Showing posts with label history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label history. Show all posts

27 July 2020

Film review: Queen of the Desert (2015) by Werner Herzog, *****

Synopsys

Gertrude Bell, a daughter of wealthy British parents, has no interest in the social life of the London elite. Balls, receptions and the British aristocracy bring her only boredom. She wants to study, learn and above all see the world.

Aspiring to have at least some kind of activity in her life, Gertrude decides to find freedom and move to be with her uncle, who occupies a high diplomatic position in Tehran. From Iran she moves on to Amman and Damascus, some of the main political centers in the crumbling Ottoman Empire.

So begins her lifelong adventure across the Arab world, a journey marked by danger, a passionate affair with a British officer, Henry Cadogan, and an encounter with the legendary T.E. Lawrence.

With an all-star cast, including Nicole Kidman, Robert Pattinson, Damien Lewis and James Franco, Queen of the Desert is the uplifting, inspiring and extraordinary true story of one woman who, against all odds, changed the course of history.


Review

A gripping historical film on the life of an extraordinary woman who carved the life she wanted out of a hard world made for men.

We learn a lot about life in the latter part of the Turkish occupation of what is now Jordan and Iraq, areas where nomads roamed free without borders and ancient religions perpetuated irreconcilable conflicts.

Never seeking power she ended up making political decisions that are still relevant in the Middle East a century later. It would have been interesting if the movie had shown why she helped certain tribes rise to power through British help and not others. In the end, a successful but unhappy woman who spent most of her life alone.



02 May 2020

Book review: Cixi (2013) by Jung Chang, ***

Synopsys

In this groundbreaking biography, Jung Chang vividly describes how Empress Dowager Cixi - the most important woman in Chinese history - brought a medieval empire into the modern age. Under her, the ancient country attained virtually all the attributes of a modern state and it was she who abolished gruesome punishments like 'death by a thousand cuts' and put an end to foot-binding. Jung Chang comprehensively overturns the conventional view of Cixi as a diehard conservative and cruel despot and also takes the reader into the depths of her splendid Summer Palace and the harem of Beijing's Forbidden City, where she lived surrounded by eunuchs - with one of whom she fell in love, with tragic consequences.

Packed with drama, fast-paced and gripping, it is both a panoramic depiction of the birth of modern China and an intimate portrait of a woman: as the concubine to a monarch, as the absolute ruler of a third of the world's population, and as a unique stateswoman. (inside flap of the book)



Review

Lots of information here, as usual for Chang. She digs deeper than anyone in Chinese sources and is very meticulous in her writing. One learns not only about Cixi but also about much of the troubled history that surrounded her long reign. Often the reader is led by the hand through the lives of the many characters depicted, and one has the impression of living in the Forbidden City or the Summer Palace. A real light on the life of late imperial China.

The major problem of the book is that the author is in love with her protagonist. This produces a hagiography rather than a biography. Cixi is praised for much, too much, and hardly ever criticized. When she is criticized, then immediately follows an excuse for her mistakes (of which there were many) or her shortsightedness.



Cixi did a lot of good, but also a lot of evil, and only the former is described in this book. Perhaps this is because Chang seems to be in love with female figures of Chinese history. Her Wild Swans remains my favorite and I am looking forward to reading her new book on the Soong sisters, hoping that it will be more impartial than this one.

Have a look at my list of books on China reviewed in this blog.


16 February 2019

CKS Memorial and stroll around Taipei

CKS Memorial
Visit to an important landmark of the city of Taipei, whatever you think of the history behind the man.

The most obviously awesome sight is the change of the guard in front of the huge statue of CKS sitting between flags of the Republic of China. It takes over ten minutes for the procedure to complete, and there always are lots of people watching.

A highly controversial man he was: the museum takes you through the various phases of his life, from a traditional Chinese background to world leader dealing with Churchill and Roosevelt.

His father died when he was very young and he grew up attached to his mother.

He was married off to his first wife at age 14! Much later he met Soong Meili, the woman of his life..... but still had a concubine in traditional Chinese royal fashion!

CKS car


The exhibition lavishes praise on him but I would not say there is a
cult of personality. his political and military failures and defeats are also covered in text and photos.

There are other art exhibitions in the mausoleum, one about Andy Worhol and another by YawaiMeika, a young (born 1990) lady painter who belongs to an aboriginal tribe in Taiwan.

