Sunday 30 March 2014

Book Club: The Song of King Gesar and April's pick

March’s pick was The Song of King Gesar, by Alai, translated by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin.  I assume you’ve read it; if you need a plot summary see here.

I thought this was a wonderfully strange book, an eye-opener on the mysterious, different culture of Tibet.  I often felt I was reading it through multiple veils of ignorance: my ignorance of Tibet and its history; of Buddhism; of Chinese. I couldn’t help wondering how much of this book was myth, how much was Alai, and how much, in the English edition, was the translators?

The translation flows naturally: Above, the sky was a vacant blue that imbued sorrow and despair with beauty.  Lovely.  But how closely does that map with whatever Alai originally wrote? Is it a translation, or an interpretation?  And does it matter? What do you think?

I found it easy to imagine the myths retold in this book being spun by a storyteller round a campfire on the grasslands. Which was fitting since The Song of King Gesar is, I suppose, above anything else, an extended meditation on stories and storytelling in the lives of individuals, and in forging a culture’s identity. It is fantastic that this book has been made available in English, so stories that have helped shape, and still sustain, the inner lives of Tibetans can be widely read – particularly given Tibet’s current troubles.

I loved this book’s descriptions of the Tibetan landscape – the vast grasslands, vast skies, and snow-capped mountains – it conveys a compelling sense of place.  I also loved learning about the central role of horses in Tibetan life – who could resist the various talking horses?

That said, I did in places find this book hard going, partly because I found it difficult to keep all the Tibetan names straight, and partly because my lack of knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism often left me floundering around with questions about the various Bodhisattvas, or getting distracted by irrelevant detail – such as why Guanyin appeared sometimes to be male, and sometimes to be female?

However, I did better than either Sarah, or Gao Shang, who both told me they gave up on this book. 

Sarah said: “I only got as far as page 8. I gave up after the gruesome description of the demons feasting on human flesh.”

I didn’t mind the gruesomeness, and some of the writing about the demons I really enjoyed – demons scurrying around in human blood, demons as moles burrowing away under the soil, destroying the link between the earth and vegetation, so: “the pasture grass reached down with its roots and grasped nothing but black emptiness.”  It is good to be reminded of the centrality of grass to life, even far, far from the grasslands.

Gao Shang said: “The device of the story and the storyteller was confusing, and I kept losing track of what was happening.”

If you accept this is a book in part about stories and storytelling, then the interleaving of passages from the storyteller and the story makes sense.  

I would suggest both Gao Shang and Sarah try again – perhaps with judicious use of skipping?

April’s Pick: Mr Selden’s Map of China: The Spice Trade, a Lost Chart and the South China Sea by Timothy Brook

The Selden Map is the most important Chinese map of the last seven centuries, but until recently it has been largely neglected and little understood. Finally unlocking its secrets has completely changed the way we think about the history of China’s relations with the world.

This extraordinary map was bequeathed to the Bodleian Library, in Oxford, the UK, in 1659 by John Selden, a London business lawyer, political activist, former convict, MP and the city's first Orientalist scholar. Timothy Brook came across it in 2009, when he saw an object of great beauty, painted by hand and featuring drawings of details such as mountains, trees and flowering plants. He realised he had before him a puzzle that had to be solved, an exceptional artefact, so unsettlingly modern-looking it could almost be a forgery.

But it was genuine and - even more incredible - it is one of a kind. What it has to tell us is astonishing: it shows China, not cut off from the world, but a participant in the embryonic networks of global trade that fuelled the rise of Europe - and which now power China's ascent. However it raises as many questions as it answers: how did John Selden acquire it? Where did it come from? Who re-imagined the world in this way? What can it tell us about the world at that time?

Like a cartographic detective story, this book provides the answers. From the Gobi Desert to the Philippines, from Java to Tibet and into China itself, Brook uses the map (actually a schematic representation of China's relation to astrological heaven) to tease out the varied elements that defined this crucial period in China's history. 

Timothy Brook was Shaw Professor of Chinese at Oxford when he first saw the Selden Map, and he is now professor of history at the University of British Columbia. The author of eight books on Chinese history, his most widely read book is Vermeer's Hat.

Mr Selden’s Map of China is published by Profile Books in hardback & eBook, priced in local currencies.

Both The Song of King Gesar and Mr Selden’s Map of China are eligible for the ABB book of the Lunar Year in the Year of the Horse. See the post of Jan 30 2014 for details.  If you would like to vote for either title please do so by posting a comment, or contacting

New and Notable: Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival, by David Pilling

What makes Japan tick? Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival, by David Pilling, confronts that question head-on. It explores the misunderstood island nation's history and culture, resilience, and significance.

Japan’s shift from feudal shogunate to superpower is often overlooked as a result of China's overshadowing presence, nevertheless Japan remains the world’s third most important economy.  It accounts for eight percent of global output, it is the world’s biggest creditor nation, has the second highest foreign exchange reserves, and in 2012  was vying with China as the biggest holder of American debt.

Despite being the single most vulnerable nation in the world to earthquakes, and having recently suffered the catastrophic triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown – where parts of Japan shifted 13 feet to the east and the earth was knocked off its axis, altering its spin and shortening our days – Japan has a great ability to bend adversity to its advantage. More, it is a fascinating microcosm through which to view the current global economic situation. The new monetary stimulus plan puts the United States and Europe to shame and has the potential to lift Japan out of inflation. In many ways, Pilling notes, the Western world has much to learn when it comes to Japan and its innovative people and culture.

