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Cover Dromen van China / The China Lover (Ian Buruma)

Last week I promised to share my thoughts on my first read of 2012: Dromen van China by Ian Buruma, or The China Lover (‘Dreaming of China‘) as it’s originally called. This edition is translated to Dutch by Eugène Dabekaussen & Tilly Maters.

I prefer the Dutch title to the English because more than anything, The China Lover seems to be a story about feeling at home in a place that isn’t — and may not even exist. I think all book lovers can relate to that?

It’s a historical novel in three parts, all set in different time periods, revolving around Yoshiko Yamaguchi a.k.a. Ri Koran/Li Xianglan: a beautiful, Manchurian-born Japanese screen star. She is not the main character of the book, but a centerpiece in the lives of three male protagonists. These men share another love: cinema, turning The China Lover also into a story about film.

Strangely enoug the book is not really about China but about the development of Japan and the country’s positioning in the world throughout the decades of the mid 20th century.

It starts in the 1930s with Sato Daisuke, a Japanese ‘information broker’ in Manchukuo. Manchukuo was an under ‘The Last Emperor’ Pu Yi established Japanese puppet state in Manchuria — really an aggressive occupation of Chinese territory. Daisuke falls in love with China (and its women) and believes in creating an ideal state through cinema as he feels more at home here than in the ‘straightjacket’ Japan.

Yoshiko Yamaguchi is his protege: by his hand she starts working as an actress & singer. The movies in Manchukuo are mere propaganda, meant to help give Manchukuo its shape and to sway the Chinese in favour of their Japanese occupiers. Therefore Yoshiko Yamaguchi must keep her Japanese nationality top secret and pretend to be Chinese under the stage name Ri Koran, or Li Xianglan.

The second part of the novel is set in post-war Tokyo. The story is told from the perspective of an American GI, Sidney (‘Sid’) Vanoven, who falls in love with Japan. He becomes a film reviewer and befriends Yoshiki Yamaguchi in that capacity. The starlet even goes to the US where she reinvents herself as Shirley Yamaguchi.

In this part the big screen is again used for propaganda, this time by the American occupiers: to impress democratic values on the Japanese people. Feudal samurai stories are no longer allowed. But cinema is also an escape from reality; not because of glamour, but by looking at folks in similar situations. There is no need to wallow in unhappiness when you can cry freely for the misery of fictional characters.

Photo of Ri Koran (Yoshiko Yamaguchi)The book closes in the 1960s-1970s with Sato Kenkichi, a soldier of the Japanese Red Army fighting the Palestinian cause, imprisoned in Beirut. Starting out as a ‘pink’ (porn) movie assistant he later gets to work for a TV show with.. Yoshiko Yamaguchi as presenter. Even after their paths take different directions, Yoshiko still travels the world bringing news of oppressed peoples and their leaders. Film is used in this section as a medium for atonement, as well as propaganda.

All three men tell their story looking back from an uncertain time in the ‘present’. That their names are similar cannot be a coincidence and it probably means that this isn’t really about them, but about the growth of Japan as a nation. It can also explain why this book is called The China Lover, after its first protagonist: Sato Daisuke. He’s the one infatuated with China, and his surname, Daisuke, can even be translated as ‘favourite’ or ‘I love it’. At first I didn’t understand why this book would be called after him but now I understand that although the separate narrators are different (showing consecutive phases in Japan’s evolution), they are also the same.

Besides, he is not the only one who loves China above all places.. that also goes for Yoshiko Yamaguchi.

Embracing The China Lover?

So, did I love The China Lover?

I had a bit of a hard time getting into the story. Buruma takes his time explaining the setting of the first part (which was needed as the history of Manchukuo was completely unknown to me), introducing many characters — some of which have more than one name.* I’m not familiar with Chinese names and places and for the first time I understood a complaint I heard several times about David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I’ve read quite some JLit and at the time I couldn’t accept that people had trouble keeping the Japanese characters and places apart… Now I can. ;)

But the most serious drawback of this section was that the narrator didn’t really sound Japanese or Asian to me.

