An update on the Marco Polo problem

I said when I introduced the History Carnival that I’d been doing a lot of private blogging in the form of online course materials, and I really should share some of that. It turns out that I just wrote a piece that might well be interesting to our readers:

In the first edition of Open Empire, published in 2000, Valerie Hansen expressed a frustration common among Asian history scholars, with European Marco Polo scholars who insisted on the truthfulness and reliability of his Travels:

Anyone reading Polo’s account has to question the reliability of what he says about China. Sources external to his memoir do not record his presence in China, much less his service in the positions he professes to have held. He claims to have built the Mongols the catapults that made it possible for them to take Xiangyang in 1268 — two years before his arrival in China. Further casting doubt  on his account, Chinese sources  record the fall of the city in 1273 with the help of Arab — not European — engineers. Polo says he served as governor of Yangzhou, but the ists of governors are complete and do not give his name.

As is well known, Marco Polo wrote his account in prison during 1298 and 1299, assisted by Rusticello de Pisa, who specialized in romances, and who, like many modern ghostwriters, felt no compunction about embellishing the truth to enhance the readability of his account. One scholar has shown that Khubilai’s welcome to Marco was simply lifted from Rusticello’s rewrite of the passage from the Arthurian legend when Tristan first goes to court.

As his account meanders from place to place, he sometimes records the number of days necessary for the journey, sometimes not. At times large chunks of the itinerary are left out, and he writes as if he flew to the Mongol capital. The reader never learns the grittydetails of the trip. With whom does Polo travel? What does he eat? Where does he stay? What language did he speak? Who were his interpreters? Further undercutting his credibility, his account suffers from a mind-numbing repetitiveness. In almost every city in China he records, ‘The inhabitants are idolators and burn their dead. They are subject to the Great Khan and use paper money,’ or some variation of this formula. The typical passage about a given place will mention its major products, such as silk, jujubes, foodstuffs, or armaments, comment on the numbers of ships there, and then lurch to the next site.
Despite its formulaic narrative and outright inventions, one cannot reject Polo’s account totally because it occasionally includes kernels of important information. One has to wonder when Polo reports that women test brides for their virginity by scratching thier hymens with a clean cloth, ‘so that the linen may be slightly stained with the virginal blood,’ which cannot be washed out. But when Polo records ‘ to ensure this strict preservation of virginity, the maidens always walk so daintily that they never advance one fvoot more than a finger’s breadth beyond the other,’ it seems as if he is actually describing the effects of footbinding. Marco seems to know about practices with which people in Europe could not have been familiar: he meets a spirit medium who specializes in finding lost or stolen goods, and he describes the Chinese custom of equipping the dead with ‘horses and slaves, male and female, and camels and cloth of gold in abundance — all made of paper!’

What we have in Polo’s Travels, then, is the strung-together accumulated hearsay of travellers who went to China. Some Europeans did make the trip, as the tombstone of the daughter of an Italian merchant shows. Some of the expressions Polo uses are Persian, suggesting his informants could have been from Iran. Failure ot visit China would not have prevented Polo from writing. His contemporary Pegolotti wrote a dry book that gave price data from China, yet its author had never journeyed there. In an age when so few Europeans had been to China, one could easily write about it on the basis of others’ reports.” (344-347, emphasis added)

Hansen’s view, supplemented by critical work by Frances Wood, informed my own. I wrote in 2004: “Let me say this clearly and plainly: Marco Polo did not go to China, Marco Polo did not work for the Mongol Yuan Dynasty” (, emphasis in the original). I moderated my view slightly in 2012 after reading a very ambitious attempt to match Polo’s biological and financial data to medieval Chinese equivalents, arguing that Polo partisans were too biased to effectively evaluate the flaws in his work, but that skeptics had only a circumstantial case against it, and that there was no way to adjudicate the dispute without ‘smoking gun’ sources that probably don’t exist, if they ever did:

Polan loyalists are already convinced that Polo’s claims are valid and useful, except where directly contradicted by evidence. But they are not going to convince Polan skeptics of the truth of Polo’s claims except by verification. And the amount of work necessary to make a good case of Polo is the best evidence that Marco Polo’s Travels is a bad historical source that should not be relied upon for anything which cannot be independently verified. (

I remain more or less in the same place at this point. I still think it’s more likely that Marco Polo was a secondary source, not a primary source, a fiction based on facts.

