Leung Man-tao’s Thousand and One Nights Video Series on YouTube

I recently came across a fun Chinese-language literature program on YouTube. This is a good video series for advanced students of Chinese could watch there. Not overly fast, very standard Mandarin as you might expect from a presenter who has worked for Phoenix TV Hong Kong. Subtitles too.

The one I saw was a 2016 episode from an ongoing video series entitled 1001 Nights, this episode discusses Shakespeare and King Lear. 一千零一夜 第九十一夜:李尔王(一) The presenter, Leung Man-tao 梁文道 is from Hong Kong a fine bi-cultural/multicultural crossroads for a program that explores culture, literature and history in China and elsewhere. On The Paper Republic Chinese Literature in Translation website I found a blurb about Leung Man-tao:

“Informed by his dual identity as Chinese citizen and Hong Kong resident, Leung remains rooted in the cosmopolitanism of the latter, while possessing an intimate understanding of events and conditions on the mainland. While Leung’s Hong Kong origins have provided a convenient excuse for his many mainland critics to dismiss his writings out of hand, they also make his writing all the more accessible to foreign readers unaccustomed to the excessively circumspect style of traditional Chinese non-fiction.”

As he discusses literature and Shakespeare, Leung is on a crowded Beijing subway train and then a long sidewalk along a Beijing street at night — perhaps to refer to Shakespeare writing for the average person of his time. An intriguing ambiance.

One amusing aside in Leung’s introduction to Shakespeare tells Chinese why they should care about Shakespeare! “Xi Jinping was fascinated by Shakespeare when he read him after being sent down to the countryside in Shaanxi Province. Xi said that he learned a lot about human relationships through his reading of Shakespeare. We too should learn from Xi Jinping and study Shakespeare!”

In the next episode I watched, Leung Man-tao discussed mid-nineteenth century Kyoto, the political ferment among the samurai warrior-intellectual class as the old political order was in terminal decline. As many wanted a restoration of the mythical god-emperor order, Kyoto became steadily more important as a cultural and political meeting place — and the political encounters not infrequently ended in assassination. Leung’s discussion centers around the pre-Meiji Restoration important political thinker (and very low ranking samurai) Sakamoto Ryōma  坂本龙马 . Would there just be endless wars and slaughter?

Leung tells us that Sakamoto called for an end to assassinations [earlier the Wiki bio notes that he was peripherally involved in one such plot but changed his mind later] and a political consultative system that would tie together the whole country. Though he couldn’t boast of being a scholar (though he was an excellent Kendo sportsman) people listened. Nonetheless, he was martyred by one of the very many assassins all around in Japan at that time at the age of thirty-one.

Sakamoto may have been the first Japanese to promote republican ideals (he was a great admirer of George Washington) and human rights in government although, Leung adds, he couldn’t push it too far since he could easily be assassinated by one of the many proponents of restoring the mythical god-emperor system. Sakamoto had a very engaging personality and his constant travel all over Japan made him a great missionary for progressive political ideals.

Leung said that Sakamoto Ryoma was not much appreciated in prewar Japan but is now thanks in large part to the writer of historical novels 司馬遼太郎 Shiba Ryōtarō. Leung explained how that Shiba has had a great influence on contemporary Japanese understanding of Japanese history. Shiba was inspired by the great ancient Chinese historian Sima Qian and so took Sima as the first part of his penname, adding 遼 ‘faraway’ to signify that he was far from being Sima Qian’s equal, and the typical Japanese personal name Taro to signal that he was Japanese. Leung pointed out that Shiba, modeling himself on Sima Qian, was much more willing to make moral judgments about historical figures than are contemporary Japanese historians.

Shiba Ryotaro’s book on Sakamoto Ryoma 竜馬がゆく [Ryoma Goes His Way], the first volume (of eight) was translated into English last year — Ryōtarō Shiba’s ‘RYOMA!’ Translated into English” and is available in an electronic edition. I have been considering getting it to practice my once fairly good (30 years ago) but now rusty Japanese. Maybe later — a reader comment on Amazon Japan noted that Shiba’s historical novel has many 19th century Japanese language expressions that can make it hard going at times but rating it as a superb book.

In Japan more than in other countries, said Leung, a strong academic tradition in history leads to narrow focus and unwillingness to discuss the significance of historical figures, leaving the field open to the historical novelist Shiba. [Not sure about that point myself. During my book shop prowling in Japan, I got that expert academics were more likely to write high-level yet appealing popular books for laypeople that than their US counterparts. One Tokyo University professor told me thirty years ago that academic salaries are not high but publishers offer good fees for publishing books. “My publisher put me in a hotel for two weeks and told me to write!” he said.

There is always the question of the novelist and the amateur historian vs. the professional. I remember hearing my history professors in college complaining about the ideas some of their students got from popular writers (Barbara Tuchman and James Michener were among the names mentioned as I recall). Stimulating anyways and helps one think more broadly…and writing a blog post helps to think about what I think about it! There is quite a lot out there on Shiba’s influence on popular understanding of Japanese history, much of it laudatory:

Shiba Ryōtarō shows that the Japanese state kept falling over and over again into the same pattern of errors.…

The the habits and tastes of a nation don’t change so much in the space of just one hundred or two hundred years.

If so, it is very important that we, who lived in the 21st century, prepare as their own mirror, looking at the Japanese history and Japanese of the 20th century, as Japanese who live in the 21st century. I must have written a work hoping for it. The work on the history of Japan and the Japanese history up to the twentieth century that Shiba Ryōtarō produced is important for us to stare into it as we hold it up as a mirror to our 21st century Japanese selves. This is probably when Shima Ryōtarō meant when he wrote his books. “

The Chinese language Wiki bio of Leung Man-tao noted that he signed (along with Liu Xiaobo and many others) the Charter 08 declaration calling for real democracy in China. 

Wiki: Shiba Ryotaro

Wiki: Sakamoto Ryoma

Leung’s Thousand and One Nights literary/historical/cultural program has many episodes on the program’s YouTube page. 

Many episodes of A Thousand and One Nights are available on YouTube. I look forward to watching more of them! See the complete list as of mid 2019.

Leung Man-tao’s February 2020 commentary at the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic leads me to suspect that this program may no longer be in production. You can read “Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes” online.

About 高大伟 David Cowhig

After retirement translated, with wife Jessie, Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and have been studying things 格物致知. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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