He Xian Gu

The Taoist Immortal.

There are eight ‘immortals’ in the pantheon of Taoism, the Chinese religious philosophy that first appeared during the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234), the last before the catastrophe of the Mongol invasion. According to Taoist mythology, the immortals inhabited a group of five islands in the north-eastern reaches of the Yellow Sea, near to Beijing, and now one of the busiest seaways in the world.

He Xian Gu is usually considered the only female immortal. Originally named He Qiong, she was born during the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), one of the high points of Chinese culture. Her father, He Tai, was from Guangzhou, a port on the Pearl River. He Xian Gu was distinguished by six long hairs on the crown of her head. Around the age of 15, she was visited by a divine spirit who instructed her to eat powdered mica, a silicate mineral, which would cause her to take on an ethereal appearance, freed from the clutches of death. Having done so, she ascended into heaven to become a Xian, an immortal, enlightened practitioner of Taoism.

Unlike Confucianism, the other great religious philosophy of China, Taoism – which emphasises passivity and harmony with the Tao, or ‘Way’ – prescribes few rituals and has little to say about social order, emphasising instead fasting and vegetarianism. Its key text is the Tao Te Ching, the work of Laozi (‘Old Master’), probably a sixth-century BC contemporary of Confucius. It begins, elusively and allusively:

Imposter Syndrome

Social mobility and self-invention in the pre-digital age.

Brendan Bracken alongside Winston Churchill, April 1939.Thanks to the Internet, we will find it ever more difficult to escape our pasts. The reckless enthusiasms of youth, the misjudged moment, captured in full digital reality, never to be forgotten or explained away, may be borne long into maturity.

One loss is the ability to create the self anew, shaped according to one’s ambitions rather than one’s past. Take the founder of History Today, Brendan Bracken. The rebellious son of an Irish Republican, after a series of picaresque adventures in Australia he turned up at Sedbergh School, almost 20 but claiming to be a 15-year-old orphan. The head probably didn’t believe him, but took him on anyway. There was little oversight in those pre-digital days and so began a career that would see him become Churchill’s ‘faithful chela’ and, after 1945, the creator of the Financial Times, publisher of the Economist, as well as co-founder of History Today.

My Good Friend Roosevelt

Castro (right) with fellow revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos, 8 January 1959.Perhaps better than anyone else, Fidel Castro was keenly aware of the fact that the histories and destinies of Cuba and the United States were profoundly intertwined. A fascinating and virtually unknown document housed in the US National Archives and Records Administration demonstrates that Castro was aware of this from an early age.

‘My good friend Roosvelt’, opens a letter a young Castro sent to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, written on 6 November 1940, the day after Roosevelt’s second landslide re-election. As a student at the Jesuit-run Colegio Dolores in Santiago, Castro heard the news on the radio and sat down to write a letter of congratulation, three pages long, in neat cursive but broken English on the school’s official stationary.

Castro told Roosevelt that he was 12 years old but, according to his ‘official’ birth date, 13 August 1926, he would have been 14. For decades, Castro’s birth date has been the subject of speculation and debate and it is possible that his father, Ángel Castro, bought a forged birth certificate with the object of presenting Fidel as a ten-year-old, the minimum age required for admission to the fifth grade at Colegio Dolores.

Luis Martínez-Fernández | Published 05 February 2019
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Published in
Volume 69 Issue 2 February 2019

India Breaks Free?

India’s decision to decriminalise homosexuality is presented as the country shaking off the last vestiges of colonialism. The reality is not so simple.

Illustration by Ben Jones.On 6 September 2018, India, the world’s largest democracy, finally decriminalised homosexuality. This historic judgment was passed after years of courtroom battles, long and arduous campaigns and protests, organised by millions of citizens, organisations and activists. The moment was widely celebrated.

For the first time, Indian citizens who identify as part of the LGBT community ceased to be outlawed. Initial reactions in the media reflected the populist idea that India had finally managed to break free of the shackles of colonialism. Within the first Indian Penal Code (1860), which came into force in January 1862, was Section 377, on ‘Unnatural Offences’. Based on the English Buggery Act (1533), it stated: ‘Whoever has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or … for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.’

