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 []


Opium warlord dies

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:47 am

If you study the history of drugs in Asia1 the period right after 1945 marks an important divide. Down to maybe 1840 (or in some contexts much later) drugs (mostly opium) were a fairly ordinary trade good. After WWII, dangerous drugs (now also including things like morphine and heroin) were treated like illicit substances in the modern sense. This really began right after the war. Japan’s drug empire was closed down. The colonial powers like France and the Netherlands did not re-establish their opium monopolies after the war. The Chinese drug trade was far less politically significant in 1946 than it had been before the war and the trade was completely eliminated after 1949. The U.N. Single Convention on Dangerous Drugs of 1961 codified the modern understanding of illicit substances as something that only criminals dealt in.

Between 1840 and 1945 is a more nebulous period, when the trade in drugs was often handled by states, or state-connected actors. These could range from Du Yuesheng, the politically connected opium king of prewar Shanghai, to the Japanese pharmaceutical companies who flooded Asia with morphine, to various colonial opium monopolies to movements of national liberation -from China to Indonesia- that were involved in the drug trade.

I mention this because Lo Hsing Han has died. Born around 1935 in the Shan state in Burma he was pretty much the last of the old state-connected drug lords. As the obituary points out he died not in a hail of bullets, but in the capital of Burma, not as a criminal, but as a respected corporate kingpin.

I don’t really have much to add to the obituary, it just struck me as an interesting survival. Sort of the same reaction I had when Molotov died, and I was amazed he was still alive.


  1. and you really should. There is a crying need for it []


Wukan as history

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:11 am

Ho-fung Hong has an interesting post up on the Wukan protests and the history of popular protest in Imperial China.1 While in the Western media protests like Wukun are usually presented as signs of the impending crack-up of China, Hong argues, correctly I think, that they need to be read as part of the history of Chinese forms of protest. Protests of any sort are culturally constructed, meaning that different actions have different meanings in different cultures. Wukan involved some violence.

which in many western cultures is the red line between protest and rebellion, but for Hong it was at its heart a petition movement.2 Petitions, no matter how presented, acknowledge the legitimacy of state power (in this case the central government rather than local) and the supposed benevolence of the rulers is assumed, otherwise why petition? As a bit of confirmation of these different ways of viewing things the Financial Times seems surprised that protest leader Lin Zuluan has been appointed Party secretary “capping a potential breakthrough in the way Beijing deals with dissent.” But of course bringing protest leaders into the fold is very much part of the Chinese tradition for dealing with dissent.  It’s too bad Hong skips over the Republican period, (He implies you can draw a straight line from the Qing to the present) but it’s only a blog post.



  1. I have not yet read his book. It was a good Christmas, but I did not get everything I wanted. []
  2. Which is also what Tiananmen was, to start with. []


The good old days of empire

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:48 am

My local paper ran an editorial (version here) by Rich Lowry which gave readers more Qing dynasty history than they normally get.  As an American conservative his main point in the piece is that Europe is at last on the brink of collapse due to excessive state spending, just as the Lowrys of the world have been predicting for the last 50 years or so.1 He opens with a lament for the Good Old Days

One hundred and fifty years ago, no one could mistake the relative power of Europe and China. When the British defeated the Chinese in the First Opium War, they imposed an indemnity, took Hong Kong, and forced open more Chinese ports to British merchants. They demanded extraterritoriality for British citizens, exempting them from Chinese law. Other Western powers extracted similar privileges.

When this wasn’t enough, the British launched the Second Opium War after the Chinese seized a ship flying the British flag and refused to apologize. The French joined in, and the two together captured Beijing, and burned the emperor’s summer palaces for good measure.

This nasty episode is worth recalling against the backdrop of the Europeans’ begging the Chinese to help bail them out from their debt crisis. What would Lt. Gen. Charles Cousin-Montauban, the commander of the French forces who marched on Beijing, make of Klaus Regling, the commander of the European bailout fund who traveled to Beijing hoping for a helping hand? What would Lord Palmerston, who justified war against China as a matter of honor, think of Nicolas Sarkozy’s supplicating his Chinese counterpart for funds?

He does toss in that “nasty episode” line, but he is obviously lamenting the idea of white people dealing with yellow people as equals. He probably knows as little about Chinese history as he does about Greek bonds, but I would guess that even if he did know more about Palmerston’s ideas of honor he would still support them. In the case of the Arrow incident neither international law nor any other principle other than power were on the British side.2 Palmerston, of course did not care. Harry Parkes, a British official had made certain assertions about Chinese behavior and British power had to back him up. Those who questioned him in Parliament were traitors, motivated by

“an anti-English feeling, an abnegation of all those ties which bind men to their country and to their fellow-countrymen, which I should hardly have expected from the lips of any member of this House. Everything that was English was wrong, and everything that was hostile to England was right.”

