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[789] Twilight in the Forbidden City – Reginald F. Johnston


The author, a Scottish academic, who was appointed as Imperial Tutor to the boy Emperor, the last Emperor Puyi, gives a fascinating account of the checkered history of China since 1898 as seen from the palace. The story covered in this memoir continues to the time of Puyi’s ascension to the Manchukuoan throne in the northeast of China. The memoir mostly concerns Johnston’s time with Puyi, who is then 13 years old, with whom he cultivates a relationship beyond that which is expected between teacher and pupil. Johnston later supervises Puyi’s residence in Summer Palace after he is evicted from Forbidden City, and plays a role in his seeking refuge in the Japanese embassy. The book therefore provides a very rare glimpse into the very secretive court life of China, bound by tedious formalities, protocols, and regulations.

By the time Johnston commences teaching in 1919, China has fragmented politically in the aftermath of the fall of the Qing Dynasty. The dictator Yuan Shikai attempts to form a strong central government and even contemplates declaring himself emperor, but his failure plunges China into even more states of warlords. In 1912, the Qing court announces the abdication of the last emperor who, under the privilege treaty, is to retain his residence i Forbidden City, to retain his imperial appellate but divested of political power, and to live off an allowance from the Republic of China. It is under this political disquiet that Johnston begins his engagement in the palace, where he observes and criticizes the corrupted goings-on among the courtiers in the imperial household department. These people live out for their own benefits and suck the lifeblood of the remnant of the Qing court. Johnston cities malpractices and embezzlement and advocates for the dismissal of this department. He later manages to dismiss all the eunuchs and bureaucrats in order to save expenses and to pave the way for moving the imperial household to the Summer Palace.

Johnston is often accused of being a monarchist, and to some extent it’s true. He cannot help being biased in defending Puyi and the Qing monarchy in the face of the republic. devotion and affection aside, he blames Empress Dowager Cixi’s mismanagement that has squandered and repleted the benefits of a strong monarchy, and that millions of lives and untold suffering and chaos could have been prevented had the monarchy remained intact. Johnston is for a central government, but he doesn’t see anything wrong if a figurehead of an emperor being in conjunction with a democratically elected president. The Chinese translator, with his well-researched annotations and comments, really supplement Johnston’s narrative and correct his biased comments. A scholar who is contemporary peer to some of the historical characters that populate the pages, Guo Pak-U provides historical context and expounds how the Chinese imperial system works. The backdrop of facts that Johnston provides is richly interspersed with comments and annotations from Guo, which renders Johnston’s account more readable and objective.

Johnston has provided what is probably the only Western eye witness account over a period of many years and he does so with discipline and rigor, often bringing into the narrative the necessary context for the reader to truly appreciate the landscape. The book’s scholarship, quality of writing, and personal investment in the story by the author make it a rare and engrossing read.

389 pp. Oxford University Press. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

African Silences


Some of the books that have stayed with me over the years were serendipitous when found. Peter Matthiessen’s 1991 memoir on his travel through Africa is still irrelevant today in the sense of the depredation of landscape. The title itself is a disturbing double entendre—silences for the disappearance of nature’s diversity, but silences also for the few remaining areas of rich, forested seclusion away from urban chaos and destruction. The book, consisted of three extended essays, is a powerful brief for the argument that African wildlife and habitats can only be preserved if long-term economic and social benefits will accrue to African people for the effort. The same thing is happening in Brazil now, in the depredation of the Amazonian rain forest. African nations and Brazil might welcome the tourist dollars from wildlife parks, but this odd, if benevolent form of neocolonialism will never secure a conservationist ethic. Rather, Matthiessen advocates a long-term preservation that stems from a humanistic ecology of people protecting a bounteous nature for reasons of soul and body.



221. This is the number of times a day we check our phones once we get out of bed. It breaks down to an average of every 4.3 minutes, according to a UK study. Our transformation into device people has happened with unprecedented suddenness. I was on the subway in Hong Kong last month and everybody (pretty much 95%) was staring at their phones.

What does it mean to shift overnight from a society in which people walk down the street looking around to one in which people walk down the street looking at machines? For me it means frustration when people in front of me suddenly just stop and send a text on the sidewalk.

In Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle, clinical psychologist and sociologist, presents a powerful case that a new communication revolution is degrading the quality of human relationships—with family and friends, as well as with colleagues and romantic partners. The picture she paints is both familiar and heartbreaking. Everyone is distracted from whatever they are engaged in—yes, including the nanny who is supposed to look after the toddler even within the confine of the library. She’s engaged on the phone that she doesn’t notice the toddler has wandered away.

