Category Archives: Russia

Status of Jews in Moldavia, 1934

From The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 3, NYRB Classics, 2014), Kindle pp. 149-151:

These hostile feelings were much more deeply rooted in the north, where the Jewish population had increased from about two thousand families to close on a million in a hundred and thirty years, most of them in flight from the appalling conditions in Poland and the Russian Pale, until in several large Moldavian towns, including Yassy, the Moldavian capital, they now outnumbered the Rumanian inhabitants and monopolized the commerce of the province. Small wonder that this indigestible explosion of people caused dismay, resentment and hostility among the inhabitants; there was nothing comparable here to the harmonious and long established position of the polished and much less numerous Sephardim of the Ottoman world; small wonder, too, that the Jews, denied full citizenship and with nearly every route to advancement or honour denied to them, should expand and excel in the only field that was not barred by prejudice. The remote principality in which they suddenly began to proliferate had no middle class; rural society knew nothing between the mediaeval feudalism of landowners – the great and the lesser boyars, many of whom seldom set foot on their accumulations of acres – and a vast and callously exploited peasantry. There was no urban middle class, and, in Moldavia especially, as the country expanded, the Jewish population became a semi-alien bourgeoisie of middlemen and retailers.

Everyone reluctantly admitted that the Jews were honest in their dealings, however ruthless, and faithful to their agreements. I also noticed that nearly everyone, however ill-disposed in general, had one Jewish friend who ‘was not like the others’, an array of exemptions that must have added up to an imposing total. It was only on later travels in Moldavia and Bukovina that I got to know, talk to and even make friends with Jews not isolated in a Gentile majority. Lack of any need to conform to alien ways had left their way of life absolutely intact: the long black kaftans, broad-brimmed black velvet hats, skullcaps, black, red and blond beards, corkscrew side-whiskers (like those of my host and his son in the woods of the Banat), and a Yiddish largely unalloyed by Rumanian, but embedded with Polish and Russian words as well as the Hebrew studied by the rabbis and divinity students.

2 Comments

Filed under Romania, language, religion, democracy, migration, Russia, nationalism, Britain, economics, Poland

Overfishing Problems Worldwide

From Cod, by Mark Kurlansky (Penguin, 1998), pp. 198-200:

Overfishing is a growing global problem. About 60 percent of the fish types tracked by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) are categorized as fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted. The U.S. Atlantic coast has witnessed a dramatic decline in the bluefin tuna population, though Gloucester fishermen refute this on the grounds that they still have good catches. Mid-Atlantic swordfish stocks are diminishing. Conch and redfish are vanishing from the Caribbean. Red snapper, which is a by-catch of shrimp, is in danger of commercial extinction in the Gulf of Mexico. Peru is losing its anchovy population. Pollock is vanishing from Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk. With 90 percent of the world’s fishing grounds now closed off by 200-mile exclusion zones, fishermen have been searching greater depths for new species. Little is known about the ecology of these depths, but since they often have very cold water, reproduction is probably very slow. Orange roughy was introduced to the world markets after implementation of the 200-mile zone and immediately gained such popularity that five tons an hour were being hauled up from the depths near New Zealand. In 1995, the catch nearly vanished.

The collapse of the Soviet Union destabilized many fishing agreements. Russia has become a major cod fisher, and cod has become almost the equivalent of cash in the Russian Barents Sea fishery. The reason the Canadians have been buying Russian cod processed in Norway is that Russia has been flooding the Norwegian market.

With the Atlantic long overworked by Europeans, the action has been switching to the Pacific, where not only are there large Japanese, Russian, American, and Korean fleets, but the Chinese, who do not have a history of international cooperation, have been notably enlarging their fishing capacity.

Replacing the Atlantic with Pacific fisheries is an old idea. Pacific cod was one of the reasons the United States bought Alaska from the Russians in 1867. But since the major markets were far away along the Atlantic, the Pacific cod did not have the same success as the Atlantic cod. Nevertheless, in 1890, a half million Pacific cod were landed. An 1897 book by an American scholar, James Davie Butler, suggested that with the alternative of a Pacific cod fishery, the only remaining bone of contention between the United States and Canada, cod fisheries, would be less important, and the way would now be cleared for “eventual union with Canada.”

