More public sphere

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:13 am

Lots of stuff out there on how response to the earthquake is leading to a more robust public sphere in China. People are self-organizing, money is being collected and spent and news is being disseminated.1 In part this is happening because of genuine public interest and in part because the state is allowing a lot more freedom. Two aspects of the public sphere that have only just started to show up are direct criticisms of the state sphere and taking on state power.

Public sphere organizations sometimes take on state power, and this is something that the CCP has been partiularly reluctant to allow in the past. The “human flesh search engine” (人肉引擎) i.e. the habit Chinese netizens have of hunting down and terrorizing traitors like that Chinese student who talked to a Tibetan is an example of non state “organizations” taking on some state power. This is obviously to some extent encouraged by the state (supposedly some Chinese netizens are paid 50 cents for each properly nationalist post they put up) but I suspect that it would never be tolerated if it really did become organized and systematic vigilantism.

More interesting to me is public criticism of the state. The best example of this is recent criticism of the China Red Cross The Red Cross has a long history of trying to function as an autonomous organization, and at least since 1993 it has become somewhat independent of the state. This makes it almost the perfect target for criticism. It is not a direct state organization, which limits the amount of trouble you can get into for attacking it. On the other hand it is state enough that there probably is a lot of corruption and back door-ism in it. (Maybe all these criticisms will turn out to be wrong, but I doubt it) What I find most interesting about the criticism is that it is real public sphere stuff. Angry “human flesh search engine” types may threated to rape “traitors” and murder their families (see link above) but that is not a substitute for the state. Critics of the Red Cross are going after them for paying too much for tents, not being transparent enough and for cheating on their taxes. In other words the public is not just complaining, they are explaining how this (semi-state) organization should be run. They also have some power over it, since they are encouraging people not to donate money unless their demands are dealt with. Not surprisingly, the Red Cross is taking this seriously and responding to public criticism. None of this is entirely new of course, but this seemed a bit different that what has come before.

MINOR RANT I like CDT a lot, and find them to be one of the best RSS feeds for getting China news. Unfortunately a lot of the stuff they link to is in English, and a big chunk of the English language writing on China does not cite sources very well. We are on-line now folks. Including some links to your sources is just good practice. Electrons are cheap, and saying quotes come from “various BBS forums” or “an official statement” (From who? When?) is not sufficient. Or if you like I suppose you could go back to the old China coast paper’s habit of saying things came from “the native press” and assuming nobody cares who exactly said what and when they said it.

  1. Check the CDT for most of these []


Comparative religion

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:18 am

Teaching about religions is always tricky in part because I and most of my students are heavily influenced by the Christian (especially Protestant) idea that the essence of religion is what you believe. Of course there are things besides orthodoxy (common belief) that religions promote such as common practice or common ritual behavior. The standard way of teaching about religion is to talk a lot about belief, but as this 1870 piece from the Atlantic (via Andrew Sullivan) shows there are other ways to do it.

Those who strive to establish a monopoly of labor are accustomed to sneer at the Chinese as “Pagans.” They urge that citizenship ought not to be granted to them, because their religion is different from ours. Yet those who talk in this way make no objection to receiving Irish emigrants and intrusting them with the elective franchise. But is the Buddhist religion, which prevails in China, much more foreign to our customs and our modes of thinking and believing than the Roman Catholic religion is?

The essay is trying to show that the Chinese in America should not be discriminated against because their religion is not in fact barbaric and they are presumably capable of civilization. Well, at least as capable as the Irish. The author, Lydia Maria Child was not a sinologist and I suspect that much of what she wrote would not have been accepted by scholars even at the time. She comes up with a long list of similarities between Catholicism and Buddhism: pilgrimage, buying your way out of purgatory, cults of the saints, relics, monasticism, a pope/dali lama, art that is mostly “grotesque”, an educated class who scoff at the peasant form of the religion, etc. It is actually sort of tricky to figure out what she is doing here. Part of it may be that as a 19th century Protestant she really is blind to how universal a lot of this is and that what really needs to be explained is not that Catholics and Buddhists go on pilgrimages, but that Protestants do not, given that it is one of the most common forms of religious observance around the world. Child was a great campaigner for abolition and woman’s and Native American rights, so I suppose what she is doing here is trying to make the Chinese seem more like “us” and by focusing on practice rather than belief she actually does a pretty good job of it. I could imagine a number of classes where this would be a good thing to assign.


