Everything under the Heavens-book review

In recent times, China has risen to become arguably the world’s second power and potential global bad guy. China is now an economic, industrial, military and geopolitical power, but not content with this, it is challenging the US for regional supremacy in Asia. China’s huge ambition is driven not just by the urge for power or economic wealth, but also its perceived historical status as the center of its world. As such, China saw itself as the supreme civilization around which smaller and lesser nations and peoples submitted or paid tribute to. Everything under the Heavens- How the past helps shape China’s push for global power explains how this superiority complex came about by looking into China’s past.

The author Howard French, who has extensive experience reporting and writing about Africa and China, delves into China’s relations with different neighbors like Vietnam, South Korea and Japan. Delving into history, French shows how China developed tributary relationships with these smaller states on its periphery, as well as its ties to them.

For example, China had control over Vietnam for 1000 years up until the 11th century, after the Vietnamese managed to drive the Chinese out and maintain an independent status (minus a few decades when the Chinese Ming Dynasty invaded and gained control before being driven back out, as well as colonization under the French in the 19th and 20th centuries).

French also goes into China’s trade relationships with the maritime kingdoms in what is now Malaysia and Indonesia, such as Malacca, from which the Straits of Malacca is named. China’s claim and militarization of much of the South China Sea, which lies much closer to Southeast Asia than China, is derived from historical times when supposedly Chinese traders and fishermen sailed most of the sea. While this does not exactly confer ownership to China, somehow its Communist rulers have twisted logic to claim that it does.

It’s easy to see how China came to see itself as the center of the region which it firmly dominated both in scale and power. From the 19th century, the rise of Japan caused a rude shock when it managed to challenge and actually defeat China in a war (which is how Taiwan became a Japanese colony from 1895-1945). However, before that, China’s defeats to the UK and France in the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century caused great shame, from which the current Communist regime has milked a “Century of Humiliation” narrative to the present day which fuels both a vindictive desire and victim mentality against the West. For the Communist regime, a return to the days of lore before the 19th century when China was the unquestioned and dominant power in the region is their goal, but the US and other nations must prevent this blast to the past.

French concludes the book with an excellent assessment of the strengths of China and the US, that also goes hand in hand with a good summary of China’s precarious future with declining economic growth and a rapidly aging population. French advocates that the US must try to cooperate with China but be firm when it needs to be. This is exactly the scenario that is playing out now, though cooperation is probably the last thing on both countries’ mind.

Walking the Nile-book review

As the world’s longest and most famous river, the Nile possesses an significant aura of legend, mystery and fascination. Being the cradle of the Egyptian civilization, the Nile has had a role in recorded human history since almost the beginning. But few have ever walked along the entire Nile, which is where British explorer Levison Wood comes in. Starting from the source of the Nile in Rwanda, Wood trekked along the river over 6,437 kilometers (4000 miles) with various African guides through Uganda, South Sudan, and Sudan to its end in Egypt where it flows into the Mediterranean Sea. This journey is the subject of Wood’s Walking the Nile.

The journey starts off in Rwanda, where, contrary to popular belief, the Nile begins from a humble forest spring that becomes a river flowing to Lake Victoria, where the source was previously thought of as being. During these early stages, Wood and his brash and jaunty guide-turned-friend Ndoole Boston mostly trek through forest and swamp, as well as stay on the shores of Lake Victoria. There are brief pauses at cities like Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, and Uganda’s capital Kampala. Wood provides a somber overview of his impressions of Rwanda and its attempt to move on from the horror of the 1994 genocide. While the country has succeeded in becoming an orderly and stable nation, it has also turned into a security state with shades of authoritarianism.

There is also a fair bit of commentary on the history and politics in other countries like Uganda, Sudan and South Sudan, which to me is refreshing. I think that while exploration and travel are great for knowing more about the world, this should include current events or history or politics of places. In a continent like Africa, with its mix of ethnicities and cultures and the impact of colonialism, it’s even more fitting to know more about local history and developments.

Things begin to get really hard as Wood moves northwards. At one point, he is joined by a couple of journalists who plan to walk with him for a week and report on it. Tragically, during an extremely hot day, one of these writers, Matthew Power, gets heatstroke, collapses and then dies. Wood calls for an evacuation and he is understandably shaken. Wood soon resumes the journey while still having some doubts in his mind.

South Sudan, the world’s newest country, presents an extraordinary challenge as it was (and still is) in the grip of a savage civil war. Lots of cash and official help were what got Wood into the country and even then, it was a precarious situation. Wood travels through the Sudd, a large swampland, where he stays with a river cattle-herding tribe, the Mundari, and is bested by them in wrestling. But after reaching the town of Bor, he encountered fighting between rival factions, which forced him to abandon part of the trek. He flies to Sudan and continues it from there. It was sad to read about the savage fighting and dire conditions in this fledgling country, which itself was borne out of war after having fought for its independence for decades against Sudan. It’s hard to feel any optimism for South Sudan.

