December 2010

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China Beat will be taking a holiday break until January 3. Before we move on to 2011, though, here’s a short round-up of pieces from 2010 that you shouldn’t miss:

• We’re still doing a bit of catching up as we recover from the end of the fall academic quarter, so please forgive us for being a bit behind on covering both the recent tensions between North and South Korea and also the controversial release of documents by WikiLeaks. On North Korea, read Evan Osnos, “Lips and Teeth,” and listen to Mary Kay Magistad of PRI’s The World. For a China angle on WikiLeaks, Andrew Leonard at Salon examines “The WikiLeaks China-Google Connection.”

• Evan Osnos also wraps up the “Top Ten China Myths of 2010” at the New Yorker’s News Desk.

• At the London Review of Books blog, Nick Holdstock has an interesting post entitled “Love the motherland” featuring images of several propaganda murals in Turpan, Xinjiang.

The Economist takes a look at how the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 is remembered in China today:

In East Zhangwu Village, close to the railway line between Beijing and the port city of Tianjin, the village doctor is a Boxer fan. Sitting behind his desk in the clinic, he recounts, as if he had seen the action himself, how one sultry June local Boxers tore up the line to stop a trainload of foreign troops from heading to Beijing to break a siege of the capital’s embassy district by pro-Boxer imperial troops. “The foreigners had a couple of interpreters who said to the Boxers, ‘Don’t fight, we’ll give you some money, OK?’ The Boxers replied, ‘We don’t want money. We want the foreigners’ heads’.” He shows off a copy of the scores used by the musicians whose flutes, cymbals, drums and pipes accompanied the Boxers into combat. He and a group of fellow enthusiasts have formed what they call the Boxer Band. It performs at ceremonial send-offs for local army recruits.

• In the New Yorker, Pankaj Mishra considers the “staying power” of Mao and his followers as he reviews three recent books on Mao, which “attest to the difficulty of definitively fixing Mao’s image, a project that amounts to writing a history of China’s present.” And, at the New Left Review, Tariq Ali reviews Rebecca Karl’s Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World.

• Finally, if you find yourself casting about for fresh reading material while China Beat is on break, check out The Browser for recommendations of “writing worth reading.” While not China-specific, the site often features interesting China-related content—right now it’s spotlighting Ian Johnson’s New York Review of Books interview with Yang Jisheng on the Great Famine of 1958-61.

The Browser is also the new home of Five Books, where authors and scholars recommend five books covering a particular topic. We confess we’re partial to this one on “China in the world economy,” given that two of the books mentioned by economist Kent Deng are The Great Divergence (written by China Beat co-founder Ken Pomeranz) and China Transformed (the work of former UC Irvine and current UCLA professor Bin Wong).

We’d like to thank all of our contributors and readers for supporting China Beat in 2010—happy holidays and we’ll see you next year!

By Paul R. Katz

“History is never for itself; it is always for someone” — Keith Jenkins, Rethinking History, p. 16

Controversies about the past are nothing new to modern Taiwan, but this one is something completely different, centering not on how to remember the Japanese colonial era, the 228 Incident, or the White Terror, but the forthcoming 100th anniversary of the Republic of China’s founding on January 1, 1912 (建國百年).

At the center of the current sturm und drang is Taiwan’s Academia Historica (國史館), the putative successor to the imperial Historiography Institute (same Chinese name) established from the Song to Qing dynasties. In order to help celebrate the centennial, the Academia’s staff put together an Internet poll for the 100 most influential figures in ROC history, with the list of candidates including not only renowned ROC presidents like Sun Yat-sen (孫中山; 1886-1925) and Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石; 1887-1975), but also CCP leaders who had helped overthrow the ROC government in China, including Mao Zedong (毛澤東; 1893-1976), Zhou Enlai (周恩來; 1898-1976), and Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平; 1904-1997); even the last emperor Puyi 溥儀 (1906-1967) made the list.

Apparently the Academia staff was quite enthusiastic about this undertaking; in addition to organizing these 100 individuals according to their achievements in politics, military affairs, economics, foreign policy, religion, academia, the arts, etc., there was even talk of establishing a category for the best-looking.

Regrettably, the road to political controversy is paved with good intentions. To the great consternation of both pan-blue and pan-green political elites, by early December the poll’s results had taken an unexpected turn, with Deng topping the list as the most influential figure in the military category and Chairman Mao ranking third in the category of political leaders, ahead of his longtime rival Chiang (One should note that this poll does not seem to have attracted much attention: Sun received the most votes (2800+), while Deng’s #1 ranking was based on a mere 90-vote total).

