Madahan: A Horse Reaches China

madahanAs if Finland did not already have enough alcoholic beverages themed around its most famous son, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, the Kallio Brewery forges ahead with a “Tropical Milk IPA” named Madahan. That’s 馬達漢 to you, the Chinese name conferred upon Finland’s future president during his two-year trek across Asia on horseback from 1906-08, in which he pretended to be a Swedish explorer, but was actually a spy for the Russians.

Mannerheim’s Chinese name continues to confuse many Finns. It does not, as he once believed, and as the Madahan label continues to assert, mean “the horse that leaps through the clouds.” It means “the horse reaches China,” a sweetly literal description of Mannerheim’s ride across Asia.

But the Madahan name carries with a bunch of other baggage, much of which eluded Mannerheim during his explorations. The word “ma” literally means “horse”, although it was, and is, also a common Muslim surname in Western China, deriving from the first syllable of the name Mohammed. As a result, several interfering officials tried to get Mannerheim to change it as he travelled, although they didn’t tell him why. Some said that his Chinese surname was “wrong”. In places, it may well have been, since his sneering nemesis, the French explorer Paul Pelliot, may have pranked him by substituting a word meaning “drunk” or “stupid”.

Kallio’s Madahan IPA has a colourful picture of Mannerheim, his moustache grown back after his clean-shaven early months on the road, sitting atop the faithful Philip, who carried him all the way to Beijing.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy.

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Red Women and Red Beards

Girls with Guns and Chinese Mercenaries… in Finland

ForRedPetrograd,ForRedFinland-LIn May 2008, at the 90th anniversary celebration of the end of Finland’s Civil War, organisers were surprised that the Finnish President Tarja Halonen didn’t show up. Instead, the social democrat stateswoman was at a different ceremony at Tammisaari, commemorating the losing side. Her point, subtly and quietly made, was that she was not skipping the commemoration at all, but merely a commemoration, of a history that had many perspectives and narratives, victors and victims.

The Finnish Civil War of 1918 caused 38,000 deaths in a few short months, only a third of whom fell on the battlefield. Another third were executed or murdered by kangaroo courts; the rest died in prison camps after the war was over – of disease, hunger or violence. Halonen’s attendance at a ceremony for dead POWs restated the case for the Civil War as a national tragedy, the narrative of which has been dominated for decades by the victorious Whites.

History, after all, is written by the winning side, and those Reds that did not die in the conflict often exiled themselves thereafter from the telling of the tale. Some emigrated to the United States and forgot they were Finns at all. Some flocked to the Soviet Union, where they mostly saw their socialist dreams savagely crushed – not for nothing, the spiteful Finnish joke that Stalin was a great man because he killed a lot of Commies. Others faded into the general population, while the anti-Soviet Whites dominated the government, the army and the history books.

55969In their book, The Finnish Civil War 1918: History, Memory, Legacy, editors Tuomas Tepora and Aapo Roselius chronicle the many faces of Finland’s bloody national birth trauma, in which the new republic briefly became the high tidemark of Soviet revolution in Europe, before Mannerheim and his White Guards (with the oft-redacted assistance of German allies) retook the south. This collection of academic authors regards the war as a terrible national hysteria that divided families, set neighbours at each other’s throats, and offered handy excuses for outlaws and murderers to settle petty scores. There was also, of course, the heartfelt political beliefs of the two sides – the German-supported Whites swelled with a desire for liberation from Russia, and the Reds with their faith in the Soviet dream.

It has always baffled me that modern Finland, which continues to have military conscription for able-bodied youths, does not similarly insist on women soldiers as some sort of feminist statement. I have heard multiple explanations for this from Finns, including simple logistics (lack of toilets, which I find hard to believe), demographics (there aren’t enough places even for the boys), and pedagogy (Finnish national service being seen as a last-ditch effort to smack some sense into modern milksops, and hence not necessary for supposedly no-nonsense Finnish women). But this book offers a new line of explanation, citing the arch-conservative Mannerheim on his distaste for women fighting on the front line:

“I expect help from the Finnish women for the various dreadful needs of the army like nursing, making clothes, taking care of the home and comforting those who have lost their loved ones. Whereas armed fighting at the front I regard as an exclusive privilege and duty of a man.”

