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Reading “Turkish Awakening”

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This is no light reading, but I thought it would serve as a good starting point to get to know Turkey. Modern Turkey has its historical and cultural roots in Ottoman Empire, which peaked in 16th century, spanning three continents and reaching as far as Egypt, Syria, Jordan, all of Asia Minor and Greece. This is all I know about Turkey.

Turkey has followed a turbulent path in recent years (in light of the recent bombings in Ankara and Istanbul, which makes me hesitate to visit) years. It is like an oddball relative, and understanding it a lifelong effort. As EU is considering to waiver visas of Turkish nationals, and Turkey being the top of my list, it’s time to read and understand history of Turkey.

Born to a Turkish mother and british father, Alev Scott returns to Istanbul to find her roots. She was about to finish this book when the Gezi protests broke out in May 2013, leaving more than 8,000 injured and 6 dead. She had no clue what gave, but it was clear to the world, and the Turks themselves, that the country is far more complicated than it looks. Scott interprets the Gezi spirit in this book and investigates the culture and society that precipitated the movement.

The book’s devotion to Turkish people and culture is a deciding factor. It is replete with real observations on daily life in Turkey. “Turkey is more than a country, it is a religion, and that is why anti-Turkish sentiments are equivalent to blasphemy.” Scott observes. The way Turks talk about their country sounds a religious fervor. The day-to-day anecdotes are so informative and appealing—exactly the way way how I would travel. She also alludes to the village-like interdependency of Turkish society. This leads to the dilemma between a solidarity and parochialism.

Scott writes a rich account of life in Istanbul, with thoughtful examples of how language is the soul of any culture. She also catches the myriad contradictions in Turkey, especially in how Kurds and Turks get along. She approaches her subjects with an open-mindedness and without prejudice. I am only browsing through the book and reading a passage here and there. But I get the impression that this is exactly what I have been looking for in helping me understand the country.

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

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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

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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.

History of Japan

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A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present, Third Edition, paints a richly nuanced and strikingly original portrait of the last two centuries of Japanese history. It takes students from the days of the shogunate–the feudal overlordship of the Tokugawa family–through the modernizing revolution launched by midlevel samurai in the late nineteenth century; the adoption of Western hairstyles, clothing, and military organization; and the nation’s first experiments with mass democracy after World War I. Author Andrew Gordon offers the finest synthesis to date of Japan’s passage through militarism, World War II, the American occupation, and the subsequent economic rollercoaster.

Reading Chinese Text

imageI chose to read the annotated Chinese translation of Twilight in the Forbidden City, originally written by Reginald Johnston, Puyi’s English Teacher from 1919 to 1923, because the translator does a great job to correct and clarify some of Johnston’s observations in hindsight. Johnston is privy to the inside workings of the corrupted imperial household that lived off extravagant allowance from the Republic of China under the privilege treaty after the Qing monarchy was overthrown. A keen observer and a close confidante of the young former emperor, Johnston depicts in vivid details the final years of monarchy before Puyi was evicted from the Forbidden City in 1924. I have a habit of mentally translating Chinese text in English as I read, grappling with the many Chinese terms that are not existent in English. It’s a rewarding brain exercise that shows me the versatility of both languages.

Memoir of Puyi’s English Teacher

imageReally looking forward to reading this one. Reginald Johnston was Puyi’s English teacher in Forbidden City. I had no luck finding the original text in English, but am indebted to a friend working at Oxford University Press for finding me a Chinese translation.

British academic and diplomat Reginald Fleming Johnston (1874–1938) published Twilight in the Forbidden City in 1934. The work is a memoir of Johnston’s time in Beijing between 1919 and 1924, at the court of the Qing Dynasty, where he served as tutor to Aisin-Gioro Puyi (1906–1967), last emperor of China. Johnston was one of only two foreigners who were permitted to enter the imperial palace, and so his account provides a unique Western perspective on the epochal events of the period. The work has a preface by the emperor Puyi and includes detailed descriptions of palace rituals, including Puyi’s wedding ceremony; translations of key documents; Johnston’s perspective on the revolution of 1911 and the 1917 restoration; his observations on Chinese society as a whole; and eye-witness accounts of the political intrigues of the palace.

This is an important book as it provides a very rare glimpse into the very secretive court life of China. It was written and published prior to the Communist takeover in China and therefore sits squarely in one of the most tumultuous periods of Chinese history, without the benefit of hindsight. Through it all, Johnston provides remarkable opinions on the issues of the day via his brilliant writing style.

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.

[770] Empire of the Sun – J.G. Ballard

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“Jim stared at his pallid hands. He knew that he was alive, but at the same time he felt as dead as Mr. Maxted. Perhaps his souls, instead of leaving his body, had died inside his head?” (Ch.32, p.293)

Empire of the Sun is an autobiographical novel of World War II in China. It’s the story of a young boy’s search in vain for his parents in Shanghai after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It is based on events which Ballard himself witnessed and suffered while interned as a boy in Shanghai from 1941 to 1945.

There is a triumph of truthfulness of tone to this book. It’s not about frontline combat but concentrating on prisoners’ experience in the camp through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy. Separated from his pants, Jim first camped out in his own empty house and then in the deserted house of his parents’ friends’ house. Eventually he’s interned for four years in the camp of Lunghua, where he performs a variety of chores under the direction of a Dr. Randsome.

But he had outgrown them and made other friends—Dr. Randsome, Basie, and the American seamen in E Block, with their ancient prewar copies of Reader’s Digest and Popular Mechanics that Jim devoured. (Ch.20, p.176)

War is war, as Ballard convinces reader. There is nothing admirable about it, even for the winning side. There are no heroes, no heroics, just war as the normal condition, and the only battle that to survive. There’s the battle against diseases and hunger. There’s the constant fear of reprisal. The driving force to live, at least for Jim, is the hope to be with his parents again. Maintaining a civil relation to the Japanese guards gets him some perks but it doesn’t ease the threat of death. Aside from the pestilent living condition, food is depleting at a rate faster than that at which people are dying. Ironically, Jim is at the mercy of some Japanese soldiers for food, while the cubicle-mates, an English couple, deprived him of his food rations.

He sucked on his knuckles, glad for even the taste of his pus, then tore stems of grass from the bank and chewed the acid leaves. (Ch.30, p.272)

This book has the authority of experience: a novel of clear moral purpose and power, but written in a detached, matter-of-fact manner like journalist reporting. Ballard didn’t write about this experience until some forty years after the war. He reflected that for the rest of his life, he found it difficult to leave food on his plate after the Lunghua years. This is perhaps the worst consequence of war—surviving and yet traumatized.

375 pp. Washington Press. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[768] Mother Tongue – Bill Bryson

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“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]

“The Fall of Hong Kong”

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Another great find from the used bookstore. The Fall of Hong Kong has been out-of-print and I have never set my eyes on a copy—until today. On December 8th, 1941, Japan launched an all out offensive against Hong Kong. On Christmas Day—just seventeen days later—the Colony was surrendered. This is the story of those seventeen days. It is the long, true, and terrible story of a battle and of the men who fought it: British, Indian, and Canadian soldiers; sailors and airmen; civilians of many different nationalities. These are the people who, with sudden and violent unexpectedness, were jolted from security into a maelstrom of savagery. In face of the recent China’s “celebration of victory over Sino-Japanese War”, this book is a timely slap in the face to the Communist Party, which hardly played a role in liberating Hong Kong.