Hansen, though, has moved even futher, and so the current edition of The Open Empire (2015) is more even-handed, weaving substantial new claims in among the skeptical material of the earlier edition:

While some scholars argue furiously that Travels offers better information about the places Polo visited than any other book, orhers, equally certain, counter that the book contains many factual errors. In fact, both scholarly camps can find evidence to support their differeing views: some parts of Polo’s account are accurate, others are not.
Travels does make some false claims. …
Still, other indications support Polo’s claim to have visited China. … Polo’s description of their jouney tallies with Chinese accounts, which do not, however, explicitly mention the Polos by name. Moreover, when Polo died, his will listed his possessions, one of which was a paiza tablet of authority, a travel pass that allowed the bearer to travel throughout the Mongol empire as the khan’s representative. Polo must have recieved the pass from the Mongol ruler.
We must remember that the historical record is far from complete…
The scholars who argue for the reliability of Polo’s book also have persuasive evidence. Polo occasionally relates kernels of important information. One scholar has recently shown that Polo’s description of Chinese paper money is the most detailed account in any language: it explains how the Chinese made, employed, and replaced the notes. … (318-322, emphasis added)

Hansen presents the paiza travel tablet described in Polo’s will as decisive evidence (also on 326), but I’m not convinced, any more than I was. We don’t have the tablet itself, or a physical description of it in any detail, and given the intelligence Polo did have about the Mongols, he could have known enough about them to purchase something or fabricate something suitably impressive to otherwise ignorant European audiences.

China from “Over There” to “Back Then”: A Second Helping on E.A. Ross

Alan Baumler’s juicy February 19 post “Edward Alsworth Ross and The Good Old Days of Scholarship,” inspired me to look back through my notes.1 E. A. Ross (1866 to 1951) was a Progressive Era founder of professional academic sociology who got it into his head to spend the better part of a year in China. He published The Changing Chinese: The Conflict of Oriental and Western Cultures in China (New York, Century 1911) just as Sun Yat-sen’s revolution was breaking out.

The lead sentence of the first chapter is “China is the European Middle Ages made visible.” The idea seems obvious now: Karl Marx had already said in his 1867 Preface to Das Kapital “The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.”

But to most Westerners at that point, China was  the “Far” East. China was unique, exotic, and far away; it took weeks and weeks to get that upside-down and opposite wonderland. Ross and Marx used a different set of categories. They agreed on little else but they both now saw China not as far away in space but as one or two rungs below on the ladder of universal history. China was not “over there” but “back then.”

Ross was a founding member of the American Sociological Association that professionalized academic study of society (he was its president in 1914-1915).  He gave the back of his hand to the “old China Hand” and “old treaty-port residents” who saw China as exotic:

The theory, dear to literary interpreters of the Orient, that owing to diversity in mental constitution the yellow man and the white man can never comprehend or sympathize with one another, will appeal little to those who from their comparative study of society have gleaned some notion of what naturally follows from isolation, the acute struggle for existence, ancestor worship, patriarchal authority, the subjection of women, the decline of militancy, and the ascendancy of scholars. (Preface)

The “literary interpreters of the Orient” perhaps included Rudyard Kipling, who swore that “East is East and West is West and ne’r the twain shall meet” or even the people who talked about “eternal China” and the “unchanging East.” For the sociologist, China was not even mysterious:

The fact is, to the traveler who appreciates how different is the mental horizon that goes with another stage of culture or another type of social organization than his own, the Chinese do not seem very puzzling…. They act much as we would act under their circumstances. (Preface)

So let’s not begrudge Ross a little credit – the title of his book is “The Changing Chinese” not “The Eternal Chinese.” But we then have to ask just what would change them and what they would change into.

Ross knocks those who see a “diversity in mental constitution” but his book is still a catalogue of blithe, earnest racial stereotypes. He wonders at “Chinese toleration of noxious microbes,” which is “not likely to be developed in other races”; their “bluntness of nerve”; “their response to stimuli slow but strong and persistent”; their “struggle for existence,” which leads to “cheapening of human life”; “inefficiency of native management”; and, well … you get the point. No wonder he opposed Chinese immigration and on largely racist grounds.

In the quote, he speaks of “another stage of culture or another type of social organization” and the “comparative study of society.” With only a little adjustment, what Ross is touting is modernization theory. He urges China to conduct a going-out-of-business sale: everything must go!  There’s nothing wrong with the Chinese brain or ability, it’s just that “pitting the China against a West armed with this technique of success is like pitting the sixteenth century man against the twentieth.” (p. 316)

Where will this change come from? “When the Chinese become sensible of the inferiority of their own culture, Christianity presents itself to them clothed with prestige,” and Christianity is “in close association with a material civilization so successful that China will be obliged to adopt it in its entirety in order to survive.” (p. 258). (You might want to read that over again – yes, you read it right.)

If you can’t resist looking for yourself, there’s a free access copy of The Changing Chinese at Internet Archive: here.


  1. Charles W. Hayford, “China by the Book: China Hands and China Stories, 1848-1948,” Journal of American-East Asian Relations 16.4 (Winter 2009): 285-311. 

History Carnival #160

Welcome to the November 2016 History Carnival!

