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By Kate Merkel-Hess

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping’s visit to the US took him across the country, from Washington, DC, to Los Angeles (where, sadly, despite spending some time with a sartorially-challenged David Beckham, he did not show off his soccer skills, as he did in the subsequent Irish leg of his trip):

But it wasn’t the visits to the coasts that dominated human interest stories on Xi Jinping’s trip, but the days in the middle, when he spent a little time in Iowa. Xi first visited Iowa in 1985, when he was an official in Hebei province, and this trip was a triumphant if low-key return.

I grew up in Iowa—as a fifth-generation Iowan—and so I was particularly interested to see this rare juxtaposition of China and Iowa in the national media. And the coverage was fascinating, characterized by a dismissive tone (such as The Atlantic’s David A. Graham, who wrote of the Iowa visit: “Apparently would-be Chinese leaders have to go through the same somewhat humiliating corn-country rituals as would-be American presidents before they can take the reins of power”) that seemed to overlook that China is now the largest market for U.S. agricultural products.

In China, where over the past 25 years a growing wealth gap between city and countryside has become a yawning chasm, where farmers barely manage to turn a profit, and where rural corruption and corresponding unrest are a persistent concern, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao have made rural modernization a central part of the government’s policy and rhetoric. “Corn-country” problems are foundational concerns for the top levels of Chinese government, whether those problems are in China or the US.

Nevertheless, the story of China’s future president in Iowa—considered a quaint Americana setting for most people in the US—was ready-made for media (as Xi certainly knew). Here are a few of the stories that highlight not just the heartland setting but the complications of the Iowa-China story.

1. NPR did some solid coverage of Xi’s visit, including this piece, which gives an overview of Xi’s 1985 stay. If you can’t get enough, here’s one from after the visit, that discusses the Tibetan protestors who were present at Xi’s stops throughout the US and also details of the gala dinner in Iowa. (Weekend Edition, meanwhile, did a story on Xi’s wife, the singer Peng Liyuan.)

2. Des Moines Register writer Kyle Munson gathered together a series of anecdotes from Xi’s visit that didn’t make it into news stories, but it was this juxtaposition that highlighted Iowa’s two conflicting recent moments in the national media: “People kept remarking on the odd contrast: One month we see caucus-crazed Republicans scurrying around Iowa railing against President Barack Obama’s socialist regime. The next month arguably the world’s top Communist becomes the toast of conservative business and political circles.”

Munson was also interviewed on Talk of the Nation about Xi’s visit.

3. “Xi’s Iowa Dinner Serves Porkfest With Side of Dietary Nightmare,” Bloomberg (h/t China Digital Times): Banquets are a big deal in China and food—its quality and quantity—matters. So it was surprising to me that the journalists who wrote this piece chose to emphasize the expansive nature of the official dinner for Xi in Iowa (tying it to Iowa’s obesity epidemic). The nutritionist they interviewed said, “It’s a lot to have appetizers, two courses, dessert, soda, wine and beer.” My reaction? That is not nearly enough food.

Also, it’s worth noting that they served an edamame-and-corn salad not only as a marriage of “Asian” soybeans and Iowan corn, but also because, while corn is Iowa’s number one crop, soybeans are second.

In fact, one of the important bits of business conducted during Xi’s trip was a $4.3 billion agreement signed by Chinese officials—to purchase 8 million tons of soybeans from the U.S.

4. The New York Times ran a piece that explored Iowans’ responses to the visit, including their urges to make a buck. Here’s an excerpt:

And with reporters and cameras swarming in town—the Chinese news media were especially keen to get shots of the various houses and bedrooms where Mr. Xi stayed—Muscatine’s moment in the spotlight, many residents said, was not to be squandered. It is the sort of rural wisdom that Mark Twain—a local hero who lived briefly here on the banks of the Mississippi River and wrote for The Muscatine Journal in the 1850s—might well have praised or parodied: When opportunity knocks, shake it by the lapels until the coins fall out.

“We’ve displayed to this world leader our work ethic, No. 1, and our value for friendship; that’s No. 2,” Mayor DeWayne M. Hopkins said in an interview at City Hall. “If that message can be disseminated into the rest of the United States in encouragement for people to be interested in Muscatine and perhaps relocate here—and I mean people all the way from households up to retail and manufacturing—then that’s a plus.”

