May 2010

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. . . well, not exactly. But we are taking a short vacation, to focus on wrapping up the academic year here at UC Irvine. We’ll be back online June 6 (though we will keep up our Twitter feed during the break, so follow us today!). Before we go, a few links we’d like to share:

• Check out UC Berkeley’s YouTube channel for videos from the “Moderne and Modernity: Visual Narratives of Interwar Shanghai” conference that was held in early March. Presentations available online include Joan Judge (speaking about magazine cover girls in the early 20th century), Renee Chow (discussing a timely topic, the destruction of shikumen housing), and Michael Knight (on Shanghai Deco).

• The Wall Street Journal’s “China Real Time Report” blog has this piece by Andrew Browne about how recent Red Shirt protests in Thailand are resonating in China, and why Chinese leaders might fear something similar could happen in their own country:

So could China go the same way as Thailand? That’s certainly the nightmare that keeps Chinese leaders awake at night, although the Chinese state is unlikely to fracture so easily.

Even though the percentage of the Chinese population living in poverty is much higher than in Thailand, rural Chinese have largely benefited from economic growth. That’s been a big factor underpinning social stability in China. Like [former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra] when he was in power, President Hu Jintao has been wooing the rural populations with a program of expanded healthcare coverage and fiscal giveaways.

Of course, in China the Communist Party brooks no political challenge. As Chinese leaders survey the color revolutions in countries of the former Soviet Union, and now the Red Shirt rebellion in Thailand, the lesson they take away is that nothing must be allowed to compromise the Party’s monopoly on power. In response to challenges great or small, the Party must clamp down hard.

• We’ve recently heard about the China-themed, English-language literary journal Terracotta Typewriter; the Spring 2010 issue is available in PDF format here (hat tip to China Law Blog for the link). In addition to poems and short stories, there’s also a long interview with Peter Hessler, covering questions about his writing process, some of his favorite books about China, and cooking Lanzhou la mian.

• Historian Jonathan Spence delivered the National Endowment for the Humanities’ 2010 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities last Thursday evening in Washington, D.C., speaking about “When Minds Met: China and the West in the Seventeenth Century.”  Inside Higher Ed has a feature about Spence’s appearance; full text of the address is available at the NEH website. An excerpt from Spence’s talk:

It is a commonplace that the sources that underpin our concept of the humanities, as a focus for thought, are expected to be broadly inclusive. But as a historian I have always been drawn to the apparently small-scale happenings in circumscribed settings, out of which we can tease a more expansive story. Thus I would like to start our search for the meeting of the minds not only in the later seventeenth century, but with a most unassertive source, an apparently simple letter of introduction written by a scholar in England, at Oxford University, dated July 26, 1687. Though the language of the letter is rather formal, even neutral in tone, if we read it carefully we notice that the range of topics covered in a short space is unusual, and can serve as a useful guide to the kinds of issues that in the seventeenth century served to bring people of different ages, races, and backgrounds into a common dialogue.

The writer of this late July letter in 1687 was a historian and linguist named Thomas Hyde, fifty-one years old at the time, a scholar of wide interests, who conducted his researches in a variety of “Oriental” languages, including Persian, Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac. . . .

The man on whose behalf Thomas Hyde was writing his letter of introduction was a Chinese traveler, called Shen Fuzong, who had arrived in England that March. Shen Fuzong had been born and raised in central China, where his father was a physician, and educated in Chinese by his parents, who were both practicing Christians. At the same time he had been taught Latin (both written and spoken), by Jesuit missionaries stationed in China. Now in his late thirties, Shen had been invited by one of his teachers, the Flemish Jesuit Father Couplet, to join him in what turned out to be an adventurous and protracted journey by land and sea, which took the two men through Southeast Asia and around the Cape of Good Hope to an eventual safe landing in the Netherlands. From there they journeyed to Flanders, Paris, Rome, and Florence, and then returned to Paris again in 1686. After close to a year back in Paris, working on cataloguing Chinese books in the royal library of King Louis XIV, and helping French scholars with problems of translation and exegesis, Shen had left France and come to England in the spring of 1687. England, at that time, was the way-station for ships voyaging to Portugal, and Shen hoped to travel to Portugal so that, while there, he could complete his training for the priesthood, before returning to China to take up full time pastoral work.

Jonathan Spence, NEH Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities 2010

Jonathan Spence, NEH Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities 2010

BookTourGuitarMy “book tour,” which has had me adding a lot of miles to my frequent flyer account,has finally started winding down. I’ve got some things still to come, including an upcoming event in this area with Ian Johnson in June and then during the summer some book-related talks across the Pacific, including several Shanghai gigs (details to follow in a future post) and a July 24 presentation at the Suzhou branch of the Bookworm bookstore, and so on. Still, the pace has slowed down, which put me in a reflective mood and gave me time to finish writing a piece that had been forming in my mind since the start of the tour. It explores the contrasts (but also parallels) between touring with a band (something I grew up thinking I’d do some day, but have never done) and touring with a book. If you are interested in seeing the results of my ruminations on this theme, you can find them at the Huffington Post, with an accompanying slide shows made up of three of my own photos and two great shots they came up with to illustrate my “top 5 list” of parallels.

The piece speaks for itself, but I will just note (a special bonus track?) one additional parallel that didn’t make it into the Huffington Post version (think of it as an out-take from the album):

Sometimes switching from singing solo to doing duets has a place. The upcoming Laguna Beach event I’m doing with Ian Johnson is a case in point, but I’ve done earlier “duets” (with Mara Hvistendahl at UCI and with Joseph Kahn in New York) as part of the tour. And I’ve even been part of a couple of ersatz “trios” (with Richard Baum and Zachary Karabell at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival and with Perry Link and, again, Richard Baum last weekend at a panel held in San Gabriel). I expect to learn a lot from sharing a stage with Ian when his own book tour brings him this way, as I’ve gotten a lot from sharing a stage with each of the other people mentioned above in recent weeks.


