Teaching about lives

Empire made me

Since James Joshua Hudson brought it up on Facebook, I thought I would say something about teaching with Robert Bickers’ Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai. I have blogged about it before, but basically it is a biography of an English WWI vet and Shanghai policeman , Richard Tinkler,  who manages to go down the tubes at about the same rate the empire does.

I used it in an Honors Core unit that was supposed to deal with “How do we understand and use the past? What therefore, should we do.” and I built it around the theme of biography and autobiography. This is a good book to use for biography, since Bickers talks about Tinkler’s life but also how he came to know about it. He has a good but spotty collection of sources and talks a bit about how we find out about the past and what we can’t know. For instance, he has some photos and some other evidence that Tinkler was at one point in a pretty serious relationship with a White Russian girl. Then…nothing. What happened? You might think with more documents we could figure this out, but sometimes all the documents and interviews in the  world can’t tell you want went wrong with a relationship between two people.1 Bickers also does a good job of putting Tinkler in the context of the city and how it was changing around him. Chinese nationalism was growing, the British Empire was declining. Enough to drive a man to drink.

Student reaction to the book was mixed. I think they learned a lot, but they did not always enjoy it. He is not an admirable character, and was impossible for them to identify with, since he was a racist. Also, he was a loser, someone who started out as a promising young person but had become a failure by age 35, which is of course not a relevant trajectory for an Honors College student. Obviously identifying with the main figure in the book is not the only thing you can do with a narrative, but it is the one they are used to.

The book I usually paired it with was Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City, which is the story of his growing up in Istanbul. He is not a loser (won the Noble Prize, although only once so far) and like Bickers it is as much about a place as about a person. This was, I think, the one they enjoyed most, although it was also the easiest to enjoy as a series of vignettes. Also the Honors College used to do a regular summer trip to Turkey, and this may have helped get them interested. Still, the basic pattern of a smart,  person coming to understand the world around them is one that they could relate to.

I also tried it once with Alan Taylor’s William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic I thought it would pair well with Bickers since it is also about a place and a person. In this case it was about the founder of Cooperstown, New York (and father of the novelist James Fenimore Cooper) and his career as a land agent, speculator, and later judge and congressman. He is basically Tinkler made good, a young man who leaves home to go to a new place and gain the status and money he longs for.

They -really- did not care for this book, since it is long and, like Tinkler, Cooper is a hard person to warm up to. He was obsessed with becoming “genteel”, which was not a motivation modern students find easy to grasp. That was actually one of the reasons I assigned it, since I wanted at least one text on a pre-modern person.

One book that did work well was Hue-Tam Ho Tai. Passion, Betrayal, and Revolution in Colonial Saigon: The Memoirs of Bao Luong. The really got into this, in part I think because you can read it as a coming-of-age story, a murder mystery, a relationship gone bad story….All things they have read before. The fact that the main character is female probably helped too, as about 75% of the students were as well.

So I guess my take-away would be that if you want to engage undergrads (and these were freshmen) in understanding ways people write about lives you are best to choose an admirable character who is not that remote from them in time, and also fits in with some sort of narrative they are already familiar with. Of course part of the purpose of a class like this is to get beyond their comfort zone, but you start where you start. I guess this is why in a Modern China class I always get good results with Cultural Revolution narratives about a young person gradually realizing that everyone around them is crazy.

A couple other things I used were Ge Hong’s Autobiography (from Ebrey) and the first bits of Mark Twain’s autobiography. These both worked well as short examples you could use to show students how to do close reading.

 

 


  1. Interestingly, if you look at the picture of Tinkler’s funeral there is a white-looking girl in a white dress mixed in with the Shanghai Police contingent.. A daughter?  

The threat of Chinese imperialism in the 1920’s- Teacher training edition

In the 1920’s officials in the Dutch East Indies became concerned about the threat of Chinese Imperialism. This was a new concern for them. For a very long time the Dutch, and other colonialists had been eager to attract Chinese migrants, as they were the best way to develop a colony. They were “The only bees on Formosa that give honey.” One of the early governors of the Dutch East Indies said that

It is requisite by this monsoon to send another fleet to visit the coast of China and take prisoners as many men, women and children as possible… If the war proceed against China… an especial foresight must be used to take a very great number of Chinese, especially women and children, for the peopling of Batavia, Amboyna, and Banda.1

