Chinese Goldilocks

Filed under: — gina @ 11:43 pm

Recently, I’ve been looking at Maoist period elementary Chinese textbooks (or perhaps a better translation would be Language Arts textbooks), which are compilations of stories and essays with “reading questions” at the end. Most of the collections I have found were from the late 1950s, very early 1960s, and early 1970s. Also, many of them have been quite monotonous; especially the later textbooks are story after story about military victory either during the 1930s, the war of liberation, or for later textbooks, the Vietnam war (I particularly enjoy reading about the mischief of the 美国鬼子).

However, I came across a particular set that stuck out to me because, if it had been in English, its content would have been nearly indistuinguishable from an American textbook at the time. This set was published in 1955 was meant for the last 4 years of elementary school. And instead of openining with revolutionary songs and ending with stories of Mao’s great kindnesses or the heros of the revolution, the story was almost nothing but fairy tales and tales about young children. I particularly enjoyed the Chinese translation of Goldilocks and the 3 bears (although in this story, she was just called 小女儿, since, being Chinese and all, she did not have gold locks).

I guess what this points to is a large variety in the content of textbooks, since other language textbooks from the same period are full of stories of the communist-war-hero variety. But not all education was for the sole purpose of teaching children to be good communists, as many of the stories, such as a story about “Mother Winter” which explains how the seasons change, have no moral message at all.

I’ve been wondering as to why these textbooks, which were largely used in Shanghai into the early 1960s, differed so much from how we think of Communist period early education. My guess would be that there was a very high priority on children learning how to read. A man I work with at the archives used this set of textbooks when he was a young child, and he still remembers all of the stories. Children are much more likely to want to read if the stories are about talking foxes and mountains of gold with flying phoenixes than if they are simply propaganda. Perhaps this demonstrates a weighing of the importance of literacy over the importance of “correct thought.” However, as the Maoist period progressed, the latter clearly trumped the former. But to me, this is another reason why the 1950s, a period of plurality and exploration, is such an important period to study (another comment on my own blog about this topic expressed a similar trend). It shows us that we can’t generalize about human rights (as an earlier post suggested) or education throughout the Maoist period.

When America looked East (or maybe West)

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:27 am

Speechwars.com lets you see how many times American presidents have used various words in their State of the Union addresses. This is not a perfect representation of American interests, since some Presidents are more prolix than others and just from my own perusal of the site the SOTU seems to be getting more vague over the years. Still China turns up a lot (353 times) and it is sort of interesting to look at why. The handful of early references use ‘China’ to mean the ends of the earth or are brief mentions about foreign relations. Grant mentions China a lot in 1870 and 71, usually coupled with Japan (only 222 total mentions! hah!) and the “nations to our South” as the solution to American economic problems. China Market stuff seems to take precedence in the late 19th Century, although the theme of Chinese as barbarians seems common as well.1 The biggest spike of interest comes from 1900 to about 1912, when China got more individual mentions than it would in the 1940’s as our wartime ally or than it gets today as the sugar daddy who buys all our paper.

The big jump came in 1900, when McKinley gave a long recounting of the Boxer uprising, which was of course America’s first major act of cooperative imperialism, just as the Spanish-American war2 was the first3 unilateral act. I got the impression he was trying to justify his “soft” policy on indemnities to an American public who were going to have to learn that there with other ways of dealing with non-whites besides killing 90% of them and putting the other 10% on reservations.

Teddy Roosevelt seems quite the Friend of China. In 1905 he promised to keep out Chinese laborers but insisted that “we must treat the Chinese student, traveler, and business man in a spirit of the broadest justice and courtesy if we expect similar treatment to be accorded to our own people of similar rank who go to China.” (What, gunboats are not enough?) In 1908 Roosevelt uses China as an example of the perils of deforestation, implicitly saying that China was part of the human community and that we could learn lessons (even cautionary ones) from them.

Fortunately Taft comes along right after that to get us back on the dollar diplomacy track. He spends a lot of words in 1910 assuring us that American capital is right there building railways and exploiting China along with the best of them. He gives the fall of the Qing a brief notice in 1912, but only to assure us that the loans will keep on coming.

After Taft China flatlines for a good decade, however. Not much chance of making a buck in warlord China, and it was not a good example of how American policy was civilizing the globe. So 1900-1912 looks like a time when America and China were both coming out into an international world at the same time.