At the Long John Silver’s fast-food restaurant, the sign out front said, “Welcome back to Muscatine Xi Jinping” on one side, and on the other, “Original menu available, fish sandwich 2 for $3.”

Inside, the general manager, Michelle Cacho, said that good buzz was good business. “It’s kind of propaganda, but if it helps folks in Iowa we might as well roll out the red carpet,” she said.

Other residents said they believed the compliment that Mr. Xi paid the town by coming back was real, and that residents should be honored.

“He could go to Nebraska, or anyplace else in heartland America, but he chose to come back here, which shows well for Muscatine,” said Dennis Figg, 62, who had stopped in at the Phillips 66 gas station on the edge of downtown to visit with a friend and buy some chewing tobacco.

5. The Wall Street Journal ran a series of short videos about Xi’s trip that provide glimpses of footage from Iowa:

By Kate Merkel-Hess

Several years ago, I gave a talk on my research to a community group. My first slide included the words “Republican China” and as I waited to begin I heard a woman in the front row lean over and whisper to her neighbor, “I had no idea they have Republicans in China too!”

At this time of bruising primary battles, though, the China that the Republicans have seems more relevant—as China, imagined and real, has played a recurring role in the raucous Republican primaries. Here’s a rundown of some of the ways China has popped up on the campaign trail in recent months:

The Manchurian Candidate
He’s out of the race now, but few China buffs are unaware of the Huntsman-China connection and the many jabs and jokes it spawned. The most infamous is the video created by a group of Ron Paul supporters that intercuts clips of Jon Huntsman speaking Chinese with nasty rhetorical questions about his patriotism and the parentage of his adopted daughters.

Huntsman, who learned to speak Chinese on his Mormon mission in Taiwan and is the former US ambassador to China, was widely panned for speaking Mandarin in the January 7th Republican debate. In an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” former RNC chair Michael Steele said “I thought he was ordering takeout.” Jon Stewart mocked Huntsman and the racist backlash in this clip from the Daily Show (jump to 5:00; and be forewarned: the pronunciation you are about to hear is painful in the extreme):

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Indecision 2012 – New Hampshire Primary Results
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook

Meanwhile, “The Relevant Organs” on Twitter (a feed that pretends to be an official PRC mouthpiece) tweeted:

Huntsman, already old news after last week’s withdrawal from the race, is not the only candidate who opponents have attempted to discredit by tying him closely to China. In the final days before the South Caroline primary, one of Romney’s Super PACs set up robocalls that accused Gingrich of supporting funding that, via the UN, paid for “China’s brutal one-child policy.”

China Policy
China has more often been bogeyman than policy debate subject for the Republican candidates, but even in regards to the latter, the China “policies” that have been floated center on well-worn debates over trade and currency, as when Bloomberg reported that Mitt Romney

already knows what he would do on his first day in the Oval Office: crack down on Chinese “cheating” on trade. Romney vows to designate China a “currency manipulator” and impose duties on its imports if the yuan isn’t allowed to float freely.

Even while locals noted that, “We can’t be protectionist; look at who our biggest employers are.”

China came up in the last South Carolina debate as well, when CNN moderator John King asked Rick Santorum how he would bring Apple Computer jobs back (from China) to the US. Santorum’s answer focused on cutting taxes at home. Santorum’s anodyne answer contrasts with economic saber-rattling in debates last fall, as when Santorum declared, “I want to beat China. I want to go to war with China and make America the most attractive place in the world to do business.”

In contrast, Ron Paul has insisted that “we can’t go looking for scapegoats, we can’t blame China” for economic problems at home, noting that China is increasing its influence through investment in other countries, while, he argues, the US has downgraded its influence through foreign military intervention—one of his major campaign themes (jump to 3:20).

China as Analogy
Beyond China realities and policies is China as analogy—what the US could become, given x or y. For instance, this video (also created by Ron Paul supporters, not the campaign) uses an excerpt in which Paul likens American occupation of foreign countries to an imagined Chinese occupation of Texas in order to drive home his views on the provocative nature of American presence abroad.

Meanwhile, Niall Ferguson has called Romney the “technocrat candidate,” drawing comparisons to Chinese political leaders: “These days, the world headquarters of technocracy is arguably in Beijing, where China’s leadership is chosen through a wholly opaque process of inter-apparatchik machination.”

