Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘China’ Category


I was intrigued recently to see a blog post (from 2017) indicating that it’s actually quite common in Korean news (and other Korean contexts?) to refer to the current “emperor” of Japan [and also historically? I’m not sure] not as “emperor” (天皇, 천황, K: cheonhwang), but by terms such as “Japan king” (日王, 일왕, K: il wang). Interesting, right?

To begin, we must note that the association of these East Asian terms with the English “emperor” and “king” is a construction, and a somewhat arbitrary one. Neither term really “means” “emperor” or “king” directly, but rather they have very particular meanings within the long history of East Asian history, suggesting connotations of that figure’s relationship to Heaven (the ultimate source of sovereignty and legitimacy), to the land and the people, and to rulers of other lands within the region. We must also note that the use of “Japan king” (日王) in Korean vs. the term “emperor” (天皇) in Japanese is not merely a simple linguistic difference, an accident of how word usage differs from one language to another, like how Chinese uses 一天 (lit. “one heaven”), to mean “one day” while Japanese uses 一日 (lit. “one sun”). This “emperor” 天皇 vs. “king” 王 terminology difference is not like that.

Here’s the blog post: The reason why Koreans Call the Emperor of Japan as “King of Japan”

And the Tweet which brought it to my attention:

As the author of this blog post explains, English-language translations of these Korean news sources typically render such terms as “emperor,” as is the typical and standard way of referring to that individual in English. This is why most of us went on unaware of the Korean terminology for so long. This of course makes a certain sense in a journalism context – just quickly and easily making it directly clear to English-speaking readers who it is we’re talking about (the emperor), without getting caught up in matters of translation. After all, isn’t that in a certain sense what translation is all about? Conveying information, making information in one language accessible and easily understood in another; it’s not the journalist’s job to get hung up in linguistic complexities. In fact, to a certain extent, it is precisely the translator’s job to make the translation seem as natural as possible, hiding any awkward or unusual linguistic differences, and indeed hiding the fact that the passage even originated in another language to begin with.

But, of course, for those of us with just a slightly deeper interest in how Korean government, news media, etc. sees / views / understands Japan, the language is actually rather important (or, at the very least, interesting).

Why does this matter? Well, if you’ll permit me to ramble on about the historical usage of such terms for a moment….

Model, lost in the Oct 2019 fire at Shuri castle, of the investiture ceremony in which envoys of the Qing Emperor officially ‘invested’ the king of Ryukyu with the title and position of “king.” Photo my own.

In my own work on the Ryukyu Kingdom 琉球王国, and its relationships with the Ming and Qing “emperors” 皇帝, and with the shoguns of Japan, issues of terminology can sometimes come rather to the forefront, and can be rather interesting and important. In the traditional East Asian system of court-to-court (or “international”) relations, the “emperors” 皇帝 of China* granted recognition and sovereignty (investiture 冊封) to foreign rulers who were thus dubbed “kings” 国王. These “kings” included the kings of Ryukyu, Korea (Joseon), and Vietnam, among others. It was within this context that the Tokugawa shoguns sometimes requested that foreign rulers address them as “King of Japan” 日本国王, in order to emphasize the shogun’s legitimacy, significance, and roughly equal status to the Korean or Ryukyuan King with whom they were exchanging communications; and in this same context that those same shoguns at other times insisted on being called “Taikun” 大君 (sometimes translated as “Great Prince”) in order to extricate themselves from any implication that their power or legitimacy derived from recognition by China. At the same time, for over 75 years, from 1636 until 1712, the successive heads of the Shimazu family, samurai lords of Satsuma (Kagoshima) domain, called the Ryukyuan ruler not “king” 国王, but kokushi 国司 (sometimes translated as “provincial governor”), a title which thus denied the ruler’s independent sovereignty and his ties to China, and instead emphasized his subordination to the Shimazu and the idea that his legitimacy derived from an appointment by the Shimazu.

Throughout this entire period, of course, in addition to the shogun and regional lords such as the Shimazu, Japan also had its own “emperor” 天皇, a term with a lengthy and complex history of its own. This is important, because by calling the emperor “king,” the Korean media is in fact promoting a historical confusion – the idea that either the emperor was historically the same person as the shogun, i.e. the “king of Japan,” or was somehow equivalent in status to the shogun, or that either the shogun or the emperor don’t matter at all – that only one or the other were ever “king,” or that both were the same person. All blatant falsehoods, misrepresentations. We understand, of course, that the Korean media today isn’t trying to infringe upon those sorts of “domestic” matters of relative statuses within Japan, but rather to suggest that the Japanese “emperor” isn’t any more special, or superior, to the Korean kings – or, indeed, the kings of any other country. That’s the key comparison they’re pointing towards. And, in a certain sense, that’s fair enough. After all, did any emperor prior to the Meiji Emperor (that is, prior to the advent in Japan of modern imperialism/colonialism, the Japanese takeover of Hokkaido, Okinawa, Taiwan, Korea, and later on additional territories) truly control an “empire”? Was he truly in any meaningful sense more powerful or more important within his own country, by comparison, than the kings of England, France, Siam, or Hawaiʻi? Admittedly not. But, even so, let us return to the history:

