Forthcoming in the June 2009 issue of New Internationalist (under the title ‘The Cultural Crusades’), this essay was commissioned as a discussion of the question whether, and how, China’s overseas Confucius Institutes are a manifestation of ‘soft power.’ It starts, however, by considering the changing fortunes of Confucianism within China.
Half way through my twelve years in China I discovered that an office manager I had just taken on spent his every free moment reading ancient Buddhist texts. At first I connected this to the trauma of a close shave with death in a car crash that had left him permanently disabled. But when I looked further I realized that the personal quest for meaning was widespread in our small office.
‘Africa Since Independence: A Comparative History’
2004, Palgrave Macmillan (Basingtoke and New York) 620 pp.
It takes a brave historian to write about the recent past and an ambitious one to span an entire continent. (This portrait is in fact confined to sub-Saharan Africa but that still encompasses vast environmental and cultural diversity.) Paul Nugent, a Reader in African History at the University of Edinburgh, marches on boldly—for the sake, he says, of “the student and the general reader” (p. 5)—and gives us an impressively compendious work, packed with process-specific case studies from numerous countries.
It is not long, however, before he stumbles into pitfalls that he himself flags at the outset. One problem is that, compared to the breadth of the title, the approach is rather narrow. This is principally a work of political history, the story of the struggle for and practice of power. Within a few score pages the reader is hard put to cope with the growing cast of named actors—individuals, political parties, movements—across the continent. Yet we get less feel for the varied and changing social and cultural life lying behind the names and organisational forms, or for the ways in which power in Africa is understood and legitimated, although these are among the under-the-skin complexities that a non-African student or general reader may well find the hardest to grasp.
The International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant for Sudanese president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, is already serving—just as the African Union had feared—to worsen the plight of people in Darfur and to threaten peace processes in the region. More broadly, it bodes ill for efforts to create a new moral order based on the principle of no impunity for war criminals.
Bashir, who rode to power 20 years ago on the back of a military coup, is charged with war crimes in Darfur. No doubt he has blood on his hands. But this is a complex conflict that predates his presidency, and there have certainly been other villains in the Darfur piece—by no means all of them ‘Arab.’
My son, Enrique, 19, passed his Ugandan driving test today. He is a fairly proficient driver but would have passed anyway, however bad he was, by the simple—and apparently routine—procedure of handing the examiner a tip of 30,000 shillings (USD 15).
In the early hours of yesterday morning fire engulfed the outdoor Owino market, Uganda’s largest, in a walled enclosure hard against Kampala’s city centre. The dense labyrinth of stalls covered an area the size of two football pitches and provided a livelihood for thousands of small traders in cheap clothes, shoes, household utensils and other goods, all now gone up in smoke.
This review has been reprinted (June 2010) on the inter-faith Patheos website.
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Screenplay: John Patrick Shanley
Miramax Films, 2008
Pope Benedict’s remarks to the Curia at the end of 2008 deploring the tendency of social gender theories to promote “emancipation of man from creation and the creator” drew predictable scorn from secular liberals and disappointment from Catholics who would like to see the Roman church remade in a 21st century image. (Benedict did not, actually, say that homosexuality was as great a threat to humanity as global warming, but that tabloidification of his message is what appears to have stuck.)
‘Marrying Buddha’ (Zhou) Wei Hui 2005 Constable and Robinson (London) 248 pp.
Trivial, narcissistic trash. I picked up a copy of this because I had been too busy to catch the author’s 2000 international bestseller, ‘Shanghai Baby’ (six million copies sold in 34 languages according to Wikipedia) and was curious to see what all the fuss had been about; but I couldn’t get past page 23 of this, it is so awful.
The preceding chapter of this work in progress departs from glimpses of Kunming, in southwest China’s Yunnan Province, where my family and I made our home for the first five of our 12 years in China. My wife, Kate Wedgwood, spent those years directing Save the Children UK’s extensive China programme while I established an independent publication, China Development Brief.
This second chapter back-tracks to our 1994-95 transition through Hong Kong. It pauses to consider that city’s nature as a cultural and social as well as an economic entrepôt and then goes on to discuss the—at that time, topical—subject of child abandonment in China. This serves as an introduction to many of the complexities of working for ‘development’ there.
The visit of an old friend from the UK provides occasion for a Friday evening pub crawl to test Kampala’s reputation as a city that really knows how to party.
We enlist Peter, a boda boda (motorbike taxi) man whose number I once took because I was impressed by the absence of lunacy in his motoring style, and he sub-contracts another driver to help because we are a bit heavy both to sit aback just one 125cc machine. Peter had taken Tim (my friend) around town a few times the week before and has now become confused about our identities, is no longer able to tell us apart. Embarrassing for him but not surprising, really: two big, affluent (little does he know) middle aged white men who talk oddly; the commonalities must be more striking than the differences. Tim rides ahead with dependable Peter while I follow with the other guy who doesn’t seem too bad but blows it in the closing stages when, by the roundabout near the golf club, he attempts to overtake Peter—why bother?—and gets stuck behind a truck.