Was Late Imperial China Early Modern?

Zou Jiajun posted on the Sinologists Facebook group asking how the term “Early Modern” got to be used in China studies. This is a an interesting question, since we sometimes use the term Early Modern, sometimes Late Imperial. We also can’t agree on what time period this is. Late Imperial used to be Ming and Qing, but now maybe it goes back the the Song?

Since I am teaching an Early Modern China class in the fall I thought I would think about it a bit, based partially on some limited research and partly on Stuff I Remember From Grad School. Yes, I am old enough to talk about historiography just by remembering things.

First, I don’t really understand the evolution of the idea of Early Modern in studies of Europe that well. This promises to explain it,

Scott, Hamish. “Introduction.” The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern European History, 1350-1750, July 1, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199597253.013.29.

but I don’t have access.

One thing that I was reminded of right away when I started looking into it was that “Early Modern” was sometimes used to just refer to the 19th century in China, as here.

Fairbank, John K., Alexander Eckstein, and L. S. Yang. “Economic Change in Early Modern China: An Analytic Framework.” Economic Development and Cultural Change 9, no. 1 (1960): 1–26.

I’m not as anti-Fairbank as some people seem to be, but man some of his stuff, and Modernization theory in general, have held up even less well than you might think. Lots of talk of “Gestation”. Very mechanically listing the things you need to be modern, usually economic or political things, and pointing out that China lacked them or that the Chinese version fore some reason did not count. Free cities! Foreign Trade! It almost sounds like you are playing Civilization (or some other video game) and you can’t build Archers till you have discovered Animal Husbandry.

Still, that basic idea behind this -that “Traditional China” was not an undifferentiated mass, cut off from history in a slough of Oriental Despotism, unchanged from the Yellow Emperor to Lu Xun- was forward-looking at one point. The old stagnant China view was, I suspect, in part the influence of Western Orientalist ideas about the inferiority of non-European cultures and also the May Fourth rejection of Feudal China, a rejection that I suspect became more simplistic as it went from Chinese May Fourthers to their western students.

I do remember hearing that at the conference that resulted in Mary Clabaugh Wright,  China in Revolution: The First Phase, 1900-1913.  (Yale, 1971). Chuzo Ichiko was so ridiculed for his paper “The Role of the Gentry: An Hypothesis” that he went up to his hotel room and would not come back down until Akira Iriye was sent up to convince him to re-join the conference. Not sure how true that story is, but certainly the idea that the gentry (or the local elite, as we now call them) were an important part of making the 1911 Revolution (now a standard position) would have seemed absurd to some at one point.

A good summary of the transition comes from the flyleaf of my copy of Madeleine Zelin’s The Magistrate’s Tael (California, 1984)

OUR UNDERSTANDING of China’s early modern history has long been dominated by the image of a backward empire, wracked by corruption and economic stagnation, thrust into the modern world when Western gunboats arrived in the 1840s. Madeline Zelin shatters this image by uncovering the dramatic process of state-building during the early years of China’s last imperial regime. Changes in economic and political environment brought about a shift from the decentralized agrarianism of traditional imperial administration to a centralized bureaucratic of taxes and public works during the early years of the Ch’ing dynasty. Relying heavily on archival materials, Zelin describes the implementation of these radical reforms and their effect on governmental administration in different regions of the empire. By providing an account of the indigenous evolution of the Chinese state, The Magistrate’s Tael makes it possible to judge the impact of the West on modern China’s development and to assess China’s inherent potential for and resistance to modern political and economic growth.

I like how it circles back to China’s response to the West at the end.

I think that Europeanists had, by the 60’s if not earlier, become unhappy with lumping everything before 1800 into “Pre-Modern” or medieval or whatever. The same thing happened in studies of Asia. K. Chadhuri’s  Trade and Civilization in the Indian Ocean came out while I was in grad school. In Southeast Asian Studies they apparently started using the term to get beyond Colonial / pre-colonial. Andaya, Leonard Y., and Barbara Watson Andaya. “Southeast Asia in the Early Modern Period; Twenty-Five Years On.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 26, no. 1 (1995): 92–98.

I think that to understand how the term came to be used in China it needs to put into the context of how scholars of other places in Asia were using it. Knight Biggerstaff looked at how scholars of Japan’s use of the term might apply to China. Biggerstaff, Knight. “Modernization-and Early Modern China.” The Journal of Asian Studies 25, no. 4 (1966): 607–19. https://doi.org/10.2307/2051494.

Still the same checklist approach, but In Japan they seem to have gone a lot farther in terms of working with the early modern concept then China people had. This may have been in part because Japan had the Meiji restoration (and thus had to find the “gestation” of “takeoff” somewhere) and also because Japanese scholars in particular knew a lot more about what went on in “traditional history”. I remember being told that the Japanese scholars at one of the early conferences were rather bemused that their American counterparts thought nothing happened in the Muromachi period.

I think the growing depth of knowledge explains how it became Ming/Qing that were Late Imperial China. As people like Fairbank and Zelin started digging into the Qing (and work became less political and more economic and eventually cultural) the Ming fits with the Qing. Thus the journal Ch’ing-shih wen-t’i became Late Imperial China. The whole field of Ming-Qing transition studies, culminating in Wakeman’s Great Enterprise emerged. (my first historiographical essay as a grad student was on the Ming-Qing transition). Now we may push Early Modern or Late Imperial back to the Song, but that would have been impossible earlier given how little we knew and how they were working back from 1840 to figure out what this Early Modern/Late Imperial China was.