The 1873 declaration of Ryûkyû’s demotion from an independent kingdom to a Japanese “domain” (藩), as represented in Ishikawa Mao’s 石川真生 “Great Ryukyu Photo Scroll” 大琉球写真絵巻, 2014. Photo of the artwork my own.

When an embassy from the “king” 国王 of Ryukyu visited Tokyo in 1873 to pay respects to the Meiji Emperor 明治天皇 following the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate + of the associated system of lords, the envoys were instructed that their ruler was now to be no longer regarded as a 国王 (king of a country, of a kingdom), but rather as a 藩王 (domain king?), a title no one else ever held before, or since. Just a few years later, that “domain king” was deposed entirely – he was stripped of his domain 藩 / former kingdom which was now designated a prefecture 県 of Japan, and was forced to relocate to Tokyo, taking the title Marquis 侯爵. “Meanwhile,” so to speak, roughly 20 years later, over in Korea, desperate to assert power, legitimacy, and sovereignty, to earn the respect of his neighbors, and to attempt to maintain his country’s independence, the King of Joseon (i.e. Korea) 朝鮮国王 declared himself no longer a “king” but now an “emperor” 帝. He was ultimately not successful: Korea was absorbed by the Empire of Japan only about 13 years later; but for that brief time, an “empire” – the Great Korean Empire 大韓帝国 (K: Daehan Jeguk) – ruled by an “emperor” 帝 was the dominant polity in Korea.

Korean Empire officials in Western-style military dress, in front of a traditional-style building with modern fixtures, 1909. Photo from gallery labels, National Palace Museum of Korea. Photo of the gallery label my own.

In recent years, some scholars of Okinawan history have begun to suggest that we call Ryukyu not a “kingdom,” but an “empire,” pointing out the ways in which the royal court at Shuri, that is to say the kingdom or polity centered on Okinawa Island, expanded its influence into the other islands of the Ryukyu archipelago, imposing its rule over the Amamis, Miyakos, and Yaeyamas by force, creating an “empire.” Of course, there is some merit to such suggestions, as they help throw into relief the fact that there was not a singular Ryukyuan identity, that residents of these various other islands considered themselves invaded, conquered, or otherwise subordinated or subjugated by Shuri; and, indeed, there was an unequal hierarchical relationship imposed upon them by forcible invasion, and they were obligated to pay heavy taxes or tribute, in a “tributary” relationship not entirely unlike other center-periphery / superior-inferior / lord-vassal relationships elsewhere in the region and elsewhere in the world. Including Ryukyu within our more global conversations about how empires function, how to characterize them, etc., has some merit. But, can we have an empire without an emperor? And if the ruler at Shuri is to be called an “emperor,” then what does that make his relationship with the rulers of China, Korea, and Japan? The problem is even more stark when we talk about it in Japanese; some scholars have discussed this revisionist interpretation by introducing a newly-invented term, “Ryukyu Empire” 琉球帝国. But can we have a 帝国 with no 帝? When not only scholarly conventions but also the whole of the corpus of historical documents refer to the Ryukyuan rulers as 王 or 国王 and not 帝, and their country as 国 or 王国 and never ever as 帝国?

Terms such as 王, 帝, and 天皇 have extremely long histories and complex meanings in the history of East Asian political culture, and it is important to remember that translating them to “king” and “emperor” in English is an arbitrary convention and not directly indicative of their actual meanings in context. Indeed, some scholars have argued fairly extensively that the term “emperor” is problematic, for reasons beginning with

(1) its gendered character when Japan had several female 天皇 (emperors) who are called 天皇 just the same as their male counterparts, as distinct from 后妃・皇妃・皇后 or other terms for “empresses” who are not the reigning sovereign but are instead the wife/consort to the 天皇, and

(2) because of the problematic or complex associations of the word “emperor” with its Latin origins in “imperator,” and its modern associations with “empire” and “imperialism.” Such scholars have made rather compelling arguments for calling the 天皇 the “sovereign,” “Heavenly Sovereign,” or simply tennô instead, but no matter how compelling the argument may be, the term “emperor” is extremely well-established and widely used, not only in scholarship and journalism, but by the Imperial Household Agency of Japan, the Government of Japan, etc. as well.

