Chinese youth defending their rights

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:24 am

My historical methods course for the Fall will be looking at the Boxers, and I have been reading Jane Elliott’s book on the Boxers.1 It’s a really interesting book, which among other things collects a lot of pictures and cartoons of the Boxers that I had never seen before.

The standard Western image of the Boxers eventually became that they were a gang of colourful, superstitious primitives (just like all non-White people) who had to be put down by the civilized, orderly forces of the West for the good of Civilization and China itself. ((The main book in the class in Cohen’s History in Three Keys, which deals with some of this myth-making and above all how Chinese dealt with this relationship between “Boxerism” Chinese-ness and Anti-foreignism.)) You can see this narrative in the picture below, which is identified as U.S. Marine Corps art, and which I remember from my High School history textbook.2


One of the things that makes Elliot’s book so interesting is that she shows how a less stereotyped narrative was present right from the beginning. She argues that the Qing imperial troops actually did quite well against the foreigners. This makes the Late Qing reforms look better, which fits in with a lot of recent scholarship. She also shows a number of contemporary images, produced for commercial sale in the West, that make the Chinese look more modern, manly, and soldier-like than the standard narrative would suggest.

Chinese Boxers-RightsThis is Ben W. Killburn “Chinese Boys Defending Their Rights”, sold to the American public in 1900

Boxers2Here is “Firing a Volley from the Shelter of a Bank — Chinese Soldiers at Tien-tsin, China” These guys could almost be the Marines in the first picture.

All these photos of Chinese soldiers as modern people were taken by Americans, or are in American collections, and she argues that the Americans had a much more developed tradition of war photography at this point than anyone else, and that they were less likely to want to see Chinese as something out of The Mikkado than the British. This is something I think I will try to do something with in class, as I am often amazed at how totally dead the old American Anti-imperialist tradition is.

  1. Elliott, Jane E. Some Did It for Civilisation, Some Did It for Their Country: a Revised View of the Boxer War. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2002. []
  2. This picture is not in Elliot, but she does have a lot like it. []


Pigs in the News and In Wikipedia: Or, Lipstick on a Frog

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 1:40 pm

Vladimir Putin is on a roll. He has been having a fine time poking the US in the eye over the Edward Snowden kerfuffle,  but at a news conference he declined to comment: “In any case, I’d rather not deal with such questions, because anyway it’s like shearing a pig – lots of screams but little wool.”

That reminded me that it’s been too long since we talked about pigs. Just because we’re Frog in a Well doesn’t mean that we can only talk about frogs – in fact, pigs are our, well… bread and butter. I will modestly call attention to my piece, “Pigs, Shit, and Chinese History, or, Happy Year of the Pig!” Frog In a Well  (January 27 2007). You can find several more by clicking the “Pigs” link on the right hand column of this page.

Putin seems to be using one of the many, many colorful pig sayings. My father, who grew up on a farm, had a bunch of them, mostly unprintable. Wikipedia is good at accumulating this sort of thing. A succession of people edited the article “Lipstick on a Pig,”  which gives examples of usage going back decades, but the Wikipedia article  “Pig in a Poke” is even better. Many languages have a rough equivalent. It turns out that in  Latvia you say “Buy a cat in a sack.” Who knew? Wikipedia “Pigs in Popular Culture” has an extensive section of pig-related idioms.

Right. But what about China?

Wikipedia has many faults. It is a great grab bag, not an encyclopedia. But, as the computer software people like to say, “that’s not a bug, it’s a feature.” China and pigs is a good example. If you want to have some idiotic fun, go to Wikipedia, any page, and in the upper right hand corner you will find a “Search” box. Enter “~Pigs + China” (without the quotation marks). The tilde (~) means that you don’t want articles with this word in the title, but all  Wikipedia pages with the following words in it.

