The good old days of empire

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:48 am

My local paper ran an editorial (version here) by Rich Lowry which gave readers more Qing dynasty history than they normally get.  As an American conservative his main point in the piece is that Europe is at last on the brink of collapse due to excessive state spending, just as the Lowrys of the world have been predicting for the last 50 years or so.1 He opens with a lament for the Good Old Days

One hundred and fifty years ago, no one could mistake the relative power of Europe and China. When the British defeated the Chinese in the First Opium War, they imposed an indemnity, took Hong Kong, and forced open more Chinese ports to British merchants. They demanded extraterritoriality for British citizens, exempting them from Chinese law. Other Western powers extracted similar privileges.

When this wasn’t enough, the British launched the Second Opium War after the Chinese seized a ship flying the British flag and refused to apologize. The French joined in, and the two together captured Beijing, and burned the emperor’s summer palaces for good measure.

This nasty episode is worth recalling against the backdrop of the Europeans’ begging the Chinese to help bail them out from their debt crisis. What would Lt. Gen. Charles Cousin-Montauban, the commander of the French forces who marched on Beijing, make of Klaus Regling, the commander of the European bailout fund who traveled to Beijing hoping for a helping hand? What would Lord Palmerston, who justified war against China as a matter of honor, think of Nicolas Sarkozy’s supplicating his Chinese counterpart for funds?

He does toss in that “nasty episode” line, but he is obviously lamenting the idea of white people dealing with yellow people as equals. He probably knows as little about Chinese history as he does about Greek bonds, but I would guess that even if he did know more about Palmerston’s ideas of honor he would still support them. In the case of the Arrow incident neither international law nor any other principle other than power were on the British side.2 Palmerston, of course did not care. Harry Parkes, a British official had made certain assertions about Chinese behavior and British power had to back him up. Those who questioned him in Parliament were traitors, motivated by

“an anti-English feeling, an abnegation of all those ties which bind men to their country and to their fellow-countrymen, which I should hardly have expected from the lips of any member of this House. Everything that was English was wrong, and everything that was hostile to England was right.”

In any case, an excuse to beat up on wogs was not be be missed, as Palmerston’s most famous quote on foreign policy shows.

“These half-civilised governments, all require a dressing down every eight or ten years to keep them in order. Their minds are too shallow to receive an impression that will last longer than some such period and warning is of little use. They care little for words and they must not only see the stick but actually feel it on their shoulders before they yield to that argument that brings conviction, the argumentum baculinem

Why bring this up? Well in part because one just does not get much Chinese history in the Indiana Gazette. Also, I think we may see more and more of this. In the Chinese press people are always bringing up the past as a way of understanding present international relations and while as a historian I think that can be good, I also think it can be bad. Historical analogies are not just sprinkles on top of an argument, they are ways of helping you think, and in this case they help you think wrong. While you can’t understand China’s relationship with Britain or Japan without understanding the past, assuming that the Japan of today is that of the 1930’s, or that the U.S. of today is that of 1900 is not a good way of using the past. Likewise, as Americans talk and think more about our relationship with China the ‘lessons of history’ will come up a lot, and we will have to choose if we want a foreign policy that will “Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all” as Washington put it, or if we will follow Lowry in admiring Palmerston and that other great Englishman, Lord Voldemort in assuming that “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.”




  1. I don’t know about Lowry, but some of the prominent early American Neo-Cons started out as Trotskyites, which may have helped them write all these explanations for why reality is not matching their theories. []
  2. J.Y. Wong’s Deadly Dreams: Opium and the Arrow War (1856-1860) In China deals with this at great length. []


Boxers and history

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 5:07 pm

Via Jeremiah Jenne, a link to an Economist article on the legacy of the Boxers. It is without a doubt the best article on Chinese history I have ever seen in a mainstream magazine.

It made me think of one of my favorite scenes from Wang Shuo’s Please Don’t Call me Human Old man Tang, the last living Boxer, has been brought it for an interview because the powers that be are thinking of using his son to represent China in physical combat against a Western circus strongman. I think it’s a nice piece that sums up (and makes fun of) a lot of popular ideas about the Boxers, the past, and Chinese History. …

“Do you know why we brought you here?”
“Yes, you want to learn about my participation in the Boxer movement.”
In an otherwise empty, soundproof room, the bald, fat man sat behind a desk in the shadow of a desk lampshade. Light from the lamp shone directly into old man Tang’s face, whose hands rested in his lap as he sat respectfully on a stool fastened to the floor.