But the Pacific cod is a different fish, its flesh less prized. It does not migrate, and it does not appear to live more than twelve years. More important, the catch has never measured up to that of its Atlantic cousin. Instead, walleye pollock has become the prize of the northern Pacific, “the cod of our times,” as a Gorton’s employee put it, and that fish is becoming so overfished that not only its stocks but its predators, sea lions and several species of seabirds, have dramatically declined since the mid-1970s.

Leave a comment

Filed under Canada, economics, Europe, food, nationalism, Pacific, Russia, U.S.

Japanese Pessimism after 1905

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle p. 646:

The naturalist movement in literature, a literature of disillusion, developed immediately after the Russo-Japanese War. A typical example of naturalist fiction, Tayama Katai’s story “Ippeisotsu” (One Soldier), based in part on his experiences as a war correspondent in China, was considered to be so antimilitaristic that for years it could be printed only with passages excised. The generation that grew to maturity during the years after the Russo-Japanese War seemed to be alienated. This alienation often began with shock at the wartime casualties and disappointment over the results of the war but later took such forms as socialism in politics. This in turn caused the older generation to express gloom over the loss by the young of their traditions. Yamazaki Masakazu characterized the times as “the morose era.”

Oka Yoshitake wrote of the same period, “Some youths were swallowed up by scepticism and despair in the course of their search for meaning in life. In fact, that tendency had showed signs of emerging even before the Russo-Japanese war, but it became much more apparent following the cessation of hostilities.”

One might suppose that victory in the war and the admiration voiced abroad would have made the Japanese self-confident, if not proud, but critics of the time worried about the “anxious pessimism” that had become fashionable among young men and women. This pessimism, ironically, may have contributed to the extraordinary flourishing of literature during the ten years after the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, Japan, literature, military, nationalism, Russia, war

Origins of the Japanese-British Alliance, 1902

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 573-574:

The proposal to create an alliance between England and Japan had its origins in Russian policy in the Far East. As noted earlier, after the conclusion of the Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese had been forced by three European powers to return the Liaotung Peninsula to China. However, Russia not long afterward leased this territory, signed a secret treaty with China, and began constructing a railway. The Russians now administered Port Arthur and Dairen and were steadily expanding their hold over northwestern China. Russian towns had been founded along the railway line. Other countries with interests in East Asia were concerned about Russia’s moves in Korea, and many believed that a clash between Russia and Japan was inevitable. However, the Japanese were by no means adequately prepared for such a conflict, and it was obvious that it would be extremely difficult for the country, unaided, to dislodge the Russians.

Japan had two possible courses of action. One (favored by Itō Hirobumi) was to reach an understanding with Russia whereby Manchuria would be yielded to the Russians. In return, Japanese predominance in Korea would be recognized. The other (favored by most other Japanese officials) was for Japan to act in concert with major European powers in order to contain Russia. It was unlikely that France would join an anti-Russian coalition, as France and Russia had recently concluded an alliance. Japan’s most likely partners were Germany and England, both of which were convinced that the Russians were infringing on their rights in East Asia. In April 1901, in conversation with Lansdowne, Hayashi had voiced the opinion that in order for there to be permanent peace in East Asia, a firm relationship between Japan and England was essential. Lansdowne agreed, but this was only the private opinion of the two men.

Even before this time, men in Japan and England had advocated such an alliance. In 1895 Fukuzawa Yukichi had written an editorial proposing an alliance; and in England Joseph Chamberlain, the minister for the colonies, had informally discussed the subject with the Japanese minister. In 1898 the Japanese government, about to end the occupation of Weihaiwei, consented to the British proposal to lease the city from the Chinese, adding that it hoped that the British would in return be sympathetic and offer help if Japan needed to take action to ensure its security or promote its interests. A pro-Japanese mood swept England in 1900 after the Japanese army rescued British subjects in Peking besieged by the Boxers. Hayashi Tadasu, who became minister to Great Britain that year, concluded that England was the only country with which Japan could form an alliance against Russia.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, China, France, Germany, migration, military, Russia

Shogun’s Diplomats in Russia, 1867

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle p. 104:

Even after its defeat in the war with Chōshū, the shogunate remained the only effective central government. The most the court could do was to refuse to consent to plans made by the shogunate, especially with regard to foreign relations; it did not initiate plans of its own. The shogunate was, of course, far more experienced than the court in dealing with foreigners, but it was now faced with problems it had not encountered as long as sakoku [national seclusion] lasted.

