Postings by Gina Russo

Contact: gina [at] froginawell.net

Korean ethno-nationalism and sappy TV dramas

Filed under: — gina @ 5:11 pm

I’m currently TAing for a class on Modern Korean history, and we just finished discussing the concept of minjok (民族 or minzu in Chinese) as it related to Korean nationalism and the creation of a national history.  Andre Schmid discussed the creation of the minjok paradigm in the early twentieth century among Korean nationalist historians, outlining the various ways they conceptualized a Korean history based on ethnicity. To me, the most interesting story of the Korean ethnic genealogy involved tracing the descendants of the mythical ancestor Tan’gun to lineages and tribes that inhabited land off the peninsula, allowing this particular historian, Kim Kyohon, to claim the tribes in the North and their dynasties, the Liao, Jin, and Qing, as Korean. In other words, the 1644 defeat of the Ming by the Qing marked the beginning of the “Choson-Qing” period, or the Southern Choson and the Northern Qing. The Qing, in this narrative, is Korean (this can be found in Korea Between Empires, pages 195-196).

Unfortunately, my students did not find this nearly as awesome as I did, so I post it here. And, not surprisingly, the battle is not over. This post by Martin Lewis takes us to today, when arguments between China and Korea over Korean melodramas continue the historical battle over ethnicity, nationalism, and legitimate claims to history.

A new resource

Filed under: — gina @ 4:42 pm

For those who would like to read about new research in Chinese history without having to drudge through proquest, please check out a new website, Chinese History Dissertation Reviews. It’s a series of reviews of recently defended doctoral dissertations in Chinese history, offering a summary of the main arguments, the historiographical genealogy to which the author responds, and a list of the major archives/sources used in the dissertation. We would love to hear all of your feedback!


China and the Middle Ground

Filed under: — gina @ 12:20 am

This week, our East Asia History Reading Group had the fortune of discussing Richard White’s The Middle Ground with Professor White himself. The purpose of this book was to write the history of Native Americans and Empire in the pays d’en haut, the area around the Great Lakes, from the years 1650-1815, a region Professor White has termed the Middle Ground. Professor White presents the Middle Ground both as a spatial and theoretical construct. It is both the area where Europeans and Indians coexisted and created a new cultural space, and also a theoretical term meant to point to the process with which Indians and Whites mutually accommodated each other, constructed together a mutually comprehensible world. He traces through 2 centuries the creation and destruction of this process, and the ways in which alliances, wars, trade and empire affected the ability of Indians and Whites to maintain a status quo. He also complicates the traditional narrative of empire. A narrative of the conquerer and the conquered obscures the complexities of the relationships between and among Indians and Whites, and while violence was present, the middle ground appeared and “depended on the inability of both sides to gain their ends through force.” The Middle Ground, he points out, is not a pretty place. He has often been called an apologist for colonialism because he pointed out the compromises and concessions each side had to make. This, however, is obviously not the case; the Middle Ground was created out of destruction and violence, the description of which in the book was nauseating.

The reason we decided to read the book is because the concept of the Middle Ground can be used in other contexts; it has been cited numerous times in books about border regions in China, specifically Yunnan, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Qinghai (Peter Perdue cites White in his bibliography, and a new great study by C. Patterson Giersch uses White’s work as theoretical construct). Reading this exhaustive account of American history, I also became confused as to the extent to which his theory could be applied. Were all colonies Middle Grounds? Does it work outside borderland situations? Does it even work outside of the pays d’en haut?

To clear up some of these questions, I will summarize some of White’s interesting insights. Despite the fact that he did not want to be the “judge in the court of the Middle Ground,” he did think that both the physical space and the process did have some distinguishing characteristics. First of all, it needs to be a situation in which the two opposing groups could not overwhelm one another by force. At the same time, it needed to be a situation in which both sides needed the other. Finally, there needed to be a set of institutions in place to sustain this balance of power. In the pays d’en haut, this included Jesuit priests, a system of posts, a gift giving system in place, etc. Professor White pointed out that it is these institutions which distinguished other parts of the Americas from the pays d’en haut; they were not a Middle Ground, simply areas of cross cultural contact.

