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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.
Immediately upon my arrival in Vancouver, I was struck by the vast expanses of lush greenery throughout the city, all of which, I soon learned, are completely open to the public at no charge. From my Vancouver apartment, a 10-minute walk in any direction brings you to acres of verdant parkland. While the city's parks are generally as quiet and still as the water of a secluded lake, they buzz with excitement on evenings and weekends. You can watch, or even join in, a game of soccer, football, Frisbee or baseball, as young boys and girls, dressed in vibrantly colored sporting outfits, hold their own "Olympics." Just as at any other sporting event, the blast of the referee's whistle rings sharply in your ears. Yet, unlike the situations to which we are accustomed in China, you can be sure that every call is the result of impartial judgment, rather than of bribes or pressure. The difference is that here competition is not the primary motivation; everyone just wants to relax and to take a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Apart from a few residential green areas designated for private use, most of these well-maintained parks are completely open to the general public. Anyone, whether rich or poor, can enjoy these spaces at no cost. Some of my fellow citizens may be surprised to learn that many of the same people who appear indifferent to the Olympics come out here every day to exercise and stay in shape: rowing boats, skiing, playing ball, swimming and jogging. While their country may be a minor player in the race for gold medals, Canadians' incorporation of physical activity into their daily lives qualifies Canada as a true superpower in the field of athletics. The situation in China is exactly the opposite. While we put on great airs of self-congratulation at the Olympic Games, athletics has come to play an increasingly minor role in the average citizen's daily life. Let's not even delve into the problems in the countryside. Suffice it to say that one is unlikely to find so much as a Ping-Pong table or a basketball hoop in the impoverished mountain villages stretching across our rural hinterland. Yet, even in wealthier urban regions such as Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou, where can the average citizen go to play a game of ball or to run a few laps? Virtually none of China's so-called public athletic facilities are open free-of-charge to the taxpayers who fund them. Once schools go on break, their gates are locked tight. There is little hope that nearby residents will be able to use the facilities, since even students need to navigate a bureaucratic minefield to use the facility during summer vacation. Within residential areas, community centers and clubs offer comprehensive athletic facilities, but all are purely profit-driven, requiring residents to pay for memberships in addition to a monthly facility maintenance fee. As China's cities grow increasingly congested, parks continue to be eaten up by developers, and the air grows thick with toxic car exhaust. These trends create an environment that is far from amenable to the individual pursuit of athletics. It is one of the great ironies of our era that in expansive metropolitan areas, stretching as far as the eye can see, it is nearly impossible to find a place to jog.
First, this sounds very much like Liang Qichao's writings on American parks in the early 20th century. Liang was also taken by parks as place of refuge from the bustle of everyday life. Liang described New York's Central Park like this.
New York's Central Park extends from 71st Street to 123 Street, with an area about equal to the International Settlement and French Concession in Shanghai. Especially on days of rest it is crowded with carriages and people jostling together. The park is in the middle of the city. If it were changed into a commercial area, the land would sell for three or four times the revenue of the Chinese government. From the Chinese point of view this may be called throwing away money on useless land and regrettable. ....Writers on city administration all agree that for a busy metropolis not to have appropriate parks is harmful to public health and morals. Now that I have come to New York, I am convinced. One day without going to the park leaves me muddled in mind and spirit. ((translation from Ebrey Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook))
Liang, like his mentor Kang Youwei, was very interesting in finding and importing to China the universal principles of Western Civilization, beyond just ships and guns. In Kang's case this led to a really weird sort of Buddhist/Neo-Confucian vision of world harmony. For Liang it tended to focus on "renovating the people" and parks and appropriate recreation were part of this. Xu Jilin places more emphasis on athletics than Liang Qichao did, ((given the limited role of physical culture in Confucian elite culture and the importance of fitness in modern concepts of health this is not surprising)) but many of the other authors in the issue emphasize the divide between the Olympics as symbol of a physically healthy China and world and the reality that bigtime sports at best does nothing for the health of the people and at worst degrade it. (anyone familiar with the role of athletics in American universities will find this familiar.) The official slogan of this Olympics is "One World One Dream" which a lot of the China Rights Forum writers take pretty seriously. As a post-everything American it is easy for me to look at this slogan cynically and assume that it is equal parts an attempt to come up with a bit of meaningless fluff (think university mission statements) or a marketing slogan that will not contrast too much with "Just Do It." Some Chinese really do seem to think that are being left out of the new globalism,  however, and that the Olympics are a symbol of this. I am reluctant to take blog posts or comments as an indication of anything, but China Rights Forum lifts some comments from here
I live like a beast of burden (我象牲口一样的活者). The gold medal has nothing to do with me...... Our athletes struggle for gold medals; the athletes of foreign countries participate for the Olympic Spirit.
