Classical Chinese for Everyone

Looking for a fun book? Look no further! Bryan Van Norden’s
Classical Chinese for Everyone: A Guide for Absolute Beginners is it.

This is a book for anyone who would like to learn a bit of Classical Chinese. Although the standard assumption is that if you are studying Classical Chinese you already have a few years of Modern Chinese this is not really necessary. If you look at the reviews of classical Chinese textbooks on Amazon you will see that there is a sizable group of people who are not planning on careers as Sinologists but would like to learn some Classical Chinese. This book is for them.1

One nice thing about the book is that it does not exist in a vacuum. He gives you references to all the other books out there and electronic resources like Pleco and C-text. He even admits that if you want a quick but good explanation of Kanbun the place to go is Wikipedia. While this is a book for beginners, it gives you all the tools you need to keep going. You don’t need to know about reading pronunciations 讀音, or the sexagenary cycle 六十干支, but Van Norden explains these and leaves you hungry to learn more. He is a philosophy teacher, and he is teaching Classical Chinese as a way of getting students into philosophy, so there is a good deal of philosophical content in here.2 Have you really been introduced to Analects if you have never read one of Zhu Xi’s commentaries? Not for Van Norden.

The other nice thing about the book is that it is a lot of fun. Van Norden has actually printed a lot of his classroom jokes here, and they are pretty good.

James R. Ware was the first person to receive a PhD in “Chinese Studies” from Harvard University (1932), but today he is best known for his translation of Analects 2.12: “The Gentleman is not a robot.” I would give you the original Chinese text of that passage, but it wouldn’t help.3

He also includes a few bits where he gives you various English translations of things so you can try to work out how different people tried to work out a translation. Or you can just gaze in wonder at Boodberg’s translation of 道德經 1

If you, or one of your students, or someone on your holiday gift list are interested in a career as a Sinologist, or would like to learn just enough Classical Chinese to say you know a bit, or just like learning interesting things from a good teacher you should get this book. It is by far the most fun language textbook I have ever read.

  1. Van Norden uses Rouzer’s textbook for his students with some background in Modern Chinese. I have used that as well, on the few occasions I have taught classical, but this seems a better introductory book.  

  2. That is probably unavoidable, since so many of the early texts are “philosophy”, but he frequently steps away from the language lessons to specifically explain the ideas in the text.  

  3. I will give it to you though, 子曰君子不器  

Bullets and Opium-Tiananmen thirty years later

Image result for Bullets and Opium

Part of my summer reading has been Liao Yiwu‘s Bullets and Opium: Real-Life Stories of China after the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Liao got in trouble after the Tiananmen massacre,1 spent time in prison, and then spent a number of years trying to get by in Chengdu before moving abroad. Like his previous Corpse Walker this is a book of interviews. Like Corpse Walker it is not something I am likely to assign in class, but it is a really good book.2

You will note that I say he got in trouble during the Democracy movement, not that he was part of it. He was part of it in some respects of course, but the focus of this book are his fellow thugs. These are the non-university students who got involved in the movement, and got tossed in jail for it. There is a clear class divide in this book between the university types (who were rather cold towards these working class supporters even in 1989) and the people in this book, who are not likely to turn up at Davos.

Some of these people have sold out. Liao tells the story of meeting with couple old friends.

At the time, my wife was editing a weekly entertainment magazine published by a Chengdu nightclub. She was afraid that my shaved head was too conspicuous, the sign of an inmate, so she bought me a wig and forced me to wear it. I once went to the club to pick her up because it was late and I was worried about her getting home safely. As soon as I entered the club, I ran into the two managers, one fat and the other skinny, both of them drunk, both old friends of mine who used to be poets. Together we had run an underground poetry zine that poked fun at the Party. Of course they were both more idealistic and patriotic than I was during the 1989 student protests, publicly reciting their anticorruption poems on cam­pus. The night of June Fourth found them in Tianfu Square in Chengdu, bringing food and water to the students who were skirmishing with the military police, and ferrying the injured to hospitals.

At the club they recognized me right away. The fat one seized my wig and cried out, “What’s this counterrevolutionary doing in disguise?” The thin one yelled, “A girl for the counterrevolutionary!” I broke out in a cold sweat. They both roared with laughter and pulled me into a private room for a drink.

