Hot Topics: Zheng He

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:31 pm

This year is the six hundreth anniversary of the first voyage of Zheng He, notes the New York Times. The article makes no mention of Menzie’s 1421 thesis, which leads me to hope that that particular wave has crested. It does, however, spend considerable time on NYTimes’ own Kristof’s favorite factoid: Africans descended from Chinese sailors. Also on contemporary naval defense issues.



Filed under: — Matthew Mosca @ 4:31 pm

Hi, Everyone,
To belatedly introduce myself, I’m Matthew Mosca, currently a doctoral candidate in the program in History and East Asian Languages at Harvard. My dissertation is on the subject of Qing-era views of India, and my research looks at geographic scholarship and Qing foreign relations. On a personal note, I was born and raised in Vancouver, BC, where I received my BA from UBC, and I will be going to Beijing in September (and Taiwan in February) to conduct archival research for a year.

I’ll take this opportunity to recommend warmly “The Man Awakened from Dreams,” by Henrietta Harrison, which I have just finished reading. It chronicles the life of one Liu Dapeng (1857-1942), a juren and self-consciously strict Confucian, who lived near Taiyuan in Shanxi and has left a lengthy diary. I found the subject quite interesting: Liu was thoroughly acquainted with life under the Qing and under the Republic, and his professions included scholarship, commerce and agriculture; his sphere of activity and thought was quite broad, and some part of the book is certain to be of interest to a student of Chinese history. His attitude to newspapers, democracy, coal mining, familial relations and the like are examined, and they do not always conform to what one might expect of a rural Confucian. Konrad might be interested by his contact with the Japanese (pp. 159-65). My unscientific opinion is that detailed, scholarly biographies of ‘ordinary’ people are fairly rare in the field of Chinese history, so this work is a valuable addition.

I was impressed by Harrison’s restraint: there are only 170 pages of text, and those well-written. The book is organized according to different spheres of activity, and is roughly chronological. Given the scope of the diary she was working with, and the myriad opportunities for detailed Sinological digression, it could have been a much longer work, but on balance I think her treatment captures the essential topics and moments succinctly – and after all, I imagine it’s much harder to write a good short book than a long one. This would probably be a useful book for teaching undergraduates, especially those prone to making simple judgments about China. It would probably also appeal to the non-specialist (perhaps for this reason it’s immediately available in an affordable and rather attractive paperback – see amazon if you’d like to read a few pages online). I will add the caveat that this book is outside of my normal sphere of ‘High Qing’ research, so I have probably missed points in the work (and its arguments) that would arouse immediate interest or disagreement in a student of Republican China.


Should grad students blog?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:00 am

There was a rather nasty piece on academic blogging in the Chronicle. Comments at Bitch Ph.D. The basic thrust of it is that grad students should not have blogs because hiring committees will look at them and not hire you because of the awful things you will reveal about yourself.

First, I would suggest that whoever did not get hired by the department that the Chronicle author worked for was a very lucky person. That the committee spent so much time looking into blogs and rejecting people for really trivial reasons makes it look like a truly awful department. My take on this is a tad different than some, since I have been a tenured faculty member for a long time now (almost a month.) I have also never really been without a job. The very first time I went on an interview I was ushered into the antechamber of the Human Resources person. As I was waiting I heard two secretaries discussing me, and one asked the other if I was not, in fact, the person they had already decided to hire. She was told that that was the case, but that they still had to go through with the interview. A nice tension-breaker, and as a result, every interview I have ever been on I have been asking myself if I would be happier here than at the job I already have, rather than the more normal question of “How do I have to debase myself in order to get this job and keep eating.” I have also never had to worry too much about being stuck at a place that was unworthy of a scholar of my caliber, since my modesty about my abilities (or my modest abilities, take your pick) keep my out of the status game to some extent.

