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.

The city grew along the river and sprawled across the countryside. It ate slums in its path and spat out more on its flanks. Small nineteenth-century buildings along the Bund were replaced by stone towers housing the Chartered Bank, the Hong Kong-Shanghai Bank, and banks from New York and London; other new buildings housed international oil companies, and the noble houses of the taipans. The first Chinese department stores came into existence, floor after floor jammed with dry goods and foreign luxuries. The Nanking Road glittered like Broadway at night. Motorcars replaced horse-drawn carriages and pushed through crowds like rhinos at a waterhole; around them rickshaws swirled like herds of long-horned antelope. The old British Club, with its gin-soaked verandah facing the river, was replaced by a stone club that would have pleased an West End Tory.

But there was another side to this prosperity--the long hours, the poor wages, and the grim conditions for the Chinese who lived and died in the factories. Boys and girls less than ten years old worked as slaves thirteen hours a day and dropped in exhaustion to sleep on rags beneath the machines. They were sold to factories and could not leave the guarded grounds night or day. Everywhere in the streets lay bodies of the destitute, corpses of starved children and unwanted babies. In any year from 1920 to 1940, as many as 29,000 bodies were picked out of the city's alleys, fished from the sewers, canals, and rivers.

This isn't the first book I've read about Chinese history, though I admit I haven't read many: I read Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45 by Barbara Tuchman in the late 1990s, though I read it as much because I love Tuchman as because it had anything to do with understanding China. I read Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng about four or five years ago. And I read The Soong Dynasty mostly because it has been on my shelf for decades and I wanted to get rid of it--I figured I'd read it and pass it on to a used bookstore.

It's such an appalling tale of the triumph of cruelty, corruption and incompetence. Some reviewers here complain that they find the book less than credible because it's clear that Seagrave has an agenda: he wants to speak for those who were brutalized by the KuoMinTang, which doesn't seem so bad. Based on what I know--which I admit is limited--I found the book very credible, all the more so because it explains things I never previously understood.

Why, for instance, I always wondered, did the Communist Revolution involve such brutality against any Chinese who had even a taint of foreignness about them? Why were Mao et al so vicious in their retribution? Well, given that foreigners and foreign-educated Chinese were helping CKC and his cronies systematically plunder the country, you can understand that, even as it continues to horrify you.

China had enough of its own problems that it could spread misery among its people easily enough by itself, but there's little question that instead of helping, we actually made things worse by propping up a government that did not have the best interest of the country at heart.

And the really funky thing in all of this for me is how much the paternalistic, proprietary attitudes of western missionaries and former missionaries to China enabled our meddling.

One more reason the whole enterprise of Christian missionary work in China was a big nasty mistake.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on January 12, 2014 12:47 PM.

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