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How much do your students remember?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:18 am
I'm looking over the Condensed History of China (Thanks, Simon) and thinking to myself "yeah, it's brutally short, but if my students remembered this much in a year, I'd be reasonably satisfied"....


Chairman Mao is like Jesus to us

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:42 am
Not really related to anything, but I found it interesting. Chinese students in New Zealand have been protesting this image of Chairman Mao from a student newspaper Mao I suspect that the protests have as much to do with recent anti-Chinese incidents mentioned in the story, as well as other things published recently in the paper as with the image. I was a bit surprised to see Mao being the thing that touched so many students off. Not real surprised, of course, since Mao's reputation in China has always been quite different than that in the West. One student said that. "Chairman Mao is like Jesus to us" Mao of course is not the first Chinese revolutionary leader to be compared to Jesus. Sun Yat-sen compared himself to Jesus on his deathbed. For lots of non-Chinese Mao is the Chinese Jesus, i.e. an iconic figure who stands for "China" even for those who know nothing else about the place. Apparently at least in this context some Chinese students agree. Via Volokh

Long March Revision: Diminishing Sources

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:02 am
Christian Science Monitor has a substantial article about Sun Shuyan's new book Long March (previously noted here), leadng this time with the book's attempt to revise -- erase, more or less -- the Luding Bridge Incident. Part of what makes this interesting, of course, is that Chang and Halliday also claim the Dadu River crossing was a Maoist fairy-tale, based on interviews with unidentified eyewitnesses.

But there are identifiable people alive with memories of the incident, as well as other sources.

Mrs Li says there was indeed a battle. "The KMT warned us that the Reds would eat the young people and bury the old," she said. "Many fled up the mountainside. But when we saw them, they told us not to be afraid, they only opposed bad people. I remember they were wearing straw shoes, with cloth wound around their shins." "The fighting started in the evening," Mrs Li said. "There were many killed on the Red Army side. The KMT set fire to the bridge-house on the other side, to try to melt the chains, and one of the chains was cut. After it was taken, the Red Army took seven days and seven nights to cross. Later, I was told that someone we had seen was Mao Zedong." Oxford University's Steve Tsang says the Chiang Kai-shek archives show the KMT chief did in fact order the senior warlord in the area to hold the crossing on pain of court martial, while his 100,000-strong Central Army tried to catch up with the Reds from the south. Some of the Sichuan warlord's forces arrived before the Reds at Luding, but their commander panicked as the Reds' main force arrived. He fled, leaving behind only a few of his notoriously opium-dazed soldiers to defend the bridge. The attempt to burn the bridge could not have amounted to much, as the timbers were soaked by rain. "The Maoist story of the battle was a lie, and a huge exaggeration but there was a battle," Tsang said.

Sun Shuyan's claim seems to rest partially on a negative finding: no eyewitnesses, though given that she could only find forty Long Marchers to interview after seventy years, that's hardly proof, really. She also cites

As Gen. Li Jukui wrote 50 years later in a memo never published until last month by author Sun Shuyan in her new book, "Long March:" "This matter was not as complicated as people made it out to be later."

Though I'm always happy to see interesting new sources enter the public realm, that sounds reasonably close to what Steve Tsang was describing above, and it may be that what Sun is "debunking" is the static Chinese Communist narrative rather than the current anglophone understanding. To be fair, I haven't seen the book: I am loath to rely too heavily on news accounts, but I also haven't seen any scholarly reviews yet.


Satire, self-parody and court jesters

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:07 am
I was looking for a good way to announce my new position as a member of the Carnival of Bad History team, when Geoff Wade sent this to H-Asia, and Prof. Goodman has graciously agreed to allow me to reprint it here:
Colonial Irony - A review

Paul Chiasson
The Island of Seven Cities: Where the Chinese Settled When They Discovered America
St Martin's Press, New York, 2006
376 pages. Bibliography. Notes. Index.

One of the great mysteries of life in Twenty-first Century Sydney is Doyle's Restaurant at Watson's Bay, just inside the southern part of the Heads that lead from the Harbour area into the Pacific Ocean. How does it happen that a fish-and-chip shop is located in an area of such extremely high land values? There is no sense in which this might be regarded as a native construct. Fish and chips are by no means part of the indigenous Australian culture. It would seem that one of the many generations of migrants to these shores had generated Doyle's. Perhaps the French (D'Oyle) the Italians (Dolio) or the Germans (Deller) with subsequent anglicisations of names as is inevitably the Aussie way. Unfortunately, a trawl through the many books written about the history of Sydney's development reveals no such explanation.

