

* Treason by the Book

See also his article for NYReview of Books
I have marked above with ** ones I would more likely recommend.
It would also be worth looking at Spence's wife, Annping Chin
Four Sisters of Hofei (2002), an academic treatment of the lives of these sisters.
This was one of the first books I read as I flew into China and it has shaped some of my travels and explorations.
Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia 

by Peter Hopkirk

so many topics to discuss--Chinese politics, the geography, archeology, silk route, museum collections, the desert, Buddhism, Great game
After reading the above, I also found this a fascinating read:
High Tartary by Owen Lattimore, Orville Schell 
This recounts his travels as he meets up with his wife Eleanor for their honeymoon overland travels.
I particularly was taken with the descriptions of the locals he met on his way and the conditions of travel.
Eleanor had written a book called Turkestan Reunion (1934) that I have not read.
Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine 

by Jasper Becker

The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Li Zhi-Sui
Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present 

by Peter Hessler

The River at the Center of the World, Revised: A Journey Up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time 

by Simon Winchester

(does his western attitude get in the way?)
Would poetry be a consideration?
Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese Poem Is Translated 

by Eliot Weinberger, Octavio Paz

... and might want to consider some of the translations by David Hinton
Perhaps some fiction to consider--
short stories:
Read some short stories by Lu Xun or Lu Hsün, 
More short stories by Ha Jin
and Balzac and the little Chinese seamstress by Dai Sijie
Rice by Su Tong
Just realized Howard Goldblatt was the translator for Rice and is also the translator for Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong
Wolf Totem is not an easy read, but a good example of ethnic literature. Since I grew up in Wyoming, the Mongolian (in the case of the novel it is Inner Mongolian) landscape has many similarities with the plains; I am  keenly aware of the grasslands and reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone.
Su Tong also wrote Raise the Red Lantern --have not read the book but the movie is terrific by Zhang Yi Mou
who is one of my preferences for what is known as fifth generation filmmakers -- Should consider his early films:
Ju Dou, Red Sorghum, Not One Less, The Road Home, To Live, The Story of Qiu Ju
other good films:
Chen, Kaige:
Farewell My Concubine (Bawang bieji)   1993  157 min. 
Life on a String  (1991)
The King of Masks is a 1996 Chinese film directed by Wu Tianming.
A couple of more recent films--
Beijing Bicycle (Shiqisui de danche)  Wang, Xiaoshuai 2001  93 min. 
Tibetaninfluence: Mountain Patrol: Kekexili
Pear Buck is mentioned.
I favor The Good Earth and there is a horrible film Hollywood by the same name.
If they could access the works by Carma Hinton (there's an interesting case going on with Ling Chai--she is suing the Long Bow film group for their film on Tiananmen--she feels slandered) There is an excellent trilogy called the LongBow trilogy about the village where Hinton grew up. Lots of parallels can be made with the Good Earth.
These are my current thoughts--perhaps they can help.


This was posted on a  blog --  danwei.org:


Many foreigners who lived in old Beijing and succumbed to its charms became more Chinese than the Chinese, preferring a fantasy China to the real one.

Danwei publishes an extract from Jasper Becker's new book on Beijing: City of Heavenly Tranquility (Penguin and OUP) describing an enduring phenomenon.

Chapter 8, The Last Sanctuary of the Unknown and Marvellous

by Jasper Becker

One hot summer evening, Daniele Vare, Italy's 'Laughing Diplomat' and author, was walking in the Western Hills when he came across an Englishman seated beneath the lacquered columns of an ancient temple:

'The warm air was scented with lotus: the Chinese servants in their blue cotton coats and red satin waistcoats, moved about to serve the white-haired gentleman who dined in the open, at a little table with a fine table cloth and glass and silver. And though he was alone, on a hot summer evening in a Chinese temple, he was correctly dressed in a dinner-jacket with a black tie. He was dressed for dinner – because one does dress for dinner when one is a British Minister, even alone in far-off temples in the hills.'

Sir John Jordan, the British Minister, was one of Vare's colleagues in the tightly knit diplomatic community living in the Legation Quarter in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion. Despite the horrors of the 1900 siege, many of them became enamoured with a romantic and exotic notion of China just as the Chinese were avidly embracing modernity and change. Vare wrote a biography of the Empress Dowager and a series of novels about life in Beijing, including The Maker of Heavenly Trousers and The Gate of Happy Sparrows, populated by charming and quaint Chinese characters.

The notion of the exotic otherness of China grew in the Western imagination after 1900 just as Chinese became entranced by western rationalism and embraced 'didactic materialism'. The French writer Pierre Loti (1850-1923), who reported on the terrible events of the siege, became so romantically involved with the mystery of China that he described Beijing as 'the last sanctuary of the unknown and marvellous on earth'.

