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A sinologist in Iraq

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:32 am

Graham Peck's Two Kinds of Time has been re-issued. This is good news for everyone, and especially for those of us who got a copy for Christmas. (Thanks Sis!) For a number of years all that one was likely to find even in used bookstores was the Sentry edition (1967), which re-printed only the first half of the book. The two parts of the book are the same in that they are both the stories and pictures of Peck's wanderings in Western China during the War of Resistance. The first volume ends on December 10th, 1941, when a group of local officials come to visit him. Peck has been fairly contemptuous of Kuomintang officials throughout the book, since he regards most of them as corrupt feudal remnants with at best a thin layer of modern jargon spread over them. They in turn are convinced he must be some sort of crypto-Communist. On this occasion however they are happy to inform him that 500 American planes have bombed Tokyo and that they are now allies.


The illustrations are one of the joys of the book. Peck himself said in the introduction to the 1967 half-edition that this was a good place to split the book, and he seems to be right. The first half is about the decrepit nature of the Nationalist system and Peck has a nice eye for the contradictions of China's attempts to modernize and the absurdities of Western attempts to help the process along.

After America enters the war, however, Peck will start working for the OWI and the book is about America's first great attempt to remake a foreign country. This is one of the things that I think makes the second part pretty topical, given that Americans are still in the middle (well, the end of the middle) of an attempt to re-make a large Asian nation. Peck is deeply critical of the American government's decision to bind themselves hand and foot to whatever Chiang Kai-shek's government wanted to do, and to our general and  continuing ignorance about China.  ((After all, soon China will be just like Kansas City, so there is not much point in learning about the soon to be vanished past.)) He is a bit more charitable about American attempts to explain themselves to the Chinese.


He also spends a lot of time talking about what might be called the American Green Zone in China, which he is much less impressed with, either in its old missionary form or its new military form.


Peck's analysis of the geopolitical situation in China is interesting, even if I don't always agree with it. What is striking me most at present, however, are his accounts of ordinary Americans encountering "China".


American troops were in general not interested in the Wisdom of the East, and Americans were often contemptuous of the Chinese they met. They were more than happy to uplift the Chinese, and to put a great deal of effort into doing it, but they seem to have expected the process to be easier than it turned out to be. One flyboy complained to Peck about his inability to get a date.

"At that Mayor's party last month I met four or five girls who could speak English, and they gave me their phone numbers. A couple weeks ago I came into town at noon. I was sick of those dirty squabs in the hotels, and I just wanted to take a nice girl to the best restaurant in town, buy her a dinner and talk to her, the way you would at home....I called up every one of those girls and they all gave me the run-around. I got so mad I decided if I couldn't have a good time myself, I'd give one to somebody who needed it. I picked up the worst-looking beggar I could find, and took him to a restaurant to get him just as fine a meal as I would have ordered for a girl. What d'you think happened?..The manager threw us out! Said his restaurant would lose face if it served beggars, even in a private room. After that I went right back to the airfield without any dinner. I was so fed up with the Chinese I didn't want their food." p.538

The poor American just wants to sit down and eat with a date, something he regards as entirely natural, but in China  it's not, and he can't understand why. Frustrated in his attempt he decides to help out a poor beggar and flip the bird to Chinese Culture, and finds that he can't do those either.

To some extent this ties in with many of the Chinese people Peck had been talking to. Many of them are Chinese liberals who very much wanted to turn their compatriots from peasants to modern Chinese, but are frustrated by their inability to change them or even to make contact. Many of the them just give up.  Probably the best example is a Chinese woman he meets who is in charge of a local adult-education effort and, being a graduate of the LSE, impresses Peck with her detailed plans and multi-colored charts, but has been forced to close down all the schools because "the peasants were much too ignorant. "

Giving up is not always an option for the Chinese, of course, but the Americans always had the option of heading back to the airbase for the duration and then trying to forget China as rapidly as possible once they got home. The pattern of wild enthusiasm for re-making the world, followed by confusion, followed by wanting to forget the whole thing seems to be an American standard. Peck's book is in some ways not an ideal guide to China in the 1940's, but it is an excellent guide to the eternal and unchanging nature of the Americans.