Hundreds or thousands of officials kowtowing to the Son of Heaven, the Qing Emperor, in a scene from the film The Last Emperor, displayed at the Metropolitan Museum’s “China through the Looking Glass” exhibition, 2015. Photo my own.

So, given all this background, I hope you can see why I really appreciated this information, and explanation. Which, now that we’re on paragraph 10 (?), is really actually the key point of this post: simply to bring this rather interesting fact to your attention, and to link to this other fellow’s blog post about it.

I hope that, in a roundabout way, though I perhaps haven’t really addressed it directly, you might have some slightly deeper appreciation now for why it’s such an important matter that we use these terms carefully, and consider how they are being used in various contexts (such as Korean news media) and why.

While the idea of “empire” may be useful as a lens or characterization for how we understand Ryukyu’s (that is, Shuri’s) relationship with the various islands under its control, this becomes a problem when we consider the status of the “king” of Ryukyu relative to the “kings” of Korea and Japan, and the “emperors” of Ming and Qing.

And while the term “emperor” may be complicated and problematic in problematically associating the historical, premodern, Japanese “emperors” with “empire” – i.e. with expansionism, militarism, or control over a large ’empire’ incorporating multiple lands or peoples – and I certainly do chafe at associations of premodern modes of rule with modern ideologies of “imperialism” and “colonialism” and their associated (exceptionally distinctively modern, albeit with some very interesting counter-examples) modes of rule, at the same time, there is so much complexity and significance to the ways that the terms 国王 (“king”), 皇帝 (“emperor”), and 天皇 (“emperor”) were used in premodern and early modern East Asia, and their relationships with one another, including the very intentional use at times in Japan of the term 天皇 (and not any alternative) to assert the Japanese sovereign’s equal (non-inferior, non-subordinate) status with the Ming or Qing sovereign, and the very marked and intentional change of status by the Korean King Gojong to styling himself Emperor Gojong. Of course, a lot of this could be solved by calling the 天皇 “sovereign” or by some other term, and similarly calling the Ming/Qing ruler 皇帝 “sovereign” as well (or, as I’m quite fond, Son of Heaven 天子). But, since “emperor” is just so widely-used and well-established, I kind of think we’re stuck with it.

Reenactment of a Joseon royal procession, inside Seoul Incheon Airport. Photo my own.

Now, I’d like to return to the original blog post, and just point out a few thoughts and (constructive, positive) critiques.

A few points I wanted to question, though:

1) Let’s take a moment to note that whenever Chinese, Korean, and other sources referred to a “king of Japan,” they always used the term 日本国王 – 日本 meaning “Japan”, 国 being a “land” or “country,” and 王 being a ruler or “king,” and thus the entire phrase in full meaning something like “king of the land of Japan.” By contrast, this term “Japan king” (日王, 일왕, K: il wang) which we are told is often used in Korean media today, uses only two characters, and does not to my knowledge ever show up in historical documents. I know next to nothing about Korean language, Korean conventions, but from the perspective of someone who reads Japanese, this term 日王 strikes me as a term with a decidedly modern “color” or character to it, a newspaper’s abbreviation of convenience and/or modern political jargon.

2) Some have argued that the Ming or Qing investiture of someone as a guówáng 国王 is really more about designating them as an officially recognized diplomatic + trading partner, and that it doesn’t necessarily actually indicate anything about them being a “king” in the sense of having actual political control over any meaningful amount of land, i.e. a “kingdom.” They might, or they might not; some of the earliest “kings” of Okinawa might not have actually controlled very much territory at all, but only a good port, a fleet, some trade routes, and so forth. (for more on this, see Gregory Smits’ book Maritime Ryukyu, University of Hawaii Press, 2019.)

3) I’m no expert on Korean history, but I am pretty well-read on scholarship about the so-called “Sinocentric world order,” “tribute system,” or 中華思想 (roughly, “Chinese civilization ideology”), and there were a few things in this blog post which puzzled me.

