Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Zhou Enlai -The Early Years by Chae-Jin Lee

I'm still fascinated by the transformation of China in the last century. I think Japan had every reason to think that they could play the same role that the conquoring Mongols/Manchus/Jin and earlier warlike neighbors had played as rulers of the Central Kingdom -- that just didn't seem able to govern itself.

But some kind of surprising idealism erupted -- managed, at least in some part -- by that elegant intellectual, Zhou Enlai --- so the story of these founders of the PRC interests me.

But if this book has a use -- it's as source material for others that will follow -- since no attempt at understanding is made beyond the idea that Zhou was a good Confucian boy turned gentleman. How his youthful idealism adapted to the cold calculations of power -- and murder --- this story is left for others to tell.
And .. there isn't an attempt to get inside the mind that chose communism over the other ideologies that were available.

It's just the story of a bright, studious, shy young man whose clan identifies him as the hope of his generation and gives him the best education available -- though he is distracted -- and eventually consumed -- by the political unrest in the last decades of the Qing Dynasty.

Thursday, August 03, 2006


Yoshitsune : A fifteenth century Japanese Chronicle -- translated with introduction by Helen Craig McCullough.

A fascinating spin-off from the "Heike Monogatari" concerning the most daring and successful general of the war, Minamoto Yoshitune (1159-1189) -- who, something like Scipio Africanus in the Punic Wars, shot quickly to the top as a brilliant young leader, but peaked at the age of 25 -- incurring the jealousy of his older brother,Yoritomo, the first Shogun and the founder of the Kamakura era.

What's especially curious about this collection of tales, written over 200 years later, is that the great triumphs of his career are completely ignored. In one fatal paragraph he goes from joining his brother to lead the rebellion against the Heike, to being feared by his brother as soon as the Heike are destroyed. All of his great exploits -- as told in the Heike Monogari, are ignored -- and he spends most of this book running for his life -- avoiding assasination attempts -- and traveling in disguise into northern Japan to seek the protection of Fujiwara Hidehara.

All of the exciting, colorful stuff is left to his remarkable retainers, especially Benkei -- a baby-Huey/Friar Tuck cartoonish character who is very large, very strong, very clever, and very funny -- and as poor young Yoshitune wanders through the mountain trails, Benkei plays a very similar role to Monkey in the Chinese "Journey to the West". Yoshitsune may be a great swordsman and general --- but all he really does in this epic is cry, get depressed, and impregnate a number of beautiful young women who fall madly in love with him (and then die)

He is hardly involved in even his last stand --- where 2/3 of his remaining retainers desert him --- and one-by-one the 5 who stay loyal meet their death by holding off an army of 20,000 -- giving him enough time to properly disembowel himself. ( which is, I think, the only thing that he does well after he flees the capital -- performing a wide, deep incision that allows him to pull his own intestines out from his abdominal cavity--- yeccch !)

One of the questions that recurred during reading -- was for whom this story was intended. So much of it seems similar to American action movies --- with humor, goofy banter, and cartoonish behavior aimed at 12 year old boys. But some extended stories of his suffering wives would seem to aim at a different reader/listener --- pointing towards the suggested origin of this text as stories told in villages by itinerant entertainers -- to people of every age who want to hear about the outside world and the great, colorful people who live in it.

The translator has provided a wonderful introduction that gives an historian's narrative of events and links the many episodes to other versions of the stories -- and this version is high on color and local detail -- but very low on politics and real-world relationships --- I mean, the fact that Yoshitsune is an utter failure at court politics is ignored as much as his great success in battlefield strategy.

Here -- he's just a fugitive with some wild friends and fawning, beautiful women -- and the translator suggests that the Japanese term for "under-dog" was coined simultaneous with the telling of these stories in the Muromachi era.

My favorite quote comes from the advice that Hidehara, the norther chieftain to whom he fled, gives to his sons: "Whenever a messenger comes from Kamakura, cut off his head. Yoritomo will not send any more after you have executed two or three. If, by chance, he does, you will have to realize that the matter is serious and act accordingly"

Another feature that seemed memorable -- was the role played by handsome young men as pages to older monks or warriors --- where the young men are dressed as women -- with white powder on their cheeks and eyebrows pencilled in -- so much so -- that when robbers break into the inn where the adolescent Yoshitune was staying, they assumed he was a girl and brushed him aside (a fatal mistake -- as he soon whipped out his sword and butchered them)

Another curiousity was the source of Yoshitsune's remarkable abilities. Another legend has him learning swordsmanshp from mythical forest creatures (that's where I first saw him -- in a painting many years ago -- maybe in Boston ?) But this story has him teach the martial arts to himself -- driven by the memory of his great, defeated father. Regarding his ability as a general --this story accounts for it by book-learning (just like the sage-warriors in Three Kingdoms) -- where Yoshitsune gets a copy of a esoteric text that teaches the art of war by seducing the daughter of the man who keeps it in his library. (and of course -- eventually leaves the girl who dies of heart break )

It's all very whimsical -- but intriguing -- since our hero is also prone to depression and suicide.

What did all those pretty girls see in him ?