Turkle finds the roots of the problem in the failure of young people absorbed in their devices to develop fully independent selves. She argues that phones and texting disrupt the ability to separate from one’s parents, and raise other obstacles to adulthood. Absorption in the virtual world can become a flight from difficulties of real life. In a way, they are alone on the devices but not really. Because they aren’t learning how to be alone, she contends, young people are losing their ability empathize. It’s the capacity for solitude hat allows you to reach out to others and see them as separate and independent. This is what independent travel does to a person as he/she has the opportunity to absorb and reflect on his own.

Which brings the larger picture that is not exclusive to teenagers. The curated image of self. The tendency to craft a more rosy picture than in reality. Without an ability to look inward, with a vanity to show off, those locked into the virtual worlds of social media develop a sensibility of “I share, therefore I am,” crafting and fabricating their identities for others.

[773] Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders – Vincent Bugliosi


“I believe Charles Manson is unique. He is certainly one of the most fascinating criminals in American history, and it appears unlikely that there will ever be another mass murderer quite like him. But it does not take a prophet to see at least some of the potentials of his madness in the world today. When people unquestioningly turn over their minds to authoritarian figures to do with as they please—” (Epilogue, p.630)

Helter Skelter is the full account of the Manson murders that captured headlines across America in summer 1969, written by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who then served as Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles. The book itself was first published shortly after the trial, which last 22 months with the jury being in sequestration for the whole duration of the trial. So the book lends an immediacy, and sheds remarkable insights into the motive of these atrocious, bizarre murders, as well as Bugliosi’s insider knowledge. It covers the murders, the evidence being gathered, the interviews, the rumors, the defendants, the preparation of the trail, the full trial, and an epilogue reflecting on how Manson gains control over his followers who turned over their minds unquestioningly to do what he told them.

The record discloses over and over again that all of these girls at the ranch believed Manson as God, really believed it. The record discloses that the girls obeyed his commands without any conscious questioning at all. (Murder in the Wind, p. 528)

In short, a band of hippies, later known as the Manson Family in San Fernando Valley, broke into a Los ANgeles house and murdered five people, including the nine month-pregnant actress Sharon Tate (wife of director Roman Polanski) and her friends, including coffee heiress Abigail Folger. It was one of the grisliest, bloodiest and apparently senseless crimes of the century. Atrocities repeated and befell the LaBiancas in Los Feliz, who were picked at random from among the affluent, on the night after the Tate murders. All victims were stabbed multiple times. A thin trail of circumstances eventually tied the Tate-LaBianca murders to Charles Manson, a killer who cleverly masqueraded behind the common image of a hippie. As Bugliosi would have shown, there was a further motive, almost too absurd to even conceive of, to the murders other than Manson’s grudge against the people who denied him a record contract. The real motive is perhaps as bizarre, or even more bizarre, than the murders themselves.

Though…drugs were one of several methods Manson used to obtain control over his followers, they had no part in these crimes, for a very simple reason: on these two nights of savage slaughter, Charles Manson wanted his assassins in complete control of their faculties.” (The Investigation–Phase Two, p.251)

Helter Skelter is as much a documentary of the Manson murders as a testimony to Vincent Bugliosi’s brillance and perspicacity in his handling of the case. He even took up a substantial amount of investigative responsibilities that should have been LAPD’s. During the trials, which were often cluttered with nonsensical motions and objections from defense attorney Irving Kanarek, the issue was not so much how Manson committed the murders but proving that he did it. The case was unique and highly challenging; evidence linking Manson to the murders was scarce and argument anemic at the beginning. Bit by bit, with attentiveness to minute details and repetitive interviews, Bugliosi built his case by reconstructing the sick philosophy of Manson that inculcated his followers. To Bugliosi’s credit, he showed how a Mephistophelean guru had the unique power to persuade others to murder for him, most of them young girls who, disconnected from their families and loath to the world, went out and murdered total strangers at his command, with relish and gusto, and with no evident signs of guilt or remorse. They were not insane, Bugliosi showed, but was in full mental faculties and were aware that society disapproved of their acts. The most unbelievable part of the trial is the evidence that Helter Skelter was the principal reason for the savage murders. Manson’s motive was to ignite some black-white Armageddon, with the motivating nexus between the lyrics of a Beatles song. He envisioned the blacks would destroy all the whites, and the Manson Family would be the only whites to escape the revolution unscathed. He removed all the convictions of his followers and made them do what he asked them.

