So that’s why..

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:49 am

I’ve been reading Peter Harmsen’s Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze. I like it a lot. Part of the reason I like it is that he is a journalist who has worked in China for years and now and has written quite a good book, based on both Chinese and western sources. As I have discussed before, I am really envious of my Americanist colleagues who can give students all sorts of academic stuff, popular stuff written by academics, stuff written by non-academics that is quite good, etc. Until recently all we had for the China field was academic stuff, a small amount of non-academic crud, and very little in between. This is starting to change, and this book is a good example of it.

One thing that it helped clear up for me is why the Chinese.  bombed the Great World Amusement Center in 1937. This is a pretty famous incident from early in the battle where Chinese planes aiming for the Japanese cruiser Izumo, which was anchored in the Huangpu river, instead bombed the Great World and killed hundreds of civilians. This was actually a pretty important historical event, not only for those killed but because China was trying to convince the world that they were a major power worthy of help for reasons beyond pity. The poor performance of the Chinese bombers was not helping the cause.

Chinese bombers hit a number of targets near the river, but the Great World is miles away. Apparently, the best explanation for how they managed to miss so badly was that the Chinese pilots were expecting to bomb from 7,000 feet but had to drop down to 1,000 due to weather.1 Unfortunately they did not adjust their bombsites. Not a huge historical issue, to be sure, but something that has always bugged me.

More on the book here. Harmson blogs here

  1. p.63 []


Unearthing the Nation

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:56 pm

Grace Yen Shen’s Unearthing the Nation: Modern Geology and Nationalism in Republican China is a really good book. Shen says that at first “it took a lot of explaining to convince people that the history of Chinese geology needed to be told.” That scepticism seems well-founded. What did Chinese geologists ever do? How does geology connect to anything else? Is this going to be one of those institutional studies where nothing seems to happen other than setting up institutions and then having the members do nothing but complain about lack of funding?

Thankfully, geology is pretty easy to connect to other parts of China’s transformation. Part of this is just dumb luck. The first work on China’s geology written by a Chinese was “Brief outline of Chinese geology” published by former Jiangnan Military Academy School of Mines student Zhou Shuren, who would later go on to considerable fame under the name Lu Xun. It is not surprising that Zhou/Lu went on to become one of the most famous May 4th intellectuals, since

Chinese geologists rejected the Confucian values of the political and social order and associated them with parochialism and complacency. However, they not only accepted the deeply Confucian values of the intellectual as servitor-cum-guide to state and society, but they also managed to identify this role with progressivism and morality by taking it as a call to self-criticism and renewal. ….geologists’ shared sense of Chineseness grew out of their admission of guilt and the dedication to self-transformation. Geology was a discipline that would reshape its practitioners and resuscitate the nation on the verge of extinction. Unearthing the Nation. p.10

You could use that as a nice summary of the May 4th project, and in fact I did so in class last week.

Geology also matters because it ties in with wealth and power better than lots of other fields of study. Locating valuable rocks was something that both Chinese modernizers and foreign exploiters could get behind. Shen shows how Chinese geologists managed to replace foreigners and gradually they became the ones who surveyed an interpreted China’s rocks for both foreign and domestic audiences. Geology had only fitful support from the Chinese state, but it was popular with young Chinese, in part because the emphasis on fieldwork helped distinguish geologists from traditional educated youth “with pale faces and slender waists, seductive as young ladies, timorous of cold and chary of heat, weak as invalids.”1

Geologists also served the nation. They were the ones who found the Tungsten and other rare materials that wartime China exported. They also defined China as they Chinese would like. As Li Siguang put it.

at the time most people in western Europe invariably thought that Tibet was not fully part of China, and to correct this mistaken concept (whether intentional or unintentional) I purposely gave the Tibetan plateau first place among China’s natural regions. p.136

Of course service to the nation came with a price. The geologists did a better job than you might think in balancing a desire to do pure science and to serve China.

 By training their sights on the overall development of geology in China and remaining flexible about details and timing Chinese geologists achieved many of their own goals while catering to the interests of both native philanthropists and foreign funding agencies. When the remains of Peking Man were first announced in 1926, for instance, the Chinese geological community quickly turned its attention to paleoanthropology. Though it had no experience in this field, the Geological Survey convinced the Rockefeller Foundation to fund a Cenozoic Research Laboratory to study both Peking Man and the “tertiary and quaternary deposits of northern China” more broadly. p.185

This fits it with a lot of other examples I can think of where scholars adjusted their research to funding. It would be nice to have unlimited money to study anything, but practice that is not how China, or anywhere else, actually works.

If you want a nice, short, well-written book that explains the birth of a modern science in China and why it matters, this is a good choice.