Home Truths

Jen Calleja | Published 25 January 2019
Growing up opposite a US military base in Karlsruhe, Germany in the 1980s, Nora Krug knew that something ‘had once gone terribly wrong’. She and her classmates would use certain words, without fully understanding their meaning. A Konzentrationslager , for example, was sinister and ominous, but as a child she imagined it as a place where people were ‘forced to concentrate to the point of physical anguish’. Krug’s inchoate knowledge of Germany’s wartime history meant that asking her parents questions often led to confusion. She caused her mother alarm when, returning from school, she asked: ‘Are Jews evil?’ Later, travelling...Read more »
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Behind Every Great Roman

Penelope Goodman | Published 18 January 2019
Rome’s early emperors were eager to pass their power to blood successors, though in practice this proved difficult. In this new and accessible book, Guy de la Bédoyère demonstrates just how much the line of succession to the principate depended on women (for all that this was obscured by the use of adoption). Focusing on the Julio-Claudians, de la Bédoyère puts women front and centre, telling the history of the period through their biographies. As he shows, the expectations placed upon elite women in ancient Rome were impossible and often contradictory. Negotiating them took intelligence and strength of character. It...Read more »
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Dark Arts

By the time US soldiers arrived at the Berghof in May 1945, Hitler’s alpine retreat had already been gutted. Allied bombing had obliterated much of the site, before SS guards ignited what was left. Earlier photographs of the Great Hall show an uneasy mix of the rustic and opulent. There were busts of the composer Richard Wagner and Hitler’s mentor, the morphine-addicted playwright Dietrich Eckart. Given that Hitler spent much of the war here, there was a globe, a marble table for meetings and a Gobelin tapestry that concealed a cinema screen.

The United Ideologies of America

Adam Smith | Published 11 January 2019
One of the ways in which the current President of the United States differs from all his predecessors, from George Washington to Barack Obama, is that unlike them he does not speak of his country’s special mission. When Donald Trump talks about making America ‘great’ again, he means only aggrandisement and enrichment, of being the biggest bully on the block in an endless, purposeless jostling and scrapping of nations. What he does not mean is progress toward a providentially ordained goal, a ceaseless quest to live up to the meaning of the American creed. In a most un-American way, he...Read more »
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Under Good Birds

Mathew Lyons | Published 08 January 2019
Pity the wryneck – a species of long-tongued woodpecker – in ancient Greece: it had the great misfortune to be considered an essential part of a sex toy. The poor bird was spread-eagled and bound to the four spokes of a wheel, which, when spun, whistled in a way thought sure to arouse desire in its recipient. We remember its fate today when we jinx people: the word jinx being derived from its Greek name, iunx . Pity, too, the pigeon squab on a Roman farm, force fed two or three times a day and confined to a caged nest...Read more »

Mathew Lyons is a columnist for History Today and the author of The Favourite: Ralegh and His Queen (Constable & Robinson, 2011).

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Man with a Movie Camera

No smoking: the ‘cutting room floor’ frames from the Roundhay Gardena Scene by Louis Le Prince, October 1888. In 1888, in Leeds, the French inventor Louis Le Prince shot what many now consider to be the world’s first films. Fragments of three survive – the Roundhay Garden, Accordion and Leeds Bridge scenes – in which the inventor managed to capture moving pictures years before Thomas Edison or the Lumière brothers. Le Prince, however, never got to show the world beyond his workshop what he had achieved. On 16 September 1890, just before he was due to demonstrate his films in public for the first time, he boarded the Dijon to Paris train and was never seen again.

Louis Aimeé Augustin Le Prince, a young artist, engineer and photographer, came to Leeds in 1866, where he worked in a brass foundry, married, started a family and involved himself in the social and intellectual circles of the city. In 1888, he built a single lens camera with which he shot a number of films.

Irfan Shah | Published 07 January 2019
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Published in
Volume 69 Issue 1 January 2019