My brother-in-law got me six of Stoddard's books for Christmas. My first impression was, Wow! Old books! And old leather too! I have to say something...moreMy brother-in-law got me six of Stoddard's books for Christmas. My first impression was, Wow! Old books! And old leather too! I have to say something about the leather binding itself before I tell you why I adored this reading so much. These books are in *soft* leather, not the rock hard leather coverings we find at the local bookstores today. These books are softer, able to bend slightly forward and back in the likeness of a softcover book. I have to tell you, these books felt really, really good in my hands! And the leather binding has certainly held up remarkably well for over a century. Oh and I wasn't the only one who loved the feel of that lax leather binding either. I showed the book to a few of my friends and the moment they touched it they remarked on the same thing - they, too, loved the feel of the way the leather binding sort of gave in their hands. I don't mean to go on and on about the way an unopened book, of all things, feels but, seriously, I don't recall ever holding a book before that felt that wonderful. I'm just relieved I wasn't the only one.
Okay, moving on to what's *inside* this feel good book:
Normally I don't believe in writing a book blurb because even when told in one's own words, it's repetitious of the already existing one. However, this antique gem does not have one so I will tell you. Around the turn of the (20th) century, Stoddard traveled the world and wrote about his travels, sites, adventures and most importantly, the customs of the countries. He wrote 15 books in all on his travels, each book devoted to at least one country, sometimes two. That they are titled "Lectures" is a great injustice to what's inside. I don't know about you but when I see a book with lecture in the title, it brings to mind a dry textbook-like read. Boy was I pleasantly surprised!
After years of being a "one book woman" kind of girl, I decided to experiment with the art of two-timing...two-timing books, that is: Take one book with me to work and keep another one home. (Get it? Ideally there would be no awkward moments where the two books would be in the same room together.) Stoddard's book was my "at home" book and fresh from reading Amy Tan's "The Kitchen God's Wife", where the vast majority of its story was set in China during WWII, I figured it would be an ideal time to try Stoddard's lecture on Japan and China. That way I could go even deeper in learning about the Chinese culture, customs and sites.
The first two-thirds of the book was devoted to Japan (Japan was in two lectures; China, only one). The closest I am able to come to having an "issue" with this read was that the Japanese coastline wasn't even seen until page 23. Prior to that, he started in Vancouver, Canada for his voyage,then he summarized his journey by ship to Japan. He did mention a nasty storm that took over during this time (this was approximately 10 years before Titanic, so I'm not exactly sure how small this "ship" was but according to the illustration and photograph, "The Empress Of Japan" had only two smokestacks) and he described it as hell. But finally, from page 23 and onwards, I was treated to page after page of fascinating people and customs of the Orient. Oh and by the way, there are photos and illustrations on every single page so at least those first 23 pages pass by quickly.
Trust me, reading this book will make you feel as though you are walking alongside Stoddard in another time, experiencing the ways of life in other lands that are so different from our own. A part of me felt a sense of sadness as well, partly because of the beautiful and ancient sites (even in 1902, they were ancient) he described so well and included pictures of what he was looking at, I couldn't help but wonder if they survived WWII - and partly because I know how much Japan has grown since 1902, how modern they are today, how they have adopted so much of the Western culture as their own, a lot of these old ways have disappeared. And perhaps some of these shrines have fallen to decay and/or neglect. I don't know about you, whoever you are that's reading this, but I can speak for myself when I say that the reason that I love learning about other people's cultures so much is entirely due to the fascinating differences between us and them. It's about what a differing community does with the very same life that has been given to all of us and their manner of interpreting that life from an entirely different perspective. Of course I'm all in favor of every life progressing for the better. I just prefer that they hold fast to that part of them that makes them so unique as they do so because in my opinion, what makes our world so beautiful and interesting are our NOT our similarities, but our differences! I will go to my grave saying that.
I think the greatest strength where this book is concerned is, like I said earlier, that Stoddard writes in such a way that you feel you are journeying beside him. He thoroughly captured the feeling of walking through Japan and China a century ago, experiencing for the first time, things like the "jinrikisha", the "kago", and "obis". He reports on these things and others as if seeing them for the very first time and goes to great lengths in describing them. (As well as plenty of photos and/or illustrations.) When he described the jinrikisha, for example, and accompanied it with a photograph, I laughed out loud. So many of the things he describes, we have all grown up knowing about them, at least; we simply may not have known what they were called. Then I thought about it. This was a time before television, cartoons, "talkies", even! I, as well as anyone else who has never been to Japan have always "known of" these things entirely due to TV. So once that thought dawned on me, I realized Stoddard was very likely addressing an audience that would have no way of knowing of such contraptions, unless, of course, they visited Japan, too. With that thought dawning on me, it certainly heightened my reading experience, like I was learning TWO cultures simultaneously: the old Orient and also the cultures and customs of a century ago.
