Review (II) : 陈舜臣. 甲午战争 (2009).

Herein I speak of author’s writing approach. I simply love it. Postmodernist critics vociferously attack Rankean methodology of letting sources speak for themselves. Likewise, they pinpoint that the text(books) are also stories. Hence, certain facts may be accidentally or willfully omitted.

So the response is via 陈 – Chen. Historical novelists similar to him include Leo Tolstoy, who was once a journalist and did his own research. Through novelisation, we get to humanise the dead or get into the shoes of those who are still living. Where the facts are not certain, any speculation must be clearly stated. In this way, we go through the thought processes and feel.

More than once I have marvelled at their works – their poetic language and the subtle but brilliant communication of the situation.

The other aspect which I appreciate is the grand narrative structure.  Korea’s history was intertwined with Vietnam in that period. Why? Both were tributaries. France looking at the Mekong River to enter the Chinese market was hoping that Qing dynasty’s expenditure would make it easier for them to annex Vietnam. In this way, we come to understand that things can be so complex.

Nevertheless, it may seem long winded at times. It is similar in style to another Japanese historical novel, 忍者之国 by 和田龙. You would get spoilers where the long term fates of characters are discussed. Historical character A for example would die by a certain age (sometime in the future) after doing such and such, then the narration would get back to the main plot.

In any case, read and listen more below of the importance of literature (and history):

Doris Lessing. (1987). Prisons We choose to live Inside. Harper & Row. (available from libraries under the National Library Board, Singapore).

The 1985 CBC Massey Lectures, “Prisons We choose to live Inside”


Review (I) : 陈舜臣. 甲午战争 (2009). [First Sino-Japanese War, 1894-95]

The author of the above mentioned book is ethnically Chinese. He chose to become a Japanese citizen ultimately.

I read just past 200 pages of the nearly 500 page volume. The language medium is Mandarin (simplified). I stopped as I came upon chapters focusing on how political assassinations were planned and (conducted). It was detailed – going down to the materials used for soaking up the blood; containing the corpse and how to prove that the target was killed; how to lure the target to his doom in ‘neutral’ territory…

I believe that would put me together with Sat Pal Khattar (founder of law firm, Khattar Wong & Partners) who shared such a distaste for criminal law that he went into taxation.

Nonetheless, I have to report that I finally understood more about the Chinese history I did at my GCE ‘A’ Levels. The Qing Dynasty was very much fatigued after the Taiping Rebellion. Further, the military platform was divided such that only the 北洋水师 (Beiyang fleet) was fighting the truly modernised Japanese fleet. There were basically, 2 private armies. One led by 李鴻章 – Li Hongzhang (the equivalent of the Premier or Prime Minister in modern terminology), which had the Beiyang fleet under its command. The other was the fruit of 曾国藩 – Zeng Guofan, who departed from this world in 1872.

I also learnt about (Li’s protege) 袁世凯 – Yuan Shi Kai,  who made an abortive effort to revive the dynastic system after the 1911 revolution. He cut his teeth in Korea and as the top Chinese ‘diplomat’ (that is the next most suitable term since Korea was at least in semblance a Chinese tributary) . From the book, he was what you could call ‘street smart’; a survivor.

Lastly, I understood why there was so great a resistance towards modernisation. It was in the Korean and Chinese eyes – barbarian. China was the Middle Kingdom and the fount of civilisation. It had been that for at least a thousand years (and most would say much more). So it was incredibly hard to embrace what seemingly had taken place in the Opium Wars (which began in 1842 with the British). China lost. It lost to a state thousands of miles away and a tiny one at that…