With years of experience living in Japan, and with interviews from students to government ministers to award-winning novelists, Pilling explores the country’s politics, history, culture, economics and society to get behind the relative formality and restraint of the public Japan to discover a far more anarchistic, peculiar and irrational place, which nonetheless remains one of the most vital and relevant countries today – and one whose art of survival we ignore at our cost.

David Pilling is the Asia editor of the Financial Times.  Previously, he was the paper’s Tokyo bureau chief.  He has twice been named Best Commentator by the Society of Publishers in Asia for his columns on China, Japan, India and Pakistan.  He lives in Hong Kong.

Bending Adversity is published by Penguin / Allen Lane in hardback and eBook, priced in local currencies.

Friday 28 March 2014

Women of Letters

Is the art of letter writing dying?  Australians Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire don’t think so. In homage to letter writing, they founded the literary salon Women of Letters, which invites women to write in with their own letters: love letters; letters to love itself; letters of revenge; of hope; of political anger; of reportage; whatever women feel moved to write about, addressed to whomever they wish.  They have a few brave male correspondents too, some of them writing to the women who’ve changed their lives.

Of course, letter writing no longer means simply putting pen to paper, it can just as easily mean tapping at a keyboard, and then pressing send on an e-mail. Women of Letters embraces the technological changes that have themselves changed letter writing.

Last year, Women of Letters ran a tour in Indonesia. This year, the salon is teaming up with the Ubud Writers and Readers’ Festival (UWRF) in an initiative called From page to homepage: letter writing goes digital. 

Here, Marieke and Michaela write you a letter explaining how you can participate, even if you can’t make it to Ubud, either now or for the Festival, which will take place in October.  For those of you who have an Asian language as your mother tongue, please note that the language of Women of Letters is English. 

Dear readers of Asian Books Blog,

We've curated Women of Letters events in Australia and all over the world to focus on the value of letter writing and reviving the lost art of written correspondence. 

Now you can share your letters from Asia with the Women of Letters online letter writing platform on the UWRF website.  
Building on the momentum of previous workshops and events held in Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Ubud – which included lit-world luminaries like Anne Summers, Lionel Shriver, Ayu Utami and musician Clare Bowditch – our innovative letter writing portal encourages entries via snail mail, digital upload, video or soundbyte submission. Each month we will explore a different theme, the first being A Letter to a Wish.  
It’s easy to do – here’s a simple guide to get you started: 
Point your mouse in the direction of
Head to the About section, click on the Women of Letters button.
Browse the selection of letters already posted, or else submit your own digital version. This can include a postcard image of where you are, and can be personalised with different handwriting styles and letter design. Opt to go public or stay anonymous – it’s up to you. 
You can also link to a Soundcloud file or a YouTube video (like an audio/video book, but letter form). Try and ensure these are no longer than 5-10mins. 
Finally, for those who want to keep it completely old-school, letters can be sent by post to the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival - the address is on the website - who will then scan and upload the letter for you. This is also a great option if you have a story to share, but no access to a computer or internet connection. 
We hope you will use this platform to explore your creative side while connecting with other women writers.

We're so proud that what began as a slightly mad idea to single-handedly revive the lost art of correspondence has spread so far across the world. It's our wish that you will use this beautiful platform to continue sharing your stories and your letters

We look forward to reading your letters,

Warm regards, Michaela McGuire & Marieke Hardy, Women of Letters 

Women of Letters  is supported by the Australian Government through the Australia International Cultural Council, an initiative of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Thursday 27 March 2014

Published Today: By All Means Necessary by Elizabeth Economy and Michael Levy

In the past thirty years, China has transformed from an impoverished country where peasants comprised the largest portion of the populace to an economic power with an expanding middle class and more megacities than anywhere else on earth.  Like every other major power in modern history, China is looking outward to find the massive quantities of resources needed to maintain its economic expansion; it is now engaged in a far-flung quest around the world for fuel, ores, water, and land for farming.  Chinese traders and investors buy commodities, with consequences for economies, people, and the environment around the world. Meanwhile the Chinese military aspires to secure sea lanes, and Chinese diplomats struggle to protect the country's interests abroad.  In By All Means Necessary: how China's resource quest is changing the world  Elizabeth Economy and Michael Levi explore the unrivaled expansion of the Chinese economy and what has been required to sustain this meteoric growth.

They cover…
·      Is Chinese demand at the root of soaring global resource prices?
·      How will China’s state-controlled companies influence the commodities free market?
·      What effect does the resource quest have on Chinese foreign policy?
·      Does China’s rise as a naval power signal a plan to control global shipping routes?

Clear, authoritative, and provocative, By All Means Necessary is a sweeping account of where China's pursuit of raw materials may take the country in the coming years and what the consequences will be - not just for China, but for the whole world.

About the Authors

Elizabeth Economy is Senior Fellow and Director of Asia Studies, Council on Foreign Relations and author of The River Runs Black. Michael Levi is Senior Fellow and Director, Program on Energy Security and Climate Change, Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Power Surge.

By All Means Necessary is published by OUP, in hardback and eBook, priced in local currencies.