“Your name?”
“Tang Guotao.”
“One hundred and eleven.”
“Where did you live before you were taken into custody?”
“Number thirty-five, Tanzi Lane.”
“When did you join the troops?”
“In March 1899.”
“What were your ranks?”
“Team leader, guard leader, Second Elder -Apprentice, First Elder Apprentice, and First-rank Master.”
“Decorations or punishments?”
“I was sentenced to death in 1900”

“On that night eighty-eight years ago, that is, the night the Allied forces entered the city, where were you?”
“I was home,” old man Tang replied, looking perfectly calm in the lamplight.
“Why weren’t you out fighting? Big Sword Wang Five was, as was the father of the novelist Lao She.”
“I had a far more important duty.”
“What was that?”
“I ran home and strangled my parents, my wife, and my son. It was as dark then as it is tonight, and as cold, and I had no sooner eliminated my family than I heard a knock at the door. ‘Master’s wife, open the door, hurry.’ I opened the door, and the person rushed inside, carrying an infant in her left hand and a red lantern in the right. . .”
“Who was it?”
“My wife, the woman you saw at my house. At the time she was one of the Red Lanterns.”
“And the child in her arms?”
“Huo Yuanjia, the future martial-arts master.”
“My God, how come this is the first I’ve heard of that?”
“As soon as my wife saw me, she fell to her knees and mumbled, ‘Master, Master, the master’s wife, my sister-in-law, they’re all dead.’ And I said, ‘Yes, I killed them.’ And she said, still crying, ‘From today on, l am yours, and this child. . .’ I
interrupted her, ‘You take this child back where you found it ”
“Then what?” the fat man said as he wiped his tears.
“Then gunfire erupted and a Japanese soldier rushed, in shouting bakayaro [son of a bitch]! He asked me, ‘What you do?’ Everything happened faster than it takes to tell, but when he barged in, I’d already crawled into bed, and my new wife was still on her knees, facing the other way. She kowtowed to the Japanese. ‘Your honor,’ she said, ‘he’s a bean-curd maker, a common, law-abiding citizen.’ The Japanese smirked—heh heh heh—and nudged her with his bayonet. ‘Pretty lady’ he shouted. That’s when I threw back the covers and roared, ‘Let her go! I’m one of those Boxer leaders you’re looking for! This has nothing to do with the common folk!’ ”

“Elder Tang, you’re spreading it a bit thick, I’m afraid,” said the fat man with a frown. “To the best of my knowledge, the Boxers had no grassroots party organization.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, young man. A hundred years ago, we were already laying down our lives for the Cause.”

“That’s not what the book says. Let’s turn to page forty-four, fourth line from the bottom.”
In the interrogation room, the bald, fat man read aloud, “On that night, the city was ablaze, the sound of gunfire like thunder. The foreign soldiers advanced like a tiger attacking a herd of sheep, torching and killing. The soldiers and the Boxers scattered like birds and beasts, and all the first-rank masters fell into the hands of the French soldiers at Hadamen, who trussed them up, despite their ferocious resistance. Shortly after dawn, I was beheaded by the French in the marketplace, along with over a hundred Boxer bandits, including leaders like Big Sword Wang Five and Little Sword Zhao Six …”

The bald, fat man looked up and said to old man Tang, who was wearing a pair of reading glasses as he followed along, his finger stopping at each word, “Naturally, if you believed everything in books, we’d be better off without them. This Memoirs of the Green Tower is nothing but a collection of ghost stories and fantastic tales, but there’s no harm in keeping it around, since it represents one way of looking at things. We all understand that rumor is the twin sister of fact.”
“Are you saying I’m wrong?” old man Tang asked blankly, looking up from the page. “I clearly recall being taken into a blockhouse by the Japanese and shot.”
“You’ve read The Little Soldier Zhang Sha, haven’t you?”
“Yes,” old man Tang said with a nod.
“I’m not surprised. A few days ago, we interrogated the fat interpreter, and he couldn’t remember if he stood with the Japanese or against them.”
“Why couldn’t I have been executed once by the Japanese and again by the French? It’s already been settled that I came back from the dead.”
“I didn’t say you couldn’t. The question is whether or not you had time to be executed by the Japanese and then rush over to be executed again by the French.”
“Why not? There’s nothing illogical about it. When the bullet hit me, I fell to the ground and closed my eyes, pretending to be dead. Then, after the Japanese left, I crawled out of the execution pit, stood up and cleaned the blood off, filled with hate and a taste for vengeance against the imperialists. I ran off and rejoined the battle.”

