How does one quantify something as ephemeral as faith? We have become familiar with accounts of China which predicate their analysis on statistics—hard numbers seeming one of the few means of offering an objective view of the scale and complexity of the country. And certainly when it comes to faith in modern China the numbers are striking: 300 million people, or thereabouts, now consider themselves a follower of a faith of some kind—almost a quarter of the country.
“Please mind the platform gap” is a phrase travelers on the Hong Kong MTR hear every time the train stops. It is a curious phrase, not just the now somewhat quaint “mind” but also that of course the platform has no gap: what is meant is the gap between the train and the platform. First-time travelers must perhaps parse the sentence for meaning; I had to. And it forever stuck in my mind.
Not only in mine, evidently. The phrase (which has its own Wikipedia page) is central to one of the stories in Ho Lin’s recent collection China Girl.
Born and raised in Beijing, Bei Dao spent decades in exile in Europe because of his alleged involvement in the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. City Gate, Open Up is his eloquent, moving memoir in which the foremost Chinese poet rebuilds Beijing, his fond hometown and lifelong anchor, through poignant memories and portraits, rendering the generations who have lived through such surreal, turbulent times.
The Opium Wars are probably the only actual shooting wars in history that are named after a drug. They may be the only major wars between countries that are named after a commodity of any kind. Britain and Iceland had their cod war, but that hardly counts. The United States had a Whiskey Rebellion and Australia had a Rum Rebellion. France and Mexico fought a desultory Pastry War in 1838 that cost Santa Anna his left leg and catapulted the rest of him to dictatorship. But the Opium Wars set the trajectory of the East Asian interstate system for 100 years and resonate in historical memory to this day.
“Once you have decided to have your photograph taken,” Matsuzaki Shinji wrote in 1886, “you should clean your entire person, comb your hair, shave your face (while those with long beards should wash them thoroughly), and take care that no dirt is attached to the face or the rest of your body.” He followed this up with twenty-five more “dos and don’ts” for the customer.
When the end came, it came quickly and, for most of the Japanese inhabitants of occupied Manchuria, unexpectedly. Kiku Kyuzo, protagonist of Beasts Head for Home, was of one of the great many Japanese left behind when Manchuria fell to the Soviet Army in August 1945.
There is much to admire in Salvatore Babones’s short book American Tianxia. It is a welcome corrective to the often-unchallenged conventional wisdom that the 21st century belongs to a rising China that is fast overtaking US global predominance.