The first thing you need to recognize when you are reading an English translation of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is that you are dealing with what former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called “known unknowns”. Scholars are not certain about when the book was written (estimates range between 770 BCE and 221 BCE), whether it was written by one or several authors, and what motivated the author(s) to write the book.

It’s a well-worn assertion, even a cliché, that art and spirituality are inextricably linked. A concrete representation of the subject for religious meditation is, we could say, a visible aid to devotion: not so much the object itself, but what it symbolizes, which is important to the viewer (or listener if it’s music).

Longmen's Stone Buddhas and Cultural Heritage: When Antiquity Met Modernity in China, Dong Wang (Rowman & Littlefield, June 2020)
Longmen’s Stone Buddhas and Cultural Heritage: When Antiquity Met Modernity in China, Dong Wang (Rowman & Littlefield, June 2020)

This thoroughly researched book provides the first comprehensive history of how a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Central China Plain, Longmen’s caves and the Buddhist statuary of Luoyang, was rediscovered in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Amid the plethora of China memoirs by Western writers over the years, this new one set in Shanghai from 1978 to 1979 stands out a little because it takes place during a time of transition in China. But Anne E McLaren’s Slow Train to Democracy is more than just a record of her time in China or the transition; it’s an account of a little-known democracy movement in Shanghai —around the time the government coined the term “socialism with Chinese characteristics”—that was eclipsed by Tiananmen a decade later.

During a one-year sojourn in London in the 1970s, my secondary school O-level history curriculum covered about a century from mid-1700s on. A decade into a discussion of the Napoleonic Wars, the history master (for such he was called) mentioned, almost in passing (and, in retrospect, probably for my benefit), that after marching through a swamp, a detachment of British soldiers had burned down the White House. “That’s the War of 1812!”, I interjected, finally twigging to what we had been discussing. “That’s what you call it,” was the reply. The “war” that engendered the National Anthem was to the British a mere police action in a far more important conflict.

The Sino-Russian relationship is often seen by the West (for which, read the USA) as a sort of counterpoint to Sino-American relations with Russia ready to step in when the US takes a step back. Sören Ubansky’s recent book is one of the periodic but salutary reminders that China and Russia’s mutual dealings are not just centuries old but have also for the most part had little to do with third parties.