September 2008

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Antonia Finnane is Professor of Chinese History at the University of Melbourne, co-editor (with Anne McLaren) of Dress, Sex and Text in Chinese Culture (1999), and author of three books: Far From Where? Jewish Journeys from Shanghai to Australia (1999); Speaking of Yangzhou: A Chinese City, 1550-1850 (2004); and Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, History, Nation (2008). Read on for an interview with this prolific scholar and a review of her latest book.

Nicole Barnes: What first drew you to China studies?

Antonia Finnane: It’s hard to say, but the Cold War and the Vietnam War were probably factors. When I started university in 1971, I might have studied Vietnamese had it been available; as it was I enrolled in Elementary Chinese. But I did have a long-standing interest in China from reading children’s fiction, most memorably Ho Ming, Girl of New China, which I later found out won the children’s book of the year in the US in 1937; also House of Sixty Fathers, Plum Blossom and Kai Lin, The Chinese Twins – all borrowed from the local library. My parents had a copy of Ling Shu-hua’s Ancient Melodies, which I also read when I was young. All this childhood reading must have made an impression on me, because I have been interested in China and Chinese for as long as I can remember. I wasn’t a very good language student, but Chinese is very addictive and having started on the China road in my first year of university, I never really looked back though I have sometimes thought that life is not long enough to study Chinese if you want to do anything else, such as have a life.

NB: How did the field look when you first started? (i.e., What topics were being explored? How much collaborative work between Chinese and Western scholars was being done?, etc.)

AF: When I was an undergraduate, a vast gulf separated China from Western researchers. Historians seemed to be studying a dead society, and China-watchers wrote about a society that seemed to have no past. There was some convergence between research interests in China and the West, to the extent that workers and peasants were studied on both sides of the gulf, but collaboration between mainland and Western scholars was not possible. Even for Chinese scholars research was very difficult because libraries and archives were in such disorder, and access to collections was so difficult. To tell the truth, I found Indian history a lot more interesting at that time, and I still like reading Indian history, both because of that early interest and because it helps me think about Chinese history in a polyphonic mode.

When I began my Ph.D. in the Department of Far Eastern History at the ANU, China and the USA were just about to establish relations and in retrospect one can see that a seismic shift in China studies was underway. The 1911 Revolution was a hot topic at that time, and a lot of work was being done on the transition from empire to republic. I was muddling around in precisely that area when I stumbled on a path that led me from Shanghai in the early twentieth century to Yangzhou in the eighteenth. The Skinner volumes on the Chinese city had not long been published, presaging a shift in Chinese history towards urban studies and local history, though it took some time for that shift to become evident. It takes so long to research Chinese history: nothing ever happens overnight.

I first visited Yangzhou in 1980 – it was not yet “open” in 1977, when I was studying at Nanjing University. Even in 1980, it was not possible to conduct research in a small place like Yangzhou, although I met a few local scholars there through my Nanjing connections. The local archives were not open, and the local university, only a college then, had no relations with overseas institutions. No archives at all, anywhere in China, were open at that time as far as I know, and foreign scholars were only slowly gaining access to libraries. The arrival of American scholars pushed things along: there were so many of them, and China was relatively responsive to their demands because they needed American universities to be responsive to Chinese needs. Young American women scholars active in China in the eighties made a big difference to the field of Chinese history because they brought gender into the picture. This immediately made the field more interesting, for me anyway. Suddenly I could see where “Ho Ming, Girl of New China” came from, and what happened to her.

NB: What is your favorite part of your job as a professor of Chinese history?

AF: Poking around collections of old Chinese books. Currently I’m spending time in the old and rare books room at Peking University library, and also in the library at the Institute of Modern History in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, which has an extraordinary collection of materials from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I have enjoyed time spent in US collections, too – especially the East Asian Library at Berkeley, and Harvard-Yenching. The China collections in American libraries are wonderful in my experience. There is a difference between the way librarians are trained in China and the West. In China they seem to be trained to take care of the materials, and in the West to take care of the users. It varies a bit with the institution. The No 2 archives in Nanjing is infamously tough to use: getting the materials is like pulling teeth. Shanghai is a different matter – the institutional culture at both the library and the archives is much more service-oriented. I spent a very enjoyable summer browsing through old magazines in the Shanghai Library and Shanghai Municipal Archives while working on Changing Clothes.

NB: What topics in Chinese history do you feel are most pertinent to contemporary issues?

AF: History itself is the most pertinent topic. A certain story about how China came into being is the cornerstone of the Chinese people’s understanding of nation and state, which is in turn the foundation of legitimacy for the present government. In Australia in recent years a lot of media attention has been paid to historians clashing with each other over interpretations of Australian history. The resulting history wars, as we call them, have been quite ugly, but I have grown to appreciate the fact that they can take place. Such open wrangling about history is virtually impossible in China. Readers might recall Professor Yuan Weishi’s article on Chinese history education as “wolf’s milk,” which led to the closure of the magazine in which it was published a couple of years ago. It is very difficult to think and write about history in such a climate, which means it is difficult to think and write about anything very important.

NB: What are some of your own future research plans?

AF: I have received funding from the Australian Research Council for research into aspects of urban consumption in the Ming-Qing period. I am focusing the study on shops and “shopping” (whatever that means in historical context), partly inspired by the possibilities for comparative history offered by Evelyn Welch’s Shopping in the Renaissance. I am also involved in a collaborative project with my colleague Catherine Kovesi, an historian of Renaissance Italy, on comparative understandings of luxury in the early modern world. But living in China is distracting me into an interest in contemporary developments, and I have begun to collect materials on history teaching in China. I am currently helping with the English-language production of the Journal of Modern Chinese History, which is a new journal produced by the Institute of Modern History (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences), and will be lecturing in the history department at Peking University in the first half of 2009. I like having this contact with the history industry here.

NB: What do you feel are the most pressing issues for China’s international relations today and how do you think journalists and academics can be involved in those issues?

AF: If you mean the most pressing issues for the US, Australia or other Western powers in relationship to China, I think the answer to the first part of your question – and I am identifying just one issue here – is how to deal responsibly and ethically with a non-democratic government. In my view one of the most important contributions that journalists and academics can make to this issue is to write in a way that demystifies China, so that our leaders in business, government and so on are not always making excuses for the absence of human rights, democracy, due legal process, etc. on the grounds that China is different, Chinese values are different, the economy is still developing, and so on. Clear-sightedness is important. But it is important also that we focus on our ways of relating to China, and on what our governments should be doing, rather than attempting to lecture China on matters that can only be solved internally while gaily continuing to sell them our minerals and buy up their cheap products.

