History and tourism in China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:28 pm

China File has been following the attempts of the town of Bishan  to make itself into a tourist destination. Tourism is a rapidly growing industry in China, and lots of localities are trying to find ways to draw in the crowds. Bishan is in the Huizhou region of Anhui, which was a very prosperous region in the Qing. Some of the other towns in the area have parlayed their local architecture into UNESCO World Heritage site status and big tourist money. In fact, beyond just tourists coming in, Huizhou architecture is being appropriated by shipped out, both by cultural institutions with impeccable pedigrees like the Peabody Essex Museum and by tacky zillionaires like Jackie Chan. Bishan is a little different. They don’t have much of the classic Huizhou architecture, and have been sort of left behind.  The attempt to draw in people is headed by the Wangs, the long-time leading family of the district. While private museums and preservation efforts are not unknown in China the state usually takes the lead, and the interpretation of the site, if any, is usually up to them.  For the Wangs, rebuilding ancestral halls and re-creating genealogies has its own value outside cash, so this is a very local, grass-roots sort of project. The thing that makes it really interesting to me is the clientele they are aiming at. Below is a picture of one the inns that have been built in the town (this one in an old rapeseed oil factory) to “cater to an international clientele who eschew the region’s more popular modes of tourism”

Historical Value_ A Chinese Town Appraises Its Past _ ChinaFileI find this interesting because I am always struck by the different versions of China different tourists get to see. I’m usually particularly aware of this since I prefer going on the Chinese tours since they are cheaper and are more likely to include places connected with bits of Chinese history most foreigners have never heard of. Chinese tourists are also more likely to ask interesting questions like “what happened to all the villagers who lived here before you built this historic site?”((See that guy emptying a trash can? That’s where.)) Of course they also spit melon seeds everywhere, so you can see why foreigners would not want to be near them.

It’s pretty obvious from the photo essay that China is starting to develop different tourist trails for different customers, and they will go to different places, be told different things, read different things and see different things even when they are seeing the same things. In the picture there is some beautiful old Chinese writing which might be taken differently by Chinese and foreigners, since if you don’t know Chinese and nobody bothers to explain it you might think these are imperial inscriptions or something.1

It’s not just foreigners who want a different tourist experience of course. Rich and poor Chinese are bifurcating  more and more. Here is a picture I took while visiting the historic town of Pingyao   P2 Ok, Chinese people selling vegetables in the street. Big deal. Why would a middle-aged China hand like me waste film on that?

IMG_2157Ok, a customer on a bike. I really did not get enough pictures of daily life in bicycle China back in the day, maybe I wanted to capture that? (more…)

  1. the top one is THE PEOPLE’S COMMUNES ARE GOOD []


Rustic poetry

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:22 am

The contrast between the center and the periphery is a common theme in Chinese literature. To be an official sent from the capital to the provinces, or a sent-down youth sent from Beijing to a village in the Northeast is a great inspiration for art. A very fine example of this comes from, Pricne Dan, as discussed by Andrew Chittick. ((Chittick, Andrew. Patronage and Community in Medieval China: The Xiangyang Garrison, 400-600 Ce. State Univ of New York Pr, 2010.)) The Xiangyang garrison was an outpost of central power along the middle Yangzi, and thus the relationship between the local elite and central power (the capital in what is now Nanjing) was very important both for the central power (who needed local support to hold of the northern hordes) and for local elite (who were legitimated by connections to central power.)  First, the poem

