Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Collecting kudos

I'm cheating somewhat by reproducing three reviews of Heaven is High and the Emperor Far Away, A Play as this post. But I do so in part to highlight one of the many resources a writer now has to find support while writing and, having written, to promote his or her work. The following three reviews are from Goodreads.com, a wonderful site in which to find resources while writing and then to make written work available for reviews.

On July 13, 2013, Zrinka Jelic author of Love Remains (July 2013) wrote:

It took me a few pages to get into the feel of the book, but once I settled into this style I found it an enjoyable read. I'm sure there are guidelines for writing the play, but I'm not familiar with those and therefore won't review the writing itself. 

The developments of the plot are giving us a clear message how reform, revolution and the change only makes things worse in the long run. If the progress is to happen, it will happen naturally at its own pace not forced by someone's beliefs and guns. The story line reminded me of an Croatian TV series that follows the little barber shop before, through, between and shortly after the two world wars. The barber's main line was "I won't tolerate politics in my shop." Yet, politics was all that was talked about. Same in the Teahouse, the owner put up signs about not discussing the politics, yet the developments in the country was the only thing on people's mind. 

I would love to see this onstage. Perhaps it'd be less confusing with the lines for actors clues and cues and the kind of voice they should say the lines. 

I understand that this is a translation into English, but perhaps some different words should have been chosen. For instance eunuch, the dictionary tells us it is "a man who has been castrated, esp (formerly) for some office such as a guard in a harem" Yet in this story eunuch, from what I gathered, was a man of wealth and influence who had as it was implied used a then young girl to present her as his child bride. I found this a bit confusing, but contributed it to being lost in translation. 
All in all, this was a good and entertaining read. 

Tani Mura on September 6, wrote:

This is a short play about a shopkeeper, his tea house, and his family and friends as he struggles through political change, economic woes, and societal immoralities in a China not so long ago.

This was a very enjoyable and light read. Translating and adapting an original work is difficult, and delivering a play in an interesting and accessible format is quite a challenge, but I think the author did a fabulous job of balancing historical context, dialogue, and stage direction to assist the reader in conjuring up an image of the play in his or her head.

The preface was extremely helpful, not only because it set up the political and social environments in which this play unfolds, but also because it allowed for some of the author’s voice to come out. Favorite quote: “Heaven is high and the Emperor is far away was a familiar saying in the provinces of China…It reflects the sense that human ideals are quite remote from out mundane reality.” The author has a knack for elegant yet not overly embellished writing, and this preface contrasted well with the simplicity of the play itself.

Of course, because this is meant to be a play, and we as readers aren’t able to see the actors’ facial expression, catch their subtle motions, or hear the anguish or laughter in their voice, much of it is left to the readers’ imagination. For those who are seeking descriptive character development and a detailed plot, you may not enjoy this as much. But for me – an avid reader who appreciates when books leave a lot of room for the readers’ own imagination – this was a very enjoyable read.

Then most recently on October 8, Peter Stone opined:

'Heaven Is High and the Emperor Far Away, a Play' by Hock G. Tjoa, was a most enjoyable and informative read of a most tragic period of Chinese history, of a time when China was recovering from the ravages committed by the Japanese army during World War Two, only to plunge into the civil war as the Communists rose to power. The play gives us a glimpse of everyday life in this time, by letting us experience it through the goings on within a teahouse that had survived decades of power struggles and wars. 

I felt very sorry for the shopkeeper as he poured his life and years into the teahouse, only for the vultures of a corrupt government take advantage of him time after time. I lost count of how many times he had to fork out bribes, to cops, agents, and others, just to keep in business or to keep them away from his customers. 

And all the while the shopkeeper is preparing to re-open the teahouse. As I read I began to wonder if he would even be able to re-open the teahouse before running out of money. There is a broad spectrum of characters, from many walks of life, and watching them interact with each other is a treat.

