Celebrate the working class

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:00 am

So, today is Labor Day in the U.S.A., which means that you can celebrate the achievements of the working class without being a Communist. The rest of the world, including China, celebrates on May 1st, but American images of labor have been imported to China in the past. Over the summer I looked into some of the issues of 工合画刊, the illustrated journal of the Co-operative movement in China. Although not enough scholarly work has been done on the movement, it is usually associated with Rewi Alley’s attempts to bring knowledge of western industrial techniques to China. Apparently they also brought techniques of illustration, since a lot of their stuff seems to borrow from western techniques.


This guy, who is calling for the people of the Northwest to produce more stuff might have come from Madrid, and the composition seems western to me as well, although I’m not a good enough illustrator to explain why.

This guy (and they are all guys) might have come from an American propaganda poster of an evil Japanese, showing how thoroughly Chinese artists were borrowing American conventions.

The two that I found most striking were the Son of Vulcan

and, most impressive of all, John Henry

I guess what I like best about him is that he seems not only confident in his own power, but confident that this will be accepted. He looks innocent but not naive. Needless to say, this type of image did not become common in China, but it is nice to see it there.


China on the move

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:47 am

I found a nice paper on migration inside China from Vox 1 They look at migrations inside China, and find a lot of things that you would expect. Network effects are important, leading people from one place to tend to move to the same place and cluster in the same jobs. This is what a lot of sources tell us about historical migration in China, but it is nice to see it confirmed with hard data. One thing I find particularly interesting is the extent to which migrants keep a foot in the countryside. Sojourners under the Qing and Republic were less likely to visit the old sod, I would guess, unless they were rich. As the chart below shows, over a quarter of current migrants spend 2 months a year back home. That is either a very long Spring Festival, or maybe they are coming back regularly. It may just be that the data are capturing more recent migrants, and they might tend to visit home more. In any case, there is some interesting data and nice graphs in here.

  1. Actually, I think someone else found it. It was in my bookmarks, but I have no idea how it got there []


Grading exams in Late Imperial China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:08 am

As finals week is here for many of us I thought this would be a good time to dip into Benjamin Elman’s A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China. Elman includes a whole chapter on student methods of dealing with the exams, most of which seem to involve cheating or some form of divine intervention rather than, say, studying. Below we see the 1604 optimus, top scorer on the exam, being given the answers by the god of literature while he is passed out drunk in the exam cell.


More interesting to me is what Elman has to say about grading the exams. Ch’ien Ta-hsin reported on his grading work for the 1782 provincial exams in Hunan.

Over 4,000 literati took the Hunan examination. The three sessions produced a total of 12,000 rolls of answers. If you separately count the papers on the [Five] Classics and the [Four] Books, poetry, discourse, and policy questions there were no less than 56,000 compositions. From the time we began to read the [essays on the] rolls until we made the final selections, my fellow examiners and I spent eighteen days and nights on them. The number of the rolls of essays was huge, and the time [to grade them] was limited. If we were to say that those we chose were always correct, or that even one man of talent was not overlooked, then, sincerely, I would not dare to believe this myself. We did our best, however, to open the path for selection widely and to evaluate the papers impartially. p.423

Elman has a good deal on ways that the Qing in particular tried to deal with the grading load. One method was to shorten the examiner comments on winning essays. In the Ming these could be several sentences, by the Qing they had been reduced to 8-character stock phrases and by the Late Qing to single characters (zhong 中, hit the mark). Examiners also skimmed over categories deemed less important and imposed length limits. Unfortunately none of this seems to have worked. Exam results were widely regarded as fairly random, with little stability in rankings from exam to exam. The bumbling exam-grader became a stock figure of Qing fiction. Doubtless multiple choice exams would have solved all these problems of essay-grading, but China failed to make this educational breakthrough.


Flithy Asians

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 4:14 pm

One of my colleagues recently passed on his copy of The Far East by James H. Maurer Sentinel Printing, 1912.

The author says that the book is not the product of extensive research, and that is is mostly a compilation from other sources. At the time it was written Maurer, formerly a member of the Knights of Labor was a Socialist member of the Pennsylvania Legislature. In 1912 he became  President of the Pennsylvania Federation of Labor and in 1928 Socialist candidate for Vice President of the U.S.

The book itself is fascinating, as its main purpose seems to be creating a left-wing understanding of East Asia (mostly China). Thus there is a lot about opium and foreign capital’s attempts to exploit the Chinese, making the book radically more pro-asian than anything that would be published in the West for a long time. You also get a lot of zombie errors and  standard orientalism. Thus it is worth reading if you are interesting in attempts to create a left-wing understanding of the world or if you are interested in understanding foreign images of Asia from outside the standard elite sources.