We also try our luck at the concert hall and theater but there is not much going on, the next concert is in a week's time! perhaps because of the New year celebrations, oh well.

A pleasant walk around the mausoleum, lots of people walking around, children playing, elderly watching on wheelchairs, it is a weekend family day out despite a cloudy and windy day. Many exotic plants, the grapefruit flowers gift us the most intense scent of the afternoon.

Lunch at a simple but friendly eatery just outside the memorial complex, Steamed chicken, pork intestines. Shared formica tables, paper napkins and metal chopsticks which I don't really like, too slippery. I later noticed packs of single-use wooden chopsticks but they are for takeout clients. As I was thinking to ask for permission to use them a Deliveroo driver came by to pick up an order.

pork intestines


On the way to the hotel, past lots of lit paper balloons for CNY,  a well-deserved foot and body massage, a popular feature of central Taipei, 1200 ntd, 1 hour foot and 1 hour body.


10 May 2018

Film review: Youth (2017) by Feng Xiaogang, *****

Synopsis

When Xiaoping joins the military, delicate dreams are dashed by the events of a China undergoing revolution. The devastating Sino-Vietnamese war crashes into 1970s China, changing the lives of the Army's young new recruits forever.

In this epic spanning several decades, Youth shows Comrades of the People's Liberation Army fight amongst themselves as much as on the battlefield – and cause as much damage as the war that tore their lives apart.


Review

Incredibly passionate and captivating historical film about life in China during the huge transformations that took place after Mao's death. A love story starts during the excesses of the cultural revolution with the "great helmsman" still in power, and the trauma of the war against Vietnam in 1979. After that, rapid reforms make many Chinese rich, and many officials corrupt, but the human story of the protagonists carries through the ages. One man's good deeds are taken for granted and not appreciated any more.

The film was supposed to be released just before the 2017 party congress but it was held up until after the congress itself for some reason. Maybe because it contains thinly veiled criticism of Mao and also raises many questions about the new system of the country.

A strongly recommended film about how China became what it is today.

See other film on China reviewed in this blog.






25 December 2017

My book on the Maldives is available in English! "Journeys through the Maldives" by Marco Carnovale

Typical Maldivan boat
Tales from the many trips to the Maldives of the author. Avoiding the tourist resorts, he visited remote villages, where tradition is combined with innovation and technology, meeting local people and trying to understand their culture. Always island hopping by boat, he went from postcard perfect uninhabited islands and through the streets of the bustling capital Malé, in its hidden corners often overlooked by tourism. In dozens of dives, he witnessed the richness of wildlife and the sparkling colors of these seas.

But the islands are facing rapid changes and serious problems, and they are not always the paradise they seem. The Maldives are at a turning point, with political, economic and environmental changes that pose difficult challenges to the government and to the nation.

The book is completed by an analytical index, a chronology of the Maldivian history, a bibliography and some black and white photographs.

Available on all Amazon websites.


In the UK buy it here



In Italy buy it here



In France, Belgium and Switzerland buy it here



In the US buy it here



In Canada buy it here







06 December 2017

Book review: Wild Swans (1992), by Jung Chang, *****

Synopsis

Through the lives of three different women - grandmother, mother and daughter - this book tells the story of 20th-century China. At times scarcely credible in the details it reveals of the suffering of millions of ordinary Chinese people, it is an unforgettable record of tyranny, hope and ultimate survival under conditions of extreme harshness.

In 1924, at the age of 15, the author's grandmother became the concubine of a powerful warlord, whom she was seldom to see during the 10 years of their "marriage". Her daughter, born in 1931, experienced the horrors of Japanese occupation in Manchuria as a schoolgirl, and after their surrender joined the Communist-led underground fighting Chiang Kai-Shek's Kuomintang. She rose to be a senior Communist official, but was imprisoned three times. Her husband, also a high official and one of the very first to join the Communists, was relentlessly persecuted, imprisoned and finally sent to a labour camp where, physically broken and disillusioned, he lost his sanity.

The author herself grew up during the Cultural Revolution, at the time of the personality cult of Mao and the worst excesses of the Gang of Four. She joined the Red Guard but after Mao's death she was to become one of the first Chinese students to study abroad.


Review

This is one of the best books I have ever read. It traces a micro-story of a family through three generations of highly motivated women interwoven with the history of China over almost a century. It it meticulous and fastidious about details and context, which allows the reader to immerse himself into the incredible evolution and revolution of this continent/country.