The Dutch eventually became worried about the Chinese, and by the late 1800s were creating all sort of ways to control and limit them they were mostly afraid of the Chinese as a race. (good old Yellow Peril stuff). They limited Chinese movement and tried to restrict their economic power, but were not terribly concerned with their contacts with China. Nobody was concerned with the actual existing Chinese state extending its control into Southeat Asia. According to Liu Oiyan, that changed in both the British and the Dutch colonies as more nationalistic education began to spread from China. 2 Jinan College was founded in 1906 and re founded in 1917 (first in Nanjing, then in Shanghai) to encourage nationalism among Chinese in Southeast Asia, especially those who would go on to teach in Chinese schools there.  “Jinan was the principle stronghold of Chinese Imperialism in the modern period that should not be welcomed by the colonial powers in Asia.” (p.100) Keeping out Chinese teachers became a key goal of Dutch policy. They also fought back by establishing Dutch-language education for Chinese students and setting up their own teacher training programs. Both side tried to encourage teachers to become citizens of the requisite state.

This seems like an interesting topic that a lot could be done with, but I was particularly interested in how much this worried the colonialists. Although it is fairly well known  that Chinese nationalists and Nationalists tried to spread Nationalism among the overseas Chinese, this has not been portrayed as wildly successful. Yes, the Chinese state did get some donations and such, but they were nowhere near taking over Java or Malaya or even the International Settlement in Shanghai. I can’t but help think that Chinese in Nanjing and Shanghai would have been gratified by the concern of the Dutch. Heck, even today Hanban would be overjoyed if it actually had the power that the Dutch thought the GMD did.

1 Vandenbosch, Amry. “A Problem in Java: The Chinese in the Dutch East Indies.” Pacific Affairs 3, no. 11 1930: 1001–17. doi:10.2307/2750073.
1 Liu, Oiyan. “Countering ‘Chinese Imperialism’: Sinophobia and Border Protection in the Dutch East Indies.” Indonesia, no. 97 (April 2014): 87–110,154.

Dunhuang, translation, and cultural contact

If you teach about Dunhuang, or the Tang dynasty, or inter-cultural contact, or just like to read interesting things, you should be aware of the Early Tibet website of Sam van Schaik. He is based at the International Dunhuang project, and has some interesting posts on Dunhuang as a site of cultural contact between Tibet and China. This is something everyone talks about in class, but van Shaik has lots of details on the functioning of the Dunhuang scriptorium that students might find interesting. Obviously today we don’t kidnap family members or flog people for loosing paper. When we say something has been written with blood we mean it as a metaphor, which may not always have been the case in Dunhuang.

Still, just like Dunhuang scribes, our students like to doodle.

pt1164_detail.

While your students may not suffer quite as much as the Chinese scribes did under Tibetan rule, they may find the parallels interesting.

 

Understanding China-The interview

Stone Bridge Press is bringing out a deluxe edition of Jing Liu’s Understanding China Through Comics, which I have been reviewing here and enjoying very much. I recently had a chance to interview him about his work. and its future.

Why did you decide to do this? What were you trying to convey and to whom? Has the audience changed any over time?

In 2009 when we’re expecting our first child, I wanted to make a special gift only for him, so I thought about making books. I chose comic history because both history and comics are my long time hobbies. I also have 18-year experiences in running my design business, so I’m ready to turn my hobbies into a career. ‘Understanding China through Comics’ brings new method (present history graphically) and new perspective (how modern Chinese view themselves) for learning Chinese history. The series are intended for the general public.

Why in English?

I felt this topic deserves a global audience, so I wrote it in a global language, English.

At least for me some parts of teaching history are easier than others. It is not always easy to put all the things you want to talk about in a particular period into a clear story. What part of this history had been most difficult for you so far? Which did you enjoy most?

It’s easy to talk about history through personal stories. However, it’s more important and more difficult to look beyond these stories to see the long-term context (e.g. geography, economy) that plays a bigger role in history. The most difficult period is the Age of Division between the Han and Tang, too much going on at the same time, making it hard to tell a clear story.

What were some of the ways you got around this problem? For the Age of Division, one way to talk about it is through historical figures and events. I focus on the philosophical conflicts between Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, trying to explain how Chinese culture evolves in such a chaotic time.

Which period or topic has changed most in your mind as you worked on this? What figures or issues have you changed your mind about most?

The one thing I learned after working on the project is to be optimistic about the future – Today China has become a part of the globalized world. Once the change is done, there is no turning back.

