What can China learn from the Jews

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:27 am

Via 鲍昆 an interview with Lydia Liu1 Liu’s work has to to with the difficulties of cultural contact and translation in the 19th century, so it is nice to see a fairly mass-market magazine interviewing here about intercultural contact in this second age of globalization. Liu throws cold water on the idea that the “foreigner problem” (i.e. the fact that foreign media often publish things about China that sound like they did not come from Xinhua) is caused by foreigners having not been to China and not knowing Chinese. Liu doubts that a trip to China will make foreigners see the danger of “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” 伤害中国人民感情 the way ‘China’ does.

I suspect as a scholar she found it rather difficult to fit her ideas into the interview, but I did find it odd that when she was asked how China could respond to accounts in Western media she suggesting taking a page from the Jews.

Apparently since WWII the Jews have set up a lot of non-government organizations aimed at combating antisemitism in the media. As the West has long had a problem with racism, people are particularly sensitive to being accused of it. If China could establish groups to push the idea that criticism of China is a fault on par with racism things would be better. i.e. China needs to translate its grievances into terms that make sense in the West.

I find this a bit questionable as practical advice, since it is not mere kvetching that has made even a hint of antisemitism unacceptable in polite society in the West, but rather the legacy of certain historical events. “China” may try to convince people that asking about the age of Chinese gymnasts is the equivalent of the Holocaust, but I doubt they will have much luck with that. I also think it would like to see more on why she thinks understanding 理解 is impossible between Jews2 and Gentiles (and, one assumes, between Chinese and non-Chinese.) Still, I think Liu is trying to bridge the gap in understanding between China and the West,3 so the interview makes a nice follow-up to Charles post below.


刘禾:我们可以学习犹太人。犹太人从二战以来得到了很多教训,在全世界各地设 立了很多民间的监督站,监督针对犹太人的各种种族主义的言论和媒体报道。只要发现某媒体对犹太人进行直接或暗含的攻击,他们都有办法让对方负责任。几年 前,英国有个非常重要的报纸的主编最后就是因为这个在各种压力下被解职了。西方因为历史上种族歧视问题很严重,所以最怕被别人说种族歧视。





  1. originally from Oriental Outlook []
  2. Also not really sure if she means ‘Jews’ or ‘Israelis’ I know lots of Jews who understand Americans pretty well because they are Americans []
  3. while also demonstrating it []


Lies, Damn Lies, and Chinese “Lies That Bind”

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 4:23 pm

Do Chinese lie?

The Western media have jumped on recent revelations about doctoring the Olympic opening ceremonies and allegations about false ages of their gymnasts, and the recent book The Empire of Lies: The Truth about China in the 21st Century argues that the West is being too soft on China.

On the other hand, John Pomfret asks “Should We Give China a Break?” He refers us to Tim Wu of Columbia University, who asks “Are the Media Being Too Mean to China?” Chinese hosts expect guests to honor their hard work, Wu explains, but Western journalists see their jobs as ferreting out the “real” China, which to them is “the dirt, not the rug it was swept under.” Wu adds that it’s “the dishonesty, as much as the substance of what’s wrong in China, that seems to get under the skin of Western reporters.”

The major factor is that China still feels defensive after two centuries of national humiliation, and, as in any besieged country (the United States in World War II, for example), citizens give the government a pass on regrettable transgressions. It’s all in a good cause.

Jeff Wasserstrom at China Beat sees a “Great Convergence” in which we have made great progress in discussing Chinese behavior in the same terms we talk about our own, and adds that as for “populations that accept lies, while it would be foolish to suggest any kind of complete moral equivalency, this is another case of people in glass houses being careful about throwing stones.”

In much of the mainstream media, I still smell old Western prejudices, which makes me think it’s worth while to look back. After all, Shakespeare used “Cathayan” when he wanted to say “liar” and even today newcomers to China are warned that Chinese concern with “face” leads to evasions and cover-ups, and that guanxi – “relations” or “connections” – opens the back door. [1]

More than a century ago, the American missionary Arthur Smith’s Chinese Characteristics (1894; reprinted, with a Preface by Lydia Liu: EastBridge, 2003) explained the China difference using pungent terms echoed by Americans who live there today: “talent for indirection,” “disregard” for accuracy and time, “absence of sincerity,” and “contempt for foreigners.” Smith would not assert there was “no honesty in China,” only that “so far as our experience and observation go, it is literally impossible to be sure of finding it anywhere.” It’s easy to cherry pick outrageous quotes but the book wrestled with a genuine question: why do Chinese and Americans behave differently?