NB: In your estimation, has Prime Minister Rudd’s ability to speak Mandarin affected Australia’s relations with China? Has it affected the amount of attention the Australian media devotes to China?

AF: I have been living in Beijing since February this year, and Kevin Rudd was elected only in December, so I am a rather distant observer of the local media response, but my mother, who keeps me abreast of Australian politics by phone and email, complains to me about the sniping to which Rudd has been subjected by journalists and members of the Opposition, with particular reference to his Chinese-speaking skills. (I don’t know whether the phrase “tall poppy syndrome” means anything in the US, but in Australia it signifies an inclination to target anyone who stands out of the crowd and cut him or her down to size.) As far as media attention is concerned, the Olympics and the milk scandal have rather overwhelmed the significance of our Prime Minister as a factor in China’s newsworthiness. But on the Chinese side, it is striking that the day after the Olympics opening ceremony, the Xinjingbao – Beijing’s main daily – gave Australia prominence in its report on the foreign participants. By prominence, I mean that the paper published a full page photograph of the Australian team – the only team to be so distinguished. Australia’s high level of visibility in China at present is attributable to a number of factors, not least of which is Chinese interests in Australian resources, but a Chinese-speaking Prime Minister helps. I have been asked in taxis, in shops, and at the markets where I come from, and the word “Aodaliya” (Australia) often elicits a smile of recognition and the words “Lu Kewen!”, which is Kevin Rudd’s Chinese name.

NB: When you are writing your books, who do you imagine reading them, and how do you want to impact that audience?

AF: When I wrote Speaking of Yangzhou, I was writing for my peers in the field and earning my stripes, which took me a long time to do. I had great difficulty finding a publisher for that book, before it was finally accepted by the Harvard Asia Center. When it won the Levenson award in 2006 I felt like the character Fan Jin in Rulin waishi who when he was in his fifties finally passed the provincial exam in first place – some of your readers will recognize the reference, which is to one of the most famous comic scenes in Chinese literature.
My first sole-authored book, Far from Where? was written very much with the informants in mind. The book developed out of a class project on immigration to Australia, centered on interviews with Jewish immigrants from Shanghai in the post-war period. I wanted to write a book for the interviewees, as well about them. The book was very enthusiastically reviewed in popular and community presses, on the basis of which I can safely say that it is a very readable book, but one reviewer commented that it “verges on the scholarly.” I think this comment points to a bit of a problem for academic writers: that their scholarship often makes their writing inaccessible to the general public. Of course it is not important that every book be accessible to the general public. Some books are important for quite other reasons: they advance the field, they document something new and important, or they do something the significance of which is not at all apparent at the time but that becomes evident over time. But given a choice I would prefer to write for a broader audience. When I wrote Changing Clothes, I wanted to write a book that could be read both by people in the field and by people without a specialist knowledge of Chinese history.

NB: For those students who do not arrive at your classroom door eager to learn about China, how do you get them involved?

AF: My China-related classes are always electives, so students coming to class should have some interest in the subject. I don’t have tactics for engaging bored students. Probably they should be doing something else with their lives at that moment. I don’t think I have ever taught a mature age student, or even an upper-year student, who was bored. That said, I am very grateful that so much teaching material is available on film now – not only documentaries but also feature films, from early talkies in the 1930s to historical dramas made in present times. Few books can match film for quickly engaging a student’s attention.

NB: If you could invent a book—and magically assign its creation to some other person—on either past or present China that would fit perfectly into your courses, what would that book be?

AF: The words “fit perfectly” don’t seem to match any course I have ever taught, but I would like my students to have access to more studies of social life and organization in relationship to politics, religion, the economy and the arts, and to more biographies. Very few people outside China know anything about the major figures in Chinese history, ancient or modern. A good biography is a great way of disseminating knowledge, as Jung Chang’s Wild Swans has shown.

A Review: Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, History, Nation

By Nicole Barnes

Dr. Finnane’s latest book is a beautifully illustrated, eloquently argued, theoretically innovative, and eminently readable history of fashion in late imperial and modern China, from the Ming dynasty through the first years of the 21st century. For China Beat readers, perhaps the most notable element of the book is the amount of energy Finnane has to spend on convincing her readers that China does in fact have a fashion history. As we see in her cogent introduction, this is a case of the ghost of Hegel, reincarnated in the likeness of Fernand Braudel. Forty years ago, Braudel published a very well-received book in which he made a case for fashion being unique to Western society, to which he juxtaposed China, India, and Islamic societies with their “unruffled times and ancient institutions”. Finnane remarks that, four decades later, most scholars of fashion still agree with Braudel, in part because they are still terribly ignorant of Chinese clothing culture, so she sets out to refute this misguided notion and fill the gap in scholarship on fashion. Her book is a commendable contribution to a debate that we all wish we didn’t have to continue into the 21st century, but such is the work of “provincializing Europe.”

The second chapter examines Westerners’ attitudes about Chinese clothing from the 16th through the 19th centuries, and demonstrates that for over two hundred years, Western missionaries in China did not see clothing as a marker of East-West difference. Rather, they noted that Chinese clothing styles were very similar to those in Europe—essentially long, flowing robes worn over loose pants (at least for the élites on both sides of the Eurasian continent). It wasn’t until the Enlightenment that Western accounts treated Chinese sartorial culture as fundamentally different from its Western counterparts. Footbinding, though it had spread throughout China by the 12th or 13th century and had come to Westerners’ attention in the 16th century, became a key fulcrum on which the new Western accounts of Chinese barbarism turned. This comes as no surprise, but Finnane links the new concern with Chinese women’s feet to concepts touted by Enlightenment writers such as Voltaire, which encouraged Europeans to treat women’s status as a measure of a given society’s degree of civilization. This sparked new debates on the role of women in European society, debates in which China served as a reference point. In this manner, Finnane demonstrates the mercurial nature of European attitudes about Chinese fashion, and pinpoints the historical moment when Europeans began to think of China as a static society of “a semi-barbarous people” as they tried to invent themselves as members of uniquely advanced societies.

