Revising history: Brief notes

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 9:51 pm

Quick hits:

  • It’s one of the most difficult periods of modern history to teach, and I love using primary sources for the tough times, so I’m always glad to see new oral histories of the Maoist era. In some ways, the flaws the reviewer cites — wandering in particular — could be really useful for students.
  • A new revisionist history of Chiang Kaishek raises the possiblity of teaching 20th century China in a much more balanced and complete way. I’m not entirely convinced, though: the portrait of Chiang as a political visionary is still in great tension with his heavy-handed methods and questionable associates and administrative skills; the idea that Taiwan’s development was charted by Chiang has to contend with both the Japanese legacies and the favorable international environment for Taiwan’s economic development during the Cold War. I want to see some real academic reviews.
  • The NYT “Room for Debate” about Chinese Character Simplification would be a lot more interesting if they discussed anything other than the first-wave simplification carried out by the Communists — the association of language control with early empire, the natural evolution of languages (i.e. the instability of “traditional” characters), the realities of technology and language. I’ve read a couple of their “Room for Debate” pieces, and I don’t see the point.


A sinologist in Iraq

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:32 am

Graham Peck’s Two Kinds of Time has been re-issued. This is good news for everyone, and especially for those of us who got a copy for Christmas. (Thanks Sis!) For a number of years all that one was likely to find even in used bookstores was the Sentry edition (1967), which re-printed only the first half of the book. The two parts of the book are the same in that they are both the stories and pictures of Peck’s wanderings in Western China during the War of Resistance. The first volume ends on December 10th, 1941, when a group of local officials come to visit him. Peck has been fairly contemptuous of Kuomintang officials throughout the book, since he regards most of them as corrupt feudal remnants with at best a thin layer of modern jargon spread over them. They in turn are convinced he must be some sort of crypto-Communist. On this occasion however they are happy to inform him that 500 American planes have bombed Tokyo and that they are now allies.




Newspaper Digitization at Shandong Provincial Library

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 10:00 am

I am currently spending my days at a microfilm machine in the basement of Shandong Provincial library, looking through old wartime newspapers from occupied and civil war period Shandong.1 The publications I’m looking at are often put out of more remotely located areas not fully under Japanese control such as Yishui(沂水).

To be given access to the old newspapers, I have to pay a fee of about $5 per reel and a few cents per photograph I snap of the microfilm machine screen, but I guess that is just the cost of doing research here (at least I’m allowed to use my camera, which one cannot assume in Asia). Their old microfilm machines aren’t the best, with usually only half of any given page fully in focus and no zoom capabilities but the lamp is brighter and the quality of the microfilm is significantly better than some of the late 1940s newspapers I have looked through in Korea’s national library. Generally, what is left of Korea’s published materials from the postwar late 40s are, as far as I can tell, in far worse condition than what I have come across here in Shandong among the Communist newspapers and documents coming out of nominally occupied zones of wartime China, with some exceptions.2

There is a much better and more powerful machine behind me, however, being used all day by a library employee. I do interrupt her at the end of each reel I look through to have her print out a few selected pages that I want a clearer image of than my camera is currently providing me with by taking pictures of the microfilm machine’s screen. Otherwise, she is slowly making her way through some of the old newspapers in their collection and taking a snapshot of each page that is then saved in the form of a TIFF image of about 200-300kb in size each. We have a similar machine (perhaps the same model) in the microfilm rooms back in the US but it is the first time I have seen it used for a full scale digitization project. Judging from her rate of coverage from the last week, she can probably go through somewhere between 1 to 3 years of issues for a newspaper per day, depending on the completeness of the collection. I estimate that she can probably go through all of the old newspapers the library has in perhaps two years or so, even if she is the only one working on this project.

Many of the newspapers and old magazines they have only exist for a few years and are missing many issues, but are really wonderful sources to have access to. She explained that when she is done the files then have to be processed and indexed by two other sections at the library but she says the eventual goal is to put these online in some form. She is currently making her way through the same newspaper I’m looking at, the Communist controlled 大众日报, and I only wish I could intercept those TIFF files before they get swallowed into the bureaucracy of the library. My experience with the Korean national library and oral history documents available here in digital form is that these wonderfully crisp and simple image files often get horribly mangled on their way to final public access by being transformed into proprietary formats that require dreadful downloaded plug-ins, Internet Explorer Active-X, special reader applications, and the like. God forbid we provide everyone with simple downloads of PDF or image files like some of the better archives and museums out there do. Sometimes issues of copyright are at fault, but that is no excuse for Japanese colonial period documents in Korea or these old wartime newspapers. I look forward to see what happens in this case and hope for the best.