“Face” is Smith’s first chapter. Face provides “not the execution of even handed justice” but “such an arrangement as will distribute to all concerned ‘face’ in due proportions.” Truth was less important than harmony. Smith asserts that “any Chinese regards himself as an actor in a drama,” so “the question is never of facts but always of form.” Face seems to mean “mask”: only if you strip it off do you uncover the truth. He was perhaps the first to explain Chinese behavior by the circumstance of living in a closely knit society and being dependent on harmonious mutual relations, but his mistake was to take America as the norm and to look for “absence” or “disregard” of what were actually parochial American middle class ideals. (more…)


Asian History Carnival 21:1

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 9:07 pm

Tang Dynasty Times has the latest — and a great collection it is, too — and promises to have a second edition in a month!


Beware of Female Spies

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 8:21 am

I decided to bring you a little Friday night clipping from the archives where, as always, I have my eye open for treason and treachery:

In the Chinese national government archival collection at Taiwan’s Academia Historica there is a small file from the military affairs committee1 dated April, 1938 and entitled:

Take Strict Precautions Against the Enemy’s Female Traitors

The concise attached brief2 says that, “According to reports, [Japan’s] special services last month began to dispatch [Chinese] trained female traitors to Hankou, Chongqing, Changsha and other cities” who are to conduct intelligence operations against nationalist forces. It recommends a close investigation and special vigilance against these traitors.3

  1. 軍事委員會, is there a better standard translation for this? []
  2. in the form of a 代電 report, then largely repeated in an directive 訓令 []
  3. This very short file can be found in 國史館 國民政府檔案 001000005615A (001-071040-0001) 敵情動態, 31-36 (1026-1031). []


Hua Guofeng: Hats Off!

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 12:05 am

While we wait for Jeremiah at Jottings from the Granite Studio to say something substantive, I’d like to put in another good word for Hua, the man with the goofy smile. I’ve made my share of jokes about him, such as saying that it was strange that the mere governor of a province would think he could move up to the job of running China — why it would be like the governor of say, Georgia or Arkansas thinking that he was qualified to be president of the United States.

But there are important things about him which deserve our respect. The arrest of the Gang of Four was probably the single most important political stroke of its time. During the Cultural Revolution, anybody with power had abused it, but somebody had to take the fall in order to get on with things. When I first went to China, people would say “Gang of Four” and hold up five fingers, the fifth being “he who must not be named.”

That’s pretty obvious, but it was not obvious that Hua would not have the Gang of Four taken out and shot or just “shot while resisting arrest.” The legitimacy of their trial was not that great in procedural terms, though far above Stalin’s show trials of the 1930s and certainly above the secret administrative procedures which condemned hundreds of thousands of Chinese as “rightists” in earlier years. But the basic injustice was that so many other wrongdoers got off. Still, Hua deserves credit for starting on the right foot.

Though it says more about Deng than about Hua, we also need to observe is that after Deng edged him out Hua went on to a quiet career and died in bed. That’s big. Neither of Mao’s two previous successors did — Lin Biao and Liu Shaoqi — and Zhao Ziyang died under house arrest. Being Mao’s successor was like being next in line for a shave from Sweeney Todd, and Hua pulled it off.

So say what you want, China could have done a lot worse than Hua!


Hua Guofeng

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:46 am

It is not often that a historic figure like Chairman Hua leaves us, and while I can’t possibly compete with Jeremiah in my reverence for the red, red (well, light pink) sun of Chairman Hua, I did think I would post this picture of Hua and Mao that comes from one of my old China Pictorials

I think this was taken close to the end of Mao’s life (from the picture it is hard to tell if it is before or after) and it is something I always use in class when talking about how various people tried to glom on to the old monster’s reputation and power after he was gone. Whatever you say about Hua1 he did get rid of the Gang of Four, which is more good than most politicians have done.

  1. and really, it is pretty sad to have much to say about him []

Lin Yutang and Chinese literature

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:25 am

One of my neighbors was doing some spring cleaning and brought me this.

Lin was a notable if somewhat minor intellectual figure in China but his real fame came as an interpreter of China to the outside world. In China he was known as a humorous critic of the warlord governments which got him in trouble with both Left and Right, since they felt warlordism was no joke and his emphasis on the continued value of Eastern Wisdom made him sound more like Tagore than anyone Chinese intelectuals of the period were likely to respect. He became an important figure in the West after Pearl Buck convinced him to write My Country, My People (1935) which launched his career as and interpreter of the West.

