The Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography

I was very excited this week to receive in my inbox a PDF copy of my contributing article to the Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography, a new 1,700-page volume of essays introducing the lives and times of more than 100 important Chinese historical figures. That ranges from ancient emperors and philosophers to Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. My chosen subject is Liang Qichao, the political writer, journalist and reform activist whose life spanned the late years of the Qing dynasty to the early and turbulent years of the Chinese republic.

I’d worked on this a couple years back, and seeing the PDF of the published chapter is the next best thing to holding a copy of the volume in my hands. (I’m double excited because although I’ve published many an article in newspapers, magazines and on websites, I believe this is the first time I’ve published in an actual book.)

In Hong Kong, where I grew up, Liang’s name is known to almost every school child. He is best-known for his involvement in the efforts to reform Qing rule in the last decade or so of the 19th century; the ‘Hundred Days Reform’, led by Liang’s mentor Kang Youwei, is required reading in every Chinese history textbook. Yet revisiting the subject and diving deeper into Liang’s beliefs and writings, I found many new discoveries about his work to be impressed with. He was certainly one of the first Chinese intellectuals of his time to write about Western-style democracy and the people’s rights. To me, his searching and at times tormented questions about China’s political future are surprisingly relevant a century on. His observations about nationalism and his musings about the weaknesses of the Chinese national psyche, too, at times struck me as deeply as if he were writing in this day and age.

I’d encourage anyone with an interest in Chinese history to look up his writings. The link below opens a pdf of my chapter (all copyright to Berkshire Publishing and to myself; please cite if using). Enjoy!

(Pdf file: liang-qichao)


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Oldest-known Holocaust survivor dies at age 110

Sad news yesterday: Alice Herz-Sommer, a pianist widely believed to be the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, died in London at age 110.

Herz-Sommer, her husband and her son were sent from Prague in 1943 to a concentration camp in the Czech city of Terezin — Theresienstadt in German — where inmates were allowed to stage concerts in which she frequently starred.

An estimated 140,000 Jews were sent to Terezin and 33,430 died there. About 88,000 were moved on to Auschwitz and other death camps, where most of them were killed. Herz-Sommer and her son, Stephan, were among fewer than 20,000 who were freed when the notorious camp was liberated by the Soviet army in May 1945.

Yet she remembered herself as “always laughing” during her time in Terezin, where the joy of making music kept them going.

“These concerts, the people are sitting there, old people, desolated and ill, and they came to the concerts and this music was for them our food. Music was our food. Through making music we were kept alive,” she once recalled.

“When we can play it cannot be so terrible.”

Read more about her extraordinary life in the rest of our obituary here. An inspiring story, if there ever was one.

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It’s all Greek … or not?

I’ve no idea why Greek yogurt is so big these days. It’s just yogurt, but thicker. Or so it seems – lawyers will tell me I’m completely wrong.

Turns out that according to two British courts, Greek yogurt has to be made in Greece to qualify as such. Thick, creamy, but not from Greece? It can only be legally called ‘strained yogurt’ – at least in Britain.

Here’s today’s story documenting the Court of Appeal’s ruling in the Chobani v. Fage (better known as Total in the UK) intellectual property rights case.

LONDON (AP) — It’s not all Greek to yogurt makers.

A British court has ruled that Chobani, the company leading the burgeoning Greek yogurt market in the U.S., cannot label its products “Greek” in the U.K. because they are made in America.

Chobani said Wednesday it was disappointed with the ruling, but added that “the fight is not over” and it would continue the legal battle.

The court case was brought by Chobani’s rival Fage, a Greek company, soon after New York-based Chobani launched their products in the U.K. in 2012. Fage has dominated sales of Greek yogurt in Britain under the “Total” brand for decades.

(The full version can be read here.)

On a related food product protection note, Nestle and Cadbury are locked in a separate IP case regarding whether the shape of a KitKat bar can be protected. It’s hard to imagine how four fingers of chocolate can be a trademark, and I haven’t yet read the details, but Bloomberg has a brief story outlining that intriguing case here.

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Immigrant: The dirtiest word in Britain?

Or perhaps it’s “benefits”, now that January 1 has come and gone, and Britain has experienced no deluge of Romanian and Bulgarian beggars, layabouts, thieves and gypsies whatsoever. Critics will say time will tell, and the EU migrant benefit tourism media story refuses to die. Anti-EU rhetoric is here to stay, it seems, though at least now it’s not just about Romanian and Bulgarian migrants.

