When the British ambassador, Lord Macartney, presented himself before the Chinese emperor Qianlong in 1793, he exhibited, along with his Chinese hosts, the classic “disconnect” between the two cultures which Michael Keevak discusses in his excellent study of embassies to China. “Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance,” Qianlong told Macartney, “therefore there is no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own products.”
For most of its history, Hong Kong has been tied to the sea and ships. Today’s urban metropolis of skyscrapers and financial institutions is a relatively recent development.
Where there are ships, there are seamen; some of Hong Kong’s most venerable if not necessarily best-known institutions relate to their welfare. Strong to Save is a history of these institutions, culminating in the establishment of the Mariners’ Club a half-century ago. One can hardly think of anyone better suited than author and historian Stephen Davies to tell this story. Davies has an encyclopedic knowledge of anything to do with the China Coast, ships and seafaring; his writing manages to be rigorous without being dry.
When China announced plans to launch an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2015, the United States chose a response reminiscent of its Cold War playbook. It cast doubt on China’s intentions and leaned on other nations not to get involved. The result was no different from the Cold War era too—nations, including close allies of the United States, signed on to the initiative—awarding China a significant symbolic victory before any tangible work had even been accomplished.
A new book places China at the center of an underexplored aspect of the Cold War: the competition for influence in the “third world” between China and United States. Written by Gregg Brazinsky at George Washington University, Winning the Third World relies on previously unpublished archive materials from both countries. Far from last century’s history, the book illuminates the remarkable continuities in both countries’ foreign policies.
Stephan Haggard’s and Marcus Noland’s first joint venture was the 2007 Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform, the best overview of the hunger that led to the death in slow motion death of a million people in the mid- to late-90s. Hard Target does a similar authoritative analysis of the last quarter-century’s attempts to shepherd Pyongyang—with carrot and stick—away from prickly hostility into the warm embrace of the global economic and political order. Their conclusion is neither sanctions nor inducements work, even if the latter have proved marginally more successful than the former.
A specialist book, Writing the South Seas is, steeped with lexicon which could take getting used to unless you work in the field. The title, however, is vivid: the term “South Seas” or (Nanyang in Mandarin) is familiar to everyone of Chinese ancestry from Southeast Asia. It refers to the lands south of China which are connected by an expanse of water aptly known as the South China Sea. Between the 1850s and the 1940s, the waves of this sea carried twenty million people from southern China to the varied countries of the Nanyang. Some of my ancestors were among them.
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.