Something new at the Old Summer Palace?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:32 am

I was at the Old Summer Palace in Beijing (Yuanmingyuan) There was something there I did not remember seeing before.1IMG_4340 They have replicas of the zodiac heads out for you to look at! Seen up close they look like a rather scary trial scene.

IMG_4341 The heads were once in one of the main fountains, and were looted by the British and French in 1860. The return of the zodiac heads was big news a while back. Lillian Li gives a nice overview of the story of the burning of the Summer Palace and the subsequent history of the site. Particularly under the Communists it became a go-to site to explain the evils of foreign imperialism, and I can still remember listening to schoolkids get lectures about the evils of foreigners there. The site has been changing some of late though. Part of it is that the Qing emperors are starting to look better and better. They used to be feudal oppressors, now they are great Chinese rulers who happen to have come from a minority nationality. This makes it easier to play up the site a little more. Part of it also is the zodiac heads. As they came from the Summer Palace, are easily identified, and show up in the collections of rich foreigners and foreign museums they are a great symbol of China’s stolen cultural patrimony. They make an even better symbol because the Chinese care about them more than foreigners do. They are really not very important as works of art, so foreigners are willing to give them up. The Elgin Marbles may be precious to Greece, but they are also among the crown jewels of the British Museum, so they are not going anywhere for now. With a bit of pressure, and cash, China can get the heads back. Also, China is not Greece. The two heads that China got back in 2013 were donated back by the head of Christie’s, a luxury brand that of course sells a lot in China.

I have not kept track of the exhibits at the Summer Palace and how and when they have changed, but my impression is that they are getting better. Better in the sense that the site is a place where China was despoiled by foreign imperialism, but also a site of cultural mixing of all sorts. There has been a lot of scholarship on this sort of thing, (see Lillian Li) and some of it is trickling into the exhibits. There is a lot more there than I remember on the Jesuits, and they have a series of before and after pictures showing the site in 1873, 13 years after the looting, and now, subtly making the point that a lot of what happened there happened after the looters left. A surprising number of things that have been restored to the site were found “on the campus of Beijing University.” You really could make a marvellous museum out of all the things the site has been over the years, and it is nice to see that they are at least making baby steps in that direction.


  1. I think I was last there in 2010? In any case they may have been there already and I just missed them []


China’s first statue?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:49 am

I found this in 圖書日報, I think from 1910. It is a statue of Lin Zexu that may be China’s first public statue. It is of course not the first statue to exist in China, but it may be the first time China had a proper Western-style Public Statue made of bronze. There was never much of a Chinese tradition of statuary and certainly none of public commemorative statues.

Lin Zexu圖書日報 (more…)


Digital History and teaching

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:12 pm

Yoni Applebaum has apparently taken a break from filming The Matrix 4 to record a clip on The Historian in The Digital Age. For those of you don’t know him, Yoni is a grad student in history who managed to parlay some blog comments into a gig at the Atlantic. In the clip he talks about Digital History as being able to work with the various digital sources that now exist, will exist in the future, and which will become obsolete. He talks more, however, about finding new places to put your stuff, and finding new audiences to talk about the past with. He stresses that most of what he he does for the Atlantic is the same type of thing he does in his academic work. “synthesize the existing scholarly literature, blend it with new primary research and come to a conclusion.” On the other hand with his Atlantic audience he does not have to do a full-blown scholarly treatment of something. He also does not have to be a real expert in the sense you would need to be to publish academic stuff on these topics. I assume he is a fine academic historian, but pretty much anyone who knows the literature can add a lot to most American/internet discussions of…anything.

Listening to this makes me think about a couple things.

-Feedback. He mentions that you get quicker feedback doing digital history. That is true, but not really the most interesting point. How does an academic historian get feedback? Some of it is book reviews and snide footnotes and lack of job interviews, but all of that is very slow. I think it helps a bit to think of Digital History (which to me is mostly blogging) as a form of teaching. Thus feedback is reading the comment section, checking your website traffic, etc.  Or, of course, grading papers. Neither of these are normally listed among the joys of the job, but they really are important. Grading can be unpleasant, but it is far, far, far, more useful in helping you think about what you are doing than student evaluations or peer observations. Grading is better than a comment section because you have a captive audience that you have power over.1 If students are not answering questions the way you would like maybe you are asking the wrong questions, giving them the wrong sources, or not teaching them how to think about the sources the way you would like. Everyone who teaches had gotten halfway though a pile of student writing and asked themselves what went wrong.

