Early Medieval China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:35 am

Just for fun I have been reading Early Medieval China: A Sourcebook.1 It is a very good book, written by a collection of the superheros of the field. The advertising blurb from Columbia calls it “innovative” and it indeed is. Normally a sourcebook is a collection of primary sources aimed, mostly, at undergraduates. This book is rather more ambitious. There are probably a few places where undergraduates take courses specialized enough to merit assigning a book like this, but not many. Mostly it is aimed at scholars, being intended to summarize some of the most important recent work and suggest what might be done in the future. Thus we get Yang Lu explains and translates some of the wooden slips dealing with local administration found at Changsha in 1996, and we also get various tomb texts that have never been translated into English. The introductions to the volume and to the individual sections are the best short introductions to these topics2 available in English. The introductions and notes matter a lot. In a more traditional sourcebook editors often look for readings that an undergraduate would be able to get something out of without too much of an introduction or too many footnotes. Sometimes this is not too hard. Confucius talking about being a good person and Xunzi talking about good government are things that most students should be able to pick up on without too much hand-holding.  This period is different, however, and while the editors are at pains to point out that there was more going on in the culture of the period than “insect carving”, i.e. the incredibly recondite, allusive writing that the era is notorious for (although they do include Pei Ziye’s ‘Discourse on Insect Carving.’) they have put a lot of work into introducing the otherwise obscure readings and glossing everything that needs to be glossed.

There are, for instance, a whole set of texts that deal with topics that most people who teach the field talk about a lot. There is a nice reading from Ge Hong on the cultural differences between North and South, which is, of course one of the traditional themes of the period. The reading also gives something of the importance of Philology (and Phonology) in the scholarship of the time, as well as the importance of language, a theme that runs throughout the book.

Ge Hong
People of the Nine Provinces speak in different dialects. This has been the norm since the beginning of mankind. [ ... ] The land and waters of the South are mild and gentle; [thus] the sound [of Southern speech] is bright and crisp. The shortcoming is its shallowness. Its expressions are mostly vulgar. The mountains and rivers in the North are solemn and deep; [thus] the sound (of Northern speech] is baritone and rotund, taking after the simplicity and ruggedness [of the landscape]. The expressions contain many ancient terms. However, Southern [speech] is finer when spoken by nobles and gentlemen; Northern [speech] is better when spoken by villagers and peasants. One could distinguish in a few words a Southern gentleman from a commoner, even if they exchanged clothes. One would have difficulty differentiating between a Northern courtier and a countryman even after listening [to them] all day from behind a wall. Moreover, Southern speech has been influenced by [the dialects of] Wu and Yue; Northern speech has [the languages of] barbarians and captives mixed into it. Both have deep flaws that cannot be discussed in detail here.[ ... ] Since I arrived at Ye, I find only Cui Ziyue and his nephew Cui Zhan Li Zuren and his younger brother, Li Wei to be knowledgeable in speech and slightly more accurate [in pronunciation]. Resolving Doubts About Sounds and Rhymes composed by Li Jijie [lived during Northern Qi], contains many mistakes. The Classification of Rhymes, devised by Yang Xiuzhi is perfunctory. The [pronunciation of the] children of my house, since their childhood, has been watched and corrected. I take any mispronunciation of a character as my own fault. When determining what an object should be called, I dare not utter its name without first consulting books and records-this you know well.
[Yanshi jiaxun jijie, 529-45]

On the other hand they also have all sorts of things that don’t fit the traditional picture of the period as well. Shu Xi’s “Rhapsody on Pasta” is a good example.

…At the beginning of the three spring months
When yin and yang begin to converge,
And the chilly air has dispersed,
When it is warm but not sweltering,
At this time for feasts and banquets
It is best to serve mantou. 32

When Wu Hui governs the land,33
And the pure yang spreads and diffuses,
We dress in ramie and drink water,
Cool ourselves in the shade.
If in this season we make pasta,
There is nothing better than bozhuang. 34

When the autumn wind blows fierce, 35
And the great Fire Star moves west,36
When sleek down appears on birds and beasts,
And barren branches appear on trees,
Dainties and delicacies must be eaten warm.
Thus, leavened bread may be served.37

In dark winter’s savage cold,
At early-morning gatherings,
Snot freezes in the nose,
Frost forms around the mouth,
For filling empty stomachs and relieving chills,
Boiled noodles are best.