He is somewhat unique in that his reputation has vanished almost entirely. His books are still in print, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in a bookstore (Although I tend not to haunt the ‘don’t worry be happy section’) and he is never assigned in courses. Even during his life he was dismissed as being someone who wrote English very well. (He was a third-generation Fujian Christian) but was not all that knowledgeable about China. You can see how he worked with these two excerpts from the story Curly-Beard

 [wpcol_1half id=”” class=”” style=””]Lin Yutang:

IT WAS a world of chivalry, adventure, and romance, of plucky battles and faraway conquests, of strange doings of strange men which filled the founding of the great Tang dynasty. Somehow the men of that great period had more stature; their imagination was keener, their hearts were bigger, and their activities more peculiar. Naturally, since the Sui Empire was crumbling, the country was as full of soldiers of fortune as a forest is full of woodchucks. In those days, men gambled their fortunes on high stakes; they matched cunning with cunning and wit against wit. They had their pet beliefs and superstitions, their virulent hatreds and intense loyalties, and once in a while, there was a man of steel with a heart of gold.

It was nine o’clock in the evening. Li Tsing, a young man in his thirties, had finished his supper and was lying in bed, bored, puzzled, and angry at something. He was tall and muscular, with a head of tousled hair set on a handsome neck and shoulders. Lazily he jerked his biceps, for he had a peculiar ability to make these muscles leap up without flexing his arms. He was ambitious, with plenty of energy, and nothing in particular to do.

He had had an interview with General. Yang Su that morning, in which he had presented a plan to save the empire. He was convinced that the fat, old general was not going to read it and regretted having taken the trouble to see him at all. The general, who was in charge of the Western Capital while the Emperor was sporting with women at Nanking, had sat, bland and self-satisfied, on his couch. His face was a mass of pork, with blubbery lips, heavy pouches under his eyes, fat hanging down under his chin and lumpy, distended nostrils, from which sniffs and grunts issued regularly. Twenty pretty young women were lined up on both sides of him, holding cups and saucers, sweetmeats, spittoons, and dusters. The dusters, which were made of hair from horsetails, over a foot long, and fixed with a jade or red- painted wooden handle, were more decorative than useful.

The silky, white horsetails swung gracefully, though idly. There could not be a more convincing picture of a misfit in high office, or a neater contrast between the luxurious setting and the debased sensuality which was no longer capable of enjoying it.

[/wpcol_1half] [wpcol_1half_end id=”” class=”” style=””]
From Cyril Birch Anthology of Chinese Literature

When the Emperor Yang-ti of the Sui dynasty visited Yangchow he left his Western capital, Ch’ang-an, in the charge of Councillor Yang Su. This was a man whom high birth had made arrogant, and in the troubled state of the times he had begun to regard his own power and prestige as unrivalled in the land. He maintained a lavish court and departed from the mode of conduct appropriate to a subject. Whether it was a high officer requesting interview or a private guest paying his respects, Yang would receive his visitor seated on a couch; when he rose to leave his hall it would be to walk, supported on either side by a beautiful girl, down between rows of attendant maidens. In these and other ways he arrogated to himself the imperial prerogatives. With age his behaviour grew more extreme, until he no longer seemed aware of the responsibility he owed to sustain the realm against peril.

One day Li Ching, later to be ennobled as Duke of Wei but at that time still a commoner, requested interview with Yang Su in order to present certain policies to which he had given much thought. As with everyone else, Yang Su remained seated to receive him. But Li Ching came forward, bowed and said, “The whole empire is now in turmoil, as would-be leaders strive for mastery.

Your highness is supreme in the service of our imperial house. Your first concern should be to win the respect of men of heroic mettle, and this you are hindering by remaining seated to receive those who seek audience.”

Yang Su composed his features to an expression of more fitting gravity, rose to his feet and apologized. He derived great pleasure from the discussion which followed, and Li Ching, when the time came for him to withdraw was assured of their acceptance.


The differences here are pretty stark, and it is easy to see why Lin is not read as much as he used to be. The book is called short stories re-told, so he does not have to stick to the text very closely and there are several versions of the story, but he has changed quite a lot here. The first paragraph of Lin’s version is an introduction to the period and the milieu of dynastic decline in general, which of course would not be needed for a Chinese audience. (I would also not want it in a reading I was assigning, since the whole point is to try to read things the way Chinese would.) Throughout the story Lin adds a lot more dialog and much more detailed descriptions of what people are doing, making his version seem much more like a modern character-driven short story.

The treatment of Yang Su is also interesting. For Chinese readers the minister who exceeds his authority is a well-known enough trope that the Birch version sees no need to dress it up. Lin makes him into an orientalist caricature of the decadent Chinese. (Which may help to explain why Lin was less popular in China.) The whole point of this first story is also changes in Lin’s version. In the Birch version the point of the first encounter is to show our hero, Li Ching, is in fact a hero capable of making others behave better by his own influence. He gets Yang Su to show him proper respect and even manages to get him to agee to his plans (not that anything comes of it). In the Lin version there is not much point to the episode, other than to point out how decadent the Chinese are.