* Just like Yoshiko Yamaguchi a.k.a. Ri Koran, Li Xianglan, Shirley Yamaguchi and a literal translation of her Chinese name that I forgot. She’s even got more names that aren’t mentioned in the book!

So ‘the China part’ was giving me most trouble. But in the following pages I also felt at times that the author wanted to include everything into the story; even Idi Amin, Ghadaffi and Yasar Arafat got covered. Isn’t that a bit too much?

About the second part of the novel I like how you know immediately there’s an American speaking by the use of a military acronym in the first sentence (GOMIP = Geen Omgang Met Inlands Personeel). This character is probably closest to the author, who’s been an American in Asia for several years. That’s probably why the narrator of this section felt much more true.

In regard to the translation I was sometimes bothered when sentences were confusingly long and would have been better constructed in a different order. It may not be a major issue, but it disturbed my ‘flow’ and increased the already present flaw that the story was at times was hard to follow because of all the information to absorb. Next time I hope Buruma takes the trouble to narrate a story in Dutch himself. ;)

Considering my interests in Asia (specifically Japan), cinema, feminism and globalism, and the fact that the book is broad and quite entertaining, it seems strange I was not swept of my feet by it. So I guess reading another novel by Ian Buruma is not high on my priority list (though his book about the Theo van Gogh assassination piques my interest). But I came to learn new things about Asian and Western history and was triggered to look up facts about Manchukuo and Yoshiko Yamaguchi, now Yoshiko Ōtaka. Did you know she’ll turn 92 in 3 weeks?! During her active years she took up politics and was a member of parliament for 18 years.

What I am really excited about is the fact that my favourite movie director, Hirokazu Kore-eda, is said to be planning a feature film about the life of this many-faced woman. Now that’s something to look forward to!

Chinese Literature

Chinese Literature Challenge 2011 button

The China Lover has been in my possession since its year of publication (2008) but I never got around to it, even though I stacked it on my readathon pile several times. Thanks to Chinoiseries’ Chinese Literature Challenge I finally picked it up!

I was surprised to find that a book with this title wasn’t really about China. Only the first section of the book is set in Manchuria, or Manchukuo at the time. It is an important section of the book but as I related above, I had a little trouble getting focussed with all the unfamiliar names, places, political and historical setting. I’m still not sure whether that (small) problem lies with me, or with the author. I have learnt something about a time and place I had no knowledge of whatsoever and feel wiser now. ;)

With this review I just managed to accomplish my goal for the Chinese Literature Challenge. Next time I’ll try to aim a little higher!

Historical Fiction

Historical Fiction Challenge portrait buttonThat I had started 2012 with a historic novel made it easier to enter the Historical Fiction Challenge on Historical Tapestry and Eclectic Reader Challenge on Book’d Out. It is not a genre I’m much used to, and being able to cross off one daunting book from the challenge list is always a good feeling.

As I mentioned with the Chinese Literature Challenge, I have learnt some interesting facts about historical people and places. I like that very much and look forward to reading more historical fiction. Although I wasn’t convinced that the first narrator was Asian, all the characters felt true to life — and alive. I could not differentiate between truth and fiction, which seems a good thing?

Eclectic Reader Challenge 2012 button

Now I’ve got one more historical novel to go for the ‘Out Of My Comfort Zone’ level in the Historical Fiction Challenge, and 11 more (other genres) as an Eclectic Reader…

To Be Continued!

Sunday Salon logoThe Sunday Salon is a virtual gathering of booklovers on the web, blogging about bookish things of the past week, visiting each others weblogs, and oh — reading books of course ;)

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After all those read-a-thon updates on Graasland it’s about high time I posted my latest bentos. And what better motivation than to find a mail from Hapa Bento telling me I had won the September B.O.M.B. challenge?!