Three hostesses came in and started up the karaoke machine. The fat man produced his wallet and gave them all 100-yuan tips as if he were handing out candy. “Do you still write poems?” asked the skinny man.
“I haven’t been able to. I guess I just don’t feel like it,” I said.
“Well, if you do ever feel like it, try changing your tune and writ­ing poems that sing the praises of nightclubs, Chengdu nightlife, sexy women, and spicy hot pot,” he advised. “We can print your poems under a pseudonym in our magazine, the one your wife edits.”
I was dumbfounded. “You guys used to be dirt-poor poets who couldn’t even afford a decent bottle of booze. Where did you find the money for this place? The rent alone must cost you hundreds of thou­sands of yuan per year.”
“Just take out a loan and you can spend all you want,” said the fat man. “There’s someone I know at the bank who will take the building and facil­ities as collateral. Unfortunately, the girls don’t count as collateral.”
“Being poor hasn’t been socialist since Deng Xiaoping touted eco­nomic reform on his famous tour of southern China back in 1992,” the thin man chimed in. “Protesting for democracy won’t get us any­where. Money will.” p. 12-13

While some are selling out, that is not really the theme of the book. Most of these are people who were left behind. They might be willing to sell out, but nobody is buying. After some years in prison doing hard labor (did you buy latex gloves in the 90’s? One of these people may have been blowing into them to check for leaks. Did you see Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower? The armor was made by prison labor.) they are dumped on the street to fend for themselves, and mostly not succeeding. Divorce, booze, lousy jobs and constant harassment are their lot. “It was all very well to be killed for what you believed in, but I had been condemned to eke out a miserable existence indefinitely”3 In Liao Yiwu’s own story he mentions erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation several times, and all of these men (they are all men) are having trouble with what seems to be the main goal of their lives, which is settling down with a wife and a job and having a family. They have not really given up on politics, in the sense that they have forgotten what happened or have forgiven anyone. Some of them continue to defy the authorities, subtly or not so subtly, and we get to see the Chinese justice system in action, as in the story of Chen Yunfei

Chen had read my account of Wu’s death in The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up and had long wanted to get to present a bouquet of flowers at Wu Guofeng’s grave. He wanted to meet Wu’s parents, one of whom suffered from migraines, while the other had lost a kidney, and see if they would take on the animal tamer as a kind of adopted son. But when the animal tamer got to Xinjin, he was surrounded and captured by over a hundred “police beasts.” His crime, long ago determined by the relevant organs, was incitement to overthrow the government and troublemaking.

After being locked up for two years, Chen’s animal taming case was taken up in court. The prosecutor read the indictment. When Chen’s law­yer argued that he wasn’t guilty, the judge constantly yelled and inter­rupted him. People from his home village, who had gathered outside the courtroom to support him, were put one by one into a mobile animal cage. When the time came for the animal tamer to make his final statement, the judge glanced at his watch and told him that he had one minute.

Chen took a deep breath and started reading his statement. “Dear lawyer and swindlers of the prosecution: I have been tortured for over two years now. I feel like the legendary Monkey King who was thrown in the furnace for concocting the pills of immortality. It felt so good in there. The prosecution, the beatings, the wearing of leg irons that I have gone through are like math problems: the more difficult they are, the more interesting they get, and the more significant they become. I want to thank the swindlers of the prosecution again for making me the man I am today. Thank you for making me into a household name for spread­ing propaganda throughout the whole world on behalf of the cause of freedom of speech and opposing dictatorship and tyranny. It satisfies my vanity, though in reality I am not so good or brave as a person- ”

“Shut up!” roared the prosecutor.
“I always warn officials wandering near my prison door, for their own good: Ahead is a great abyss; retreat from it, repent, and be saved, or they will destroy you in the end-and they always do. People on the Internet ridicule me, saying that I am the black crow prophesying doom. Whoever I mention ends up going to jail … ”
“Shut up!” yelled the judge, the prosecutor, and the court stenogra­pher all together.

“Swindlers, stop before it’s too late … ”
“Seal his mouth! Son of a bitch!” they shouted, and the court bec­ame a combat zone as the roars of lions vied with the growls of tigers. The police rushed forward, but the animal tamer dodged them. The police swung their clubs and hit the face of the accused. Blood splat­tered in all directions, but he kept on reading his statement: “Lord, please forgive me . . . and forgive the swindlers of the prosecution because they know not what they do. I say this prayer in the name of Jesus, the son of our Heavenly Father … ”
They pushed the animal tamer to the ground. Once again his lips swelled up like a pig’s snout. The judge wiped the sweat from his face and sentenced Chen to four years in prison. Chen said he refused to ac­cept the sentence, swearing to appeal because it was too light. p.161

The state continues to persecute them, but for most of them their only sentence is to be poor and lack connections in contemporary China. Liao Yiwu is not happy with the direction China is going.