Professor White stressed that the one way in which the Middle Ground did not work in later colonial situations is that if one side has the overwhelming power to dictate, there was not a Middle Ground. He stated that in the pays d’en haut before 1815, the French and British did not break local power and rule, in fact, the didn’t rule much of anything. This description rules out a lot of European empires. The Middle Ground is also not, as Professor White claimed, a place where everyone came together and loved each other. Nor is it another term for cultural compromise. Misunderstandings actually played a large role in the creation of the Middle Ground. What he meant by this was that each group tried to argue with one another based upon their understanding of the other sides’ cultural premises. As an example from his book, he shows how Indians tried to make arguments with the French based upon their understanding of Christianity, and at the same time, the French attempted to spread Christianity by using terms they extracted from local religious practice.

The Middle Ground is also historically contingent; it, like all things, has a starting point and an end point. There are many reasons the Middle Ground of the pays d’en haut came to an end, one of the most important of which was that the Americans of the frontier no longer needed Indians. He also brought stressed a point that he made near the end of his work: ethnography and anthropology helped to erase the Middle Ground. These studies, which for the first time introduced race, created a group of “others” that could not be dealt with in an equal level (this is not to say the French did not see the Indians as “others”; but the otherness came from the fact that they were not Christian, it had nothing to do with race). The example he gave to us was the issue of marriage. In the pays d’en haut, temporary marriages were quite common. Once the marriage came to an end, the father mattered little; the woman would simply take her child, half French and half Indian, back to her village. The issue of race, or difference, was not important. In fact, towards the end of the 18th century, identity was a matter of personal choice; no one could be said to be completely French or Indian. This changed in the 19th century, when these Indian women were told by their villagers to leave their husbands and their mixed children behind because they were not pure “Indian.” This was done in the name of tradition, when really it was a quite radical statement. In this way, as  White claimed, when Middle Grounds disappear, they become black holes, sucking everything into themselves, including historical memory.

At this point we should ask, how applicable are these theories to China? Some of us in our group pointed out that these theories are very helpful in describing situations in borderlands, where neither the central Chinese government nor other bordering empires had any control over the local population (Giersch, who wrote of frontier politics in Yunnan, certainly thought so). The situation in China, however, was much more complicated. The 司土 system in areas such as Qinghai and Tibet created a system of local warlords which administered these regions. In some of these regions, the local imperial appointed warlords had much more power than others, so the use of Middle Ground is contingent on a case-by-case basis. There were some areas in which local leaders ruled in succession for generations, and others where power was determined by the ability to mediate and communicate, thus creating a Middle Ground.

Another issue that distinguishes the system in China from other contenders for the Middle Ground is the fact that there was no real clear starting or ending point like there was in the pays d’en haut. These groups on the frontiers of China had been interacting for centuries, and there was no clear starting point that would help us trace the creation of this Middle Ground (if there was, perhaps the Song or even the Han dynasty). Nevertheless, framing the trade and relations in these areas within a Middle Ground framework it seems would be useful for analysis.

For those interested, White will be releasing a 20 year anniversary of his book soon. He plans to write a new introduction that summarizes the way his work has been used (and sometimes misused) as a theoretical framework.

Books on Hong Kong

Filed under: — gina @ 12:47 am

Recently, I’ve been leaning my research towards Hong Kong (a subject I tend to write about a lot…). I found that a lot of scholars of China and scholars of colonialism tend to not know a lot about work on Hong Kong. So I did my own investigation. I put together a pretty exhaustive essay on Hong Kong’s historiography. I won’t post it here, but I will mention some of my favorite books. The following is a short list, and it’s limited: these works focus mainly on the earlier colonial period (pre 49) and on social history.

By far, I found the best book to be John Carroll’s Edge of Empires (2005). He recounts the growth of Hong Kong nationalism and local culture through middle class Chinese businessmen. While businessmen may sound slightly uninteresting, his discussions of the 1913 and 1920s protests are good, as is his discussion of Sir Ho Kai (another good essay by Carroll in the recent collection of essays The Human Tradition in Modern China, ed. by Kenneth James Hammond, Kristin Eileen Stapleton, 2008). A parallel work which focuses on the labor class as opposed to the business class (yet covers a similar time frame and similar events)  is Jung-Fang Tsai’s Hong Kong in Chinese History (1993). While he does a good job in reconstructing the lived experience of laborers, I find his categories of identity troubling; it seems that he wrote this when everyone was looking for “nationalism” in everything, and I’m not convinced of Chinese nationalism in Hong Kong the way he describes it. Perhaps more promising would be his more recent 香港人之香港史, though I have yet to read it.

