Books

'The Horse That Leaps Through Cloud' Documents China's Silk Road, Faded and Unraveling

The various threads of Eric Enno Tamm's journey converge and he offers as lucid an insight into China’s malaise as any foreigner could be expected to provide.


The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds: A Tale of Espionage, the Silk Road and the Rise of Modern China

Publisher: Counterpoint
Price: $30.00
Author: Eric Enno Tamm
Length: 496 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-07
Website
Author website
Amazon

If nothing else, Eric Enno Tamm deserves top marks for ambition. The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds -- a cumbersome title -- was the Chinese name given to Baron Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, a native Finn and the last tsarist spy in the Great Game. Tamm attempts to link Mannerheim’s journey along the Silk Road in the early 20th century with his own 100 years later. The resulting book, part-travelogue and part-biography with rigorous social historical analysis, demands perseverance, and rewards it.

So on what level does Tamm succeed? His accounts of the myriad environments he encounters are meticulously detailed but not particularly emotive. Much of this is epiphenomenal. Once the Silk Road bustled, but China has endured two revolutions since its halcyon days. Today, main streets in poor towns are dotted with cheap hotels; the cities are huge, modern and faceless. Tamm often delves into Mannerheim’s journal as comparison, revealing a decay his own account can only suggest. The romance of the Silk Road has given way to the cynical conformity of communist China.

Elsewhere, Tamm’s observations are not so far from Mannerheim’s. At several points in the journey there is a sense that ethnic conflict is barely contained. The Muslim Uyghur’s in China’s western provinces and Mongolians in the north both have legitimate grievances. Subject to ignorance from the authorities, they are also prey to Christian missionaries. Mannerheim’s brief was to gather information of political and military import. But his observations have done little to improve the social standing of China’s ethnic minorities. The far more familiar plight of Tibetans is usurped as Tamm experiences similar hostility to Mannerheim.

Another similarity between the two journeys is a lack of companionship. During the first leg of his journey, from St. Petersburg through the ex-Soviet states Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, Tamm is warmly received. But the Chinese are less interested in his journey or even his presence. Kasim, a Uyghur driver with whom Tamm spends a large part of his journey, is “reticent”. Mannerheim is similarly incompatible with his longest-serving companion, the French scholar Paul Pelliot, one of the leading Sinologists of the 20th century.

Tamm’s interaction with those he meets is limited. As a result, there's little insight into the author’s personality; a problem he faced with the ancillary character. “I had hoped that Mannerheim would become my travelling companion. By reading his journal and following in his footsteps, I hoped to share common experiences and perhaps bond with the Baron. Yet from his youth, Mannerheim was obsessively private.”

It's left to Tamm’s discerning historical analysis to leave a lasting impact. The China of Mannerheim’s trek is vastly different to today’s economic powerhouse. On the cusp of revolution, debates about political reform, technological progress and educational philosophy masked frailties. Today, China’s next step is just as ambiguous. Is democracy achievable? Can China sustain its remarkable economic growth? Can it reconcile ancient values with modern practices? What exactly is the Communist Party aiming for? Ominously, Tamm feels that, “cynicism has replaced Communism as the belief system that drives Party membership. Most young people who join the party are careerists, not idealists”.

In a marvellous final chapter, Tamm reaches Beijing and collects his thoughts. The various threads of his journey converge and Tamm offers as lucid an insight into China’s malaise as any foreigner could be expected to provide. At times, it appears as though his narrative may unravel at any moment. But, not unlike the fine fabric which gave Mannerheim’s route its name, it is stronger than it appears to be at first glance.

7

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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