Girls with guns, it transpired, were largely a Red Thing, most memorably the 15-year-old amazon Laura Alanen who favoured men’s clothes and long, flowing locks, and who was apparently a sight to behold at the head of a column of armed cavalry. In the trials and putsches that followed the White victory, Red women in trousers were treated as combatants; Red women in skirts were regarded merely as collaborators.

The book also features a fascinating chapter on the irredentist battles of the late 1910s and early 1920s, in which Finnish nationals participated in wars elsewhere. Most notable among these is the Estonian War of Independence, in which Finns fought on both sides, including a detachment of Red Finns fighting alongside Chinese soldiers at the Battle of Paju – some Chinese labourers in Tsarist Russia, shipped into Finland to fortify Helsinki at the outbreak of WW1, became mercenaries after the Russian Revolution. There are reports of some Chinese fighting in the ranks of both the Whites and the Reds in the Finnish Civil War, apparently chiefly honghuzi (“red beard”) bandits from Manchuria, that same breed of irregulars who formerly rode alongside a young Mannerheim during the Russo-Japanese War.

FinnishCivilWarMapMiddle.svgAs Tarja Halonen’s controversial no-show attests, the story of the Finnish Civil War continues to echo and ripple today. Tepora and Roselius’s book is particularly good on the historiography of the conflict, and the fluctuating fortunes of the combatants in national memory. I have already written much about the White story of Finland’s formation. Writing the Red version is substantially harder, not for lack of sources, but because the likely readership is supposedly dead or underground, or now carries a foreign passport and has largely forgotten its Finnish roots. Essays in this collection explain why, noting the way that the White story has not only slapped down many alternate views, but also reached into the past to retcon it. It was the post-war White Guards, for example, who changed the name of their society magazine to Hakkapeliitta, associating themselves with warriors of the 17th century and thereby implying that they were not only inheritors of Finnish tradition, but its founders. It is not until after WW2, which itself augmented the Civil War story by proclaiming both sides to be reconciled against a common enemy, that the Reds start to get their due in fiction, with works such as The Unknown Soldier and Under the North Star presenting them as humans, and more importantly, as Finns.

As for the facts, there are heartbreaking stories like that of Algot Untola, the dedicated editor of the Red newspaper Työmies (“The Worker”) who stayed in Helsinki to single-handedly edit the last edition for a readership that was already dead or fled. Captured by the Whites, he leapt from the deck of a ferry heading for Suomenlinna prison, and was shot as he tried to swim away. But there are also witty tales of daring, like the massive stone memorial to the Reds which suddenly materialised in a Turku graveyard in the 1920s. It had been dragged there overnight by cheeky stone masons, who sneaked it in by knocking down the wall and then rebuilding it before anyone noticed.

The most telling memorial of all is a lonely statue of Mannerheim, sitting in a forest. Commissioned in Whiter times, it was delivered to a newly Red-leaning council in post-war Tampere, which refused to put it in the centre of the town he had once bombarded. Instead, they dumped it quite literally in the middle of nowhere, where it stares grimly today at an audience of squirrels and sparrows.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.

Mannerheim Kindle

At long last, my biography of Mannerheim is out on the Kindle. Leading a charge on horseback against Japanese cannons in Manchuria? Two years undercover, spying on the Chinese, while disguised as a Swedish anthropologist? Standing up to a gang of Bolsheviks clad in nothing but a pink bathrobe and a pair of cavalry boots? Accidentally becoming the president of Finland? You wouldn’t believe it… but every word is true.

Black Mannerheim

God bless YLE, Finland’s public service broadcaster, for its ever-innovative ways of spending the TV licence fee. A malicious puppet show about national icon Carl Gustaf Mannerheim was apparently not enough. Now YLE is shelling out for an arty Swahili film, The Marshal of Finland, about Mannerheim’s love life, in which all the parts are played by Africans.

The Finnish right wing is having conniptions. I’m rather looking forward to it. How much of Mannerheim’s incredible life and bizarre adventures would translate to Kenyan locations? How might a black actor capture the character and hauteur of one of the whitest men in history? As far as post-modern drama goes, this is surely a world-class bonkers idea. It might even work. And if it doesn’t, it’s going to be the biggest car crash in the history of television.