Amazing. I got 7,259 hits. Of course, this includes duplicates, off the wall irrelevances, rock songs, and pig iron, but also a fascinating variety of things you would not have thought to look up: “Coprophagia”, Dutch Pacification Campaign on Formosa,” as well as straightforward finds such as “Science and technology of the Song Dynasty.“And that’s less than a dozen of the hits, leaving more than 7,000 to go.

This search, random though it may be, is a dramatic way to see the central role that pigs played in Chinese history.

And oh, young people today just don’t know the classics — the Muppets’ “Pigs in Space.” Vladimir Putin’s soft power sneers can’t compare. YouTube has tons of them: Pigs in Space at YouTube.




Nationalism sucks

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:40 pm

A very sad post from the Economist on the problem of the zodiac heads. Basically, a wealthy Frenchman has agreed to donate two of the bronze heads stolen from the Summer Palace in 1860 back to ‘China’. What I find most depressing is the use of the Summer Palace as a symbol of foreign oppression of the Chinese. Yes, the torching of the Summer Palace was a crime against China, History, and Art, but the place itself is one of the greatest symbols of cultural borrowing and fusion you could imagine. Built by Qing emperors (who were not Han), designed by Jesuits (who by definition identified with no nation), it is also the  perfect place to be all Chinese and write poems about the ruins of the old capital, like Chinese poets used to write about Loyang.  The piece points out that  the site is being used to teach Chinese schoolchildren to hate the Other, which is really very depressing.


P.S. Don’t read the comments.


Fire and protest in China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 4:39 pm

The Atlantic has a nice set of pictures of the Great Wall up, for your teaching pleasure. The one I found most interesting is this.

Is the Great Wall on fire? Well, the caption says “Smoke rises from a watchtower of the Great Wall during an activity to mark the International Anti-Drug Day in Beijing, on June 26, 2006” There is an old tradition of burning stuff in China, but mostly as a form of worship. In the late Qing, however, missionaries and Chinese reformers began to make burning opium and opium paraphernalia a regular part of their rituals. Here is one from Fujian1

Opium and drug burnings became a regular part of Chinese anti-opium events, but as far as I know the whole burning things in protest meme never caught on as a general method of protest in China. Eventually this form of anti-opium protest became engrained enough in Chinese political culture that it traveled back in time.  Lin Zexu had -destroyed- opium in 1839, and by 1909 he was credited with burning it, as in this image2 This mistake is now pretty common.

I’m not really a 19th century person, so I never put much effort in to figuring out when this form of protest emerged. It does not seem to link up well with the Chinese tradition of burning things as an offering, since you burned things you thought the ancestors would want. Admittedly, by 1909 some of your ancestors probably would have liked some opium, but that does not fit in with the protest aspect of things. Maybe a legacy of Guy Fawkes day in England? In any case, if you want to burn something in the name of China, the Great Wall would seem a great place for it.


  1. via Ryan Dunch []
  2. via MIT []


Those who keep remembering the past

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:53 pm

I just got an e-mail asking me to subscribe to The Current Digest of the Chinese Press. Given the prices I don’t think I will, but you might want to consider it, as the free sample issue is pretty good. I would not mind it if they included the Chinese text, or at least proper names, and a version I could download to my Kindle would be better than a big ol’ PDF, but they have lots of good stuff.

They have a couple articles on the attempts of Fangzheng County 方正县 (Harbin) in Heilongjiang to attract Japanese tourists. Apparently they built some sort of a monument to Japanese settlers. According to the article the monument cost 700,000 RMB and was in an area restricted to Japanese people. After ‘vandals struck the monument’ it was taken down by the government, but according to the paper (新京日報) the matter cannot be left there as the whole affair ‘infringed upon taxpayers right to know where their money goes.’ The settlers were of course the Japanese migrants brought to Manchukuo. While “many of the settlers were ordinary Japanese civilians….once they came to China they took on the role of invaders.” A follow-up article was written by a reporter sent to the county who found that local government was forcing local businesses to put up signs in Japanese and that “most young Chinese women here aspire to marry Japanese men” with many women even divorcing their husbands and abandoning their children to go abroad.

