Watching the China Watchers

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By Marta Cooper

Shanghai is a city where one has to work particularly hard to find simple, unadulterated culture. So, when the blue moon opportunity comes to bask in it for two weeks, I do just that. Most recently, that’s meant heading to the sophisticated Glamour Bar, overlooking the curve of the Bund and the sci-fi lights of Pudong, which has been hosting the 2010 Shanghai International Literary Festival (SILF) this month. The venue has been brimming with excitement, with authors from County Cork to Manila sharing their work with the spoiled audience.

On a mild Saturday, hot off the heels of Paul French’s swim through the depths of decadent and dirty Shanghai, two more authors took us back in time.

In the morning, historian Andrew Field launched his new book, Shanghai’s Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919-1954. Plunging into an untapped reservoir of Chinese sources, government documents, novels and magazines, Field described a time when cabaret and ballroom dancehalls decorated old Shanghai.

Thanks to the pockets of Westerners in Shanghai’s concessionary areas, the city had its own edition of the Roaring Twenties. Shanghai’s dancehalls were awash with American musicians blending jazz beats and riffs with Chinese folk, taxi dancers being paid to drink, dance and converse with men, and local girls from a variety of class backgrounds cruising the town in 3-inch heels. It even seemed from his presentation that the glamorous and decadent cabaret halls, adorned in nickel, crystal and marble with electric lights, sometimes echoed more Saturday Night Fever than Paris of the Orient.

Dancing the cha-cha and Charleston were not only Shanghai’s answer to flappers, but also the city’s gangsters, who often used the venues for their own rackets. The scandalous underworld of sexual dancing and criminal culture unsettled the then-ruling KMT (Nationalist Party), which banned cabarets in 1927 but failed to outlaw the dancing halls and ballrooms that were conveniently situated in the concessionary areas, and therefore under foreign control.

What Field reminded us of is that the local Shanghainese quickly jumped on to the cabaret bandwagon and eventually “elbowed the foreigners off the dancefloor.” Despite the fact that the dancing was controversial in terms of Confucian cultural values, these venues sprung up during an enlightened era in which the May 4th Movement had set the stage for a context of change. What was initially a puzzling development for the locals was soon appropriated as a liberating transgression (however, when asked what the Chinese thought of this ballroom culture, Field simply responded: “read the book!”).

Field wrapped up by drawing parallels between the then and now. Even without the 1920s’ glamour, Shanghai’s nightlife is still one the city’s greatest assets: the club scene is alive and well, and bars of both the sophisticated and seedy varieties are not difficult to come by. For Field, the past still echoes through the amplifiers.

In the afternoon, 80-year-old (or, going on 25) Tess Johnston took us on a more personal journey. Having spent forty plus years abroad in the US Foreign Service, Johnston descended on Shanghai in the early 1980s. She called the city she found a combination of 1938 Warsaw and Calcutta: “grubby, grey and crumbling…but all entirely intact,” she said. She heralded the Bund, her most cherished Shanghai sight, as “a scruffy showcase of Western architecture, but wonderful.”

Tess Johnston

For the next hour, Johnston regaled us with tales of the mystique of the French Concession, foreigners-only markets in old warehouses, not wasting one bite of a decadent Snickers bar that had already been half-eaten by rats, and struggling to find an available dish on the Western menu at the Park Hotel. In between her escapades, Johnston managed to write 25 books, including several on Western architecture and the life of an expat in old China.

Johnston’s words were infused with nostalgia, but not for the glamorous Paris of the East that Field had described. Instead, Johnson yearned for simpler times: “there was no glitz or lust for money,” she said of 1980s Shanghai.

The city’s superficial reality certainly overshadows its creative and immaterial vibes. For a jazz enthusiast spoiled by London’s delicious culture, I arrived here with an immature pang for the Paris of the Orient I never experienced.

However, it is useless to criticise the materialistic currents running through the city’s nouveau riche. As Johnston affirmed, “who could begrudge China these new opportunities? The Shanghainese are taking this city into the twenty-first century with a vengeance.”

Marta Cooper is a British-Italian writer and student based in Shanghai. She currently writes for Shanghaiist and Global Voices Online, and keeps a blog titled …in Shanghai.

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China Watcher coverRichard Baum, professor of political science at UCLA, has been engaged with China for over four decades as a scholar, analyst, commentator, and author. This month, he publishes China Watcher: Confessions of a Peking Tom (University of Washington Press) — a genre-bending book in which Baum blends elements of memoir with a history of the country from the 1960s to the present. Baum is also the founder and moderator of Chinapol, an invitation-only internet forum in which China specialists come together and share their thoughts. Since its founding in 1995, Chinapol has grown into a dynamic online community frequented by many of the world’s leading China-focused academics and journalists, as well as people with related interests from the worlds of policy and business. In this excerpt, Baum explains how Chinapol came into being and traces the way it has developed — and the challenges it has faced — over the past 15 years.