A dispute with Russia over the future disposition of the island of Sakhalin made it necessary to send two shogunate officials to St. Petersburg to negotiate with the Russians. At the time both Japanese and Russian colonists were living on the island, giving rise to incessant clashes. The Japanese proposed that the island be divided at the fiftieth parallel; the Russians demanded the whole island but offered in exchange to yield Etorofu and three small islands to the Japanese. The negotiations dragged on, but finally, on March 18, 1867, a provisional treaty was signed that left the island open to people of both countries but urged that friendlier relations based on mutual sincerity prevail, a pious hope that could not have satisfied settlers from either country. The mission nevertheless marked an important step in the history of Japanese diplomacy: it was the first time that Japanese envoys traveled abroad to negotiate a treaty.

Leave a comment

Filed under Japan, migration, military, nationalism, Russia

Japan’s Angriest Emperor, 1858

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 38-40:

Kōmei became increasingly outspoken in his condemnation of the policy of allowing foreigners into the country. On July 27, 1858, he sent envoys to the Great Shrine of Ise, the Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine, and the Kamo Shrine to pray for divine protection. In a semmyō [imperial proclamation] he asked the gods, if warfare should break out between Japan and the foreign barbarians, to send a divine wind (kamikaze) like the one that had destroyed the ships of the Mongol invaders in the thirteenth century. He also asked the gods to punish those who, by their failure to repay the blessings they had received from the country, showed themselves disloyal—meaning those who favored opening the country.

Kōmei’s prayers went unanswered. On July 29 the Shimoda magistrate Inoue Kiyonao met with Townsend Harris aboard the warship Powhattan [sic, actually the USS Powhatan), then anchored off Kanagawa, and signed the treaty of amity and commerce between the United States and Japan. The treaty included a schedule of dates during the next five years when ports in addition to Shimoda and Hakodate—Kanagawa (Yokohama), Nagasaki, Hyōgo (Kōbe), and Niigata—were to be opened to foreign ships.

On July 31 the shogunate sent word to the court reporting the conclusion of the treaty with America, explaining that because of the great urgency involved, there had been no time to seek the court’s advice. When the court received this letter, Kōmei was predictably furious. He sent for the chancellor and gave him a letter in which he announced his intention of abdicating the throne.

The emperor had left political matters to the shogunate and had hesitated to express his opinion for fear of worsening relations between the military and the court, but this had led to a difficult situation. At a loss what to do and having only limited ability, he had decided to relinquish the throne. Because Sachinomiya [the future Emperor Meiji] was too young to be his successor at a time when the nation faced a grave crisis, he therefore proposed one of the three princes of the blood. It was definitely not because he desired to lead a life of ease and pleasure that he was abdicating; it was because he wished someone more capable than himself to deal with the problems of state. He asked the chancellor to forward his request to the shogunate.

The letter plainly indicated Kōmei’s dissatisfaction with the shogunate’s inability to handle the foreigners. Although he did not mention this in this letter, he had become increasingly convinced that the foreigners had to be expelled, whatever the cost; their presence in Japan was an affront to the gods and to his ancestors. What makes this and his subsequent letters in a similar vein memorable is the impression they convey of a tormented human being. It is true that much of the phraseology is stereotyped, but no other emperor, at least for hundreds of years, had expressed such bitter frustration, such a sense of powerlessness, despite the grandeur of his title. Kōmei had become a tragic figure, and from this point until the terrible conclusion of his life, he had only brief periods of respite from anger and despair. To find parallels in Japanese history we would have to go back to the exiled emperors Gotoba and Godaigo. Perhaps Richard II, at least as Shakespeare portrayed him, resembled Kōmei even more closely in his awareness of how little control he possessed over his destiny. The barrage of letters Kōmei directed to the officers of his court, lamenting each new development, is without parallel in the correspondence of Japanese sovereigns.

