Nomads and China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:03 am

As the final installment in our exciting series of syllabus posts I present my last class for the semester, Nomadic Empires and China It is a topics class, so it is supposed to get our majors to do more focused historical work (the bulk of our upper-divisions are surveys, Modern Japan, Modern Italy, Colonial America, etc.) It is also supposed to get them to do some research. As I am already teaching it and may never teach it again I welcome any sort of comments but particularly any on things to watch out for/change for this semester.

The only really interesting thing about the syllabus is how new it is. A lot of work has been done on these topics in the last 20 years or so, and as a result the class is almost entirely different than it would have been had I taken it as an undergrad. That’s one of the reasons I picked it, of course. Lots of cool stuff and much of it in paperback. The Mote book is turning out to be particularly helpful. 80% of them bought it, even though it was optional.


Taiwanese Heroin

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:46 pm

It has been rainy rather than snowy around here of late, which is very unusual for this time of year. While walking in a cold wet rain I began to try and think of something that would make me feel better. Something that was cheap, would make me feel warm, and ideally make me spit horrible blood-red spit. Sadly the only thing that does that is betel nut, and you can’t get it in Pennsylvania.


Thinking about Taiwan and betel nut led me to do a bit of research that turned out to be pretty surprising.


Asia on the move

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:40 am

As we have been posting syllabi and asking for comments I thought I would do something radical and post one for a class that I will not be teaching until next Fall, in hopes of getting comments in time to do something about them.

The class is ASIA 200 the intro class for our Asian Studies minors. This will be the first time it has been taught, so I am not really sure how it will work out. We introduced it in part because Latin American Studies and Pan-African Studies have intro classes, but we don’t, and we figure that it will bring the students together. 1

The class is supposed to introduce as many parts of Asia as possible, and as many disciplinary approaches as possible. I organized it around a general theme of travel. The theme, of course, does not really matter, it’s just something to hang the course on. A lot of this is stuff that I am not really all that familiar with. What I wanted to do was find a range of interesting teachable things. I am really looking forward to the class, since one of the frustrations of this job is that I often read or see interesting things, but then I have no venue to teach about them. Now, with a bit of creativity, I do. Any advice about any of these topics, other better ways to do things, better sources etc. is very welcome. (more…)


Notes from the Chinese Underworld

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:32 am

I appear to have been guilty of smuggling, or at least receiving contraband goods. Probably the Triads or somebody like that was involved as well. Too cool.

While bouncing around the net I discovered that the American Department of Agriculture had banned the import of Sichuan peppercorns back in the 60s, apparently because they can carry a disease that affect citrus. Apparently this ban was not really enforced for a long time, but then it began to be enforced a few years ago, presumably in the general tightening up after 9/11. Then, even more recently, the ban was rescinded on the stipulation that all Sichuan peppercorns be heated before being shipped here. I have never had any trouble buying Sichuan peppercorns and it fact never knew it was illegal. 1 I have been keeping contraband in my kitchen, and never even knew it. (more…)


Rice Paddies

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:26 am

Following Jonathan’s lead, here is my syllabus for History of East Asia, more commonly known as Rice Paddies. I suppose the first question to answer is why I teach this class at all. Lots of people don’t any more. The idea that you can cover all of the history of East Asia in one class is a relic of the elder days. Fairbank created the basic course and called it Rice Paddies in the 1950s, and from there it spread. At one point offering any classes on the history of Asia mean you were some sort of uber-fancy sinological training institute. Rice Paddies was the class that colleges all over the country eventually started teaching, which meant that they had to hire someone to teach it, and add Asia as a regular part of the curriculum, thus providing me with a job. (Thank you John K. Fairbank.) (more…)


Menzies and the problem of the “Smoking Gun” document

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:23 am
1763 Chinese Map Claims to be copy of 1418 Map

Menzies’ thesis won’t die. Just when it seemed to be fading out (unless Menzies’ argument about Mongol exploration is really his next focus), along comes this map (discussed in more depth here; update: and with translations of the notations here, and much more discussion by actual map historians here) which claims to be a 1763 copy of a 1418 map of the world. The Economist story even cites it as a possible source for previously unexplained pre-Columbian maps showing (something vaguely resembling) the Americas!

Geoff Wade at the National University of Singapore (who has challenged Menzies before) provided a quick rebuttal to the Economist article, so I don’t have to

The map is an 18th century copy of a European map, as evidenced by the two hemispheres depicted, the continents shown and the non-maritime detailed depicted. It proves nothing other than the Chinese (and Japanese) were copying European maps. That your writer has contributed to the Menzies’ bandwagon and its continuing deception of the public is saddening. The support mentioned all comes from Mr Menzies’ band of acolytes and the claims have no academic support whatsoever.

He goes into some detail on both the maps and “experts” cited, and I’m sure H-Asia will be abuzz for a while on this topic.

There are two things that I find interesting about this, on first look.



Par for the course…

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:01 pm

I never thought I’d be citing Sports Illustrated here (Alan started it!) [via], but a Chinese historian has found references from over a thousand years ago to what he claims is the earliest known form of golf:

Professor Ling Hongling of Lanzhou University says he has uncovered evidence in a book called the Dongxuan Records that proves golf was played in China in AD 945.

The book, written during the Song Dynasty from AD 960 to AD 1279, claims the game was called chuiwan and was played with 10 different jewel-encrusted clubs, including a cuanbang — equivalent to a modern-day driver — and a shaobang — the ancient three-wood.

The term chui actually means “to hit” while wan is the term for a ball.

[H]e claims the game was imported to Europe by Mongol traders during the late Middle Ages.

