March 2009

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Well, I don’t think I’m actually quite as bad when it comes to giving reporters their due as the title I’ve selected for this post suggests, as I have recently gone on record praising a variety of journalists based in China. Still, the ones I typically say the best things about are people who have a long-term commitment to the country (though I’ve been critical of some of these, of course), while the ones I most often pick on for things like missing important aspects of a story or failing to go to the best possible specialists for quotes are those who, like Barbara Demick of the Los Angeles Times, end up in China while cycling through different foreign bureaus (in her case, based on a very quick web search, it seems she was in the Middle East and Seoul before heading to Beijing). And true to form, when I started reading Demick’s “Clocks Square Off in China” in this morning’s paper, where it was given the excellent front-page “Column One” feature spot (saved for longer than usual and often somewhat personal pieces) that remains one of the best things about the Times, I was initially on my guard, looking for flaws. I quickly had to admit, however, that the piece handles very well indeed a couple of fascinating issues: the fact that China could easily have five or six time zones, yet officially all clocks are supposed to keep Beijing time, and the cultural divides that tend to separate Uighur and Han residents in this part of China’s “Far West” (as the region is sometimes dubbed–including in the retitled online version of Demick’s article).

I am sure that there are terms used or ideas broached in the article that could be picked apart by still more specialized readers than me–someone who tends to focus on a city, Shanghai, that lies far to the East of Xinjiang and someone who has not done much on either issues of ethnicity or, for that matter, on what clocks read, aside from co-writing one commentary that used the one time zone curiosity as a lead-in. For me, though, it was a very fine example of smart and accessible journalism, which effectively mixed on-the-spot anecdotes (I particularly like the interchange with the young boy who looked at the foreigner’s watch) and analysis on the fly with queries put to just the right academic experts.

I was pleased to see recent China Beat contributor James Millward quoted, and delighted to see that he managed to slip in an allusion to former Association for Asian Studies President and Southeast Asia specialist James C. Scott’s important “weapons of the weak” concept–and do so in a manner that made it immediately understandable to those who had never read that theorist’s important 1987 book by that title. I was even happier to see a quote solicited from Gardner Bovingdon, a former Indiana University colleague of mine (he’s still there, I’ve just moved on to America’s “Far West”). Why? Because everything I know about time zones in China I learned from reading a draft of a very smart paper of his that is mentioned in passing by Demick.

All in all, it was nice to start the day reading a story dealing with China (complete with a map that very nicely showed just how far it is from Beijing to Xinjiang and a good color photo of Kashgar store selling clocks showing different times–not the one included with this post, but similar to it) that seemed right on target. It didn’t leave me itching to write a letter to the editor suggesting that something be corrected or some glossed over point be brought into the light.

Still, there’s one small issue that I want to bring up, since it has been perplexing me ever since I made my first phone call to India a couple of months ago–and discovered inadvertently, while trying to figure out how to phone a friend there without waking him up, that there’s more than one big Asian country with a single time zone. If the way Beijing handles time zones is linked to authoritarianism, which definitely seems correct, why is it that democratic India has a similar chronological approach? Yes, India does not have nearly as wide an east-to-west spread, but there does still seem a story to tell here, even if it is a matter of 3 time zones rather than twice that many being compressed into 1. And while I like Demick’s report a lot, it doesn’t enlighten me on this, as when she looks to a neighboring country with which to compare China’s situation, her gaze goes, not surprisingly and very effectively, to Russia…with its 11 time zones!

A few blogs we’ve stumbled across in recent weeks that, depending on your interests, may merit your further attention:

1. “China Book Reviews” runs (as you might expect) reviews of an unusual selection of China books, including a few we’ve mentioned or reviewed ourselves, like Jeff Wasserstrom’s Brave New World and Mobo Gao’s The Battle for China’s Past (which Kate Merkel-Hess reviewed for TLS last spring).

2. Anna Greenspan wrote a piece for China in 2008 about the tainted milk scandal in China last fall. Now she is keeping her own blog about her experiment with placing her three-year old in local Chinese preschool rather than sending him to international school.

3. Mark Anthony Jones has become one of our most regular commenters, but he also has his own website, where he has just started a blog with some great images from his visits to his students’ dorms.

4. Crystal Mo keeps an entertaining food in Shanghai blog at City Weekend.

5. Chinese historian Jim Millward keeps his own blog called “The World on a String,” that includes musings on everything from the history of the pipa to the Jonas Brothers.

Last fall, we ran an interview with UCI Professor of Informatics Bonnie Nardi, who was conducting research on the different ways World of Warcraft (an MMO-RPG, Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game) was used in China and the US.

