Integral to the misguided conception of China as unknowably complex is the sheer scale of its history. While historians of the United States, for example, need to cultivate a knowledge base which extends back a few centuries or so, scholars of Chinese history must contend with a national story of anything between three thousand and five thousand years, depending on what you consider “China” to be. Either way, the terrain of Chinese history seems deeply forbidding to the non-specialist, who is left asking the question: how much of China’s history do I need to know in order to understand the country today?
Lee Fook Chee’s Hong Kong: Photographs from the 1950s is a remarkable book with many levels of meaning. It tells the story of a lone immigrant photographer and presents his collection of photographs portraying 1950s Hong Kong. A photo book, and of the highest standards at that, it also brings sharp and fresh research into the social history of the place that invites scrutiny on how it compares itself sixty years later. The entire book, its sum greater than its parts, will delight therefore not only photography aficionados but anyone with a serious interest in Hong Kong.
One would think—what with this year being the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare—that a treatment of the playwright in China would be inevitable. And so it has proved: Nancy Pellegrini’s The People’s Bard has just been released as the latest Penguin China Special.
While the communication of ideas across cultures is itself generally a good thing, it inevitably involves the transmission of both good and bad ideas.
Richard Jean So, an assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago, in his new book Transpacific Community, describes the development and evolution of a cultural, literary network between certain writers and activists in China and the United States beginning in the 1920s and continuing through World War II. It included on the American side, Agnes Smedley, Pearl Buck, and Paul Robeson, and on the Chinese side, Lin Yutang and Lao She. The network’s growth was fostered by what Jean So calls “a new era in media technologies and the rise of a ubiquitous discourse of ‘communications’”, which enabled literary and artistic works to be transmitted more readily between East and West.
Here we have a real curiosity—a history of Nagaland up to August 1943. Nagaland is a state in the extreme northeast of India bordering Myanmar, and the history is a curiosity because the only event of much significance to ever happen there was the battle of Kohima in 1944. Why would someone write a history of Nagaland without mentioning the battle? The answer is that Lyman is an experienced historian with 14 books to his credit. One of them deals specifically the battle and its aftermath. Among the Headhunters is the back story.
Indians have contributed to Kenya’s multiracial tapestry for centuries. At Independence, Indians constituted two percent of the population and formed its petty bourgeoisie. By 1968 Kenya hosted over 170,000 Indian residents. Occupying key roles in the economy and civil service, Indians played no small part in the twentieth-century history of Kenya. Yet, as Sana Aiyar argues in Indians in Kenya: The Politics of Diaspora, an overwhelming emphasis placed on singular territoriality, coupled with the racially bounded nature of scholarship on Kenyan nationhood, has resulted in the historiographical marginalization of Indians, who are assumed to be historically insignificant.
The third volume in Christoph Baumer’s history of Central Asia is as accomplished as its predecessors The Age of the Steppe Warriors and The Age of the Silk Roads. The Age of Islam and the Mongols picks up, as they say, where we left off: it runs basically from the 8th-century Abbassids through the 15th-century’s Tamerlane.