One of the thing that jumped out at me was a quote from William Bancker of Springfield Mass., writing to the head of the Cigar Makers’ Union. Mr. Bancker is worried about the competition to American labor from cheap Asian cigars, and thus, in a very modern way, sees himself as in competition with Asian labor rather than in sympathy with it. Apparently the elite/labor split over relations with the non-white world goes back aways.

“I served two years in the Philippines in the army, mostly around Manila, and out of curiosity I visited a number of shops there. Now every solider knows the uncleanliness of the average Filippino, and if you ask him he will tell you that many a poor fellow came home in a box by too close association with them as they are poison to the white man. They are affected with a skin disease, and a large majority of them are covered with open sores or scars. Leprosy, beri-beri, cholera, beubonic plague and other infectious diseases, are, as everyone knows, prevalent there. They sit half naked and work and scratch, while the air is rank with the smell of decayed fish and rank cocoanut oil which the women use on their hair.  Now, imagine one of these natives, whose teeth have rotted black by the constant chewing of the betel-nut, biting out heads, which I took particular notice to see if they did, and using their spittle to help past the heads on their work, and you can form some idea of what the American smoker will get when the trust dumps these far-famed Manila cigars on the market. The United States government spends thousands of dollars to quarantine against these Asiatic diseases and when one leaves the island for this country, himself and all his effects are thoroughtly disinfected, and in the face of all this our law makers propose to put their seal of approval on this bill which will put in the mouths of thousands of citizens, a most prolific contagion, and if as I fimrly believe, it will be the means of infecting those filthy Asiatic diseases into the blood of the American people the present administration can thank itself for that. “


Chinese in the Great War

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:14 pm
Chinese worker in France

Chinese worker in France

As it is 11/11 Blood and Treasure has a nice post up on Chinese laborers along with a link with lots of great pics. B&T suggests that Chinese laborers in the War are getting more attention in Europe. There has actually been less written on actuall Chinese laborers than you might think, although of course there is a lot about the Chinese intellectuals who were in France for the war.


It’s not a direct flight

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:41 pm

An account of how one Chinese migrant got to Italy, from Pieke et. al Transnational Chinese

I got out of China with an official passport. A fake one. I mean it had my details, but a snakehead got it for me. We only learned later that he got it in Ningde pre­fecture [north of Fuzhou]. … I spent a week in Hong Kong, in Clear Water Bay. Hong Kong is beautiful. Then I went to the Ukraine. I spent three months in Kiev, then I took a boat from Odessa to … let’s see … Romania.

Question: A big or small boat?

Xu: A small boat. At that time I still had the official Chinese passport, and you didn’t need a visa to Romania with that.

Question: So why did you have to cross the border illegally?

Xu: There are safety considerations for the snakehead…. From Romania I went to Greece, and from Greece with a large boat to Italy. That was dangerous because [by then] I had a Japanese passport. The Italians caught me at the bor­der and returned me to Greece. Then they put me in prison for four months. I was there together with two Englishmen, Mark and Michael. There were very good, really very good. To this day, it is them that I thank most. Even from Prato, I have called them. I learned some colloquial English from them. So my boss [in Prato] asked me whether I used to teach English. He noticed that I could talk a bit in English when I was dealing with Italian customers. He thought I had taught English. . . . Michael and Mark were drug smugglers. They told me that they had traveled between Hong Kong, Greece, and Britain smuggling drugs. But in Greece they were caught and sentenced to six years. At that time they were going to be released. The father of one of them had already come to Greece to take him home…. Eventually the Greek police took me to the Turkish border at night and told me to go to the other side. I didn’t know what was happening; they were pointing their guns at me. Then it turned out they were helping me cross into Turkey!

Question: Why do you think they did that?

Xu: We didn’t know! We still don’t know! The Greeks had some conflict with the Turks, maybe that’s why. On the Turkish side I got caught, returned to Greece, then the Greeks returned me to Turkey again. For three days I was there wandering in the mountains without eating. Finally I ran into an Iraqi who was in the human smuggling business. He told me how to take a bus to Ankara. In Ankara, we felt very ragged and were very hungry. Finally we found a run­down hotel. We explained to the owner that we were tourists, and all our money and tickets had been stolen, and the owner let us stay. Then we started asking around where there was a Chinese restaurant, because usually Chinese restaurants are in touch with snakeheads. Eventually we found one, but in that restaurant they didn’t know any snakeheads.

Question: Who ran that restaurant?

