March 2010

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Notes: At Frog in a Well, our esteemed colleague Jonathan Dresner notes that when it comes to live coverage of the AAS, “we just don’t have a critical mass of tweeting Asianists yet” (no doubt stymied, in part, by–as he writes–the lack of wireless in the conference hotel). However, we did want to draw your attention to Daniel Little’s tweet-by-tweet coverage of an AAS panel on Burma; you can view his feed here.

On Conference Freebies

By William Callahan

One of the pleasures of going to a conference is seeing what free goodies you can scam from various institutions. Lots of free pens were proffered by various publishers. A Chinese press was giving out some trinkets — but for some reason not to me. The International Institute for Asian Studies (Leiden) was once again giving out sheer canvas bags loaded with their newsletter and other readable items. UBC Press offered 50-year-old issues of Pacific Affairs for the antiquarians among us, as well as more recent issues.

My favorite freebie continues to be the official conference bag; although technically it’s not free since I paid the registration fee.

Conference bags have evolved over the years. They used to be heavy-duty plastic. Now to address the environmental concerns of our throw-away society, the AAS provides a canvas tote bag. It has a sumptuously capacious design; its forest green handle and trim are stylishly ecological. But in spite of these benefits, I find the current AAS bag lacking. It seems to be designed for the arm and shoulder of a 153 cm tall Asianist. Since I’m 185 cm, it doesn’t fit.

Actually, I can more easily envision fruit and veg from a farmers market filling this tote bag, than books and papers in need of marking. When compared with my trusty ECPR [European Consortium of Political Research] 2006 bag’s small brief-case design, it comes up short.

AAS powers-that-be, please take note.

William A. Callahan of the University of Manchester is the author most recently of China: The Pessoptimist Nation, which includes themes he has previously explored in posts at China Beat (such as this one and this one).

As many of our readers are already aware, the Association for Asian Studies Annual Meeting is taking place this weekend in Philadelphia. The largest annual gathering of Asia scholars in the world (this year there will be about three thousand in attendance), the AAS meeting brings together university-based and independent scholars and writers who work in fields ranging from history to political science to literature and studying cultures and countries across Asia.

Between roundtable discussions, panels, book exhibits, movie screenings, and keynote talks (this year’s are by Wang Hui and Jomo Kwame Sundaram, the UN assistant-secretary general on economic development), there is much to keep tabs on at the meeting. So, for the benefit of those who couldn’t make it (or those who could, but couldn’t make it to everything at the conference), China Beat will be running short reports on some of the meeting’s events over the next few days.

Those interested in learning more about the meeting’s events can browse the program at the AAS website, or read reporter Jeff Gammage’s overview of the conference at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Session 30: “Strangers Within the Gates: External Influence on Domestic Social, Economic, and Political Development.”

(Abstracts for this panel may be found at the AAS website, here.)

By Shellen Xiao Wu

It was a real pleasure to present on the Friday morning panel “Strangers Within the Gates: External Influence on Domestic Social, Economic, and Political Development,” not least because the panel truly integrated research in political science and history. The panelists as well as the chair and discussant reflected the interdisciplinary nature of the panel, with Professor Lynn White from Princeton University serving as Chair, and Professor Edward A. McCord from George Washington University as Discussant. As McCord pointed out in his comments, panels such as this one are perhaps reflective of new trends within modern China studies – decades after Paul Cohen issued his call for China-centered research, scholars are now returning to reexamine topics in diplomatic history, international relations, and foreign influence on China.

It turns out that China didn’t do as badly during the “century of humiliation” as the traditional historiography showed. Three papers by Ian Chong, Chunmei Du, and myself (the former a political scientist, and the latter two historians), started the positive reassessment during the late Qing and Republican period. Both Chong and my own paper offered competing notions of Chinese sovereignty in the early twentieth century, Chong’s as a political science concept, and mine as a term which appeared with frequency in late Qing mining laws.