With blogging, or any other forms of digital/public2 history the feedback loop is a lot…loopier. Anyone can show up and say anything, and their agendas may not be yours. Heck, some of them may not even have done the reading!  Some of them are telling you that you are the cat’s pyjamas, which is nice, but does not help much. The ones who have engaged with what you are teaching but are not entirely satisfied are the ones you think the most about. Who is your audience? What do you want them to come away with? Sadly, in order to get enough feedback to really think about, you have to ramp things up to the point where you are also getting a lot of crud. You could deploy some sort of moderation system (run by avid readers/TA’s) but that turns it into a whole different sort of thing.

Applebaum talks about all the places you can put things, but it might help to think more about who the audience is, and why were are doing this, and how we assess (that word!) how well we have done it. Is it just hit count? I know it is for the Atlantic, but I suspect Yoni cares about more than that. Getting some citations in paper? Kind e-mails? I would like to think that digital history, like teaching, is a craft that we practice in part because it satisfies us personally, besides pleasing the powers that be, but a blog needs to go beyond a personal intellectual diary if you want to claim that you are really doing history. I am really not sure to think about all the digital stuff people are doing. It it just the old model, only not on paper? Or something else? Why bother having a site like Frog In A Well?3

-It’s really sad how little historical awareness the historical profession has. Applebaum is, like all the digital history people, filled with the spirit and trying to convert people. But writing about the past actually goes farther back than the birth of the modern research university and the modern Great Wall dividing academic and popular history.4 In China, to choose just one place, there were all sorts of ways of writing and talking about the past (or other things) and even in the West and the gatekeeper role of modern academic credentialing/publishing is pretty recent. Obviously lots of people are aware of this, but I would like to imagine that historians would be -more- aware. Not happening, from what I can see. A historical change is happening, and historians as a group are less aware than others about how to deal with it.

Via Coates

  1. Be as fun-loving and interesting as you want, but when you teach you are The Man. []
  2. no, they are not the same []
  3. One nice thing about the new model is that if this were an article a nasty editor would tell me I have not yet figured out what to say about this. In the new digital world I can just hit post, and either people will help me figure this out, or it will just vanish []
  4. I call it a Great Wall because it is supposed to be a sharp line, visible from space, that clearly divides the two, but in reality nobody is sure why it is there, it is often not there, and the people on each side are obsessed with what those on the other side are up to. []


China’s Museums

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:57 am

I have been reading China’s Museums, part of the Cambridge University Press series Introductions to Chinese Culture. I am finding the table of contents particularly interesting,1 as it reflects on how you categorize things. The authors, Li Xianyao and Luo Zhewen, are both major figures in the museum world, so the book gives you a reasonably up-to date2 official view of China’s 5,000 years of history and what matters in it.

It is interesting to try and figure out why things were included in what category and why they are there at all. The first category is Chinese Treasures, which starts with the Palace Museum in Beijing, but follows that with the Palace Museum in Taipei (and they call it Taipei) as well as the Shaanxi History Museum, (birthplace of Chinese culture). The Shanghai Museum is included because of “The scope, depth and quality of its collection, and its striking architecture and use of modern technology” I’m guessing that Liaoning Provincial3 is included because of the Qing stuff they have. Something good on China’s last Emperors, and thus emperors in general, is worth including. Three Gorges in Chongqing has a “glass dome [that] resembles a huge magnifying glass, reminding us to pass on the inheritance we have received from our forebears to the next generation, to use culture to nourish the earth.” So I am guessing that some combination of quality of your collection, excellence of your presentation, and importance of what you do in the narrative of Chinese history will get your museum in this book.

