井底之蛙

3/25/2014

Unearthing the Nation

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:56 pm Print

Grace Yen Shen’s Unearthing the Nation: Modern Geology and Nationalism in Republican China is a really good book. Shen says that at first “it took a lot of explaining to convince people that the history of Chinese geology needed to be told.” That scepticism seems well-founded. What did Chinese geologists ever do? How does geology connect to anything else? Is this going to be one of those institutional studies where nothing seems to happen other than setting up institutions and then having the members do nothing but complain about lack of funding?

Thankfully, geology is pretty easy to connect to other parts of China’s transformation. Part of this is just dumb luck. The first work on China’s geology written by a Chinese was “Brief outline of Chinese geology” published by former Jiangnan Military Academy School of Mines student Zhou Shuren, who would later go on to considerable fame under the name Lu Xun. It is not surprising that Zhou/Lu went on to become one of the most famous May 4th intellectuals, since

Chinese geologists rejected the Confucian values of the political and social order and associated them with parochialism and complacency. However, they not only accepted the deeply Confucian values of the intellectual as servitor-cum-guide to state and society, but they also managed to identify this role with progressivism and morality by taking it as a call to self-criticism and renewal. ….geologists’ shared sense of Chineseness grew out of their admission of guilt and the dedication to self-transformation. Geology was a discipline that would reshape its practitioners and resuscitate the nation on the verge of extinction. Unearthing the Nation. p.10

You could use that as a nice summary of the May 4th project, and in fact I did so in class last week.

Geology also matters because it ties in with wealth and power better than lots of other fields of study. Locating valuable rocks was something that both Chinese modernizers and foreign exploiters could get behind. Shen shows how Chinese geologists managed to replace foreigners and gradually they became the ones who surveyed an interpreted China’s rocks for both foreign and domestic audiences. Geology had only fitful support from the Chinese state, but it was popular with young Chinese, in part because the emphasis on fieldwork helped distinguish geologists from traditional educated youth “with pale faces and slender waists, seductive as young ladies, timorous of cold and chary of heat, weak as invalids.”1

Geologists also served the nation. They were the ones who found the Tungsten and other rare materials that wartime China exported. They also defined China as they Chinese would like. As Li Siguang put it.

at the time most people in western Europe invariably thought that Tibet was not fully part of China, and to correct this mistaken concept (whether intentional or unintentional) I purposely gave the Tibetan plateau first place among China’s natural regions. p.136

Of course service to the nation came with a price. The geologists did a better job than you might think in balancing a desire to do pure science and to serve China.

 By training their sights on the overall development of geology in China and remaining flexible about details and timing Chinese geologists achieved many of their own goals while catering to the interests of both native philanthropists and foreign funding agencies. When the remains of Peking Man were first announced in 1926, for instance, the Chinese geological community quickly turned its attention to paleoanthropology. Though it had no experience in this field, the Geological Survey convinced the Rockefeller Foundation to fund a Cenozoic Research Laboratory to study both Peking Man and the “tertiary and quaternary deposits of northern China” more broadly. p.185

This fits it with a lot of other examples I can think of where scholars adjusted their research to funding. It would be nice to have unlimited money to study anything, but practice that is not how China, or anywhere else, actually works.

If you want a nice, short, well-written book that explains the birth of a modern science in China and why it matters, this is a good choice.

 

  1. quote from Chen Duxiu. Were there any female geologists? []

2/24/2014

China’s Museums

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:57 am Print

I have been reading China’s Museums, part of the Cambridge University Press series Introductions to Chinese Culture. I am finding the table of contents particularly interesting,1 as it reflects on how you categorize things. The authors, Li Xianyao and Luo Zhewen, are both major figures in the museum world, so the book gives you a reasonably up-to date2 official view of China’s 5,000 years of history and what matters in it.

It is interesting to try and figure out why things were included in what category and why they are there at all. The first category is Chinese Treasures, which starts with the Palace Museum in Beijing, but follows that with the Palace Museum in Taipei (and they call it Taipei) as well as the Shaanxi History Museum, (birthplace of Chinese culture). The Shanghai Museum is included because of “The scope, depth and quality of its collection, and its striking architecture and use of modern technology” I’m guessing that Liaoning Provincial3 is included because of the Qing stuff they have. Something good on China’s last Emperors, and thus emperors in general, is worth including. Three Gorges in Chongqing has a “glass dome [that] resembles a huge magnifying glass, reminding us to pass on the inheritance we have received from our forebears to the next generation, to use culture to nourish the earth.” So I am guessing that some combination of quality of your collection, excellence of your presentation, and importance of what you do in the narrative of Chinese history will get your museum in this book.