  1. quote from Chen Duxiu. Were there any female geologists? []


City of big shoulders

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:40 am

So I spent some time at the library going through 圖畫日報 Although it is not a paper that lasted long (1909-1910) there is lots of cool stuff here connected to the it’s mission of exposing China to the world.



One thing that leaped out at me was the picture of Chicago. It’s part of an occasional series on famous places overseas.


Chicago is a city of skyscrapers, the ideal city ” built of  clouds.” (白雲砌成) including the 21 story 商務總會, (commercial association building, maybe the Chicago Stock exchange?) a 13 story 婦奴節用會 (Women’s holiday meeting place? Could this be Marshall Fields?) and an 11-story 大妓院 (da ji yuan) with 600 rooms. 大妓院 would, I think, mean a brothel. I’m guessing that this is a reference to Palmer House or one of the other big downtown hotels which were, as we all know, the haunts of  “adventuresses” in accounts of the city of sin.


Since I heard about Chicago as the first city of skyscrapers while growing up in Chicagoland I found this interesting. The illustration is clearly not taken from pictures of the city, but it is also different from the generic pictures of foreign cities you get at this point. It is sort of a occidentalist picture. Chinoiserie seems to involve pulling apart elements of Chinese design and gluing them back together in ways that would look really odd to a Chinese person (compare your standard “westerner trying to do fake calligraphy” to Book From the Sky) and the same thing seems to be going on in this picture.



China, where the future is already the past

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:15 am

I have tried to stay off the subject of how the internet will change the world, since there is enough of that on the internet already. I was struck by this piece, (Via Sullivan)  which gushes about the wonderfulness of self-publishing, specifically the idea that Joshua Marshall is hiring a publisher.

The sheer joy of the idea that the creators should have the whip hand and “publishers” just be errand boys who handle making the copies  (think of a university without administrators) is likely to cloud the mind, but there is more to this than just happy visions of publishers tending the gardens of the Forbidden City. What would the world look like without publishers? Without music company executives?

Happily, China had a thriving printing culture for a good thousand years before the introduction of western-style printing machinery in the late 19th century created a modern publishing industry, so we know something about this.  The Chinese reluctance to adopt movable type  is even now sometimes presented as a puzzling example of the anti-technological bias of those silly people, but actually there was no great need for it. Woodblock printing had already begun revolutionizing Chinese culture by at least the Song dynasty, and movable type did not add much. One of the big advantages of woodblock printing was that it cheaper and required less capital. To print a book with movable type need a set of type with many copies of each letter (expensive in the West, more so in China) and literate typesetters. Since the type is broken up up after printing a page you need to have the capital to buy enough paper (usually a major expense) and to wait for the things to sell or to swallow the loss if they don’t. With Chinese block printing you needed a literate author to write the book, but then you could paste the paper on a woodblock and have an illiterate (and cheap) carver cut it out. Storing all the woodblocks could be a pain, but since you did not break them up you could print as many copies as you needed (print on demand!) and then keep the blocks. At least some literati would leave their woodblocks in their wills. (I know Yuan Mei did, and I would guess others did too.) There was far less need for the work publishers do and the capital they provide.

China certainly had publishers going back at least to the Ming. Cynthia Brokaw has written about the small-scale publishing houses that churned out and distributed cheap books for the masses. The commanding heights of Chinese publishing, however, were occupied by the literati-publishers who were better known as writers, editors, and collators than as publishers.  If a person had a reputation that would sell books they did not need a lot of capital to go into business for themselves. China did not have much by the way of copyright law back then, but they were somewhat protected by the fact that they had already made up the printing blocks for their famous works. This would not help the small publishers making cheap copies of the Four Books, of course, so they lived in a cutthroat low-margin market while the more elite writers floated above that.

This seems to be sort of what technology is creating today. Publishers still exist, and if you want to publish “Chicken Soup for a Goldfish’s Soul” you will need a publisher to advertise it and make sure that stacks of it are piled up at the local gas station. If you are famous enough and not really wanting to go after Stephen King’s sales records self-publishing is getting easier and easier. We may end up with a two-tier system like China had.

Oddly, the one place where new publishing trends are not really taking hold is academia. You would think that given all the authors who sell dozens of books on their own reputations rather than marketing hype, and the fact that getting it out there rather than getting rich is the goal, scholars would go in for self or electronic publishing. Journals certainly have, but academic books of course serve a purpose other than being read, which is proving that you are a scholar by coming out in hardback with the name of a publisher on the spine so that you can keep your job. The cultural importance of publishers is still there, and it will be interesting to see how long they can resist the technological trends that are moving away from them.

There is a lot of scholarship on this, although I would not blame any of the people below for the errors above.