The second section, is, of course, The Contribution of China’s Ethnic Minorities. Eventually we get to Huaxia civilization, and these two reflect the problems of defining China. This is particularly acute for museums, since it is easier for them to slip into Han chauvinism. If all of China’s 56 nationalities are part of the great tapestry of Chinese civilization, then why is almost everything in the book Han, other than a single section on minorities?

They get around this a bit, with their definition of Huaxia 華夏, a sort of cosmic Han category that includes everything.

The term huaxia, however, is broader in meaning that “China” It indicates more of a cultural space than a geographic designation, and also implies a historical lineage. Xia is the name of the first-known dynasty of what later came to be “China.” dating to some three millennia ago.  The term hua includes both overseas Chinese as well as non-ethnic Chinese under the overarching umbrella of what today is known as China. Cultural aspects of huaxia, such as silk, tea, ceramics and Chinese medicine, have all made great contributions to mankind.

Some of the rest of the book is trying to categorize the stuff you are stuck with. Not many other countries would have a category on Treasures of China’s Grottoes, but when you have Dunhuang and Yungang and Longmen in your cultural past you probably should. Should we include archeological sites? Well, if we don’t Peking Man and Banpo will be left out, so I would guess we should.

One thing I noticed was that there is very little modern history here. Once upon a time Chinese history was revolutionary history, the story of how the Chinese people rose up and destroyed the old feudal society. There is very little of that story here.  No sites associated with Sun Yat-sen or even Mao Zedong, and little reference to the modern period at all.4 You can see this most clearly in the discussion of the National Museum of China5 The Museum has an area of 192,000 square meters, but only 2,000 square meters are dedicated to the Road to Resurgence and China’s modern history.



  1. Why, yes, I am a load of fun at parties. Why do you ask? []
  2. This seems to be the same book that was published in 2004 by China Intercontinental Press, so I’m not sure when the text was written []
  3. Which I have not been to []
  4. Zigong Salt Industry Museum does manage to slip into Natural History. []
  5. There is a great dissertation in how the China Revolutionary Museum and the China History Museum merged to form this. []


History and tourism in China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:28 pm

China File has been following the attempts of the town of Bishan  to make itself into a tourist destination. Tourism is a rapidly growing industry in China, and lots of localities are trying to find ways to draw in the crowds. Bishan is in the Huizhou region of Anhui, which was a very prosperous region in the Qing. Some of the other towns in the area have parlayed their local architecture into UNESCO World Heritage site status and big tourist money. In fact, beyond just tourists coming in, Huizhou architecture is being appropriated by shipped out, both by cultural institutions with impeccable pedigrees like the Peabody Essex Museum and by tacky zillionaires like Jackie Chan. Bishan is a little different. They don’t have much of the classic Huizhou architecture, and have been sort of left behind.  The attempt to draw in people is headed by the Wangs, the long-time leading family of the district. While private museums and preservation efforts are not unknown in China the state usually takes the lead, and the interpretation of the site, if any, is usually up to them.  For the Wangs, rebuilding ancestral halls and re-creating genealogies has its own value outside cash, so this is a very local, grass-roots sort of project. The thing that makes it really interesting to me is the clientele they are aiming at. Below is a picture of one the inns that have been built in the town (this one in an old rapeseed oil factory) to “cater to an international clientele who eschew the region’s more popular modes of tourism”

Historical Value_ A Chinese Town Appraises Its Past _ ChinaFileI find this interesting because I am always struck by the different versions of China different tourists get to see. I’m usually particularly aware of this since I prefer going on the Chinese tours since they are cheaper and are more likely to include places connected with bits of Chinese history most foreigners have never heard of. Chinese tourists are also more likely to ask interesting questions like “what happened to all the villagers who lived here before you built this historic site?”((See that guy emptying a trash can? That’s where.)) Of course they also spit melon seeds everywhere, so you can see why foreigners would not want to be near them.