Leave a comment

Filed under Japan, military, nationalism, religion, Russia, U.S.

Response to Russians at Nagasaki, 1853

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 20-22:

The court had not yet recovered from the shock of Perry’s unexpected visit when it was informed by the shogunate on September 19 that a Russian fleet of four ships, under the command of Vice Admiral E. V. Putiatin (1803–1884), had entered Nagasaki Harbor. On his arrival, Putiatin announced to the officials in Nagasaki that he had brought from his government a letter concerning trade between the two countries. His orders had initially called for him to proceed to Edo and conduct negotiations there, but the Russian government later decided it would be better to show respect for Japanese law by proceeding to Nagasaki, the port designated for intercourse with foreign countries, in this way establishing a contrast with the Americans, who had brazenly sailed into Edo Bay.

Soon after the arrival of the Russian ships, various Japanese dignitaries came aboard along with a Dutch interpreter. They were informed by the captain of the Pallada that Vice Admiral Putiatin had brought a letter from his government to the Japanese government. There was also a note for the Nagasaki magistrate that, it was said, should be delivered immediately. After some hesitation, the officials accepted the note. It contained a declaration in extremely polite language of the profound respect for Japanese law that had impelled the Russian fleet to call at Nagasaki rather than Edo. This was a mark of the czar’s ardent desire for harmonious relations between the two countries. The officials at once sent word to Edo reporting the arrival of the Russians and asking whether or not to accept the letter from the Russian government. After waiting some time for an reply, Putiatin sailed to Shanghai to pick up supplies and perhaps to find additional orders from his government.  When there was still no answer even after he got back from Shanghai, he announced that he had no choice under the circumstances but to go to Edo.

The alarmed Nagasaki officials sent word by fast messenger to Edo, mentioning how much more accommodating the Russians were than the Americans and suggesting that the Russians might be used to blunt the edge of American demands. They added that if the Russian overtures were met with the usual suspiciousness, Japan risked incurring the enmity of a country that was twice as big as the United States.

Shortly before the messages from Nagasaki reached Edo, the shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi died, and the senior officers of the shogunate, in mourning and faced with organizing a new regime, did not get around immediately to responding to the problem of how to answer the Russians. After considerable debate, they decided to accept the letter from the Russian court, falling back on the precedent established by accepting the American president’s letter.

The letter (in Russian but with translations into Chinese and Dutch) from Count Karl Robert Nesselrode, the minister of foreign affairs, expressed his hopes for establishing peace and good relations between the two countries, for settling the disputed border between Japan and Russia on the island of Sakhalin, and for opening ports to trade. Most senior members of the shogunate favored accepting the Russian requests, but Tokugawa Nariaki, the shogunate’s adviser on maritime affairs, was strongly opposed, and the discussions dragged on. The shogunate finally agreed that the best course was to delay.

Putiatin grew increasingly impatient over the failure of the shogunate officials to return with an answer from Edo, as promised by the Nagasaki officials, and threatened again to sail to Edo if they did not appear within five days. Four days later, the tardy officials … arrived with the shogunate’s reply to Nesselrode’s letter. First, it said, the establishment of the border was a difficult matter that would require considerable time to determine. Maps would have to be drawn, consultations made with affected parties, and so on. Second, the laws of their ancestors strictly prohibited opening the ports. However, in view of world developments, the government did recognize the necessity of opening the country, but a new shogun had just taken office and the situation was still too confused to give an immediate answer. Reports would have to be submitted to Kyōto and to the various daimyos. After due consideration of the issues, they expected to be able to come up with a proposal in three to five years.

It is apparent from the message’s wording how desperately the shogunate wanted to stall off a decision; but even more important was the admission that despite the long tradition of isolation, the Japanese now had no choice but to open the country. This awareness of the change in world conditions was not communicated to the court, however, because of the anticipated outraged resistance by Emperor Kōmei.