Recently, a reader drew our attention to interesting images where Chinese players envisioned themselves in the game (often quite playfully). In honor of Chinese New Year (a game players celebrate in-game as “Lunar Festival”), WoW-China invited players to submit photos of themselves “blending their Lunar New Year celebration with their enthusiasm for World of Warcraft.” The contest received more than eight thousand submissions and almost 1.5 million votes. Winning photos have been posted at WoW’s website, for those who’d like to learn more.

From Paul Katz (3/28/09, 2:27 p.m.):

Saturday morning was a disaster, or at least full of fascinating panels about disaster and resulting relief efforts. Panel #139, alluded to by Kate Edgerton-Tarpley in her earlier post, explored the sociocultural impacts of the Great Leap Famine. Relevant research has also been done by Steve A. Smith in his “Talking Toads and Chinless Ghosts” article, published in The American Historical Review in 2006, and he has also written on this topic for the China Beat. There was also Panel #167, organized largely by a group of German scholars, which builds on the pioneering work of scholars like Kate, Pierre Etienne-Will, Fuma Susumu 夫馬進, Joanna Handlin-Smith (whose book is at last out!), and Angela Leung (梁其姿) in examining philanthropic responses to natural disasters. It would also be interesting to learn more about the extent to which such activities were inspired by religious beliefs, not to mention organized by religious associations.

In addition to disasters, there was also extensive border crossing, this time in the world of art. This could be seen in two panels (#126 and #149) that focused on the international dimensions of Asian art, including its links to cultural nationalism.

Finally, a word about the book exhibit: One cannot help but be amazed at the number of high-quality studies of Chinese religions now being published by Harvard University Press, including works by Vincent Goossaert, C. Julia Huang, David Johnson, Liu Xun, Rebecca Nedostup, James Robson, and Jeffrey Snyder-Reinke. HUP is clearly joining the ranks of other prestigious presses that continue to contribute to the growth of this field, including California, Leiden, Hawaii, and Stanford.

Pictures from Jeff Wasserstrom (3/28/09, 3:52 p.m.):

The Second Annual Blogger’s Breakfast

L to R: Par Cassel (who blogged about the term “Tiananmen” in June 2008), Benjamin Read (featured in a CB interview on homeowners), Paul Katz (Taiwan, Taiwan, Taiwan–and Chinese religion), Susan McEachern (the Rowman & Littlefield editor who made China in 2008 happen), Julia Murray (who hasn’t blogged for us but is in the book with a piece on the revival of Confucianism), and Shakhar Rahav (who wrote about how the Olympics were covered in Israel for CB). Haiyan Lee is not shown, due to the limitations of the photographer…

China Beatnik Goes from Writing about Prizes to Winning One

Speaking of Haiyan Lee, whose last piece for CB was about a book prize, won her own prize last night. Lee was awarded the Levenson Prize for 20th Century China (there’s also one for pre-20th century topics).

Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover (But Cool Cover…)

Here is Paul Cohen, who was featured in a CB interview, posing beside a display for his book. Like many authors, he doesn’t want his book to be judged by its cover, but there’s widespread buzz here that it is wonderful cover indeed (the cover of another book we’ve talked about on the site, Susan Mann’s Talented Women, shows up in the photo as well).
Jeff Wasserstrom (3/28/09, 7:41 a.m.):

This is, of course, the first AAS meeting at which a book associated with the China Beat has been displayed. And nicely displayed it definitely is, as the accompanying photo illustrates (and note that it is shown in the company of books like Voices Carry, China Ink and The Subject of Gender, which have been discussed on our site before).

More than that, though, this is also a conference that, overall, has some features that run in tandem with some of the goals of China Beat. For example, just as we’ve tried to encourage more interchange between academics and other kinds of writers, there have been some sessions here that, thanks to generous support from the Luce Foundation, have already included or will include reporters and freelance writers. China Beat contributor Lijia Zhang (shown below posing with a poster for her memoir) and Ching-Ching Ni of the Los Angeles Times (shown below sharing her thoughts on the challenges of covering Chinese topics in the field), for example, were both part of a lively session on the Olympics, during which they shared the stage with Beijing-based specialist in Olympic studies Jin Yuanpu (shown below giving his presentation in Chinese), Susan Brownell (who did double duty as both moderator and Jin’s translator), and Korea specialist Bruce Cumings (who gave a very smart summary of all the problems with thinking of the Seoul Games as a major contributing force in South Korea’s democratization).

Lijia Zhang

Ching-ching Ni

Jin Yuanpu and Susan Brownell

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