It’s pretty obvious from the photo essay that China is starting to develop different tourist trails for different customers, and they will go to different places, be told different things, read different things and see different things even when they are seeing the same things. In the picture there is some beautiful old Chinese writing which might be taken differently by Chinese and foreigners, since if you don’t know Chinese and nobody bothers to explain it you might think these are imperial inscriptions or something.1

It’s not just foreigners who want a different tourist experience of course. Rich and poor Chinese are bifurcating  more and more. Here is a picture I took while visiting the historic town of Pingyao   P2 Ok, Chinese people selling vegetables in the street. Big deal. Why would a middle-aged China hand like me waste film on that?

IMG_2157Ok, a customer on a bike. I really did not get enough pictures of daily life in bicycle China back in the day, maybe I wanted to capture that? (more…)

  1. the top one is THE PEOPLE’S COMMUNES ARE GOOD []


Underage drinking in Southeast Asia

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:05 am

Apparently the Mint Museum of Toys in Singapore is worth seeing. Although I have not been, it seems that they currently have an exhibit up on “Guinness by the decades.” This should not seem too odd. The Guinness folk have a long history of humorous ads that might appeal to kids.


The Guinness Book of World Records was an important part of youth culture when I was a wee nipper, since we often had to settle important arguments and needed a source of authority that knew more interesting facts than our parents did.1

Guinness also seems to have been in Southeast Asia for a long time, adopting its brand to the local culture. From the exhibit


I wonder how well the whole ‘Guinness for strength’ thing fit in with Chinese ideas about medicine and food. Here is a more modern place mat, which is on my office door


Mulan is trying to convince the other soldiers that she is indeed a man by drinking 11 pints of stout. Just 3 more and she can go surfing!

So not surprisingly there is all sorts of Guinness swag spread all over Southeast Asia


I don’t know how well the exhibit does with the way Guinness, a brand sometimes associated with Ireland, was acculturated into Southeast Asia, but I will be charitable and assume they did a great job with it.

When will this interesting exhibit come to our Children s Museum here in Pittsburgh? When hell freezes over, of course. In the U.S. any suggestion that childhood could happen in the same places alcohol exists is unthinkable. It may take a village to raise a child, but that village better not have a pub in it. Apparently in Singapore kids are part of the general society, rather than a special Disney version.

  1. Our debates did not take place in pubs, and I don’t think any of us associated the book with the brew, or even knew it existed. []


The pure land of Tibet and the lothesome Han Chinese

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:05 am

Washington Monthly has an article up on Chinese tourism in Tibet. It is by Pearl Sydenstricker, who is a western (I assume) reporter who does not want to use their real name “in order to protect sources in China and Tibet.” That strikes me as a good idea, since the Chinese government tends not to like criticism.1 While I agree with a lot of what the article is saying, I found most of it deeply annoying. The general thrust of the article is that Chinese tourism is destroying Tibetan culture “Rather than threatening Tibetan monks with army troops, the government is smothering them with throngs of pushy tourists.” Han Chinese tourists have overrun Tibet, taking pictures inside temples, gawking at sacred rituals, and making a mockery of a culture. One could, of course, replace the words Han and Tibet here with American or German or Japanese and …well, anywhere really. I bet this is an old story with some interesting modern and Tibet-specific twists, but you won’t find that here.

Yes, Chinese tourists are flocking to Tibet, just like they are flocking to Shaoshan and Pyongyang and Paris. Yes, China is an imperial power in Tibet, and the Beijing government treats Tibetans even worse than it treats Han. Yes, lots of Han have deeply condescending attitudes towards the minority nationalities. On the other hand, the whole point of sending someone who knows Chinese (but apparently not Tibetan) to write an article is to get beyond lazy stereotypes.

