A clash of symbols

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:42 pm

In the introduction of Julia Lovell’s The Opium War she discusses an incident from November, 2010. David Cameron had gone to China, and it being November he and his team were all wearing poppies. For the British the poppy is a symbol of the war dead of the Great War. It is not really a symbol in China, although of course a British PM with a poppy on did bring up memories of the Opium Wars. Cameron was asked to take his poppy of, and of course refused. Despite the possible hurt feelings of the Chinese people the Chinese government allowed him to keep his poppy.


As the link above shows, even Daily Mail readers were sometimes understanding of the Chinese position, and the Chinese were willing to let Cameron run around with a poppy, so everyone behaved very well. I’m actually glad to see that when there is a deal to be made the ancient hatreds of the past can be set aside.

For those of our readers who are Chinese, the association of poppies with wartime sacrifice is more important in Britain, but is also known elsewhere.




If we want to revere China, there is no greater reverence than to put the Chinese ways into practice

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 3:10 pm

Thanks to Columbia University Press I just got a copy of David Kang, East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute1 This is  a very fine book, and it is great that it has been published. The reason it is great that it has been published is that it is cheap, readable, and based on secondary sources. While the book is about the East Asian international system in the early modern period, Kang is not a historian. He is a “professor of international relations and business.” His only real qualifications2 for writing this book are that he has read the relevant secondary literature, writes well and is smart. As I have lamented before, writings on Asian history in English tend to be either the obviously academic or really bad. The type of serious stuff that is halfway in between, that my Americanist colleagues get to read and use in class all the time, is very thin on the ground.

If you want a book that will give you a nice clear understanding of the current literature on East Asian foreign relations in the 1368-1840 period this is it. He does not take the tribute system all the way back to the Han (although he does cite Barfield and Mote), and I am sure that scholar-squirrels who deal with this stuff could find fault with his summaries, but he does a nice job. One thing that struck me is his attempt to deal with the tribute system. His chapter on the system deals mostly with China’s relations with Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. He makes a distinction between “legitimate acceptance and rational calculation ”  to explain Korean and Vietnamese willingness to “lend their submission to China.”3 For anyone raised to accept the European Westphalian tradition it should seem bizarre that states would accept their ritual and diplomatic subordination to another state, but Kang shows that Korea and Vietnam both accepted this, it was not just a matter of lying to humor the Chinese (rational calculation.) The effort he puts into showing Korean and Vietnamese acceptance of the system demonstrates how powerful the Westphalia model is. For modern people it is really hard to accept the idea of one nation being superior to another.  I actually find this less surprising than he does, since there are lots of models of relations between groups and individuals that allow for this. Even in the West, to be a Catholic meant acknowledging the Bishop of Rome as superior to all other bishops. The Treaty of Westphalia itself was negotiated in two cities, Munster and Osnabruck, in part because of issues of precedence.4 Everyone agreed that some Dukes were better than other Dukes, and some Counts better than other Counts. Rather than trying to sort out all these issues of precedence it was easier just to just split the conference in two rather than trying to resolve who should sit above and below the salt.

Of course if, like Kang, you are writing after the model of universal equality of states has become a crucial part of East Asian nationalism—even for those who are not aware that they are hard-core Westphalians– it might be good to be cautious as you advance an argument for the historical inequality of states.  Plus, like a good scholar, he is not wildly concerned with providing historical ammunition for modern arguments. So he argues that East Asian states created a system where “Far from being autarkic, the early modern East Asian system developed rules and norms governing trade, diplomacy, and international migration.”5 So he is arguing against the common idea that East Asia consisted of a collection of Hermit Kingdoms until they were brought to life by contact with the West, but he also uses words like autarkic6 He is bringing you up to date on the literature without talking down to you. This is the type of book that not only makes you think you should use it in class, but also makes you wonder what classes you could create that would use it if you don’t have one already.

  1. Kang, David C. East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute. Columbia University Press, 2010. []
  2. O.k., yes he’s an academic heavy hitter, but not a historian, particularly not of this period []
  3. p.55 []
  4. I don’t have a cite for this, just old lore from grad school []
  5. p.71 []
  6. which my spell-czech does not recognize. []


Ming Imperialism

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:40 am

I just found something interesting about the early Ming. It appears from the Ming Shi-lu that the Ming founder at first just sent envoys to various tributary states to inform them of the founding of the new dynasty. Within the next couple of years, however, new envoys were sent out.