China went from the feudal system of the late Qing dynasty to a modern superpower, passing through two revolutions, civil war, foreign aggression, a world war, economic transformations that took other countries centuries to complete. In the course of these events China was invaded, then locked itself up and isolated its people from the world, then opened up again after Mao's death, and that is roughly where the book ends.

So we don't see the new China in this book, but we can understand how it got there and why the Chinese today are so eager to break with the early period of the People'd republic and open up to the world. Even the Communist Party of China today considers the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, two of the central events in the book, to have been complete mistakes.

Translated in 37 languages and 13 million copies later, this book is banned in China, perhaps because it is very critical of Mao. Even if today the policies of China are the opposite of what Mao preached, the time to criticize the great Chairman too much has not yet arrived. Deng Xiaoping famously said Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong. This book would probably reverse those two numbers!









23 September 2017

Film review: Farewell my concubine (1993) by Chen Kaige, *****

 Synopsis

The film gives a most interesting overview of China's history in the XX century through the eyes of Peking opera actors. We see the country moving from the fall of the Qing Empire (the last eunuch is still around for a long time after the advent of the Republic), through the Japanese invasion, the civil war and the various phases of the Communist rule.

Two boys are educated to play two classical roles in the Peking Opera, one masculine and the other effeminate. They are so good at it that they play the opera together for their entire career: during the chaos of China after the fall of the Qing Empire, during the Japanese occupation, the brief Nationalist takeover, the Communist take over, the Cultural Revolution.

Gong Li becomes the wife of the masculine actor, and as such created serious, and ultimately unsolvable, dilemmas in the mind of her husband, with tragic consequences.






Review

In this film the character Douzi represents in many ways the real life of the actor Leslie Cheung. Douzi was gay and struggled to be accepted in the society of his time, and so was Cheung in real life. He is however successful professionally and admired for that, and so is Cheung, the first Hong Kong actor who acted in a mainland China film. And the real life of Cheung represents Douzi's role in the film: he can't take the pressure any more and ends up committing suicide. Beautiful costumes!

A courageous masterpiece by Chen Kaige, a pillar of Chinese film in the XX century. He addressed the controversial issues of homosexuality and the Cultural Revolution in a film before anyone else dared to do so in the People's Republic of China. For this "farewell my Concubine" was banned shortly after its release in 1993, only to be cleared by the censors a while later in an abridged form.

This was the very first film from the People's Republic of China to win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

See my other reviews of films about China here on this blog.

















Buy this film by clicking on one of these links



10 April 2017

Film review: You and Me (2013) by Zhang Yimou, ****

Synopsis

Golden-globe winning Chinese film director Zhang Yimou has staged his first Peking opera at the NCPA, spectacularly fusing the traditional and modern together for his production of You and Me. This production is an overwhelming feast for the senses. Lavish and colorful costumes, unique music composed and conducted by Zhu Shaoyu, and a world class ensemble that features the greatest stars of the Peking opera, including Meng Guanglu, Shi Yihong, and Li Mingyan, turn You and Me into an unforgettable experience. You and Me is based on the age-old tale from the Zuo legend, Lord Zheng defeats Duan in Yan, which is a story about deceit and the power of filial love. Zhang Yimou recounts the story using the stylistic elements of the Peking opera, which in turn he makes accessible for an entirely new audience. This release also includes Tradition versus Modernity, a documentary about Peking opera and the making of You and Me.

It can be a bit difficult to follow for a Western audience, even with the help of subtitles. We are not used to Chinese music's tonalities and rhythm, but I would encourage the listener to try and be patient and they.

"You and Me" is based on the age-old tale from the Zuo legend “Lord Zheng defeats Duan in Yan” – a story about deceit and the power of filial love. Zhang Yimou recounts the story using the stylistic elements of the Peking Opera, which in turn he makes accessible for an entirely new audience.