Before I looked at Chinese history in terms of dynastic cycles (a traditional Chinese view), thinking what goes up must come down.

So it sounds like you have changed to a view of history as progress. Are there any parts of the Chinese past that you found difficult to fit into this pattern? Has this led you away from political history, or given you problems dealing with some periods? Are you thinking of extending the story into the 20th century?

From a long-term perspective, Chinese history is progressing from an agricultural empire to an industrialized nation, from the isolated “center of the world” to be a part of the world, and from traditional hierarchical communities with limited choices to diversified societies that offer more people more freedom to choose their own ways of lives. There are many short-term setbacks. But they didn’t stop history from progressing. Vol. 5 will cover the 20th century, but there is no fixed publishing schedule yet. The most interesting period for me is in Vol. 4, when China interacts with the Western powers.

What did you find most interesting about this? What did you find most enjoyable or difficult to write about in this period?

In Vol. 4, the most interesting part for me is that it’s no longer possible to tell Chinese history without relating to forces far away China. The previously more isolated civilizations start to blend together. For example, during the Boxer rebellions, such different sides as Chinese farmers, scholars, officials, foreign missionaries, and eight-nation allies played out and led to the eventual showdown. The history is still progressing in terms of the making of modern China, but personal experiences at the time could well be the opposite. It’s difficult to tell a balanced story.

Is there a main theme to your story? To Chinese history?

The main theme of the series is to explain what made the Chinese ‘Chinese’

The short answer is that, our history, our collective past, has made what we are today. History conditions individuals and societies, shapes the way we treat each other, and gives people complex accumulations of ideas. These ideas give us a sense of identity; these ideas became our culture. To put it in another way, Chinese history determines Chinese culture, and culture determines behavior, making the Chinese ‘Chinese.’

What has the reaction to the project been? Has this surprised you at all?

The reaction is very encouraging. Now I’m working with French, Korean and American publishers to release new editions. A Japanese publisher also expressed interest recently.

Will there be a Chinese edition?

Yes, a Hong Kong publisher just offered to publish the books in Chinese.

You have mentioned that you are re-drawing the series, which if fact you have done in part already. Why? How is the new version different?

Currently I’m re-writing and re-drawing Vol. 2 and 3 to improve the writings and drawings.

Battle1 Battle2

New                                                                  Old

Has does the format you have published in give you more freedom? Normally once a book is published the author can’t do any revisions. Was this part of your plan from the beginning?

Comic books are a great media to make a complicated topic more interesting. If possible, I’ll keep improving the story-telling and visual presentation.

What sources have you drawn on for the work? Which sources were most helpful? Which periods or topics were most difficult to find sources on?

My main sources are the works of Chinese historians: Lu Simian, Wang Tongling, and Ray Huang Renyu. It’s difficult to find sources on wars, as Chinese scholars generally don’t like to discuss them in great detail.

How about visual sources? What aspects of the project have been most difficult to picture in your mind and thus on paper? How did you work around this?

I try to find as many ancient paintings as possible to help my drawings. It’s hard to visualize abstract concepts like philosophy or economy. This is something that I need to improve on.

Do you have an example of an abstract concept that you think you did well with?

An example would be visualizing the dynastic cycle.

JL-Cycle1 Cycle2

The old editions are all still available on Amazon.

Immigrant Panics, then and now.

Liliuokalani Garden Torii - Bay BackgroundThere’s not all that much to add to George Takei’s devastating response to Roanoke Mayor David Bowen’s attempt to rationalize refusing Syrian refugees by citing the internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II.

I’ve written about the internment before, and my conclusion thirteen years ago stands up reasonably well:

What is the lesson of this history? Jumping to conclusions about individuals or groups based on limited information is dumb. If we violate our own principles, we will regret it. We can admit mistakes, and learn from them. Apology doesn’t make things right, but it can make things better. Our success in destroying evil in WWII is tarnished more by denying or ignoring the full range of history than it is by admitting errors and making amends. But that success is only fully realized when we make a commitment not to make the same, or similar, mistakes again.

Around that time, shortly after the September 11th attacks and the anti-Arab panics that engendered, a book came out defending the internment as a necessary tactical and intelligence-based decision. Though roundly debunked by knowledgeable historians and justifiably ignored by most professional historians and decent people, the argument made therein has clearly become part of a particular mythology of American exceptionalism. This is, I think, part and parcel with the arguments sometimes made in defense of slavery, or Native American removal: “yes, it looks like an atrocity now, but in context, it was a kindness; we’ve apologized once, now let’s figure out what the benefits were for everyone, including the victims; people who did this were just products of their time, and nice to children and puppies; etc.” (paraphrased). Now the author of the aforementioned book claimed that she didn’t intend to specifically justify internment of Americans or immigrants of Arab descent or Muslim faith, but nobody really believed her.