At dawn depart from Xiangyang town, by evening  lodge at Big Dike inn.
All the girls of Big Dike bloom voluptuous, startling  young men’s eyes.
Going upstream one’s job is poling, downstream row a pair of oars;
Four-cornered dragon streamers encircle  the pole in the river’s midst.
Jiangling’s three thousand  three hundred  li, midpoint  of the west pass road,
But whether  it is clear or blocked-how can you figure how long it takes?
Men praise Xiangyang music, but the music made is not that of my country.
Guided by stars, braving the wind, I’ll sail back to my Yang province.
Lustrous unrestrained girls like creeping vines tangle around  the long-lived pine.
Though  their loveliness perseveres in spring, when the year is cold they are no use to me.
The  yellow goose joins heaven  to fly, anxiously pacing the middle way.
The cartwheels  turn  in my guts; whom must my love be with now?
Yang province rushes wrought in circles; a hundred cash buys two or three thickets’  worth.
If I cannot  buy then  I will return; empty hands will clutch  and embrace me.
Creeping  vines arise from baseness; they rely on the   surface of the long-lived pine.
Yet can one slight a death  by frost? The noble becomes entangled with another.
I hate to see so much lust and pleasure, stop me, don’t speak to me.
I won’t be a crow that flocks in the forest; suddenly I feel I am called to go.
Chittick points out that this poem seems to echo many elements of provincial culture. Xiangyang elite culture centered around violence, song, and dance, rather than the literary culture that dominated the center, and there are elements of this in here.1 More significantly for me it gives an almost timeless view of the Chinese elite’s view of the provinces. Voluptuous girls trying to entangle you genders the relationship between a properly ordered, patriarchal center and the more loose provinces. People in the provinces are poor, so your money (and status) go further there. The poet/prince is tempted by the idea of staying here and raising a rebellion, but of course he decides to go back to the center, just as so many sent-down youth did.
  1. Chittick explains the provincial grammar and usage in the poem []


Why can’t an economist be more like a(n) historian?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:36 am

Yuyu Chen, Ginger Zhe Jin and Yang Yue are all economists and they are doing interesting work on rural-urban migration in China. Given that China has better registration of its rural population than places like Mexico it is a good place to look at migration patterns. They find that people from the same village tend to go to the same places, and even congregate in the same jobs. They attribute this to social networks, which make it easier and easier for people to go someplace once more and more of their compatriots are there.

This is of course not surprising to anyone familiar with Chinese migration in the past. Honig and Goodman, among many others, have written about how native-place ties structured migration and sojourning.  Chen et. al., don’t compare this migration to earlier ones, which for a historian would seem to point to lots of interesting questions. I was also very surprised that they keep calling their area of study “China.” Their stats come from 8 counties. Are they all in the same region (or macro-region)? From different regions and they are assuming you can draw conclusions about “China” from them? Its an interesting paper, but in addition to proving some important stuff it also shows that economists are not like you and me.1

Via Brad DeLong


Goodman, Bryna. Native Place, City, and Nation: Regional Networks and Identities in Shanghai, 1853-1937. University of California Press, 1995.

Honig, Emily. Creating Chinese Ethnicity: Subei People in Shanghai, 1850-1980. Yale University Press, 1992.

  1. Yes, I know, they have more money. []


Working to Protect Your Human Rights

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 7:02 am

In Communist controlled “liberated districts” of Japanese occupied China, your local treason elimination squad was directed to safeguard your human rights (保障人权). We recognize in this the message of the propaganda workers of the Communist Party security forces today. Clearly there has often been a gap between the official line and the reality. However, in the modern history of China, the breadth of that gap has never been a constant, either across place or time. Nor should anyone interested in China cynically dismiss such proclamations as merely propaganda. The “protection of human rights” has been official policy, and yes, even a priority of the Chinese Communist Party for much longer than is generally appreciated.

There are two obvious problems that any careful China observer will note: 1) The definition of the phrase does not always, or perhaps ever, correspond all that closely with what most of us might offer. 2) Like almost all similar declarations of principles in Communist regimes, these priorities are always relative to whatever other pressing demands there are at both the national level and within the highly local contexts in which one’s “human rights” might get thrown in as chips on the table.

Still, it is worth remembering that the CCP is not, and has never been, immune to public opinion. It has always been aware of how arbitrary violence and unjustifiable cruelty can damage its legitimacy. Now, anyone who has browsed through a book on modern Chinese history will undoubtedly come across passages that suggest how, at times, local and national level party cadres have shown an almost unbelievable incapacity to appreciate this basic fact, especially when it has engaged in self-defeating cannibalization of its own ranks during fits of political hysteria. It is often at the conclusion, or nearing the conclusion of such internal party witch-hunts, however, that we see appeals go out to cadres to remember the party’s dedication to the “safeguarding of human rights.”