[H]e claims a reference in the Dongxuan Records sees a prominent Chinese magistrate of the Nantang Dynasty (AD 937-975) instructing his daughter “to dig holes in the ground so that he might drive a ball into them with a purposely crafted stick.”

I was going to say “obviously, more research is needed” but then I realized that I really don’t care…. The evidence at the moment is decidedly thin — “smoking gun” traces rather than credible documentation — and there’ll be lots of heat back and forth with the Scottish, but it’s going to be a long time before there’s enough evidence to be worth revising the historical record. For one thing, is there any evidence that the Mongols played any such game or could have transmitted it any other way?

As the article says, “The Chinese have a history of making audacious claims to having invented sports,” not to mention everything else.

Lumpy Chinese History

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:54 am

There are a few places to go for archived syllabi — H-Net, ExEAS, I had a printed collection at one point, as well, then there’s the GMU Syllabus Finder — but not a lot of open discussion of course design. I’ve gotten help on sources, etc., from lists like H-Asia or by blogging questions (“bleg” means to “beg via blog” but it looks like “blech” to me so I won’t use it) and bothering old friends. But we need a more sustained discussion. So I’m going to inaugurate what I hope will be an ongoing series of posts here (and the other blogs about syllabi I’ve designed or am working on.

My only Asian history syllabus this semester is Hist 312: China I: Early China. It covers China up to about 1600: China II is Qing, including the Ming-Qing transition; China III is 20th century.

Early China is a great course: I keep toying with the idea of making it the one required Asian course for history majors, because the material is so fundamental, and it’s my best-attended China course by far. The problem, of course, is the richness and range of the material. This semester, though, I’m not even trying to make the semester “flow” because the history itself doesn’t. It’s episodic and inconsistent and the emphasis has to shift to make sense of things.



Raise high the flag, whatever it stands for

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:33 pm

Asian Harmony

This is a Japan/Manchukuo propaganda poster showing the harmony between the Chinese, Japanese, and Manchurians. I found it on the Hoover website and am using on my East Asian History syllabus for the Spring. (You need a nice Pan-Asian image for that.) I like the image because it is kids, which neatly sidesteps the question of why the Chinese and the Manchurian have abandoned their native loyalties. It’s also hard to envision trying a 6-year old as a war criminal.

The thing that struck me is that Chinese (the one on the right) is holding the old 5-Color flag. This was declared the flag of the Republic after the 1911 revolution. Sun Yat-sen was never happy about this, since he preferred the Shining Sun flag (the current flag of the R.O.C. on Taiwan.) He was turned down on the grounds that Shining Sun was too closely tied to his party and gave the impression that the Republic was a party-state (which is of course why Sun liked it.) In 1921 Sun’s Guangzhou government declared the Shining Sun flag the official flag of the Republic, and after the Northern Expedition this was accepted by everyone.1

Or was it? The Japanese apparently did not. Did they never accept the Shining Sun flag as the symbol of China? Or did they drop this recognition after 1931 or something? Or was the 5-Color flag just a symbol of the Chinese race to them, and they still recognized the Shining Sun as the symbol of the Nanjing state? The imagery is actually sort of odd, since the 5 colors in the Five Color flag were originally held to represent the 5 nationalities of China (Han, Manchu, Mongol, Tibetan and Hui.) Not many Tibetans in Manchukuo, so were the colors in the Manchukuo flag supposed to stand for something other than ethnicity? This site suggests that the four colors on the Manchuguo flag stood for red (bravery), blue (justice), white (purity) and black (determination), but it gives no references.

1Above from Harrison The Making of the Republican Citizen

Cantonese is Dying! (in L.A.)

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:32 pm

A not-too well informed article from the L.A. Times lamenting the decline of lively, slang-filled Cantonese in favor of the polite and dignified Mandarin. Obviously written by someone who has never been to Beijing. Or Tianjin. Or a lot of other places. No doubt a lot of Cantonese speakers do regard the school-ish Mandarin they know as dull, but the analysis is not very strong in the article. The article blames the Mainland government for pushing Mandarin, although the focus is on Chinese in America, where the pushing is obviously of a different sort. Part of what is happening of course is that the new waves of immigrants coming to the U.S. are as likely to be Mandarin speakers as not. 20 years ago my Mandarin was almost useless in American Chinatowns (Actually, 20 years ago my Mandarin was almost useless anywhere.) Now I almost never hear Cantonese. The interesting thing to me is the difference between today and the survival of Cantonese (and Fujianese, etc.) in the past.

Mandarin obviously works better if you have a community of lots of Chinese from different places, which is more likely now with cheaper transport and closer contacts with China. (One of the people learning Mandarin in the article was doing so to be able to speak to his grandkids in China.) The strange thing is that for a very long time Cantonese worked just fine to hold together business networks and families and such. Now if you insist on staying in the Cantonese ghetto you are sacrificing a lot, and people are leaving.

Why the change? Part of it I suppose is velocity. People moving around a lot more and communicating cheaper and quicker make it harder for a minority dialect to maintain its kingdom. Part of it is probably a political change. Hong Kong is no longer the gateway to China in the same way it was, nor are the Cantonese particularly likely to be the interpreters of the West to China. China is all open now, and Canton no longer has a special position.

I suspect part of it is that family and provincial ties are also less important than they were in 1906. The idea of continuing your Chinese studies in school is no longer just fillial piety for Asian Americans, and of course that means Mandarin. Is there anything else driving this? I know the Singapore government has been pushing Mandarin for a long time. What’s happening in Australia? Even better, what is happening in Indonesia, where acting like a trans-national Chinese might not be a good idea.

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