The United States isn’t the only society that tries to perpetuate a sanitized and self-serving history, but this is an historical episode about which we had actually achieved some clarity: seeing the mythical justified version of this come back into the public discourse is really disheartening.

Updated: David Neiwert, who wrote a book on the subject and was a leading critic of rehabilitation for internment, has a nicely detailed response and the entire Roanoke city council has responded strongly and negatively to the (outgoing) mayor’s statement.

Patriotic, airminded, Mahjong

Via Peter Harmsen’s WW2 In China blog I found a link to this post from Mahjong Treasures.

The post describes a mysterious Mahjong set that left China in the luggage of one E.A.R. Fowles before 1939. The author assumes it was made after 1937, given the anti-Japanese content, but I am not sure that is right. It could have been made any time after 1932.

DSC_0131

 

The bottom row of tiles are clearly calling for retaking Manchuria. the slogan across the top is kaifu jiangdi “Recover the Borderlands” and the gates have the names of places in the Northeast, so this is clearly after the Japanese took Manchuria in 1931. In 1932 the Shanghai Incident happened, and the bombing of the city led to a much greater interest in air defence and air-mindedness. The top row shows a plane, a Japanese person being bombed, what looks like an anti-aircraft gunner, and what might possibly be an observer looking out for enemy planes. The caption says “Aviation saves the nation”.  So I would put this after 1932 sometime. I am not very up on the literature on patriotic Mahjong sets, so I could be wrong about this.

 

The Chinese as children of Japan

Picture1
Above is a nice image that I use in class. I think I got it from Fairbank. I am not quite sure where it comes from, but it is clearly dealing with the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. A version I found through Google Image suggests that it was published in 1902.

tumblr_lb1bfpdA6n1qz5xpuo1_500

The reason I bring this up is that I just found1 another  version, published in China in 1904

Japan-Image

This is clearly a re-drawn version, either from the Japanese original or from some intermediary version. The Chinese version has a caption, which laments the Chinese being compared to the child-like Koreans, but as I don’t have a Japanese caption I can’t really compare that. It is the picture I find interesting. I get the impression that the purpose of the Japanese original is to make Japan and Britain look equal. and China and Korea were just minor elements. The Chinese version changes a number of things, and while this may just be a hurried artist at work I find the changes interesting. Japan and Britain are the center of the Japanese version, but the Chinese version has a more balanced composition.   Hight changes a bit between the two versions. In both Japan and Britain are the same hight. (Britain looks taller, but that is just because she is cheating with that helmet technology. At a spiritual level they are equal.) In the Japanese version China is taller than Korea, but in the Chinese version the Koreans are taller, perhaps to emphasize China’s humiliation.  The Chinese figure in the Japanese version is more active (I think) than his Korean counterpart, but in the Chinese version they are both static and being observed by those above. Most interestingly, the Chinese figure has been completely re-drawn. The Japanese version has him in something that looks vaguely like an official’s hat, identifying him with the dynasty. The Chinese version has a more generic hat, identifying him with the race. The Chinese version has a very obvious queue, perhaps identifying him with subservience to the Manchus. The Japanese version seems to assume a public capable of identifying national stereotypes without a caption, but the Chinese version adds them. I don’t know what to make of the fact that the Chinese version seems impelled to turn this into a landscape by adding a ground, or the fact that it both images we have two male figures subordinate to two female figures, but nevertheless they are interesting images.


  1. from Paul Bailey, Gender and Education in China: Gender Discourses and Women’s Schooling in the Early Twentieth Century.London: Routledge, 2012.  

