January 2014 Archives

My Review of "The Soong Dynasty"

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So, I've had grand plans about my blog--all these ways I'm going to revive it, all these things I'm going to post, some of which are already written.

And then I just don't.

But today I just am posting. And what I'm posting is a review I also posted on Goodreads.

These days, I write a review of every book I admit to reading on Goodreads. (There are a few books I don't care to publicize that I've read. And there's not really a way to announce that I've reread a book, and I do reread books.) I started out using Goodreads as a way simply to keep tracks of books I've read--but I actually like some of the reviews I've written and had the occasionally interesting conversation as a result.

So here's the most recent review I've written. I'll work back from it.

The Soong Dynasty
by Sterling Seagrave

Riveting, harrowing, tragic: rarely do I exclaim, "My god! Oh my god!" or "Jesus Christ!" over and over while I read a book, sometimes more than once on a single page, but I did with this one. What else can do you when you encounter sentences like "He was no match for military man whose troops enjoyed disemboweling young girls and winding their intestines around their naked bodies while they were still conscious"?

I'm just so flabbergasted. I'm not a complete ignoramus when it comes to China: I was a Mormon missionary in Taiwan in the 1980s, for starters. The Taiwan part was not by choice, even if the missionary part was: I volunteered to be a missionary, but I had no interest in Asia; I wanted to go to France or Italy. But missionaries have no say in where they serve, so when I got a letter informing that I would be going to Taiwan and learning Mandarin, I got out a map and thanked the powers that be that at least I wasn't going to Alabama.

I didn't learn much about Chinese history during my 18 months as a missionary except for the existence of Double 10 Day and who both Chiang Kai-Chek and Sun Yat-Sen were. The cult of personalty surrounding both thoroughly freaked me out. OK, I also learned that there were people who HATED CKC; I had a friend whose uncle was incarcerated in a notorious prison, convicted of the crime of sedition for fighting against CKC when he showed up after WWII and took over the island with help from the US. And I became fluent in Mandarin and grew to understand certain Chinese sensibilities.

In the early 1990s I went to Shanghai to teach English and HATED IT. The Mainland was just awful after Taiwan: my bosses and colleagues were so mean! I couldn't understand why at first.

Then I saw things like the sign on the Bund declaring its famous park off-limits to dogs and Chinese. Or the palatial homes Westerners built for themselves while the locals lived in squalid huts. I started to understand why.

Reading The Soong Dynasty, I really understand why.

Much of The Soong Dynasty is set in Shanghai, because it was wHere foreign powers held most sway. Then and now, that is one of the reasons for Shanghai's wealth--and the fact that so much of that wealth was concentrated in the hands of foreigners and Chinese unwilling to share with the average 中国人 was one reason said average 中国人hated them.

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