Cocking his head, the bald, fat man pondered what old man Tang had told him. “I see nothing wrong so far.”
“I went down East Fourth Avenue, killing the enemy along the way as I headed to wherever the sounds of battle were the loudest. When my guts began spilling out, I stuffed them back in. When one of my eyes fell out, I picked it up and swallowed it. I was possessed by a single thought: Don’t fall, keep going. If you fall, China is done for!”

“Then what?”
“Eventually I did fall. I lay on the ground, seeing spots before my eyes. Then the world began to spin, and I blacked out. …”
“What do you recall about the beheadings at the marketplace?”
“That’s where I was when I came to. People were lined up to be beheaded. Before I could say a word, it was my turn. As to methods, it wasn’t much different than cutting up a rack of ribs—holding it down with one hand and chopping with the other.”

“You must have said something, a farewell to your comrades or last words before the executioner’s sword fell. That’s common sense.”
“I’m not sure, but I might have said, ‘Long Live World Revolution.’ ”


“Oh, now I remember. I shook hands with Wang Five, and we exchanged knowing looks. Then I turned and growled at the executioner, ‘China will be destroyed by the likes of you!’
“Now that sounds more like it. The executioner was Chinese?”
“No, he was French.”


Hoping for charity, without getting faith involved

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:57 am

The New Republic has an article by Gordon Chang on the lack of philanthropy among China’s rich. As he points out, one of the things blocking the emergence of charity organizations is China is the Party, which is very reluctant to approve the creation of any sort of organization outside itself, so it is hard even for the ideologically approved very rich to get permission to do so. Of course they could just donate to organizations they don’t control, but Chinese rich people (like all people everywhere) are at least partially motivated to do good by the praise they can win for doing so publicly.1

This is too bad, in part because lots of people who could use help are not getting it, and in part because China could really use an active civil society that would feed the hungry, cloth the naked and heal the sick. The problem with that is that that sort of thing can shade off into comforting the afflicted, and that is getting into political criticism. The Chang article was a response to Bill Gates and Warren Buffett visiting China to try and encourage more charitable giving. Gates and Buffett come from a society where it is unthinkable that the state would prevent the very rich from doing whatever they want, but also from a society where the state has long since made its peace with charity. Actually, Western states did relatively little charity, leaving most of it to the church for a long time, and of course this has led to conflict, possibly most noticeably over control of education in a lot of Catholic countries.

In Late Imperial China, at least, providing benevolence to the people was always one of the duties of the state, and even when it was provided by the local elite (and they did a lot of it) they did so a surrogates of the state, not as representatives of a rival organization.2 This actually changed some in the Late Qing. Katheryn Edgerton-Tarpley discusses this in her book about the response to the great famine in Shanxi in the 1870s. Chinese charity, from orphanages and soup kitchens to providing education and sponsoring public improvements was always localized and particular. In response to the famine, however, elites in Shanghai began to take action on a national level, despite the fact that Shanxi was a long way away. Tarpley discusses how the newspaper Shenbao and its writers both organized charity on a new level and were implicitly critical of the government’s unwillingness to adopt new, Western methods to deal with this and other crises. For a government that accepts nurturing the people as one of its duties almost any form of organized charity outside the structure of the state is an implicit criticism. I’m not sure that the CCP really accepts nurturing the people as one of its duties at present, but I am not surprised that they are reluctant to see organizations doing this job for them and thus criticizing either their ability or their will. I’m not sure how this contradiction could be resolved, but it is depressing that the state can’t even work out some sort of arrangement with Jet Li, who I would not really call an oppositional figure.

  1. Even when you give money anonymously you are motivated in part by the warm glow you feel and only in part by the desire to do good for others. Since you can’t entirely untangle these motives in yourself I don’t find it all that helpful to try and do so when looking at others. []
  2. I’m leaving out the Buddhists here, who were separate organizations and did charity but were not oppositional to the state. []


Revolution in pictures

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:21 am

Here, from Stapleton’s Civilizing Chengdu is Yang Wei, Chinese Revolutionary, in prison, November 25, 1911. Below is a picture of Yang as superintendent of police in March 1912. I use both of these in class when talking about 1911, but I am posting the top one here because it is such a striking picture. It’s obviously posed, as most pictures had to be back then, and Yang clearly has a sense of himself as the dramatic revolutionary that is lacking from every other picture of the 1911 crowd I can think of.  Is anyone aware of anything else like this from the period? Any guesses as to what the others in the shot are there for?


