When China was a Great Power

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:05 am Print

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 Print

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 Print

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 Print

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 Print

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 Print

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 Print

“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 Print

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 Print

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.



Names and Dates In English and Chinese

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 9:15 pm Print

I recently discovered Beijing Time Machine, run  by Jared Hall. His recent piece Time over Place: Naming Historical Events in Chinese (ironically, it is not dated), is a striking and useful observation:

In English, we generally recall important turning points in terms of where they unfolded. Simple place names conjure up entire historical epochs. “Pearl Harbor” marks the American entrance into the Second World War and the global struggle against fascism. “Bandung,” the conference in of newly independent African and Asian nations that pledged to stand together in 1955 against imperialism and Cold War division. And then, of course, there is “Tian’anmen.” It is doubtful that mention of the square here in China would, by itself, raise any eyebrows. But try “6-4″ (六四) and you are can expect quite a different reaction.

There is also a useful chart of name years in the sixty year cycle, which you can download to put on your desk calendar or refrigerator door.

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