The Chinese people have become slaves waiting and willing to he plundered and trampled. And the Party said to Westerners: Come on over, build factories, set up businesses, construct tall buildings, and design computer networks. As long as you don’t talk about human rights or pick political scabs, you can do whatever you want. In your own country there are all those laws to obey and public opinion to worry about. You aren’t free to do as you like. You should come here and work with us. Come to our country and get dirty with us. Please go ahead and mess up our rivers, skies, food, and underground water resources to your heart’s desire. Come use our cheap labor. Make our people work day and night. Reduce them to nothing more than machines on the assembly line. By the time most people in China come down with different kinds of cancers in their bodies, minds, and characters because of all the pollution, you will have made even more money in this, the world’s biggest junkyard, where there will always be more business op­portunities than anywhere else.

In the name of free trade, many Western companies conspired with the butchers. They created a junkyard. Their profits-first “garbage system of values” became ever more influential. The Chinese people all knew that the butchers had the money and had their escape routes ready-that they would, in the end, abandon their scarred and battered motherland. They would all emigrate to the West to enjoy that pure land and its sunlight, its liberty, equality, fraternity. They might even join a church there and ask that same Jesus, who was nailed to a cross in ancient times by tyrants, to atone for their crimes. p.9

Perhaps the most depressing thing about the book is that he and his subjects almost seems like time travelers, still talking about democracy in China in 2019.

  1. I suppose as an American it is my patriotic duty to call it a riot, like our president does, but I think massacre fits better 

  2. It does not really work for me as a classroom book because the focus (like Corpse Walker) is on people at the absolute bottom of society. This makes it less representative than I would like for a classroom book for any of the things I teach. It might work well for a Contemporary China class 

  3. p.17  

“What I Read Over Summer Vacation” (part one?)

I’ve been on something of a tear through my to-read pile in search of… well, I’m not entirely sure some days. A lot of what’s in that stack (conceptually, it’s a stack, a pile, a shelf, whatever. In practical terms, it’s scattered around my office and there’s a branch of it at home.) is there because of my teaching, looking for new books to assign, or new work that might refresh/change my understanding of something which I teach about.

Only one of the books has been about Japan: Unbinding The Pillow Book: The Many Lives of a Japanese ClassicBook by Gergana Ivanova. This is one of a new genre of works – well, new to me, anyway – that I really like: histories of the changing reception and understanding of a work over time. It’s kind of a literary historiography, and for certain works, knowing how those shifts happen really can help immensely in understanding why something’s important. I’ve assigned a couple of the Princeton Lives of Great Religious Books in my South Asian survey – it’s one of my few courses that takes a rocks-to-rockets approach, so connecting the classics to modern reception is a great way of spanning the whole territory – and I thought this one might work for my similarly broad Japanese Women’s History course. In the end, I don’t think I’d assign it, though I certainly got a lot out of it, which will affect the way I talk about it as a source, at least. And as a quick introduction to Edo-era literary publishing and genres, it covers a lot of interesting ground.

China - 6c Northern Western Wei - Acrobat Tomb Figure
I’m always looking for ways to broaden my Historiography course, too: it’s very US-centric, because the vast majority of our graduate students are focused on, or at least mostly trained in, US history, though I do assign Paul Cohen’s History in Three Keys which covers some fascinating ground and basic theory. So I had some hope for The Letter to Ren An and Sima Qian’s Legacy, something I picked up at ASPAC a few years back, I think. It’s not long, but it should have been either shorter or longer… it’s a fascinating project, actually, an edited volume that takes an intense look at the provenance, authorship, and historical meaning of a short, but culturally important, document, though philological, historical, historiographical, biographical, and political lenses. But it’s repetitive, because each scholar has to describe the letter, context, and arguments in their own way, and they do; it’s also so focused on the authorship question that the “Legacy” part of the title is largely implicit, which I found quite disappointing. The authorship question itself is fascinating, and as a window into the immense challenges of talking clearly or even confidently about ancient texts and people, it’s first-rate. (If you’re the kind of person who assigns chapters instead of whole books, you could easily get away with picking almost any of them, because they all address each other’s arguments… like I said, repetitive)