Pinyin or bust

Filed under: — gina @ 11:21 am
A recent obituary of John DeFrancis emphasized his personal desire to see the Chinese overhaul its writing system, claiming that the failure of the Communist government to move into a complete romanization of the system did not make Chinese as accessible to the masses as it could have been, an idea he also mentions in his books. Little did he know (although he probably did know) that the Communists realized the shortcomings of the character system as well. A publication from the Chinese language reform committee (中国文字改革委员会) in 1956, a small 50 page booklet about new legislation concerning language reform (both spoken and written) and the reasons behind it, the institutions it will affect, easy methods for making the switch from simplified to traditional, etc, explains the disadvantages of the character system. The booklet reads:
In today's developing China, it [the character system] does not meet the demands of our new modern lifestyle, and it doesn't satisfy the needs of the people.  In our language, each character has a unique form, but if you know the form you cannot necessarily read it's pronunciation, and if you can read it's pronunciation, you cannot necessarily write it's form, and if you can read, write, and pronounce it, you don't necessarily know it's meaning, and only when you exhaustedly memorize each character's form, sound, and meaning can you truly say that you know the character. Also, the strokes of characters are quite complicated. In 6 years of schooling, students can only study about 3000 characters, and they must be reinforced. Therefore, studying the character system, as compared to a romanized system, takes much more time, nearly 12 years of language study are necessary for a basic education, which is two years longer than most school systems around the world. Also, characters are used in the areas of writing books, copying, using technology, typing, searching words, and others, all of which use a lot of labor. This makes all of these areas that much harder to do, as it requires that we raise the basic level of education and culture, and all of this us done to preserve the character system. This gives the realization of our socialist country and the creation of our new ideals a much larger job to do.[1]
In the end, the booklet determines that because of historic precedent, cultural preservation, and continuity that the character system must be maintained, but all of the arguments against the character system seem quite interesting, implying that that is the next logical step. Perhaps that is why DeFrancis had such high hopes.
[1] 吴玉章。"为促进文字改革而努力." 文字改革和汉字简化是什么回事?北京:中国文字改革委员会编印, 1956。


Liveblogging, slowblogging, Mammoth Blogging?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:36 pm
John McKay, at Archy, is publishing excerpts from his work on the natural history and historiography of wooly mammoths. The latest installment is about China, particularly the Kangxi Emperor's (r. 1661-1722) collection of mammoth-related materials and, surprisingly, personal contributions to the field. It seems that under Kangxi's tutelage, the Chinese realized that the mammoth was most likely related to the elephant, after centuries of referring to it as a giant but uncategorized rodent. (Also, he's looking for some help with consistent Romanizations.) Just for fun, it inspired me to pull my copy of Elvin's Retreat of the Elephants off my "wanna read" shelf and go through the introduction and first few chapters, including "Humans v. Elephants: The Three Thousand Years War." The charts and diagrams in the introduction are nearly worth the price of admission. I'm not sure if I'm going to have time to get through much more of it this semester, but the overlap with my Early China class (especially using Hansen as the text, who does take environmental issues seriously) is significant, and I'm going to try to make the time. I've been known to assign absurdly long books before; has anyone used Elvin in class?


Like mixing water with water

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:35 am
Students often come to classes on China looking for the Timeless Wisdom of the Easttm As a historian I tend to dislike giving it to them, since the point of history is not to take wisdom out of historical context and apply it to your life. ((Well, not the only point anyway)) Still, I do like providing timeless wisdom when I can, and as we are talking about the origins of bureaucracy in China today I will be using this quote from the Zuo ((via Pines, Yuri. Foundations of Confucian Thought: Intellectual Life in the Chunqiu Period, 722-453 B.C.E. University of Hawaii Press, 2002. )) to talk about the difference between a minister and a toady. I suspect this will be one of the things that they can actually apply in their lives, if only as a great put-down.

Yan Ying on harmony and conformity

"Only [Liangqiu] Ju is harmonious (he) with me."

[Yan Ying] answered: "Ju conforms (tong) with you; how can he be harmonious?"

The lord asked: "Are harmony and conformity different?"

