October 2011

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By Tom Baxter

“I can do it!
I will do it!
I must do it!
I will succeed!”

In July of this year 120 university students each took their turn to shout these determined and triumphant exclamations as loudly as they possibly could. Each young adult stood up on stage, some grabbing the microphone to further amplify their determination, some exuding their confidence through hand gestures, well-timed foot stomping and theatrical gazes towards the heavens, whilst a few sank into timidity, hollowly parroting the words from memory. The latter would fail, for this was a test. It was a key part of the final assessment of students at one of Kunming’s two Li Yang Crazy English (李阳疯狂英语) summer camps, where, at the end of July this year, I worked as the resident waijiao (外教). The 120 students had migrated to the First High School of Guangdu district (官渡区第一中学), on the outskirts of Kunming, from across Yunnan province, with the ambition both to perfect their spoken English and to reshape themselves into Li Yang’s model of the confident, successful, English-speaking citizen of modern China.

Li Yang at work.

The phenomenon of Li Yang Crazy English swept China in the early 1990s and continues to this day. Li Yang, a self-proclaimed success story, has wowed student audiences from PLA soldiers to the Beijing Olympic work force to primary school children with his extravagant and unique performance-classes. He has become famed for his high-energy, high-stamina performances, which can last six or more hours. In such ‘classes’ he encourages students to shout at the top of their voices and make synchronised hand gestures corresponding to English vowel sounds. His teaching method is novel and his showmanship impressive, but what makes Li’s performances even more striking is that his audiences commonly number in the thousands, occupying, and often exceeding, the capacity of large stadiums.

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Denise Ho, who published a piece on Shanghai’s Fangua Lane at China Beat earlier in 2011, approached us with an idea that we’ve never tried here before: a series of co-authored articles resulting from collaboration between Denise and two of her undergraduate students at the University of Kentucky. During the 2011-2012 academic year, UK will be celebrating the “Year of China,” bringing a number of speakers and events to campus to increase knowledge about China among the university community. Here, the first of four planned “Letters from Lexington” describing the Year of China’s inaugural event—which just happened to involve China Beat consulting editor Jeff Wasserstrom, who has his own history at UK.

By Denise Ho

Many cultural encounters begin with generalizations and limited knowledge of the other. When I tell friends in China that I teach at the University of Kentucky, I am first asked whether I mean the Kentucky of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Then, when I mention that UK is located in Lexington, a flash of recognition is followed by, “That is where your American Revolution began, right? ‘The shot heard ‘round the world?’” Though I tell them that actually took place in Lexington, Massachusetts, my friends are gratified to hear that our fair city was named after the contemporary event, and they feel satisfied that they’ve remembered their American history.

My students at UK also begin their study of China or Asia with similar generalizations. Coming of age in a time when everything seems to be “Made in China,” they nonetheless arrive in my classes with prior knowledge largely limited to China’s rise as portrayed in local news media and the Olympics of three years ago. Of course, they might also be familiar with the Chinese dining options available in our college town of almost 300,000: Panda Express and Panda Cuisine. Their cultural background is very different from that which I encountered growing up in California or at school in New England; there, Chinese-Americans formed a significant part of the student body, the universities had a long history of engagement with China, and studying Chinese went from popular to mainstream. In contrast to my Chinese history course at MIT, where 90% of my students were of Chinese extraction, in my three years in Kentucky I have taught only one Chinese-American student.

And yet my students’ views of China are rapidly changing. The University of Kentucky, a public land-grant university in the American South, has recently hired new China studies faculty. We have a Confucius Institute that offers Chinese language and culture classes to the wider community. For the first time this year, our students can major and minor in Chinese, and they can now study abroad at our partner institution in Shanghai. Local schools are beginning to teach Chinese, and Kentucky’s view of Asia—long trained on Japan because of its automotive manufacturing presence—is beginning to shift. This year, the UK College of Arts and Sciences is hosting a “Year of China,” a two-semester program of events that includes an introductory course, special events, films, and guest lecturers in fields as far-ranging as education and culture, literature and film, human rights and religion. The premise for this article, one of a planned four-part series written with my students, begins with a question: what is it like to introduce the study of China to a large public university in the United States, in a place where interest in China is novel?

