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.
In 1946, John Hersey published the first account of the horrors that awaited those unlucky enough to survive the bomb in his short Hiroshima. Seventy years on, Susan Southard has done the same for Nagasaki. She interleaves the nightmares visited on five young victims (hibakusha) within the broader context of Japanese totalitarianism, the decision to drop the bomb, Washington’s censorship and denial of its after effects, the fight against discrimination and for medical aid for the hibakusha, and finally their campaign to abolish nuclear weapons.
Richard Kirkby’s China memoir Intruder in Mao’s Realm has a hint of the nineteenth century about it: frank and scrupulous in recording quotidian detail, it is a refreshingly unrefined book, in the manner of those accounts returned by Victorian missionaries and travellers after visits to unknown lands.
Apart from on the Peninsula itself and in the vernacular, the Korean War is framed by a chronology between June 1950 and July 1953. Su-kyoung Hwang’s Korea’s Grievous War challenges that common perception by pushing its opening salvos back to shortly after the Peninsula’s liberation from Japanese colonial occupation in August 1945.
Jack Weatherford has a clutch of informed, and impassioned, books on the Mongols to his credit. In Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, he argued that the Mongols were the precursors of modern economic globalization:
The Mongols displayed a devoutly and persistently internationalist zeal in their political, economic, and intellectual endeavors. They sought not merely to conquer the world but to institute a global order based on free trade, a single international law, and a universal alphabet.
He credits them with universal paper money, primary school education and a unified calendar.
Macau is endlessly fascinating in no small part because it is so anomalous. Dating back to the “Age of Exploration”, it was the only Iberian possession in East Asia that survived as such into the 20th century—and two years longer than Hong Kong. In spite of all the recent development, it is still a city of baroque churches, blue tiles and black-and-white pavements; streets are “ruas”; a local Portuguese patois unique to the city still just barely hangs on.