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What can China learn from the Jews

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:27 am
Via 鲍昆 an interview with Lydia Liu ((originally from Oriental Outlook)) 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 Jews ((Also not really sure if she means 'Jews' or 'Israelis' I know lots of Jews who understand Americans pretty well because they are Americans)) 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, ((while also demonstrating it)) so the interview makes a nice follow-up to Charles post below.
《瞭望东方周刊》:具体来说,如何对西方的媒体做回应? 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。 "种族歧视"恰恰成了犹太人的一张牌。他们没有要求说请你们理解我们,因为他们跟欧洲有过多少世纪的交往,知道"理解"是不可能的。 他们于是就非常智慧和策略地进入欧美人自己的话语,知道什么特别致命,就用什么去反抗。现在这一点已经在被印度人学习了。就是怎么样在媒体上成功地抵抗。 如果中国人能学习犹太人,在全世界用民间的力量监督对华人的歧视言论,就可以用非常少的资源做非常大的事情。根据我在美国20多年的经验,最有效的办法不是"请你了解我",而是"你哪里错了",并且用你的语言去指出你的错误。 比如CNN辱华事件,当时他们用了特别侮辱性的词汇,"无赖"啊之类,绝对是种族主义。其实他们不用说这么严重,我们就可以监督他。以正义的名义,以平等的名义,以民主的名义去监督种族主义,站在普世的高度去监督对中国人的歧视。


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.

The most cogent successor to Chinese Characteristics was Francis Hsu’s Americans and Chinese: Passages to Difference , first published in 1948 (University of Hawaii, 3rd ed. 1981). Hsu was born in China and came to the U.S. after the war. His book, just as acerbic about America as Smith was about China, contrasted his remembered China with the complacent, materialist America where his daughters grew up. Because the Chinese “situation oriented” approach was group defined, polytheistic, and realistic it was more mature than the American illusion of an autonomous individual based in Romantic ideals, monotheism, and expectations of endless plenty.

Recently Susan D. Blum’s charming and thoughtful Lies that Bind: Chinese Truth, Other Truths (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006) took up the challenge left by Smith and Hsu to study the rules, expectations and beliefs regarding lying and honesty not only in China but everywhere. Blum and Hsu both explain anthropological theory through breezy stories of everyday life (and both talk about their daughters), but Blum’s starting point is Michel Foucault’s post-modern assumption that every society has its own “regime of truth.” This is akin to Richard Rorty’s provocative statement that truth is “what your contemporaries let you get away with.” (Rorty quickly adds that serious people care not only about producing agreement but also about justifying their methods for producing agreement.) [2]

Blum catalogues the reasons we lie: profit, comfort, flattery, clever management, spin, polite convention, tactful greasing of squeaky social wheels, and sometimes just for the fun of it. Plagiarism is a lie about authorship, but Blum elsewhere adds that the “value of cross-cultural and historic examples is that they point out the constructed nature of our familiar expectations.” That doesn't mean we should abandon them, but we might hesitate to call plagiarism “sinful” for our values “are certainly not universal.” [3]

We can add a few more lies: Macbeth, like many in Shakespeare’s plays , distrusts what his eyes tell him and calls his visions “lies like truth” (Othello comes to grief by trusting “ocular proof”). A geographer says “a map is a lie.” [4] Bullshit is sheer indifference to truth. [5] And then there is Huck Finn’s wonderful term, “stretchers.”

If truth is what our society lets us get away with and lies come in so many varieties, we need to ask why do Chinese act the way they do. Blum groups the contradictory explanations:

● Chinese culture (Arthur Smith’s “Chinese Characteristics”). That is, Chinese behave the way they do because they’re Chinese.

● Modernity in the form of Communism; authoritarian rule shapes behavior.

● Modernity in the form of post-Communism; free for all Capitalism shapes behavior.

Chinese situations change. Take your pick.

Unlike Smith, Blum does not take American values as the reference point, but she agrees with Hsu that because they live in closer and longer lived groups, Chinese are more focused on the social consequences of a statement than its literal truth.

Are all lies bad?

