Tag Archives: China

Beyond the Great Mountains – Ed Young

Click to buy from Amazon

Ed Young is a much-decorated Chinese-born artist and children’s book creator and Beyond the Great Mountains is a marvel of a picture book. Young uses ancient calligraphy to inspire and illustrate concepts–each double-spread features one or more “chops,” red symbols enclosed in seals. And each page displays one line of a poem that explains the evolution of the world and the physical wonders we know of it. The book opens sideways and reads like a calendar–the art covers both leaves. And it is gorgeous art. Young makes paper collages with rice paper and textures, vivid and rich colors, cut-out shapes for grasses and rivers and birds. It’s seductively beautiful.

Each line of the poem, a poem infused with Chinese sensibility and tradition, is written on the bottom of its two pages and the pages are graduated so that you can read the whole poem before unveiling the art by turning up each succeeding page. Young subtitles the book  A Visual Poem about China and explains that ideas in Chinese literature are not literal, the way they are in the West. The art and the words are evocative–the pictures capture a feeling rather than an example. The words hint at a larger story. “A precious stone embraced heaven and earth, jade” suggests a world of tradition. Jade had many qualities and associations, and was even used to protect the ancestors in their tombs.

The endpapers are a key with ancient and contemporary characters for each word used in the poem pictures–the rounder shapes giving way to the more angular writing we are familiar with. Paper, of course, is a Chinese invention so using cut paper to illustrate the calligraphy closes the circle. Everything about this book is a pure pleasure, not least its evident intelligence. According to Ed Young, “There are things that words describe that pictures never can, and, likewise, there are images that words can never describe.” True. So get hold of a copy of  Beyond the Great Mountains and explore it yourself.    

Beyond the Great Mountains: A Visual Poem about China   Ed Young | Chronicle Books   2005

The Classic of Tea – Lu Yu

Click to find through Amazon

It’s worth hunting for a copy of the 1974 translation of the eighth-century The Classic of Tea by Lu Yu if you are fascinated by tea lore. Lu Yu was an herbalist and tea master who wrote the first and the definitive manual about Chinese tea preparation. His chapters include explicit instructions for the utensils used in preparation and every step of the ceremony involved in brewing fresh tea. The best ladles should be made from pear wood. The best water is from mountain streams. River water may do but it should never be from a part of the river that is turbulent or cascades. Well water is “quite inferior.” 

Tea, according to Lu Yu, is best picked in the second, third and fourth moons, early in the morning when the dew is cool and only on a perfectly clear day. The finest tea leaves may “shrink and crinkle like a Mongol’s boots…look like the dewlap of a wild ox…like a mushroom in whirling flight just as clouds do when they float out from behind a mountain peak…” Lu Yu was also a poet of some note and he waxes most eloquent about his favorite beverage.

Tea is a complex subject, the most common drink in the world beside water for thousands of years, and one that has elaborate rituals surrounding it in several cultures. The Chinese started the whole thing and Lu Yu’s “best seller” on tea spawned generations of competition to find and serve the most exquisite teas with the most extraordinary accessories. Tea is a culture and Lu Yu is its guru and he campaigned for purity in cultivation, roasting and brewing.

Not for Lu Yu were flavored teas with the base additions of spices or other herbs. “Sometimes,” he wrote, “such items as onion, ginger, jujube fruit, orange peel, dogwood berries or peppermint are boiled along with the tea. Such ingredients may be merely scattered across the top for a glossy effect, or they can be boiled together and the froth drawn off. Drinks like that are no more than the swill of gutters and ditches…”  So, let’s just be really clear about that.

There is some great dish about royal and distinguished tea drinkers of the time and careful lists of the best tea-producing regions–some of those areas still grow the most sought-after teas.  I collected some rare teas on trips to China that are fun to brew and delicious to drink. I’m pleased that many of them would have met Lu Yu’s exacting standards. But his touchy spirit has infused the business of tea even today. I was able to find tiny-rosebud tea at a little shop in Hong Kong, along with some very fine white tea. The shopkeeper, however, made it plain that she was selling the rose tea to me under duress. I suppose ignorant foreigners get special dispensation. No true Chinese ch’a connoisseur would dream of polluting delicate taste buds with anything as fey as rosebud tea. Lu Yu, I’m reasonably certain, would be haughtily dismissive. 

The Classic of Tea   Lu Yu (translation by Francis Ross Carpenter) | Little, Brown and Company   1974

Tibet Through the Red Box – Peter Sis

Click to buy from Amazon

Peter Sis creates a spellbinding tale of magic and terror, the memories of a small boy filtered through the journal of his father during a remarkable experience. Tibet Through the Red Box tells the story of the invasion of Tibet as witnessed by a filmmaker and revealed in the book locked away in the red box. When Sis was very young his father was hired by the Chinese government to teach documentary filmmaking to students in Beijing. He left his wife and two young children in post-war Prague, a city in  a country occupied  by the Soviet Union.

