“Greatest novelist.” I’ve never been much of a fan of someone being dubbed the “greatest” anything, as it assumes there can never have been anyone better and perhaps never will be.
The word sensei in Japanese literally means “one who came before,” but that’s not what Janet Pocorobba’s teacher wanted to be called. She used her first name, Western-style. She wore a velour Beatles cap and leather jacket, and she taught foreigners, in English, the three-stringed shamisen, an instrument that fell out of tune as soon as you started to play it. Vexed by the music and Sensei’s mission to upend an elite musical system, Pocorobba, on the cusp of thirty, gives up her return ticket home to become a lifelong student of her teacher. She is eventually featured in Japan Cosmo as one of the most accomplished gaijin, “outside people”, to play the instrument.
If it hadn’t been for Ezra Pound and a 20th-century literature course at university, I would never have heard of Li Bai, and even then I thought his name was Rihaku, because in 1915 Pound, who knew absolutely no Chinese at all, published a number of “translated” poems by Rihaku in a collection entitled Cathay.
The author and journalist Xinran has written a number of non-fiction books about women in contemporary China, but in her latest book she goes back in time to examine the changes in love and marriage since the Republican era. Much has been written about political, social, and economic changes in China since before the 1949, but few authors apart from Lynn Pan—who explored the common notion that love originated in the West before it arrived in China—have taken an intimate look the Chinese women’s private lives spanning four generations.
Of the many books about the Cultural Revolution, this memoir by financier Weijian Shan might be one of the most detailed accounts. Out of the Gobi focuses on the author’s harsh years as a “sent-down” youth in a work camp in the Gobi desert, as well as how he eventually makes it out and goes to study in the United States.
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.