On the hiring committees I have been on I suppose I would have liked to have looked at blogs, since one of the questions I always asked was who this person was and how they would fit into what we do. This is not the dreaded “collegiality” question that K.C. Johnson talks about, or at least I don’t think it is. Our department, at least, takes teaching with some seriousness, and teaching the majors in particular is a group project, and people who don’t care about that are less attractive candidates. Of course people rarely say “I could care less about teaching” and never say they are bad at it. You have to guess at that from very little information, and anything you can learn about the person is interesting.

As a historian I am interested in people’s scholarly work in a different way than my colleagues in the sciences, since I am not going to collaborate with them directly. Like every other academic department, part of your success rubs off on us, so it would be good if you made a name in your field. Will you be a success in your field? That I can get, sort of from your letters and looking at your work. What I at least am more worried about is how you will fit into the intellectual life of the department. Are you an interesting person who will want to answer my questions about your field, ask me interesting questions about mine? Will you end up with a lot of undergrads who want to do an honors thesis with you? Will you do interesting topics classes? Did you come up with an interesting dissertation topic because your advisor handed it to you, or will you be able to do it again? Those things you get through conversation, and presumably, through reading someone’s blog.

Of course you may not be looking for a job at a place like this. Frankly, even if it’s Harvard or bust (and realistically it’s probably Boston College consumed with bitterness) I find it hard to imagine how having a blog would hurt you. People can be happy at places where the whole department lives in their little cubbyholes and the only shared intellectual life is figuring out how to unjam the copier. At a place like that I would assume that all they really care about is how much stuff you pump out, and your passion for mountain climbing or Shonen Knife is pretty much irrelevant. There are departments, like that of the Chronicle writer, where the faculty have trained their wills to the domination of others through years in the classroom, and look at junior faculty as a particularly tasty carcass to be dismembered, but do you really want that job?

Finally, in my opinion, talking about academic things, wherever you do it, is what we do, and if you don’t like doing it, you should find another line of work. Yes, you are sort of exposing yourself in a blog, and it is sort of an unequal relationship with a hiring committee, but that is how any hiring process works. You are trying to display things about yourself that will make people want to hire you. Being an academic is always sort of exposing yourself. You publish something and you are, to some extent, stuck with it. Say something in class and be assured that every major in the department will re-tell the story. The only way to avoid any danger is to never say anything worth repeating.


7/7 and a Wartime Dictionary

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 9:30 am

While I’m spending the summer studying Korean in Seoul, one of the books I brought with me for some recreational reading is a Chinese wartime dictionary (“encyclopedia”) with mostly political and historical terms. It is often quite arbitrary with entries on everything from Lappland to one on Owen Lattimore. It is about 370 pages in length, with 10-20 entries per page, plus a timeline of events beginning with the Manchurian Incident in 1931 and up to July 1942, when it was published.

文化供應社《抗戰建國實用百科辭典》文化供應社, 1942.

Dictionaries like these, which have an almanac feel to them, give you a great look at what terms and events are viewed as important by contemporaries, and are thus great background reading for historians interested in getting a flavor for that particular period.

There are also other interesting things to note about some of the events it includes descriptions of. For example, some 68 years ago today fighting broke out between Japanese and Chinese forces at Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing and those historians who find such issues interesting still find great room for disagreement over exactly how and who bears greater responsibility for that particular skirmish. It has great symbolic importance, however, as it has traditionally come to date the beginning of the most open phase of prolonged conflict between the two countries and Japanese aggression throughout China. You can find a special article remembering the event in the People’s Daily. To use Allen S. Whiting’s term, this is also one of the “war recall” days in the Chinese media. Like other such symbolic days in August (end of the war), September (Manchurian incident), and December (Nanjing massacre) there are usually a great swelling of articles, publications, and protests related to Japan.