Michael Ray Charles, "Liberty Bros. Permanent Daily Circus - Army of Clowns"
It’s been a while since I hosted a carnival, and a while since I was blogging regularly, as well. Unless you count Twitter, in which case I’ve been blogging up a storm. Similarly, if you count the writing I do for my online classes, which is a lot like private blogging, there’s been gobs of that, too, which I really should share more of. These images are all from my various wanderings, and have very little to do with the posts.

But, on to the carnival!

Caroline Rance, Victorian asthma cigarettes: who was Dr Batty? at The Quack Doctor

Ana Stevenson nominated some excellent stuff from VIDA: Blog of the Australian Women’s History Network

Ross Mahoney passed along this series from Johannes Allert,

From Yvonne Seale, The Veil in the Middle Ages Roman Platter, Hercules wrestling the Numean Lion. Nelson Atkins Museum

David Brooks suggested some interesting US history

That was all of the nominated posts, and some solid material. I wanted to supplement a bit with some of my regular reads: Route 69, Oklahoma

And that’s the lot! The December Carnival will be hosted by Christopher Moore’s History News and submissions should go to

Norman Rockwell, Rosie the Riveter. Crystal Bridges Museum, Arkansas

Chinese Manhua and social criticism

I have been preparing a paper for a conference here at IUP, but since the conference is postponed as we are on strike I thought I would share some of it with you here. The paper is “Zhang Guangyu’s Xiyou Manji (Manhua Journey to the West) (1945) and the Chinese Tradition of Visual Satire” and I am doing it for a conference on comics that our English department is hosting. Mostly I am just doing it to introduce some stuff about Chinese comics, leading up to Zhang’s 1945 work, which I would claim is maybe China’s first manhua, in the sense of a graphic novel1 For those of you who don’t know the work, Nick Stember has put the whole thing on-line. It is basically a wartime adaptation of Journey to the West.

2015111817002884725I talk about how Xiyou Manji is important in terms of format and design, but also in its criticism of the government. Zhang Guangyu, the author, had a long history as a manhua artist, and I look at the stuff he did and published as the editor of Shanghai Manhua
in 1928-1930. Manhua artists and magazines tended to get into political trouble, and they did post some stuff that would seem to lead to trouble, like this caricature of Chiang Kai-shek.
shanghaimanhuackscover There were a couple of things that kept them on or near the right side of the censors, however. One was the fact that they tended at this point to focus on social criticism of the corruption in Shanghai society,  a topic where Nanjing might agree with them, and they did it is a foreign, modernist idiom that was not likely to get much traction with the masses.


The other thing was that things like caricatures were clearly critical, they were not very pointed. Apparently you could get away with vague criticisms of leaders, but not with specific policy criticisms.

The closest I found to policy criticism in Shanghai Manhua was their treatment of the 1929 Jiangan opium case, in which a shipload of opium that was pretty clearly being protected by someone high up in the government was seized. The case was never never solved, and2

There were plenty of cartoons about it. Here we have “powerful people” grabbing opium moneyjiangan6

and here we have opium as Shaighai’s motor.


What we don’t get is much specific criticism of these important people. Who is responsible for this case? Its a mystery!


We do eventually get some things about minor figures involved in the case, but this is a long was from the type of explicit stuff cartoonists will do later, and that Zhang will do in 1945. A number of scholars have called the Shanghai manhua apolitical, and I think that is clearly wrong, a lot of their social criticism stuff is clearly political. Still, the political stuff they do is far less pointed than what will come later.

Part 1 of …..

And now, just for the fun of it, a 1911 cartoon of Zhong Kui the demon queller on his bike from 19113


  1. I am not that hung up on “firsts”, but for this paper it works. 

  2. There is a bit more on the case here Baumler, Alan. The Chinese and Opium under the Republic: Worse Than Floods and Wild Beasts. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. p.136. 

  3. from Bi Keguan, Huang Yuanlin Zhongguo manhua shi Beijing: Wenhua yishu chubanshe, 1986  

Books with “Laozi” on the cover

Konrad called my attention to Paul R. Goldin’s “Those Who Don’t Know Speak: Translations of the Daode Jing by People Who Do Not Know Chinese.”1 As you might expect, Goldin is not much impressed with the publications of Witter Bynner, Stephen Mitchell, Thomas H. Miles and Ursula K. Le Guin.2 All of them have consulted some of the many English translations of the work, some of them talked to some Chinese people or scholars about it, and then published a book with “Laozi” on the cover. Goldin is not impressed with the books these people “expectorate”, and spends some time, too much, really, laying out how bad these works are as translations. After some time spent shooting fish in a barrel, Goldin gets on to what I find most interesting,…what it is the that modern English-reading world wants out of Laozi in particular and Taoism/Buddhism/Hinduism more generally?3 Publishers do it because it makes money, of course, and so do at least some authors. Mitchell got a six-figure advance for his book, (in 1988 dollars) and has no doubt long since earned it back. This of course just pushes the question back to why readers buy books like these, and Goldin looks at reviews,4 and finds that

The respondents like the pseudo-translations because, of the available choices, these are the most easily adaptable to their own experience. Scholarly translations seem pedantic to them

Goldin, of course, disagrees, possibly because he himself is a dry as dust scholar who lacks the soul of a poet, or he is just jealous of six-figure advances. Or, possibly, because

The Daode jing is old; it is alien; it is Chinese; and it is difficult. These are the recalcitrant facts that too many readers seem disinclined to accept. Instead, they seek out the most facile translations and consume insipid approximations of the original….. Like any profound work of philosophy, the Daode jing is dangerous. We do it no justice by pretending that it is easy to swallow.

