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Eric Langager has commented on (3) products.

Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar by Edvard Radzinsky
Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar

Eric Langager, January 21, 2009

I think this is the second book I have read by this author. Not positive, but I'm quite sure that one of the books on tape I went through back when I was a truck driver was written by this author.

He's good. The author makes the book. That may seem to be an obvious statement, but there are books that survive in spite of who wrote them. To be sure, the subject of this book is interesting, too. But the usefulness of this book in understanding Russian history is definitely enhanced by the thorough research of the author, combined with the readability of his writing.

Who is Alexander, and why is he important? Would he not have some great significance by mere virtue of being a Czar of Russia? Perhaps, but there is one specific thing that, I believe, sets him apart: He freed the serfs. For this reason, he has sometimes been referred to as the "Abraham Lincoln" of Russia, but let the comparison stop there. He was no Lincoln. He simply did not posses the greatness of character that Lincoln had. But the fact that he freed the serfs combined with the way he did it does make his story important, and perhaps helped to bring about his ultimate demise.

The serfs were given freedom and a little land, but not really enough of it. Their lives were still quite difficult. So there remained a fair amount of unrest among the peasant community. Alexander’s reforms did not really bring in democracy, and even though he himself did want to give people more latitude, he allowed for repressive measures in order to control an increasingly restive population. So what can we say about 19th Century Russia? Was it just a crazy place that was destined to cause trouble for any leader, or were there certain elements of his reign that generated needless animosity? Read the book and see what you think. And when you do, let me know if you can figure out why he refused to leave the scene of his assassination after the first bomb (which did not hurt him) went off. If he had been a U.S. president guarded by Secret Service agents, he would have been immediately hustled away from the scene, and would have survived.

It's a fascinating story. But it leaves unanswered one question that always puzzles me when I read Russian history or literature: Do the Russian people survive in spite of autocratic leaders, or do they tend to adopt autocratic leadership because that's the only way they can survive?

If you're new to Russian history, this book will do as a starting point, although I wouldn't wait too long before you read Robert K. Massie's biography of Peter the Great. Alexander was a contemporary of the great 19th Century Russian writers, so this book will also help you to understand the background for the works of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.
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Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday
Mao: The Unknown Story

Eric Langager, May 13, 2007

My first attraction to this book was the author, because I read "Wild Swans," which she wrote in the early nineties. This book she co-wrote with her husband, a professional editor. I believe he assisted her on "Wild Swans," too, but his role in the writing of this book seems to be more prominent. Not sure what that means, but the contribution is noticeable. This book is well written and very readable.

I can't remember when I have been so conflicted about a book I have read. And it seems I am not the only one. This book has been alternately praised and cursed since it arrived on the scene. Having read the book now, and worked through the frustration I have felt with the brazen assumptions and questionable documentation, I still have to say that I think it is worth reading. I say that because, although the book is seriously flawed, and certainly not as "new," or groundbreaking as it's title seems to claim, it does address questions in it's own flawed way, that demand to be answered.

"Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," and Jung Chung is nothing if not angry. Mao's policies deeply hurt her family, and she is determined to get even. This anger, more than any other factor, is the root of this book's inadequacies--inadequacies that overshadow every observation, every conjecture (and boy there are lots of them!), every interview. The bottom line is that this book is tough to evaluate, because it contains so much material that is of questionable origin, obviously designed to support conclusions that are sharply hampered by a poor knowledge of the actual history. According to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, they listed as an interviewee a close personal friend of his who told him that, in fact, she declined to be interviewed. In this sense, the book is aptly named. In ordinary parlance, a book of this kind would be called the "Untold Story." In choosing an unusual name like "The Unknown Story," the authors have, no doubt unwittingly, identified what is the primary weakness of this book. In other words, if the great body of stuff that is thought to be true about Mao were to be divided between that which can be clearly documented, and is known for sure to be true, and that which is largely conjecture or innuendo (gossip, in other words), this book would be the repository of the latter.

