June 2012

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Lam, Tong. A Passion for Facts: Social Surveys and the Construction of the Chinese Nation State, 1900-1949. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. xiii, 263 pp., $60.00 (cloth).

By Maggie Clinton

Tong Lam’s engaging new study A Passion for Facts analyzes the processes by which modern modes of apprehending and ordering the social world were forced upon and ultimately embraced by Chinese political and intellectual elites during the late Qing and Republican periods. Lam focuses on the rise of the “social survey” (shehui diaocha) as a means of knowing and constituting a new object called “society” (shehui), as well as the epistemological violence of imperialism that rendered the social survey a seemingly natural way of investigating the world. By the time the Nationalists assumed state power in 1927, Lam argues, “seeking truth from facts” (shishi qiushi) gathered via empirical observation of social phenomena had supplanted the methods of text-oriented evidential scholarship prevalent during the Qing. A Passion for Facts explicates this paradigm shift in terms of the forms of imperialism to which China was subjected, resulting in a novel and compelling contribution to studies of colonialism, knowledge production, and state-society relations in modern China.

Lam pursues three primary lines of argument. Although these lines do not always successfully intersect, each is provocative and unfolds with illuminating detail. First, the book addresses how nineteenth-century colonialist discourse, epitomized by the writings of Arthur Smith, disparaged Chinese people for disregarding time and concrete particulars, and for generally lacking facts about themselves. As China was subjected to imperialist violence that rendered it commensurate with global capitalism, the concomitant invalidation of indigenous forms of knowledge collectively traumatized Chinese intellectual and political elites and charted the winding road by which they came to embrace the social fact as a “medium for discerning the truth about the human world” (p. 6). Second, the book traces how the adoption of new enumerative modalities (in particular a revamped census) by the late Qing and Republican states not only rendered society legible to the state in new ways, but also disciplined citizens to recognize themselves as members of a coeval national community. By the 1930s, this generated what Lam, following Timothy Mitchell, calls the “state effect” by which social surveys, as well as state-affiliated surveyors, effectively conjured the state into being as an entity apparently distinct from society. Third, as per the word “passion” in the book’s title, Lam argues that objective facts gathered by social surveyors inevitably contained traces of sentiment. These extra-scientific traces, which became manifest in surveyors’ narratives of hardship and sacrifice, had to be locked away in what Bruno Latour has called a “black box” if facts so gathered were to successfully assume the position of authoritative truth.

The six chapters plus introduction and epilogue that comprise Lam’s study develop these points and many others. The introduction and Chapter 1 establish the historical and theoretical stakes of the project. Chapters 2 and 3 chart transformations in Qing state methods for knowing and tabulating Qing subjects. These chapters pivot around a fascinating analysis of the 1909 census that attempted to collect population data “using a singular enumerative framework,” as well as the anti-census riots that revealed popular dissatisfaction with the invasive, homogenizing efforts of the modernizing state (p. 63). Chapters 4 through 6 turn to the 1920s and 1930s, highlighting the ways in which the by-now widespread practice of social survey research functioned to gather “empirical evidence of the nation,” in particular at the hands of surveyors employed by the Nationalist state and affiliated research institutes (p. 93). Here, Lam elaborates on how Nationalist-sponsored surveys and censuses graphed Chinese society as uneven and heterogeneous, blighted by “backwards” and “immoral” populations, which in turn prepared the ground for state expansion and biopolitical intervention. Lam also sheds light on the ways in which researchers, many of them trained in methods of American positivist social science, came to see the endurance of hardship and toil as a necessary precondition for the production of truthful facts. Particularly telling are elite characterizations of life among the impoverished, such as researcher Li Jinghan’s exhortation to investigators to accustom themselves to “the peasants’ smell, their disgusting food, and their unhygienic condition” (p. 163).

