Asian Studies

The Storyteller and his Three Daughters by Lian Hearn & Henry Black by Ian McArthur

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November 2013, no. 356

For centuries, Japan has magnetised the West’s imagination, evoking both fear and fascination. In the late nineteenth century, when most writers and readers in Europe, North America, and Australia had yet to see this ‘young’, newly accessible country for themselves, literary fantasies on the Madam Butterfly theme became a craze. Then, after Japan invaded ...

The launch last October of the Gillard government’s White Paper Australia in the Asian Century was quite a show; in Pakistan it would have been called a tamasha – to use the lovely Urdu word for a song and dance. A flock of officials, business figures, commentators, and consultants looked grave and prophetic as they preached the importance of ...

China’s extraordinary economic and cultural ascent during the past two decades has generated significant international interest in Chinese contemporary art, especially in photography now widely promoted in the West as ‘Chinese new art’. Since it was first introduced to China in the 1840s, photography has languished somewhat, overshadowed by the traditional art ...

White Papers are falling on Australia like confetti. We had two on foreign affairs and one on terrorism in the seven years to 2004; the third one on defence in four years will appear this year, and in October 2012 Ken Henry delivered Australia in the Asian Century. Defence White Papers are perennially concerned with Australia’s need for the material and money to protect us against certain countries, which are rarely named. The Asian Century paper, on the other hand, explicitly names China among the five ‘key regional nations’ to be given priority in order to bring ‘a stronger national purpose and cohesion’ to the relationship with Australia. The Defence White Paper will be sober in tone, as Menzies was when announcing his ‘melancholy duty’ in 1939, or resolute, as was Curtin in declaring Australia’s shift of dependence to the United States in 1941. In contrast, The Asian Century adopts cheerful, forward-looking slogans. Australia’s success ‘will be based on choice, not chance’, it says; ‘the tyranny of distance is being replaced by the prospects of proximity’; and Australia is ‘located in the right place at the right time’. Asia is so important, says Dr Henry, that it is going to be ‘the main game not only economically but in almost any sense of national significance’.

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Figures released by the International Monetary Fund on 16 August 2010 revealed that China had overtaken Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy. Within a generation it had gone from being an isolated society that could barely feed its own people to the largest producer of steel and concrete on the planet, a vital link in global production chains and, since 2008, the most important engine for global economic growth.

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Too often foreign affairs seem the realm of tedious diplomacy, impenetrable acronyms, and cynical realpolitik. So it comes as a relief to Western governments and voters if they can from time to time adopt a stance that places them on the side of the angels. Helping transform bad régimes into good, as in Burma, offers such an opportunity, and activist and author Benedict Rogers’ book is very much a tract for these times – explicitly informed, he tells us, by a moral framework.

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The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the Making of a New Era by Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren & Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi by Alison Pargeter

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September 2012, no. 344

The danger in writing about unfolding dramas is that they keep unfolding, potentially stranding both writer and reader. Not so with these two fine books, whose authors have long experience of the Middle East. Quite different in scope – a sweep of the Arab world contrasting with the ascent and decay of Muammar Gaddafi’s brutal régime – they deal with past, present, and possible future events in a lucid, compelling way. Anyone with an interest in what is at stake in the Middle East would be well advised to read them.

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Think of Syria today and you have East Timor in 1975–78, the main difference being that the story of Indonesia’s brutal invasion was totally hidden from the world. It was in this framework of pain, trauma, and confusion that an estimated three to four thousand Timorese children were carried off to Indonesia without informed parental consent.

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This year’s Jaipur Literature Festival (20–24 January) more than lived up to the Indian Ministry of Tourism’s slogan – ‘Incredible India’.

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Patrick Holland makes his plans clear in the first sentence of Riding the Trains in Japan (his fourth book and first work of non-fiction): ‘I arrived in Kyoto in the middle of the national holiday called O-Bon, the Japanese All Souls, when Buddhists believe departed spirits may return to earth and when ancestors and the elderly are honoured.’ His subjects and themes have been identified: himself, the people and places of Asia, Eastern spirituality and tradition, and the transient nature of life and all of its cultural accessories. The opening also reveals Holland’s technical approach: a willingness to conflate personal anecdote with documentary observation, the minutiae of daily life with the grandness of tradition, and the material world with a spiritual one. Clearly, he wants to test the conventional form of travel writing.

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