In hot water

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:58 am

Some of you may know that Old China Hand James Fallows has a bit of a bee in his bonnet about frogs. Specifically he has been waging war against the common trope that if you put a frog in a pot of water and turn up the heat it will just sit there and die without realizing what is happening. (You can see how this metaphor would come in handy.) It’s not true, however. Frogs will jump out when the water gets hot.

As the leading Anurathological and Sinological blog on the internet (a very small pond) I thought it might be worthwhile to point out that Chinese people used to use a version of this one as well. In Joan Judge’s Print and Politics, which deals with the early 20th century journalists associated with the Shibao she finds one of them denouncing the Chinese people for their general lack of readiness for constitutional government, concluding

“Alas! The Dung beetle eats shit and rejoices. A fish swimming in a kettle forgets the water is boiling”

A fish in a kettle has fewer options than a frog in a pot, since the fish may not be able to jump out, and even if they did that might not improve their position too much. Still, it seems about the same. Are either of these standard Chengyu? I have not been able to find either, although I have not tried very hard


Tonghak and Taiping

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:45 pm

I was struck, preparing for class yesterday, that the Tonghak and Taiping faiths were surprisingly similar and arose nearly simultaneously: Syncretic monotheistic faiths drawing on Confucian, Christian and indigenous magical traditions, with anti-foreign reformist programs and a counter-cultural ethos of equality.1 There are obvious differences, too, in teachings and in the leadership, but the structural similarities raise some interesting possibilities for research and teaching.

I’m not the first person to have this insight apparently, though it doesn’t look (from what little I can tell from these links) like there’s any hint of direct connection between them. I’m a little surprised, frankly, that World History textbooks (which love those kinds of parallel moments) haven’t picked up on it. Of course, Korea’s place in World History textbooks overall is pretty pitiful at the moment and the Taiping movement rarely gets more than passing mention in an already busy and traumatic Chinese 19th century. With the rise of religious history, it seems likely that these issues might come closer to the forefront, though, and I’d be curious to know if anyone else out there does something with this confluence.

  1. The Japanese “New Religions” of the 19th century are very heavily Shinto-influenced, with some Buddhism and almost no Christianity, nor did any of them become political movements. It’s not the same. []


Common culture

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:04 am
Not from the site,

China Gateway has some pictures, with translation, from The Dianshizhai Pictorial the famous late 19th century Shanghai illustrated paper. I say famous because it is rapidly becoming one of the most reproduced and re-packaged parts of Chinese culture. WorldCat shows 69 hits for the keywords 點石齋畫報 which includes full editions, selections (stories about Suzhou or whatever) translations into baihua, and some of the scholarly studies. I assume there is a lot more about it that you could dig up with other keywords.  Googleing yields lots of pictures like the above and even more commentary. It is a very Web-friendly sort of souce, since it is in short chunks, has pictures and a bit of text and above all is out of copyright.  In time the public image of the Late Qing may come to be tied as specifically to this bit of art as the T’ang is to poets or the European middle ages are to the Arthur stories.

Via China Beat


Save the Pandas

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:18 am

A couple of years ago before I left for a trip to China an imperial princess told me to get a picture of a panda. I pointed out that there were a zillion pictures of pandas on the web, so there was no point in my trooping out to a zoo to take another picture. Ahhh, but none of those pictures were taken by Daddy. Obviously China=pandas, and the only good reason to go to China is to see pandas. This is actually a pretty widespread attitude. Now some grumpy Englishman says that we (by which I assume he means ‘China’) should “Pull the plug” on pandas. Far too much money is spent on them, and there is almost no hope them ever becoming a wild species again. Mostly this is just typical grousing about how large or cute animals get all the funding, and pandas are both of course.

Jen Phillips, however, points out that there are things to do with pandas besides have them live in the wild (the holy grail of most conservation efforts.) The Chinese government makes a ton of money renting them out to zoos around the world, and they are a powerful symbol of China both internationally and domestically. Obviously the Chinese government is the one making the calls here, and they are not going to stop breeding pandas.