The second section, is, of course, The Contribution of China’s Ethnic Minorities. Eventually we get to Huaxia civilization, and these two reflect the problems of defining China. This is particularly acute for museums, since it is easier for them to slip into Han chauvinism. If all of China’s 56 nationalities are part of the great tapestry of Chinese civilization, then why is almost everything in the book Han, other than a single section on minorities?

They get around this a bit, with their definition of Huaxia 華夏, a sort of cosmic Han category that includes everything.

The term huaxia, however, is broader in meaning that “China” It indicates more of a cultural space than a geographic designation, and also implies a historical lineage. Xia is the name of the first-known dynasty of what later came to be “China.” dating to some three millennia ago.  The term hua includes both overseas Chinese as well as non-ethnic Chinese under the overarching umbrella of what today is known as China. Cultural aspects of huaxia, such as silk, tea, ceramics and Chinese medicine, have all made great contributions to mankind.

Some of the rest of the book is trying to categorize the stuff you are stuck with. Not many other countries would have a category on Treasures of China’s Grottoes, but when you have Dunhuang and Yungang and Longmen in your cultural past you probably should. Should we include archeological sites? Well, if we don’t Peking Man and Banpo will be left out, so I would guess we should.

One thing I noticed was that there is very little modern history here. Once upon a time Chinese history was revolutionary history, the story of how the Chinese people rose up and destroyed the old feudal society. There is very little of that story here.  No sites associated with Sun Yat-sen or even Mao Zedong, and little reference to the modern period at all.4 You can see this most clearly in the discussion of the National Museum of China5 The Museum has an area of 192,000 square meters, but only 2,000 square meters are dedicated to the Road to Resurgence and China’s modern history.

 

 

  1. Why, yes, I am a load of fun at parties. Why do you ask? []
  2. This seems to be the same book that was published in 2004 by China Intercontinental Press, so I’m not sure when the text was written []
  3. Which I have not been to []
  4. Zigong Salt Industry Museum does manage to slip into Natural History. []
  5. There is a great dissertation in how the China Revolutionary Museum and the China History Museum merged to form this. []

1/28/2014

Professors as booty

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 5:51 am Print

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I have been reading Patricia Ebrey’s new book on the Song emperor Huizong. For those of you who don’t know him he known for being the most artistically accomplished of the Chinese emperors and for loosing his empire to the Jin. These things make him a good subject for a book, as a lot was written and preserved about him. The book itself is one of the most intimate portraits of a Chinese emperor in English, and there is a lot of good stuff in here on the Song government, Huizong’s actions and artistic production and other interesting topics. I am mostly going to talk about the fall of the Song and its aftermath. The defeat and exile sections are among the most detailed in the book, no doubt because the theme of an exiled emperor was attractive to later writers and compilers of sources

You can get some tips on how to conduct a siege. When the first Jurchen army approached Kaifeng they decided not to enter the city, but to demand ransom.

…the capital was thrown into an uproar trying to raise the truly huge sum of gold and silver, equal to 180 times the annual payments that Song had been paying to Liao. The government treasuries had large quantities of copper cash, bur the Jurchen wanted gold and silver, in much shorter supply. Everyone who had received gifts of gold or silver from the throne, including all the princes, Daoist officials, court musicians and artists, and so on, were to turn it over at the Yuanfeng Treasury. All palaces and imperially sponsored temples, as well as the Kaifeng prefectural offices were to turn over any gold and silver they had to the main treasury. Huge sums were confiscated from Wang Fu’s house- more than seven thousand bolts of cloth and ten million strings of cash- but a third of that was looted by people who forced their way in during the inventory. By 1126/1/20, the besieged Song court sent to the Jin camp more than three hundred thousand ounces of gold and twelve million ounces of silver. When that still was not enough, the government ordered any families owning gold or silver to turn it in to one of several collecting points. They would be compensated later at the rate of 20 strings of cash for each ounce of gold and 1.5 strings for each ounce of silver. Informing on those who concealed their gold or silver was rewarded at a rate of two-tenths of the concealed gold and one-tenth of the concealed silver. On 1/26, the court sent the equivalent of another five hundred ounces of gold and eight million ounces of silver, with much of it made up of jewelry and utensils collected from the populace. There was reason to rush; on 1/27 it was reported that the Jurchen were excavating the tombs of imperial consorts, princes, and princesses. (p.438)