Art and status and women and mirrors and…

This is an image from the back of a Song dynasty mirror in the collection of Martin J. Powers. As he describes it

One [woman], on the right, tends a child and sports an extremely elaborate coiffure. The larger woman on the left displays a plum painting she has completed and, pointing to it, appears to be explaining the fine points to the other women. Her hair is bound in a simple bun, and she wears a robe with a plum blossom design on it. Not all characters in the inscription above are readable, but the opening lines praise her artistic creativity, while the last two lines clearly read “She finds no charm in makeup; she lives for accomplishment alone,” pg.365

Continue reading →

Dress and identity in the Qing

I have been reading Guojun Wang’s Staging Personhood: Costuming in Early Qing Drama.

I am not particularly a student of drama, or of costume, but in the Twentieth Century a lot of attention was paid to dress and hair. From queue-cutting in the early Republic to the Sun Yat-sen suit to Maoist restrictions on dress to the modern Xi Jinping uniform (to cite only some Chinese examples), dress and appearance were always part of creating and changing identity. In the modern period there are lots of sources on all this, but what about the premodern period? How do you get at what people were wearing and what they thought about it without evidence from newspapers and film magazines and photos and propaganda posters? Well in the Qing you can look at theater costumes, which are sometimes pictured often described and sometimes mentioned in decisions to censor plays.

The Manchus, of course had required Han Chinese men to shave their foreheads, grow a queue and adopt new dress as a symbol of loyalty to the dynasty, and these restrictions showed up on stage as well. Wang points out on the very last page of the book that while historians are likely to think that Manchu-ness mattered in the Qing, literature scholars are less likely to think that. Although the book does not dig very deeply into the broader context of any of the issues of discourse and representations it raises, there is a lot of good stuff in here.

The book does not dig very deeply into gender in the Qing, but there is a chapter on the play Lovebird’s Reversal, (pg 61) which centers on a young man who avoids being beheaded by the Manchus by dressing as a woman (and thus avoiding the rules on male dress and to some extent leaving himself out of history) and a woman who avoids being raped by Manchu troops by dressing as a man. After she passes the civil service exams their parents fix them up and they only discover their gender on their wedding night.

The book does not dig very deeply into how Qing subjects understood themselves in history, but there is a lot on “historical” costuming on stage. At least some gentlemen supposedly joined theater troops specifically so they could keep wearing Ming dress and stay out of China’s modern transformation.(pg.49) There is a  section on Korean envoys, who’s “Ming dress” at first evoked tearful nostalgia but later in the dynasty evoked laughter since the envoys seemed to be wearing stage costumes. (p.51) Later in the dynasty rebels would sometimes use costumes as makeshift uniforms.

All this is interesting and fun, but the part of the book I liked best was the long section on Peach Blossom Fan  the classic, and wildly popular, story of Ming loyalism and nostalgia. Needless to say, clothing is a big part of how identity is represented in the story, from the hermits who dress in plain clothes as part of their rejection of Qing society and time to the gradual decline of Ming ritual (and clothing) as the dynasty declines. The death of the loyalist general Shi Kefa  is perhaps the most dramatic example, as he strips himself of his official Ming garb before throwing himself into the river where his body will be eaten by fish. His clothes, and thus his Ming identity are left behind and eventually rot away in the tomb that is built for them. (p. 168.) There is a lot of interesting stuff in this book.




Masks in recent Chinese History

So this is a post that already seems outdated, but I thought I would do it anyway. Masks now mean something quite different than they did before, and I am sure that there will soon be a lot of scholarship on “mask culture” in Asia and how it helped East Asian countries extend their advantage over backward peoples like the Americans.

Not to long ago, however, masks meant something else. The Hong Kong protests, which are still going on, are closely connected with masks. Not to keep Covid-19 in, but to protect you from tear gas. Masks, were, for a while, a symbol of resistance.

Thus you get images like this,

And this.

These are both foreign inspired images, and the CCP has been insistent that the Hong Kong protesters are spitting the nation and rejecting Chinese-ness. This is bullshit for lots of reasons, but one of them is that the Hong Kong protesters are specifically tying themselves to Chinese tradition and identity as seen here.


One of the slogans of the movement is “Be water”, and you can’t be much more Daoist than that, although a romantic couple is a modern touch.

I suspect someone could do more with all this, but I just wanted to post the pictures. If you want to know more you could contact the author of the presentation I stole all this from, Gina Tam. She does a good job of explaining the complexities of Hong Kong identity and its relation to the Chinese Mother-in-law land.


Historical Maps of Wuhan

As may be clear from my recent postings on rumours in Wuhan, the language of Wuhan, a timeline and bibliography about Wuhan, and a post on Wuhan on the eve of revolution, I have been spending some time to get to know this fascinating tri-city at the center of China, composed of the once separate cities of Hankou, Hanyang, and Wuchang. I thought I would use this post to share a few of the historical maps available online that I have found most interesting:

武漢城鎮合圖 – Wuhan 1864 – Library of Congress

Wuhan cheng zhen he tu 武漢城鎮合圖 LOC G7824.W8A5 1864 .H8 This map, available for download from the LOC is dated 1864. The British concession in the city, which was only opened a few years earlier can been seen as still a mostly empty area in the northern section of Hankou, next to the circle representing the racetrack. The timing of the map could not have been earlier than 1864 given that it depicts city walls around the edges of Hankou, which were only built in that year, mostly along the canal along Hankou’s northern edge (護城河 on map but also known as 玉带河). This map resembles closely a redrawn map that William Rowe uses in his fantastic two volume history of Hankou from 1796-1889. The map is wonderful to browse and in many places, the proportions seem about right when it comes to streets, even as the map preserves a landscape profile view of the hills in Guishan (龟山) area north of the Hanyang walled city, and the hills that split Wuchang north and south, bounded on the Western side by the Yellow Crane Tower (黄鹤楼). However, beyond the city streets, other areas seem a bit off in terms of proportions, such as the land between the Han river and the Guishan hills, which appears to me to be much larger an area of land than it should be.