But perhaps the return of China and the world is also revealing of the gains in Chinese economic and international standing in the last two decades. Holding 25 percent of American treasury bonds can soothe a lot of insecurities, but is it actually a good thing? Elya Zhang’s presentation sketched a history of Chinese sovereign debt defaults from the early 20th century to the present day. Equally intriguingly, political scientist Min Ye showed that contrary to popular expectations, ethnic direct investments (EDI) played a far greater role in both Chinese and Indian economic development in the 1990s and early 2000s than foreign direct investments (FDI). The glossy billboards of foreign brands in Shanghai and Shenzhen, it turns out, hid the reality that the majority of investment came from ethnic Chinese in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau.

China/Asia remained the center of research, but all the papers revisited the impact of foreign influence and expanded the boundaries of research to greater China and beyond.

Shellen Xiao Wu is a graduate student at Princeton and a contributor to the blog, “History Compass Exchanges.”

Skinner’s Legacy (Discussing Session 54: Roundtable: The Living Legacy of G. William Skinner and Session 83: Roundtable: G. William Skinner’s Data and New Quantitative Approaches)

By Daniel Little

Friday’s AAS program included two panels on the legacy of G. William Skinner. Skinner has influenced several generations of China scholars, through his writings and through many collaborative research projects. And, as became apparent in both panels, there is a large amount of unpublished research and data that are soon to become available to other scholars as well.

A few highlights of the retrospective –

Skinner’s influence on the China field has been broad and pervasive. Many of the concepts he introduced are now a standard basis of conceptualizing China.

Skinner also did a lot of good work on subjects that don’t have to do with China. And some of that work has never been published. For example —

  • Conjugal power and historical demography of Japan
  • Regionalization of France and Japan
  • Fieldwork in Thailand

Skinner’s work on regionalization anticipated the GIS revolution in history and the social sciences. And it is the more remarkable when we consider that the desktop computing and geographical information tools that we now take for granted did not then exist.

Skinner was consistently interested in gender and family issues in his research on China, Japan, and France. In this way he was an early advocate of gender studies.

Myron Cohen recounted having attended lectures that Skinner offered at Columbia early in Skinner’s career. He quoted Skinner as saying, “I am a Parsonian.” This involved thinking of society as a whole system and as a system possessing internal functional organization.

The volume of unpublished work that Skinner left is startling. So it is good news that work is currently underway to digitize and catalogue Skinner’s unpublished papers and data sets. Harvard University’s Center for Geographic Analysis and the University of Washington have taken the lead on these efforts. Here are some important web resources where Skinner’s work is being curated and presented to the public.

Here is a link to the slides I used in my contribution to the first session, called “Skinner’s Spatial Imagination.”

Daniel Little, of the University of Michigan-Dearborn, blogs regularly at Understanding Society and has previously written about Skinner’s legacy and other topics for China Beat.

Session 149: Culture, Memory, and Politics in East Asia

By William Callahan

As your mother surely taught you, in polite society it’s impolite to discuss religion or politics. Session 149 at the AAS, “Culture, Memory and Politics in East Asia,” impertinently explored such issues in China, Japan and Taiwan. All five of the panelists — Elena Barabantseva, Daniel C. Lynch, Shogo Suzuki, Zheng Wang, and myself — are self-confessed IR scholars; so it was fascinating to see how we each explored cultural issues to see how memory and power are produced in East Asia. The four papers overlapped in interesting ways, but I think that the most interesting axis of distinction was between those who focused on (semi) official discourse (Wang and Lynch), and those who looked more to popular culture and popular resistance (Suzuki and Callahan). This reflects the perennial chicken and egg conundrum that faces studies of Chinese identity: which is more important, state propaganda or popular feelings? Surely they’re intertwined, but understanding just how they’re interwoven remains a challenge. The discussion was lively, at least for an 8:30 a.m. session. After the performance Shogo Suzuki and I remarked, with surprise and a touch of disappointment, that the Q&A period lacked any outbursts of injured national feelings. Surely our outrageous comments on comfort women and national humiliation had offended someone. But then again, it was an 8:30 a.m. session.