Perhaps most disappointing, in terms of syllabus construction, is the last two books I just read, Timothy May’s The Mongol Conquests in World History (2012) and Valerie Hansen’s The Silk Road: A New History with Documents (2017, revised from her 2012 edition). Not that Hansen’s book was a disappointment: I learned a great deal, and she’s doing her usual thing of drawing on concrete details to sketch out real lives, and her final conclusion is immensely thoughtful (spoiler: the Silk Road was mostly about ideas and skills, mostly transmitted by religious pilgrims and refugee migrations, and mostly not about stuff except when governments like China threw enough resources into garrisoning strongholds to provide the economic stimulus to move large quantities). It’s just that she spends so much time and energy telling the reader the sometimes exciting stories of how the documents were found, and how the stuff was found, and how they’ve been fit into the historiography, and focusing on findsites (a term I didn’t know until I read this book) by organizing the story around specific sites, only roughly chronologically sequenced, that I fear only an extended close reading with students would be pedagogically sound, and when I’m looking for a supplemental reading in World History, that’s not really what’s going to work. I could see making graduate students read it, especially in a methods class, but the disjunction between the historiography-centric chapters and the “let’s assign these to beginning students” questions attached to the documents (which are mostly too short to be really fun for me, but then I assign long stuff) just doesn’t work. But at least she’s making a case, and doing it in an evidence-centered way; it’s good historical work, and even if you don’t like her conclusions, you can’t say she doesn’t show her work.

On the other hand…. May’s attempt to make “the Chinggis Exchange” a thing is legitimately disappointing as a work of history. While Hansen’s attention to provenance and interpretation might be excessive, May’s is nearly non-existent. Except for an early swipe at the Marco Polo doubters (more on that below), the only times May makes anything resembling a cautionary note regarding sources is when they say something bad about the Mongols; otherwise it’s just a straight narrative, plus some topical chapters that are also basically narratives around the idea of the Mongols as positive influences across Eurasia. I had flashbacks to reading Guzman’s argument about barbarians as positive forces in world history but with less historical foundation: May has a way of trying to track Mongol “legacies” through speculative chains of causation that remind me of sophomoric attempts to write final exam essays. Aside from a greater appreciation for the political fractiousness of Mongol rule, I feel like I learned very little, and couldn’t responsibly present this work to students. You could learn more about Mongols as world historical actors from Chapter 4 of Rachel Laudan’s Cuisine and Empire than from this book; in fact, a lot of what is actually presented by Laudan was absent from May’s storytelling.

The Marco Polo problem is still real, though Hansen repeats in this book her concession that she believes Polo’s story, to the extent that we have to believe something, though it’s also clear that she considers it highly unreliable. Unfortunately, Hansen’s engagement with the Mongol period of the Silk Road is almost entirely limited to discussing traveler narratives – Polo, William of Rubruck, John of Plano Carpini, ibn Battuta, Rabban Sauma – though her discussion follows the historiographical/critical vein she established in the other chapters, which does at least put Polo into perspective. But it’s not clear to what extent Hansen’s version of the Silk Road, mostly political and intellectual connections, with weaker economic activity along the land routes than the sea routes (which she acknowledges, but spends very little time explaining), conflicts with May’s maximal reading of the Mongols as economic miracle-workers (and ignoring the sea routes, in the context of economics), because the discussion is so different from her earlier chapters, and her conclusion is somewhat cagey, chronologically.

Still, if I had to assign one of them, I’d definitely pick Hansen for World History, and maybe for Historiography as well.

How’s your summer reading going?

The soldier-archeologist

Among other things, the Japanese empire was an empire of science. Conquest led to (or was proceeded by) masses of geographers, anthropologists, geologists etc. This is not a new thing in the literature of imperialism. I did find a nice example of it yesterday, however.

The Asahi Shimbun dated December 16, 1943, carried a two-column article titled, “Well done, soldier-scholar.”

Special dispatch from Nanjing on the 14′”: In the midst of battling anti-Japanese forces, a single soldier by chance dug up a nearly intact jar-shaped vessel from 3,000 years ago, providing an artifact valuable to the study of culture in Central China in the Neolithic Age. Private Teruya Esaka from the Central China XX Unit (from I 042 Akatsutsumi­cho, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo) studied archaeology under the guidance of his teacher, Ichiro Yawata at the Department of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Tokyo. Furthermore, after working as a junior assistant at the Department of Earth Science at Bunri University, he is now con­ducting research in archaeology at the Department of History, Faculty of Letters, Keio University. He is a young and energetic student who came to the battlefront after being drafted, and participated in XX military opera­tions at the end of this past November. While marching near Matsuryoseki in the Jiangning District approx. 25 km south of Nanjing, he keenly spotted a piece of a jar along a loess cliff facing northwest in the suburb of Shoshyanteo. He dug it out, carried it home, and researched literature to find that this jar dates from around the late Neolithic Age to the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period, and is at least 3,000 years old.

