The Korean War “ended” exactly fifty years ago at Panmunjom. On July 27, 1953, United States and United Nations commanders on one side, and the North Koreans and Chinese commanders on the other, agreed to an immediate cessation of hostilities. Most histories of the Korean War stop there.
It’s amazing that art historians like Robert Hillenbrand got to study the “Great Mongol Shahnama” at all. 500 pages of Firahdosi’s epic poem, with 300 illustrations, in a manuscript whose leaves are as wide as an ordinary person’s arms. Never completed, never bound, smuggled out of Iran by corrupt dignitaries, and separated and padded out by an unsavory Belgian art dealer.
As a member of the US National Security Council, Victor Cha flew over the DMZ separating North and South Korea in 2007, following negotiations with Pyongyang. He writes in Korea: A New History of South and North (Yale University Press, 2023)—his latest book with co-author, and previous podcast guest, Ramon Pacheco Pardo—about how he was struck by the environment on both sides of the border. The north had barren fields, no cars, and windowless homes; the south, gleaming skyscrapers in the global city of Seoul.
Regnum Chinae: The Printed Western Maps of China to 1735 does something that no one has ever done before: collect just about every Western printed map of China, from 1584 up until Jean-Baptiste d’Anville’s landmark map in 1735. Marco Caboara, along with his fellow researchers, worked tirelessly to catalog and track down these many different documents, and tells the stories behind each one: “stories marked by scholarly breakthroughs, obsession, missionary zeal, commercial sagacity, and greed”.
Dear Chrysanthemums: A Novel in Stories jumps from character to character, location to location, time period to time period. Two cooks working for Madame Chiang-Kai Shek. A dancer, exiled to Shanghai’s Wukang Mansion. Three women, gathering in a French cathedral, finding strength in each other decades after the protests in Tiananmen.
On a trip many years ago to New Delhi, I was struck by an official memorial to Subhas Chandra Bose, the wartime leader of the Indian National Army, the Japan-affiliated force of Indians who fought against the British during the Second World War. India, of course, has a more complex view of the fight against Japan than other countries involved in the War—with these soldiers being contentious, debated and, at times, celebrated.
Opium is an awkward commodity. For the West, it’s a reminder of some of the shadier and best forgotten parts of its history. For China (and a few other countries), it’s a symbol of national humiliation, left to the past–unless it needs to shame a foreign country. But the opium trade survived for decades, through to the end of the Second World War. How did that trade actually work? How was it possible to trade a good that was, at best, tolerated in the strange gap between legal and illegal. This trade is what Peter Thilly covers in his book The Opium Business: A History of Crime and Capitalism in Maritime China.