An Unhappy New Year

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On 8 February 1644, the first day of the Chinese New Year, the ministers of the Emperor of Lofty Omens woke before dawn and journeyed through the streets of Beijing. At the break of day, in keeping with tradition that stretched back for centuries, they would greet their 33-year-old ruler, whom the gods had selected to reign over the entire world. Then, the assembled throng would welcome in the new year, the 4341st since China’s first, legendary kings, and entreat the gods and ancestors to bring them good fortune.

The city, however, was quiet. Many of its inhabitants had succumbed to a harsh outbreak of disease the previous year, and according to one diarist, ‘no babies had been born in the city for the previous six months.’ Not all the ministers arrived at the palace on time. Those that did found the gates jammed shut, and were only able to open them with some difficulty. Eventually, they found the Emperor of Lofty Omens, in the Hall of the Central Ultimate. He was weeping

China was doomed. The Dynasty of Brightness, the Ming, which had ruled the world’s largest nation for centuries, had lost its hold on power. A Confucian scholar would have been scandalised at the low attendance that morning; without a full complement of ministers, how could they perform the necessary ceremonies? But not even the Emperor himself bore a grudge against the absentees, or those who arrived late, wheezing breathless apologies. No amount of prayers and ceremony would change the inevitable, and no sacrifice, however elaborate, would attract the ancestors’ attention from the afterlife.

Besides, the Emperor could not afford it. Ever since the disastrous reign of his father, the nation’s budgets had spiralled wildly out of control. Attempts to curtail imperial luxuries were not enough, fundamental cornerstones of civilization had gone to ruin. The Grand Canal to the south was falling into disrepair, and the postal system had been shut down. Smallpox had wrought havoc among the farming communities, who struggled in vain to tease crops from the earth – though few realised at the time, the middle of the 17th century gripped the world in a mini-ice age. The same weather conditions that were then freezing over the Thames in London were also bringing deadly cold to the lands north of the Great Wall.

The Emperor was fated to fall. While the Great Wall still held, a new enemy struck from within. Starved of food and decimated by disease, a distant inland province rose up in revolt. An army of disaffected soldiers and peasants, began to march on the capital city, led by the rebel Li Zicheng.

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Li Zicheng, formerly one of the post-riders who delivered mail along China’s once-great roads, had been obsessed with seizing control of the Empire from his youth. Not even losing an eye in battle dimmed his ardour, as one old prophecy had predicted the Empire would fall to a man with only one eye. His previous dealings with other members of the imperial family had been less than favourable. During his campaigns, he not only killed the Emperor’s uncle the Prince of Fu, but drank his blood, mixing it into his venison broth. Li Zicheng was the leader of a horde of almost 100,000 soldiers, boiling across the country towards Beijing, gathering still greater numbers as peasants flocked to its tax-free banners.

On New Year’s Day, as the Ming Emperor sat sobbing in his palace, Li Zicheng announced his intention to found a new dynasty. The Dynasty of Brightness, he said, had fallen. Long live the Da Shun, the Dynasty of Great Obedience.

With the usurper Li Zicheng advancing ever closer to Beijing, the Emperor of Lofty Omens knew it was time for drastic measures. Drunk and disoriented, he ordered for the Ming Heir Apparent to be smuggled out of the city. He gathered the rest of his family about him and informed them that it was time to die. Some of his wives and concubines had already committed suicide, and were found hanged or poisoned in their chambers. Others had fled. There was no such option for the immediate family of the Emperor, who attacked his own children with a sword. The 15-year-old Princess Imperial held out her right arm to stay his attack, and the Emperor hacked it off. The maimed girl fled screaming through the halls, leaving a trail of blood. Her younger sisters were not so lucky, and both died where they stood, stabbed by their own father. The Emperor then went to the base of nearby hill, where he wrote a final message in his own blood, before hanging himself as Li Zicheng’s army drew closer. Later writers would claim the Emperor’s last words blamed his ministers and his own ‘small virtue’ for the collapse of the Ming Dynasty, and exhorted the rebels to spare his people from suffering. In fact, the Emperor’s bleeding finger simply traced the plaintive, spidery characters ‘Son of Heaven.’ His body lay undiscovered for three days.