Whither Taiwan?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:18 am


If you were wondering how different the new Ma government in Taiwan would be from the DPP government it is replacing you should go read Michael Turton’s analysis of Ma’s inauguration speech. (Given in Chinese (I assume Mandarin) with an English translation displayed at the same time)

Ma spends a good deal of time taking digs at his predecessors and promising vague but wonderful things for the future, as is typical is speeches like this. He also refers to the people of Taiwan as part of the 中華民族, rather than 国民 or citizens. How to translate 中華民族? I suppose the most literal way would be “Chinese race” although “Chinese ethnicity” probably sounds better. Both in Taiwan (at least under the KMT) and on the Mainland governments would claim that this “Chinese race” includes ethnic minorities. And, as some of Michael’s commenters point out there are more explicitly Han chauvinist terms he could have used, like 漢族. Still, it is hard to disagree with Michael or with the KMT aboriginal legislator who walked out of of the speech that this term is a lot less welcoming to non-Chinese that the 国民 that the DPP preferred. I also found it sort of interesting that he explicitly outed himself as a mainlander. “Taiwan is not my birthplace, but it is where I was raised and the resting place of my family. I am forever grateful to society for accepting and nurturing this post-war immigrant.” 英九雖然不是在台灣出生,但台灣是我成長的故鄉,是我親人埋骨的所在。我尤其感念台灣社會對我這樣一個戰後新移民的包容之義、栽培之恩與擁抱之情 I thought this was sort of weird. Yes, he is a mainlander, but it seems odd to bring it up,1 unless he is trying to tie himself more firmly to China. If he pisses off the aborigines that might create trouble. If he goes so far as to piss off the non-mainlanders (whom I guess I would define as people who speak Tai-yu first) he could have real trouble.2

He clearly -is- trying to butter up ‘China’, although it is not clear how much this will involve throwing ‘Taiwan’ under the bus. Maybe a lot. “In resolving cross-strait issues, what matters is not sovereignty but core values and way of life” This is actually pretty scary, in that the Taiwan government seems to be at least downplaying and perhaps abandoning entirely the ROC’s claims to sovereignty, and looking to a common ‘Confucian’ culture. At least for Ma Taiwan seems much more part of Greater China than it was before.

  1. even though he does say he was an immigrant, thus sort of implying that Taiwan is not the same as China. Maybe this is an olive branch to the less China-y types out there []
  2. I studied in Taiwan ages ago when the old Taiwanese-Mainlander split was fading rapidly, and I find it hard to imagine he is trying to revive it []


U.S.-China Cooperation

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:28 am

I have no idea where the U.S. China relationship is going, but I have usually thought that whatever rhetoric was coming from either side of the Pacific there were lots of common interests (making money, borrowing money, thinking North Korea is nuts, etc.) to avoid the more lurid scenarios of Sino-American conflict

I had assumed that there was some cooperation in dealing with Muslim terrorists, but was not clear on the details. According to ABC it has gone as far as the U.S. and China co-operating in torturing Uighers at Guantanamo. This is apparently not as full-scale a cooperation as some might wish. The Americans will still not hand over innocent Uighers to China for fear they may be tortured (some more.) One can hope that this is just a once-off and that the Americans and Chinese are not working up a more systematic cooperation, but I’m not entirely sure about that. I was quite surprised to see that the U.S. was willing to let honest to god Chi-coms into a top secret U.S. base to participate in the most super-secret things going on there. At some levels we are getting along great.

Needling Needham

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:08 am

The Needham Question is hot, hot, hot! Thanks to Simon Winchester’s The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom1, everyone who’s everyone is talking about China’s “failure” in the face of Western intellectual and technological revolutions.

