Chinese Rough Music

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:39 pm

China Beat has a post up from Kate Merkel-Hess on the latest evolution of the “human flesh search engine”, which can be described as Chinese netizens tracking down and harassing (both on the net and in real life) those who offend them either by being ostentatiously rich or insufficiently patriotic or whatever. Merkel-Hess looks at Tim Brook’s Confusions of Pleasure and compares this to the reactions to commercially-fueled insecurity in the Ming. While that is a fine comparison, I think we might also look at the Search Engine as an example of rough music.

Rough music is a concept mostly associated with E.P. Thompson.1 Thompson defines it as “a rude cacophony, with or without more elaborate ritual, which usually directed mockery or hostility against individuals who offended against certain community norms.” The ritual varied a lot, but usually included a mob and lots of noise, the malefactor being carried out of town on a pole (riding the stang) burning someone in effigy, a mock hunt and/or reciting rhymes, often obscene.

If the gun should happen to miss
We’ll scald him to death with a barrel o’ red-hot piss”

Those punished might be guilty of some sort of commercial fraud or failure to support their fellow workers, but enforcing sexual boundaries was also common, especially against women who overstepped their bounds.

It is but a riding, used of course
When the old grey mare’s the better horse;
When o’er the breeches greedy women
Fight, to extend their vast dominion

Although these punishments were not imposed by the state they have a complex relationship with official power. In the sexual cases the masses were enforcing rules that might have once been enforced by the church. Their rituals were often parodies of state actions and also attempted to borrow their power. While the more traditional forms of rough music died out as the close-knit communities who’s judgment they represented vanished bits and pieces of rough music found their way into modern forms of communal violence including “rites of public humiliation practiced during the Cultural Revolution”.

Looking at the search engine as rough music makes some parts of it more understandable. One is that the sheer level of invective hurled at the target is not just a pointless add-on to the ‘real’ punishment, but the main part of the ritual humiliation of the subject. This humiliation is less effective than older forms however, since the humiliation is not face to face, and thus has to be extended into meatspace by some sort of action. This to me makes the purpose of denunciation more the joy or empowerment the denounces get from it. The case Merkel-Hess discusses is a greedy rich young woman who turns out not to have been invented just to be denounced. In the case of rough music most effigies were those of actual people, but here we have a virtual effigy of the spoiled rich girl. And of course she is female, which of course makes her being rich a sexual transgression as well. In the case of denunciation of those who are insufficiently patriotic it is pretty obvious that the search engine is extending the reach of the state, but then by going after the rich they are expressing popular discontent with modernization and state policies.

While Chinese rough music is clearly not part of traditional rural society it is part of a society with lots of web access and lots of people with too much time on their hands and a pretty homogeneous culture. I suspect Thompson will get some cites whenever the first dissertation on the search engine comes out, probably in around 2013

  1. The most google-able description is here all quotes in this post taken from this source []


21st Asian History Carnival Pt II Now Posted

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 1:14 pm

Leanne Ogasawara has posted Pt II of the 21st Asian History Carnival at her Tang Dynasty Times.

Although she complains that the blogosphere is in a depression after the Olympics, she presents a number of informative posts from out of the way (to me, at least) venues, including a significant series from Hong Kong.

By the way, Tang Dynasty Times is well worth following. Leanne, among other topics, follows the seasons as expressed in Japanese culture. The Autumn Moon, for instance, is an evocative run down on the Mid Autumn Festival.



Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 3:54 pm

September 19th is International Talk Like a Pirate Day.  Again. I was going to do a short bit on the current state of Chinese pirate scholarship1 but Robert Anthony has already done it.


As Beijing Sounds points out, it really should be International Talk Like a Beijinger Day

  1. meaning scholarship on pirates, not pirate copies of scholarly books []

Pearl Buck’s Intriguing Staying Power: Imperial Woman

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 1:40 pm

Parade Magazine (September 14, 2008) asked Laura Bush what she’s been reading: “The Imperial Woman, by Pearl S. Buck. I picked up this book after returning from the Olympics in Beijing. The story of the last empress of Manchu China is fascinating; I can hardly put it down.”

Now from my point of view, the novel’s interest is for the history of American ideas about China, but Buck’s take on “Old Buddha” is not to be taken lightly and her appeal to the public should be respected as a “teachable moment,” not merely scoffed at.

Over the years, Buck’s staying power has intrigued me. Since I have a contrarian streak, I’ve challenged myself to respect her accomplishments (considerable) while keeping in sight her shortcomings (ditto) and to distinguish the two.1

Moyer Bell Publishers has a number of her books in print, including Imperial Woman. They are nicely printed and reasonably priced, including Buck’s translation of Shuihuzhuan (titled All Men Are Brothers), which is listed at $16.95. The translation is heavy going at first, as you have to get used to the labored diction she developed to reflect Chinese style, but hey, the price is right.

