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Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

This is written 250 years too early. I’d probably need to read more contemporary literature to understand his satires and to read some literary criticism to understand his use of Locke. But it is a remarkable book.

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The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-57 by Frank Dikötter

I read this partly to see what insight it could give on the collapse of the Kuomintang. But it seems to follow the general sense of historical inevitability.

I have already read his book ‘Mao’s Great Famine’ which covers the period 1958–1962 and this was similarly well written and well researched. There is a general and unrelieved sense of awfulness of the whole time which makes it all quite depressing. I’d like to read more about the impact of De-Stalinisation and the 100 Flowers Movement. That seems interesting.

Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, The West and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War by Stephen Platt

I’ve always been rather fascinated by the Taiping. They formed a blend of western ideas, Christianity, with Chinese religious, philosophical, and political concepts. This seems somewhat similar to the Chinese Communist movement, which also forms a blend. I also found it interesting when visiting China that the Taiping were held in a positive light by the Communists, they are seen as liberators of the oppressed. This always seems strange given the general disdain of the Communists to religion. I have wondered if there was any ethnic element to this.

I’ve read Jonathan Spence on the Taiping and did wonder what this book could present, but it provided a welcome addition focusing on different elements of the affair. It looked much more at the last 4 years of the war, 1860 to 1864. It covered relations with the west, eg Britain, France and the US. It saw the war in a context of being contemporaneous with the US civil war. It also covered a change in Imperial policy to use a single strong war leader Zeng Guofan. This was successful in the Taiping war, but can be seen as a contribution to the rise of warlordism (exactly what had held the imperial back from such a policy).

I had not realized some details. First, the war was not necessarily going badly for the Taiping until quite soon before the end. Secondly, how much it was focused on the Yangtze. The latter is not surprising, it’s obviously a strategic pathway and the Japanese war in 1937 was somewhat similar. The unraveling of the Taiping started with the loss of Anhui and their reverses by Shanghai.

I would very much like to visit Nanjing and explore more of the Taiping legacy. Qimen sounds interesting as well.