It is a sultry early Autumn day in the central province of Hunan in China, half a century ago in 1967. In a small cluster of villages, remote from the main political centre in Beijing, life revolves around farming, tending animals, just making a basic living. But for a couple of weeks, from around the 20th of August, the market places, and the areas by the rivers and fields, are the scenes of a new kind of activity—the brutal slaughter by neighbors, relatives and friends of people from within their communities. The spate of daylight murder ends as abruptly as it had begun.
It is hard to exaggerate the force of Chinese journalist Tan Hecheng’s The Killing Wind. Tan, eerily, had visited the township of Daoxian—the focus of his study—only a few weeks after the murders had happened. As a young “sent down youth” then, in the early period of the Cultural Revolution, he had come to this area with a friend.
From the gangplank of a pre-war steamship to the present, via the jazz underground of 1960s London, Hannah Lowe’s rewarding second collection revels in the company of an unlikely crew of voices and personalities. Chan takes its name from the poet’s father (nicknamed, in turn, after the Polish card magician Chan Canasta) but does not shy away from the older resonances of the word, tracing these back into her Hakka heritage and the journeys of a global diaspora. Along the way, the poems investigate lives that intersect with Lowe’s personal history, no matter how brief the acquaintance: from the magnetic jazz saxophonist Joe Harriott, her father’s first cousin, to the travellers and stowaways who join Gilbert Lowe on the SS Ormonde in 1947 as it sails from Kingston to Liverpool.
In 1946, John Hersey published the first account of the horrors that awaited those unlucky enough to survive the bomb in his short Hiroshima. Seventy years on, Susan Southard has done the same for Nagasaki. She interleaves the nightmares visited on five young victims (hibakusha) within the broader context of Japanese totalitarianism, the decision to drop the bomb, Washington’s censorship and denial of its after effects, the fight against discrimination and for medical aid for the hibakusha, and finally their campaign to abolish nuclear weapons.
Guo Xiaolu has always been a writer who has worn both her heart and her integrity on her sleeve, whether tearing pages from her own life for her novels, experimenting publically with form or writing in what is for her an entirely foreign language (something which is the cause for astonishment when an English-language writer even attempts it). So it is hardly a surprise that her recent memoir, Once Upon a Time in the East: A story of growing up, is by turn raw, intelligent, compelling, sad, uncompromising and reticent.
Richard Kirkby’s China memoir Intruder in Mao’s Realm has a hint of the nineteenth century about it: frank and scrupulous in recording quotidian detail, it is a refreshingly unrefined book, in the manner of those accounts returned by Victorian missionaries and travellers after visits to unknown lands.
Apart from on the Peninsula itself and in the vernacular, the Korean War is framed by a chronology between June 1950 and July 1953. Su-kyoung Hwang’s Korea’s Grievous War challenges that common perception by pushing its opening salvos back to shortly after the Peninsula’s liberation from Japanese colonial occupation in August 1945.
Jack Weatherford has a clutch of informed, and impassioned, books on the Mongols to his credit. In Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, he argued that the Mongols were the precursors of modern economic globalization:
The Mongols displayed a devoutly and persistently internationalist zeal in their political, economic, and intellectual endeavors. They sought not merely to conquer the world but to institute a global order based on free trade, a single international law, and a universal alphabet.
He credits them with universal paper money, primary school education and a unified calendar.