Putiatin was disappointed by the reply. He moved now to the offensive, informing the shogunate’s representatives that with the exception of the southern part of the island of Sakhalin, all the islands north of Etorofu (Iturup) were Russian territory. Tsutsui replied that Japan had possessed Kamchatka as well as (it went without saying) the Kuriles and Sakhalin. He proposed that shogunate officials be dispatched to Sakhalin the following spring to ascertain the situation. In the meantime, the Russians would be free to obtain firewood and water at any place on the Japanese coast except for the vicinity of Edo. He promised also that if Japan made trade concessions to another country, they would apply to Russia as well.

Putiatin was still not satisfied, but he left Nagasaki early in the first month of 1854, saying he would return in the spring. The most influential men in the country were by now aware that the policy of isolation could not last much longer. As early as the seventh month of 1853, as we have seen, Kuroda Nagahiro, the daimyo of Fukuoka, had formally proposed lifting the ban on constructing large ships. In the eighth month, Shimazu Nariakira, the daimyo of Kagoshima, sent a letter urging the shogunate to purchase ships and weapons from Holland. Abe Masahiro (1819–1857), the chief senior councillor (rōjū shuseki) of the shogunate, who had long advocated building ships that (unlike the small fishing boats that operated off the Japanese coast) were capable of making ocean voyages, decided on October 21 to lift a prohibition that had been in effect for more than 220 years. The shogunate ordered several steam warships from the Dutch, and soon several domains started building large ships, intended for the shogunate. In August 1854 the shogunate decided on the flag to be flown on the new ships: a red sun on a white ground.

Leave a comment

Filed under economics, Japan, military, nationalism, religion, Russia, U.S.

Amur River Boom and Bust

From The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron (Harper, 2021), Kindle pp. 265-268:

The enormous silence of the river, its shrinking human populace and its virgin forest, give the illusion of return to some primeval Arcadia, of recoil from a stricken present. But to its inhabitants it means desolation. For almost four centuries the Amur has been the stuff of dreams, but also of promise forever delayed. In the mid-nineteenth century, especially, there arose in Russia a grand and delusive exhilaration. Just as in the seventeenth century the Cossacks were lured south by rumours of a Daurian river valley spread with wheat and sable-filled forests, even silver and precious stones, so the accession of the initially liberal Czar Alexander II, in an empire that had been stagnating for thirty years, released a groundswell of intoxicating hope. Momentarily Russia turned her back on Europe, with its old humiliations, and found a visionary future in Siberia’s east.

Suddenly the immense but little-known Amur loomed into brilliant focus. Here would be Russia’s artery to the Pacific, a titanic waterway flowing, as if by providence, from the belly of Siberia into an ocean of infinite promise. The trading concessions wrenched from China by the British and French, the prising open of Japan, and above all the arrival of a young and vigorous America on the opposite coast, would surely transform the Pacific into an arena of world commerce. Russians had watched the American advance westward with awe. It seemed to mirror their own headlong drive across Siberia to the same ocean, and now the two countries might flourish together in a shared oceanic commonwealth. There was even heady talk, in Siberia, of a political alliance.

With Muraviev-Amursky’s seizure of the Amur from a helpless China in 1858, the vision of an eastern destiny became euphoria. The Amur, it was declared, would become Russia’s Mississippi, and Muraviev was hailed, without irony, as ‘one courageous, enterprising Yankee’. Such dreams climaxed in the energies of the American entrepreneur Perry McDonough Collins, quaintly named his country’s ‘commercial agent’ on the Amur. ‘Upon this generous river shall float navies, richer and more powerful than those of Tarshish,’ he announced, and at its mouth ‘shall rise a vast city, wherein shall congregate the merchant princes of the earth’.

