Hot Topics: Zheng He

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:31 pm

This year is the six hundreth anniversary of the first voyage of Zheng He, notes the New York Times. The article makes no mention of Menzie’s 1421 thesis, which leads me to hope that that particular wave has crested. It does, however, spend considerable time on NYTimes’ own Kristof’s favorite factoid: Africans descended from Chinese sailors. Also on contemporary naval defense issues.


Grain supply and military logistics in 18th century China.

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:38 am

Reading Perdue’s China Marches West I was struck by how much historians are constrained by our sources and how we strain against them. The book itself (which is very good) is about the expansion of the Qing empire into Central Asia. This is a hot topic at present, and this book is pretty much the center of the trend towards taking China’s relationship with the non-Chinese Asia more seriously.

One of the things that Perdue spends a lot of time on, obviously, are the Qing military campaigns that ended in the conquest of Central Asia, specifically the campaigns against the Zunghars (1690-1697) The thing I found most interesting was Perdue’s emphasis on logistics and grain supply. He spends a lot of time talking about ways that the Qing tried to encourage private merchants to bring grain to the frontier. Supplies for remote regions were a long-standing problem in Chinese statecraft. From military colonies, where the soldiers were supposed to rise their own grain, to Ming experiments with encouraging private merchants to bring grain to the frontier in exchange for the right to participate in the salt monopoly to Qing distribution of cash (rather than grain) there was a long history of attempts to support big armies as cheaply as possible.

One of the things I like about this section is that Perdue can go into incredible detail about price levels, debates over grain policy, and local market conditions. Besides fulfilling my dreams of being a Qing dynasty grain-policy wonk, I like reading about topics of governance that might have turned up on the civil service exams. As historians we often bring very different interests to our sources than their creators do, which is fine, but in this case, and in a few others I can think of we are really peering into a debate which is to some extent still the same one that was defined by Qing officials and to some extent it is still debated in the same way.

On the other hand, Perdue also brings a very different set of concerns to his material. He is pretty obviously interested in the extent to which the Qing were able to harness market forces to do their work for them, and thus the extent they were a really modern government. He is not a sprouts of capitalism reductionist, but he is clearly interested in questions that would not have occurred to the people he is studying. This is true of other people who study grain as well, (Wong and Will come to mind.) If you want to analyze the Qing economy or Qing economic policy making, the best data is in grain, but the data was generated by a bureaucracy that was concerned with issues like “nurturing the people” rather than encouraging economic growth. Perdue says that “As the commercial economy expanded on the frontier, the Qing sought to tap the new flow of resources for the benefit of local stability. Shifting away from their primary dependence on the land tax, officials looked for new sources of support from trade.”(p.369) The goal, promoting local stability, is one that Qing officials would embrace, the method of embracing the market is a modern idea. (Not that there is anything wrong with that.)

Perdue is a very good historian, and he does not let his interest in the magic of markets run away with him. (An important point when writing on the interweb, where the opposite is usually true.) He is writing about a time and place where markets were limited and did not work “right.” Gansu suffered from “bumper crop famines” where good harvests one year would lead to famines the next as farmers lacked the capital, and probably the market savvy, to store their cheap grain. The state eventually stepped in to establish a state granary system to prevent this problem, and eventually the province was commercialized enough that these famines disappeared. I would think that lots of good old-fashioned Qing officials would not be surprised that commercialization could lead to famine. Lots of modern economists would not be surprised that pushing on to a commercial economy would eliminate the problem. Perdue is a historian, however, and he is interested in the place in the middle.


Mickey Mouse in China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:49 am

There are some interesting articles in the current Modern China, and the one I would like to comment on at present is “Wang Luobin: Folk Song King of the Northwest or Song Thief?” by Rachel Harris of SOAS. The paper is mostly about the posthumous reputation of Wang Luobin, a (Han) collector and disseminator of “Uyghur folksongs” many of which have turned out to be quite popular, and thus profitable.

Picture of Wang Luobin

This has led to predictable debates about who owns these songs, bringing up all sorts of “questions of authenticity, ownership, and value.” (p.394) This is of course part of a debate on who speaks for Uyghurs that takes place in other contexts than music, and a debate on who owns music that is familiar to ethnomusicologists in places other than Xinjiang. Folk music is a particularly interesting place to bring up issues of copyright because folk music is validated in part by –not- being creative. In 1993 the Taiwanese singer Luo Dayou recorded versions of Wang Luobin’s songs and at first refused to pay copyright because the songs were the “property of the peoples of Xinjiang” and if anyone should get money it should be the Xinjiang government.(p.388) Wang Luobin then took out copyrights on the songs, thus admitting that he was not simply transmitting existing songs, but doing something to existing material that could be considered creative and thus could be owned. Harris cites Arjun Appadurai on what makes a thing a thing, and in general it is a very well-informed essay.

The thing that interested me most was that the things being owned were songs. One of the commonplaces of the reform era is that China needs to establish “modern” legal and property systems, in order to make itself more legible to international capital or as the necessary infrastructure for modernization, depending on your point of view. The one aspect of this process that foreign states pay most attention to is intellectual property rights, as this is the thing that is most likely to impinge on the profits of foreign companies. (China may need a more transparent real estate market, but this is not a concern for Disney.) The canonical Chinese response is to pay lip service to American demands for enforcement of IP, pretty much the same response as most developing countries. Enforcement of foreign copyrights is not at the forefront of most Chinese people’s minds. I’m sure many of us are familiar with the disconnect between reading U.S. accounts of China where the most important person in China is the guy with the pirated DVDs and, well, being in China.

