“The fall of the Ming dynasty,” writes Timothy Brook in his fascinating new monograph The Price of Collapse: The Little Ice Age and the Fall of Ming China, “has traditionally been narrated as a period of political factionalism, failed administration, dwindling tax revenues, and rural rebellion, all of which has been shrouded by the larger judgment of moral failure.” Attaching this transformational event instead to the Little Ice Age—a centuries-long cold snap that intensified in the early 1600s—is, after a moment’s thought, pretty self-evident. The contribution of the book is not so much the correlation (which has been noted before) given in the (admittedly engaging) title, but rather Brook’s systematic and rigorous use of price data to build a picture of what was going on.

The paperback edition of Emily Hahn’s novel, Miss Jill from Shanghai, is billed on the cover as “a beautiful girl’s story of salvation and sin in the Orient”. Jill was an Australian woman who became romantically involved with a married Japanese aristocrat. Her own parents never married and she felt “degraded beyond imagination” by her family background. When she traveled to Shanghai, she was sold into a house of prostitution.

Among the current surfeit of books that claim to explain China, Terminus: Westward Expansion, China, and the End of American Empire, a new treatise on Sino-American relations, distinguishes itself by placing the current bilateral tensions in the context of almost two and half centuries of American expansion (“imperial expansion” as author Stuart Rollo puts it) which, it argues, had China as its target and which have reached its limit (hence “Terminus”). 

Harbin was a new city around the end of both the Qing dynasty and the Russian Empire. It was built to support the Chinese Eastern Railway and also became home to a sizable Jewish community numbering around twenty thousand. That community has long vanished and all that remains are the old synagogues and other buildings constructed by Jewish merchants and entrepreneurs. Why the Jews left Harbin is the most lasting consequence of the events recounted in Scott Seligman’s new book, Murder in Manchuria, a true crime narrative along the lines of Paul French’s Midnight in Peking and James M Zimmerman’s The Peking Express

By any measure, Jewish American writer-cum-Shanghai-based salonnière Bernardine Szold Fritz (1896-1982) led an extraordinary life. Whether on familiar terms with American writers of the Lost Generation (Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway) and French modernist masters (Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso) in and around Paris, or influential Chinese writers and intellectuals during 1930s Shanghai (Lin Yutang, Hu Shi), or even A-list celebrities from Hollywood’s Golden Age (Gary Cooper, Frank Capra), Fritz was remarkably well-connected.

The Inscription of Things: Writing and Materiality in Early Modern China, Thomas Kelly (Columbia University Press, November 2023)
The Inscription of Things: Writing and Materiality in Early Modern China, Thomas Kelly (Columbia University Press, November 2023)

Why would an inkstone have a poem inscribed on it? Early modern Chinese writers did not limit themselves to working with brushes and ink, and their texts were not confined to woodblock-printed books or the boundaries of the paper page. Poets carved lines of verse onto cups, ladles, animal horns, seashells, walking sticks, boxes, fans, daggers, teapots, and musical instruments. Calligraphers left messages on the implements ordinarily used for writing on paper. These inscriptions—terse compositions in verse or epigrammatic prose—relate in complex ways to the objects on which they are written.