By Richard Baum

In the winter of 1994 I moved to Yokohama, Japan, to direct a semester-long U.C. Education Abroad Program (EAP) curriculum on Peace and Development Studies at Meiji Gakuin University. Because all electronic communications in Japan were controlled by the government’s telecomm monopoly, NHK, Internet access was extremely expensive, and my Compuserve subscription was costing me a small fortune —over US$250 each month — in connection charges. Since I was in more-or-less regular e-mail contact with a number of other China scholars in various countries, I decided to economize on my on-line connection charges by periodically sending group e-mailings to several recipients at a time, on subjects relating to Chinese politics. My monthly telecomm bills quickly dropped by 70 percent.

By the time I returned to Los Angeles in the late summer of 1994 there were twenty-one China watchers on my group recipient list; by March of 1995 the list had grown to thirty-one, including a handful of international journalists residing in China. At that point I decided to set up a dedicated on-line SIG (special interest group) exclusively for specialists working on contemporary Chinese politics. The idea was to create an interactive electronic forum where scholars, journalists, diplomats, and other China experts could exchange information, ideas and insights about current events and developments. I sent out a request to each of the thirty-one people on my group e-mail list, inviting them to take part in the new forum and asking them to provide the names and addresses of other China watchers who might be interested in participating. Needing an eight-letter alias for the group in order to conform to the standard DOS file-naming protocol, I called the group “Chinapol.” Here is the letter I sent out:

Date: Wed, 15 Mar 95 08:45:00 PST
Subject: creating a Chinese politics forum

Dear friends and colleagues:

I would like to establish an on-line e-mail forum to facilitate rapid, 
informal communication among Internet-linked specialists in contemporary Chinese politics, economics, and related fields. Insofar as my personal list of e-mail addresses is rather limited, I would like to invite you to help me expand my mailing list. For the moment, I would like to limit the group (which I have called “Chinapol”) to academics, Government analysts, and journalists who specialize in contemporary Chinese affairs. It may also be possible later to add a few advanced graduate students, people in the private sector, and others on an individual basis. . . .

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By Ross Terrill

Terrill Mao cover 1When Mao died I wrote: “China does not have, and does not need, a real successor to the bold and complex Mao. Now the revolution is made, another Mao would be as unsuitable as a sculptor on an assembly line”  (Asian Wall Street Journal, 9/10/76). I ended the first edition of my biography of Mao in 1980 with the expectation: “‘Raise High the Banner of Mao Zedong’s Thought,’ cry official voices now that Mao is safely in his crystal box. Up it goes higher and higher, until no one can read what is written on its receding crimson threads” (Mao, Harper & Row, 1980, p. 433). For eight years after its American publication and editions in six foreign languages, Mao was never mentioned by the Chinese press. In 1981, when a delegation of Chinese publishers came to New York and my publishers showed them the book, the Chinese fingered it gingerly like a teetotaler shown a bottle of whiskey. The book was well received and I thought that was the end of my attention to Mao; I turned to a study of his widow (Madame Mao, Morrow, 1984). But I was wrong about Mao’s life after death.

In 1981, after five years of deafening silence about Mao, the CCP reassessed him in its “Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party.” Each major nation that experienced dictatorship in the 20th century emerged in its own way from the trauma. Japan, Germany, Italy, even Russia departed sharply from systems that brought war and/or repression. By contrast, China was ambiguous about Mao. Although Mao’s portrait and tomb still dominate Tiananmen Square, Mao himself has floated fairly smoothly into an a-political zone. One must give some credit to the 1981 Resolution for this delicate, if incomplete, evolution.

I said of the Resolution that if the Chinese leadership “delivers on its promises to modernize, and if the growing aspirations of the one billion Chinese people for a higher standard of living begin to be significantly met, the current Delphic dissection of Mao [in the Resolution] may well solidify into history’s verdict on him” (Newsday, 7/22/81). This seems to be happening so far.

But, surprisingly, there occurred a revival in China of Mao studies. Its intellectual kernel was fresh research on Mao undertaken during the 1980s. As a result of a loosened ideological straitjacket, some formerly “banned” aspects of Mao could be investigated. It turned out that the 1981 Resolution gave a green light to work on Mao’s life. As former Mao assistant Li Rui remarked, the Resolution “was not the end but the beginning of research on Mao Zedong” (Li Rui in Xiao Yanzhong, ed, Wannian Mao Zedong, p. 2). Memoirs by military figures and Mao staff members, biographical studies of senior figures, and selective issue of Party documents added to the knowledge of Mao’s actions and words.