Someone had a meeting about this. A group of earnest Finns sat around an Ikea table and picked at biscuits from a MariMekko tray, while a crazy-haired producer said: “Also, there’s a bunch of Kenyans who want to shoot a movie in five days about Mannerheim’s life story. In Swahili. Sounds great, right?” Nor is this likely to have been some manifestation of the deluded hyper-inclusionism of the BBC, which recently decided The Hollow Crown needed to have a black Duke of York. No. Someone at YLE thought this would be a really great idea, and they will either be running the channel soon, or looking for a new job.

The Finns are so animated about Mannerheim that nothing really surprises me any more. When I wrote my book about him, concentrating on his relationship with China and Japan, the Finnish translation was actually published a week ahead of the British “original”. Mrs Clements and I often play Mannerheim Bingo in Finnish bookshops, trying to guess what odd spin on his life will be the next to get published. There has been a comic about his tiger hunting days. There has been a (rather good) Mannerheim cookbook. And the aforementioned puppet show, which claimed he had a Kirghiz catamite, and showed him partying with the Grim Reaper during the battle of Tampere. But that’s a problem with being a national icon; you need to be robust.

I will definitely be tuning in for Black Mannerheim, but that’s because I am a Mannerheim fanboy, on the record as saying that he is one of the greatest figures of the 20th century. But one can’t help but wonder what the real agenda is behind this. Is someone at YLE making a post-modern point about icons and heroes, or is this that other recurring element of Mannerheim’s legacy — the substantial number of Finns whose ancestors were defeated Reds, and who can’t resist the chance to carnivalise his memory in ever odder combinations. If so, Mannerheim is sure to survive this latest assault on his dignity. Mannerheim’s enemies had a field day with the animated Butterfly of the Urals, because its vague and unsupported insinuation about his sexuality became a swift-travelling meme among young idiots who never saw the programme, but liked being able to repeat the new “rumour”. But there is no such message here — instead, its artistic heritage is far more likerely to be a restatement of a truth that many Finns already acknowledge, that Mannerheim’s story is so amazing, and so eternal, that even actors in distant Kenya are inspired by it.

 

Jonathan Clements is the author of Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy.

Our New Frontier is a Nice Place

“Xinjiang Hao” is one of my favourite songs. It’s a propaganda ditty from the Mao era, which charmingly recites all the reasons that China’s “new” frontier is a wonderful place. There are run-downs of natural resources, and lists of local fruit and veg. There’s a chorus that always brings a tear to my eye: “Our beautiful fields and gardens, our beloved Home”, and an oddly plaintive, clingy refrain that seems to be actually begging the listener to visit. Here is a rather eurotastic version, featuring some sultry bimbling and a prancing idiot who appears to be trying to play his own leg as a musical instrument.

This is, largely, how Xinjiang looks whenever it’s mentioned on Chinese telly – joyful dances and graceful dark-haired beauties. Back in the time of Empress Wu, her adviser Judge Dee suggested that she steer clear of Asia’s arid heart, thereby leaving it to her enemies to waste their energies crossing its forbidding deserts before they reached her borders. But Wu, and subsequent Chinese rulers, expanded the realm far to the west along the Silk Road, exposing China’s flank to a long, modern, festering border with all those Central Asian republics we tend to lump together as “The Stans”.

The Tree That Bleeds: A Uighur Town on the Edge is a fast read. Despite its 350 pages, some of the chapters are only a paragraph long, although author Nick Holdstock has artfully imposed a seasonal and narrative structure over what clearly began as scattered diary entries from his time in the remote town of Yining. The result is a welcome addition to the English-speaking world’s small supply of books about Xinjiang, China’s landlocked new frontier and place of exile.

Holdstock’s book is unlikely to lead to a flood of tourist trips. Like Mannerheim before him (who was underwhelmed with the place), and Eric Tamm in Mannerheim’s footsteps, he describes a drab, dusty dump you’d have to be mad to visit, with nosy, snotty children, world-weary cab-drivers, and wheeler-dealers selling condemned blackcurrant juice. As for Things to Do, there’s always the cockfights, clamorous karaoke bars and pink-lit brothels. “Anyone wishing to launch a cultural pogrom in Yining,” Holdstock observes, “would be hampered by the shortage of targets.” There are none of Youtube’s pretty Uighur dancers here, nor much in the way of homespun shepherd wisdom. Instead, Holdstock finds squalid slums of crumbling concrete, apples that almost break his teeth, and a drunken, drugged-out population of no-hopers and spivs.