Of course, teaching and learning about China in Kentucky is not entirely new. Our keynote speaker to kick-off the “Year of China” was China Beat’s Jeff Wasserstrom, who began his own teaching career at UK in 1989. Although he arrived at UK in the wake of Tiananmen Square and the images of student protests were still fresh in Americans’ minds, his UK undergrads at the time were more interested in talking about Japan. As he recalled with my students last month, people in the UK community were more curious about Japan and economics, as Toyota was (and still is) one of the largest international businesses in the Bluegrass. Questions about China were primarily political: Was the Communist Party in China going to fall? What about the repression of Christians in “Red China”? By contrast the questions that UK students asked Wasserstrom over twenty years later seemed to have accepted the political reality of CCP rule, wondering instead about China as an economic threat or about China’s military buildup. Another striking difference, Wasserstrom remarked, was the presence of Chinese and Chinese-American students.

The shift in student interests that Wasserstrom observed is one of degree, one that has changed in focus from politics to economics, and one that has taken place in a world linked by information technology largely unimaginable in 1989. Yet the potential and challenges for cultural understanding remain largely the same. Real understanding will require, as Wasserstrom suggested in his public lecture, seeing Chinese tradition as a “multi-stranded” one, an understanding that culture is not unitary but marked by complexity and tension. To expand on his point, I believe that real exchange will entail moving from basic shared interests like food and basketball (though both important traditions!) and realizing that we have common problems: energy based on coal, a reliance on manufacturing jobs that are moving elsewhere, an urban-rural divide with consequences for health and education, a growing divide between rich and poor (Kentucky ranks 14th among US states for income inequality), and continued use of the death penalty. No less than twenty years ago, meaningful understanding and exchange will start from contact between students, students who recognize that our local issues are also global ones.

By Jared Flanery

The official “Year of China” logo is a single red star against a yellow back drop, with just a few of its red dots missing.

One possible interpretation of this logo is that China is becoming “less red,” turning away from its Communist past while remaining a stable state. There is also an inverted version of the logo, with an equally weak yellow star framed by a red background. “Awaken the past, discover the future” serves as the Year of China tagline, featured on lecture programs and semi-popular (free) t-shirts. Although the University of Kentucky attracts significantly fewer international students than many other large colleges, they do exist. While the “Year of China” is the first time the entire campus has focused its attention on this country, the opening of Panda Express at the Student Center marks the primary Asia-related economic event of the year. Still, there appears growing recognition that both Chinese tradition and the contemporary cultural milieu deserve study.

Professor Wasserstrom’s keynote lecture reflected that shift. The public seminar, titled “China and the American Imagination: From the Days of the Boxer Rising to the Age of the Internet,” traced a modern Chinese narrative recounted through a distinctly American perspective. Wasserstrom tended to emphasize difference in his remarks, differences within the interchange of American and global pop culture and the Chinese experience. Chinese people may appropriate from the West, he acknowledged, but they do so with originality and over an uneven geographical distribution. So a popular Chinese social media site, Renren, is at least a little different than the banned Facebook. Pointedly, Wasserstrom noted that Renren makes a request for information that the American version does not: blood type. Apparently blood type indicates dating compatibility, in a cultural tradition Wasserstrom said derives from Japan and Korea. This is a clear example of difference between cultures existing within familiar social media sites. As in Student Protests in Twentieth Century China, Wasserstrom also referenced similarity within multi-stranded experience. He concluded with the approach of both the Chinese and American states to public protest. Similarity, not sameness, best describes the state reactions to the inklings of a “Jasmine Revolution” and, say, Occupy Wall Street.