An example of this which I have been seeing a lot of these last few weeks in an archive I’m now spending my days, is found in the internal reports, “opinion” letters, and guidelines issued by various divisions of the Shandong “treason elimination committees” (锄奸委员会)of the Communist Party operating under the auspices of the public security bureau.1

These committees operated all over Shandong, even as all the major cities, towns, and railways were under Japanese control. These cadres were a busy lot, having been given responsibility for hunting out pro-Japanese collaborators, pro-Japanese spies, Nationalist spies (especially after 1941), and the diabolical, if usually imaginary, Trotskyists. Their reports, many of which I am grateful to be given access to here, were often scratched in tiny handwriting on toilet paper sized documents or thin and almost transparent pieces of paper. I still have over a hundred similar documents to look at, if my vision holds, but already one sees a pattern of alternating exhortations to show greater vigilance in rooting out the traitors, especially the “internal traitors,” and stern letters of criticism issued to local treason elimination committees whose orgy of violence occasionally led to a mass backlash against the party.

These documents are not for outside consumption, and can often be quite blunt. An early sign of something unpleasant going on an in a district is found when a report refers to “reckless arrests and reckless killings” (乱捕乱杀)in an area. These are not always being carried out by Communist anti-treason units, and in at least one case I have come across describes how party officials helplessly stood by as over a hundred “reckless” killings were carried out by a local “self-defense” militia. Usually, however, this is the term used to report the excessive violence of their subordinate units, often coupled, in the “interrogations” section of the report, with concern expressed for the fact that, “torture (刑讯) continues to be employed instead of the recommended approach of persuasion (说服)and education.”

Sometimes, rather than being found in a report criticizing a local unit, we find local treason elimination units themselves referring to their efforts to get rid of torture in accordance with party policy. One report, for example, claims that torture has been basically eliminated but that for “important cases” they still have the capacity for “special” interrogations (“基本上停止用刑讯,强调政治动员,因而技术也被迫提高,如有特别重大的案件, 还有专门審委會的建立”). The same report notes that, thanks to these and other improvements in the care of prisoners, both the suicide and escape rates among detainees dropped.

The unfortunate “mistakes” of some units has led, several reports lament, to many “misunderstandings” amongst both local party cadres and the masses, and almost every report calls for greater efforts to overcome the tendency of local populations to “mystify” (神秘化)the practices of the treason-elimination squads.

Several documents I came across concern a case of “reckless arrests, reckless killings, and reckless torture” in Laixi (莱西)county in eastern Shandong in 1944. I haven’t yet found any statistics on the number of deaths or arrests involved in this particular case, but the letters being directed to the Laixi treason elimination committee display an unusual degree of urgency. The most direct letter claimed that the arrests and killings were counterproductive, “a violation of the party policy of protecting the human rights of the people” and had led to a situation in which the local masses were in a state of fear and dissatisfaction towards the party (“…锄奸秩序的混乱…群众对我们恐慌不满甚而有的群众公开提示__这是我党在政治上严重_损失” some characters are unreadable). Two letters (one may have been a shorter draft of the other longer letter) order the Laixi treason elimination squad to:

1. Establish a strict policy of arresting only those traitors agreed upon by approval of the committee, and based on evidence.
2. The emphasis is to be on political education of prisoners, and incorporating the masses into the work of eliminating traitors.
3. All confiscated property is to be subject to a strict system of registration and corruption charges will be brought against cadres who do not follow these rules.
4. It is forbidden to torture any of the criminals, and they shall not be beaten, abused, or subject to insult and humiliation (打骂污辱) or any kind of physical punishment (肉刑).

Time and again, the phrase “protection of human rights” is repeated as a principle at stake even as concern about the loss of mass support is showcased as a serious consequence of the problem.

