Review: China at its Limits by Matthias Messmer and Hsin-Mei Chuang
China is ever at our shoulder, setting off crackers at our borders, playing mahjongg with unfriendly neighbours, seducing us with cheap toys, dazzling us with gleaming cities that inspire and frighten, taking control of the water tap like the local slum dada, and glowering down at our unruly democratic ways in incomprehension. The average Indian thinks about that great giant beyond the Himalayas only when some politician, usually of authoritarian bent, proclaims that he will transform Mumbai into Shanghai. Urbs Prima in Indis hears this, laughs for a bit and jumps onto the local train to work. Her more well-heeled citizens might post holiday pictures alongside the terracotta army in the mausoleum of the Chinese Emperor Qin and write of yearning for Indian-Chinese chow mien doused in green chilli sauce while in the belly of the Red Dragon but, as China at its Limits by Matthias Messmer and Hsin-Mei Chuang recognizes, there is surprisingly little cultural interaction between the peoples of the two most populous Asian nations, and a good deal of mistrust:
“It is probably only natural that China and India have become rivals since they emerged as modern nation-states. Their differing mentalities are mirrored in the fact that India built the Taj Mahal because of a romantic sentiment, whereas the Chinese constructed the Great Wall for military purposes. Taking their beliefs in the afterlife as an example, Hindus hold that death eventually liberates all human beings from material dependence. Quite to the contrary, Chinese constantly try to ensure their comfort in the afterlife by burning paper houses, furniture, money and even servants. In other words, worldly needs are, in one case, a burden that ends in death, and in the other a desire that transcends physical limits. This intrinsic difference might well have significant implications for the twenty-first century’s Great Game.”
The observation that’s both imaginative and acute is just one of many in this superbly produced volume that combines history, photography, culture and travel writing, reportage, and political analysis to provide the reader with a portrait of China by looking at her borders, at the ghosts of forgotten conflicts and old shifting friendships, at waves of migration, at tribal rivalries, at once busy ancient trade routes that now lead nowhere, at the constant push and pull between Beijing and the peripheries of the nation’s vast expanse, at contemporary fears and past dreams, at the real and the imagined-and-therefore-no-less-real. To achieve this, the authors, “one from a tiny country in Central Europe, the other from a slightly smaller island in the Pacific Ocean” (Switzerland and Taiwan), travelled to the borderlands, to areas in and adjoining North Korea, Russia, Mongolia, the ‘stans’, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bhutan, Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos, and Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao, ambitiously attempting to map place memories and show how “circumstances and events in less familiar parts of the country often have a deeper meaning and impact than their seemingly minor status suggests.” This isn’t easy to do but the authors succeed by combining a telescopic view of long-ago events with a fine focus on individual lives.
Here’s 85-year-old Cheng Yi-feng who, to escape an arranged marriage, enlisted at 16 in the Kuomintang to fight the Communists. Captured by the People’s Liberation army at 18, he switched sides and was sent off to fight in North Korea. By his early twenties he had already spent three years in a POW camp after an attack on his unit by US troops. The spectacular accompanying portrait shows a wizened man lifting his shirt to show his tattoos that include a call to “Destroy the Communists and recover the nation”.
Here’s Bavuu standing next to relics of a Chinese trading outpost on the Mongolian-Russian border. The retired director of a provincial museum, he secretly left his home in Western Mongolia for this frontier as a young man “to serve the cause of socialism”.
Here’s a Tajik wedding party in Tashkurgan county, the veiled bride in a rich red sequined burqa alongside her groom as beaming family matriarchs look on.
And here’s retired sailor Lawrence with his family on the roof of a building in Kolkata’s Chinatown. Indian readers will feel a creeping sense of shame at their travails: “After the breakout of the Sino-Indian war, Lawrence’s family was dragged from its home in Malbazar in North Bengal, where his father worked as a carpenter in a tea plantation, and sent to the Deoli camp. After being released in 1964, they were sent to Kolkata without their belongings. “Right here, we were dropped off in the middle of the night,” Lawrence pauses in front of an open trash dump… “We spent the night in a yard, and we woke up the next morning to find it was a Chinese funeral home.” The piece on the city’s Chinatown goes deeper than many Indian essays on the now largely assimilated community: “The small Chinese community in Kolkata is a diverse group: Hakkas traditionally work in the leather-processing industry, Cantonese as carpenters, people from Zejiang as tailors, those from Hubei as dentists…”
Messmer’s photo collages that place once eminent figures in contemporary settings helps the viewer make connections and appreciate how human life might have changed in material terms but has possibly stayed the same when it comes to the reptilian brain that controls hunger, the sex drive, and the ownership of territory. While the image on the cover recalls the young women who ‘comforted’ Taiwanese soldiers, the one featuring Marshal Su Yuanchun, sent by the Manchu court to protect its interests against the French at the porous border with Vietnam, and French Consul Auguste Francois, commemorates their unlikely friendship.
The writing and the images complement each other allowing even the non-scholarly reader to better understand China’s internal conflicts with the Uyghurs, the possible impact of its tortured history with Tsarist and Soviet Russia, the peculiarities of its relations with North Korea, ‘the spoiled child with a time bomb’, the nature of Vietnamese antipathy, Mongolian resentment at the Chinese appropriation of Genghis Khan, and how all these could affect OBOR, China’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative. “Like a glittering reflection on murky waters, Beijing’s OBOR is dazzling yet annoying to Delhi,” Messmer and Chuang write, adding a few paragraphs later, “though both (India and China) often display military restraint, we can expect recurrent clashes and skirmishes in the medium term” as the price of an all-out war would be too high for both.
A visual feast, this 415-page tome escapes strict categorization: Is it an art book? Is it a work of political history or foreign policy? Is it a travelogue? It is all of these? Whatever label you choose, this is a rewarding read that gives a clear sense of China and its national character.