[Yan Ying] answered: "They are different. Harmony is like a stew. Water, fire, jerky, mincemeat, salt, and plum [vinegar] are used to cook fish and meat; they are cooked over firewood. Then the master chef harmonizes them, mixes them according to taste, compensating for what is insufficient and diminishing what is too strong. The superior man (junzi) eats it to calm (ping) his heart.

It is the same with the ruler and minister. When there is something unacceptable about what the ruler considers acceptable, the minister points out the unacceptable in order to perfect the acceptability [of the ruler's plan]. When there is something acceptable in what the ruler considers unacceptable, the minister points out the acceptable in order to eliminate the unacceptable. In this way the government is equalized (ping) and without transgressions, and the people have no contending (zheng) heart. ...

As for Ju, he is not like this. Whatever you consider acceptable, Ju also says it is acceptable, whatever you consider unacceptable, Ju also says it is unacceptable. This is like complementing water with more water: who will be able to drink it? If the zithers and dulcimers were to hold a single tone, who could listen to it? This is how conformity (tong) is unacceptable."

Zuo Zhao 20, cited in Pines 160-161


Weird pictures

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 2:53 pm
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="370" caption="Sumo Guys?"]Sumo Guys?[/caption] BibliOdyssey has a post up on European images of 17th century Japan. Yes, I know. Who cares about Japan? There is also a link to an older post on Athanasius Kircher and his images of "China" with a nice set of links.


Making China democratic

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:04 am
Over at A Ku Indeed people have been discussing Bell's East and West, which is an attempt to create a dialogue between Western and Eastern concepts of rights. I have not been that impressed with the book, but Chris had an interesting post on Bell's final suggestion, that the way to democracy in China is to protect the nation from the dangers of giving the vote to the uneducated masses by creating a "House of Scholars"  to balance the passions of the masses. I found this idea unsatisfying at first glance, but I have been struggling with why. The chapter itself has all of Bell's faults.  It is set up as a dialogue between a Chinese scholar and Demo, an American who does not know much about anything. For instance Demo is supposed to be debating Chinese philosophy, but he has never heard of Legalism and thinks that traditionally Confucians have been defenders of autocracy.  As a result the whole thing is sort of like watching Nate Silver talk baseball with somebody who thinks the pitcher's job is to score lots of touchdowns. Still, I found the idea of a "House of Scholars"  interesting, in that the question of how to move towards democracy in a China that is not yet ready for it is one that Chinese thinkers have talked about a lot in the last 100 years, and I have never seen a suggestions like this, and I think it is instructive to consider why. To take just three,  Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao and Sun Yat-sen were all concerned with with the manifest unreadiness  of the Chinese people for democracy. Kang and Sun in particular recommended some form of political tutelage,  Kang in the form of a constitutional monarchy, Sun in the form of a party dictatorship that would gradually make the transition to democracy. Sun at least was willing to posit a traditionally inspired branch of government, the Control Yuan, which exists today on Taiwan. Why then did nobody suggest anything like a "House of Scholars"? I can think of lots of practical objections, as does Bell, but I think a deeper objection is that the whole idea is profoundly un-traditional. Bell's House of Scholars is based on the idea that ordinary Chinese will make a bad job of democracy, and thus they will need something to restrain their ignorance and passions. As everyone in China respects the educated, they can take on this job. It is not surprising that as and American Bell thinks the best way to fix a problem is fiddling with the Constitution. The idea behind the House of Scholars sounds a lot like the original concept behind the U.S. Senate. The difference however, is that the Senate in the end came from the same place, the people, but their passions were to be dissipated by slowing things down a bit and running them through the state legislatures. So the people were assumed to be capable of self-government , they just needed time to think about it. Bell's proposal, however assumes that most people will never be ready for self-government (I get the impression he thinks this about all people, not just Chinese) and will therefore have to be managed, one assumes in perpetuity, by a superior group. This may sound "Confucian" but Kang Youwei, at least, would not have seen it that way. Like Sun he was in favor of a period of tutelage, where the superior could educate the inferior and make them better. He does not seem to have thought that the inferior were incapable of improvement, which is not surprising, nor that this improvement was beyond the power of the elite (since if they cannot provide ethical instruction you could hardly call them a Confucian elite.) The House of Scholars also smells a little of checks and balances. Bell does not recommend getting rid of popular elections, you need them to provide legitimacy. So you have to balance the passions of the people with the cool reason of the elite. This fits it very well with American ideas of the national order as a balancing of various different interests, but it does not fit as well with the Chinese conception of a unitary nation. Nathan talks about this in Chinese Democracy. Western rights talk sees rights as claims against the state, whereas a lot of Chinese thinkers want to create unity between the needs of the state and those of the individual. Liang Qichao
What is a nation? It consists of the people (min). What is national politics? It is simply the people's self-government. What is love of country? It is the people loving themselves. Therefore, when the rights of the people arise, national rights are established. When people's rights or powers (quan) vanish, national rights or powers vanish.  ((Yang Xiao "Liang Qichao's Political and Social Philosophy" p.23 from Cheng and Bunnin eds. Contemporary Chinese Philosophy Blackwell, 2002)) the rights of the portions add up to the rights of the whole. The accumulation of private rights-consciousness of individuals makes the rights-consciousness of the nation...People who can put up with eunuchs and petty officials extorting their small change will also put up with foreign countries slicing off a province. ....The door through which extortionate government enters [that is, popular acquiescence] is the door through which foreign invaders enter.  ((Andrew Nathan Chinese Democracy California, 1985 p.56))
Obviously the development of ideas of rights and national power is complicated in the West, but right from the beginning Chinese thinkers seem to be more in favor of unity of individual and national interests, which they tend to see as unproblematic, than Western thinkers. So the idea of using a House of Scholars to ground Chinese Democracy in Chinese tradition seems to be running counter to a lot of Chinese tradition, since by creating it you divide Chinese society into two groups and assume that a productive tension will come from their continued conflict. That might actually work, but its not very traditional.


