Monumental Histories

Quite by coincidence, I ended up reading three books on Chinese monuments, but not until the third did I realize that what I was reading was a history of modern monuments. The first two books I picked up relatively recently – as my “to read” stack goes – but since they were related to my Early China course this last semester they moved to the front of the line.1 The third was a review copy sent by Cornell UP to “Jonathan Dresner, Frog In A Well Blog.”2 The books are

  • John Man, The Terracotta Army: China’s First Emperor and the Birth of a Nation, Bantam Press, 2007
  • Julia Lovell, The Great Wall: China Against the World, 1000 BC – AD 2000, Grove Press, 2006.
  • Chang-Tai Hung, Mao’s New World: Political Culture in the Early People’s Republic

Why do I say these are modern monuments? The terracotta warriors, while a monumental work, were unknown until 1974, and did not become “monuments of China” for several years after. The Great Wall was a fairly obscure remnant until foreign visitors, mistranslations and reporters (including Ripley himself) raised so much interest that the Chinese government refurbished and made it accessible primarily as a nationalist beacon and tourist attraction. Though they have older stories to tell as well, they actually fit quite well into the discussion Chang-tai Hung presents of the artistic and aesthetic politics in the first decade of the PRC.

Portland Art Museum - Han Clay ChariotJohn Man’s investigation into the Qin tombs is a journalistic archaeological whodunit, a very competent roundup of physical research into Qin remains and contemporary technologies. For me, the journalistic investigation style wears thin very quickly: the habit of holding back important information to the end – which journalists share with weak mystery writers, among others – as a way of impelling the reader really grates my academic reader instincts. The archaelogical and journalistic investigation into the physical possibilities of the tomb and tomb figures is not matched by historical sensitivity: the treatment of historical texts here is adequate but not satisfying. Man presents the theory that Sima Qian was, through his heavy-handed criticism of the Qin emperors, attacking his own sometimes cruel and capricious monarch.3 This gives him opportunity to present other recent evidence suggesting that the Qin legal system wasn’t that bad (e.g. 82) and that the problem with the Qin was, fundamentally, leadership (especially succession). Aside from the historical revision, Man embarks on a revision of the traditional narrative of tomb figure creation itself, investigating the processes of construction and production – using the souvenir reproduction industry as a surrogate – in an attempt to arrive at a plausible figure for workers and time needed to complete the tombs as we know them. The number of assumptions necessary is problematic, but the physical descriptions and pictures of the figures are great fun. In related news, U Mass Amherst’s Warring States Project looks like it might bear great fruit, the lectures section looks like the best starting place for dabblers.

Julia Lovell’s survey of Chinese wall-building is more traditional history, but is clearly directed at a broad audience as well, and she has extensive journalistic experience in addition to being a history lecturer at Cambridge. The book is quite comprehensive, but the narrow focus on the development of what comes to be known as The Great Wall – the careful elucidation of the history of the naming is worth what I paid for the book by itself – means that the context is sometimes lost. The core of the book is, in a way, the maps: a lovely series throughout the book showing the different configurations of long walls built by dynasty after dynasty, and pictures and descriptions highlighting the very temporary nature of the typical earthen walls. My biggest question about Chinese wall-building has always been its effectiveness: continuing wall-building suggests that the Chinese dynasties believed their effectiveness, while the historical record seems to plainly indicate that walls were ineffective in times of crisis and conflict with northern societies, almost invariably highly mobile cavalry-based forces. Lovell’s thesis in this regard is interestingly nuanced: when dynasties are vital and trade with pastoral communities is reasonable, then walls are both effective and largely unnecessary; when dynasties are weak, or try to close off trade with the northern peoples, then the walls are a speedbump, at best. Walls appear effective when they are built by young, vibrant dynasties; this makes them attractive for tottering governments which are trying to bolster borders without spending real time and money on military preparedness. As Lovell notes several times, and the French learned much later, the problem with walls is that they have ends: determined enemies routinely rode around, rather than through, them. And dynasties in decline often have trouble maintaining the loyalty of border guard commands that are ill-paid and can’t rely on vigorous back-up, so circumstances like the end of the Ming dynasty were more the rule than the exception. Lovell relies heavily – and openly – on Arthur Waldron’s The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth, but since I haven’t read Waldron yet, I can’t tell how much she’s added to his work; the bibliography is very substantial, though, and very up-to-date. She ends with a consideration of the “Great Firewall” which certainly is appropriate, though I’m not sure really adds all that much to the book.

Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang - 2009 - Miss Mao Trying To Poise Herself at the Top of Lenins HeadChang-tai Hung’s study of cultural production and manipulation in the first ten years of Mao’s rule is a surprisingly clear and lively work: the combination of theory and aesthetics and politics could have made this book unreadable and useless, but I’d actually consider using this with undergraduates if I were teaching a more focused course on China.4 Looking at the early years of the People’s Republic through the lens of architecture and art makes clear both the ideological themes and the totalizing visions that made up Maoist communism. The core of the book is ten chapters in five categories, bracketed by Tiananmen Square – first, the square itself, and the Sino-Soviet rivalry that led to the creation of the world’s largest public space, and finally the “Monument to the People’s Heroes” which decorates it, and the historical and political debates that determined its orientation, decoration, inscription and presentation. In between there are chapters on parades, folk dance, cheap prints and ornate oil paintings, including the infamously altered Founding Ceremony by Dong Xiwen. The balance between syncretic adaptation and revolutionary rejection of existing aesthetics is fascinating, as is the tension between internationalist communism and Chinese nationalism. The latter isn’t, actually, so much a tension as an outright contradiction, I suppose: Hung argues consistently that nationalism was part and parcel of Mao and the CCP’s appeals, a kind of “original sin” of the PRC that eventually manifests in the Sino-Soviet split, the Great Leap Forward and the present rising tide of national self-regard.

In this context, of course, the Qin tomb figures and the walls become part of a longer, larger story of national self-creation. Though it’s probably wrong to speak of “nation-building” in the case of the Qin – or even in the case of the Ming – there’s a strain of something like nationalism at the elite levels of Chinese culture that is very easy for populist leaders to adapt into a broad-based cultural phenomenon. I had a substantial discussion about American exceptionalism a while back in which I argued that Chinese elite culture displays all the substantive hallmarks of nationalism in the Early Modern, except for a broad-based popular movement, and possibly even before that. At the very least, the centrality of these monumental works is clearly part of the current nationalist discourse, and very deliberately so.


  1. If memory serves, they were both bought at Daedalus Books in Maryland. Great prices, if they’ve got what you’re looking for; dangerous place for book-hounds.  

  2. Yes, the rest of the address was there, too, but that’s boring.  

  3. 16-26, passim. Man doesn’t really explain, then, how he distinguishes between the details from Sima Qian that he trusts and those that he doesn’t, though he continues to cite him.  

  4. The individual chapters would work as stand-alone readings, as well, though the totality of the vision doesn’t come through that way.  

5 Comments

  1. walls, like america’s tsa, are/were jobs programs.

    as to the nationalism pov, reason #4371 that we need departments of ego studies in universities.

  2. As an amateur admirer of Chinese sculpture, what I found heart-warming is the “rehabilitation” of the ancient stone tortoise, carrier of an important message. During the Cultural Revolution the bixi tortoise was, no doubt, viewed as a reactionary feudal creature (unlike the Monkey King), and, as I understand, quite a few monuments of that kind were vandalized. But lately the stone dragon turtles have made a comeback, with one impressive example, dated 1995, taking a place of honor outside of the Anti-Japanese War Memorial in Beijing’s Fort Wanping.

    (Am trying to insert an image, but am not sure about the syntax. If it does not work, maybe the moderator can cut it out).

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