Regardless of how popular the poll might have been, it clearly touched a raw nerve. The situation started to spin out of control on December 9, when KMT Legislator Justin Chou 周守訓 questioned Deputy Minister of National Defense Chao Shih-chang 趙世璋 about the propriety of listing people like Deng, with Chao responding that it was “absolutely inappropriate” (絕對不合適). Other outraged KMT elites referred to the poll as “child’s play” (兒戲), while others noted that it touched on sensitive issues of Cross-Straits relations and national identity. Many of these sentiments were summed up by Chou, who recalled the men and women who had laid down their lives for the nation, exclaiming “How can the ROC bear this!” (中華民國情何以堪!).

For its part, the Academia Historica appears to have been caught off guard, initially issuing a statement explaining that the Internet poll had been planned as a lesson in historical objectivity by including ROC and PRC leaders who had helped shaped ROC history (at a 60::40 ratio). Shortly thereafter, a decision was made to delete controversial figures like Deng and Mao from the list, but it was too late. By the evening of December 9, the entire poll had been removed from the public sphere, apparently on orders from President Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九 himself (Academia Historica is under the jurisdiction of the Presidential Office). Sources close to the issue indicated that Ma was “extremely concerned” (非常重視) about this matter, ordering that it be “dealt with seriously” (嚴肅處理). Some Academia staffers were subjected to demotions, demerits, and other administrative punishments, but that proved insufficient to quell the rage. Following a stormy interpellation session featuring intense questioning by both KMT and DPP lawmakers, the Legislative Yuan voted to refer Academia Historica President Lin Man-houng 林滿紅 (a leading economic historian) to the Control Yuan for impeachment proceedings. Lin chose instead to submit her resignation, which (not surprisingly) the Presidential Office has accepted.

Apart from being a fascinating case study of Taiwanese academic and identity politics, the above controversy also raises a number of key questions about how to commemorate the past 100 years of modern Chinese history. To begin with, whose history is meant to be written? Should historical studies honoring the 100th anniversary of the ROC’s founding focus solely on its heroes or also key figures traditionally labeled by the ROC state as bandits (fei 匪)? Another tricky issue for President Ma and other KMT pro-unification elites is how to go about celebrating this anniversary without offending pro-unification voters and PRC leaders by reminding them of the fact that the ROC (Taiwan) is an independent country. The Internet poll also proved offensive to DPP and other pan-green elites by treating Taiwanese who lived under Japanese colonial rule as ROC figures, while overlooking pro-independence figures like Lin Yi-hsiung 林義雄 and Peng Ming-min 彭明敏. Even the term “founding the nation” (jianguo 建國) is not without its share of controversy. The ROC may be getting ready to celebrate its 100th anniversary, but in the PRC the term refers to an event that took place 61 years ago.

Both ROC and PRC historians clearly recognize the significance of the past 100 years and have launched massive writing projects, but based on very different perspectives and agendas. One such effort, organized by the Department of History at Nanjing University (南京大學) but also including some Taiwanese scholars, focuses on the 100 years dating from the Xinhai Revolution (辛亥革命百年). The leader of this project is the senior modern Chinese historian Zhang Xianwen 張憲文, who edited a four-volume magnum opus on ROC history (中華民國史) published in 2006. For obvious reasons, the book’s time frame only extends to 1949, and the definition of ROC history underlying the forthcoming project should not be much different. A second and somewhat similar project is also being put together by the Institute of Modern History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing (北京中國社會科學院近代史研究所).

Taiwanese historians are hardly sitting on the sidelines waiting for their Chinese counterparts to complete their “spin” on the past century. Many leading scholars here have initiated a mammoth ROC history writing project (the「中華民國發展史」撰寫計畫), which is being funded by Taiwan’s National Science Council (行政院國家科學委員會) and should result in another set of volumes covering a very different time frame and definition of modern Chinese history. In the interests of full disclosure, I should also point out that my own institute (the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica; 中央研究院近代史研究所) is planning a conference to discuss key topics in ROC history and set new agendas for the field.

All this indicates that modern Chinese history continues to be a contested arena. As Keith Jenkins points out, “History is a shifting, problematic discourse…subject to a series of uses and abuses that are logically infinite but which in actuality generally correspond to a range of power bases that exist at any given moment”. It looks to be a year of raucous historiographical debate. Stay tuned.

