June 2008

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With “Ping Pong Diplomacy” back in the news recently, thanks to a rematch between Chinese and American table tennis players that made headlines on both sides of the Pacific, China Beat asked historian Xu Guoqi to write a short piece for us reflecting on the topic. As a specialist in Chinese international relations and the author of a new book that places the Beijing Games into historical perspective, he seemed an ideal person to weigh in on this subject.

By Xu Guoqi

2008 is China’s Olympic year, which means that the world is watching that country through the lens of both sports and politics. However, this is not the first time China has attracted global attention because of sports. The 1971-1972 Ping Pong diplomacy that Mao Zedong played with the Americans had more serious consequences than this year’s Beijing Olympic Games, since the result of the Ping Pong friendship games fundamentally changed the international political scene and reshaped the world order.

Thirty-eight years later, however, when the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library celebrated the historical moment earlier this month by hosting an event called “American/Chinese Ping Pong Diplomacy: the rematch,” many people still didn’t know very much about the true story of what happened in the early 1970s or had forgotten parts of the tale that they once knew. In some cases, newspaper reports in very respectable periodicals even got some basic historical facts wrong. Two recent articles on the rematch, described below, are cases in points that illustrate a general pattern.

The first of these, published on June 13 in the Los Angeles Times and titled “Cold War-era Ping Pong foes meet for some back-and-forth,” includes several ideas that are debatable at best. For instance, the article says that “Ping Pong is to China what soccer is to Brazil, and Geliang is the Pele of Chinese Ping Pong.” The Chinese might be dominate players at Ping Pong but today’s Chinese share the same passion and obsession as the Brazilians for the “beautiful game,” namely soccer. And while Chinese men’s soccer teams have not won many international matches, the Chinese women’s soccer team has done very well in major tournaments and the Olympics. During the era of Ping Pong diplomacy, moreover, the “Pele” of Ping Pong was Zhuang Zedong not Liang Geliang (Geliang is his given name). Even today, more Chinese probably remember Zhuang than Liang.

These may seem only trivia issues, but a crucial fact is blurred in an article posted on the New York Times website on June 10. Titled “China and the U.S.: Ping Pong diplomacy, 38 years later,” it describes Zhou Enlai inviting the American Ping Pong team to visit China in spring 1917. However, Premier Zhou did not want to invite the Americans that year and recommended to Mao that this not be done. It was Mao who in the last minute vetoed Zhou’s recommendation and single-handedly decided to invite the team and thus started the famous Ping Pong diplomacy. In other words, Zhou might have gotten to serve as the happy and effective messenger, but Mao was the person who wrote the message. This article also got another smaller fact wrong. It claimed that the three-day tournament in the Nixon Library would include a match between two of the original players, Tim Boggan and Liang Geliang. It is true that Liang was an original player, but Boggan was not. In fact, Boggan went to Beijing in spring 1971 not as a player but as an official of the U.S. Table Tennis association.

These may seem like small points, but in a matter as historically significant as the opening of relations between two of the world’s great powers, the details do count. And as anyone who follows sports knows, in the realm of athletics little errors can quickly add up and become consequential. The same can be true with the history of international relations.

Xu Guoqi’s latest book, Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008, includes a detailed study of Ping Pong diplomacy.

By Charles W. Hayford

In the third lecture of the Chinese Vistas series, “American Dreams,” Jonathan Spence talked about American dreams of China and, more tantalizing, Chinese dreams of America. He sees a series of “paradoxes” from the American Revolution to the present which set Chinese and American dreams at odds.

In the question period, another paradox emerged, one between different uses of history. The lecture was broadcast from the Asia Society on Park Avenue in New York, where the initial questions came from Richard Holbrooke, President of the Asia Society and heavyweight diplomat, and Henry Kissinger, an even heavier weight (Spence had written about him, so it must have seemed strange). The questions asked if China had been more xenophobic than other countries, if industrialization would change Chinese mentalities, if China would be expansionist, and so on.