In any case, an excuse to beat up on wogs was not be be missed, as Palmerston’s most famous quote on foreign policy shows.

“These half-civilised governments, all require a dressing down every eight or ten years to keep them in order. Their minds are too shallow to receive an impression that will last longer than some such period and warning is of little use. They care little for words and they must not only see the stick but actually feel it on their shoulders before they yield to that argument that brings conviction, the argumentum baculinem

Why bring this up? Well in part because one just does not get much Chinese history in the Indiana Gazette. Also, I think we may see more and more of this. In the Chinese press people are always bringing up the past as a way of understanding present international relations and while as a historian I think that can be good, I also think it can be bad. Historical analogies are not just sprinkles on top of an argument, they are ways of helping you think, and in this case they help you think wrong. While you can’t understand China’s relationship with Britain or Japan without understanding the past, assuming that the Japan of today is that of the 1930’s, or that the U.S. of today is that of 1900 is not a good way of using the past. Likewise, as Americans talk and think more about our relationship with China the ‘lessons of history’ will come up a lot, and we will have to choose if we want a foreign policy that will “Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all” as Washington put it, or if we will follow Lowry in admiring Palmerston and that other great Englishman, Lord Voldemort in assuming that “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.”




  1. I don’t know about Lowry, but some of the prominent early American Neo-Cons started out as Trotskyites, which may have helped them write all these explanations for why reality is not matching their theories. []
  2. J.Y. Wong’s Deadly Dreams: Opium and the Arrow War (1856-1860) In China deals with this at great length. []


Managing History in China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:10 am

Historic Preservation is the process of  preserving historic stuff, mostly building and sites. China has lots of history. 5,000 years of it, in fact. Historical Preservation, or Cultural Resources Management, or whatever you want to call it is something they have less of as shown by recent events in the Great Within. Basically, the Beijing Forbidden City Cultural Development Company has been accused of setting up a special club for rich people inside the Forbidden City.

Preserving the past is tricky, since it is sometimes hard to figure out what needs to be preserved. It is also sometimes hard to figure out what ‘preserving’ might mean. It could mean ‘don’t touch anything’ but in practice somebody has to touch things in order to maintain them, and people do have to get in to look at things, or else what’s the point?

Even at this level things are more complected that you might think. What exactly -is- this site?  Versailles would not be itself without the gardens, but the park just to the west of the Forbidden City, once considered part of the grounds, was taken over by squatters in 1949. Do they have to be driven out and the pristine park of the past re-created? 1

The big problem though is money. History and the National Essence are priceless, and thus can’t be connected to money, which is dirty. No gift shops. No tacky tourist stuff. No guards in fake old uniforms. Pure, un-commercialized history. That of course is bunk. Every historical site sells stuff, in part because they need the cash and in part because the broad masses want it and helping people connect with the past is what these places do, and buying stuff is part of that. Also, your guests are humans. They need to eat and drink, and they enjoy both of these things a lot. The more of that you let them do it while looking at the history the better they will like it. So maybe some selling things is o.k., but you need to keep it tasteful.  So part of running a historical site is making money, but making it look like you are above money.2

This is particularly important when you are running something like the Forbidden City, a Top Class #1 tourist draw and source of national pride. Some time ago they drove Starbucks out of the palace. This struck most of my students as a good thing. We would not let commerce sully the Lincoln Memorial, why should the Chinese let money into the Forbidden City? Having been there I point out that the palace is enormous, and that having a few places to get a drink or buy some postcards or get a popsicle makes it a lot better. Hiring it out to a foreign company defiles the purity of the Chinese nation, however,  so it had to go.

The current brouhaha has something to do with lack of professionalism on the part of China’s Historical Preservation Financial Asset Management Teams.  Lots of foreign museums rent out space for parties or whatever. You just need to do it with a bit of class. China has a distinct lack of old money, so this is a problem. Good Cultural Managers can help with this by providing a touch of distinction to a commercial transaction, but unfortunately the ones at the Forbidden City can’t even manage a grammatically correct press statement. Of course it also has something to do with class resentments in contemporary China. If the Forbidden City belongs to the Chinese people why are some Chinese people getting to party there and the rest being stuck making electronics in Shenzhen? Plus given what I can find out online  about the entertainment habits of Chinese rich people I’m guessing that the club does not run to dry white wine and chamber music. Massive amounts of vile booze and lots of ladies of negotiable virtue sounds more likely.

