March 2011

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The good people at the excellent website recently asked me to contribute a list of Chinese life stories (biographies and memoirs) to their “Five Books” feature. I was delighted to be able to do this, but quickly found it a challenge to limit myself to just a quintet of suggested works. Limiting myself to books focusing on the last couple of centuries helped a bit, but I still ended up having to leave out four favorite books: Robert Bickers’ Empire Made Me, Henrietta Harrison’s The Man Awakened from Dreams , Sang Ye’s China Candid, and Lijia Zhang’s “Socialism is Great!” Now, having begun to read and finding myself greatly impressed by a brand new book, Joseph Esherick’s Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey through Chinese History, I’ve got a final title to make my list of works that could’ve-been-chosen, a list exactly as long as my list of actually-chosen books. Now, I’ll have a top ten list ready to go—should ever decide to offer hungry readers beefed up editions of their lists, as a kind of online counterpart to the longer director’s cuts of films that sometimes come out on DVD.

Ancestral Leaves, published by University of California Press (check out the excerpt provided on their website —keeping with the cinematic analogy, think of it as a trailer), is a book I’ve been looking forward to with a great sense of anticipation for some time now. This is partly due to Esherick’s stellar track record: his previous books include an influential study of events that led up to and set the stage for the 1911 Revolution and a prize-winning study of the Boxer Uprising, both of which were carefully documented and compellingly written publications that set the agenda for future research on the topics they addressed. I was also eager to see Ancestral Leaves come out for another reason: I’d heard the author present a paper based on his early research into the Ye family (to which his wife belongs) and was fascinated by the tidbits he offered. The first pages of the book were enough to convince me that I hadn’t been waiting in vain. It’s clearly a work of significance—and a pleasure to read to boot.

I recently caught up with Esherick in person for a lunchtime chat in Beijing on a trip through the city (where he’s based for the year). That meeting was too brief for an interview (even of the quick Q & A variety) and we were lunching with other people, but he’s been good enough to provide the following answers to a series of questions (mostly about the book, but also a final one inspired by conversation at that Beijing meal) that I posted to him after my return:

JW: Your previous books have tended to focus on social phenomena rather than the stories of individual lives, so I’m curious to know what you found most challenging–and most satisfying–about writing a book with a more biographical focus?

JE: History is most likely to resonate with us if it has a biographical dimension. This is especially true if one is writing about a time and place distant from our own. In forty years of teaching, the greatest problem I have faced is getting students to appreciate both the distinctive trajectory of modern Chinese history and the familiar human problems that the Chinese people faced. So although my past work has dealt with large scale social movements like the Boxer Uprising or the empire-toppling 1911 Revolution, I wanted to bring modern China’s history of rebellion, war and revolution down to a more comprehensible human level, and that required the multi-generational biographical focus of Ancestral Leaves. It definitely entailed a change in my style as an historian, but in the end it has been enormously rewarding.

JW: In what ways did having a personal connection to the family you were writing about make the project easier–and how did it make it harder?

JE: The fact that my wife is a member of the Ye family was certainly essential in gaining access to oral history sources, and also to the family genealogy acquired from the ancestral home—a place that my wife’s branch of the family left over a century and a half ago. But the family connection also posed challenges. I am a professional historian, and I did not wish to continue the tradition of Chinese genealogies which were explicitly compiled to glorify the family name. I also did not wish to replicate the tone of memoirs like Wild Swans where the central narrative was victimization by the Communist party-state until the opportunity to escape to the West and freedom finally presented itself. I wanted to tell a story in which members of the Ye family were active participants (though minor ones) in the making of modern China. I wait with some trepidation to see whether my in-laws will approve of the way I have told their story.

JW: You use an interesting phrase early in the book, describing how one character’s life might have unfolded in “normal times,” but then saying that the period you were referring to, the mid-1800s, was not a “normal” period, due above all to the fact that an extraordinary uprising, the Taiping movement, was underway. I agree that the Taiping rising, which convulsed the country and was led by a man who claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus, was nothing if not an extraordinary event. Still, I wonder if you can point to any stretch of time in the long period stretching from the 1840s through, say, the 1970s, when most Chinese were living through “normal times”?

JE: You make an interesting point, and sometimes one wonders if there was ever such a thing as “normal times” in modern China. But here it helps to look at things from the standpoint of everyday family life, which is what Ancestral Leaves seeks to do. In that sense, each of the periods covered by the book—the late imperial period, the republican years from 1911 to 1949, and the communist era—had reasonably normal times and years of great turmoil. The book is structured around this pattern, with the relatively stable periods of family life massively disrupted by the Taiping Rebellion in the first period, the Japanese invasion and World War II in the second, and the Cultural Revolution in the third. Much of what I have attempted to do in the book is to describe the different forms of family life in each of the successive periods of “normal times,” and then narrate the impact of the disruptive event.