Another French writer, Viktor Segalen, who served as doctor in the French legation, so loved traditional Chinese culture that he said it constituted 'the other pole of human experience'. He rejected the whole modernism project on the grounds that it 'diminished the difference between the Chinese and us' and had no time for the emerging new republic, dismissing its first president, Sun Yat-sen, as 'a perfect cretin'.

Segalen not only approved of China as an 'impenetrable' enigma but went on to argue that it should be preserved to satisfy a hunger we all share for an exoticism that modern Western culture had destroyed. Many of the other Westerners living in Beijing at this time wrote in a way that seemed to prefer an imagined China to the real one. In Britain, books like the Fu Manchu mysteries, which played upon the mystery and cruelty of the Manchus, became bestsellers. Indeed, the most popular books on China were written by authors like Ernest Bramah, who never went anywhere near the country. His first work, The Wallet of Kai Lung, was published in 1900, followed in 1922 by Kai Lung's Golden Hours, Kai Lung Unrolls His Mat (1928) and Kai Lung Beneath the Mulberry Tree (1940). Kai Lung's Golden Hours describes how Kai Lung, an itinerant storyteller finds himself the prisoner of a mandarin whose duplicitous secretary is bent on his execution. Kai Lung only escapes by entertaining the mandarin with enthralling stories. In these books, the characters all speak in a strange, antiquated way, part biblical, part fairy tale, that was even shared by the likes of Nobel laureate Pearl Buck, author of The Good Earth, a book about Chinese peasants.

The Westerner entranced by China's past culture became such an archetype for the Chinese that Beijing writer Lao She created the character Mr. Goodrich in his novel The Yellow Storm. Mr. Goodrich lived in a courtyard house with an old ex-palace eunuch as doorkeeper and so loved old Beijing that he opposed any modernization and wanted to keep the city as a sort of living museum. 'If, when walking along the foot of the city wall, or in the suburbs he met someone carrying a bird cage, or a leftover person from the Manchu dynasty rolling two walnuts in his hand, he would stop and talk for hours.' Mr. Goodrich sounds very much like the real Englishman, Sir Edmund Backhouse, who discovered that one could make a living by exploiting the gullibility of those who wished for an imaginary China. Sir Edmund dressed in Chinese robes like a Confucian scholar and lived in a courtyard house as a recluse. He was one of very few foreigners who chose to live outside the Legation Quarter; he also spoke and read Chinese, not to mention Manchu and Mongolian.

Sir Edmund began his long life in Beijing working as a researcher for Dr. George Ernest Morrison, the famous correspondent of The Times. His job was to feed Morrison, who could barely manage a word of Chinese, the political gossip of the court. Backhouse's relied on the writing of Kang Youwei, one of the scholar reformers who fled abroad, narrowly escaping execution during the Empress Dowager's 1898 purge. Kang painted Yehonola as a fiendishly clever, ruthless, iron-willed and over-sexed Manchu tyrant who habitually poisoned her enemies.

By convincing people that he had exceptional contacts at the Manchu court, Sir Edmund conned a British shipbuilder that, with his inside knowledge, he could win orders for battleships. Later, during World War I, he persuaded the British government, especially the British Minister Sir John Jordan (the one found dining alone in the temple), that he could purchase 150,000 rifles in China that Lord Kitchener badly needed on the Western front. His record as a British secret agent, claiming to penetrate the 'Great Within' of the imperial court, reminds one of the character created by Viktor Segalen in his novel René Leys.

Segalen began studying Chinese in 1908 after travels with the French navy to Africa and Tahiti and arrived just in time to witness the last days of the Qing dynasty. He became gripped by an obsessive desire to penetrate the interior of the 'purple-walled Forbidden City', and recorded his feelings in a journal that became a haunting novel, René Leys. The novel begins when the narrator hires as his Chinese language tutor a young Belgian in his late teens by the name of René Leys, who is 'the dutiful son of an excellent grocer of the Legation Quarter'. Despite his tender age, René is an accomplished linguist and already holds a post at the Imperial College of Notables. René fascinates the narrator with his tales of undercover life as a confidant of the Emperor and active member of the palace secret police. René hints that he is even conducting an illicit affair with the Emperor Guangxu's wife. The narrator is wildly excited by this chance to penetrate the Forbidden City but, as we read on, the tales become ever more fantastic. The reader starts to wonder if René Leys might not be making it all up or playing a part in his own fantasy. In the end the pretence kills René and the reader discovers that indeed he has acted out a life in order to satisfy the narrator's lust for an exotic reality that never existed.