In the next chapter Finnane returns to China and conducts a brief but engaging review of fashion in the Ming and Qing dynasties, in which she notes the influences of Mongol, Korean, and ‘retro’ (Han- or Tang-dynasty) fashions in the Ming dynasty. She also uncovers seventeenth-century fashions of “contemporary styles” (時樣) of the “new times” (新時), whose wearers—mostly young people—invited criticism for stepping outside the bounds of sartorial convention. In particular, women who donned a new garment that looked a lot like a man’s tunic sparked great worry among statesmen. In the late Qing, fashions also changed as new products—including woolens and clocks from Europe—arrived at the inland Yangzi River port of Yangzhou. Finnane deftly challenges Braudel by showing that late imperial China had a fashion culture, replete with debates and innovations.

The book then moves through each decade of the twentieth century, and charts the vicissitudes in Chinese fashions for both women and men, with occasional attention to children’s clothing. Throughout, Finnane pays close attention to gender. She remarks that Qing fashions paid far less attention to gender differences than to distinction of rank or social status. That is, until the very late Qing, when Western and Japanese imperialism sparked a heightened interest in all things martial and physically valiant, including military uniform-inspired clothing for men, and natural feet for women. The accompanying vestimentary changes, for both boys and girls, often first materialized in school uniforms. By the turn of the century, the movement for women’s rights had inspired a new identification of women’s bodies as distinct from men’s, which was of course reflected in a new style of clothing for women: tight-legged pants and a long-sleeved, high-neck tunic that was increasingly form-fitting, an ensemble that anticipated the qipao (旗袍).

Also inspired by the long Manchu gown worn by Chinese men throughout the Qing dynasty, the changpao (長袍), the women’s qipao underwent numerous alterations in the twentieth century, even as the changpao retained its loose and flowing form as well as its cultural cachet among men of a certain class throughout the first half of the twentieth century. As the years progressed, the qipao clung ever tighter to women’s bodies, showing off the bust, hips, and legs, particularly after the practice of breast binding was abandoned in the 1920s and 30s. It received its final death knell in the 1980s, when it became linked to women of questionable chastity, a state from which it has yet to return. Now the qipao is worn chiefly by hotel and restaurant hostesses, prostitutes, Chinese dignitaries addressing foreign audiences, and women at weddings and other formal occasions (not to mention foreign Sinophiles).

Although men in the Republican era had more choices than women about what to wear, the cultural meaning of their outfit was dictated by contemporary politics. Men could choose between the Western suit (often identified with financial success, but also with Western imperialists and their Chinese cronies), the conservative changpao robe of the educated class, or the Sun Yatsen suit, a civilianized military uniform that confirmed its wearer’s revolutionary spirit. Men dressed according to their political convictions, social status, and the occasion, but not without some anxiety as to how they would be received in public.

One of the most intriguing parts of the book is Finnane’s discussion of fashion debates in the mid-1950s. In April 1955, the New Observer magazine hosted a discussion forum on the future of Chinese dress in which the vibrant and colorful clothing of the USSR emerged as a prominent example. In 1956, fashion shows were staged across the country. Most of the designers leading this movement were women, and they invented new hybrid clothing styles inspired by various Chinese and Western styles. Everything from the originally Manchu qipao to ethnic minorities’ clothing patterns was blended with American dress and French blouse styles. Although this fashion frenzy was brief—already eclipsed by 1957—it demonstrates that the mono-chrome scenes of the Cultural Revolution era cannot accurately be extended back to the early years of CCP rule. Although Red Guard uniforms and Sun Yatsen suits (misnamed Mao suits) later dominated the sartorial stage, a wide variety of clothing styles emerged in both the pre- and post-Cultural Revolution eras.

Finnane’s discussion in the last chapter of the Chinese fashion industry from the 1980s reform era through today demonstrates that the ghost of Hegel-Braudel extends beyond the halls of academia to the catwalks of Paris, London, and New York. Chinese designers and models have struggled for decades to get the Western-centric fashion world to take them seriously. Although Japanese, Korean, and Chinese fashions circulate and influence one another with surprising rapidity, East Asian—especially Chinese—designers do not have quick or untroubled reception most anywhere else. Instead, Chinese fashion is made to confirm precisely the same notions that first emerged in 18th century Europe of an ancient and undying culture of “Oriental” exotica. But change may be afoot. In September 2007 director Jia Zhangke’s documentary “Wu Yong” (Useless) premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, where it won the Orizzonti Doc prize. It showed later that same month in Toronto, and in LA this past summer. The film documents and takes its name from the latest collection from experimental designer Ma Ke, which launched in Paris last year to apparent acclaim, despite its complete lack of chrysanthemums, dragons, and Mandarin ducks or collars.

Finnane’s book is a delightful read replete with gorgeous photos in both black & white and color. It firmly establishes the existence of a lively fashion culture in China over the past six hundred years, shows how changes in clothing reflect shifts in politics and gender roles, and challenges long-held views of Chinese sartorial culture as unerringly dominated by the blue “Mao” suit. Finnane clearly aimed for a broad audience, and this reviewer hopes that she gets just that.

One of the most recent targets of China’s self-appointed net detectives—practitioners of the pernicious phenomenon known as the “human flesh search” (ren rou sou sou)—is not an unfaithful husband, a kitten killer, or a Tibet-friendly Chinese student. Instead she is someone who is, supposedly, a comely young woman whose father owns a coal mine and who recently immigrated to Seattle, cash, flashy cars, and Louis Vuitton luggage in hand. Definitely not from Butcher Holler. And, as it turns out, a fake.

The human flesh searchers, who mete out internet justice and facilitate the harassment of those who fail their moral and political tests, have been active this year. Though some bloggers have traced the practice as far back as 2001, it has come under greater scrutiny this year as the first human flesh search case winds its way through the courts. The case has been brought by that unfaithful husband, Wang Fei, whose wife threw herself off their 24th floor Beijing balcony after posting to her blog about her husband’s cheating ways. In search of vengeance, netizens tracked down Wang’s information, harrying him with threatening emails, phone calls, and even a net-organized posse who showed up on his doorstep. In the Western media, human flesh searching gained increased attention after Grace Wang, a Chinese student at Duke University, received death threats (and her family in China was forced into hiding) after she was captured on film attempting to mediate between pro-Tibet and pro-China protestors on campus. In both cases, searchers first discovered their target’s identity and then published their personal information on the web. Virtual and physical harassment followed.

