‘Kukai the Universal’, Ryotaro Shiba

Kūkai was born in 774 in Sanuki Province, which faced the central provinces with the easternmost part of the Seto Inland Sea in between. Visitors to what used to be Sanuki Province (present-day Kagawa Prefecture) will surely find their eyes drawn to conical green hills dotted on the spacious plains usually crowned with a bright broad canopy of sea-lit skies that often turn into a grand stage for ever-changing clouds. An attractive setting like this might be a fine cradle for a child dreamer.

I recently managed to finish the most excellent book on the life of Kūkai, or O-Daishi-san. And then I went to Goodreads, and I saw that the score of the book was 2.80. That was based on 5 rankings (which in itself shows that the rankings and scores are quite useless unless you know what you have to check) but I also saw the comments there.

What astonished me (or, rather, amused me, I have to say) was that their main complaint was going into the book and expecting to find something. What they found was thoroughly different, and they didn’t like it. For me, when I went into the book I expected to find one of the finest novels I had seen with more historical truth than most any other novel I had read (for, if I have to bring an example, if Mr Sienkiewicz illustrates without reservation then Mr Shiba would say that he illustrates said point). My only question was that if even the translation was as readable, then what brilliance would the original be!

But to address those comments there, as I feel I have to do…

  • We start out with a notion that Mr Shiba writes historical novels, and then the next part of the same sentence makes me think that this person has not read a single historical novel. Authors as varied as Bernard Cornwell to Stepehen Saylor to whoever really — as long as they write historical novels, they are writing fiction. It is not a secret, so one should not really be surprised if everything does not match “real” history 100%.
  • But… Real history at 100%? How could we possibly even do that for a person who lived for more than sixty years and twelve centuries ago? Could we compile one with no factual information about a person who died yesterday after sixty-two years of life? I doubt that very much.
  • Likewise, it seems interesting that people are reluctant to think that people in the past may have had their faults. Mind you, none of what is said in the book is an actual fault if just an aspect of the characteristic — but I would ascribe that to the Western upbringing and civilizational thought apparent in that sentence — as soon as someone is not entirely pure, say lived five centuries on air and wheat and having actually lived a day, then something is wrong and that person could possibly not be a “saint”.
  • Translations are not meant to be synonymous. I actually took up a bit of looking into the term abhisheka after seeing that comment, and I find nothing particularly wrong with the use of baptism as the translator has done. Sure, it is not ideal — but for what it is, namely, a rite of passage, baptism into _____ suits the purpose of the book perfectly. There could potentially be better words, but in no way was this a damaging translational error.

For the second comment, which looks even more comical to my eyes, I would respond thus:

  • I highly do not believe the comment that he learned nothing new about Kūkai after reading this book. Due to the wide and varied range of sources as well as scope that is drawn upon by Mr Shiba, I simply think that this is a gross misconception on the commentators part.
  • Nor could I ever say that a book written like this one was dry and uninspirational… We see poetry by the Tang officials Kūkai met in China, we hear of the multicultural nature of Chang’an, and the difficulties of sea travel. There are anecdotes and legends put into the story, and retellings of events from Mr Shiba’s travels on Kūkai’s trail. I would hardly say that this all together makes for a “dry” story… “Uninspirational” is probably up as much to the reader as to anyone else — I found the entire biography most enlightening and uplifting!
  • Nowhere did anything about this book actually say that it was going to delve into Kūkai’s influence in Japan. So it didn’t. I find hard to put grievance to the book for something it didn’t say it would do — plus, if you can read between the lines then you can see why people would admire the monk as they did. Maybe it is harder to see why that has remained the same for twelve centuries, but quite probably that comes down to a difference in the Western-Eastern philosophic outlooks as anything else.
  • Again, the book didn’t say that it would be an introduction into Shingon. It was supposed to be a story of Kūkai’s life, and Kūkai did far more than found Shingon.
  • In general, I find most biographies as chronological re-tellings of facts, but that might just be me. One notable exception that I am working my way through is a take on von Bismarck, but even that bases itself very much in time — the difference is made by having people tell the story and the facts have less of a role. The second part of the last sentence comes back to my original point — any facts about someone who lived twelve centuries ago would be difficult to confirm so that there is no doubt in it. For what it is, I believe that most of what is definite is in this book — and we also have a smaller range of legends and stories of mythical origin put in to display the character of the man whose biography we are reading…

This would be my answer to those two distasteful comments — I would say that people should read this book to see how a biography can be written without concerning itself only with the one person but also the times, and how to explain to an unfamiliar audience the complexity of a society nearly fourteen centuries older in its origins (and outlook to life) than our modern 21st century’s globalized (Western) civilization.

