My Great Helmsman is Charlton Heston

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:39 am

In an interesting article on the gun trade and state control of weapons in Guangdong province in the 1920’s Qiu Jie and He Wenping make an interesting argument about the role of guns in Chinese politics. The article as a whole attempts to get at the level of armament in the province, which is of course difficult to do. Weapons came in from all sorts of places, military weapons, local production, the British in Hong Kong trying to stir up trouble. Guangdong produced a lot of overseas sojourners (the article focuses on the Pearl River delta) and they liked to help out the folks back home by buying them guns. Although guns flowed into the province throughout the 20s prices kept going up, (locally made rifles went from 40 yuan apiece in 1912 to 170 in 1928. Prices of handguns rose more slowly) indicating that there was still lots of demand. After some speculation on total numbers of guns the authors focus on the Guomindang Canton government’s attempt to license and tax weapons. This was initially a revenue move. During the warlord period states taxed almost everything and guns were a particularly attractive thing to tax. Gradually attempts to license guns came to be more focused on denying weapons to opponents of the state, most notably the Merchant Corps of Canton, which was always difficult to control.

The most interesting thing about the article is the conclusion. The authors conclude that Guangdong did not see the emergence of really serious local oppressors, (土皇帝) or of large-scale banditry because as a fairly prosperous area it was a well-armed area. As a result it was hard for any one family to dominate a local militia and hard for the state to control the people. Thus local independence grows out of the barrel of a gun.

I’m not sure I entirely buy this. I’m not sure things in Guangdong were really that good, or that this single explanation really explains it. Guangdong does seem a good deal less disastrous than many other areas during the warlord period, but then so does the Shanghai area, and I suspect this has more to do with the presence of a major urban area than with guns per se. What I do find interesting is the almost libertarian emphasis on guns and popular power. Chinese scholarship usually seems pretty state-centered, i.e. looking from the point of view of the state at the problem of controlling the people. (Or regarding the Nationalist state as evil and assuming the existence of a Communist counter-state) I don’t have much problem with a state focus, since the process of state-building was one of the most important parts of China’s 19th and 20th century, but it is nice to see civil-society type ideas being applied outside Shanghai.

邱捷,何文平1920 年代广东的民间武器” in 一九二0年代的中国,社会科学,北京, 2005


World Historical Trends: Valentine’s Day Surgery?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:52 pm

My father sent along this article about the rise in Shanghai of plastic surgery being marketed to couples as a Valentine’s Day celebration/present.

I don’t know which is the more interesting world historical trend: the rise of Valentine’s Day as a secular world event or the spread of plastic surgery as a status symbol, in spite of its risks [via].

Of course, at some point someone will try to make an analogy or comparison or otherwise link this with footbinding, but I think it’s going to be a tough sell, given the temporal and cultural distance between the two practices, without some serious underlying theoretical foundation….

On slightly more serious note, the latest Japan Focus (which is going to have to change its name soon, given its broader scope) includes an interesting and nicely detailed article by Yonson Ahn about the historiographical border war between Korea and China.


Taiwanese Heroin

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:46 pm

It has been rainy rather than snowy around here of late, which is very unusual for this time of year. While walking in a cold wet rain I began to try and think of something that would make me feel better. Something that was cheap, would make me feel warm, and ideally make me spit horrible blood-red spit. Sadly the only thing that does that is betel nut, and you can’t get it in Pennsylvania.


Thinking about Taiwan and betel nut led me to do a bit of research that turned out to be pretty surprising.


Par for the course…

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:01 pm

I never thought I’d be citing Sports Illustrated here (Alan started it!) [via], but a Chinese historian has found references from over a thousand years ago to what he claims is the earliest known form of golf:

Professor Ling Hongling of Lanzhou University says he has uncovered evidence in a book called the Dongxuan Records that proves golf was played in China in AD 945.