But I need to get back to the history problem. This book is not written by people who really know the history, and build the story of Mao into that contextual background. Rather, it is written by people who quite obviously knew very little of the basic historical context before they started writing the book, and built the history by looking for "facts" that supported the conclusions they had started with, and ignoring those which militated against those assumptions. An example might be helpful here:

Regarding the shelling of Quemoy (Jinmen Dao) and Matsu, Chang and Halliday refer to Quemoy at least twice as the "springboard" or "jumping off point to Taiwan." They conclude that Mao must have known he could never take Taiwan , so he must have had an ulterior motive for shelling Quemoy and Matsu, which was to manipulate the Russians into giving him the nuclear weapons he craved. But Chang and Halliday have the story exactly backwards. In fact, Quemoy was not a springboard for China to go to Taiwan; it was a springboard for Chiang Kai-shek to retake the mainland. How they could have missed this is a mystery. Even if we forgive them their complete ignorance of the history surrounding this event, simple geography should have set them straight. If you cannot travel to Xiamen (which, by the way, is a beautiful city), go to Google Earth and take a look at it from the air. Xiamen is mislabeled on the map (Google has it situated on Gulangyu), but Quemoy (Jinmen Dao) is labeled correctly, and has a very distinctive shape. It sits right in the middle of Xiamen Bay, and is not anywhere near Taiwan. Chang and Halliday's suggestion that this was a springboard for the Chinese to take Taiwan is absurd, and betrays a surprising lack of awareness of the known history. Here is the story they should have told:

In August of 1954, Chiang Kai-shek moved 58,000 troops to Jinmen Dao in preparation for retaking the mainland. He also moved 15,000 troops to Matsu (further to the north). China responded with a massive artillery bombardment of the islands. U.S. President Eisenhower threatened to use nuclear weapons in defense of the Nationalist government on Taiwan, and Mao backed off. This is not to suggest that Mao was not interested in "liberating" Taiwan, but to refute the idea that His shelling of Quemoy and Matsu was completely without provocation, and must, therefore, have masked some other motive.

But there is a larger problem with Jung Chang's portrayal of Mao as the sole source of everything bad that happened to China. Generally, in my study of history, I try to operate from the basic rule that only God gets to be God, and only Satan gets to be Satan. To make anyone else God is to completely distort that person's actual contribution to history. To make anyone else Satan is to exonerate a whole host of guilty people. To a just man, clearing the guilty must be as onerous as punishing the innocent.

Look, Mao did a lot of really bad things. And it is right and proper to assign blame to him for what he did. But there were lots of injustices that were perpetrated against innocent people a long time before the Cultural Revolution. Watchman Nee (Ni To-sheng), for example, was arrested in '50 or '51. I use him as an example, because he is widely read among Christians in the West, and he spent the last 20 years of his life in prison because of his Christian faith. He is only one among many whose arrests had no connection to the Anti-rightist campaign or the Cultural Revolution. In other words, these human rights abuses were standard fare in the early days of "New China." To blame Mao for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution is appropriate, because whatever may be said about the "Gang of Four" (more on that later), Mao did start the Cultural Revolution, and nobody denies that. But to transfer over to Mao the blame that is due Jung Chang's parents and their cohorts in the vast, diabolical system that devastated so many lives before they got their own comeuppance? No. This we cannot allow. And what about Jung Chang herself? She was a Red Guard. Perhaps she would protest that she never personally tore down any temples. In all the narratives I have read by former Red Guards, they all describe themselves as having been on the fringe of the movement, almost as if they were unwilling participants. Jung Chang is no exception to this (read her book "Wild Swans"). But the fact remains that she voluntarily made herself part of the reckless rabble that destroyed this country. There were decent kids during those days who refused to be part of the nonsense. Jung Chang could have chosen to be one of them. Instead, she chose to follow the crowd. That was not Mao's decision.