Via Fallows

  1. I just sampled the speeches rather than reading them all line by line []
  2. Cuba got a spike of mentions just before 1900 []
  3. Yes, not the first. It’s a blog post []


Need a dissertation topic?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 4:56 pm

There is a very interesting review of Simon Winchester’s Bomb, Book, and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China (sold in America as The Man Who Loved China) in the LRB. I have not read the book, but it does not really matter, because the reviewer ignores the final 300-odd pages of the book that deal with Needham’s time in and relationship with China, instead focusing on his life as part of the ‘red science’ of Cambridge in the 1930’s and how this led him to China. Given that the reviewer is Eric Hobsbawm he can fill in a lot of blanks about Needham and his background, and I think almost anyone interested in China should read the review.


Needham’s ambition as a researcher had long been to create a biochemical embryology that would meld the reductionism of the chemists with the inevitable concern of biologists for organisms and processes as a whole. An anti-mechanistic (he preferred the term ‘organic’) view of science had an obvious appeal for developmental biologists… It pioneered the concept of living things organised in hierarchical levels, classically set out in Needham’s Order and Life (1936). The whole organism, he argued, could not be fully grasped at any one of the lower levels of increasing size and complexity – the molecular, macromolecular, cells, tissues etc – and new modes of behaviour emerged at each level which could not be interpreted adequately in terms of those below or at all, except in their relations. As he wrote in Order and Life, ‘The hierarchy of relations from the molecular structure of carbon to the equilibrium of the species and the ecological whole, will perhaps be the leading idea of the future.’ Process, hierarchy and interaction were the key to a reality that could be understood only as a complex whole. And – though one would not discover this from Winchester’s book – this view drew him towards the country and civilisation to which he devoted the rest of his life.

Hobsbawm is not a scholar of Chinese science,1 so he goes a bit too far in the “holistic China” direction for me, but the review is an excellent addition to the book. If anyone ever writes a dissertation on Needham not as a scholar of China but as a link between the intellectual concerns of the English and the Chinese (maybe Waley would fit here as well) this would be a good staring point.

  1. neither am I []

Ming Dynasty tax revolt

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 2:29 pm

Historians write a lot about taxes, in part because we are often interested in states and what they do, and taxes are something that states do a lot of. Taxation also generates a lot of sources, since before you can tax things you need to figure out where they are and who owns them. From the Domesday Book to various cadastral surveys states have tried to generate paper about their subjects, subjects have resisted, and historians have been interested in both the resistance and the paper.

In Nanjing in 1609 there were major tax protests, only in this case protesters were asking the government to impose a new tax.1 Not only did they want to be taxed, they were offering to compile the tax rolls for the state.

we volunteer to compile a book on the exact share for each household, rich or poor, in the year of 1608. Every pu (the neighborhood unit for the huojia system) will meet together to collect and compile this information into a list named Wucheng puce (the neighborhood almanac for the Nanjing Five Districts) and together we will send it to the government to be used as an official reference.

This makes a nice opening for an article, because it is pretty weird behavior. Not surprisingly the citizens of Nanjing wanted to be taxed for a good reason, namely that the new cash tax was to replace an old labor tax that they found more onerous and less flexible. Fei is interested in the case primarily because it shows a lot about public opinion in the Ming and how the state used and reacted to it.

I bring this up partly because it is an interesting article but mostly because issue 28.2 of Late Imperial China is now available to anyone with a web browser. So you should go read it and then subscribe.

  1. Fei, Siyen. ” We Must be Taxed: A Case of Populist Urban Fiscal Reform in Ming Nanjing, 1368–1644″
    Late Imperial ChinaVolume 28, Number 2, December 2007


You are nimble in warfare!

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 2:16 pm

Two Western Zhou bronze inscriptions, both dating from around 850 B.C. and describing the war against the Xianyun1

It was the ninth month, first auspiciousness, wushen-day (no. 45), Boshi said:

“Buqi, the Border Protector! The Xianyun broadly attacked Xiyu, and the king commanded us to pursue to the west. I came back to send in the captives. I commanded you to defend and to pursue at Luo, and you used our chariots sweepingly attacking the Xianyun at Gaoyin; you cut off many heads and took
many prisoners. The Rong greatly gathered and followed chasing you, and you and the Rong greatly slaughtered and fought. You have done well, and have not let our chariots get trapped in difficulty. You captured many, cutting off heads and taking prisoners.”

Boshi said: “Buqi, you young man! You are nimble in warfare; [I] award you one bow, a bunch of arrows, five households of servants, ten fields of land, with which [you are] to take up your affairs.” Buqi bowed with [his] head touching the ground, [and extols the] the beneficence. [Buqi] herewith makes for my august grandfather Gongbo and Mengji [this] sacrificial gui-vessel, with which to entreat much good fortune, longevity without limits, and eternal pureness without end. May [my] sons’ sons and grandsons’ grandsons eternally treasure and use [it] in offerings.


