Helen Zia’s mother fled Shanghai just before the Communists took control of the city in 1949, but Zia wasn’t aware of her mother’s perilous departure until she was an adult. Roughly a million people from Shanghai became refugees in the late 1940s. While it has hardly been forgotten, the People’s Republic has never recognized this mass exodus and only a few Chinese-language books about it have been published out of Taiwan. Zia’s new book, Last Boat Out of Shanghai, in which she selects four narratives to tell in detail, seems to be the first volume, at least for the general reader, ever dedicated to these events.
Pity poor Jahangir, sandwiched between his father Akbar I “the Great” and his son Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal. No wonder he often gets lost in history, and, if not quite lost, dismissed as an occasionally cruel, always pleasure-loving drunkard who was led around by his wife Nurjahan and whose accomplishments, such as they were, pale in comparison with those of his father and son.
Writing the truth to power is difficult, courageous, and uncertain in its effect. The importance of the late Gao Hua’s How the Red Sun Rose is evidenced by the fact that it is banned in China despite having been first published in Chinese in Hong Kong in 2000 and reprinted twenty-odd times. The book is, as Joseph Esherick notes in the Forward, “widely known, broadly respected, and officially proscribed.”
There’s a song by the Rolling Stones which has the words “Time, time, time is on my side, yes, it is,” and which we might imagine being merrily hummed by Seleucus I in 305 BCE as he instituted a new system of dating which made him, in effect, the ruler over time itself. In future, Seleucus decreed, time would not stop when one sovereign died and restart when his successor ascended the throne. Instead, time would be continuous, durational, move progressively forward and not be reversible.
Deborah Baker opens The Last Englishmen with the admission that she was looking for a new way to write about WW2 India when she came across the papers of John Bicknell Auden, the older brother of the well-known British poet, WH Auden. In her explorations, she found another brother of another poet—Michael Spender. The fortuitous connections lead her to yet another man, this time no brother, but a poet himself, Louis MacNeice. The result is a book that is a detailed account of who was having an affair with whom, especially one Nancy Sharp, a painter, and when, and who climbed which mountain peak and when, and discovered what. The book is three books in one: loving, mountaineering, and Baker’s original ambition to write a book about India.
Academic integrity sometimes requires revising theoretical perspectives as a situation changes and new evidence comes to light. Mobo Gao, a professor of Asian Studies at the University of Adelaide, finds himself in that position. In 1998 he wrote Gao Village, an anthropological study of life in a very poor Chinese village during the latter half of the 20th century. He was thoroughly qualified to do so, because he was born and raised there in abject poverty. He frankly recounts how qualifying for a university education from such a background, in addition to intellectual gifts, required a combination of luck, guanxi and a bit of cheating.
Travel-writing can sometimes seem like a genre stuck in the past. Writers are forever setting out in the “footsteps” of more illustrious predecessors, or embarking on journeys focused on the history of person, place or thing. According to some scholarly critiques, this tendency is symptomatic of travel-writing’s fundamental “belatedness”. It is, the argument goes, a genre ill at ease in the modern, globalized, postcolonial world; the figure of the travel-writer is fundamentally anachronistic. As far as critical scholars are concerned, it is in its attempts to overcome this belatedness that travel writing is sometimes guilty of echoing—unconsciously or otherwise—a colonial attitude. There is the endless quest for the “authentic” and “unchanged” in an effort to fix the places described in an exotic past; or alternatively, there is a melancholy nostalgia and a frantic hunt for the last traces of “tradition” before the shopping malls take over.