I like the image of imperial largess flowing back to the palace, starting first with the elite and then spreading outward. You can see the beginnings of panic in the city as a third of the wealth from Wang Fu’s house is taken by the mob. Most interestingly, the Jurchen seem to have read their Foucault. Rather than entering the city and searching for movable wealth, why not have the court and the populace discipline themselves and root it out? They can even change the copper cash in the treasury for silver and gold! Although the Jurchen army left the first time the Song court was too riven by factionalism to either make peace or  make war and by the end of the year another army was demanding even more gold and silver, far more than the court could come up with.

Jin officials entered Kaifeng and opened the Song government storehouses, which were found to have even more bolts of plain silk than demanded, but only a tiny fraction of the gold and silver. Song officials were assigned responsibilities for searching specific quadrants of the city and confiscating all gold and silver. Every few days, the Jurchens demanded something else for the Song government to deliver to them. For instance, on 12/5 Jin demanded ten thousand horses. Ranking officials were allowed to keep one horse, but all others were seized, over seven thousand all together  The next day, 12/6, Jin demanded weapons, many of which people had taken after soldiers abandoned them. Qinzong issued an order that all weapons in Kaifeng, both government and private, be turned over to the Jin authorities. A few days later, on 12/10, all the money in the storehouses was distributed to the Jin soldiers as their rewards. On 12/13 a call was issued for twenty painters, fifty wine-makers, and three thousand bottles of wine. Ten days later Jin demanded a long list of books and documents by name, including Sima Guang’ s Comprehensive Mirror and calligraphy by Su Shi and Huang Tingjian. In some cases, the Kaifeng prefectual authorities had to buy the works from bookshops to fulfil the orders. A few days after that, the books from the Directorate of Education were taken (though as an insult, ones by Wang Anshi were discarded). As the scholars in Jin employ discovered that they were missing a title, they added it to their requisition lists. Just before the Lantern Festival, Jin demanded all the lanterns usually used not only by the palace, but also by temples and shops, then held their own ceremony outside the walls of the city. Not long afterward, they demanded the full set of procession paraphernalia, then took such objects as the Nine Cauldrons, the bells and other instruments used for the Music of Great Brilliance, consorts’ headgear, the blocks for printing books, including those for the Buddhist and Daoist canons, and maps, diagrams, and pictures of all sorts. From time to time, the Jurchen commander requisitioned specific craftsmen or specialists, such as physicians, musicians,astronomers, weapons makers, masons, gardeners, jade carvers, clerks, painters, storytellers, professors, Buddhist monks, and so on. Lists of objects taken from the palace are often staggering: 25,000 ancient bronze vessels, 1,000 ox carts, 1,000 parasols, 28,700 pills from the imperial pharmacy, 1,000,000 jin of silk thread, 1,800 bolts of a certain type of silk made in Hebei.

Here you can see the definition of movable wealth expanding (and common Jurchen soldiers getting something.) but even more, the Jurchen are starting to demand symbols of Imperial authority, most notably the Nine Cauldrons, but also all the other things (and people) you needed to be ruler and could carry away. They even demonstrated their taste by tossing out the books of Wang Anshi. I love the idea of professors as booty, along with gold, parasols, and bells.

As the situation slipped out of the control of the Song court things got worse and worse for the people of the city.

Although the city had fallen, the Jurchen forces kept the gates closed, enforcing, in a sense, a reverse siege to keep up the pressure on the city until all its demands were met. Food and firewood, therefore, were in very short supply. On 12/21 the court allowed government office buildings to be demolished for firewood; the next day, after a snow fall aggravated the situation, approval was given for people to enter Northeast Marchmount Park to chop down the rare trees planted there. A few days later, with another snowfall, people were also allowed to break up the hundred-odd buildings in the garden for fuel. So many rushed there that people were trampled to death.

There were lots of other bad things happening in the city, but it is not surprising that the sources would focus on the park. There is almost a checklist of things a bad last emperor is supposed to do, and waste money is one of them (frugality is always good, especially in emperors.) and one of the canonical ways to waste money is by building parks and palaces. The Northeast Marchmount Park was one of Huizong’s greatest achievements, a magnificent paradise that demonstrated his equivalence to the great rulers of antiquity. They too had built parks filled with animals and plants from all over their domain. Huizong was criticized for the expense of this park, and the costs it imposed on the people, and it is not surprising that cutting down its trees and burning its buildings would seem a fitting symbol of the end of his reign.