It was in the tenth month, because the Xianyun greatly arose and broadly attacked Jingshi, [it] was reported to the king. The king commanded Duke Wu: “Dispatch your most capable men and pursue at Jingshi!” Duke Wu commanded Duoyou: “Lead the ducal chariots and pursue at Jingshi!”

On the guiwei (no. 20) day, the Rong attacked Xun and took captives. Duoyou pursued to the west. In the morning of the jiashen (no. 21) day, [he] struck [them] at Qi. Duoyou had cut off heads and captured prisoners to be interrogated: in all, using the ducal chariots to cut off 2 [X] 5 heads, to capture 23 prisoners, and to take 117 Rong chariots; [Duoyou] liberated the Xun people captured [by the Xianyun].
Furthermore, [Duoyou] struck at Gong; [he] cut off 36 heads and captured 2 prisoners and took 10 chariots. Following [the Xianyun], [Duoyou] pursued and struck at Shi; Duoyou again had cut off heads and taken prisoners. Thereafter, [Duoyou] rapidly pursued [them] and arrived at Yangzhong; the ducal chariotry cut off 115 heads and captured 3 prisoners. It was that [they] could not capture the [Rong] chariots; they burnt [them]. And it was their (the Xianyun’s) horses that they wounded gravely. [Duoyou] recaptured the Jingshi captives.

Duoyou contributed the captured, the heads, and the prisoners to the duke, and Duke Wu then contributed [them] to the king. [The king] therefore addressed Duke Wu and said: “You have pacified Jingshi; [I] enrich you and award you lands.” On the dingyou (no. 34) day. Duke Wu was in the Xian-hall [He] commanded Xiangfu to summon Duoyou, and [Duoyou] entered the Xian-hall. The duke personally addressed Duoyou and said: “I initially assigned [you the task], and you have done well! [you] did not disobey, but have accomplished [the deed and] taken many captives. You have pacified Jingshi. [I] award you one jade tablet, one set of bells made in finest bronzes and one hundred  jun of the jiaoyou copper.” Duoyou dares to respond to the duke’s beneficence, and herewith makes [this] sacrificial ding-vessel, with which to entertain friends; may my sons’ sons and grandsons’ grandsons eternally treasure and use it!2

This semester I am only teaching three classes, one section of East Asia History, one of Early China, and an Honors College class the first part of which is about ancient Chinese bronzes. So I have been going over some of the same things at three different speeds with three (mostly) different groups of students. This would seem to be a situation that is ripe for all sorts of profound insights. Sadly, I do not have too many.3 Teaching Early China has changed a lot since I was a kid, in part because of all the archeological work that has been done since 1976. Pre-Han stuff used to centered on the philosophers and their (fairly disembodied) debates, in large part because philosophical texts were about all we had. When Fairbank and Twitchett first started the Cambridge History of China project (back in the 1960’s) they deliberately left out the Pre-Qin period on the grounds that “It may well be another decade before it will prove practical to undertake a synthesis of all these new discoveries that will have lasting value. ”4 The Cambridge History of Ancient China, which came out in 1999 was intended to remedy this problem. In the last 30-odd years not only have we made a lot of progress in understanding classical texts but there has been a huge amount of progress in understanding the social and political systems of the Shang and Zhou in large part becuse of archeological evidence like the above. It used to be pretty much impossible to discuss the actual workings of Zhou feudalism with students, or to have a meaningful debate on the validity of  “feudalism” as a concept in China, or to do lots of other stuff. Textbooks have not really caught up with this, but it is getting easier and easier for even non-specialists to teach Early China.

  1. from Li Feng Landscape and Power in Early China []
  2. Zhou bronze inscriptions sound a lot like blog posts []
  3. One is that if you are teaching similar courses in the same semester you should try to at least get them scheduled for different rooms, which might reduce the number of times you end up asking the students if you have gone over this point with them before. []
  4. General Editor’s Preface []


China and the atom bomb

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:44 pm

How is “common knowledge” different in China than elsewhere? At present of course things are increasingly the same, but that is due in part to years of education and government propaganda, but it is hard to figure out how the propaganda connects to the later popular knowledge

Ethan Persoff has posted a nice set of Chinese anti-American cartoons, which he dates to 1958-60.