Envoys were sent to Annam, Korea and Champa to carry out sacrifices to the mountains and rivers of those countries. Previously, the Emperor had observed abstinence in various respects and had personally compiled the sacrificial text. On this day, the Emperor held an audience and provided the envoys with incense and silks. The incense was contained in gold boxes. The silks comprised one length of silk and two pennants of patterned fine silk. All were in the colours of the four directions (方色). The sacrificial tablets were personally signed by the Emperor with his Imperial name.

The Ming emperor was doing as much of the sacrifice as possible without leaving home, (with his envoys doing the rest) so that he was personally making the sacrifice and he was really the ruler in those places. I think this is new, and the impression I get is that the Ming were at least initially thinking about a much closer relationship with their tributary states, possibly under the influence of the Yuan example.

Have I been doing translations from the Ming Shi-lu in my spare time? No. Geoff Wade has been putting his translations of those parts of the Shi-lu dealing with Southeast Asia on-line. The search function works quite well and makes it a real research tool. It is a very cool resource, and much worth looking at.


Zhou Enlai and The Chinese Omelette

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 3:45 pm

The lively and informed blog, Jottings from the Granite Studio, January 8 has a well turned piece “This date in history: The Death of Zhou Enlai.” The piece shows that Zhou was a consummate statesman who perhaps snookered Nixon and Kissinger, with a reputation for countering Mao’s excesses and acting the suave statesman.

I remember the reporter Harrison Salisbury telling a story about the cosmopolitan Zhou. At the Geneva Conference of 1954 Zhou went around a reception greeting each delegate in his own language, showing up the less worldly Khrushchev, who knew only Russian. Khrushchev, according to another story, later struck back by observing to Zhou how strange it was that he, Khrushchev, came from a peasant background while Zhou was quite the aristocrat. Zhou is said to have thought for a moment and then replied, “true, but we each betrayed the class from which we came.”

For a long time, the story was that John Foster Dulles was so anti-communist that at this Geneva Conference he refused to shake Zhou’s hand. Problem is that when a spoil sport researcher went to check, there was no time at which the two were together. Still, when Nixon went to Beijing in 1972, he clearly had heard this story. He bounded down from Airforce One and the  first thing he did was to shake Zhou’s hand!

Another example of Zhou’s reputation is in a piece of urban folklore about Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972. At that time the small but famous Gansu Flying Horse was on display in one of the capital’s museums. Nixon, thinking we was alone, admired the horse so much that he stealthily put it in his pocket. A museum guard, according to the tale, secretly observed the deed, but hesitated to report the theft for fear of destroying the friendly atmosphere of the visit. What could he do but take the incident to Zhou? That night at the banquet, after the mao tai, Zhou introduced China’s leading magician. The magician performed several feats, then unveiled a reproduction of the Flying Horse which he then caused to disappear. Where was it? Well, he announced, reaching into Nixon’s pocket: “Voila!” So once again, the wily and humane Zhou saved the day.

But the Jottings piece also asks: “What sort of machinations and compromises were necessary to linger in power while those around him were being swept away?” What about allowing his long time comrade Liu Shaoqi to die of untreated pneumonia lying on the floor of an unheated jail cell?

Much of this enigma is spelled out in the recent book by Gao Wenqian, Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary (NY: Public Affairs, 2007; translated by Peter Rand and Lawrence R. Sullivan). Gao was a researcher at China’s secret party archives where he had access to files, interviews, gossip, memos, and internal compilations. He smuggled out notes and documents with which he wrote an explosive Chinese language biography of Zhou, published in Hong Kong in 1999, which the translators have slightly supplemented for English language readers. This is not the cynical view presented in, say, Li Zhisui’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao’s Personal Physician (New York: Random House, 1994), much less the unhinged portrait in Chang Jung and Jon Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story (New York: Knopf, 2005). Li chronicled Mao’s refusal to take baths or brush his teeth, his sexual use of young women, and his rapacity towards both enemies and old comrades. He doesn’t allow that Mao ever did anything which was not despicable, which may be a reasonable stance but not convincing if other arguments are not even considered. Likewise, Chang & Halliday’s argument is terribly weakened because it strays too far from evidence.