Liveblogging the Boxers

Military historian David Silbey is going to be blogging through the Boxer Uprising as seen through the New York Times. Though this is a little more of a distant view than Brett Holman's Sudenten Crisis, I'm really looking forward to it. I've used Paul Cohen's History in Three Keys and read a few other things that touch on the Boxers, but the one perspective I've never really mastered is the Western one. And the Boxer Uprising was a critical one for the image of China in the 20th century, one of the few events in Chinese history about which people know something. The first post in the series just went up; if you fall behind, you can survey all of Silbey's posts here.

A Dictionary that Could Change your Life

Filed under: — gina @ 1:12 am
I see a lot of passing on of digital tools, and a fellow Fulbrighter sent along this link, a Chinese dictionary where you can write in the characters and it looks them up for you. I find it especially helpful for looking up strange characters in names while writing bibliographies. So for those too lazy/poor (like me) to buy a pocket dictionary that has the features, this will save you the trouble of ever having to look up a radical again.


The Relaunching of Sino-Japanese Studies

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 8:08 am
I wanted to post a plug for a project that I have been involved with recently: Announcing the relaunch of Sino-Japanese Studies online For fifteen years Sino-Japanese Studies (1988-2003) was published in hard form and distributed throughout the world. It was the only journal of its kind in content, bringing together Chinese and Japanese studies—irrespective of discipline or time period. The relaunched journal will be available open access online and will continue to be the only journal of its kind. It will contain original, refereed articles, translations, reviews, and news from the field. Interested readers and contributors may find further details on making submissions to the journal as well as access the full online archive of back-issues at: They may also contact the editor directly. Joshua Fogel (fogel at, editor (傅佛果, ジョシュア・フォーゲル) Konrad M. Lawson (konrad at, web technician (林蜀道, コンラッド・ローソン) Note: I have announced the availability of the full archive of back-issues here before, but now we are restarting the journal and accepting new submissions.


Starting a new year

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 5:40 pm
As is something of a tradition here, these are my syllabai for the upcoming semester. East Asia Early China Honors College Unit C on bronzes and classical China Nothing here is terribly new, other than the bronzes thing.  The Early China thing may change a bit as the Chinese Text Project continues to develop, and it becomes easier to give them chunks of primary sources that you pick out without having to make them spend a lot of money.

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