The People’s War

John B. Thompson reviews China at War by Hans van de Ven

Novelist Lao She watched Chongqing, China’s provisional capital during World War II, burn after a Japanese firebombing on May 4, 1939. “This is ‘May Fourth’!” he wrote, recalling the political and cultural movement to revive Chinese nationalism which started on that same date in 1919. “We will not accept this menace, this fire and blood! We will spill our hearts to struggle for and win rebirth for all of China!”

At the time, many Chinese argued that the War of Resistance Against Japan would win a new life for China, fractured by civil war and colonialism since the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911. What kind of nation was to be reborn was not clear. As Hans van de Ven emphasizes in China at War: Triumph and Tragedy in the Emergence of the New China, “China was at war not just with Japan but also with itself” in a protracted struggle for China’s future between the sovereign Nationalist Party and their Communist rivals.


Redeeming Empress Gi

The Korean woman who once ruled China – Joan MacDonald

In the year 1331, the 16-year-old girl who would one day become Empress Gi arrived in the Yuan capital of Khanbaliq (present-day Beijing) among hundreds of young men and women sent as human tributes from Korea. She was offered to the royal court along with flocks of hunting falcons, quantities of ginseng, hanji paper, and baskets of silver and gold ingots.

It’s hard to imagine that she was happy to leave her homeland for an uncertain future, but the well-educated, resilient Lady Gi was determined to survive. She eventually became the first  Korean empress of the Yuan Dynasty and effectively came to rule the 60 million inhabitants of Mongol-controlled China in that dynasty’s waning years.

Yet many of Gi’s accomplishments were ignored because her history was written by those who defeated her. She was labelled a traitor in Korea and demeaned as a corrupting influence by Ming Dynasty historians. When her life was dramatized in the Korean television series Empress Ki, viewers criticized the portrayal as too sympathetic. Historians who came to her defense suggested that her alleged treason might more accurately be viewed as the fulfillment of filial duty. It’s time to rethink the role history assigned her.

Little Red Podcast

Shaken But Not Stirred

The Chinese State and the Sichuan Earthquake – Louisa Lim

A single word defined state media coverage of the tenth anniversary of the massive Wenchuan quake that left 88,000 people dead or missing: Thanksgiving. With a complete lack of irony, the state news agency declared the anniversary to be Thanksgiving Day, with exhortations to “let the gushing springs of love flow without end,” even as the parents of children killed in the collapsed ruins of their shoddily constructed schools were forbidden from raising tombstones to remember their loved ones.



The Shanghai Mind

Arthur Ransome and the Origin of the Shanghai Mind – Paul French

People have long talked about Shanghai being different from the rest of China. Beijing scholars in the 1920s coined the term haipai (Shanghai style) to criticize Shanghai’s self-obsessive modernity. Shanghai was a “bubble,” “a bastard child,” somehow not fully China.

It is true that Shanghai’s history is distinctly different to that of other Chinese cities. It was not a Crown Colony, a Dominion, a Commonwealth, a Raj or a Federated State, but Shanghai was that other product of British imperialism – a Treaty Port. From 1842 until 1941, Shanghai was one of initially five settlements forced from China after the First Opium War (1839-1842) and based on the notion of extraterritoriality, which meant that foreigners were exempted from the jurisdiction of local Chinese law.

Chinese Corner

Radical Characters

The real building blocks of the Chinese writing system – John Renfroe

If you’re learning to write in Chinese, you’ve probably been advised to learn the 214 standard “radicals,” those alleged “building blocks” of the character system. Perhaps you’ve tried to discern the meaning of an unfamiliar character through dissection, prying the “roof” 宀 off the “house” 家 to see what’s inside. Perhaps you haven’t gotten very far.

There’s a reason for your frustration: what you’ve been taught is all wrong.