Women hold up half of heaven

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:34 am

I recently got a postcard asking me to assign a pamphlet “Li Fengjin: How the New Marriage Law Helped Chinese Women Stand Up” translated by Susan Glosser and published by Opal Mogus Books. Somehow this postcard managed to beat the odds, and I actually looked at it on its quick trip to the circular file. The book is cheap (only $5.95) and students may actually read it, so I will probably end up using it next time I teach Modern China.

There are lots of interesting things in it. The story is about Li Fengjin, a woman who is trapped in an arranged marriage with a brutal husband and, eventually, manages to get out of it with the help of the 1950 Marriage Law, the text of which is attached. As always, the most interesting parts are those that don’t entirely manage to shake off the old ways. At one point when she has fled her husband’s house she meets up with a man Gu Shujin, and eventually ends up “shacking up” with him. The word ‘love’ is never used in connection with this relationship. This is something that always causes my students problems. Some of them watched Red Sorghum and they were mystified by the central relationship, since the woman and the man never showed the slightest interest in each other. My explanation was that a love relationship is a good modern thing, but too much interest in the other makes the woman a slut and the man a rake. So you fall in love, and everyone knows you are in love because you never give any sign of it. You are acting modern by rejecting the old feudal relationship of marriage but you need to preserve the proprieties or else you fall into another feudal relationship based on lust. So liberation and what we would call prudishness go hand in hand.
Feng Two

On the other hand, in the panel above Li Fengjin is standing in the doorway in what both Glosser and I see as a very provocative pose, as if the authors were trying to show that sexual desire could be acceptable in some contexts.
Feng Three

The Party does not come out all that well in this. One of the things about all of this immediate post-49 stuff is that it is aimed at much at lower level party members as at the masses. Li Fengjin asks the township chief for a divorce, but he turns her down since she can’t repay the 20 dan of rice her family got for her. The Chief is presented as a good person (peasant) who does not yet understand the party line. Actually, even his initial position of allowing a divorce after compensation is pretty revolutionary After a brief public self-criticism he comes around. This is sort of a stock character in these sorts of stories, the person who is on the road to revolution but has not gotten there yet. Revolution as a process that everyone is going through, rather than something imposed from above.

Feng One

Frankly even at the top the Party is not quite revolutionized. At the very end Gu Shujin informs his new wife that they need to work hard at production and supporting the front to “return the government’s benevolence”, possibly the most traditionally way to express the relationship between the state and the people that I can think of.

Opal Mogus does not google, but you can e-mail them at opalmogusbooks at yahoo


Gresham’s Law

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:34 pm

The Great Yuan—how grave and dignified,
Its authority by the crafty and duplicitous monopolized.
‘Repairing’ the Yellow River dikes [1351], ‘reforming’ the
paper currency [1350],
These calamities set off the Red Turbans by the host.
Too many laws, punishments too harsh—that’s incited
the people’s wrath.
People eating people, cheap money buying out dear—
Nothing like this seen in former years.
Bandits in office, officials in gangs; Alas! What a pity,
Muddling together the worthy and the dumb.

Tao Zhongyi recorded this poem in the 1350s and claimed that it was popular with “folks from the capital all the way to Jiangnan.” I am always suspicious of sources like this. There was a long tradition, supposedly going all the way back to the Book of Songs and definitely going as far back as the Han, of elites collecting folk songs as a way of judging the popular mood. As a historian you have to question what “folks” means here. Are these really songs sung by commoners? On the other hand you have to appreciate that members of the elite find it appropriate to try and speak with the voice of the common people.
The thing that really struck me about this one was the fairly clear statement of Gresham’s Law in the fourth line from the end. Actually, a bit of googling quickly showed that Gresham’s law (Bad money drives out good) is older in the West than I had thought. More interestingly, this does not really seem to be Gresham’s Law, or at least it was not understood that way by the Chinese authors who wrote about it. According to wikipedia Gresham applies when two forms of money are available, one (bad money) with a larger spread between the face value and the commodity value. This was not how Chinese economic thinkers looked at it, however. According to von Glahn Fountain of Fortune: Money and Monetary Policy in China, 1000-1700 California U.P. 1996 Chinese monetary theory usually assumed that “the purchasing power of the medium of exchange was solely a result of its quantity, in the form of money, in relationship to the supply of all other commodities.”(p.33) That paper money had no intrinsic value was not a problem, since Chinese money was usually seen as fiat. This explains why the Chinese started using paper money so much earlier than anyone else.
There were strains of metalism, the idea that the value of money was based on the metal in it, in Chinese thought, and apparently especially among the commoners. Keeping the volume of money appropriate and making paper convertible to coin were the mainstays of policy when the paper currency was functioning well. I get the impression that convertibility was seen as more of a sop to the commoners, who favored coin as a better store of value, a use of money that the state was not as concerned with. So yes, the currency was collapsing, and yes the quote seems to be Gresham’s Law, but the understanding of money is completely different.

I’m probably misunderstanding something here, of course.