A separate and highly detailed report (also 1944) from various districts controlled by Communist forces outside of Weihai speaks of similar problems. In the section on interrogation, it concludes that cadres in the districts of that area are “not bad” (不错) when it comes to “protecting human rights” but lists a number of disturbing cases that show areas for improvement. In particular it was concerned with reports that some cadres continued to hang prisoners (not sure exactly what this entails: 吊人), tie prisoners up, beat them, and engage in cruel torture (酷刑).

It attributes these violations of human rights to two factors, which I found to generally be as applicable to cases around the world today as they were in 1944:

1) Some cadres have a very vague (模糊)understanding of human rights. They have not engaged in sufficient study of the treason elimination policies. The report argues that it is merely an lack of education that leads to acts of cruelty in many cases.

2) Other cadres’ “ability to carry out their work is weak, and they believe that if they don’t beat the prisoners they won’t be able to get results. They have abandoned the perspective of educating the masses. All they can do is beat or tie up the prisoners in order to make any progress, thus forgetting the principle of protecting human rights.

The document recommends the following “good cop” approach to interrogations which I think mirrors most of what we know about how many Japanese and American prisoners of war experienced the (more effective of the) Communist interrogators in places like China and Korea:

When interrogating the criminals take into account the different conditions they are in, their personality, psychology, the severity of their crime, and their varying degrees of education. Try to appeal to them, seek their trust and their sympathy, and make them believe that only you can solve their problem, while trying to transfer their hatred of us onto the enemy. Make them trust that we are their benefactor and seek to raise their political consciousness…2

A major problem, of course, is the uneven implementation of these policies, both then, and most likely, even now. Also, this does not begin to address what happens to those who confess guilt in the hands, after all, of the treason elimination squads.

So far, the local statistics I have come across are very mixed in terms of sentencing. In the Bohai area in northwestern Shandong, for example, one chart claims that 110/149 “traitors” (in this case, pro-Japanese collaboration) were shot from 1942 to the first half of 1946, but those deaths of prisoners held by the 行政公署 (what is the best translation of that?) do not include those killed by the treason elimination squads operating in that area, which likely amount to significantly larger totals. In the Weihai area, at least from January to March 1944, however, over 70% of “traitors” in custody of the treason elimination squads were released without punishment.3

  1. At least after February, 1941, the second time it was shuffled around. []
  2. Contact me if you want detailed archive file references, or wait for my dissertation. []
  3. The numbers from those three months are almost the same as the five and a half years of the Bohai “traitors” in the previously mentioned chart. This included all flavors of “treason,” which according to the chart, apparently included “gambling” listed alongside being “interpreter” for the Japanese, “puppet” principal of school in Japanese, or Nationalist party spies, showing that, at least by 1944, the anti-treason squads had expanded to fill the functions of regular police – an issue I’ll have to address in my dissertation. These kinds of statistics also do not include, I believe, deaths resulting from “mass participation” in the “struggle” sessions associated with the separate anti-traitor movement launched as the close of the war approached. This was often intentionally combined, to great effect, with the “rent and interest reduction” campaign that preceded full land reform. It needs to be looked at in its own distinct context. []


Gone Fishin’

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:38 am


From a Meiji-period Japanese book on how to paint like a Chinese



Pigs Again: Li Shizhen’s Ming Dynasty Map

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 1:45 pm


After my posting last year of “Pigs. Shit, and Chinese History,” Sigrid Schmalzer was kind enough to share this map which she drew based on the works of the Ming dynasty scholar Li Shizhen (李時珍; 1518-1593) mostly widely known for his Bencao Gangmu (本草綱目).

It looks to me as if Li was as much concerned with how the meat would taste as with other qualities!


poor peasants

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 3:52 pm

In Modern China class we will be talking about Communists and their analysis of China’s social classes. What is a poor peasant? I will give them the standard Maoist spiel, but I will also give them this. Other readings that might work for this are solicited.

