March 2010

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Blogging AAS 2010 (5)

By Miri Kim

Session 47: Empire and Space

In this panel, organized by Siyen Fei (University of Pennsylvania), Mark Edward Lewis (Stanford University), Hilde De Weerdt (University of Oxford), and Fei presented papers that creatively engaged the work of G. William Skinner on how to conceptualize empire in time and space. Lewis proposed that the northern capital historically functioned as a peripheral center that connected the agricultural and economic centers found further south with the steppe, and this positioning, a prime concern of the dynasties founded by nomads, helped maintain China as a coherent empire. De Weerdt used social network analysis to mine Song dynasty biji for data that could model the level of connectivity of the elites that produced them. Fei explained her interest in emphasizing dynastic differences in the study of urbanization in China, arguing that the way rulers seek to order political/economic/social space has a strong impact on the types of urban development that take place. Discussant Kären Wigen’s comments pushed the conversation to include maritime frontiers, the merits of visual versus textual representations of data, and the intellectual dynamism within Skinner’s body of work.

Like many in the audience, I was struck by the visual complexity and clarity of De Weerdt’s diagrams of biji social networks. One network diagram, resembling the cross-section of a dandelion clock, showed the high number of social connections possible for a biji author (located at the center of the circle). Information (people, places, etc.) mentioned only once in the biji extended out from the author to occupy the outermost circumference of the diagram, while those mentioned the most filled up the diagram’s core. It made me marvel at how efficiently a single well-chosen image can deliver information, and wonder about the kinds of things such an image might not convey (can circular representations be hierarchical? are all datapoints equivalent?). This session brought to the table a lot of food for thought; just the sort of panel you want to find yourself attending at 8:30 in the morning.

Session 186: Borders Crossed: The Liaodong Frontier in Qing-Chosŏn Relations

For this session on the borderland Liaodong, part of the region commonly known as Manchuria, Seonmin Kim (Keimyung University) first talked about how ginseng was transported in Liaodong via various types of trade/exchange. Her paper investigated the tensions between Chosŏn rulers and the Qing founders when it came to this highly esteemed mountain root. Drawing on biographical materials, Adam Bohnet (University of British Columbia) considered some of the ways alternate personal histories of Ming loyalist refugees in Liaodong attempted to carve out out a favorable political and social space. Seung B. Kye (Korea University), going last, discussed joint Manchu-Korean military expeditions to the Amur area in the mid-seventeenth century, which, in spite of less than stellar results, could be made to contribute to positive assessments of national strength.

Evelyn S. Rawski (University of Pittsburgh) and Pamela Crossley (Dartmouth College) provided insightful comments, highlighting the value of using Korean-language sources for scholars of late imperial China. An audience member added that there are also documents in Russian for events like the expeditions. A commentator raised the question of whether we should conceptualize Manchuria as a frontier zone or not, and what the stakes are in framing it as a frontier, and panelists and attendees debated ways in which to extend cross-border analyses to include Japan, which enters the continental fray at key points during medieval as well as modern times.

Session 227: Reading Between the Fine Lines: Non-Visual Meaning in Song and Ming Paintings (A Panel in Honor of Professor Emerita Ellen Johnston Laing)

Honoring an important scholar in Chinese art history, Session 227 brought together four art historians and one historian for a sumputous presentation on Song and Ming genre paintings. Chair Susan N. Erickson (University of Michigan) began the panel with preliminary remarks and a brief introduction about the panel, and then Maggie Bickford (Brown University) explored the fascinating world of bird and flower paintings, where meanings with intricate histories lurk behind every beak and petal. Next, Alfreda Murck (Palace Museum, Beijing) presented her take on the mystery behind “Magpies and Hare” by Cui Bo, a prominent Song court painter (she noted however that this particular piece was made before his tenure at the capital), interpreted as a complex story of misplaced expectations and domestic scandal at the apex of Song society. Ann Wetherell (University of Oregon) argued that the crows in the works of the Ming painter Shen Zhou represent the painter himself, cast as a filial son, and Ina Asim (University of Oregon) explored in detail the cityscape found in a scroll depicting Nanjing during the Ming period.

