Return to Dragon Mountain

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:52 am

There is a long review of Jonathan Spence’s new book Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man in TNR. Just the fact that there is a long review of a book on Chinese history in something like TNR is worthy of note. The review is by Steven Owen, who is a noted scholar of Chinese poetry, and perhaps not the ideal person to review a book on history. On the other hand he may be the ideal person to review a book by Spence, “whose own career as a historian has ventured along the contested frontier between history and literature.” Having not yet read the book I can’t offer definitive comments on either it or the review, but it may be that either Spence or Owen is getting something wrong about Ming history-writing. The book centers on Zhang Dai a well-known literatus/historian of the Late Ming and early Qinq. Owen describes Zhang’s problems in the writing of history.

Zhang Dai was far from the only person of his day who wanted to write the history of the Ming. Among gentlemen of learning it was a common ambition, with a cachet of dignified purpose that gave meaning to idleness. The problem was that none of these aspiring historians had the sources to go beyond known facts, common opinion, and judgments that were, by and large, conventional. The age of the private historian of a dynasty was long past. The resources to write such a history were primarily in archives in the capital, under the watchful eye of a government with its own vested interest in historical accounts. China was too big. The private historian was often successful in direct proportion to the limitation of his scope to the world that he knew best.

I think this is getting something wrong, in that he seems to be presenting Zhang as a frustrated Rankean who was unable to write “real” history. Zhang certainly would have refused to have worked on the Qing’s official Ming History project, but I suspect he would have been just as unhappy with a project presided over by the Ming court (and, like any member of literati class he would have been quite aware of ways of getting around court dictates while working on a court-sponsored project.) I am not sure Zhang Dai wrote the type of stuff he did entirely because he had been locked out of power, but rather that he was not happy with the centralized narrative the state historiography produced regardless of who the patron was.

Or maybe I’m wrong. I guess I will have to read the book.


Some stuff

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 5:33 am

Just some random stuff that caught my eye.

Have any of our readers spent time teaching English in Asia? You blew it. You thought you were doing well just by making good money by not working, but actually you could have become a cult leader like Li Yang.

Li Yang

Also, something nice on teaching American history to Turks, which of course led me to think about teaching American History to Chinese. Black Sheep has links to some cool stuff on Chinese Astronomy Also a nice bit from Michael Turton about Chinese growth and the East Asian model. Granite Studio has a good post up on Chinese historical zombies


China on display

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 5:18 pm


Historians have been very interested in World’s Fairs, international exhibitions and such for a while now. This is in part because of Gellner and Anderson’s ideas about nationalism, and above all the idea of a nation as an imagined community. Looking at a country’s exhibit at some sort of international do is a quick and easy way to figure out what their imagined community is, or at least what the people responsible would like to claim that it is to an audience of foreigners.
We are in the run-up to one of these events now, the Beijing Olympics. Lots of people (including lots of people in the Chinese government) are aware that this will be China’s big moment of exposure, and they are trying to spin how China will be seen long before the first shot is put. China Rights Forum has a whole issue out on it on this which can be found on-line here I liked Chen Kuide’s essay where he hopes that the Beijing Olympics will end up like the Seoul Olympics, where international attention may have helped the democracy movement, rather than like the Hitler Olympics where the Olympic movement served to validate the power of one of history’s greatest monsters. Even more interesting was Xu Jilin’s essay The Making of a True Athletic Superpower Xu contrasts the current Olympics with what he saw in Vancouver in 2004.



Asian History Carnival #17

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 4:32 pm

Welcome to the seventeenth Asian History Carnival. The next carnival will be held December 12th. If you are interested in hosting the next carnival, please send me an email: kmlawson at froginawell.net.

Thanks to everyone who submitted nominations, the diversity and quality of postings in this carnival depends on them!


Non-commercial emotion

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:20 am

James Fallows recommends the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center. At least as a web museum it is not as good as Stefan Landsberger’s I did find the introduction (English only, apparently) interesting

Each poster exhibited here is a piece of art with history when all the people in China sacrificed for the greatness of one person. Mao Zedong ruled over China from 1949 to 1976. He turned around a quarter of the globe population in continuous political movements, especially in Culture Revolution, to fight with each other physically or mentally. The traditional Chinese philosophy and morality was abused. The sky and earth turned upside down. Nightmare came to its end at last as Mao died in 1976 and the civilization of China survived. The propaganda posters presented here tell you all these stories.

Today China is on the right track for prosperity again. Shame will it be to forget the recent past. Our purpose and responsibility is to help people understand the process of the rebirth. Long live the great Chinese people and its civilization. From art viewpoint, many of these pieces are great art works created by none commercial emotion. Time is changed and such kind of art could not be repeated. They are so limited and very hard to be found now. The value will be tremendous in the future.

We are very proud to have the best collection of this kind in the world and we are serious to prepare for a special museum in Shanghai for the education of the younger generation as well as being the destination of the foreign visitors.

The one thing that jumped out at me was the point that these were “created by none commercial emotion” but their “value will be tremendous in the future” In China as it lots of other places the relation between Art and Money has long been a complex topic. If for some reason you wanted to say something nice about the Mao period you could point out, as here, that it was less commercialized and money-grubbing than, say, the China of today.


