Jackie Chan and Louis Cha

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:42 am

Everybody knows about ping pong diplomacy, but we seem to have just completed a period of Canto-pop diplomacy, as Jackie Chan has recorded an “official” song for the Olympics. Canto-pop is of course the dreadful Cantonese pop music that infects every corner of the Chinese world. More generally I suppose it can be used to refer to the general pop culture of Hong Kong1 Just as Beijing used ping pong to try and create a connection with the U.S. so to the central government has embraced the commercial culture of Hong Kong as part of their attempt to create a Greater China. John Hamm discusses some of this in Paper Swordsmen which is partially about the rise of New School martial arts fiction but mainly about Jin Yong 金庸 and his work. Jin, a.k.a. Louis Cha, in addition to being the world’s best-selling author of martial arts novels is also the founder and long-time editor of Ming Pao once one of the more independent-minded papers in Hong Kong and now the center of a multi-national media empire. Zha was thus exactly the type of person Beijing would want to cultivate as they tried to re-unify the motherland. Zha was received by Deng Xiaoping at the Great Hall of the People in 1981, the first important figure from Hong Kong to be so honored. Zha would have been worth talking to just as a newspaper editor, but being an author of martial arts novelist made him even better. Although Beijing never accepted Tapei’s claims to be the “real” preservers of Chinese culture, after the Cultural Revolution a figure like Zha who had been critical of the CR and could make claims to be a preserver of Chinese culture was solid gold. As Beijing was trying to re-unify Hong Kong (and Taiwan) calling for a unified state was a non-starter, and so the ties of history and culture were needed. What is Chinese culture? Some bits of what might be called Chinese culture were not perhaps things Beijing wanted to play up, such as the Confucian concept of government by a class of incorruptible officials chosen for their skill rather than their connections. Everyone likes gong fu heroes, however, and given that so many of Cha/Jin Yong’s stories had strong anti-imperialist/ nationalist elements he was a perfect fit.

Jackie Chan is in some respects ever better for this than Louis Cha. He is, I think, about the last of the martial arts movie starts to have had real old-fashioned opera training. He is also a bit less prickly. Cha’s Ming Pao has been accused of cuddling up to Beijing a bit more than some would like, but he was also quite critical of Beijing, especially after 6/4. Chan is not critical of anything, as far as I can tell, and this sort of ties in the comic persona he takes on in most of his films.2 Bruce Lee does not work as well for Beijing’s purposes as a living symbol of Hong Kong culture. Besides being dead and thus unable to turn up for events far to many of his roles (and Jet Li’s) involved playing people who defied corrupt power-holders. The Jianghu (rivers and lakes) tradition that was at the center of martial arts fiction always had a problematic relationship with authority (That’s why so many of the stories have elements of Ming loyalism/ anti-Manchuism. That way one can defy cruel oppression and be loyal to the true rulers.) Jackie Chan has none of that (compare his Wong Feihong in Drunken Master with Jet Li’s in Once Upon a Time in China) If you want a nice, non-threatening haohan Jackie Chan is your man.

  1. At least I will use it that way in this post []
  2. I suspect that many of our readers know gong fu flicks better than I do []


The crucibe of Revolution

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:28 pm

One of the nice thing about studying modern Chinese history is that Chinese states have gone to gone to great lengths to collect oral histories and other accounts of events. The Communists were particularly good at this. The point of a lot of this is to make the revolutionary experience available to later generations. It was the events they witnessed and the suffering they felt that made people revolutionaries, and this radicalizing experience had to be packaged and distributed to new people. Thus the Communists were big on things like re-creating the Long March and re-creating the old battle against class enemies by flinging professors out windows (a topic my students always find interesting.) All of this began in the Republican period, of course. Here is a wartime cartoon by張乐平1


  1. from 抗战漫画 []


