Managing History in China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:10 am Print

Historic Preservation is the process of  preserving historic stuff, mostly building and sites. China has lots of history. 5,000 years of it, in fact. Historical Preservation, or Cultural Resources Management, or whatever you want to call it is something they have less of as shown by recent events in the Great Within. Basically, the Beijing Forbidden City Cultural Development Company has been accused of setting up a special club for rich people inside the Forbidden City.

Preserving the past is tricky, since it is sometimes hard to figure out what needs to be preserved. It is also sometimes hard to figure out what ‘preserving’ might mean. It could mean ‘don’t touch anything’ but in practice somebody has to touch things in order to maintain them, and people do have to get in to look at things, or else what’s the point?

Even at this level things are more complected that you might think. What exactly -is- this site?  Versailles would not be itself without the gardens, but the park just to the west of the Forbidden City, once considered part of the grounds, was taken over by squatters in 1949. Do they have to be driven out and the pristine park of the past re-created? 1

The big problem though is money. History and the National Essence are priceless, and thus can’t be connected to money, which is dirty. No gift shops. No tacky tourist stuff. No guards in fake old uniforms. Pure, un-commercialized history. That of course is bunk. Every historical site sells stuff, in part because they need the cash and in part because the broad masses want it and helping people connect with the past is what these places do, and buying stuff is part of that. Also, your guests are humans. They need to eat and drink, and they enjoy both of these things a lot. The more of that you let them do it while looking at the history the better they will like it. So maybe some selling things is o.k., but you need to keep it tasteful.  So part of running a historical site is making money, but making it look like you are above money.2

This is particularly important when you are running something like the Forbidden City, a Top Class #1 tourist draw and source of national pride. Some time ago they drove Starbucks out of the palace. This struck most of my students as a good thing. We would not let commerce sully the Lincoln Memorial, why should the Chinese let money into the Forbidden City? Having been there I point out that the palace is enormous, and that having a few places to get a drink or buy some postcards or get a popsicle makes it a lot better. Hiring it out to a foreign company defiles the purity of the Chinese nation, however,  so it had to go.

The current brouhaha has something to do with lack of professionalism on the part of China’s Historical Preservation Financial Asset Management Teams.  Lots of foreign museums rent out space for parties or whatever. You just need to do it with a bit of class. China has a distinct lack of old money, so this is a problem. Good Cultural Managers can help with this by providing a touch of distinction to a commercial transaction, but unfortunately the ones at the Forbidden City can’t even manage a grammatically correct press statement. Of course it also has something to do with class resentments in contemporary China. If the Forbidden City belongs to the Chinese people why are some Chinese people getting to party there and the rest being stuck making electronics in Shenzhen? Plus given what I can find out online  about the entertainment habits of Chinese rich people I’m guessing that the club does not run to dry white wine and chamber music. Massive amounts of vile booze and lots of ladies of negotiable virtue sounds more likely.

Finally, I must add that I am a little disappointed with the Beijing Forbidden City Cultural Development Company. I could forgive the   for prostituting China’s cultural heritage or being sub-literates, but their ‘vengeance’ against the whistleblowers is pathetic. Firing people and confiscating a few cellphones?  This is the Forbidden City!  Cixi plotted here, as did Wei Zhongxian, and there are such things as standards. Couldn’t they boil someone alive and serve the broth in the restaurant, or exile someone to Xinjiang, or something?

I got this from Jeremiah Jenne, who I note left Beijing just before this whole thing blew up.

  1. There are also lots of pasts in various places. Which aspect of the palace are you trying to preserve? As I recall the Forbidden City (and it’s been a few years) they seem to push a pretty a-historical view of a timeless palace, saying nothing about the Republic and running the Ming and Qing together. []
  2. Even if you could get the money out of the site that would just mean asking for more from the state or some sort of foundation. []


Make it Just So, Mr. Fukuyama

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 5:07 am Print

I have been reading Francis Fukuyama’s new book The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. It is, as the title suggests, the first of two volumes that will explain the development of human politics from the dawn of time to the present. As a big picture sort of guy, Fukuyama claims that “human politics is subject to certain recurring patterns of behavior across time and across cultures” As a historian this type of talk tends to worry me, as I assume that any universals of human politics are either so vague as to be meaningless, or flat out wrong. Still, he is trying to present a theory of world political development that goes beyond Europe and gets as far as China, if not New Guinea, and when a big picture book gives that much attention to China I have to buy it.

The book begins with some discussion of the creation of the first states.

But in the end, there are too many interacting factors to be able to develop one strong, predictive theory of when and how states formed. Some of the explanations for their presence or absence begin to sound like Kipling Just So stories.

So, the Key To All Mythologies that we are looking for here is not the origins of the state, but a strong predictive theory of the origins of the modern stable, democratic, peaceful, prosperous, inclusive and uncorrupt state. In order to create this one needs 1. A state 2. The Rule of Law 3. accountable government. 1

Fukuyama posits Qin China as the world’s first modern state.  This is somewhat problematic, since the main reason he calls Qin modern is that they had gotten away from patrimonialism and had established “a more impersonal form of administration.” China scholars usually refer to the Qin/Han period, since Qin lasted only from 221 to 206 BCE. How can you make a Huge Comparison or talk about Large Processes while resting everything on such a small sample? The Han of course built on the Qin model, but Fukuyama’s discussion will not help anyone trying to understand the relationship between Confucianism and Legalism or Modernism and Classicism in the Han, a dynasty where bureaucratism and familism were both very important in a very complex sort of way.  Fukuyama’s account of Qin/Han is based mostly on Harrison The Chinese Empire Harcourt Brace 1972 and Levenson and Schurman China: an Interpretive History. California 1969, although he does manage to cite Loewe a few times. This is not the book to read if you are a China scholar hoping that a broader perspective will help you understand China-y stuff. 2

Well, in any case eventually the Chinese fall behind, reverting to patrimonialism. Lots of stuff happens. Why did China not develop? A cocoon becomes a butterfly, a wad of dough placed in an oven becomes bread. Why did China not become Denmark?

