Bad sons

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:55 pm

Over at A Ku Indeed Chris asks about Mencius  4A28, in which Mencius commends Shun for transforming his father.

He (Shun) considered that if one could not get the hearts of his parents he could not be considered a man, and that if he could not get to an entire accord with his parents, he could not be considered a son. By Shun’s completely fulfilling everything by which a parent could be served, Gu Sou was brought to find delight in what was good. When Gu Sou was brought to find that delight, the whole kingdom was transformed. When Gu Sou was brought to find that delight, all fathers and sons in the kingdom were established in their respective duties…This is called great filial piety”

Chris asks

So is Shun (or Mencius) serious? Is a son not a son if he fails to transform his father/mother? Are the virtues that embody “being a son” incomplete if they are not mirrored by the virtues involved in being a dad? (I presume this holds in the reverse direction for sons, too).”

Rather than focus on what Mencius is trying to proscribe here I am more interested in what Shun lore tells us about the construction of early Chinese ideas of the family. Shun was one of the mythical sage-kings of Early China, famous both for being chosen by Yao to take over the kingdom despite not being Yao’s son, and also famous able to influence both his own (worthless) father and and Yao’s nine (worthless) sons and make them better people. Mencius talks a lot about him and I suspect part of the reason is that while he is famous for being filial a lot of what he does (influencing Yao’s sons better than Yao can, influencing his father rather than vice versa) is in fact usurping the role of the father that he is not entitled too. A big chunk of Mencius 5a is Mencius explaining away Shun’s odd behavior for the benefit of his disciples.

In The Flood Myths of Early China Mark Edward Lewis points out that there is “a recurring pattern in early Chinese myths in which exemplary  men have wicked fathers and themselves produce evil offspring.”1 The fathers and sons made matched pairs, the fathers being perfect without any need for education and the sons being beyond the reach of education. Lewis says that this opposition between fathers and sons was necessary in a world where the father’s authority was not to be transmitted to the son. Later, as the lineage began to be developed great efforts were made to separate sons from fathers so as to impose hierarchy on the family. There is a whole section on sons who should not be raised. Some were unacceptable because they were animalistic (3 or more children born at once) and beyond improvement by human education. Other were too similar to their fathers and thus brought forward his inevitable usurpation of the father’s role.2

So, at least for Lewis, Mencius is not using Shun to describe filial piety, but rather trying to explain away the unfilial behavior in a story that is not really about filiality and moral influence, but rather is about the extremes of human posibility3 and the need to impose hierarchy on the family. Mencius is struggling to put a “modern” reading on a much older storywith different concerns.

  1. p.81 []
  2. Lewis does a lot more with this. It’s a really good chapter. []
  3. As Lewis points out, the Sages are themselves not really human, almost all of the them having animal charachtaristics and being in many ways outside socieity. []


Grading exams in Late Imperial China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:08 am

As finals week is here for many of us I thought this would be a good time to dip into Benjamin Elman’s A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China. Elman includes a whole chapter on student methods of dealing with the exams, most of which seem to involve cheating or some form of divine intervention rather than, say, studying. Below we see the 1604 optimus, top scorer on the exam, being given the answers by the god of literature while he is passed out drunk in the exam cell.


More interesting to me is what Elman has to say about grading the exams. Ch’ien Ta-hsin reported on his grading work for the 1782 provincial exams in Hunan.

Over 4,000 literati took the Hunan examination. The three sessions produced a total of 12,000 rolls of answers. If you separately count the papers on the [Five] Classics and the [Four] Books, poetry, discourse, and policy questions there were no less than 56,000 compositions. From the time we began to read the [essays on the] rolls until we made the final selections, my fellow examiners and I spent eighteen days and nights on them. The number of the rolls of essays was huge, and the time [to grade them] was limited. If we were to say that those we chose were always correct, or that even one man of talent was not overlooked, then, sincerely, I would not dare to believe this myself. We did our best, however, to open the path for selection widely and to evaluate the papers impartially. p.423

Elman has a good deal on ways that the Qing in particular tried to deal with the grading load. One method was to shorten the examiner comments on winning essays. In the Ming these could be several sentences, by the Qing they had been reduced to 8-character stock phrases and by the Late Qing to single characters (zhong 中, hit the mark). Examiners also skimmed over categories deemed less important and imposed length limits. Unfortunately none of this seems to have worked. Exam results were widely regarded as fairly random, with little stability in rankings from exam to exam. The bumbling exam-grader became a stock figure of Qing fiction. Doubtless multiple choice exams would have solved all these problems of essay-grading, but China failed to make this educational breakthrough.