This book is a feat of judicial triumph, of mind-blowing conspiracy, and of courtroom intrigues. It’s frightening to think of the detrimental and fatal consequences of mind control.

685 pp. W.W. Norton. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Helter Skelter, Charles Manson, and San Francisco

Helter Skelter is one book that I pore over and for which I want to call in sick.

Charlie Manson, the master mind behind the Sharon Tate murders and scores of others, had his root in San Francisco. Following a 10-year term in jail, he found his way to San Francisco. A prison acquaintance found him a room across the bay in Berkeley, where he would wander Telegraph Avenue or sit on the steps of the Sather Gate entrance to UC Berkeley, playing his guitar. He charmed this librarian, Mary Brunner, who ended eventually left her job and joined Manson’s wandering caravan.

Over time he discovered the Haight in the city. He learned that in San Francisco there was free food, music, dope, and love, just for the taking. He slept in the park and lived on the streets, playing music and attracting a crowd. The self-styled guru attracted followers aplenty like a religion. Somewhere along the line, Manson developed a control over his followers so all-encompassing that he could ask them to violate the ultimate taboo—say “kill” and they would do it. He exerted a hypnotic spell on his followers.

Haight has known for its hippie haven. But Haight has an eerie past. The house on 636 Cole Street was once the home to Charles Manson and his budding “Family” that was responsible for murder of 21 people in Los Angeles area. The reason Manson’s presence in the Haight during the Summer of Love resonates with the historically inclined, though, is that he was in many ways essential to it, and his presence in the Haight became representative of the trajectory of Free Love movement from edenic idealism into hard drugs, violence, and sex.

[768] Mother Tongue – Bill Bryson


“It is a cherishable irony that a language that succeeded almost by stealth, treated for centuries as the inadequate and second-rate tongue of peasants, should one day become the most important and successful language in the world.” (Ch.4, p.48)

Mother Tongue is as casual a history of the English language as it is an insightful study of how it becomes one of the most common-spoken languages in the world. Bryson begins with why English has easily invaded foreign cultures: the richness of its vocabulary, the flexibility of the language, and the simplicity in spelling and pronunciation, as English is devoid of any diacritical marks like umlauts and circumflexes. But English is not without its shortcomings. Although the consonants conform to a regular sound pattern, English spelling can be treacherous because for centuries after the Norman conquest in 11th century, English has been disparaged to a peasant language. Even in Shakespeare’s days the use of English for purposes of scholarship was only experimental. After all, without adaptability English could not have permitted Shakespeare to coin some 1,700 new words. Pliancy has made English easy to learn; but such versatility also made regulation of spelling difficult. Having been a second-rate tongue for peasants, proper spelling of English words had been disregarded in history. The changes attributable to such efforts had generally been few and frequently short-lived.

It would be a mistake to presume that English is widely spoken in the world because it has some overwhelming intrinsic appeals to foreigners. Most people speak it . . . because they need it to function in the world at large. (Ch.12, p.181)

Bryson applauds the vitality with which English has spread and evolved itself. He concurs that a system should lay down the ground rules of grammar that both native speakers and foreigners shall abide. That said, where there is proper usage that is conductive to good English, Bryson reminds us what makes good English or bad English is up to an uncomfortably large extent matters of prejudice and conditioning. In this spirit of tolerance, he sees no valid objections to split infinitives (only because Latin doesn’t permit it?), to sentences ending in prepositions, or to the use of “hopefully” at the head of a sentence.

Bryson is not a linguist, neither is he a historian. But he does a good job presenting the evolution of the English language with a fizzle and pop. He writes with an exuberance and excitement about what English is capable of that is infectious and uplifting. Though it’s not a comprehensive history, it does drop in at key moment and point out some of the really interesting, weird, trivial tidbits. It surveys English’s vagaries and perplexities of word origins, spellings, and pronunciations with style, flare and humor.

Penguin Books. Orange Series Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Thoughts on French

Many people traveling in France would share the frustrating experience that they are ignored speaking English. Although English has borrowed and adopted French words, the French language has not welcomed the invasion of English words. They have been more resistant than most. The French have had a low against the encroachment of foreign words since as early as 1911, but this was considerably bolstered by the setting up in 1975 the Maintenance of the Purity of the French Language law, which introduced fines for using illegal anglicisms. You may safely conclude that the French take their language very seriously indeed.