Guishan hills north of Hanyang

Hills in Central Wuchang

Above you can see some of the depiction of Wuhan’s hills in Hanyang and Wuchang. Besides the relatively empty streets and racecourse of Hankou’s British concession, there is very little in terms of evidence of the foreign presence. Zooming in closely will show the French and British consulates, and the Customs office. This will soon change as we move just a few years ahead in time for the next two maps of Hankou and Wuchang.

湖北漢口鎮街道圖 – Hankou 1877 – Library of Congress

Hubei Hankou zhen jie dao tu LOC G7824.H22A5 1877 .H8

This map, focusing on Hankou, stretches the city horizontally for a better rectangular fit. Far more buildings and gates are marked on the map in general, but most prominent is the explosion of buildings marked in the new British concession in the eastern side of the map. We now see churches, the American and Russian consulates, among other buildings. In both this map and the previous one, the French consulate is located on or inside the racetrack, rather than in what would become the French concession from 1896.

Hankou Concession

湖北省城內外街道總圖 – Wuchang 1885 – Library of Congress

Wuchang 1885 Hubei sheng cheng nei wa jie dao zong tu LOC G7824.W7A5 1883 .H8 This map of Wuchang, as capital of Hubei province, is dated 1885. By this point, the Hankow Medical Mission Hospital has been founded, the Wuchang Wesleyan mission has opened in southern Wuchang, the London Missionary hospital has been established, the Hankow Golf Club has been founded, the Russians have established a brick-tea factory, and there is a large enough concentration of foreign missionaries that Wuhan becomes one of the central publishing centers for Christian tracts in China with its Central China Tract Society. Now, here and there, scattered among the other buildings you can detect the presence of the foreigner in Wuchang as well, not merely in the foreign concessions across the river in Hankou. Note the buildings with the 洋屋 (Foreign houses) labels. Throughout these older maps, they tend to be distinguished by their many windows, while other buildings are usually are marked by their entrances, columns, and the stylobate platforms at the base.

Foreign houses (洋屋) in Wuchang

Chinese Architecture: Arts and Artifacts (1840)
From Chinese Architecture: Arts and Artifacts (1840)

Hankow. Series G.S.G.S. no. 3831 – 1927 – Princeton

This map is one of the British War Office maps that can be found for many Chinese cities. A full 160MB tiff version is available for download from Princeton. This one looks like it is on the basis of surveying, with its regular grid, and latitudes and longitudes in the corner points. Other Chinese cities in this series I’ve seen, such as the map for Yantai from a few years earlier, are reproductions of late Chinese imperial or early republican period maps.

I have been using this map as a starting point for the creation of a series of map layers for a Wuhan historical GIS project, and while most of the streets in Hankou, and a number of other locations in Hanyang georectify nicely when the corner points are added, things get very strange further out towards the known points at the edges.

More challenging is the course of the river itself. Rivers, of course, change course, most infamously for the Yellow River, which, depending on the time, can result in very different maps for places such as Shandong. In this case, the SW corner point for this map is located at 30.464633, 114.250225 (the result of converting 30° 27’52.68″ N, 114° 15’00.81 E to decimal format) is today not right on the eastern edge of the river, but in the center of a village on the river’s edge. This could simply be land reclamation on the eastern side, but the curve of the river is such that some of the buildings on the western shore of this 1927 map appear in the river itself when compared to maps today. Instead of land reclamation, if that is accurate, it would appear parts of the land on the western side were gobbled up. More on that in a later posting on the Wuhan GIS materials.

On this map we now see the railway lines (Beijing to Hankou, and the incomplete Guanghzou to Hankou on the eastern side, eventually connected by bridge in 1957), all of the concessions (the “special areas” are the former Russian and German concessions returned to Chinese control, and the British concession will formally become one of these special areas the very same year this map is dated). Notice that, except for some of the more important buildings in Wuchang, the British cartographers have very little interest in locations relevant for Chinese residents in the city. Not too the “Mat huts” and “Area thickly populated by Chinese living mostly in huts” just to the south of the Hankow Golf Club. This map will be reprinted and modified several times in the years to come, sometimes with minor changes or additions in the labels and can be found with later dates in various archives (See this one here for example).

Hankou section 1927

最新漢口市街詳圖 – Hankou 1939 – National Library of Australia

Hankou 1939 NLA

This fascinating map of Hankou, with an inset of Hanyang and Wuchang in the top left, was printed only some four months after Wuhan was occupied by Japanese military forces in late October, 1938. Ever since the fall of Nanjing in December, 1937, with the massacre there that followed, Wuhan had become China’s capital and the center of cultural and political activity as intellectuals from all over China as well as from elsewhere in the world streamed into the city and shifted the publication of many wartime works there. For this period, consider taking a look at Stephen R. MacKinnon’s Wuhan, 1938: War, Refugees, and the Making of Modern China.

By the time the city was occupied by the Japanese, there was only one foreign concession left, the French, but the Japanese concession, which had been dismantled after full scale war began in 1937, was quickly restored. Despite this, however, the map clearly shows the boundaries of the old concession boundaries even if they were now called special districts.