The book’s insights are too numerous to summarize here, but an important one involves Lam’s attention to the speed and enthusiasm with which certain liberal intellectuals turned colonial derision of China’s ostensible factual deficiencies and general “backwardness” against fellow nationals, in particular subaltern populations. Lam presents Hu Shi’s character “Mr. Chabuduo,” who supposedly embodied Chinese imprecision, in this light, as well as James Yen’s frustration with Ding county peasants who refused to yield the kind of factual information he desired. Much of Chapter 6 discusses liberal researchers who criticized the urban bias of the Nationalist state that provided an umbrella for their own endeavors, and who also characterized the peasantry as ignorant and uncivilized. This chapter is careful to note that Republican-period social scientific practice was neither standardized nor politically univocal; investigators worked with “different assumptions, methods, theories, and conceptual categories,” and society itself was “far from a stable and well-defined object” (p. 142). In this vein, Lam discusses the rural surveys of Mao Zedong and Marxist Chen Hansheng, but the overarching point is to underscore Republican-period struggles between “which vision of truth … would be elevated and implemented” and which vision would be “delegitimized and suppressed” (p. 143). Although this was certainly at issue, Lam might have reflected more deeply on the ways in which certain methodologies and social perspectives countered rather than facilitated capitalistic development and hierarchical national integration, and how the plurality of approaches to “the social” suggest fissures in the Nationalist “state effect.”

Lastly, Lam might have pushed his conclusions about the role of affect in the production of objective truth a bit further, in particular regarding its gendered implications. For instance, how did the emphasis on hardship and long hours in the field render the production of knowledge a masculine endeavor? What did this mean for truths generated about the emergent social category “women”? As these questions are intended to suggest, readers will find A Passion for Facts compellingly written, thoroughly researched, and thought-provoking.

Maggie Clinton received her PhD from New York University and is Assistant Professor of History at Middlebury College.

© 2012 by Twentieth-Century China Editorial Board. All rights reserved.

Nedostup, Rebecca. Superstitious Regimes: Religion and the Politics of Chinese Modernity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009. xiv, 459 pp. $45.00 (cloth).

By Stefania Travagnin

The past decade has seen the publication of several studies examining the new conceptualization and practice of religion that developed in China at the end of the nineteenth century and continued throughout the twentieth century. From a variety of perspectives, these books have connected religion with other topics, such as state, society, gender, modernity, globalization, and material culture. These books include, among others, a monograph by Francesca Tarocco (The Cultural Practices of Modern Chinese Buddhism, 2007), volumes edited by May-fair Yang (Chinese Religiosities, 2008), Yoshiko Ashiwa and David L. Wank (Making Religion, Making the State, 2009), and a book by Vincent Goossaert and David Palmer (The Religious Question in Modern China, 2011). Rebecca Nedostup’s research contributes to this emergent field of study. Superstitious Regimes is an interdisciplinary work that sheds new light on the interaction between the state-body and the religion-body in early twentieth-century China, with a focus on the Nanjing Decade (1927-1937).

Nedostup develops her analysis from both a diachronic and synchronic perspective. The author underlines shifts and continuities between a few historical periods: Sun Yat-sen’s time, the early years of the Nanjing Decade, the late years of the Nanjing Decade, and the post-Nanjing Decade. In terms of agency, Nedostup draws a distinction between the nation-body and local offices within the political context, while within the religion-body agency is shared by communities and individuals, monastics and laity, worship leaders and worshippers. The articulation of any interaction between the political level and the believers turns around the definition(s) and the modalities of “religion.” This volume is result of extensive fieldwork-based research and the consultation of documents from the central and local governments, archive material of religious associations, local gazettes and historical journals, and previous writings from both East Asian and Western scholars.

Nedostup assesses the role of religion in the construction of modernity and political power in the years 1927-1937, as well as identifies the role of modernity in the reconstruction of religious practice. She thus addresses questions of traditionalism, modernity, secularism, and superstition through the historical narrative of the reinvention of religious practices in China.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part, entitled “Of Legislation and Ling,” analyzes the early attempts by the KMT to define the meaning and implication of “religion” and “superstition.” The chapter “Inventing Religion” covers the intellectual and—especially—political debates about what could be defined as “religion,” the role that religion should play in building the nation and in respect to patriotism (and so the role of the clergy as citizens in the renewed Chinese nation), the domestication of the concept of “religious freedom,” the new terms of integration of Christianity, and the creation of organizations such as the Buddhist Association. In “Temples and the Redefinition of Public Life,”‘ Nedostup analyzes motives and criteria behind the anti-religious propaganda that the KMT initiated in 1928, a movement that not only affected religious infrastructures but also shook the religiosity of the masses. The consequences of attacks on City God temples demonstrated the challenges that Nationalists would face by insisting on the imposition of drastic changes in local rituals and religious power structure.

