A discovery in the history of art is a discovery like any other, so wrote in 1913 Friedrich Perzynski, a German art dealer, in Hunt for the Gods, an account of his exploits in China the year before. This was a time of turmoil. A dynasty had just fallen and the capital Beijing was humming with activity, as artefacts from all over the country were resurfacing in the open or in back rooms. Foreign archeologists, dealers and curators, who had been coming in growing numbers, marveled at the remnants of a civilization that only then was starting to be known.
On January 10th, 1795, a very tired caravan arrives in Beijing. The travelers have journeyed from Canton on an accelerated schedule through harsh terrain in order to make it to the capital in time for the Qianlong Emperor’s sixtieth anniversary of his reign. The group is led by two Dutchmen: Isaac Titsingh and Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest, who are there to represent the interests of the Dutch Republic at the imperial court. It’s a momentous occasion, especially after the disastrous British Embassy from George Macartney two years earlier.
It was perhaps inevitable that Chinese memoirs in translation would move on from those whose authors date from the Chinese Civil War and the Cultural Revolution. Cai Chongda is a popular millennial writer and fashion executive who became the youngest editorial director in the GQ franchise. His memoir, Vessel, was a bestseller in China a half-dozen years ago and is now available in English in a translation by Dylan Levi King.
Liz PY Chee vividly remembers the first time she visited a bear farm. It was 2009, and Chee, who was working for a Singapore-based animal welfare group, flew to Laos to tour a Chinese-owned facility. The animals Chee saw “were hardly recognizable as bears,” she later wrote, “because they had rubbed most of their fur off against the bars of the cages and had grown very long toenails through disuse of their feet.”
Vijay Gokhale retired as India’s Foreign Secretary in 2020 after nearly four decades in the diplomatic corps, specializing in China, including a posting as Indian Ambassador in Beijing, experience much in evidence in his recent thoughtful and surprisingly frank book on Sino-Indian diplomacy.
It can be easy to forget amongst the glistening skyscrapers, bustling streets and neon lights, but the Pearl River Delta used to be a haven for banditry and piracy. As the authority of Imperial China waned, pirate fleets based out of Guangdong Province roamed the waves, raiding traders and taking captives.
People worried about the end of the world during the 1990s. The end of the millennium provided the perfect milestone for the superstitiously-minded, with some becoming convinced that midnight on 31st December, 1999 would not ring in the changes, but rather the apocalypse.