Among the points raised by discussant Julia K. Murray (University of Wisconsin, Madison) was the problem posed by extrapolating when textual materials are scarce and the extant examples that we have contain features that can support diverse interpretations. Unfortunately there was not enough time for questions, which most certainly would have been interesting, but as Susan Erickson commented at the close, one of the nicest things about AAS is the opportunity to pick up discussions begun in formal sessions in dinners with friends and colleagues.

Miri Kim is a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine.

Session 174: A Marginality Debate: Regional Formation and Transhistorical Perspectives on South China and the Pearl River Delta

By Charles Wheeler

This panel brought together scholars from history and geography, using the Pearl River Delta as the means to explore questions of regionality.

John Carroll of Hong Kong University began the proceedings with a discussion of the Canton System in the eighteenth century. The system has long suffered the stereotype as the model of everything dysfunctional about late Qing state and society, in particular of China’s refusal to come to grips with the realities of the changing world, and of the incompatibility between China’s “world order” and the new order of the so-called West. Placing the system in a regional setting, Carroll pointed out, reminds us that the system evolved in a setting very different from conventional depictions of the Canton system, which focus narrowly on its relationships with Westerners. In fact, the system evolved from a long history of commercial interaction with people of the Nanyang, of which Westerners were only a part, and most of that time a very small one. The main driver of this interest was not conflict, but mutual commitment to financial gain. Cultural mixing was only one of its consequences, and it was manifold. Every instance of conflict can be offset by examples of negotiation and accommodation. In fact, such practices were necessary, for it is evident that the much-maligned regulations of the system were actually rarely ever followed. Such a thing is not surprising, when one views the Canton system in the regional perspective of China’s longtime trade relationship with the Nanyang, rather than the narrow view of Sino-Western relations.

Carolyn Cartier, the panel’s organizer, brought us out of the eighteenth century to the present, to look at the PRC’s plans for transforming the Pearl River Delta into a mega-metropolis it calls “Shengang,” spanning Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Cartier showed us an excellent example of governmentality in action. Here, the Chinese state has initiated a long-term campaign to mobilize a set of practices and ideologies in order to produce a “regime of truth,” that is, to introduce the idea of the Shengang metropolis and instill within it the aura of inevitability among the people of the Pearl River Delta. This campaign is more than discursive: Ongoing efforts to manipulate the public to acquiesce to unpopular integrative rail links between the two cities have their discursive side, but the rail will lay a structural basis for the state’s hoped-for integration. In the end, this will change prevailing ideas of territoriality in the Pearl River Delta, and spatial politics of the region within it. It will certainly transform the place of special administrative zones like Shenzhen and particularly Hong Kong within China.

Angelina Chin carried this discussion further, by addressing the PRC’s campaigns to build the Shengang mega-city, to integrate Hong Kong more fully into Guangdong province, and to inculcate a deeper sense of collective identity as patriotic citizens of China. Chin analyzed the difficulties the government faces in achieving this goal. This can be seen in the ongoing struggles between Hong Kong locals and their government and real estate developers over the demolition of historic buildings, communities and districts. In their discursive battles, activists have sought to instill a collective memory that encourages the imagination of a particular kind of Hong Kong that draws from a pre-1997 past. At the same time, they overlook recent history of both Hong Kong and China as irrelevant, or as lacking the quintessential Hong Kong character of the past. This pits activists and their supporters against officials in the local government working to move Hong Kong toward integration within greater Guangdong, and with China at large.

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By John Gittings

Fractured Rebellion coverAndrew G. Walder, Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 2009).

A group of former Red Guards at Beijing’s Qinghua University, interviewed in spring 1971 about their recent factional struggles, laughed loudly (always a sign of uneasiness) and made their “frank confession”: yes, they had not always behaved in a spirit of proletarian comradeship, they admitted. “We used to sit on either side of the table and agree to make up our differences, but even while we shook hands we were kicking one other under the table!”.

If only it had been confined to kicks. This account, given to a delegation from the Society of Anglo-Chinese Understanding (I was a member of it on my first visit to China), was a highly sanitised version. William Hinton, author of Fanshen — the classic account of rural revolution during the communist-led civil war in the late 1940s — heard a much bloodier tale when he interviewed at Qinghua. Hinton was told how the struggle on the campus in April 1968 had escalated “from cold to hot weapons”, from stone slingshots and wooden spears to revolvers and hand grenades. One group welded steel plates onto the body of a tractor to convert it into a tank. Ten students were killed and many more badly injured in the next three months till July 1968 when Mao Zedong finally sent in groups of local workers, backed by the army, to restore order.