China policy is unlikely to be a deciding issue in this fall’s election, as the state of the economy and other domestic issues loom large. But if the Republican primary soundbites demonstrate anything more broadly, it is that China—whether as real policy or as recognizable stand-in for autocracy, threat, or other civic depredations—is part of America’s political shorthand.

By Kate Merkel-Hess

R. Po-chia Hsia, A Jesuit in the Forbidden City: Matteo Ricci, 1552-1610, Oxford UP, 2010.

In our globe-trotting age, the stories of early circumnavigators seem to foretell the global interconnectedness to come. Among these early modern travelers, no Western figure is so important to China as Matteo Ricci. The Italian Jesuit was a key figure in the establishment of the China Mission, advised a Chinese Emperor (Wanli), and, with his writings about Confucianism and Christianity, set the stage for the later Chinese Rites Controversy.

In his new biography of Ricci, European historian (and my colleague at Penn State) Ronnie Hsia traces Ricci’s movement from birth in the little Italian town of Macerata to death in Beijing. Along the way, Ricci (and Hsia) pass through Rome, Lisbon, Macau, Nanchang, Nanjing, and many places in between. While Hsia (as he mentions below) chose to follow a conventional biographical format in his investigation of Ricci’s life, part of what makes the book unusual is Hsia’s comfort with both the European and Chinese sides of the story—creating a narrative that thus moves easily through Ricci’s early modern world (more easily than did Ricci himself, as it turns out).

The result is a story of Ricci that will appeal to scholars—and the generally curious—of both Europe and Asia, using Ricci as a lens to examine social and cultural issues important to scholars of both regions.

Kate Merkel-Hess: What has it been like to come to this topic as a scholar of European history who also knows Chinese? How has that shaped your understanding of Matteo Ricci and the way you told his story?

Ronnie Hsia: Since I grew up in Hong Kong and went to a Catholic school (not the famous Wah Yen College run by Irish Jesuits but the Rosary Hill School directed by Spanish Dominicans), I had first-hand experience of western missionaries in a Chinese setting. Moreover, Portuguese Macao was a short boat-ride away, and that enclave from the past had always inspired in me romantic and nostalgic imaginations. While at college, I had a strong interest in Chinese history as well, although I chose eventually early modern Europe as my major research field in graduate school. In many ways, it is a natural intellectual transition from studying the history of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and the maritime expansion of Europe to global history. I had known all along that someday I would like to explore this early period of Sino-western history in a serious way. Having learned the necessary European languages along the way over the decades completed my psychological preparations for returning to this topic.

M-H: After your book went into production, China Heritage Quarterly produced an issue on Ricci — alongside your book pointing to the continued interest by scholars and readers in Ricci. What do you think of the state of “Ricci studies”?

Hsia: Ricci is a hero to Italians for obvious reasons: he represented an alternative model of contact between Europe and the world, one of cultural adaptation and dialogue, not colonial conquest and imperial domination. Ricci remains a hero to the Chinese because he has always been the symbol of cultural exchange on an equal footing, and a remainder of a better age, when China was not chafing under foreign gunboats, arrogant diplomats, and overbearing missionaries. Ricci embodies the ideal missionary for the Catholic Church for again obvious reasons. All these factors have contributed to the longevity of interest in Ricci in today’s global world, although my book has reflected on the different uses of the Riccian legacy in the last hundred years. What I have tried to do in this biography is to reconstruct the life of a remarkable individual by situating him squarely in his own historical context. And since I began this project with two decades of research in the religious and cultural history of early modern Europe, I did not labor under the weight of Ricci’s myth. I tried to tell the story of Ricci as a lived life, one in interaction with a multitude of individuals, Europeans and Chinese, and I have made no claims on him as a symbol.

Plaque on the outside of the house where Matteo Ricci was born in Macerata, Italy

M-H: In the epilogue to the book, you describe earlier scholarly attempts to chronicle Ricci’s life and analyze his role in introducing China to Christianity. You point to Jonathan Spence’s work, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, as an “irresistible narrative” of the “heroic” Ricci. How does your book differ from Spence’s in approach but also in its interpretation of Ricci’s role as cultural mediator?

Hsia: Spence identifies with Ricci in his book. Like Ricci, he is a European who has succumbed to the charms of China and became fascinated by the refined aspects of her culture. In The Memory Palace, Spence is moving around and seeing Ming China through the eyes of Ricci, and trying to live in his head. For me, the object of desire, for knowledge and understanding, is less China than Europe, or more specifically the life of Ricci. And for this reason, I chose the more conventional format of a full biography instead of a particular cultural angle.