Just to clarify, I actually finished reading this book a week earlier than the date says. But I found so much in this book that was share-worthy that I felt a huge obligation to go back to the beginning and quote some of my favorite parts. If you're interested in a little "preview" of how this book reads, you need only check the countless status updates and also follow through under my comments, where there wasn't enough room for statuses and so I continued in the first six comments. They are all direct quotes from the book itself with little [asides in brackets that are mine]. I cannot stress enough what a great addition Stoddard's books will make to your library if you can ever find these books. Especially for anyone who finds history and/or culture as fascinating as I do; for you, especially, it will be absolutely priceless!
I stopped quoting the book (except for ONE part towards the end) when Stoddard left Japan for China. He loved Japan as much as he hated China. In fact, at the very end, as he was leaving China, (he never used the "hate" word exactly) he admitted he was relieved to be gone. I understand, considering how more than once, he was faced with danger. However, I must say that I can see why the citizens of China would have angst toward "the foriegn devils". Overall, I'm referring to China's war with England in 1841. That piece of history covered three pages in this book. Now, China refers to that as The Opium War. From China's perspective, told to Stoddard: England, which would not allow opium in its own country, decided to push massive bulks of it onto China and make it a major trade route (*force* a country into selling opium - WHAT??!) Well, the Chinese commission was understandably outraged at such a notion and wanted no such poison in its own country, either, but England was determined to force it on China nonetheless. So, China pulled a Boston Tea Party, seized "twenty-one thousand" chests of opium and threw it all into the river (killing scores of fish in the process, no doubt!) England retaliated with war, won the war and China was forced to pay England "twenty-one million" and give up Hong-Kong and open five new ports for trade. To my English "cousins", I still love you guys, but to your ancestors I have to use my modern tongue and say: You Wrong For That!
Now, with that "Opium War" history being so recent at the time, knowing there were people still around at then who would have remembered what went down and more importantly, *why* it went down, wouldn't you behave sourly to outsiders? Can you really blame them for referring to them as "foreign devils"? I know I would feel distrustful of outsiders if I were in their shoes. Unfortunately, this angst did not give Stoddard a very good impression of China.
Of course, not all of his negative impressions could be blamed entirely on the results of the Opium War. For example, there was one custom he explained that made my flesh crawl and once again, feel grateful that I was born in USA. I am referring now to stunting the Chinese girl's feet to the point where, by the time she has reached womanhood, her feet look more like hooves than human feet. It is a long and painful process that begins when she is only six years old, binding the toes and bringing them further and further back over time with the goal of the toes meeting the heels. The feet break over and over again as she matures to the point where it stunts growth. When the feet are bare...you should just see the photographs and illustrations! They are painful just to look at! There's a permanent swelling at the top of the foot and a very marked crease from the arch to the ankle. To my understanding, this custom has gone, or is going extinct. To that, I say thank God! Because this is NOT the "unique and beautiful differences" I was referring to earlier. This is a custom I can certainly live without.
Stoddard also referred to the severe over-crowding. He had my sympathy there, because large crowds freak me out, too. Yet at the same time, I couldn't help but wonder what he would have said had he lived to see the way China would work later to control its population.
He also mentioned how every single grave (even more graves than its vast population, naturally) was sacred and that the Chinamen refuse to have even one grave of their ancestors' disturbed, even if relocating the graves would benefit the living. Stoddard swore that it was for this reason - their worship of the dead over the living - was the reason China could not make any progress, or at least better its people: Too much land devoted to the dead with not enough to go around for the living.
This book was 336 pages long. I know that between everything I shared and this review (the longest review I have ever written in my entire life!) I may have given the impression that I shared practically everything in it. Not so! Believe me, I shared only the highlights. Between this review and all the quotes I've shared (and if you read only ONE of my quotes, I strongly recommend you read comment #6: China's impression of the European culture. If you've ever wondered if other cultures may find ours as strange/taboo as we do theirs, comment #6 is your chance to see ourselves through China's eyes and also have a great laugh in the process!) I hope I have encouraged someone out there to be on the look-out for Stoddard's Lectures. Believe me, you won't regret adding these books to your library. But be forewarned, I only own six of these books. There are 15 in all, so there are nine more I am trying desperately to find. Woe to you if I find them first - for I fully intend to snatch them up!