After responding to several questions, Spence started his answer to another by saying “I don’t know.” This was refreshing but perhaps it was also a tactful rebuke to the type of questions he was getting. Spence is not a present minded policy advisor, he is a public intellectual who writes about history to address questions of general meaning. Another Qing historian was recently asked what he told policy makers who sought his advice. He replied “as little as possible.” One of the few authentic lessons of history is that history does not offer “lessons,” much less predictions or tips on the horses, only stories of complications and confusion.

Of course, we might conclude, along with my Alan Baumler, my colleague at Frog in a Well, that Chinese History Sucks, but we could also just admit that historians are a feisty bunch and that they work in different ways.

Some historians use explicit theory to fit their material into patterns and compare it to other times and places. Theory works for them but tends to limit their audience to fellow academics. Other historians, including Spence, want to show us what is often called “the strangeness of the past.” Like poets, they give us the particular and the peculiar. Spence takes contemporary poetry seriously but his favored genre is biography, which by nature does not demand theoretical generalization and PhDs tend to avoid it.

Yet Spence’s work shows that writing history without explicit theory does not have to be mere antiquarianism nor do biographies of unrepresentative people have to be, in the phrase of a contemptuous scientist, “stamp collecting.”

Spence’s To Change China: Western Advisers in China, 1620-1960 (Little Brown, 1969) almost off-handedly set up a framework which we all still use. The biographical sketches, a seeming patchwork, start with the Jesuits, then tip toe through several Protestant missionaries, Michael Borodin, and Joseph Stilwell.

These “China helpers” certainly showed the “strangeness of the past” and Spence did not connect them to the Vietnam War, but he put his judgments clearly in the “Conclusions”: After a long cycle, China regained the right of “defining her own values and dreaming her own dreams without alien interference,” so the virulent anti-imperialist pronouncements of the 1960s were a “paradoxical combination of hostility and relief.” Westerners had thought that packaging technology and Western values together would change China. They were wrong.

The phrase “to change China” entered our vocabulary, but to my mind Spence’s most fruitful book on East-West perceptions is The Chan’s Great Continent: China in Western Minds (1998), originally a series of lectures. It’s a tour de force of insights yet there is scarcely a theoretical generalization in it, simply groupings of Western “sightings” of China. Like a good host at a party, without seeming to strain, Spence introduces us to any number of voluble guests from history and by his craft lets them tell their stories. Among his subjects was Henry Kissinger, whose memoirs portrayed Mao in the “grand exotic tradition of the Chinese emperor,” ascribing “enormous calculation and cunning.”

Which brings us back to the Reith Lectures and the series of paradoxes. Spence at one point confesses that he “jotted down” ideas for the paradoxes, and, to be honest, some of them seem forced. The initial paradox involves Americans on board the ship Empress of China who arrived in Canton in 1784. The British there apologized for the recent wars and offered their support: together, we’re unbeatable. On the other side, the Chinese government forbade the teaching of the Chinese language on pain of death (Chinese language teachers should have a prize in memory of Liu Yabian, who was executed in 1759 for that crime).

Spence inserts a fascinating little discussion of a problem in political science which frustrated the Chinese. In figuring out the nature of the American system they debated how to translate the word “president” – should it be “head man”? At one point baffled translators simply call him “huangdi,” or “emperor.”

The next paradox was that Protestant translations of the Bible sparked the Taiping Rebellion which the Christian powers then supported the imperial government in suppressing. Another was that sympathy for the Chinese Republic did not mean that Wilson’s call for self-determination was extended to Asia. Chinese who dreamt that their own world would be made safe for democracy felt betrayed by Versailles, a partial explanation for the bitterness and complexity of the 1920s radical revolution.

American missionaries and the YMCA brought a package of technical aid, education, science, and Christianity, but the Nationalist Party unbundled it and removed the democratic values. An even more bitter paradox was between Open Door paternalism and American refusal to confront Japanese aggression until the attack on Pearl Harbor.

These are some of the well turned vignettes, but they leave me wanting something richer. I’d like to have heard Spence take the whole four lectures to talk about any one of the topics. Then we’d have more gems like that fact that in the nineteenth century there were ninety different Chinese terms for “America.”