How many times can we lose China?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 5:29 pm

via James Fallows a link to James C. Thomson’s “How Could Vietnam Happen?” a 1968 piece that The Atlantic has lifted from their archive. Thomson was a China scholar, the son of China missionaries and that point newly resigned from the government over the direction of policy in Vietnam. One point Thomson made (really for the first time) was that Vietnam policy had a serious China hangover. The Kennedy administration had inherited, and largely accepted, old ideas from the 50’s, including both geopolitical ideas, such as that the Red Chinese were on the march and that American policy must contain this new peril, and more practical points, such as the cautionary example of what had happened to the careers of the China experts in the U.S. government who had made the crucial error of being right about the outcome of the Chinese civil war. Thomson laments the limited number of Asianists with real authority in government, but I was struck by how many there were and how much influence they had in comparison with present policy towards East Asia and above all towards Iraq. One of Thompson’s points is that many of the experts were hamstrung by their concern for their “effectiveness” i.e. as people of only limited power in the hierarchy they had to pick the points were they were willing to dissent. As points where knowledge and rationality could turn Vietnam policy in a good direction were pretty few, they ended up immobilized. Still, there were at least there to be immobilized and were writing pieces like this by 1968.

One of the things that struck me was how much less contact their is between the scholarly world and American foreign policy today. Assuming that you count the “loss” of China, there have been three disastrous failures in U.S. foreign policy since my dad was born, and they were all in Asia. The Thomson essay seems to be about an important turning point in American Asia policy, the point where things went from bad to worse. Within a year of its publication the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars was created1 and the divorce between state power and academia proceeded apace. While this was probably good for the academic world, I think it was pretty bad for America. Today I get the impression that a MESA member would be about likely to get a job making Iraq policy as a reporter from Al-Jazeera.2 The China hangover seems to be going on for a long time.

  1. I think Charles Hayford was one of the original members []
  2. Of course to some extent advice and knowledge are no good if powerholders don’t care. John Dower would no doubt have been quite happy to give President Bush a briefing on why the occupation of Iraq was not likely to be like that of Japan, but nobody wanted to listen. []


Dragon mountain again

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:57 pm

A few days ago Jonathan and I were discussing Steven Owen’s review of Jonathan Spence’s new book. Jonathan was not that impressed with the review, as it did not give a clear idea what the book was. We were not sure if we were unhappy with the review or the book. Having now read the book I can definitively say yes.
One purpose of the review is to encourage people to buy the book, which I suppose it does just by existing. On the other hand, as Jonathan pointed out, the review does not really tell you what the book is about. Owen gives the impression that the bulk of the book is about Zhang’s life as a dramatist. Actually most of the book is about the period is about life before 1644 and the bulk of it is not about Zhang himself but his descriptions of his family. They were a colorful group of minor officials, literati and eccentrics, some of them staggeringly corrupt, none more so than his uncle Sanshu who served as a bagman for Zhou Yanru, possibly the most corrupt official of the Ming dynasty. They are an interesting family, and for anyone who is interested in the local elite of the Late Imperial period (and who isn’t) there is a lot of interesting stuff in here. The problem with the book (at least for me) is that it is not a scholarly book, which is to say Spence does not engage with the scholarly literature or demonstrate how Zhang and his family fit in with what “we”1 know about the Ming elite. Sometimes this is just annoying, as when he calls the Hanlin Academy the Confucian Study Academy. Often it is more frustrating when I know full well that he could shed light on something but does not. His discussion of Zhang’s travel writing owes something to Strassberg’s Inscribed Landscapes, which Spence cites, but he does not explain how his or Zhang’s ideas about travel are different than those discussed by Strassberg. After the fall of the Ming Zhang becomes something of a wandering hermit, which may seem odd to people who don’t know much about Chinese history, but fits in well with the many traditions of dissent and the end of a dynasty that Spence, Zhang Dai and Alan Baumler know about. How is Zhang related to these traditions? I don’t doubt that Spence could discuss this at great length, but not in this book. A reader might pick this book up and come to the conclusion that Zhang Dai was a picaresque oriental other who might just as well have lived in the Song dynasty, Byzantium or 18th century Edo. It is not really an academic book, Spence seems to be fine with that, and so am I . It was a good read, I learned a lot from it, and so would pretty much anyone.. There is more in heaven and earth than is in academic monographs, and Spence apparently thinks so as well, as he includes this little story