In this dictionary, however, there is no entry for 七七事變, which is probably the most common name by which the Marco Polo incident has come to be known among Chinese today. A small entry under 七七紀念 simply tells the reader to see 蘆溝橋事變. That second term, explicitly referring to the bridge, is the most common name today in Japan and in English, but is slightly less commonly used in China. 七七事變 must thus have become the standard Chinese term at some later point. Both terms are listed in the People’s Daily article today. The only reason I mention this minor point is that today is also a tragic one for London, as the city has been hit by a serious terrorist attack. If, like 9/11, it comes to be remembered as 7/7 or the 7/7 Incident, there will be something of a nomenclaturial clash in Chinese.

However, in addition to the amusement and information provided by reading the occasional entry, this particular copy of the dictionary is interesting in other ways. I snagged my copy from the Harvard-Yenching library, fairly confident that this particular volume would not be recalled over the summer while I was away since it hasn’t been checked out in over a decade. The copy is stamped “Rec’d thru Dr. Fairbank” on the cover. Although we shouldn’t judge a book’s history by its cover, perhaps the Fairbank picked up the copy while he was in the Nationalist stronghold of Chongqing during the war. Regardless, the book went through something of a mangling, mostly likely at the hands of Nationalist government censors (it was published in Guilin, Guangxi province). Some 63 of the entries, including the entry words themselves, are completely blacked out by a black brush or marker of some sort…



Frog in a Well

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 3:54 pm

I’ve noticed that while we call this blog Frog in a Well, we have never actually posted the story. This is from Burton Watson’s translation of Zhuangzi.

Kung-sun Lung said to Prince Mou of Wei, “When I was young I studied the Way of the former kings, and when I grew older I came to understand the conduct of benevolence and righteousness. I reconciled difference and sameness, distinguished hardness and whiteness, and proved that not so the wisdom of the hundred schools and demolished the arguments of a host of speakers. I believed that I had attained the highest degree of accomplishment. But now I have heard the words of Chuang Tzu and I am bewildered by their strangeness. I don’t know whether my arguments are not as good as his, or whether I am no match for him in understanding. I find now that I can’t even open my beak. May I ask what you advise?”

Prince Mou leaned on his armrest and gave a great sigh, and then he looked up at the sky and laughed, saying, “Haven’t you ever heard about the frog in the caved-in well? He said to the great turtle of the Eastern Sea, ‘What fun I have! I come out and hop around the railing of the well, or I go back in and take a rest in the wall where a tile has fallen out. When I dive in the water, I let it hold me up under the armpits and support my chin, and when I slip about in the mud, I bury my feet in it and let it come up over my ankles. I look around at the mosquito larvae and the crabs and polliwogs and I see that none of them can match me. To have complete command of the water of one whole valley and to monopolize all the joys of a caved-in well—this is the best there is! Why don’t you come some time and see for yourself?’

“But before the great turtle of the Eastern Sea had even gotten his left foot in the well his right knee was already wedged fast. He backed out and withdrew a little, and then began to describe the sea. ‘A distance of a thousand li cannot indicate its greatness; a depth of a thousand fathoms cannot express how deep it is. In the time of Yu there were floods for nine years out of ten, and yet its waters never rose. In the time of T’ang there were droughts for seven years out of eight and yet its shores never receded. Never to alter or shift, whether for and instant or an eternity; never to advance or recede, whether the quantity of water flowing in is great or small—this is the great delight of the Eastern Sea!

“When the frog in the caved-in well heard this, he was dumfounded with surprise, crestfallen, and completely at a loss. Now your knowledge cannot even define the borders of right and wrong, and still you try to see through the words of Chuang Tzu—this is like trying to make a mosquito carry a mountain on its back or a pill bug race across the Yellow River. You will never be up to the task!