*blush* I am so honoured!

Bento #116 served as dinner on my train journey to an evening about ‘Foodies, Foodporn & Foodblogs’ in The Hague on Wednesday September 22nd. That day it was mid-autumn and the Chinese were celebrating their Moon Festival. On Thursday the 23rd there would be a full moon — the brightest and most beautiful moon of the year according to Japanese people!

Tsukimi

Watching the full September moon is a special celebration in Japan, called Tsukimi (moon-viewing), tsuki being moon. It’s about honouring the moon and being thankful for the harvest. So, what could be more fun than to take an early Tsukimi Bento to the food event?

That meant I had to use seasonal produce (which is traditionally offered to the moon) and use ‘pampas grass’ for decoration. My organic CSA veggie bag came in handy! I really wanted to bring traditional foods, but no way I was having another attempt at making dango! I tried that on my first Holland Hanami (cherry blossom viewing, the spring counterpart of Tsukimi) and it made us gag! #fail

Thankfully I had recently bought some green tea mochi. But what am I doing, starting with dessert?

Tsukimi Bento (#116), 22-09-2010

Front tier

  • Buckwheat soba noodles (traditional) with leftover stir-fry of Swiss chard, silver onions, leek, carrot, corn kernels and chili pepper (all seasonal vegetables), braised in the soaking liquid of dried mushrooms.
  • Large shiitake mushroom (‘dark side of the moon’).
  • Slice of corn cob (‘full moon’).
  • Potato patty (no traditional sweet potato but hey, close enough).
  • Red pepper rabbits (tradition).
  • Fennel green ‘pampas grass’ for decoration, plastic sushi grass and flat leaf parsley for baran (dividers).
  • Slice of braised carrot, mini gherkins and pickled silver onions.
  • All on a bed of lettuce.

Background tier (which can be seen more clearly in another picture)

  • Edamame (traditional).
  • Apple – first local harvest!
  • Dried fruit: apricot & mango.
  • Green tea mochi (traditional).
  • Dollop of ketchup for potato patty.

But there’s more to it…

I didn’t get round to writing this blogpost because I wanted to tell you more of the thoughts behind bento #116.

In the Chinese Moon Fest round forms symbolize unity, completeness, togetherness. It reminds me of the circle of life, autumn being the season in which ‘the fruits’ get harvested. Of course the moon is round too. So I’ve used a lot of round foods in my round tsukimi bento :) Mix & match is what I say! ;) A lot of Chinese heritage became Japanese culture as well. Hey, I’m an European making bento, so what are we talking about anyway?

It’s interesting to know that the box that I used for this train bento is even officially called Tsukimi. The depiction of a moon-watching rabbit can be found in many Japanese decorations. All around the world people see things in the moon; here in Holland it’s a face and we’re calling it the Man of the Moon. Ancient Chinese saw a hare or rabbit pounding herbs for elixir, the Japanese believed it was pounding rice to make mochi. Making mochi is called mochitsuki (餅つき), which sounds similar to the word for full moon: mochitzuki (望月)!

Green tea mochiNow do you see the importance of my green tea mochi dessert? First flush (green) sencha tea is supposed to be best when kept till September, so that makes it even more appropriate.

Both moon and rabbit symbolize a long life. That probably originates from the Chinese life elixir myth — and the way rabbits know how to ensure eternal life through their offspring ;)

But there’s also a Buddhist story associated with this all, the story of Jade Rabbit. On a day of Uposatha — Buddhist Sabbath — an old man asked for food from a monkey, an otter, a jackal and a rabbit. The monkey collected fruits and offered them to the old man, the otter brought him a fish and the jackal a lizard. The rabbit didn’t have anything to bring, because the herbs constituting his food weren’t good for humans.
Then the rabbit decided to offer his own body and jumped into fire. Surprisingly his body did not burn, because the old man was the deity Sakra. And for people to remember the rabbit’s sacrifice, the old man drew the rabbit’s image over the moon.