Although the articles are not always very explicit about the ‘appropriate’ way to view Japan and China’s history with it, they give a pretty good implicit view of the state of the paper’s attitudes, though obviously not those of all Chinese.

I rather wish the paper had managed to dig up a picture of this monument, since I would like to see it and what it says. The first article points out that “many countries, including China, view the erection of  monuments as a symbolic way to praise certain aspects of a country’s culture or history.” That’s not actually true, since in lots of countries monuments are intended to memorialize things, some good, some bad, and some mixed. The line about the settlers being ordinary Japanese gave me hope that the ‘mixed’ might apply in this case, but I can’t tell without seeing the monument.



Managing History in China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:10 am

Historic Preservation is the process of  preserving historic stuff, mostly building and sites. China has lots of history. 5,000 years of it, in fact. Historical Preservation, or Cultural Resources Management, or whatever you want to call it is something they have less of as shown by recent events in the Great Within. Basically, the Beijing Forbidden City Cultural Development Company has been accused of setting up a special club for rich people inside the Forbidden City.

Preserving the past is tricky, since it is sometimes hard to figure out what needs to be preserved. It is also sometimes hard to figure out what ‘preserving’ might mean. It could mean ‘don’t touch anything’ but in practice somebody has to touch things in order to maintain them, and people do have to get in to look at things, or else what’s the point?

Even at this level things are more complected that you might think. What exactly -is- this site?  Versailles would not be itself without the gardens, but the park just to the west of the Forbidden City, once considered part of the grounds, was taken over by squatters in 1949. Do they have to be driven out and the pristine park of the past re-created? 1

The big problem though is money. History and the National Essence are priceless, and thus can’t be connected to money, which is dirty. No gift shops. No tacky tourist stuff. No guards in fake old uniforms. Pure, un-commercialized history. That of course is bunk. Every historical site sells stuff, in part because they need the cash and in part because the broad masses want it and helping people connect with the past is what these places do, and buying stuff is part of that. Also, your guests are humans. They need to eat and drink, and they enjoy both of these things a lot. The more of that you let them do it while looking at the history the better they will like it. So maybe some selling things is o.k., but you need to keep it tasteful.  So part of running a historical site is making money, but making it look like you are above money.2

This is particularly important when you are running something like the Forbidden City, a Top Class #1 tourist draw and source of national pride. Some time ago they drove Starbucks out of the palace. This struck most of my students as a good thing. We would not let commerce sully the Lincoln Memorial, why should the Chinese let money into the Forbidden City? Having been there I point out that the palace is enormous, and that having a few places to get a drink or buy some postcards or get a popsicle makes it a lot better. Hiring it out to a foreign company defiles the purity of the Chinese nation, however,  so it had to go.

The current brouhaha has something to do with lack of professionalism on the part of China’s Historical Preservation Financial Asset Management Teams.  Lots of foreign museums rent out space for parties or whatever. You just need to do it with a bit of class. China has a distinct lack of old money, so this is a problem. Good Cultural Managers can help with this by providing a touch of distinction to a commercial transaction, but unfortunately the ones at the Forbidden City can’t even manage a grammatically correct press statement. Of course it also has something to do with class resentments in contemporary China. If the Forbidden City belongs to the Chinese people why are some Chinese people getting to party there and the rest being stuck making electronics in Shenzhen? Plus given what I can find out online  about the entertainment habits of Chinese rich people I’m guessing that the club does not run to dry white wine and chamber music. Massive amounts of vile booze and lots of ladies of negotiable virtue sounds more likely.

Finally, I must add that I am a little disappointed with the Beijing Forbidden City Cultural Development Company. I could forgive the   for prostituting China’s cultural heritage or being sub-literates, but their ‘vengeance’ against the whistleblowers is pathetic. Firing people and confiscating a few cellphones?  This is the Forbidden City!  Cixi plotted here, as did Wei Zhongxian, and there are such things as standards. Couldn’t they boil someone alive and serve the broth in the restaurant, or exile someone to Xinjiang, or something?