JW: In the part of the book I’ve read so far, you’ve been mixing details from the life story of one member of the Ye family with an account of some of the major historical turning points of the era (including not just the Taiping rising but also the Opium War and events from late in the 19th century). Do you do similar things later in the book with subsequent Big Events?

JE: That is precisely what I do, and that is the objective of the book. I want to try to bring these big events down to a human level, so we are not just talking about massive armies wreaking devastation across the map of China, but seeing how a relatively ordinary Chinese family responded and lived through these transformative events. On the one hand I want to show how the big structures of culture, state and society were changing; on the other hand I want to see how the everyday practices of child-rearing, gender relations, education and sociability were transformed. My father-in-law grew up in Tianjin in a household that included his father and his wife and two concubines, his grandmother, ten brothers, five sisters, a few cousins and dozens of servants. Until high school the boys were all schooled at home by a private tutor and a special “English teacher” who taught them English and math at the end of the day. This was a totally different family from his own and his brothers’ small nuclear families under the PRC. In talking about the enduring Chinese family, we need to be aware of the ever changing meaning of the term.

JW: And given that some of your most important early publications focused on a particular transformative event, the 1911 Revolution, I can’t resist posing a final question to you about that upheaval, whose centenary is being marked this year. Do you see anything special about this year’s anniversary of the Xinhai Geming as opposed to the ones of 1991 and 2001, when it turned 80 and 90 rather than 100? What stands out as most noteworthy about this year’s commemoration or seems most worth flagging about looking back to 1911 at this particular point in the history of China or perhaps equally significantly the history of cross-straits relations?

JE: Living in Beijing this year, I have been struck by the way in which many people are recalling the 1911 Revolution. In the past, there was no question that the revolution that toppled the empire and established the Republic of China was a thing to celebrate. This time, I have had a number of conversations in which people have suggested that the revolution had been a bad idea, that China would have been better off with a constitutional monarchy. In the past, Sun Yat-sen and the leaders of the revolutionary party were lauded as heroes on both sides of the Taiwan Straits, both for ending over two millennia of imperial rule and for toppling the Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty. Now, in China, it seems that the middle-class commitment to stability is so strong that many have moved from condemning the Cultural Revolution to a general rejection of the very idea of revolution. The Chinese government itself seems to be having trouble deciding what line to take on the 1911 Revolution. Since centenary celebrations cannot be avoided (and magazines are already full of articles about 1911), it will be very interesting to see what form the official events will take in October.

• Louisa Lim of NPR’s All Things Considered filed this report on Chinese aid to Japan in the wake of last Friday’s earthquake and tsunami. The Financial Times also has details of Chinese involvement in disaster recovery efforts.

• Soon after the earthquake, Adam Minter wrote about “Schadenfreude and Sympathy in Shanghai” for Foreign Policy, describing various Chinese reactions to the earthquake that he observed online and in person. For more on responses to natural disasters, see this 2010 China Beat post by Nicole Barnes on the aftermath of the Qinghai earthquake.

• For some long-term perspectives on Sino-Japanese relations, see this 2005 article by James Farrer at YaleGlobal Online.

• At his “Letters from China” New Yorker blog, Evan Osnos discusses “China’s Nuclear Binge” in light of the ongoing emergency at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant:

China presents a unique dilemma for energy strategists: it is expanding nuclear power in a race to meet rising demand for electricity and replace heavily polluting coal power plants. If China’s greenhouse emissions keep rising at the rate they have for the past thirty years, the country will emit more of those gases in the next thirty years than the United States has in its entire history. But this week has laid out in all the detail we could imagine what could result from the combination of rapid construction, poor oversight, and events that were previously dismissed as unimaginable. In some cases China builds world-class pieces of infrastructure, but we have also seen a steady drip of deeply disconcerting examples of a system growing too fast for its own good.

• For general news and links about the crisis in Japan, see this blog, linked to a planned symposium on “The Atomic Age” scheduled to be held at the University of Chicago on May 21.

By Kate Merkel-Hess

R. Po-chia Hsia, A Jesuit in the Forbidden City: Matteo Ricci, 1552-1610, Oxford UP, 2010.

In our globe-trotting age, the stories of early circumnavigators seem to foretell the global interconnectedness to come. Among these early modern travelers, no Western figure is so important to China as Matteo Ricci. The Italian Jesuit was a key figure in the establishment of the China Mission, advised a Chinese Emperor (Wanli), and, with his writings about Confucianism and Christianity, set the stage for the later Chinese Rites Controversy.