Thus, each kind is used in a particular season,
Depending on what is apt and suitable for the time.
If one errs in the proper sequence,
The result will not be good.

Ok, so just like in the ancient texts, you need to adopt your foods to the season. Obviously if one does not the results for your health and the balance of the universe will not be good. Is there anything that, like chicken soup with rice, is good all times of the year? Yes, there is.

That which Through winter, into summer,
Can be served all year round,

And in all four seasons freely used,
In no respect unsuitable,
Can only be the boiled dumpling. 38

And then, twice-sifted flour, 39
Flying like dust, white as snow,
Sticky as glue, stringy as tendons,
Becomes moist and glistening, soft and lustrous.

For meat There are mutton shoulders and pork ribs,
Half fat, half skin. It is chopped fine as fly heads,
And strung together like pearls, strewn like pebbles.
Ginger stalks and onion bulbs,
Into azure threads are sliced and split.
Pungent cinnamon is ground into powder,
Fagara and thoroughwort are sprinkled on.
Blending in salt, steeping black beans,
They stir and mix all into a gluey mash.

And then, when the fire is blazing and the hot water is bubbling,
Savage fumes rise as steam.
Pushing up his sleeves, dusting off his coat,
The cook grasps and presses, pats and pounds.
Flour is webbed to his finger tips,
And his hands whirl and twirl, crossing back and forth.
In a flurrying frenzy, in a motley mixture,
The dumplings scatter like stars, pelt like hail.
Meat does not burst into the steamer,
And there is no loose flour on the dumplings.
Lovely and pleasing, mouthwatering,
The wrapper is thin, but it does not burst.
Rich flavors are blended within,
A plump aspect appears without.
They are as tender as spring floss,
As white as autumn silk.
Steam, swirling and swelling, wafts upward,
The aroma swiftly spreads far and wide.

So now you have a recipe to try. Thoroughwort is, I think, Bone-set, and I would not use it in food, but the rest should be easy enough to find.
There are also readings on topics that have always been aspects of the Great Tradition, but have gotten less attention in the past. Thus we have a whole section on Auto-cremation. If you have been wondering how immolation fits into the Buddhist tradition there are readings here for you.


Huiyi was from Guangling. When he was young, he left home and followed his master to Shouchun During the Xiaojian period of the Song [454-456] he arrived in the capital [Jiankang] and resided at Zhulin si. He diligently practiced austerities, and he vowed to burn his body. When his fellow monks heard of this, some castigated him while others praised him. In the fourth year of Daming [460], he began by abstaining from cereals and ate only sesame and wheat. In the sixth year, he stopped eating wheat and consumed only oil of thyme.17 Sometimes he also cut out the oil and ate only pills made of incense. Although the four gross elements [of his body] became feeble, his spirit was clear and his judgment was sound.

Emperor Xiaowu [r. 454-464] had a profound regard for Huiyi and respectfully inquired [as to his intentions]. He dispatched his Chief Minister Yigong, Prince of Jiangxia. [413-465], to the monastery to reason with him. But [Hui] yi would not go back on his vow. On the eighth day of the
fourth month of the seventh year of the Darning reign period [May 11, 463], he prepared to burn himself.

He set up a cauldron full of oil on the southern slope of Zhong shan That morning, he mounted an oxcart drawn by humans and was going from the monastery to the mountain. But then he realized that the emperor was not only the foundation of the people but also the patron of the three jewels
He wanted to enter the palace under his own strength, but when he reached the Yunlong gate he could no longer proceed on foot. He sent a messenger to say, “The man of the Way, Huiyi, who is about to abandon his body, is at the gate and presents his farewells. He profoundly hopes that the
Buddha dharma may be entrusted [to his majesty].” When the emperor heard his message, he was upset and immediately came out to meet him at the Yunlong gate. When [Hui]yi saw the emperor, he earnestly entrusted the Buddha dharma to his care, then he took his leave. The emperor followed him. Princes, concubines, empresses, religious, laity, and officials flooded into the valley. The robes that they offered and the treasures that they donated were incalculable.

