ping pongThe spring of 1971 heralded the greatest geopolitical realignment in a generation. After twenty-two years of antagonism, China and the United States suddenly moved toward a détente achieved not by politicians but by Ping-Pong players.

The Western press delighted in the absurdity of the moment and branded it “Ping-Pong Diplomacy.” But for the Chinese, Ping-Pong was always political, a strategic cog in Mao Zedong’s foreign policy. Nicholas Griffin proves that the organized game, from its first breath, was tied to Communism thanks to its founder, Ivor Montagu, son of a wealthy English baron and spy for the Soviet Union. Ping-Pong Diplomacy traces a crucial inter-section of sports and society. Griffin tells the strange and tragic story of how the game was manipulated at the highest levels; how the Chinese government helped cover up the death of 36 million peasants by holding the World Table Tennis Championships during the Great Famine; how championship players were driven to their deaths during the Cultural Revolution; and, finally, how the survivors were reconvened in 1971 and ordered to reach out to their American counterparts.

Through a cast of eccentric characters, from spies to hippies and Ping-Pong-obsessed generals to atom-bomb survivors, Griffin explores how a neglected sport was used to help realign the balance of worldwide power. (description from publisher)

Based in part upon her own life experiences, author Jean Kwok has hit the mark in her debut novel, Girl in Translation.  Much like her character, Kwok also emigrated from Hong Kong and starting working  in a Chinese sweatshop at a young age.  She and her family also lived in a roach and rat-infested apartment — without heat!   Still, this story is not so much about deprivation, but more of a story about hope and about overcoming adversity — in short, it’s today’s version of the American dream.

Ah-Kim Chang (translated to Kimberly once they moved to New York) had always excelled in school.  After her father died, she and her mother are indebted to Aunt Paula for financing their trip to America, so they both begin working long hours in a Chinatown clothing factory for much less than minimum wage.  On top of this, they live in a condemned apartment (think roaches, no heat, and garbage bags covering the window) and Kimberly must also attend school, where language and cultural differences abound. As she begins to master English, she again begins to show academic promise, eventually earning admission to an elite private high school, and thereby paving the way for her ticket out of the slums.

The author sometimes spells out conversations phonetically — an effective technique –especially since she  wanted the English-speaking reader to understand life on the “other side of the language barrier.”  She also incorporates a few surprising plot twists at the end, which helps makes the story even more personable and endearing.   Highly recommended.

After his Father’s death, Shen Tai leaves the glittering and sophisticated world of  Xianan, the capital city, and travels to the far western borders of the civilized world to Kuala Nor, the site of an epic battle where thousands died. There, in homage to his father, Tai begins to bury the dead. At night Tai can hear the ghosts of the dead howl and cry in sorrow and pain; sometimes, when one voice falls silent, he knows he has laid that ghost to rest.

Unexpectedly, two years into his mission a foreign princess gives him an unimaginable gift for his efforts – 250 rare and valuable Sardian horses. It is a gift that could change the course of empires, and it will change Tai’s life in unforeseen and unexpected ways.

Loosely based on ancient Chinese history and legend, Under Heaven is an epic novel of an ordinary man being swept into history’s current, how he adapts and how his actions change the course of his country’s path. Melding the experiences of the ordinary and the powerful, Under Heaven creates a complex and layered story of a turbulent era.

shanghai-girls1In 1937 Shanghai, Pearl and her sister May are living a glamorous, sophisticated life, modeling as “beautiful girls” for the painters of magazine covers and calendar pages. Their sheltered, privileged world comes to a shattering halt when their Father loses everything and he must sell them into marriage. At first they are able to escape this fate, but when the war begins and the Japanese attack their beloved city, they must flee for their lives.

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See follows the harrowing journey that the sisters must undertake – the hardship, the pain and the betrayals as they try to escape the Japanese and find a safe haven first in Hong Kong, then in San Francisco. Throughout it all the sisters remain each others staunchest supporters through good times and bad, through arranged marriages, lost children and oppressive discrimination. Their triumph is that, not only do they emerge from their trials as stronger people, they come through it together.

See also wrote the wildly popular Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, also set in China, and has done extensive research to fill her story with authentic detail. Her story gives us unique views of the past – the Japanese invasion of China and the suffering of the Chinese people at their conquerors hands, the discrimination against the Chinese in America and the Red Scare fear of communist threat that created suspicion against the Chinese in America in the 1950s.

