Race in China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:49 am

A pretty good discussion from the New York Times.


Nine Nations

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:11 pm

With Obama in China lots of websites want to say something about China and What It All Means. For example, The Atlantic has a post by Patrick Chovanic that describes the Nine Nations of China, dividing China into nine separate regions, rather than viewing it as a monolithic whole. As Jeremiah Jenne points out this is such a good idea that William Skinner published a similar map back in 1977. Skinner’s macro-regions have become one of the old standbys of China studies (since before I was in school.)

I think Jeremiah is being a bit too kind here in praising Chovanic for popularizing Skinner’s work, and Chovanic is a bit off-base in claiming that Skinner’s work “reached similar conclusions” to his. If you read Chovanic’s descriptions of the regions he is trying, I think, to present the idea that each of these different areas has its own “animating force or character that defines each region.” This sound very fuzzy, and it is not fair to Skinner to compare his methodical work on economic and cultural patterns with data from  “personal experience traveling, living, and doing business in those places.” More importantly, Skinner did not see his regions as necessarily having different characters.1 As Esherick and Little pointed out in the Journal of Asian Studies in 1986 this is exactly what Skinner’s model does not do. 2 Skinner was interested in, among other things, in relations between core and peripheral counties inside the individual regions. Beijing -should- seem a lot like Shanghai in some respects because they are both top-level urban areas in their region. Chovanic seems to be suggesting that the only important distinctions are between individual regions. I’m not really sure this is helful at all. Skinner’s work had flaws, but it was remarkably robust, yeilding insights into what happened in China from well back into imperial times and forward to the present. Chovanic’s descriptions don’t even go back past 1980. Was the Northeast a “a Rust Belt of decaying industries with no future.” in the Qing or the Republic? Although the maps look similar, there is really not much in common between the two projects.

  1. Skinner argues that the economic geography of traditional China is best understood as a set of relatively distinct regions: nine “macroregions” defined by physiography and marketing hierarchies. Each macroregion is a functionally integrated rural-urban system with a relatively densely populated lowland core and a peripheral hinterland. The functional organization of each macroregion is constituted by the marketing hierarchies that link villages, market towns, and cities. Macroregions are distinct from one another; they are separated by relatively sharp boundaries defined by the orientation of local marketing systems. The factors that influence the shape and identity of each macroregion are economic-largely the constraints of transport cost. Thus Skinner provides a framework in terms of which to analyze the distribution of cities, transportation networks, trade networks, and so forth. This framework constitutes Skinner’s central thesis about the economic geography of China. He offers this thesis, however, in the context of a larger research hypothesis: that noneconomic phenomena (such as the spread of heterodox movements and rebellions, the structure of the imperial bureaucracy  and the cultural horizon of the peasant) are better understood when placed within the spatial framework of macroregions. This research hypothesis is of necessity less specific than the central thesis, for Skinner is fully aware of the many diverse factors that influence these noneconomic phenomena. Nonetheless the extended research hypothesis has stimulated much fruitful work on a wide range of phenomena. [summary from Esherick and Little] []
  2. Daniel Little and Joseph W. Esherick “Testing the Testers: A Reply to Barbara Sands and Ramon Myers’s Critique of G. William Skinner’s Regional Systems Approach to China” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Feb., 1989), pp. 90-99 []


China, where totalitarianism works

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:55 am

Daniel Drezner has been watching the coverage of the current show trials in Iran, and points out that they are not working very well in cowing the population, and suggests that in the television age show trials do not work, as it is harder to control the images that people get of the trials. He asks “can show trials ever cement an authoritarian government’s legitimacy?” In comments someone suggests the trials of the Gang of Four, which I think is an interesting idea.

