Mickey Mouse in China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:49 am

There are some interesting articles in the current Modern China, and the one I would like to comment on at present is “Wang Luobin: Folk Song King of the Northwest or Song Thief?” by Rachel Harris of SOAS. The paper is mostly about the posthumous reputation of Wang Luobin, a (Han) collector and disseminator of “Uyghur folksongs” many of which have turned out to be quite popular, and thus profitable.

Picture of Wang Luobin

This has led to predictable debates about who owns these songs, bringing up all sorts of “questions of authenticity, ownership, and value.” (p.394) This is of course part of a debate on who speaks for Uyghurs that takes place in other contexts than music, and a debate on who owns music that is familiar to ethnomusicologists in places other than Xinjiang. Folk music is a particularly interesting place to bring up issues of copyright because folk music is validated in part by –not- being creative. In 1993 the Taiwanese singer Luo Dayou recorded versions of Wang Luobin’s songs and at first refused to pay copyright because the songs were the “property of the peoples of Xinjiang” and if anyone should get money it should be the Xinjiang government.(p.388) Wang Luobin then took out copyrights on the songs, thus admitting that he was not simply transmitting existing songs, but doing something to existing material that could be considered creative and thus could be owned. Harris cites Arjun Appadurai on what makes a thing a thing, and in general it is a very well-informed essay.

The thing that interested me most was that the things being owned were songs. One of the commonplaces of the reform era is that China needs to establish “modern” legal and property systems, in order to make itself more legible to international capital or as the necessary infrastructure for modernization, depending on your point of view. The one aspect of this process that foreign states pay most attention to is intellectual property rights, as this is the thing that is most likely to impinge on the profits of foreign companies. (China may need a more transparent real estate market, but this is not a concern for Disney.) The canonical Chinese response is to pay lip service to American demands for enforcement of IP, pretty much the same response as most developing countries. Enforcement of foreign copyrights is not at the forefront of most Chinese people’s minds. I’m sure many of us are familiar with the disconnect between reading U.S. accounts of China where the most important person in China is the guy with the pirated DVDs and, well, being in China.

This is what makes the Wang Luobin case so interesting. When the dispute broke out between Luo Dayou and Wang Luobin Wang copyrighted the songs and sold the rights to Luo. What interests me, although Harris does not discuss it, is why Luo would pay for the rights. I don’t think that there was any chance that a mainland copyright was going to be enforced on Taiwan, so I assume that he paid cash for Wang’s authenticity, as represented by the copyrights, even though by the act of copyrighting, and asserting creativity, Wang was “un-folking” the songs.

I find this interesting because it shows a new, and domesticated reason for people to adopt the form of copyright. Although American newspapers like to present copyrights and patents as transcendent goods they are of course socially constructed, and the construction is currently changing. When the last American copyright extension act was passed some people called it the Mickey Mouse law, because one of the things driving it was Disney’s fear that Mickey would go out of copyright. For modern post-industrial capitalism the idea that there are things that can’t be owned is not good. Well, there are some things that can’t be owned, and there is not much of a push to corporatize and commodify love or sex, it is not acceptable for something which has been commodified to go out of the commodity sphere.

Who will push for this type of commodification inside China? Disney will push from outside, and this will have some effect, but not a whole lot. To some extent it is in the self-interest of Chinese business community to push for commodification of ideas as they change their position in the international economy. When I was teaching English in Taiwan in the 80’s a number of my businessmen/students insisted that Taiwan was going to really crack down on IP violations because Taiwanese companies were finding it harder and harder to license really cool technology from overseas because of IP concerns.

Wang Luobin’s case seems to show a domestic, or at least inter-Asian reason to adopt the form of copyright. As China is deluged in ‘cheap,’ ‘fake,’ ‘copies’ a copyright is a way of assuring consumers that this is real. In the case of folksongs authenticity is more important than it might be elsewhere, but it might matter in lots of contexts. I’m not sure its a good thing, of course, but it does seem that we are moving towards “copyright with Chinese characteristics.”

