The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds: A Tale Of Espionage, The Silk Road And The Rise Of Modern China (Counterpoint, May 2011, $30.00 Hardback) By Eric Enno Tamm
The Far East was rising–economically and militarily. In 1905, Japan defeated Russia in a war in Manchuria, a victory that shocked the world. In Europe and the United States, talk turned to the “Yellow Peril,” a growing menace in the East. Hawkish scribes were busily writing books of their own: The Coming Struggle in Eastern Asia, The Orient Versus the Occident and, most ominously, The War of the Civilisations.
The world of a century ago seems strangely familiar. (xix)
Tracing the unforgiving and ragged path traveled one century earlier by Baron Gustaf Mannerheim during his two-year, clandestine journey to investigate the last-gasp reforms of late Qing Dynasty China, Eric Enno Tamm’s The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds (Counterpoint, $30) is a sweeping journey through the patchwork quilt of cultures and contenting histories that is the gray area between Central and East Asia. Having been charged by Czar Nicholas II to secretly enter China and divine the military potential of the Qing shortly after Russia’s unexpected and humiliating defeat at the hands of the Japanese during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, Mannerheim’s journey was one that began with an image of an inscrutable and vast China and one that ultimately ended with a comprehensive chronicle of everything, from education reform to foreign investment, that would shape China’s interactions with the world as well as its modernization in the twilight of the Qing Dynasty.
Looking back at Mannerheim’s day, a point at which Russia’s defeat had sent shockwaves throughout the Western world, causing deep anxieties that laid the roots of the xenophobic idea of the “Yellow Peril,” author Eric Enno Tamm finds inspiration in Mark Twain’s quote that “history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” With a resurgent China now inspiring similar shockwaves to ripple through a Western world battered by economic crisis, recent books like China Rising, The Coming Chinese Century, and China Wakes have echoed titles from the early 20th century such as The Coming Struggle in Eastern Asia and The Orient Versus the Occident. Noting that what’s being said now about China is, in many ways, exactly what was said about the country 100 years ago, Tamm looks to retrace Mannerheim’s steps and see for himself whether China is truly shaking up the world, or if it is the world that is shaking up China.
As Tamm winds through the numerous and multifarious nations that make up Central Asia, and ultimately makes his way to–and winds his way through–China (having snuck into the country after being twice denied a visa, through a passport-related subterfuge), he takes his reader on a journey that is at times tense and other times pensive. As we see Tamm’s trip unfold and mirror that of Mannerheim, and we see common conceptions of China’s rise refracted through Mannerheim’s observations of the Qing, we not only begin to question our own understandings of China’s 30-year integration into the world and its wide-ranging effects, we also gain some insight into how China’s internalization of “the outside” is similar to–and very different from–the way it was a century ago.
By the time Tamm makes his way the terminus of his (and Mannerheim’s) two-year journey, Beijing, after spending months traveling through the confounding kaleidoscope that is modern China, he realizes, as Mannerheim realized, that the phenomenal speed of change makes understanding China something of an impossibility. As Mannherheim himself wrote in his memoirs, paraphrasing an Englishman (thought to be Sir Robert Hart) who had built a 30 year career in China, “After three weeks in China one is prepared to write a book about her, after three years an article, but when one has been here thirty years one realizes that one knows nothing.” However, as Tamm finds at the end of his labyrinthine and arduous trek, attempting to understand China, warts and all, is crucial if we are to see past the hyperbole that sells books but teaches us nothing and gain a deeper understanding of a diverse, rather than a monolithic, modern China.
The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds will be available online and in stores on May 17, 2011.