Compared to the 1927 British map, there is much to be learned about the Chinese parts of the city. It helps that everything is shown in Kanji/Hanzi characters rather than Wade-Giles or other romanized versions for names and even most of the smaller alleyways are named and shown, as well as many more of the schools, some of the 會館 guild halls, Chinese character names for various foreign institutions, and the location of temples and factories, though these are often not named.

1938 Japanese entry into Wuhan Those who are interested in the process of the occupation itself, may want to see this 1947 war crimes trial exhibit (Court Exh. No. 2570: Map showing various sectors or divisions of the city of Hankow, and showing the various routes of entry of the several units and their disposition) available with more details through the digital collections of the Japan’s National Diet Library, which includes a translation of some statements regarding the entry into the city by Japanese forces. Many more references to Wuhan and the Japanese occupation can be found in the digital archive JACAR.

Wu-han 4-74 Central Intelligence Agency – 1974 – Library of Congress

Wuhan 1974 Wu-han. 4-74 LOC G7824.W8 1974 .U5

This 1970s CIA map includes a few locations of cultural and historical importance, such as a few pagodas and temples, but what strikes me the most about this map is the way its labels look suited for identification from the sky. In fact, the way in which many of the highlighted areas generically label government building districts, shipyards, and light and heavy industry it looks like the kind of map which would be useful for planning a bombing raid, rather than a stroll around town. Even the small scale inset map seems to primarily serve to offer a few more bomber targets in the form of steel plants and iron ore mines.

Wuhan GIS

I’ve been working on georectifying and digitizing features from the British 1927 map and the Japanese 1939 map above, as well as building a layer with the locations of extant historical sites from Wuhan today (I’m already very grateful to Wuhan historian Chris Courtney for help so far). There is also some mapping work done by the Virtual Hankou project which includes a much more detailed map of the French concession in 1940. I’ll share more about this project in a future post but in the meantime, would welcome any pointers (by email or @kmlawson on twitter) to other 20th century maps of Wuhan that show a good amount of material, particularly in Chinese. Some of those that I haven’t mentioned include this 1946 map, which lacks good enough resolution, and this map from 1915, which similarly lacks detail.

Rumours in Wuhan 1911

We live in a time of rumours. Often these rumors have little impact on our behavior, and at most can serve to relieve or exacerbate our indignation or dismissal of something in the news. However, we all know the potentially poisonous consequences of rumours and, even worse, deliberate misinformation, for the body politic. Elsewhere, as we see regularly in China today, the punishment for “spreading rumours” is at the heart of preserving authoritarian order. Truth value aside, in a moment of crisis, a rumour may be the only thing to latch onto when there is widespread distrust (justified or not) of alternative sources of information. If critical decisions hang in the balance, with little time for the luxury of further research or confirmation, whether to believe or disbelieve a rumor can mean a saved life, or the contribution to a dangerous panic, or sometimes both at once.

We come across this all the time in historical sources, especially those of a personal nature, in diaries, letters, and oral histories. One person who took a moment out of the chaos to reflect on the power of rumours in her own adventures is Elsie Laura Beckingsale (1886-1983), who traveled to Wuhan in February 1911 as part of the London Missionary Society. Her letters have been published thanks to Tony Beckingsale in Letters from Hankow: The Chinese Revolution of 1911: The Eye-Witness Account of Laura Beckingsale. She was serving as a teacher at Wuchang Girls’ Boarding School when revolution hit the city in October of that year and her letters offer us a fascinating perspective of one foreign woman’s experiences in the tri-city of Wuhan (Wuchang, Hankou, and Hanyang) from her arrival and into 1912.

By 12 October, 1911 the second full day of the uprising in Wuchang, Laura was on her way to the foreign concessions in Hankou on the other side of the Yangzi river. In her 12 October letter, broken up into several pieces by time, she records the entry, “8:50 pm “Well, I am a ‘refugee’ and I do feel distinctly ‘refugeeish'” (p48). In her newly vulnerable position, still privileged in a whole range of ways compared to the average Chinese resident of Wuhan, she has one of her first encounters with a rumour that relates to a question of critical importance to a refugee: which direction offers more safety? On her way to Hankou, she meets others coming in the opposite direction who claim that Wuchang is safer than Hankou. Ultimately, she continues on to Hankou, but we can imagine the anxiety of the moment. Only the very next evening, she seems much recovered from the madness of the initial chaos and is enjoying the safety of the British concession, “13 October 10.30 pm – A very quiet day. It has been such a treat to walk along the Bund in the sunshine. To-night bands of the Sikh police are patrolling the streets headed by missionaries – to prevent looting and firing.”

Soon, however, the battle for Wuhan will heat up just north of the concession of Hankou, and in later entries she speaks in occasionally vague terms of the horrors she witnesses from beyond the edges of the concessions.1 In the days that follow, Laura Beckingsale keeps track of some of the rumours that fly back and forth around her and records a collection of them from a single in one of her letters (p52-3) dated 18 October:

9.00 – a battle has begun.
9.30 – Everything is quite quiet.
10.00 – The imperialists have been badly beaten.
10.30 – The revolutionaries are in full retreat.
11.00 – the battle is not on land, it’s the gund-boats firing.
11.30 – The Consul orders immediate evacuation of every foreign house.”
12.00 – The Consul “strongly advises women and children to leave.”
12.30 – The Imperialists are preparing to bombard Wuchang.
1.00 – There are 6,000 Imperialist troops on the Wuchang side of the river.
1.30 – All the Imperialists are behind Hankow – none have crossed.
2.00 – The Revolutionaries hold the railway line.
2.30 – The Imperialists hold the railway line.
3.00 – Another battle has begun.
3.30 – Everything has been quiet all day, why not return to Wuchang?
4.00 – The Imperialists have won and the Revolutionaries stand no chance.
4.30 – Visa-versa.
5.00 – The Consul orders immediate evacuation.
5.30 – He doesn’t.
6.00 – The battle is still going on.
6.30 – All women and children to leave.
7.00 – The Imperialist Admiral has gone over to the enemy.
8.00 – He hasn’t.
9.00 – Fire in the German Concession – probably the Post Office
9.10 – No, in the Japanese Concession.
9.20 – No, in the native city, probably shops for loot.
9.40 – No, it’s the railway station.
9.50 – No, it’s the British Concession – will it reach us?
10.00 – Anyway, it’s out!