Huizong himself was a form of moveable wealth. The Jurchen eventually took him and his son and successor Qinzhong north, and both of them eventually ended up in Northern Manchuria. Huizong was of some use to the Jin, being required, for instance, to pay homage to the Jin ancestors, provide samples of his calligraphy and to convince Song holdouts in the north to surrender. They were pretty much the only male members of the family who were of much use, and many of others died on the march north.

The female members of his family and the various palace women were also a form of movable wealth, but all of them were of use. When the first large group of these women was brought to the Jurchen camp they were required to dress in entertainers clothes and serve the Jurchen generals at a banquet. Soon after it was announced that those women to be given to Jurchen soldiers were to start wearing their hair in the Jurchen fashion and let doctors abort their fetuses if they were pregnant. While most of the would eventually be distributed to Jurchen men or become palace slaves far in the north many died on the march due to harsh conditions, suicide, or died resisting rape. Other captives were traded off to the Tanguts, Mongols and Tartars at a ratio of 10 slaves to one horse.

While Huizong’s captivity was certainly not the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed he did live reasonably well and even had another 14 children with his remaining concubines. He continued to write poetry, and for the first time began studying the Spring and Autumn Annals for advice on how to be a good emperor. A sound idea of course, but too late.

 

 

1/3/2014

Teaching Asian Civilizations

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 2:28 pm Print

As I was cleaning out my office I found a copy of Approaches to Asian Civilizations by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Anslie T. Embree.1 First published in 1964, the book is the record of a conference on the teaching of Asia to American undergraduates. 1964 would be about the dawn of what you could call modern Asian Studies in the U.S. The field was being freed from “the incubus of philological Orientalism”2 The De Bary source readers were coming out, Fairbank, Reishcauer and Craig’s A History of East Asian Civilization came out in 1960. Learning about Asia in a serious way was starting to become possible for Americans who did not plan to become professional Asianists and were not at a handful of elite universities.

So, how does it look 50 years later?

Not surprisingly, some things look remarkably modern, and some much less so.

It is rather hard to imagine the Great and the Good of the profession all coming together today to discuss undergraduate education, but part of the reason for that is that there are too many Asianists for that now, unless we met in the Astrodome or something. The field has also fragmented a lot, in part because there are so many more of us. The book deals with China, India, Japan and a bit on the Middle East. The writers include historians but also political scientists and economists, the last of whom would seem unlikely at such a gathering today.

Parts of it seem shockingly old-fashioned. Most of the states of the Middle East (and Asia) “are inexperienced in the conduct of statehood, and most of them are also uncommitted in a literal sense. They do not feel the tug of global issues. Nor have they in fact accepted formal obligations either in degree or variety that the older states have, so that, at times, they behave in a manner we are prone to label irresponsible.” p.135-6

It is also interesting that the assembled professors do not seem terribly concerned about how they will justify having students take courses on Asia. The whole student as consumer/how will you market your program in the undergraduate marketplace thing is still in the future. A bunch of scholars will decide what and education is, and students and administrators will go along.

The American relationship with Asia is quite different, which ties in with the ‘why would undergraduates be interested’ thing. Today there are large groups of students (and granting agencies) who have an interest in Asia before you even open your mouth. There is no reference here to students who are interested in participating in the immense growth of the Asian economies, (not surprisingly) no mention of those fascinated with Asian pop culture (even less surprisingly.) We do get one disparaging reference to “dharma bums,” who may show up in your classes, but that’s it. Nor is there much much emphasis on the idea that being an American citizen should involve thinking in an informed way about the advisability of getting involved in a land war in Asia, even though that was something American citizens really should have been thinking about in the early 60′s.

Asia is pretty much an academic subject here, and the key issue that academics are struggling with is what’s wrong with Asia, specifically, why it is so stagnant and was stagnant for so long before being awakened by contact with the West.

