Sunday 27 August 2017

Living books for the 20th Century: Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng (1986)

'On the evening of 30 August when the Red Guards came to loot my house...
I was sitting alone in my study reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich...'

What an incredible story this is! Nien Cheng's memoir, Life and Death in Shangai is saturated with spiritual and soul stretching lessons from her exceptional life. I've read a few books set during Mao's Cultural Revolution but this account stands out for the sheer courage, audacity, and fortitude displayed by the author.
In some respects, Nien Cheng reminds me of Kostoglotov in Solzhenitsyn's book Cancer Ward - two individuals pushing against a totalitarian system.

Nien Cheng was born in Peking in 1915 and studied Economics in London in the mid-1930's. She met her husband during this time and upon their return to China in 1939, he became a diplomatic officer in the Kuomintang Government.
When the Communist Party entered Shanghai in 1949 he was asked to remain in office for the transitional period, after which he was allowed to leave and take on the position of general manager of the Shell International Petroleum Company based in Shanghai.
In 1957 Nien Cheng's husband died of cancer and she was asked to fill the position of assistant to the new general manager, becoming the only woman in Shanghai to occupy a senior role in a company that was acclaimed worldwide, a role she enjoyed until 1966.
Up until the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party didn't decree how people should live, but from time to time political campaigns rocked the country, and when people fell victim to these their incomes were drastically reduced or they and their families were relocated. For seventeen years Nien Chen had made an effort to make her home a haven for her daughter, Meiping, and herself, and managed to maintain their standard of living, 'so that we could continue to enjoy good taste while the rest of the city was being taken over by proletarian realism.'
Meiping, a young actress in the Shanghai Film Studio, was an attractive and intelligent young woman who had learned from an early age that 'the classless society of Communism had a more rigid class system than the despised capitalist society.'
When the Communists gained control of China a new system of discrimination developed against the children of the educated and affluent, who found themselves handicapped because of their family background.

Nien Cheng was falsely accused of being a British spy in 1966 and imprisoned in solitary confinement for six and a half years. She steadfastly maintained her innocence throughout that time, defying her brutal interrogators with quotes from Mao's red book and her quick wits.
There was a mysterious element behind her arrest that she wasn't able to identify until much later, but it added a background of suspense to her story.
Although there were many sad and intense moments in Nien Cheng's account, at times she made me feel like laughing and giving a cheer...such as when she was being outrageously denounced by former employees of the company she worked for:

...I must put a stop to this farce. I jerked my head up and laughed uproariously.
My reaction was not what anyone had expected. There was a moment of stunned silence.

She disciplined herself to stay calm and maintain a cool politeness while her interrogators ranted and yelled at her. Her logical responses and her refusal to be bullied into a false confession were a source of frustration to those who were unaccustomed to this type of response. Throughout her imprisonment she had no contact with her daughter but her overwhelming concern was for her safety and she was careful not to do or say anything that would jeopordise her child's future.
When she was facing the extreme cold of her cell and the lack of food, she forced herself to keep her mind active by recalling poetry she had memorised and worked out ways to give her body some exercise without the guards noticing.

There were so many quotable passages in this book but here are a few that especially stood out  to me:

'I'm not a spy for anybody. I have nothing to confess,' I said firmly to the wall from where Mao's portrait looked down on me. As I gazed at Mao's face wearing what was intended as a benign expression but what was in fact a smirk of self-satisfaction, I wondered how one single person could have caused the extent of misery that was prevailing in China. There must be something lacking in our own character, I thought, that had made it possible for his evil genius to dominate.

When a man was denounced, he was depicted as totally bad, and any errant behaviour was attributed to the influence of capitalism. 

A Party officer entered her home and spat on the carpet - the first time that the author saw a declaration of power made in a gesture of rudeness:

...I had come to realize that the junior officers of the Party often used the exaggerated gesture of rudeness to cover up their feelings of inferiority.