The blog post identifies Sojunghwa 小中華 as having to do with the traditional (“tributary”) superior-inferior hierarchical relationship between China and Korea, but I’m not sure that’s quite right. Based on Jeong-mi Lee’s article “Chosŏn Korea as Sojunghwa, the Small Central Civilization” (International Christian University Publications 3-A, Asian Cultural Studies 国際基督教大学学報 3-A,アジア文化研究 36 (2010)), I was under the impression that Sojunghwa 小中華 refers to the idea that once China “fell” to the “barbarian” Qing (Manchus) in the 1640s [and all the more so after the 1680s], Korea was left as the chief remnant of Great Ming Confucian civilization, the last shining star of proper, upright, civilization, i.e. a small 小 version of central civilization 中華 (“central flowering,” or “the center of flowery [civilization/culture]”). Even while continuing to pay ritual lip service (and actual material tribute) to the Qing, the Joseon court increasingly cultivated itself as a Confucian royal court, and one which revered and honored the Ming emperors, decrying the “barbarism” of the Qing and the supposed decline of civilization within Chinese lands, and taking on the responsibility of performing ritual sacrifices and ancestral ceremonies for the Ming emperors no longer being performed in China. Vis-a-vis Japan, as well, Korea certainly saw itself throughout this period as the more upright, more civilized, more cultured, kingdom.

「泥絵 琉球使節江戸城西の丸登城図」, ”doro-e” painting of the 1850 Ryukyuan embassy entering Edo castle, to pay respects and bring gifts to members of the Tokugawa family. Edo-Tokyo Museum.

3) This blog post plays fast and loose with ideas of being a “vassal state” or “puppet state,” even saying at the very end that Korea was historically, and that North Korea is today, “part of China.” But of course this isn’t actually true in any meaningful sense. Ironic that someone calling attention to the importance of terminology – that is, specifically, the usage of the term “king” instead of “emperor”, and the significance of this difference in usage – should be so careless in how he describes the character of the historical relationships between these countries.

There is much evidence to support the idea that the kings of Ryukyu were “vassals” of the Shimazu and Tokugawa houses, and that Ryukyu can therefore be described as a “vassal state.” The fine points are perhaps a bit too numerous and complex to list out here, but though documents of the time often only use vague terms such as 付属 or 属する (i.e. that Ryukyu “belongs to” the Shimazu house or to Satsuma domain), I hope you will trust me and allow it to suffice to say that in some very meaningful ways, the kings of Ryukyu operated similarly to samurai houses which were vassals of the Shimazu and Tokugawa, giving gifts of swords and horses (which Korea and other foreign entities did not), and engaging in formal ceremonial interactions (audience rituals) with the Shimazu lords and Tokugawa shoguns which were quite similar to those in which samurai vassals interacted with their lords, ceremonies which bear little resemblance to those of China-Korea interactions.

If we are careful in how we apply terms such as “vassal,” understanding with some care how exactly lord-vassal relationships worked in “feudal” Japan (and in many parts of Europe), it immediately becomes clear that the Ming and Qing emperors didn’t have “vassals,” because they didn’t operate on a warrior hierarchy or a “feudal” system of loyalties/fealty between warrior houses the way Tokugawa Japan did.** The Ming and Qing emperors had tributaries, countries which paid them tribute, and they maintained a regional order in which, yes, the kings of Korea and Ryukyu were invested by the Chinese emperor, deriving their legitimacy and sovereignty from him, but, neither these kings themselves nor their lands were in any way directly under the political control of Beijing. Neither Ryukyu nor Korea were ever “part of” China, nor were they directly politically controlled by China in any meaningful way, nor were they false governments merely put into place by China for pretend, as the term “puppet state” suggests.

So, to be clear, Korea and Ryukyu were tributary states, fully independent and sovereign kingdoms (vis-a-vis China, at least), which paid respects to the Ming/Qing emperor as the supposed center and source of all civilization, the axis between Heaven and Earth, but not as their direct de facto lord or ruler.

In connection with this, we must acknowledge that Korea was always independent of China, and so it didn’t “gain independence” in the 1880s-1890s nor was it “given” independence by Japanese involvement. Korea was always independent from China, it just became independent of the so-called Sinocentric “world order,” the Sinocentric or Confucian ideological system of relations between courts.

—–
*Some recent scholarship has suggested that rather than thinking of “China” as a single entity throughout history, we might instead think of the Han, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing Empires as distinct polities, polities which truly fell, ceased to exist, and were replaced by new and different entities. This seems particularly compelling in the case of the Qing Empire, which some argue we should understand as a larger entity of which China was only a part – and i.e. that while Taiwan, Tibet, and East Turkestan were part of the larger Qing Empire, they were never part of “China.” … For this reason, I’ve taken to trying to talk about “the Ming and Qing Empires” rather than “China” where possible, but when we’re talking about the entire span of the last 2000 or so years, it’s easier sometimes to just say “China.”

