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Bernard Kwan "Bernard" (Hong Kong)

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Samurai
Samurai
by John Man
Edition: Paperback

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More Samurai than Saigo, 8 April 2011
This review is from: Samurai (Paperback)
Ostensibly this book is about Saigo Takamori, the samurai caste and his role in the events leading up to the Meiji Restoration and the modernization of Japan. Those familiar with John Man will be well aware of his many books on the Mongols, as well his style of popular history, where he weaves in his travel anecdotes into the story.

It is a little surprising to me why he would write about Japan, a country which he seems to know little about and whose language he does not speak, after his previous focus on the Mongols and China. The writing is less sure than his other books, and it is obvious he leans heavily on his translator Michiko in the book, as well as a wealth of secondary sources. Another mystery is why he would choose to write this book only a few years after the definitive biography of Saigo in English by Mark Ravina, whom he quotes liberally from.

The first quarter to a third of the book seems to be the usual foreigner's fare about Japan, comparisons of the Samurai to the Jedi in Star Wars, to other honor systems, Geishas' blackened teeth, titillation about the homosexual relationships between Samurai and honor systems. And because he is not able to access primary sources in Japanese he is always writing through the experiences of foreigners in Japan and their viewpoint. This may have been written in order to make the book more interesting to a larger audience, as is the cover design.

However he becomes more surefooted as he starts to delve into Saigo's life and has presented an easily digestible version of the events that led to the Meiji restoration and makes a nice introduction to that important period for those who are daunted by more academic texts (such as Donald Richie's Emperor Meiji or Marius Hansen's History of Modern Japan). Some of the writing is quite speculative, due to a lack of sources, and he does his best to understand Saigo's frame of mind with mixed results. He does a better job than most of introducing the Japanese protagonists in such a way that one is not overwhelmed by the various Japanese names (and each protagonist sometimes has more than one name).

I found this a worthwhile read, perhaps as holiday reading or on a plane, but ultimately I was hungry for more. The contemporary descriptions of Kagoshima and the Okinawan islands did make me want to visit in person. But this was less successful than his other books, but perhaps worth keeping on kindle. I won't keep this on my bookshelf as a must have reference book but am glad I read it.


Turning Silk: A Diary of Chen Taiji Practice, the Quan of Change
Turning Silk: A Diary of Chen Taiji Practice, the Quan of Change
by Kinthissa
Edition: Paperback

6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Strengths and Weaknesses, 17 Feb. 2010
Kinthissa is Burmese and born and grew up in Rangoon in 1952 towards the end of the colonial era. However she has then spent most of the rest of her life in the West. She began her study with Gerda Geddes in the Yang style in the UK, who had a background in modern dance, and if we read between the lines her study of Yang style was heavily influenced by both an emphasis on "beautiful movement" and a therapeutic slant which was prevalent in the 1970s. While the practice of Yang style left her with a calm, fluid practice there were times towards when it felt that she was going through the motions, doing something which she knew was good for her and became somewhat of a chore. Thus throughout the book, there is an implicit critique of the Yang style as being somewhat empty, and missing the key internal Qi practice that Chen style has, which is really what Taichi is about, rather than the external movement. She even stopped practicing the Yang 108 form to concentrate on her Chen practice.

The strength of these descriptions is that it captures very well the frustration of many practitioners in the west who sign up with a teacher who emphasizes the form without the substance, and neglect the roots of Taichi in its martial aspect and try to overlay issues of therapy and other concerns on top of it. However sometimes she lets this slip into a critique of of Yang style itself, which does the Yang style a grave diservice.

The strength of the book lies in her descriptions of the experience of learning Chen Taichi, Zhan Zhuang and Chansigong and being adjusted by CXW and her feelings on the inside as she is adjusted. Also of importance are her descriptions of how to open up the various meridiens and the long strenous practice and the internal change that is engendered through long periods of practice, spanning years and the movement from gross to subtle adjustments. The photos are also very helpful and are something that you do not see in other martial arts books, which are postures that are not perfect and highlight certain imbalances in the bodies structure. Most books show perfect posture, which are both unattainable for the beginner and do not illustrate what is going on internally. It is inispirational for any Taichi practitioner who is struggling along the path so see how one has gone before.

If she had left it at this level I think the book would have been stronger for it, however the layout of the book is similar to the form of diary or a blog with individual passages with certain stream of consciousness topics on different days. There are long digressions into the changing of the seasons and her time in Lunigiana in Italy and quotations in Italian and German (Schoenberg), which feel highly foreign to the practice of Taichi which is a product of Chinese culture. And this is not a problem with the location so much as Kinthissa's treatment of it, for Liza Dalby succeeds admirably in the East Wind Melts the Ice in blending her experiences in California with her experiences in Japan.

Kinthissa has a background in Asian art and philosophy and also is Asian herself as she states in her book. And she tries mightily to incorporate Chinese philosophy into her book also, with liberal sprinklings of Laozi and Zhuangzi. However, unlike Liza Dalby, one does not feel that she has lived and breathed and really understood the philosophy and the culture, it feels very much like she is an outsider looking in, and admiring the culture as one would admire a foreign work of art. Perhaps this is the difference between studying the culture at Vassar and SOAS, rather than living and breathing it living as a Geisha in Kyoto. Many of the translations she uses feel dated (Arthur Waley), and esoteric, and still coloured by some of the "New Age" baggage that may have been acquired when she started learning in the 1970s. One example is that she uses the word "daemonical" to translate the concept of Shen (or spirit). Perhaps this is also a fuction of her upbringing as asking a Burmese to explain Chinese culture is similar to asking a Rumanian, who spent most of her life in Latin America and studied Dickens at Unversity to explain English culture.

However for all its flaws, the book should be read on its own terms and in many ways is a very beautiful book about a Taichi journey with many many valuable training tips buried in each section, for one who has the eye and patience to look.


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