William A. Callahan of the University of Manchester is the author most recently of China: The Pessoptimist Nation, which includes themes he has previously explored in posts at China Beat (such as this one and this one).

By Silvia Lindtner

A bit more than two months ago, on January 12, 2010, Google released an official statement on its corporate blog that described the company’s plan to push back over censorship of search results on  The following is an excerpt from that statement, which was inspired in large part by sophisticated cyber attacks against Gmail users that originated from within China:

In mid-December, we detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google. However, it soon became clear that what at first appeared to be solely a security incident—albeit a significant one—was something quite different … These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered—combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web—have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on

Reactions to the blog entry, which was entitled “A New Approach to China,” were numerous, taking the form of online commentaries (e.g. Barmé, Chow, MacKinnon, Martinson, and Wu), magazine and newspaper articles (e.g. Eckert and Buckley, Kynge, Johnson and Dean, and Segal), and even a segment of Fresh Air on NPR.

Discussions that followed the blog post were consumed by debates over the ramifications of the announcement, not just for China but also for the American IT industry, global markets and international relations. Topics ranged from speculation over Google’s “true” motives to discussions over class differences in the usages of in China. In the weeks after the announcement, the various conversations evolved into a debate over conflicting values, notions of politics, and approaches to ethics. On January 21, for example, Hillary Clinton delivered a speech on Internet freedom at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. In that speech, the secretary of state added a new freedom to Roosevelt’s 1941 list of four: the freedom to connect.  As she put it, “The freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly in cyberspace.”  She also emphasized the importance of information flows, explaining that “historically, asymmetrical access to information is one of the leading causes of interstate conflict. When we face serious disputes or dangerous incidents, it’s critical that people on both sides of the problem have access to the same set of facts and opinions.”

The response from the Chinese government and media was quick and referred to Clinton’s speech as merely the latest expression of US “information imperialism.” Foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu stated that China’s regulation of the Internet was in keeping with “national conditions and cultural traditions.”

What we see here is how easily discourses about technology and politics can become intertwined. As Internet and communication technologies broadly often become main actors within larger processes of globalization and networked social and political practices, specific technology sites such as can become the melting pot of conflicting values in the design and implementation of these large-scale border-crossing infrastructures. This became a topic of broader discussion yet again earlier this week,, when Google began redirecting traffic to its servers hosted in Hong Kong. Accessing now automatically redirects users to Google’s Hong Kong-based website, Reactions spilled again quickly into press coverage and blogs, many of which are emphasizing the rising political stakes and global ramifications (e.g.: China Digital Times, The Associated Press via Google News, and The Wall Street Journal’s Market Beat Blog). The New York Times quotes Xiao Qiang, founder and editor of China Digital Times, who comments that “China’s leader once saw the Internet as having both political and commercial uses that balanced each other to a degree. But increasingly they see it as a political space.”

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We’ve run several posts on Lu Xun at China Beat recently (including this one by Julia Lovell and this one by Sean Macdonald). While Lovell’s new translation of Lu Xun’s stories caters to an Anglophone audience, Kevin Nadolny wanted to create a reader that made Lu Xun more accessible to Chinese-language learners. His new text, Capturing Chinese: Short Stories from Lu Xun’s Nahan, features a fully glossed text of Lu Xun’s short stories so that language learners can focus on reading and comprehension rather than their dictionaries. Here, Kevin answers questions about his motivations for creating the reader and his own language-learning inspirations.

Capturing Chinese Front CoverKate Merkel-Hess: Your goal is to help Chinese language learners read real Chinese literature — not just textbook lessons. Why do you think this approach to language learning has value, and why begin with Lu Xun?

Kevin Nadolny: The ultimate goal for language learners is to read literature, newspapers, etc. in the original language. Reading original literature provides a raw path to understanding the history, social structure and philosophies of another culture. Textbook lessons are great and necessary for beginning and intermediate students, but reading original literature is the cornerstone of becoming an advanced student.

Lu Xun’s stories are great for students for two reasons.