Puzzling about this in the summer of 2003 on a visit to Glebooks, I happened upon 1421: The Year China Discovered the World by Gavin Menzies. Suddenly the penny dropped. As Menzies details, the Chinese Ming Emperor's fleets had come to Sydney in the middle of the Fifteenth Century. Clearly, they had landed at Watson's Bay and settled. With them of course they brought all their cultural practices to establish a new community overseas. As is clearly the case from the contemporary UK, this included Chinese fish-and-chip takeaways. Doyle's is an Aussification of 'Daole' - Chinese for 'arrived,' the words they uttered on reaching Watson's Bay. The mystery is solved.

Surprised? Find this explanation a little fanciful and far-fetched? This is essentially the argument-line, though transposed to Canada, of The Island of Seven Cities: Where the Chinese Settled When They Discovered America. It suggests these ideas are merely the logical outcome of the work of Gavin Menzies. In an entertaining and often amusing parody, The Island of Seven Cities deliberately out-Menzieses Menzies. The (presumably) fictional author, Paul Chiasson, starts by explaining that he was dying of AIDS before beginning this project and then places one improbable conjecture after another in telling his tale. Not only did the Chinese settle on Cape Dauphin, Cape Breton Island (in today's Canada) but this was the origin of the myth of Eldorado, and these particular Chinese were Christians.

Lest we are in any doubt that the author's tongue is very firmly in his cheek, the story provides several clues indicating that it is only the foolish reader who will be conned if disbelief is suspended. The style of the telling is deliberately naïve, an exploration of the personal. 'I was no longer prepared to ignore information that didn't fit in comfortably - indeed, that seemed to be the only sort of information I was collecting.' (p.169)

Yet it is the references to Menzies and 1421 which reveal the true intent of The Island of Seven Cities.The topic of 1421 is introduced by saying 'I would normally consider such titles to be in the New Age domain of legends of Lost Atlantis or the Holy Grail ... But Menzies was talking about China ... And the Author had been a naval commander, so would know the oceans.' (p.190.) Menzies's specialist naval knowledge has of course been much challenged -- notoriously his claim that the fleet sailed across the Indian Ocean from Calicut (in West India) to East Africa at the end of the North-east Monsoon (1421 p.88) at a time when there is a South-west Monsoon along that coast that closes it to sailing vessels, and reverses the flow of the ocean's surface current.

Later on, as The Island of Seven Cities is discussing the reasons why the Chinese should want to have settled on Cape Breton Island, the author is drawn to explanations related to that island's supply of coal:

'Coal was important in China and the Chinese would have recognized it immediately wherever they went. Cape Breton offered easy coal, the easiest in the Americas, an inexhaustible source of energy, an irresistible magnet to settlement. Today, we take it for granted that nations will go to any length in their search for energy - energy and information. The Chinese of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are unlikely to have been an exception.' (p.229)

Yet it is a conversation with Menzies that points The Island of Seven Cities towards its eventual denouement of claiming the Chinese colony of Cape Dauphin as the site of the later mythologized Eldorado.

'I was also surprised when he [Menzies] brought up the subject of gold while we were talking about Chinese motivations for coming this far.

"Don't forget that you may be looking at more than an agricultural economy," he said. "Gold was a great motivator, especially then. You may find evidence of smelting on Cape Dauphin."' (p.293)

The subtleties of this kind of approach to poking fun at Menzies are set aside for a less controlled (though still sometimes amusing) silliness when The Island of Seven Cities approaches questions of culture: cultural practices and material culture. The indigenous people of Cape Breton Island are the Mi'kmaq. In highlighting the similarities between continental Chinese culture and tribal Mi'kmaq practices The Island of Seven Cities deliberately repeats the unanthropological approach to anthropology that readers of 1421will immediately recognize:

'As I read about the cultural practices of the Mi'kmaq and the Chinese, I came to see the close similarities between their two worlds, similarities that seemed to go far beyond coincidence. According to early observers, the Mi'kmaq took every opportunity to recite their ancestry and glorify their families. Age was respected, and the person who had the greatest number of children was held in highest esteem. Ancestor worship was a central aspect of Mi'kmaq spiritual life: they believed that the dead had influence over the living and that ancestors needed to be respected and cared for after death. In the preparation for the death of a family member, in the funeral rites and the grave building, and in the length and process of grieving, both the Mi'kmaq and the Chinese shared attitudes and similar ritualized practices...' (p.215)

The joke though wears a little thin when The Island of Seven Cities considers material culture. The Mi'kmaq favour crosses which indicates the Christian background of the Chinese settlers. 'Christianity established itself in China before it made much of an inroad in Europe. By the fifteenth century China had Christian bishops, large churches and an open channel to Rome.' (p. 201) Mi'kmaq women apparently wore pointed hats, not unlike those worn by some non-Chinese inhabitants of areas now located within the borders of the People's Republic of China. 'I had already observed that the distinctive hats once worn by Mi'kmaq women bore obvious similarities to styles worn by various Chinese minority groups.' (p. 279)

These minor defects aside though The Island of Seven Cities has done a magnificent job of pricking the pomposity and pretentiousness of Menzies and 1421. The author, when his or her true identity is revealed, and the publishers, St Martin Press, are to be congratulated for their courage, as well as their sense of the absurd.