ASPAC Notes: Demographics and States

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 6:32 am

Historian of Empires Niall Ferguson [via Ralph Luker] recently wrote:

Since 1989, the Russian mortality rate has risen from below 11 per 1,000 to more than 15 per 1,000 – nearly double the American rate. For adult males, the mortality rate is three times higher. Average male life expectancy at birth is below 60, roughly the same as in Bangladesh. A 20-year-old Russian man has a less than 50/50 chance of reaching the age of 65.

Exacerbating the demographic effects of increased mortality has been a steep decline in the fertility rate, from 2.19 births per woman in the mid-1980s to a nadir of 1.17 in 1999. Because of these trends, the United Nations projects that Russia’s population will decline from 146 million in 2000 to 101 million in 2050. By that time the population of Egypt will be larger.

This echoes what Kyle Hatcher told us in his ASPAC paper (panel 1) on Chinese migrants to the Russian Far East (RFE). Like so many nations with declining populations (and the RFE is declining faster, I suspect, than the rest of Russia), immigration could be a key component of economic and social revitalization. But Russia, like so many of the nations struggling with this issue, is unaccustomed to integrating immigrants. Mr. Hatcher’s work involved surveying Russians about their attitudes towards Chinese immigrants, and what he found is not good news.

Russian attitudes towards Chinese immigrants are terrible. They are viewed as untrustworthy, insular and territorially aggressive. They are considered a drain on the economy, taking jobs away from locals and putting very little back into local businesses. Russian immigration laws have been steadily tightening over the last few years, making casual labor migration across the border more difficult (and likely expanding illegal migration). This is fueled in large part, Hatcher found, by a vicious and shameless press, which plays up stories of Chinese crimes, overestimates the numbers of legal and illegal Chinese immigrants, and regularly cites anti-Chinese nationalistic scholars and politicians.

In fact, Chinese work at jobs in the RFE that Russians won’t do, even tough unemployment among ethnic Russians is very high. And Chinese buy most of their goods from Russian-owned businesses who make no effort to cater specifically to Chinese tastes. China has shown little interest in the RFE territory, and even if it had, the numbers of immigrants (at best guess) is well below the levels at which rational observers would consider it a threat of separtism, etc. Chinese immigration offers the RFE’s primary extraction industries (logging, fishing, furs, mining) and decaying mercantile economy their best chance of revitalization, but Chinese are not welcome.

For obvious economic reasons, many Chinese have gone to the RFE (the numbers are in the tens of thousands, at least), but legal and social restrictions make it impossible for the numbers to be large enough to make up Russia’s demographic and economic and institutional weaknesses. The starkly different social and economic conditions on either side of the Russia-China border call the concept of this as a “region” into question; I’ve never entirely bought the argument that Russia was an “Asian Power” just because it had some Pacific Rim beachfront. Interestingly, Chinese labor in the RFE had a “heyday” in the early 20th century, but was pushed out by increasingly nationalistic positions, culminating in the almost total removal of Chinese from the RFE at the time of the Sino-Soviet split in the late ’50s.

Needless to say, Russia’s post-Soviet collapse is of great concern to China (and, as Niall Ferguson points out in the essay cited above, the Chinese model of economic development without political liberalization is very intriguing, if unreachable, to many Russians) and the continuing decline and instability of the northern Pacific region has to be counted as a problem that will have to be addressed at some point in the future.


One-Child Policy as History

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:14 am

I just finished teaching 20th century China, and the three biggest issues in the last section of the course were clearly economic growth, political liberalization and the one-child policy. All three of these are ongoing processes — some more potential than reality — so all I could really say, in the end, was “stay tuned.” It turns out that these processes may be more closely related than I thought, as pointed out in this review [registration required] of Vanessa L. Fong’s Only Hope: Coming of Age Under China’s One-Child Policy (Stanford University Press, 2004).