The newspaper announced that the mission of the Red Guards was to rid the country of the 'Four Olds' - old culture, old customs, old habits and old ways of thinking. There was no clear definition of 'old'; it was left to the Red Guards to decide...

Political correctness had them changing the names of streets...the Bund was renamed Revolutionary Boulevard.

The Red Guards debated whether to reverse the system of traffic lights, as they thought Red should mean Go and not Stop. In the meantime, traffic lights stopped operating.

They seemed to be blissfully happy in their work of destruction because they were sure they were doing something to satisfy their God, Mao Tze-tung. Their behaviour was the result of their upbringing from childhood in Communist China. The propaganda they had absorbed precluded their having a free will of their own.

Nien Cheng developed bronchitis and a 'doctor' was sent to her cell. After explaining to the young man that she had a fever and had been coughing for nearly two months he declared that she probably had hepatitis! She realized he was not a trained doctor at all, but had been given the job because although unskilled, he was politically reliable:

The young man was simply carrying out Mao's order to 'learn to be a doctor by being one.'

'...It's not the purpose if the proletarian class to destroy your body. We want to save your soul by reforming your way of thinking.' Although Mao Tze-tung and his followers were atheists, they were fond of talking about the 'soul.' In his writing, Mao often referred to the saving of a man's soul. During the Cultural Revolution, 'soul' was mentioned frequently...
While no one could ask Mao Tze-tung or Lin Piao what exactly they meant when they talked about a man's 'soul', it greatly taxed the ingenuity of the Marxist writers of newspaper articles who had to explain their leader's words to the people.

On the objective of the Proletarian Revolution to form a classless society, which at first seemed an attractive and idealistic picture when Nien Cheng was a student:

...after living in Communist China for the past seventeen years, I knew that such a society was only a dream because those who seized power would invariably become the new ruling class....
In Communist China, details of the private lives of the leaders were guarded as State secrets. But every Chinese knew that the Party leaders lived in spacious mansions with many servants, obtained their provisions from special shops where luxury goods were made available to their households at nominal prices and sent their children in chauffeur-driven cars to exclusive schools to be taught by specially selected teachers...

Nien Chen was finally told she could leave prison, that the proletarian had magnanimously decided to refrain against pressing charges against her, but she wanted a full apology and refused to leave without one. The interrogators had never had a prisoner refuse to leave detention and were nonplussed. Meanwhile two guards arrived and dragged her outside. She was to endure further years of harrasment before she was eventually able to leave China.

This is such an excellent book and there are so many parallels to our present age with the push to be politically correct and the Marxist influence in many university courses. It's scheduled as a possible biography in Ambleside Online Year 11. I've used Mao Tse-Tung & His China by Albert Marrin in the past, which is a good book also, but not a personal account like Nien Cheng's, and a couple of other books we already had, but I found a copy of Life & Death in Shanghai recently and it's a book that I'd highly recommend.

Some information about the author:

"There were many Chinese who fought back and many who suffered much more. Some of them have never recovered," she said. "But my privilege has been to write about it, and that's only been possible because I could leave."

"It was not until later that Cheng learned that her interrogators were trying to get her to confess to being a spy so that Jiang Qing (Mao Zedong’s wife) and other radicals could oust Premier Zhou Enlai, a moderate who favored allowing foreign firms like Shell to operate in China."

Sunday 20 August 2017

Ambleside Online Year 7: plans & modifications

Whenever I start planning a new year of home education I'm reminded again of the fact that each of my children are unique and what might have been good for one may not be the right choice for another at the same age. So just when I thought I should have all this figured out the seventh time around, I've been mulling over a few niggling thoughts I've had about Moozle's Year 7 content, trying to discern what is best for this girl of mine:

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight,  so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,  filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.
Philippians 1:9-11

We're going into Week 4 tomorrow and I wanted to wait for a few weeks before I posted what we'll be doing to see how my ideas work out in practice. I've made a few adjustments for different reasons, which I'll explain as I go, while still keeping to the basic structure of Ambleside Online Year 7 (because Years 7 & 8 are two of my favourite AO years!)
The main changes are:

Devotional Reading

I've used the first two books on the AO schedule for this year with Moozle's older siblings but the more I thought and prayed about what I should be doing, the more I've felt sure that what she needs at the moment lies in the way of story. It's not so much that the books are challenging - she's an advanced reader - but it's the spiritual aspects and the 'didactic' approach that I don't think she's ready for. Biographies, on the other hand, I know she will relate to. These are the books we'll be using instead - the first two (set in India & China respectively) serve the double purpose of devotional reading and books set in Asia/Pacific, which I cover because of their proximity to Australia and our connections with people from that area. (I've linked to reviews I've written on some of them):

* Ten Fingers for God by Dorothy Wilson

** The Small Woman by Alan Burgess

*** The Root of the Righteous by A.W. Tozer - now this isn't a biography but I've included this in third term as an introduction to the devotional book scene because it's a book I love and Tozer uses the analogy of the tree and its fruit so the book has the feel of a parable.


We'll be doing the AO scheduled readings (scroll down the page) except for The Magna Carta. Instead I'll schedule this book over a few weeks because I have it & it's good. (181 pages)

Science & Natural History

We won't be doing First Studies of Plant Life or Adventures with a Microscope and will be substituting a couple of Australian titles:

A Bush Calendar by Amy Mack
First Studies in Plant Life by William Gillies. This is different to the one mentioned above (both the Aussie titles are free online)

We're also doing Apologia's Anatomy & Physiology and using some of these free resources I put together a couple of years ago for her brother. I usually do this in Year 6 but I didn't want Moozle to miss out on the excellent Science selections scheduled in that year. I'll be cutting out some of the activities in the Apologia book, I think.

Fine Arts

We'll be using the books pictured below for Music & Architecture in addition to our regular composer & picture study.

The Gift of Music by Jane Stuart Smith & Betty Carlson - I'm reading this aloud & this term we'll just be covering a few Baroque composers.

Cathedral by David Macaulay

String, Straight Edge, & Shadow by Julia E. Diggins - scroll down to see an overview of the book on the link. This is really the story of geometry but it dovetails nicely with the study of architecture and helps the reader to appreciate the significance of the Golden Mean in art and architecture...

Architecture by Gladys Wynne - I'd heard about this book but it's out of print and I really didn't know how useful it would be until one of the lovely ladies on the AO Forum posted a link to Archives and I had a chance to view it before I bought it from Amazon in the UK.


Julius Caesar 
Richard the Third


We're still reading the Life of Julius Caesar and have three more weeks left until we finish. We'll have a break before we start another life and just concentrate on Shakespeare for awhile.

French & Latin

We're continuing with French for Children B and there's quite a bit of grammar included so our English grammar study is taking a back seat for the time being.
We're still slowly going through Our Roman Roots by James R. Leek.

The Harp & Laurel Wreath by Laura M. Berquist is one of my favourite poetry anthologies and I take turns reading aloud this and the one in the picture above aloud.

Wednesday 16 August 2017

Ten Fingers for God by Dorothy Clarke Wilson (1965)

Ten Fingers for God explores the life and work of Dr. Paul Brand, who was born in India to missionary parents, lived there until he was sent to school in England, and later returned to work and teach at a medical college in the southern Indian city of Vellore. 
Surgeon, teacher, and environmentalist, Dr. Brand achieved fame mostly for his pioneering research on the disease of leprosy. As a child growing up in the mountains of Madras, (re-named Chennai) he witnessed an incident which remained in his memory, a potent reminder of the awful plight and stigma for victims of leprosy. 
When Paul was nine years of age, his family had a furlough in England. A few months later, his parents returned to India while he and his younger sister, Connie, remained with relatives in order to go to school. They never saw their father again as he died of Blackwater Fever a few years later.

Paul disliked study and the school routine. He was used to the freedom of life in India where he'd sit up in a tree to do his lessons and pass his work down to his mother sitting on the ground underneath. He refused to conform, and his reports consisted of remarks such as "Poor, fair, rather disappointing; Next term we shall hope for better things."  