First: Lu Xun’s stories are short yet the plot and characters are complex. Longer novels are quite a challenge for students making their first attempt into literature. Since some of Lu Xun’s stories are just a few pages long, you can begin learning by tackling the easier ones first.

Secondly: Lu Xun is extremely important in Chinese history. The Chinese Communist Party has canonized him as the Father of modern Chinese literature and Chinese students have to read his works in school. In addition, reading Lu Xun is like a short history lesson. During his lifetime China transformed from the imperial Qing dynasty into the Republic of China. Reading his works is an opportunity to experience and understand the changing times in which he lived.

KMH: In addition to Lu Xun, what other authors do you consider critical reads for those attempting to get a better sense of Chinese literature? Are you at work on readers of material by any other authors?

KN: I’m currently wrapping up Lu Xun’s “Ah Q: The Real Story” (阿Q正传). This story was too long to include in my first book and will be published by the end of this year. After finishing this book I’ll be turning my attention to other authors.

Chinese literature has a long history. Students who are up for the challenge should read Cao Xueqin’s (曹雪芹) Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦). I also recommend 20th century authors Hu Shih (胡适) and Eileen Chang (张爱玲). Contemporary authors Ma Jian (马建) and Mo Yan (莫言) have also written important material.

KMH: What value does reading literature in its original language have for language learners? Did you find that knowledge of Chinese literature translated into day-to-day communications for you, say in better understanding the culture or in conversations with friends?

KN: So many idioms and cultural references come from literature. Without cultural frames of reference you will find yourself lost discussing many topics. Thus, reading literature is extremely valuable. As I have started to read more Chinese literature I have become more confident to take on such difficult texts as the Chinese Building Code (I am a practicing engineer). In addition, my vocabulary has grown. My Chinese would have improved with normal studying as well, but I find literature so much more fun and engaging.

KMH: What sparked your own interest in learning Chinese? What methods worked for you while you were studying and which didn’t?

KN: The rich culture and history that my Chinese friends shared with me in college sparked my interest in China and in learning Chinese. Previously, I had no plans to study Chinese but by my second week of university I decided to pursue the language.

My favorite method for studying foreign languages is to use tapes/MP3s and memorize short practical dialogues. I am currently using this method to learn Japanese. I find the podcasting services for learning languages extremely helpful.

My second bit of advice is to never give up on learning the characters. Don’t trick yourself and think they are not that important. They are absolutely essential for learning Chinese. Make flashcards and drill yourself.

On that note however, I have not practiced writing characters enough. When studying the characters, it is important to learn to write them as well as to recognize them. I have found that handwriting a journal and letters (not using a computer) is a good way to practice.

KMH: How did you come up with the idea for this book — were you teaching Chinese, or did it grow out of your own experiences learning Chinese?

KN: The idea for this book grew out of my own experience while learning Chinese in Beijing. After class I would periodically go to the book store to look for interesting Chinese books. I was especially looking out for books that would help me read original Chinese literature. I was yearning to break away from the textbook lessons that we had to read in class every morning. However, my Chinese was not good enough to handle a book on my own (without a lot of struggle anyway). I had to look up 10 to 20 characters on each page of the books that I bought and write copious notes. Looking up characters by radical is tedious. While I got pretty quick with a dictionary, I could never be certain that I had the correct definition.

I just knew there had to be a better way of reading Chinese literature so I wrote this book in exactly the way I had always needed one.

KMH: Your book is a collection of short stories. Which short story is your favorite and why?

KN: “A Village Opera” (社戏) is definitely my favorite. Lu Xun’s stories can be dark and sad. I love his satirical style, but I enjoyed this uplifting story from his childhood the most. He begins by discussing his dislike of contemporary Beijing opera. While reflecting on this, he digresses into a story of his boyhood visit to his mother’s hometown. He wanted to see a village opera with the local children, and so planned a trip to a neighboring town. Since this part of China (close to Shanghai) is full of rivers and canals, the boys rented a boat, paddled over and watched the opera from their boat. The story reminds me of the exciting adventures I had when I was a child and elicited some magical feelings about China.

