Reviews

Word War

Rana Mitter reviews a revisionist new book and TV series on China’s WWII

The 75th anniversary of the end of World War II has fallen in 2020 – on May 8 in Europe after the German surrender, and September 2 in Asia with the surrender of Japan. Yet, in China as in the rest of the world, the coronavirus pandemic meant a muted commemoration. Five years ago, Beijing pulled out all the stops with a huge parade in Tiananmen Square commemorating the Chinese role in the Allied victory. This year, television documentaries and a speech by Xi Jinping on 3 September had to fill the gap.

One element that has not changed much in the past five years, however, is the continuing near-invisibility of China’s wartime experience in the global narrative of the conflict. Evident also is the macho way that the conflict is portrayed on Chinese film and television screens, as in Hu Guan’s thrilling but unsubtle blockbuster movie The Eight Hundred, and the hit television spy thriller Cicada of Autumn. In these productions, Chinese soldiers fire bravely at the Japanese in a doomed defence of a Shanghai warehouse, Hong Kong youths in 1941 prove more amenable to nationalistic feeling than their 2020 successors, and jingoistic gore flows aplenty.

 

Reviews

China’s Good War

Jonathan Chatwin reviews China’s Good War by Rana Mitter

By the time Britain’s full Covid lockdown began on March 23 2020, the country’s right-wing press had already spent a week suggesting that this contemporary moment would require the same mythical tenacity that had seen the country through the Second World War. On the 16 March, in a reference doubtless pleasing to a Prime Minister who has written a book on Churchill, a headline in the Daily Mail asked ‘Can Boris Johnson conjure up the spirit of the Blitz?’. Two days later, a comment piece in The Sun, a Murdoch-owned tabloid known for its populist nationalism, instructed the nation: ‘We’re fighting World War V so summon that Blitz spirit and take care of the vulnerable during the coronavirus crisis.’ (V stood for Virus, rather than the Roman numeral for five, the article helpfully explained.)

This contemporary invocation of a war that ended 75 years ago demonstrates something pertinent to Rana Mitter’s new book, China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism. Namely: the powerful, and often politically useful, ways in which stories of war – WWII in particular – can be invoked in the present to provide foundational narratives for nations, political parties and social groups.

 

Reviews

Dialect Adventures

Colin Jones reviews Dialect and Nationalism in China: 1860-1960 by Gina Anne Tam

In 1961, Yuen Ren Chao sat down in Berkeley to answer a question: ‘What is correct Chinese?’ Chao – one of China’s first and most brilliant scholars of modern linguistics – had grown up in Jiangsu in the 1890s; his first words were spoken in the idiom of the communities linked by the waterways of the Grand Canal. In the course of his education, he learned Mandarin, the official language of the Qing court. He also mastered the conventions of the classical writing style. This not only connected him to a literary tradition that stretched back into antiquity, it also gave him a shared language with the scholastic elite across the empire. The speech they used in daily life differed tremendously depending on the region, but as Chao recalled, “every literate person had to write the correct characters, form the right sentences in the classical language, and pronounce in their reading according to the tradition.” If their pronunciations sounded nothing alike, that was a small matter: “The actual sounds were beneath the concern of most literary scholars.”

 

Reviews

Do No Harm

Christopher Magoon reviews Classical Chinese Medicine by Liu Lihong 

As anyone who has lived there can attest, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) remains a force in modern China. Call in sick and hear blame from your colleagues for drinking cold water. Find yourself with a stomach ache and prepare for wrinkly herbs from eager good Samaritans. The Chinese government is also bolstering TCM: pouring money into Chinese medicine centers, censoring critical articles, even jailing skeptics.

In China, modern medicine and TCM coexist mostly peacefully. Nearly every public hospital I’ve visited in China – big and small, urban and rural – has a TCM ward, nestled between the floors of modern services such as neurology, surgery and pediatrics. Most patients in China shift back and forth between traditional and modern medicine, with a seemingly intuitive understanding of the strengths and limitations of each. For chronic pain or fatigue, they lean on TCM; when they need an appendix out, they see a modern surgeon.

As an American physician who has spent significant time in China, I have been curious about the workings of TCM.  So I was glad to see that Liu Lihong’s best selling work Classical Chinese Medicine (思考中医) had been translated into English, published last summer. I was excited to dive into a TCM’s philosophy, evidence and theory, designed for the modern reader. Or as the book jacket sells it, “concrete and inspiring guidance on how to effectively engage with ancient texts and designs in the postmodern age.” What I found, unfortunately, was a slipshod polemic woven through a tedious overview of a two thousand year old textbook.

Reviews

A Map of Shanghai’s Neglected Crannies

Kevin McGeary reviews a new story collection, The Book of Shanghai

In 2019, the Globe and Mail published an op-ed titled ‘Welcome to Shanghai: Capital of the Future.’ In it, the author describes his experience of visiting the city as like “walking through the looking glass into the future.” Citing the city’s “muscular” building strategy, colossal scale, citizens’ entrepreneurial energy, and (of course) China’s ancient history, much of the article would not have been out of place in The Global Times. While he says London and New York are “the world’s current leading cities,” some of his arguments as to why Shanghai is primed to overtake them are strong.

Yet fiction leaves more room for exploring the conflict between how a city sees itself and how the world sees it. At its best, literature can capture both the appealing and the abhorrent aspects of a particular time and place. As editor Jin Li mentions in his introduction to a new collection of fiction based in the city, The Book of Shanghai, unlike Beijing, Xi’an or nearby Hangzhou, Shanghai did not become a major city until after the first Opium War when the colonial powers used it as a port. From its hey-day in the 1920s, Shanghai was an important hub through which an ancient culture entered the modern world.