The young soldier-archeologist was encouraged to publish his find, although he does not seem to have ever dated it very well. In a later article he would explain the importance of archeology.

Imperial Army stations in the Greater East Asian War are located nearly over the entire Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The majority of these places are uneducated.” The text concludes, “Just as we cannot be neglectful of military service in the current battlefront, we stu­dents of archaeology stationed on the battle lines hope to carry out our duty of aiding the ethnic policy in the Greater East Asia War by being vigilant at all times in our endeavor to gather artifacts.” This communicated the thoughts of an archaeology researcher who found himself on the battlefield. Of course, this was Esaka ‘s impression, but it goes without saying that his profound daily thoughts compelled the discovery of the Shoshyanteo ruins. Esaka said, “There are museums of varying sizes in cities in each area of the Co-Prosperity Sphere. The archaeological artifacts from the areas housed in these museums were roughly organized and reported on by Western scholars in the past.” However, he points out that, “If we who live in East Asia and are researching the ancient culture of this region can view them, we may dis­cover many research aspects not comprehended by Western scholars.”

I assume there are people out there who know a lot more than I do about the history of archeology in Asia, but I found this to be a fun story to discuss in class about the connections between war and knowledge and science and looting.

I found this in the article “The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and Archaeology in Japan” by Hideichi Sakazume, published in The Rissho International Journal of Academic Research in Culture and Society 2: The Academic Canon of Arts and Humanities and Science 2019This volume was sent to me (and possibly to you too) by Reisho University, and I am glad to get some use out of it.

Grand Centennial Best Opening Vignette Contest!

Jonathan’s “On the Opening Vignette” is so fresh and smart that the only response is to turn it into a contest: who can write the best opening vignette of their own. To keep things from getting out of hand, let’s run it only once a century.

Here’s my opening submission:

It was a dark, stormy night. The Qianlong Emperor © looked up, his brow furrowed with idle concern, his hand clutching the Imperial Red Brush. What could these Barbarians have in mind? No matter. Tonight he would dine with He Shen, his favorite enunuch. Minor matters could wait.

Can you do better? Of course!

The Marie Kondo thing

I’ve been avoiding getting into the debate about Marie Kondo’s konmari brand of modernist orientalism, mostly because I’m not that interested, but there are a lot of people making claims about the Japaneseness and historicity of her ideas, so I suppose a comment might be in order.

The most popular article I’ve seen is Margaret Dilloway’s attempt to claim Kondo’s method as authentically Japanese – specifically Shinto animism – and that critical comments are functionally racist, or at best Eurocentric.

I had never seen quite this level of concentrated venom directed toward a self-help/home decor person. Not Martha with her thousand-step craft projects. Not Rachel Hollis telling “girls” to wash their faces and to judge friends based on whether they can keep off weight. Not even Gwyneth when she told everyone to steam their lady parts and wedge a jade egg inside. All received backlash, but none garnered as much misguided indignation as Kondo, long after she managed to sell two million copies of her debut book.

Honestly, I think she’s missed the backlash in all of those cases: they were (and are) ongoing and pretty vicious (and very well-founded, in many cases).

More importantly, she’s making historical connections that don’t exist: Japan’s famously clean cities, and lack of school custodial staff, do not have deep religious roots, but functional and modern elements. As Susan Hanley argued, a society that was based on economically isolated islands (as Japan during the mostly-closed sakoku era of the Edo period) will naturally develop an aesthetic of conservation, minimalism, and efficiency. Though it’s always worth mentioning that there’s also a culture of excess, consumption, luxury, and pleasure, mostly in cities and among elites.

Similarly, when Japan encountered, experienced, and adopted modernism, it became as much of a consumer society as the US or France, accumulating stuff and disposable fashion in ways largely indistinguishable from other industrialized societies.

The concept of “a Japanese aesthetic” is as much a product of modernity as Japanese nationalism: an invented tradition, drawing on existing elements but syncretic, harmonizing seemingly disparate components of Japanese and non-Japanese culture into a distinct brand. 

Eiko Maruko Siniawer’s interview with Adam Mintner highlights the 20th century elements of Kondo’s work: Taylorism, Home Economics, the collapsed Bubble Economy of the 1990s, and the increasingly defunct, toxic idea that there’s infinite storage for garbage and waste in other countries or oceans.

What I’m uncomfortable with is people outside of Japan saying she is embodying these Japanese ideas of minimalism, and these are how Japanese houses kind of look, and so the aspiration is for American homes to look like Japanese homes. But no! She is peddling an aspiration in Japan as much as she is in the U.S. It’s not like Japanese homes actually look like that. In fact, they don’t. Which is why people in Japan, as in the United States, are buying her book.