While it’s kind of nice to see a China scholar like Needham getting the pop culture treatment, and the questions he raised are still worth pursuing, the reviews suggest that the emphasis on “Eccentric” is pretty severe. They also suggest that Winchester’s biographical emphasis has left him with the wrong impression about the body of work which Needham’s intellectual descendants still do. Andrew Leonard writes:

In the epilogue, Winchester asserts that the consensus opinion of current Sinologists is that “China, basically, stopped trying.” That’s too facile a summation when one is writing a biography of a man who devoted his entire life to understanding why China failed to capitalize on thousands of years of scientific and technological innovation. Winchester then skips through the main contending theories that attempt to explain China’s failure: China’s bureaucracy siphoned talent away from a potentially entrepreneurial merchant class, China did not have the spur to competition that Europe’s many warring states inflicted on each other, China’s totalitarian government quashed initiative.

In fact, as I wrote in response to Winchester’s NYT op-ed2:

This is a rehashing of old views of China that inspired the great “Needham Question”3: “Why didn’t China have a Scientific Revolution and Industrial Revolution”? Half a century of scholarship has produced a massive aggregation of knowledge about science and technology in China which shows, among other things, that scientific and technical progress continued throughout the early modern period (which, started a half millenium earlier in China than in the West) but that China’s population obviated the need for the kind of massive “labor saving” capital equipment, so industrial production moved in other directions.

China was also experiencing a scientific flourishing in the Qing era, featuring fields from philology to botany.4

China doesn’t “fall behind” until around 1800, when the steam power revolution put England a quantum leap ahead of the pack. It then went through about 150 years of political turmoil in which economic and technical development often took a back seat to other issues, including imperialism, uprisings, revolutions, warlords…. [ellipsis in original; it’s a bad habit]

The assumption that the Western model is “natural” or somehow inevitable unless someone “fails” to achieve it is patently absurd. Europe spent centuries in the shadow of the rest of the world before catching up in their Early Modern age (with the aid of a lot of imported Chinese technology), and finally, as Paul Kennedy (among others) argued, pulling ahead due to competitive pressures and (in the case of the British steam revolution) a certain amount of luck.

The upshot of the Needham tradition scholarship, as I understand it, is that it was more macroeconomic and political problems than technological skills which resulted in China’s “lost ground” in the modern age, but a significant component of it was historical contingency (or “dumb luck,” as we used to say). Nothing inevitable about it, and nothing fundamental. China wasn’t the only great Early Modern empire to flounder in the modern age — in fact, it was more the norm than the exception, as the Ottomans, Russians, Mughals, Iberians and Hapsburgs show. “The West” wasn’t a terribly coherent entity — especially not organizationally! — and contrasting “it” with China without a little consciousness of the internal tensions, backwards regions, and failures contained within the Western tradition makes no sense, intellectually, historically or politically.

  1. is that subtitle a 19th century classic, or what? []
  2. Which my colleague, Alan Baumler, aptly dismissed with “Don’t get me started.” []
  3. I did not, when I wrote this, realize that Winchester was the author of a Needham biography []
  4. The term kaozheng escaped me until later []


The end of polygamy in China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:52 pm

As some of our American readers may know the California Supreme Court has recently ruled that men and men in California can get married. This has led a number of people (Krauthammer) to speculate that polygamy is right around the corner. (Volokh) Most of the arguments about the meaning of marriage make a lot of arguments (usually pretty bad ones) based on evidence from “marriage through history.” Very few people seem aware of how -very-different modern companionate, equal marriage is from the various forms of usually economic and always unequal relationships that have existed throughout human history. It is true that throughout most of history “Bill and Ted are in love so they should get married” was not considered a good argument, but the same can be said of “Susan and Ted.” This makes it tricky to get much useful ammunition for contemporary debates from historical evidence unless you twist the history quite a bit. Still, it is sort of interesting to thing about the disappearance of polygamy, which was pretty common in upper classes around the world before the modern era, and specifically about the end of polygamy in China.