In early September, the video of the coal mine boss’s daughter started to make the rounds. In it, a young woman in bug-eyed sunglasses issues a proclamation, written in bubbly characters, that cuts to the heart of current Chinese anxieties over increasing economic inequality and the shallowness of rampant consumerism:

“Recently spreading on the Internet have been a lot of domestic Chinese girls showing off their wealth…These domestic Chinese wealthy girls normally revel in vulgar tastes…This kind of nouveau riche showing off, I completely do not take seriously, and to compete with them would be lowering myself to their level. I post these pictures not to show off anything, but only to let those girls see clearly that the most important thing is having high tastes.” (translation from chinaSMACK)

The response from netizens was immediate. By mid-September, the video had garnered tens of thousands of comments. Commentators made comparisons between the coal mine boss’s daughter’s lifestyle and that of the coal miners themselves. With 70 percent of Chinese energy from coal, the industry is a national staple, but is also one of the most dangerous with thousands of deaths per year. And Shanxi, China’s West Virginia, has been ravaged by the extractive industry. For many viewers, the glossy pictures and self-satisfied tone confirmed fears that a new generation of wealthy twenty-something Chinese, pampered by their hard-working parents, would simply take their money and run from the poverty and environmental degradation that are the cornerstones of their wealth.

The video, which supposedly showed images of the woman’s Seattle house, cars, designer handbag collection, stacks of US currency, even her sneaker collection, was ripped apart by searchers who sensed that the video was a fake. One net detective proved that the photos of her Seattle mansion were actually pictures of Yao Ming’s pad. Another found the stills of “her” BMW on another website.

Eventually, searchers traced the video back to its original source. Roland Soong at EastSouthWestNorth reprinted (and translated) the account, originally from Shanxi News Net, in which the reporter notes that:

“On September 6, the netizen ‘Huanweichen’ was identified as the first one to post the video. Through the clues provided by the netizens, this reporter was able to contact here via QQ. She is a 22-year-old girl who claims to be a student at a certain university in Beijing. She is also the planner for a DV club. Concerning the many condemnations, she said indifferently: ‘How much is real on the Internet? Isn’t it more fun to have real and fake stuff? If you believe it, then it is real!’ She said that she uploads videos almost weekly for video websites. So far she had made almost 2,000 videos. Most of them are re-posts from elsewhere but some of them are her own creations. She does so for fun as well as the training experience in video production.” (for the original story, see 6park)

The duper Huanweichen’s response at being found out—“If you believe it, then it is real!”—embodies an increasing blurring between reality and fiction. In asking whether the distinction even matters Huanweichen not only engages a debate that has raged elsewhere on the internet—as it did in the US two years ago when the doe-eyed teen vlogger (video blogger) “Lonelygirl15” turned out to be a twenty-something graduate of the New York Film Academy—but she also questions the very desire that drives the human flesh searchers to such extreme ends.

In his book on the moral conundrums of another moment of unprecedented wealth in Chinese history, Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China, Timothy Brook writes that “as the prospect of wealth fueled avarice, the moral order that had held society together gave way” (2). Brook makes the connection between today and the late Ming, when the economy grew at a staggering pace, the silver trade drew China into global exchange, and elite culture was increasingly distinct from that of the peasants. The human flesh searchers insist that they will hold the line against the avarice they perceive has resulted from today’s massive social transformation and dislocation; Huanweichen, on the other hand, asks why we should bother at all, since in the Internet fantasy world we can all be the coal mine boss’s daughter.

Paul A. Cohen, professor of history emeritus at Wellesley College and also an associate at the Harvard Fairbank Center, has long been interested in not just what happened but also how historians tell the stories of the past. As one of the strongest advocates for China-centered historical work, Cohen has explored this tension between history and its telling in works that sometimes reveal unknown stories and sometimes confound the traditional tellings of well-known historical events. These earlier works include China Unbound: Evolving Perspectives on the Chinese Past, History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth, China and Christianity, and Discovering History in China.

Because of the summer’s rise in coverage of Chinese nationalism and its relationship to notions of “national humiliation,” a subject about which Cohen has written, we got in touch with Cohen to chat about current politics as well his forthcoming book from UC Press, Speaking to History: The Story of King Goujian in Twentieth-Century China.

China Beat: I assume you’ve seen Orville Schell’s recent piece in Newsweek, in which he mentions your work on the power of the idea of “national humiliation” in Chinese historical memory. I was wondering if you had any thoughts to share about Schell’s essay—or about the longer version that appeared in the New York Review of Books?

Paul Cohen: I liked Schell’s piece (which I read in the NYRB version). His take on continuing Chinese sensitivity to “national humiliation” is well-articulated and persuasive. At the same time it must be said that this is a large and complicated topic, one that cannot easily be covered in a short article. Let me touch briefly on a few points that would need to be dealt with to create a fuller understanding of the issue:

(1) The views of different sectors of the population—urban/rural, highly educated/less well educated, young/middle-age/elderly—need to be disaggregated and analyzed carefully. It shouldn’t be assumed that they’re all identical either in nature or origin.

(2) The mystery of the young, who are identified in the article as being among the most intense in their sense of victimization in spite of having been born in the post-Mao years, is a conspicuous example. There was a major effort beginning in the early 1990s to indoctrinate this part of the population with the importance of “not forgetting” (buwang) the suffering and humiliation of the imperialist interval in China’s history—an interval they themselves hadn’t experienced. This was part of the broader phenomenon of resurgent nationalism that marked these years and was strongly pushed by the state, in part to supply a substitute form of legitimation for a Communist party whose original Marxist-Leninist-Maoist vision had lost much of its shine. It’s important to look at the content and approach of the modern Chinese history this sector of the population has been exposed to. Yuan Weishi got into trouble a few years back for pointing out how little it has to do with reality.

