Thursday, April 07, 2005

Books on China

I've been trying to catch up some on the Far Eastern side of history and culture, but with mixed results.

The Cambridge Illustrated History of China - author?. John Hood at the John Locke Foundation loaned me his copy; somehow I knew someone up there could recommend a history. A thorough overview of the country; amazing how much I simply never heard of, and interesting to consider how long China has been a nation -- National Geographic compared the Han Dynasty with the roughly coincidental Roman Empire, but there's not a comparable entity in European history. The absence of a timeline, anywhere, was perplexing, though; it would have been helpful for me if there were more crossreferences to Western history, to highlight the advances in technology which didn't reach Europe for centuries after the Chinese put them in practice.
Art: Good / Message: Neutral / Kids: One or two illustrations may be problematic / Read more: Possibly.

The Art of War - Sun Tzu. An ROTC friend loaned it to me in college; this time I borrowed from the corporate library. A rediscovered classic; the anecdotes added over the centuries are sometimes better than the original text. My favorite this reading is "the doctrine of the sheathed sword" -- the successful general will find a strategem leading to victory without a fight. A little tiring to read but not overlong.
Art: OK / Message: OK / Kids: OK / Read more: ??

The Good Earth - Pearl S. Buck. An excellent example of good art, mixed message. Peasant farmer Wang Lung raises his family to the first levels of landed prosperity through hard work and patient suffering. He has a basic sense of shame and pity, exhibits the Confucian virtue of filial piety, and shows a general unexamined sense of ethical behavior; if Francis Schaeffer had been Chinese, he would have called this "the Confucian memory". Wang's gentleness toward his profoundly handicapped daughter ("My poor fool"), in a time when she might have simply been killed off, is a highlight.

On the other hand, Wang worships idols of clay; winks at infanticide; enriches himself with stolen goods; consorts with a prostitute and eventually buys one as a rival to his longsuffering wife O-lan; entices his troublesome uncle and aunt into opium addiction; and generally makes an idol of his land. The ambiguous ending suggests his financial success has led his sons away from his own basic virtues, and Wang Lung's decline into adultery, while reminiscent of David's, dwells too much and too long on his lusts.
Art: Excellent / Message: Mixed / Kids: No / Read more: Maybe

Judge Dee at Work - Robert van Gulik. Five short stories about 7th-century magistrate in China, solving local crimes and administering rough justice. No Brother Cadfael, this - nearly every woman in the book is a "courtesan", though that fact is treated as stage dressing generally. How prevalent that was in historical context I don't know but it pushes this lower on the message side. Judge Dee is fair enough as a jurist but the dialogue is implausible and the style is tiresome.
Art: Fair / Message: Fair / Kids: No / Read more: No

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