So how do you render Laozi easier to swallow, and avoid the threat that someone might crack their teeth on it?

Here, from C-text is the first line of Laozi 465


Victor Mair renders this as
“When the Way prevails under heaven,
swift horses are relegated to fertilizing fields.
When the Way does not prevail under heaven,
war-horses breed in the suburbs.”

Mitchell gives us
“When a country is in harmony with the Tao,
the factories make trucks and tractors.
When a country goes counter to the Tao,
warheads are stockpiled outside the cities.”

There are problems with the Mitchell just as a literal translation, (天下 as country? ) and also as prose. You loose the parallelism between horses and horses by turning them into factories and warheads, and warhorses breeding (生) seems better than “stockpiling” as a verb here. If you get away from the Dao, warhorses will apparently breed without you having to do anything more. Stockpiling shifts the focus to whoever is stockpiling.

Still, if unlike Goldin you don’t find Mitchell’s changes “jarring” this is more or less a translation, and it saves modern readers the trouble of having to consult a footnote to find out what a horse is by putting things in a modern idiom. Sometimes the modern book-issuers flat out edit the text.

Here is Wing-tsit Chan’s translation of the end of Laozi 25
Therefore Tao is great.
Heaven is great.
Earth is great.
And the king is also great.
There are four great things in the universe, and the king is one of them.
Man models himself after Earth.
Earth models itself after Heaven.
Heaven models itself after Tao.
And Tao models itself after Nature.

Le Guin deals with this unpleasant mention of a king by taking the whole section out, explaining “I think a Confucian copyist slipped the king in. The king garbles the sense of the poem and goes against the spirit of the book. I dethroned him.”

This is actually a problem for a lot of these book-issuers. All of them dislike the idea that a book that they all know the meaning of might have references to kings and political power. Indeed, they have problems with the whole de aspect of the Daode jing.6 I actually like that ‘part’ myself, since I am usually, either in class or in my own head, trying to connect this book to other Chinese books of the period, most (all?) of which, like Laozi, are concerned with politics and ordering human societies. They are trying to connect it to themselves and what they already feel.

The Amazon reviews remain a rich source for understanding how book buyers (and my students) want to approach Chinese texts. The Penguin edition of the D.C. Lau translation of the Wang Pi text is a seminal work in part because it was the first one I ever read. It has 855 reviews at present. Like Amazon itself, many of the reviewers are in fact reviewing other editions, but never mind that. Here is one of the reviews of Lau that the Amazons found most helpful.

on October 30, 2005
Format: Paperback|Verified Purchase

I’m amazed at the storm that Mitchell’s version of the Tao Te Ching has churned up. Reading previous reviews, there seem to be two factions: those who find Mitchell’s version thought-provoking and soul-stirring, and those who focus on what they see as its poetical liberties with the original. The first group is primarily interested in using the text as a catalyst for reflective insight into the nature of reality. The second group is primarily interested in the text as an historical document. The first group seeks transformation. The second group seeks scholarship.

Ok so far…

I don’t know that there’s any intrinsic dissonance between the methods of scholarship and the goal of transformation, but I do know this: as a professor of philosophy who wants his students to read texts as tools for discovery rather than as sacred cows to be worshipped, I’ll take Mitchell’s version over more “scholarly” translations any day. For the nonspecialist who’s not interested in parsing Chinese, which is really more important: entering into the spirit of the Tao Te Ching so that the reading of it becomes a lived, integrated experience, or memorizing a lot of scholarly footnotes? Mitchell’s version breathes new life into a 2500-year-old text that most people today would find too arcane if they read a more literal translation. What a pity to begrudge contemporary readers an opportunity to discover the Tao simply because we don’t think that the vehicle made available to them is “scholarly” enough!

So, sail with Ursula K. LeGuin on a dragon over the skies of Pern, or memorize a lot of scholarly footnotes? I think this gets at the main conflict in liberal education, is it about discovering yourself, or discovering other people? If it is all about you it does not much matter if you get the words in the text “right”, you already know what it means. Indeed, you don’t really need to read the book at all, and you don’t need a teacher or any “scholarship.” To me liberal education has always been mostly about meeting other people, and sometimes other people who are very different from me and from each other. This is hard, and I need help. This is not always what students  come to class wanting to do, and that is fine of course. Still, I think as teachers we should be encouraging students to at least take a stab at understanding what some dead Chinese person was saying, as that is the only way to use a text as a “tool of discovery”7 I will be facing this issue again in the Spring, and I have decided to deal with the complexities of helping students engage with Laozi in two different ways by…assigning Zhuangzi instead.