(3) The situational character of many nationalistic outbursts in recent Chinese history is implied in Schell’s article but not really probed. It is very important and helps to account for the seemingly contradictory behavior Chinese have often displayed. Duara notes the “simultaneous superficiality and depth of nationalist feelings” and ventures some interesting observations on the relationship between “nationalism and everyday life.” His schematic depiction of the Chinese reaction to the May 1999 US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade is brilliant: “Day 1: Eat at McDonalds; Day 2: Throw rocks at McDonalds; Day 3: Eat at McDonalds.” [“Response to Philip Huang’s ‘Biculturality in Modern China and in Chinese Studies’,” Modern China 26.1 (Jan. 2000): 32-37] In an article I published in April 2002 I explored the closely related interplay in twentieth-century China between remembering and forgetting national humiliation. Day 3 in Duara’s schema refers to the forgetfulness in my piece that Chinese often succumbed to in the interest of getting on with their lives. [“Remembering and Forgetting National Humiliation in Twentieth-Century China,” Twentieth-Century China, 27.2 (Apr. 2002): 1-39]

(4) I liked Schell’s discussion of the uneasy relationship in China today between pride and insecurity, so conspicuously embodied in the importance many Chinese attached to the Olympics. The quest—almost a yearning— for the admiration and respect of the rest of the world, above all the Western world, reminded me of the polarity in Riesman’s Lonely Crowd between other-directedness and inner-directedness. The former is dependent on the approval of others; indeed, it is geared toward earning this approval. If the approval isn’t granted or is granted only with qualifications, initial pride can suddenly morph into resentment, anger, and deepened insecurity. All of which I see as being intimately connected with the concluding part of Schell’s discussion, where he writes about the ways in which China’s history over the past century and a half has been intertwined with that of the West (and Japan), and how crucial it is, in particular for the bilateral relationship between the US and China, “for us to understand as much as we can about its almost infinite complexity.” The Chinese portrayal of the Olympics as unassailable evidence of China’s having finally “made it” and the insistence of numbers of people—and governments— in the West on identifying the ways in which China has still not made it points to an important sense in which Chinese and Westerners continue to speak past one another instead of reaching for the more complex mutual understanding Schell prescribes. The Chinese, in their elaborate preparations for the Olympics coming-out party, drew attention to the great strides the country had made over the past quarter century in its economic development, as symbolized most accessibly (for Olympics attendees from abroad and TV viewers around the world) by the makeover of Beijing; the accent was heavily on externals (wai). Westerners, while genuinely admiring China’s external successes, have persisted in raising discomforting questions about the less visible human costs paid in the process: the depredation of the environment, the tight hold the state continues to exert on a range of political freedoms, the forcible removal of people from their homes to make way for new construction, the low level of tolerance (on the part of both the state and society) for the cultural preferences of non-Han minorities and unauthorized religious groups, the excessive and illegal taxation of impoverished farmers, the pervasive corruption at all levels of the state, and so on. In other words, precisely at the moment that China has at last reached impressive levels of wealth and power—the main goals fueling Chinese nationalism for over a century—the West, while duly acknowledging this, has upped the ante: wealth and power aren’t enough, it seems to say, you still have a lot to learn about how to run your country internally (nei).

China Beat: As a follow up, since Schell was writing before the Olympics, I was curious to know if the way that the Games played out and were covered changed your thinking at all about concepts of “national humiliation” and how they figure in the contemporary Chinese consciousness? Or, to put this another way, do you think the Olympics might come to be seen as a turning point moment in the development of Chinese nationalism?

Paul Cohen: A small turning point maybe, but not a large one. As just suggested, China is still open to serious criticism from the West and will remain so for the foreseeable future. A majority of Chinese would likely agree with some of the criticisms (the pervasiveness of corruption and environmental devastation, for example), although they would probably prefer not to hear them repeatedly voiced by Westerners. Other of the criticisms—the severe limitations on political freedom, the discrimination against ethnic minorities and certain religious movements (most conspicuously the Falun Gong)—a great many Chinese appear not to feel strongly about. But whether they agree with the criticisms or not, many Chinese will continue to see in their venting a frustrating refusal on the part of Westerners to accord their country the level of acceptance they feel it merits. This will continue to carry the potential for resentment, especially when the world’s failure to give China its due is perceived as resonating with the victimization narrative with respect to foreign imperialism. This narrative was very strong in China in the decades from the Twenty-One Demands of 1915 until the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War. During the Mao years it was eclipsed by narratives of heroic resistance. But, as I noted in my response to your first question, in the post-Mao era the theme of victimization returned with a vengeance and remains strong to this day. This can be seen in the handling of modern Chinese history in school textbooks and the explosion of writing on national humiliation (guochi). It is also clearly evident in the representations of Japanese imperialism in Chinese museums, where (as Kirk Denton shows) the trend in the recent past has been “toward an emphasis on atrocity and victimization and away from the narratives of heroic resistance that dominated in the Mao era.” [“Heroic Resistance and Victims of Atrocity: Negotiating the Memory of Japanese Imperialism in Chinese Museums,” Japan Focus, posted Oct. 17, 2007] As long as the sense of victimization remains strong (at least among certain sectors of the Chinese population)—and although for now it mainly targets Japan, given the right circumstances it can almost instantaneously be transferred to the US or some other country—the reemergence of a particularly ugly form of Chinese nationalism remains, in my view, a distinct possibility.

China Beat: Your forthcoming book, Speaking to History, deals with the story of King Goujian and its resonances for twentieth-century Chinese. UC Press’s page for the book notes that one of the book’s themes is the way that stories like Guojian’s are a kind of “cultural insider knowledge.” How did you stumble over the Guojian story and recognize its implications for modern history? How would you recommend that students and historians go about learning and tracking that “insider knowledge”?

Paul Cohen: I started out with the intention of doing a book on Chinese sensitivity to national humiliation over the past century. However, in pursuit of this goal, I kept running into the story of King Goujian, which, I came to realize as I dug deeper, spoke not only to national humiliation but to much else as well. Clearly, if I stayed with the original plan, I would have to omit vital parts of the Goujian story’s engagement with twentieth-century Chinese history, something I was increasingly reluctant to do. Elizabeth Sinn helped me out of the quandary I was in by proposing that, instead of national humiliation, I consider writing on the impact of the Goujian story in all its facets. A simple suggestion, but also a radical one, as it meant a shift both in the book’s specific focus and in the broader issues that would ultimately form its intellectual core, above all the relationship between story and history. Although only half realizing at the time the scholarly adventure that was in store for me, I was tantalized by Elizabeth’s suggestion and decided to go with it.

Part of the ensuing adventure involved the exploration of source materials I had made little or no use of before in my work, such things as opera librettos, plays, school lessons, novels, mass education materials, television dramas. But the more important part was the discovery of an aspect of Chinese culture and history that had previously passed me by. I refer to Chinese stories and the vital role they have played over the centuries in the cultural schooling of China’s population. The Goujian story—and the woxin changdan (“sleeping on brushwood and tasting gall”) proverb derived from it— was as familiar to Chinese school children as the biblical stories of Adam and Eve or David and Goliath are to American youngsters—the story is “in our bones,” a scholar from China said to me not long ago. Yet, despite its far-reaching impact throughout the Chinese cultural world, among American students of the recent Chinese past (those, that is, not of Chinese descent) it appears to be largely unknown. Manifestly, the story of King Goujian is one of those artifacts of cultural knowledge, found in every society, that “insiders,” people who have been raised and gone to school in the society, are apt to have instilled in them from an early age as part of their cultural training, but that “outsiders,” those who learn about the culture mainly from books or from having lived in the society for brief periods as adults, almost never run into (or don’t notice when they do). As a result of this curious situation—a situation that suggests the existence of two quite different tracks for learning about a culture—the place of the Goujian story in the history of China over the past century has been omitted entirely from the work of American historians (and, as far as I know, Western historians generally).