Even before Muraviev’s land grab, St Petersburg was rife with reports of foreign merchant ships making for the Amur. Soon a lighthouse at De Castries was raised to guide them. A fleet of steamboats began plying the once-quiet waters. The lower river valley was declared a free trade zone. And the fulcrum of these hopes was the newly founded port of Nikolaevsk at the Amur’s mouth, which Alexander and I were approaching on the lonely Meteor. For a few years German and American trading firms went up here, housed in stout log cabins with iron and zinc roofs. A library of over four thousand books was assembled, with recent Paris and St Petersburg newspapers, happily uncensored. The officers’ club flaunted a dining hall and ballroom. Life was reported delightful. The Nikolaevsk stores were selling Havana cigars, French pâté and cognac, port and fine Japanese and Chinese furniture. Susceptible minds twinned the town with San Francisco. And Perry Collins, of course, went further, looking forward to the day when St Petersburg itself would be replicated on the Amur.

Then, within a decade, harsh realities broke in. Far from being a riverine highway, the Amur was revealed as a labyrinth of shoals, shallows and dead ends, and for seven months of the year was sealed in ice or adrift with dangerous floes. Even cargo boats of low draught might not reach Khabarovsk, let alone Sretensk. And the river mouth offered no simple access. The straits between the mainland and the obstructing island of Sakhalin made for hazardous steering, especially from the tempestuous Okhotsk Sea. Ships sank even in the estuary. As for the Amur shores, for hundreds of miles they were peopled only by a sprinkling of Cossacks, natives and subsistence farmers, many forcibly settled on poor land, and open to the floods that still ravage it. For its inhabitants, this became a cursed river: not the ‘Little Father’ of Russia’s affection, wrote a dismayed naturalist, but her ‘sickly child’. The structures of commerce that worked elsewhere – the trading houses, the shipping agents, the free zones – had been imposed upon an indifferent wilderness. In the simple, brutal realization of those most disillusioned, there was nobody to trade with and nothing to trade. Within a few years the agents and flotillas were gone, transferring first to De Castries and then to the ice-free harbour of Vladivostok.

As for Nikolaevsk, even Collins had expressed misgivings. Its waterside was so shallow that ships had to drop anchor half a mile offshore, and their cargo was transported by lighters to a swampy coast. In winter the town was blasted by Arctic blizzards and lay sometimes six feet deep in snow. Even the reports of foreign commerce were exposed as delusion. The shipping had never been significant. Within a few years Nikolaevsk became a byword for boredom, immorality and petty scandals. In its celebrated officers’ club, remarked a worldly sea captain, the newspapers were few and several months old; it compared poorly to a low German beer house. The great explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky equated the whole place with Dante’s hell.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, economics, industry, migration, nationalism, Russia, U.S.

A Manchu Losing His Language

From The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron (Harper, 2021), Kindle pp. 163-164:

He can remember his family genealogy, he says, for five generations back, and they were pure Manchu, and spent all their lives on the Heilongjiang.

And what was the river to them, I wonder.

‘It wasn’t exactly holy. But we still call it our Mother River. My ancestors were all soldiers on these shores. We belonged to the White Banner.’ He is glowing now. The eight Manchu banners had supplied the military elite of their dynasty. ‘My son is a soldier too. And tall, like you.’ He calls up a photo on his phone of a strong young man, swimming somewhere in the Yellow Sea.

Liang breaks in: ‘Does he speak Manchu too? Mr Toobelong likes languages.’

‘No. Only a few old people ever spoke Manchu here, and they’ve died. Except me. People aren’t afraid to say they’re Manchu any more, but they only know Chinese. Even my older brother – he’s dead now – never spoke Manchu. For some reason I was the only one. I think as a boy I was always listening . . .’

Only when I ask him if he’s proud of his heritage does a moment’s confusion surface. Perhaps in obedience to the Party line, or in deference to Liang smiling beside him, he says: ‘No, not proud, we’re all the same now.’ He makes a levelling motion with his hand. ‘We are all Chinese.’ After a silence he adds: ‘All the same, I’m sorry my son doesn’t speak . . .’

It was in the distant Amur outposts that the language had held out longest. There are still speakers of a related tongue two thousand miles to the west, where Manchu soldiers had once guarded the frontier against czarist Russia. But the number who know true Manchu nationwide is unknown, veering between twenty and a mere three, with a few academics studying early Qing documents. The language itself belongs to the obscure Tungusic branch of the Altaic family, shared by Turkic peoples, Hungarians, Finns and Mongolians. Even the last Manchu emperor, it is said, spoke it only haltingly.

