In an age of microchips, information and cyber warfare, precision-guided ballistic missiles, satellite communications, advanced robotics and artificial intelligence, does a book about the historical struggles between insular sea powers and continental land powers have any relevance? Is there any practical benefit—other than an interest in history—to read about how the Athenians, Carthaginians, Venetians, Dutch, and British constructed and utilized sea power? Does the sea or land-oriented “culture” of a country really matter in 21st century geopolitics?
One of the sloppier—and disturbingly frequent—critical lapses on either end of the ideological spectrum is to confuse modernization with Westernization. Some 20 years ago, Leo Ou-fan Lee’s Shanghai Modern sweepingly linked Eileen Chang’s novels, Ruan Lingyu’s films, jazz music in the dance halls, and graphic design in advertising and popular magazines not as local knock-offs of Paris and New York but rather a distinctly cohesive expression of an unprecedented cosmopolitan Chinese sensibility.
Although today Samsung stands astride the global consumer electronics markets, as well as some others, it was not all that long ago that the idea that a Korean company could deploy a brand with global reach and dominance would have seemed unlikely, except perhaps among regional experts (or partisans).
The amount of ink spilled on the 12th-century temple complex Angkor Wat might not fill Tonlé Sap Lake, but it sometimes feels like it might. This Khmer Empire monument dedicated to Vishnu is a UNESCO world cultural site, a global must-see on tourists’ bucket lists—and is the only archaeological monument featured on a national flag. Yet Michael Falser still finds a lot to say.
I have sat through dozens of Chinese toasting banquets, raised glasses with Communist Party officials and even—God help me—gone shot-for-shot with soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army. So I can hold my baijiu. If you want to know if I enjoy it, that’s another matter entirely.
In the 19th century, long before Barack Obama’s election as the President of the United States in the face of jokes about the possibility of a black man living in the White House, the British mocked another “black man” who dared to stand in elections to be elected to the House of Commons in England. Dinyar Patel’s Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism is a biography of that “black man”. Straightforward in style, and well-detailed in approaches to a life as it intersected with multiple, complex movements, places, ideologies, Naoroji addresses the vacuum in the pre-Gandhian political history of modern India. It is a much-needed intervention in acknowledgment of the contribution of Indian freedom fighters before there were Indian freedom fighters.
We first learn to swim in the womb, Bonnie Tsui writes, and while “not everyone is a swimmer … everyone has a swimming story to tell.”