…. at the heart of the scholarly life itself there often lurked a real element of futility. Strangely, Zhang Dai followed up this particular theme most carefully with the example of his own grandfather, whom at many levels he had clearly loved and respected, even revered. Yet, despite all his brilliance, grandfather—according to Zhang Dai—spent his last years of life in pursuit of a truly impossible vision, the compilation of an immense dictionary that would marshal all knowledge in composite categories based on a rhyme-scheme series of classifications. As Zhang Dai wrote in an essay aptly named “Rhyme Mountain,” right up to the end he rarely saw grandfather without a book in his hands, and piles of books lay in disorder all around his study, under layers of dust. When the sun was bright, grandfather took his books out of doors so he could read more easily. At dusk he lit candles and held his book right close to the flame, “leaning across the desk into the brightness.” Thus he would stay far into the night, showing no signs of tiredness. Claiming that all the previous dictionaries were inaccurate, grandfather determined to create his own, using the idea of mountains as his controlling metaphor of organization: key words were termed “high mountains,” catch phrases were “little mountains,” characters that had variant rhymes were termed “other mountains,” proverbs were classified as “worn-out mountains” and so on. In this “Rhyme Mountain,” wrote Zhang, grandfather’s columns of little characters followed in tight columns “like the pleats in a skirt, on sheets of paper yellowed from the beat of the lamp”; he had filled, in this way, over three hundred notebooks, “each thick as bricks.” Some rhyme schemes might fill ten books or more.

One sad day, an old friend brought grandfather a section of a huge manuscript encyclopedia from the palace library in Beijing, proving to him that all of this had been done before, better organized and on a far larger scale. Sighing, grandfather said: “The number of books is without end, and I have been like a bird seeking to fill the sea with pebbles. What can be the point of it?” So he pushed aside his thirty years of work and never returned to his “Rhyme Mountain.” And even had grandfather finished the project, Zhang Dai wrote, “Who on earth would have published it?” There was nothing left of all that work across thirty years but a pile of writing brushes with the whiskers worn down to the wood” and “piles of paper useful only for sealing storage pots.”

  1. people who have read too many books []


It’s a -very large- stuffed panda

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:11 pm

As a visual aid for Charles’s post below I would like to add this.


Don’t Toy With China

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 11:03 pm

I wrote an op-ed piece “Don’t Toy With China” for ASIA MEDIA, a web journal run by the UCLA ASIA INSTITUTE.  The piece looks at how the real issue of toy safety has been blown up by the recent uproar and outrage (or is it outroar and uprage?) fueled by hypocrisy and not a little whiff of racism.

I try to distinguish proportionate reactions to real problems from the flaps, scares, panics, smears, and political foolery which have marked the relations between the United States and China.


The emperor did care about the well-being of the peasants

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:52 pm

From Oddnumbers1 a post on historical income inequality, which is based on this paper

One of the things that they conclude is that China in the 188o’s was the second most egalitarian society in their sample, coming out with a Gini coefficient that is just behind that of modern Denmark


This is not actually all that surprising. As the authors point out hunter-gatherer societies are by their nature almost completely egalitarian. In the case of China the lack of a hereditary land-holding aristocracy would apparently make reduce the possibility of radical inequality like you find in Nueva Espana.2 The authors, however, are more interested in their new concept of inequality extraction ratio. Basically, they want to figure out what amount of the total surplus is in fact being extracted from those at the bottom. As societies get richer there is more surplus that could be extracted.  They hint that raw inequality is not as likely to create social unrest as a rising ratio, i.e. if the elite is taking a bigger cut of the possible pie. China seems to be very low on its possible ratio, and thus the elite was taking as small an amount of surplus as could be imagined.

Given that their only source on China is Chang Chung-li’s work from the early 60’s I suspect that they might get very different results with better data. Still, I find this interesting. They seem to assume that states are controlled by the elite and are machines for extracting wealth from the bottom classes. This seems to be at least some confirmation that Confucian rhetoric about caring about the well-being of the peasants had at least some effect on society.

  1. via Matthew Yglesias []
  2. I have problems with the ‘social tables’ they use for their pre-modern data, but I think I agree that differences between classes are more important than those within classes. The authors themselves point out that the data on China is taken from studies of the Chinese “gentry” a massive 2% of the population, unlike other places were work is done on real aristocrats. []

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