As there is more than one version of the “Year of China” logo, there might also be more than one aesthetic interpretation. On campus, I posit the “Year of China” logo might reflect a residual suspicion of “Red China,” projecting measured cheerfulness that China could become more like us. It certainly would not represent the first time UK turned a jaundiced eye towards the expansion of cultural knowledge. But its disintegrating and pointillist red star could invite another interpretation. While questioning China’s commitment to full-scale “Communism” is more than understandable today, the disappearance of the red dots might suggest something other than disunity or trending towards market capitalism. Red in Chinese culture also signifies wealth, happiness, and fecundity, as Professor Wasserstrom indicated. University public relations officials likely do not mean to imply Chinese depression through their graphic design. But for interest in China to be meaningful, spreading knowledge of the various cultural back stories must become part of the project. For now, the inclination toward study in middle America serves as source of a guarded optimism.

Denise Ho is assistant professor of history at the University of Kentucky. Jared Flanery is a junior at the University of Kentucky. This article is the first of a four-part series on teaching and learning about China at the University of Kentucky, a public land-grant institution founded in 1865. More information about the “Year of China” can be found here.

With this month’s 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution, we might expect that this would be the perfect time for a big biography of one of that movement’s key players—Sun Yat-sen, perhaps. Not so, though Sun did get turned into an opera star in a show performed in Hong Kong but canceled in Beijing, and David Strand’s new book, An Unfinished Republic, does examine Sun’s life as part of twentieth-century Chinese political culture. Instead, another figure takes center stage in 2011’s biggest (both literally and figuratively) China book: Ezra Vogel’s 928-page Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press). Below, a collection of links about the book itself, as well as some of the many reviews that have appeared recently.

• At the Asia Society’s website, first read a short excerpt from Vogel’s book, then watch Vogel discuss his work with Orville Schell in video from a public event held on October 4 (clips here; full video here).

• David Barboza interviews Vogel for the New York Times Arts Beat blog.

• “Surviving Mao, Revamping a Nation”: Howard French reviews the book for the Wall Street Journal.

• At the New York Review of Books, Fang Lizhi examines “The Real Deng.”

• Jonathan Mirsky’s New York Times review, “How Deng Did It.”

• John Pomfret on the book for the Washington Post.

• At Foreign Policy, Christian Caryl takes a peek at “The Skeletons in Deng’s Closet.”

• “The ‘Steel Factory’”: Edward S. Steinfeld’s review at Harvard Magazine

• Joshua Kurlantzick has a long essay on the book and other matters in The Nation.

• Chris Patten’s review for the Financial Times.

• The Economist‘s review speaks of Deng not as the transformer of China, but as “The Great Stabliser.”

• J. Stapleton Roy reviews Vogel’s book for the Wilson Quarterly.

• Finally, in an article from earlier this year at Miller-McCune, Jeff Wasserstrom brings Vogel’s book into a discussion of “Whose Road Led to Hu’s China?”

By Chris Cherry

Wang Ming

Renjia Village, Sichuan, to Beijing

For an introduction to the Factories without Smoke photography project, see here.

Chris Cherry is a photographer loosely based in Beijing.


Huang, Philip C.C., Chinese Civil Justice, Past and Present, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010. xviii, 297 pp. $59.95 (cloth).

By Xiaoping Cong

As a leading scholar in the field of Chinese legal history, in the past two decades Philip C.C. Huang has produced a series of scholarly works that cover a wide range of topics, from the Qing legal code to the contemporary Chinese legal system. His current book, drawing mainly from his previous works, is both a further effort at constructing a theoretical approach to the study of legal history and a search for a better understanding of the unique characteristics of Chinese modernity.

In the preface and the introduction, the author first gives an overall review of the field of Chinese legal history while presenting his theoretical approach. According to Huang, the traditional legal system of China “suffered three devastating blows in the past century” (p. xii). The first occurred during the late Qing and early Republican period, when the Chinese legal tradition was replaced by imported Western laws in order to gain sovereignty for Chinese modern nation-state. The second blow struck during the Communist revolutionary period (1940s to 1970s), when the revolutionary legal system rejected both traditional law and the Western law adopted by the Guomindang legislature. The third and final blow took place after the late 1970s, with the beginning of the reform period. It was at this time that the Chinese legislative authorities rebuffed both traditional law and Maoist legal practices, beginning a wholesale importation of Western law.