Huiyi now entered the cauldron, lay down on a little bed within it, and wrapped himself in cloth. On his head he added a long cap, which he saturated with oil. As he was about to apply the flame to it, the emperor ordered his chief minister to approach the cauldron and to try to dissuade him. (Yigong pleaded], “There are many ways to practice the path; why must you end your life? I wish you would think again and try a different track.” But Huiyi’s resolve was unshakable and he showed no remorse. He replied, “This feeble body and this wretched life, how do they deserve to be retained? If the mind of Heaven and the compassion of the sage [i.e., the emperor] are infinite, then my wish is merely that twenty people [be allowed to] leave home.” An edict ordering these ordinations was immediately issued. [Hui]yi took up the torch in his own hand and ignited the cap. With the cap ablaze, he cast away the torch, put his palms together, and chanted the “Chapter on the Medicine King.” As the flames reached his eyebrows, the sound of his recitation could still be clearly discerned. Reaching his eyes, it became indistinct. The cries of pity from the rich and poor echoed in the dark valley. They all clicked their fingers [in approval]; they intoned the name of the Buddha and cried, full of sorrow.

The fire did not die down until the next morning. At that moment, the emperor heard the sound of pipes in the air and smelled a strange perfume that was remarkably fragrant. He did not return to the palace until the end of that day. In the night he dreamed that he saw Huiyi, who came striking a bell. Again [the monk] entrusted to him the Buddha dharma. The next day, the emperor held an ordination ceremony. He ordered the Master of Ceremonies to give a eulogy for the funeral service. At the place of the autocremation was built Yaowang si in an allusion to [Huiyi's recitation of] the “Original Acts.”

As I said above, I can’t imagine teaching a class where I would be able to assign this to students, but it is a great beach read.

  1. Swartz, Wendy, Robert Ford Campany, Yang Lu, and Jessey J. C. Choo. Early Medieval China: A Sourcebook. Columbia University Press, 2013. []
  2. “Relations with the Unseen World, Everyday Life, Imaging Self and Other, Cultural Capital, Governing Mechanisms and Social Reality, The North and the South” []


When China was a Great Power

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:05 am

Recently I was Google-ing to find a picture of the statue of Liang Qichao that is, I think, in his hometown.


No better way to show that someone made it big than to show a shot of their statue. I found the picture as part of an essay entitled “Superpower Empire” which looks at the fall of the Qing Dynasty and its replacement by the Qian Dynasty, tracing the history of China down to the outbreak of war with Japan in 1933. It’s a well-sourced essay that draws on such important works as

-“A Revisionist Assessment of China’s Modern Political Myths” by Geraldine Brandt, Journal of Asian Studies, Volume 55:3, 1995
-The Accidental Revolution: The Collapse of the Qing Dynasty and its Aftermath by Jonathan Spence, 1979 -Lucian Bianco’s 1967 book Revolution and Reform in China 1895-1947

As you might have guessed, it is an alternative history, where Kang Youwei became the emperor Jianguo in 1912, Liang Qichao was his wily Prime Minister, Xu Jinqin, instead of being known only as the first Chinese woman to give a political speech was also the head of the Society of the Daughters of the Yellow Emperor, the intelligence agents/prostitutes who held the empire together (see Gail Hershatter’s work for details) and T.V. Soong had to content himself with being the Shanghai businessman who created China’s first airship line.

It is a lot of fun to read because it is quite good. It is written by David Hendryk, a civil servant from France who has read a lot of Chinese history. Given how plausible much of it is, I am somewhat surprised that nothing from this has turned up in my student’s work.


American contempt for China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:41 am

As it is the beginning of the semester, I went to dig up the famous quotes from Emerson and Adams on what is wrong with China. If you find yourself needing these, well, here they are.