If Chinese had trouble fitting concepts such as “president” into Chinese, English lacked important words to fit what Westerners saw in China. In the second lecture Spence remarked on the usefulness of Pidgin, which, like chop suey, has been disrespected for fear that it’s not “authentic,” whatever that means, there was also a China Coast vocabulary. For instance, government office in England and North America was allotted by patronage or aristocratic inheritance, but China had no aristocracy, so office was given on merit as determined by examination. What word would translate guan? The British adopted “mandarin” from Malay, originally from the Sanskrit for “official.” Did there need to be a new word for “common laborer”? “Coolie” was taken from Hindi to fill the gap (it later made its way into Chinese).

I’d be willing to skip lunch to hear Spence talk about this and how he chose the word “dreams” for the title of this talk. Of course, dreams come up often in his writings, such as Hong Xiuquan’s dreams of his Heavenly Father in God’s Chinese Son : The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan (Norton 1996), and in the common Chinese view dreams reveal alternative realities. I can see why Spence passed over “images,” which is tired and misleading, even though many works used it creatively. The metaphor behind the word implies that China is just passively out there and impinges on our eyeballs and is interpreted by our brains. The process only goes one way. An image just sort of happens spontaneously, not like an analysis or interpretation or observation or representation or construction, which require thought.

In the end, the policy questions from Holbrooke and Kissinger miss Spence’s point. History is definitely (in another historians’ cliché) the search for a “usable past,” but not for answers to a quiz. No prognostications. When the United States and China wake up from their “American dreams,” the policy makers take charge, not historians. We can only hope that their eyes have been trained by history as they deal with the “strangeness of the present.”

Charles W. Hayford is Visiting Scholar, Department of History, Northwestern University, and Editor of the Journal of American-East Asian Relations.

One fascinating aspect of the KMT’s regaining political dominance in Taiwan is the reappearance of two forms of nationalism that have been central to that party’s political ideology, namely Greater China (大中華) and anti-Japanese resistance (抗日). Both have enjoyed a certain degree of legitimacy in the context of modern Chinese history, yet each carries its own risks as well.

The theme of Greater China found clear expression in President Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九’s inaugural address, which emphasized the idea that the residents of both China and Taiwan were part of a greater ”Chinese nation” (中華民族). It also seemed significant that Ma made no mention of Japan, as well as the issue of whether Taiwan (or the Republic of China, for that matter) is a sovereign state. From a diplomatic perspective, the skirting of such issues in order to enhance cross-Strait negotiations makes considerable sense, as can be seen in the successful conclusion of agreements on direct flights and tourism. However, as I noted in a previous blog, the question of who will benefit from these policies is unclear, and there are also concerns about the costs. One example is Ma’s agreeing to be addressed as ”Mr. Ma” when he meets China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) Chairman Chen Yunlin 陳雲林 later this year. While such compromises have a reasonable chance of furthering future ties between China and Taiwan, one cannot help but think of other leaders from the previous century who were willing to make all manner of sacrifices in the interest of ”peace in our time”.

Anti-Japanese sentiments made a dramatic comeback in Taiwan’s political arena during a diplomatic row with Japan that ensued after the June 10 sinking of a Taiwanese fishing vessel by a Japanese patrol boat in disputed waters surrounding islets known in Taiwan as Tiaoyutai 釣魚台 and in Japan as the Senkakus. Both Taipei and Tokyo claim these islets and their surrounding waters, in part due to their abundant fishery resources and potential natural gas deposits. Japan subsequently apologized and offered to negotiate compensation for the fishing boat’s captain, but the immediate aftermath of the incident was marked by highly provocative comments, including Premier Liu Chao-shiuan 劉兆玄 allowing himself to be goaded by hard-line KMT legislators into saying that he did not ”exclude war” with Japan.

Perhaps more importantly, in addition to recalling Koh Se-kai 許世楷, Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to Japan, the Ma government scrapped the Committee on Japanese Affairs, a body that had played a key role in improving Taiwan’s ties with Japan. Established in 2005, this committee comprised experts who reported directly to the foreign minister and provided recommendations on Taiwan-Japan relations. The presence of this committee contributed to steadily improving yet unofficial links with Tokyo, with Japan overtaking the United States as Taiwan’s second-biggest trading partner after China in 2006, and the two nations becoming each other’s top foreign tourist destinations.