Book stuff

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:16 pm

Once again it is time to ask questions about books. Order forms for the Spring are due, so I need to figure out what I want to order. Thus I am asking for suggestions.

The courses for spring

History of East Asia aka Rice Paddies

Ebrey for a textbook. For books I was thinking of using Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book (Has anyone looked at the new Penguin translation? Is it as good as Morris? Morris is expensive) The Shaddick translation of  Travels of Lao Ts’an and Katsuei Yuasa’s Kannani and Document of Flames: Two Japanese Colonial Novels (Has anyone taught this? How did it go?)
As you can see there are no monographs in here (not that I am opposed to them in a sophomore class, but I tend towards more literary stuff.) Any suggestions of substitutions that would fit the pattern are most welcome.

Modern China (Which goes back to the High Qing)
No text, I think, as much as I like Schoppa’s text and as much as notext makes me nervous. Instead Kuhn Soulstealers (Almost too early for this class, but it works so well.) Baumler Modern China and Opium (Sort of subs for a text, as it reprints a bunch of primary sources that cover a lot of the issues of the period. Plus the deathless prose of the introductions will cause all my students to go out and buy 300 copies for their friends.) Reed Gutenberg in Shanghai: Chinese Print Capitalism, 1876-1937 (This one makes me nervous. I loved it. Some labor history, some politics, some intellectual history. Will it work for undergrads? Maybe Schoppa’s Blood Road instead?) Finally Gilley Model Rebels: The Rise and Fall of China’s Richest Village (I suspect there are any number of reform-era books that would work, but this jumped out at me )

Bonus course
I also have two sections of Introduction to History, our methods course for undergraduate history majors. As always I will be leading them through a monograph, in this case Cohen History in Three Keys on the Boxers and we will of course watch 55 Days at Peking I think we will also do some social annotation work with Diggo, which allows you to do social annotation on any web page. Any suggestions on readings, or primary sources on the Boxers that are on-line or that I could put on-line are very welcome.

The good helmsman

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 4:12 pm

With double ten around the corner it seems a good time to discuss the vexed question of who was China’s greatest leader.1 Via ESNW we learn that at least in Taiwan the answer is Chiang Ching-Kuo.


Almost half of respondents called him Taiwan’s greatest President, 77% said that his positives outweighed his negatives, and a mere 4% said the opposite. For all those who have spent many hours debating if Mao was 60% good and 40% bad or vice versa these are pretty impressive numbers. Double ten would be a great day to raise a glass of vodka in honor of one of the great heroes of democracy in Asia.

  1. In keeping with the spirit of the holiday only democratically elected leaders may apply []


Asian History Carnival Coming October 10th

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 10:56 am

I just wanted to announce that we will be hosting an Asian History Carnival at the Frog in a Well: China weblog on October 10th. Read more about the Asian History Carnival and how you can nominate posts for inclusion here. The carnival will include excellent weblog postings on Asian History written since August 8th, along with some related online resources. You can also easily recommend nominations by tagging them on del.icio.us with the tag “ahcarnival” (http://del.icio.us/tag/ahcarnival/).


More on public history

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:05 pm

I posted a while back on how the Chinese are more aggressive in re-building historical sites than one would expect in the West. Angela Zito explains some possible the reasons for this. Cities were architectural representations of the harmonious order the emperor was imposing on the cosmos, and thus re-building them was one of the things emperors did.

the building and rebuilding of the city also actuated again and again in the act of construction the cosmic principles of the city’s design. Thus a new dynasty inevitably signaled the emergence of order from chaos by building projects. Later, the continuous “restoration” (xiu) of the architecture of one’s fore bearers combined filial respect with sagely rescue of pattern from decay. (p.133)

In a footnote she claims that the government of the PRC thinks like this and their “notion of preservation ..emphasizes the metaphysical whole of a building rather than its material parts. As long as these are faithfully reproduced in situ, guidebooks and local people will inevitably report that the building is ‘original'” I think this is an interesting insight, but I’m not sure I entirely agree with it. I think she is right in saying that re-building was important traditionally because it displayed the ruler (or the local elite) as creators of cosmic order. To just leave things alone was to leave them in the past, and since these things are not yet museum-ized in China (to use Levenson’s term) you almost have to fiddle with them.

I’m not sure that something has to be in situ or all that faithfully reconstructed. To some extent this is true of any site anywhere. Mount Vernon has been painted any number of times since Washington died, and I suppose that other than the main timbers most of the wood has been replaced. If authority says this is it than this is it, for most purposes. This is the throne of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom in Nanjing

Taiping throne

I know of no pictures of what the Taiping throne looked like, and I am sure that not a single ounce of wood in this thing is “authentic” and yet here(Nanjing) it is. I wonder if part of what encourages this manic reconstruction is, as Zito claims, a desire to make the state look like preservers of the patterns of the universe, or of this case the past. Given the Communists’ role in destroying so much of the fabric of China’s history they may feel that it is particularly important to reconstruct the past.

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