Actually, pandas today are not that different from the animals in the imperial menagerie in imperial times. At least back to the Han the emperor was expected to have a park that had all manner of odd animals and plants that could not be found elsewhere, symbolizing his universal rule.  Sima Xiangru’s Sir Fantasy is probably the most famous description of one of these parks.  This tradition continued in some form until the Qing, given that the Qing Imperial Park was the last place you could find Pere David’s Deer

The Imperial population of Pere David’s Deer, or Milu 麋鹿 was finally wiped out during the Boxer Rebellion, when foreign troops ate them. Some of the herd had been given to Europeans as diplomatic gifts, however, and from those the population was rebuilt. Apparently the Emperor’s herd had been isolated for so long that any bad genes had been bred out, and so you could re-build from a very tiny number of animals. Milu have been extinct in the wild for about a thousand years, and it is not even clear what their original range was.1 They surrvived for a very long time as imperial animals, however, and maybe pandas will too. I suppose it would help if they were better at mating.

  1. The first link says the last wild one was shot in 1939, but most sources say 1000 years. I suspect the 1939 animal was something else. []


Happy Birthday New Policies!

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 2:42 am

2009 marks the 100th anniversary of the New Policies (新政) reforms of the late Qing. Well, not really. The Late Qing reforms are increasingly seen as more important even than the Revolution of 1911 in creating a new China. A modern government with modern departments was set up, there was a budget, modern schools were built, etc. The began sometime after the Boxer uprising of 1900 and lasted till 1911. The Revolutionaries found themselves taking over a much more modern Chinese state than had existed a decade before.  1909 is actually a little late as a date, but I am using it here because it seems like all the major libraries in China are celebrating. I was at the conference for the National Library in Beijing’s 100th. It was a big deal. Mei Baojiu performed and I got to see him. Then I come to Shaanxi and the Provincial library is also having its 100th. This was a bit annoying, since they were setting off fireworks outside the reading room and I wanted to stick my head out the window and yell “This is a library, darn it.” but I figured it would do no good. I assume people all over China are finding it hard to get any reading in as explosions and long-winded speeches interrupt the quiet. Both libraries of course started out as New Policies institutions. I’m not sure how it is with other cultural institutions, but Chinese universities are always very status conscious about how old they are, and people always ask when my university was founded and are quite impressed when I say 1875. That makes us older than Beida! Below are a couple of pictures of the gifts that Shaanxi library got on its birthday. I particularly  like the boat Qingdao sent.




Teaching Confucianism

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 2:11 pm

Guess who’s in Bejing! Well, not me anymore since I just left1 I snuck away from my conference for a bit to go to the Confucian temple and the Yonghe temple, neither of which I had seen in years. Yonghe is still pretty much the same, although 15 years ago there were not so many stores clustered around it selling incense and Buddhist tcotchkes. Actually, I think 15 years ago there were basically none, and now there are zillions of them. The Confucian temple and the adjacent Imperial University were more interesting however. Last time I was here they were pretty sparse, and there were not many people there. There were still not many people. Confucian temples are always nice and quiet, and a nice place to look at old trees. The exhibits had been updated, however, and there was a lot of stuff on Confucianism and its role in Chinese society. Since I like public history it was interesting to me, especially since most Chinese my age would have gotten no Confucianism at all in school, so it was cool to see this attempt to retro-fit it into the visitors. As you might expect, Confucianism was not really shown as developing, it was just created and remained unchanging, and the ascribed the ideas of a lot of later Confucians, or just Chinese customs, to the Big C. Confucianism was the essence of Chinese society, and still is (Which was not what they would have said 15 years ago) and Confucius inspired both the scientific method and the industrial revolution. Like most of these “”5000 years of culture Hooray!” things it was pretty overdone, but still very professional and detailed. They are getting pretty good at this.

In the University they had an exhibit of sorts on the Qianlong emperor’s lectures to his officials, which happened here. You may not have know that Qianlong was actually a teacher. Here is his office door.

His office

His desk

One of his classes.

Hmm. Seems a bit ornate for a Faculty member. Of course, Qianlong was really an Administrator, so I guess even if he did give the occasional lecture you might expect him to be a little better taken care of than the average temp. One thing I wondered about was if these lectures were a Qianlong innovation. I don’t think I have read anything about them, and I have read that Chinese emperors were quite different from Early Modern European monarchs, in that the Europeans were constantly on display and performing ritually in front of the ‘public’ (mostly the court). Chinese emperors were supposedly far less in the public eye, and these lectures would seem to be something that would tie in with the Southern Tours and other aspects of Qing imperial performance. Maybe I will check Zito when I get home.

  1. although I think there are still -some- people left in Beijing []

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