Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Spring Break Reading!

Greetings and salutations!  It's approaching 2 a.m. on my second day back from Spring Break, and after briefly attempting to face down the Japanese essay I have due on Friday, my attention (and will to work) wavered...so now I'm here, assuaging my conscience by typing this blog.

Spring Break was absolutely crazy - parties galore, not a wink of sleep, tattoos on my arms that I don't remember buying, yada yada yada.

I kid, I kid.  Alas, in truth, I spent most of the break reading and watching movies on Netflix.  Just the way I had hoped to spend it, actually.  Nothing more relaxing than having an open evening to sink into a book, and it's always good to have a chance to watch more movies.  Incidentally (and perhaps true to form...) Chinese, Japanese, and Korean movies have recently become a guilty pleasure of mine - they are so addicting!  The break gave me a great chance to catch up on this new hobby of mine.

 I first started watching them this past December as a way to get a better look at life in East Asia (read: the cover-art on Netflix looked interesting).  I had a daunting realization that, even though I'll be spending my junior year in Japan, I didn't really have a good sense for what it means to live there.  All of my images of Japan come from a high-school course on East Asian history.  My teacher would play tons of video-tapes from the 80's and 90's about Japanese companies, bathhouses, schools, colleges, etc, so my mental image of Japan was pretty dated, and needed to be updated.  Anyway, bit by bit, Japanese movies led to Korean movies, and now here I am.  Actually, the ones about China tend to be the most interesting.  I love images of the big Chinese cities, and I must admit, the Chinese sure know how to produce a good drama.  This is an incredibly dorky interest of mine (as if a reading blog on East Asia wasn't bad enough), but I enjoy them a lot.  If I have time, maybe I'll start reviewing some of my favorite Japanese/Korean/Chinese movies too.

Anyway, more to the point: I had ample opportunity to cover some of the recent focus-areas that I outlined for my reading.  As always, though, I was left feeling that I hadn't covered enough - I think that's just the nature of the hobby, though.  There's so much history out there, and limited time to cover it all.

The first book I read was a sort of an accidental discovery.  Titled The Soong Dynasty by Sterling Seagrave, I originally mistook it to be a history of the Song Dynasty while rushing through the library.  Turns out, it was a chronicle of the powerful Soong family in Nationalist-era China, a completely different time period.  Whoops.  I was so fortunate to stumble upon this book, though!  The Soong family was a crucial backer of the Nationalist regime throughout all of the 1930's and 1940's, and the book managed to combine a comprehensive history of China from 1860-1950 with a complete biographical profile of this influential family, which proved fascinating.

Soong influence went back to the very beginning of China's independence from the Qing.  The original Soong scion, Charlie Soong, was a good friend of Sun Yat-sen, and throughout their friendship, he and his wealthy friends bankrolled many of Sun's attempted coups. (That is, of course, until San Yat-Sen 'divorced' his wife, made amorous advances on Charlie's oldest daughter, and then absconded with the second-oldest daughter.)  Charlie's first four children - Ai-Ling Soong, Ching-Ling Soong, May-Ling Soong, and T.V. Soong - came to be a crucial clan of powerbrokers in Nationalist China.  While May-Ling married Chiang Kai-Shek, Ai-Ling married a top Nationalist official, H.H. Kung.  (Ching-Ling, of course, married Sun Yat-Sen).  Through their husbands, these women wielded enormous power, especially Ai-Ling and May-Ling.  Meanwhile, Harvard-educated T.V. Soong took over the entire Nationalist banking system on several occasions.  And to his benefit, he ended up growing fantastically wealthy, not all of it acquired legitimately.  It was a great irony that while the Nationalist regime begged the U.S. for billions of dollars worth' of lend-lease funds, its chief finance official was reputed to be the richest man in the world.

For me, the book's real value was the way it outlined the somewhat confusing beginnings of Sun Yat-Sen's Kuomintang party, and how it eventually went awry.  Originally, the party was intended to be a merger between Sun's "Alliance" party of activists and the various rebel provinces that broke away from the Qing court following the Wuhan uprising of 1911 (in which an independent group of Qing soldiers rebelled and sparked the revolution that Sun had been seeking for years).  The nature of the party soon changed, however...

The book outlines how the party became 'infected' with some rather unsavory characters.  Two Chinese mobsters from Shanghai's influential "Green Gang"  (Tu Yueh-sheng and his mentor, a fellow Seagrave terms "Pockmarked Huang") became intimate associates of Ai-Ling Soong and her husband, and gradually wheedled their way into a position of influence behind the Nationalist government.  Initially, they provided contingents of gangsters as "revolutionary soldiers," but their influence soon expanded with the rise of one of their own in the Nationalist ranks.  Chiang Kai-Shek was a core member of the Green Gang, and because of his military credentials - he had graduated from a Japanese military school - gradually came to be promoted into the nascent Nationalist military hierarchy.  I had no idea about any of this, so it really took me by surprise, especially when Chiang's gang ties seem to have strongly affected his approach to governance, as well as strategies during the war.  Before World War II, Chiang seemed to use the government as nothing more than a front organization for his gangster friends, and corruption abounded.  Kickbacks were paid, influence was peddled, and millions of dollars were stolen, among other crimes.  It only got worse during the war.

Anyway, it was overall a fantastic book, and I recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about the revolutionary developments of early 20th century China, as well as China during World War II.  A must-read!


Otherwise, I spent the rest of break splitting my time between two different books :  Taiwan under Japanese Colonial Rule, 1895 - 1945, edited by Liao Ping-Hu and David Der-Wei Wang, and Korea: The Search for Sovereignty, by Geoff Simons.  They were both fairly dry, so I used them more as reference sources and skipped around a bit.  A lot of the "Taiwan" book contained analyses on Taiwanese art, water-painting, and literature, which I ended up skipping.  Not that I have anything against it - the topics were just a little too narrow to be of relevance, though.  Other chapters were really interesting.  Taiwan went through three distinct phases of Japanese governorship, the first and last of which were thoroughly dominated by the Japanese military.  One article focused on the third period, and the abolition of Taiwan's Mandarin dialect during this time, which was interesting.  Beginning in 1937, after the Japanese war effort intensified in mainland China, the military essentially forced Taiwanese newspapers to stop printing in Chinese, and Chinese itself was gradually phased out of schools.  The idea was to intensify Japanese influence on the island, for "patriotic" purposes, of course.  Although the decision was ostensibly reached by an island-wide conference, the author argues that the decision came about under pressure from Japanese military representatives.   There was another interesting article talking about Taiwanese identity, which essentially stressed the Taiwanese elite's crisis of identity.  They were never really accepted by Japan's high society, and mainland Chinese regarded them as traitors, especially after 1937.

With regards to "Korea," I've spent most of my time focusing on the chapters about the Japanese colonial experience there, and the process by which Syngman Rhee was installed by the United States after World War II.  Syngman Rhee certainly wasn't the South Korean people's choice, and it was fascinating to learn about the horrible years of violent crackdowns that the U.S. instigated to squelch opposition to Rhee's rule.  I'm still working on it, though, so I'll be sure to provide a more complete summary in the next post!  That's all for now!