Hidden History

Belt and Whip

Did Zheng He always come in peace? – Jeremiah Jenne

In 1911, S.H. Thomlin, an engineer working in Galle along the southwestern coast of Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, found a stone tablet lying in a culvert. The old stele was a strange document, inscribed in three languages – Persian, Chinese and Tamil – praising and giving thanks to Allah, the Buddha, and the Hindu god Tenavarai-Nayanar. Lost for centuries, this trilingual inscription was a relic from a long-ago visit to Sri Lanka by the great Chinese admiral Zheng He (1371-1433).

Hidden History

Lady Chatterley Must Go!

The censorship of a classic in 1940s Shanghai – Paul French

In September 1940, the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) launched a concerted campaign to ensure that no English-language books deemed “salacious” or “unfit for public sale” should be available in the territory of the International Settlement. The campaign began by seizing several copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover available in foreign and locally operated bookstores. With the Japanese encirclement of the foreign concessions of Shanghai complete, relations between the International Settlement – often termed the “solitary island” (gudao) – and the Japanese military were at an all-time low. It was the brink of all-out, total war.

Hidden History

The Rite Stuff

How a Christian missionary fell foul of the Chinese Emperor – Jeremiah Jenne

Every expat living in China has bad China days, but surely none of them could compare to that of French missionary Charles Maigrot, when arguably the most powerful emperor in Chinese history openly mocked his bad Chinese in front of the entire court.

Charles Maigrot (1655-1730) was a 20-year veteran of missionary work in China on behalf of the Missions Etrangères de Paris. In the summer of 1706, Maigrot traveled to Chengde, the vacation home of the Kangxi Emperor, at the invitation of the Vatican’s new representative in China, Charles-Thomas Maillard de Tournon, also a Frenchman. It was Maigrot’s unfortunate assignment to assist Tournon in relaying a Papal decree, which set the emperor straight over just who had the final say when it came to China’s growing number of Christian converts. This meeting would set up the ultimate cosmological steel-cage match: the Son of Heaven vs. the Supreme Pontiff.

Hidden History

The Playwright Purged after Writing China’s National Anthem

Jeremiah Jenne on Tian Han's literary rise and fall

A few meters into one of the less attractive hutongs of Beijing – down the lane from a cheap neighborhood bathhouse, and a boutique coffee shop featuring cold-pressed cruelty-free beans – is a squat grey courtyard that was once home to playwright and author Tian Han (1898-1968), who penned the lyrics to the Chinese national anthem.

A native of Hunan and the scion of an elite family struggling to maintain appearances in a time of declining empire, Tian Han became one of the most influential writers of the post-imperial, Republican era. His work combined a life-long love of Chinese opera with a passion for film and new forms of theatrical expression aroused during a sojourn as a student in Japan between 1916 and 1922. By the 1930s, already an established author known for his radical politics and semi-secretly a member of the Chinese Communist Party, Tian Han tried his hand at writing screenplays.