After my mother took me to live in Jiang Village with her parents, our life was very difficult. My grandfather had lost his sight because he was old and had overworked. He had the white eye disease [cataracts]. My mother was deaf. She had been ill when she was young and couldn’t hear after that. We had about six mu of poor land, enough to feed us for only about half a year. We had no meat and rarely ate vegetables. Every year we ate sorghum porridge twice a day until it ran out, then we ate tree leaves, grasses, roots, and wild vegetables. I did not eat a mantou (steamed wheat bun) until I was seventeen or eighteen years old. I was always hungry. I never went to school. Having nothing to eat, how could I study? To this day I cannot read or write. Later, when I was Communist Party secretary of Houhua Village for thirty years, I did everything by memory. I kept everything in my head.

In Jiang Village my mother helped support us by weaving cotton cloth. Someone would take it to market and buy more raw cotton for her to weave. Our clothes were made from the cloth she wove, as were our cotton shoes, which were dyed with red soil. We never had much to wear. We couldn’t even afford a long overcoat for winter, so I wore a short cotton-filled jacket with a belt around the waist. Even when I was twenty years old my mother and I had to share a single quilt when we slept.

I collected firewood to sell. I remember being beaten when collecting wood near the property of a rich family. They thought I was stealing. Some­times I did steal. Once I stole about 100 jin [1 jin = 1.1 Ibs.] of leaves from pear trees. We boiled them and ate them for quite a long time. When I was sixteen or seventeen I collected manure for fertilizer. One day when two of us were collecting manure, we were accused of stealing and told to eat it. The other person did, but I didn’t because my grandfather came in time.

I sometimes worked as a short-term laborer for the more prosperous households in the village. I was used only for a few days at harvest time to cut corn and sorghum. I received no pay but was given my food for the day. I remember well that when I was about eighteen I was working for a rich peasant and was given five steamed wheat buns at noon and four more in the evening. They were the best thing I had ever eaten, and that was the first time I had ever had enough to eat. The next day there was no work, and I was hungry again.

from  Seybolt, Peter J. Throwing the Emperor from His Horse: Portrait of a Village Leader in China, 1923-1995. Westview Press, 1996.



Summer must be here

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:23 am

People seem to be too busy doing nothing to post much, but what good is technology if you don’t use it?

Feng Zikai

By a mountain path. Few guests. A huqin‘s song instead of a radio

Feng Zikai 1935


A stupid idea that will never work

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:54 am

Via Mutant Palm I learn that at 13-mile long dragon is being built in Henan

Hunan Dragon

It is being built on a hill that is supposedly the home of the First Emperor, and when complete it will be covered with jade and gold scales and have nightclubs and such inside. The local environmental protection people are not happy, and there are lots of reasons why this is a really silly idea. Still, I kind of like it. I assume one of the reasons this is being built is as a ego-trip for the builder, and possibly also to attract tourists. Strangely enough,  it might work. Lots of famous historical things that mark landscapes all over the world were pretty obviously nuts when they were first built. Neuschwanstein pops immediately to mind. If your goal is to attract tourists all you need is to build something impressive and wait a couple decades. Ignore the petty types who say that it is a stupid idea that will never work.


When is a Farmer not a Farmer? When He’s Chinese: Then He’s A Peasant

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 1:03 am

After Mao Zedong died in 1976, they put his body on display in one of those see-through coffins which Lenin made popular. Shortly after, the NBC evening news commentator, David Brinkley, termed this “peasant under glass” – a racist flippancy which would not have been accepted (or probably even thought of) for the dead leader of a Western state.

Now the thing is that Mao wasn’t even a peasant: He never made his living with a hoe (if anything he was a landlord); he earned the highest educational degree available in his home province at the time; he was successively a librarian, teacher, and school principal; and for most of his career he was a salaried government official. He saw himself in the tradition of rulers and state builders like Qin Shi Huangdi and George Washington. Mao is a peasant only if all Chinese are peasants in essence, simply by virtue of being Chinese. (Curiously, for some of the same Orientalist reasons, Mao and his successor Deng Xiaoping were also held to be “emperors.” That is, all rulers in Beijing were “emperors” by virtue of being Chinese.)