Another good but exhausting read was Christopher Munn’s Anglo China (2006). It’s a few hundred pages of legal history, but it is quite successful in disproving the wide held belief that Britain was a “hands off” colonizer. Includes a lot of interesting legal cases. And as far as disproving myths, Patrick Hase’s book The Six-Day War of 1899 (2008) shows that British colonialism in Hong Kong was not non-violent, as often assumed.

Of course, there are important older works, such as Elizabeth Sinn’s Power and Charity (1989), Ming K. Chan’s work on the labor movement (mostly in essays) and Henry J Lethbridge, Hong Kong, Stability and Change. I don’t know a lot about post 49 works, but a couple which caught my eye were Hong Kong, China: Learning to Belong to a Nation and Ackbar Abbas’s Hong Kong: Culture and Politics of Disappearance.

If anyone wants to add to this list, please do; I’m always looking for books, especially about women in Hong Kong (I found Women in Chinese Patriarchy, which has a few chapters on Hong Kong; also an honorable mention).

Happy Birthday PRC

Filed under: — gina @ 10:21 pm

Chinabeat has put together some pretty good links that outline many of the festivities going on for the big 60th anniversary. The following link outlines 10 of the biggest and strangest festivities. Personally, I am most surprised by New York’s decision to illuminate the Empire State Building with red and yellow. I especially found this interesting considering the New York Times’ coverage of this event; typical for the New York Times, the coverage was less than exuberant. Another piece on Chinabeat argues that the festivities in Beijing are meant to showcase the military might of the current regime; the piece also goes on to talk about the future of Sino-US relations in light of China’s growing influence. Most of the pictures about the event certainly seem to imply that most of the events, parades, and even dance routines are performed by or about the military. Then again, I believe that the festivities are more than that: it seems that the 60th anniversary celebrations are meant to be an interim display of China’s ability to host and create large scale events between the Beijing Olympics and the upcoming 2010 Shanghai World’s Fair. In a recent lecture about his new book Global Shanghai: 1850-2010 , Jeff Wasserstrom tied the Beijing opening ceremonies and the Shanghai World’s Fair fervor to the energy and seemingly limitless expense the PRC currently put towards the 60th anniversary (Wasserstrom has written a lot about the Olympics and 2010 Expo connection; one that slightly also mentions the 60th anniversary can be read here). In general, what Wasserstrom argued was that the Olympics weren’t the pinnacle of China’s ability to top the rest of the world in hosting world events, it was just one example of many to come. And considering the importance of 2009 to the PRC’s legitimacy, it makes sense that this national event (as opposed to the other international events) would serve as another example of China’s growth, power, and national fervor.

Other than Chinabeat, I also found a few other articles about the 60th anniversary celebration worth looking at. The following pictoral essays from the Boston Globe seen here and from the New York Times, seen here. Both of course have fantastic pictoral representations of the event, though I find the one at the Boston Globe more creative. Similarly, the New York Times have a series of articles meant to put the 60th anniversary into perspective, such as this piece on the civil war in Changchun and this more interesting editorial compilation about China’s economic future.

Speaking of big events, Rio de Janeiro recently won the bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics. It will be the first South American city to host the Olympics, making its significance to Brazil similar to that of China in 2008. I look forward to seeing Brazil’s approach to the Olympics (and the world’s approach to Brazil) develop over the next few years.

If anyone has any other interesting links or information about the 60th anniversary, please post them!

Louis Vuitton and Roast Duck Meat

Filed under: — gina @ 2:43 am

Currently, the Hong Kong Art Museum is showing an exhibit of art either created or sponsored by Louis Vuitton. For those moving through Hong Kong in the next few weeks, this is a great showcase of local Hong Kong artists and a fascinating history of the Louis Vuitton company (including a rather colorful animated film by Takashi Murakami).