I think a lot of these are coming from Russian models, since while they have a few on the Japanese as America’s evil allies there is a lot more on Germany, as above. And, there are a lot of atom bombs and H bombs. Making sense of the atom bomb took a while in the West (Orwell, for one, never seems to have gotten his head around them) but here they are everywhere and seem to be the ultimate marker of American depravity and power. Mao of course famous for valuing the power of peasant militias over modern technology, and even atomic weapons did not change this calculus for him, as the many militia pictures during the Cultural Revolution show. These cartoons were intended to convince Russians and other Europeans that the atom bomb had ushered in a new age, but they do not seem to have had that effect in China at all.

Some of these cartoons do show Russian positions that will be picked up on by later Chinese propaganda, like the importance (and existence of) the toilers of other lands

Has anyone done anything on Chinese popular understanding of the nuclear era? I’m drawing a blank.
Via Mutant Palm, which has a nice set of links to Chinese image sites.


Working to Protect Your Human Rights

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 7:02 am

In Communist controlled “liberated districts” of Japanese occupied China, your local treason elimination squad was directed to safeguard your human rights (保障人权). We recognize in this the message of the propaganda workers of the Communist Party security forces today. Clearly there has often been a gap between the official line and the reality. However, in the modern history of China, the breadth of that gap has never been a constant, either across place or time. Nor should anyone interested in China cynically dismiss such proclamations as merely propaganda. The “protection of human rights” has been official policy, and yes, even a priority of the Chinese Communist Party for much longer than is generally appreciated.

There are two obvious problems that any careful China observer will note: 1) The definition of the phrase does not always, or perhaps ever, correspond all that closely with what most of us might offer. 2) Like almost all similar declarations of principles in Communist regimes, these priorities are always relative to whatever other pressing demands there are at both the national level and within the highly local contexts in which one’s “human rights” might get thrown in as chips on the table.

Still, it is worth remembering that the CCP is not, and has never been, immune to public opinion. It has always been aware of how arbitrary violence and unjustifiable cruelty can damage its legitimacy. Now, anyone who has browsed through a book on modern Chinese history will undoubtedly come across passages that suggest how, at times, local and national level party cadres have shown an almost unbelievable incapacity to appreciate this basic fact, especially when it has engaged in self-defeating cannibalization of its own ranks during fits of political hysteria. It is often at the conclusion, or nearing the conclusion of such internal party witch-hunts, however, that we see appeals go out to cadres to remember the party’s dedication to the “safeguarding of human rights.”

An example of this which I have been seeing a lot of these last few weeks in an archive I’m now spending my days, is found in the internal reports, “opinion” letters, and guidelines issued by various divisions of the Shandong “treason elimination committees” (锄奸委员会)of the Communist Party operating under the auspices of the public security bureau.1

These committees operated all over Shandong, even as all the major cities, towns, and railways were under Japanese control. These cadres were a busy lot, having been given responsibility for hunting out pro-Japanese collaborators, pro-Japanese spies, Nationalist spies (especially after 1941), and the diabolical, if usually imaginary, Trotskyists. Their reports, many of which I am grateful to be given access to here, were often scratched in tiny handwriting on toilet paper sized documents or thin and almost transparent pieces of paper. I still have over a hundred similar documents to look at, if my vision holds, but already one sees a pattern of alternating exhortations to show greater vigilance in rooting out the traitors, especially the “internal traitors,” and stern letters of criticism issued to local treason elimination committees whose orgy of violence occasionally led to a mass backlash against the party.

These documents are not for outside consumption, and can often be quite blunt. An early sign of something unpleasant going on an in a district is found when a report refers to “reckless arrests and reckless killings” (乱捕乱杀)in an area. These are not always being carried out by Communist anti-treason units, and in at least one case I have come across describes how party officials helplessly stood by as over a hundred “reckless” killings were carried out by a local “self-defense” militia. Usually, however, this is the term used to report the excessive violence of their subordinate units, often coupled, in the “interrogations” section of the report, with concern expressed for the fact that, “torture (刑讯) continues to be employed instead of the recommended approach of persuasion (说服)and education.”

Sometimes, rather than being found in a report criticizing a local unit, we find local treason elimination units themselves referring to their efforts to get rid of torture in accordance with party policy. One report, for example, claims that torture has been basically eliminated but that for “important cases” they still have the capacity for “special” interrogations (“基本上停止用刑讯,强调政治动员,因而技术也被迫提高,如有特别重大的案件, 还有专门審委會的建立”). The same report notes that, thanks to these and other improvements in the care of prisoners, both the suicide and escape rates among detainees dropped.

The unfortunate “mistakes” of some units has led, several reports lament, to many “misunderstandings” amongst both local party cadres and the masses, and almost every report calls for greater efforts to overcome the tendency of local populations to “mystify” (神秘化)the practices of the treason-elimination squads.

