井底之蛙

9/23/2012

Reconsidering Marco Polo

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:07 am

“Marco Polo’s reports of China, now judged mostly hearsay….” Perry Anderson, LRB

MMA 2012 - China - Tang - late 7c - Camel and RidersI got an email from a student who found my blog post in which I make a highly critical case regarding the historicity of Marco Polo’s adventures. They wanted to confirm (since some data was lost in the latest HNN transition) that it was mine for citation purposes. I’ve been considering revisiting it for a while now,1 and this seems like a good time, because my views on the subject have evolved a bit since: I’m still highly skeptical of Polo, but more importantly, I think the very structure of the argument and nature of the sources makes it highly unlikely that the believers and skeptics will come to a consensus.

When I expressed my doubts, lo those many years ago, I was informed that there was still some life left in Polo’s tale. It turns out that there is so much scholarship on aspects of Polo’s text that there’s even a term for it — “Polan scholarship” and if there’s one thing Polan scholars can’t stand, it’s to have Polo’s work seriously questioned. All the errors are “honest”; all the omissions are “explicable”; all the unconfirmed and untranslated stuff are just waiting to be decoded if only we had better Chinese sources; and incomprehensible bits are the result of Polo listening to the wrong people. That’s the attitude going in, and it’s the same attitude coming out.2 There seem to be lots of Euro-centric scholars with strong attachments to Polo, but a lot of Sino-centric scholars were very dubious.3

Foreigners were involved in Qin construction, and travel in China was common and widespread: the idea that China was closed or that people never migrated are both vestiges of simplistic thinking rather than historical verities. Even the harshest critics of Polo’s historicity admit that he got some thing right, and must have had some valid sources. The question is whether he was an eyewitness and participant in the history and culture he described, and, most importantly, whether he can be considered a credible independent source for the study of Chinese history and culture. I think the answer is still “no.” The story is great, but even if you take it seriously, it’s fantastical.4

Still, having entered this fray, I feel an intellectual obligation to stay informed. So when I ran across a catalog blurb for Stephen Haw’s Marco Polo’s China: a Venetian in the realm of Khubilai Khan (Routledge, 2006), it piqued my interest; thanks to inter-library loan, I finally got hold of it. Only for a week, unfortunately, but it was an interesting ride.
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  1. You can tell by the dates on the articles linked here, this has been in draft for quite a while []
  2. there’s a lot of emotion in Polan defenses, though if I’d made a life’s work on a complex source and found a lot of scholars who hadn’t attacking it as fraudulent, I might be emotional about it as well []
  3. E.g. Obituary of John Larner, historian of Marco Polo. And “New archeological data highlights Polo errors.” []
  4. WaPo review of new Polo bio []

9/20/2012

Daiyou Islands: New Sources, New Clarity?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:08 am

NYT reporter Nick Kristof brought in a guest blogger, Han-Yi Shaw of Taiwan, to examine some new mid-Meiji documentation about Japan’s relationship with the contested Senkaku/Daiyou islands. The core of Shaw’s findings is

the Meiji government acknowledged Chinese ownership of the islands back in 1885.

After several abortive attempts to survey the islands, the Japanese government declared them incorporated Japanese territory during the Sino-Japanese war, despite recognizing that it should have been negotiated with China. As territory seized in 1895, it should have been reverted to China in 1945, but for a variety of reasons, including an administrative shift of the islands from Taiwan to Okinawa prefecture, it remained outside of negotiations until a few years later.

It’s a reasonably persuasive presentation, historically, though I don’t think that these details are going to shift Japanese nationalists, even mild or moderate ones, to support politicians who would abandon Japan’s claim to these useless rocks which sit in such valuable territory. And as long as there’s no particular cost to maintaining the claim — Chinese hostility to Japan is not predicated on this issue sufficiently that abandoning the claim would eliminate anti-Japanese sentiment as a nationalist motivational tool of the mainland regime — it seems unlikely that anything will change, except a few American lectures.

9/11/2012

National Library of China- A fine place to do research

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 4:13 pm

 

Most of our readers who might care already know this, but the National Library in Beijing is a fine place to do research on Republican China. It has it’s own subway stop, which means easy access. The computer system works well (nice search features), getting a card is easy, and the collection is good. Specifically, a lot (all?) of the published journals and reports that used to be in Nanjing are now in Beijing. Many years ago, Nanjing had the Tezangbu (Special Collections Department) which held all the journals and books that used to be in the pre-49 National Library. I spent some time talking to people and looking through the computer, and it seems that the books I read many years ago are still in Nanjing (or somewhere) but pretty much all of the journals and official publications are now in Beijing. This is a big deal, since local and provincial governments loved to publish stuff. If you find a monthly report in a provincial archive there is a good chance that at some point it was published in a monthly report in a nice typeface that does not look like the work of a budding master calligrapher.

They will photocopy stuff for you. Photography is not permitted. I saw some people who were obviously trying to photograph whole books get yelled at. On the other hand, I was in the reading room while some people discretely photographed a few individual articles and nobody noticed or cared.

 

 

9/3/2012

Celebrate the working class

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:00 am

So, today is Labor Day in the U.S.A., which means that you can celebrate the achievements of the working class without being a Communist. The rest of the world, including China, celebrates on May 1st, but American images of labor have been imported to China in the past. Over the summer I looked into some of the issues of 工合画刊, the illustrated journal of the Co-operative movement in China. Although not enough scholarly work has been done on the movement, it is usually associated with Rewi Alley’s attempts to bring knowledge of western industrial techniques to China. Apparently they also brought techniques of illustration, since a lot of their stuff seems to borrow from western techniques.

 

This guy, who is calling for the people of the Northwest to produce more stuff might have come from Madrid, and the composition seems western to me as well, although I’m not a good enough illustrator to explain why.


This guy (and they are all guys) might have come from an American propaganda poster of an evil Japanese, showing how thoroughly Chinese artists were borrowing American conventions.

The two that I found most striking were the Son of Vulcan

and, most impressive of all, John Henry

I guess what I like best about him is that he seems not only confident in his own power, but confident that this will be accepted. He looks innocent but not naive. Needless to say, this type of image did not become common in China, but it is nice to see it there.

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