In his new biography of Ricci, European historian (and my colleague at Penn State) Ronnie Hsia traces Ricci’s movement from birth in the little Italian town of Macerata to death in Beijing. Along the way, Ricci (and Hsia) pass through Rome, Lisbon, Macau, Nanchang, Nanjing, and many places in between. While Hsia (as he mentions below) chose to follow a conventional biographical format in his investigation of Ricci’s life, part of what makes the book unusual is Hsia’s comfort with both the European and Chinese sides of the story—creating a narrative that thus moves easily through Ricci’s early modern world (more easily than did Ricci himself, as it turns out).

The result is a story of Ricci that will appeal to scholars—and the generally curious—of both Europe and Asia, using Ricci as a lens to examine social and cultural issues important to scholars of both regions.

Kate Merkel-Hess: What has it been like to come to this topic as a scholar of European history who also knows Chinese? How has that shaped your understanding of Matteo Ricci and the way you told his story?

Ronnie Hsia: Since I grew up in Hong Kong and went to a Catholic school (not the famous Wah Yen College run by Irish Jesuits but the Rosary Hill School directed by Spanish Dominicans), I had first-hand experience of western missionaries in a Chinese setting. Moreover, Portuguese Macao was a short boat-ride away, and that enclave from the past had always inspired in me romantic and nostalgic imaginations. While at college, I had a strong interest in Chinese history as well, although I chose eventually early modern Europe as my major research field in graduate school. In many ways, it is a natural intellectual transition from studying the history of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and the maritime expansion of Europe to global history. I had known all along that someday I would like to explore this early period of Sino-western history in a serious way. Having learned the necessary European languages along the way over the decades completed my psychological preparations for returning to this topic.

M-H: After your book went into production, China Heritage Quarterly produced an issue on Ricci — alongside your book pointing to the continued interest by scholars and readers in Ricci. What do you think of the state of “Ricci studies”?

Hsia: Ricci is a hero to Italians for obvious reasons: he represented an alternative model of contact between Europe and the world, one of cultural adaptation and dialogue, not colonial conquest and imperial domination. Ricci remains a hero to the Chinese because he has always been the symbol of cultural exchange on an equal footing, and a remainder of a better age, when China was not chafing under foreign gunboats, arrogant diplomats, and overbearing missionaries. Ricci embodies the ideal missionary for the Catholic Church for again obvious reasons. All these factors have contributed to the longevity of interest in Ricci in today’s global world, although my book has reflected on the different uses of the Riccian legacy in the last hundred years. What I have tried to do in this biography is to reconstruct the life of a remarkable individual by situating him squarely in his own historical context. And since I began this project with two decades of research in the religious and cultural history of early modern Europe, I did not labor under the weight of Ricci’s myth. I tried to tell the story of Ricci as a lived life, one in interaction with a multitude of individuals, Europeans and Chinese, and I have made no claims on him as a symbol.

Plaque on the outside of the house where Matteo Ricci was born in Macerata, Italy

M-H: In the epilogue to the book, you describe earlier scholarly attempts to chronicle Ricci’s life and analyze his role in introducing China to Christianity. You point to Jonathan Spence’s work, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, as an “irresistible narrative” of the “heroic” Ricci. How does your book differ from Spence’s in approach but also in its interpretation of Ricci’s role as cultural mediator?

Hsia: Spence identifies with Ricci in his book. Like Ricci, he is a European who has succumbed to the charms of China and became fascinated by the refined aspects of her culture. In The Memory Palace, Spence is moving around and seeing Ming China through the eyes of Ricci, and trying to live in his head. For me, the object of desire, for knowledge and understanding, is less China than Europe, or more specifically the life of Ricci. And for this reason, I chose the more conventional format of a full biography instead of a particular cultural angle.

M-H: You took many of the photos throughout the book — of various places where Ricci lived and travelled. What was it like to follow Ricci’s footsteps? How did it inform or change your understanding of him and his world? Were there any stories or photos that didn’t make it into the book?