He whose understanding cannot grasp these minute and subtle words, but is only fit to win some temporary gain—is he not like the frog in the caved-in well? Chuang Tzu, now—at this very moment he is treading the Yellow Springs or leaping up to the vast blue. To him there is no north or south—in utter freedom he dissolves himself in the four directions and drowns himself in the unfathomable. To him there is no east or west—he begins in the Dark Obscurity and returns to the Great Thoroughfare. Now you come niggling along and try to spy him out or fix some name to him, but this is like using a tube to scan the sky or an awl to measure the depth of the earth—the instrument is too small, never heard about the young boy of Shou-ling who went to learn the Han-tan Walk. He hadn’t mastered what the Hantan people had to teach him when he forgot his old way of walking, so that he had to crawl all the way back home. Now if you don’t get on your way, you’re likely to forget what you knew before and be out of a job!”

Kung-sun Lung’s mouth fell open and wouldn’t stay closed. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth and wouldn’t come down. In the end he broke into a run and fled.


Grain supply and military logistics in 18th century China.

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:38 am

Reading Perdue’s China Marches West I was struck by how much historians are constrained by our sources and how we strain against them. The book itself (which is very good) is about the expansion of the Qing empire into Central Asia. This is a hot topic at present, and this book is pretty much the center of the trend towards taking China’s relationship with the non-Chinese Asia more seriously.

One of the things that Perdue spends a lot of time on, obviously, are the Qing military campaigns that ended in the conquest of Central Asia, specifically the campaigns against the Zunghars (1690-1697) The thing I found most interesting was Perdue’s emphasis on logistics and grain supply. He spends a lot of time talking about ways that the Qing tried to encourage private merchants to bring grain to the frontier. Supplies for remote regions were a long-standing problem in Chinese statecraft. From military colonies, where the soldiers were supposed to rise their own grain, to Ming experiments with encouraging private merchants to bring grain to the frontier in exchange for the right to participate in the salt monopoly to Qing distribution of cash (rather than grain) there was a long history of attempts to support big armies as cheaply as possible.

One of the things I like about this section is that Perdue can go into incredible detail about price levels, debates over grain policy, and local market conditions. Besides fulfilling my dreams of being a Qing dynasty grain-policy wonk, I like reading about topics of governance that might have turned up on the civil service exams. As historians we often bring very different interests to our sources than their creators do, which is fine, but in this case, and in a few others I can think of we are really peering into a debate which is to some extent still the same one that was defined by Qing officials and to some extent it is still debated in the same way.

On the other hand, Perdue also brings a very different set of concerns to his material. He is pretty obviously interested in the extent to which the Qing were able to harness market forces to do their work for them, and thus the extent they were a really modern government. He is not a sprouts of capitalism reductionist, but he is clearly interested in questions that would not have occurred to the people he is studying. This is true of other people who study grain as well, (Wong and Will come to mind.) If you want to analyze the Qing economy or Qing economic policy making, the best data is in grain, but the data was generated by a bureaucracy that was concerned with issues like “nurturing the people” rather than encouraging economic growth. Perdue says that “As the commercial economy expanded on the frontier, the Qing sought to tap the new flow of resources for the benefit of local stability. Shifting away from their primary dependence on the land tax, officials looked for new sources of support from trade.”(p.369) The goal, promoting local stability, is one that Qing officials would embrace, the method of embracing the market is a modern idea. (Not that there is anything wrong with that.)

Perdue is a very good historian, and he does not let his interest in the magic of markets run away with him. (An important point when writing on the interweb, where the opposite is usually true.) He is writing about a time and place where markets were limited and did not work “right.” Gansu suffered from “bumper crop famines” where good harvests one year would lead to famines the next as farmers lacked the capital, and probably the market savvy, to store their cheap grain. The state eventually stepped in to establish a state granary system to prevent this problem, and eventually the province was commercialized enough that these famines disappeared. I would think that lots of good old-fashioned Qing officials would not be surprised that commercialization could lead to famine. Lots of modern economists would not be surprised that pushing on to a commercial economy would eliminate the problem. Perdue is a historian, however, and he is interested in the place in the middle.

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