  1. Asian Philosophy 12, no. 3 (November 2002): 183.  

  2. He identifies Le Guin as “the daughter of the famous anthropologist A.L. Kroeber” which I did not know, but which I would also not think of as a way to define her.  

  3. All of these are the same, by the way  “Although [Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism] comprise a vast number of subtly interwoven spiritual disciplines and philosophical systems, the basic features of their worldview are the same”  

  4. in 2002, no less. Is this the earliest scholarly citation of Amazon reviews? 

  5. 46 is Wang Pi, yes? Lau’s Everyman edition says this is Mawangdui Te Ching 9 

  6. As Goldin points out, this is one of the most difficult terms in the text  

  7. None of the books Goldin talks about seem to have any questions about the existence of Laozi and his relationship to the Daode jing  

Going to college in China and the U.S.

Via Facebook, (somehow) I found this

Chinese parents sleep in “tents of love” outside their college kids’ dorms to make the goodbyes easier

The thing I found interesting about it is that the US media is comparing these Chinese parents who camp out when they drop the kids at college with US “Velcro parents” who refuse to let go of their kids. That is a comparison that works, and it fits in with China’s concern about Little Emperors and spoiling all these kids from one child families.

The thing that struck me, having just watched kids get dropped off at college, is how geographically and class bound American colleges are. Most Americans go to state schools within a few hours drive from home, and only the elite go all over the country. Thus hotel prices rarely matter, and you have not just spent 10 hours on a train. The two parents in the article who’s jobs are mentioned are a farmer and a factory worker. How do the farmer/factory worker parents of Princeton pay for hotels on drop off week? Easy. Both of them have generous scholarships, and the University will even loan them a valet if they forgot to bring theirs. I suspect having all these family members come along is also in part due to what a social shock it is to be the first one to go to college in your family, which of course happens in the U.S, but nowhere near as much as it does in China, and when it does happen it is likely to be close to home.

I’m not sure if anyone has written anything on this, but it would be interesting to see what impact this mass national elite mobility is having on the Chinese society.

Where’s my Flying Imperialism?

While googling around looking for advertising posters for Asian airlines of the 20’s and 30’s I found this.

SiberiaIt is from a series of prints showing the Japanese expedition to Siberia in during the Russian Revolution.1. I of course found the plane interesting. What the heck is that thing? I am not much of a plane spotter, so I guess maybe it actually existed. More likely, however, it is a fantasy plane that was made up by the illustrator. This would not be the first time that an illustrator just made something up, rather than doing the research. Given how uncommon planes were in Japan in 1919, it is not event that surprising that he came up with something pretty fantastic, although I expect he could have found a picture of one.

Still, this one is instructive. Aviation was supposed to change the world. They would  make war unthinkable or make armies and navies obsolete as all fighting moved to the air. This did not work out quite as predicted (Where’s my flying car?) but the idea that miraculous machines would dominate the world just by flying over it was common with westerners from H.G. Wells to Charles Lindbergh. From the evidence of this picture plenty of Japanese people thought so too even before Hayao Miyazaki came along.





  1. (( I found it on Wikipedia, although the original is from Library of Congress  You can see the whole set at LOC  

Who will Xi Jinping be?

If you have been following the Olympics (which I mostly have not) you probably watched the closing ceremonies, and saw Japan’s Prime Minister Abe zip through a tube and appear dressed as Mario as Tokyo accepted the Olympic torch from Rio. There has been some commentary on this. It is somewhat odd to see Abe, who is a pretty right-wing figure, play along with this pop cultural representation of Japan. On the other hand, it is not that odd. Queen Elizabeth was escorted to the London games by James Bond, so the idea of emphasizing popular culture as part of your national identity is not new, especially for countries like Japan and Great Britain, who have long established great power status and also lots of places that would not care for it if they came out with a more militaristic view of the themselves.

The interesting question for me is what about China? The next winter games will be in Korea, but after that it is Beijing. What will Xi come out dressed as? If we assume China will want to emphasize it’s soft power side (not a very safe assumption) what can he do? I welcome suggestions, but I think it depends on the audience. Who are they really trying to reach? Here are some possibilities.

