Monday, August 31, 2020

China from 1900 to Today


History Book Club

China from 1900 to Today

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Forbidden City, Beijing

Wednesday, August 26, 2020. China from 1900 to today. China has traveled a long way from the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901 when western nations felt free to wander all over the vast country. Sun-Yat-Sen and the last Qing emperor…Military wardlordism ..Chiang Kai-Shek…War against Japan… Mao Zedong and the Communist Revolution, founding of the People’s Republic…”Great Leap Forward” and The Cultural Revolution…World’s No. 2 Economy, on the verge of becoming No. 1. [Proposed by Jason Shaw] 

Chang, Iris, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.  1997. New York, NY: Basic Books. 290 pp.

            My family and I lived for three years in Japan.  Actually, we lived in the home that had once been occupied by the commander of the Imperial Japanese naval base in a city near Nagasaki.  I never, not one time, ever caught even a tiny glimpse of the characteristic of the Japanese military that led them to do the horrible things that they did countless times during World War II.

            The Rape of Nanking is the story of how the Japanese army in December 1937 systematically raped hundreds of thousands of women, then killed them; in mass killings they murdered men, women and children, shooting them, bayoneting them, whacking off their heads by sword, then dumped hundreds of thousands of corpses into the Yangtze river, until the river ran red with their blood. 

            The author of this book, Iris Chang, was a young Chinese American woman, and she received many awards for this book, and for others she wrote. Her grandparents barely escaped death in Nanking.

             This book appears to be well researched.  She went through hundreds of drawers of files to find the story of how the Imperial Japanese Army attacked Shanghai, then marched overland to seize the capital city of Nanking (Nanjing).  The Japanese Army promised Chinese army troops humane treatment, then bound their hands, and marched them off to be machine-gunned and bayoneted, hundreds at a time.   This horror took place over six weeks in the city of Nanking.  The Japanese murdered some 300,000 civilians during this time.

            The Japanese Army committed atrocities in many other places in their invasion of China.  They are quoted in numerous records of saying that they did not look upon the Chinese as humans, but rather like pigs, “except you could eat pigs.”

            Ms. Chang writes about a few Americans and Europeans living in Nanking who were responsible for creating a safety zone in the city that saved hundreds of thousands. One particularly helpful person was a German named John Rabe.  He was a member of the Nazi party, and used his swastika armband to intervene when Japanese were about to kill Chinese.  While the Japanese sometimes ignored the pleas of other foreigners, the sight of that Nazi armband usually did the trick.  Ms. Chang called him the “Oskar Schindler of Nanking.” (Schindler was the Nazi who saved some 100,000 Jews from the Holocaust in Europe.)  She tells stories of an American woman, Minnie Vautrin, and a Nanking-born American surgeon named Robert Wilson, who risked their lives countless times to save many thousands of Chinese.

            Ms. Chang writes about “A Second Rape” in noting how American schoolchildren learn about Hitler’s gas chambers, about the diary of Ann Frank, and about our bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but they know nothing about Nanking in 1937.  In Japan, there is a “soothing perception” of history that either ignores the Japanese massacre at Nanking, or puts a decidedly Japanese spin on the actions of the military. Japanese ultranationalists have threatened everything from lawsuits to death, even assassination, to opponents who suggest that these textbooks are not telling the next generation the real story.  And it is not just the ultranationalists in Japan who have tried to airbrush this part of their history. 

            In her epilogue, Ms. Chang sets down three lessons from Nanking:

1.     Civilization itself is tissue-thin. Japan’s behavior during World War II was less a product of dangerous people than of a dangerous government.  The Japanese Army for years had created a Samurai culture of unspeakable cruelty to each other, for starters.

2.     The role of power in genocide.  Those who have studied the patterns of large-scale killings throughout history have noted that the sheer concentration of power in government is lethal.

3.     The third lesson, one that is perhaps most distressing of all, lies in the frightening ease with which the mind can accept genocide, turning us all into passive spectators to the unthinkable.  The Rape of Nanking was front-page news across the world, and yet most of the world stood by and did nothing while an entire city was butchered. The international response to Nanking was eerily akin to the more recent response to the atrocities in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda.  And, since publication of this book, the massive killing now in Syria.

            Ms. Chang’s book has received harsh criticism from some quarters, particularly in suggesting that the Japanese have tried to soft pedal or suppress this part of their history.  She was hounded and criticized harshly and became very depressed.

            In November, 2004 Iris Chang took her own life… perhaps one more victim of The Rape of Nanking.



Hessler, Peter, Country Driving: A Journey Through China From Farm to Factory, 2010, New York: HarperCollins, 438 pp. Cloth on board.


            Country Driving is a wonderful, funny look at the Chinese people by a former Peace Corps volunteer who was Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker for seven years.

            He obviously has a very good grasp of Mandarin Chinese, because in mid-autumn  he rents a large vehicle, fills it full of bottled water, Dove?? bars and Oreo cookies, and strikes out to visit the villages along the Great Wall of China.  He drives to Inner Mongolia. Well over 1000 miles before he is stopped and ordered to go back where he came from.

            All these years after the Cultural Revolution, China is going through tremendous change.  More and more people are becoming wealthy enough to buy a car, and thousands of cars get added to city streets every day.  They are building nice expressways all across China, but Hessler notes that these roads, and all the little roads between them, are empty, and so are the towns and villages of the north.  Only the old people and children remain, as the young have all traveled south where there is work and money to be earned.