Extract from Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty, by Jonathan Clements, available in the UK and US.

The Blurb I Wish I’d Had

coxingapbIn the year 4341, invaders ransacked the Celestial Empire and placed a child on the Dragon Throne. The last remnants of the Dynasty of Brightness swore to fight them to the death. Their allies were alien creatures with the noses of eagles and the eyes of cats, and giant black-skinned devils from beyond the sea. Their soldiers were former smugglers and pirates, led by the Master of the Seas. His son would burn his scholar’s robes and cast aside his own name to become the embodiment of loyalty. He also became a god. Twice.

This is a true story.

The Lady in Red

One of the odd obsessions that has occupied me for the last decade is Mazu, the Chinese marine goddess, patron deity of all those in peril on the sea. She began life as a real person, Lin Moniang, a quiet, contemplative Song dynasty girl who used to legendarily stand on Fujian clifftops in thunderstorms, wearing a bright red dress to serve as a human lighthouse to her father and brothers in their fishing boats. Lin Moniang, so the story goes, walked into the sea, sacrificing herself so that her father’s ship could return safely, becoming in the process a personification of the sea itself. Deified by later emperors, her red-clad image can be found everywhere Chinese sailors drop anchor. There are statues to Mazu in China and Malaysia, and two temples to her in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Her most famous devotee was Coxinga, the pirate king of Taiwan, whose life is bracketed by portents of her favour and blessing, and whose island enclave was conquered a generation later by a one-eyed admiral who claimed to see Mazu with his blind eye, standing waist deep in the waters of the Taiwan Strait, and fighting for the Manchus.

In 2010, I stood in the shadow of a massive statue of Mazu in Tainan, as a lone monk chanted an endless sutra, and a replica of Coxinga’s ship was launched from the dockside. In 2009, I climbed a hill in Nagasaki to the temple maintained by Coxinga’s Japanese relatives, where a squat statue of Mazu glowered in the central hall. I keep meaning to write something, when I get the chance, about the Mazu cartoon film, as yet unavailable in English. But I’ve been prompted to mention her today because of the series on Chinese television at the moment, which dives headfirst into Mazu mythology with flying demons, heated debates among the immortals, and sea devils rising from the Taiwan Strait. Oh, to be a commissioning editor at the BBC with a mind to recreate the Monkey madness of years gone by… because Mazu is the series that might just do it.

My Book of the Year

And so we come to the Book of the Year round-up. I’m not waiting till the holiday season this time, as I realise that many readers would prefer to hear my thoughts now, just in case it inspires their Christmas shopping. And why not? Buy someone a book for Christmas this year. It’s more fun than socks.

Well, your mileage may vary. Runners-up from my reading this year include the utterly filthy Decadence Mandchoue: The China Memoirs of Edmund Trelawney Backhouse, rescued from obscurity by Derek Sandhaus in a beautiful hardback edition by Hong Kong’s Earnshaw Books. I was left thoroughly depressed by Paradise Found, an informative account of the American ecology on the eve of the arrival of European colonists. Also, sped to me on the day of its publication, Matthew Sweet’s West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London’s Grand Hotels.

Sweet’s previous books changed the way I wrote history; I have come to love his persistence in tracking down testimonials rather than memoirs, a dogged quest that often seems to find him sipping tea in old people’s home while the spivs, movie stars and spies of yesteryear struggle to recall their glory days. West End Front is a carnival of (largely) ghastly people, often described with Wodehousian glee, and Sweet presents a superb angle on the culture of WW2, from the switchboard operator who overheard of the war’s arrival before the rest of the country, to the huddle of ousted politicians listening on a hotel radio to the news of Japan’s surrender. Kings in exile, hookers on the make, and Marxists in search of a bespoke bomb shelter all rub shoulders in Sweet’s vivid account, some under the mistaken impression that the solidly built hotels of London were “bomb-proof.” I would say more, but Simon Guerrier already has.

