If we want to revere China, there is no greater reverence than to put the Chinese ways into practice

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 3:10 pm Print

Thanks to Columbia University Press I just got a copy of David Kang, East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute1 This is  a very fine book, and it is great that it has been published. The reason it is great that it has been published is that it is cheap, readable, and based on secondary sources. While the book is about the East Asian international system in the early modern period, Kang is not a historian. He is a “professor of international relations and business.” His only real qualifications2 for writing this book are that he has read the relevant secondary literature, writes well and is smart. As I have lamented before, writings on Asian history in English tend to be either the obviously academic or really bad. The type of serious stuff that is halfway in between, that my Americanist colleagues get to read and use in class all the time, is very thin on the ground.

If you want a book that will give you a nice clear understanding of the current literature on East Asian foreign relations in the 1368-1840 period this is it. He does not take the tribute system all the way back to the Han (although he does cite Barfield and Mote), and I am sure that scholar-squirrels who deal with this stuff could find fault with his summaries, but he does a nice job. One thing that struck me is his attempt to deal with the tribute system. His chapter on the system deals mostly with China’s relations with Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. He makes a distinction between “legitimate acceptance and rational calculation ”  to explain Korean and Vietnamese willingness to “lend their submission to China.”3 For anyone raised to accept the European Westphalian tradition it should seem bizarre that states would accept their ritual and diplomatic subordination to another state, but Kang shows that Korea and Vietnam both accepted this, it was not just a matter of lying to humor the Chinese (rational calculation.) The effort he puts into showing Korean and Vietnamese acceptance of the system demonstrates how powerful the Westphalia model is. For modern people it is really hard to accept the idea of one nation being superior to another.  I actually find this less surprising than he does, since there are lots of models of relations between groups and individuals that allow for this. Even in the West, to be a Catholic meant acknowledging the Bishop of Rome as superior to all other bishops. The Treaty of Westphalia itself was negotiated in two cities, Munster and Osnabruck, in part because of issues of precedence.4 Everyone agreed that some Dukes were better than other Dukes, and some Counts better than other Counts. Rather than trying to sort out all these issues of precedence it was easier just to just split the conference in two rather than trying to resolve who should sit above and below the salt.

Of course if, like Kang, you are writing after the model of universal equality of states has become a crucial part of East Asian nationalism—even for those who are not aware that they are hard-core Westphalians– it might be good to be cautious as you advance an argument for the historical inequality of states.  Plus, like a good scholar, he is not wildly concerned with providing historical ammunition for modern arguments. So he argues that East Asian states created a system where “Far from being autarkic, the early modern East Asian system developed rules and norms governing trade, diplomacy, and international migration.”5 So he is arguing against the common idea that East Asia consisted of a collection of Hermit Kingdoms until they were brought to life by contact with the West, but he also uses words like autarkic6 He is bringing you up to date on the literature without talking down to you. This is the type of book that not only makes you think you should use it in class, but also makes you wonder what classes you could create that would use it if you don’t have one already.

  1. Kang, David C. East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute. Columbia University Press, 2010. []
  2. O.k., yes he’s an academic heavy hitter, but not a historian, particularly not of this period []
  3. p.55 []
  4. I don’t have a cite for this, just old lore from grad school []
  5. p.71 []
  6. which my spell-czech does not recognize. []


Thurify yourself

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:49 pm Print

One of the things we have read for the May Fourth class I am teaching is Liang Qichao’s On the Relationship between Fiction and the Government of the People (論小說與羣治的關係)1  It is a good reading if you want to explain to students why May 4thers cared so much about literature, and also why everyone should care about literature.

As a good Confucian Liang of course sees no need to explain that literature can have a transformative effect on someone’s mind and morals, or that this can be connected to the stability of the state. Claiming that fiction (rather than, say, poetry) can do this will take more proving for his audience.

He claims that people enjoy fiction, of course, and it is easy to get them to read it. Besides being enjoyable, it lets us experience things outside our own lives.