Chinese and Americans agree that rearranging the truth to make others happy is different from lying to cheat them. I love my birthday necktie and don’t add that I already have one exactly like it. Should you tell social or political lies because your children would pay if you say what you think? In China, the costs are higher and more certain than in mobile societies where authorities control fewer resources and neighbors more likely to move on. Should doctors tell patients that they are dying? Chinese are more likely to say no.

Blum sees differences which go way back. Aristotle and St. Augustine exalted Platonic Truth which transcended time and place, but Confucius sought to explain right action as relative to the situation. If your father steals a sheep, do not turn him in: The result would be wrong. When Chinese today, especially urbanites, brag of their cleverness they echo the Daoist generals who used tricks and strategy to get maximum effect for minimum effort For a Chinese court painter to copy a landscape stroke for stroke was not deception or “forgery.” If the result was beautiful and it pleased the emperor, it was beautiful.

Philosophers will recognize this not so much a debate between East and West as between the deontological commitment to truth at any cost vs consequentialism. In ancient China the poet Qu Yuan drowned himself in the river when the ruler was deaf to his advice and the historian Sima Qian accepted physical castration to avoid castration of his political views. Like establishment intellectuals in Mao’s China, they spoke truth to power but did not rebel or challenge its legitimacy.

Likewise, the scholarly painters in China were centuries ahead of the Romantics in 18th century Europe in condemning academic painting as not authentic since artistic truth was individual, spontaneous, and could not be copied. Rock ‘n Roll says this in simpler words and at higher decibels: “I need to be me,” “I can’t live a lie.” Americans often say that government should help individuals -- “be all you can be” -- Chinese that individual should help the government build a Greater China.

Hsu points out that these differences cut two ways. To be “free” or “independent” can also be “irresponsible,” “lonely,” or “selfish.” What Chinese call “harmony” can be “conformity” or “repression.” American “straight talk” can be childish, reckless, or self-righteous, and Chinese “sweet talk” can cover up realities until they fester.

Chinese regimes evoke both the iron hand of repression and the velvet glove of Confucian harmony; Americans talk the individualism game but have conformity and wartime group think as well.


1. Yes, Chinese do lie.

2. No more than anybody else.

3. For the same reasons.

4. They are in a different situation.

Which explanation do we chose for which action? Are the Chinese authorities behaving like good hosts, lying dictators, or just like most authorities would behave in the same situation?


[1] Harvard Business Review on Doing Business in China (Harvard Business School, 2004) has many references to guo qing, translated as “Chinese characteristics.” (p. 123). Josh Gartner’s blog “China Expat” has a sensible piece, “The Great Chinese Myth: Guanxi.” Academic studies include Thomas B. Gold, Doug Guthrie David L. Wank, eds., Social Connections in China: Institutions, Culture, and the Changing Nature of Guanxi (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002) and Andrew B. Kipnis, Producing Guanxi: Sentiment, Self, and Subculture in a North China Village (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997).

[2] Jim Holt, “Say Anything,” New Yorker, August 22, 2005

[3] See Blum’s piece on H-ASIA December 7, 2007

[4] Mark S. Monmonier, How to Lie with Maps (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2nd, 1996).

[5] Laura Penny, Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth About Bullshit (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2005); Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).


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 committee (( 軍事委員會, is there a better standard translation for this? )) dated April, 1938 and entitled: Take Strict Precautions Against the Enemy's Female Traitors 嚴防敵人女漢奸 The concise attached brief (( in the form of a 代電 report, then largely repeated in an directive 訓令 )) 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. (( 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 Hua ((and really, it is pretty sad to have much to say about him)) he did get rid of the Gang of Four, which is more good than most politicians have done.

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.