**Or, if the Qing Emperors did have vassals, it was strictly within the Manchu family lineages, and/or the system of military “banners“, i.e. houses or families with particular hereditary or military relationships of honor or obligation to the Qing Emperor not as “emperor” 皇帝 but as Khan or Khagan. Or something like that. Manchu society, politics, and the banner system are not my specialty.

Read Full Post »

Ge Zhaoguang, Michael Gibbs Hill (trans.), What is China?: Territory, Ethnicity, Culture, & History (Belknap Press, 2018)

Interrogating the nation-state is a core element of the postmodernist scholarship moment that we’re in. Not only as a specialist in Okinawan Studies but simply as a Japanese Studies scholar more broadly, and indeed as a Historian, period, I have been encouraged almost throughout my entire graduate student career to consider questions along the lines of “what is [and isn’t] Japan?” “who is [and isn’t] Japanese?” This comes up in terms of empire (are Okinawans “Japanese”?). But it also comes up in terms of ancient history (how far back in time should we say that “Japan” as a political entity, or “Japanese culture” or “the Japanese people” extends as a valid thing to talk about?). Gregory Smits’ book Maritime Ryukyu, which I wrote about recently, addresses similar issues for “Okinawa” or “Ryukyu.”

As a Japan/Okinawa specialist who ostensibly should have some considerable degree of expertise in “East Asia” a whole, and thus in China in particular, as well, I found Ge Zhaoguang’s What is China? (as translated by Michael Gibbs Hill and published in English in 2018) fascinating, and think I will make the book (or at least its Introduction, and perhaps another chapter or two) assigned reading in whatever “Intro to East Asian Studies” seminar I may teach in the near future. Indeed, I think it would be a good reading for any introductory “Historiography” seminar as well – get some of those US/Europe historians to think about another part of the world for a change, and not only in a colonialist/postcolonialist context.

For a great many parts of the world, there is perhaps less of a question of when the nation-states or national identities we know today emerged. In many parts of the world, the current nation-states and identities were preceded by a sequence of different empires rising and falling, coming and going. The Mongols, the Ottomans, and in many parts of the world the Europeans – the British, French, and Spanish Empires – this and that empire came and went, sweeping across vast swaths of land, incorporating peoples, drawing borders, suppressing and altering and redrawing cultures. I do not know how historians of those parts of the world talk about these things, but I would imagine it fairly accurate to say that prior to a certain point in history, we can’t really talk about Syrian and Jordanian identity, or the Tanzanian vs. Kenyan peoples, or of Argentinian vs. Chilean politics. Those borders, those categories, didn’t exist. And yet, we do talk about “China” (and the Chinese people, and Chinese culture) as going back millennia.

So, what exactly is meant by “China,” and what is not?

The historians of the so-called “New Qing History” posit the very intriguing idea that rather than thinking of China as having always been a singular and independent “Chinese” entity (albeit with changing rulers and borders over the course of history), there are some valid and valuable insights that can be gained from considering “China” as having been just one part of the much larger Yuan (Mongol) and Qing (Manchu) empires. In other words, that it wasn’t “China” (under Manchu rulers) that conquered Taiwan, East Turkestan (Xinjiang), Tibet, and Inner Mongolia in the 17th-19th centuries, but that it was the Qing Empire which did this, and “China” was only one region within that empire, alongside all the rest. I find this idea extremely compelling; but at the same time, I appreciate Ge’s approach on this and many other points to introduce some complexity, nuance, moderation, noting that this approach to the Mongol and Qing empires runs the risk, however, of going too far in the opposite direction, giving too little attention & too little credit to the role of Han culture in these empires (17).

Even so, this question of whether the Republic of China is the direct political successor entity of the Qing Empire in all of the latter’s territories, of course, has profound implications for today’s politics, especially as a number of these regions became independent after the fall of the Qing Empire and were only later (re-)conquered or (re-)incorporated by the Republic of China or the People’s Republic of China. As I read this book, I could not help but continually think about the protests in Hong Kong, the ongoing colonization of Tibet, Beijing’s endless bullying of Taiwan and ongoing decades-long refusal to allow most of the rest of the world to recognize Taiwan as a separate country, and of course the genocidal horrors being visited upon Muslims in Xinjiang and elsewhere today.

Raised and educated in China, and writing in Chinese as a professor at a prominent Chinese university, Ge does not address these issues directly – or, at least, does not address them as explicitly as a Western scholar might. He presents us with a view from the inside – a view which instead of simply being plainly critical and hostile, instead engages with nuance and complexity, trying to reconcile difficulties in his own nation’s national narrative and national identity, and perhaps ever so gently suggesting criticism of the CCP’s top-down narratives and attitudes, along with gentle suggestions for the possibility of change.