Hsia: This past summer, in commemoration of the 450th anniversary of Ricci’s death, a group of young Chinese scholars retraced his route. They started out from Macao, went to Guangzhou and Zhaoqing before setting out for Shaoguan, Nanchang, Nanjing, and Beijing. They trekked, took buses and trains. I wish I could have joined them. As for myself, my visits to Ricci sites spread over several years and separate trips. On the first, I visited Zhaoqing in Guangdong, a lovely provincial town where Ricci spent the first five miserable years of his long career in China. At the Red Palace, where the Prince of Gui ascended the throne as the last Emperor of the Southern Ming, there was a small Ricci exhibit. Among the few objects of moderate interest were contemporary water-color paintings by a Chinese artist, who rendered the scene of Ricci’s arrival and audience with the local magistrates. With curly flowing blond hair, in a long white cassock, a huge crucifix around his neck, Ricci, in this representation, looks more like Jesus from the 1960s than a Jesuit in the 1580s. I know it is a professional deformation, but as a historian I was inwardly screaming: that was not the way he looked! There was no functionary around the small museum to lodge a complaint; and since I was the only visitor in any case, I could not vent my frustration by engaging my fellow visitors in a campaign of rectification.

The second visit, to Shaoguan (Shaozhou in the 16th century) and Nanxiong, was memorable in exploring yet another place where Ricci spent a good number of years (six) before he became famous. Serendipity had it that my colleague and good friend from Penn State, On-cho Ng, was also in Hong Kong. And thus we undertook a short trip down historical memory, visiting Nanhua monastery, walking along the stone-paved Meilin Way (constructed in the Tang dynasty), and rushing up the ridge at the Meilin Pass. As a good photographer, On-cho lent his eye and equipment, which have added beautiful visual evidence to Ricci’s presence in the book.

Ricci's childhood home in Macerata

My third visit to Ricci’s home town of Macerata seemed like coming home. Ricci left Macerata as a young man of 18 and never returned. There are many sad letters which he sent to his father and brother Antonio, especially one written when he learned of the death of his grand-mother. It was good to see his name honored in the home town he had left and to reflect on his life: a modern life of transnational and multi-cultural crossings. Unlike him, our modern lives permit us some measure of return. This was my personal homage to Ricci.

There were of course other trips to Nanjing, Beijing, Lisbon, and Rome. I wish to mention only one visit to the Roman Jesuit Archive. I had an appointment with my friend, Father Antoni Uçerler, then of the Jesuit Historical Institute and now of Oxford University. Upon arriving in Rome, I went to the Curia of the Society, which is on a small street just behind St. Peter’s Square. The old priest manning the porter’s lodge said to me, in Italian: “Go inside and wait, father, it is cool in the lobby.” That was indeed a compliment: just as the mandarins praised Ricci for behaving like a Chinese, I was mistaken for a Jesuit. He buzzed the door and I walked in, thrilled in the knowledge that, like Ricci, who had entered China to compel the Chinese to exit with him as converts, I was walking into the heart of the archive to compel Ricci to exit with me in memory and words.

We recently got a message from past China Beat contributor Susan Jakes (who is now based at the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society) and friend of the blog Orville Schell (who directs that Center) about an exciting new initiative they are launching called ChinaFile. Since there’s a lot in the message that will be of interest to any reader of this blog, even though some details in it refer to things that will be especially relevant to anyone who has recently published a book and/or is going to the Association for Asian Studies annual meeting coming up in Hawaii at the end of this month, we wanted to post their message in its entirety here:

Later this year, the Center will launch ChinaFile, a new online magazine/multimedia site about China and U.S.-China relations. The site will include commentary and traditional reporting on a wide range of topics, as well as short videos, photo essays, and longer investigative pieces. We will commission and edit work ourselves, but also collaborate with a number of news organizations both in the U.S. and China.

We’d be more than happy to tell you more about the project in general if you’re interested.

But what’s relevant for China Beat readers attending AAS is that part of the site will be a virtual library of authors’ introductions to their own books on China in the form of very short videos.

Like many of you, we’re dismayed that there are fewer and fewer publications reviewing books on China and that scholarly books on China often fail to reach readers outside the academy. So we’re inviting authors who have published books on China in the past three years or who have books forthcoming to create brief introductions to their work based on a set list of questions. Our designers have created a beautiful interface to house the videos that will allow readers to browse the books by topic and link to written reviews, filmed book events at the Asia Society, or other materials related to the books.

We’ve already begun a small collection of these videos, but we’ll be at AAS to collect more. We will have a booth in the exhibition hall Booth # 314 where our cameraman (our Multimedia Producer, David Barreda) will be on hand to film authors talking about their books. The whole process shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes. We’ll ask you a series of questions about the subject of your book, why you feel it’s important, a particularly arresting or surprising detail of your research, etc.