The second part of your question—how should students and scholars go about tracking what I refer to in my book as “insider cultural knowledge”?—really needs to be broken down. Learning about such knowledge per se really isn’t difficult, but before this can be done we need first to recognize that it exists, not only in China but in all societies, and then to decide how important we think it is and why. Chinese historians of the twentieth century, unlike many of their American counterparts, are intimately familiar with the Goujian story and keenly aware of the pervasiveness of accounts of (and references to) it, especially at certain historical junctures. But I have found little indication that they see the relationship between story and history in itself as a fit object for serious inquiry. The foremost reason for this, I suspect, is that most Chinese simply accept the existence of the story-history relationship as a given. It isn’t, in other words, something that they have a high degree of self-consciousness about. The notion that stories even from the distant past can speak in meaningful ways to what is going on in the present is something that has been inculcated in them from childhood. They pay attention to such stories, therefore, for the guidance or inspirational value they may offer in the present, but there is little likelihood of their stepping back and interrogating the distinctive importance of the story-history relationship as such, either in China or in other cultural settings.

There is another reason as well for the failure of historians to include the Goujian story in their accounts. This is that the story, for all its importance in other respects, contributes little to the history of twentieth-century China when this history is framed as a narrative of interconnected events. Indeed, it can be omitted from this narrative almost entirely—as it has been—without significantly altering the overall picture. (This is of course also true of many other aspects of intellectual and cultural history.) On the other hand, when we shift our attention to the ways in which the Goujian story has affected Chinese perceptions of their experience—a more interior perspective on the Chinese past—we get a very different sense of things. As the psychologist Jerome Bruner has stated, we “cling to narrative models of reality and use them to shape our everyday experiences. We say of people we know in real life that they are Micawbers or characters right out of a Thomas Wolfe novel.” Such stories become “templates for experience.” What is astonishing about these templates, he adds, “is that they are so particular, so local, so unique—yet have such reach. They are metaphors writ large” or, as he puts it in another place, “root metaphors.” [Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), pp. 7, 34-5, 60] When the Goujian story is understood, in Bruner’s sense, as a root metaphor—or as several such metaphors—it assumes a far more imposing historical presence than we would ever guess from the standard narrative accounts of twentieth-century Chinese history. It is this presence that I seek to illuminate in Speaking to History.

China Beat: Classical stories are an important component of contemporary Chinese pop culture—movies, television dramas, novels. What do you think the popularity of these stories tells us about China today?

Paul Cohen: Good question. One thing we need to be reminded of is that, with the exception of certain highly politicized periods (such as the Cultural Revolution), classical stories have long been an important part of Chinese popular culture. Until quite recently opera played a key role in this respect. “In the Ming and Qing dynasties,” Barbara Ward tells us, “the overwhelming majority of opera performances took place in public . . . , in front of unrestricted audiences as mixed as and very much larger than those of sixteenth-century England.” “For the great mass of the population” during this time, she adds, “the entertainment media, especially the festival operas, were the most significant source of information about the believed-in historical past, the values and manners of the elite, attitudes and relationships between and among people of different status, and ideas of good (which usually triumphed in the end) and evil (which was usually routed).” [“Regional Operas and Their Audiences: Evidence from Hong Kong,” in David Johnson, Andrew J. Nathan, and Evelyn S. Rawski, eds., Popular Culture in Late Imperial China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 172, 186-7] Opera, often centering on classical stories, continued to play an important role in popular entertainment well into the twentieth century. Its audience began to decline, however, with the emergence of a mass television viewership in the early 1980s. A significant part of television programming overall has dealt with historical drama, which, for millions of Chinese, has been extremely popular. In fact, in 2006-2007 the Goujian story alone was the subject of no fewer than three long-running TV productions (each with more than forty segments), featuring in every instance a star male actor in the role of Goujian.

One thing the popularity of classical stories reflects—especially among those old enough to have clear memories of the rampant politicization of the Mao years—is the relative freedom from political constraint in the private lives of many in China today. For such individuals, reconnecting with the old stories, without the imperative of having to look constantly for hidden political messages, has been a genuinely liberating experience. For China’s television and publishing industries (especially the former), it has also been hugely profitable. The case of the Goujian story is instructive. From the 1920s until the end of the 1970s, in the many versions of the story that I have seen, inclusion of the darker side of the protagonist’s makeup that emerged after the conquest of his archrival, the state of Wu, was either avoided entirely or explicitly subordinated to Goujian’s extraordinary achievements in rejuvenating Yue. This was especially true of the years of Mao Zedong’s supremacy, when turning the spotlight on a brutal, ruthless Goujian might too easily be read as indirect criticism of Mao himself. (After Goujian’s victory over Wu, the Yue ruler turned against his most loyal ministers, much as Mao had turned against Peng Dehuai at the Lushan Conference and Liu Shaoqi and others during the Cultural Revolution years.) After the end of the Mao era, however, this pattern underwent a decisive shift. The shift occurred in two phases. In the early 1980s, in works by two politically fearless writers, Xiao Jun and Bai Hua, the callously ambitious, hard-hearted side of the Yue ruler, largely absent from renderings of the Goujian story in the first eight decades of the century, was reinstated with the clear intent of censuring Maoist tyranny (something that at the time was still too risky to venture in more open ways). Then, with the progressive relaxation of state control over society and the depoliticization of everyday life that marked the 1990s and 2000s, the multipart television adaptations of the Goujian saga mentioned earlier and a number of novelistic renderings of the story that also appeared, all without exception incorporated the Yue king’s brutal side. By this point in time, unlike the early 1980s, there was no apparent fear that inclusion of this component of the story would be misconstrued as politically motivated. In the rapidly developing Chinese economy of the turn of the twenty-first century, the promotion of the Goujian narrative (not to mention hundreds of other stories from China’s cultural heritage) was driven above all by commercial gain. Entertainment had now taken precedence over political guidance, and the more frightening features of Goujian’s character could be given full play simply because they made for a better story.