The CCP’s colonialist and otherwise oppressive and suppressive policies, after all, stem from or are intertwined with specific notions of national identity, national history, and national culture which are created and imposed upon the people. It is because of particularly rigid, intolerant, notions of cultural homogeneity, political loyalty, and what does and does not count as “Chineseness” that Uyghurs, Tibetans, Hui, and so many others are being so cruelly forced to shed their native languages, native customs, native religion, in favor of a Communist national culture that anyone would admit has next to nothing to do with (historical) Han or Ming culture or identity. After all, that’s what the 1911 Revolution, and then the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s-70s was all about, wasn’t it? Shedding the old culture of imperial China, to build a new nation based on a new modern foundation? And so, Ge also engages with questions of what does and does not constitute “Chinese culture,” and critiques the across-the-board imposition of “national education.”

History informs politics, and politics informs how we interpret or understand the history, which then reinforces just what the politics wants it to. What is China? is an interesting book in that I can see it being both a history book for historians, and for political scientists. A book that can work quite well in a Intro to Historiography seminar or other deep academic setting, but which at times seems much more directed at (or pertinent to) policy wonks and the like.

A diagram of the emperor-centered worldview Ge calls the “All-Under-Heaven” worldview. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Ge divides his discussion of these issues into six chapters, of which I believe the first four (Worldviews, Borders, Ethnicity, History) really form the core.

One thread which runs through the book is a narrative of how views of China’s place in the world developed and changed over time, from a notion of China as the center and source of all civilization, which became more complicated but nevertheless retained power through the end of the 19th century, to a notion of China as but one nation among many, which Ge identifies as gaining some currency as early as c. 1000 CE, but which of course Beijing had no choice but to reckon with all the more so, all the more strongly, from the mid-19th century onwards. The former notion, which Ge associates strongly with the term “All-Under-Heaven” (Tianxia 天下), was the dominant worldview from the time of unification under the Qin (221-206 BCE) and Han dynasties (206 BCE – 220 CE), if not earlier. Under the Qin and Han, the various political, economic, and social systems, as well as the various languages and cultures, of the central regions of China proper (centered on the Yangtze and Yellow River valleys) were to some extent united; traditional rhetoric emphasizes the unification and standardization of the calendar, weights and measures, rites and music, writing, and the width of axles on carts, across the Empire.

Up through the Tang dynasty (618-907), China was the only major power in the region. While it interacted with “frontier” or “barbarian” peoples such as the Tuoba, Sogdians, Xianbei, etc. [and with Korea and Japan], and while the Tang Dynasty in particular invited in and incorporated much from other ethnicities and cultures (including Buddhism from Central Asia!), there was no concept of “foreign countries” that had anything approaching equality with China as the one and only civilized state/empire in the region [and, hence, in the world] (4).

The notion of the emperor as the singular highest authority, and the singular highest source of civilization, to whom all people (both within the empire and without) should look to as a model of civilized culture and virtue, was central to both domestic and foreign policy; both the regional lords within the empire and the rulers of foreign lands/peoples were expected to pay tribute to the emperor, and to recognize him as their cultural/civilizational if not political superior.

It was in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Ge convincingly argues, that “China” had to contend with other states, and with a multistate, international environment (4). While other scholars have identified the Song as “early modern” for certain reasons having to do with urbanization, technology, and so forth, Ge emphasizes the shifts that took place during this time in notions of a Chinese “nation” or “people” (minzu 民族) and “state” (guojia 国家). Faced with the neighboring Khitan state of Liao and the Tangut state of Xi Xia, the rulers of which the Song called “emperor” (huangdi 皇帝), warred against, and paid tribute to, the Song could hardly maintain the notion of being themselves the one and only center of all civilization (105-106). At the same time, neighboring states/cultures such as Korea and Japan which had viewed the Tang very much as a model of “high” civilization on which to base their own political structures, political philosophy, writing, Buddhism, art and architecture, literature, official histories, and so on and so forth, by the Song had turned away from such unidirectional admiration and cultural borrowing towards forging their own new directions, their own distinctive Korean/Japanese cultures. (Of course, this argument ignores the extent to which Ryukyu and Korea later aspired so strongly towards the Ming as a civilizational model, but I don’t think that really detracts from the validity of this point as it pertains to the significance of the Tang/Song transition.)