For the second year running, my fortnight at Scotland Loves Anime found me raiding the Glasgow Waterstone’s, coming away with the wonderful Lore of Scotland and The Faded Map, a run-down of the various kingdoms once found in Caledonia. The focussed, localised Faded Map has been overshadowed somewhat by Norman Davies’ sprawling Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe, which offers potted histories of continental also-rans such as the Byzantine Empire, Aragon, Burgundy and Tolosa. But through no fault of Davies, I was left slightly more satisfied by The Faded Map, partly because it set its sights very small, on Scotland, and hence was able to be far more comprehensive. There is a picky, ungrateful sense of entitlement that comes over the reader of Davies’ larger work, as one starts to wonder about all the vanished realms he’s left out – what about al-Andalus? The Danelaw? The Austro-Hungarian Empire…? His book is popular enough and has made it onto many other best-of lists this winter, so perhaps it will soon gain a companion volume. If it does, may I plead with his publishers to make a better book. For £30, I would prefer one that doesn’t start shedding its pages before I’ve even got halfway in. By the time I finished, it was less of a book than a sheaf of papers.

Lost Colony by Tonio Andrade is an impeccably researched account of the fall of Fort Zeelandia in Taiwan to the “pirate king” Koxinga, a.k.a. Zheng Chenggong, Coxinga, the Knight of the Imperial Surname, etc. Barnacled with grants and fellowships, and aided by four research assistants, Andrade reframes the story of Fort Zeelandia in terms of the popularly-held idea of the inherent superiority of the modern west. He points out that when the Chinese first met with European military might, the Chinese won, and ponders if the victimhood of the 19th century was an anomaly. Entertainingly, Andrade is not above arch comments about the Dutch disaster as it unfolds, and has the odd achievement of including a chart that made me laugh out loud. It’s a list of defectors in each direction between the Dutch and the Chinese, but is set up with such mathematical precision that it allows for the possibility of half a defector. A lower torso, perhaps? For reasons I don’t quite follow, this playfulness also extends to the book’s cover, which shows a picture of Batavia, not Taiwan at all.

When I clicked a copy of Andrade’s book into my shopping basket, Amazon kindly informed me that “people who bought Lost Colony also bought Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty by Jonathan Clements”. This is somewhat ironic, since Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty is entirely unmentioned in Lost Colony, which has the gumption to bill itself as an “untold story.” There’s some half-hearted hand-wringing in Andrade’s acknowledgements about his “scholar’s discomfort” with this claim, but it apparently didn’t bother him enough to actually do anything about it. Which is a shame, because Lost Colony is an excellent book, and now many would-be readers will be confronted its spurious “untold” assertion every time they browse an online bookseller.

It is, one presumes, because academic presses do not wish to dirty themselves with citations from the garish world of commercial publishing, a reluctance which, to some extent, I do understand, particularly if someone has inconveniently told your “untold” story eight years previously – and I, of course, was not even the first. But if you are going to dismiss popular predecessors as beneath your notice, please don’t succumb to the hucksterish allure of misleading, grandstanding titles. Untold, my arse.

Which brings me to my actual book of the year, which I doubt very much you could buy even if you wanted to: China on the Western Front, by Michael Summerskill. Untold? No. Unread? Seemingly. Unloved? Absolutely not. It’s an amazing book about the Chinese Labour Corps, nearly 100,000 men who came from China to dig trenches and unload ships in a Europe starved of manpower during WW1. Eight hundred of them died, mainly from the influenza of 1918, although several dozen died in bombing raids and German attacks. It was published in 1982, and is so obscure that the School of Oriental and African Studies library doesn’t have a copy. It’s a paperback of less than 250 pages, acquired for the princely sum of £85 from a second-hand bookseller who knew exactly how much it was worth to me. I bought it because I’m considering writing a book of my own about WW1 in the Far East, and the fact that 100,000 Chinese put a girdle round the Earth in order to drag corpses from the trenches at Verdun is simply fascinating. Summerskill plainly found his obsession so odd, so unique, that no publisher would touch it. He published it himself, in numbers so tiny that I doubt there are three copies left in Europe. But nevertheless, thanks to the interwebs, I was able to find a copy. And if Summerskill’s family ever want to republish it, they could have it available on the Kindle in days. Has its time come? I hope so.