Fong argues, if the review is correct, that the one-child policy was not just an attempt at gross demographic relief but also a plan for economic development through cultural, even psychological, engineering. “Her central claim is that the policy was designed ‘to create a generation of ambitious, well-educated children who would lead their country into the First World, [and it] succeeded, but at a price’ (pp. 2-3).” Fong argues that the one-child policy has raised the status of female children within the family: families are more willing to invest effort in girls when they have no boys as an alternative. Fong also points out that parents are willing to make extraordinary sacrifices for their childrens’ education — the brief discussion of university entrance exams in the review was, of course, reminiscent of Japan’s “examination hell” of past decades — and upbringing when they have only one in whom to invest all their hopes and ambitions.

This is “the cultural model of modernization” in action, we’re told: channeling the aspirations of traditional families into education, which is seen as fundamentally modern, as a route economic success, which is seen as beneficial to society generally. It doesn’t matter, apparently, that Japan’s modernization was in the opposite direction: Japan’s de facto one-child policy families are a result of industrial economic growth which drove cultural change and, consequently, raised the status of education which, in turn, lowered birth rates, etc. It might be less of a process and more of a cluster of co-dependent variables, if Fong is correct and if the founder of the one-child policy really had this in mind.

A few thoughts come to mind: it may well be true that one-child raises the status of girls within the family, for families that have only one girl. This is plausible, but has to be mitigated by the obvious (and accelerating) gender gap in births which indicates the strong survival of patriarchal and patrilineal patterns. There’s also a significant question as to whether one-child policy is viable in a more mobile society — and mobility is so often both an engine and effect of modernity — where strict work-group monitoring is impossible. So it may turn out to be an episode rather than a pattern. And I’d like to hear from someone who is more familiar with the origins of China’s demographic intervention as to whether Fong’s impression of the policy as a component of a planned jump-start to modernization is indeed born out by the historical record.

Self-Intro: Vincent S. Leung

Filed under: — Vincent Leung @ 3:06 am

Hi, everyone. This is Vincent Leung, a PhD student in Chinese history at Harvard. I just finished my third year in the program, and hopefully after my general examination this September, I can at last proceed to writing my dissertation. My research interest is on the political and intellectual history of early China, particularly the late Warring States and the Han empire (ca. 300 BC-AD 200). More specifically, I want to study the “imperial formation” during this period, which led up to the first bureaucratic empire in the Central Plains, looking at things like the territorial expansion, monetary policy, allocation of natural resources, and not the least, its ideological state apparatuses.

Before doing my PhD, I did a masters in East Asian Studies at Harvard. And before that, I was a math/econ major at UMass Amherst. In my more quixotic days back in college, I did want to do grad work in math, but alas, soon enough I found that I was not really cut out for it. I am glad, though, that I did bump into History, esp. early Chinese history. The received materials from early China, texts or otherwise, are exciting enough, despite their relative paucity, but all the excavated texts from the past few decades are simply incredible. Tens of thousands of them are just now sitting in museums waiting for people to work on them. And I sure hope I can dig my hands into them when I go aborad sometime in the next couple of years in China.

Let’s see — what else should I put in this intro? Perhaps I should mention the fact that I am originally from Hong Kong, where I grew up. I do a little bit of Chinese calligraphy on the side, though hardly anymore these days, and also (try to) study a bit of the early (political) history of Chinese Buddhism.

Thanks Konrad for inviting me to this blog! This is actually the first blog that I’ve joined, so it should be exciting. Very much look forward to our exchanges in the coming months!


Recycling images

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:19 pm

This picture should of course be familiar to a many of our readers. It’s from 点石斋画报, probably the most famous of the late-19th century illustrated magazines. This is a source which has been used a lot by scholars, and there is a monograph by Ye Xiaoqing. Although the journal did lots of other images, as did its most famous artist Wu Youru, what it is mostly known for are little scenes of ordinary life, sometimes having to do with the western intrusion, sometime just with Chinese life (yes, a false distinction.) There is a certain tendency to show scenes of anomalies and strange events, but lots of good social history as well. They make a great teaching tool for all sorts of things.
Link to Picture

This particular image is about training “little hoodlums” (小流氓) as soldiers. These are little people (小矮人 in the modern paraphrase) who had been treated like hoodlums (liu mang means the floating population, and is usually a term of abuse), but if treated properly can they not become defenders of the nation? This of course lends itself to all sorts of teachable moments.