One of the exhibits by local Hong Kong artist Adrian Wong was based upon the annals of the Emerald Jade Roast Meat Society, a revolutionary society based in Southern China at the turn of the 20th century which was heavily involved in the revolution of 1911 and the attempts leading up to it. They were also involved in the making of Hong Kong’s first movie, Stealing a Roast Duck. According to the exhibit, members of the Roast Meat Society helped create this film and filled it with secret revolutionary messages meant for Chinese expatriate recipients in San Francisco, where the film was meant to be shown, thus spreading information about the revolution across the Pacific. We have very little information of the film today, as it was lost on its way to San Francisco, and the only information we have about the film at all are accounts of the few who actually saw it.

The exhibit raises some interesting questions, however. First of all, assuming that this movie did exist, and it contained said secret messages, one might wonder how common these sort of trans-pacific message relaying was. We all know Sun Yat Sen was abroad more often than he was in China leading up to the revolution, but what was the role of these expatriates? Was there a lot of this secret message relaying going on? It also demonstrates the importance of movies in creating history, something I think we all too often ignore.

And to bring this subject more to the present, I find it fascinating that a local artist dug up this past fact and used it to explore the importance of Hong Kong today. I find that the Hong Kong museum of art recently has showcased a lot of local artists attempting to explore what it means to be a “Hong Konger.” And unlike a lot of local mainland artists, much of their art is filled with pride and nostalgia. In this Louis Vuitton exhibit alone, there was an installation piece that was a recreation of an old Hong Kong apartment, and an exhibit by Doris Wong of impressionist paintings of Hong Kong landmarks. What Adrian Wong is doing, in essence, is demonstrating Hong Kong’s role in the revolution (as the film was produced in Hong Kong and the society was founded in Hong Kong) in a very prideful kind of way (the exhibit, for those who are interested, include animatronic talking ducks).  I think this exhibit, including many that come through the HK Art Museum, are worth looking at because they explore this often forgotten cultural pride that Hong Kongers have about themselves, and a defensive attitude against the common opinion that it is a “cultural wasteland.”

International gender studies conference

Filed under: — gina @ 10:29 pm

For those of you who happen to be in Shanghai, Fudan University will be hosting China’s first international gender studies conference in a couple of weeks. As far as I know, auditing is welcome. It will be held at Fuxuan hotel in Shanghai from June 27-29.

Destruction in the name of progress

Filed under: — gina @ 4:46 am

Kashgar, China, a city often on the map for historians (especially historians of the silk road) has recently come to the attention of many around the world because of China’s newest policy: tear down the old town to save it (a good explanation of what is going can be found in the NYT article). Essentially, the government argues that because the foundation underneath Kashgar is quite unstable (many of the houses are up on platforms, and it is hollow underneath), they need to tear it all down and rebuild it for safety reasons, in case there is an earthquake. They plan to rebuild the old town in a traditional Islamic style, thus maintaining its original ambiance.

A few interesting things about this current decision. The earthquake argument is understandable to some, and confusing to others. It seems to me that the reason for giving this justification for tearing down the old town would sit well with many Chinese and the international community because of the recent disaster in Sichuan. The Uighers of old town, however, while probably not surprised, find this justification confusing or humorous (according to the Uighers around the old town I talked to). They have lived there for over 1000 years, and the old town has survived many earthquakes and has never fallen down. According to one woman I spoke with, she explained that they saw it as a tragedy to their history that they could do nothing about, and they all strongly feel that they were not given accurate justification for why their homes were taken away from them. They also, at least those I talked to, saw this as a direct attack on their culture, a way for the Chinese to further demonstrate their power over the region in light of growing tension and animosity.

But destroying things in the name of progress is certainly not new for China. It was a common practice of the 1960s and 1970s, of course, but the Beijing Olympics and the coming Shanghai Expo saw similar situations: peoples’ houses torn down with little compensation. Many of Beijing’s old hutongs are still inscribed with the kiss of death, the character “chai.” But this destruction in the name of progress differs from these other situations in its direct relation to cultural autonomy and ethnic tensions. Furthermore, if the Id Kah mosque is any indication of how the new Kashgar Old Town will look, it is likely that it will turn into a Lijiang-type tourist old town with little resemblance to anything except another stop for Chinese shoppers and photographers.