Xu: Someone from Harbin. He had been living there for fifteen years or so. He told us to go to a restaurant in Istanbul; there we would find snakeheads. With that new group of “human snakes” (renshe, smuggled migrants) we went to Egypt. When we left Turkey we used a Chinese passport, but when we ar­rived in Egypt we used a Korean one, because with that one you didn’t need a visa.

Question: So you had two passports with you?

Xu: Yes. But in Egypt there was some trouble. We didn’t get caught, but there was some trouble with the snakehead, it became dangerous, and we had to go back to Turkey. For the second time it was OK, and we flew from Egypt to Aus­tria, and then from there to Italy. My older sister’s husband came to Venice to fetch me. It took me eleven months to arrive here.

Besides making me feel bad for all the whining I do about long layovers this is story makes me realize that a lot of the simplicity in history is based on lack of data. This guy was in China. He is now in Italy. But the story is a bit more complex than that. I was also struck by both how porous borders are1 and how powerful they still are.

  1. although different borders are porous in different ways. I assume our hero would have had more trouble getting into Singapore posing as a Korean than he did in Egypt []


Protests and the public sphere

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 5:43 am


Every society has its own traditions of protest, things that people can do that will get them attention and hopefully enable them to get redress for their grievances without getting shot. Of course these traditions are changing all the time. King’s importation of Gandhi’s techniques of non-violent protest to the U.S. is a good example. Of course these techniques are not entirely portable. In States of Ireland Connor Cruise O’Brian has an account of ‘non-violent’ protest marches in Belfast. The marchers, overwhelmingly Catholic, marched through various Protestant neighborhoods carrying signs and singing songs in favor of an end to the Troubles. As O’Brian points out, the marchers seemed to be unaware of the political traditions of Northern Ireland, where “members of our ethnic group marching through your ethnic group’s neighborhood yelling and beating drums” was not called a peace march.

China also has traditions of protest and is developing new ones all the time. One example of this comes from Ching Kwan Lee’s Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt. Lots of people who used to have Iron Rice Bowl jobs in state industries are owed pensions and are not getting them. How do these pensioners protest? By standing in traffic.

Every time the central government announces publicly that pensions must be paid in full, we are very upset. All of us have television at home and we always watch it. Who would not know about these announce­ments? Every day, elderly people gather in the elderly activity room in our neighborhood, smoking and playing chess, poker, or mahjong. Someone comments on our unpaid pensions and makes a spur-of-the-moment suggestion to block the road. When we get angry, we just go instantly, or say tomorrow morning at 8 or at 9. Once we arrive at the destination, we don’t utter a word. We have no banner or slogan, just stand there. We just want to create public opinion, pressuring leaders of the Machinery and Electrical Works Bureau to talk to the enterprise director. There would usually be several hundred retirees. It’s not a large number it you consider that we have 1,500 retirees in the entire work unit. Traffic police would arrive several minutes after we begin blocking. They would not intervene, just ask politely which enterprise we are from. They say they are just doing their job, and urge us to try our best to move toward the sidewalk. Police would come too, and they would , even urge the traffic police not to push us too hard. They are afraid that elderly people will get hurt, and then the whole incident will become incendiary. Passersby who are on bikes are very sympathetic and are just curious to know which enterprise we are from. But people in buses or automobiles would swear at us, saying, “Those who should die live uselessly.” . . . Very soon, local government officials would come and we would tell them that we are owed our pensions and have no money to see the doctor. They usually are very patient. Once they promise to investigate or to get us paid the following week, we would just disband and go home. The more workers present, the higher the level of officials who would come down to talk to us.

Why this form of protest? Well, a dance marathon is sort of out of the question for these people.

Look, we are people in our seventies and eighties; our bodies are falling apart. We could barely walk. We could only stand still. Standing there on the road is hurtful enough, let alone marches and rallies. My feet and legs are all sore. When we were young, in the Cultural Revolution, we could roam around town and demonstrate. We are too old for that.1

The other advantage of standing in the road is that it fits into a script of protest that makes them look serious but not too radical. Protest needs to be seen by the “public” as something to be taken seriously (that’s why hunger strikes are popular. Even one person starving themselves has weight.) and yet not too out there.2 Lee’s protesters are pretty clear that they want to keep their actions in the script of respectful petitioning.

We don’t want to block railways. Those are major national arteries. We elderly workers are reasonable and we have a good sense of state policy. In Liaoyang and Anshan workers blocked railways and bad things hap­pened to them—public security officers were sent in. If any injury or death occurs, the nature of our action will be changed. . . . We are also conscientious about orderly petition. First we approach our own enter­prise, and if there is no response, we go to the superior department, and then to the city government. You have to follow the bureaucratic hierar­chy of proceeding from lower to higher levels. Then things will be easier.