I would add that Kondo’s work is part of a wave of anti-consumer consumption ethoses, mostly associated with Northern European modernism and fatalism (another invented tradition, but very marketable in the form of funiture line).

Ultimately, as is so often the case, Kondo’s presence in American culture tells us more about American culture than Japanese history or tradition.

On the opening vignette as pedagogy

A passage I wrote for one of my online course discussion boards:

One of my pet peeves about textbook, history, and journalistic writing is the use of the “opening vignette,” a scene or personality introduced at the beginning that somehow humanizes the discussion, and often (as used here) foreshadows something coming later in the chapter. In the last fifteen years, particularly, it seems to have become nearly universal in academic writing oriented to wider audiences — textbooks, op-ed pieces, magazine articles, etc. I find it unhelpful, at best, and often misleading with regard to the chronology, intent or import of what’s going on (I know because of what students write on their tests). The opening vignettes in this book seem mostly harmless, but I’m a little surprised by how obviously “dropped in” these openings are: it’s not clear why these dramatic moments were chosen over others and there’s no reference back to them in the rest of the chapter. I understand the value of storytelling and humanizing in making historical points to wider audiences (and even we historians can be entertained and even educated by good stories) but when it’s an imposed pattern instead of growing organically from the argument and material it loses its power.

Pedagogy In The Wild

In a thoughtful discussion of teaching at USIH, I commented

In addition to all the other qualifications and tensions around teaching, there are gaps between disciplines that are frequently ignored by both pedagogy “experts” and administrators alike. I’ve gotten to the point that I tune out of any discussion of teaching that isn’t centered on history, because there are just no other disciplines that have the same mix of content, skills, sources, and myths. I’ve looked at all the fads and trends, including the ‘lecture is dead’, and there’s maybe one person in ten writing on this that even considers history, much less actually teaches in it.

And, to be completely honest, as a World/Asia specialist, I’ve started just skimming over the history pedagogy discussions that only involve US history. I know, it’s a lot to cover in two or three semesters, that whole 300 years or so, with all those sources in English, and as much as we complain about the lack of preparation on the part of our students, at least they know *something*…. It’s all very well to talk about ‘uncoverage’ (and most discussions of the coverage debate are disengenous, at best, anway, because nobody really tries to cover everything and we all make choices and skip stuff) when the basics of the narrative are part of the dominant culture, reinforced constantly by media and entertainment, but when most of what an incoming student knows about the field is just wrong, you have to work in a more integrated and cohesive manner.

Seriously, if I have to sit through one more “uncoverage” discussion that sets up “teachers who thoughtlessly cover everything” as the strawman on “the other side” I’m going to go running into the night, or at least go back to the book exhibits.

Ichi-F -Japanese workingman’s blues

One of my Christmas gifts was Ichi-F: A Worker’s Graphic Memoir of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant

As it says on the cover, it is a worker’s memoir. The book has been criticized as being insufficiently muckraking. The author has a generally positive view of the nuclear industry as a whole. He is not analyzing anything or blaming anyone for anything, other than the journalists who are spreading false stories about how bad things are there.

What I find it most useful for is as a look at Japanese working class men and labor. The narrator is a  semi-employed manga artist who goes to considerable trouble to get work at the Fukushima nuclear clean-up site and to work in the most dangerous parts of it.1 Why does he want to to this? It is not to draw about it, although he does end up doing that. He mentions the money, but that is not really it. It is pretty clear that he wants to do useful work. Lots of people have bullshit jobs. He wants to be a hero worker, boldly building Magnitogorsk or Daqing or the Hoover Dam or something. He downplays this a bit, but his motivation is always to get back to the worksite and get back to work, or, as he sometimes calls it, the front line.

He likes drawing wreckage.

He may not be writing this as an expose of the subcontractor system and the many ways it hurts workers, but all that stuff is in here.

His subcontractor boss. He’s not shady, he’s just drawn that way

He spends most of his time on (unpaid) standby,

the subcontractors charge him for all sorts of stuff, and the entire system is extremely opaque, meaning that he spends much of the book trying to move up to a second or third level subcontractor (Their are at least 6 levels of subcontractors,  so if you want to figure out who is responsible for what or where all the money is going, well, good luck.)