As far as this relates to ethnic tension, The Uighers I spoke with about this situation feel relatively hopeless. But it will be interesting to find out how this will affect a city that already feels more Central Asian than Central Asia itself. Perhaps it will spur on new problems, or it will exacerbate the failure an already dying cause.

And as far as the concept of destruction in the face of progress, it is unlikely that this will end any time soon, as cities constantly upgrade. While this resembles most developing countries, I believe, as China takes this concept to a new scale, it is quite representative of current cultural phenomenons regarding a national understanding of progress. China has been trying to define progress for nearly a century, through education, through politics, through revamping of culture, and throughout the 20th century, many have argued that destruction and replacement is the best way to solve nearly any problem. While it may be a stretch to connect this with the destruction of Kashgar old town, it represents this overall way of thinking, that “new” is always better. Of course this is not limited to China. But any kind of nostalgia for old things is lost on most Chinese people; even in Hong Kong, where it seems everything is new and modern, the people rallied together to save the clock tower in Tsim Sha Tsui, a recognition of the importance of old buildings.

Perhaps this overwhelming desire for the new represents a maintainance of theories of development that were common in the early 1900s, that the most developed countries were the best, and development meant “new.” (even look at publication names: New Life, New Youth, New Women, etc.) Now, instead of worrying about new ideology, this effort of modernity through the new is all put into infrastructure and material things. It will be interesting to see how long this continues, though it is unlikely that the constant construction will end anytime soon (I currently count 5 cities working on new subway lines, and I have no doubt that there are plenty more). However, for the sake of history, I hope that the Chinese cultural understanding of “new” and “modern” will begin to shift.

Edging out the competition

Filed under: — gina @ 2:12 am

For all those keeping track, behind youtube, the most recent site to be blocked by the firewall is blogspot. This means, for our readers in China, that China Beat is no longer available.[1]

Silver lining: China Beat fans in China without a VPN will have to read Frog in a Well instead.

[1] And perhaps even more devastating, my personal research blog is no longer available.

人民日报’s Suez Canal (and other commentary)

Filed under: — gina @ 9:01 am


 As I was flipping through the People’s Daily from the 1950s recently, something completely unrelated to my research caught my attention[1]: political cartoons regarding foreign policy. Ironically, unlike most American political cartoons, People’s Daily cartoons (at least from this time period) are almost exclusively about foreign policy, specifically the West’s interference in the non-Western world.

I’ve reproduced a few of my favorites below.[2] I think what I find most striking about these cartoons is how incredibly astute they are. I guess reading through the People’s Daily, one would expect to find nothing but propaganda, and while these views are a bit biased, they are not really incorrect, or even necessarily unbalanced.

[1] As often happens in research…

[2] I apologize for the horrible angle/cutting of these photos, I’m not a photographer

From 人民日报, November 19th, 1956. The top caption reads "bombing Egypt" and the bottom caption reads "the Middle East oil pipeline is blown up."

"Making your own bed (or eating your own fruit)." From 人民日报, November 19th, 1956. The top caption reads "invading Egypt" and the bottom caption reads "the Middle East oil pipeline is blown up."


"Passing the torch." From 人民日报, November 6th, 1956. The torch reads "invasion" and the sign reads "Egypt"

"Passing the torch." From 人民日报, November 6th, 1956. The torch reads "invasion" and the sign reads "Egypt"

"2 advertisements, 1 boss." From 人民日报, October 22nd, 1956. The signs read "Please choose the Republican party" and "Please choose the Democratic party" respectively.

"2 advertisements, 1 boss." From 人民日报, October 22nd, 1956. The signs read "Please choose the Republican party" and "Please choose the Democratic party" respectively.

"The new 火牛计." From 人民日报, Nov. 3 1956. The bull is labeled Israel, which is jumping over the fence titled "Egypt," and is being spurred on by France and England

"The new 火牛计." From 人民日报, Nov. 1, 1956. The bull is labeled Israel, which is jumping over the fence titled "Egypt," and is being spurred on by France and England

"Charity." From 人民日报, October 15th, 1956. The barrel reads "US/Arab oil company" the carpet reads "Saudi/American special policy" and the bag they throw reads "charity fee"

"Charity." From 人民日报, October 15th, 1956. The barrel reads "US/Arab oil company" the carpet reads "Saudi/American special policy" and the bag they throw reads "charity fee"

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