  1. They only really care about the China audience, and maybe Xi’s own attitude. Mao Zedong is the obvious choice here. Maybe Qin Shihuang. Pluses with Mao include the fact that if Xi does not want to show up himself they could always get Andy Serkis.mao-zedong-10-1961-swimming
  2. Reaching out to the Overseas Chinese. The Stone Monkey? Not that the low energy Xi looks much like him. Jackie Chan?  If so, why not use Jackie himself? This would seem to be the easiest audience to reach out to, but I can’t think of much.
  3. Reaching out to the world. No clue here. A panda….? For all China’s emphasis on soft power diplomacy, they do not seem to have created much of an identity. China’s gross national cool is pretty low. and I really can’t think of anything that would represent the nation. China needs to work on this. Or just chuck the whole non-threatening thing and go with a grumpy panda.

Protests, national identity, and food

Via LGM I find this piece on anti KFC protests in China. KFC was once known as Kentucky Fried Chicken, but they have changed their name to KFC, in part to make themselves more generic and less American. It has not worked. For those of you who have never seen the great documentary The Colonel Comes to Japan KFC is a bit different in Asia than it is in the U.S. They were one of the first American chains to bring “modernity” to Asia, and the the opening of the KFC on Tiananmen Square in 1987 was a huge deal for Chinese consumers, who were utterly unaware of the joys of Western style fast food. KFC remains a major “American” presence all over, in a way that some other U.S. firms are not. Thus it is not surprising that when Chinese nationalists were looking for a place to protest the United States because they had lost a court case to the Philippines in the Hague that they would pick KFC. The government is not happy about this of course, since while they like stirring up nationalist resentment on-line they don’t care for it to spill into the streets. Apparently American imperialism is a paper tiger that is more difficult to ride that you might think.

What interests me is that the protests revolve around food. To some extent that makes sense, since the places ordinary people encounter that try to advertise their authentic foreignness are likely to be restaurants. The protests against Carrefour , the French grocery chain, before the CHINA OLYMPICS probably fit here as well, as well as all the freedom fries nonsense in the U.S. Now that I think about it, I wish I paied more attention to the presentation of Japanese food in China, and I am wondering if any of you have? I know that you can find sushi all over, but that it does not seem to be linked to Japan. Plenty of Yoshinoya Beef Bowl joints, but how Japanese do they sell themselves? Or is it just that food matters so much in identity?

Multi-cultural Chiang Kai-shek

CKS MultiCulturalHere is a nice picture of Chiang Kai-shek and his government’s outreach to minority nationalities. It comes from 蒙藏月報1935,3(6) (Mongolia and Tibet Monthly). Here we have Chiang being congratulated for his hard work of travelling all over the country. Or at least that’s what it says in Chinese. I assume that is also what it says in Manchu, Mongolian, Tibetan and Arabic, although I don’t know that. There was a quite a bit of outreach to these borderland nationalities later, although 1935 seems a bit early for this to me, although I have not really done work on this.

Chiang also gets bonus internationalist points here, as the plane is one the Mussolini gave him as a gift, in part to help drum up aviation sales in China, although the text does not mention this.

Chinese government graphics

One thing that you notice when you look at Chinese government reports and such from the 20’s 30’s and 40’s is how amazing the graphics are. I have no idea why this is, but even in unpublished reports they do amazing full color graphics. even during the war, when print standards really went down, the were still doing it. I have seen lots of examples of this, but since I just saw some in 四川省檔案管. 川人抗戰:檔案文獻圖集.四川人民, 2015 I thought I would pass them on. So here are statistics on Japanese bombing of Sichuan in 1940. Information is conveyed, but it is so dull


Far better are these, on the comparative number of bombers, casualties, and bombs dropped by province.

IMG_20160612_104014856 IMG_20160612_104019273 IMG_20160612_104033897

These are not any better in terms of information, and arguably worse, but they are much more striking. I have no real point to make about these, but I did want to put up an example.


To love the nation, you must buy a poster

A while back I posted about a poster from the Chinese Posters site, lamenting that they did not seem to have a copy of “To Love the Country You Must First Know It’s History” available for sale. I found out that they will apparently print almost anything in the collection for you if you ask, so here it is, framed and ready to hang.


To love the country one must first know its history – the deeper the knowledge, the more eager the love
Designers: Sha De’an (啥德安); Li Yang (李阳)
January, 1984
Publisher: Zhejiang renmin meishu chubanshe (浙江人民美术出版社)
Call number: BG E13/489 (Landsberger collection) Direct link here

I got it because we have been asked to order a few posters for the hallway in our new office area. Everyone is of course trying to come up with cool things that make their field look more interesting than China. And they all just lost. Visually striking, a nice link between history and nationalism, encourages kids to do the reading.  You should get one for your office. The reproduction quality is excellent. I also, via, Amazon, got this

“Jami Masjid, Delhi (Derii no Juma Mashiddo)” from the India and Southeast Asia Series by Yoshida Hiroshi

Besides being a nice picture, I am supposed to cover all of Asia, and since this is a mosque, in India, done by a Japanese person, this touches a lot of bases.