In the meantime, for anyone doing research on Shandong, below are just a few picks from among just the newspapers you can currently view in their microfilm department, selected from periods I’m interested in, including some from occupied territory (often with 新民 in the title). As far as I could tell, these cannot be found listed their library’s search engine and I found a list in an old book that emerged from the drawer of the head of the microfilm division, who has been very friendly and helpful. I’m lucky I ended up in the right place. I was told by a woman working in the newspaper section at the library back in March that, “We have no newspapers from before 1949.” Since I had seen this library listed under various important entries in a master index (name escapes me for this important book) of where old publications are supposed to be located in the libraries and archives of China, I’m glad I was more stubborn this time about tracking down someone who knew what a gold mine there in fact was in their microfilm collection. The microfilm is located deep in the labyrinth of offices in the basement floor. If you wait a few years, perhaps some of these will be viewable online without, I hope, too much hassle. Ok, here is the small sampling, mostly from ’30s and ’40s offerings:

大华日报 1946.7-1948.8
渤海日报 1944.7-1950.4
东海日报 1931.7-1937.12
华东新闻 1932.11-1948.8
济南日报 1925.11-1938.6
冀鲁豫日报 1944.7-1949.8
军民日报 1945.12-1948.10
鲁东日报 1939.1-1945.7
鲁南时报 1943.7-1948.2
鲁中大众 1945.4-1947.12
民言报 1945.10-1948.10
民众日报 1936.12-1947.1
青岛民报 1932.5-1937.7
青岛日报 1949.12-1996.12
青岛时报 1932.5-1948.6
青岛晚报 1946.7-1948.10
青岛新民报 1938.6-1944.11
山东民国日报 1929.9-1946.6
山东日报 1929.4-1936.10
山东新民报 1938.9.28-1949.9
烟台日报 1945.11-1947.9

  1. For more information on the library in English, see our EALA entry for this library here. []
  2. 1943-1945 大众日报, for example, is of noticeably worse quality than preceding years and even has some handwritten characters. I can only assume that the Japanese came across and destroyed or confiscated their printing press in one of their many mopping up campaigns in the province. []


Yang Tianshi on the Chiang Kai-Shek Diaries

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 9:30 am

Jonathan Benda reports on a talk by the historian Yang Tianshi on Chiang Kai-Shek’s diaries given at Tunghai university in Taiwan. Professor Yang is a very well published and respected historian, and I had a chance to meet him when he was the chairman of the Chinese delegation to the Third International Conference on Wartime China held in Hakone in November, 2006 that brought together Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, and North American historians to discuss issues related to the Sino-Japanese war.

According to Benda’s notes on the talk, Professor Yang argues that Chiang’s diaries were primarily written for himself, rather than written with his future legacy in mind.

He said that two key pieces of evidence for this are how much CKS cursed (罵) people close to him, and how much private, even confessional, material is in the diaries. (CKS used to give himself demerits for looking lustily at women.) Prof. Yang argued that CKS would not have wanted this kind of material to be made public…One result of the private nature of Chiang’s diaries, according to Prof. Yang, is that we can learn a lot more about what was really going on in CKS’s head at certain important historical moments, such as the 1926 Zhongshan Warship Incident and the 1936 Xi’an Incident.

I find this quite interesting since I have seen the diaries used in quite a number of places and whenever I have heard them mentioned in presentations, it is usually accompanied by warnings about the care that needs to be taken when using the source.

The first thing thing this makes me wonder is why, if Chiang was concerned about the confessional material and other damaging contents ever becoming public, he did not take better care to destroy what must have amounted to a huge amount of material (if the diaries indeed covered the period 1915-1972)? Surely the great generalissimo must have suspected these diaries would get into the hands of someone following his death and get published? Were there secret orders for them all to be burned that were betrayed following his death? Sounds like there could be a great story here.