Here is Arthur F. Wright’s periodizaiton of Chinese history

A. The period of genesis: the emergence of distinctive features of a Chinese civilization in the Shang;
B. The later Chou viewed as a “classical age”
C. The unification of state and culture: the founding of the Chinese Empire by the Ch’in, consolidation and development by the Han
D. The first experience of dismemberment and foreign invasions, cultural and political, c. 300-589
E. Unification: a new centralized empire and its culture-Sui and T’ang, 589-750
F. The breakdown of the second imperial order and the beginnings of the new society and culture-late T’ang, Five Dynasties, and Sung; proto-modern China
G. The first experience of total conquest and of incorporation in a larger world-empire: the period of Mongol domination, the brutalization of politics, and the evolution of mass culture;
H. Reassertion of Chinese control over state, society, and culture: the Ming. The failure of creativity. With apologies to Toynbee, “the abortive effort to revive the ghost of the T’ang oekumene” (Toyenbee gets mentioned a lot in here)
I. The second total conquest, continuation and atrophy of Ming institutions and culture under a Manchu-Chinese dyarchy.

The first bit seems not that different from the way we would outline it now. The middle gets bogged down in invasions with the occasional nod at ‘culture’, but the real difference is at the end, where we get lots of atrophy, an end to creativity, and a good 300 years of decline and stagnation. This is not at all how it would be seen today. William Rowe claims that the Qing had “worked out systems of administration and communication more efficient and effective than any of its predecessors.” and had “achieved a level of material productivity (indeed, prosperity) far beyond that of any earlier Chinese dynasty, as well as institutions of economic management probably more ambitious and effective than any seen previously in the world.” It had a “vibrant cosmopolitan culture.” One might almost think that Rowe is trying to dispel a lot of the old myths, and he makes it pretty clear that is what he is doing. It’s a lot easier to explain why people should study Asia when you see Asian history as a success rather than a big mistake its people would be better off forgetting.

While the books approach to Asian societies may seem old fashioned, many of their other concerns seem quite up to date. How do you teach history without getting bogged down in details or skimming over things? When will they publish some better books for students to use? Do comparisons with the West help more than they hurt? How do you deal with the cliches and stereotypes your students come to class with?

Of course some of these problems have been fixed by time and technology.

Arthur Wright mentions that he likes showing slides to his students, but is never sure when to interrupt lectures and show some pictures “Ideally, one should have a slide operator always courteously waiting and prepared to flash five minutes of carefully selected materials whenever they would support or illustrate the subject at hand.” See, Powerpoint does help!

 

  1. No, the office is still a mess. Interestingly, I inherited this book from Tom Goodrich, our department’s Ottomanist and the son of L. Carrington Goodrich. []
  2. p.69 Hellmut Wilhelm points out that the old sinological tradition actually functioned more or less like modern area studies. You are not limited to History or Literature or Economics. You learn the language and then go all over. I guess in 1964 Sinology and Classics were all of a sudden methodologically trendy. []

12/15/2013

Sinology and Simon Leys

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:30 pm Print

New York Review of Books Classics has re-printed Simon Leys’ The Hall of Uselessness: Selected Essays. This makes him the first Sinologist to crack the NYRB Classics list as one of the masters of world literature, this despite the fact that the original book of these essays only came out in 2011. Leys write about all sorts of things, from Orwell to Cervantes to Zhou Enlai, but his chief claim to fame, at least for me, was his caustic criticism of westerners who had been taken in by the Maoist myth.

Why read this book? Well, he writes well, both in the sense of being able to describe things and in the sense of knowing exactly when to stick the knife in. From the piece on Zhou En-lai

Alone among the Maoist leaders, Zhou Enlai had cosmopolitan sophistication, charm, wit and style. He certainly was one of the greatest and most successful comedians of our century. He had a talent for telling blatant lies with angelic suavity….Everyone loved him. He repeatedly and literally got away with murder. No wonder politicians from all over the world unanimously worshipped him…

..no interlocutors ever appeared to small, too dim or too irrelevant not to warrant a special effort on his part to charm them, to wow, them..He was..the ultimate Zelig of politics, showing tolerance, urbanity and a spirit of compromise to urbane Western liberals, eating fire and spitting hatred to suit the taste of embittered Third World leaders; displaying culture and refinement with artists; being pragmatic with pragmatists, philosophical with philosophers, and Kissingerian with Kissinger.

 

Most China scholars don’t write like that, but Leyes is not a China scholar, he is a Sinologist, and while he is certainly a scholar he is rightly sceptical about the modern academic world. You can see this pretty clearly the essay on Said’s Orientalism. In this essay Leys was trying to figure out if Said’s work had any relevance for China folk. This is a topic that has been hashed out a bit. Said did not make it clear what the “east” was for him, and while ome East Asia folk use and talk about the idea others don’t. What is Leys’ take?