The experience seems to have inspired her to write a poem about rumours which was published in the English language Central China Post on 21 October, 1911, included in the book with her letters (my thanks to Tony Beckingsale for permission to share it in full):


Everyone guesses and nobody knows.
“They say” – “I heard,” – “Perhaps,” and “Suppose.”
This is the way that rumour grows.
A. hears some news and confines it to B.,
Who tells it at once (with additions) to C.,
And that’s contradicted next minute by D.

E. brings a statement that “really is true.”
F. doesn’t find that it’s his point of view.
G. proves them both wrong with something quite new.

“They say” that the Rebels have gone up the Han.
“They say” that on Wednesday they captured Siaokan.
Six thousand Imperialists killed to a man.

In the Battle of the Oil Tanks, fought yesterday,
“I hear” that the Rebels turned tail, ran away!
And “I heard” that they won, at least, that’s what they say!

The Consul has “strongly advised” us to go.
But that’s what “We’re told” every three hours or so.
We never intend to obey him, you know.

“Perhaps” we may have to run off in the night.
“Perhaps” we should be an extraordinary sight!
Well, there is one comfort, – our luggage is light!

“Suppose” all the gunboats desert and “P’ao”!2
“Suppose” all the armies surround us just now!!
“Suppose” – nothing happens at all in Hankow!!!

So everyone guesses and nobody knows.
“They say”, – “I heard,” – “Perhaps”, and “Suppose”,
That is the way that a rumour grows.

– A Lady, who stayed “at her own risk”.

  1. For a diary that has much more to say on the horrors of the same days in Wuhan, including of the massacres of Manchus, of surrendered soldiers, and of the casualties of war, see for example, Like Lions after Slumber: A Personal Account of the Chinese Revolution of 1911 The Diary of Bernard Upward of Hankow  

  2. I’m guessing this is 跑, that is, run away  

The Language of Wuhan

The Wuhan dialect is often described as a “southwestern mandarin variety” of Chinese. For over a century foreigners, especially missionaries who lived in the city, were alternately fascinated and frustrated by the challenge of pinning down a dialect seen to be in the process of transformation on the one hand, but also showing such variation across the three historical cities, Wuchang, Hankou, and Hanyang that make up the tricity of Wuhan, that missionaries trained on one side of the river faced challenges in understanding what was said on the other.

For the British consular officer and amateur linguist Edward Harper Parker, who dedicated his first signed publication to the dialect, his primary observation seemed to be that the dialect was, “very poor, consisting of only 316 syllables, against the Pekingese 420.1 Elsewhere, he complains that, “this dialect is one of the most unsatisfactory to deal with…the dialect in Hankow is in a transitory state…and is moreover largely affected by the speech of the numerous traders who congregate at that centre.”2 In 1899 James Addison Ingle (1867-1903), a missionary and first episcopal bishop in Hankou published his Hankow Syllabary, some eight years after he arrived in China. It represents his attempt to capture the “sounds and tones as heard in Hankow.”3 For Ingle, “Hankow is such an omnium gatherum of all the eighteen provinces, that its speech is very impure, with sounds confusingly mixing into one another, even as they do so in different ways on the opposite banks of the river in Wuchang.”4

Ingle warns his reader already on the first page that “It has not seemed practicable to embody even the Wuchang pronunciations which differ from those in Hankow. Wuchang students will easily learn from their teachers what those differences are.” Wuchang, the provincial capital and an old city dating back to its time as a capital of Wu in the three kingdoms period, is now just Wuchang district in Wuhan. It had its own group of foreign missionaries analysing the local language over a period of some decades, and their work would find a home in the 1925 dictionary produced by Mary Donald Grosvenor, A Colloquial Chinese Pocket Dictionary in the Hankow Dialect.5

Looking back at the history of research on the Wuhan dialect in 2009, W. South Coblin and 柯蔚南 note that Chinese linguists observed major sub-types in the Wuchang and Hankou/Hanyang dialects, but also significant variation across generations, with a “old group”(老派) preserving more of the distinctions found by the sources above, and everyone else a new speech group, with the latter also showing the infuences of standard Mandarin koine.6

According to the Coblin and 柯 article these are some of the phonological features of the dialect (see the article for the full list, more details on each, and what differences are found with the older sources):