We’ll then edit and produce the videos and you’ll have a chance to review and approve them before we post them online.

If you are NOT attending AAS, but are interested in contributing a video, we can send you (EXTREMELY EASY) instructions on how to film yourself.

We hope to make this part of ChinaFile both a serious resource and an inviting way to draw larger audiences to good writing on China.

We welcome your participation and hope you’ll help us spread the word.

Susan Jakes and Orville Schell

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By Marta Cooper

This post is the first in a series of blog entries from the Shanghai International Literary Festival. Held at the city’s Glamour Bar and M on the Bund overlooking the Huangpu River, the festival, now in its ninth year, has become an institution in the city’s spring calendar. From 4th – 20th March, the event will showcase 87 writers, bloggers and journalists from seventeen different countries.

There is one question that Pallavi Aiyar reveals she constantly grappled with as a China correspondent. “I was asked, both by Chinese here and Indians back home: which is better, China or India?”

With today’s attention focused on emerging superpowers, the crude comparison is an inescapable one. But, as Aiyar told an eager crowd of Literary Festival listeners on a recent wet Sunday afternoon at Shanghai’s M on the Bund, the reality of living in one country on the rise while hailing from another is a little more complicated.

In her 2008 book, Smoke and Mirrors, which earned her the China-India Friendship Prize, Aiyar chronicles her experiences in the People’s Republic. She spent six years covering the country, becoming China bureau chief for The Hindu in 2003. Her fresh perspective lies in that she doesn’t approach the vexed question of ‘Chindia’ as an academic or expert, but as an Indian correspondent sharing with readers a sense of the everyday.

Pallavi Aiyar and Jeff Wasserstrom talk at the 2011 Shanghai International Literary Festival

The New Delhi native was not led to China by an Orient-influenced lust. It was a Spanish Sinophile boyfriend (and now husband) whose own interest brought her to Beijing in 2001, but it only took her to step off the plane for an “instant” fascination with her new home to take hold.

“I miss the earthiness of the place,” she waxes nostalgically. In her new base in Brussels, Aiyar laments European rules and restrictions, longing for the crafty, entrepreneurial and flexible spirit of the Chinese: “they could sell contact lenses to a blind person or chicken feet to a vegetarian.”

Aiyar’s initial lack of knowledge about Chinese culture, language or politics seems the norm in her homeland. “There’s prejudice and an emotional disconnect. Only a minority of Indians actually like China,” she says candidly. “There’s a lack of empathy, but also a sort of China pathology. India is always benchmarking itself against it.”

With China’s unabashed growth now making it the world’s second largest economy, it’s unsurprising that India, namely its middle class, treats its neighbour with a blend of fear and admiration. “There’s road envy,” Aiyar says of China’s unstoppable construction. “I’ve had Indian friends come to Beijing and say, ‘Wow! There are no potholes on the roads! And the Chinese drive so well!’.” This awe stood in stark contrast to Aiyar’s European visitors, most of whom looked around aghast at Beijing’s signature smog and lawless motorists.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics cemented this trepidation, Aiyar states: “India saw the opening ceremony and said ‘oh, s***…’.” And while the recent Commonwealth Games may have given India its own chance to shine, Aiyar argues that they only showed how these two Asian heavyweights are not in the same league.

Nonetheless, there are some fundamental similarities that can add a little grey to an otherwise black-and-white comparison. As Aiyar describes, “There is a resonance of experience in being developing countries, in battling corruption, change, social relations…there is this sense of universality.”

But is one, in fact, “better”? Aiyar compares the poverty of China with India, noting how even dustbin men working in her Beijing hutong would wear gloves (showing “self-respect”) and how their children went to school; how modest gains signalled a wealth of opportunities. While India might be democratic, she added, the chances for upward mobility in China were even more palpable.

Yet China came with its own frustrations. A genuine fear of reprisals made sourcing information from interviewees a disheartening struggle. Alongside this was a stifling lack of passion for debate and ideas that made Aiyar pine for her homeland, a place where the only consensus was “knowing how to disagree.”

It is this complex reality of the everyday that Aiyar wants readers to take from Smoke and Mirrors. “There has to be a third perspective,” she says. “China is not so shocking.”

Aiyar’s warm and witty candour was a reminder that the heart of living abroad is not so much our new surroundings, but how we respond to them. She puts to us all a question as simple and essential as the one she faced during her time in China: “What is normal?”

An earlier China Beat interview with Aiyar on her novel, Chinese Whiskers, can be found here. Read an excerpt from Chinese Whiskers at Danwei, and listen to Aiyar’s SILF talk here.

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