 From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Journal & Miscellaneous Notebooks, an entry from 1824:

The closer contemplation we condescend to bestow, the more disgustful is that booby nation. The Chinese Empire enjoys precisely a Mummy’s reputation, that of having preserved to a hair for 3 or 4,000 years the ugliest features in the world. I have no gift to see a meaning in the venerable vegetation of this extraordinary people. They are tools for other nations to use. Even miserable Africa can say I have hewn the wood and drawn the water to promote the civilization of other lands. But China, reverend dullness! hoary ideot! all she can say to the convocation of nations must be –”I made the tea.”

John Quincy Adams, addressing the Massachusetts Historical Society, 184i

The fundamental principle of the Chinese Empire is anticommercial. It utterly denies the equality of other nations with itself, and even their independence. It holds itself to be the center of the terraqueous globe, equal to the heavenly host, and all other nations with whom it has any relations, political or commercial, as outside tributary barbarians reverently submissive to the will of its despotic chief. It is upon this principle, openly avowed and inflexibly maintained, that the principal maritime nations of Europe for several centuries, and the United States of America from the time of their acknowledged independence, have been content to hold commercial intercourse with the Empire of China. It is time that this enormous outrage upon the rights of human nature, and upon the first principle of the rights of nations should cease .

This is the truth, and, I apprehend, the only question at issue between the governments and nations of Great Britain and China. It is a general, but I believe altogether mistaken opinion that the quarrel is merely for certain chests of opium imported by British merchants into China, and seized by the Chinese Government for having been imported contrary to law. This is a mere incident to the dispute ; but no more the cause of war, than the throwing overboard of the tea in the Boston harbor was the cause of the North American Revolution

The cause of the war is the kotow!- the arrogant and unsupportable pretensions of China, that she will hold commercial intercourse with the rest of mankind, not upon terms of equal reciprocity, but upon the insulting and degrading forms of relation between lord and vassal. From Grayson, Benson Lee ed. The American Image of China New York: Frederick Ungar, 1979

The point of using these quotes, of course, is to help students get beyond the pretty standard American view that before being awakened by the West China was a stagnant unchanging place that was the opposite of everything a good society should be. If you want to hear me unpack everything that is wrong with these two quotes you should drop by 232 Keith Hall at 12:20 this afternoon.

From here (and also here) I found this great image of how Americans use  China to stand for backwardness. Would it not indeed be awful if Cincinnati became like China?





Teaching Asian Civilizations

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 2:28 pm

As I was cleaning out my office I found a copy of Approaches to Asian Civilizations by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Anslie T. Embree.1 First published in 1964, the book is the record of a conference on the teaching of Asia to American undergraduates. 1964 would be about the dawn of what you could call modern Asian Studies in the U.S. The field was being freed from “the incubus of philological Orientalism”2 The De Bary source readers were coming out, Fairbank, Reishcauer and Craig’s A History of East Asian Civilization came out in 1960. Learning about Asia in a serious way was starting to become possible for Americans who did not plan to become professional Asianists and were not at a handful of elite universities.

So, how does it look 50 years later?

Not surprisingly, some things look remarkably modern, and some much less so.

It is rather hard to imagine the Great and the Good of the profession all coming together today to discuss undergraduate education, but part of the reason for that is that there are too many Asianists for that now, unless we met in the Astrodome or something. The field has also fragmented a lot, in part because there are so many more of us. The book deals with China, India, Japan and a bit on the Middle East. The writers include historians but also political scientists and economists, the last of whom would seem unlikely at such a gathering today.

Parts of it seem shockingly old-fashioned. Most of the states of the Middle East (and Asia) “are inexperienced in the conduct of statehood, and most of them are also uncommitted in a literal sense. They do not feel the tug of global issues. Nor have they in fact accepted formal obligations either in degree or variety that the older states have, so that, at times, they behave in a manner we are prone to label irresponsible.” p.135-6

It is also interesting that the assembled professors do not seem terribly concerned about how they will justify having students take courses on Asia. The whole student as consumer/how will you market your program in the undergraduate marketplace thing is still in the future. A bunch of scholars will decide what and education is, and students and administrators will go along.