The trials of the Gang of Four were seen on film by Chinese people, although not on television by most I would assume. I think the real difference  is that the medium is not really the message here. Stalin, I believe, did not broadcast his entire show trials on radio, but rather news items about them (or so I assume). Likewise Chinese people (I assume) saw the trials as heavily edited newsreels. The trials themselves did run off track a bit, most famously when Jiang Qing, who was being accused of plotting the Cultural Revolution without Mao’s knowledge said that she was “Chairman Mao’s dog, whoever he said to bite I bit.” (我是主席的一条狗,主席要我咬谁就咬谁) Chinese people, of course, did not hear this. I don’t think the problem is so much video vs. audio but the sheer bulk of what you want to show people.  A trial is a major thing with hours and hours of testimony. Stage managing a huge reality show like that is hard, particularly when you are not trying to generate sympathy for the accused, given that the trial itself is set up to make the accuesed look helpless before the power of the state.

Even more important than medium, however, is context. I assume Stalin’s show trials were effective in convincing people that they really, really did not what to get on Stalin’s bad side, but they were only one of many things that did this. The trials of the Gang of Four were intended (I think) to convince Chinese people that the CR was really over and to shift blame from Mao and the CCP as a whole to the safely dead or imprisioned. They did this, but the trials, which started in 1980, were the end rather than the beginning of this effort.

1977 Poster criticizing Gang of Four. From Stepan Landsberger

1977 poster criticizing Gang of Four. From Stepan Landsberger

The Iranian trials seem to be isolated attempts to convince the Iranian people that the protesters were bad people and that the state is still in control. I don’t think show trials alone can do that, but they are a useful part of authoritarian political theater if used properly.


China is now Japan

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:05 am

It’s official. China is now Japan. Or, more specifically China is now the country that poor countries in the third world are supposed to be emulating. When I was just a grad student, Japan was the model the world was supposed to follow. That one at least made a bit of sense, since by the 80’s Japan was a fully first-world country (no millions living in rural poverty) and a democracy. Even then most popular evocations of “The Japan Model” were pretty silly. Japan was, like all countries, shaped by its history, but I would find it hard to recommend a period of ultra-militarism,  losing a war, and being bombed, atom bombed and occupied as a development strategy. FOARP discusses some of the problems with attempts to borrow the China model, identifying China’s strong nationalism as the reason China is such a hard model to follow.

“under the nationalists and now under the communists China has been subject to the greatest and most successful program of nation-building ever seen.”

This may well be true, but it still freaks me out a bit to see how a couple decades of success can change China’s entire past. I work in an industry (Modern Chinese History) whose chief product has always been explanations for Chinese failure at nation-building. Now it looks like we are going to have start churning out the exact opposite. Well, the Japan people seem to have adjusted to going from an Asian Anomaly to a model for humanity and back, so I guess we can. And regardless of how useful the China model ends up being I’m betting there will be buyers in the Third World for the idea that being run by a corrupt one-party state is no barrier to a nation’s development.


Beer in China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:22 pm

Robert Bickers has a nice post up at China Beat on the early history of Qingdao beer. Its a good post and sheds a lot of light on the early history of what is now probobably one of the best known Chinese brands. Before WWI Qingdao was a classic example of the nature of Anglo-German capitalism in China. What I find most interesting about Qingdao however is its post 1949 history. There were lots of capitalist corporations in China before 1949, but not many of them made it through the Maoist period. Yang Zhiguo has studied the history of Qingdao brewery after 1949.1 During the Maoist years Qingdao was China’s capitalist face, sort of the first Special Economic Zone, since China needed foreign exchange and one of the few ways to get it was by selling Qingdao beer in  Southeast Asia and above all in Hong Kong. Hong Kong was of course a free market city and Qingdao had to take on already established foreign brands. This led to importing foreign machinery, a focus on quality that was unheard of in Maoist production, and killing domestially popular lines like Qingdao Porter (no really) in favor of the standard export version. As China began to open up after 1976 Qingdao was one of the first Chinese branded products to be exported in part because everyone likes beer but also because it was one of the only Chinese products with any hope of competing on world markets. My students are always amazed to hear that in the early 1980s some Americans (like me) would point it out to their friends if they found a product on a store shelf that said “Made in P.R.China”.2  Qingdao was the face of Chinese capitalism in the West for a number of years. Even now it is the face of Chinese beer, given that the other options would be something like the dreadful Reeb.