I got this from Jeremiah Jenne, who I note left Beijing just before this whole thing blew up.

  1. There are also lots of pasts in various places. Which aspect of the palace are you trying to preserve? As I recall the Forbidden City (and it’s been a few years) they seem to push a pretty a-historical view of a timeless palace, saying nothing about the Republic and running the Ming and Qing together. []
  2. Even if you could get the money out of the site that would just mean asking for more from the state or some sort of foundation. []


Zhang San and Li Si’s Excellent Adventure

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:30 am

China Hush reports that the Chinese film and TV industries have been ordered to stop making time-travel dramas, on the grounds that “The producers and writers are treating the serious history in a frivolous way, which should by no means be encouraged anymore.”

I find this convenient if wrong-headed. Convenient because while Americans may talk about what what our history means to us it is hard to pin down what historical orthodoxy is. China makes it easy. Wrong-headed because the Chinese government is very big on encouraging young Chinese to identify with “5,000 Years of Chinese History.” Getting people to do that is actually hard, and time travel might help.

David Lowenthal talks about time travel stories in The Past is a Foreign Country. Modern science fiction stories are only the tip of the iceberg, as there are countless stories of a knock on the head, a strange dream or a pact with the devil sending people to the past. Although lots of these stories are about about how you can use your amazing knowledge to make money gambling, or fix the present or whatever, many of them deal with how disconcerting and foreign the past is. In some stories you can’t talk to people, they may kill you for being a heretic, or you might starve to death. In any case, you will almost certainly want to go home. I have not watched any of these TV dramas, but all of them seem to open with the past being frightening and dangerous, but with the hero eventually finding their feet and, of course, true love. This would seem to be good from a Chinese nationalist perspective, since all these people are traveling to a past that is supposed to be ‘theirs.’ If Americans want to go a long way into the past we visit King Arthur’s court, which is obviously in a foreign country, and thus if we don’t identify with it and have to kill everyone to liberate them, that’s o.k. Chinese kids should -like- visiting Ancient China Land, and apparently they do.

Needless to say there are some serious problems. The past is really different from the present in ways that are being ignored in these stories. Sex and lust were probably the same things in the Qin Dynasty as now, but love? I doubt many people are learning much about the past as it is understood by historians from these shows. On the other hand, the official line seems to be that history is a nationalistic catechism to be memorized, respected, and bored by. That’s even worse. The article also reports that there is to be a ban on productions of the Four Classic Novels. Again, the problem is apparently a lack of respect for the treasures of Chinese culture, and you can see the point. If you let the current generation of Chinese youth get their hands on these stories they might portray the Monkey King as some sort of  turbulent troublemaker or Li Gui as a drunken hoodlum. Heck they might even imply that Baoyu was gay! Far better to stick these stories in boring classrooms and museums than to risk what might happen to them in the present.


Via Jeremiah Jenne


Private views of Chinese history

Recently I went to the Jianchuan museums, which are in Anren, just outside Chengdu. It is an interesting place first because it is huge, financed by mogul Fan Jianchuan, and second because it is a private museum, something not very common in China.

The place is covers a lot of ground, and there are, or soon will be buildings showcasing West Sichuan folk customs, footbinding, traditional houses, and the response to the Wenchuan earthquake of 2008. They are already working on the building for the last of these, and some of the artifacts are sitting outside.

The biggest and most interesting sections are on the War with Japan and the Red Years.

The War buildings (there are several) are strongly nationalistic (it is glorious to die for the homeland, etc) and pretty popular with the Chinese visitors. The war also gets some of the most striking installations, including a display of the handprints of 300 veterans and statues of 200 heroes of the war (mostly generals and commanders of various sorts.)

