Is poetry a potent enough protest to move the political needle? In other cultures—the Middle East comes to mind—poetry is fundamental. In a recent article in the BBC, somewhat controversially entitled “Why I became a jihadist poetry critic”, Elisabeth Kendall is quoted as “Anybody who’s spent time in the Middle East knows how important poetry is. Any tin-pot taxi driver in Cairo can recite poetry.” But in English, or in East Asia?
A little before John Donne and George Herbert penned their devotional poetry in the sixteenth century, a couple of bhakti (devotional) or sant (saint) poets in India began to write about the glory of God and the sentiment of devotion. Surdas, Tulsidas, Mirabai and Kabir are among the medieval saint poets becoming increasingly well-known outside their native India. However, with the exception of Tulsidas whose Ramcharitmanas is known to the West as the Bible of North India and has been translated several times in English, it can be difficult to separate the historical, authorial personalities from the interpolations by later poets who continued to compose in a similar vein.
Pakistan was once prime territory for Western travel writers. It offered an attractive combination of subcontinental color and Central Asian romance, plus a lively history and a hospitable population speaking excellent English. Geoffrey Moorhouse, Dervla Murphy and Wilfred Thesiger passed this way, among many others. In The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux even pondered the attractions of Peshawar as a place of retirement.
Climate change is normally seen as a global threat, yet melting ice in the Arctic and Antarctic regions for better or worse opens new passageways for shipping and access to tremendous natural resources. It is not just those who border these regions that are taking notice. China has announced to the world that it too will be a polar power.
While it may be true, as writes Robert Sutter in the introduction to National Bureau of Asian Research’s excellent report “Russia-China Relations”, that “The United States has a long experience in assessing the twists and turns of the relationship between Russia and China and what it means for US interests”, most casual (Western-oriented) observers are probably more likely to see international relations as a hub-and-spoke system with the US at the center, rather that the mesh network it actually is.
Eka Kurniawan is the Quentin Tarantino of Indonesian literature: a brash wunderkind, delivering gleeful references to pulp fiction, lashings of stylized violence, and an array of characters and scenarios that far surpass the tropes and clichés which inspire them. But as with Quentin Tarantino, one might occasionally wonder just how much substance lies beneath the indisputably stylish surface.
When the British ambassador, Lord Macartney, presented himself before the Chinese emperor Qianlong in 1793, he exhibited, along with his Chinese hosts, the classic “disconnect” between the two cultures which Michael Keevak discusses in his excellent study of embassies to China. “Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance,” Qianlong told Macartney, “therefore there is no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own products.”