In his fragmentary work An Essay on Exoticism, written in 1923, Segalen tries to answer what it is about ourselves that makes the exotic 'other' so compelling. Segalen argues that we are driven to find an elsewhere uncontaminated by industrial capitalism and free from the homogenising world of mass-production and standardization. For Segalen, a culture driven by mass production and consumption is the enemy of the 'mysterious within, the mysterious, which is the quivering approach, the extraordinary scent of Diversity'. And he believed that: 'It is through Difference and in Diversity that existence is made glorious.'

As Sir Edmund Backhouse discovered to his profit, Westerners preferred the fantasy China to the real one. He began collecting Chinese manuscripts, some of which he gifted to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, but found his time was better spent creating fake ones. Backhouse produced a succession of secret diaries that purported to offer the readers a key to understanding the baffling failure of the Manchu court to destroy the foreigners during the siege. The first was The Diary of His Excellency Ching-san, a relative of Yehonola, the Empress Dowager, who served as an Assistant Secretary of the Imperial Household. This Ching-san allegedly died at the hands of his own son, who pushed him down a well in his own courtyard as the panicked Empress Dowager fled the city in 1900.

Backhouse says he found the document when he moved into the vacant courtyard house, although it took him nine years to produce it. The diary formed the basis of an influential book, China Under the Empress Dowager, co-written with a colleague of Morrison's, the British journalist J.O.P Bland in 1910. It not only explained all the intrigues at the court but portrayed it as 'a private theatre of extravagant debauchery and recondite pleasure'. The book became the basis for almost all serious works subsequently written about the period. As Daniele Vare typically observed: 'even if it was a forgery, one could not deny that it was still a great work of art'. As time went on, Backhouse, like René Leys, could not resist writing stories so fantastic that it is hard to believe anyone took them seriously. He spiced up the stories with descriptions of his own torrid love affair with Yehonola and details the perverted sex enjoyed by her eunuchs and the debauchery of the Manchu aristocrats in the high-class homosexual brothels.

Yehonola's faithful eunuch, Li Lianying, emerges as a diabolically clever and malevolent eminence grise. In his books, Backhouse plants the notion that there was a secret pro-Western faction in the court led by Rong Lu, her foremost adviser, and that he was trying to protect the foreigners. Sir Edmund later helped write another volume, Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking, based on another diary and reports from archives of the Grand Council. This great 'discovery', never actually produced, was the diary Li Lianying kept during his 40 years of service as Yehonola's chief factotum. Backhouse it came from the eunuch's great-nephew.

Tags: book, Jasper Becker


A couple of more thoughts on the China reading--I was just revisiting Spence's The Chan's great continent––he discusses in the last chapter, "Genius at play" (226)–
"The three most aesthetically most perfect fictions about China--Kafka's "the Great Wall," Borges's "The Garden of Forking Paths," and Calvino's Invisible Cities--were all written in the twentieth century….Each was a prolific, hardworking, and supremely gifted writer who played with China briefly in his works, though knowing little about the country or its people. Each of the three chose an aspect of China that was of genuine importance in Chinese history: Kafka the question of authority, Borges the question of origins, and Calvino the question of the observed observer. Each wrote of China without pretension, yet with precision and economy, eschewing the erotic and the sensationalist, creating a purely fabricated whole of astonishing verisimilitude that can sustain endless rereadings."
I was thinking of using these plus a Davenport selection with our staff. I have read and enjoyed the Kafka piece. The Borges selection can be found in Ficciones or Labyrinths. I have not read this yet but Ficciones is a new book that has just been received in the library. I read a sample of it from google books. Dammit, but his opening put me into a geeky tailspin a bit like the one described here--on p.55+
Detecting texts By Patricia Merivale, Susan Elizabeth Sweeney
I also have not read the Calvino novel, and I would be interested in doing so. [And BTW, unfortunately none of these pieces are available through audible, ebooks (ereader or kindle)]
Currently I am smitten with Guy Davenport, and it has been wonderful to have some summer time to read at him. It takes a great deal of work for me to get through his pieces. An easier read and one relating to China is "The Richard Nixon Freischütz rag" from Da Vinci's Bicycle. Davenport is known for an assemblage style, and I enjoy trying to figure out how the pieces are linked. How does Da Vinci, Salai Jacopo, Nixon, Kissinger, Mao, G. Stein and A. Toklas relate to each other? Not only that but it's the rich cultural and political images that are also included--Freischütz, ragtime, Assissi, Cathay, Columbus, McKinley, Sassetta, Metternich....
I read this again--this is a must read, or listen, especially since Tianjin is mentioned;
Grace Paley, Fiction, “Somewhere Else,” The New Yorker, October 23, 1978, p. 34 
I have access to the print copy also

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