Both of them sort of reminded me of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, in that they rely on the effect of masses of individuals (each of the handprints and statues has an inscription telling you who it is.) The statues also remind me somewhat of Qin Shihuang’s terracotta warriors, although having been given names and not being in such strict ranks they are more individualized.1


  1. Also, like Qin Shihuang himself, they are on top of a relief map of China. []


What do you really think Mr. Jiang?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 2:50 am

Chinese museums are one of the best places to look at the changing interpretation of historical figures and events. Last weekend I went to Famen temple outside Xian. This was a fairly major temple in the Tang, being much visited by emperors, but by the Song they were supporting themselves by offering baths in a pool that seated up to 1000 and holding tea parties. The main pagoda was rebuilt in the early Ming, but the place seems to have declined a lot by then.

That all changed in 1981,when half of the Ming pagoda collapsed.Collapse

When digging out the foundation to re-build the pagoda they found the relic the temple was originally built around, a bone of the Buddha, inside a series of ornate caskets and accompanied by a bunch of other neat stuff. It is a really magnificent find, and it was nice to see some of these things in person.


Of course this changed the temple’s position in the Buddhist world radically. In addition to re-building the pagoda a huge new Buddhist center was built next to it. You need a better camera than mine to do it justice. You come in through a massive golden gateway, which makes you expect to see Cecil B. DeMille around somewhere.


It is a long walk to the main hall, and most people take the trolley. You whiz past a series of 3-story tall golden fiberglass1 Buddhas that represent the different sects of world Buddhism, and get to the main hall, which is in the shape of a pair of praying hands, and was designed by a Taiwanese architect. I suspect a lot of Taiwanese and Japanese money went into this place. They bought out an entire village to get the land, and the villagers mostly work in the temple cleaning up or whatever. The one I talked to got 600 yuan and 3 days off a month. The place is not entirely finished yet, and when it is done there will be a Buddhist retreat center and they hope to rival the Terracotta Warriors as the biggest tourist draw in the province.


What really interested me, of course, were the relics and the museum. The presentation was a little schizophrenic, perhaps because current policy is a little schizophrenic. On the one hand China is still officially more or less atheist. On the other hand, Buddhism is part of China’s 5000 glorious years of glorious culture. How to deal with this?

Not all the relics were there, but those that were were mostly presented as examples of the exquisite craftsmanship and high technology of China. There is also a fair amount about Buddhism. In discussing the Tang emperor’s worship of the bone the text mentions that it had the beneficial effects of solidifying state power, (always an unalloyed good), 凝聚人心 (which they translate as “increasing the cohesive force of the Chinese nation”) and spreading culture. On the other hand it also led to a great waste of society’s resources, and also increased the people’s religious fanaticism. These critiques sound eerily similar to Han Yu’s criticism of the finger bone when it was first brought to Chang-an. As a good Neo-Confucian Han Yu thought Buddhism complete nonsense that deluded the people

Of course Han Yu was not reckoning with the power of the tourist dollar, and he also had a somewhat different view of what is worth preserving in Chinese culture than the current government does. The Nationalist general who restored the temple in 1939 is praised in the exhibit, as is the monk who burned himself to death to protect it during the Cultural Revolution. The monk probably had a religious view of the place, and the general a cultural one. The latter seems more of a fit with the current interpretation. There is, of course, an inscription by Jiang Zemin, done when he came here in 1993. He encourages them to use the cultural relics that have been unearthed to expand Chinese culture and strengthen the spirit of patriotism. Apparently as long as religion is subsumed in culture and culture is put in the service of the nation, the Buddha is just alright.Jiang

  1. I assume []


Distressing China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:06 am

Xian has a historical district. Actually it has several, and all of them are sort of new. I was not here 20 years ago, but I assume like elsewhere in China the major tourist sights like the Wild Goose Pagoda were here, and you could go into them but right around them would be just an ordinary Chinese neighborhood. This was not a good way to benefit from tourism, so a lot of of these “historic” districts have sprung up. They seem to be getting better at it. One that interested me is the one outside the Forest of Steles (碑林)


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