In any case, here is a write-up of the political storm stirred up by fears of an eastern European migrant influx that was published in late December.

LONDON (AP) — They’re portrayed as pickpockets who will steal British jobs. There are predictions they will beg, the unruly young ones will stir up riots, and some will even try to sell babies.

For months, Britain’s tabloids have repeatedly warned of the horrors they believe will ensue after Jan. 1, when work restrictions will be lifted across the European Union for migrants from Romania and Bulgaria — two of the trading bloc’s newest members. Those changes, the papers claim, will unleash a mass exodus of the poor and unemployed from the two eastern European countries to Britain.

“In January, the only thing left will be the goat,” a Daily Mail headline proclaimed, referring to a remote Romanian village where, the paper claimed, everyone was preparing to move to Britain for the higher wages and generous welfare benefits.

“We’re importing a crime wave from Romania and Bulgaria,” another headline declared, quoting a Conservative lawmaker who told Parliament that most pickpockets on British streets hail from Romania.

The rest of the story is available here. 

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Mauritania, Haiti, Pakistan top new Global Slavery Index

Last month I did a brief story reporting the findings of a new Global Slavery Index, which ranks 162 countries by estimating the number of people in each nation affected by modern slavery practices including human trafficking, forced and bonded labour, forced and child marriages and the use of children in the military.

Essentially the ranking system was compiled first by looking at existing data sets from NGOs, official bodies including the UN, the US State Department and the International Labour Organization, and media reports. Where data is missing or insufficient, as is often the case, the researchers did some statistical guesswork and projected estimates.

According to the index, published by a new charity called the Walk Free Foundation, Mauritania, Haiti and Pakistan rank among the countries with the highest prevalence of modern slavery. In terms of proportion of the population affected Mauritania was the worst, with  many people inheriting slave status from their ancestors. But in absolute terms, India, China and Pakistan topped the list.

My report is available here, and if you’re interested in reading more about the report and its findings you can read many more details, infographics and the entire original report on the Walk Free Foundation website. 

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British marine convicted of murdering injured Afghan

A royal marine murdered an injured insurgent in Afghanistan by shooting him in the chest at close range, a British court martial board found last week. The conviction could hardly have been surprising to anyone: Video footage shown to the court captured the killing, as well as the marine telling his fellow soldiers to hush it up.

The board ruled that the commando, who can only be identified as Marine A for legal reasons, was guilty of killing the unnamed man in Helmand Province in September 2011.

Prosecutors said the incident took place after a military base in Helmand Province was attacked by two insurgents. A helicopter opened fire in response, and Marine A, together with two other British soldiers, then discovered the injured Afghan in a field. The three dragged the man to a sheltered area, where Marine A shot the Afghan in the chest with a 9 millimeter pistol, before quoting a phrase from Shakespeare as the man died before him, according to prosecutors.

To continue reading, the rest of the story (published last Friday) is here.

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In London, queen leads annual Remembrance Day tribute to war dead

Every year on the 11th hour of the Sunday closest to the 11th day of the 11th month, cities and towns up and down the UK and Commonwealth countries come together for a 2-minute silence to remember all those who have fallen in combat. In London’s Whitehall, the tribute is always led by the monarch, who solemnly lays down the first red poppy wreath at the foot of the Cenotaph war memorial, surrounded by thousands of silently standing veterans.

This was my second year reporting on Remembrance Sunday, this time sitting in the office watching the service unfold on live television. It doesn’t compare to being at the scene – my first time there, in 2011, is still a striking memory. I particularly remember a group of old ladies among the crowd, beautifully turned out in smart coats, berets and leather gloves, wiping away at stray tears as they clutched each other’s hands and sang wartime songs. Living in London I often feel that I’m living and breathing history, and that was one of the occasions when I felt the weight of history most keenly.

This year one of my friends, also from Hong Kong, saw the tribute for the first time and asked: “Don’t you think this is a bit like putting on a show?” Yes it is, and I think there’s no better cause for these military ceremonies that the Brits do so well. Long may this tradition continue, and may no one forget the terrors of war.

My Remembrance Day 2013 write up is here at the Washington Post.

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