Who does he work with? Other men, of course. Real men who do things with their hands and bond together in manly manlyness. Other workers play a lot of pachinko (which he does not) and drink (which he does, but not that much.) He sometimes comments on the fact that pretty much everyone who works there is male. There are some bits about trying to find shared housing and such, but mostly what they do is work. Some of it is trivial work, (lots of form filling out and safety inspections, but we are all part of the same team)

some of it is heroically rushing into a high-radiation area to move something,

some of it is using a off the shelf video game controller to run a robot, but all of it needs to be done carefully, efficiently, and as part of a team. He had actually paid for his own training as a welder and crane operator before even getting the job, but he is in awe of the skilled workers he meets at Ichi-F.

This of course fits in with a lot of Japanese manga that focus on work, but I think that mostly those have not been translated. If you want a lot of details of nuclear clean-up work, this is the manga for you.

As I mentioned, he is not blaming anyone, other than journalists, for anything. The whole tone is quite positive. More and more areas are radiation free. He can now drive north and eat delicious local delicacies and play folksongs at old folks homes! Our work is achieving something! Every day and in every way, things are getting better and better.

The review I linked to above speculates that the real reason he uses an assumed name is not to avoid getting fired, but because he is a nuclear company shill. I’m not sure if that is true, but honestly, the book would not be that much different if he were.

I don’t think this would work all that well as a classroom book. Most students would drop the class at once if they saw a book this thick on the bookstore shelves. Also, it reads backwards, which will turn off your serious manga students. Still, it is a good book to give a student (or professor) interested in labor.



  1. I will leave aside the question of how reliable a narrator he is  

Huainanzi and teaching Early China

I really liked using Huainanzi in my upper-division Early China class this semester.  I have a habit of switching books a lot in all my classes, in part because I just like to and in part because I am always fiddling with stuff. Early China is always hard, since there are not that many undergrad accessible books out in paperback.1

I kept Lewis Sanctioned Violence in Early China as our first book, since it is a good read (Early China books can get pretty technical) and runs them through a lot of stuff. The big question has always been how to deal with all the philosophy stuff in Warring States. You need to do it, but Mote’s Intellectual Foundations of China is both out of date and out of print. Van Norden Introduction To Classical Chinese Philosophy might work, but it strikes me as being more geared to a philosophy class. Plus, this is your best place to get a primary source in there. The Essential Huainanzi fits perfectly. For those of you who don’t know the text, it is sort of Chinese thought for dummies (well, emperors) compiled in the Han. For those of you who don’t know the edition, they did a full translation and also this shorter version. Students like it, since there is something in here for everyone. The text goes through all of the political philosophy, cosmology, ethics etc. an emperor needs to know, but illustrates a lot of it with fun anecdotes from the histories and classics.  The text is a bit emperor centered (which makes sense) but it does give a synthesis of a lot of different traditions, so you can sprinkle chapters in the Warring States to cover Confucianism or whatever and use the rest of the text when you get to the Han. Since there is a full edition you can seem wise in class by knowing more about the topic than students would expect. Since we have the e-version of the full text you can also get a good assignment out of having them compare one of the full chapters to one of the essential ones. Two thumbs up.

  1. I usually don’t use a textbook, since our students overwhelmingly won’t read a book that “is not required” meaning there is no specific graded assignment attached to it. You can get them to read a textbook by making theme do specific chapter summaries or quizzes or something like that, but if I am going to put that much of the class into forcing them to read a book I prefer it to be a real book. This semester (Fall 2018) I did have them read the Early China bits of Ebrey’s textbook (about 100 pages) and do an assignment on that in the first week. This seems to have helped a bit. 

Teaching with old photographs

One thing that I have started teaching with this semester is

Ed Krebs and Hanchao Lu, eds., China in Family Photographs: A Peoples History of Revolution and Everyday Life, (Bridge 21, USA, 2017).

For those of you who don’t know it,  老照片 (Old Photos) is a Chinese magazine the publishes old photos and the stories behind them that readers send in. The magazine has become quite the phenomenon, and the translators have selected some of the best ones that show how ordinary Chinese understood history and their place in it.1 This is a really good teaching resource, since it gives you well-introduced life stories of all sorts of people and things, from women holding up half the sky, tractors and sewing machines, and political campaigns to geologists, engineers, soldiers and taxi drivers. The focus is on everyday life, but of course since politics was in command in most of this period (Some of the essays discuss family history going back to the Late Qing, but none of them go past the 1980s.) Besides a nice collection of topics, the readings themselves are really good. As anyone who has worked with Chinese memoir literature knows, Chinese are really good at placing their lives in historical context. I credit all that self-criticism and political education. The editors do a great job of pointing out things that would not be clear to a foreign reader in their own brief introduction.

All I am doing with it this semester is putting one of the readings on the final as a primary source,2 but it would work really well as a reader for a Modern China class.