What interests me is the way these pictures have been reproduced over and over in the last decades. I first saw them in the mid 80’s in a huge string-bound edition published out of Guangzhou. Since then I have seen a number of nicely done modern editions, Don Cohen did some images with translations (Cohn, Don, ed. Vignettes From The Chinese: Lithographs from Shanghai in the Late Nineteenth Century. Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1987.) Fake images from the 点石斋 turn up on Ebay . A lot of the images seem to be somewhat faded, giving the impression that nobody has a really good original copy.

This image is from 上海旧闻 苏州:古吴轩出版社,2004。It is a fairly cheap paperback of about 200 pages. They also have books for 北京,南京,苏州,扬州,and 杭州. This one includes baihua paraphrases of the stories, which is why I found it so interesting. The original vignettes are often hard to make out, and even harder to understand, since they are in rather obscure Classical Chinese for my tastes, and, presumably, for a lot of buyers of this series. There seems to be a market for these pictures and stories of ordinary Chinese life.

One of my great disappointments in Art History class was Dr. Munakata telling me that in the Tang there were a lot of paintings of vignettes of ordinary life, and that we have the titles of many of them, but as they were not valued by later collectors, very few of them still exist. These 点石斋 images seem to be valued a great deal by the market, as there is presumably a great desire for valid and authentic (and illustrated) stories about social history. As the introduction to this volume puts it we can understand the changes in today’s society by looking at the past. Not probably a goal of most historians, but a good way to move product.

Of course lots we read different things back into this past. I note that the modern collections usually don’t include the bird and flower paintings I remember from the old Guangzhou edition. They also seem more likely to skip images of foreigners at home, and they have a lot fewer pictures of opium smoking. That people pick and choose what they want from history is of course not surprising, but I find it interesting that everyone, scholars, ordinary Chinese readers, publishers looking to make money, all keep coming back to this relatively small amount of stuff. A lot of what we would call “content” was generated in the Qing, and this one bit of it seems to be the wildly over-represented in the places we look for meaning.

If nothing else these pictures are an argument for stronger copyright laws in China. Various authors, artists and journalists came up with these pictures and texts and they are getting reproduced over and over, and presumably would be generating a fair amount of money if China had copyright going back to the Qing.

Labor and the public sphere

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:55 am

Via H-Asia I found China Law Digest, which seems to have a lot of interesting stuff. One of these is a story about migrant laborers in Fujian organizing themselves into unions (English version) along native-place lines, something that should be familiar to anyone who has read Bryna Goodman

One thing I found interesting was the state’s corporatist attitudte towards the whole thing, claiming that migrant workers need someone to represent them. Another is that they stress that they don’t have dues, but rather rely on voluntary contributions. The county denied that this is a “商会变成工会”, i.e. a bad thing, and the only fact they mention to support this is lack of dues. I assume mandatory payments bring up images of Green Gang style labor racketeering and maybe even the Maoist definition of exploitation. So even though the organization has never failed to get what it wanted (到现在还没有不成功), presumably at least in some cases in conflict with the state, as long as no exploitation is going on they are o.k.


Chinese Invasion

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:31 pm

As summer is here soon we may be getting reports of the dreaded Chinese Snakehead fish.


Invasive species are of course nothing new, but Zebra Mussels and Eurasian Water Millfoil don’t get near the panic reaction that Snakeheads do. In fact, other species are a concern mainly to the nature nut contingent. Snakeheads add the national purity set. And, of course, they come from China, and Chinese markets right here in the U.S. They can walk on land, so they may well flop into your house, devour the kids and replace them with orphaned Chinese girls, and re-program your TIVO to record only Cantonese game shows. Plus, when you ask Chinese how to deal with them they may suggest you eat them, which is disgusting and un-American.