M-H: You took many of the photos throughout the book — of various places where Ricci lived and travelled. What was it like to follow Ricci’s footsteps? How did it inform or change your understanding of him and his world? Were there any stories or photos that didn’t make it into the book?

Hsia: This past summer, in commemoration of the 450th anniversary of Ricci’s death, a group of young Chinese scholars retraced his route. They started out from Macao, went to Guangzhou and Zhaoqing before setting out for Shaoguan, Nanchang, Nanjing, and Beijing. They trekked, took buses and trains. I wish I could have joined them. As for myself, my visits to Ricci sites spread over several years and separate trips. On the first, I visited Zhaoqing in Guangdong, a lovely provincial town where Ricci spent the first five miserable years of his long career in China. At the Red Palace, where the Prince of Gui ascended the throne as the last Emperor of the Southern Ming, there was a small Ricci exhibit. Among the few objects of moderate interest were contemporary water-color paintings by a Chinese artist, who rendered the scene of Ricci’s arrival and audience with the local magistrates. With curly flowing blond hair, in a long white cassock, a huge crucifix around his neck, Ricci, in this representation, looks more like Jesus from the 1960s than a Jesuit in the 1580s. I know it is a professional deformation, but as a historian I was inwardly screaming: that was not the way he looked! There was no functionary around the small museum to lodge a complaint; and since I was the only visitor in any case, I could not vent my frustration by engaging my fellow visitors in a campaign of rectification.

The second visit, to Shaoguan (Shaozhou in the 16th century) and Nanxiong, was memorable in exploring yet another place where Ricci spent a good number of years (six) before he became famous. Serendipity had it that my colleague and good friend from Penn State, On-cho Ng, was also in Hong Kong. And thus we undertook a short trip down historical memory, visiting Nanhua monastery, walking along the stone-paved Meilin Way (constructed in the Tang dynasty), and rushing up the ridge at the Meilin Pass. As a good photographer, On-cho lent his eye and equipment, which have added beautiful visual evidence to Ricci’s presence in the book.

Ricci's childhood home in Macerata

My third visit to Ricci’s home town of Macerata seemed like coming home. Ricci left Macerata as a young man of 18 and never returned. There are many sad letters which he sent to his father and brother Antonio, especially one written when he learned of the death of his grand-mother. It was good to see his name honored in the home town he had left and to reflect on his life: a modern life of transnational and multi-cultural crossings. Unlike him, our modern lives permit us some measure of return. This was my personal homage to Ricci.

There were of course other trips to Nanjing, Beijing, Lisbon, and Rome. I wish to mention only one visit to the Roman Jesuit Archive. I had an appointment with my friend, Father Antoni Uçerler, then of the Jesuit Historical Institute and now of Oxford University. Upon arriving in Rome, I went to the Curia of the Society, which is on a small street just behind St. Peter’s Square. The old priest manning the porter’s lodge said to me, in Italian: “Go inside and wait, father, it is cool in the lobby.” That was indeed a compliment: just as the mandarins praised Ricci for behaving like a Chinese, I was mistaken for a Jesuit. He buzzed the door and I walked in, thrilled in the knowledge that, like Ricci, who had entered China to compel the Chinese to exit with him as converts, I was walking into the heart of the archive to compel Ricci to exit with me in memory and words.

China Beat is going to be taking a two-week break (one key person is already away, in fact, which is why I’m doing the announcement for CB editor Maura Cunningham, just for old times’ sake). In all the time that you won’t be reading China Beat, here are a few suggestions for other things to take a gander at.

1. Internet censorship in China remains a favorite media topic, with, for instance, this recent Newsweek piece that asks “Is Xinhua the Future of Journalism?” With all the focus on China’s internet limitations, this piece, which examines the limitations on online speech in the US and Europe, caught our eye for its comparative use of “Chinese-style web censorship” as shorthand for the worst sort of speech crackdowns.

2.  Filed under “Sex and the City” (that little bit of lingo has lost a lot of its remaining luster this summer, but we’ll leave it to Sufei to continue to save the brand): first, Howard French writes on the increasing visibility of gay couples in Shanghai; then Lisa Movius (quoting scholar and CB contributor James Farrer) on Chinese women becoming increasingly selective about mates.