To finish, I believe once more a quote:

Jichie took great pains in sending a letter to Qinglong-si temple in Chang’an, China, informing them of his master’s death. This sort of thing had never been done before or since …
… As for his death that occurred “in late spring in 835,”, Jichie wrote:
“The wood has run out, and the fire has died. It was in his sixty-second year…. What grief we have to bear!….”

On receiving this letter, the whole of Qinglong-si temple in Chang’an was struck into silence and everyone, dressed in white, mourned the death of their revered priest.

The Sword

I was surprised to find, when visiting the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, that they had the sword of a most extraordinary person there. Not extraordinary based on achievements accomplished, mind you, for I had never heard of said person before, but based on me never expecting to find anything remotely like that in that museum.

The sword in question was the property of Vice Admiral Ruitaro Fujita. As far as I can see, the most interesting thing he achieved was the signing of the surrender of Japanese forces in South-East Asia (or some part thereof) but the story of the sword continues.

Where did it come from? And, how did it get to the museum?

Now, it would be an acceptable explanation that with the surrender the Admiral also passed on his sword to the opposing commander as done by other surrendering generals/admirals on the Japanese side.

However, the note under the sword said “Rear Admiral Ruitaro Fujita”. It might have added the year 1942 as well, but I am not that confident whether that was actually written down or has just been added by my memory.

Ruitaro Fujita was promoted to Vice Admiral in 1943 — if it was the sword given by him to the Allied forces at surrender, it would have surely been signed to the Vice Admiral. I quite refuse to believe that the museum staff made such a mistake, though I guess anything is possible.

But leaving that aside — if that is not the explanation (an error in the underwriting by going for “Rear Admiral” and the sword given over at the surrender) then what is it? Could it be that the Rear Admiral lost his sword on one fine day in 1942…

I wish I had asked one of the staff there, but I had no idea there was such a (hidden) story behind the item.

‘Hannibal’, N. Fields

I’ve recently come to read two of the Osprey Command series books (first on the Admiral, Yamamoto Isoroku, and now the Carthaginian general, Hannibal Barca), and I have had to completely reevaluate my opinion of what the series was originally for. Not as much a concise biography that does not really achieve much, they rather provide a story of how the person got into the position of command, and then provide a review of the tactical situations he was presented with. Indeed, I find this a very valid way of assessing a military commander when compared to a massive tome on the person. Of course, there are plenty of things that those tomes mention that these shorter books do not, but I find the amount of information to be still quite large.

The book on Hannibal was indeed quite good — and partly forced me to change my opinion of the man. While a general of admirable qualities, I believed him to be a bit… ‘worse’, all along. And I now think far less of the victory at Cannae compared to the one achieved at Trasimene.

Overall, I enjoyed the flow of this book far more than I expected it would — it is very easy to make a history book read ‘slow’ and thereby make it somewhat cumbersome. Indeed, Osprey, based on my experience, has mostly avoided this, and it was quite nice to see them continue to do so.

Also, two things of note:

  • bârâq, or the origin of the name of Barca, has the meaning ‘thunderbolt’
  • daimónios would translate to ‘marvelously’, or a variation thereof

Not to mention the fact that apparently the word of Trasimene was passed to the people of Rome with the phrase “We have been beaten in a great battle.”

Histories of the World

Recently, there has been quite a bit of general conversation about on history, and especially on histories of the world.

I, speaking on the most basic level, am quite against any attempt to put together a history of the world. The most basic reason for this is that no matter how it is done, a large portion of what should be in it will be left out. (And, in all likelihood, a lot of what won’t be necessary to include will be included).

I guess I’ll just have to take a look and see what Mr Andrew Marr has built with his new show. But, until that time I can throw a few ideas of my own around…

Say, what I would most certainly not include.