Now that this committee has been axed, one wonders who will be responsible for managing ties with Japan, and whether the links between these two countries will improve or continue to deteriorate. If the Ma administration continues to play on emotional anti-Japanese sentiments, the people of Japan might well conclude that years of friendship with Taiwan are now at risk. Such sentiments are already being expressed in editorials in the Japanese media, which point to the rise of Greater China and anti-Japanese sentiments as harbingers of what could be a ”nightmarish” future.

There have also been signs that these tensions are infecting Taiwan’s own domestic arena. On June 18, following a meeting with former president Chen Shui-bian 陳水扁, Koh Se-kai was struck by a protester who claimed to be a member of the pro-unification Patriot Association (愛國同心會). This assault followed highly charged comments by KMT lawmakers, who labeled Koh as a “Taiwan traitor” (台奸) and “a Japanese, not a Taiwanese”. There have also been reports of Japanese students being beaten up, and there is now enhanced security at the Taipei Japanese School.

It seems particularly fascinating that both of these forms of nationalism have also helped shape CCP ideology, which suggests that they might serve as a common ground for future negotiations. Moreover, both the CCP and the KMT have found it useful to exploit such sentiments in order to distract attention from other issues. In Taiwan today, the stock market has plummeted 15% since Ma’s inauguration, while prices are continuing to rise. In addition, the new government has been plagued by controversies over its members having until recently enjoyed dual citizenship or permanent residency, including the current Foreign Minister, who somehow managed to apply for a green card while serving as ambassador to Guatemala. As a result, the administration’s popularity has been steadily declining, and even a recent United Daily News (聯合報) poll showed Ma’s own rating at 50%, down from 66% one month ago.

Finally, there are disturbing indications of politics once again extending its claws into academia. One example is the decision by National Cheng Chih University (國立政治大學) not to extend the contract (不續聘) of former Ministry of Education Secretary Chuang Kuo-jung 莊國榮 on charges of “conduct unbecoming of a professor” (行為不檢). While Chuang had made some highly offensive remarks about Ma’s father, he had subsequently apologized, and the department and college faculty review committees had only recommended a suspension, only to be overruled by the university review committee in favor of the harsher punishment. During the past 10 years, there have been 106 instances of contract termination at Taiwan’s universities, but those that involved charges of “conduct unbecoming of a professor” tended to be cases of sexual harassment, rape, and corruption, and usually followed the accused faculty member’s being convicted in a court of law. There have also been difficulties surrounding the proposed reappointment (回任) of former Representative to the United States Joseph Wu 吳釗燮 at the same university. These events, combined with reports that many officials appointed by the Chen administration are now in danger of losing their jobs, suggest a return of the ”cicada in winter effect” (寒蟬效應), by which opposition voices gradually fall silent.

One hopes that the above instances are merely aberrations, and that the KMT’s return to power, combined with the understandable quest for improved relations with China, do not come at the price of rampant nationalism and the abandonment of the democratic freedoms that so many men and women fought so hard to achieve.

Note: Some of the contents of this blogpost were inspired by Max Hirsch’s June 17 article entitled “Goodwill between Japan, Taiwan fading after key committee scrapped”.

The Public Broadcasting Corporation’s Frontline series has a long tradition of airing documentaries on China. Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon’s prize-winning look at 1989, “The Gate of Heavenly Peace,” was shown as part of the series, for example, as was a later Tiananmen documentary, “The Tank Man.” And thanks to the online extras, from guides to further reading to lesson plans for teachers, the PBS Frontline site has become a valuable resource for those who offer classes or simply want to learn about the PRC. Still, it is rare (probably unprecedented) for two China shows to run back-to-back on Frontline. But that is just what is happening now, as yet another sign that 2008 is no ordinary year where either Chinese events or international fascination with China are concerned. Last week’s “Young and Restless in China,” which was the subject of an earlier China Beat post and has become the latest Frontline show to be supplemented by online classroom-friendly features, is about to be followed by “Jesus in China,” which premieres June 24.