At least in these cases the method seems to work. By emphasizing their age, ill-health and respect for order and the system the petitioning pensioners are usually able to to get themselves some money. Never all the money they are owed, but some. Given the way they protest the state can hardly send in people to bust heads, and they get sympathy at least from the bike-riding class, if not from the car driving class, and this public sympathy is something that the state will force the enterprise directors to respect.

  1. As Lee points out, this is the generation that has really been punished by Communism. They starved as kids after the Great Leap, were on the firing line for the Cultural Revolution and the Reform era came late enough that the only benefit they are seeing is loosing their pensions. []
  2. P.J. O’Rourke had a great sneer at the People In Black you sometimes see protesting on American campuses “Apparently life sucks when you are a nineteen year old rich kid” []


Getting the Chinese to work hard

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:05 pm

NYT has an article on American firms’ opposition to new Chinese labor laws. China has been pushing unionization of foreign firms, forcing even Wal-mart to accept unions. In particular the All Chinese Federation of Trade Unions has been trying to organize migrant workers. The basic complaint of the foreign firms is that it will be hard to get workers to work hard enough if you are forced to coddle them. The laws themselves are apparently not all that big a change, but the impression seems to be that these laws may actually be enforced. “If you really abide by the Chinese labor laws,” said Anita Chan, an expert on labor issues in this country and a visiting fellow at the Australian National University, “migrant-worker wages would go up by 50 percent or more.”
Labor groups have always been fairly critical of the ACFTU, for the obvious reason that they are not going to be mistaken for the IWW any time soon. I suspect that these laws will not represent a change in the nature of Chinese unions and that these will continue to be “enterprise” unions. Probably one reason for this push for unionization is simply a desire to have more state control over things. On the other hand, state unions would not have to do much to make the situation of Chinese workers considerably better, as this interview shows

Li Qiang: How is the method to count piecework? Do you know your pay rate?
Worker: The pay rate is different for different products.
Li Qiang: Can you give me an example for the pay rate?
Worker: Such as changing color dolls…
Li Qiang: What is the brand of it?
Worker: Disney.
Li Qiang: What is the piecework rate for it?
Worker: It used to be 11.20 Yuan for 100 pieces, or 0.112 Yuan each.
Li Qiang: How many people are needed to work it out?
Worker: Eight people.
Li Qiang: That is eight people work on the doll, getting 11.20 for 100 pieces.
Worker: But the rate is lowered to 7.80 Yuan.
Li Qiang: Why?
Worker: Because some workers would get over 1000 Yuan monthly if calculated by 11.20. The factory administration lowered the pay rate to reduce cost.

So this is not really hourly work, nor is it peicework. Workers get 1000 Yuan a month period. This is exactly the type of thing unions are supposed to fight for. Not just the right to bargin for a particular wage, but the right to have a wage at all. There are all sorts of things reported in the press, late payment of wages, strange living charges etc., that add up to not just a bad deal for labor but no deal at all. Making even the most marginal effort to improve the position of workers would be popular, make the government look good, and not really cost anything. I have doubts much will happen, and no illusions that gains will happen everywhere in China, but there is at least a possibility that things will improve. If nothing else, there are limits to the number of poor workers even in China, and eventually firms are going to have to bargin with their workers. Even the most limited set of legal rights would help.


The more things change

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:44 am

An article by Teh-Wei Hu on the politics of smoking in China. This is a subject I have some interest in, and I was not surprised to see that very little has changed in the politics of smoking in China. The Chinese government wishes the people would smoke less, for reasons of public health. (I also wish Chinese people would smoke less, for reasons of personal health.) One way to get them to smoke less is to raise taxes on smoking, which will both reduce use and raise money. This used to be called  寓禁於征Suppression through taxation.

As in the past there are different parts of the government with different views on this. In particular we get some parts of the state pointing out the damage this will do to the peasants who raise the crop, who are of course just honest sons of the soil trying to make a living. We even get a repeat of the questionable claim that peasants are forced to grow this crop by local governments.
There are some changes, of course. Now they are smoking tobacco instead of opium, and the worry about provincial  governments challenging the center due to the financial independence provided by drug  sales is not there. Still, if history is not repeating itself it is at least rhyming.


Why is China so clean?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:03 am

A long time ago I realized the street litter in poor countries is different than that in rich ones. In part this is because the poor countries seem to hire more street sweepers. More importantly, in a poor country there is nothing you can throw out that someone will not find it worthwhile to pick up.


Apparently great minds think alike

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