Women and jewlery

Here is a great picture of Madame Chiang Kai-shek via Getty

Madame Chiang Kai-shek (Song Meiling) h‰lt eine Rede vor 10.000 chinesischen Frauen am Internationalen Frauentag. In ihrer empor gestreckten Hand h‰lt sie eine Silberkette, die von einer indischen Frau der chinesichen Kriegskasse gespendet wurde. Chungking. China. Photographie. 8.M‰rz 1939 Madame Chiang Kai-shek (Soong May-ling) holds a speech in front of 10.000 Chinese women at the International Women's Day. In her up-raised hand, she holds a silver chain that was contributed by an Indian woman to the China's war chest. Chonquing. China. Photograph. March 8, 1939

CHINA – MARCH 08: Madame Chiang Kai-shek (Soong May-ling) holds a speech in front of 10.000 Chinese women at the International Women’s Day. In her up-raised hand, she holds a silver chain that was contributed by an Indian woman to the China’s war chest. Chonquing. China. Photograph. March 8, 1939 (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

it’s an interesting picture,  at least for me, since it ties in with a couple of interesting things. One, it’s from an Indian woman, and very little has been done with GMD attempts to connect with Indian nationalists during the war, although they were definitely doing that. 1 More interestingly it is jewelry.  Drives to collect jewelry were common in lots of wartime societies, but I am not quite sure how  to understand this. Is giving up your jewelry and act of giving up your frivolity and modern female unseriousness? Maybe. On the other hand, jewelry was a common store of value for women in traditional societies. Maybe this is a sign that even the most traditional of peasant women are mobilizing their wealth for the nation? Maybe someone can dig up the text of what she said and find out how she explained it.

 


  1. The only work on this topic I know is Yang Tianshi “Chiang Kai-shek and Jawaharlal Nehru” in Ven, Hans van de, Diana Lary, and Stephen MacKinnon, eds. Negotiating China’s Destiny in World War II. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2014.  

Yuan Mei, Food Network star

As  Yuan Mei’s Garden of Accord Food Book is now available in English translation, I have been reading the whole thing. One of the things that strikes me is how well it fits in with contemporary food culture. In the Qing Yuan could do no better than being a poet, official, scholar, and pubisher. Today he  could almost host a show on Food Network.

As you might expect he has the whole food as religion thing down

In Taoist alchemy, after nine rounds of cooking down, cinnabar becomes elixir. Confucians concentrate everything, avoiding excess and deficiency, and finding the center. When a chef knows fire and can correctly and carefully manage it, he has the Way of cooking. When the fish is put on the table, its color is as white as jade, and without dryness it keeps freshness and deliciousness.  If  the fish is white like powder, and its meat is loose, it  looks dead. A beautiful shining fresh fish, cooked till it seems long dead, is a really hateful thing for me.

He also both embraces and rejects food and eating as social one-upmanship. He criticizes “Ear Banquets” where the host is trying to show off by using a lot of fancy, poorly cooked ingredients. He also criticizes an “Eye meal” with too many dishes. There is a limit to how many dishes you can do well, and if you go past it you are  asking for trouble. After attending one “eye meal” hosted by a merchant and had to go home and make some congee (稀飯) to satisfy himself.  So, food is about your belly and its satisfaction not social status and showing off.

Except, of course, that it -is- about social status. All these people are inviting Yuan Mei to their house to eat, and he is constantly holier than thou about the poor quality of their food as opposed to the simple elegance of his own cooking.

In Chang’an, there’s a very hospitable person who can’t seem to manage to serve tasty food. One of his guests asked him:” Are you and I good friends?” He answered: “Of course!” Then the guest kneeled down, and  said: “If so, I have one request, and you must say yes before I get up.” The surprised host asked: “What can I do for you?” The guest said: “In future, if you want to invite friends for dinner, please don’t include me.” Everyone laughed.

A bit cold between friends, but it would fit fine on one of those competitive cooking shows.

Of course Yuan Mei himself is not the cook. He hires a cook and supervises the whole thing. This is, I think, more or less what a modern restaurant chef does, although he treats his cooks more like servants and less like employees

Cooks are persons from the lower classes. If for a day they are not duly rewarded or criticized, in that day they will be lazy and casual. Their cooking will be bad because of lack of timely attention.  If we eat that food anyway, then tomorrow they will cook even worse food. Continuing with this, the food becomes trash, their job not performed well.  I say that one needs to reward or criticize them strictly and at the time. A cook who has done well needs to be praised, with details of how his cooking is good.  A cook who has done a bad job needs to be told straightforwardly why it was a bad job and how he can correct it. When cooking, seasoning must be performed well, not too plain or too salty; cooking time must be enough but not overlong. Lazy cooks who don’t love their cooking, like eaters who don’t care about the food, are problems for one who is dining and does care. Studying thoroughly and thinking through details are the keys to success in a scholar. Similarly, guiding in culinary theory and learning from each other are the duties of teachers. For cooking and diet, shouldn’t it be the same?