If you look at Google images of ‘tsukimi rabbit‘ you’ll see the cutest rabbit-shaped sweets… I wish I could have had some! Still, I had so much fun making & eating this thematic bento! It’s wonderful it was awarded with a B.O.M.B. badge :)
Tsukimi Google logo 2009

Home-grown: red hot chilli peppers
Local & organic: Swiss chard, leek, carrots, corn, lettuce, potato, parsley, fennel, apple
Organic: sōmen, shiitake mushroom, egg, paprika, ketchup

The Year of the TigerToday is a special day: Valentine’s Day and Chinese New Year. Yay, The Year of The Tiger has started! This afternoon I went to a Chinese festival and released Paper Tiger (Papieren tijger) by Olivier Rolin for our Bookcrossing Monopoly Game. And I hopped by our city’s red light district for a Valentine’s release called Solely Lust (Louter lust): erotic stories for women. Both have been caught already!

In the past week I finally managed to post my review of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. And I wrote a (belated) Weekly Geeks post revealing a fun fact about author David Mitchell.

Cover The RomanticNow, this Valentine’s Day Sunday Salon provides me with a good opportunity to talk about Weekly Geeks 2010-6: ‘Romancing the Tome’. Have you heard of The Romantic, a book by Barbara Gowdy (one of my favourite authors)? You should have! It got longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003, and was in the running for several other awards. I haven’t been able to write a coherent review of this book about a zillion kinds of love; I had too many feelings to make any sense of them. So I’m going to give you the synopsis from Waterstones:

How do you love someone who sits, smiling, at the edge of oblivion? Award-winning Canadian writer Barbara Gowdy unravels a romance, and the idea of romance, in this spry, witty, agile novel full of all the species of love. Louise Kirk falls in love. She’s 10, lives in a cosy, unremarkable suburban home, but, remarkably, has lost a mother already. Or, rather, her chic, sharp mother has disappeared. So, Louise, lonely and steeped in complicated yearnings, decides to fall in love. Furiously. First, she falls in love with her magnificent new neighbour, the operatic and exotic Mrs Richter. Then, within the year, she falls for Mrs Richter’s brilliant son Abel. Distracting him from his attentive study of everything around him — the constellations, the moths, the music — proves quite a struggle. But before long Abel finds he loves Louise ‘too much’. A dozen years later, Abel is gone and Louise is devastated. This is the unravelling story of their romance! In The Romantic, Barbara Gowdy tracks and identifies all the species of love. Each of her characters is iridescent, but Louise Kirk, who flies to love again and again like a moth at a lamp, is a creature from whom no reader will easily tear their gaze.

I am not a person to reread books — so many books, so little time! But I have been wanting to start over in The Romantic ever since I finished it (and that was in 2004). Yes, that’s how much I loved it. Well, I’d better finish my current book first — I seem to be STUCK in it! :-o That’s the 3rd part of I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki. And the bookgroup discussion starts tomorrow! I guess I’ve left it for too long. But I don’t want to put the novel aside; I should be able to finish the last part of this classic! Although it seems to be keeping me from reading at all…

The Pillow Book read-along

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My Name Is Sei Shonagon (book)Oooops, I still haven’t started reading yet! It’s because of my problems with I Am a Cat. I hope I’ll have some better news for you next week! Anyway, I did buy another book to read once The Pillow Book read-along has ended. A bit premature, I knoooow LOL, but I couldn’t leave this discarded library book for someone else to find, could I?

It’s My Name Is Sei Shonagon in Dutch (Mijn naam is Sei Shonagon), by Jan Blensdorf. You can find a review on Curled Up With a Good Book.

The Sunday Salon is a virtual gathering of booklovers on the web, where they blog about bookish things of the past week, visit each others weblogs, oh — and read ;)

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