KMH: According to your website, you are now learning Japanese as well. What prompts your interest in learning Asian languages? Do you have any advice for those just beginning the (daunting!) study of Chinese or Japanese?

KN: I touched on why I embarked on learning Chinese in college, but now why Japanese? Well, I met my lovely wife while at Beijing Language and Culture University. She is Japanese and studied Chinese in college and in Beijing. After months pursuing her after class and four years of long distance romance, we married last year and are now living in Tokyo. When I proposed to Tomoko I also promised her mother that I would learn Japanese. I am now working on fulfilling that promise.

My advice to aspiring students is to find your passion for the language. Chinese and Japanese are too tough to study on a whim. You need passion to maintain your desire to learn since it will be a multi-year effort. Studying for a few years will just be skimming the surface of the culture and history. The two languages and cultures are beautiful so your hard work will be rewarded many times over.

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Many Taiwanese are becoming increasingly concerned for the health of First Lady Chow Mei-ching 周美青 (Christine Chow Ma), who suffered a spinal injury after being bowled over by a group of overenthusiastic children while visiting a primary school in Pingtung 屏東 County on March 3. She was released from the hospital on March 16, but despite repeated Presidential Office reassurances that the First Lady is in good health doctors have ordered two months of additional bed rest, meaning that she had to miss the opening game of Taiwan’s professional baseball league on March 20 (the First Lady is an avid Brother Elephants 兄弟象 fan; they won 1-0). One of her daughters has returned from the U.S. to assist in her care.

The First Lady, a dedicated philanthropist, is in some ways more popular than her husband, whose prestige has suffered from a series of official missteps on policies like the death penalty as well as repeated KMT losses in local elections. Her admirers are particularly worried about media reports claiming that the she currently weighs only 46 kilograms, less than many middle school girls. These fears came to a head following the broadcast of a talk show about the First Lady on ETTV network (東森關鍵時刻), which prompted some viewers to wonder whether she might be suffering from anorexia. Such concerns remain in the realm of unconfirmed speculation, but one sincerely hopes that regardless of the nature of her illness the First Lady will get well very soon.

Perhaps the current discussion can also help focus public attention on the problem of eating disorders, which are becoming increasingly prevalent in Taiwan and the rest of East Asia as well. In a moving January 2, 2005 Taipei Times article entitled “Bingeing, Purging, Starving in the Dark”, one of Taiwan’s few specialists in this field, Dr. Chen Kuan-yu 陳冠宇, referred to anorexia as a “hidden problem” due to the fact that cultural stigmas related to emotional disorders prevent many people from coming forward or even discussing their problems with family and friends. This article also quoted an Asian medical journal as stating that the percentage of females suffering from anorexia and bulimia in Japan, South Korea and Singapore might be nearly 1 percent, although Dr. Chen’s own estimate is 0.2 percent for women in Taiwan. This corresponds with extrapolated statistics posted on some websites:

Katz table

Regardless of actual numbers, an increasing number of reports indicate that eating disorders like anorexia are on the rise throughout Asia, including in Japan, Hong Kong, and China. As early as December 9, 1999, a New York Times article from that paper’s “Beijing Journal” entitled “China’s Chic Waistline: Convex to Concave” described the seriousness of this problem, while an October 23, 2006 article entitled “Eating Disorders Attacking Girls in China” reported that, “Eating disorders are like ghosts haunting many young women in big cities in China. Many patients even have kept their disease secret from their families for years.”

All this suggests that anorexia and other illnesses are starting to have a major impact on Taiwan and other Asian nations. Unfortunately, however, Taiwan has yet to establish its own branch of the National Eating Disorder Association, while public or private clinics and specialists in treating these disorders are woefully few. Eating disorders like anorexia are monstrous afflictions that sink their claws into men and women of all ages, gradually shredding away their humanity. It is time for committed philanthropists and concerned citizens throughout Asia to devote their energies to alleviating the suffering so many people now endure. Promoting public awareness and acceptance would be a good way to start.

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