That is by itself a very difficult question to answer since first it would be necessary to decide on a balance between culture and politics. I would probably aim for a more political-military approach because that is the one I personally prefer. Even so, I would probably cut out a large part that usually concerns itself with Napoleon and Alexander. Mind you, I am not saying that is not an important area but I find that far often Alexander is covered in reasonable detail and no mention is made of his successors. [Indeed, the fact that I don’t have to specify even Alexander of Macedon or Alexander III, expecting people to realize, is a sufficient example of how well-known he is.] I find that the Diadochi who came after are a far more worthy subject of discussion in detail, especially considering them determining the fate of the region for the next few hundred years.

Why get rid of Napoleon? Again, maybe just crop him… but thoroughly. With respect to him two less mentioned things which are of greater importance would be the selling of Louisiana and the Congress of Vienna. Overall, all of his military victories combined only to make for one large defeat — so that would be noteworthy, but very much dependent on how much space and time there is to attribute to cases.

Anything else that comes to mind immediately?

Probably the idea of trying to explain the way Southern Africa developed would be a reasonable idea due to it being an often ignored part of the world.

Less time in medieval Europe, more in the Asian lands. Discussing the actual role of companies such as the East India Company (Dutch/British/Portuguese) in colonizing new lands. How Southern America developed and splintered. The failure of the Ottoman Empire. Existence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (oh yes it does annoy me how often this is overlooked and marginalized or simply mentioned as an introductory sentence to the partitionings of Poland).

Probably a decision would also have to be made with the political-military approach whether to take up random stories or related to certain people, and how to introduce things from there. I would think the people based approach is the one I’d prefer to use, very much because of the ability to then introduce relatively little known figures like Alcibiades or Vauban or any number of people most history-people can name in instants. Suvorov. Yep, just proved the case once again…

‘Map of a Nation’, R. Hewitt

“Many Hanoverian officers and soldiers turned to drink while working in north and west Scotland, and the Chief Engineer there was forced to apologise to the Board of Ordnance for the ‘scandalous Scrawl and form’ of one of his underlings’ reports, commenting with wry displeasure that ‘I fancy he has consulted the Dram bottle.'”

‘Map of a Nation’ is a brilliant work detailing the long and important, I dare say, story of the Ordnance Survey through a century from the mid-18th to the mid-19th. This story is portrayed mainly through the actions and dealings of the the chiefs of the Survey.

Rachel Hewitt has woven us a story of how Scotland, England, Wales, and Ireland were first (officially) surveyed through incredible difficulties, and all that due to an infatuation with mapping. The added bits of information of how the people and newspapers reacted to the publishing of maps for areas which people frequented — and maybe, most of all, how people reacted to their lands being surveyed — likewise adds a certain level that is maybe not as present in many books which try to deal with history.

So, aside an interesting book on history where the main characters have been well used as the anchorpoints of the story, we also get an astonishing variety of viewpoints, and maybe, on a lesser scale, a fair amount of rather interesting but overall less related information. [I could say it is one of those things that will be useful in the future in the pub though… “so, you know why the Ordnance Survey moved away from London? Oh… you didn’t know they used to be in London? :)”].

Maybe I should mention that though I do praise the book, it did not captivate me entirely all the way through, but I think that might have had a fair bit to do with my own motivated state of reading it. So, not all flowers and gold, but close enough for what we’re dealing with.

“William Roy had been arguably responsible for the Ordnance Survey’s foundation, but William Mudge had taken charge of it for twenty-nine years. Under his watch, the Trigonometrical Survey had travelled all the way from Land’s End in Cornwall almost up to the Shetland Islands.”

BBC’s ‘Ancient Rome’

While I’ve usually been a fan of historical documentaries, a recent try at BBC’s Ancient Rome series proved to me that these creatures can be deadly to sanity.

So, as a person who is relatively well versed in history, I would rather advise to stay away from the genre, or at the very least from this specific series.

Maybe it would not have been *that* bad if nearly every person who was commented on didn’t just freak out and start yelling at everyone in the room. It quite left the impression that everyone in leading positions for the 550-odd years covered by the series might have had a tad problem with the concepts of patience and listening to advice. Which, maybe they did… but I seriously doubt that.