The book, written during the Song Dynasty from AD 960 to AD 1279, claims the game was called chuiwan and was played with 10 different jewel-encrusted clubs, including a cuanbang — equivalent to a modern-day driver — and a shaobang — the ancient three-wood.

The term chui actually means “to hit” while wan is the term for a ball.

[H]e claims the game was imported to Europe by Mongol traders during the late Middle Ages.

[H]e claims a reference in the Dongxuan Records sees a prominent Chinese magistrate of the Nantang Dynasty (AD 937-975) instructing his daughter “to dig holes in the ground so that he might drive a ball into them with a purposely crafted stick.”

I was going to say “obviously, more research is needed” but then I realized that I really don’t care…. The evidence at the moment is decidedly thin — “smoking gun” traces rather than credible documentation — and there’ll be lots of heat back and forth with the Scottish, but it’s going to be a long time before there’s enough evidence to be worth revising the historical record. For one thing, is there any evidence that the Mongols played any such game or could have transmitted it any other way?

As the article says, “The Chinese have a history of making audacious claims to having invented sports,” not to mention everything else.


Define “Successful”

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:37 pm

There are signs that China’s government is going to resurrect Confucianism as a source of social ethics and harmony [via Simon World]. It was, after all, the dominant social ideology for centuries, even millenia (though not exactly consecutively), and it retains a great deal of power in Chinese society (though, as the article has pointed out, hardly nobody’s been formally taught this stuff for some time) and is indeed a great system of social ethics in a fundamentally hierarchical society.

But it does beg the question: to what extent did Confucianism work better than less formal systems of social ethics? Is it something to go back to because it was effective and adaptable, or is it just “there” and available for rhetorical recycling without requiring a strong committment to the principles of reciprocality, responsibility and compassionate effectiveness that it should entail?


“Big Eyes” and Chinese Children

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 6:32 pm

This is a fascinating essay about a famous Chinese picture known as Big Eyes [Via Simon World]. The followups are fascinating: a bit uncontextualized, but historians can fill in some of the gaps. Towards the end are a few then/now pairings that are quite intriguing. Could be really neat classroom dicussion generators.

This may be the most famous picture in China, but at this point I’d have to say that the most famous pictures about China are either Chairman Mao or the protestor before the tanks.


ASPAC Notes: Demographics and States

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 6:32 am

Historian of Empires Niall Ferguson [via Ralph Luker] recently wrote:

Since 1989, the Russian mortality rate has risen from below 11 per 1,000 to more than 15 per 1,000 – nearly double the American rate. For adult males, the mortality rate is three times higher. Average male life expectancy at birth is below 60, roughly the same as in Bangladesh. A 20-year-old Russian man has a less than 50/50 chance of reaching the age of 65.

Exacerbating the demographic effects of increased mortality has been a steep decline in the fertility rate, from 2.19 births per woman in the mid-1980s to a nadir of 1.17 in 1999. Because of these trends, the United Nations projects that Russia’s population will decline from 146 million in 2000 to 101 million in 2050. By that time the population of Egypt will be larger.

This echoes what Kyle Hatcher told us in his ASPAC paper (panel 1) on Chinese migrants to the Russian Far East (RFE). Like so many nations with declining populations (and the RFE is declining faster, I suspect, than the rest of Russia), immigration could be a key component of economic and social revitalization. But Russia, like so many of the nations struggling with this issue, is unaccustomed to integrating immigrants. Mr. Hatcher’s work involved surveying Russians about their attitudes towards Chinese immigrants, and what he found is not good news.

Russian attitudes towards Chinese immigrants are terrible. They are viewed as untrustworthy, insular and territorially aggressive. They are considered a drain on the economy, taking jobs away from locals and putting very little back into local businesses. Russian immigration laws have been steadily tightening over the last few years, making casual labor migration across the border more difficult (and likely expanding illegal migration). This is fueled in large part, Hatcher found, by a vicious and shameless press, which plays up stories of Chinese crimes, overestimates the numbers of legal and illegal Chinese immigrants, and regularly cites anti-Chinese nationalistic scholars and politicians.