The book is, among other things, Fukuyama’s take on the Great Divergence debate, the arguments over why China fell behind after 1300 or 1500 or 1700 or whenever; why China failed to have an industrial revolution, or more generally failed to modernize properly despite such a promising beginning. A lot of very interesting stuff has been written on this issue in recent years. Most other scholars who write on this topic focus on economics, and their books are full of complex discussions of comparative institutions.

How does Fukuyama explain China’s manifest backwardness in the modern era? Well, the book includes the most serious discussion of Oriental Despotism to have been published in the last 50 years.3

Oriental Despotism is nothing other than the precocious emergence of a politically modern state before other social actors could institutionalize themselves , actors like  a hereditary territorially based aristocracy, an organized peasantry, cities based on a merchant class, churches, or other autonomous groups.

So this is yet another checklist book, with a roster of European traits one needs to be modern, and then you either check them off or don’t. He does talk a bit about the ability of the bureaucracy to constrain the Emperor, but for some reason this does not count.  For the most part he focuses on China’s lack of The Rule of Law.

“Early Chinese kings exercised tyrannical power of a sort that few monarchs in either feudal or early modern Europe attempted. They engaged in wholesale land reform, arbitrarily executed the administrators serving them, deported entire populations, and engaged in mad purges of aristocratic rivals. …European state development had to take place against a well-developed background of law that limited state power. European monarchs tried to bend, break, or go around the law. But the choices they made were structured and checked by the preexisting body of law that was developed in medieval times.”

This seems wrong, but at least in a way that might potentially be productive. China -was- institutionally different from “Europe’4 and a comparison could be enlightening, but looking at Europe as possessing a system of law that was ‘preexisting’ does not seem accurate. It does make it easy to explain China’s backwardness, since although there is a lot of scholarship on Chinese law none of it describes the creation of a legal system which was distinct from existing systems of power and could constrain rulers by its mere legality. In fact if you look at that way you can ignore pretty much everything written about China in the last 30 years. 5

Having explained China’s failure to create a Rule of Law6 Fukuyama then goes on to explain the failure of economic development. One aspect of Great Divergence debates is that there are disagreements about when China fell behind. I guess failure to create the Rule of Law is in the Tang or something, but he also gives a Ming date for China’s economic failure.

What China did not have is the spirit of maximization that economists assume is a universal human trait. An enormous complacency pervaded Ming China in all walks of life. It was not just emperors who didn’t feel it necessary to extract as much as they could in taxes; other forms of innovation and change simply didn’t seem to be worth the effort.

His examples here are the old chestnuts of the end of Zheng He’s voyages and Su Sung’s mechanical clock, which somehow did not lead to an industrial revolution. For some reason he leaves out the Chinese abandonment of movable type. In any case this  spirit of what I guess you can call Oriental passivity is his explanation of the “binding constraints that prevented rapid economic growth from taking off in Ming-Qing China.”7

This seems to be so wrong as to be silly and embarrassing. There is no footnote for this enormous complacency.8 It must be easier to make a big argument when trans-historical cultural factors can just fly in and then just as mysteriously fly out again.

So, all in all I would say the book was not worth the money, despite all the promises of China discussions in the Table of Contents. Reading this book will not help you understand China better. I’m pretty sure it will not help you understand Europe better. If you are looking for something that can explain everything in general but nothing in specific, this may be the book for you.

It does have the benefit  that each chapter begins with a little summaries of what is to come. Thus chapter 21 Stationary Bandits…

Whether all states are predatory, and whether the Chinese state in Ming times deserves to be called that; examples of arbitrary rule drawn from later periods in Chinese history; whether good government can be maintained in a state without checks on executive authority.

These little snippets are not very common nowadays, and it gives the agreeable feel that one is reading a work of scholarship that has somehow fallen through a time warp from the 19th century.

  1. Do you have a Kindle? It’s nice. You can carry it anywhere, and its always full of books, so if you want to read recent scholarship, classic literature, or trashy novels they are all there right now. Unfortunately it does not give page numbers. It claims this is from p. 15,  location 503 []
  2. If you are a non-China person Lewis Writing and Authority in Early China is a good place to start. []
  3. Since he  is not particularly interested in economics we don’t get anything on the Asiatic Mode of Production. []
  4. just as Italy was different from England []
  5. I also find his use of dates frustrating. What is an Early Chinese King? Where are these examples coming from? Or are they just taken at random from the Shang-Qing period? []
  6. Has anyone played Civilization 5 yet? Is it any good? []
  7. Fortunately these constraints no longer exist. This timeless aspect of Chinese culture is now Gone with the Wind, leaving behind only ‘an emphasis on education and personal achievement’ Apparently the May Fourth Movement was a big success. []
  8. Maybe he got this from reading Tim Brook? Craig Clunas? It’s a mystery. []


Japan and Catfish

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 3:06 pm Print

On the assumption that some of our readers teach East Asian History and thus may on occasion have to talk about Japan, history, and earthquakes, I offer two links.

The obvious place to look for historical understanding of Japan and earthquakes is Gregory Smits “Shaking Up Japan: Edo Society and the 1855 Catfish Picture Prints” Journal of Social History 39.4 (2006) He has lots of cool pictures, and you can find even more (thus impressing your students with your knowledge) at the Pink Tentacle .

If you want a more modern assessment, this is a good choice.


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