Leaving that “small” issue aside (after the second, of six, episodes, I was dreading any scenes in command tents just because some officer was bound to say something which made the commanding officer yell at everyone about “Rome/duty/his-own-awesome-ass-that-needs-no-advice”) it might be considered passable. Although the directors certainly did not choose the best episodes, or maybe, the best ways of depicting said episodes to create some sort of a link going through the entire series, the one saving quality might be that most of the actual history seemed intact.

I had the important quantifier “most” there, for there certainly were a few quips I had. Say, not mentioning the double-fortifications that Julius Caesar built at Alesia (I mean, why else even mention the damned battle), insisting that Carthage was salted (which I believed to be a refuted myth that sprung up sometime after the actual events but well refuted by modern historiography due to several reasons, the least of which not being the price of salt and the fact that the settlement intended to be the harbour for North Africa reverted back to Carthage sometime soon after that moment due to the unstable silting conditions in the new place), and other smaller issues. As on insisting calling everyone “Emperor”. Well… could possibly grant them that, but I am not feeling inclined for that.

For some reason it just seems to me that the directors considered all of this and then left it out because the “average person” (if one exists, let me know) not suitable enough to just give him/her accurate information instead of what they would think is true. But maybe, Rome was a different place than what my memory wants me to believe. In which case, well done filming crew, but I still won’t watch this again. It’s just not worth it.

Quoting Yamamoto Tsunetomo

“To hate injustice and stand on righteousness is a difficult thing. Furthermore, to think that being righteous is the best one can do and to do one’s utmost to be righteous will, on the contrary, bring many mistakes. The Way is in a higher place than righteousness. This is very difficult to discover, but it is the highest wisdom. When seen from this standpoint, things like righteousness are rather shallow. If one does not understand this on his own, it cannot be known. There is a method of getting to this Way, however, even if one cannot discover it by himself. This is found in consultation with others. Even a person who has not attained this Way sees others from the side. It is like the saying from the game of go: “He who sees from the side has eight eyes.” The saying, “Thought by thought we see our own mistakes,” also means that the highest Way is in discussion with others.”

These are the words of Yamamoto Tsunetomo from his book ‘Hagakure’, which I read an age ago, and have been meaning to re-read for a while now. Unfortunately, I have thought to keep all the things I wish to go over again for next year, which will mean that I have to wait a bit longer.

However, I have looked at the quotes posted elsewhere from the book, and have enjoyed them thoroughly. What I enjoy about ‘Hagakure’ more than the other books (such as ‘The Book of Five Rings’) is that it is in many a way a far more general treatise on how to be a “good” person , contrary to actual teachings on the way of combat.

The quote above however seems to bring out what I believe to be the case as well: people are willing to say that they are working for the highest of principles while in reality… well, things are different. 🙂


Is it a paradox that when one thinks of oneself as permanent, it is not difficult to do things placing the same person into the greatest of dangers? And when it is clear that there is no permanence, that end will be there, then preservation of self gains importance.

What do I mean by permanence here? Certainly not the actual body of flesh, that fades quickest. Instead of that, it might be the name that one leaves behind, the ideals that were believed in…

Maybe, but how can we know without actually feeling the same? Is it possible to reproduce any feelings as they might have been in that, that instant?

“For the samurai to learn 
There’s only one thing,
One last thing –
To face death unflinchingly.”
— Tsukahara Bokuden



Crusader Kings II

Having recently bought the new Paradox game Crusader Kings II, I have already managed to spend a fair amount of time trying to carve out a realm that I could rule as I wish.

The game itself is quite good — Paradox has in many ways overdone itself though I am not that familiar with the company itself. But here at least I am not with the objective to review the game, but more to review a game — given we’ve got tens of goods general reviews as is, I would hope that this try of a more specific one will be of interest.

So, starting in the December of 1066 (so that the Normans would have finished the conquest of England) I played as Ernst I, Duke of Österreich (Austria) . Starting out with one county does not seem very promising, and by now I have little indication of how I actually managed to get past that stage — but I have the recollection that as one of my first conquests I took over Venice. That might have been around twenty-thirty years into the game, certainly not any sooner. That conquest was followed by the assimilation of de iure Austrian lands just north of the county of Austria (Steiermark was taken over around two-hundred and thirty years into the game).