Finally, I must add that I am a little disappointed with the Beijing Forbidden City Cultural Development Company. I could forgive the   for prostituting China’s cultural heritage or being sub-literates, but their ‘vengeance’ against the whistleblowers is pathetic. Firing people and confiscating a few cellphones?  This is the Forbidden City!  Cixi plotted here, as did Wei Zhongxian, and there are such things as standards. Couldn’t they boil someone alive and serve the broth in the restaurant, or exile someone to Xinjiang, or something?

I got this from Jeremiah Jenne, who I note left Beijing just before this whole thing blew up.

  1. There are also lots of pasts in various places. Which aspect of the palace are you trying to preserve? As I recall the Forbidden City (and it’s been a few years) they seem to push a pretty a-historical view of a timeless palace, saying nothing about the Republic and running the Ming and Qing together. []
  2. Even if you could get the money out of the site that would just mean asking for more from the state or some sort of foundation. []


Zhang San and Li Si’s Excellent Adventure

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:30 am

China Hush reports that the Chinese film and TV industries have been ordered to stop making time-travel dramas, on the grounds that “The producers and writers are treating the serious history in a frivolous way, which should by no means be encouraged anymore.”

I find this convenient if wrong-headed. Convenient because while Americans may talk about what what our history means to us it is hard to pin down what historical orthodoxy is. China makes it easy. Wrong-headed because the Chinese government is very big on encouraging young Chinese to identify with “5,000 Years of Chinese History.” Getting people to do that is actually hard, and time travel might help.

David Lowenthal talks about time travel stories in The Past is a Foreign Country. Modern science fiction stories are only the tip of the iceberg, as there are countless stories of a knock on the head, a strange dream or a pact with the devil sending people to the past. Although lots of these stories are about about how you can use your amazing knowledge to make money gambling, or fix the present or whatever, many of them deal with how disconcerting and foreign the past is. In some stories you can’t talk to people, they may kill you for being a heretic, or you might starve to death. In any case, you will almost certainly want to go home. I have not watched any of these TV dramas, but all of them seem to open with the past being frightening and dangerous, but with the hero eventually finding their feet and, of course, true love. This would seem to be good from a Chinese nationalist perspective, since all these people are traveling to a past that is supposed to be ‘theirs.’ If Americans want to go a long way into the past we visit King Arthur’s court, which is obviously in a foreign country, and thus if we don’t identify with it and have to kill everyone to liberate them, that’s o.k. Chinese kids should -like- visiting Ancient China Land, and apparently they do.

Needless to say there are some serious problems. The past is really different from the present in ways that are being ignored in these stories. Sex and lust were probably the same things in the Qin Dynasty as now, but love? I doubt many people are learning much about the past as it is understood by historians from these shows. On the other hand, the official line seems to be that history is a nationalistic catechism to be memorized, respected, and bored by. That’s even worse. The article also reports that there is to be a ban on productions of the Four Classic Novels. Again, the problem is apparently a lack of respect for the treasures of Chinese culture, and you can see the point. If you let the current generation of Chinese youth get their hands on these stories they might portray the Monkey King as some sort of  turbulent troublemaker or Li Gui as a drunken hoodlum. Heck they might even imply that Baoyu was gay! Far better to stick these stories in boring classrooms and museums than to risk what might happen to them in the present.


Via Jeremiah Jenne


A fun toy

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 4:52 am

The Economist has a fun toy where you can compare Chinese provinces to various foreign countries.  Some of the comparisons don’t help much, given that some of these places don’t mean a lot to me. Yunnan has the GDP per person of Vanuatu and Guangxi of Swaziland? O.K. On the other hand, Sichuan having the population of Germany is a helpful comparison.

The only thing I would have liked to see them add would be a comparison of income distributions. It’s nice to know how much wealth the people of Beijing would have if the money was all shared out equally, but of course it is not. Not sure if they have the data for that, though.


This is your historical analogy on drugs

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:08 pm

Apparently Google is just like the British East India Company. Or so at least the toadies of the CCP would have you believe.  According to People’s Daily,  Google is attempting to corrupt China with information, just as the British tried to corrupt it with opium.

In the colonial era, the British East India Company used the monopolization of trade in the colonies to traffic opium and assist Britain in building its hegemony. In the Internet era, Google uses its monopoly of Internet information search to traffic American values and assist American in building its hegemony.

Besides the obvious historical errors (it was not John Company who attacked China with warships in the Opium Wars, but the British Navy) the historical analogy does not work the way the author would like to claim. It is indeed true that both Google and the British East India Company were foreign firms, but in fact both of them had success in China not because they marched in and forced people to buy their goods at gunpoint, but because Chinese people wanted to buy what they were selling.  (Leaving out the fact that Google gives it away for free.) The piece points out that Baidu has held on to the bulk of the Chinese search market, so I guess this would make Baidu domestic Chinese opium, maybe a nice Yunnan. 1 Where is the Carnival of Bad History when you need it?