            He wants to continue exploring the Great Wall, so in the spring he starts out again, and is able to find various local historians and wise old men to show him obscure bits of information about the Great Wall, which is really not one wall, but many, built at different places, and closer or farther from borders, starting in 200 B.C. Most of the wall was built in the 1500s in the Ming Dynasty.  Most of it consists of earthworks, not brick or stone like the elaborate walls near Beijing.

            Hessler drops into Genghis Khan’s Mausoleum in a little Mongolian village, and finds that a whole load of cadres, driving in black Volkswagen Santanas with tinted windshields, have arrived before him.  These low level communist bureaucrats, most of them Mongolian, have just had a nice lunch, and are all royally drunk. 

            A Mongolian woman tour guide takes him to see the sights and tells him the building is all a load of crap.  Genghis Khan is not buried here—all the coffins on display are empty.  It turns out she is also drunk.  But she is telling the truth. 

            As a foreigner, and a journalist, he is required to file a request to travel, but he knows enough about Chinese bureaucracy to know that it is better to ask for forgiveness after you have gotten caught. 

            Hessler runs into two traffic cops near a village on the Tibetan Plateau, and they surmise that since he can speak Chinese so well, and is not Chinese, he must be a spy.  They both have a good laugh about that and send him on his way.  It’s rare to see traffic cops, since the government usually chooses to erect clay statues painted to look like policemen on the roads in these deserted parts of China.  [Which explains the photo on the book cover.]

            He stops in a Mongolian-Kazakh village (Subei) that is cut right into the Great Wall.  It is so close that many homes are imbedded in the wall, and so are the pens for their sheep.  Most homes have no water, and their outdoor toilets stink to high heaven. 

            He visits a public toilet, but when he comes out, there is a little Mongolian cop waiting for him.  “Identification?” he asks.

            The cop takes him to the Subei police station, where a woman cop and the Mongolian cop start looking through file cabinets for the right forms to fill out.  Hessler has broken the law, and it looks bad for him. 

            Then the two start to ask him questions, as they fill out all these forms. 

Hessler notes that this is a strange way to interrogate.  Finally, the woman states that he has broken the national law regarding aliens, and he will have to be punished. 

            The punishment is a fine of 500 yuan. However, since this is your first offense, we’ll make it 100.  This is about US$12, so he pulls out a bill and puts it down. 

            “Oh no!” she refuses the money, because of all the fear of corruption.  It’s Sunday, but they go across the street to the Agricultural Bank of China and get a clerk to open up.  Hessler gives the clerk 100 rmb and fills out several forms.  The clerk promises that the cop will receive the order for 100 rmb in two days.         

            Hessler then tells about life in a village north of Beijing, and Factory life in southeast China. 

            Hessler must have spent quite a lot of time in a factory in one of many towns being built from the ground up to handle the tremendous growth of manufacturing.  He tells the story of this factory; from the moment the prospective owners lay out the “design” for the factory.  They plan to make little plastic covered rings that are used to make brassieres, and it all starts with these men buying a huge machine that will cut and plastic coat these rings.   Hessler gets to know some key employees, and describes how they come together, how they live and work, as they all try to figure out how to make a success out of this somewhat hare-brained venture.  

            Culturally, the Chinese who come together in this factory are very, very unsophisticated, but they are eager to learn and to succeed.

            This is a very entertaining book, and I feel that I have learned a lot about China that I had never thought to ask about.  They can and will learn much from Americans, and we can learn much from them.  Instead of being afraid that they will eat our lunch, we need to work out ways that we can combine our efforts and expertise to succeed together.

S.W. Coulbourn



Spanish Flu Victim, St. Louis, 1918

Wednesday, September 30, 2020. History of Pandemics.  pandemic (from Greek πᾶν, pan, "all" and δῆμος, demos, "people") is an epidemic of an infectious disease that has spread across a large region, for instance multiple continents or worldwide, affecting a substantial number of people. Throughout human history, there have been a number of pandemics of diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis. The most fatal pandemic in recorded history was the Black Death (also known as The Plague), which killed an estimated 75–200 million people in the 14th century. Other notable pandemics include the 1918 influenza pandemic (Spanish flu). Current pandemics include COVID-19 and HIV/AIDs. [Proposed by Sam Coulbourn].

The Chicago Tribune thought Dewey would win in 1948

Wednesday, October 28, 2020. Unique Elections in American History. The forthcoming election may seem the most unique, but this month we will look back at past elections.  Select any that you find interesting.  For instance: Election of 1828: Andrew Jackson vs. John Quincy Adams; Election of 1840: William Henry Harrison vs. Martin Van Buren; Election of 1860: Abraham Lincoln vs. Stephen Douglas vs. John C. Breckinridge vs. John Bell; Election of 1864 : Abraham Lincoln vs. George B. McClellan; Election of 1884: Grover Cleveland vs. James G. Blaine; Election of 1912: Woodrow Wilson vs. William Howard Taft vs. Theodore Roosevelt vs. Eugene V. Debs; Election of 1948Harry Truman vs. Thomas E. Dewey vs. Strom Thurmond vs. Henry Wallace. [Proposed by Sam Coulbourn]

Gloucester Dorymen

Wednesday, November 25, 2020. Gloucester and the Sea.  euser]

Gloucester has throughout four centuries cast its lot with the North Atlantic, remaining a maritime port for better or worse. The maritime culture of Cape Ann is the mix of a noble maritime heritage; ubiquitous sea influences that reach as far as the quarries behind Rockport and into the haunted tracks of Dogtown Common; seductive but capricious natural splendors; and untidy independence that repels some but converts other visitors into lifetime devotees. Read any book about the maritime history of Gloucester and Cape Ann. [Suggested by Richard Verrengia]