We will no doubt hear a lot about the wonders of China that are being presented to the world thanks to the Olympics, but my guess is that what foreigners will see will be be equal parts Potemkin village and really embarrassing to "China." There is talk of postponing some events (those that require athletes to breath?) until air quality in Beijing improves. I can just imagine the Olympic torchbearer, symbol of international harmony ((and sneaker contracts)) collapsing on the podium due to the shitty Chinese air. What will be really interesting is to see if writers like Xu can convince people in China that the Olympics symbolize the disconnect between China's improvement and their improvement, and that they ought to do something about it.


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 Thanks to everyone who submitted nominations, the diversity and quality of postings in this carnival depends on them! While we don't do so shabby here at Frog in a Well - China, 花崗齋之愚公 of the Granite Studio continues to be a great place to go for interesting postings related to Chinese history. We should all congratulate him for getting married last month but he was soon back at the keyboard to celebrate the anniversary of the arrest of the Gang of Four and ask us to give Hua Guofeng a little more credit as a leader. At the Granite Studio we also learn a bit about the Politics of Guidebooks on China and the history of Tiananmen Square. We should also wish the venerable sage Confucius a Happy 2558th, which the Useless Tree does in typically humorous fashion. In a more serious posting, he suggests that the situational ethics of Confucians is not necessarily anti-democratic. While we are celebrating anniversaries, visit All Things Pakistan for a posting dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Rooh Afza drink which is "a blend of pure crystalline sugar, distilled extracts of citrus flowers, aquas of fruits, vegetables and cooling herbal ingredients processed to impart the stimulating taste and unparallel quality..." I'm a simple guy, you had me at crystalline sugar. Roy Berman at Mutant Frog Travelogue has an interesting discussion on Taiwanese place names with an unusually strong colonial connection. Is 高雄 Kaohsiung or Takao? Is the town of 森阪 Shenban or Morisaka (摩里沙卡)? Staying in Taiwan, Michael Turton tells us about a well-preserved Shinto shrine in Taichung. The Dazhai Spirit gets religion: Joel Martinsen writes about the history of Dazhai, the Dazhai spirit, and its interaction with religion. A translation of the article "Dazhai Builds a Temple" by Li Xiangping is also presented. Also on Danwei, Peter Micic writes about musicologist Xiao Mei's fieldwork in China and some of the history of music scholars in China in Soundscapes of Memory: Ethnomusicology in China. A hat tip to 花崗齋之愚公 for pointing to a great discussion by Li Datong on the Shanghai history textbook which has made the news in the article Shanghai: new history, old politics. The article includes an interesting discussion of the aftermath of the international media attention given to the text. Chapati Mystery reports on and joins in on a scathing review of a collection of primary documents on the Indian uprising of 1857 in Documents of 1857 but finds, and reproduces for us, a useful list of archives where primary sources can be found. At Siddhartha Shome's weblog, there is a truly wonderful posting on the history and diversity of New Social Movements in India, their ideological origins, and connections to the thought of Gandhi and Babasaheb Ambedkar. The posting comes complete with recommended links and further reading. At Varnam, a posting on the Historical Rama laments the lack of money for research into the subject of the legendary Indian figure. Meanwhile, a religio-political and environmental battle rages over whether or not an underwater formation, allegedly a bridge constructed at the request of the prince Rama for him and his army of monkeys, is to be destroyed for the Sethusamudram canal project. Read more about this battle in the article by Romila Thapar here, and in the online posting by B.R.P. Bhaskar: Rama's Bridge and the political Rama. Rohit Chopra writes a posting on The Politics of Ungeneralizability in writings on colonialism, raising a number of important issues related to the critique of empire, whether or not the fundamental violence of the imperial project can be compared to things such as slavery and Fascism, and suggestions that post-colonial scholars have allowed their anticolonial perspective