  1. “This Beer Tastes Really Good”: Nationalism, Consumer Culture and Development of the Beer Industry in Qingdao, 1903-1993 The Chinese Historical Review 14.1 Spring 2007 []
  2. This is less rare now []


Basic principles of Chinese History

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:54 pm

From China Geeks via CDT the basic principles needed to write Chinese history. As one commenter pointed out, they would almost work as the principles to write any national history, but they are still pretty good.


Shanghai gets ready for its close-up

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:29 am

If you are tired of reading about the past, you could read about the future instead. Gina Russo has a great pair of posts up at China Beat on Shanghai’s preparations for the upcoming Expo. Once again, Shanghai is trying to convince others (and itself) that it is the face of modern China.


It was twenty years ago today

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:26 am

If three times is a trend then there is now a trend of historical liveblogging about China. CDT is doing a liveblog of the Tiananmen demonstrations for the 20th anniversary.  Liveblogs of the Younghusband Expedition and the Boxer Uprising are still going on. What will be next?


Bad sons

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:55 pm

Over at A Ku Indeed Chris asks about Mencius  4A28, in which Mencius commends Shun for transforming his father.

He (Shun) considered that if one could not get the hearts of his parents he could not be considered a man, and that if he could not get to an entire accord with his parents, he could not be considered a son. By Shun’s completely fulfilling everything by which a parent could be served, Gu Sou was brought to find delight in what was good. When Gu Sou was brought to find that delight, the whole kingdom was transformed. When Gu Sou was brought to find that delight, all fathers and sons in the kingdom were established in their respective duties…This is called great filial piety”

Chris asks

So is Shun (or Mencius) serious? Is a son not a son if he fails to transform his father/mother? Are the virtues that embody “being a son” incomplete if they are not mirrored by the virtues involved in being a dad? (I presume this holds in the reverse direction for sons, too).”

Rather than focus on what Mencius is trying to proscribe here I am more interested in what Shun lore tells us about the construction of early Chinese ideas of the family. Shun was one of the mythical sage-kings of Early China, famous both for being chosen by Yao to take over the kingdom despite not being Yao’s son, and also famous able to influence both his own (worthless) father and and Yao’s nine (worthless) sons and make them better people. Mencius talks a lot about him and I suspect part of the reason is that while he is famous for being filial a lot of what he does (influencing Yao’s sons better than Yao can, influencing his father rather than vice versa) is in fact usurping the role of the father that he is not entitled too. A big chunk of Mencius 5a is Mencius explaining away Shun’s odd behavior for the benefit of his disciples.

In The Flood Myths of Early China Mark Edward Lewis points out that there is “a recurring pattern in early Chinese myths in which exemplary  men have wicked fathers and themselves produce evil offspring.”1 The fathers and sons made matched pairs, the fathers being perfect without any need for education and the sons being beyond the reach of education. Lewis says that this opposition between fathers and sons was necessary in a world where the father’s authority was not to be transmitted to the son. Later, as the lineage began to be developed great efforts were made to separate sons from fathers so as to impose hierarchy on the family. There is a whole section on sons who should not be raised. Some were unacceptable because they were animalistic (3 or more children born at once) and beyond improvement by human education. Other were too similar to their fathers and thus brought forward his inevitable usurpation of the father’s role.2

So, at least for Lewis, Mencius is not using Shun to describe filial piety, but rather trying to explain away the unfilial behavior in a story that is not really about filiality and moral influence, but rather is about the extremes of human posibility3 and the need to impose hierarchy on the family. Mencius is struggling to put a “modern” reading on a much older storywith different concerns.

  1. p.81 []
  2. Lewis does a lot more with this. It’s a really good chapter. []
  3. As Lewis points out, the Sages are themselves not really human, almost all of the them having animal charachtaristics and being in many ways outside socieity. []


Academics read the newspaper

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:50 am

And find good things (On time zones in China)

And bad things (On Qing cultural history)

Both of these articles are attempts by non-specialists to explain China, and one of them is very good and one pretty bad. Not much more to say really, other than that I think generally journalistic coverage of China’s present is better than that of its past. I’m not sure if this is a China thing or that all journalist tend to struggle with history.

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