Brokaw, Cynthia J. Commerce in Culture: The Sibao Book Trade in the Qing and Republican Periods. Harvard University Asia Center, 2007.

Brokaw, Cynthia J., and Kai-Wing Chow. Printing and Book Culture in Late Imperial China. 1st ed. University of California Press, 2005.

Rawski, Evelyn. Education and Popular Literacy in Ch’ing China. University of Michigan Press, 1979.

Reed, Christopher A. Gutenberg in Shanghai: Chinese Print Capitalism, 1876-1937. University of Hawaii Press, 2004. 


Need a dissertation topic?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 4:56 pm

There is a very interesting review of Simon Winchester’s Bomb, Book, and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China (sold in America as The Man Who Loved China) in the LRB. I have not read the book, but it does not really matter, because the reviewer ignores the final 300-odd pages of the book that deal with Needham’s time in and relationship with China, instead focusing on his life as part of the ‘red science’ of Cambridge in the 1930’s and how this led him to China. Given that the reviewer is Eric Hobsbawm he can fill in a lot of blanks about Needham and his background, and I think almost anyone interested in China should read the review.


Needham’s ambition as a researcher had long been to create a biochemical embryology that would meld the reductionism of the chemists with the inevitable concern of biologists for organisms and processes as a whole. An anti-mechanistic (he preferred the term ‘organic’) view of science had an obvious appeal for developmental biologists… It pioneered the concept of living things organised in hierarchical levels, classically set out in Needham’s Order and Life (1936). The whole organism, he argued, could not be fully grasped at any one of the lower levels of increasing size and complexity – the molecular, macromolecular, cells, tissues etc – and new modes of behaviour emerged at each level which could not be interpreted adequately in terms of those below or at all, except in their relations. As he wrote in Order and Life, ‘The hierarchy of relations from the molecular structure of carbon to the equilibrium of the species and the ecological whole, will perhaps be the leading idea of the future.’ Process, hierarchy and interaction were the key to a reality that could be understood only as a complex whole. And – though one would not discover this from Winchester’s book – this view drew him towards the country and civilisation to which he devoted the rest of his life.

Hobsbawm is not a scholar of Chinese science,1 so he goes a bit too far in the “holistic China” direction for me, but the review is an excellent addition to the book. If anyone ever writes a dissertation on Needham not as a scholar of China but as a link between the intellectual concerns of the English and the Chinese (maybe Waley would fit here as well) this would be a good staring point.

  1. neither am I []


Liveblogging, slowblogging, Mammoth Blogging?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:36 pm

John McKay, at Archy, is publishing excerpts from his work on the natural history and historiography of wooly mammoths. The latest installment is about China, particularly the Kangxi Emperor’s (r. 1661-1722) collection of mammoth-related materials and, surprisingly, personal contributions to the field. It seems that under Kangxi’s tutelage, the Chinese realized that the mammoth was most likely related to the elephant, after centuries of referring to it as a giant but uncategorized rodent. (Also, he’s looking for some help with consistent Romanizations.)

Just for fun, it inspired me to pull my copy of Elvin’s Retreat of the Elephants off my “wanna read” shelf and go through the introduction and first few chapters, including “Humans v. Elephants: The Three Thousand Years War.” The charts and diagrams in the introduction are nearly worth the price of admission. I’m not sure if I’m going to have time to get through much more of it this semester, but the overlap with my Early China class (especially using Hansen as the text, who does take environmental issues seriously) is significant, and I’m going to try to make the time.

I’ve been known to assign absurdly long books before; has anyone used Elvin in class?


Sino-Soviet Nuclear Collaboration Revisionism?

In a review of Thomas C. Reed, and Danny B. Stillman‘s new book, The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and its Proliferation, William Broad writes that

Moscow freely shared its atomic thefts with Mao Zedong, China’s leader. The book says that Klaus Fuchs, a Soviet spy in the Manhattan Project who was eventually caught and, in 1959, released from jail, did likewise. Upon gaining his freedom, the authors say, Fuchs gave the mastermind of Mao’s weapons program a detailed tutorial on the Nagasaki bomb. A half-decade later, China surprised the world with its first blast.

This doesn’t jibe with what I remember about the relationship at all. Perhaps I’m overreacting to the word “freely,” but there was considerable resistance on the Soviet side to full cooperation with the development of Chinese atomic bomb and missile technology.1 In most accounts that I’ve read, that foot-dragging was a significant element in the ultimate break between the two powers, and the Chinese had to work from the bits and pieces the Soviets gave them2 combined with knowledge gleaned by Chinese who studied in the US and France.