Poem from Paul Jakov Smith “Impressions of the Song-Yuan-Ming Transition” in Smith and von Glahn The Song-Yuan-Ming Transition in Chinese History Harvard U.P. 2003


Boundaries within Asia

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:44 am

Interesting article on the problem understanding Central Asia: the first problem is that nobody agrees on what or where it is. Apparently, East Asianists — China scholars, mostly — are a big part of the problem. Funny, though, since that’s where most of the actual research seems to come from. Yes, it’s a distorted historiography, as most “influence” oriented scholarship tends to be. But almost all non-Western societies start out being studied in relation to better known regions: it’s a hallmark of the early stages of a field, and it’s something that will, if the article’s comments about the rising tide of scholars from Central Asia are sound, be rectified in the next generation, as these things are.

Amusing non sequitur: An entire blog devoted to exposing badly used Chinese characters in the West, particularly in tatoos. [via]


The Chairman vanishes (but is found again!)

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:07 am

One of the nice things about teaching modern China is that the Communists, as a text-centered party, wrote a lot of things. A lot of them have been translated into English which makes them easy to give to students. One of the things our department is currently doing is compiling a database of historical images that people can use while teaching. I have always used a lot of images while teaching (helps to keep them awake) and one of the things I find interesting about this is that lots of the images are pretty much useless if you are teaching at various different levels. For example, Kahn’s Monarchy in the Emperor’s eyes has a series of pictures of the Qianlong emperor in all of his various roles (warrior, Buddhist, martial-arts hero etc.) which work well in a class where you are talking about the Qing monarchy in a fairly fine-grained sort of way. They are not that useful for an East Asian survey, and even less useful for our gen ed. class. On the other hand, the easily google-able image of Chinese junks being blown up in the Opium War works well in the gen-ed class but is not really useful in a China class to make any point beyond “China lost the war.” (In general I like to use images that actually say something. Putting Zhang Zhidong’s portrait up on the wall does not accomplish much.) The bits and pieces of history that are easiest to find and use are those that serve a lot of purposes.

Mao and his texts are the best example of this. There is the Little Red Book. The Chinese Communist party of published his Selected Works. V. 1-5. Apparently a group of Indian Maoists collected another four volumes of Mao’s other works that were not part of the official cannon. So you have Red Book stuff that is quite cryptic to anyone who has not immersed themselves in Maoism, which works well if you have gotten yourself and your students to that point. Then there are the Selected Works things, which tend to be broader and more accessible. The additional volumes have a bunch of stuff that is by Mao, but really more May 4th than Maoist, as well as a lot of later speeches that would work well for fairly detailed work on post-49 China.

All of this Mao stuff was put on-line by the Communist party of Peru in 1999. Alas, some time in 2004 the site went down, and all of my syllabus links died. Thanks to the wayback machine, however, it is still possible to find all this stuff (along with the works of Chairman Gonzolo of the PCP.)


Windschuttle on Mao

Filed under: — katrina @ 6:35 am

I am feeling very remiss for not having posted since Konrad gave me a log-in. I am a PhD student at Cambridge looking at China and Southeast Asia. My dissertation is (currently – it has undergone some metamorphoses) on social change as reflected in women’s writing 1880-1920.

I came across something a couple of days ago that I thought merited a post. This article from the New Criterion is of interest, discussing broadly the history of Western writers who were sympathetic to Mao, and how they influenced opinion in the West, and how the new Chang/Halliday book will change views on China. (a log-in may be required at the New Criterion site, don’t worry it is free)
I don’t know whether Winschuttle is overstating it, but then he is a controversialist. (and anyone in history should read his The Killing of History for a strong analysis on the culture wars within the discipline).


Act Now! Don’t Delay!

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:04 pm

Send me [dresner at hawaii dot edu] your nominations of your best Asian history blogging in time for tomorrow’s Inaugural Asian History Carnival! Remember, if I don’t get a nomination, I might pick something of yours myself, and you can’t trust my judgement!


The modern Confucius

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:48 am

An advertisement from the 20’s or 30’s, reprinted in上海广告. 上海:上海画报出版社, 1995.

This ad is for Golden Arrow cigarettes, and it announces a special contest. If you collect 72 of the trading cards in the packs you can trade them in for one of the cool modern commodities on the lower left: a cigarette case, a “stylish” raincoat, a watch, or a suitcase (perfect for your next train trip.) For 72 regular cards and one special card you can get a gold cigarette case, a radio, a pair of gold rings, or your own rickshaw. One assumes the smoker is going to hire someone to pull the thing for them, rather than going into business themselves.

The thing that really surprises me is that the cards all have pictures of Confucians. I realize that Confucius and co. had a much more varied history in the 20th century than one would think from reading May 4th polemics, but still the juxtaposition between the Big C and this cornucopia of commercial modernity is a little jarring for me. The students found it that way too, which is good, I guess, in that they have reached the point of not being able to explain the same things I can’t explain. Plus they are very forgiving of my being able to point things out but not explain them.

I seem to be blogging a lot about teaching of late, and this is something I used in class last night. Both I and the textbook (Schoppa) talk a lot about creating modernity and modern identities and such. Most of this focuses on state attempts to reform people, or at least the attempts of intellectuals. Like a lot of other people I also like to get away, when I can, from the political/revolutionary narrative, which is always hard to do in part because everything in 20th century China ends up getting reflected through the revolution. Unfortunately we (meaning I) are still at the stage of pointing at things that are outside the revolutionary narrative but not being able to name them.

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