Monday, May 17, 2010

Hong Kong History and Wild Swans of China

As my relaxing reading lately I have been dividing my attention between two books, A History of Hong Kong by Frank Welsh and Wild Swans by Jung Chang. Both books have pro-British Empire glosses that are undermined by the actual historical facts recounted.

As the title would indicate, A History of Hong Kong is written in a competent, standard historical manner. It is unappologetically pro-British. Frank Welsh seems to think the package of British civilization and British racism and attrocities is a package any wise country would buy at any point in history. Yet he does not hold back the facts, including the gory details of the Opium Wars, including exactly which British mercantile families and politicians benefitted. For me, the most useful part of the book so far has been the color it has cast on The U.S. War Against Asia. It is obvious that Commander Perry's military expedition against Japan was merely a shadow copy of the British operations against China in the decades that preceded it. That makes sense, but Perry's chronicler only mention's his studies of Japanese history, not his apparently careful study of how the Brits grabbed Hong Kong.

Wild Swans is the more complex and interesting book. If you don't know the history of modern China, it certainly paints a picture by telling of the struggles of the ancestors of the author to make good under the old Empire, under the Kuomintang, and then as communist bureaucrats. In the introduction Chang gushes with a love of modern England and a hatred of Mao, but so far in the book the stories sound authentic enough. No one comes out looking good. Bad as the communists may be painted, the Kuomintang were worse; bad as the Kuomintang might have been, they were better than the Manchus. Some of Jung Chang's ancestors are Manchus, but they are mostly Han. Because the book concentrates on the stories of her mother and grandmother, we see the meaning of modern reforms is particularly compelling for women. On the other hand Chang takes many opportunities to trash the folly of peasants and the incorporation of peasant knowledge into modern communist Chinese practice.

Closer to home, people in this coastal California community are talking about the Gulf oil spill. Good thing we don't allow drilling off our shores. Of course we drive our cars just as much as people in the gulf states. Soon I need to get up from this computer and drive to a meeting in Boonville to try to get an environmentalist elected to office. I tried to get the other organizers to hold these meetings by teleconference, but no, they are old fashinioned, they like in-person meetings. As a result I have missed almost all of the meetings. I am driving today because suddenly our campaign seems to be in trouble; I'm hoping my personal presence will have an impact, but in fact it will probably be one last waste of time and gasoline.

Wild Swans's stories of hunger and physical hardship in 20th century China reminds me of how corrupted by material wealth our American society is. Point Arena like anywhere else. Voters here are mostly apathetic about the primary coming up in June. Those who liked to complain about Bush have been replaced by a far smaller number of people who like to complain about Obama, but mostly politics and economics are just too complicated for Californians to bother their heads with. On the other hand, the turnout for Fishtank was good Saturday at the Arena Theatre. Nothing against Fishtank, they were great. As to democracy, forget about it. The captains of the U.S.S. Ship of State can sink it just fine, without any help from citizens at all.

More about the books at Amazon:

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