China Beat: In the book, you trace the persistent importance of Guojian in the twentieth century, though presumably the way the story was read and understood changes over time. What were some of those different meanings? Are there other classical stories that you encountered in your research that also pop up over and over again, and seem important to understanding China in the same way?

Paul Cohen: On a spectrum of Chinese cultural stories ranging from the simplest to the most multifaceted and complex, the story of Goujian clearly belongs among the latter. As a result, Chinese during the twentieth century, faced with a succession of historical crises, were able to cull from the larger story specific themes that seemed to them tailor-made for the crisis of the moment. Let me cite a few examples. During the period from the imposition of the Twenty-One Demands in 1915 until the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the constant refrain in the Chinese press and elsewhere was the humiliation to which the country had been subjected at the hands of the Japanese. The slogan wuwang guochi—“Never forget our national humiliation”—was on everyone’s lips and the desire for revenge was widespread. In these circumstances, patriotic Chinese instinctively turned to the Goujian story, at the core of which was the humiliating defeat Goujian had suffered early in his kingship and his dogged persistence, over many years and in the face of every difficulty, until he was finally in a position to avenge himself against the state of Wu. In the annual National Humiliation Day observances of the 1920s and 1930s marking China’s capitulation to the Twenty-One Demands, it was the story of Goujian rather than the stories of such patriotic heroes as Yue Fei or Zheng Chenggong or Qi Jiguang that was endlessly alluded to in Chinese newspapers.

During the late Spring and Autumn period, the southeastern states of Yue and Wu were perennial adversaries. Wu was by far the larger and more powerful of the two, even before its conquest of Yue early in Goujian’s reign. The story was therefore made to order for the situation Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists found themselves in after their flight to Taiwan in 1949. But it was not unique in this respect. Other historical narratives in which, by a combination of hard work, thorough preparation, unflagging determination, and astute leadership, a weaker adversary was able to prevail over a far stronger one were put to similar use. Included among them were the Warring States account of how the Qi general Tian Dan, by using a brilliantly unconventional strategy, salvaged the fortunes of his state after Yan had captured all but two of Qi’s cities; the celebrated battle of Red Cliff (Chi bi) on the Yangzi River (208 C.E.), at which the southern naval forces of Sun Quan and Liu Bei decisively defeated the far larger and more powerful army of the northern general Cao Cao, forcing Cao Cao to abandon his goal of extending his dominion over the entire country; and the equally famous battle of Fei River (in modern Anhui) (383 C.E.), in which the small but properly disciplined and well-led army of the Eastern Jin (317-420 C.E.), the reigning dynasty in southern China, annihilated the much larger but poorly trained forces of the invading (Earlier) Qin, which had recently conquered the north and hoped to bring the south as well under its sway. The ROC historian Huang Dashou, in the introduction to his little book containing seven of these stories, made his motives for compiling the volume explicit: “These were all events of epoch-making significance in Chinese history,” he wrote, “and in each case the first phase of the event’s trajectory may be said to bear a close correspondence to our present situation, in which we are using Taiwan as a base for rejuvenation and for preparing our counteroffensive against the mainland. . . . As long as we are prepared to endure hardships and stick it out to the finish, how can we not be victorious in our struggle against the Communists and Russians? How can our recovery of the mainland [guangfu dalu] not be crowned with success?” [In Zhongxing shihua (Historical accounts of national resurgence) Taibei: Shijie shuju, 1955]

A third crisis situation in which the Goujian story took a significant part in the twentieth century centered in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the time of the Great Leap famine and the growing rift in China’s relations with the USSR. In response to these developments (in particular the latter), beginning around 1960, writing on the Wu-Yue conflict and Goujian’s part in it became for a few years a major preoccupation of Chinese writers. The well-known historian Wu Han and others introduced the story in newspapers, magazines, and short books, calling attention in particular to the themes of “self-reliance” (zili gengsheng) and “working hard to strengthen the country” (fafen tuqiang), both much emphasized at the time by the central leadership of the party. The longtime Minister of Culture Mao Dun, who published a little book on the Goujian story in 1962, estimated that in the winter and spring of 1960-61 close to a hundred theaters and acting groups all over the country staged opera performances on the story (he himself claims to have read some fifty different scripts). Also at this time Cao Yu, widely viewed as China’s leading playwright of the twentieth century, ventured for the first time into historical drama with a five-act play on the story entitled The Gall and the Sword (Dan jian pian). The play was first performed in Beijing in 1961 when Cao Yu was at the height of his prestige.

As in the two earlier crises, although in different ways, the Goujian story in the early 1960s was seen as being superbly suited to the challenges then confronting China. This is how one writer put it: “Because of differences in the political tasks faced, certain types of historical dramas are relatively popular at certain times. For example, in the initial days after the country’s liberation, Li Zicheng Enters the Capital (Chuang wang ru jing), by warning people not to get carried away with success, had great educational value; during the Resist-America Aid-Korea period, The General and the Prime Minister Make Peace (Jiang xiang he) showed us how to become more effectively united when confronting a formidable enemy; and in the present day, when the party has called on us to engage in arduous struggle (jianku fendou) and to work hard to strengthen the nation (fafen tuqiang), the story of King Goujian of Yue’s sleeping on brushwood and tasting gall [woxin changdan] has appeal for large numbers of viewers.” [Wang Jisi, “Duo xiexie zheyang de lishi gushi xi” (Many thanks to these dramas dealing with historical stories), Juben 2-3 (Feb.-Mar. 1961): 121-22]

Apart from the above examples, I encountered in my research many other stories from the Chinese past that were seen as resonating with particular historical circumstances. My sense is that the Goujian story, because of the many disparate themes it encompasses, was called upon more frequently than most such narratives, but it was certainly not unique in this respect.

China Beat: What are you reading about China (and liking) lately? Have you read things recently about places other than China that have caused you to re-evaluate Chinese historical events?

Paul Cohen: Not long ago I read two books about China that I really loved: Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China (HarperCollins, 2006) and Mo Yan’s novel (as translated by Howard Goldblatt) Life and Death are Wearing Me Out (Arcade, 2008). It would be hard to find two more dissimilar books. Yet each, in its way, offers stunning insights—political, social, and cultural—into how China works .