It wasn't books that Paul disliked, merely school books. He read avidly, often on the way to school, with such eagerness that he often ran into people. His taste in literature was respectable if not highbrow, tending largely toward adventure takes such as The Coral Islands and Westward Ho! He liked Dickens but abhorred Scott. In fact, English, next to the sciences, was his favourite subject. 

Paul tended to shine more in less admirable activities...climbing, avoiding school sports and performing dangerous science experiments in the playroom of his aunts' immaculate and genteel residence!

Paul's mother hoped he would train to be a doctor. His father had wanted to do this himself, at one time starting a course at Madras University, but Paul had no intention of becoming a doctor. The memory of his father's medical work repulsed him - pus, ulcers, blood. He decided to leave school and train to be a builder. 
After five years of training he applied to the mission board but was rejected as 'not being ready.' The two options open for him were Bible School and a short course in tropical medicine. He didn't want to do either... but he remembered his father. 

Jesse Brand had left the building trade for what he considered a nobler calling. He had prepared for his work by taking a short course in tropical medicine. His son would do the same. 

Paul found that he loved the work and the study, and his whole attitude to medical work changed. In 1937, on the eve of World War II, he was accepted into the University College Medical School in London. Here he was to meet his future wife, Margaret, their courtship taking place in the midst of evacuations and bombings, and their marriage in 1943. The war gave the young surgeon experience that would normally have taken years to acquire, and when the V-I bombs came flying over London, he was operating almost constantly, repairing gun wounds, cuts and other acute injuries. It was during this time that he became profoundly interested in the repair of severed nerves and tendons, especially in hands and feet. The skill and expertise he acquired was to serve him well in his work with leprosy patients later on. 

I really enjoy medical missionary biographies and this book is a re-read. Most of my children have read it also, usually around the age of 12 years or a little older, and I've assigned it to Moozle this term. 
Dorothy Clarke Wilson has written an engaging, joy-filled story, capturing Paul's earthy upbringing, his father's enthusiasm for nature - which he passed onto his son - his mother's dynamic personality and passion, Paul's love for the people he worked with and those he served; his struggles to overcome the stigma associated with leprosy, and his disappointments. The book also describes the disease of Leprosy (also known as Hansen's Disease), its mode of transmission, treatment, and its history. I would have loved to have read this when I was twelve!

Some highlights: 

" ...the most precious possession any human being has is his spirit, his will to live, his sense of dignity, his personality. Once that has been lost the opportunity for rehabilitation is lost. Though our profession may be a technical one, concerned with tendons, bones, and nerve endings, we must realize that it is the person behind it that is so important. Of course we need technicians: surgeons, physiotherapists, nurses, occupational therapists, vocational guidance specialists. But above all we need men and women who are concerned with people and who accept the challenge of the whole person, his life, his faith, and his hope." 

John, an older, almost blind patient, came to Paul and begged to have his claw hand opened. Paul said that there were so many able-bodied young men coming for surgery... "Your hands would take a lot of time, because they're stiff. And suppose, we did open them out, how could you use them? If you can't see or feel..."
But the old man persisted...

"I believe I could bring music to people...I use to be able to play the organ, and I'm sure that if you open my fingers, I could play again."
"Without being able to feel or see?" Paul had to be brutally honest. "I'm sorry, John, but how could you possibly play?"
The clawed hands crooked in a beseeching gesture. "I know how you feel, doctor, but - please just give me a chance."

Paul was unable to resist, and he operated with great misgivings on John's hands, the results being moderately successful.
John asked to be led to an organ and he sat at the keyboard while his nerveless hands fumbled and produced some discordant sounds. Paul was glad John couldn't see the pity on his face...

Then suddenly the organ swelled, not merely into melody but into the full harmony of the glorious hymn, "Jesus shall reign where'er the sun." And as the music came flooding out of the crude little box there spread over the uplifted face an ineffable smile of oracle and satisfaction. Paul almost wept.