Gao, on the other hand, allows Zhou’s accomplishments, which are usefully sketched in the Jottings from the Granite Studio piece. Yet in spite of Zhou’s reputation as a balance to Mao’s extremism, Gao paints an ultimately damning portrait of a man who said yes to power. What would have happened if Zhou had stood up to Mao or at least advised him differently? Would he have lasted?

Would it make a difference if we accepted, as Zhou surely did, the legitimacy of the Revolution? After all, every nation or political cause accepts some form of the proposition that the ends justify the means. Was it legitimate to drop the Atomic Bomb? Stalin justified his slaughter of innocents by saying “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” But, asked somebody (presumably in a very quiet voice) “how many eggs do you have to break to make one omelette?” Or, we might add, when so many eggs are broken, shouldn’t we demand to see an omelette?


How many times can we lose China?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 5:29 pm

via James Fallows a link to James C. Thomson’s “How Could Vietnam Happen?” a 1968 piece that The Atlantic has lifted from their archive. Thomson was a China scholar, the son of China missionaries and that point newly resigned from the government over the direction of policy in Vietnam. One point Thomson made (really for the first time) was that Vietnam policy had a serious China hangover. The Kennedy administration had inherited, and largely accepted, old ideas from the 50’s, including both geopolitical ideas, such as that the Red Chinese were on the march and that American policy must contain this new peril, and more practical points, such as the cautionary example of what had happened to the careers of the China experts in the U.S. government who had made the crucial error of being right about the outcome of the Chinese civil war. Thomson laments the limited number of Asianists with real authority in government, but I was struck by how many there were and how much influence they had in comparison with present policy towards East Asia and above all towards Iraq. One of Thompson’s points is that many of the experts were hamstrung by their concern for their “effectiveness” i.e. as people of only limited power in the hierarchy they had to pick the points were they were willing to dissent. As points where knowledge and rationality could turn Vietnam policy in a good direction were pretty few, they ended up immobilized. Still, there were at least there to be immobilized and were writing pieces like this by 1968.

One of the things that struck me was how much less contact their is between the scholarly world and American foreign policy today. Assuming that you count the “loss” of China, there have been three disastrous failures in U.S. foreign policy since my dad was born, and they were all in Asia. The Thomson essay seems to be about an important turning point in American Asia policy, the point where things went from bad to worse. Within a year of its publication the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars was created1 and the divorce between state power and academia proceeded apace. While this was probably good for the academic world, I think it was pretty bad for America. Today I get the impression that a MESA member would be about likely to get a job making Iraq policy as a reporter from Al-Jazeera.2 The China hangover seems to be going on for a long time.

  1. I think Charles Hayford was one of the original members []
  2. Of course to some extent advice and knowledge are no good if powerholders don’t care. John Dower would no doubt have been quite happy to give President Bush a briefing on why the occupation of Iraq was not likely to be like that of Japan, but nobody wanted to listen. []


We have never valued ingenious articles

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 3:08 pm

The generally excellent blog Jottings from the Granite Studio has an interesting post up on practical learning. The post is about the tendency of American universities to be too specialized, which I more or less agree with, but he uses a historical comparison I don’t much care for. Yes, it’s the Qianlong emperor’s reply to Lord Macartney, the most widely used quote from a pre-modern Chinese in Western writings on China, and perhaps the most often misused. Lord Macartney was sent to China in 1793 to negotiate the opening of more ports to British trade. The mission failed for any number of reasons, but it is constantly brought up as an example of the failure of the Chinese to comprehend the modern world. In particular Qianlong’s lack of interest in the clocks and mechanical devices the British presented them with is always presented as a repudiation of Science and Rationality in favor of Stasis and Tradition. Granite Studio

The Qianlong Emperor and his officials smirked at the pretty clocks the British kept presenting as gifts to the throne, dismissing them as mere toys, not realizing that the same precision instruments needed to make intricate clockworks are equally useful for making advanced artillery, rifles, and the instruments of war.

This is based on a couple of lines in the Qianlong emperor’s letter to George III, where he said.

