“Very deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless?”
This is how the prelude of Thomas Mann’s wonderful novel “Joseph and his brothers” begins. I remembered this sentence while reading Lin Yutang’s novel “Moment in Peking”. Published in 1939, the novel is a typical “family novel”: it traces the history of two Chinese families in Beijing, Hangzhou, and elsewhere in the first half of the 20th century. History against the background of tumultuous and tragic events in China, starting by the boxer rebellion until the Japanese wars in 1937-38.
Why that quote? Because books like this may be essential in trying to understand a country. The ups and downs of today’s China cannot be understood without understanding the history of the past 15-20 years, both within and outside of China. But for that one should have a clear idea of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, and of the abyss of Mao’s reign. However, it would be way too easy to explain those years by referring to one person, or even to a small clique of persons only. No, understanding that requires an insight into what happened in the first part of the 20th century, how a reign of corruption and chaos followed the collapse of the traditional, imperial China at the turn of the century, a system that tragically outlived its time; how the opium trade ravaged part of the country, or how the Japanese armies were the responsible for indescribable horrors during their invasion of China. And, of course, one should go back in time, understand the 19th century and the 18th,… Indeed, very deep is the well of the past.
Nobody can claim to have a clear view of all history, not even those whose profession is to understand it. But books like the “Moment in Peking” are at least of some help to get a glimpse into that well. A long book, but if you are interested in the history of China (but even if not particularly…), it is well worth reading it.