In 1865, the eminent American journalist and abolitionist Frederick Douglass delivered a lecture called “Pictures and Progress”, in which he discussed the role of photography in exposing the evils of racism and slavery. Referring to Louis Daguerre, he pointed out that “men of all conditions and classes can now see themselves as others see them, and as they will be seen by those who come after them,” and that “man is the only picture-making animal in the world. He alone of all the inhabitants of earth has the capacity and passion for pictures.”

In a 1975 review of Marius Jansen’s Japan and China: From War to Peace, 1894-1972, Chalmers Johnson wrote, “One of the long-standing defects of Western scholarship on eastern Asia is its compartmentalization. China and Japan are usually studied in isolation from each other.” An accomplished scholar of both countries’ histories by then, Johnson knew of what he spoke, and praised Jansen’s exception to the academic rule. Were he still alive and reviewing, Johnson would surely similarly praise China and Japan: Facing History, the most recent work by another eminent scholar of east Asia, the soon-to-be-90 Ezra Vogel.

The global rivalry between China and the United States dominates the geopolitics of the 21st century. The world’s two largest economies armed with an impressive array of military capabilities are engaged in a struggle for power in the Asia-Pacific region, and the outcome of that struggle will determine the 21st century’s world order.

Very few people (other than Anthony Janson in his monumental History of Art, published in 1968) would attempt to write a history of an entire country’s art, and even fewer could do it in one volume and cover a period from 15,000 BCE right up to the present day. Professor Tsuji does this for Japanese art with ease, elegance, humor and consummate erudition in an attractive volume printed on first-class paper and packed with quality color and black-and-white illustrations. What’s more, it isn’t a large format coffee-table book like Janson’s, which means a reader can actually curl up on a chair and read it quite comfortably. As Tsuji says, though, “to survey the vast sweep of Japanese art history was a great challenge and a daunting task;” but we are lucky that he also tells us “not only did no such book exist, but I needed one myself!”

Earnshaw Books, an independent publisher specializing in China matters, has recently issued two books featuring westerners sojourning in China over a period of a century and a half. Frances Wood, a respected scholar of Chinese history, presents the account of Aeneas Anderson, who served as a valet to Lord Macartney when the latter led an embassy to the court of the Qianlong emperor (1792) and Graham Earnshaw introduces a book of photographs taken by Isabella Bird on her travels through China in 1898.

In Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s 1733 comic opera La Serva Padrona (“The Maid Made Mistress”), a maid sets her sights on her boss, and through a combination of flirtatious behavior and well-meant duplicity, convinces him that he has really loved her all along. The work is small and intimate with a deceptive simplicity that belies the sophistication of the music, allowing a fusion between comic theatre and comic opera.