In fact, Chinese work at jobs in the RFE that Russians won’t do, even tough unemployment among ethnic Russians is very high. And Chinese buy most of their goods from Russian-owned businesses who make no effort to cater specifically to Chinese tastes. China has shown little interest in the RFE territory, and even if it had, the numbers of immigrants (at best guess) is well below the levels at which rational observers would consider it a threat of separtism, etc. Chinese immigration offers the RFE’s primary extraction industries (logging, fishing, furs, mining) and decaying mercantile economy their best chance of revitalization, but Chinese are not welcome.

For obvious economic reasons, many Chinese have gone to the RFE (the numbers are in the tens of thousands, at least), but legal and social restrictions make it impossible for the numbers to be large enough to make up Russia’s demographic and economic and institutional weaknesses. The starkly different social and economic conditions on either side of the Russia-China border call the concept of this as a “region” into question; I’ve never entirely bought the argument that Russia was an “Asian Power” just because it had some Pacific Rim beachfront. Interestingly, Chinese labor in the RFE had a “heyday” in the early 20th century, but was pushed out by increasingly nationalistic positions, culminating in the almost total removal of Chinese from the RFE at the time of the Sino-Soviet split in the late ’50s.

Needless to say, Russia’s post-Soviet collapse is of great concern to China (and, as Niall Ferguson points out in the essay cited above, the Chinese model of economic development without political liberalization is very intriguing, if unreachable, to many Russians) and the continuing decline and instability of the northern Pacific region has to be counted as a problem that will have to be addressed at some point in the future.


One-Child Policy as History

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:14 am

I just finished teaching 20th century China, and the three biggest issues in the last section of the course were clearly economic growth, political liberalization and the one-child policy. All three of these are ongoing processes — some more potential than reality — so all I could really say, in the end, was “stay tuned.” It turns out that these processes may be more closely related than I thought, as pointed out in this review [registration required] of Vanessa L. Fong’s Only Hope: Coming of Age Under China’s One-Child Policy (Stanford University Press, 2004).

Fong argues, if the review is correct, that the one-child policy was not just an attempt at gross demographic relief but also a plan for economic development through cultural, even psychological, engineering. “Her central claim is that the policy was designed ‘to create a generation of ambitious, well-educated children who would lead their country into the First World, [and it] succeeded, but at a price’ (pp. 2-3).” Fong argues that the one-child policy has raised the status of female children within the family: families are more willing to invest effort in girls when they have no boys as an alternative. Fong also points out that parents are willing to make extraordinary sacrifices for their childrens’ education — the brief discussion of university entrance exams in the review was, of course, reminiscent of Japan’s “examination hell” of past decades — and upbringing when they have only one in whom to invest all their hopes and ambitions.

This is “the cultural model of modernization” in action, we’re told: channeling the aspirations of traditional families into education, which is seen as fundamentally modern, as a route economic success, which is seen as beneficial to society generally. It doesn’t matter, apparently, that Japan’s modernization was in the opposite direction: Japan’s de facto one-child policy families are a result of industrial economic growth which drove cultural change and, consequently, raised the status of education which, in turn, lowered birth rates, etc. It might be less of a process and more of a cluster of co-dependent variables, if Fong is correct and if the founder of the one-child policy really had this in mind.

A few thoughts come to mind: it may well be true that one-child raises the status of girls within the family, for families that have only one girl. This is plausible, but has to be mitigated by the obvious (and accelerating) gender gap in births which indicates the strong survival of patriarchal and patrilineal patterns. There’s also a significant question as to whether one-child policy is viable in a more mobile society — and mobility is so often both an engine and effect of modernity — where strict work-group monitoring is impossible. So it may turn out to be an episode rather than a pattern. And I’d like to hear from someone who is more familiar with the origins of China’s demographic intervention as to whether Fong’s impression of the policy as a component of a planned jump-start to modernization is indeed born out by the historical record.

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