Sudan does not get much good press or have a good reputation in the world (though this might be changing with the recent peaceful overthrow of its longtime leader). But civil war and conflicts like Darfur aside, Sudan was home to grand ancient civilizations like the Nubian Kushite kingdom. Wood highlights Sudan’s own pyramids in Meroe (capital of the ancient Nubian kingdom of Kush), which might be smaller but no less fascinating and certainly much less crowded than Egypt’s. Part of the journey sees Wood and his companions, including two friends of his, travel through the eastern edge of the Sahara, the Bayuda, which the Romans had ventured thousands of years ago.

When Wood reaches Egypt, things settle down and the journey becomes a steady progression. Walking the Nile is a fine travelogue that combines adventure with current affairs, archaeology and anthropology. It’s not surprising that Wood went on to do further treks through the Himalayas, Central Asia, the Arabian peninsula, and Central America. The man is as intrepid as they come.

 

Prisoners of Geography- book review

We usually think of geography as being about mountains, rivers and seas, but geography is also a major factor in how large or wealthy or powerful countries have become. Prisoners of Geography- Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics uses geography in the form of maps to explain ten large countries and continents including the US, China, Russia, Europe, Africa, and even the Arctic. The author, longtime foreign correspondent Tim Marshall, utilizes his ample experience to write a compelling book that combines geography with history and international affairs.

Starting with Russia, Marshall points out how the world’s largest country both benefits and is constrained by geography including plains to the west, limited access to oceans, and a vast resource-rich eastern region Siberia. The western plains is Russia’s most vulnerable area, being where invading armies from Europe such as the Nazis and Napoleon’s Grand Army have flowed through. As such, that is why it worries a lot about NATO expanding eastwards and specifically about the Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the US status as the world’s superpower was aided by perhaps the most favorable geographic conditions such as large coasts facing the Pacific and Atlantic, a large interior, and the world’s longest network of navigable rivers such as the Mississippi. The latter might not be too well-known, but navigable rivers facilitate significant trade as goods can be easily and cheaply moved by ships. Conversely, Marshall points out, the lack of this can hinder countries and continents such as Africa and South America. The latter’s interior also has a lot of mountains such as the Andes range, that prevents easy rail and riverine connectivity. If you’re wondering about the Nile and Amazon, those are both mighty rivers but not conducive to large cargo-carrying ships.

Europe was able to prosper greatly during the Middle Ages because of its large rivers like the Rhine and Danube which facilitated trade and commerce. However, not all European countries benefited from this. For example, Spain’s hilly interior and lack of large rivers meant it couldn’t develop as quickly as its northern neighbor France, which partly explains why Spain didn’t become wealthier than France.

Prisoners of Geography is one of the most fascinating non-fiction books I’ve ever read. It is a fun read that also makes global affairs a little more understandable and the world a little less complicated.

Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains- book review

Nestled in the deep northeastern corner of India lies Arunanchal Pradesh, the “land of the dawn-lit mountains,” and one of the least explored parts of the country. Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent went on an epic motorcycle journey into the state where she explored thick jungles and mountains, met and stayed with remote tribes and gained insight and experience into their fading traditions and customs. Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains- A Journey across Arunanchal Pradesh – India’s Forgotten Frontier is the result of Bolingbroke-Kent’s intrepid journey.

Arunachal Pradesh is one of India’s “Seven Sisters,” the group of seven northeastern states that border China and Myanmar and are connected to the rest of India by a narrow strip of land, the 20-40 km wide Siliguri Corridor. The entire region is still quite isolated and visited by few people, however Arunachal Pradesh is very remote, with visitors needing to apply for a government permit to enter. Given that the state borders Tibet, it is also a very strategic border region for India, due to its vulnerability to invasion from China, which actually claims the province as its own territory.

Bolingbrooke-Kent set out in a counter-clockwise journey from neighboring Assam, looping into Arunachal Pradesh and riding from east to west. Along the way, she stops at several points, sometimes even venturing for days deep into the interior and far borders of Arunachal Pradesh while leaving behind her motorcycle. She meets tribal elders, shamans and even kings, observing ceremonies and festivals and even mithun (cattle) sacrifices. The tribes include fearsome warriors with a historic reputation as headhunters, nomads, and former Tibetan vassals residing around the old mountain fortress of Tawang. Indeed, Arunachal Pradesh’s history includes past interaction with Tibet when it was an independent entity.

The book also shows serious challenges faced by the tribes. It is clear that modern life is gradually eroding a lot of the tribal traditions, especially as young people are lured by education and jobs in big cities. There is also a fair bit of ethnic tension between tribal people and Indians from outside the state, who have moved into Arunachal Pradesh to settle or work. The tribal people are ethnically and culturally different from most Indians, with some of them having more in common with Myanmar, where their ancestors came from.

Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains is a fascinating, moving, and entertaining account of one of Asia’s most unknown remote regions.

Saladin- book review

I’ve always been fascinated by Saladin, the great military leader of the Muslim Arabs or Saracens who fought and won victories against Western Crusaders in the 12th century. His victories culminated in him capturing Jerusalem from the Crusaders, but he was also lauded for his generosity and integrity. I was eager to read more about Saladin’s life and John Man’s Saladin – the Life, the Legend and the Islamic Empire didn’t disappoint.

I first heard about Saladin when reading about the Second Crusade and the exploits of the English King Richard I or “Lionheart”, himself another famous military leader, who led the Crusaders. While Richard I was able to achieve some success, he was unable to recapture Jerusalem from Saladin, who had captured it earlier. Richard I negotiated a settlement with Saladin in 1192 and left the Middle East to return to Europe, while Saladin himself would pass away the following year. However, I didn’t know anything about Saladin’s life before that point, when he was in charge of the Arabs and hailed as the savior of Islam.

Saladin was actually a Kurd born in Tikrit, a city in what is now Iraq, and his father was a noted military leader. At that time, the Middle East was divided into Muslim and Christian territories, including several major city states like Jerusalem and Acre. Held by lords and knights who came over from Europe, and reinforced by Crusaders drawn by the goal of taking the “Holy Land” (and pillage) from the Muslims, the Christian city states constantly fought the Muslims, themselves divided into different factions like the Abbasids and Fatimids.

While Saladin had a strong mentor, he reached a point where he surpassed him. He wasn’t above committing brutal acts like ordering the execution of enemies after taking Cairo from a rival Muslim faction, but once firmly in power, he abstained from further killings. He won battles against the Franks, including the Battle of Hattin, where he captured several Christian leaders including the then King of Jerusalem. Also, after taking Jerusalem (my favorite movie Kingdom of Heaven focuses on this event), he prevented mass slaughter and allowed Christians and Jewish residents to go free after paying ransom.

John Man is a famous historian and prolific author who has written numerous books about Genghis Khan, the Mongols, Attila and ancient China. However, this was the first time I’d ever read his work. He writes in a very contemporary style, almost conversational, so much so that the book reads less like history and almost like a novel. Sometimes I didn’t quite enjoy it because it seemed a little simple, but overall Saladin was an enjoyable and fascinating read.

Deep Work- book review

We live in a world full of distractions, whether it be TV, the internet, or social media. It can be impossible to avoid distractions given the ubiquity of smartphones and social media. This obviously affects us in several ways, from our daily lives to our work. Deep Work- Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted Work explains how people can use “deep work” to cope with distractions and become more efficient and productive.

“Deep work” is about being totally focused on your work for a long period of time, whether it be an hour or a day. This means blocking off distractions and having a good environment to work. As author Cal Newport emphasizes, it is not about spending more time doing more work, but about working more efficiently so that you can use your time more wisely, get off work on time and avoid overtime. Newport also takes on the broader issue of tacking popular assumptions regarding work and technology.

Deep work can lead to not just better efficiency, but also greater quality of work. Newport’s points are very appealing though the challenge, as with many types of self-help advice, is to actually be able to implement his suggestions. For instance, Newport does not use social media at all, though he does have a popular blog, and for a long time, he did not own a smartphone. I believe this would be hard for many of us, including myself. Despite this, the book is straightforward, clear, and easy to follow.

Not surprisingly, Newport critiques the ubiquitous role of the Internet and technology in our lives, bringing up an argument by academic and theorist Neil Postman that people automatically assume that anything high-tech is good without debating the benefits and drawbacks. Given Postman, who died in 2003, made this point in the early 1990s, it seems he was well ahead of his time. All this makes “deep work” more difficult to do.

To engage in “deep work,” Newport makes some really great suggestions such as:
-“embrace boredom,” as this enables you to better resist the temptation of always checking social media and seeking constant gratification. This then helps you become more contemplative and more likely to come up with deeper thoughts and ideas.
– people have finite attention, which can be depleted by walking through crowds or dealing with constant distractions. As such, you have less mental energy to think and concentrate. Obviously living in crowded cities (I do find that true sometimes, especially when I was working in Hong Kong) can have this effect, so one remedy is to spend more time in nature to improve your ability to concentrate.
– put more work into your leisure time, which sounds a little counter-intuitive, except it’s not. For instance, sometimes when we are idle but have nothing to do, it’s easy to feel bored which then makes us turn to social media or time-wasting internet (I could attest to this). By planning ahead in choosing things to do, you can avoid being idle.

There is a long section on blocking off or screening emails, which for most people, is one of the biggest part of work. The endgoal is to ensure you don’t need to respond to every email you get (not feasible for some of us) as well as to get people to be more upfront about what they want (definitely desirable).

Deep Work is a fascinating book that makes convincing arguments on the importance of “deep work” and which can change our perspectives on work and productivity.