..human nature is such that it is often discontented with the world. The world with which we are in physical contact is spatially limited. Thus, apart from direct physical or perceptual contact with reality, we also often desire to touch and perceive things indirectly; this is the life beyond one’s life, the world beyond one’s world. This sort of vision is inherent in both the sharp and the dullwitted. And nothing can transcend the power of fiction in molding the human into more intelligent or duller beings.  Thus, fiction often leads us to a different world and transforms the atmosphere with which we are in constant contact.

It was through fiction that the May Fourthers met Nora Helmer, and Young Werther and it is nice to have Liang make this point for me. Fiction goes beyond this to have various powers to transform the individual.

The first power is called thurification. It is like entering a cloud of smoke and being thurified by it, or like touching ink or vermillion and being tinted by it. As mentioned in the Lanikavatara Sutra, the transformation of deluded knowledge to relative consciousness and of relative consciousness to absolute knowledge relies on this kind of power. When reading a novel, one’s perception, thinking, and sensitivity are unconsciously affected and conditioned by it. Gradually, changing day by day, it makes its effect felt. And although the effect is momentary, alternating interruptions and continuations, over the course of a long period of time the world of the novel enters the mind of the reader and takes root there like a seedling with a special quality. Later, this seedling, being daily thurified by further contact with fiction, will become more vigorous, and its influence will in turn spread to others and to the entire world. This is the cause of the cyclical transformation of all living and non-living things in the world. Thus, fiction reigns supreme because of its power to influence the masses.

My students did not know what thurification () meant, so I had to explain it.2 This point fits in with a lot of stuff on the impact exposure to fiction  has on one’s world-view, a point that goes back, for me, to Orwell’s Boy’s Weeklies. The stuff you read creates your world-view in ways that you are not always consciously aware of. Thus if you read lots of British Boys Weeklies of the 1930′s you soak up a lot of old imperialist attitudes without realizing it.3  If you were a regular reader of the satirical and irreverent Mad Magazine of the late 70′s then…..Obviously the May 4th crowd wanted to transform the people, and reforming fiction was able to transform not only the masses, but non-living things as well!

While fiction can transform you without you knowing it, it can also do so more consciously.

The second power is known as immersion. Whereas thurification is spatial and hence its effect is proportional to the space in which it acts, immersion is temporal, and its effect varies according to the length of time it operates. Immersion refers to the process in which a reader is so engrossed in a novel that it causes him to assimilate himself with its content. When one reads a novel, very often one is unable to free oneself from its effect even long after having finished reading it. For instance, feelings of love and grief remain in the minds of those who have finished reading The Dream of the Red Chamber, and feelings of joy and anger in those who have finished reading The Water Margin. Why is it so? It is because of the power of immersion. It follows that if two works are equally appealing, the one that is longer and deals with more facts will have the greater power to influence the reader. This is just like drinking wine. If one drinks for ten days, one will remain drunk for a hundred days. It was precisely because of this power of immersion that the Buddha expounded on the voluminous Avatamsaka Sutra after he had risen from under the Bodhi Tree.

I have not yet experimented with drinking for ten days and seeing if it keeps me drunk for 100. Perhaps the undergrads can try that one. I have, however, lived in novels and been influenced by them. So have my students. They are selling IUP Quiddich t-shirts at the bookstore, I assume because some of our students wish they were going to to Hogwarts instead of here. Nor has fiction done for me what the Bodhi Tree did for Gautama, and transformed me into the God of Gods, Unsurpassed doctor or surgeon, or Conqueror of beasts, although I suppose I could lay some claim to Teacher, if not Teacher of the World.  So the idea that one’s reading turns one into a new person makes sense to us as well, and is in fact the foundation of Liberal Education.

