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Breaking God's flail. Chan sculpture and the death of a great kahn in Song…

by Kim Hunter Gordon

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China has the oldest culture in the world with a continuous history of more than 5,000 years, and for the largest part of its history, China was closed to foreigners. China's chosen and self-imposed isolation created a mystery. In fact, China's isolation lasted deep into the Twentieth Century, and it's so-called reform-and-opening up is mainly to be understood in economic sense. Then, too, the Chinese language forms a formidable barrier. Thus, both physical and language barriers have barred curious foreigners from access to its formidable history and culture. Growing interest in China's culture and language has led to more knowledge about China, but given the fact that most of that exchange has taken part in barely 40 years, our current knowledge about China and its history and culture is but scant. At the forefront of exploration are scholarly works, but these publications are difficult to read, and do not appeal to the larger audience. Popular works about China are remarkably consistent and repetitive, mainly repeating the most basic facts known to the Western public.

Although Chinese people express a great desire to inform foreigners about their history and culture, of which they are deservedly proud, much of that communication is still hindered by the language barrier. Particularly Chinese of Chinese literature and history are often the weakest in foreign languages. They can neither describe nor translate works into English. The number of foreign translators with a command of Chinese to read and translate such works is still limited. Furthermore, many contemporary history books in China are written with a strong ideological slant, which is not always acceptable to foreign readers. Another factor of influence is the cultural misunderstanding of what Chinese and Western people find important or interesting about Chinese culture. In fact, it is still possible that China does not want to communicate all of its essence, or may withdraw in renewed isolation.

Suffice to say that China is a vitually unexplored treasure trove of historical and cultural material. Thousands of stories lie waiting to be told. As cultural exchange broadens, Chinese people will likely develop a better sense for what interests foreign readers, and as more Westerners acquire fluency in the Chinese language, they will want to explore its language and culture and write about their fascinating journey therein.

One of these emerging writers is the young scholar / journalist Kim Hunter Gordon. Of British descent, Hunter Gordon came to China more than six years ago, at first as a journalist. He settled in China to work on a PhD about Kunqu Opera, and has started writing and publishing books about China, including a travel guide for Chongqing, and a collection of essays about the historical city Datong. Breaking God's flail. Chan sculpture and the death of a great kahn in Song Dynasty Hechuan is a small monograph about an historical event in Thirteenth Century China.

In the Thirteenth Century, China was conquered by the Mongols, and by 1259, the Mongol empire spanned all across the Eur-Asian continent, encompassing all most of China, Iran, Iraq, the south-central parts of Russia, and all of the Ukraine. In fact, the Mongols were knocking on the door of Europe, having reached as far as Hungary. Most Western readers are familiar with the basic facts of how Chingghis Kahn established this empire. Breaking God's flail tells the less well-known part of the story, how this empire was maintained and eventually fell apart, focussing of the story of Chingghis' grandson Mongke. The book tells the story of the pivotal role of the Diaoyu fortress in Sichuan province, forming a turning point in Chinese history from which the power of the Mongols was broken, and Song Dynasty China began to determine the course of Chinese history.

Besides the military history of the Diaoyu fortress and the economic importance of Hechuan during the Southern Song Dynasty, the book also introduces a rich description of culture of that time in providing a description of the history of the Erfo Temple and its rich sample of period Chan sculpture in the temple, not far from Chongqing.

Breaking God's flail. Chan sculpture and the death of a great kahn in Song Dynasty Hechuan is a gem. Kim Hunter Gordon tells a story which is hard to find in other sources, although it is of great importance to Chinese history. Besides, the Mongol conquest and the subsequent demise of the Mongol Empire is important and of interest to Western readers. The book is written in a style that meets half-way between a scholarly monograph and popular science, and being relatively short at under 150 pages is very accessible to wide readership. The book has appeared in a hardcover edition and is richly illustrated with many full-colour photographs. ( )
2 vote edwinbcn | Oct 14, 2015 |
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