Friday, August 11, 2000

Book Review: American Goddess at the Rape of Nanking, The Courage of Minnie Vautrin

In 2014, I posted this review on Amazon.

Some people live their lives at the water's edge, footprints of their passage on earth quickly erased by the rising tide. Others acquire a bit of immortality by converting their wealth into libraries, monuments and endowment funds. Then there are still others like Minnie Vautrin, who devote their entire life to helping others and hardly thought about the next day much less their place in history. Thanks to Ms. Hua-ling Hu and her tireless effort to uncover the facts obscured by the dust of time, Ms. Vautrin is, at least, one unsung heroine that will not be forgotten.

Author Hu manages to open the thin volume of under 150 pages with a most informative review of China's history of uneasy and ambivalent relationship with missionaries from the West and sets the stage for Ms. Hua Chuan's (Minnie Vautrin's Chinese name) arrival in China.

When Ms. Vautrin first went to China, she knew nothing about the country. At the time, the beginning of the 20th century, teaching in missionary service was one of the more attractive career options for women. Yet, she was to devote 28 of her 55 years in China and came to call China her home.

Despite her extensive research, the author never quite explained why Ms. Vautrin came to adopt China as her country. Perhaps because she shared the esteem Chinese hold for education. Perhaps she saw that the women in China, shackled by male dominated feudalism, needed her as their champion.

By the time the Japanese imperial troops marched into Nanjing in December 1937, Ms. Vautrin had already spent a quarter of a century at the Ginling College in Nanjing. She not only administered the training of female students; she also organized schooling for children of destitute families living nearby. Women were taught to read and acquire skills that would provide them a livelihood.

Most of the book, of course, is devoted to describing the atrocities committed by the Japanese troops and Ms. Vautrin's valiant effort to confront and face down the brutal soldiers and their arms. She was not always successful in protecting the women seeking sanctuary inside the college, but she earned the eternal gratitude of the people of Nanjing who canonized her as a living Buddha.

This book looks at the Rape of Nanjing from yet another perspective and complements those recently published about this subject. At the same time, this book tells the story of a selfless woman of compassion and courage. Minnie Vautrin is surely one of China's and America's earliest advocates for women's right to equal access to education. Hers is a story that should inspire all.

Tuesday, August 8, 2000

Book review: Virtual Tibet by Orville Schell

In a way, what Jonathan Spence did with The Chan’s Great Continent, Orville Schell has done with Virtual Tibet. Both study how the West glamorizes, idealizes, disparages, and criticizes China, nearly always from a narrow western frame of reference, blinded by its own bias and ignorance. Chan’s is a scholarly compilation of how the West saw China throughout history. Schell deals with how the West sees Tibet in a less scholarly but more personal way. Schell interweaves West’s early contacts with Tibet with his foray into the Hollywood fascination with and idealization of Tibet.

Virtual Tibet is anecdotal and fun to read. In walking the impartial line of a journalist, Schell is careful to recount his observations without the intermixing of his opinions. However, his droll descriptions never cease to entertain. For instance, he voiced nary a nasty comment on the carrying-on of the kung-fu actor, Steven Seagal and his fixation with Dalai Lama. Still, after reading his encounter with Seagal, the reader comes away with a new appreciation of what a Hollywood megalomanic lout is all about.

From Schell’s book I learned that the word “pundit” came from the Anglicization of “pandit,” a Hindi term. Pandit or pundit meaning a person of knowledge was applied to native Indians trained by the British to spy in Tibet starting from the turn of the 19th century. It seemed that for decades, the voracious British colonial government coveted Tibet and needed detailed maps of the region. Official surveys headed by white explorers were out of the question and the solution was to resort to employing Indian nationals that could sneak into Tibet. Before reading this book, I often wondered why I hold a vague disdain for pundits. Now I know.

By the time Lost Horizon was written in 1933 and introduced the concept of Shangri-La, a hidden paradise, Tibet had already been established as the exotic destination of choice for overactive adventurers and farout mystics. Tibetan monks were attributed with awesome magical powers including ability to fly, read people’s minds, perform miraculous cures and endure subzero temperatures. According to Schell, “the Tibet of filth, ferocity, arcane religious practices, grinding poverty, barren wastes, inhospitable weather, serfdom, disease and theocratic absolutism vanished from public consciousness.”

“Shangri-La is a distillation of a borrowed piece of Tibetan mythology overlaid with a Western dream of dreams that was two centuries in the making.” Look past the Hollywood gloss on the modern Tibet of the West, and one concludes that Schell’s observation still holds.

Reviews in brief

A Victor’s Reflections and other Tales for China’s Timeless Wisdom for Leaders by Michael C. Tang is an absolute joy to read and own. The author has managed to reduce classic stories of China’s sages, military strategists, wise rulers, clever advisors and child prodigies into highly readable and entertaining short stories. When he tries to draw lessons from these classics to modern day situations, he was less successful. But, if your grandchildren ever ask you to explain “what is Chinese culture,” you will want to read this book first. Better yet, give this book to your grandchildren.

I had been looking forward to reading The Yamato Dynasty by Sterling and Peggy Seagrave ever since I saw the book in Asia and then found out that the publication in the West was months later. This book claims to contain the secret history of Japan’s imperial family, the billions of gold stashed away and the secret deals made with General Douglas MacArthur after World War II. Unfortunately I found the book disorganized, rambling and not well written, falling short of the reputation the authors earned from their previous efforts. However, this book is a valuable reference that goes a long way to explaining the complicity of the U.S. government in overlooking war crimes committed by Japan.