It seems there’s been an outpouring of writing about China lately—so much that we actually haven’t been able to keep up with it all (especially since for the China Beat editors, December brings with it the madness and mayhem that mark the end of an academic term). So, before we settle in for the holiday break, we thought we’d bring you a pair of reading round-ups that point to all the pieces we wish we’d been able to write during the past few weeks. We’ll post part I (focusing on Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace prize win) today and part II early next week, then take a break until after the new year.

• At his Forbes blog, Gady Epstein looks at “Life After the Nobel,” concluding with this thought-provoking observation:

Liu Xiaobo will not be forgotten, in no small measure because China’s leaders will keep pressuring the world and their own citizens to forget him.

• Perry Link attended the award ceremony in Oslo on December 10 and discusses the event at the New York Review of Books. It was also announced earlier this month that Harvard University Press will be publishing an anthology of Liu’s writings in 2012, and that Professor Link will be supervising the translation team for the project.

• Jeff Wasserstrom shares his thoughts on Liu and the peace prize, pointing to a few historical analogies to keep in mind, at Dissent magazine’s website. At The Economist’s website, James Miles also takes a look back in time:

Chinese leaders probably failed to anticipate the battering that China’s image abroad would suffer as a result of the awarding of the Nobel peace prize to an imprisoned Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo. They would have expected that their boycott of the award ceremony in Oslo on December 10th would invite comparisons in the West between China and the Soviet Union, which responded with similar fury to the award of the prize to Andrei Sakharov in 1975. It is unlikely they fully realised that their behaviour would be equated even more prominently with that of Nazi Germany.

• Danwei has a collection of humorous Chinese microblog posts discussing “The Lius I admire.”

• Finally, one of the best pieces of news of the year for those interested in China came with the dismissal of Chai Ling’s lawsuit against the Long Bow Group, whose films have been praised on this site in the past and surely will be again in future. As Geremie Barmé, who filled China Beat readers in on the lawsuit and the fight to get it dismissed in an interview published here in 2009, noted when communicating the news of the Long Bow victory to us, there was something deeply ironic about the decision coming on the eve of Liu Xiaobo being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Why? Because, as Barmé put it:

Ms Chai, who has for years tried to censor Long Bow’s work as well as to close down our website, is attending today’s Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in Oslo with her entourage. I presume that they are basking in the reflected parhelic glow of the incarcerated Liu Xiaobo. I would note that in the past Ms Chai and members of her cohort have devoted much time and energy to denouncing Liu Xiaobo and others who dared challenge their account of what they did, and did not do, in 1989. An added irony is that in doing so they have often employed similar rhetoric to that of the Chinese authorities (in this context, see my ‘Totalitarian Nostalgia’).

In addition, Ms Chai has, since the 8 October 2010 announcement of Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize, claimed that in actual fact she and Liu Xiaobo had ‘bonded’ in the early hours of 4 June (see this article for more). In [a previous e-mail] I remarked that: ‘Farce always reaches new depths when Ms Chai is involved… Now, if the Nobel Laureate were free to speak….’

Of course, Ms. Chai seems to have found herself on the Road to Damascus before (viz, her conversion to Christianity). In the lead up to 4 June 2010, for instance, she even stated that she’d be dropping her lawsuit against the Long Bow Group, although she didn’t fail to decry us as ‘witless/unknowing tools of Satan’. I would note that these statements, while garnering a few more ephemeral headlines, did not result in any bankable Christian charity.

As for the Jenzabar-Long Bow case, I believe Ms Chai et al will ‘appeal to the highest court in the land’ in their tireless search for truth and justice.

In the meantime, I would like to thank all of those who signed our Long Bow Petition. I’m off to have a glass or two of champers both for Xiaobo and for Long Bow.

Tags: ,

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

In 1961, Julia Child published Mastering the Art of French Cooking, among the most celebrated cookbooks of the 20th century. Designed to demystify the intricacies of French cuisine and convince the “servantless American cook” that she could conquer any of the recipes contained therein, Child’s book helped to bring French food out of upscale city restaurants and into the kitchens of families across the country.

Sixteen years earlier, Buwei Yang Chao had taken on a similar task, though she met with much less widespread success than Child would. Chao’s How to Cook and Eat in Chinese (1945) did not only show American readers that they could produce Chinese food in their own homes, but also demonstrated that Chinese cuisine was far more diverse and pleasurable than the fare at the innumerable chop suey joints dotting the United States would have led cooks to believe. “[In] the course of time,” Chao explains, “a tradition of American-Chinese food and ceremonies of eating has grown up which is different from eating in China” (quoted in Coe 219). Child taught her readers how to cook an already familiar cuisine; Chao schooled hers on the very question of what Chinese food actually was.