[/wpcol_1half_end] 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... Contents From what I can tell, the 舊版報紙資訊網 is a digital newspaper archive project put together by 國立台中圖書館 and first launched online in the spring of 2003. Its own introduction reports that it currently includes, among others these newspapers: 民報(館藏民國三十四年十月十一日至三十六年二月,已停刊)、公論報(自民國四十一年三月開始收藏,已停刊)、民聲報(自民國四十一年一月開始收藏,已停刊)、香港工商日報(自民國三十九年五月開始收藏,已停刊). Another page reports that it contains: 民報、正氣中華、外交部周報、工人報、台東新報、大華新聞、更生報、攝影新聞等. This is a truly impressive list and a great service to historians of early postwar Taiwan, but even more exciting is the claim that they want to add to their collection 中央日報、中華日報、and 台灣新生報. The last two among these are particularly important for historical projects involving early postwar Taiwan. Unless I'm missing something (please let me know if I am!) there is no way to browse by newspaper or date using the web page so I wasn't able to easily confirm what issues of what newspapers in the above list were available. The only way to access the contents of database, as far as I could tell, is through their search page. Using various search terms I was able to get the useful 民報 for most searches 1945 to the suppression of the newspaper in 1947 following the 2.28 incident, and 外交部通報週報, 青年新報, and 攝影新聞 for searches in the 1950s. However, among these four papers, I was only able to view images of 民報 and no images appeared for the others. This inability to browse, both within the available range of a newspaper or limited by newspaper is truly crippling. It really need not be this way since the database clearly offers a way to index by the name of the newspaper and by date. I very much hope that they will add this capability in the future, and furthermore, add an "update" page (ideally with an RSS feed) which will indicate which recent additions have been made to the database so we can follow the growth of the database and return when an important addition has been made (e.g. 中華日報 and 台灣新生報) Technical Review Let us look closer at some of the technical aspects of this online database. As already mentioned, the website doesn't seem to have images for some of the newspapers that appear in the search: I wasn't able to get images at all for newspapers other than 民報. The search mechanism, when it functions, does provide the ability to search by a large number of metadata categories such as title of the article or author, etc. It was not clear to me how much data was actually indexed from each article. You can limit the searches by year or exact date (in Western or 民國 years), but not by newspaper. Unlike many of the world's worst online newspaper databases (Japanese and Korean historical databases are, in my opinion, the most infamous in this regard), this collection fortunately does not appear to require any special plugins, ActiveX components, etc. The creators of this collection bravely resolved that standard web images are more than sufficient to show images on the screen. The small preview images are jpg files (example) that are actually shrunk down and can be viewed in larger size if you download the image while the full size image is a TIFF file which can be downloaded and viewed on any operating system. I find the choice of JPEG for the preview image to be unusual, since black and white or greyscale images are often much smaller and clearer if saved as GIF files. They are, however, clear. When a search is performed, a list of hit articles are returned. When an article is clicked the screen splits into 2. An image of the newspaper page with the article appears on the left and on the right a list of article titles on that page, with the article searched for marked. While the list of other articles is a useful addition, there is a flaw with this design: Splitting the screen in half wastes important horizontal screen space, forcing the developers to use a much smaller newspaper page image than necessary. If the article information was place below/above the image, perhaps broken into two columns to minimize its vertical coverage, then they could use a newspaper image twice the size on the screen, and thus make it far more legible to the reader. As it is, the small image makes only some of the newspaper titles on the page visible and it is difficult to tell how long the article one is looking for is. In the background, if popups are allowed, a much larger image of the page often seems to appear, and will also appear if the smaller page image is selected. However, I have never been able to get these larger images in the popups to appear, though I have seen them appear on a library computer, so it may have something to do with the version of Internet Explorer I used (versions 7 and 8 on Windows XP). Now let me list some of the many many design and coding flaws of this database that need to be fixed if this collection is to reach its potential. I hope this will not only serve as a critique of this newspaper collection but will be read by others creating similar collections as a warning of the kinds of mistakes to avoid: Only Works on Internet Explorer Using Windows - This problem follows the long tradition of digital archives, especially in East Asia, being created by programmers who apparently don't know that there are standards compliant browsers other than Internet Explorer (Firefox, Safari, Opera, etc.) and other operating systems besides Windows (OS X, Linux). If you try to open the search page using Safari on a mac, you get this completely unusable page: 6safari.gif If you open the search page using Firefox you will find that, due to poor Javascript programming, drop down menu items are missing so you cannot