Yun too, when he starts to speak, looks stolidly puzzled. It is as if the words occupy a basement in his memory, and have to be pulled up one by one. But slowly they start to loosen and flow, and finally become a whispering stream, full of short vowels and blurred gutturals. Occasionally the gong-like tone of a Mandarin loan-word sounds, but even in Yun’s voice, in which every word blends into the next, Manchu emerges softly staccato, seeming closer to Japanese.

Yun looks happy now, in his far ancestral tongue. I wonder what he is saying. It sounds somehow important. This, after all, was the language of a dynasty that had ruled the fifth-largest empire ever known, extending deep into Inner Asia and far north of the Heilongjiang. I imagine a vocabulary adapted to verbose edicts or shouted battle orders. But when Yun ends, and I ask him, he says he knows too little of history or politics to voice them. Sealed in a language that nobody else understands, he has been talking about his domestic troubles.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, language, military, nationalism, Russia

Switching from Russian to Chinese

From The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron (Harper, 2021), Kindle pp. 144-145:

Next morning, the day before I cross to China, I lock myself in my hotel room and prepare to ease into the language that I learnt poorly more than thirty years ago, and have rarely spoken since. My Mandarin notes and textbooks, squashed into my rucksack, spill out like ancient scripts, still covered in my tutor’s red biro, and stained with the rings of coffee cups. Beyond my window, through an opening in the shoreline flat-blocks, a section of the Amur gleams, with Heihe lying beyond under a clouded sky. A Russian patrol boat is crossing the gap.

The only sounds in the room are my own. I return to my makeshift table. It’s a relief to leave behind the complexities of Russian grammar, the dual aspects of verbs, the exacting cases of nouns, the sheer length of words. Chinese, which lacks verbal tenses, genders, even the singular and plural, seems suddenly, radiantly simple. I shift my table to the light of the window and the glint of the Amur, and my exhilaration rises. The vocabulary flows back. Sometimes I have the illusion that I am not remembering, but learning anew. I anticipate the stark thrust of Mandarin replacing Russian wholesale. A change of language feels like a change of person. Sounds and structures dictate emotion. New concepts emerge, while others die. I have the illusion that I become more aggressive in Mandarin, and that my voice descends an octave. Perhaps I will need this. I have no idea what dialects may be coming my way. Yet for a long time I hear Mandarin returning, and imagine all will be well.

But as the hours go on, this happy remembrance stiffens. The unfamiliar structures start to weigh on me. There are words I have clean forgotten. Perhaps it is all too long ago. The blessed existence of Western borrowings (in Russian there are many) is all but absent. Mandarin is a tonal tongue – its words change meaning with their pitch – and the language turns, in my memory, to an echo of discordant gongs. I remember finding it easier to speak than to understand: the reverse of what I wish. Suddenly I miss the pliant beauty of Russian.

By evening a self-induced dementia has set in. When I go down to the hotel restaurant I mistakenly ask for the lavatory in Mandarin, then order a meal in Russian and chat to the bewildered waitress in a deranged mixture of both. Often my poor grasp of either leaves me suspended in mid-speech. I have no idea what is going to come out of my mouth.

I had a similar experience years ago in Beijing in 1988, where I managed to contact an old classmate from my Fulbright year in Romania in 1983-84. She worked for the Romanian broadcast service of Radio Beijing (which has a larger audience now than it used to in those days). I had first learned Romanian (fairly well) while in the U.S. Army at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, so she and I were both in the advanced Romanian language class at the University of Bucharest. Our classmates included her Chinese broadcaster colleague, 4 young East German translators/interpreters, and 2 other American Fulbrighters, and we spoke mostly Romanian to each other during that year. However, when we met again in Beijing, after my wife and I had spent a year in Guangdong teaching English and I had put some effort into learning basic Mandarin, I had a hell of a time keeping my new Chinese phrases out of my once-fluent Romanian when talking with her and her travel-agent husband, who knew Italian and English.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, language, Romania, Russia