Arguably, one finds what one is looking for. Holdstock’s book is boldly formalist, discussing only what he sees and stumbles across. He doesn’t go out of his way to find natural beauty or local colour; instead he lets Xinjiang dig its own hole. Apologists and propagandists for Xinjiang describe lush green hills populated by gambolling sheep, glittering mosques, happily dancing natives (a recurring stereotype that clearly winds the locals up), and quaint folk traditions. But many foreign observers (well, so far in my reading, all of them) instead outline a tense, jumpy borderland in a permanent stand-off between restless native Uighurs and unwelcome Han colonists.

Holdstock is uncompromisingly even-handed in his treatment not only of the region, but of its contending interest groups of clueless bigots, smug religious fanatics and downtrodden peasantry. Irritated in equal parts by squabbling Muslim factions, undercover Christian missionaries and listless Chinese bureaucrats, Holdstock is a Canute-like figure, teaching English to students with little hope of escape, and railing against the jobsworths who won’t sell him a bus ticket.

He has an ear for the long silences and dispiriting platitudes of stilted intercultural conversations, but also for sudden, unsettling outpourings of emotion, when his Chinese colleagues feel they can open up, and he often wishes they hadn’t. The stir-crazy Holdstock grows so bored with frontier life that he actually looks forward to seeing a horse get butchered, and is frustrated even in this simple ‘pleasure’ by the interfering authorities.With comedic haplessness, he also embarks upon a grand enterprise to expose a kind of international espionage (I won’t spoil it), only to repeatedly shoot himself in the foot regarding contacts, evidence and subterfuge. That’s not to say a whole lot happens – this is not a plot-driven narrative – but it amply, and damningly conveys the loneliness and tedium that is surely a hazard of the job for many teachers, missionaries and diplomats in all the inhospitable corners of the world. If anyone had a romantic idea about Xinjiang (or China, or Cambodia, for that matter, where Holdstock winters for an interlude among stoners and paedos), The Tree That Bleeds tramples it in the dust.

Far too many books about China are tiresome travelogues by chinless Torquils on a gap year, or earnest, uncomprehending Lucindas who think that readers will find their baffled musings endearing. I grew weary long ago of reading about how Daddy’s money and Uncle Jeff’s friend in Hong Kong pulled this string or wangled that boondoggle, all so little Rupert could chortle in a Clapham gastropub about the larks he had in Kunming. I am, to put it bluntly, sick of books about China that brag of the author’s ignorance. But there is none of that with Holdstock, who comes to Xinjiang in the noble, monastic penury of a Voluntary Service Overseas contract, and crucially has served time already in Hunan, thus inoculating him against any large-scale culture shock. Ignorance for Holdstock is not a badge to wear in place of content, but an alluring, whispering shadow over his whole stay, as he attempts to find out exactly what happened in a series of riots (or demonstrations) that were suppressed before his arrival.

Residing in Yining at the time of the Twin Towers attacks, he is drily cynical about the Chinese government’s attitude towards local unrest. There apparently “wasn’t any” until 9/11, when the Bush administration made it fashionable to rebrand reprobates as terrorists. Suddenly, everyone is jumpy about al-Qaeda and the Taliban, whereas previously the Chinese have been diligently saying that all Xinjiang is good for is a sing-song. Holdstock never really finds the answers he is looking for, but The Tree That Bleeds is all about the questions anyway.

I would like to believe that The Tree That Bleeds is subjective and one-sided, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Never having been to Xinjiang myself, I rely for my picture of it on the writings of others, who unanimously depict it as a miserable, god-forsaken place, ever since Marco Polo wrote of its howling winds and haunted sands. There are so few books about Xinjiang (go on, name five. I’ll wait…) that every new addition is welcome and Luath Press, a small Edinburgh outfit I’d never heard of before, is to be commended for taking a risk with Holdstock’s anti-travel book.

But Xinjiang can’t be as awful as he makes it sound… can it? Can it…? One day I shall find out for myself. Until then, I consider myself forewarned and forearmed.

The Tree That Bleeds: A Uighur Town on the Edge is out now from Luath Press.