Of course in some respects Liang is not a modern Liberal.  While he does not quite call for banning books he is not one of those (like almost all American teachers) who sees reading as either good or a waste of time, but certainly not something that could hurt you. There is a long tradition of condemnations of bad literature in China, and Liang is part of it

Nowadays our people are frivolous and immoral. They indulge in, and are obsessed with, sensual pleasures. Caught up in their emotions, they
sing and weep over the spring flowers and the autumn moon, frittering away their youthful and lively spirits. Young men between fifteen and thirty
years of age concern themselves only with overwhelming emotions of love, sorrow, or sickness. They are amply endowed with romantic sentiment
but lack heroic spirit. In some extreme cases, they even engage in immoral acts and so poison the entire society. This is all because of fiction. ……One or two books by frivolous scholars and marketplace merchants4 are more than enough to destroy our entire society. The more fiction is discounted by elegant gentlemen as not worth mentioning, the more fully it w ill be controlled by frivolous scholars and marketplace merchants. As the nature and position of fiction in society are comparable to the air and food and indispensable to life, frivolous scholars and marketplace  merchants in fact possess the power to control the entire nation! Alas! If this situation is allowed to continue, there is no question that the future of our nation is doomed! Therefore, the reformation of the government of the people must begin with a revolution in fiction, and the renovation of the people must begin with the renovation of fiction.

If you want a clear analysis of the role of literature in human society, some Buddhist references, a denunciation of pop culture that might come from Big Hollywood, with a bit of the Great Learning at the end Liang Qichao is your man.


  1. published in 1902. Translation by Gek Nai Cheng from Denton, Kirk, ed. Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature, 1893-1945. 1st ed. Stanford University Press, 1996. []
  2. Google is your friend. []
  3. For instance, simplistic and outdated stereotypes. From Orwell ” In papers of this kind it occasionally happens that when the setting of a story is in a foreign country some attempt is made to describe the natives as individual human beings, but as a rule it is assumed that foreigners of any one race are all alike and will conform more or less exactly to the following patterns:….

    Spaniard, Mexican, etc.: Sinister, treacherous.

    Arab, Afghan, etc.: Sinister, treacherous.

    Chinese: Sinister, treacherous. Wears pigtail. []

  4. 華士坊賈 I might translate that as ‘alleyway merchants’ or something like that []


Blood of the martyrs

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:58 pm Print

The Chinese student group asked me to come out and talk at their showing of Jackie Chan’s 1911. As it was competing with the Stillers game attendance was not great, but we did have a nice chat afterwards.

The movie was… less than ideal. It was a nice time, however, to think about drama and history. How to make a movie about 1911? This was an interesting topic for me in part because my adviser was a consultant for the PBS series China in Revolution1 They were given 7 seconds to sum up the 1911 Revolution. Film and history don’t always play nice together. I’m not always a history snob. If you warp history and make a good film  out of it I’m fine with that. This one did not work either way however. Part of the problem was that Jackie Chan is apparently continuing his campaign to become a Chinese icon acceptable to Beijing. He’s great for that in some respects. Being from HK and having trained in a Beijing Opera school he has the connections to both China’s 5000 years of history and Greater China. Unfortunately his skills as an actor rotate around his Gongfu and the fact that he has the chops to do comedy. As Huang Xing he does not do any comedy,and he is too old to do much Gongfu. There is a hint of a romance in here, but it does not save the film.

O.K. so if they are not going to make a good film that abandons history, what about one that follows it? 1911 is a good story, yes? For obvious reasons they have to abandon some of the narratives of the Revolution. Although the actual revolution was intensely anti-Manchu, the Manchus are no longer evil exploiters of the Chinese people. Now they are one of the 56 nationalities that make up the Chinese people, and so Manchu Evil is not a possible bad guy. Pu Yi is presented as a brat, which deals with the problem of making a little kid manipulated by his elders a source of pity. The villain here is Yuan Shikai. This is not a big surprise, and he is the best character in the film. I really liked the scene where he is dismissed from his post serving the Qing (because he is already betraying them), tosses away his staff and does a little dance. Is he dancing because he is a Han finally free from the Manchu yoke? Because he is an opportunist finally free to act on his own? You could build a nice movie around him, especially if, unlike this movie, you acknowledge his history as a reformer.