Second, given Chiang’s exposure to Christian, Western, and Japanese historical, military, and political traditions and heroes that are filled with the diaries, memoirs, etc. of great leaders – I really find it very difficult to believe that Chiang could have put pen to paper every time he made a diary entry and not ever have imagined his words were speaking to an audience larger than one. Although I haven’t come across it myself, I suspect there is a whole theoretical literature among historians and literary scholars on the topic of diaries, their authors, and their conscious or unconscious audience.

I would venture to suggest that it is really difficult for an author, writing something like a diary – or a weblog, for that matter, to maintain a consistent audience in mind across a large span of time. Let me give a few examples. I have a public personal weblog that mixes postings about my own life with my thoughts on more academic and political topics. When I write, I try to imagine that my own graduate advisor or a future hiring committee is reading every posting (I honestly hope they don’t and won’t). The idea is that this way I don’t write anything that would be inappropriate for the widest possible audience. This is the reverse of what Professor Yang is arguing. However, going back over my entries, I notice that over the past few years, I see numerous postings where I slip, where I can tell that I was writing a posting which had a much smaller audience in mind – and though not too embarrassing, is probably not the kind of thing I would written if I really was imagining that hiring committee or advisor reading it.

Isn’t the opposite quite common too? Maybe I’m on my own here, but I don’t think I have ever been able to write a diary entry in my life where the thought hasn’t occasionally crossed my mind: won’t someone else someday somewhere possibly see what I wrote? Are there really people out there, especially ambitious military and political leaders, who are so confident that they are the one eternal and only audience for their writing? I suspect that at the very least, CKS suffered from the kinds of “lapses” that I mentioned above – a kind of “audience” slippage in his writing.

Finally, as a historian, we must confront the issue of what it means to know what is “in someone’s head.” The issue of diary audience notwithstanding, the actions, intentions, and opinions of someone like CKS caught in the Xi’an Incident, for example, inevitably goes through a form of translation as he puts his thoughts to paper. Diaries are not written thoughts, they are narrated thoughts. While what is put on paper in this manner does not lose historical value – we might want to be careful in how to articulate what it is that we have found. I didn’t hear Professor Yang’s talk or how exactly he expressed these ideas but it sounds like it was a fascinating discussion of an important historical source. I’m curious what others have to say about some of these issues surrounding the diaries of leaders like CKS?

UPDATE: Jonathan records another interesting comment by Professor Yang: “One last thing that Prof. Yang mentioned–he said that Chiang’s status has risen in China from that of a devil (鬼) to a human (人), while in Taiwan, coincidentally, it seems his status has gone from god to human. (No one commented on the immediate political conditions that might be responsible for that coincidence.)” On this point, Sayaka over at Prison Notebooks has an interesting posting worth checking out.


“President” Chiang Kai-shek

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:57 am

So, what is the current status of Chiang Kai-shek in China? He is the most troublesome of the Republican era-figures for the mainland to figure out. Anyone who can possibly be called a “democratic personage” i.e. vaguely leftist or progressive or something can be praised. Even warlords can be rehabilitated if they went over to the Communist side. Chiang was for a long time –the- bad guy of the CCP demonology, but as the Nationalist regime has been re-appraised so has he. This is not really surprising. He was not a Communist. But then economically neither are the current rulers of China. He was not a democrat. Ditto. He ran a fairly corrupt developmental party state, which should not be too difficult to justify. And he fought the Japanese. There is a nice exhibit up on the Nationalist government at the old Presidential Palace in Nanjing. It lays out the structure of the Nationalist government quite well and is pretty non-committal about his anti-communism, although it does point out that he helped defeat the warlords and such. They only really get down on him when they get to 1948. Under Sun Yat-sen’s Fundamentals of National Reconstruction China was to go through a series of phases of government. First was military dictatorship. Then a period of political tutelage, where under the direction of the wise party-state the Chinese people would be made ready for the third phase, which was constitutional government. Sun was well aware that just declaring a Republic did not make one happen.

In the age of autocracy, the masses of the people were fettered in spirit and body so that emancipation seemed impossible Those who worked for the welfare of the people and were willing to sacrifice themselves for the success of revolution not only did not receive assistance from the people but were also ridiculed and disparaged. Much as they desired to be the guides of the people, they proceeded without followers. Much as they desired to be the vanguards, they advanced without reinforcement. It becomes necessary that., apart from destroying enemy influence, those engaged in revolution should take care to develop the constructive ability of the people. A revolutionary program is therefore indispensable.