choose the type of search you wish to do: 6firefox.gif If you try to search using either Firefox or Safari you will get this message: 6firefoxsearch.gif Web standards are important, and it is no longer acceptable, as it was perhaps more accepted back in 2003 when this site was developed, that your web page fail to function with those standards for maximum durability into the future. The above problems were due to some simple errors Javascript, especially using references to objects in a way understood only by Internet Explorer. Text Encoding Is Missing - Another common problem in East Asian historical databases is that programmers assume that every computer viewing their website has Internet Explorer configured with their own favorite encoding as the default, in this case Big5 for traditional Chinese. But what if you are viewing the web page on a mainland Chinese computer, or a Korean, Japanese, or American computer? The result is that some pages will appear like this: 2encoding.gif As I show in the source below, the developer did not include any meta tag to indicate the Big5 encoding here so that the buttons and message are unreadable until you right-click and physically change the encoding yourself. This is despite the fact they did include this tag correctly on other pages: 2.1encoding.gif Poor Overall Design - There are some aspects of this site which are simply poor overall design. These include serious problems with text and tables overlapping with background images and a background pattern that is not made wide enough to accommodate the larger resolutions of today's monitors, making some text almost illegible. Here are three examples: 3.1overlap.gif 1overlap.jpg 3overlap.gif There are also a number of completely mashed buttons, and I'm not sure how they ended up creating the effect. The effect, however, is to make three of the special features of the collection largely invisible to the visitor who cannot read their titles: 7mashedbuttons.gif Here is an original version of one button: 7.1mashedbuttons.gif Incidentally, it puzzles me that they offer these special searches for advertisements and riddles (as one of the others is) but not the ability to browse by individual newspapers! Frequent File Not Found Errors - There were many cases where I searched for an entry and after going through several pages of hits, eventually was given a file not found error for the next page: 5notfound.gif This error 500 is a script error, which suggests that it was not able to handle the parameters of the call for the next page. Incorrect File Type - This collection doesn't require special plug-ins, which is very handy. It offers the ability to download a full TIFF image of single pages of the newspaper (PDF downloads of whole issues, would be nice, but perhaps asking too much). However, the file that is downloaded does not have a .tif or .tiff or other recognizable file type. It is a TIFF file but will not be recognized as such by Windows or, if the file is transferred to OS X or Linux, on other operating systems either. People with more computing experience will know they can simply change the file name's final characters to .tif to get it to be recognized as an image, but some less technically inclined historians will not know how to open the downloaded ".xtf" images. These TIFF images are certainly not XTF files. 4filesave.gif The developers should ensure that the downloaded file is given the correct file attribute. 100 Hit Limit Too Small - I understand why databases provide a maximum number of hits. They need to manage the load on the database server which is processing the searches of all visitors. However, 100 does seem too small, and I would suggest 500 or even 250 as a more reasonable number. I also feel that it is also lazy programming to leave out a link at the end of the first hundred hits that allows the user to query the database for the next 100 hits. As every web database programmer knows, this is easily done with a simple modification to the MySQL query. That way, if someone really wants to go through many hundreds of hits, they can do so without asking for all the returned results all in a single query. Conclusion I was delighted to find this online digital archive, the 舊版報紙資訊網. The quality of the downloaded images themselves, which are in nice standard TIFF format are very clear, often more so than the bound or microfilm versions I have been looking at so far. If it eventually contains the half dozen or so most important early postwar Taiwanese newspapers it will allow powerful search abilities for a scholar without access to hard copies or microfilm collections often found only in Taiwan. If good solid browsing features are added with fast and easy viewing of the high contrast images, it will easily outdo microfilm in usefulness. If someday, powerful OCR software indexed some of the text in the pages (at least the more clear text in the titles where OCR software stands a chance at accurately interpreting the content) or if article titles were embedded as metadata into the files and the database collection provided us PDF downloads of these pages, it would allow us to search for relevant articles in our own set of downloaded collection of relevant articles when we are away from the internet and access to the online database. I hope that this online collection receives sufficient support and funding to continue its digitization and indexing efforts but that it will also invest some time and effort into improving the code and design of the existing infrastructure of the site.


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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