3. Upbeat and downbeat Shanghai: Shanghaiist features photos from their contributor, photog Sue Anne Tay, on demolition and construction in Shanghai, and this Financial Times slide show (you must register–for free–to view it).

4. Evan Osnos on two very different sort of books: Frank Dikötter’s new book on the Great Leap famine, Mao’s Great Famine, (see also Jonathan Fenby’s review of it at The Guardian) and Paul French and Matthew Crabbe’s Fat China.

5. Ian Johnson’s review essay at NYRB of recent books that examine the CCP’s ruling echelon and its future (including Richard McGregor’s The Party, David Shambaugh’s China’s Communist Party, and Rick Baum’s China Watcher). The full text is only available to subscribers (or those with institutional subscriptions), but you can read the first few paragraphs here.

6. At East Asia Forum, Hugh White ponders the ramifications for the Pacific world of a US-China showdown for #1 superpower status.

We’ll be back at the end of September, refreshed and with lots of new links to share.

By Kate Merkel-Hess

Moving across the country (from Irvine, California to State College, Pennsylvania) meant that most of my books—even the new ones—spent the summer packed in boxes. But alongside a rapid inhalation of all three Stieg Larsson novels, I still did a little China reading. Here, a few recommendations.

• Mao’s Last Dancer, by Li Cunxin.

This is a 2003 book that has been re-released (I found it on a “summer paperbacks” table at a Barnes & Noble in Richmond, Virginia) because of a 2009 movie based on it. The autobiography (though the subtitle is “based on a true story,” it is presented throughout as an autobiography with photos, etc. to document Li’s life) tells the story of Li Cunxin from birth through his early 80s defection in Texas. One of seven boys from a peasant family in Shandong, Li was plucked out of his elementary school and sent to study ballet at the Beijing Dance Academy. With Jiang Qing as patron to the academy, politics is an important theme in Li’s account, but unlike the “scar literature” that has characterized our first-person accounts of the 1960s and 1970s, Li’s story is notable for its emphasis on everyday emotion and life. The most affecting part of the book are the early chapters, most of which take place at the height of the Cultural Revolution, but which focus on Li’s rough-and-tumble life in a peasant household filled with brothers, aunts, uncles, and a beloved grandmother.  Li’s memories of the warmth and humor of living in the heart of a big extended family is tinged by the nostalgia of someone forced to leave it—as Li did, first to study in Beijing and then when, as a visiting artist in Houston, he refused to return to China. Li emphasizes in his choice his desire for artistic freedom, but he also chafed at the ideological purity that the Communist Party insisted on. Like so many others of his generation (only a few years older than the college students who took to the streets in 1989), it was not grand politics that corrupted Li’s faith in the Party, but its continual meddling in romance, intellectual passions, and personal expression. Though I couldn’t get my hands on the film (it hasn’t been released on DVD yet), there are trailers available at YouTube:

• Sources in Chinese History: Diverse Perspectives from 1644 to the Present, by David Atwill and Yurong Atwill.

I have been considering course readings for my spring courses, and for my course on modern China this new volume (by two of my colleagues at Penn State) went to the top of the list. The reader covers the Qing dynasty to the present, but the majority of the documents come from the 19th and 20th centuries (in fact, fully two-thirds of the book is made up of documents from post-Qing China). These documents include both requisite stand-bys (Lin Zexu’s Opium War edict, Qiu Jin’s address to the women of China) and a few illuminating choices that update the primary document repertoire for modern China courses, such as the script for a popular comedy sketch about the one-child policy, a report on Fudan University changing its policies on student sexual activity, and a short selection from Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby (see a full table of contents here).

• 1688: A Global History, by John E. Wills, Jr.

This is neither a new book (published in 2001) nor an explicitly China-focused one, but as written by the eminent China historian Jack Wills naturally includes a great deal of China stories. Perhaps even more important, as other world history books by China scholars have done (Great Divergence, China Transformed), 1688 de-centers Europe without in turn privileging another part of the world. 1688 is enormously readable, moving across a variety of themes that Wills identifies as crucial to this year and the broader period, from silver and the trade networks it inspired to utopian dreams on various frontiers. Like #2 above, this is a book I will be assigning for a course in the spring (World History 1500-present), and one of the things I thought serendipitous was 1688’s short section on William Penn—a nice hook for my majority Pennsylvanian students.

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