Images of China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:28 pm

BibliOddyssey has a nice post up with cool pictures from the World Digital Library. The site has images from all over the world, and a really neat interface.

This is an image from a Qing dynasty edition of the Shanhaijing. They have a good bit of Chinese stuff, including a zoom-able 1900 map of Beijing for those interested in the Boxers. Also a lot of stuff for those interested in the rest of East Asia.


Teaching History (No China content. Not much history, either)

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:13 am

Via HNN some information on standards for teaching  history at the college level. For those of you who are not Americans, there has been a big push towards “accountability” at all levels of education. At the Primary and Secondary level (up to age 18) this has meant No Child Left Behind, a set of standardized tests that students take, the results of which should be used to figure out what school reforms are needed.1 At the college level this has meant much more focus on “outcomes assessment” when you go up for re-accreditation and such.

Up to this point history teachers in college have not had to think too much about this. So far outcomes assessment has just meant that that pointless drivel you send to accrediting bodies now is slightly different from the old pointless drivel. At the NCLB level history is not a tested subject. This means that in the schools my kids go to history is now slightly less intellectually important than gym. High math scores mean more funding. History does not mean money, and therefore does not mean anything.

Now the states of Indiana, and Utah are moving towards establishing standards for their undergraduate history majors. These have been inspired by the Bologna process2 in Europe, which is an attempt to harmonize education throughout the EU.

If you click through and look at the standards the bulk of them are about what American administrators would call competencies. “Ability to define research topics suitable to contribute to historiographical knowledge and debate” etc. A fair number of these are things that it is hard to imagine an American school requiring of its students, like mastery of a foreign language. Most of them however are thing that I think most historians would like their students to know how to do. The thing I find odd about all of these lists of skills is how poorly they line up with how American academics and American students think about curriculum. My department has a methods course that is supposed to teach students all the research skills and whatever they need to be a historian. We assume that these skills will be reinforced in other classes but we are perfectly well aware that there is not much systematic attempt to do this. Instead most classes have geographical, period and thematic names (U.S. since 1877, Byzantine History,  Mob Violence in American History etc.) We think, and students seem to agree, that the process of becoming educated as a historian (and most of our kids are not going on to Ph.D.s) is partly a process of learning a set of skills (and practicing them over and over, hopefully) but mostly a process of learning about lots of different times and places and different types of historical questions. Students in for advising rarely get excited when you tell them that they could take a class on “Knowledge of and ability to use the specific tools necessary to study documents of particular periods (e.g. palaeography, epigraphy” but they do like the sound of “French Revolution”

Of course this may just be a sign that we and our students don’t know what we should be doing. Outcomes assessment people hate classes. From the linked NYT article

Go to a university catalog and look at the degree requirements for a particular discipline,” Mr. Adelman said. “It says something like, ‘You take Anthropology 101, then Anthro 207, then you have a choice of Anthro 310, 311, or 312. We require the following courses, and you’ve got to have 42 credits.’ That means absolutely nothing.[Italics mine]

One complaint that turns up in both the NYT and the IHE pieces is that current degrees are not transparent enough. I find this true, but a minor point. If school board looking to hire a history teacher has nobody who can figure out what “HIST 104  U.S. to 1865” means the solution is more competent HR people. There is a deeper divide here however between those who want to “tune” or harmonize higher ed (lets call them river crabs) and Us, (who I guess you could call the Grass Mud Horse brigade)3 Traditionally faculty like to split knowledge up into chunks, which we call classes, and becoming educated, or at least getting a degree, is a process of passing a certain number of chunks. Lots of us are unhappy with various aspect of how this model works, but the Bolongna process is not just a tweaking of the old model, it is replacing it with something totally different. For the River Crabs the study of the past is not learning a set of skills fairly quickly and then applying them to as many cases as possible, it is mostly a process of learning skills (which are pretty much portable between times and topics), and applying them is pretty much an afterthought.