Edward Said’s main contention is that “no production of knowledge in the human sciences can ever ignore or disclaim the author’s involvement as a human subject in his own circumstances.” Translated into plain English, this would seem to mean simply that no scholar can escape his original condition: his own national, cultural, political and social prejudices are bound to be reflected in his work. Such a common-sense statement hardly warrants debate. Actually Said’s own book is an excellent case it point: Orientalism could obviously have been written by no one but a Palestinian scholar with a huge chip on his shoulder and a very dim understanding of the European academic tradition (here perceived through the distorted prism of a certain type of American university, with its brutish hyper-specialization, non-humanistic approach, and close, unhealthy links with government.)1

In general East Asia folk seems to be less afraid of getting the Orientalist cooties than Middle East people, and and Leys helps explain why. Part of Orientalism is worrying that you are essentializing the “timeless East” and while Leys has no patience with anyone foolish enough to lump everything from Syria to Shandong into an “East” he points out that ”Western sinology in its entirety is a mere footnote appended to the huge sinological corpus that Chinese intellectuals have been building for centuries to this day.” Although Leys does not point it out, if you want essentialization of Chinese culture 漢學 is a good place to look, and if you want to understand China Chinese scholars are the first people you should talk to.

For Leys the study of China is not part of euro-american empire2 or ‘othering’, but part of humanistic education. “Chinese should be taught in Western countries as a fundamental discipline of the humanities at the secondary-school level, in conjunction with, or as an alternative to, Latin and Greek.” Actually, if we wanted to put good old fashioned Classical Studies back in American High Schools I would guess making them Chinese classical studies would be the way to do it. More likely to be useful in Shenzhen.

While I like reading Leys his flavor of Sinology sometimes leaves me cold. In his essay on Confucius he claims that the Analects was written withing 75 years of Confucius’s death and shows a single voice. He compares those who claim that the text was compiled over a much longer period to those scholars who question the Gospels, and here he enlists the novelist Julien Gracq.

Gracq first acknowledged the impressive learning of one of these scholars as well as a devastating logic of his reasoning; but he confessed that, in the end, he still found himself left with one fundamental objection: for all his formidable erudition, the scholar in question simply had no ear-he could not hear what should be so obvious to any sensitive reader-that, underlying the text of the Gospels, there is a masterly and powerful unity of style which derives from one unique and inimitable voice.

I think he is wrong there, both about Jesus and about Confucius, but far worse is the footnote to his claim that in the Analects “there are very few stylistic anachronisms: the language and syntax of most of the fragments is coherent and pertains to the same period.” The note reads “On these problems of chronology and textual analysis, see E. Bruce Brooks, The Original Analects (Columbia University Press, 1998)” This is a pretty serious failure of scholarly courtesy, first in erasing Brooks’ co-author, but more importantly enlisting him in support of the claim that Analects is a coherent text.3 What’s the point in reading books and citing them if you are just going to make up things about what is in them? I would like to think it is possible to be both a scholar and a sensitive reader, but Leys is not helping me here.

This goes farther than just sloppy scholarship. Leys wants to uncover the real Confucius under the distortions of “Imperial Confucianism [which] only extolled those statements from the Master that prescribed submission to the established authorities.” This seems wrong to me and more importantly leaves you uninterested in the period from the Han to the present when the ru were always intertwined with the state. Leys’ condemnations of the dupes of Maoism are always fun to read, and lord knows he was fighting the good fight4 when he took them on. While he has some real insights on the period, he is not a very good guide to the Mao era, which for him was grotesque and alien. Grotesque certainly; In “The China Experts” he skewers Edward Friedman, Han Suyin and Ross Terrill.

Perhaps we should not be too harsh on the these experts; the fraternity recently suffered a traumatic experience and is still in a state of shock. Should fish suddenly start to talk, I suppose that ichthyology would also have to undergo a dramatic revision of its basic approach. A certain type of “instant sinology” was indeed based on the assumption that the Chinese people were as different from us in their fundimental aspirations, and as unable to communicate with us, as the inhabitants of the oceanic depths; and when they eventually rose to the surface and began to cry out sufficiently loudly for their message to get through to the general public there was much consternation among the China pundits.