No one at China Beat has seen the show yet. But we did check out the materials available in advance online, which include a “video diary” featuring Chicago Tribune reporter Evans Osnos. So, we decided to pose a few questions by e-mail to the award-winning journalist, who along with his involvement in the film has continued to file reports on the earthquake and other breaking news stories for the Tribune and has also begun to write occasionally for The New Yorker. Here is what he had to say about “Jesus in China” and the general topic of the surge of Christianity in the PRC, which is also the subject of a series he’s doing in print, beginning with this piece published today.

CB: Is this your first experience working on a documentary film?

EO: Yes, if we don’t include—and we shouldn’t—my brief tenure as a student documentary-maker some years ago.

CB: You note in your video diary that one big shift that has taken place since you first went to China is the increased visibility of Christians and the sheer number of them. Do you think of the rise of Christianity mainly as a subset of a larger phenomenon, such as a turn toward spirituality more generally that has also seen an increase in the popularity of other imported and local religions? Or do you see it as something that is completely distinctive?

EO: The rise of Christianity in China is part of a broader spiritual awakening. People are seeking new sources of guidance everywhere, from mystical Taoist sects to the Bahai faith. Among the measures of that, a survey by East China Normal University found that nearly a third of those polled described themselves religious. In particular, the rising middle class seems to be searching for a kind of moral reference as they confront new social and economic choices. One of the interesting things about Chinese Christians is that we don’t yet know what kind of social positions they will endorse: Will the mainstream of Christianity in China be a form of liberal Protestantism familiar in some American churches or will it be closer to the conservative brand that is thriving in the developing world?

CB: What struck you as most exciting or perhaps most daunting about trying to convey ideas about China via involvement in film as opposed towriting on your own for the Chicago Tribune or The New Yorker?

EO: Writing for the Tribune and The New Yorker is a fairly solitary exercise. I tend to spend a lot of time with people I’m profiling, but, otherwise, there are no other journalists in the room. And the process of writing, of course, is one of staring at a blank empty page until a story appears. But this project meant hashing out story ideas and strategy with a team of talented people, and that was terrific. Luckily, Cassandra Herrman, an incredibly talented producer, came to China for a month to oversee the production for Frontline/World. I’ve written two Tribune pieces to run alongside the film, and they tell related but separate stories than what we followed with the cameras.

CB: When China Beat ran a piece on the last Frontline episode, about young people in China, we paired discussion of the film with discussion of Duncan Hewitt’s Getting Rich First, a book by a journalist that dealt with similar issues. Is there any book or article you’ve come across lately that you think would make particularly appropriate reading to pair with the “Jesus in China”?

EO: I recommend several things:
–The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has a valuable report on China, including survey and demographic trends.
–The Council on Foreign Relations last week conducted a day-long seminar on religion in China. Most of the transcripts are available here.
–The CFR also has a useful backgrounder.
–The latest U.S. State Dept. report on International Religious Freedom describes how laws on religious expression are implanted.
–Christian writers have produced a range of books and articles—too many to list—but a frequently-cited text is the updated edition of Jesus in Beijing, by David Aikman, which includes a history of the growth of the church.

For China Beat readers who would like further information on the history of Christianity in China, we also recommend the following sources:
Christianity in China, edited by Daniel Bays
Fuzhou Protestants and the Making of a Modern China, 1857-1927, by Ryan Dunch
The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, by Jonathan Spence
To Change China: Western Advisors in China, by Jonathan Spence
’A Penny for the Little Chinese’: The French Holy Childhood Association in China, 1843-1951,” by Henrietta Harrison (from American Historical Review 113:72-92, February 2008)

There’s a virtual version of the game tag, in which bloggers who get a cyber-tap on the shoulder have to reveal five things people don’t know about them on their blog, and then can call on five people to do the same. We enjoy it when bloggers we enjoy reading, such as Rebecca MacKinnon, get tagged and we get to learn things like, in her case, which Disney cartoon she was “obsessed” with as a child.