While the trails and suffering that Pearl and May must endure sometimes seem almost endless, the author has left us with a cliffhanger ending, promising a possible sequel and future hope for the beautiful girls from Shanghai.

snowflowermedIn today’s  world the main character in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan would perhaps be categorized simply as a “senior citizen”. In Lily’s unforgiving world at 80 she is known as “the one who has not yet died”. Pretty telling about how the elderly and or women are portrayed in this story. Lily tells her challenging life story and what it was like growing up female in a 19th century Chinese village. Women in particular at this time lived excruciatingly difficult lives. Their feet were bound rendering them all but crippled yet was neccessary to procure a husband. They were married off and forced to take the position of lowliest person in the household. Essentially, women were deemed responsible for anything that was bad or went wrong in their culture. Although their customs, folklore and traditions were fascinating, this was a difficult read at times.

I was amazed at how these women managed to survive such physical and emotional hardships. A beautiful way in which they escaped was through the ancient art of women’s writing called nu shu. Some young girls participated in a sort of arranged friendship called laotongs through which they communicated in this secretive fashion – writing on fans, in letters or embroidering handkerchiefs. Snow Flower and Lily had just  such a relationship in which their remarkable lives are chronicled through their nu shu correspondence.

One of the great things about watching the Olympics this year is that it gave us a brief glimpse into a country many of us are not familiar with. Still distant, exotic and unknown, the country of China is as diverse as it is vast. You can get an even closer look at the beauty of the land, its wildlife and its people in Wild China, now available at the Davenport Library.

The landscape of China varies dramatically, from the peaks of the Himalayan mountains, to tropical islands, to deserts both hot and cold. Animal and plant life unique to this land – including panda bears – are highlighted as well as the many, long-standing environmental preservation efforts by the country. China is also home to a large number of ethnic peoples and they are also celebrated here – monks at prayer, children in a classroom, fishermen at work.

With stunning photography and expert narration, this BBC production invites you into this beautiful country for more than six hours, time you wish wouldn’t end.

There was a lot to be impressed by when watching the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics last week, not the least of which was the sight of 2008 tai chi masters performing in perfect unison.

Practiced by millions of people around the world, tai chi, a traditional Chinese martial art, is reported to have many health benefits including stress management, improving balance, coordination and flexibility, and strengthening the connection between the body’s muscular system, circulation and breath. Classified as a “soft” martial art, its sequence of slow, relaxed movements can be performed by people of all ages on a daily basis.

For an introduction to tai chi, or to improve your practice, check out the following books and DVDs from the Davenport library.

Tai Chi for Every Body: Easy, Low-impact Exercises for Every Age by Eva Koskuba

Tai Chi: a Practical Introduction by Paul Crompton

Tai Chi Walking: a Low-impact Path to Better Health by Robert Chuckrow

Tai Chi for Busy People (videorecording)

Tai Chi Fundamentals (videorecording)

The “breath” of a wok is the steam that rises from a sizzling hot finished dish. This charming cookbook takes a slightly different approach to Chinese food by focusing on the wok and its recipes. In addition, there is a history of the wok and it’s importance (central to so much Chinese cooking), the construction and manufacture of woks and advice on buying and seasoning a wok.

While many of the recipes are familiar, there is also a wide range of fresh ideas, gathered from a variety of people including chef Michael Yan, writer Amy Tan and Young’s own family, and range from beginner friendly to master lessons.

Practical, smart and fun, The Breath of a Wok will have you cooking confidently with a wok in no time.

Beautiful, epic, sweeping, mystical, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a revelation to many when it was released in 2000. Starring Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh, it is also the story of unrequited love set against the grand sweep of China’s landscape.

A magical, powerful sword is stolen by a notorious thief and two renowned warriors go in pursuit to return it to its rightful owner. A series of breathtaking, fluid fight sequences follow (including one particularly memorable one taking place in windblown treetops) as the protagonists square off against each other. In addition, the stories of two contrasting love affairs unfold and the bonds of duty, honor, sacrifice and loyalty are tested.

Visually stunning, at turns melancholy, soaring, wistful and spiritual, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won four Academy Awards including Best Foreign Language film.

Stepping beyond the familiar Chinese cuisines, Beyond the Great Wall by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid explores the flavors and foods of the outlying areas of China, including Tibet and Xinjiang in the far west of the country. Authentic recipes, gathered by the authors over a series of visits to China over the past 20 years, are “translated” for the Western kitchen (no need to go looking for camel meat!)

However, this is much more than a cookbook; stories of the adventures and people that were met along the way are scattered throughout the book. The photography is spectacular – there are the usual mouth-watering close-ups of delicious dishes, but there are also sweeping views of the landscape, intimate portraits of the people, and a careful recording the customs and practices of this distant land.

Part cookbook, part travel book, part cultural education, Beyond the Great Wall will feed the soul as well as the body.