Menzies Continued

Filed under: — Matthew Mosca @ 11:36 pm

It has been suggested to me that it may be a good time to begin a new discussion of the original Menzies topic, which was first posted in January and has now garnered 30 comments.  I will therefore begin one with a comment I posted yesterday.  (The original discussion, started by Jonathan Dresner, can be viewed here.)

As my comment is in response to one by Gunnar Thompson, PhD, I will post the beginning of his observations here, the full text may be viewed through the link above.  He writes:

“I have been studying early voyages to the New World for the past 30 years with a primary foucus on ancient maps for the past 15. When I first learned about the Chinese Admiral Zheng He nearly 17 years ago, I was struck by the enormous resources that were available to the leader of the Chinese navy, the enormous ships, the tens of thousands of mariners and laborers involved in the logistics behind the seven expeditions between China, the Middle East, and Africa. It seemed to me that anybody with those kinds of resources, especially when you consider the cooperation of the Japanese, the Koreans, and the Muslims (who arguably had the best astronomers in the world) should have been able to explore the Americas and to make a map. So, I was never burdened with the doctrinaire belief that “no Chinese Map of the World could possibly exist.”

Reading Dr. Thompson’s post, I can’t help but make the following observation. Far from being “burdened with the doctrinaire belief that ‘no Chinese Map of the World could possibly exist,’” I think I can speak for most of my colleagues in the field of Chinese history when I say that a). scholars have a full appreciation of the development of Chinese science and technology before the modern era, and b). historians of China would be, in principle, delighted to discover conclusive evidence that Ming voyages reached America (what scholar doesn’t take pride in the achievements of the place and time they study?). Furthermore, as press coverage and the sale of Mr. Menzies’s book has demonstrated, most journalists and their readers are by no means burdened with such knee-jerk ‘doctrinaire’ beliefs. However, I can only concur with the views of a Chinese scholar, quoted in one of the relevant H-Asia postings, that promoting an unsubstantiated claim will ultimately only harm the field, as well as popular views of past Chinese achievements. I am quite happy to admit that I hesitate to accept extreme hypotheses based on scant proof, but not that I am impelled by ‘dogma’ to dispute that American was discovered by someone other than Columbus. This strikes me as the standard straw-man argument of those pitching far-fetched ideas.

What concerns me about Dr. Thompson’s argument (and Menzies’ book) is the degree to which European evidence is advanced to support their claims. It would not be impossible, let me hasten to add, for knowledge from Ming China to reach Europe even before the arrival in China of the Portuguese, through the channel of indirect trade. What is patently odd, however, is that evidence for a Chinese voyage should circulate more widely in Europe than in China – no authoritative Chinese source about the Zheng He voyages supports such claims (despite several accounts of his voyages, some first-hand, surviving charts detailing his route, and coverage in numerous official and non-official compilations). The lack of Chinese evidence has led most serious scholars of Chinese history, within and without China, to dismiss these claims. (Parenthetically, the lack of corroborating Chinese evidence also seems like the best reason to dismiss the “Mo Map,” the appearance of which can only be labeled extremely convenient.) If we are to adopt Dr. Thompson’s course and pit en bloc dogmatic mainstream scholars against far-sighted theorists, let me strike a blow for the former and say that I find it curious that men who read no Chinese can see more clearly that Zheng He discovered America than masterful (and patriotic) Chinese scholars of Ming history who have every reason to support the notion, and only their scholarly conscience to restrain them.

I have not read Menzies’ book. I picked it up when it came out, intrigued. I flipped through the back matter, and came upon a line in which he adduced as evidence in support of his claims a similarity between “Chile” and the Chinese place-name Zhili 直隸 (given there, I believe, in Wade-Giles romanization as Chih-li). I put it down, and have not picked it up again. Similarly, I had sufficient immediate doubt about the content of Mr. Mo’s supposed 18th-century map (in addition to the more comprehensive arguments of other scholars) to prevent me from devoting days to its minute study. This is not to belittle the issue. The interest stimulated by the Menzies theory and its debate has been considerable, and it is the duty of historians to comment on the reliability of information passing through the public realm. I imagine that evolutionary biologists did not take pleasure in reading through the pronouncements of Kansas school board members. Some, however, took the trouble to rebut them out of a sense of their public duty as scholars. In the same vein I salute my colleagues in history who have the patience to spend weeks carefully rebutting claims from which they can derive no edification. The interest of this topic to the public makes it, and its debate, worthwhile.

At the same time, I feel constrained as a student of history to add that ultimately it matters little whether Zheng He reached America or not. From the perspective of Chinese history, scholars have long dealt with the conundrum that the Ming government initiated direct contact with India and the Arab world, places richer and more alluring than the Americas, and yet finally relinquished those contacts along with their maritime power. This is a real and important issue in Chinese history. Even if Zheng He indeed reached America and failed to follow this up, that would add little to the larger issue – already well noted by historians of China – of the puzzling relationship between the early Ming government and maritime power. When we compound this with the fact that Zheng He’s discovery of America, supposing it happened, had virtually no impact on his contemporaries or later residents of China, we can hardly describe Zheng He’s discovery of America as a crucial issue in Chinese history.