The article opens with Chinese tourists witnessing a sky burial. How vile.2 It appears, however, that at least one monastery was o.k. with that. Was it just the money? Were they thinking that this would help win converts? There are lots of motives for letting people look at your culture beyond fear of getting shot, but the Tibetans are just as much cardboard cutouts here as the Han. While I doubt that Tibetans are raking in as much of the tourist cash as they would like they are getting some, and a lot of them want it, and the effect would really be no different if the tourist money came from culturally understanding American and Danish tourists rather than those loud Han with their IPhones. Cultural contact is a complex issue, and spitting on the Han does not really advance our understanding much. One of her informants is a Han Chinese.

a twenty-six-year-old Han Chinese backpacker from the coastal provincial capital city of Jinan, who goes by the English name of Sarah. I said that Lhasa feels uptight. “Oh—you mean the military and police?” She laughed and then told me, as if explaining a very simple idea to a child, “We feel very relaxed here. It’s a very safe city. If we feel cheated by a vendor, we can call a hotline and they tend to be on our side.” Sarah wore a pink scarf with Tibetan designs; prayer beards encircled both of her wrists. “I’m a Buddhist,” she said proudly. “It’s in the heart.”

She explained the military presence: “Have you heard of Tibetan independence? People wanted to split the country and oppose the unification of the motherland. We really didn’t like that.” During her weeklong trip to Tibet, Sarah stayed in a Han-run hostel and ate Chinese food for all but two of her meals.

Sarah seems a little less self-aware than might be nice. So does Pearl. I have never actually had a ditzy Chinese female (they have to be female for examples like this) explain how she loved Tibetan Buddhism while having no understanding of her own status as part of an empire. I have seen lots of Americans like that though. The title of the piece is the Disneyficaiton of Tibet. If Americans can’t see themselves in the word “Disneyficaiton” they really need …something. My point is not that the article would be saved with a little “other people do it too” but that the whole frame is built around Tibetans as people who exist only for the better sort of Americans to lament their passing at the hands of the evil Han or (in Mexico) busloads of Americans who work at Wal-Mart.

The Han Chinese may leave melon seeds everywhere, but when they say the Tibetans are poor because they are lazy they are least do them the courtesy of thinking some Tibetans might like cars and money and modern medicine. Very few Chinese are likely to see Third World poverty as colourful the way so many Americans do. At least none of the Chinese analogize Tibetans directly to yaks like Pearl does. Is the Tibetan case different from the other cases of traditional cultures disappearing around the world, as capitalism changes everything and the young people leave for the big city? I would also like Pearl to give us a bit of Chinese context. Is the tourist-industrial complex growing quicker in Tibet than elsewhere in China? There is a massive growth in tourism all over China, and many of the same issues about access, preservation and tacky tourists present themselves there. I don’t doubt that police and paramilitary types are everywhere in Lhasa. Are they more common and more annoying then they are everywhere else in China? I would guess so, but no way to tell from this. Maybe someone should send a reporter to find out. For now all readers of Washington Monthly will get on this topic is some Han-bashing.

Pearl is fighting the good fight here, but this article is really not very helpful.  I would be interested in knowing what she thinks of the reaction to the article. As you might expect, the comments are less then edifying.

This is so sickening – Chinese people are a disgrace. It is the lowest of all “civilizations” on earth.

Does Pearl agree with this? I would guess not, but when you write stuff that fits in with crude anti-Chinese stereotypes you will find yourself with a lot of unpleasant bedfellows.


  1. Although my guess would be that Pearl’s access to China is more threatened by this piece than any Chinese or Tibetan acquaintances. []
  2. The tourists, not the custom. The custom is traditional. []


China in Cartoons II

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:42 am

The second volume of Understanding China Through Comics is out.1 I ‘reviewed‘ the first volume and concluded that Jing Liu is no Larry Gonick, but it’s not bad. My short review of the new volume is that he is still no Larry Gonick, but this volume is even better than the first one, and you should certainly buy it.

The art has many of the same problems as the first volume, but is better in general. There are still too many places where what is going on in the story is not represented graphically. So, the struggle between Shu, Wu and Wei is represented, in part, by three guys getting ready to fight on a map.


Obviously a lot of history is hard to represent well in pictures, but that’s the whole point of being a cartoonist, that you are better at this then we are. Although there are some clunkers in here there are also some quite serviceable bits, like this one on corruption.


A better one on the Three Kingdoms, showing backstabbing and armies being destroyed


And even some quite good ones, like this on street fighting in Chang-an, which looks like it might have been inspired by a WWII movie but at least gives you a nice feeling of tension.