The All-Under-Heaven worldview remained strong through the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, and indeed the tribute/investiture pattern of relations with foreign courts reached its height, its maturity, in those periods. But, at the same time, the late Ming saw the introduction from the West of an early version of the modern international worldview – a world of “myriad states” (wanguo 万国) in which China is but one. Ge talks about world maps, and the encounter with (or against) European attitudes which by no means recognized China as the center. Borders are of strong relevance here as well. Not only in China but throughout East Asia (as well as elsewhere in the world), traditional worldviews placed little importance on strongly delineated national borders. Rather, there was a political & cultural center, identified in China as Hua-Xia (華夏) among other terms, surrounded by concentric circles each of which was less cultured, less civilized, than the last.

We might point to the Opium Wars of the 1840s and 1860s as marking the beginning of the Qing Empire being forced to contend even more fully with the international political reality of a world order organized according to this “myriad sovereign states” conception (i.e. what’s often called the Westphalian system) rather than one of All-Under-Heaven. And, of course, with the overthrow of the Empire and the advent of the Republic of China in 1911, followed by the Communist takeover of China in 1949, China as a modern nation-state in a world among many others became even more dominant.

12th c BCE Shang dynasty tiger bone oracle bone. Royal Ontario Museum.

A second thread concerns history. When does “China” become “China”?

Chinese history is typically presented in such a way that the Qin, Han, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties are all different periods of history within the history of a single entity called “China.” Even when those empires are broken up (e.g. in the Warring States period, the Six Dynasties period, etc.) or conquered from the outside (e.g. the Yuan and Qing), the standard narrative views all of this as still being “China.” And it views “Chinese culture” or “the Chinese people” as going back all the way to the very beginnings of civilization. I am not myself super familiar with just where we ought to draw the line between legend and history when it comes to questions of whether the Xia and Shang dynasties ever really existed, but, as with questions of whether the Jômon and Yayoi peoples were “Japanese” in any meaningful way, here too we must ask the question of just how far back “Chinese civilization” or Chineseness should be taken.

Viewed through the perspective of a critical lens towards nationalism and towards the modern state imposing its national narratives upon history, one could take a radical, revisionist, and indeed quite intriguing approach and say that there is something to be gained from considering each of these empires (the Qin, the Han, etc.) as a separate state, without continuity. After all, if Europeanists are going to draw some line at some point in history and say that “before X year there may have been Gaul, Franks, Anglo-Saxons, Picts, etc etc but there was no ‘England’ or ‘France’ and certainly no ‘Italy’ or ‘Germany,'” then why should we pretend that “China” goes back literally thousands of years? There is certainly plenty of evidence that (to a certain extent, in certain important ways) 17th-19th century Koreans and Japanese considered the Ming and Qing Empires to be different countries, considered “China” to have been fallen and conquered, and considered the Qing to no longer be the same country they had previously admired or interacted with. A similar set of developments can be seen, too, in Japan, in how the Tokugawa shogunate had to re-establish relations with Korea (and others) anew after establishing itself as a new regime in the 1600s, and how the imperial government which replaced the Tokugawa and established itself in 1868 likewise had to formally (re-)negotiate relations with all different countries around the world, whether the treaties signed with the shogunate would or would not still be held as valid, etc. To give just one more example, we see this again in the 1970s, when the United Nations, United States, and a great many other entities/countries formally changed their official recognition of the Communist government rather than the Nationalist (KMT) government as being the one and only recognized legitimate government of “China.”

Ming and Qing peoples depicted among the different peoples of the world in a c. 1800 Bankoku jinbutsu zu scroll, Brigham Young University Harold Lee Library Special Collections.

When it comes to many other parts of the world, we hold some skepticism, criticism, or critique as to whether a given modern nation-state should or should not legitimately, validly, be able to claim succession from a given regime of the past (is Turkish national pride in everything Ottoman appropriate or misplaced? Is it India or Nepal that gets to claim the Buddha? Are modern Arab Muslim Egyptians really the heirs to Pharoanic Egypt, etc.). And as historians/scholars we voice some challenge to the idea that the Safavids, Mamluks, Mughals, and so forth map easily onto who should be proud to be Turkish, Persian, or Indian. So why should we be uncritical towards similar claims when it comes to China?

But, Ge makes a compelling argument for not leaping too quickly to be too radical on this point. He emphasizes the stable continuity of not only politics but also culture and cultural identity within the core regions of “China proper.” He writes that the central core of China proper had a unified politics, commonly recognized territory, and commonly unified culture and nationality since very early on; that “the cultural tradition based on Han culture … extended across time in this region, forming into a clear and distinct cultural identity and cultural mainstream” even as it took in considerable foreign influences (19), and that

“regardless of how dynasties were established, they all believed that they were ‘China’ or the ‘Middle Kingdom’ and argued for the legitimacy of the dynasty in terms of the traditional Chinese world of ideas” (19).

