China is an intriguing, enigmatic nation.  It claims almost 20% of the world’s population (more than 1.3 billion people), is the third largest country by area (essentially tied with the United States), and can boast a recorded civilization that goes back thousands of years.  And it’s basically one big mystery to me.  As I’ve started reading more on the topic in preparation for this series of columns, I’ve come to realize just how completely ignorant I am of this entire area of the world.  Here’s hoping that some of these reviews will inspire you to add to your knowledge of this fascinating culture!

“Chinese civilization stretches back to prehistoric times”

The Chinese Thought of It: Amazing Inventions and InnovationsGeddes_chinesethoughtofit

By Ting-xing Ye

It’s fairly common knowledge that the Chinese developed acupuncture, invented fireworks, and discovered the secrets of silk production.  But did you know that Chinese physicians were using inoculations to fight smallpox in the 10th century?  Or that crank handles were invented in China in the 2nd century B.C., leading to the first fishing reel?  Or that they were using toilet paper made from rice straw in the 6th century?  Umbrellas, pontoon bridges, mechanical clocks, toothbrushes, noodles, stirrups…the list of Chinese contributions goes on and on.

With several thousand years of civilization to draw from, it’s not at all surprising that the Chinese can lay claim to an astonishing number of inventions.  Brief explanations of dozens of these innovations, always with bright accompanying pictures, are collected in this children’s book under broad categories like “Farming,” “Working with Metal,” and “Transportation and Exploration.”  While it’s geared toward 4th to 6th graders, it also held my attention easily.  I learned that several processes often credited to others may have originated hundreds of years earlier in China.  For example, both woodblock and moveable type printing made appearances in the Far East centuries before they developed independently in Europe.  The author also posits that while origami is mostly associated with Japan, it’s likely that it actually began in China since paper was invented there. 

A simple map of China and a timeline stretching from the Shang Dynasty (1650-1100 B.C.) to the present open the book with an overview of the country and its history.  Chinese characters are scattered throughout the pages with a note at the end explaining the difference between pictographs and ideographs and giving the meanings of those scattered characters.  The book closes with a section on “China Today” linking the ingenuity of the past with present accomplishments in construction, transportation and technology in particular.  The Chinese Thought of It is a great repository of “I didn’t know that!” moments that will catch the imagination of inquisitive kids and adults.

* Note: This book is one of a “Thought of It” series for inventions or discoveries made by different cultures including the Inuit, Native Americans, and Africans.

“True sayings seem contradictory”

Tao Te ChingGeddes_taoteching

By Lao Tzu

The Tao Te Ching, written in the 6th century B.C., is a central religious and philosophical text for both Taoism (or Daoism) and Chinese Buddhism, and significantly influenced Confucianism as well.  “The most influential classic text of Chinese philosophy” is short, only 81 poems, comprised of a total of 5000 Chinese characters and can easily be read in a single sitting – if the goal is simply to read the words on the pages.  Its brevity and simplicity are disarming, but the Tao Te Ching contains some profound truths that only emerge upon engaging the text at a slower pace of reading and pondering.

Broadly ambiguous, and therefore open to many interpretations, each poem encapsulates a particular thought on the Tao and how to apply “the Way.”  There is political advice for leaders:

The best leaders are those the people hardly know exist.

The next best is a leader who is loved and praised.

Next comes the one who is feared.

The worst one is the leader who is despised.

 

If you don’t trust the people,

they will become untrustworthy.

 

The best leaders value their words, and use them sparingly.

When she has accomplished her task,

the people say, ‘Amazing:

we did it, all by ourselves!’ (17)

And there is practical, almost mundane, counsel for individuals:

Prevent problems before they arise. (64)

It is better not to speak of things you do not understand. (5)

There are dozens of different translations of the Tao Te Ching.  The one I read for this review, translated by John McDonald, is somewhat unique in its use of female pronouns to refer to the Sage who has mastered Tao.  As support for this non-traditional choice, he quotes the Tao Te Ching itself: “a Master is aware of both, but chooses the least likely of the two” and “know the masculine, but keep to the feminine: and become a watershed to the world.”

The couplets often seem self-contradictory, because the Tao Te Ching uses opposites to demonstrate contrast and to balance passages – the essence of the concept of “Yin” and “Yang”.  For example:

Act by not acting;

do by not doing.

Enjoy the plain and simple.

Find that greatness in the small.

Take care of difficult problems

while they are still easy;

Do easy things before they become too hard. (63)

As a religious text, it’s not surprising to me that I heard echoes of truths from my own scriptural heritage.  Here’s another brief passage that I find profound:

Knowing you don’t know is wholeness.

Thinking you know is a disease.

Only by recognizing that you have an illness

can you move to seek a cure. (71)

Counter-intuitive at times, especially for those of us steeped in Western culture and thought, these ideas require concentrated effort to understand, or perhaps just some life experience that demonstrates the wisdom of the Tao.  Deceptively simple and profoundly deep, the Tao Te Ching is essential reading for anyone who desires greater perspective on Asian philosophy and religious thought.

“At its best, cooking is a vessel of memory”

The Breath of a WokGeddes_breathofwok

By Grace Young and Alan Richardson

Part cookbook, part culinary history, part cultural review, The Breath of a Wok delves into how this humble tool of the kitchen reaches every part of Chinese life.  “Breath of a wok” is a literal translation of the Cantonese phrase wok hay, which is defined as “the prized, elusive, seared taste that comes only from stir-frying in a wok” and is considered the highest goal of Chinese chefs.

Ms. Young and Mr. Richardson travel through China chronicling the storied history of the wok, from small villages in rural China where villagers cook communal meals in enormous woks four feet in diameter, to the streets of Hong Kong where unregistered dai pai dong (food vendors) magically appear after dusk, only to disappear in the early hours of the morning..  They interview renowned Chinese chefs like Florence Lin and Susanna Foo and visit the Chinese Cuisine Training Institute in Hong Kong.  They watch woks being hammered by the village blacksmith in Gao Tian, Guangxi province, and by a pair of brothers who own a small business in a residential neighborhood in Shanghai.  They peek into the ferociously busy kitchens of famous restaurants in San Francisco and quiet, humble kitchens in the homes of friends and neighbors both in China and the United States.


  Ms. Young mines her older relatives’ memories for recipes and techniques from their youth and gathers them together for a “wok-a-thon” to share that knowledge with the younger generations of the family.  The authors include personal stories, colorful photographs and mouth-watering recipes from each of the stops in their journey.

The book is eminently practical, too.  Every question you could ever have thought to ask is covered.  How do you select a good wok?  What’s the best way to season a new wok?  When to add certain types of food, what oil is best, different techniques for various types of meat or vegetables – it’s all in The Breath of a Wok.  Having only ever used my wok to stir-fry, I had no idea it was so versatile!  You can steam, pan-fry, deep-fry, poach, braise, boil and smoke with a wok, and this book provides simple to follow recipes for each of these methods.  Of course, all the reading in the world will not help you become a master chef without lots of hands-on practice, but with The Breath of a Wok as a reference, I’m freshly motivated to explore the many facets of this indispensable tool of the Asian kitchen.

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On My Bedside Table…

Just finished: The Enough Moment by John Prendergast with Don Cheadle

Now reading: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

On deck: Stones into Schools by Greg Mortenson

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 More great books to increase your knowledge about China are coming in two weeks!  Come find me on goodreads.com or email suggestions, comments, and feedback  to egeddesbooks (at) gmail (dot) com.  P.S.  Thoughts and prayers to Aunt Judy ~ I love you!