Titles slowly accumulated: Duke of Austria and Venice, then also Anjou and Normandy. Some time after that, I assimilated my first realm by marriage (Dauphine) so my holdings as the Duke of Austria spanned Northern France, Burgundy, Italy, and Austria itself. Crusades into Lithuania made another county join the Holy Roman Empire, the good and loyal Duke that I was. A different holy war in Sicily won me a province on that island as well as Malta, which was the height of my extent for a lengthy period of time.

I mentioned crusades — indeed, I’ve just recently seen my luck turn with those: before my current character to whom I will come in due time, I had led at least six unsuccessful crusades into Aragon and Castille to reconquer those lands as well as two to the Baltics (one successful) and one into Anatolia (failure).

In the beginning of the 14th century, I got relatively bored of the political situation (France was at no Crown Authority and getting destroyed by Muslims; England in constant civil war; Eastern Rome owned the Middle East; and the Holy Roman Empire at Absolute Crown Authority). The good and friendly Duke I was, I succeeded in two consecutive plots to lower crown authority, after which I kindly told the Kaiser of the HRE that I would like to rule in his stead.

And from that point — starting with Kaiser Simon I the Old von Babenberg, Duke of Austria — my dynasty has kept that throne. My present status — as Kaiser Adam III von Babenberg, King of Poland, Duke of Austria and Anjou — is a relative indication that things have just got better since the low-point where we almost lost Barcelona to the infidels (mind you, they already owned the entirety of western France). Indeed, three recent wars have seen the reconquest of Aragon, Gascony, and Toulouse — all areas now under the safe protective sphere of our Holy Roman Empire (which also includes Northern Finland, most of Central Europe, Southern Sweden, and Jerusalem with the adjacent areas).

All in all, a most interesting game, though I dare say playing as Emperor is hardly as interesting as I hoped it would be — only so many times I wish to kill my wife again in a plot after all.

‘The House of Flying Daggers’

Ah, this one movie is one of my certain favourites — not only does it portray a most excellent change in life itself, but it is also action-packed and enjoyable to the highest degree.

So, this soon-to-be decade old Chinese movie speaks about a group of anti-governmental fighters (i.e., thugs)  named the House of Flying Daggers who have exceptional skills with… daggers. Well, the last wasn’t really said but we could see as much from the movie.

I certainly enjoyed the sights of the Tang warriors fighting with perfectly choreographed moves but even beside that the movie had so much to say — the topic at large was again love (or so it could be described), and while my personal thoughts on it are not that well articulated in any specific work, then at least I enjoy the dramatic take on it.

Now listening to some of the songs from the soundtrack (with my certain favourite in this movie having been the Chinese song of the northern beauty, apparently taken from a poem by Li Yannian, that goes like this /the in-movie English translation was somewhat different/):

In the north there is a beauty; surpassing the world, she stands alone.
A glance from her will overthrow a city; another glance will overthrow a nation.
One would rather not know whether it will be a city or nation overthrown.
As it would be hard to see a beauty like this again.

I have to say that the entire movie was thrilling and the soundtrack was one of the biggest supporters of the plot that could have been. In any case, the song above is named ‘Jiarenqu’ (or ‘Jia ren qu’ as I found it sometimes on YouTube) and I’d suggest people to listen to it as presented in the movie:


I think the picture ratio is a bit off but the music is the important part here. * Sorry, the original video didn’t stream so I changed it to another one which has still pictures instead of a proper video. Search it up by its name or movie title on YouTube if you want the proper one.

Now, aside from that song, the other very wonderfully played scene in this movie was one during the final duel — with the landscape changing and everything. But I will say no more, for if you know it, you know it; and if you don’t, you should. 🙂

But I’ll add that it might have brought to my mind now the writings of that Polish master of literature, Henryk Sienkiewicz, who so well detailed the change of the steppes with the passings of seasons.

Overall, a most excellent movie (and certainly one of my favourites of the Chinese cinema alongside ‘Hero’), no doubt in that.