Even among the rich cast of China’s expat irregulars, Isham Cook stands out for his idiosyncrasy. Thankfully, it’s the eccentricity of the intelligent iconoclast, and his often incendiary writing has both substance and style. Cook is a libertarian – of the drugs and sexual freedom bent rather than the guns and low taxes kind – but his beliefs do not run along strict tribal lines; Confucius and Opium contains surprises sure to both delight and annoy any potential reader.
In the titular chapter Confucius and Opium, Cook makes startling claims about the use of drugs, or “medicinal plants,” in ancient China. He clarifies at the start that he’s not claiming Confucius used opium – there’s no hard evidence for the drug’s use in China at that time – but he does suggest that various mind-altering substances, such as mushrooms and marijuana, were consumed and played a key part in shaping the culture. Although this chapter is fun and raises fascinating questions (for example, I’d love to learn more about the Persian mages and their elixirs), it’s overly speculative.
Reviewer Frank Beyer wrote that he “would have moved the first chapter to the end of the book” and I concur; in a book of book reviews, the first chapter should perhaps have gone elsewhere because it is unrepresentative of the book as a whole (it doesn’t review books) and is quite long.
The other chapters are themed essays on various China-related fiction and non-fiction books, mostly by Anglophone expats. The result is very much more than a collection of reviews. Unlike the constraining limitations of reviews written for a magazine or newspaper, Cook gives himself a free hand, focusing on the aspects which interest him – like relations with prostitutes – and exploring them as thoroughly as he sees fit.
Books are grouped together by subject matter, and arranged in chronological order, taking us from the Taiping Rebellion of the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. It’s a satisfying whole and an excellent balance of well-known and obscure titles. Along the way, Cook delves into the craft of writing, examining narrative points of view and dissecting overwritten prose with a clear-eyed scalpel.
Chapter Two looks at the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64). The death toll for this civil war is uncertain but most historians put it in the twenty to thirty million range, making it one of history’s very worst disasters. Cook correctly asserts that the war has not received its due in either Chinese or English.
The Taiping holocaust is so astounding in its magnitude that the psyche can’t deal with it. Its sheer incomprehensibility puts it beyond the pale of discourse, to be ignored or trivialized. Main-land Chinese high-school history textbooks devote no more than a page to the affair, much less than to the loose bookends to that event, the First and Second opium wars (1839–42 and 1856–60), which the Communists found the perfect surrogate for shouldering the national burden of shame, China’s so-called “century of humiliation.” With casualty figures amounting to a mere fifty thousand, however, the violence at the hands of the Western powers is negligible—in comparison to the nuclear war in slow-motion that was going on in the Chinese interior (from an ethical standpoint, of course, I don’t mean to suggest fifty thousand deaths in war is negligible).
Cook praises James Lande’s historical novel, Yang Shen: The God from the Westfor tackling the subject of Taiping Rebellion and showing the slaughter. But he finds fault with the prose:
The book is almost frightening in its relentless, machine-like control of plot, description and dialogue from start to finish. And there’s the rub. If it’s the product of genius, it’s equal parts literary and obsessive-compulsive genius. Artistry has a flexible quality to it, an elasticity that knows when to expand and contract; the artist always has his hand on the zoom lens. Lande’s lens is stuck in zoom-in for much of the narrative, as if broken. Everything, and I mean everything, is attended to. Of course, the author wants us to see the fruit of his three decades of research that went into the book. If nothing else, his an exhaustive, highly informative and rewarding work of history. And he cares about all the details, such as the 2,500-word passage describing the setting up of a six-pounder field gun….
Cook has included a chapter from one of his previous publications, and I’m glad he did so. In “The ventriloquist’s dilemma: Asexual Anglo travelogues of China,” Cook takes a riding crop to the buttocks of Rob Gifford’s China Road, Peter Hessler’s Country Driving, among others. Cook has a problem with foreign authors’ allergic reactions to romantic possibilities with Chinese women. There is teasing and titillation for the reader, “the red line repeatedly skirted but never crossed in the polite world of Anglo publishing.” Although you might well think the author is being unfair (and find yourself shouting “Good god man, of course he’s not banging whores, he just got married a couple of months ago”) and come away from the chapter unconvinced, you’ll never read another expat travelogue in quite the same way again.
In “The Literature of Paralysis: the China PC scene and the expat mag crowd,” Cook continues with his criticism of Western writers’ squeamishness in writing about bedding the natives. Among the unwritten rules:
Second, you may not write about sexual affairs between Western White males and females from any such country, since to do so perpetuates in different guise the rape of the colonised. This rules out writing by White male expats in China on any and all relations undertaken with local women. And I don’t refer merely to such affairs these writers may personally have engaged in; they may also not write about other Western males’ encounters with local women, even purely fictionalized characters.
In a remarkable chapter, “Midnight in Peking and True Crime Fiction,” Cook lays out the audacious case that Paul French’s best-selling true crime Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China has at its heart a writerly falsification. I found this chapter fascinating, though it will be too among the weeds for most readers. It’s best that you’ve read Midnight in Peking and preferably also Graeme Shephard’s rebuttal A Death in Peking: Who Really Killed Pamela Werner? Both these books investigate a murder from 1937, when the mutilated body of a young British woman was found in a gully along Peking’s old Tartar Wall. The victim was 19-year-old Pamela Werner, the adopted daughter of a retired British consul. Although drawing considerable attention at the time, this crime case was pushed aside by the Sino-Japanese War and never solved.
An important factual detail and flavoring of the best-selling Midnight in Peking was the spooky southeast tower of the city wall known as the Fox Tower, supposedly the site of the abandoned corpse. For a start, Cook says he could not find “any references in Chinese referring to the southeast corner tower as a ‘fox’ (狐狸) tower.” He also takes to task an unattributed photo in French’s book purportedly of the Fox Tower. Cooks says it is not, and that the accompanying caption, “The Fox Tower looms over eastern Peking: only the narrow ditch separated the tower from Pamela’s home on Armor Factory Alley,” removes any doubt that this was an honest mistake. Cook goes step by step through various maps and locational descriptions and related information. He concludes that sacrificing facts for literary effect “disqualifies the project as nonfiction. It can no longer be called true crime.”
For a writer, Cook’s work is unsettling; I’m not referring to the direct broadsides, or the sexual content, but the unfiltered honesty and original thinking with which he tackles subjects. Cook’s audacity is shaming. After reading Opium and Confucius, his best work yet, you feel your own writing is timid, pedestrian, small. I can’t think of other China writers who would write:
“I don’t support slavery in any form, sexual or otherwise, but I would, in the right circumstances, support a concubine. For the right concubine, I would pay. I think you would too.”