France and China might be equally proud of their vaunted culinary traditions, but for almost two centuries they were received by American diners in completely opposite ways. While serving guests French food was often meant to show off one’s sophistication and good taste, heading to a Chinese restaurant long indicated a desire to partake of a cheap, filling meal seasoned with a dash of exotic worldliness. The fact that few in China would have recognized the “Chinese” food being served in the U.S. was beside the point.

Andrew Coe narrates the history of this American love-hate attitude toward Chinese food in Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States (Oxford University Press, 2009). Coe begins his story in Guangzhou, as traders from the newly born United States established commerce with China in 1784, a profitable relationship that would flourish in the decades to come. Though early American businessmen were more than eager to trade with the Chinese, they hesitated about joining their partners at the dining table; foreign accounts of Chinese banquets from the 18th and 19th centuries abound with descriptions, tinged with both fascination and horror, of the seemingly unlimited range of plants and animals consumed by the Chinese. By the mid-19th century, “If the average American knew anything about the food of China, it boiled down to the idea that the Chinese people’s preferred food was dogs” (52).

This falsehood followed Chinese migrants across the Pacific as they settled in the western United States and began to open restaurants that fed not only their own community but also the region’s laborers in search of a quick and inexpensive meal. In reality, Coe demonstrates, cuisine in China was far more diverse than what would eventually be branded “Chinese food” in the U.S., but restaurant owners tailored their menus to please the tastebuds of unadventurous American diners suspicious of foreign and unidentifiable foods. While trans-Pacific trade ensured that Chinese cooks in San Francisco could easily obtain staples from home such as dried fish, preserved ducks’ eggs, and sharks’ fins, their restaurants attracted customers by featuring sections of the menu offering Western-style dishes like “a gristly steak or plate of pork and beans” (125).

At the turn of the 20th century, Chinese restaurants in the U.S. were often still accused of serving rats, cats, and dogs to their customers, but, Coe argues, had also acquired a certain following for the aura of danger and transgression that surrounded them. In Gilded Age New York, the nouveau riche hired French chefs to signal their arrival in high society, while Bohemians headed to Chinatown to demonstrate their independence from the rigid rules of Fifth Avenue. These diners ordered bowl after bowl of “chop suey,” a hash of vegetables and meat served over rice that didn’t resemble anything served in most of China (Coe identifies it as originating from the Sze Yap, or Four Counties, a region of Guangdong province), but which quickly became the quintessential dish of American Chinese cuisine for customers seeking to assert their cosmopolitanism. “From Atlanta to New Haven to Portland, Maine, eating a bowl of chop suey at midnight among a crowd of ruffians, fallen women, and thespians meant that you had achieved a state of worldly, urban sophistication,” Coe writes (171).

American Chinese food entered a new era during the first decades of the 20th century, as it moved out of Chinatown and entered the mass market. Housewives began preparing chop suey at home, using recipes printed in ladies’ magazines and aided by canned vegetables and soy sauce produced by companies such as La Choy (the founders of which were not Chinese). For second-generation Americans growing up in communities outside of the mainstream culture, “eating Chinese food offered one way to join it, to prove one belonged” and declare freedom from the culinary traditions of immigrant parents (198). Coe argues that this mass marketization had multiple effects. By the outbreak of World War II, though Chinese food was more prevalent than ever before, in Coe’s opinion it had also “stopped evolving” (210) and lost the exotic associations that had won it followers in the first place.

A postwar influx of immigrants, however, helped to turn the tide and introduce authentic Chinese cuisine to American palates on a large scale for the first time. More adventurous American eaters began sampling Peking duck, bird’s nest soup, and tofu, and mastering the mysterious art of eating with chopsticks. In one of Chop Suey’s most memorable sections, Coe describes Richard Nixon’s landmark 1972 trip to China through the food the president ate. Not ordinarily a fan of Chinese cuisine, Nixon flew to China on an Air Force One stuffed with emergency rations of Campbell’s soup and frozen hamburger meat, but in front of his hosts consumed everything served to him.

In recent decades, the chop suey restaurants of the early 20th century have been joined by countless other purveyors of various Chinese cuisines: Americans now eat Sichuan and Hunanese dishes with gusto, and a new breed of fusion restaurants meld Chinese ingredients and flavors with those from other culinary traditions. Chains like P.F. Chang’s and Panda Express are now the purveyors of “safe” American Chinese standards like egg rolls and sweet-and-sour chicken, while diners in the mood for Xinjiang noodles or Shanghai xiao long bao can seek out restaurants serving those delicacies. More and more Americans are traveling to China and experiencing the array of dining options there, which will likely lead them to return to the U.S. and demand increasingly diverse dishes.

