A literary connection: Wind, Sand and Stars to China’s Wings

I’m ginning up a little radio blurb discussing three books from aviation’s “Golden Age,” and to that end I’ve been reading Antoine de Saint Exupery’s classic Wind, Sand and Stars for what must be the fifth or sixth time since I discovered it in the mid-1990s.

A page of my marginalia

My copy is filled with marginalia, relics of my careful reading (and re-reading) from 2000, the year I wrote Enduring Patagonia.

However, this recent reading is the first time I’ve gone through Wind, Sand and Stars without an eye toward its connections and relevance to climbing.

I’m happy to report that it’s every bit as excellent, and it was with wonder that I discovered Wind, Sand and Stars direct connection to the work I’ve done with China’s Wings.  Here it is; it’s a grim quote, albeit beautifully penned:

“Every week men sit comfortably at the cinema and look on at the bombardment of some Shanghai or other, some Guernica, and marvel without a trace of horror at the long fringes of ash and soot that twist their slow way into the sky from those man-made volcanoes. Yet we all know that together with the grain in the grainaries, with the heritage of generations of men, with the treasures of families, it is the burning flesh of children and their elders that, dissipated in smoke, is slowly fertilizing those black cumuli.”

The Shanghai Saint Exupery is referring to is the Battle of Shanghai fought from mid-August to mid-November, 1937,  between the Japanese invaders and the armies of Chiang Kai-shek. It was one of the first battles of what we now call the Second World War, it was one biggest battles ever fought, and it has been largely forgotten, overshadowed by those fought once the western nations got involved.

Shanghai was the fifth or sixth biggest city in the world in 1937 (behind London, New York, Toyko, Berlin, and, possibly, Chicago), and the battle near-completely destroyed “Greater Shanghai” — that part of the city outside of the International Settlement and the French Concession. More than a quarter of a million people died in the fight, and it’s the backdrop of China’s Wings’ second part, entitled “War.”

Here’s the quote I used on the front piece of that part, from The Battle for Asia by Edgar Snow:

“Great battles, in which thousands of men are torn apart, are forgotten as easily as last year’s Olympics.”

Here’s an album of photographs of the battle taken by Swiss photographer Karl Kenglebacher.



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