David S G Goodman
Professor of Contemporary China Studies
University of Technology, Sydney

If that's not enough to brighten your day, consider this much more serious publication, which includes discussions of Court Jesters around the world, including India and pre-Qing China


Visualizing cultures

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:04 am
The M.I.T. site is back up. The most controversial part was the section on Old China, New Japan. There is a cache of the old version here The only change that I see at first glance is the disclaimer, which is, I think, as should be, as I thought the text was quite good to begin with. lots of discussion on H-Asia

(My H-Asia post)

I think the point made by Vincent Pollard, among others, that these images are being read in different ways, and then when scholars put things on the internet they have less control over how they are reacted to than they might in a classroom setting is a good one, but also I think, misses the problem of how these images are being read. It is certainly true that once something is posted on the internet one looses control over it, and it is technically easier for someone else to take your work and place it in another context than it would be if one did printed scholarship. On the other hand, what seems to be happening here, at least at M.I.T. and H-Asia, is not a misunderstanding, but a deliberately different reading. Winnie Wong (5/12) states that the text needs better editing to “[make] visible the historian's intervention as much as possible.” As she claims that the needed changes are self-evident I am not sure what she means, but Kas Ross (5/13) agrees with her

I'd like to express my agreement with Winnie Wong's comment over the need for sharper editing on the MIT Visualizing Cultures website. Statement such as 'In short, the Chinese are riotous in every way, disgracefully so in their behavior, and delightfully so in their accoutrements' are ambiguous, I think. Adding a few words ('In short, the Chinese are portrayed as riotous in every way') makes the critical stance more obvious.
Ross at least implies that there is a critical stance, and that he can see what it is, but that the text needs to be more clear so that this will be apparent to unspecified other readers. This is the same position taken by the M.I.T. students
we are confident that the authors do not endorse the wood prints’ contents in any way beyond their artistic and historical value. Nevertheless, we cannot condone the irresponsible manner in which such material has been presented. An exhibit should provoke discussion, but in this case, it could have been done in a more delicate manner.
A lot of comments I have seen about this seem to be from people who are not offended, but are speaking on behalf of those who might be. As far as I can tell, both Ross and the M.I.T. students seem to be saying that they understand the authors’ meaning, but that other possible readers might not, and that the authors should take this into account. I suppose I agree with that, but I suspect that these other readers are a very small, possibly non-existent, group. Apparently some readers of the site deliberately took images from the site and posted them without context or with deliberately misleading context, an act which Peter Perdue condemned, rightly I think, as “despicable.” Kas Ross and possibly Winnie Wong seem to be saying that Dower and Miyagawa have created a text that they can read in the sense that the authors intended, but that they could also chose to read the text in another way, and that the authors should try to create a text that is not susceptible to deliberate misreading. I’m not sure that is possible, nor am I sure that it would be desirable if it were. Historians are notoriously bad writers, and this site is one of the few on the internet that tries to bring Asian history to a broader public and does so in a way that draws an audience in. Sprinkling the text with caveats as Ross suggests seems to serve one bad purpose (deliberately trying to distance the reader off from the text) and no good purpose (deliberate misreading will always be possible unless historians become lawyers.)

I think that Dower and Miyagawa have handled this affair in a fairly clear way. The contrast between the revised site and the original (cached here) is quite clear. As far as I can tell the only change is to add a disclaimer asking readers to (among other things) PLEASE VIEW & USE THESE “VISUALIZING CULTURES” UNITS CAREFULLY & IN THE SPIRIT IN WHICH THEY HAVE BEEN PREPARED.” In other words, they are asking for a scholarly reading of their work. Are there those who will refuse this request? (I don’t think anyone on H-Asia or at M.I.T. would fit in that category) Probably there are such people, but Dower and Miyagawa are, in effect, ignoring them, and I think that is the best approach to take. The process of expanding scholarly discussion beyond traditional scholarly circles and formats is complex enough without attempting to create texts that cannot possibly be misinterpreted.


Tombs on Tuesday

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:06 am
It's been a good week for archaeology in the news, it seems:


Text Slang

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:14 am
Via Wandering to Tamshui a post with illustrations of Taiwanese text slang Yoyoyo I suppose there are important points to be made about this, but not this week. I only have time for this bala post

One for the military historians

Filed under: — katrina @ 4:48 am
In preparing the Asian History Carnival, a variety of things turned up in my inbox - in between some very tempting deals on pharmaceuticals. Today I received a link to this interesting site by Liang Jieming on Chinese Siege Warfare The site is bilingual and full of illustrations of historical weaponry.


Asian History Carnival #4

Filed under: — katrina @ 9:05 pm
It's up now at Miscellany. It's been slightly updated since I first put it up, Konrad sent me a few extra pieces.

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