While Coe deftly describes the evolution of Chinese food in the U.S., he does so without providing much culinary context. He does not explain in detail, for example, how post-war America became a nation of international diners developing a taste for now-ubiquitous dishes such as sushi and tacos, a development that certainly contributed to the increased interest in producing better Chinese food. And while Coe does nod to the prevalence of Chinese cuisine in middle America, Chop Suey is primarily set in San Francisco and New York, making it largely a story of Chinatowns and their influence on local dining scenes.

Despite the recent appetite for authentic Chinese cuisine in the U.S., Americans generally remain wary of finding anything too exotic on their plates, as Coe admits that we still see “an incredible resistance to Chinese food—at least as it’s served in China” (251). But we have certainly moved past the days of no options beyond gluey chop suey and sugary General Tso’s chicken. This was surely a relief to Julia Child, who developed a taste for Chinese cuisine when she was stationed in Kunming during World War II. In a 1974 New Yorker interview, she made a perhaps surprising confession for someone known to generations as “the French Chef.” “‘I would be perfectly happy [with] only Chinese food,’ she wrote. ‘Either French or Chinese. Could live [with] only Chinese.’”

By Angilee Shah

Hyphenated cultures seem to be a natural part of California’s landscape today, but it wasn’t always so. The Lucky Ones by Mae Ngai offers a fresh look at California history by reconstructing the lives of immigrant and second generation pioneers who lived between cultures when it was not such a common phenomenon. Ngai’s narrative brings Chinese Americans into a richer tradition of historical storytelling by humanizing an ambivalent, middle-class immigrant family, situating their lives within the more well-known histories of Chinese laborers and those who suffered from the 1882 Exclusion Act.

Ngai is a professor and immigration historian at Columbia University. She spent 10 years researching one family, the Tapes, and their lives as “in-betweens and go-betweens” who “found in their bilingualism and biculturalism opportunities for economic and social advancement.” She explores the family using public and private records, filling in the blanks with what is known about Chinese Americans’ lives at the turn of the century.

The trials of the Tapes’ lives provide a compelling backdrop for the problems of immigration today. The Tape family begins with Jeu Dip, a houseboy turned wealthy self-made businessman, and Mary McGladery, a Chinese slave girl rescued, raised and renamed by Protestant missionaries in San Francisco. The couple met in 1875, had a six-month courtship — trading endearments in English — got married and renamed themselves Joseph and Mary Tape.

Their daughter, Mamie Tape, was the plaintiff in a well-known civil rights lawsuit which won Chinese Americans access to public schools. The case for inclusion was two-fold: Mamie’s lawyer argued for civil rights for Chinese Americans, but also argued that Mamie was assimilated enough, “white” enough, that she should be admitted to school. The Tapes lived on the edges of Chinese society and the San Francisco middle class, never truly accepted or comfortable in either world.

As the family move around San Francisco and ultimately to Berkeley — with forays around the country — Ngai offers captivating settings, particularly for readers who are familiar with the Bay Area. We travel with the Tapes and their extended family, visiting Sonoma and Oakland, witnessing a Chinatown quarantine and the devastation of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fires. At one point the Tapes own five homes on Russell Street in Berkeley, and we imagine their neighborhood, seeing it echo in the Berkeley we know today. We observe, too, the Chinese Village at the St. Louis World’s Fair, an exhibit created by Chinese Americans that sold an exoticized vision of China, where Joseph and Mary’s son Frank Tape finds opportunity as an interpreter and informant for U.S. Immigration Services.

The most compelling theme in The Lucky Ones is the irony of the Tapes’ lives. They both ascend and are held back because of Chinese exclusion laws. They gain access to middle class life by capitalizing on the laws that that render them second-class. It’s son Frank who most dramatically occupies this strange middle ground. His story takes on an almost cinematic quality as he strives to achieve social status as a Chinese American. In his career as an interpreter-informant, he is widely accused of blackmailing Chinese immigrants to gain income and respect from his white supervisors.

While the struggles and accomplishments of The Tapes are the products of injustices long ago, they resonate with immigrant experiences today, still marked by confusion and clashes over identity, assimilation, and acceptance.

Angilee Shah is a freelance journalist who writes about globalization and politics. You can read more of her work at

This review first appeared at Zócalo Public Square. It is reposted here with permission.

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