Does China exist?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:15 pm

The question of China’s existence or non-existence in the eyes of foreigners is an old one. At least for the early European explorers China really did exist, and more so than most of the other places they visited. It had a government, a ruler, a national character. They were not primitives. All that changed, of course, and eventually China was not there. That was one of the justifications for the Japanese trying to take Taiwan, and probably other things as well. The Qing court did not do the things that a modern state was expected to do, most notably control territory and provide just justice, and therefore it was free ground for real nations to take over.
The Chinese, of course, also did not see themselves as a nation in the same sense that Westerners did. 中國﹐天下﹐孫中山的”一片散沙”etc. This led to a lot of bickering. Two quotes.

The first is an exchange from the American Philippine Commission’s Opium Committee, which toured Asia in 1903-4 looking into the opium situation. One of the people they interviewed was the Reverend Timothy Richards, who is identified as having been resident in China for thirty-three years, and is pretty clearly seen as speaking for China. (The Commission did have some Chinese merchants speak for China as well, but they were not very articulate.)

Q: Is there any Chinese government?
A: If a viceroy does not obey the central government, he will find himself high and dry. It is a government to that extent. The appointment of all high officials is in the hands of the central government.
(Baumler Modern China and Opium: A Reader p. 60)

This exchange takes place in the context of a discussion of Chinese opium suppression policies. China is not doing enough to reform its people to be considered a true state, but Richards does defend China by saying that there is at least a minimal amount of state structure.

The second is from the American journalist Hallet Abend, who was discussing China’s threat to walk out of the League’s opium control system.

Whatever Chinese delegate there has been at Geneva, whether he represented a government the authority of which did not extend beyond the walls of old Peking or whether he represented a government pretending to rule the whole country, China has seemed to regard the League as an organization to be used for bluff and intrigue.
These delegates in succession have not only refused to give facts concerning the growing amount of opium cultivation and opium smoking in China, but by distortion of facts have sought to place upon Great Britain and Japan the blame for the great quantities of narcotics now consumed in China.
The League has sought to keep China as a satisfied member because the Chinese delegate, after all, was the sole representative of an enormous and thickly populated part of Asia, but it has been farcical to pretend that under present conditions China could participate seriously on questions like opium, disarmament, labor legislation or child welfare.
(New York Times Apr. 21, 1929.)

For Abend a nation is capable of collecting facts (and not lying about them), but also participates in the improvement of its own people. Defining a state is now going away from state formations and towards having something like a public sphere and a citizenry. My question is where China sits today. In the early 20th century a nation was pretty clearly defined as a state with power. Today in the western press there is a lot of talk about how China is on the brink of chaos, how it is a place where the rules of the universe (a Rolex is a Rolex) don’t really apply, businessmen are greedy, etc. All this is despite the fact that China clearly does have a government an army and an economy. Where is the locus of place-ness now? Why are we (Americans rather than academics) so uncomfortable with China?

-China does not fit. This works both culturally and politically. China does not bow before Hollywood, both because of pirated DVDs and because Michelle Yeoh could kick Steven Segal’s ass. China is also the only country in the world that still has a 19th-century power politics relationship with the U.S. China is powerful enough that they can tell the Americans to kiss off, and war is a real possibility in the way it is not with Japan and the E.U. China is an exception in almost every way.

-China does not articulate very well where it is going. 1989 was supposed to be a sign that liberal democracy was coming to China, and while it may yet, China’s future path does not really fit any known model. Many people know what the relationship between an editorial in “Le Monde” and “France” is, but what is the Chinese equivalent? China seems to have lots of power and money, too much in fact, but not enough society and transparency.

A lot of this is of course just laziness on the part of Western elites. China is thinkable, and if it is a bit of a special case it is big enough to be worth the mental effort needed to figure it out. It is also caused in part by poor work on the part of professional China interpreters. So, what exactly is it that makes a place a place, and which of these things does China have?


Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:42 am

Member introduction.

I would like to thank Konrad for his invitation to join up, and say that I look forward to being a part of this blog.
I suppose I should start off with a bit of biography. I sort of drifted into this field as an undergraduate. I started out my career (at Northern Illinois University) as a business major. I had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up, but I did assume that after college I would get a job, and business seemed to be connected to jobs. After determining that I did not want to be a business major, I switched to History, mostly because I liked the stories (many of them not true, sadly) that Mr Yohe used to tell in High School history class. Really, I was trying to find something that would interest me enough that I would eventually graduate from college, even if I ended up starving afterwards. I spent a couple of very enjoyable years majoring in History that meet after noon. I realized that teaching was the only option if I wanted to eat as a historian, and I had no interest in education classes, so that meant grad school, not that I really knew what that meant. I knew I did not want to do U.S. history, and I knew I did not want to do China. I’m not sure if it was Pearl Buck or James Clavell who gave me this impression, but I had this hazy idea of China as a despotism
that was inhabited by pathetic peasants.
was coolMexico was cool. China was not. I took one Chinese history class on the assumption that I should know something about the place. I’m still not entirely sure why I was so interested in that class. This was long enough ago that the lecturer actually read from yellowed notes he had written out in longhand. I’m not quite sure why I liked Chinese history so much. The fact that there was a lot of it helped. All the other places I studied were bits of something larger. China was a host in itself. Also, I thought learning Chinese would be a challenge.

I mention all this in part because it seems completely inadequate. Now I’m an academic and a China person, and it is hard to imagine being anything else, but when I look back the reasons I had at the time seem silly and almost random. Apparently there is a lot of path dependence in what we do. Most of the rest of my life has been shaped by the casual decisions (and stubbornness) of a kid who was uniformed not only about China but also about academia and most other things. My professors probably had some point to a lot of what they were doing, but I had no idea what it was. They tossed out lots of interesting things, and I picked some of them at random and held on to them.

I also mention it because studying China seems to call for a lot of explanation, at least around here. I’ve given versions of the
above a zillion times. There are parts of the world and the U.S. where the coming Chinese century is obvious and dealing with it or profiting from it seem to be things that are well worth doing. The chief question in Western PA is why holes in the ground that used to contain coal no longer contain coal and what can be done about it. Explaining to people why they should care about China is part of what I do, and like most academics I am wound up enough in study in general and in China in particular that it is hard for me to get outside it and explain why anyone else should care.

This ties directly into why anyone should read this blog. Some blogs are worth reading because the people who post to them are interesting Clearly not a reason to read what I write. Some are funny.Some blogs are written by experts who will tell you things any informed citizen needs to know. I suppose my current tendency is to post on things that interest me and assume that occasionally they will intersect with a larger conversation, but mostly it will just be talking to a small group of people, and as often as not only to myself. This is sort of typical for China academics, I think, since we are always part of the narratives that society and academia want to tell. China is too big to be left out (unlike, say, Korea) and we can always get into a
if we want to. On the other hand we can also go off in our own weird little
world. I like both approaches, but I suppose that place I like best is somewhere between
I will try to post something about my current work soon, but this is enough of a trial to your patience for the moment. I will also try to figure out Word Press’s formatting a little better


Chinese Civil War Mystery

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:37 am

I’ll do a China-relevant self-introduction later (you can read my Frog in a Well: Japan self-introduction, if you’re really curious) , but I just ran across a very interesting article via HNN’s Breaking News: The mystery of the only Chinese Army officer buried in Arlington National Cemetary. The grave marker reads “Nia-chien Liu, Major, Chinese Army. October 19, 1946,” and the burial records suggest a Protestant service. Based on the date of death the article says that Liu was likely a Guomindang officer. Historians familiar with OSS/CIA operations in China were consulted, but had little to offer.

So, if anyone’s doing archival research this summer on the Civil War era, keep an eye out!

Next Page »

Powered by WordPress