  • A voiced velar nasal ŋ before mid and low vowels (at least among the 老派, and this seems to have been true in the 1930s)
  • Initial l- and n- in standard northern Chinese are represented by one phoneme, transcribed as n-, but Coble and 柯 argue that the sources suggest that there has been a transition over time and that there was a distinction in the nineteenth century. Depending on the older source referred to initial r- is also often missing or becomes l- in many cases, though the sources are mixed in what they find over time.
  • In modern Wuhan dialect, the “er” of standard northern mandarin comes out as a ɯ (Close back unrounded vowel)
  • Modern Wuhan dialect lacks “retroflex initials” 張 (zhang) and 車 (che) begin with “ts” and 殺 (sha) comes out “sa” – but the article suggests that at least some of these are present in the Parker source. There is further discussion of the “destinations” of other missing retroflex initials in modern Wuhanese.
  • In modern Wuhan dialect, final -u does not follow coronal initials and are replaced with “palatal plus” -y – I don’t understand the phonetic explanation here, but apparently 賭,土,努,路,初,and 蘇 come out as if they are “ou” instead of “u” on the end.
  • -n and ŋ are distinguished in northern standard mandarin (-en/-eng, -in/-ing) but apparently these are not distinguished in Wuhanese and all become -n.
  • After dental initials, -uan, -un, -ui become unrounded so that 短,乱,算 all end with -an instead of -uan.
  • Over time an earlier fifth 入声 tone has merged into the 杨平 tone so that the dialect now has only four tones.

These are just some notes from the article’s discussion on phonology, and says nothing of the rich vocabulary of the dialect. Below are a few links to videos where you can listen to 武汉话 being spoken and sung.7

Test your Wuhan dialect listening skills:

Two songs showcasing the Wuhan dialect here:
段思思 – 信了你的邪

Here is a nice video discussing the changing demographics and efforts to preserve the dialect. After the virus outbreak in Wuhan late last year, medical teams from all over China have been flown in to work in Wuhan and elsewhere in Hubei. Apparently, Shandong University’s Qilu hospital created a Wuhan Dialect Handbook (《国家援鄂医疗队武汉方言音频材料》) which went viral throughout China in February.

One thing I would love to know more about is to what degree other aspects of the dialect’s idiomatic expressions and vocabulary etc. confirm or dismiss the romantic notion of Wuhan’s dialect as a melting pot of languages, an “omnium gatherum of all the…provinces.” Its geographical location and central position on the infrastructure network of China certainly give the idea a nice starting point but I doubt that languages evolve in quite so simplistic a manner.

Update: Here is another song passed on by Chris Courtney: Let it Go in Wuhan dialect (turn off the crazy text on top by unchecking 弹 below the video).

  1. E.H. Parker, “The Hankow Dialect,” The China Review 3, no. 5 (1875). See also David Prager Branner, “The Linguistic Ideas of Edward Harper Parker,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 119, no. 1 (1999): 12–34.  

  2. E.H. Parker, “The Comparative Study of Chinese Dialects” Journal Of The North-china Branch Of The Royal Asiatic Society xii (1878): 29.  

  3. Ingle Hankow Syllabary, 1.  

  4. ibid, 3.  

  5. She was the daughter of a medical missionary in Wuchang who would later go on to win prizes for her studies in Hebrew and Greek and then work with a team of classicists at Oxford on biblical texts. See Zerwick Maximilian and Grosvenor Mary, A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament (Gregorian Biblical BookShop, 2010).  

  6. W. South Coblin and 柯蔚南, “Glimpses of Hankou Phonological History / 漢ロ方言語音歴史的幾點認識,” Journal of Chinese Linguistics 37, no. 2 (2009): 188-189.  

  7. thanks to Wuhan historian Chris Courtney for one of the songs!  

A Wuhan Timeline and Bibliography

The world’s attention has, for the most part, moved on from Wuhan, the city where the the Covid-19 virus outbreak began. Now the media both within and beyond China that are following the outbreak are tracking its rapid spread elsewhere. Within China, including in Wuhan, the number of those who have recovered is thankfully much higher than that of a shrinking number of new daily cases. Without a doubt, however, the city is still very much feeling, and will continue to feel the impact of Covid-19 for months and likely years to come. As of today, over 49,400 out of over 90,000 cases world wide were in the city of Wuhan itself, and thought over 23,000 are said to have recovered, there are still over 24,000 active cases listed in the city and over 2,200 of just over 3,000 dead so far have come from Wuhan alone.

Wuhan is, as Robert Bickers recently put it, “not an unknown place, it is not beyond our knowledge.” The city is one of China’s most important economic centers and, as Chris Courtney puts it so poetically in his excellent book focused on the city, The Nature of Disaster,

“It is impossible to traverse the terrain of modern Chinese history without alighting in Wuhan on several occasions, as the city so often found itself at the heart of national politics.” 1

In 1911, 1927, 1938, and in 1967, to name a few of the most important, Wuhan is truly of huge importance to the history of modern China.

To help remind us of the importance of the city, even as it begins to drop out of the international media reports surrounding the current crisis, I thought I would put together a timeline of events in the the three cities that make up Wuhan (Hankou, Wuchang, and Hanyang) cobbled together from some of the works I have been reading of late related to the city (not including the recent crisis). I have also been putting together a bibliography of books, articles, primary accounts, and some Chinese and Japanese publications related to Wuhan in the form of a shared Zotero library, that anyone can add to their own Zotero account if they like, or view directly online (avoid viewing it thorugh a mobile device as text notes seem to load incomplete).

You can find the timeline here:

History of Wuhan Timeline

And you can find the Zotero library with sources related to the history of Wuhan (see especially the “Key English Secondary” folder to help you get started) here:

History of Wuhan Zotero Library

(or load the bibliography of folders and items directly)

I’ll be expanding both of these in the days to come as I read more about Wuhan’s history. I haven’t yet added a timeline of the most recent outbreak events.

