Sunday, 16 February 2014

Ori-ental Affair

Brian Mendonça

As we delved into our Sampan Chicken last Sunday the Changbaishan of the Chinese navy was heading back to its home base at Shanghai. We were at a Chinese restaurant to ring in the Chinese New Year of the Wooden Horse, an annual observance spread over 15 days which ended yesterday. 
The Chinese zodiac came about in the Han dynasty (202 B.C – 220 A.D.) which is also known for its invention of the compass, paper, ink and gunpowder (for firecrackers). Every year in a 12-year cycle is named after an animal. People born in the year of the horse are said to have the attributes of a horse, viz. energetic, independent, social, and witty. Last year was the year of the snake.

References to China in the news are usually to fears about its growing presence in the South China Sea. Flanked by two destroyers the Wuhan and the Haikou, the Changbaishan the largest amphibious landing ship of the Chinese navy, carried out exercises in the Lumbok strait in the Indian ocean, far beyond its borders, near the Indonesian island of Bali. The foray sent jitters worldwide, prompting India’s Air Marshal P.K. Roy’s facile call for a code of conduct for all stakeholders in the region. Roy is Commander-in-Chief of the joint services, Andaman and Nicobar command.

The Chinese squadron engaged in themes of counter-piracy, search and rescue and damage control in a 5 day exercise starting Jan 29th, 3 days of which reached into the Chinese New Year of the Horse. On its way home the ships returned via the Philippines and Japan ratcheting up tempers on disputed islands en route which are rich fishing grounds and a potential source of oil.
This muscle flexing, Minxin Pei argues, emerges out of a ‘historical amnesia’ of China’s totalitarian past and the excesses under the late dictator Mao Zedong (1893-1976). Though Pei sees a parallel in an Orwellian world, to understand contemporary China more deeply, I find it fruitful to read Patriot by the American novelist Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973). (In an uncanny resemblance both Buck and Zedong have almost the birth and death years).

Patriot, first published in 1939, is set in Shanghai ‘in the fifteenth year of the Chinese Republic and in the western year nineteen hundred and twenty-six.’The story is about Wu I-wan, the son of General Wu, who seeks to rectify the lot of the poor working classes to usher in a Communist rebellion led by Chiang Kai-Shek who sweeps down the Yangste river with his great army, ‘the cities on its banks falling like fruits in his hands.’For her ‘rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China’ Buck was awarded the Pulitzer prize (1932) and the Nobel prize for literature (1938).For verse I returned to Vikram Seth’s ‘Songs in Time of War’ in his Rivered Earth (2011) and the poetry of the Chinese poets Wang Wei, Li Bai and Du Fu of the Tang Dynasty (618-906 A.D.).

I think I’ll have the Shandong Noodles now.
Published in Weekender Gomantak Times, St. Inez, Goa, on Sunday 16 February 2014; Pix of horse in grey pottery figure from Han Dynasty 25"x 30", 40 lbs.courtesy pinterest and edgarlowen(dot)com

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