Although an awful lot has been written about attacks on the traditional family in Republican China there has been relatively little on polygamy as a specific issue. I think this is true of Japan as well. Polygamy as such was not really singled out much as one might expect. Nevertheless it died out rapidly. Polygamy seems not to have been a major issue for early feminists like He Zhen although they did mention it. For them the big issue in marriage was equality, which of course does not mix with polygamy. If a husband in a modern marriage gives his wife “everything” (particularly emotionally) how can he do so for more than one woman? 1 That polygamy was out would seem to almost go without saying with modern ideas of marriage.2

It might also matter that most scholarship on Chinese feminism has wanted to focus on women. I would assume that the people making the decision to not have a second wife were men. Being a secondary wife was never regarded as a good thing, so for the educated women who read and wrote for the early radical journals becoming a secondary wife would not really be a threat. The poorer women who might have ended up secondary wives were not reading He Zhen in 1907 or making many other choices about their lives.3 Well-off men were presumably making the decision not to have secondary wives. One presumes that whatever pressure their families may have put on them to have a first wife that fit with traditional ideals (Lu Xun did it) there would be much less pressure to have a traditional secondary wife if they did not want to. Why and how secondary wives became unfashionable (or were replaced with mistresses) would be an interesting study.

I can’t really speak to the legal issue in the U.S. (what legal arguments would the state have to prevent one woman from marrying two men at the same time or whatever) but as a social issue it seems to be a non-starter. Polygamy is tied to a class structure and view of marriage that just don’t exist any more and never will.

  1. A parent can give ‘all’ their love to more than one child, but of course women are not (any longer) children []
  2. To the extent polygamy exists at all today it is in places or subgroups without much of an idea of gender equality. The examples used in discussion are always one man with more than one woman, since while that would fit in with some traditional ideas the opposite would just be bizarre. []
  3. Class and consumption sort of fit here too. In a modern relationship both spouses should be equal in their use of the joint assets. How can you do that with too many of one type of spouse? []


Seismic politics

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:59 am


There is not much I can say about the earthquake in Sichuan, although I am glad to hear that all the people I know in Sichuan are safe. One thing that is pretty interesting are the attempts of the Chinese government to manage the crisis. James Fallows has some interesting observations on Chinese media coverage of the quake, which still seems pretty primitive. I am not privy to conversations in Zhongnanhai, but I assume that the government is very interested in looking like the state is taking this seriously and is being effective in dealing with it. During the Yangzi floods a few years ago I remember seeing pictures of PLA troops trying to hold back the water with their bodies, which probably was not very effective as a flood control measure, but did result in pictures of the Army helping the people. Paratroopers are already landing in the quake area.

Proper management of a natural disaster is of course important for states, and people are already drawing comparisons to the Tangshan earthquake of 1976, the bungled handling of which was one factor in the political chaos of that year.

Qian Gang is putting out what I would call the official line, that the time is not right to ask questions.

Some of my friends in the media have already turned their attention to the question of responsibility (问责) and looking back (反思). I want to say to you — all of this you want to do should be done, but now is not the time. The behavior of some media, which have reported already within prescribed themes before information about the quake is even clear, or which have played the story from certain angles, is even more inappropriate. There is nothing more important than human beings. In these few days, as millions of lives hang in the balance, let us observe together this great war to save lives.

All I can say is good luck with that. Perhaps the Chinese government is learning the American trick of saying first that the event is too close for us to understand it and then switching to saying that this is old news and we should not live in the past. How well the quake is defused as a political issue depends on a number of things. How well the relief efforts go. How much of the damage was caused by shoddy buildings. (At least some people are already blaming corrupt officials for cutting corners on school construction) How much future damage will be caused by shoddy buildings? (Up to 200 dams were supposedly damaged by the quake. This could end up being a slow motion disaster.) Will the state be seen as insensitive in its handling of the crisis? (Already people are asking that the Olympic torch run/great national celebration of China Power be toned down a bit.) In the next year or so I expect that things will be pretty bleak in the quake areas in part because of the quake and in part because it was a pretty poor rural area to start with. Will this lead to more talk about rural poverty? In the West this will probably be a pretty short media cycle, which may clear up a few questions in our elite media such as “Is Sichuan where Szechuan food comes from” (yes) and “Why is China so stagnant and unchanging?” (Don’t get me started) I expect the Chinese press to be filled with stories of rescue and grief for at least a while, as Qian Gang suggested.