The Celestial Empire, ruling all within the four seas, simply concentrates on carrying out the affairs of government properly, and does not value rare and precious things…[W]e have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your Country’s manufactures

I have a number of problems with this. I am not particularly interested in defending the honor of the Qianlong emperor, but the way this event is used, (and it is used a lot) is not very good history. For one thing, to expect anyone in 1793 to look at a mechanical clock and see the industrial revolution is wildly anachronistic. Clocks and clockwork go way back and nobody at the time even knew the industrial revolution was happening. Qianlong was in fact correct, there were few things that the British could sell in China at a profit (hence the opium trade.) Although Lord Macartney was proud of his nation’s manufactures and was in favor of an increase in Trade had you suggested to him that he represented the King of a nation of shopkeepers he probably would have had his servants give you a good thrashing. He was apparently much impressed with his hosts at the Qing court, and the whole mission is hard to fit into the modern stories we like to tell about the backward Chinese.

More importantly although the failure of the mission was later fit into narratives of Chinese backwardness and irrationality, that is not how the it was seen at the time. As Hevia p. 238 points out, this document was not even translated into English until 1896 and nobody at the time saw it as being of any importance. Quite a lot of interesting work has been done, by Hevia and others, on what the mission can tell us about the Qing, Empire, and such, but the old narrative still seems quite popular.


Who cares what the Americans think?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:58 am

Joshua Kurlantzick has an article in American Prospect that is both interesting and frustrating. It’s about Cambodia, and the Chinese language press there. Loh Swee Ping is a Malyasian-born Chinese who runs a Chinese paper in Cambodia. (The paper seems to be 柬埔寨星洲日報, although this is never made clear) The journalistic world of Cambodia seems rather free-wheeling, giving considerable scope to people like Loh, who takes journalism seriously, while also being full of all sorts of semi-corrupt types who like good coverage and are willing to get it either through payola or violence.

The hook for the article is that the Chinese government is encouraging the growth of a Sino-sphere, with Chinese language newspapers, schools, and a growing Chinese presense. So far so good, and there is some interesting stuff in here. He ends, however, with a lament on how the Americans are not doing enough to counteract Beijing’s fairly authoritarian advice on how to handle things like the press. While I as an American would also like to see the U.S. government stand up for things like freedom of the press (standing up is free, furcrissakes) I am always a bit amused at articles like Kurlantzick’s, or like this that assume that the Americans, their model, and their actions are what really matter here. I agree that the Americans could matter more, and the -very rapid- decline of American soft power is partly attributable to stupid things we have done of late and could and should stop doing. On the other hand, some decline is probably built in. You don’t need an American-style press to be an economic success, China proves it. If you are the Cambodian government and you are going to look ideologically acceptable by jumping every time someone says frog you are probably better off listening to China anyway. I just don’t think the old Cold War model of understanding Asia as either more or less like the U.S. works at all, and it is a bit frustrating to see a journalist who actually went to Cambodia and found some good stuff shoving things into that pattern.



Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:50 am

I think we need a new word for the study of colonialism, imperialism and the post-colonial discourses, pro and con. Pro? Who’s in favor of it? Well, this is what makes it interesting, these days: there are a lot of former colonial powers out there whose citizens and leaders, in their heart of hearts, still believe that they accomplished something that was ultimately positive, who still believe that their developmental initiatives and their anti-communist (or anti-capitalist) positions were justified by subsequent developments. This is usually — explicitly or implicitly — intended to mitigate or cancel out any discussions of political repression, economic exploitation, military atrocities or strategic abandonment. Sometimes it’s just good historical sense, but then it usually comes with very careful caveats about not canceling out the other stuff.



Chinese Expansionism v. Chinese Expansion

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 7:03 pm

Andrew Meyer takes an interview with Lee Kuan Yew and turns it into a short (considering the subject matter) but deep meditation on the history of China and “China,” the process of Chinese expansion and integration through trade and conquest. He concludes that “a ‘deep historical’ perspective makes Chinese aggression a less pressing long-term concern for global peace and stability than internicine strife within China itself.”

Though internal division and dissension are very important, I’m not sure whether I agree that, from an outsider perspective, they are more important than China’s rising nationalism and power. In fact, I think it’s entirely possible that internal dissension could drive external aggressiveness (Wag the Dog, anyone?), that nationalism could exacerbate internal tensions by narrowing the definition of full citizenship, and that external adventurism could exhaust the state’s ability to deliver benefits resulting in a loss of legitimacy. Possibly all at once.


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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