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Travelling Back in Time

Kishan S. Rana

By Julia Boyd
Tauris, New York, New York, U.S., 2012, pp. xxiii 263, price not stated.


This evocative book takes us back through a time-machine, into the world in which the expatriate community, mainly western, lived in the quintessentially Chinese Peking in the early 20th century, immediately following the 1900 Boxer Uprising, right up to the 1949 triumph of the Communist regime and China’s Liberation. It provides a neat counterpoint to the flood of recent writing on China, showing us through the eyes of foreign residents the real distance the country has traversed. We see in such an account the tribulations suffered by the Chinese people at the hands of multiple, competing colonizing powers, often working with the country’s indigenous warlords. The book illustrates the point that modern China makes, that this experience was many times worse than what transpired in countries that came under the rule of a single colonial power.   Such historical analysis may be seen as a variant of subaltern history, where powerful events viewed through the optic of privileged and yet ordinary people, and the way great events affected their lives. The book covers China’s transition from an imperial system of the period before 1900, to the takeover by the Communist regime in 1949; this traverses the convoluted period of history that was led by the first republican revolutionaries, and then a succession of warlords, collaborating with Japanese imperialists. These events are captured through the letters, diaries and personal narratives of the small but watchful foreign community that made its home in Peking. The work is original and the product of meticulous and long-drawn study. Much primary research has gone into this work, marshalling of ancient memories of the few that have survived from that era, besides culling through the scattered troves of diaries and correspondence of those early luminaries.   The book opens with a description of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, and the travails of the besieged foreign community, mainly connected with the 11 foreign legations in Peking. The multinational relief contingent that was mobilized for their rescue included British Indian troops, from the regiments of Sikhs and Rajputs; Bikaner’s Ganga Risala joined them—alas without their camel mounts—led by the 20-year old Maharaja Ganga Singh (who was to play a leading role in the Chamber of Princes in the 1930s). ‘…Some thought them cruel and not up to scratch, while others considered them among the bravest soldiers in the world’. The lifting of the siege was a relative anti-climax, and was followed ...

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