We're using this book in the first term of AmblesideOnline Year 7 as a devotional read and as a book set in Asia.

Linking to 2017 Cloud of Witnesses Reading Challenge


Thursday 10 August 2017

Plutarch's Life of Julius Caesar - a 'creative' narration

We've just finished Week 9 of Plutarch's Life of Julius Caesar using Anne White's very helpful study guide. The study of Plutarch would never have been on my radar (as I explained here) but I was persuaded to have a try, at least, when I read how highly his writing was regarded by Charlotte Mason. '...perhaps nothing outside of the Bible has the educational value of Plutarch's Lives,' - that's what I'd call high praise!

 School Education by Charlotte Mason, pg 235

More recently I questioned how well Plutarch's Lives was going to work with just my daughter and me as I've been used to having at least one teenager, sometimes three, joining in for the last six years. I think it is easier with more children in the mix, all taking turns narrating, but it has been going quite well this year with just the two of us.

Reading Plutarch isn't easy. I've always read it aloud and I've often thought to myself, "How can my kids understand this when I struggle with it myself?" But, funnily enough, although it's tough at times, Plutarch has been the originator of some great conversations and interesting written narrations. His vocabulary is so lush and expressive...'fardel.' I knew my daughter would use this word in her narration today - she latched onto the word as I read about Cleopatra being smuggled into Caesar's palace wrapped up in one. I had a good laugh reading over this today. 'It is past the hour of midnight, and I am still in my toga.'

Winter, the month of the two-headed god Janus, 48 B.C

In which much befalls me, and I meet the beautiful, divine, majestic, Cleopatra.

I, Julius Caesar, take my pen in hand to recount the day’s adventures.
I am sitting at my desk, writing this diary. It is past the hour of midnight, and I am still in my toga. Cleopatra is reclining in the room next to mine. Yesterday, I sent a message to her, asking her to meet me at the castle I am now in. She arrived this afternoon. The first notice I had of her arrival was a slave, who marched into my castle gatehouse, carrying a long, rolled up fardel. I stared at him, amazed. I asked him, “What, by Jupiter, is that?!”
The slave ignored me, and placed the fardel carefully on the ground, and started to slowly, and gently unfold it. Curious, I watched him silently. Suddenly, I gasped! The slave had finished unrolling his bundle, and out of it came Cleopatra, helped upright by her faithful slave! She advanced towards me, while I stood staring, my mouth hanging open. She took my arm, and we proceeded towards the banquet hall in severe silence. However, I soon recovered myself, and by the time we walked into supper, and we were talking without restraint, about her voyage, how surprised I had been, how I had not expected her to come like she did, and so on, and so on.
Suddenly, as we were sitting together, a slave came and whispered in my ear, a serious expression on his face. I hastily got up, excused myself, and left the room. I came back about twenty minutes later, with a nonchalant, I-have-done-nothing expression. Cleopatra looked at me suspiciously, then stared at my knife. I looked down at it, too, then hastened to explain.

“Oh dear…um, er, it’s ah, harrumph, nothing…cough, cough, ‘scuse me, um, just a little ah, um, well . . . ah, um, er, ahh, yes, a, I mean, one of my servants was er, um, killing a, ah, cough, cough, ‘scuse me, a, er pig, yes, um, er ah, harrumph, a pig . . .”
After this rather disjointed explanation, I dashed from the room, and ran to the bathroom, to wash the blood off my blade. I must admit, I gave a rather false account to Cleopatra, but I did not want her worrying. The blood one my dagger was human, and it was one of two men who had been in a plot to kill me. I had therefore disposed of one of them. My faithful slave who had told me of the plot in the banqueting room, was naturally suspicious by nature, and had, by prowling around (when he probably should have been looking after affairs of my household) uncovered this plot and saved my life.
I went back to supper, avoided the gaze of Cleopatra for the rest of the night, and then went to bed with a sense of relief. I fear, though, that she probably guessed the truth from my dagger. That is all the events of the day. I will most certainly have an eventful day on the morrow, however, for I think that I will be engaged in a battle.