They offer other of her novels which are of topical interest: Dragon Seed (1939), for instance, describes the opening of the Second Sino-Japanese War with gruesome details of the 1937 invasion and occupation of the Yangzi valley. It’s not the first thing to read on the subject, but holds its own as an historical novel. Peony (1948) is set in 19th century Kaifeng and interweaves a reasonably accurate history of the Jewish community there.2

  1. Charles W. Hayford, “What’s So Bad About The Good Earth?,” Education About Asia 3.3 (December 1998): 4-7. []
  2. The Moyer Bell catalogue descriptions of Dragon Seed and Peony, however, are switched with the write ups for other novels. They also quote Kenneth Rexroth praising her “renerding” of Shuihu, which I actually prefer to the perhaps correct but less colorful “rendering.” []


Collecting Songs

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:39 am

In Imperial China, emperors and other high officials sometimes disguised themselves as commoners and mingled with the ordinary folk to learn what they were really thinking. For essentially the same purpose, a government office in the People’s Republic now collects shunkouliu, or “slippery jingles.”……Uncensored and uncensorable, they are the freest and arguably the liveliest medium in China, even though the government has classified the poems in its own collection as state secrets.

Perry Link has a very brief piece in the Washington Post on collecting songs in China.



“Never the Twain Shall (Track) Meet”: Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Olympic Lies

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 12:57 pm

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of the Yale School of Management has a well informed insider’s view of the Olympics, “Olympics Reveal East-West Divide.” (Forbes.com August 20, 2008) which starts with Rudyard Kipling’s classic 1889 “Ballad of East and West“:

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet

‘Till Earth and Sky stand present at God’s great Judgment Seat.

Sonnenfeld argues that the Beijing Olympics demonstrates that Rudyard had it right: “There is more than a duality between East and West inherent in these games; they embody a paradox between the collaborative spirit of global unity and the patriotic spirit of nationalistic competition.”

Beijing offered “flawlessness” and “manufactured perfection” where prior Olympics in Atlanta and Athens “proffered raw authenticity, pluralistic interests, democratic voices and transparent decision-making.” Such flawlessness, though, is exactly what betrays the “real divide between East and West.”

He concludes that perhaps “the sacrifice of individual pleasures for collective achievement is acceptable to the people of China and other Eastern cultures in a way it isn’t in the West.” Since the next Olympics will take us to Kipling’s London, “we are likely to see a return to chaos, confusion, conflict and spontaneous joy.”

Sonnenfeld surely has a point, but like most who quote the Kipling poem, he leaves out the next lines:

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!

Sounds like the Olympics to me.

But what caught my eye is how Sonnenfeld illustrates the argument my piece on “Lies.” (August 28) which talks about the role of concepts such as authenticity, individualism, and well, lies.

My point was that we need to avoid the assumption that others act because of their age old cultural values. At just about the time that he wrote “East is East,” Kipling exhorted the US to “take up the White Man’s Burden” of colonial rule in the Philippines, tipping us off to the racism lurking here. Kipling’s Gunga Din praises the native subaltern: “you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.” This is fine, since Kipling uses the same standard as he uses to judge both the “other” and himself, but not so fine in that the standard is a British standard, that of “manliness.”

I agree, though, when Sonnenfeld explains things in terms of differences in situation, that is, that China is large, newly proud and united nation. This is a reasonable approach (though the particulars can still be debated) rather than insisting on “East” vs. “West,” two units of analysis which are undefinable and lead to self-confirming assertions.


Down with the Xia!

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:37 pm

People who have been following the Three Dynasties chronology debate have already seen this article by Li Liu and Hong Xu “Rethinking Erlitou: legend, history and Chinese archaeology” For those who are even more behind on this controversy than I am, the basic issue is over attempts (described here) to create a solid chronology of early Chinese history. It originates out of  bluntly nationalistic desires to make early Chinese history as solidly grounded as early Egyptian history. There is nothing wrong with that motivation, of course, but Li and Hong are claiming that the attempt to tie archeological finds to historical texts (and a single narrative of Chinese development) are no longer helpful. Specifically, attempts to fit the Erlitou site (1900 B.C. to maybe 1500 B.C.) into the Xia-Shang chronology are doing more harm than good. The article has the a nice short description of the Eritou site, which is a very important palace and workshop complex that clearly has an important role in understanding Chinese protohistory. However…

“For more than 40 years of excavation at Erlitou, much attention was placed on its ethnic and dynastic affiliations, but little progress has been made. This approach has overshadowed other research orientations, such as craft production, agricultural practic, urban population parameter, and urban-rural interactions. As a result, we know little about the political economy of this first urban center in China.”

I’m not sure how much overall effect this will have, but it is nice to see a firm call to move away from the centralized narrative that has dominated Chinese protohistory for so long.

via aardvarchaeology

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