David Todd Roy has died


This saddens me a great deal. I saw him speak years ago when only one volume of his Jin Ping Mei translation was out, and I wondered if he would finish. He did of course, and my attitude was a pretty obnoxious one for a reader of an author or translator to have, but also a pretty common one. As you can tell from this interview. it really was his life’s work, not an academic move forward in your career thing, and I am glad that he got to finish it and hear the entirely justified plaudits he got for it.


P.S. If you are interested, the whole thing is available as an e-book, if like me you increasingly tend to read novels as e-books.




Visual Digital History

Laura Putnam has an article out in the new issue of AHR “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast

One of her points is the modern, digitally searchable sources make it easier to do transnational history. It used to be that doing transnational history meant going to several archives and learning several sets of sources. That’s why so few people did it. Putnam is of course not opposed to the new “drive-by transnationalism,” but she does want to point out some of the problems it creates. Scholars in the global south, or at smaller schools, can’t really participate. More importantly, you loose a lot of the context for the sources you are looking at. It is easier to collect sources that you don’t really understand when all you need to do to find them is push a button.

I of course agree with this, and I would expand on the problems a little. Digitization really does encourage the use of the type of sources that are likely to be digitized and made available. Newspapers are a good example. Many years ago Lloyd Eastman claimed that the China field should be getting beyond the point where finding the references to an event in the major Shanghai papers counted as good research, but we are sort of moving back that way. Of course there is nothing wrong with that, or rather there are some good things about making it easy to find out what Shibao said about something. This is just a new version of of the old fact that historians use sources that are easy to find. Putnam even quotes E.H. Carr about historians and fish.1

Most of what Putnam is talking about are the cooked digital sources. Things like digitized newspapers and archives, where someone has done the work to figure out was this is, classify it, and make it cite-able. Some of these are lightly cooked sources, like a digitized archive, where you are just looking at the same thing you could see on paper, only on a screen. Some are cooked a bit more, like newspaper archives, where they may have done OCR to make things searchable, and even added keywords, but is still the same stuff you could have found the old fashioned way.

What about the raw sources? The things that you can find with a google search that don’t turn up in libraries or archives? As an undergraduate my professors never had to spend time explaining to me how to assess sources I could not find in our library, since I was not going to find anything like that. Undergraduates actually make a good example of how things have changed. As an undergrad, I always liked books. Easy to find under topic headings in the card catalog, or even by shelf reading. Journal articles meant looking for bibliographies or indexes or something. Now JSTOR is step one for undergraduate research. Well, maybe step two. Now people find all sorts of things out in the wild. This is sometimes true of texts with things like Google books and Internet Archive, but the best example is pictures. Google Image search will find you lots of things, but what are they? Nowadays even modern historians are becoming like archaeologists sorting through a bunch of Victorian loot. It’s cool stuff, and you really want to use it, but there is no chain of custody. What is this stuff?

My example here is China Postcard, who I have posted about before. I have no idea who China Postcard is, but they have a Flickr account where they post…all sorts of China pictures. I mostly use this for teaching. There is all sorts of stuff in here, but it is not always easy to make sense of.2

Here we have foreigners, ready to defend Shanghai in 1937

WarComes to Shanghai

and posing under a poster for the film “You Only Live Once.” This is obviously a staged shot, in the sense that I am sure they chose to pose under that poster for a reason. More importantly, you can’t really cite it, since it is clearly taken from a book, but they do not tell you which one (although I suspect you could find it.) For teaching purposes this does not much matter. If you need a picture of the Marco Polo Bridge WITH CAMELS…here you go. Well, I think they are camels.


A lot of the stuff here is old press photos, and they are pretty good at including the captions. So here are Chinese female pilots learning something in 1973. If you are working on aviation in China, this is a nice find.

Press Photo 1058 1973-FemalePilots

Some of them tell you what they are, but you still can’t make sense of them. Here is a foreigner, walking through a Beijing park in 1967…with a copy of Playboy. Press Photo 1230 Playboy 1967

With this even knowing the caption does not help you figure out what is going on.

Most interesting to me, and most relevant to Putnam, are the less sourced things. Here is a photo taken by a British sailor outside the military harbor in Qingdao in the 1930’s. Or at least that’s what China Postcard says.


I assume anyone interested in the cult of Sun or GMD propaganda would find this interesting. Was the Will posted all over China? Just on the borders? Always in both Chinese and English? They might want more information, but place, decade and taken by a British sailor is actually pretty good. Some of them are a lot more vague. These are Chinese police in Shanghai in the 1910’s. Obviously some of the New Policies police reforms have happened, but the physical infrastructure of modern policing is not quite there yet. Cops seem to be a popular topic for both photos and commercial postcards, so someone interested in the New Policies could find a lot of data.

1910s Shanghai Police Station in Chinese City

All I have for this is 1930’s, a family shrine, probably in Dongbei.