The American relationship with Asia is quite different, which ties in with the ‘why would undergraduates be interested’ thing. Today there are large groups of students (and granting agencies) who have an interest in Asia before you even open your mouth. There is no reference here to students who are interested in participating in the immense growth of the Asian economies, (not surprisingly) no mention of those fascinated with Asian pop culture (even less surprisingly.) We do get one disparaging reference to “dharma bums,” who may show up in your classes, but that’s it. Nor is there much much emphasis on the idea that being an American citizen should involve thinking in an informed way about the advisability of getting involved in a land war in Asia, even though that was something American citizens really should have been thinking about in the early 60′s.

Asia is pretty much an academic subject here, and the key issue that academics are struggling with is what’s wrong with Asia, specifically, why it is so stagnant and was stagnant for so long before being awakened by contact with the West.

Here is Arthur F. Wright’s periodizaiton of Chinese history

A. The period of genesis: the emergence of distinctive features of a Chinese civilization in the Shang;
B. The later Chou viewed as a “classical age”
C. The unification of state and culture: the founding of the Chinese Empire by the Ch’in, consolidation and development by the Han
D. The first experience of dismemberment and foreign invasions, cultural and political, c. 300-589
E. Unification: a new centralized empire and its culture-Sui and T’ang, 589-750
F. The breakdown of the second imperial order and the beginnings of the new society and culture-late T’ang, Five Dynasties, and Sung; proto-modern China
G. The first experience of total conquest and of incorporation in a larger world-empire: the period of Mongol domination, the brutalization of politics, and the evolution of mass culture;
H. Reassertion of Chinese control over state, society, and culture: the Ming. The failure of creativity. With apologies to Toynbee, “the abortive effort to revive the ghost of the T’ang oekumene” (Toyenbee gets mentioned a lot in here)
I. The second total conquest, continuation and atrophy of Ming institutions and culture under a Manchu-Chinese dyarchy.

The first bit seems not that different from the way we would outline it now. The middle gets bogged down in invasions with the occasional nod at ‘culture’, but the real difference is at the end, where we get lots of atrophy, an end to creativity, and a good 300 years of decline and stagnation. This is not at all how it would be seen today. William Rowe claims that the Qing had “worked out systems of administration and communication more efficient and effective than any of its predecessors.” and had “achieved a level of material productivity (indeed, prosperity) far beyond that of any earlier Chinese dynasty, as well as institutions of economic management probably more ambitious and effective than any seen previously in the world.” It had a “vibrant cosmopolitan culture.” One might almost think that Rowe is trying to dispel a lot of the old myths, and he makes it pretty clear that is what he is doing. It’s a lot easier to explain why people should study Asia when you see Asian history as a success rather than a big mistake its people would be better off forgetting.

While the books approach to Asian societies may seem old fashioned, many of their other concerns seem quite up to date. How do you teach history without getting bogged down in details or skimming over things? When will they publish some better books for students to use? Do comparisons with the West help more than they hurt? How do you deal with the cliches and stereotypes your students come to class with?

Of course some of these problems have been fixed by time and technology.

Arthur Wright mentions that he likes showing slides to his students, but is never sure when to interrupt lectures and show some pictures “Ideally, one should have a slide operator always courteously waiting and prepared to flash five minutes of carefully selected materials whenever they would support or illustrate the subject at hand.” See, Powerpoint does help!


  1. No, the office is still a mess. Interestingly, I inherited this book from Tom Goodrich, our department’s Ottomanist and the son of L. Carrington Goodrich. []
  2. p.69 Hellmut Wilhelm points out that the old sinological tradition actually functioned more or less like modern area studies. You are not limited to History or Literature or Economics. You learn the language and then go all over. I guess in 1964 Sinology and Classics were all of a sudden methodologically trendy. []


Kids nowadays…

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 5:06 pm

Need to read more Marx.