In the Bologna document only a handful of the 30 requirements deal with  “coverage” issues, and they do so in very short bullet points.

-Detailed knowledge of one or more specific periods of the human past.

-Knowledge of European history in a comparative perspective

-Knowledge of local history

-Knowledge of one’s own national history

-Knowledge of the general diachronic framework of the past.

-Knowledge of the history of European integration

-Knowledge of world history

So I guess if they did dirty themselves with coming up with a set of classes for students to take it would be 70% methods classes and 30% or less content, with very little student choice. Yes, I don’t like the method/content distinction either, but my point here is that these are two very different ways of approaching education, and I doubt that they can be harmonized.

My college roommate was a music lover. He had a lot of records and a fairly cheap stereo to play them on. Mostly he spent his money on records. The guy next door was an audiophile. He had a really incredible stereo system that he was constantly tweaking and buying new parts for. He had about 20 records.

  1. It’s more complex than that, of course []
  2. Restrain yourself from the puns. I did []
  3. China joke. If you don’t get it don’t worry, but I just could not leave the “tuning”/ harmonizing thing alone []


Cultural critique today and yesterday

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 5:43 pm

Feng Zikai rides a grass mud horse

It’s not his work, I think, but it looks a lot like it.


Chin music

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:24 am

Today is Opening Day, and the Cubs are in first place, so all is well with the world. I just got a copy of Yu Junwei’s Playing in Isolation: A History of Baseball In Taiwan. 1 The book is not all that analytical. It is also a little inside baseball for some people (Yu assumes you know what the Mendoza Line is.)

The book is, however, a lot of fun, especially for those who like both Chinese history and baseball. It confirmed what I had already thought, that while baseball is a world game (take that IOC), it actually spread in Asia as a Japanese game (just as it was mostly a Cuban game in the Caribbean basin.)  A lot of the book is just a narrative of postwar baseball, which is interesting enough, but I found the stuff about the cultural politics of baseball in Colonial Taiwan most interesting. It was of course the Japanese who first brought baseball to Taiwan, but Taiwanese (both Han and aboriginal) picked up on it, leading to the Jiayi Agricultural and Forestry Institute’s “tri-racial” team placing second in the all-important Japanese high school championships in 1931. Needless to say baseball was not very popular with the mainlanders who took over Taiwan after 1945. They preferred soccer and basketball, which explains why everyone I played pick-up hoops with in Taiwan spoke such good Mandarin.2 Chiang Kai-shek used basketball to tie Taiwan to the Overseas Chinese of Southeast Asia. Well into the 1960s Taiwanese baseball teams made their names defeating Japanese teams. It was not until the 1970s that winning in Willamsport became a national obsession, bringing all the problems you would expect from people taking youth sport too seriously.

  1. One of the many nice things about being married to my wife is that she will often order me things off my Amazon wishlist for no good reason. []
  2. It is also sort of interesting that through the 50’s about half of the best Hong Kong soccer players played for Taiwan. []


April Fool’s Day, Self Puffery and Töfood

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 12:00 am

Hooray for me!

China Beat, my second favorite China blog, has started a series of quizzes — why didn’t we think of that? The most recent asked readers to name the “‘Prettiest’ (photo of China), ‘The Wittiest’  (title of a China-related piece of writing), and ‘The Grittiest’ (best muckraking journalist to work the China beat).”

And I won, beating out…. well, they didn’t say exactly how many entries, but it must have been several.

To see my prize winning answers, please go to New Quiz Winner (China Beat 4/01/2009).

And, oh — I am sure that the fact that it was published on April Fool’s day is a sheer coincidence. I think.

Go Tofood!