The second part, entitled “Material Motives,” unveils levels and forms of connection between temples and their communities by using Jiangsu province as a case study. In “Jiangsu temples as Target and Tactic,” Nedostup highlights the tensions between localities and the nation, local social and cultural realities and national policies, and the KMT dilemma of how to negotiate modernity while allowing for the continued practice of deity worship. The shift in local power structures, and the redefinition of terms and elements of a new religious landscape that enshrined the party and the nation as object of worship and target of pilgrimages, are all examined in the chapter “Idealized Communities and the Religious Remainder.” Nedostup demonstrates that the KMT’s previous anti-religious sentiments eventually turned to the adoption of religion as a tool for “underwriting the nation” (p. 175).

The book’s third section, entitled “Transactional Modernity,” examines the agency of religious rituals and the formation of a new modern and secular form of belief that could serve the cause of nation-building. The chapter “Embodying Superstition” discusses an anti-superstition campaign in the winter of 1929-1930, when the KMT targeted ritual specialists—especially spirit mediums, geomancers, and fortunetellers—since they were not helping to build the nation. They were thus construed as less socially useful than the clergy of established religions. A crucial part of this campaign was the attempt to replace local Chinese medical practices with modern (Western) medicine. The reasons behind, as well as the difficulties encountered during, this campaign reveal the “embeddedness in the local social fabric” (p. 212) of local customs and old religious practices. In “Affecting Regimes,” the author describes various instances of what she terms the “religious remainder.” First, the Nationalists were merely substituting traditional beliefs with faith in the party, and so traditional Chinese festivals had to be replaced with anniversaries of (secular) political events. Then, important occasions like rituals linked to Confucius, the Ghost Festival, and funeral and burial rituals were all questioned and reconsidered in the light of the new (secular) faith (in the party and the nation). Nedostup reinforces her argument in the conclusion, where she explores the legacy of “superstition” and “religion” in the KMT government.

The book ends with the English translation of the three main regulations on religious properties and clergy issued by the KMT: the Rules for Temple Registration (寺廟管理條例 simiao dengji tiaoli, 1928), the Temple Management Rules (寺廟管理條例 simiao guanli tiaoli, 1929), and the Regulations for Temple Oversight (監督寺廟條例 jiandu simiao tiaoli, 1929).

Nedostup’s interdisciplinary study is of interest for a large readership: students and scholars of Chinese studies, Chinese politics, Chinese religions, and Chinese history would all benefit from reading this book, both for its contents and for the research methodologies that the author adopted.

Stefania Travagnin is Visiting Assistant Professor of East Asian Buddhism at Pennsylvania State University, Department of History and Religious Studies.

© 2012 by Twentieth-Century China Editorial Board. All rights reserved.

By Mike Frick

“Since you have gone, the house is empty, it has been three seasons now
Extinguish the lamps, let the twilight come, we must endure the setting sun” —Chinese funeral couplet

In 2000-2001, Elisabeth Rosenthal published a series of reports in the New York Times that alerted the world to a startling AIDS epidemic among farmers in central China. Beginning in the early 1990s, thousands of farmers in the Yellow River provinces of Henan, Hebei, Hubei, and Shanxi had contracted HIV through commercial blood selling. Local government officials in Henan promoted blood and plasma selling as a rural development scheme that would lift farmers out of poverty. State-run collection centers and private collectors known as “blood heads” would pool blood, extract the desired plasma, and then inject the leftover blood back into donors, thereby enabling people to donate more frequently. Unsafe pooling and re-injection practices exposed thousands to HIV; secondary transmission then occurred on an even wider scale through the use of contaminated blood products in hospitals as well as transmission to sexual partners and children by those already infected. After the epidemic came to light, the Chinese government banned the sale of blood and worked to increase the safety of the blood supply. Yet local officials also denied the scale of the epidemic and harassed journalists, physicians, and other activists who sought to document the extent of the blood disaster.

Yan Lianke’s novel Dream of Ding Village, a nominee for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, opens in the waning years of the blood-selling frenzy, as a small farming community in Henan province watches “the fever” begin to claim the lives of working-age adults. By the mid-1990s, the Chinese government had acknowledged the spread of HIV/AIDS among drug users on China’s southwestern borders, but no one expected AIDS to appear among poor farmers in China’s heartland. The discovery of aizibing cun, or AIDS villages, in central China forced government leaders to confront a pattern of HIV transmission among Han Chinese unrelated to opium trafficking and injecting drug use among ethnic minority communities along the Chinese-Burmese border. At the outset of the novel, so many people have died in Ding Village that families have stopped observing mourning rituals such as pasting funeral couplets outside their homes, and grave markers have become “as dense as the sheaves of wheat” that those healthy enough to work struggle to harvest.