Well, maybe they don’t, but it would make my job easier. I did a lot of Marx in my undergraduate days at Northern Illinois University. It was a pretty Marxist history department, which was great because you got a lot of deeply involved professors. It was quite an eye-opener for a kid from the suburbs of Chicago to meet people who were way more interesting than me, knew all sorts of cool stuff and also saw the world in a totally different way than I did. Plus Eric Hobsbawm came out to talk to us once. He was working on a new project on Nationalism.  Kids nowadays don’t do much Marx, as I found out when I gave them the passage below (way below)  from Jian Bozan, Shao Xunzheng and Hu Hua Zhongguo lishi gaiyao Beijing: Beijing daxue, 2009 on the Boxer event.



History and hats

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:42 am

One book that I use in my classes is Bickers’ Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai. The book is the story of William Tinkler, an Englishman who served in the Shanghai Municipal Police. Students sometimes find it hard to warm up to the book because Tinkler is not easy to identify with.1 Bickers is interested in him because he is a good example of the lower parts of Empire and how they were experienced and also, I would guess, because Tinkler manages to go down the tubes at about the same pace as the Empire.  I like the book because it is a ripping yarn and Bickers talks a good deal about historical method and how historians go about figuring things out. One thing that struck them last time was the discussion of Tinkler’s headgear. In a chapter called “What We Can’t Know”, where Bickers discusses the ways historians deal with a lack of evidence he  mentions that when Tinkler died2 he was the owner of five berets. Bickers suggests that he had a taste for wearing them. This seems really hard to believe. Could you see  Tinkler the dashing SMP detective


Or Tinkler the Empire hobo


in a beret? There is a really good story here, but Ranke only knows what it is.  He was sort of out at elbow after leaving the SMC, maybe he got hold of a shipment of berets and these were the final ones he had not sold? Maybe he was an anti-Obelix, going around beating up Frenchmen and taking their hats to keep score? Maybe my understanding of the history of treaty port fashion its too limited for me to make sense of Tinkler’s hats?   Anyone who has ever done historical research remembers finding facts that were amazing and obviously could be used to make some important point. Bickers describes the process of finding a lot of things like this and slowly finding a context for them. Most authors don’t clue you in to the the bits that they could never find anything to do with, but Bickers does. It’s a nice book for China, but also for historical method.





  1. And, of course, the book is soooo boooring []
  2. Stabbed by a Japanese Marine in 1939 []


What Do Lin Yutang and Lin Biao Have in Common? They Were Both Memory Holed

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 2:17 am

Global Voices, a quite useful and smart blog, on January 30 posted Two Versions of Mao’s China: History Retouched as Propaganda, which has an set of uncanny “before and after” photos of the sort we’ve become all too familiar with. It’s not surprising to see Lin Biao being airbrushed out of posters and photos after he went from being Mao’s “closest comrade in arms and successor” to falling (literally) from grace.

But a set of photos further down the page caught my eye. The original 1927 version (the one on the bottom) shows Lu Xun (front row right), his wife, brother, Sun Fuyuan, another friend, and Lin Yutang (back row center), but in the second version, dated 1977, Lin and the other friend have been artfully “disappeared.”

Lu Xun With (1927) and Without (1977) Lin Yutang

Lu Xun With (1927) and Without (1977) Lin Yutang

I’m afraid that for too long Lin Yutang was also airbrushed out of Western accounts of China before the 1949 Revolution. Until the work of Qian Suoqiao, now of Hong Kong City University, Lin couldn’t get much scholarly respect. Since Qian is a friend, I should write a little more about his heroic contributions at some point in the future, but for now, let’s just appreciate the irony of the two airbrushed Lins. (more…)


Reconsidering Marco Polo

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:07 am

“Marco Polo’s reports of China, now judged mostly hearsay….” Perry Anderson, LRB

MMA 2012 - China - Tang - late 7c - Camel and RidersI got an email from a student who found my blog post in which I make a highly critical case regarding the historicity of Marco Polo’s adventures. They wanted to confirm (since some data was lost in the latest HNN transition) that it was mine for citation purposes. I’ve been considering revisiting it for a while now,1 and this seems like a good time, because my views on the subject have evolved a bit since: I’m still highly skeptical of Polo, but more importantly, I think the very structure of the argument and nature of the sources makes it highly unlikely that the believers and skeptics will come to a consensus.