Instead, the most accessible book on the subject is another product of the modern age, an obscure 1919 account by a white officer in the Chinese Labour Corps, brought back into print by the Imperial War Museum, and maintaining its cheerily racist original title: With the Chinks. It doesn’t hold a candle to Summerskill, but was a fun read. [Time Travel Footnote: John Watson points out that this book came out this year.]

We stand on the verge of a sea-change in publishing. Summerskill’s book, still a great rarity in 2011, might easily be a similar print-on-demand or e-Book commonplace by this time next year, easily rushed to your door or to your tablet. I have two books coming out in 2012, and for what is for me the first time, both will be in dual paper and electronic versions as my publishers wake up to the potential of new media. My reading this year has been skewed more than ever by the technology that delivers it to me. Amazon, in particular, reminds me to put money down on books I forgot I once wanted, or hunt down obscurities that might have eluded me in a bookshop. I have also noticed with increasing regularity, the number of books from academic presses that have clearly been printed on demand, to meet my order and not in anticipation of it. Nothing, however, quite competes with the joy of poking around a real-world Foyle’s or a Waterstone’s, where acres of new worlds are waiting to be discovered, analogue style.

I’m not one of the publishing doomsayers. There is certainly a paradigm shift in the way that books are sold and consumed, but if anything it makes the field more financially rewarding for writers, not less so. I have certainly benefited from both paper and e-sales this year. I suspect that within the decade, the default condition of all books will be electronic, and that old-fashioned people like me who want it on paper can pay to have their digibook made real, much as 18th century bibliophiles popped down to the printer to have their papers bound. But there will be a transitional phase when electronica dominates, and when that comes, you’ll have a lot more trouble putting a ribbon around it and giving it to your dad.

So buy someone a book for Christmas this year. Next year you might have nothing to give but electrons.

Coxinga on the Kindle

My book Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty is suddenly available on the Kindle. I can only guess that the History Press, who inherited it from the now defunct Sutton Publishing, realised they were onto a good thing when the National Geographic documentary came out. No complaints here: I’m immensely pleased that people can zap it onto their tablets in seconds. Here’s hoping the rest of my books are fast behind.

A Hero’s Legacy

We’ve just had an impromptu private screening of Koxinga: A Hero’s Legacy, the National Geographic documentary that’s been part of my life, on and off, for the last two years. It’s already been twelve months since I was flown to Taiwan, where I had a fantastic time poking around historical sites with the camera crew, wittering into the lens about pirates, revolutionaries and my enduring obsession with the greatest Ming loyalist, Zheng Chenggong, a.k.a. Coxinga, a.k.a., for the purposes of this documentary, Koxinga.

The programme charts the construction of a replica of a Chinese war junk, and bravely includes the fantastic cat-fights that broke out over design, materials and additions, as tourist officers clashed with historical recreationists and seasoned boat-builders over where they should stick their screws, what 17th century pirates would have made of Swedish motors, and the likelihood that a tourist attraction would be “real” enough to fall apart after three years. I wade through the middle of it all, waving around things I’ve stolen from the shipyard, and getting so badly sunburned on the launch day that the HD camera had to move ten feet back to stop me looking like a leper in all later footage.

In what is likely to be an unrepeatable highlight of my career, I was also forced to address a conference of marine historians in Mandarin, hacked my way through a bamboo forest near a funeral home, filmed at an illegal shrine built on a sandbar, and had a blissful two hours shopping for old Chinese music CDs in Tainan. I must have cut a strange dash, caked in Cover Girl for the camera, and with my radio mic still sticking out of my back pocket, snatching 1940s propaganda songs from the bargain bins. I had also been wearing the same shirt for five days for the sake of continuity, so the Chinese gave me a wide berth.

Koxinga: A Hero’s Legacy will be broadcast first on Taiwanese TV this coming August, and should be on other countries’ National Geographic channels in the months after that. I have had an absolutely wonderful time working on it, and I can only hope that National Geographic wake up to the documentary potential of Admiral Togo or Mannerheim some time soon…

In the process of making the documentary, the director Sigal Bujman also stumbled upon a Chinese Coxinga cartoon series currently in production, so who knows, maybe this will cross back over into my other specialty soon enough.