If Yuan is the bad guy, who is the good guy? Sun Yat-sen, as always, is wooden. His inspiring leadership or clever plans will not make a revolution, although his fundraising powers are praised. Huang Xing, Chan’s character, is a loyal servant rather than a revolutionary rival, as he actually was. The movie  does acknowledge the current interpretation of the revolution. While the Wuhan uprising may have started things, it was the provincial assemblies declaring for the Revolution that really made it happen. Provincial assemblies passing motions do not make for  great drama, They represent this by a scene where people launch rafts with the names of the different provinces. Not much better, unfortunately.

So what did make the revolution? Sacrifice. The movie opens with Qiu Jin embracing death for China and her children, and it ends with the child of one of the (dead) revolutionaries grasping a letter from his father. There is a lot of blood, and a lot of suffering, and while the suffering is not linked to anything, there is a lot of it. It is the blood of the martyrs that led to the new China and then in an odd little finale, to the Communist revolution. It is is some respects a very faithful movie. Homer Lea is in here, for no good reason, as is Wang Jing-wei (downplayed, for some reason) but it did not really work for me either as a film or as history.





  1. which is really good []


Fire and protest in China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 4:39 pm Print

The Atlantic has a nice set of pictures of the Great Wall up, for your teaching pleasure. The one I found most interesting is this.

Is the Great Wall on fire? Well, the caption says “Smoke rises from a watchtower of the Great Wall during an activity to mark the International Anti-Drug Day in Beijing, on June 26, 2006″ There is an old tradition of burning stuff in China, but mostly as a form of worship. In the late Qing, however, missionaries and Chinese reformers began to make burning opium and opium paraphernalia a regular part of their rituals. Here is one from Fujian1

Opium and drug burnings became a regular part of Chinese anti-opium events, but as far as I know the whole burning things in protest meme never caught on as a general method of protest in China. Eventually this form of anti-opium protest became engrained enough in Chinese political culture that it traveled back in time.  Lin Zexu had -destroyed- opium in 1839, and by 1909 he was credited with burning it, as in this image2 This mistake is now pretty common.

I’m not really a 19th century person, so I never put much effort in to figuring out when this form of protest emerged. It does not seem to link up well with the Chinese tradition of burning things as an offering, since you burned things you thought the ancestors would want. Admittedly, by 1909 some of your ancestors probably would have liked some opium, but that does not fit in with the protest aspect of things. Maybe a legacy of Guy Fawkes day in England? In any case, if you want to burn something in the name of China, the Great Wall would seem a great place for it.


  1. via Ryan Dunch []
  2. via MIT []


Very superstitious

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:01 pm Print

Above is a charm carried by a Chinese soldier in 1938, re-printed in the journal Youth Front in 1938. It seems to be a Communist publication, although this being the period of the United Front it is pretty mild in its communism, calling for the unity of all groups and parties in opposing the Japanese. In any case, both the Nationalists and the Communists were, as good children of May 4th, opposed to superstition. The article praises both freedom of religion and the contributions religious groups had made to the war effort.1 Still, given China’s long history of corrupt government and uneven education superstition (presumably meaning religious views that did not count as proper religion) was quite common. Even the Japanese ridiculed these charms.

“It is laughable that they carry these charms, showing not only that they fear death, but how badly they need to die. These charms also show why our brave soldiers kill them so easily.”

Always good to be able to cite an (unnamed) enemy source on topics like this. Of course the charms don’t work and may actually do harm. This one, like most, was to be written on paper, then burned and drunk with water. Charms like this were an old part of Chinese popular religion. The Boxers had ones that would make you immune to bullets. This one reveals something about the anti-Japanese resistance of Chinese soldiers/militia/whoever, as it will make it possible for you to go without eating for ten days. The article says that this is laughable. but I might go with tragic instead.


from 青年战线 No 1, 1938, p.20


  1. Gregor Benton has a lot of nice stuff on the Communists and religious groups in New Fourth Army []

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