Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Q&A with Adam Brookes


Photo by Sam Kittner



Adam Brookes is the author of the new book Fragile Cargo: The World War II Race to Save the Treasures of China's Forbidden City. His other books include the novel Night Heron. A former BBC Beijing correspondent, he lives in Washington, D.C.


Q: What inspired you to write Fragile Cargo?


A: Quite simply, I was astonished to find that the story of China's imperial art collections and their epic journey in WWII had not been given a proper treatment in English.


When I first heard of the story - more than 10 years ago now - I was struck by it, and surprised that I had never come across it before, even after many years of living in and reporting on China. A little digging revealed mentions of the story in English without detail, and a single chapter in a single book that attempted a telling.


I found, too, that a good deal of primary source material in Chinese had recently surfaced that enriched our understanding of the story immensely, but none of it had been translated or discussed in English.


It felt as if a wonderful compelling story had just sort of fallen into my lap in a way that happens only once or twice in a career, and perhaps I was reasonably well-placed to attempt it. 


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially intrigued you?


A: I hired a researcher in China to help me sort through published material there and in Taiwan. He helped me to figure out which sources were reliable, and to assemble the materials for the book. Some of the translations I did myself, some I commissioned from professionals.


I traveled to Taipei, Taiwan, three times to conduct interviews; I was able to speak to two surviving eyewitnesses to the story. Curators at the Palace Museum, Taipei, were enormously helpful and talked me through what they knew. I spoke to art historians and experts in ceramics in London and Washington, D.C.


What surprised me was that the more I looked at the story, the better it got. I expected to be left with large gaps in the narrative, or areas which were simply not clear - I thought I would have a lot of patching up to do in the writing.


But no, the central elements of the story were remarkably clear, well-sourced and illustrated with granular accounts and texture. I learned what the curators ate while they were on their journey, where they slept, their fear and preoccupations, their daily routines. The richness of the story was a real surprise.  


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of Fragile Cargo says, in part, “Brookes describes the objects in mesmerizing detail and vividly recounts the human toll of war.” What do you think of that description, and what do you think the book says about the role of art in wartime?


A: It was very much my intention to tell the story of the art against the wider canvas that was China's Second World War. This theater of WWII has been largely ignored and forgotten in the historiography of the war outside East Asia.


So I wanted to take the reader from the exquisite minutiae of a Chinese handscroll or a rare and fabulous glaze on porcelain, right the way out to the horror of incendiary bombs landing in cities of built of wood and plaster, or the shock and alienation of the wartime refugee.


It's been a function of the modern nation-state to cast its greatest artworks in the role of national symbol, and Republican China was no exception. The imperial collections' survival during Japan's invasion of China became a sort of embodiment of China's larger fight for survival.  


Q: On your website, you write that “China’s war is almost entirely absent from today’s English language depictions of the Second World War.” Why do you think that is?


A: I'm not sure, and I think it's complicated. On one level, Americans will always be more drawn to American stories of WWII, and that's entirely understandable. But that doesn't explain why China's WWII is so absent from the wider historiography.


If you go into a bookstore, the WWII history shelves are crammed with books dissecting every aspect of the war in Europe and the American battles of the Pacific, the Holocaust, Nazism; even the Soviet experience has correctly taken its place in the understanding of the war.


But on those shelves you'll find no mention of China - you have to go to the Asian history shelf way in back to find any account of the epoch-making events that took place in China.


It's as if we feel able to discard great reams of human experience as somehow not quite relevant. We seem to have reduced the war - in the popular understanding, at least - to a few highly polished narratives that center the anglophone experience - the Battle of Britain, Normandy, Guadalcanal, the A-bombs etc. - and discard all others.


Some 20 million Chinese people died in WWII; the war took place there on a monstrous scale and its geopolitical legacies are very much alive in the dangers and flashpoints that lurk in east Asian (in)security today: the Taiwan Strait, the Korean peninsula, the South China Sea.


In the US, China's experience in the war was diminished by American disgust at Chiang Kai-shek's defeat at the hands of the Communists. Chiang “lost” China, and that eclipsed his wartime role as an ally against Japan. Influential books like Barbara Tuchman's Sand Against the Wind sealed his position in the American mind for a long time.


Perhaps the post-war political climate in China rendered much wartime knowledge and experience invisible and inaudible: no one in Communist China was writing about their wartime experiences in the army of the Republic; that would be terribly risky. Mao's China sought to bury the war and to rebuild relations with Japan.


In recent years, much scholarly work has been done on recovering this history, and I think we are starting to build a stronger sense of what happened, but it has yet to spread to popular understandings of the war, which still focus on heavily Anglophone “Greatest Generation” - style takes.              


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm yet to settle on a new project, but I'd like to continue to focus on China and its wartime self, those extraordinary years of the Chinese Republic.


China didn't always look and feel the way it does today. It used to be a very outward-looking place, a place that underwent extraordinary, wrenching transformations in the early part of the 20th century. These stories form a remarkable strand of human experience, and I feel we should pay attention to them. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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