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A reminder to our readers in Southern California that Peter Hessler will be in conversation with Ken Pomeranz at UC Irvine tomorrow, and the event is free and open to the public.

A schedule of the remainder of Hessler’s Country Driving book tour is available here; if you’re unable to see him speak in person, check out this lengthy discussion between Hessler and Tom Ashbrook of WBUR’s “On Point” radio program. Elizabeth Lynch of China Law and Policy blog also interviewed Hessler recently, and full audio is available here. An excerpt from her interview can be read at The Huffington Post.

We’ve reviewed Country Driving, and have been reading what others think of the book as well. Reviews are appearing in a variety of places: just a few we’ve seen are at Urbanatomy, The Boston Globe, and the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune.

One interesting Country Driving-related web post we’ve come across lately deals with the Chinese translation of an article that Jeff Wasserstrom published in Time, in which he discusses Hessler’s new book. When translated for the Chinese press, however, some parts of the essay were omitted — in particular, the entire section dealing with Country Driving. Bruce Humes has gone through Wasserstrom’s piece and shown what didn’t make the cut, which you can see for yourself at his blog.

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

While trying to keep up with the latest twists and turns of U.S.-China relations, something I recently wrote about for Time magazine’s Asian edition, I learned that a new edition of a book on the topic that I’ve learned a lot from, and also assigned in a recent undergraduate class, is about to come out from Columbia University Press. The book is Warren I. Cohen’s America’s Response to China: A History of Sino-American Relations, and this will be its fifth edition. Given the current interest in interactions and tensions between Washington and Beijing, I decided to ask Cohen (whose name should be familiar to many readers of this blog due to his books, his reviews and commentaries at, as well as perhaps his contribution to a past China Beat  feature on “Presidential Reading Recommendations” ) a few questions about this new edition—and previous incarnations of the volume.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: To begin with a brief history of the book, can you fill our readers in on when exactly you wrote the first edition and tell us some things about the state of U.S.-China relations was at the time?

Warren I. Cohen: I wrote the first edition 1969-70 while on sabbatical in Japan. It was published just before Kissinger’s famous trip to Beijing. I had anticipated a change in policy because of the resumption of ambassadorial talks, easing of trade and travel restrictions, and Nixon’s December 1970 remark that we had to have relations with Communist China, but the book was nonetheless dated weeks after it appeared.

JW: Looking back at the four times you revised it, what would you say was the revision that required the most dramatic updating?

WIC: Two things: 1) most obviously the rise of China to great power status. The last chapter of the new edition is titled “America in the Age of Chinese Power.” 2) the emergence of democracy in Taiwan. I had lived there 1964-1966 and grew very hostile to the regime there. I never expected the political changes that came in the 1980s and had no qualms about the island reverting to Beijing’s rule. I had to change my approach to the Taiwan issue, especially after the Tiananmen massacres.

JW: Obviously, if the new edition is about to hit bookstores, you must have finalized the new material in it some months ago. Do you feel good about the way you framed the current state of relations between the two countries, or is there anything you wish you could have known was going to happen between the time it went to proofs and today?

WIC:  Again, I anticipated the direction the Obama administration would take. I’ve known Kurt Campbell, Jeff Bader, Derek Mitchell, for many years—and had a chance to talk about policy toward China and Taiwan with Secretary Clinton a couple of years ago. I also anticipated the stiffening of China’s resistance to American pressures—and indicated my fear there was little we could do about it—and my concern that human rights issues might not get adequate attention.

JW: Is there any choice passage from a new part of the latest edition, whether in a “Preface” or “Epilogue,” that you’d be willing to share with us as a teaser? Or perhaps a section from an earlier edition that still seems surprisingly up-to-date in light of recent developments?

WIC: Here are the concluding lines of the new edition:  “Today, much as in the time of Theodore Roosevelt, American leaders want—and American interests require—a peaceful, prosperous, open, responsible, and cooperative China. The chances of China realizing these hopes are reasonably good, given the extent of shared interests and what are likely to be the primarily domestic concerns of both nations in the near term. Americans who study and work on Chinese-American affairs would also like to see a democratic and friendly China. They are not likely to see either in the foreseeable future. And in the early years of the new millennium most Americans are not so sure that a strong China is in their nation’s interest.”

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