The production of "You and Me" attaches great importance to tradition. It follows the aesthetic principle of paying tribute to the Peking opera tradition while adding a new approach to its traditional props of “one desk and two chairs”. Says Zhang Yimou: “My concern was to produce a unique Peking opera, not a unique genre, but a unique way of putting it across.” (from IMZ)


Buy your DVD here


09 January 2017

A brief introduction to the history of Belgian Wine

Sparkling wine made in Belgium
When one thinks of Belgian drinks, it is beer that come to mind. It is, without any shadow of a doubt, among the best in the world. One also think of fried potatoes and chocolate. Or perhaps Flemish lace and jazz, after all Adolphe Sax was Walloon. Few among those who will to read this post probably heard of, let alone tasted, Belgian wine. And yet, wine production in Belgium goes back a long time, and has recently made a remarkable comeback.

Ancient origins

When the Romans colonized a new land, they paid attention to two details: thermal baths and wine. Vital pleasures to reward the legions after their battles. In Belgium, the town of Spa (in Latin it means Salus per Aquam, health through water) has become synonym with thermal baths all over the world. And how about wine?

When I moved to Belgium in 1994 I could not find any local wine, for a good reason: there wasn’t any. And yet, wine in Belgium has ancient roots. It was part of that cultural heritage that Rome had inherited from Greece and would have left to the rest of Europe. In the Gallia Belgica, besides Spa, one finds the footprint of Roman wine. The Gallia Belgica was larger than today’s Belgium, and we know for sure there were Roman vineyards along the river Moselle, in today’s Luxembourg and Germany, and one find traces of Roman vines along the Meuse and the Schelde rivers, in today’s Belgium.

Unfortunately it often happened that Roman works were neglected after the departure of the legions, either for lack of interest by local populations or because of their technical incompetence: the thermal baths of Bath, in England, which were clogged up with mud until the nineteenth century, are a case in point. Likewise, the vineyards of Gallia Belgica grew wild and no more wine was produced for a long time.

The middle ages

It was in Amay, around 634 AD, that someone once again planted vines. Around the eighth century, in the late Merovingian period, we have once again reports of vineyards around Liège and Huy, along the banks of the river Meuse. By the ninth century various historical sources tell us that viticulture had spread widely, with small family vineyards in many villages, not only along the Meuse. However, we do not have detailed information on the quantities of wine produced, let alone on its quality. The main wine centers were Brussels, Malines (Mechelen), Briolet (near Charleroi), Tournai, and especially Torgny, in the extreme south of the country, which produced wine almost without interruption until the end of the twentieth century.

From the fifteenth to the seventeenth century, there is more documentation on Belgian winemakers and vineyards, though not much about the wine they produced. A certain Monsieur Schayes wrote two articles on the subject: "Sur la culture de la vigne en Belgique" 1833, and "Sur l'ancienne culture de la vigne en Belgique", in 1843. The scholar mentioned that vineyards appeared around Tournai, Leuven and even within the walls of Antwerp. Belgian wine survived, just, hanging by a thin thread.

In the seventeenth century northern Europe was hit by the so-called "Little Ice Age", with many very cold vintages, which yielded sour and acid wine. Many vineyards were destroyed by the weather or had to be extirpated.

But a more threatening enemy, worse than the fiercest storm, appeared on the horizon of the North Sea: the potato. With its arrival from America and its rapid spread in the north European cuisine, many local farmers found it more profitable to cultivate tubers than grapes. Potatoes supplied more nourishment and the harvest was rich immediately (with a vineyard it is necessary to wait at least four years). Still today, Belgium is famous around the world for its fried potatoes!

Independence and the re-birth of Belgian wine

A further blow to viticulture came between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the protectionist policy of Napoleon imposed heavy taxes on all non-French wines. New hopes arose with the independence of the Kingdom of Belgium, in 1830. The new state was trying to support its wines with a Royal decree of 8 February 1833 on the development of “model vineyard”. But the tricolor wine, black, yellow and red, found it hard to take off.

The agricultural census of 1846 tells us that across the country there were only 66 hectares of vineyards. The next one, of 1866, refers to 290 hectares, a significant increase, even if a part of the harvest was intended for the production of table grapes and not wine. The first greenhouse were built around Brussels (Hoeilaart, Overijse), to try and fight off the weather. Different grape varieties were tried: Frankenthal, Royal, Colman and Chasselas. It looked like the foundations had been laid for a sustainable recovery, but it was not to be. From the seventies phylloxera hit Belgium, like the rest of Europe, clipping the wings to the budding production. Belgian growers tried again, against all odds, towards the end of the nineteenth century.