Structuring Absences

From 1990 to 1992, I lived in a world without television. The first year was in Leeds, living in student digs, getting up to speed in Chinese and Japanese. Then, I was in the Far East in the days before the internet, when a simple question and answer to distant correspondents was a two-week round trip by aerogramme. Snippets of news drifted in, spied in arcane newspapers, mentioned in letters from home. Isaac Asimov died. So did Freddie Mercury. And entirely without my realising, the Soviet Union collapsed. I got home to discover that the Cold War was over, the map had been redrawn and Red Russia had been swept away.

Which is why, perhaps, I feel a certain affinity for the hapless sometime hero of David Mitchell’s Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – the Dutchman who finds himself at the edge of the world, in Dejima, that foreign field that was the easternmost terminus of the great Dutch trading empire. Dejima, as prominently featured in last year’s The Secret of the Sword, was a fan-shaped island in Nagasaki harbour, where foreign devils from Europe were quarantined by the Japanese. In Secret of the Sword, it was the finish line, the protagonist’s symbol of ultimate escape. In Thousand Autumns, it is a prison in all but name, from which de Zoet yearns to fly free. It all depends on which side of the bridge you’re on.

I have heard Mitchell called an acolyte of Haruki Murakami. Is this because he is the only Japanese author reviewers have heard of, or because they see in Thousand Autumns an echo of Murakami’s parallel narratives and structuring absences? Mitchell’s book is obsessed with those moments where the world can change with the tick of a clock, and in the long, seemingly eventless periods where nothing busily happens, even as the storm gathers. There are parallels, seemingly inadvertent, with today’s financial crisis, as de Zoet discovers his money is worthless, and, yes, there are echoes with the early novels of Murakami, such as Hear the Wind Sing, in which the text would curve oddly around an unspoken gravity well, daring the reader to deduce what it was.

Jacob de Zoet is on Dejima, under duress, stuck with an unpleasant multinational band sailing under Dutch flags. Moreover, he is there at a crucial moment in history, when the world order of the 18th century crumbles suddenly into the world order of the 19th. Overnight, literally, at midnight on New Year’s Eve at the turn of the century, the Dutch East India Company, that association of wily merchants and privateers who had fought against Coxinga and wheeled and dealed in the China Seas, was suddenly no more. Within a generation, the Dutch in Asia were replaced by the British, commencing a whole new era in Asian history. Mitchell’s text is swimming with period dialogue and concepts, knee-deep in Dutchness, as the world de Zoet once knew is revealed to disappearing forever.

And there is a romance, of sorts. There are many women in de Zoet’s life, although we only see one close up, and she is somehow beyond his reach. Sometimes, one wonders if the Thousand Autumns is not a single novel but a file containing three abortive attempts to begin. De Zoet himself is marginalised after the first third; his Dejima frustrations forgotten as Mitchell’s story takes on more fantastical elements, eschewing his pin-sharp reconstruction of Dejima for tantalising speculations about the monastery of a fictional wacko sect. Elements come to the fore of a Tokugawa-era Handmaid’s Tale, as Mitchell slaps the reader with the realisation that a heretofore minor character is far more central than one thought. It is, in a sense, a remarkably Japanese experience, confronting the idle reader with the abyss of meanings unexplored. To the attentive real-world linguist, every day in Japanese feels that way, drama or not.

But this is Mitchell’s theme throughout, a surgical metaphor of trauma and healing, hinted in the opening gore of a troubled birth, and picked at throughout like a scab. None of us ever really knows which character we are truly playing, or in whose story. What De Zoet believes to be his own failings as a traditional hero are later revealed to be crucial links in a chain of events that change a number of lives. And in the final, moving time-lapse sequence, encompassing decades in a page like some prose version of the end of Zardoz, we see de Zoet getting the only reward he can expect in this life, but maybe not the next.