  1. Been out for a while, actually []


Xi’an Walls

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:52 am

The city of Xi’an is in the process of re-building the city wall and adding four new museums, one each for the Zhou, Qin, Han and Tang dynasties. I was not surprised by the museums. Xi’an has a lot of history, and they have pretty obviously been trying to preserve/cash in on it for years. I did wonder a bit about the walls, since last time I was there they looked fine. What is going to happen with them? According to Xinhua

The rebuilding work will not damage any of the walls’ relics. “Experts will monitor the whole process of the rebuilding project,” said Yao Lijun, deputy director of the city’s ancient walls management committee.

This makes me wonder who this Yao Lijun is, and how much he knows about historic preservation. Anyone can slap on some new bricks, but are they re-building the Ming version of the wall? Might it not be better to leave parts of it as is? What will they do with the bomb shelters that were dug into the wall during the War of Resistance? Any physical object has changed a lot over time, and to “restore” it you need to figure out not only the technical details of restoration, but which of the several versions you want to restore.1

A colleague recently asked me to suggest some names of public historians in China for a joint U.S.-China project. I was completely stumped, and I am pretty sure it is as much the state of history in China as my ignorance of what Chinese scholars are up to that is responsible.

First, for the benefit of our non-U.S. readers, what is Public History?  A quick definition might be that it is a field that has grown up in the U.S. since the 1970’s and includes all the people who are professional historians but not teaching at a university. Archivists, museum people, historic preservationists, monument builders, oral history folk, they are all Public Historians, and increasingly they need a degree it Public History to do this.2 I have blogged quite a bit about Public History in China, but I thought it might be worth thinking a bit more about it.

I think the rise of public history is an altogether good trend. Historians today (the teaching and monograph-writing tribe) are more and more interested in artifacts, visual images, how the public understands the past etc. but we are mostly winging it. How do you “read” a popular print, or restore a building to its ‘original’ form? What does it mean to declare someplace a historic site, and what should you do after you declare it? If the point of public history is to teach someone something, who is supposed be learning and how does that work? Most of us have no clue unless we have talked to and studied with some Public Historians.

This is particularly important for China, as so many Chinese places (mostly cities) are trying to ‘restore’ old sites and explain what they mean, both as a way of attracting tourists and as a way of establishing their importance in China’s 5000 years of history. (See here here and here.)

There are a few of major differences I can see between the U.S and Chinese traditions of public history.

-What to memorialize and who gets to do it? Both in China and in the U.S there are both public and private museums, although the governments (central and federal, state and provincial) dominate the action. Everywhere in the world what counts as a historic site is part of what a society (and a government) decide needs to be remembered. China has been less successful than some other places in historicizing some parts of the past. Thus there is a New York Tenement Museum but very little in China dealing with the Cultural Revolution. In part this is because the Chinese state feels the need to avoid certain topics. China’s central government seems to favor a public history that either connects to China’s glorious 5,000 years of history (ideally as sanctioned by a UNESCO world heritage site designation) or things that will lead to an appropriate form of patriotism. Things that don’t fit get left out, and you are not sure what to say about the rest. What sort of plaque do you put on the Great Wall once you decide that was built not to keep out evil foreigners but to divide some of China’s 57 harmonious nationalities from each other? This is the same sort of problem Americans face with sites like the Little Bighorn. American academic historians sometimes complain that they are marginalized in the process of making public history, but I think they have more influence than historians in China.

-A very different public face. One aspect of public history is that there are no captive audiences off campus. Thus if you build some sort of historic thing you have to find ways to attract people to it. In China a lot of these places seem more commercial than they would be in the U.S. This is not actually entirely bad. I don’t think that something that people like and enjoy is by definition non-scholarly, nor is there any harm in things that are just fun. Everywhere in the world historic sites have to struggle with how to put bums in seats without Disnifying too much. This is still in its infancy in China One example of this are the dressed up people. In the U.S they might be called interpreters or docents or living history. They dress up in costume and explain what the site would have meant to people at the time. The basic idea is to trick people into learning something about history. At times they can reach a pretty high level of both performance and commentary on the meaning of American History in the present. Ask A Slave is a interesting example, where a woman (with a performing arts degree) uses her experience as a living history slave at Mount Vernon to discuss America, race, and history. I can’t imagine any of the people who work at a site like this in China doing a website like Ask A Slave. In China you are more likely to get minimum wage workers dressed up in vaguely period costumes. At best you get drama. When I took my daughter to the historic city of Pingyao there was a dramatic performance that roamed through the city and you could watch various parts of the story of the magistrate investigating a wronged widow and …something.

