Review

End of Empire

Emily Walz reviews Imperial Twilight by Stephen R. Platt

The outlines of the Opium War are familiar to many: from centuries ago, the Chinese had tea. The British, with their superior navy, wanted to trade opium for it. The meeting of these two sides brought about a literal trade war in the 1830s, forcing a treaty from China that allowed the opium trade to flourish and allowed foreigners to live in port cities like Shanghai. This series of events beget the reluctant “opening” of China, and set a pattern in which foreign powers would use violence to wrest concessions from China. Historian Stephen R. Platt’s newest work, Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, is the story of how Britain came to believe it could “demand peace by force of arms,” as read the inscription on one medal designed to commemorate what would become the first of two so-called Opium Wars.

Essay

Elixirs of Nature

How Chinese medicine uses the potency of herbs – Dustin Grinnell

In 221 BC, Qin Shi Huang became the first emperor of China after conquering the warring states and unifying an immense territory. A leader of colossal vision, Qin oversaw the building of the Great Wall, constructed a national road system and standardized China’s currency. To protect him in the afterlife, the emperor spent almost forty years building a mausoleum in his imperial city of Chang’an in central China, guarded by the Terracotta army.

Obsessed with immortality, Qin commissioned alchemists to scour the country in search of an “elixir of life,” a concoction that would cure all diseases and stave off death. These alchemists brought back plants, minerals, animals, insects and metals from every corner of China. After repeatedly ingesting small silver balls of mercury, a highly poisonous metal, the emperor grew increasingly ill. On a tour of eastern China, he died of mercury poisoning, killed by the very elixir he had hoped would grant him eternal life.

Q&A

Anglophone Asian Poetics

Tammy Lai-Ming Ho and Jason Eng Hun Lee interview Nicholas Wong

 

How many years have you been writing poetry?

The first poem was written when I was in my third year at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), when Professor Shirley Geok-lin Lim was teaching Creative Writing there. But serious creative writing only began in 2010, when I officially started my MFA at City University of Hong Kong.

Do you remember what inspired you to write your first poems?

It’s my sexuality, but I didn’t see it as a source of inspiration. I had to write something, because there was an assignment to be done.

Borderlands

Modernity with Yi Characteristics

Adapting traditions in 21st century China – Stevan Harrell

The Sani people, an Yi group who live in the hills east of Kunming, have faced the puzzle of modernity longer than most. Many were part of a utopian Catholic experiment started by Père Paul Vial in 1887. Vial wanted them to be modern, educated and Catholic, while still being Sani. He built churches, translated scripture into Sani, published a Sani-French dictionary and purchased land for agricultural improvement projects. He also fought fiercely for Sani autonomy and against what he saw as their oppression by Han Chinese landlords and officials. About a third of the Sani population became Catholic by the time Vial died in 1917, and many remain Catholic to this day.

Chinese Corner

One Language, Two Systems

Traditional vs. simplified characters – Ash Henson

As if learning to write Chinese characters isn’t enough of a headache already, there are two character systems in common use in the Sinosphere. “Traditional” characters, also known as “complex” characters, have been in continuous use for 1,500 years, and are the standard in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and many diaspora communities. “Simplified” characters are the result of script reforms made in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) primarily in the 1950s and 1960s, and are also used in Singapore. It's an emotional topic for a lot of native speakers, not to mention a source of great strife for students of Mandarin. There’s something offensive for everyone.