Several documents I came across concern a case of “reckless arrests, reckless killings, and reckless torture” in Laixi (莱西)county in eastern Shandong in 1944. I haven’t yet found any statistics on the number of deaths or arrests involved in this particular case, but the letters being directed to the Laixi treason elimination committee display an unusual degree of urgency. The most direct letter claimed that the arrests and killings were counterproductive, “a violation of the party policy of protecting the human rights of the people” and had led to a situation in which the local masses were in a state of fear and dissatisfaction towards the party (“…锄奸秩序的混乱…群众对我们恐慌不满甚而有的群众公开提示__这是我党在政治上严重_损失” some characters are unreadable). Two letters (one may have been a shorter draft of the other longer letter) order the Laixi treason elimination squad to:

1. Establish a strict policy of arresting only those traitors agreed upon by approval of the committee, and based on evidence.
2. The emphasis is to be on political education of prisoners, and incorporating the masses into the work of eliminating traitors.
3. All confiscated property is to be subject to a strict system of registration and corruption charges will be brought against cadres who do not follow these rules.
4. It is forbidden to torture any of the criminals, and they shall not be beaten, abused, or subject to insult and humiliation (打骂污辱) or any kind of physical punishment (肉刑).

Time and again, the phrase “protection of human rights” is repeated as a principle at stake even as concern about the loss of mass support is showcased as a serious consequence of the problem.

A separate and highly detailed report (also 1944) from various districts controlled by Communist forces outside of Weihai speaks of similar problems. In the section on interrogation, it concludes that cadres in the districts of that area are “not bad” (不错) when it comes to “protecting human rights” but lists a number of disturbing cases that show areas for improvement. In particular it was concerned with reports that some cadres continued to hang prisoners (not sure exactly what this entails: 吊人), tie prisoners up, beat them, and engage in cruel torture (酷刑).

It attributes these violations of human rights to two factors, which I found to generally be as applicable to cases around the world today as they were in 1944:

1) Some cadres have a very vague (模糊)understanding of human rights. They have not engaged in sufficient study of the treason elimination policies. The report argues that it is merely an lack of education that leads to acts of cruelty in many cases.

2) Other cadres’ “ability to carry out their work is weak, and they believe that if they don’t beat the prisoners they won’t be able to get results. They have abandoned the perspective of educating the masses. All they can do is beat or tie up the prisoners in order to make any progress, thus forgetting the principle of protecting human rights.

The document recommends the following “good cop” approach to interrogations which I think mirrors most of what we know about how many Japanese and American prisoners of war experienced the (more effective of the) Communist interrogators in places like China and Korea:

When interrogating the criminals take into account the different conditions they are in, their personality, psychology, the severity of their crime, and their varying degrees of education. Try to appeal to them, seek their trust and their sympathy, and make them believe that only you can solve their problem, while trying to transfer their hatred of us onto the enemy. Make them trust that we are their benefactor and seek to raise their political consciousness…2

A major problem, of course, is the uneven implementation of these policies, both then, and most likely, even now. Also, this does not begin to address what happens to those who confess guilt in the hands, after all, of the treason elimination squads.

So far, the local statistics I have come across are very mixed in terms of sentencing. In the Bohai area in northwestern Shandong, for example, one chart claims that 110/149 “traitors” (in this case, pro-Japanese collaboration) were shot from 1942 to the first half of 1946, but those deaths of prisoners held by the 行政公署 (what is the best translation of that?) do not include those killed by the treason elimination squads operating in that area, which likely amount to significantly larger totals. In the Weihai area, at least from January to March 1944, however, over 70% of “traitors” in custody of the treason elimination squads were released without punishment.3

  1. At least after February, 1941, the second time it was shuffled around. []
  2. Contact me if you want detailed archive file references, or wait for my dissertation. []
  3. The numbers from those three months are almost the same as the five and a half years of the Bohai “traitors” in the previously mentioned chart. This included all flavors of “treason,” which according to the chart, apparently included “gambling” listed alongside being “interpreter” for the Japanese, “puppet” principal of school in Japanese, or Nationalist party spies, showing that, at least by 1944, the anti-treason squads had expanded to fill the functions of regular police – an issue I’ll have to address in my dissertation. These kinds of statistics also do not include, I believe, deaths resulting from “mass participation” in the “struggle” sessions associated with the separate anti-traitor movement launched as the close of the war approached. This was often intentionally combined, to great effect, with the “rent and interest reduction” campaign that preceded full land reform. It needs to be looked at in its own distinct context. []

Powered by WordPress