1911 in pictures

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:09 pm

Via BibliOdyssey an exhibition of the prints of the 1911 revolution from Princeton.


The prints are great, if a little small. One thing that struck me was the disclaimer at the bottom of the first page. “The Princeton East Asian Library in no way supports the rhetoric or depictions that are presented on the prints.”

What is that supposed to mean? I can think of two possibilites.

1. As a notoriously conservative institution1 Princeton is opposed to the overthrow  of the Qing dynasty and is still hoping for the return of the Manchus.

2. Something other reason. But what could it be?

  1. How many Princeton alums does it take to change a lightbulb?

    Four. One to change the bulb and three to point out how much better the old bulb was. []

Columbia University Press Book Sale

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 9:41 am

Some great bargains at the Columbia University Press White Sale with lots of offerings in Asian history and literature.


Different understandings of history

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:52 am

Charles links below to an interesting piece from China Digital Times (original from Sina.com ) It is a piece by Xiong Peiyun (熊培云) defending (sort of) Chinese nationalism. Thomas Bartlett analyzes the use of the term “tianxia zhuyi” 天下主义 in the piece, but what struck me was its odd (meaning different from mine) understanding of world history.

That Chinese popular understanding of world history is different from that elsewhere is not surprising, nor is it surprising that most Chinese people don’t understand non-Chinese history all that well. It is not a subject that the Chinese historical profession has (until recently) invested much effort into. One of Xiong’s goals is to deny that the Beijing Olympics should be compared to the Berlin Olympics of 1936. A lot of people have been making that comparison, but what I find interesting is the end of the piece Xiong suggests that this comparison actually works pretty well.

Western politicians and Western media have not made a lot of progress in their political wisdom in nearly a century. The Nazis in Germany were a product of World War I victor nations, whose fear of a rising Germany led to an over-punishment of Germany, thus sowing the seeds of hatred and revenge and feeding the German nation’s nationalism, which were the best yeast to ferment Hitlerism. And all this, of course, is something nobody, from the Chinese government to all others, wants to see happening.

So, if the West continues to hypothesize China as their “enemy,” and stoke up the “China threat” theory, it will surely fan up the emergence of China’s extreme nationalism, and provide support for those who oppose opening up and want to backpedal history.西方政治家和西方舆论界在政治智慧上并没有太大长进。德国纳粹也是“一战”战胜国亲手制造的祸患,他们对德国崛起的恐惧导致他们对德国的过度惩罚,使得德国的民族主义情绪裂变为仇恨和报复,这正是酿造希特勒主义的最好酵母。而这一切,显然是今日中国政府以及所有外国政府都不愿意看到的。


I find this a weird sort of historical analogy. For one thing, if I were going to pick an analogy for the possible rise of an ultra-nationalist China (which I don’t see as likely) the obvious comparison would be Showa Japan.1 Perhaps more to the point he is using the Nazi analogy in a way that it is hard to imagine a westerner of any sort doing. If there is one universal lesson that almost everybody in the West takes from the rise of the Nazis it is the Munich analogy. I actually think this is often a bad thing, since any time a suggestion is made that negotiating with a unsavory types might have good (or less bad) results people will start yelling “Munich!” I can’t imagine too many people using Xiong’s argument here, which I think can be summarized as “China’s feng qing 愤青youth are like nascent Nazis. You (we?) should appease them.”

A lot of historical analogies are getting tossed around, by academics and others in China and elsewhere, and it seems to me that we are working not only from different sets of analogies (Who is Hai Rui?) but different understandings of the same events.

  1. Among other things while resentment of foreigners was part of the rise of Nazism, internal enemies, above all the Jews, were far more important. []

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