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 Korean War began 70 years ago. In the United States, it is known as the “forgotten war”. Not so in China. In his new book Attack at Chosin, Professor Xiaobing Li, a prolific historian who teaches at the University of Central Oklahoma, and who once served in China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), explores the Chinese Army’s second offensive against US, UN, and South Korean forces at the Chosin Reservoir during November-December 1950.
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.
The world-weary Giuseppe Lampedusa introduced us to the cynical formulation “for everything to remain as it was, it’s necessary for everything to change.” Empires rise and fall, sometimes swiftly. The papers in Short Term Empires in World History, delivered at a conference held in Germany in 2017, raise the issue of continuity and discontinuity in the context of characterizing empires.
In the summer of 1953, a massive drought hit the Chinese province of Zhejiang. Villagers took the disaster as a sign that deities were angry at officials for converting temples for secular uses and destroying ritual items, including statues and dragon boats. To placate the gods, villagers rose up to try to take back religious spaces and pray for rain by resuming boat racing, which officials saw as a “superstitious” practice incompatible with the spirit and law of the new People’s Republic.
“And he gathered them together in a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon” (Revelation 16:16). Armageddon. The word sends shivers up the spine; it’s the place where, according to the imaginative interpretation of some, the final battle between the forces of good and evil will be fought. It’s mentioned twelve times in the Old Testament and once only in the New, quoted above.