The displays at the Presidential palace seem quite respectful of Sun’s 5-power constitution, although they don’t talk much about the transition to constitutional rule. Chiang himself kept China in the stage of political tutelage for most of his time in power. As his critics pointed out this amounted to a dictatorship with vague promises of future democracy. At last, in 1947, Chiang moved China into constitutional government. He became President of China on May 20, 1948. This is often seen as the last act of a desperate man, trying to shore up support for a foundering regime. Here on the mainland, however, they seem to take it pretty seriously. The museum here in Nanjing calls him “President” Chiang after this point, with the title in scare quotes. All the institutions of the post-48 government are in quotes. Scare quotes are pretty common in CCP histories.1 Institutions of Wang Jingwei’s puppet government are always put into quotes or just called false (wei ) Always very important to let people know that someone else’s “democracy” is not the real people’s democracy. What I find interesting is that the museum is willing to grant Chiang legitimacy right up to 1948, apparently. It almost makes him seem like an old dynasty that is presented as having had the Mandate and then, right at the end, having lost it, rather than someone who was always an enemy of the people. Or maybe they just don’t want to say that the ’48 government was China’s first democracy, which I would probably agree with, although not for the same reasons the CCP would not want to say that.

Of course to some extent this is a moot point. I don’t think there is as rigid a central “line” on most historical topics as there used to be, and here in Nanjing in particular you might expect more favorable treatment. Still, I find it interesting to watch the changing reputations of historical figures.

  1. they can be quite postmodern, those commies []


Voice of the people

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:08 pm

One nice thing about Chinese history is that there is a long history of recording popular songs. From the Han at least it was assumed that popular songs reflected the popular mind, and so collecting them was an early form of public opinion polling.

In the first month of spring each year, just before the many inhabitants were to scatter [for farmers went out to live in their fields during the growing season], the envoys would come shaking their wooden clackers all along the roads, in this way intending to gather up the local odes, which were then presented to the Grand Master [at court]. It was he who arranged their musical scores, at which point they were performed for the Son of Heaven. Hence, the saying, “The king knows All-under-Heaven, without ever peering out from his windows and doors.” Han Shu via Nylan Five Confucian Classics

Of course the songs we have written down are problematic in that it is not clear if they are really the songs commoners sung, or what they would mean if they were. Still, a lot of them were recorded. Even the Communists did it.

This is one from Shaanxi in 1938 or so, when the Nationalists were building #7 military school(more…)


My Great Helmsman is Charlton Heston

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:39 am

In an interesting article on the gun trade and state control of weapons in Guangdong province in the 1920’s Qiu Jie and He Wenping make an interesting argument about the role of guns in Chinese politics. The article as a whole attempts to get at the level of armament in the province, which is of course difficult to do. Weapons came in from all sorts of places, military weapons, local production, the British in Hong Kong trying to stir up trouble. Guangdong produced a lot of overseas sojourners (the article focuses on the Pearl River delta) and they liked to help out the folks back home by buying them guns. Although guns flowed into the province throughout the 20s prices kept going up, (locally made rifles went from 40 yuan apiece in 1912 to 170 in 1928. Prices of handguns rose more slowly) indicating that there was still lots of demand. After some speculation on total numbers of guns the authors focus on the Guomindang Canton government’s attempt to license and tax weapons. This was initially a revenue move. During the warlord period states taxed almost everything and guns were a particularly attractive thing to tax. Gradually attempts to license guns came to be more focused on denying weapons to opponents of the state, most notably the Merchant Corps of Canton, which was always difficult to control.

The most interesting thing about the article is the conclusion. The authors conclude that Guangdong did not see the emergence of really serious local oppressors, (土皇帝) or of large-scale banditry because as a fairly prosperous area it was a well-armed area. As a result it was hard for any one family to dominate a local militia and hard for the state to control the people. Thus local independence grows out of the barrel of a gun.

I’m not sure I entirely buy this. I’m not sure things in Guangdong were really that good, or that this single explanation really explains it. Guangdong does seem a good deal less disastrous than many other areas during the warlord period, but then so does the Shanghai area, and I suspect this has more to do with the presence of a major urban area than with guns per se. What I do find interesting is the almost libertarian emphasis on guns and popular power. Chinese scholarship usually seems pretty state-centered, i.e. looking from the point of view of the state at the problem of controlling the people. (Or regarding the Nationalist state as evil and assuming the existence of a Communist counter-state) I don’t have much problem with a state focus, since the process of state-building was one of the most important parts of China’s 19th and 20th century, but it is nice to see civil-society type ideas being applied outside Shanghai.