“In queue to visit the Indian pavilion at Shanghai’s World Expo, the man in front of me purveys what will be another hour of standing in the drizzle. The barriers directing the queue were just narrow and high enough as to prevent any hope of escape.”

— Alec Ash, Six

Read Alec’s recent post on “The Evolution of Chinese Queues” here.

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

NY 1964

The Unisphere

My grandfather took his job as family photographer seriously, and over the course of four decades he produced several huge boxes of slides that my mother has recently begun scanning and digitizing. Mixed in with the usual snapshots of weddings, birthday parties, and holiday gatherings are photos he took during a family trip to the 1964/’65 World’s Fair in New York.

NY 1964 pic 2

New York State Exhibit

On other occasions he took dozens of pictures, but there are only seven slides from their day at the World’s Fair (“It was really hot,” my mother offered as a possible explanation for her father’s uncharacteristic photographic reticence). He got two shots of the Fair’s symbol, the Unisphere, and a couple of landscape photos, plus a blurry picture of the Thai pavilion. The final slide is this view of the Chinese (Republic of China, that is) pavilion, sitting beneath the Swiss Sky Ride:

Taiwan pavilion 1964

Thanks to this site, I was able to learn more about the exhibit, in the same words that my grandfather might have read in the “1964 Pavilion Guide”:

This is the first time that such a building, in the best architectural style of the Chinese imperial palace, has been erected in the Western Hemisphere. Every piece of roof tile was handmade, and every ceiling panel hand painted in Taiwan, repository and defender of Chinese culture. Everything in this pavilion has a meaning, from the ceremonial arch guarding the grounds, to the intricately carved wood screen immediately inside the entrance. The latter, entitled “100 Birds Pay Tribute to Queen Phoenix,” symbolizes visitors coming from all over the world to see the New York World’s Fair.

Interestingly, in the 1964 guide, the author wrote that “The Chinese Pavilion hopes to offer an oasis of peace and quietude that is different from the myriad attractions of the Fair. The purpose is not to impress or dazzle, but to provide a change of pace, a place for reflection and quiet enjoyment of a mellow culture, a heritage of one of the world’s oldest nations.” By the following year, however, the tone of the guidebook had changed. Visitors in 1965 were no longer encouraged to seek refuge in the pavilion, but instead urged to educate themselves about life in Taiwan:

Larger than life beauties, in a photo-mural from the “Miss China” pageant, reign over the exhibits from a raised palace room. Products are arranged to show how the Chinese dress (fabrics to fashion styles), what they consume (Chinese cuisine, canned food, table wines and tobacco), how they live (building materials to low-cost housing projects), and how they travel (sedan, motorcycle and bicycle). All objects shown are, of course, made in Taiwan, which enjoyed Asia’s highest growth rate in the last decade.

In addition to this shift in focus from the history of Chinese culture to the modernity of Taiwan, the pavilion also added a restaurant for the 1965 season, offering “the standard Chinese dishes.” No indication of what that meant, but it has piqued my curiosity; if anyone has knowledge of what was on the menu, please send me an e-mail (thechinabeat[at]gmail[dot]com).

All photographs by William R. Thompson


By Maura Dykstra

A review of Pamela Kyle Crossley’s The Wobbling Pivot: China Since 1800, An Interpretive History (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010) and William T. Rowe’s China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing (Belknap Press, 2009)

On a recently aired episode of Jeopardy!, one contestant told a story about how her father always seemed to know all the answers when they watched the show together at home during her childhood. Apparently, the program was aired twice in her area, and her father would watch each day before his daughter’s return from school, and then during the second airing of the show would impress her with his profound knowledge of U.S. presidential trivia, words that end in “cat,” nineteenth-century opera, and so forth. This reminded me of something intriguing about the study of history: sometimes it’s a little too easy to sound clever when you know what happens next. In the algebra of history, we start with both sides of the equation – a beginning and an end – and then get to pick how we move from one side of the equation to the other, over time. The selection of historical variables is a matter of personal discretion, and may be motivated by any number of political, philosophical, intellectual, methodological, or aesthetic considerations.

Preoccupied with questions of our own relevance, writers of history are often compelled to show how the trends they have illustrated as salient variables in one historical equation are linked to later events. This temptation is most pressing when the opportunity arises to link one’s study to a topic currently in the news or in public discourse. I succumb to it regularly: writing grant proposals, I make shameless and sometimes risible attempts to connect the dispute mediation practices of merchants in nineteenth-century Chongqing to the post-Mao economic growth patterns of the PRC. Most of these links fall flat under the scrutiny of my colleagues, but the urge to convince others (non-historians most of all) that my work is both interesting and relevant is too strong. I will continue to tilt at windmills, and attempt to convince whoever will listen that my topic contains lessons about practically any aspect of life worth reflection.

This is part of the job, convincing a world focused on the nightly newscast that history matters. The problem is, sometimes the future makes fools of us. Forging links between the distant and the more recent past implies some sort of trajectory between past and present, and sometimes – especially for those of us who study China today – the people whose past we study come up with futures that we simply hadn’t imagined, and which our narratives don’t neatly explain. Unlike a thirty-minute game of Jeopardy!, history doesn’t end. So unless historians are prepared to abandon the notion that their discipline helps people understand contemporary events, we have to keep coming up with new answers about the past to fit with new understandings of the present. Revisionist history is born.
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