  1. In addition to the introduction of the book, see Edward S. Krebs (2004) Old in the Newest New China: Photographic History, Private Memories And Individual Views of History, The Chinese Historical Review, 11:1, 87-116, DOI: 10.1080/1547402X.2004.11827198 

  2. I often give them a couple short primary source readings to analyze in the take-home part of the final exam. No better way to get students to read a source than putting it on the final  

Pinyin is coming to get you!

Here is a CIA report on Pinyin from, I think, 1961 or so. They lay out the history of pinyin as a method of romanization (or latinization) of Chinese, and from what little I know of the topic it seems fairly accurate. What I find most interesting is the final section, which does not recommend the CIA switching to pinyin, but does suggest that

But we should at least be keeping up with the Communists in our familiarity with the Pinyin forms, and as we set up new systems we should design them with an eye to convertibility to Pinyin. Otherwise we may find ourselves stuck, in a decade or two, with passing the bulk of our material through a superfluous routine of conversions into and out of the then antiquated and artificial Wade-Giles. We have succeeded in remaining for more than eleven years the frightened ostrich with respect to a single Communist rendering, Peking, but we should not try it for a whole language.

This strikes me as a pretty bold memo.1 Adopting pinyin was seen as a pretty radical pro-Beijing step in the West for a long time. Here the CIA is suggesting that they should get ready for the change.

Google n-gram shows us that Bejing was hardly used at all in English before 1975, and only passed Peking in 1985. There are still pockets of “pinyin is Communism” around now,  I expect, so it is interesting (but not all that surprising) to see the CIA bowing to the inevitable so early.

  1. See, I should have worked for the CIA. I may not be James Bond, but I know a bold memo when I see one  

Who are the shi?

Since I am teaching Early China this semester, I am drawing from Yuri Pines, Envisioning Eternal Empire: Chinese Political Thought of the Warring States Period (University of Hawaii Press, 2009) Pines points out a really good story to use in teaching about who the shi,士 were. They were, of course the new class of literate experts who started running China in the Warring States. In 1910 China was still being run by people who called themselves shi, although the social class referred to had of course changed a lot. He gives us a great, much later quote, from Fan Zhongyan on their self-identity.

The heart of the ancient benevolent persons . . . was neither to be delighted in things nor to feel sorry for themselves. At the loftiness of [imperial] temples and halls, they worried for their people, in the remoteness of rivers and lakes they worried for their ruler. Hence entering [the court], they worried; and leaving it, also worried: so when did they enjoy? It must be said: they were the first to worry the worries of All under Heaven, and the last to enjoy its joys. Oh Without these persons, where could I find my place?

– Fan Zongyan 989-1052

Those idealistic shi, always longing for a job at court and always worried about the common people when they get there.

Of course, in the Warring States, they were also free agents looking to benefit themselves, as this story from Zhanguoce shows.

West Chou opens the sluices and Su-tzu takes fees from both sides

East Chou wished to sow its land to rice but West Chou would not open the river sluices. Chou of the east was troubled over this but Su-tzu spoke to its ruler and begged permission to treat with West Chou for water.

He arrived in Chou of the west and spoke to its ruler: ‘My lord’s plans are faulty; by withholding water from East Chou now he is making her wealthy. Its citizens have all sown to dry grain and no other! If my lord would really do them harm he should open the sluices immediately and injure their seeds. With the sluices opened East Chou must replant to rice. Then when you deny them the waters they must come to West Chou as suppliants and receive their orders from your majesty!’

The king agreed and released the waters and Su-tzu received the gold of both countries.

From Zhanguoce 戰國策 Crump 24

Pines spends a good deal of time on another story from Zhanguoce that works really well as a handout to students for us to read and discuss in class and look at what a persuasion is and what the ruler-minister relation was. As I don’t think this is enough to be a copyright violation, I post the handout here for your (and my) future teaching convenience.


Did Chinese women go to opium dens?

Since someone asked me if Qing women went to opium dens, I thought I would answer and put up some of my evidence.

Short answer – I don’t think so, at least as customers. Certainly in the Republic, when they started registering opium “addicts” only a very small number of women registered (although there seem to have been women registered everywhere) In Qing pictures, like the ones below, opium smoking places seem to be male spaces, although we do get a picture of a wife showing up at one looking for her husband. There seem to be female attendants/possible prostitutes smoking with men in the classier place. I also include the picture of Mr. Conspicuous Consumption, which students always like.

These are all from Dianshizhai huabao. Sorry they are reversed. I think I took these from the transparencies I used to use before Powerpoint