This is what makes the Wang Luobin case so interesting. When the dispute broke out between Luo Dayou and Wang Luobin Wang copyrighted the songs and sold the rights to Luo. What interests me, although Harris does not discuss it, is why Luo would pay for the rights. I don’t think that there was any chance that a mainland copyright was going to be enforced on Taiwan, so I assume that he paid cash for Wang’s authenticity, as represented by the copyrights, even though by the act of copyrighting, and asserting creativity, Wang was “un-folking” the songs.

I find this interesting because it shows a new, and domesticated reason for people to adopt the form of copyright. Although American newspapers like to present copyrights and patents as transcendent goods they are of course socially constructed, and the construction is currently changing. When the last American copyright extension act was passed some people called it the Mickey Mouse law, because one of the things driving it was Disney’s fear that Mickey would go out of copyright. For modern post-industrial capitalism the idea that there are things that can’t be owned is not good. Well, there are some things that can’t be owned, and there is not much of a push to corporatize and commodify love or sex, it is not acceptable for something which has been commodified to go out of the commodity sphere.

Who will push for this type of commodification inside China? Disney will push from outside, and this will have some effect, but not a whole lot. To some extent it is in the self-interest of Chinese business community to push for commodification of ideas as they change their position in the international economy. When I was teaching English in Taiwan in the 80’s a number of my businessmen/students insisted that Taiwan was going to really crack down on IP violations because Taiwanese companies were finding it harder and harder to license really cool technology from overseas because of IP concerns.

Wang Luobin’s case seems to show a domestic, or at least inter-Asian reason to adopt the form of copyright. As China is deluged in ‘cheap,’ ‘fake,’ ‘copies’ a copyright is a way of assuring consumers that this is real. In the case of folksongs authenticity is more important than it might be elsewhere, but it might matter in lots of contexts. I’m not sure its a good thing, of course, but it does seem that we are moving towards “copyright with Chinese characteristics.”


Does China exist?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:15 pm

The question of China’s existence or non-existence in the eyes of foreigners is an old one. At least for the early European explorers China really did exist, and more so than most of the other places they visited. It had a government, a ruler, a national character. They were not primitives. All that changed, of course, and eventually China was not there. That was one of the justifications for the Japanese trying to take Taiwan, and probably other things as well. The Qing court did not do the things that a modern state was expected to do, most notably control territory and provide just justice, and therefore it was free ground for real nations to take over.
The Chinese, of course, also did not see themselves as a nation in the same sense that Westerners did. 中國﹐天下﹐孫中山的”一片散沙”etc. This led to a lot of bickering. Two quotes.

The first is an exchange from the American Philippine Commission’s Opium Committee, which toured Asia in 1903-4 looking into the opium situation. One of the people they interviewed was the Reverend Timothy Richards, who is identified as having been resident in China for thirty-three years, and is pretty clearly seen as speaking for China. (The Commission did have some Chinese merchants speak for China as well, but they were not very articulate.)

Q: Is there any Chinese government?
A: If a viceroy does not obey the central government, he will find himself high and dry. It is a government to that extent. The appointment of all high officials is in the hands of the central government.
(Baumler Modern China and Opium: A Reader p. 60)

This exchange takes place in the context of a discussion of Chinese opium suppression policies. China is not doing enough to reform its people to be considered a true state, but Richards does defend China by saying that there is at least a minimal amount of state structure.

The second is from the American journalist Hallet Abend, who was discussing China’s threat to walk out of the League’s opium control system.

Whatever Chinese delegate there has been at Geneva, whether he represented a government the authority of which did not extend beyond the walls of old Peking or whether he represented a government pretending to rule the whole country, China has seemed to regard the League as an organization to be used for bluff and intrigue.
These delegates in succession have not only refused to give facts concerning the growing amount of opium cultivation and opium smoking in China, but by distortion of facts have sought to place upon Great Britain and Japan the blame for the great quantities of narcotics now consumed in China.
The League has sought to keep China as a satisfied member because the Chinese delegate, after all, was the sole representative of an enormous and thickly populated part of Asia, but it has been farcical to pretend that under present conditions China could participate seriously on questions like opium, disarmament, labor legislation or child welfare.
(New York Times Apr. 21, 1929.)

For Abend a nation is capable of collecting facts (and not lying about them), but also participates in the improvement of its own people. Defining a state is now going away from state formations and towards having something like a public sphere and a citizenry. My question is where China sits today. In the early 20th century a nation was pretty clearly defined as a state with power. Today in the western press there is a lot of talk about how China is on the brink of chaos, how it is a place where the rules of the universe (a Rolex is a Rolex) don’t really apply, businessmen are greedy, etc. All this is despite the fact that China clearly does have a government an army and an economy. Where is the locus of place-ness now? Why are we (Americans rather than academics) so uncomfortable with China?

-China does not fit. This works both culturally and politically. China does not bow before Hollywood, both because of pirated DVDs and because Michelle Yeoh could kick Steven Segal’s ass. China is also the only country in the world that still has a 19th-century power politics relationship with the U.S. China is powerful enough that they can tell the Americans to kiss off, and war is a real possibility in the way it is not with Japan and the E.U. China is an exception in almost every way.

-China does not articulate very well where it is going. 1989 was supposed to be a sign that liberal democracy was coming to China, and while it may yet, China’s future path does not really fit any known model. Many people know what the relationship between an editorial in “Le Monde” and “France” is, but what is the Chinese equivalent? China seems to have lots of power and money, too much in fact, but not enough society and transparency.

A lot of this is of course just laziness on the part of Western elites. China is thinkable, and if it is a bit of a special case it is big enough to be worth the mental effort needed to figure it out. It is also caused in part by poor work on the part of professional China interpreters. So, what exactly is it that makes a place a place, and which of these things does China have?

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