But the award for Best China April Fool’s Announcement has to go to Karen Christensen at Berkshire Publishing News. Karen announced an “innovative Chinese company has made plans for the global launch of a vegetarian product popular throughout China after learning about the wildly successful introduction of SPAM® during the Great Depression.” The Chinese canned meat substitute, made of soyabeans, has been given a new brand name, she continued: Töfood.  The product will be packaged, like SPAM®, in a distinctively shaped container – in this case, one that looks like a traditional Chinese pagoda.

Congratulations to Karen and her graphics designer, Anna Myers.


Zhu Xi on liberal education

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:24 pm

I’ve been reading Gardner’s Chu Hsi: Learning to be a Sage. The book consists of a long introduction to Zhu Xi and his work (He was the Thomas Aquinas of China, a comparison that does not mean much to American undergrads) and a translation of Conversations of Master Chu (朱子語類) ,thematic selections from Zhu’s many writings and commentaries on the classics.1 Two of the chapters are on reading, which was a major theme for Zhu and is a major theme for American academics. Trying to figure out what texts our students should read, trying to teach them how to approach these texts and trying to figure out what the heck they did with them as you read their reactions are some of the main things we do. In fact it they are -the- main things, since students will usually forget us, our lectures and our exam questions fairly quickly. They should not forget their encounters with Zhuangzi, Thomas Paine, or Paul Cohen, at least if liberal education has any meaning at all.

Zhu Xi was somewhat critical of reading. Book learning is a secondary matter for students. ( 4/1) since moral principle is originally complete in man, and does not need to be added from outside. Despite that he spends a lot of time on reading, since it is the a way to have contact with the sages and worthies. It is worth a lot of work.

Here’s what is necessary: one blow with a club, one scar, one slap on the face, a handful of blood. Your reading of what other people write should be just like this. Don’t be lax! (4.14)


  1. The full text of his conversations with his disciples was compiled after his death and a thematic edition was published in 1270. Garner works from Chang Po-hsing’s 18th century abridgment with additions of this own. []

Why Asians are different from (Latin) Americans

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:10 am

In a recent speech Zhou Xiaochuan gave a nice clear summary of the reasons for Asian economic exceptionalism and the cultural (and therefore apparently mostly unchangeable) roots of China’s current high savings rate. He is doing this for contemporary political reasons of course, trying to claim that the Chinese government cannot change the savings rate. I’m not as interested in that debate, but this is a nice resource for anyone teaching East Asia and looking for a good, recent, official summary of a fairly cultural determinist vision of China’s rise.

Tradition, cultural, family structure, and demographic structure and stage of economic development are the major reasons for high savings ratio in the East Asia. First, the East Asia countries are influenced by Confucianism, which value thrift, self-discipline, zhong yong or Middle Ground (low-key), and anti-extravagancy. Second, we may be able to trace the cultural differences from a large number of textbooks and literature of different countries. For instance, the Latin American countries have similar levels of national wealth as the East Asian countries but lower savings ratios. This can be attributed to the cultural differences in the region, where people have a higher propensity of consumption and tend to quickly use up all their salaries. Third, family tie is strong in the East Asian countries, and families shoulder social responsibilities such as providing for the elderly and bringing up children. Fourth, according to the Life Cycle Hypothesis by Franco Modigliani, more money is saved to meet future pension and healthcare needs as the share of working age population increases. When we study the phases of economic growth, in times of exceptionally high economic growth, most of the incremental income will be saved, resulting in an unusually high savings ratio. China fits in the above-mentioned two conditions for a high savings ratio. Japan and the U.S. can also demonstrate the contribution of these factors in determining savings ratio. Similar to the U.S., Japan is a developed country with high per capita income. The social security systems in the two countries have their respective weaknesses. However, Japan’s savings ratio is much higher than that in the U.S. This can be largely ascribed to cultural, family value and demographic feature in Japan, which are fairly similar to those in other East Asian countries.

via TNR


Academics read the newspaper

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:50 am

And find good things (On time zones in China)

And bad things (On Qing cultural history)

Both of these articles are attempts by non-specialists to explain China, and one of them is very good and one pretty bad. Not much more to say really, other than that I think generally journalistic coverage of China’s present is better than that of its past. I’m not sure if this is a China thing or that all journalist tend to struggle with history.

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