Despite the title of this post, though, you won’t get those sorts of personal revelations here. So, I’m afraid you’ll end up frustrated if you are wondering which person who has contributed to China Beat once recorded an album called “Here Comes the Elephants” and which of us has done concerts as part of the band the Black Spoons (hint: they are different China Beatniks, just both have musical backgrounds), as we won’t be naming names. And when it comes to the various Irvine-based bloggers involved with this site, we won’t tell you which spends the most time at the lovely beaches that lie a 15 minute drive or so from campus in one direction, nor which has an annual pass to the world’s most famous theme park that’s located about a 20 minute drive (up to 40+ in rush hour) from campus in the other direction. What we’ll be focusing on instead are the things we do, outside of writing for this blog, that relate to its mission of trying to make sense of and share ideas about China’s past and present.

For example, when not blogging for China Beat, many contributors write for online and print periodicals. For instance, the special issue of National Geographic discussed in an earlier posting had articles by Peter Hessler and Leslie T. Chang, while Angilee Shah recently had a piece in Asian Geographic. Several of us who have reviewed books for China Beat have recently done the same for magazines. Kate Merkel-Hess recently had a review of a Zhou Enlai biography appear in the Times Literary Supplement (or TLS, for short), while Jeff Wasserstrom just told readers of Newsweek International what he liked about Michael Meyer’s account of Beijing hutong life, and Nicole Barnes has been contributing assessments of various China books to Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, which ran her take on a new book about the Rape of Nanjing in May. And several China Beatniks, including Pierre Fuller, have written pieces for newspapers, probably none more frequently than recent guest post contributor Graham Earnshaw, whose 1980s Daily Telegraph reports are getting a second lease on life just now in a great Danwei series.

In addition, some of us plan conferences. The large-scale one on Han ethnicity that Tom Mullaney convened in April, for example, and the series of interconnected workshops on Olympics held in various locales (most recently the International Olympic Academy in Ancient Olympia) that Susan Brownell co-organized with colleagues based in China and Greece. And the upcoming September 2008 meeting in Boulder of the Western Conference of the Association for Asian Studies that Tim Weston is involved in pulling together.

Other China Beatniks travel to these and other symposia—or just go different places to give solo talks. Ken Pomeranz has been racking up frequent flyer miles speaking in different locales—he could be spotted in D.C. in January, at USC in February (all right, he just drove there) as well as Warwick, Lisbon and Hawaii in March, Boston in April, and at the London School of Economics last week. If we were a more tech-savvy site, we’d have a map that would let visitors keep track of his progress via a “Where in the World is KLP Now” animated game. (When this appears, we think he’ll be in London about to head to Bristol, where he’ll be giving a talk on June 23 that fittingly addresses the global topic “Chinese Development and World History”).

Other things we do when not blogging for China Beat include doing interviews for radio shows, magazine stories, and newspaper reports. Yong Chen , for example, is regularly consulted by journalists at the Los Angeles Times writing about everything from Chinese-American views on politics to the Sichuanese community in the U.S. We also contribute articles to academic journals and finish up books on topics ranging from women’s experiences in a changing China, to Shanghai’s past and present status as a global city , to similarities and differences between popular participation in the Chinese and Russian revolutions, to Chinese legal culture.

And some of us, when not blogging for China Beat just, well, blog around, contributing to our own solo sites or collective online ventures. Jeremiah Jenne is particularly noteworthy in this regard, maintaining a very active and much-commented on Beijiing-based solo blog, Jottings from the Granite Studio. We also sometimes take things we’ve done for China Beat and expand upon them for other English-language venues or have them translated into Chinese and reposted, in original or updated form .

Well, enough about our regulars and contributors of guest posts, even for a Self-Promotion Saturday feature. But we are an active crowd, so the above really just scratches the surface. And, before closing, we do want to do something for those who were left curious by the opening teasers concerning hidden musical talents and Disneyland. While we meant it when we said we wouldn’t name names where those things were involved, we didn’t say we wouldn’t provide links that would make it pretty easy to guess which of us recorded “Here Comes the Elephants” (as well as “The Peking Tapes,” volumes 1 and 2), which of us was half of the “Black Spoons,” and which of us is a regular visitor to the Magic Kingdom.

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