Joseph Halkin, in his little book Culture de la Vigne en Belgique, published in 1895, listed dozens of places across the country where, according to land registry archives, there were notable vineyards. The long list includes Brussels and many surrounding areas, such as Wavre, Overijse, Auderghem, Schaerbeek, Villers-la-ville and others. Very small family productions, varying quality, and virtually no regulation.

In the first half of the twentieth century viticulture developed largely in greenhouses. During the world wars, wine was not a priority for the small country, once again ravaged by highly destructive battles fought on its soil by foreign armies, and vineyards disappeared almost completely.

Belgian wine today

Clos de la Zolette, near Tragny, in the far south of the country, was responsible for the post-war revival of wine in Belgium. In 1955 Auguste Lajoux tried to cross Riesling and Sylvaner, but the newly planted vines were destroyed by the following terrible winter. Undaunted, Auguste tried again in 1959, an exceptionally warm year, and he managed a first harvest of 800 kg of grapes.

In 1961 Lajoux was succeeded by René Waty and subsequent years yielded mixed results. In 1964, and then in 1970, 3500kg. In 1968, nothing, everything was lost to spring frosts. During these years wine was initially made in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, where there was availability of facilities, but in the sixties Jean Muneaut bought the necessary equipment and vinification took place in Belgium. In 1973 Georges Petit took the reins, and remained at his post for over thirty years, maybe too many, he was not able to upgrade and innovate at the Clos.

The Clos de la Zolette enjoyed a promising period. From 1980 there was also an attempt to start commercial production. But in 1987 a new tremendous frost made it necessary to uproot the vines, which were doggedly replanted the following year. With highs and lows, production continued until 2005, when this pioneering and noble attempt was abandoned. Today, Clos de la Zolette is a nature reserve.

At the same time, other growers, both Flemish and Walloons, continued to challenge the elements to make wine. The qualitative leap occurred in the nineties of the last century. A series of warm years, the acquisition of new technologies, more methodical scientific research to find the most suitable areas and grape varieties, and the training of young agronomists and oenologists abroad, all contributed to the first significant achievements.

In 2015 wine production exceeded for the first time the one million liters mark, a significant increase compared to previous years. Nearly eighty percent was white (including sparkling wines): Chardonnay was the preferred variety. Twenty percent are red, among which the Pinot Noir is the star. Sparkling wines are playing a growing role and in some years have come to exceed forty percent of production. Rosé wines amount to under five percent.

In general, small vineyards prevail, two or three hectares on average, although recently there has been a considerable expansion of some companies. Some were born as a family pastime and then grew to reach over ten hectares.

Today about seventy varieties of grapes are grown by over 250 professional growers in Belgium, of which thirty-four are authorized in controlled designation areas. The main ones are Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Müller-Thurgau, regent, Auxerrois, Sieger, Dornfelder, different varieties of Muscat, Riesling, Sirius, Léon Millot, Solaris and Gewürztraminer.

For a discussion of Belgian controlled designation of origin and protected geographical indications, as well as some tasting notes, see other posts in this blog.

If you live in Belgium and are interested in joining a club of wine lovers visit www.brusselswineclub.eu and get in touch!

For a description of Belgian controlled denominations of wine see another post in this blog.

NOTE: This post is part of an article which appeared in Italian in the issue n. 12 of the magazine Vitae, published by the Italian Sommelier Association (AIS).

03 December 2016

Film review: Eroica (2003) by Simon Cellar Jones, *****

Synopsis

By the time the first public performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 ('Eroica') took place in Vienna in 1805, a privileged few had already heard the work at a private play-through at the Lobkowitz Palace in June 1804.

This release brings to life the momentous day that prompted the great Haydn, Beethoven's teacher, to remark 'everything is different from today'.

Review

A film that keeps you glued to the screen from beginning to end even if you don't like classical music. It is a film about a day that changed Western culture, not just music. It put thought into music. Classical music is no longer just for pleasure or, worse, for background, but it is a means of expression for ideas and ideals. In a way, no film can possibly be expected to convey such an enormous feat, it's too important, too far reaching an event to encapsulate in 83 minutes.

Acting is quite good, and so are the costumes. Of course the symphony itself if always a pleasure to listen to. In this case it's Gardiner conducting.

One small inaccuracy is that when he learns that Napoleon crowned himself Emperor Beethoven is shown as ripping the title page off, with the famous dedication to Bonaparte, and throwing it away. In fact, he crossed out the words, ripping up the paper in doing so.