Hinton’s account caused quite a stir on the left outside China when it was published as a special issue of Monthly Review (July-August 1972) under the title “Hundred Day War: The Cultural Revolution at Tsinghua University”, but even so his discussion of Red Guard violence was limited to the final months of the first phase (1966-68) of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). For many Chinese who remember these times, especially among the families of teachers, intellectuals, artists and “cultural workers”, government officials dubbed “bureaucrats”, and others labelled as “capitalist-roaders,” the most severe Red Guard violence in Beijing — which set the tone for elsewhere — had occurred two years earlier. By mid-1968 the survivors of these first months were simply keeping their heads down while the factions fought it out.

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It’s become a tradition for China Beat contributors and friends of the blog to assemble at the Association for Asian Studies annual meeting (as well as at the American Historical Association’s meeting) for a “bloggers’ breakfast” that provides China Beatniks the chance to get together and meet face-to-face — often for the first time, since so much of our business is conducted via e-mail. Last Saturday morning, we gathered at a Starbucks near the AAS conference site and talked about China, writing, and many other topics over coffee and pastries. A couple of photos from the AAS 2010 bloggers’ breakfast:

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Pictured (clockwise beginning at lower center): Susan McEachern (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers), Jeff Wasserstrom (UC Irvine), Samuel Liang (University of Manchester), Jeff Gammage (The Philadelphia Inquirer), Daniel Little (University of Michigan, Dearborn), Stephen MacKinnon (Arizona State University), and Rebecca MacKinnon (RConversation)

P3270033Pictured (L-R): Rebecca MacKinnon, Susan McEachern, Jeff Wasserstrom, Stephen MacKinnon, Samuel Liang, Daniel Little

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Blogging AAS 2010 (4)

Session 18: The Productive Uses of Gossip and Rumor in Imperial China

By Graham Sanders (edited by Jack Chen)

This panel attempted to think through a number of issues related to gossip and rumor in traditional China. Paola Zamperini of Amhest College presided over the affair in truly breathtaking Edwardian piratical style. Incisive comments were provided by Robert Hymes of Columbia University. Hymes asked the question of whether or not gossip was normative or subversive, suggesting that there was very little in any of the papers that could be taken as a subversive reading of gossip. Rather, gossip in each case tended to affirm or reaffirm normative social hierarchies and values.

The first paper, on early Confucian discourses on ming (name/fame) by Hajime Nakatani of McGill University, explored the way in which the doctrine of zhengming informed later discussions of naming in early philosophical discourse. Nakatani asked the question of the agency of naming — that is to say, who is it that has the authority to give proper names — and whether it might not be better to think of names as not given (thus suggesting an anti-nominalist position). Rather, names are heard or received by sagely figures who understand the proper (i.e., natural) relationship between names and things and do not force names upon things. Nakatani then looked ahead to the early medieval period and theorized that name becomes fame as a function of this tension between some kind of natural appellation and the way in which ming (as fame) is something bestowed upon an individual by others.

The second paper, by Jack W. Chen of UCLA, took up reputational networks in the early medieval period. Chen examined the way in which the Shishuo xinyu foregrounds struggles over reputation even in passages that are commonly cited as examples of qingtan, a supposedly pure and disinterested philosophical discursive practice of the period. What informs much of the anecdotal narratives of the Shishuo are, instead, preoccupations with character evaluation as a way of asserting prestige during a period in which the political sphere is no longer the sole determinant of status. Chen focused on the figure Xie An as the exemplar of Eastern Jin elite values, showing how his famed composure and his decision to remove himself from politics became the basis for his lasting reputation.

