Ernst Cordes

Overall Rating: 6
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Author: Ernst Cordes
Title: Die Lotoslaterne. Erlebnisse in China. [The Lotus Lantern. Experiences in China.]
Time: 1930s
Destination: China
Length: several years
Type: stay

Old China Hand

[Note: I don’t think this book is out in English.]

The story: EC is a Chinese-born German (apparently the son of an official) who is living in China during the period of the Republic. It remains unclear what exactly he is doing there, but he is fluent in Mandarin, and he keeps quite a few contacts to the Chinese elite. He is what some call an “Old China Hand”. In this book, he travels to different regions, meets people from all walks of life, and shares his insights and reflections along with the voices of the individuals he talks to.

off for a good start

The text starts out with a very nice observation:

There are people who see only business opportunities in China. Others detect more than there really is. And yet others fail to notice anything that is true, beautiful and honest, and see only dirt and poverty, only misery and strange faces, at which they think they can turn up their noses. And then there are people who are categorically awestruck, who submissively worship everything, every piece of rubbish and every ruin, all the while failing to notice the bitter daily routine of the people, of the hundreds of millions of people of China.

After reading this, I basically assumed the rest was going to be awesome. But it turned out to be just alright.

Ernst Cordes making points individually, one at a time

EC lines up 16 individual chapters that each provide us with a sort of “snapshot” from China’s society as he sees it – the student, the intellectual, the banker, the “coolie”, the prostitute, and so on. He enriches these conversations with his own insights into the according cultural, socio-political and historical background. I found this enjoyable, but I would have liked to have at least a tiny bit of storyline to follow along.
The one issue I have is that even though some of EC’s conversations are quite interesting to read, a lot of them feel just a bit “on cue”, like he is desperately looking for someone to say certain things that might help get his point across. To me, this damages his credibility as an observer more than the occasional hint of racism (“The Chinese soul doesn’t have room for petty compassion.”) or the partly outdated background information he relies on.

read if you are into China

But anyway, the book is still alright. For one thing, EC has a generally sympathetic outlook on China, which is rather refreshing. And don’t forget he gives us a bit of insight into the Republic of China from the standpoint of a European who was actually there and who was fluent in Chinese.
If you’re too lazy to read all of it, make sure to read chapter 14 – there is a banker in it who offers a fascinating prediction about China’s future.
A 6/10.

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