Via Jeremiah Jeene

  1. Goes well with fava beans []


Sinai -etic analogies

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:12 pm

Jeremiah Jenne has a post up at Fallows1 where he looks at the possibility of a Jasmine Revolution in China. He concludes that it is not that likely, as the CCP is a bit more hip to the dangers of that sort of thing, given the history of protest in China, especially May 4th and the date nothing happened in 1989. I think he’s right about that, but I think the reasons why become clearer if you think about analogies for what is happening in the Middle East. Some people are tossing around 1848 in Europe, which works in some respects, but for an Asian analogy I think 1911 and the overthrow of the Qing works somewhat better.2 The Qing dynasty was not overthrown by Sun Yat-sen and his band of revolutionaries, but ultimately by the various provincial assemblies the declared for the revolution after the Wuchang uprising. A series of provincial elites decided, sometimes for different reasons, to abandon the Qing.  It is not that surprising that Yuan Shikai became the first effective leader of the new state, since what was happening was not a mass uprising or a tidal wave of democracy but rather one part of the elite dumping the dynasty and quickly establishing a new government. This is pretty clearly what has been happening in Egypt, with the military choosing to at least get rid of Mubarak, even if they are not sure what will come next. In Libya at least part of the army seems to be standing with the government, and in Morocco all of it. There is even a Twitter/Facebook parallel with the role of the telegraph in spreading news of the revolution in 1911.

Obviously there are lots of differences as well. The Arab World may be a reasonably coherent cultural area, but its countries are not Chinese provinces. Imperialism is still around, but in a very different form. So why does this comparison matter? I think it matters some because the main thing that encouraged elite factions in 1911 to settle their differences quickly was the fear of foreign invasion.  For whatever reasons (and we really can’t know yet) the Egyptian elite decided fairly quickly that whatever the future would be it would not involve Mubarak or his sons. I can’t think of anything really forcing a rapid resolution in, say Bahrain, other than the fact that chaos is bad. In 1911 the “masses in the street” were the new armies and modern educated people, who conservative modernizers had good reason not to kill. Unfortunately I don’t see much reason for the rulers of oil states to care how many students or poor people they kill. If a Jasmine Revolution did break out in China it is hard to see how it would lead to a split in the elite, and likely they would be willing to kill as many of the dispossessed as they could afford ammo for. Still, hope springs eternal, and Jasmine Revolution is a good name, even if it does not seem likely to be coming soon.

  1. Yes, a post at Fallows site at the Atlantic. Mark Twain published in the Atlantic. It’s only a matter of time before Jeremiah’s friends get a call from VH-1’s Behind the Music about the young, idealistic, talented, scholar-blogger who may still exist somewhere inside the bloated mass of excess and degradation he will have become by about 2014 []
  2. Obviously I say this with very little real knowledge of what is happening right now in Egypt or Libya, but this is the internet. []


Yellow Peril Mk 3.

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:06 am

Lots of people have already commented on the Chinese professor video, which is getting a lot of play in the US. If you have not seen it, it is  set in the year 2030, and shows a Chinese professor (an updated Fu Manchu) laughing at the Americans whose empire has fallen because (unlike China) they have allowed the government to interfere with the free market.

Fallows and others have pointed out how absurd the content is, and he suggests that we will see more like this. I suppose so, but I don’t predict ads claiming that Chinese Baozi are made with the blood of American babies till at least 2016.  Actually some of these anti-China ads are coming out already.

What I find most interesting about the Chinese professor ad though is the iconography. There are lots of administrators in my school who would no doubt laugh till they choked at the idea that in 2030 an advanced country would still be delivering educational products through the appallingly old-fashioned method of putting tuition-generating units and an instructional employee  in a room and having them talk.

Even more interesting are the Mao-period posters on the walls of the classroom. Are they predicting a resurgence of Maoism in China? Yes, the old guy gets some face time even now, but I have never seen anything like these in a Chinese lecture hall. Or maybe they wanted pictures that would say “”China” to an American audience. I presume the decision went something like this.

Pandas  -Say China, but are too cute to be a threat.

Yao Ming -Says China, but can’t stay healthy. Sick Man of Asia is not what we need here.

Ichiro Suzuki- Says China to Americans, still healthy and still hitting well, but Seattle stank last season. No threat.

Great Wall. Possible, but not scary enough. Just sits there. Sure you can see it from space, but how many Americans go into space nowadays?

So Mao is pretty much all that is left. I could actually imagine a world where by 2030 Chinese nationalists were recycling Maoist imagery as sort of a we Chinese are bad-asses type of thing. (Maybe not the Mao as bald guy pics, but certainly some of the heroic poses from the C-R stuff. )

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