If you would like to make suggestions for additions or corrections to either the timeline or bibliography, feel free to email me at kml at huginn.net or you can find me on Twitter at @kmlawson. Anyone can “join” the Zotero group for read only access within your Zotero collections that will update over time as you sync your account.

  1. Chris Courtney, The Nature of Disaster in China: The 1931 Yangzi River Flood (Cambridge University Press, 2019), 12.  

Wuhan on the Eve of a Revolution

WuchangI stumbled across the American traveler William Edgar Geil’s Eighteen Capitals of China (1911). I wasn’t impressed. Even for its time, it is particularly packed with stereotyped and dismissive descriptions of Chinese people, never failing to take the opportunity to make fun of some aspect of the locals he comes across.1

The book has a chapter on Wuchang, one of three cities that make up Wuhan. The city on the eastern side of the Yangzi river was capital of Hubei province, and the centre of government and military infrastructure in the region. As for trade, Geil suggests “Officialism and commerce often thrive better with a little partition between.” He points to Hanyang and Hankou (Hankow) across the water, with Hankou’s relatively recently built walls on only one side making it a “hedgehog, prickly enough on one side, but quite defenceless on the other.” It is there the British, Russians, French, Germans, and Japanese have concession territories.

At the time of his visit (the intro claims he visited all the cities in his book) Geil claims that Wuchang made up only some 200,000 people of a total of a million in the three cities of Wuhan combined. He describes Wuchang’s long east-west “Serpent Hill” splitting the city and, in the west, a “Flower Hill” on which stands “a handsome three-story pagoda.” This may have be the building located on the site of the many-times-rebuilt Yellow Crane Tower (黄鹤楼 but towers there had a number of different names) and helps date his trip. The tower didn’t exist between 1884-1907, so one assumes his trip there was sometime between 1907-1911 when there was a 奥略楼 building near that location.2 Just north of this is an east west “spine” of seven thousand shops that are the “Broadway of Wuchang.” This map from 1883 is from an earlier time but I’m guessing that 察院坡 is what he is referring to. A 1935 essay on Wuhan by 王佐良 claims that the street was full of bookstores.

Wuchang 1883 Library of Congress G7824.W7A5
Wuchang 1883 Library of Congress G7824.W7A5

What I found amusing about the book, given its publication in 1911, was its confident narrative of a city that had experienced the frightening prospect of urban rebellion but was now firmly in more orderly times. In describing the policing of the city, Geil refers to an attempted rebellion in 1882. Although this may refer to a local Wuchang incident, I wonder if what he describes as a huge scare (“nine of ten disappearing to the country…servants had most appropriately taken French leave.”) was perhaps in fact referring to a failed rebellion in 1883, analysed in great detail in the final chapter of William Rowe’s Hankow: Conflict and Community in a Chinese City, 1796-1895. It goes on to describe another failed uprising by “red-republican anarchists” in 1900 who believed that their victory would “inaugurate a commonwealth of perfect equality and universal prosperity.” (p253)

After incidents like this, Geil concludes that “the danger sobered the people” and going forward,

“It is not likely that many more pranks of this nature will be tried. The Chinese military system is being recast, and the old methods are passed away. At Wuchang there are now large barracks in which a division of 20,000 soldiers are being trained. It is impossible to give a close account of the proceedings, but evidently the utmost care is being bestowed on them…” (p254)

There was at least one more “prank” of that nature which came in very short order. In October of the same year the book was published, and only two months after the book’s August dated forward, an uprising occurred which would include parts of the very new army that Geil was referring too. They would soon come under the command of Jackie Chan, I mean, under Huang Xing in one of the few military engagements of the revolution proper. This Wuchang uprising, on October 10, 1911 (“double ten” 双十 / 十十)would kick off the collapse of the Qing dynasty.

  1. One of the entertaining aspects of the book, however, was the decision of its author to plant idiomatic expressions, with translations on almost every other page of the book. The Wuchang chapter included 小石頭打破大缸,不上高山不顯平地,相知滿天下知心有幾人,看花容易繡花難  

  2. This may show an image of the tower he saw, which resembles neither the tower that preceded it or the tower that stands there today.  

Mapping China from the air

Since I have been posting maps, I thought I would put this up.

This is from Shigeru Kobayashi 小林茂, Gaihōzu : Teikoku Nihon no Ajia chizu 外邦図 : 帝国日本のアジア地図 (Tōkyō : Chūō Kōron Shinsha, 2011) Although a -lot- has been written about cartography and ways of mapping national territory much of this focuses on the nineteenth century and before. Part of the reason for that focus is probably that by 1900 much of the world had been mapped. No need to map the China Coast in 1901, it has already been done. Another reason may be that after the airplane mapping was a lot easier and thus there is less to say about it. This is a diagram of the photo-mapping of Shandong the Japanese did during the Jinan Incident

The purpose of sending Japanese troops to Shandong was not to bring along planes and start mapping Chinese territory, but as long as you are there….The text talks about some of the difficulties with this process, but basically mapping your territory (or someone else’s) got a lot easier in a hurry at this point. Also see Sakura Christmas, “The Cartographic Steppe: Mapping Environment and Ethnicity in Japan’s Imperial Borderlands,” (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 2016),

Radio in China

I was looking around for some information on Chinese radio during the Republic and discovered that there is not much out there. There are some cites in this thesis, (Wei Lei, University of Technology, Sidney 2015) which is not written by a historian.


More fun, however, is this article


This feature originally appeared in Modern Mechanix, an American magazine, in 1937. I am not sure how good the early history of radio part is, but the later bits seem to have been drawn from some American who was working in the thriving business of selling radio equipment in China. Some interesting stuff to follow up on….