When I expressed my doubts, lo those many years ago, I was informed that there was still some life left in Polo’s tale. It turns out that there is so much scholarship on aspects of Polo’s text that there’s even a term for it — “Polan scholarship” and if there’s one thing Polan scholars can’t stand, it’s to have Polo’s work seriously questioned. All the errors are “honest”; all the omissions are “explicable”; all the unconfirmed and untranslated stuff are just waiting to be decoded if only we had better Chinese sources; and incomprehensible bits are the result of Polo listening to the wrong people. That’s the attitude going in, and it’s the same attitude coming out.2 There seem to be lots of Euro-centric scholars with strong attachments to Polo, but a lot of Sino-centric scholars were very dubious.3

Foreigners were involved in Qin construction, and travel in China was common and widespread: the idea that China was closed or that people never migrated are both vestiges of simplistic thinking rather than historical verities. Even the harshest critics of Polo’s historicity admit that he got some thing right, and must have had some valid sources. The question is whether he was an eyewitness and participant in the history and culture he described, and, most importantly, whether he can be considered a credible independent source for the study of Chinese history and culture. I think the answer is still “no.” The story is great, but even if you take it seriously, it’s fantastical.4

Still, having entered this fray, I feel an intellectual obligation to stay informed. So when I ran across a catalog blurb for Stephen Haw’s Marco Polo’s China: a Venetian in the realm of Khubilai Khan (Routledge, 2006), it piqued my interest; thanks to inter-library loan, I finally got hold of it. Only for a week, unfortunately, but it was an interesting ride.

  1. You can tell by the dates on the articles linked here, this has been in draft for quite a while []
  2. there’s a lot of emotion in Polan defenses, though if I’d made a life’s work on a complex source and found a lot of scholars who hadn’t attacking it as fraudulent, I might be emotional about it as well []
  3. E.g. Obituary of John Larner, historian of Marco Polo. And “New archeological data highlights Polo errors.” []
  4. WaPo review of new Polo bio []


Daiyou Islands: New Sources, New Clarity?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:08 am

NYT reporter Nick Kristof brought in a guest blogger, Han-Yi Shaw of Taiwan, to examine some new mid-Meiji documentation about Japan’s relationship with the contested Senkaku/Daiyou islands. The core of Shaw’s findings is

the Meiji government acknowledged Chinese ownership of the islands back in 1885.

After several abortive attempts to survey the islands, the Japanese government declared them incorporated Japanese territory during the Sino-Japanese war, despite recognizing that it should have been negotiated with China. As territory seized in 1895, it should have been reverted to China in 1945, but for a variety of reasons, including an administrative shift of the islands from Taiwan to Okinawa prefecture, it remained outside of negotiations until a few years later.

It’s a reasonably persuasive presentation, historically, though I don’t think that these details are going to shift Japanese nationalists, even mild or moderate ones, to support politicians who would abandon Japan’s claim to these useless rocks which sit in such valuable territory. And as long as there’s no particular cost to maintaining the claim — Chinese hostility to Japan is not predicated on this issue sufficiently that abandoning the claim would eliminate anti-Japanese sentiment as a nationalist motivational tool of the mainland regime — it seems unlikely that anything will change, except a few American lectures.


What if it’s a fake? What if it isn’t?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:56 am

Jeremiah Jenne pointed me to this most wonderful bit of French nonsense: Jean Levi’s claim that the terracotta army is a modern forgery.

These famous clay sentinels, which protect the sleep of the despot eternally as is insistently and pompously proclaimed by journalists, do not date back from the 3rd century B.C., the time when the Great Emperor was buried, but from the 20th century, at the end of the Cultural Revolution when the struggle between factions was raging with the “Gang of Four”. As you’ve pointed out, it is nonetheless surprising that this “new wonder of the world”, which has crowds from the four corners of the planet gape with admiration, was inscribed on the World Heritage List without being assessed by international experts as is usually the case when a country officially asks for an artistic or architectural place or property to be listed. The Chinese authorities purely and simply refused the UNESCO experts access to the archeological site, although those same experts apparently did not take much offence as Lingtong’s buried army was added to the list anyway.


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