Mad in Taiwan

In the last week I have been interviewed by Chinese TV, press-passed my way behind the fences and up into the rafters at the boat launch, and chased down the street after two rival Goddess of the Sea processions with a stills camera. I’ve walked along a beach interviewing an eminent professor, and poked around an illegal temple to Coxinga, literally built on the shifting sands of the Taiwan Strait. I’ve also notched up many hours of talking headness, wittering to camera about Coxinga’s rebellious life and explosive conclusion.

The crew from Marc Pingry Productions was based in the super-swish Tayih Landis, a film-makers’ dream of a hotel with wireless internet throughout, a producer-proof business centre, bellhops eager to cart around a truck full of camera equipment and the best breakfasts I have ever had. And a gym, and a pool. And insulated beverages in the tea house that allow us to periodically say: “Let’s go and drink from the furry cup.” It also had a convenient six-floor shopping centre next door, for all those handy last minute runs to grab a hacksaw, three rolls of gaffer tape, a CD of devotional music dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea, and a crate of beer.

With 5am calls and midnight finishes, I am lucky I saw any of the city at all. But for a workaholic like me, it was the best possible way to see Tainan. Get up, drive to location A, shoot two set-ups, drive to Location B, repeat, back to the hotel for breakfast. Then out again for the next shoot… rinse, repeat, from location scout to shooting, to equipment hire, to scriptwriting.

Our fixer Johnson Hu was on hand to drive the van, argue with the natives, run for iced tea and twirl a boom mike. Thanks to him, I had the most wonderful Coxinga fanboy experience. I got to see the beach where Coxinga’s troops came ashore, to poke around the halls at the place where he died, and to clamber over the ruins of the castle he took from the Dutch. I was also pushed in front of a crowd at an academic forum on Chinese marine history, where I spoke about Coxinga’s Japanese relatives, some of whom witnessed key moments in 19th century history, and one of whom opened the first coffee shop in Japan in 1889.

We’re still in an ongoing debate about what this documentary should be called. A Hero’s Legacy? Sailing into History? The Master of the Seas? Defiance Deified? Ship Floats? Since the reconstruction of the 17th century boat is the centrepiece, I have suggested Whatcha Gonna Do With All That Junk? But I don’t think anyone is going with that.

The people in Tainan have built a replica of the Taiwan Boat, the junk that made the long trip from Taiwan to Hirado in Japan. There is a lively and incredibly entertaining debate underway about what a replica should be, how faithful it should be in order to satisfy historians; how practical it should be to satisfy health and safety; how durable it should be to satisfy the money-men. The camera crew are back in June to film the re-enactments of Coxinga’s life, and I’ve had so much fun I’m ready to volunteer to carry sandbags if it’ll get me back there.

But no rest for the wicked. Off to Sweden today to discuss the career of Major General Peng Liyuan, the Chinese soprano who looks ever so good in uniform. And back in London next week for meetings about my next book: I’m not done with maritime China yet…

Coxinga

Throwing stuff in a suitcase for tomorrow’s trip. I’m off to Taiwan for a week’s work on a National Geographic documentary about Coxinga. We shot some footage in London a year ago, but this is the big one: much delayed, much rescheduled, but finally we’re off to the place he made his home.

There’s some historical consultant stuff to do for the re-enactment scenes, and then I am a talking head, discussing my long-standing interest in the man otherwise known as Zheng Chenggong, the leader of the resistance against the Manchu conquerors of China. His father was a former smuggler who became one of the richest men in the 17th century world, and an admiral in the dying days of the Ming dynasty. Coxinga was the half-Japanese son, raised as a Confucian scholar, groomed for a quiet existence as a minister, who was barely 20 years old when the Manchu invasion of China turned his world upside down.

Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty was the first history book I wrote, back in 2003. When I first pitched it to my agent, she had to ask twice whether it was fact or fiction – the story is that fantastic. But his life has obsessed for even longer than that – I first wrote about him in 1992, as part of a course on “Pre-Modern Japanese Foreign Relations” that I took at university in Japan. So you could say it’s taken 18 years to get to this point. And there are still stories to tell about him, so many stories…