The narrator of Yan’s novel is Ding Qiang, the murdered twelve-year-old son of Ding Hui, the village’s most notorious blood head. The villagers poison Qiang in retaliation for his father’s actions; Ding Hui had established Ding Village’s largest blood bank and used the profits to modernize the family compound. Not content to wait for customers, Ding Hui put his plasma bank on wheels, pushing it out to the village’s fields to collect blood from working farmers, who then fell sick. After Qiang’s murder, the boy lingers over Ding Village as a clear-eyed observer. His omniscient narration serves mainly to illuminate the thoughts of his grandfather, who tries to care for sick villagers while shouldering the remorse his son Ding Hui never musters.

Yan’s writing is at once richly metaphoric and attuned to the rhythms of Chinese farming life. He describes needle marks on the underarms of blood sellers as “angry red sesame seeds” and pinched veins as “fat-streaked pork.” Mostly this language is effective, though at its weaker moments the metaphors can feel overwrought, particularly in the dream sequences that mark major turning points in the plot. Dreams haunt the sleep of Qiang’s grandfather and serve as convenient devices for moving the narrative forward, although this sometimes occurs at the expense of good story-telling. Major revelations about Ding Hui’s greed and artifice are revealed through lushly animated dreams that allow Yan to transcend the narrative strictures of time and place. Through these dreams we see Ding Hui ingratiate himself with government officials until they appoint him chairman of the county taskforce on HIV/AIDS. In his first move as chairman, Ding Hui intercepts the free government-issued coffins intended for AIDS patients in Ding Village and sells them to other AIDS-affected villages for a profit. For his efforts, he labels himself a “philanthropist.” Left without coffins, those dying in Ding Village ransack the school for blackboards and desks to build their own. The transformation of the school into a funereal supply yard carries particular poignancy given China’s storied reverence for learning and scholarship.

Yan sometimes paints the villagers as comical rubes, easily placated by even the smallest self-serving kindness from Ding Hui and other officials. The tone of this portrayal borders on patronizing and is surprising given Yan’s training as an anthropologist. Yan’s academic background comes across more clearly in his perceptive description of how the sick villagers reproduce Communist Party bureaucracy in the way they handle a stream of small dramas, including prosecuting petty thieves, supplanting Qiang’s grandfather as school overseer, and legislating morality among amorous (unwed) HIV-positive couples. AIDS quickly infiltrates every level of Party, village, and clan politics.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government levied a “three nos” ban—no sales, no distribution, and no promotion—against Dream of Ding Village after its publication in 2005. Though the storytelling relies heavily on dream sequences, Yan takes little poetic license when exposing the depth of the state’s culpability in spreading HIV among poor, medically-naïve farmers. He is just as uncompromising when detailing how officials denied responsibility for the ensuing AIDS epidemic, even as they profited from its human tragedy. No one in Ding Village receives medical care, mental health counseling, food assistance, or a chance to hold the blood heads legally accountable. Cast adrift by government administrators, the sick villagers quarantine themselves in the school and wait to die.

Yan’s novel dares to imagine the early years of China’s AIDS epidemic, when farmers in central China awoke from visions of wealth and prosperity to find instead incurable illness and death. Aside from a few stories in newspapers, academic articles, and the memoirs of activist-physicians like Dr. Gao Yaojie, we have few personal accounts from the earliest victims of the blood disaster. Many of these individuals passed away before the Chinese government began offering free anti-retroviral treatment for AIDS in 2003. While the language is sometimes sentimental, Yan’s novel offers powerful testimony of the suffering victims of the blood disaster, their families, and communities have endured in the wake of a wholly preventable tragedy.

Mike Frick is a China program officer at Asia Catalyst, a US-based nonprofit that does training, research and advocacy on health and human rights in Asia. Together with the Korekata AIDS Law Center in Beijing, Asia Catalyst recently released a report on the difficulties victims of the blood disaster have faced in getting compensation from the Chinese government.