So being a good host is like being a good garden designer. You are the impresario of the show, but not the actual performer. Also like with gardens, you may emphasize the simplicity of what you do, but no matter how much you call yourself a hermit it is still a social display.

The book itself is not that helpful as a cookbook, since it really is aimed at people who are giving general directions to cooks, and good cooks at that. A good cook apparently knows how to translate

Lamb Soup

Slice the cooked lamb meat into the size of small dice. Stew it in chicken broth with bamboo shoots, black mushroom and Chinese yam.

or

Water Chicken (Frogs)

Get rid of the frogs’ torso; keep only the legs. First fry the legs in oil, then add soy sauce, sweet wine, melon and ginger, then remove from the wok. Or get the frog meat to stir-fry.  The flavor is the same as chicken.

into good food. This is actually not all that different from today, when some cookbooks seem to be convinced that their readers can already cook and a lot of stuff can be glossed over. That is of course true. There is a limit to how much a book can teach you if you are starting from nothing.  This principle actually applies particularly well to things like TV cooking or those endless dish descriptions waiters sometimes give. If you have no idea what fermented black beans taste like how can you guess what the dish on TV tastes like? (well, there is always this.) Yuan Mei’s is an insiders book aimed at people who already have definite ideas about food, so I am not sure how well a translation would sell as a cookbook, but it is fun to read.

Folding Beijing

One of the primary sources I assigned for my History of East Asia class this semester was “Folding Beijing” a Chinese science fiction story by Hao Jingfang (translated by Ken Liu.)

The story is set in a Beijing of the future, where the city folds up to allow it to be occupied by different groups of people. The protagonist is Lao Dao, a waste worker from Third Space who is hired by Qin Tian, a graduate student in Second Space (yes, the bridge between the poor and the rich is a grad student) who is in love with a girl from First Space. Of course, her family does not approve of a match with a person from a lower space, and Lao Dao has to take a message to her. How different are the spaces?

Lao Dao was stunned. He had never seen bills with such large denominations or needed to use them. Almost subconsciously, he stood up, angry. The way Yi Yan had taken out the money seemed to suggest that she had been anticipating an attempt from him to blackmail her, and he could not accept that. This is what they think of Third Spacers. He felt that if he took her money, he would be selling Qin Tian out. It was true that he really wasn’t Qin Tian’s friend, but he still thought of it as a kind of betrayal. Lao Dao wanted to grab the bills, throw them on the ground, and walk away. But he couldn’t. He looked at the money again: The five thin notes were spread on the table like a broken fan. He could sense the power they had on him. They were baby blue in color, distinct from the brown 1,000–yuan note and the red 100–yuan note. These bills looked deeper, most distant somehow, like a kind of seduction. Several times, he wanted to stop looking at them and leave, but he couldn’t.

It is a nice story that touches on lots of things in modern Chinese society.  One thing about it that I liked as a historian is that while it does a nice jobs of showing (and resenting) class distinction there is a certain nostalgia to Third Space, where people are together and it is more and you can get stinky dofu (not available in First Space.) Hao is not the first to note how class distinctions are also time distinctions, with the poor stuck in the past, but it is a good example.

I may report later on how many of them liked it and how well teaching it worked.

The Garden of Accord Food Book

Yuan Mei’s Garden of Accord Food Book has been translated into English. This is one of the classic Chinese texts on cooking, and by reading it I have already learned why my red-cooked meat is so inconsistent (cooking time matters a lot, so I guess you can’t just ignore it while you work on something else) and some always good general advice.

Information about Uncertain Tastes

We want the dishes taste rich, but not greasy; or taste light, but not plain. It is really hard to fully understand and grasp the skill. Slight mistakes lead to poor cooking. When we say rich flavor, it means that the cook should extract the essence and reject the dross. If one pursues only richness and heaviness, why not just eat lard? To “taste fresh and light” refers to bringing out the prominent good flavor. If one seeks only weak and tasteless things, why  not just drink water?

i.e. don’t overdo it. Except with garlic. There is no such thing as too much garlic.

As you might expect, there is also plenty about how preparing food properly is analogous to all the other things a gentleman does.

