Pigs in the News and In Wikipedia: Or, Lipstick on a Frog

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 1:40 pm

Vladimir Putin is on a roll. He has been having a fine time poking the US in the eye over the Edward Snowden kerfuffle,  but at a news conference he declined to comment: “In any case, I’d rather not deal with such questions, because anyway it’s like shearing a pig – lots of screams but little wool.”

That reminded me that it’s been too long since we talked about pigs. Just because we’re Frog in a Well doesn’t mean that we can only talk about frogs – in fact, pigs are our, well… bread and butter. I will modestly call attention to my piece, “Pigs, Shit, and Chinese History, or, Happy Year of the Pig!” Frog In a Well  (January 27 2007). You can find several more by clicking the “Pigs” link on the right hand column of this page.

Putin seems to be using one of the many, many colorful pig sayings. My father, who grew up on a farm, had a bunch of them, mostly unprintable. Wikipedia is good at accumulating this sort of thing. A succession of people edited the article “Lipstick on a Pig,”  which gives examples of usage going back decades, but the Wikipedia article  “Pig in a Poke” is even better. Many languages have a rough equivalent. It turns out that in  Latvia you say “Buy a cat in a sack.” Who knew? Wikipedia “Pigs in Popular Culture” has an extensive section of pig-related idioms.

Right. But what about China?

Wikipedia has many faults. It is a great grab bag, not an encyclopedia. But, as the computer software people like to say, “that’s not a bug, it’s a feature.” China and pigs is a good example. If you want to have some idiotic fun, go to Wikipedia, any page, and in the upper right hand corner you will find a “Search” box. Enter “~Pigs + China” (without the quotation marks). The tilde (~) means that you don’t want articles with this word in the title, but all  Wikipedia pages with the following words in it.

Amazing. I got 7,259 hits. Of course, this includes duplicates, off the wall irrelevances, rock songs, and pig iron, but also a fascinating variety of things you would not have thought to look up: “Coprophagia”, Dutch Pacification Campaign on Formosa,” as well as straightforward finds such as “Science and technology of the Song Dynasty.“And that’s less than a dozen of the hits, leaving more than 7,000 to go.

This search, random though it may be, is a dramatic way to see the central role that pigs played in Chinese history.

And oh, young people today just don’t know the classics — the Muppets’ “Pigs in Space.” Vladimir Putin’s soft power sneers can’t compare. YouTube has tons of them: Pigs in Space at YouTube.




The Birth of Chinese Feminism

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:43 pm

Columbia University Press sent me a copy of a really good book, Lydia Liu, Rebecca Karl and Dorothy Ko. The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2013. The core of the book is a set of translations of essays by He-Yin Zhen, although we also get a lengthy introduction and translations of few other key texts.

The authors are interested in He-Yin Zhen because she was one of the the most interesting feminist theorists of the late Qing who has been ignored because her fundamental analytic category of nannu 男女 (literally man and woman or male/female) did not fit well with with either bourgeois or anarcho-feminist ideas about gender. The book includes translations of Liang Qichao’s On Women’s Education and Jin Tianhe’s The Woman’s Bell, but unlike these two (male-authored) texts, He-Yin Zhen did not subordinate woman’s issues to nationalism, modernization, or racial survival.

..instead, in He Yin Zhen’s theoretical idiom, history is formed by a continuously reproduced injustice in the manner of what the Annales school of French historians would come to call the longue duree, whose generalized contours of uneven wealth and property as well as it specificities of embodied affect could be made visible through the figure of “woman”.

For He-Yin, nannu 男女 was the fundamental analytical category, more important that Chinese vs. Western, modern vs. premodern, or Marxist ideas about class. In “On the question of Women’s Labor” she discusses labor and the subordination of women throughout Chinese and modern history, claiming that while modern factory labor has special characteristics, in the end it grows out of the unequal distribution of wealth, the same cause as the subordination of women in traditional society. In “Economic Revolution and Women’s Revolution” He-Yin is in favor of love marriage, but sees every type of existing marriage, both for men and for women, as a form of prostitution. In “On Feminist Antimilitarism” she claims that antimilitarism would be good for “weak nations (literally “races or kind”, zhong 種), the common people, and women.” It’s practically subaltern studies.