Family Shrine 1930s Manchuria

This is a really interesting photo, and it makes me think of all sorts of questions about popular religion. Is this really a family shrine? It looks public to me. Are some of the painted-on worshippers non-Chinese? Does it say something in the upper right? Is this even a Buddhist shrine, or is it one of the New Religions or something else? Without more context it might be hard to figure out what to make of it, however. China Postcard seems to have gotten it from a blog post, so the trail runs cold.

So, to sum up, you should read the Putnam, because it is good, but there is more to it then that. Digital history not only making it easy for us to find things quickly, even if we don’t know what they are, it is also making it easy to find things that we have no clue what to make of, or even how to date. Modern historians are becoming ancient historians, at least in some ways.

We are like this little guy, fleeing China in 1949, with no clear idea where we are, where we are going, or how to make sense of it all.


Admittedly, most of us are not as cute as he is.

  1. The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation. What is History p.23. Why do I include this quote? Well, its a good quote. Also, I found it by googling to wikipedia and thus could drop it in here without having to dig up a copy of Carr and type it in.  

  2. It is also not all that well key-worded, so you have to do old fashioned look at everything research.  

Memory Politics and Memory Drama

Jordan Sand’s A Year of Memory Politics in East Asia: Looking Back on the “Open Letter in Support of Historians in Japan” is immensely timely: I spent a few hours just yesterday arguing with people on twitter about the Comfort Women issue. I had tweeted about a new documentary, testimony from some surviving women, and got … well, the usual pushback, using the usual arguments.

The film is called “The Apology” by Tiffany Hsiung of Canada and it sounds fascinating.

The Apology follows the personal journeys of three former “comfort women” who were among the 200,000 girls and young women kidnapped and forced into military sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. Some 70 years after their imprisonment in so-called “comfort stations,” the three “grandmothers”– Grandma Gil in South Korea, Grandma Cao in China, and Grandma Adela in the Philippines – face their twilight years in fading health. After decades of living in silence and shame about their past, they know that time is running out to give a first-hand account of the truth and ensure that this horrific chapter of history is not forgotten. Whether they are seeking a formal apology from the Japanese government or summoning the courage to finally share their secret with loved ones, their resolve moves them forward as they seize this last chance to set future generations on a course for reconciliation, healing, and justice.

Jordan Sand writes, regarding the counterattacks on the Historians’ Statement (of which I was a signatory, as was my colleague Alan Baumler) “With regard to the comfort women issue, the Japanese right continues, on the one hand, to be highly selective in its use of evidence, and on the other hand to treat any criticism of wartime Japan as a personal insult. … a defensive nationalist bias that privileges the state and seeks to minimize the suffering of its victims has no place in either the historical profession or the classroom.” This was very much in evidence in the twitter discussion: “we Japanese” and “testimony alone is not evidence” and “objective proof” and “identified incidents.”

What finally put an end to the discussion, aside from exhaustion, I suppose, was asking the anonymous/pseudonymous tweeters … why it matters so much? “I don’t understand what dire consequence results from the Japanese state apologizing for what you’ve already admitted happened.”

In fairness, I do know why it matters, or at least there are a number of fairly obvious reasons. Jordan Sand discusses quite clearly the implications of ‘mainstreaming’ Japan’s wartime experience:

If you believe, as many Japanese conservatives do, that Japan at the time was engaged in a necessary war of national defense, then it will be easier to accept the view that the comfort station system was simply an unfortunate by-product of war, and that reports of abduction and rape by the Japanese military are either false or rare aberrations.

Similarly, since many Japanese conservatives believe wartime Japan was not abnormal, and in their view a “normal country” (with the United States often providing the implicit model) is one for which citizens are prepared to give their lives, it becomes natural from this perspective to treat all Japanese deaths in the Asia-Pacific War as noble sacrifices. In this context, the wartime slogan “suppress the individual, serve the state” (messhi hōkō) becomes simply an expression of national duty, rather than of an ultranationalism that abrogated private rights and ultimately led to forced mass suicides.

Tenno 1988 - Right Wing Trucks - mergedAs I’ve suggested before, I think that the historical denialism and conservative revisionism that we have seen in Japan is part of a larger right-wing turn in East Asian and global affairs (obviously, my previous list can easily be updated with reference to rising European right-wing parties, the dramatic turn of the US Republican party and historical revisionism aimed at the Civil War, Putin, etc.). Jordan Sand points out that his students read the Japanese historical revisionist manifesto positively, believing that nations have a right to a positive self-understanding. I see in my own students the same conflations that attacked me on twitter: the conflation of state and nation and self, the conflation of useful and positive and true history, the difficulty of changing minds with even the best evidence….

Well, I have to grade now, and it’s not like I’m going to solve this problem anytime soon. It does sound, though, like Hsiung’s “The Apology” is a film well worth seeing and sharing, and I hope it does get good distribution.