According to Huang, the contemporary Chinese legal system has inherited three traditions: the legal tradition of the imperial past, Communist revolutionary practices, and legal ideas imported from the West in the last hundred years, when China came to face the power of Western modernity. However, Huang argues, studies of legal history in contemporary China often fail to recognize the historical consistency in which the endogenous practices and imported systems are entangled and interact. Moreover, contemporary legal scholars prioritize Western theories over Chinese legal pragmatism, ignoring that the legal formalism adopted from the West often creates more problems than it solves. Based on this diagnosis, the author proposes that we adopt a “history-of-practice” approach to researching Chinese legal history. His method intends to “spotlight the historicity of the humanistic and social spheres of life” and how practice interacts over time “with theory, representation, and institutions” (p. 2). The author also declares that “history-of-practice” is neither a purely empiricist method nor a purely retrospective approach; rather, he seeks to develop theoretical concepts that are appropriate to Chinese realities while “accompanied by prospective (i.e., forward-looking) moral visions” (p. 2).

In Chapters 2 to 4, Huang demonstrates his theoretical perspective and his research method by presenting the work he has developed over the past two decades, mainly his study on how the mediation method was used in various civil disputes and to what extent the state has been involved in mediation and community affairs from the Qing period to the reform era of the 1980s and 1990s. Huang argues that during the Qing period the state adopted a centralized minimalism in civil disputes, viewing them as “minor matters” (xi shi) and leaving them to be solved locally through community mediation. Only when community mediation encountered a deadlock did the Qing state exert its semiofficial influence on community affairs in the “third realm”—a notion Huang introduced in early 1993 when he sought to highlight the impossibility of applying Habermas’s theory of the “public sphere” and “civil society” to the interpretation of Chinese history. However, during the Mao era (1949 to 1976), the state power represented by local courts formalized mediation by making it a part of the legal process of civil disputes. Thus, it was this practice over time that made mediation, as a revolutionary legacy, an indispensable part of the contemporary legal system. In Chapter 5, Huang makes an insightful criticism of contemporary legal reform by pointing out that as a result of directly implanting Western law, the reform of evidence procedure that shifted responsibility for evidence gathering from courts to litigants in civil disputes had some “unintended consequences” (p. 125). The author worries that the domination of Western formalism in contemporary Chinese legal thought may lead the legal system to “emphasize formalities more than substance” (p. 135). In the conclusion, the author once again suggests that the development of the modern Chinese legal system represents a case of Chinese modernity that neither followed a Western model nor preserved Chinese tradition; rather, it is the result of social practices over time.

I find that Huang’s “history-of-practice” approach provides a valuable theoretical perspective and research method for studying legal history, but I would like to know more about the “prospective moral visions,” which do not seem to be clearly described in the book. The author’s macro-history approach to the study of legal practice has the advantage of helping us see through the historical imbroglios and grasp the main thread (if there is any) of social practices, but this perspective may fail to note some important details of the past that could tell us more about the motives behind the social changes. For example, the author conventionally accepts “Ma Xiwu’s Way of Judging” in the 1940s as the origin of the Communist state’s involvement in mediation during the period of the Shaanxi-Gansu-Ningxia Border Region (SGNBR); however, Ma’s example itself does not explain why and how the Qing state’s minimal involvement in civil disputes was transformed into the Communist state’s adoption of mediation as a required legal process. In most of the book the author bases his arguments on the analysis of a large number of legal cases; regretfully, I do not see a similar analysis of concrete legal cases for his argument on the origin of revolutionary legal practice in the SGNBR period. In addition, since the structure of the book centers on the study of mediation from different angles, similar arguments often appear in various places, and readers will find redundancies here and there.

Xiaoping Cong is Associate Professor in the History Department at the University of Houston. She is the author of Teachers’ Schools and the Making of Modern Chinese Nation-state, 1897-1937, published in 2007 by the University of British Columbia Press.

© 2011 by Twentieth-Century China Editorial Board. All rights reserved.

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