Winter, Janus, 47 B.C
In which there is a battle, a fire, and I save some books from the library of Alexandria.

It was bitterly cold today. It is still cold, so I will make this entry as short as possible, so I may get to bed, sooner.
 I have succeeded in my purpose to get Cleopatra’s throne back from her usurping brother. Also, we just had a baby boy, Ptolemy Caesar, or Caesarion. I was made dictator of Rome for the second time. I had a battle with king Pharnaces, and I won. I sent to Rome the words,
“Veni, Vidi, Vici. I came, I saw, I conquered.”
In the battle, my troops were routed at the start, and I was forced to swim to get away from the archers, and in the confusion, the great library of Alexandria was set on fire, but I managed to save some books, though they are rather worse for wear, having been on my head in the water while I was swimming away from the archers, so they are drenched, and have arrow holes!

Cleopatra Before Caesar by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1866

See Vera's Doll Stories for a 'doll narration' of Cleopatra & Caesar.

Friday 4 August 2017

Radio Rescue by Jane Jolly; Illustrated by Robert Ingpen

Radio Rescue was published in November, 2016, and is a successful collaboration between author Jane Jolly and illustrator Robert Ingpen. (Tea and Sugar Christmas, published in 2014, was another book they worked on together).
Radio Rescue is an exquisitely illustrated book that captures the uniqueness of outback Australia while presenting an important piece of history. The story takes place in the 1930's on a remote station in the outback where young Jim lives with his Mum and Dad. Although they all enjoy life where they are, it sometimes gets lonely for them all and their isolated position is a concern that hovers in the background, especially if medical attention should ever be required.
Then one day a 'pedal radio' arrives bringing with it the ability to communicate by tapping out morse code with the hands while powering the machine by foot. All of a sudden they were connected to the outside world! Jim is told he has to wait until he is older before he can use the machine but when Dad is thrown from his horse and breaks his leg, Jim needs to try to get help and manages to do so using the new radio.

As usual, Robert Ingpen has captured the Australian landscape in an understated, powerful way. The book is lavishly illustrated in full colour and detailed pencil sketches, and in a similar fashion to Tea & Sugar Christmas, some of the pages fold out double.

At the end of the book there is a section detailing the relationship between the Reverend John Flynn of the Australian Inland Mission and Alf Traeger as they worked together on the idea of providing a form of communication for people in isolated areas.
The author explains here how the idea for the book came to be and the books she used to research the pedal radio.

  This website has a picture of a pedal-powered radio being used in 1937

Radio Rescue is a worthy addition to any curriculum covering Australian History in the primary years especially for age 10 years and under. The story line is simple but there is much to interest a wide range of ages, including some action and a young hero who saves the day. The historical aspects are intriguing and would interest any child with a penchant for invention, as well as providing some interesting rabbit trails.
Highly recommended!

Wednesday 2 August 2017

Free stuff for the Study of the Human Body - Updated

Some free stuff we're using for studying the human body:

August 2017: some of the links I originally put here don't work anymore so here are the updated ones:

The website contained the text from 'Your Body & How it Works' by Dr. J. D. Ratcliff, the author of  I Am Joe's Body but I haven't been able to link to it lately.

I did find that I Am Joe's Body is now available at, which wasn't available when I last covered Anatomy & Physiology.

Khan Academy also have a series of videos on Human Anatomy & Physiology - I haven't viewed these yet but they look like they are for upper level highschool.

The next three videos cover Genetics. They are done quite well but if viewing with a younger child check the third one as it explains fertilisation. It's tastefully done and shouldn't be a problem:

The next two are videos on the Integumentary System. The first one explains the layers of the skin and the second how first, second and third degree burns affect the skin.

This one is a journey through the human eye which I thought was one of the simplest and best explanations I've come across. It only covers the main parts of the eye but enough to make its function clear.