Don’t Overcook the Food

Everything has its basic nature, and cannot be distorted to be something else. Let nature take its course. For a good thing like birds’ nests, why mash it down to make a ball?  A sea cucumber is a sea cucumber, why cook it down to a sauce? When watermelon is cut, it won’t stay fresh for long. Why make it into cakes?  When apples are too ripe, they are not crisp.  Why steam them to make dry fruit?  Other things like Autumn Vine cakes from Zun Sheng Ba Jian and Magnolia Cake made by Li Liweng are all pretentiously overcooked pieces. It’s like twisting osier branches to make cups—they lose their main features. It’s also like daily ethical behavior; one can benefit the household just by performing normal good virtue.  There is no need for strange practices.

While the book is essential for understanding the development of Chinese food, Yuan Mei is a pretty simple cook, who would be lost in the world of modern Chinese banqueting.

Don’t Eat with Your Ears

What is an “Ear Banquet”?  It is a dinner provided in pursuit of fame. Wishing to serve something precious, so as to boast to the guests, is an ear banquet, not really [the serving of] a delicious dish. You should know that if tofu is done well, it’s better than  birds’ nests. And if you don’t cook sea cucumber [the text says “sea vegetable,” which Giles 1923:261 takes as an error for sea cucumber] right, it’s not as good as vegetables and bamboo shoots. I have said that fish, chicken, pork, and duck are the knights of the kitchen.  Each has its basic own flavor and cooking style. Sea cucumbers and  birds’ nests are like ordinary persons—no characteristics.  They can be cooked well only with the help of other food.  I have seen an official’s dinner, each bowl is as big as a big jar, containing four liang of water-cooked birds’ nest—no taste at all. The guests were trying to compliment him. I smiled and said: “we came here to eat birds’ nests, not to traffic in birds’ nests.” If the valuable item hasn’t been cooked well, although there’s large amount, it’s a waste. If he serves it only to boast how rich he is, why can’t he just put a hundred jewels in each bowl, or a quantity of gold? Then it doesn’t matter if it’s inedible.

(Birds’ nests, by themselves, are tasteless. Their virtues, other than the medicinal one of providing digestible protein and minerals, are that they provide a crunchy texture and are very good at absorbing other flavors.  They are good only if cooked in a very flavorful soup.  Sea cucumbers, also valued more for their medicinal protein and mineral value than for their flavor, are somewhat more flavorful, but do indeed need much supplementing to make them good.)

Don’t Eat with Your Eyes

What is an “eye meal”?  An eye meal is one in which there are too many dishes at a time. Now some people pursue the fame of the food; they cover the table with dishes and stacks of plates and bowls.  They eat with their eyes, not with their mouths. [Angl. “their eyes are bigger than their stomachs.”]  They don’t know that when famous writers and calligraphers write too much in a short time, there must be some failures; when famous poets write too many poems, there must be some bad lines. It is the same with a good chef. In one day, he can probably make four or five good dishes; that is about his limit. But to arrange a huge feast, even with others’ help, most likely will result in a mess. Because more people come to help, there are more different opinions. [“Too many cooks spoil the broth.”]  This can result in bad discipline during the cooking. I once went to a merchant’s house for dinner. They had three tables of dishes—desserts of sixteen types, total main course dishes of more than 40 types. The host felt proud of his treats, thinking it must have increased his face in front of the guests. However, after I got home, I needed to cook some congee to satisfy my hungry stomach. Due to my experience, I think this merchant’s dinner was less than successful—indeed, it was not very sophisticated! The Southern-dynasty writer Kong Linzhi (369-423) once said: “People nowadays have many dishes, but rather outside the mouth—it’s more for the eyes’ satisfaction.” In my words, too many dishes on one table create unsatisfying views as well as unsatisfying flavors.

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Oriental Women

I have been reading about Lee Ya-Ching, who is billed (incorrectly) by Wikipedia as the “First Chinese civilian aviator.” In her various tours of North and South America to raise money for the Chinese war effort she of course attracted a lot of attention as a symbol of China. She was… Well I am not as good as the Miami Daily News at stuffing orientalist tropes into a paragraph, so I will leave it to them.

Miss Lee Ya-Ching, restrained, placid and assured as a Chinese goddess posed on a lily pad—hands as sensitive and artful as a fan dancer’s and a voice poignant with culture and the philosophy of the ages. Yet she is as modern and as American as the latest career deb—and quite as stylish.” Miami Daily News January 16, 1941

I think that lilly pad was maybe supposed to be a lotus, but they hit pretty much all the notes in here.

Among other things, her U.S. tour was something of a dry run for Madame Chiang’s later visits.