China is much in the news. It seems that many in the West cannot decide whether China is a worthy ally or a wily competitor. The lack of clarity arises not so much from linguistic barriers as it does from a cultural disconnect. We in the West, particularly in the United States, don’t know much about China. We buy Chinese goods and many of us enjoy Chinese food. Student exchange programs with China have increased in recent years, but familiarity with our distant Asian neighbors is limited in scope. Any attempt to increase understanding of China is a step forward. One path that may take us in that direction is through China’s art, particularly a style of art known as literati painting.
On this page are four landscape paintings, all of them either in literati style, or influenced by the literati. Comparing the four paintings reveals something fascinating: this style of painting has remained essentially consistent for hundreds of years. That is not a coincidence. That is a reflection of a profoundly significant aspect of China’s culture. Tradition and history are revered, preserved and emulated.
As Westerners attempt to achieve an understanding of the modern powerhouse that is China, they would do well to regard its past. China’s traditional art offers a readily available, aesthetically beguiling opportunity to do that.
Joint Landscape by Shen Zhou (1427-1509) and Wen Zhengming (1470-1559)
Hermitage in the Mountains, by Tang Yifen (1778-1853)
The Painting by Gao Jianfu 2, by Gao Jianfu (1879-1951)
An essay in which I go into greater length about the importance of tradition in China may be found at another website I maintain, noplaceforrumors.com:
Some books are read hurriedly. We rush through the pages to get to the end and find out ‘what happened’. Some books invite us to linger, as descriptions of exotic backgrounds and high-energy exploits demand attention. Forgotten Reflections: A War Story holds the reader’s attention in both ways. It is a thriller, with a mystery that is not solved until the very end. It is also a moving love story, and character study. Author Young-Im Lee has woven a tale that takes place mostly in wartime. This is the Korean War, but the situation evoked is universal. Even well-planned wars are chaotic for those at the center, civilians and foot soldiers. Their challenges are universal: How do they survive the violence? How do they eat? Who can be trusted and who is a traitor?
Much of what Miss Lee writes may be familiar to Korean readers. Western readers, however, will be introduced to contemporary Korean culture and its foundational myths. Forgotten Reflections: A War Story is a considerable achievement. Using flashbacks and flash-forwards, Ms. Lee nimbly manages a narrative that spans half a century. She accomplishes this without ever breaking the thread of the story. I admire Ms. Lee’s skill as a writer and her apparent passion to explore ideas central to the identity of her country.
There is no need here to belabor the importance of the Korean peninsula in world affairs. Many people in the West are perplexed by how this relatively small area came to be a tinderbox that threatens to explode into a global conflagration. Reading Forgotten Reflections: A War Story will help to explain the origins of the conflict. The book accomplishes this in a way that is entertaining and credible. Ms. Lee’s book is well-worth a reader’s investment of time and money. I highly recommend it.
About the picture:
South Koreans are harvesting rice near the Demilitarized Zone. The picture is appropriate for this review because so much of the people’s energy during the war was spent in trying to feed themselves and in trying to preserve rice stores for the future. After reading the book, I find it hard to look at the bounty in the picture without reflecting on the struggles of the South Korean people during the war.
On June 27, 1950 Harry Truman ordered American forces into South Korea. The purpose of this action was to help repel North Korean troops that had crossed the 38th Parallel. It would be two and half months before significant reinforcements would be sent to buttress the small American contingent. By the time these fresh recruits arrived, the hero of this book, Private Philip Thomas Hughes of the 19th Infantry, 24th Infantry Division, had fallen. His demise came just three days before the U. N. intervention and a mere twelve days after his eighteenth birthday. The Battle of Turkey Thicket, by Christopher Russell, offers insight into the chaotic early days of the Korean War and provides an explanation for how young Philip Hughes found himself at the front line in a war for which he, and the United States, were poorly prepared
In writing this book, Russell has done a service to every soldier who ever fought in war. The details of Philip Hughes’ life are often murky. This was a boy who was not born to advantage. He was orphaned as an infant and sent to live in an institution. At the age of two, he was adopted. From the account of this book, it seems that the circumstances in that adoptive home were not conducive to a happy childhood.
Philip, and his brother, Frank, ran away in 1949, when they were teenagers. After that, neither boy was welcome back home. They ended up in a reformatory, though they had not committed a serious offense. Their mother simply found them to be unmanageable, so she turned them over to the state. Under the circumstances, the military seemed like a reasonable option to Philip. The country was not at war, he would have the opportunity to travel, and he would receive training. His mother did not object.
Philip was sent overseas, to Japan, where U. S. Occupation forces were supervising Japan’s post-WWII transition. It was while he was in Japan that the North Korean incursion occurred. Philip and other soldiers stationed in Japan were sent into combat. These soldiers were not seasoned fighters. Battlefield equipment was left over from WWII and it was not in great shape. Supply transport for the soldiers in the field was haphazard. The troops were cold, hungry and sometimes actually lost in the rough South Korean terrain. Clean water was in short supply, sanitation was “abysmal” and medical care was substandard. According to Christopher Russell, “During the first year of the Korean War, 60 percent of U. S. troop evacuations were disease related.”
Russell has ably managed a difficult task in writing this book. He has researched the scant details of Philip Hughes life and has noted when sections of the book are not supported by the record. Much of the narrative is derived from extrapolation or third person accounts. Russell does not blur the line between what he knows for certain and what is likely to have happened. As a result, the reader is grateful that the story as told can be relied upon. Still…there is a desire to know more about the young soldier. To Russell’s credit, he does not give in to the temptation to fill in the blanks with a faux account.
I wish everyone would read this book. The Korean War is largely forgotten in the United States, although Korea is much in the news these days. Millions of civilians were killed or wounded during the war. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers fell in battle. Approximately 36,700 of the fallen were American. And yet, the fallen, to many Americans, are a minor footnote to history. Christopher Russell’s book reminds us that the lives of the fallen matter, and that their sacrifice should be honored.
The Battle of Turkey Thicket is the story of an orphan, of a soldier, of an American War. I highly recommend this book.