If you were to recommend only one book that is about Asia which would you choose?
Stilwell and the American Experience in China by Barbara Tuchman
I love history that is filled with idiosyncratic details and this book is studded with them. From Vinegar Joe's feud with "Peanut," (Chiang Kai-shek to the Kachin tribesman who was paid for every Japanese soldier he killed and proved his numbers by spilling out a jar filled with human ears and saying "Count and divide by two," to its detailed descriptions of early 20th-century China and its warlords, Tuchman brings a novelist's sensibilities to her careful scholarship. No other book that I've read has shown so graphically and grippingly the staggering change China has undergone since the days of Liberation up to the present time.
This is not only a history of change in China; it shows how the modern world was shaped in the years before (as well as during) World War II. If we are indeed living in an Asian century now, this book explains how this came to be in Russia, Japan, Korea--as well as in the U.S. and China.
An eccentric and curmudgeonly Yankee, Joe Stilwell was a man who loved China, a reluctant and unsuccessful hero who championed its right to break free of time-honored corruption and feudalism, as well as a tragic figure whose death cheated him of seeing Mao's victory, the flight of the Kuomintang to Taiwan, and the beginning of the complex and dangerous world that we have inherited.
Janet Brown is the author of six books including Traveling Below the Speed Limit, published by ThingsAsian Press.
The Burman: His Life and Notions by Sir James George Scott
This was Scott’s first book, which he published under the Burmese pseudonym Shway Yoe in 1882. Scott got it right, unlike almost all other foreigners who (even if they have come here several times) can get it so very wrong on crucial points. It’s still an important book. People who have a professional interest in any issue in Myanmar should know our mindset and things we value in order to understand why we do the the things we do.
I have always felt throughout our isolated Military-Socialist years and the turbulent decades of military rule that followed that to understand the politics of other races you need to understand their lives and notions, because how they react or deal with issues are mostly about how they see them and thus can be very different from other points of view.
This is more than history which can be looked up within seconds. This is about how people think, feel, and believe wholeheartedly. Lifestyles have changed but for the most part the notions have not. To understand us, if you want to get at the truth and not simply be happy to impose your ideas upon our situtation, you need to see from our perspective. I think this is necessary with any country foreign to the observer. Scott understood us so what he wrote is correct even today. Anyone who needs or truly wants to know our notions should read his book before any others.
Ma Thanegi is a Myanmar author with over twenty books published, all concerning her native country. Her first book, The Native Tourist (Silkworm), is a travel literature classic.
The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna
This book depicts an era almost unknown to the American public, a time of Western imperialism (literally “gunboat diplomacy’) in China during 1925-1927, a period in which it was ruled by competing warlords and nascent national movements. Many countries protected their interests there (from missionaries to business) with both cash and with a military presence, particularly gunboats which patrolled the rivers and were not subject to Chinese law. The book depicts the author’s service on one such vessel, the USS San Pablo.
This book has special meaning to me because I’ve worked in China, and I’ve encountered the Chinese government’s perspective on international relations, the need to never be subservient to Western powers, to take the long view, and to develop national unity and a powerful central government beholden to none. The Sand Pebbles offers insight into the racism of the West, the dominance of business interests above all, and the need to control. It also offers considerable insight into the on-the-ground practicalities of implementing imperialism, and gave me insight into how and why national consciousness develops.
China has a population of 1.3 billion people, and, within most of our lifetimes, will be the largest economy in the world. Its future is inexorably entwined with ours, and the better we understand China, the more likely that our coexistence will be peaceful. This book gives the reader insight into what China has gone through to get where it is, and a glimpse of the “why” of Chinese attitudes toward the rest of the world, particularly the West. McKenna offers us a glimpse of China on the cusp of revolution, of mistakes made by flawed individuals under pressure, accountable to antiquated bureaucratic systems, among a people, and in a place, that they don’t understand.
David Brubaker has worked and traveled in China. He is the author of Liberace’s Filipino Cousin (ThingsAsian Press).