Now to the gang of four. Chang and Halliday begin their chapter on Jiang Qing by saying that "she never originated policy, and she was always Mao's obedient servant." It's hard to read such nonsense without laughing. Jiang Qing was sensitive to how far she could push the envelope, and she certainly paid the obligatory homage to her husband, especially before the media. But she unquestionably had her own agenda, and pushed it with energy, much to Mao's consternation. He publicly rebuked her on several occasions. And she showed herself opposed to his agenda in key areas.

Jiang Qing hated Zhou En-lai. He knew this, of course, but was a master at maintaining an equilibrium that made him indispensable to Mao. Zhou was certainly not blind to Jiang Qing's ambition. Toward the end of the Cultural Revolution, he confided to Sirin Phathanothai, daughter of the Thai diplomat, "We have a dowager empress on our hands."

Jiang Qing also despised Deng Xiao-ping, and tried very hard to destroy him. She failed, because Mao needed Deng, and seemed, throughout the Cultural Revolution, to be determined to keep Deng available, but she certainly made life miserable for him, and was largely responsible for him being purged a second time.

Too be sure, there are those in China who go to the extreme of suggesting that Jiang Qing was the prime mover behind the Cultural Revolution. "It wasn't his fault," one of them told me, referring to Mao. No doubt Jiang Qing was a convenient scapegoat for those who could not come to terms with the fact that the father of their country attacked his own people. But if it is absurd to suggest that Jiang Qing was the architect of the Cultural Revolution, it is just as absurd to suggest that she was merely doing Mao's bidding.

Look, if you are in desperate need for someone to hate, you will love this book. It will give you plenty of excuse to blame all that has gone wrong with China over the last half-century on this one man. If you're a little creative, you might even be able to figure out how Mao is somehow to blame for whatever has gone wrong in your own life. But this kind of thinking does not do service to history. A history that whitewashes Mao's impact on the lives of millions of innocent people is nauseating. But a history that puts all the blame on Mao and lets everyone else off the hook is also less than worthy of high regard. Jesus said, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." And if it's not the truth, it won't set you free, no matter how good it makes you feel. And for all of his weaknesses, Mao, after all, was the one chosen by history to build China into an independent country free from domination by foreign powers. We may wonder at the wisdom of Providence, but we would all have to admit that no one before him was able to pull it off.

So what, then, is the value of this book? I believe it's primary attraction is that it is very personal. Sometimes we have to use imperfect sources in our attempt to get at the truth. I read the China Daily every day, because it gives useful insight into the people and places of China. But I am not blind to the fact that it is regulated by the government, so it is not my only source of information about this country.

Put yourself in the place of Jung Chang. You are so angry you can't see straight, but you feel there is a story that needs to be told. Should you recuse yourself because you can't possibly be objective, or should you go ahead and do your best. This book is a very personal, engaging story. It is heavily encumbered by the lack of objectivity with which it was written. But Jung Chang and Jon Halliday have employed archives from the old Soviet Union, the study of which needs to be expanded. This book is a step in that direction, and raises questions that need to be debated. Because of its highly personal nature and readable quality, it will probably be read much more by Chinese people than any other biography of Mao. So it will serve to raise questions which might not otherwise have been discussed. Perhaps it will even open the minds of the powers that be to the importance of openly discussing Mao's part in the history of this great country. When Mao stood on Tiananmen and said, "China has stood up!" he was expressing the exultation of the masses at being finally independent. Could any other leader have achieved this? If this book encourages attempts to answer that and other questions raised, it will be, for all its weaknesses, a contribution to the ongoing study.
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Mao's Last Dancer by Li Cunxin
Mao's Last Dancer