In the UK buy your favorite version of Beethoven's Eroica here on Amazon.



Browse your Eroica versions here on Amazon

Here about the novelty of this symphony and a version played at the BBC prom
























29 November 2016

Film review: Red Sorghum (1987) by Zhang Yimou, ***


Synopsis

This film is based on the well known novel by Mo Yan, which I have reviewed here in this blog. The story is that of three generations of a family in the deep Chinese hinterland during the first half of the XX century. China is in the midst of great upheaval, as the old order of the Qing Empire crumbles and the new republic is not strong enough to take its place. At the family level, a young woman who is forced by her father to marry an old leper so he can receive a mule in payment, rebels.

This would have been unthinkable in the past, but she does. At a broader social level, bandits rule the countryside and the state can not enforce law and order. Then the Japanese invade, and cruelly plunder the country taking advantage of its weakeness.

It is an interesting historical novel, useful to understand the conditions that gave rise to Communist China after Japan's defeat and a brutal civil war.

Review

In my view, the film in not as good as the book. The take on the story lacks credibility. It is also not as harrowing as the book, but that is just as good as some scenes from the book could only be put to film at the cost of making it impossible to watch but for the toughest souls.

Gong Li is a young actress here, and she has not developed her skills quite yet. The script, too, is a bit naive, which the book is anything but.

I would recommend watching the movie but much more so reading the book.

A better movie by the same director, with a similar thread is Ju Dou, which I have reviewed in this blog. Same lady forced to marry same old man (silk dyer instead of wine producer) in a traditional Chinese context where the odds are stacked against her. But in the later movie (1990) she succumbs to the overwhelming odds.



See my other reviews of films on China here in this blog.

Buy the DVD here





Buy the book here



10 November 2016

Book review: Hunan Harvest (1946) by Theophane Maguire, ****

Synopsis

Diary of a young American Passionist missionary who is sent deep into China to preach and help. Theophane is just twenty-five years old when he travels to Hunan, learns the language and starts four years of intensive work against all odds.

According to the Passionist Historical Archives, Father Theophane Maguire, C.P., St. Paul of the Cross Province (1898-1975) was born in Wayne, Pennsylvania. He attended St. Joseph's Jesuit Prep in Philadelphia. There he became interested in the Passionists and decided to enter the novitiate in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On August 13, 1917 he professed his vows and received the name Theophane. He was ordained on October 28, 1923 and quickly was assigned to the Passionist mission in Hunan, China. After he returned from the mission in 1929 he wrote Hunan Harvest which was published in 1946.

Back in the United States he went to Pittsburgh and eventually to Union City where he was editor of Sign magazine. Later in Pittsburgh he did fund-raising and worked at the retreat house. His later years were at the Passionist monastery, North Palm Beach, Florida. His last days were spent at the Passionist infirmary of Brighton, Massachusetts.


Review

Unique book by an ardent Christian missionary in one of the least known provinces of China. Magire writes well and draws the reader into the harsh reality he experiences every day.


He is very dedicated to the people of Hunan, but even more to their souls, which he wants to "harvest" for Jesus Christ. It is an attitude one often finds in Christian missionaries around the world.   While he humbly serves his superiors and is truly compassionate with the Chinese, he does betray a kind of complex of superiority. He writes (p.24) that training of missionaries in the local languages is a good idea because "it is a matter of results, which in this case is to be reckoned in souls. We were to deliver a doctrine entirely new to these people. We were to deliver a message that is supernatural. It is opposed to beliefs that are rooted in centuries of obstinate tradition. it slashes at old habits and widely observed superstitions." Well many Chinese are superstitious indeed, but I am not sure they are more so than Westerners on average, and in any case the incredible wealth of Chinese culture can hardly be dismissed as just a matter of superstition,. many would argue that religion itself, any religion, is superstition.

While he does endure lots of suffering, one can see he and his colleagues are often privileged compared to their fellow Chinese helpers: for example he is depicted as traveling on horseback while his Chinese companions are on foot.

At the end of the book, he seems to worry more about the future of Christian proselytism in Hunan than about the horrors of the civil war or the gathering storm of the Japanese invasion.

Another interesting aspect of the book is that he pays a lot of attention to the minorities of China, especially the Miao people whom he met on several occasions.

