The diva is a nearly universal phenomenon. Wherever poetry, music and mime have been practised with virtuosity, great women performers always take centre stage. Traditional Asian divas are however less well known and understood among English language readers than the great divas of Mozart and Puccini. Whether from Shiraz at the court of the Injuids, from Delhi during the twilight of the Moghuls, or from Yangzhou under the last Ming emperors, these Asian divas constitute the first identifiably modern women.
China or India? India or China? Maybe Chindia? Anyone who has ever spent much time thinking about the future of the Asia or any particular country or company’s relationship to it, has probably asked this question, and more than once. Several terms, such as “Asia- Pacific” or the newly-launched “Indo-Pacific”, carry this question within it.
The Sindhi diaspora, whether in India or around the world, have a warm spot for the name Shah Abdul Latif, an 18th-century Sufi poet from Sindh, Pakistan, and a contemporary of the better known Punjabi Sufi poet Bulle Shah.
Every young pup sent to East Asia is probably given Sun Tzu’s The Art of War to read, especially if one is male, and especially if one’s boss is both male and Chinese. Anyway, I was.
A little before John Donne and George Herbert penned their devotional poetry in the sixteenth century, a couple of bhakti (devotional) or sant (saint) poets in India began to write about the glory of God and the sentiment of devotion. Surdas, Tulsidas, Mirabai and Kabir are among the medieval saint poets becoming increasingly well-known outside their native India. However, with the exception of Tulsidas whose Ramcharitmanas is known to the West as the Bible of North India and has been translated several times in English, it can be difficult to separate the historical, authorial personalities from the interpolations by later poets who continued to compose in a similar vein.
A specialist book, Writing the South Seas is, steeped with lexicon which could take getting used to unless you work in the field. The title, however, is vivid: the term “South Seas” or (Nanyang in Mandarin) is familiar to everyone of Chinese ancestry from Southeast Asia. It refers to the lands south of China which are connected by an expanse of water aptly known as the South China Sea. Between the 1850s and the 1940s, the waves of this sea carried twenty million people from southern China to the varied countries of the Nanyang. Some of my ancestors were among them.
Those with an academic interest in Chinese literature are undoubtedly aware of the CT Hsia classic History of Modern Chinese Fiction which has just been reissued by the Chinese University Press. Those who aren’t might find the thought of a 600-page tome of literary criticism to be more than a little daunting; that would be a pity, for the volume is an example of erudition and clarity of expression.