to ignore the violence of the regimes that follow liberation. The posting almost begs for debate, but there have been no comments posted yet. Is a new region, and the history of that region coming into being? At Cliopatria Rachel Leow talks about the birth of the idea of Southeast Asia, and its rise as a subject of study. Sayaka Chatani shares some notes on the issue of Korean War Criminals over at Prison Notebooks and discusses certain features that the research in Korea and Japan on the subject have in common. See Part I and Part II. Our own Frog in a Well contributor Morgan Pitelka writes On Japanophilia: Collecting, Authenticity, and Making Identity at Professor Pitelka explored the history of the phenomenon in a seminar he offered in 2007 and shares some of the issues raised and Orientalism found in some concrete examples. At Displaying Japan, Armanda Dingledy-Rodie's posting Beyond the Exhibit: Japanese Ceramics in a Wider Cultural Context is inspired by a visit to an exhibit in the British Museum and raises questions about the relationship between the art, their functional value, and the context of their kilns and workshops. Tim, a fellow Viking in Japan on JET, writes about Fiber and Food Nationalism in Japan. ((While the Japanese complain about the startling effects of a "westernization" of their diet, ironically I was reminded of how Norwegians complain of a "westernization" of their own diet. The category of "Western" food is not only used in Japanese propaganda. I also came across it in an interesting article I downloaded some time ago by some researchers at the University of Tromsø which discusses dietary changes in Norway and uses the "Western" category for all the nasty stuff: Dietary patterns and lifestyle factors in the Norwegian EPIC cohort: The Norwegian Women and Cancer (email me if you want a copy of the PDF) )) Frog in a Well There have been some interesting postings here at home of late. Here at Frog in a Well China, Alexander Akin dropped in to give us a wonderful post on Manchukuo stamps, Alan has continued to offer excellent contributions, including a discussion on Buddhism in wartime, the current National Studies fever in China, the influence of Maoism in The Girl From the Coast, the connections between attempts to control the trade in Salt and Opium, wartime cartoons, and on preservation in public history. Nick tells of a battle being waged in Japan over the origins of the famous sailor-style school uniforms. Owen gives us a 30-second tour of Seoul's historical Pukchon district. Jonathan writes about some interesting tales regarding the Japanese diaspora, on Hawaiian Kanji characters (see also this posting at Far Outliers), and explores the mysteries of categories at the American Historical Association in a posting on Asia as a Marginal Category. Resources Check out some of the projects in progress at e-Asia's digital library at the University of Oregon. Some of the resources and pages on the site are still under construction. They have also put together downloads of various digital books related to Japan, China, South and North Korea, and Taiwan in various formats including Google book downloads and direct scans. 花崗齋之愚公 points us to an online collection of photographs from Turkestan divided into a number of sections by topic. The wonderful Columbia University project Expanding East Asian Studies is a great resource, mentioned in various postings here at Frog in a Well which, among other things, has syllabi, course plans, and other resources for teaching courses on East Asia. See one wonderful example of a teaching unit hosted here: The Trial of Wang Shiwei 1942. Read about Frank Dikötter's project on the history of photography in China and view a wonderful slideshow available to complement it. Dikötter is a well-known history of modern China and in addition to his numerous books and articles which have sometimes been discussed here at Frog in a Well, his website is well worth the visit. That is all for now. Join us again December 12th for the next carnival, host to be announced. For more great history postings, see the most recent History Carnival #57 hosted at the Osprey Publishing blog.


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. ((In keeping with the spirit of the holiday only democratically elected leaders may apply)) 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.


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 with the 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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