He is also a careful painter of scenes of everyday life in rural China where warlords called the shots and the rule of law enforced by the state was nowhere to be seen: the Emperor is far away, as an old Chinese saying goes.

The book is also valuable because it contains lots of drawings that convey a sense of the atmosphere where father Maguire worked for four years. I reproduce them here.

























03 March 2016

Film Review: Mongol (2007) by Sergei Bodrov, *****

Synopsis

A historical epic that covers the early life of the legendary Mongolian leader Genghis Khan (Tadanobu Asano).

The first part of a planned trilogy, the film focuses on the future ruler's brutal childhood, as he suffers starvation and slavery, through to the battle that would cement his power.

Inspired by a poem translated from the Chinese that supposedly tells of Khan's formative years, director Sergei Bodrov ('Prisoner of the Mountains') offers a multidimensional portrait of the conqueror, focusing on the deep relationship he had with his beloved Borte (Khulan Chuluun) who was not only his wife but his most trusted advisor.

Temüjin pledges to unify all of the Mongol tribes, and eventually does, and imposes three basic laws for them to abide by: never kill women and children, always honor your promises and repay your debts even at the cost of your life, and never, ever betray your Khan.

Review

A gripping tale of the cruel life in the steppe at the time of the rise of the Mongol empire, which would go on to take over most of China and establish the Yuan dynasty in the 13th century. Kublai Khan, who was the Emperor of China at the time of Marco Polo’s travels, was the grandson of Genghis, the protagonist of this film.

Other films about China are reviewed here in this blog.



14 January 2016

Film review: Ju Dou (1990), by Zhang Yimou, ****

 Synopsis


In Zhang Yimou and Fengliang Yang's sensuous, Oscar-nominated Ju Dou (1990), billowing bolts of red, yellow and blue dyed silk have more freedom than any of the main characters, who are cut off from the possibility of happiness by circumstances and convention.

The trouble starts early, when Tian-qing (Li Baotian) returns from a long road trip and first sets eyes on his new aunt, the beautiful young Ju Dou (Gong Li). Tian-qing's selfish, harsh silk-dyer uncle Jin-shan (Li Wei) - who reluctantly took Tian-qing in after his parents died - has already gone through two wives, and at first his third seems likely to join her predecessors. Jin-shan routinely beats and humiliates Ju Dou at night, berating her for failing to give him a son (he blames her despite his own impotence and sterility).

Tian-qing is drawn to his lovely, sorrowful "aunt," and eventually they begin a torrid affair. But the strict rules and customs of 1920s China make it impossible for them to build a life together, even after Jin-shan becomes paralyzed and Ju Dou gives birth to Tian-qing's son (whom Jin-shan claims as his own).




Review

A gripping story about how tradition and cultural context can make it impossible to find happiness. Wealth, prestige, beauty, strength, youth all abound in the big house of the cloth dyer, but no one is happy. And it is unhappiness of their own making. The bad old man has his evident faults, he seems to attract hate like a magnet. The young couple is brave and fight for their rights, at least as we can tell with XXI century eyes. But they also err in taking on a battle against their world (feudal rural China) and impossible odds.

Even the little boy who is born out of wedlock in this cruel environment becomes evil very soon in his life, and after his "official" father drowns in a pool of color dye he can only smile and seems bent on perpetuating his heartless character. He viciously kills his biological father when he realizes they are all the object of gossip in the village.

The final fire that consumes the dye factory is perhaps the only satisfying scene of the film, and I read it as a depiction of the last vestiges of feudalism in China crumbling down with the onslaught of modernity. Very good photography in this film. It is paradoxical that the long rolls of cloth of the dye factory give so much color to a very sad and dark story. The DVD is technically poor, seems a bad digitalization from a film roll, for this I take out one star.

The erotic charge is strong in some scenes in this movie and it is always present in the background, but very indirectly. I would not say this is an erotic tale. No nudity at all is to be seen, presumably to get past the Chinese censor.

See more reviews of films about China here on this blog.





25 November 2015

Film review: Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), by Zhang Yimou, ****

Synopsis

From Zhang Yimou, the Director of Hero and House of Flying Daggers, comes a stunning epic about the folly of war and the disintegration of one family under the weight of unrequited love, unforgivable betrayals, and a never-ending thirst for power.