邱捷,何文平1920 年代广东的民间武器” in 一九二0年代的中国,社会科学,北京, 2005


Long March Revision: Diminishing Sources

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:02 am

Christian Science Monitor has a substantial article about Sun Shuyan’s new book Long March (previously noted here), leadng this time with the book’s attempt to revise — erase, more or less — the Luding Bridge Incident. Part of what makes this interesting, of course, is that Chang and Halliday also claim the Dadu River crossing was a Maoist fairy-tale, based on interviews with unidentified eyewitnesses.

But there are identifiable people alive with memories of the incident, as well as other sources.

Mrs Li says there was indeed a battle. “The KMT warned us that the Reds would eat the young people and bury the old,” she said. “Many fled up the mountainside. But when we saw them, they told us not to be afraid, they only opposed bad people. I remember they were wearing straw shoes, with cloth wound around their shins.”
“The fighting started in the evening,” Mrs Li said. “There were many killed on the Red Army side. The KMT set fire to the bridge-house on the other side, to try to melt the chains, and one of the chains was cut. After it was taken, the Red Army took seven days and seven nights to cross. Later, I was told that someone we had seen was Mao Zedong.”

Oxford University’s Steve Tsang says the Chiang Kai-shek archives show the KMT chief did in fact order the senior warlord in the area to hold the crossing on pain of court martial, while his 100,000-strong Central Army tried to catch up with the Reds from the south.

Some of the Sichuan warlord’s forces arrived before the Reds at Luding, but their commander panicked as the Reds’ main force arrived. He fled, leaving behind only a few of his notoriously opium-dazed soldiers to defend the bridge. The attempt to burn the bridge could not have amounted to much, as the timbers were soaked by rain.

“The Maoist story of the battle was a lie, and a huge exaggeration but there was a battle,” Tsang said.

Sun Shuyan’s claim seems to rest partially on a negative finding: no eyewitnesses, though given that she could only find forty Long Marchers to interview after seventy years, that’s hardly proof, really. She also cites

As Gen. Li Jukui wrote 50 years later in a memo never published until last month by author Sun Shuyan in her new book, “Long March:” “This matter was not as complicated as people made it out to be later.”

Though I’m always happy to see interesting new sources enter the public realm, that sounds reasonably close to what Steve Tsang was describing above, and it may be that what Sun is “debunking” is the static Chinese Communist narrative rather than the current anglophone understanding. To be fair, I haven’t seen the book: I am loath to rely too heavily on news accounts, but I also haven’t seen any scholarly reviews yet.


Women on the Long March

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:08 pm

Natalie Bennett reports that a new oral history investigation of the Long March experience is being published.

Over 10 months, travelling mainly by bus and train through areas little changed to this day, I found 40 of the march veterans. Talking to them, I learned that their suffering, and what they overcame, was actually much greater than we had been told, especially among the women. Some of the realities they described also sit uneasily with the myth – none more so, perhaps, than the fate of the children of the Long March: the children left behind, children given over for hurried adoption after being born along the way, the young taken on as recruits and sometimes abandoned if they could not keep up.

I can’t tell from the article, which focuses on women and children in the march, if the book will follow that emphasis, nor does it give any clues as to whether there will be any new information on the Luding Bridge incident which features prominently in Chang/Halliday’s attack on Mao’s legacy.

However, if the article is any clue as to the rich detail available in the book, it will be a valuable addition to the history and the pedagogy. Oral history is one of the most accessible sources for students, and well-done oral history is a joy to read and use.


51st State?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:26 am

From a formal legal standpoint, the United States never ceded possession of Taiwan [via Simon World], which it took from Japan in 1945, to the Nationalist government. It’s still ours!

This raises all kinds of interesting issues, if you take these sorts of things seriously (with international law, it’s hard, because nobody really pays that much attention to the paperwork, do they?). The last time we gave away something we took from the Japanese, instead of making it an independent state (as most of its inhabitants wanted) we gave it back: Okinawa. Of course, we have a different relationship with China….

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