It was the mid-1950s–many things observed could not be spoken aloud.  Sis’s father did not return home that Christmas, or the next Christmas. Nothing at all was heard from him. He disappeared. And then, when the boy was drifting in and out of consciousness after a serious accident, his father was suddenly at his bedside, bringing him back to health, telling him endless stories to explain his absence. The stories were connected to the mysterious red box that no one opened.  

Many years later, Sis gets a letter from his father telling him the box is now his. He returns to Czechoslovakia, to his father’s room, and opens the box with a rusty key. Inside he finds a book–a cross between a field journal and a diary, with entries in pen and specimens of flowers and butterflies pressed between the pages. His father spent the missing time in Tibet, in the tense period of the Chinese invasion, lost in the mountains, trying to reach Potala and tell the boy-God-king about the threat to his kingdom, magicked by all manner of apparitions and legends.

Tibet Through the Red Box is an oversize book filled with exquisite art and a kind of poetry. There are beautiful mandalas and terrible Tibetan dieties and pages of cursive on parchment and the boy’s memories of the gentle stories his father told him to help him heal. In those times, events the father lived through could not be discussed, so he turned his adventures into fables. The art is Tibetan-inspired, the musings on colors, deities, enchanted characters and a confusing and sometimes frightening world seen through the eyes of a small boy, are dreamlike and reflective.

This isn’t a children’s book although you could easily explore it with a child who is curious and–well, intelligent, open to the unexpected,  maybe a bit of an old soul. It’s a book full of lessons and information but it is first an experience–of words, colors, textures, dreams and sorrows. Very, very beautiful and intriguing–impressions of a lost place and time. The Dalai Lama is there and not there in the pages of the book. But it called him vividly to mind and made me wish I could see him again and hear him laugh.

Tibet Through the Red Box (Caldecott Honor Book)   Peter Sis | Farrar, Straus and Girous  1998

Stone Soup – Jon J. Muth

Click to buy from Amazon

Stone Soup is an old folk tale that appears in many cultures and often features a trickster wanderer. I think of the purveyors of stone soup as bards, bringing the magic of imagination into the real world and changing what we perceive. In Jon J. Muth’s beautifully-illustrated version, the chefs are three Zen (Cha’an) monks in ancient China, searching for happiness in a poor village. The rich, traditional watercolors bely the impoverished hearts of the villagers and draw you through the pages. Muth has included a lot of symbolism in his art–from the color yellow which is typically reserved for the emperor to a stack of rounded stones that looks like a sitting Buddha.

The mendicant monks are traveling in the countryside when a young one asks the eldest to explain the meaning of happiness. Instead of a talk, the old monk shows him. They approach a picturesque village that has been through hard times. No one will speak to them, answer the door or offer them hospitality. So they collect a pile of twigs, set a tin pot on top and fill the pot with water. Then they light the fire and begin to scour the ground for stones. A small girl in a yellow dress runs out to ask what they are doing and helps them to find the perfect stones. Then she brings a much larger pot from her home to hold all the delicious soup. Soon people are slipping out of their shuttered houses to check out the disturbance.

The monks lament that they have no salt and pepper for the soup so a villager runs to get some. Then another villager brings a basketful of carrots. Soon everyone is getting in on the act–mushrooms, onions, spices, and dumplings all go in the enormous pot. Each household tries to outdo the others in what it contributes. And the monks do make a fragrant, hearty pot of stone soup–enough to feed the whole village. Naturally, the villagers set up a festive banquet and bring all the trimmings to enjoy with their stone soup and then vie to see who will host the distinguished monks in their homes.

Stone Soup is a charming story that shouldn’t be limited to very young bibliophiles. It’s a potent reminder that the power of imagination is limitless when it meets an open heart.  The big life lessons can be gentle ones, delivered as easily as the old monk planned his simple soup. Muth’s work is captivating and thoughtful and Stone Soup is a book worth collecting and keeping–a cookbook for the soul.

Stone Soup   Jon J. Muth | Scholastic Press   2003

Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance – Matthew Kneale

Click to buy from Amazon

Matthew Kneale’s Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance seems oddly named until you realize it was published in 2005. The book is a collection of stories focused on male protagonists who seem either clueless or hopeless when it comes to functioning in the wider world or redeeming an uneventful life.

The stories are accomplished—they deliver all the necessary elements of a good short story and do so in convincing and coherent prose. Some have a little twist at the end, although nothing so heavy-handed as an O’Henry. But it was impossible to care about any of Kneale’s people. They seemed like losers to me and a few were rather thick as well.

The clod who takes his family to China and dares to depart from an organized tour, trying to pronounce a tonal language in a train station rather than point to the Chinese characters, ends up in the middle of nowhere because he is so exceedingly arrogant and tone-deaf. Duh. A suicide bomber loses his nerve and then loses his nerve again. And so? Brits who buy a run-down Italian villa and leave the renovations to return to England are shocked—shocked!—to discover their idyllic domicile has been fitted out with Ikea cabinets, etc. Could not care less about them, but I did feel bad about the formerly charming old house.

Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of the short story form. I once wrote one—just one–that got the most encouraging hand-written rejection from The Paris Review. I still have that slip of paper somewhere. Perhaps I will revisit the idea of writing short stories someday. But I don’t really gravitate towards reading them and, when I do, the bleak modern experiences are depressing most of the time. Don’t really need any help there. I’d rather read stories about people, no matter how fanciful, who I might root for or be entertained by. Would not object to characters who might leave me nonplussed. But these Brits, in the midst of their “abundance,” were someone else’s cup of tea.

Find an abandoned stash of cocaine and start selling it to pad your miserable failed-law-career bank account? Jerk. Stick your novel in a drawer and follow your wealthy older lover around like a puppy because she prefers you that way? Wimp. Get drunk because you have no prospects and move all the garden gnomes in town to one central location with your mates? No wonder you have no prospects. The only character I liked was an irascible old grandfather who didn’t give a crap what people thought of him and didn’t mind being slightly outrageous. That dude had some imagination. The rest of them? Not so much.  

Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance   Matthew Kneale |  Doubleday   2005

River of Smoke — Amitav Ghosh

Click to buy from Amazon

River of Smoke opens in something of a muddle and it takes a while to get into the story. Had I not committed to finishing the books I start each day, I might have abandoned it at several points. But I’m glad I didn’t. Amitav Ghosh is a modern-day Dickens, writing dense, visual depictions of a nineteenth-century world with Dickensian conventions that give the story a deeper authenticity, if not fluidity. Five hundred seventeen really, really packed pages is not a smart choice for a daily read—I’m not a speed reader so it took forever–but it was time spent in a convincingly rendered world.

The novel is the second in a trilogy detailing the time of the opium trade with China. Sea of Poppies, book one, apparently sketches the lives of compelling characters in India where the British have become poppy farmers to produce the export that enriches them in China. River of Smoke takes up where the first book leaves off but it isn’t a smooth transition. A character from book one, Deeti, who is prominent in the opening chapters of book two, just disappears along with her story and we are cast adrift in a different tale of ships in a storm, holds awash in opium sludge, and Indian Parsi merchants gambling fortunes on a single boatload of the contraband drug, all accounts heavily salted with local patois.

Language is both Ghosh’s ace and an obstacle to entry into the book. The opening chapters are stuffed with so much pidgin, patois and whatever that I had no idea what was going on and began to get a little testy at my exclusion from the story for the sake of show-off linguistic mastery. But the Babel that punctuates the entire book is actually a valuable device to establish the individual characters, contrasting cultures, and mixed-race/mixed-class society in old Canton, the epicenter of the opium trade. I got past the idioms and pidgin and learned to use some of the linguistic constructs to tell who was speaking, and to whom.

Three ships limp into Canton harbor after the storm, the Anahita, Bahram Modi’s exquisite three-masted opium hauler, The Redruth, a two-masted brig collecting specimens for the lucrative botanical trade, and the Ibis, a schooner carrying indentured servants from India to the Far East. Descriptions of the storm and the ships are detailed and the research in this and every aspect of the novel is prodigious. Modi, the opium trader, is linked intimately to China, India and the British traders so his story is an illuminating thread to follow through the book.

Ghosh has written a dissertation on the economics of opium, Chinese horticulture, the sights and sounds of the developing ports of Canton (now Guangzhou), Macau and Hong Kong (a near-deserted island in 1838 when the Opium Wars began). Modi, the Parsi trader, has a gourmand’s appreciation for a good meal in any language and he embraces China, its wonders, and one of its women with enthusiasm. His illegitimate son makes a cameo appearance in the book but I spent a lot of time wondering when Ah Fat, the son, would turn up again as he seemed important but faded out pretty quickly.

The foreign traders’ enclave in Canton is painted meticulously as is the glib insistence on Free Trade, a holy writ to the opium importers who look suspiciously like the unbridled and unprincipled capitalists amassing stupendous wealth through exploitation in our own time. Brutality abounds—some deaths are flatly announced and nuanced later; some gruesome threats are foretold explicitly. People and their motives are described minutely and that helps in sorting out the large cast of characters. Set-pieces, like an interview with the exiled Napoleon on St. Helena, are colorful and convincing. One device, the lengthy, stylized letters written by a gay artist to his childhood friend, succeeds in delivering a boatload of information about the crisis in Canton as the stand-off over opium smuggling unfolds. But the correspondence is jam-packed, pages-long and obvious in its didactic intent—that observation does pull you out of the book and remind you of a history lesson.  

Ghosh is a good storyteller—I did fall under the sway of the book and was happy I had resisted the urge to set it aside. River of Smoke—the name refers to China’s Pearl River that carried the ships full of raw opium to Canton and upriver to the interior—is history made vivid and unforgettable. It’s too much to swallow in one big gulp. But, despite my detachment from the characters, who arouse more curiosity than empathy, I wanted to find out what happens. I did learn a lot about a place I have only visited briefly and an era I knew only by name. I’m still not sure about the disappearing characters but suspect they have bigger roles in book one and the concluding volume.

One definite takeaway from River of Smoke: next time I read a book by Amitav Ghosh, I’ll give myself a week to finish it.           

 River of Smoke: A Novel  Amitav Ghosh | Farrar, Straus and Giroux  2011