Disclaimer - I was provided a copy of the play by the author for an unbiased review.

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I trust readers will follow the link in the first paragraph to see other reviews and also to explore the world of Goodreads for themselves. Amazon has recently purchased that site but what that means is unclear to me. Sharp-eyed readers will also notice that I have changed the background color of the cover from a rosy pink to a golden yellow; this is now easily done on a site such as Createspace through which I published both the paperback and Kindle version of this play. Chalk it up to modern technology!


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Deng Xiaoping and Liberal Democracy

Reading this large but absorbing tome leaves one with the sense that Vogel wished Deng had brought China closer to liberal democracy, in the same fashion as old school biographers of Gandhi conveyed the chimes of a pious wish that he had become a Christian.  Neither eventuality was ever "in the cards." One suspects that many reviewers of Vogel's work are critical also of the author for "going easy" on Deng for the very same reason.

Though it looms large in current international relations, liberal democracy has very shallow roots. One cannot accuse the British Empire, for instance, of having tried to make the world safe for democracy; it was trying to make it safe for the British pound. Not until well into the twentieth century can liberal democracy be said even to exist. The international megaphone meanwhile has been passed on. As western democracies were/are refining their notions of liberal democracy, dozens of other countries were/are struggling simply to be free, from their past and from their recent colonial overlords. It seems suspicious that these former overlords should require of India, China and the dozens of nations that came into being around the middle of the twentieth century that their politics be conducted as if by Westernized Oriental Gentlemen.

John Locke can be said to have laid the foundation for such a philosophy of political behavior
or government, but it is useful to remember that he did much of his thinking in the comfort of the palatial residence of the Earl of Shaftesbury whom he served as personal physician. The notion elaborated in the Second Treatise on Government that civil society should have the liberty and legitimacy to overthrow a (royal) government that had grown tyrannical formed the rationale for the Glorious Revolution of 1688. England deposed one king and adopted another with some sort of understanding that the new monarch would get along better with the nobility and landed gentry. Locke would have been horrified to see his ideas pressed into the service of the American revolution as it was (as brilliantly argued by Louis Hartz in 1955) and would probably be spinning in his grave about the Irish being given any kind of democracy. What he would have thought about Margaret Thatcher's successful attempt at re-establishing British liberal democracy in the Falklands (what did she or the world think was going to happen to the Islands under Argentine rule?) and failed attempt to maintain it in Hong Kong, it is best not to speculate.

But India, China and other nations though new as nations are not so new as cultures or civilizations. They developed not besotted with the belief that "all that is, is right," nor that Progress was "historically inevitable," nor that as such it would lead to liberal democracy. In China, the essence of political legitimacy was to maintain order and prosperity such that even though enough is known about neighboring countries, its own people would have no interest to visit their neighbors. When Deng was confronted with the dramatic escapes from China to Hong Kong, his reaction was not to preach liberal democracy (which might have recommended walls of razor wire) but economic development.

Is this cultural difference tantamount to a "clash of civilizations"? I seriously doubt it. Huntington's essay was occasioned by the work of a former student who wrote The End of History, an explication of Hegel's notion (one Marx approved of) that nation-states would inevitably wither away. If so, what would we ever fight over? From the point of view of an American political scientist in the 1990s, cultural values, of course. Alas, nation-states do not appear to be in any hurry to wither away. Further, conflict arises not discernibly because of cultural differences; it seems more likely to be the case when there is a bully in the schoolyard. 

Ten years before Ayatollah Khomeni referred to the United States as "the Great Satan," pundits were agog with Servan-Schreiber's Le Defi Americain.  Perhaps that was simply Gallic nerve. Then came Shintaro Ishihara's The Japan that can say No. He was deemed a ultra-nationalist crank. What do pundits think a poll of European and South American states today would reveal?

We can all hope that the nation-states of the world spare some consideration for economic prosperity whether or not they are also thinking of liberal democracy or worried about the schoolyard bully.