Eric Langager, November 11, 2006

There seems to be no end of stories by and about people who came of age during the darkest days of the Cultural Revolution. This book is different from most of them in a couple important respects. First of all, Li Cuxin's family were peasants. Perhaps it would be a bit strong to say that they "missed" the revolution, because Li Cuxin does describe one particularly graphic scene where he witnessed an execution. But they were not personally struggled against. The peasants were the idealized heroes of the Cultural Revolution. Li Cuxin's suffering was poverty, pure and simple. But there are lots of poor people in the world. Secondly, the benefits Li Cuxin was given were unique in that they were not given him by the country he went to (America). They were given to him by the People's Republic of China. And the life he went to was really unreal. Most Americans do not live like the people Li met when he came to America. So this book is not a classic story about a persecuted person who somehow managed to find freedom in the West. As such, I must admit that I often had mixed feelings while reading this book. I don't want to spend too much time on that, but I want to address it, because it is central both to what is right and what is wrong in this book.

For me, the center point of this book is Li Cunxin's decision to defect to the West. He married one of his fellow dancers secretly, and told his benefactor from the Huston Ballet that he was not going to return to China. It is this decision that really defines this story, and it is this decision that causes me to have so many mixed feelings about this book, because I believe the decision was a mistake. It was a mistake, but I have mixed feelings, because while part of me is disgusted with him for doing something so stupid and self serving, it is hard to be too angry with him, given the way he was treated by the Ministry of Culture.

This was my problem reading this book. In one sense, one is inclined to feel sorry for a kid whose dreams could be so casually dashed to pieces by one bureaucrat who just happened to be a jerk. Yet, as I said, this book is not a classic story of a persecuted dissident who escaped to the West to find freedom. Li Cunxin was privileged. Very few young people in America or Australia have the privileges he was given by his government to go to Beijing and study in the top dance academy in the nation. And Li's decision to skip the program and defect was not an act of heroism. It would have been more heroic in this case, for him to go back to China. He says his country lied to him. True, but he lied to them, too. The report he wrote for his superiors after he returned from his first trip was full of exaggerated condemnations of the West that were written to impress, not to give a true account of his experience. I think there is a very good possibility that the blatant insincerity of this report played a big part in the Culture Minister's decision not to let him return to the States. And there is certainly nothing of religious persecution in this book. Li doesn't seem to have had much interest in the things of God, although he did become a nominal Catholic to please his future in-laws. Bottom line: When the chips were down, Li Cunxin did what was good for Li Cunxin.

OK, perhaps I am a little hard on him. An emotionally vulnerable young man, drawn in by a needy young woman. Would I have done differently if I had been in his shoes? I really do try to understand, but my ability to understand is limited, because my experience was not like his, and because there is so much difference between the China I live in and the China he grew up in that they cannot really be called the same country. There are times, in today's China, when I sit at a banquet, or something, and just shake my head at the bounty. It's hard to believe that anyone ever starved in this country. And it is only fair to point out that, while I may disagree with his decision to defect when he did, there is a lot that Li Cunxin did right. His success was not just luck or good fortune. He worked very hard. He took nothing for granted. This, really was his strong point.

Recommendation: Five stars. This is without exception the best account I have read about growing up peasant in the countryside of China. And the story is told with integrity. Mind you, I am not backing down from my original statement. I think he screwed up. But he is honest about his failure--you have to give him that. And while I do not believe his defection was an act of heroism, there is plenty of heroism in this book. He tells us of his brother, who is forced to stay in that community and forbidden to marry the woman he loves. One cannot help but be moved by the strength of character that overcomes bitter fate by enduring it bravely. Or his other brother, who is given away at birth, and destined to grow up as an "outsider" even though he lives right next door. He, too, decides to accept his fate, and do the honorable thing. I stand in awe of such men. Li Cunxin also speaks honestly about his feelings of guilt at his phenomenal success. This guilt, of course, is misplaced. He did nothing wrong. No one can fault him for wanting to succeed. And his success was a blessing to his family. And a blessing to us; we would not have this story otherwise. This book is well worth reading.

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