PingyaoDrama1It was plenty of fun, but I’m not sure what anyone learned from it. While we are at it, the general quality of guides and interpreters at Chinese sites is often pretty poor. Lots of dates, figures (the pagoda contains over 100.000 bricks!) and not much interpretation. Likewise the texts that go along with various sites and buildings are often pretty poor. Again my point here is not just to be an annoying foreigner but to point out that the face of public history has made enormous strides in the U.S and Europe over the last decades, and that China still has a ways to go.

-Ideas about re-construction. I have talked about this before, but basically in China there is much more of a tradition of totally re-building sites (sometimes with a few bits of old-timey stuff tacked on after) rather than what elsewhere would be called careful historical reconstruction.

Still there are many parts of what is called Public History in China that are well-established. There is a lot to work with here.

-Oral History This is well-established in China, going back to the Maoist period, although it seems less popular now.

-Archives Very well established. There are lots of archivist, they have their own publications and everything. Admittedly they do not always function the way they do elsewhere. I remember going to one Chinese archive and being greeted with huge calligraphy scroll that urged the archivists to 保护档案(Protect the Archives) Protect them from what? It turned out to be protecting them from having anyone look at the documents. Still there is an archival community

-Collectors, connoisseurs and physical culture types. While academic historians may sometimes make fun of antiquarians, public historians can get a lot from building restorers, antique collectors and such. Antique collecting was one of the proper obsessions for a gentleman in the Late Imperial period, and there was an one time quite a culture of connoisseurship in China. More modern events, especially the Cultural Revolution, did not help this culture, but it is certainly back now. The Wuhan museum of the 1911 revolution collected a lot of artifacts from this type of people. In Jiangsu Qin Tongqian is trying to build an entire hotel out of architectural elements he has saved from buildings all over China. China does not yet have the hordes of Taiping Rebellion reenactors, military history buffs and blue-haired county historical society ladies it deserves, but one would guess they are coming.

-Popular interest and state support Here I am a bit at sea. While Americans and their governments and their rich people are interested in history it is mostly U.S. History. I assume that some of this influence is good, and some bad, but I can’t really assess how much of each, as there is a pretty minimal interest in Chinese history in the U.S. Regardless, the Chinese public and state are really into Chinese history. If you want state funding or public attention for Chinese history China is the place to go, so there is a real potential to create something here.

Well, this post keeps growing, and at this point I think I need to either delete it, put another month of thinking into it, or just post it as is.


Apparently some people in China are unhappy with a temple restoration that turned this



into this




  1. When Troy was dug up they actually dug through the Trojan War Troy because they were not interested in the history of the site, just finding the one “real” Troy and they got it wrong.  (not sure where I remember this from) []
  2. Popular history really should be linked to this too, but I am going to leave it out for now. []


1911 in 2013

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:44 am

I was going to do a post on how the Chinese world is remembering 1911, the overthrow of the Qing, and founding of the Chinese Republic. The answer seems to be that there is not much up. A couple years ago, for the 100th anniversary there were quite a few publications. This year the big story seems to be that very few people are visiting the museum of the revolution in Canton, although private collectors are donating artifacts to the museum of the Revolution in Wuhan Taipei does not seem to be up to much, although Ma Ying-jeou did use the occasion to call for closer cross-straits ties, but the general coverage is pretty downbeat. The mainland seems to be continuing its tradition of not paying much attention to the occasion. The Santa Fe Opera is doing an opera on Sun’s life which, from the description, sounds like it is not very historical.

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