Discussions on the so-called “rise” of China at some point tend to cycle ’round to the question as to whether these developments are new or instead herald a return to a status quo ante, a consideration which depends in no small part as what that status quo actually was. That China was dominant in East Asia at least until the 19th century is subject to hardly any debate; there is less consensus as to what that dominance consisted of and whence it derived.

Andrés de Urdaneta is a name that few other than specialist historians will immediately recognise. He was one of the last of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century explorers and navigators from the Iberian peninsula whose voyages resulted in redrawing the globe in more or less the form we know it today. Christopher Columbus has a country and several cities named after him; Ferdinand Magellan has the famous straits. But Urdaneta has no such monuments.

Perhaps this is because Urdaneta didn’t discover how to get anywhere, but rather less glamorously but no less importantly discovered how to get back. Until 1565, no fleet had succeeded in sailing east from Asia back across the Pacific to the Americas. It was Urdaneta, a survivor of earlier expeditions, who first worked out the right winds and currents across the uncharted waters of this vast ocean. His discovery was called the tornaviaje, or ‘return trip’.

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.

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.