The third paper, by Paize Keulemans of Yale University, jumped forwards in history to late imperial China to take up the question of how scandal and gossip are spread through the Jin Ping Mei. Keulemans argued that while scandal is often thought of in visual terms, it is consistently represented as circulating through auditory means (wen, “to hear”) in the narrative of the novel. He also demonstrated, through an ingenious use of PowerPoint, how the fictional narrative shows the spread of information by highlighting the multiplying number of gossiping agents on the page as a scandalous tale is told and retold. It is, ultimately, the act of overhearing and transmitting scandal that allows the overarching narrative of Jin Ping Mei to become connected and to cohere. Moreover, the circulation of Jin Ping Mei itself takes on the form of gossip, as the text is transmitted as a roman à clef by an in-group of literati whose social identity is formed by their participation in the speculation of which characters stand in for which historical contemporaries.

The last paper, by Andrea Goldman of UCLA, looked to the huapu and the Pinhua baojian of late, late imperial China. She noted how theater connoisseurs enjoyed keeping track of affairs between patrons and actors through the huapu and, in more mediated form, through reading the Pinhua baojian as a roman à clef. Such gossip was aimed more at the patrons of the actors, than at the actors themselves, and as with Keulemans’s paper, it was suggested that the audience of such texts comprised a kind of social in-group formation, as part of a larger urban cultural imaginary of 18th and 19th century Beijing. Turning to the Pinhua baojian, Goldman noted that this novel was itself received as gossip and read as gossip.

Graham Sanders teaches in the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto. Jack Chen teaches in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at UCLA.

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Blogging AAS (3)

Session 177: Roundtable: ‘Memory of the Past, Capital of the Present’: Red Legacy in China

By Miri Kim

This intellectually and visually stimulating roundtable was chaired by Carma Hinton (George Mason University) and focused on the legacy of China’s socialist past in China’s not-quite-so socialist present. I’d like to think I took good notes, but this was a session very rich in materials and ideas (and excellently managed time-wise, which means things moved along at a brisk pace), so apologies in advance for any errors or omissions.

The roundtable began with Michael R. Dutton (University of London), who presented three short videos exploring how political icons can become de-politicized through commodification, “museumification,” and the processes of nostalgia and memory-making about the past. These changes are not relevant to just China but other parts of the world, such as Eastern Europe, which have been experiencing dramatic changes in recent years. It is imperative, Dutton argued, to consider how and why objects created to serve a particular political purpose (e.g., to instill a visceral awareness of class-based social injustice in the viewer) are deliberately moved away from their original intended meaning.

The first video, “The Political Life of Inanimate Objects,” led us through Grūtas Park in Lithuania (known unofficially as “Stalin World”) where the statues of socialist leaders like Lenin have been literally put out to pasture in a forestland theme park. It also offers visitors a chance to mosey through re-creations of Soviet gulag camps. Peopled by statues of former leaders, this controversial park, Dutton suggests, is one example of how icons of the socialist past can be de-contextualized, even trivialized, reducing the possible range of positive and negative emotional engagement (“affective connection”) with the past thereby.

The second video, “Fabrications,” was a short introduction to Chinese conceptual artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s equally controversial installation at the 1999 Venice Biennial, where he exhibited “Rent Collection Courtyard,”  a reproduction of statues made in the 1960s depicting a rapacious landlord and the suffering of his peasant victims. Made in the socialist realist style, the 1960s statues are not individual characters but a representation of a politically unambiguous, unified collective experience–the landlord symbolizing bourgeois oppression and the figures of the peasants standing in for the whole of China’s downtrodden masses. During questions, Chang Tan (Pomona College) brought up the need to understand politics as an art form with specific emotions, and Dutton commented that the problem of trivializing and exploiting the Red legacy raised by Guo’s work opens up the question of what kinds of things, exactly, we should be considering “politics.” Guo’s installation is framed in part as a critique of Western artistic traditions that value originality–a “re-contextualization,” in other words, that takes a piece of China’s socialist past to serve an aesthetic goal. However, some still see a trivialization of a traumatic past that is far from over, several decades into the future.

The third video, “Communities on Patrol,” showed a Chinese policewoman on her neighborhood beat conversing with a resident about his concerns, an example of interaction between the state and the people that forgoes the mass politics of emotion, with its potential to rouse millions of individuals, in favor of a individualized experience. Seen in this way, how the Chinese state mobilizes “affectivity” today appears distinctly opposed to the one-size-must-fit-all approach of the Cultural Revolution. Read the rest of this entry »

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