Leys gives us lots of examples of China pundits (mostly Terrill) swallowing the most absurd nonsense about how the Chinese loved Chairman Mao. The problem of course, is that the Chinese did love Chairman Mao. You can’t start a Cultural Revolution memoir without explaining your youthful loyalty to the red, red sun of Chairman Mao, and you can’t treat Mao period as something alien to China. How can you write about people becoming disillusioned unless you can explain how they became believers in the first place?  Leys’ China is as much a place to find Simon Leys as a place to find Chinese people, (just like Europeans used to do with Greece and Rome) and while I like reading him on Said or Terrill, I suspect he would not be as helpful for reading Mark Edward Lewis or Elizabeth Perry.

  1. Yes, I am quoting a lot, but Leys is a hard guy to paraphrase. []
  2. Almost the only mention of East Asia in Said is an approving comment on the Concerned Asian Scholars, who he praised for their condemnation of American imperialism in Asia while for Said they ‘failed most scandalously in their moral responsibilities toward China and the Chinese people.’ []
  3. Which seems the obvious way to read that note for me. []
  4. at some risk to his reputation in academic circles, which does not seem to have worried him []

11/7/2013

China in Cartoons II

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:42 am Print

The second volume of Understanding China Through Comics is out.1 I ‘reviewed‘ the first volume and concluded that Jing Liu is no Larry Gonick, but it’s not bad. My short review of the new volume is that he is still no Larry Gonick, but this volume is even better than the first one, and you should certainly buy it.

The art has many of the same problems as the first volume, but is better in general. There are still too many places where what is going on in the story is not represented graphically. So, the struggle between Shu, Wu and Wei is represented, in part, by three guys getting ready to fight on a map.

Wu-Strategy

Obviously a lot of history is hard to represent well in pictures, but that’s the whole point of being a cartoonist, that you are better at this then we are. Although there are some clunkers in here there are also some quite serviceable bits, like this one on corruption.

Corruption

A better one on the Three Kingdoms, showing backstabbing and armies being destroyed

Shu

And even some quite good ones, like this on street fighting in Chang-an, which looks like it might have been inspired by a WWII movie but at least gives you a nice feeling of tension.

Fighting

(more…)

  1. Been out for a while, actually []

9/21/2013

The Chinese are topsy-turvy

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 3:31 am Print

3704522490_bd0b6cedde_zOne common theme that turns up a lot in older Western writings on China is the idea that China is the opposite of the West. Just take our, normal, rational way of doing things and flip it 180 degrees and you have China. Another common trope is that the Chinese are a paradox, rational yet superstitious, industrious yet improvident, civilized yet barbarous. Oh, and they are inscrutable too. If you are looking for a nice short quote to illustrate these sorts of attitudes here is one from Samuel Merwin in 1908

China is the land of paradox. If it is an absolute, despotic monarchy, it is also a very democratic country, with its self-made men, its powerful public opinion, and a “states’ rights” question of its own. It is one of the most corrupt of nations; on the other hand, the standard of personal and commercial honesty is probably higher in China than in any other country in the world. Woman, in China, is made to serve; her status is so low that it would be a discourtesy even to ask a man if he has a daughter: yet the ablest ruler China has had in many centuries is a woman. It is a land where the women wear socks and trousers, and the men wear stockings and robes; where a man shakes his own hand, not yours; where white, not black, is a sign of mourning; where the compass points south, not north; where books are read backward, not forward; where names and titles are put in reverse order, as in our directories—Theodore Roosevelt would be Roosevelt Theodore in China, Uncle Sam would be Sam Uncle; where fractions are written upside down, as 8⁄5, not 5⁄8; where a bride wails bitterly as she is carried to her wedding, and a man laughs when he tells you of his mother’s death.

Chinese life, or the phases of it that you see along the highroads of the northwest, would appear to be a very simple, honest life, industrious, methodical, patient in poverty. The men, even of the lowest classes, are courteous to a degree that would shame a Frenchman. I have seen my two soldiers, who earned ten or twenty cents, Mexican, a day, greet my cook with such grace and charm of manner that I felt like a crude barbarian as I watched them. The simplicity and industry of this life, as it presented itself to me, seemed directly opposed to any violence or outrage. Yet only seven years ago Shansi Province was the scene of one of the most atrocious massacres in history, modern or ancient. During a few weeks, in the summer of 1900, one hundred and fifty-nine white foreigners, men, women, and children, were killed within the province, forty-six of them in the city of T’ai Yuan-fu. The massacre completely wiped out the mission churches and schools and the opium refuges, the only missionaries who escaped being those who happened to be away on leave at the time. The attack was not directed at the missionaries as such, but at the foreigners in general. It was widely believed among the peasantry that the foreign devils made a practice of cutting out the eyes, tongues, and various other organs of children and women and shipping them, for some diabolical purpose, out of the country. The slaughter was directed, from beginning to end, by the rabid Manchu governor, Yü Hsien, and some of the butchering was done by soldiers under his personal command. But the interesting fact is that the docile, long-suffering people of Shansi did some butchering on their own account, as soon as the word was passed around that no questions would be asked by the officials.