On the eve of the Chong Yong Festival, golden flowers fill the Imperial Palace and when the Emperor (Chow Yun Fat) unexpectedly returns to his Empress (Gong Li) and two sons, the tension is clear in his lavish kingdom. His absence has given rise to illicit love affairs, dangerous alliances, and malicious conspiracies; all of which threaten to overthrow his power.

However, it may well be the Emperor’s own dark secret that threatens him most of all. As the secrets of the Imperial family unravel against this backdrop of breathtaking opulence and grandeur, an attack on the Palace by myriad armoured warriors results in a spectacular climax wrought with thrilling action and epic tragedy.

Interesting bonus features on the main actors and backstage.


Review

Another grand movie by Zhang Yimou with a sure-fire couple of protagonists in Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li). It will be a masterpiece for the lovers of wuxia and, more generally, of Chinese epic films. I am not, but liked the movie as well for the majestic historical reconstruction (a whole new Forbidden City) and marvellous costumes. Grand scenes of battle, with over one thousand extras (appropriately recruited in the Chinese army!) are memorable if utterly unrealistic.

What a sad life in the palace. From the Emperor to  the most humble of servants, everyone is watching everyone else, there is no privacy, no trust, no happiness really. I can't remember anyone smiling in this film! It makes you thank your fate for not being born a royalty in medieval China!

The western blurb for the movie (but not the Chinese) advertises it as taking place in the period of the late Tang dynasty. I was a bit disappointed because I expected more of a historical film about the Tang dynasty. I was led to think of this as a historical fiction, and it really is not.

See my selection of movies on China here in this blog.

You can buy the film here. Other films by Zhang Yimou here.



In the US and worldwide buy it here:



If you liked it, you may wish to look at other films by Zhang Yimou



17 July 2015

Book review: Catching Fire - How Cooking Made Us Human (2009), by Richard Wrangham, *****

Blogger learning to be human
Synopsis

Ever since Darwin and The Descent of Man, the existence of humans has been attributed to our intelligence and adaptability. But in Catching Fire, renowned primatologist Richard Wrangham presents a startling alternative: our evolutionary success is the result of cooking. In a groundbreaking theory of our origins, Wrangham shows that the shift from raw to cooked foods was the key factor in human evolution.

Wrangham argues that it was cooking that caused the extraordinary transformation of our ancestors from apelike beings to Homo erectus. At the heart of Catching Fire lies an explosive new idea: the habit of eating cooked rather than raw food permitted the digestive tract to shrink and the human brain to grow.

When our ancestors adapted to using fire, humanity began. Time once spent chewing tough raw food could be used instead to hunt and to tend camp. Cooking became the basis for pair bonding and marriage, created the household, and even led to a gender-based division of labor.

Tracing the contemporary implications of our ancestors’ diets, this book sheds new light on how we came to be the social, intelligent, and sexual species we are today. As our ancestors adapted to using fire, humans emerged as "the cooking apes".


Review

Cogito ergo sum, said Descartes. Coquo ergo sum is the gist of this book. According to largely accepted scientific research, Homo erectus sprung up from the earlier Australopithecines by eating meat.The transition from homo erectus to homo sapiens, us, is owed to a major innovation: cooking.

Levi-Strauss, in his The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a science of mythology (Pimlico), wrote that fire marks the transition from nature to culture. Few would dispute that the cuisine of any nation is a major trademark of its cultural complexity and sophistication. And cooking, in its many diverse methods (grilling, steaming, boiling, baking etc) is an essential part of any major cuisine in the world.

Our bodies evolved because we learned to cook: besides a smaller stomach and larger brain, we lost our climbing ability (no need to climb if fire can protect camp on the ground) in favor of better running skills. And we have much smaller teeth compared to our ancestors who did not cook.

Cooking also played an essential role in making mankind a carnivore, as it makes it efficient to digest and store large amount of animal proteins in a way that would have been unthinkable with just raw meat. But for vegetarians there is some consolation as well: cooking made it possible to digest many more types of roots.

Finally, this book delves on the social implications of cooking: how it shaped the man/woman relationship in the house, and how it made it easier to use meals as a social event. Some cultures have peculiar (to us) habits: among the Bonerif of Papua, a woman will sleep with every man in the village except her brothers before finally getting married; but the moment she feeds a man she is committed and irrevocably considered his wife!



In the UK you can buy it here:



In France and Belgium



In the US and worldwide buy it here



If you feel inspired to become more human, consider buying one of these books about cooking!