This doesn’t seriously call into question the basic thesis of the book, which is that nuclear weapons technology spreads by diffusion — usually with some element of theft, subversion or treason3 — and that China has been a major proliferator in the post-Mao era.4 Reed and Stillman assert that

China in 1982 made a policy decision to flood the developing world with atomic know-how. Its identified clients include Algeria, Pakistan and North Korea. Alarmingly, the authors say one of China’s bombs was created as an “export design” that nearly “anybody could build.” The blueprint for the simple plan has traveled from Pakistan to Libya and, the authors say, Iran.

That puts China square in the middle of one of the most important and troubling trends of the last quarter-century.

  1. See, for example, Sergei Goncharenko, “Sino-Soviet Military Cooperation,”, Brothers in Arms: the Rise and Fall of the Sino-Soviet Alliance, 1945-1963, ed. Odd Arne Westad, Stanford University Press, 1998, pp. 141-164. []
  2. See, for example, Ji Qiang, “The scientists making the atomic bombs” [PDF], pp. 130-132, which describes Soviet help in the 1950s but that aid quietly disappears from the narrative around ’59. []
  3. This isn’t a new idea; I’ve been telling my students for years that the United States is the only nation to have actually invented the atomic bomb. But their level of detail and access to new sources sounds pretty substantial. []
  4. The French are the other major nexus, having aided the Chinese and provided the Israelis with most of their technology, and Israel has gone on to share it with others, most notably South Africa. []


Needling Needham

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:08 am

The Needham Question is hot, hot, hot! Thanks to Simon Winchester’s The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom1, everyone who’s everyone is talking about China’s “failure” in the face of Western intellectual and technological revolutions.

While it’s kind of nice to see a China scholar like Needham getting the pop culture treatment, and the questions he raised are still worth pursuing, the reviews suggest that the emphasis on “Eccentric” is pretty severe. They also suggest that Winchester’s biographical emphasis has left him with the wrong impression about the body of work which Needham’s intellectual descendants still do. Andrew Leonard writes:

In the epilogue, Winchester asserts that the consensus opinion of current Sinologists is that “China, basically, stopped trying.” That’s too facile a summation when one is writing a biography of a man who devoted his entire life to understanding why China failed to capitalize on thousands of years of scientific and technological innovation. Winchester then skips through the main contending theories that attempt to explain China’s failure: China’s bureaucracy siphoned talent away from a potentially entrepreneurial merchant class, China did not have the spur to competition that Europe’s many warring states inflicted on each other, China’s totalitarian government quashed initiative.

In fact, as I wrote in response to Winchester’s NYT op-ed2:

This is a rehashing of old views of China that inspired the great “Needham Question”3: “Why didn’t China have a Scientific Revolution and Industrial Revolution”? Half a century of scholarship has produced a massive aggregation of knowledge about science and technology in China which shows, among other things, that scientific and technical progress continued throughout the early modern period (which, started a half millenium earlier in China than in the West) but that China’s population obviated the need for the kind of massive “labor saving” capital equipment, so industrial production moved in other directions.

China was also experiencing a scientific flourishing in the Qing era, featuring fields from philology to botany.4

China doesn’t “fall behind” until around 1800, when the steam power revolution put England a quantum leap ahead of the pack. It then went through about 150 years of political turmoil in which economic and technical development often took a back seat to other issues, including imperialism, uprisings, revolutions, warlords…. [ellipsis in original; it’s a bad habit]

The assumption that the Western model is “natural” or somehow inevitable unless someone “fails” to achieve it is patently absurd. Europe spent centuries in the shadow of the rest of the world before catching up in their Early Modern age (with the aid of a lot of imported Chinese technology), and finally, as Paul Kennedy (among others) argued, pulling ahead due to competitive pressures and (in the case of the British steam revolution) a certain amount of luck.

The upshot of the Needham tradition scholarship, as I understand it, is that it was more macroeconomic and political problems than technological skills which resulted in China’s “lost ground” in the modern age, but a significant component of it was historical contingency (or “dumb luck,” as we used to say). Nothing inevitable about it, and nothing fundamental. China wasn’t the only great Early Modern empire to flounder in the modern age — in fact, it was more the norm than the exception, as the Ottomans, Russians, Mughals, Iberians and Hapsburgs show. “The West” wasn’t a terribly coherent entity — especially not organizationally! — and contrasting “it” with China without a little consciousness of the internal tensions, backwards regions, and failures contained within the Western tradition makes no sense, intellectually, historically or politically.

  1. is that subtitle a 19th century classic, or what? []
  2. Which my colleague, Alan Baumler, aptly dismissed with “Don’t get me started.” []
  3. I did not, when I wrote this, realize that Winchester was the author of a Needham biography []
  4. The term kaozheng escaped me until later []

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