Nor world history. The real importance of Columbus’ voyages is that they were followed up. The settlement of America, the destruction of native American cultures, the boost the exploitation of American resources may have given to European powers and their colonial projects, the impact of American silver on world currency markets, and the role of North and South America in later world history, these are some of the reasons the early European voyages of discovery are of great historical importance. Columbus’ voyage is significant not as a single feat, but as an early link in a chain of events. The debate over whether Zheng He reached America is a fascinating subject, and I follow the issue closely, but I don’t think it can be ranked among the major issues of Chinese or world history.


China at war

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:39 pm

Via Gusts of Popular Feeling I found this site by John Dower where he uses Japanese woodblocks to teach a number of things about the Japanese history of the war period. There is a whole section on Japanese images of China and the Chinese, which are mostly what you would expect, and he connects them, correctly, I think, as attempts to break the link between China and Japan. There are only two positive images of Chinese in the collection. One is an image of Admiral Ding Juchang about to commit suicide after his fleet has been sunk.
Admiral Ding Juchang (more…)


What is a professor?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:13 pm

The importation of new professions into China has always been something that has interested me a great deal. Perhaps the most interesting of these is academics, one because they are so fascinating in general and because the transfer of that particular social form involves a lot of overlap with the way traditional Chinese scholars were supposed to behave.

A good example is Liu Wendian. He was trained as a biologist, but his best known publications on the <i>Huannanzi</i> and <i>Zhuangzi</i>, making him a philosopher, and for his writing on the histories of the Northern and Southern dynasties, making him a historian. He was best known for his lectures on <i>Dream of the Red Chamber</i>, which drew overflow crowds, and thus was in the Department of Literature at Lianda, although he does not really seem to fit modern disciplinary boundaries very well.

In fact, he seems much more like a fairly eccentric traditional scholar. He was fond of saying that there were only three and a half people who truly understood <i>Zhuangzi</i>. One was Liu, one was Zhuangzi, one another Chinese scholar and the half a Japanese scholar. A good traditional scholar might well reject the entire modern world, and to some extent Liu did. He loathed the new literature of the May Fourth period and everything to do with it. He completely rejected bourgeois concerns like showing up for class. Presumably he did not keep office hours. He also rejected at least some of his duties as a good Chinese nationalist, as he regarded his wartime move to Yunnan as a great opportunity to sample the local opium, and he spend a lot of the time he was supposed to be teaching up in the hills sampling the product.

            He was at least something of a patriot however. He taught at Lianda, which was a refugee university built around the need for resistance to Japan. During one air raid he was supposedly running for a bomb shelter when he spotted Shen Congwen, one of the leading proponents of the new literature doing the same. Supposedly informed Shen that “I am running to preserve the National Essence. The students are running to preserve the promise of the next generation. But why the hell are you running?” At the very least he fit himself into the narrative of the nation, even though he denied that the May Fourth types were part of it. He is rather similar to Liu Dapeng in that sense.

            He also seems to have accepted the academic enterprise. When Shen Congwen came up for promotion Liu said “Chen Yinque [Lianda’s most distinguished historian] is a real professor. He is worth four hundred dollars a month. I am worth forty dollars, Zhu Ziqing is worth four dollars. But I wouldn’t give forty cents for Shen Congwen. If Shen Congwen is to be an associate professor what will I be?” I suspect that a lot of traditional scholars welcomed the modern German-style research university, not only because it provided an iron rice bowl (After Liu was booted from Lianda he moved next door to Yunnan University) but also because it provided a context for ranking and understanding their relative status.


All this is from John Israel’s <i>Lianda: A Chinese University in War and Revolution</i>


齊芳罷官 (Qi Fang removed from office)

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:57 pm

Qi Fang, China’s contestant for the Miss Universe pagent, has resigned. (abdicated?)


The China Daily story linked to above gives most of the sordid details. China has been borrowing a lot of the dying refuse of Western culture, and pagents seem to be part of it. It is a typical China mess where she signed a contract and it is not clear what the contract says and what exactly the law is. China daily suggests that the whole affiar shows that China needs more regulations. The thing I found interesting is that she claimed that she was unwilling to accept the level of personal control the pagent organizers were planning on exerting over her.  齊芳今天表示,“在 合同 內容中,出現了很多讓我很驚訝的條款。如:要求我將所有的親友名單及聯絡方式、背景、住址告訴他們;讓我在每天的24小時內,隨時聽候總部的調遣;安排助 理全天跟隨,包括會見親友、包括談戀愛,都有在場;給任何人通電話,都要告訴助理對方是什麼人,且通話時,不得避開助理;同時,必須接受該助理和我住在同 一間房間。” In particular she was unhappy that an attendent would be with her 24 hours a day, sleeping in the same room, being there when she talks to her parents and presumably putting a real crimp in her relationship with her boyfriend. She was unwilling to accept this lack of personal freedom and thus gave up a shot at something every little girl dreams of.

Well, of course not every little girl. I suppose that Qi Fang is just young enough that she could be part of the first generation of Chinese girls who could dream of being a beauty queen. One of the problems that western pagents have is that they are trying to portray the contestants as traditional and above all sexually inactive in a time when finding women like that has to be hard. The China version seems to be even more messed up. A careful study of the contestants (I take my blogging responsibilities seriously) reveals that they all at least look like modern women who would persumably not cotton to this frankly Maoist level of control and distrust. Were they afraid she might do something inappropriate with her mom and dad if left unattended? Or is she the bride of the nation who can’t be alone with any man, like the Imperial concubine in Dream of the Red Chamber? Maybe we will be lucky, and it will turn out that the historical window in which you can have these pagents will be so small in China it will close before it really opens.

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