So when I looked into it, I was surprised to find that the use of the word “peasant” rather than “farmer” was relatively new. I spent a pleasant afternoon in the library pulling books off the shelf and found that until the 1920s, Americans religiously used “farmer” for China, “peasant” for Europe, Russia, and even the Mediterranean. F.H. King’s classic 1911 study is Farmers of Forty Centuries.

After about 1930, the words switched positions. Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (1931), for instance, uses the word “farmer,” never “peasant,” but after that, Americans overwhelmingly prefered “peasant.” When Oprah Winfrey chose The Good Earth for her book club in 2005, the New York Times bestseller list said it was about “peasant” life.

In recent years, “peasant” has come under fire. A writer in China Daily wrote in 1985 that “from now on, the word peasant no longer suits China‘s rural population.” Randy Stross called “peasant” a “quaint taxonomic term that Americans usually used and that served to keep the Chinese apart – and ranked vaguely below – the ‘farmers’ at home.” The British anthropologist Polly Hill attacked the term first because it confused all residents within a village, whether they farmed, peddled, wove, cooked, or lent money (or did each in succession), and second because it lumped together villagers in Africa, Latin America, and Asia who are actually in quite different situations.

What did Americans down to Pearl Buck mean when they insisted France and Russia had peasants but the United States and China had farmers? The distinction was central to Jeffersonian democracy. Thomas Jefferson charged that “the mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government as sores do to the strength of the human body” and believed that the “cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens.” Old World despotism was based on landless peasants who did not have the independent means to stand up to the dukes, lords, barons, and kings. A “peasant” worked under “medieval” or “feudal” conditions, while a propertied “farmer” produced free or democratic rule.

Now we can re-conceive our problem of why there were farmers in China. As best I can make out, the implicit logic runs something like this:

  • European history was normal; the stages were ancient, medieval/ feudal, and modern.
  • China was not Europe, was outside normal history, was eternal, and therefor had no feudalism.
  • Peasants are a feudal phenomenon
  • Ergo, China had farmers, not peasants.

Then why the change from “farmer” to “peasant”?

Young Chinese of the New Culture Movement (1916-1923) came to see China as poor, backward, and shameful; they searched for a new political force powerful enough to destroy traditional culture and to repel imperialism. Revolution was this force and “feudal” the word made China’s weakness a curable structural malady.

Historians now resist the claim that China was feudal. Feudal Europe and Japan had decentralized political systems in which the economy was dominated by military force to the detriment of the market. But from at least the sixteenth century the Chinese rural economy had been basically commercialized, with markets in land and labor. Politics were civilian, centralized and national – anything but feudal. True, by the mid-1920s, the Chinese village economy had been shaken by political disarray, deflation, inflation, drought, flood, famine, warlords, taxes, pestilence, opium, and sociologists. But the solution proposed to these terrible realities depended on the terms in which they were construed as problems. The problem was not feudalism but political disorganization.

True, but not the point. “Feudalism,” in this new argument, was not a technical description but a metaphor, and a devastatingly effective one at that. After all, Marxists and American liberals both saw Progress in history; feudalism in Europe ended with the French Revolution of 1789. Therefore to say that China was “feudal” was to assert that China followed the patterns of universal history; that the Chinese people had to be liberated from feudalism through revolution; that revolution was possible; that the formation of a nation was liberating; and that a vanguard should lead it.

Therefore that the man with the hoe was a peasant.

Must we give up the word “peasant”? Heavens no. But too often we mistake “peasant” for a primary category of nature rather than a convenient term which must be used warily. After 1949, too many in China and in the West saw the countryside as filled with feudal minded peasants, making it easy to rationalize state power. Observing that the “peasant” was invented, not discovered, helps to keep us honest.

[This piece draws on my “The Storm over the Peasant: Orientalism, Rhetoric and Representation in Modern China,” in Shelton Stromquist and Jeffrey Cox, ed., Contesting the Master Narrative: Essays in Social History (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1998): 150-172. reprinted as Lund East Asian Working Paper Series on Language and Politics in Modern China (Formerly Indiana East Asian Working Paper Series on Language and Politics in Modern China): Paper # 11, Summer 1998. Please see that piece for footnotes and references.]

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