It’s a very good book, with some very good readings. It’s pretty obvious why a lot of these have not been translated before, since it is hard to see how you could take a class from some of these readings to other stuff that was going on in 1907.

On academic publishing

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:24 pm

Above is a post on Lydia Liu, Rebecca Karl and Dorothy Ko. The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2013. Another thing this book makes me think of is the inadequacy of our current publishing model. This is a very good book to have your students read if you are teaching a high-level course on Chinese feminism. A number of these readings would be good for any sort of Modern China class or a lot of classes on women’s history or feminist theory. Unfortunately, there is no way to assign just Liang Qichao’s On Women’s Education or just He-Yin Zhen’s On the Question of Woman’s Labor and not have your students spend too much money and have the press get some cash out of the whole thing. Roll-your-own textbooks and course readers have been part of the landscape for a while, but at present they are cumbersome, paper-bound, and expensive. Wouldn’t it be great if individual translations/articles/chapters were available as something like Kindle singles for 99 cents (or 50 cents, let’s not be greedy) and instructors could put together a list and students could download a bunch of readings with one click and $20? Given that most of the content is created by scholars and given to presses for free this would seem like a profitable arrangement for both producers and consumers of knowledge. Obviously this is not going to happen any time soon, but I suspect that just as the model of music being sold as ‘albums’ by a publisher is being replaced by the model of individual songs being sold by some sort of clearinghouse, the same thing will happen with scholarship. The tyranny of the binding has not always existed, and it will not last forever. Texts used to be much more amorphous, and I guess they will be again. Will Columbia University Press be the academic I-tunes?




A clash of symbols

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:42 pm

In the introduction of Julia Lovell’s The Opium War she discusses an incident from November, 2010. David Cameron had gone to China, and it being November he and his team were all wearing poppies. For the British the poppy is a symbol of the war dead of the Great War. It is not really a symbol in China, although of course a British PM with a poppy on did bring up memories of the Opium Wars. Cameron was asked to take his poppy of, and of course refused. Despite the possible hurt feelings of the Chinese people the Chinese government allowed him to keep his poppy.


As the link above shows, even Daily Mail readers were sometimes understanding of the Chinese position, and the Chinese were willing to let Cameron run around with a poppy, so everyone behaved very well. I’m actually glad to see that when there is a deal to be made the ancient hatreds of the past can be set aside.

For those of our readers who are Chinese, the association of poppies with wartime sacrifice is more important in Britain, but is also known elsewhere.




Why are the Chinese atheists?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:18 pm

Sam Crane, at Useless Tree, comments on the recent study that shows that China has a higher percentage of atheists than anyplace else in the world. Sam suggests that part of the reason for this is that atheism is not really the thing to be asking about. There is a long tradition in China, going way back, of believing in things like Confucianism, which is maybe not a religion. He’s right that asking Chinese if they are ‘confirmed atheists’ is probably the wrong question. The original WaPo piece is probably also correct in saying that the Taiping rebellion and the Communists have something to do with it, which is true enough but misses a lot.

Possibly the most important reason that so many Chinese identify as ‘atheists’ is not the history of ‘Confucianism’ throughout the 5000 years of Chinese history, but the complex history of Chinese religion in the 20th century. By far the best introduction to this is Goossaert and Palmer’s The Religious Question in Modern China. It’s a really good book, that contains far more than I could ever put in this blog post, but one of its themes is how the Chinese state, and especially the party-state (KMT or CCP) tried to harness, improve, or eliminate religion as part of creating a new China. One aspect of this was the idea that traditional Chinese forms of religion were an embarrassment in the eyes of foreigners. G and P….

A particularly telling case of such sensitivity is Kang Youwei’s utterance: “Foreigners come in our temples, take photographs of the idols, show these photographs to each other and laugh.” This sentence was later copied verbatim in the introduction to the most important and famous antisuperstition law of the Nationalist government, the 1928 “Standards to determine the temples to be destroyed and those to be maintained.

So if you want to understand the problems that Chinese had in fitting their ideas about religion into a context where the word atheism would make sense, you should read the book. If all you need is a good quote on the importance of impressing foreigners with China’s religious ideas this blog post should do.



Powered by WordPress