No you won’t be fined for speaking English, but you won’t go very far either. In some of the old Paris dining establishments, especially the ones removed from the tourists’ tread, a hamburger is a steak haché (not le burger). A steak haché is made from minced beef, which is formed into patties ready for cooking and originates from France. Filet mignon generally refers to pork rather than beef. Some menus might provide a one-line English descriptions but don’t expect it to be the convention.

Estimates of the number of anglicisms in French have been estimated to be 2-3 percent or less. So it is altogether possible that the French are making a great deal out of very little. I suppose what really ranckles the French is not that they are borrowing so many words from the rest of the world but that the rest of the world is no longer borrowing so many from them. From the outset the government conceded defeat on a number of words that were too well established to drive out: gadget, holdup, weekend, blue jeans, self-service, and many others. They do recognize the global importance of English but prefer to speak French. But it’s a different case when it comes to relaxing at home in the evening.

But the English-speaking world can be better at looking after the borrowed words than the French were. Quite a number of words that English has absorbed no longer exist in France (at least not widely spoken). The French do not use nom de plume, double entendre, panache, bon viveur, or R.S.V.P. for répondez s’il vous plaît. Instead they write prière de répondre.

Thoughts on English Pronunciation and Spelling

In 9th grade, I had a “study skills” class that reviewed the basics of English grammar and honed writing skills. Mr. Twegbe emphasized correct grammar and perfect spelling. Every class began with a spelling quiz that comprised of five words. It’s not until I read Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue that I realize no other language in the world has more words spelled the same way and yet pronounced differently. The one-to-one correspondence between sound and spelling does not hold true in English. Over a long period of time there is a tendency to compress and mangle words. Despite slip-ups and slurping, we are usually good at distinguishing between the most subtle gradations of sounds. Nut pronunciation does not often correspond to the spelling. Indeed spellings in English can be treacherous, and opportunities for flummoxing so abundant, that even the authorities themselves sometimes stumble. Is it millennium or millenium? Irresistable or irresistible? Despite anomalies, English language possesses three distinguishing features that offset its other shortcomings—the irregularity and anomaly Mr. Twegbe addressed. The consonants are fairly regular in their pronunciation, the language is blessedly free of the diacritical marks that complicate other languages—the umlauts, cedillas, circumflexes, etc.—and, above all, English preserves the spelling of borrowed words, so many people of many nations are immediately aware of the meanings of thousands of words which would be unrecognizable if written phonetically.

Reading Philosophy


This year I have branched out of my comfort zone and read more nonfiction. I select a boor or two from history, religion, linguistics, and current affairs. Philosophy is one subject matter that I’m most hesitant about, partly because it’s very abstract. A little research leads me to Professor Thomas Nagel’s book, an introductory treatise for anyone who has not a clue in the field.

What Does It All Mean? is a really accessible introduction to philosophy and it captures much of what drew me to philosophy in the first place. The book focuses on some of the philosophical problems that, as Nagel notes, “reflective human minds find naturally puzzling.” Nagel discusses nine philosophical issues, including whether we can know anything, the mind-body problem, free will, the nature of justice, ethics, and the nature of death. What I like most about Nagel’s approach is that you don’t have to know anything at all about philosophy to understand and appreciate the puzzling nature of the problems he presents.

Reading “Mother Tongue”


Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue is funny and informative. He explains how English is a global language, more flexible and versatile athan any other languages because despite many booby traps of the language, English still has some of the simplest spellings and pronunciation.

He starts with a couple of chapters about language in general and how it may have arisen. Inevitably this has to be a sketchy account, but good enough for general reading. His real subject is English, and here he produces a large number of facts that will surprise even native speakers of the language. For example, did you know that among the new words that Shakespeare introduced to the language include: barefaced, critical, leapfrog, monumental, castigate, majestic, obscene, frugal, radiance, dwindle, countless, submerged, excellent, fretful, gust, hint, hurry, lonely, pendant, and some 1700 others?

Bryson reassures us not to worry about American English and English English are drifting apart so remorselessly that one day the two nations may not be able to understand each other at all. But if Briton and American of the future baffle each other, it seems altogether likely that they won’t confuse many others—not, at least, if the rest of the world continues expropriating words and phrases at its present rate. The Germans talk about ein Image Problem and das CashFlow, Italians program their computers with il software, French motorists going away for a weekend break pause for les refuelling stops, Poles watch telewizja, Spaniards have a flirt, Austrians eat Big Mäcs, and the Japanese go on a pikunikku. For better or worse, English has become the most global of languages.