Lin’s story also ends up not having much of a moral. The Birch story rotates around Li Ching and his friend Curly Beard deciding that a Li of Taiyuan is the One Man and rightful next emperor. Li Ching decides to serve him, and Curly Beard, not being that type, decides to go carve himself out a kingdom outside China. This makes it not work so well as a short-story (which it’s not, its a piece of Chinese prose that is short enough to be called one) and so Lin focuses more on Curly-Beard and his friendship with Li Ching. He also gives Li Ching’s wife a much larger role and in general makes the story much more modern. I assume that one of his purposes in doing the translations was to show Western audiences that the Chinese really did have a literary history that paralleled their own. Since editing the Chinese to make them look civilized is not one of the main purposes of translating Chinese literature today, it is not too surprising that Lin is little read.

See also Lin Yutang, Critic and Interpreter Chan Wing-Tsit
College English, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Jan., 1947), pp. 163-169


Coming Soon: The 21st Asian History Carnival

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 11:18 pm

The first of two parts of the 21st Asian History Carnival will be coming soon on August 23rd to the Tang Dynasty Times!

Read more and submit your nominations for the carnival here:

21st Asian History Carnival.


舊版報紙資訊網: Initial Thoughts and Technical Review

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 4:47 am

I have been spending a few days looking at one of the important early postwar newspapers in Taiwan, 臺灣新生報, using the microfilm collection on the 6th floor Taiwan resource center of the National Taiwan Library (國立中央圖書館臺灣分館). Yesterday, I happened to catch a glimpse of someone viewing some old copies of another important postwar Taiwan paper, 民報, using an online database, which I will offer some comments about below, following a brief opening rant.

I’m not a big fan of microfilm newspapers. The advantages of this medium over providing access to physical copies or bound printed copies are obvious. Among them include: 1) preservation 2) space conservation 3) the ability to zoom 4) ability to print zoomed in articles from microfilm machines onto various sizes of paper, etc.

However, from the point of view of the historian, the disadvantages soon become apparent: unlike the bound printed copies of, for example, 中央日報, 申報, or 大公報 that I can find in various libraries, which sometimes shrink the original size of the newspaper such that the characters in the articles are barely legible – it is actually possible to browse these through these collections quite fast. It is in fact faster to turn the pages of a book and scan a page of a newspaper for interesting articles than it is to operate the knob of a microfilm machine and zoom in and out on interesting looking pieces.

More importantly, the higher contrast of black text on the printed white of paper makes the experience of looking at bound volumes far more pleasant than a microfilm machine. With the exception of some digital microfilm readers that artificially boost the contrast, the vast majority of microfilm readers I have used in Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and the United States are extremely hard on the eyes. If you have to sit at the reader for 4-10 hours, with some short breaks, for even a few days in a row, the impact on one’s eyes is noticeable. The sick yellow background (or black with white text, as the default is for many newspapers I viewed in Korea’s national library, hardly much better) of the microfilm reader, desperately trying to transfer light to the viewer through its lenses always seems to fall below the expectations of my eyes, which yearn to look at real paper, or even the greater contrast of a computer screen!

Digital databases of newspapers are always welcome. In addition to the power of database searching, they offer some of the benefits of both paper bound and microfilm collections but also some more serious defects. It is not all one glorious march towards progress. In my experience, I have found that digital newspaper collections (as well as many library OPAC databases and other online resources) often are designed by people that appear to greatly underestimate the importance of browsing. It isn’t just about what is there in that article or even on that page; historians often want to know what can be found near that article, page, or issue. Sometimes we aren’t looking for a single article about a single topic, but trying to get a feel for the kinds of things being written on the days and weeks surrounding a particular historical event. It is all part of the task of surveying the discursive environment of a time or place.

Now, having made these comments, let me turn to the database I discovered completely by chance yesterday: 舊版報紙資訊網. Read on below the fold…


National Taiwan University Library

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 9:12 pm

I’ve started an entry for the NTU Library at the EALA wiki.

Besides the fact that this is a wonderful library by any international standard, I’m really impressed with how open this university library is to visitors. As I explain in the Usage section for the EALA entry, you need only bring a passport or student ID and register at one of the computers near the entry to get a temporary readers card and free wireless login information. The process is even faster and simpler than that at the national libraries in Taiwan, Korea, or Japan. I wish some prominent American university libraries provided such easy access to visitors.

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