Nationalism sucks

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:40 pm

A very sad post from the Economist on the problem of the zodiac heads. Basically, a wealthy Frenchman has agreed to donate two of the bronze heads stolen from the Summer Palace in 1860 back to ‘China’. What I find most depressing is the use of the Summer Palace as a symbol of foreign oppression of the Chinese. Yes, the torching of the Summer Palace was a crime against China, History, and Art, but the place itself is one of the greatest symbols of cultural borrowing and fusion you could imagine. Built by Qing emperors (who were not Han), designed by Jesuits (who by definition identified with no nation), it is also the  perfect place to be all Chinese and write poems about the ruins of the old capital, like Chinese poets used to write about Loyang.  The piece points out that  the site is being used to teach Chinese schoolchildren to hate the Other, which is really very depressing.


P.S. Don’t read the comments.


History and hats

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:42 am

One book that I use in my classes is Bickers’ Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai. The book is the story of William Tinkler, an Englishman who served in the Shanghai Municipal Police. Students sometimes find it hard to warm up to the book because Tinkler is not easy to identify with.1 Bickers is interested in him because he is a good example of the lower parts of Empire and how they were experienced and also, I would guess, because Tinkler manages to go down the tubes at about the same pace as the Empire.  I like the book because it is a ripping yarn and Bickers talks a good deal about historical method and how historians go about figuring things out. One thing that struck them last time was the discussion of Tinkler’s headgear. In a chapter called “What We Can’t Know”, where Bickers discusses the ways historians deal with a lack of evidence he  mentions that when Tinkler died2 he was the owner of five berets. Bickers suggests that he had a taste for wearing them. This seems really hard to believe. Could you see  Tinkler the dashing SMP detective


Or Tinkler the Empire hobo


in a beret? There is a really good story here, but Ranke only knows what it is.  He was sort of out at elbow after leaving the SMC, maybe he got hold of a shipment of berets and these were the final ones he had not sold? Maybe he was an anti-Obelix, going around beating up Frenchmen and taking their hats to keep score? Maybe my understanding of the history of treaty port fashion its too limited for me to make sense of Tinkler’s hats?   Anyone who has ever done historical research remembers finding facts that were amazing and obviously could be used to make some important point. Bickers describes the process of finding a lot of things like this and slowly finding a context for them. Most authors don’t clue you in to the the bits that they could never find anything to do with, but Bickers does. It’s a nice book for China, but also for historical method.





  1. And, of course, the book is soooo boooring []
  2. Stabbed by a Japanese Marine in 1939 []


Seek truth from facts

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:13 pm

The Atlantic has a post by Matt Schiavenza entitled “What’s with the Chinese Communist Party and Slogans” It’s a nice little piece on the vapid sounding slogans that post-Deng Chinese leaders announce to set the tenor of their reigns. Like papal names these are often pretty opaque to outsiders. What Schiavenza does not discuss is that slogans go back way further than 1978. The Maoist period had lots of them, and you still see both the faded Maoist ones and new ones on walls all over China. Slogans (口號) actually go back at least to the Republic. When you look at the reports of Nationalist period conferences they will often have a list of the official slogans that the conference had decided on. Why was this such a big deal? The best place to look for information on this is David Strand’s An Unfinished Republic

Strand it interested  in the development of modern forms of political performance, like oratory, after about 1900. Although he does not discuss slogans as such, he does talk about how creating new forms of communication was at a premium in the early 20th century.

In a jumbled, creative, and competitive political culture, spreading the word about women’s rights, setting up shop as a political activist, or trying out the role of orator put a premium on making an immediate visual and vocal impact on potential recruits like the young Mao. The multiplying of vocational, educational, and ideological paths ensured competition. Competition rewarded clarity or urgency of message. A critical resource for all political actors of the period was the capacity to imitate and reproduce images and ideas that sold or persuaded as the means to gain a quick payoff or a first step toward seeding deeper values. Greenblatt, in a literary and historical variation on the theme of social and cultural mimicry, terms this critical ingredient “mimetic capital” As either fashion statement or deep-dyed commitment, ” China” sold once the term was recognizable, and so, perhaps more surprisingly, did “republic,” “rights,” “public speaking,” “male-female equality,”” “chamber of commerce,” “people’s livelihood,” “meeting,” [and] “study society,”…Serious political entrepreneurs like Sun Yat-sen mined world, national, and local culture for a phrase or world picture that might excite or reassure such an impressionable and interested audience(p.166)

So this explains why things like oratory (not part of the Chinese tradition) newspapers, reading rooms, etc became important in China. But why slogans? Part of it may have been that you can’t do a nice bit of calligraphy without a nice pithy phrase to work from.  Slogans (sometimes) lend themselves to chanting.  Maybe it ties into the tradition of chengyu (4-character classical phrases), or even reign titles. If nobody has written anything about this someone should. Strand’s book is a good place to start, however.

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