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by: Bernard Teo

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Wed 23 Apr 2008

Going to Shanghai

Category : Commentary/Shanghai2.txt

We're going to Shanghai, Suzhou and (hopefully) Nanjing, at the end of May and for the first two weeks of June. That's the same time as WWDC but China won out. Our earlier trip, last month, to Beijing had left a deep impression and I wanted to go back for a deeper experience.

This is going to be our second trip to Shanghai. It's a great place for shopping, e.g., for leather goods like shoes, and also for jackets. But, more than that, these trips had set me thinking and wanting to know more, about the history of China, and about the Chinese diaspora, and about how people like us ended up in Singapore.

Our Public Library in Singapore has a great collection of books about China. These are the ones I've found and enjoyed :

I read Lynn Pan's "Sons of the Yellow Emperor - A History of the Chinese Diaspora", which was useful for placing a historical context around where I am and where I could have been.

But I very much doubt I could have survived a Cultural Revolution, or a Qing emperor like Yong Zheng. Reading Jonathan Spence's "Treason by the Book", about a failed plot to foment an uprising against the Qing, I was struck by how much I identified with the scholars/mandarins who were dumb enough not to keep their mouth shut and got executed by the Yong Zheng emperor. Perhaps that explains why my forefathers had to run away to the Nanyang.

Then there's Jonathan Spence's "Mao" and Ross Terrill's "Mao", which make painful reading, to escape which I read "River Town" by Peter Hessler, and his later book, "Oracle Bones", and a similar book, "China Road" by Rob Gifford. But they've all left me strangely dissatisfied. I felt that there was something missing.

Reading all these books from the Western perspective, one could forgiven for thinking that China is run by goons and thugs, as the CNN guy would have it.

But that doesn't gell with what I'm seeing or experiencing, and it was only after reading Han Suyin's book about Zhou Enlai, who was China's prime minister for twenty-seven years, - "Eldest Son" - that I realised that large swathes of history, drama, and even wisdom and heroism can be found in the China story. "Goons and thugs" don't explain China's meteoric rise in the last twenty years. From what foundation was this built on? I think the real story has yet to be told, at least in English. To maintain a balance, one needs to read books about China written by the Chinese.

And that's where I now look with envy at the collection available for my wife in the Chinese section of our Public Library, simply because she can read the language. One day I want to be able to read those books, too, rather than the English translations, as for example, Gao Wenqian's "Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary".

So, between Ross Terrill's account and Han Suyin's, where lies the truth. As Zhou Enlai may have seen it: the truth, my friend, lies somewhere in-between.

I had read Han Suyin's trilogy about China - The Crippled Tree, A Mortal Flower, and Birdless Summer - when I was seventeen or eighteen. So it's been my pleasure to recall that time while I'm writing this now. Such is how one's world view is shaped - layer by layer - like an onion. And sometimes you weep.

Posted at 3:06PM UTC | permalink

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