I’ll take a pass on the second question. Generally, when books I read that don’t have to do with China shape or reshape my understanding of Chinese history, it happens in the course of my research and writing when I’m actively looking for non-China perspectives. In thinking through some of the core themes in Speaking to History, for example, I found much stimulation in the work of people like Jerome Bruner (Making Stories), Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory), Roger Schank (Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence), Avishai Margalit (The Ethics of Memory), and Yael Zerubavel (Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition). When I read other books not relating to China—recent examples are Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, David Lodge’s Home Truths, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, Omer Bartov’s Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine, and Nicholas Dawidoff’s The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness, and Baseball—I’m mainly interested in nourishing the rest of me, not in coming up with new ways of understanding China (although this of course could—and sometimes does— happen).

China Beat: Is there anything you wish I had asked that I did not?

Paul Cohen: It took me a long time to come up with the title for Speaking to History. But once it popped into my mind I knew that was it. What the title suggests is that the Goujian story (which is referred to in the book’s subtitle) spoke to Chinese history at various junctures in the twentieth century. A number of your questions (and my responses to them) circle around this issue. But the key question somehow slipped through the cracks: What does it mean for a story to “speak” to history? This question is, in the broadest sense, what my book is about. But before getting to that it might be helpful to briefly introduce an entirely different kind of relationship between story and history. Recently I started reading Barend ter Haar’s Telling Stories: Witchcraft and Scapegoating in Chinese History (Brill, 2006). The book is about the relationship between a certain kind of story (rumors and other forms of “local news,” often part of Chinese oral tradition and centering on popular fears) and collective action. Years ago I corresponded with ter Haar about some of his core ideas, some of which I later cited in the chapter on “Rumor and Rumor Panic” in History in Three Keys. I am intrigued now by the qualitative differences between the stories he deals with in his book and the Goujian and other stories I am concerned with in Speaking to History. My stories, unlike his, generally have a real historical basis and are widely known within the Chinese cultural realm. Although in many cases emerging out of Chinese oral tradition, they have often played an important part in the written history of Chinese literature as well. Another key point about my stories is that, unlike the ones ter Haar is concerned with, they are more important for their part in shaping the cognitive environment surrounding historical events than for directly giving rise to these events. And also, in this connection, the historical events they resonate with are in most cases national in scope rather than, as in ter Haar’s book, local or regional.

A central riddle that I am concerned with in my book has to do with the relationship between past story and present reality that in China, as elsewhere, has exerted such power. Why are peoples, at certain moments in their collective lives, especially drawn to narratives—commonly derived from the distant past—that resonate strongly with their present historical circumstances and speak to these circumstances in compelling ways? This mating of story to history, abundantly demonstrated in the career of the Goujian saga during China’s turbulent twentieth century, forms a stratum of veiled meaning the illumination of which is one of the main tasks I set for myself in the book. A larger point to be made about the connection between past story and present history is that it serves as a potent instrument for defining a culture’s boundaries, both objectively and subjectively. Narratives like the Goujian story that are widely known among a culture’s members constitute a form of symbolic sharing that is absolutely key both to the culture’s objective existence and to an individual’s subjective sense of belonging to that culture. Although missing from conventional historical accounts, such stories are important because of what they tell us about the interior world of a culture at particular moments in time, how those inhabiting this world felt—and how they talked and wrote—about the predicaments facing them, individually and collectively. What is so astonishing is that, in spite of their importance, Western students of twentieth-century China (including myself) have in the past shown little awareness of their existence. My hope is that, in Speaking to History, by focusing on one such story and the rich variety of ways in which it functioned over the past century, I have been able to convey some sense of what we have missed.

By Pierre Fuller

In May of this year I wagged a few fingers at British writer Simon Winchester for an op-ed piece he penned in the wake of Sichuan’s devastating quake. Appearing as it did both in the New York Times and in its global edition, the International Herald Tribune, his attempt at posing a supposedly quake-fit “West” or “America” against a Chinese people who had collectively all “turned their back” as early as the 16th century on science and construction know-how begged immediate comment.

I soon found myself in the bowels of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies’ archival collection and, as it goes, came across the following words by another Englishman on Chinese construction, this time around from his China Inland Mission post nearly a century ago in Gansu’s capital, Sichuan’s neighbor to the northwest. “These Lanchow houses are very well constructed with a strong framework of wood into which the walls are built so that they will stand a great strain,” he wrote after experiencing a three minute-long earthquake during an evening Bible Study and then its fifty aftershocks. “We all felt that very few English houses would have stood that test.” *

The quake of December 1920 did kill some 100,000, mostly those in the rural loess cave dwellings of eastern Gansu, burying many or their vital grain stocks under mounds of earth. All but 42 lives in the rattled capital, though, were spared.

Makes you wonder whether one shouldn’t do a bit more probing into variations on Chinese engineering across time, and across classes, regions and terrain, before launching an indictment of post-Ming Chinese know-how onto the world’s press.

(For the record, the International Herald Tribune printed a letter I sent to them in May, granted in rather butchered form.)

* “The Earthquake,” E. J. Mann in Links with China and Other Lands, No. 31, April 1921, Lanzhou: China Inland Mission (quarterly) Bound volume in MS 380302, Papers of Ebenezer and Mabel Mann, SOAS, 331.


Continuing our series seeking to draw attention to overlooked readings on Tibet, we are happy to be able to provide comments by two long-time friends of the blog, Pico Iyer and Pankaj Mishra, talented and versatile writers whose most recent books are The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond, respectively. It seemed particularly appropriate to ask Iyer and Mishra to suggest articles or books that they have found useful in thinking about Tibet but which might be under the radar of many of our readers. This is because six months ago, when we were covering the unrest in Tibet, we put up links to things that each of them had written for newspapers or magazines. We also pointed our readers to the latter’s New Yorker review of the former’s latest book.

Iyer: Read John Avedon’s In Exile from the Land of Snows, already a quarter of a century old and, as a result, fresher, more full of wonder and outrage, with better access to the principal players than any subsequent book on Tibet and its recent history. Then, as a postscript, turn to The Story of Tibet, by Thomas Laird, from 2006, to see not just the larger frame into which Tibet’s recent history has to be put, but, more important, the way in which the world’s most celebrated living Tibetan would read that history, as parable, warning and instruction.

Tibet, more than anywhere, is enfolded in myths, Western projections and wishful fantasies. The only books to read on the subject are the ones that take you deeper and more rigorously into real life.

Mishra: Thanks to the wonderfully comprehensive China Beat site, I can’t think of any undernoticed book or article on China and Tibet in recent months.


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