Apparently, the Shansi peasant can be at one time simple, industrious, loyal, and at another time a slaying, ravishing maniac. The Chinaman himself is the greatest paradox of all. He is the product of a civilization which sprang from a germ and has developed in a soil and environment different from anything within our Western range of experience. Naturally he does not see human relations as we see them. His habits and customs are enough different from ours to appear bizarre to us; but they are no more than surface evidences of the difference between his mind and ours. Thanks to our strong racial instinct, we can be fairly certain of what an Anglo-Saxon, or even a European, will think in certain deeply human circumstances—in the presence of death, for instance. We cannot hope to understand the mental processes of a Chinaman. There is too great a difference in the shape of our heads, as there is in the texture of our traditions.

 

Samuel Merwin Drugging a Nation: The Story of China and the Opium Curse New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1908 p.70

PACH-3-07-0003

9/8/2013

Commander Bradshaw goes to China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:07 am Print

Lately I have been going through Project Guttenberg and reading old books set in China. Late at night when you are too tired to go to bed, or in the odd quarter of an hour before lunch there is nothing to touch a ripping yarn like

BlueDragon cover

You may not know the book,1 but you may be familiar with some of the author’s other work like the “Mates Series” the “Pacific Coast Series” “Forward March” etc. It may not be deathless prose, but if the action lags you can always think about what it shows about the people who read this stuff.

Our story is a about Joseph Lee (Li Ching Cheng, usually referred to in the story as Jo, or Chinese Jo) son of a progressive mandarin, and his friend Rob Hinckley, son of an American missionary. These two end up seeing most of the Boxer Uprising. Our Lads get to steal a locomotive (which blows up at just the right time in a chapter entitled The Timely Explosion of a Boiler), witness the death of the German Ambassador to China, and die and get wounded at just the right points to be dramatic without messing up the story. It is fun to read a story where the author does not worry too much about things like plausibility and can beam his characters around as he wishes. We get all the things you might expect, including plot convenient language ability or inability, disguises (Rob passes himself off as a Chinese monk), mocking of Chinese superstition, and a bad guy who is defeated through pulling him down by his pigtail.

One thing I found interesting about the book is how pro-Chinese it is. Missionaries die, but always offstage, and  most of the blame for the Uprising is placed on the poverty and desperation of the peasants of drought-stricken China and a handful of evil people like Cixi.The post-Boxer looting is not glossed over

So Pekin fell, almost without a struggle, and for a year afterwards the city was misruled and looted by foreign soldiers, who destroyed many of its most beautiful structures and carried away its most precious works of art. From it also they ravaged the surrounding country, sending out punishment expeditions to kill, burn, and destroy in every direction.

Jo is the most interesting character, and he

was not quite certain that he did not approve of the plan for driving all foreigners from China. Foreigners expelled Chinese from their countries, so why should not his people in turn expel foreigners from China? Still, he did not express any views on the subject at that time, but changed the topic of conversation

His antipathy towards foreigners is not surprising, as at the beginning of the book he was sent to Connecticut to study. Needless to say, he is assaulted by a mob on his first day, and while the mob are “Dageos” and “Imitation Americans” even the right sort, like his friend Rob and his missionary uncle point out that he was asking for it by going out in a skirt. Jo turns against the Boxers after they kill his father, of course, and dies before he might be called on to express an opinion on the outcome of the whole Uprising, but he is a remarkably sympathetic character for someone who never shows any interest in Christianity and is arguably anti-American.

Monroe did his homework pretty well, and there are surprisingly few howling errors for a book like this. Its a fun enough read, and worth every penny.

 

  1. published in 1904 []

6/19/2013

The Birth of Chinese Feminism

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:43 pm Print

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.

6/3/2013

Why are the Chinese atheists?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:18 pm Print

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.

 

 

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