The other religious station is of a different nature. It is the Fo Yin station, and is operated by the Shanghai Buddhist Association. The organ of a section of Buddhists which believes in discarding the old tradition of tranquility and making an aggressive campaign for religion, this station reflects an evangelistic fervor comparable to that of many American Christian institutions. Music, impassioned orations, lessons and plays with a religious motive can be heard at almost all hours of the day or night, and the station is among the best known in China.

Mass education activities in Hopei province also make wide use of the radio. Conforming to orders of the Ministry of Education, radio sets have been installed in all middle schools of Hopei province, and programs of the mass-education movement are sent out from several government-owned stations simultaneously. In its campaign to educate adults as well as children and to make the masses literate, the Ministry of Education plans an increasing use of the ether waves.

Recently the Chinese Government ordered all stations in China to pick up a broadcast from XGOA at Nanking between 8 and 8:30 o’clock every night and to re-broadcast it. The program, it was announced, would consist of good music, talks, and news announcements in both English and Chinese. A howl immediately arose from operators of stations in Shanghai, particularly the foreign-owned stations, who resent the surrender of one of their best broadcasting periods to the Government. Although the Chinese stations objected also, they quickly complied with the Government order, but the foreign stations showed a disposition to resist. Finally, however, all except two, an American and a French station, decided to comply. The Government is still attempting to reach an amicable agreement with the two defiant stations which will result in their following the example of their colleagues.

Princess Iron Fan and the origins of Asian animation

Like most of you (I assume) I knew that Princess Iron Fan 鐵扇公主 (1941) was China’s first full-length animated film. Also like most of you I assume that you wanted to know more about the background of a full-length animated film made unoccupied Shanghai ( i.e. in the gudao 孤岛 or isolated island, the part of the city that was not occupied by the Japanese between 1937 and 1941) I also assume that like me you were too lazy to research the background of this film. Fortunately for us all, Daisy Yan Du is less lazy, and has done a fine job of explaining the background of this film in Daisy Yan Du, Animated Encounters: Transnational Movements of Chinese Animation, 1940s–1970s (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2019). One of the reasons the film is so famous is that Tezuka Osamu the “God of Manga”saw it in Japan as a kid and was profoundly influenced by it. In discussing his version of the Sun Wukong story he said

However, what really opened my eyes , impressed me deeply, and sparked my desire to create today was Princess Iron Fan, the first Chinese animated feature film., which premiered in Japan in 1942. (pg. 58)

Du gives the background on inspiration for the film (Disney’s Snow White) , but most interestingly, for me at least, deals with how it ended up being shown in Japan and becoming, in some respects, the origin story of Asian animated film. It was the direct inspiration for 桃太郎の海鷲 Momotarō’s Sea Eagles (p.52), Japan’s first almost feature length animated film.

She also deals with what to make of Iron Fan, which was a big issue for the film at the time. It was made by the Wan brothers and a team of 250 artists starting on April 25, 1940. The film opened on Nov 19, 1941, in Shanghai. As you can see below, it was still running on Dec 8, 1941, when Japanese troops marched into the International Settlement and French Concession.

But what to make of it? Chinese film censors were not big on films that were not clearly and explicitly war propaganda, and Japanese censors were on the lookout for any signs of anti-Japanese thinking. What to make of a traditional fantasy story about a monkey fighting a Bull-Demon King? Was this a resistance film? Tezuka Osama certainly thought so, and the Wan brothers claimed as much after the war. Was it part of folding Chinese culture into the Greater East Asian Film Sphere? Those who brought the film to Japan clearly thought so, and the Wan brothers were congratulated for striking a blow for the “Oriental Spirit” against Hollywood and Western films. (p.48)

I was also happy to find out that, as shown in the link at the head of this post, there is now a free version with English subtitles so I can show it to my students.

Confucius hates Japan

Once upon a time I was big into Chinese currency. Not so much as a speculator, but as one of the people who bought old banknotes from people who were selling them all over China and Taiwan. I even did a post about it, and published a version of it. I still have a lot of the old stuff around and use it in classes, but there is one question that has always eluded me.

A number of the people selling me old banknotes had a story about the Japanese occupation notes, and while it took several forms, the basic gist of it was that one of the Japanese occupation governments issued a note with Confucius giving an obscene gesture to some sort of symbol of Japan. The artist who slipped this in was supposedly executed, although of course that would be a small price to pay for pulling off something like that.

Confucius does indeed turn up on a lot of puppet banknotes, which is not surprising, since he fits in well with the whole Pan-Asian Kingly Way (王道) ideology. Is the story true? Well there is some evidence. Here is a standard Confucius, who turns up on a lot of puppet notes. As you can see, his hands on most of the notes are in that standard Confucius mudra,

But, as you can see on this note, he is sometimes different.


What I would like to know is First, does anyone know if this is an actual obscene gesture that he is making with his hands? Second, does anyone have a source for the story about the engraver slipping this in that is better than my source “some guys who sell banknotes told me this”?

Iron Man Wang

For your teaching pleasure, here is the story of Iron Man Wang, from China Reconstructs, Sept, 1977. I have a pile of old 70’s Chinese propaganda magazines that I scored when the University of Illinois East Asian Studies Center was tossing them out. I would have saved a lot more, but I assumed that piles of this cool old Maoist stuff would always be pretty much free for the taking all over. Foolish boy.

I use some of these for student assignments, and this is a nice story of a hero worker that gets into a bit on conflict between different lines and the importance of Maoist enthusiasm. It should work well with Son of the Revolution, which is the final book for this class.