I think there’s some considerable validity to this. While the notion of political discontinuity is important – and all the more important if the CCP wants to strategically claim only what it wishes from history while rejecting the rest (decrying the Four Olds, decrying “feudalism,” decrying superstition, decrying just about everything about Imperial China, but still claiming thousands of years of Chinese civilization and greatness?) – Ge says we should not confuse the political for the cultural. Just because China may not have been politically continuous, that is, just because there’s an argument to be made that different dynasties be seen as actually different empires, different states or countries, different political entities altogether, that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t “a continuous identity as “China,” and a cultural and political unity (albeit within dynamic borders) of places dominated by Han culture, within which the writing is the same” or that there isn’t a recognizable and significant historical narrative throughline as the History of “China” or the Chinese people or nation, however one wishes to term it, down through the dynastic and territorial shifts (27).

Ge identifies five key aspects to “Chinese culture,” which can be recognized as continuously prominent throughout history, and as distinctively Chinese:

(1) A writing system based on Chinese characters (hanzi).
(2) A complex of certain beliefs and arrangements regarding the individual, the family, and society, and their relationships with one another.
(3) The balance and combination between Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, with all three having considerable influence and no other religion (e.g. Christianity) ever coming to dominate over them.
(4) Beliefs regarding Yin & Yang, the Five Elements, and so forth, and various practices stemming from these.
(5) Notions of All-Under-Heaven and China’s place in the world (97-98).

I’m not sure this quite settles the argument, either as it pertains to how we understand “China” or “Chinese history” as continuously existing through dynastic changes, or as it pertains to just how far back we can go and reasonably still call it “Chinese” culture rather than the culture of some pre- proto- people who were not yet “Chinese.” But I think Ge introduces many of the key issues and aspects of this problem, and some good complexity and perspective.

The progression of Chinese territory over history. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

A third thread concerns peoples and cultures. Who is included in being “Chinese”? Does Chinese culture, Chinese history, Chinese identity consist only of Han culture, Han history, Han identity imposed on others? Are Uyghurs, Hui, Tibetans, Mongolians, Manchus also “Chinese”? Are their cultures also part of a rich and multicultural Chineseness, or are these things to be demeaned, marginalized, suppressed, erased, in favor of assimilation into (Han/Communist) “Chinese” culture & identity?

This gets not only to the very important and very political issues of today, in terms of the place of minorities and their cultures within China, a set of issues that chiefly concerns the Qing dynasty and the modern period which followed, but also a set of more historical issues: namely, whose history, or which histories, are included in the umbrella of “Chinese history” or “Chinese dynasties”?

Let me take a moment to touch upon the latter one first. As I mentioned in my post on the Royal Ontario Museum, I was intrigued and pleasantly surprised to see the museum devoting some attention to the Khitan Liao dynasty. I do not know what is standard within Chinese Studies today (esp. in the US and elsewhere in the West), but I am intrigued by the idea of choosing to take the Khitan Liao state, the Tangut Xixia state, the Jurchen Jin state, and so forth as “Chinese dynasties” or as part of “Chinese history.” What are the stakes here? What are the implications? I am certainly glad to have learned about Liao sculpture and architecture in my Chinese art history classes and to see them, from time to time, in art museums. The Liao and Xixia are known for their wooden statues of the bodhisattva Guanyin (J: Kannon), which are often among the most striking examples on display in many Western museums, and the Timber Pagoda built by the Khitans in 1055 remains the tallest and oldest wooden pagoda in China today. Including these states in courses and textbooks on Chinese history means including them at all and not erasing them from history, because as we must admit, if they weren’t covered under the rubric of “Chinese history,” when or where would we ever cover them? Extremely few schools offer courses on Central Asian History, and even those that do focus, I am sure, on other cultures.

But, the idea that not only the Han Chinese (and the Mongols and Manchus who conquered them) but also the Tanguts, Khitans, and Jurchens who conquered parts of Chinese territory, shared borders with Chinese empires such as the Song, and adopted some aspects of Chinese imperial culture should count as “Chinese” dynasties is interesting to me. What do we mean when we call them “Chinese”? What are the implications and ramifications for how we understand these dynasties/states, and for how we understand “China” or “Chineseness”? How does including these “foreign” dynasties in our imagined category of “China” change what “China” or “Chinese culture” means?

But let us return to the more presently politically pressing issue. Ge lays out in some detail the varying different attitudes and perspectives of prominent figures in the late Qing / early Republic (i.e. c. 1880s-1910s) regarding which peoples (and cultures, and territories) should and should not be included within “China.” As Ge describes, Zhang Taiyan, aka Zhang Binglin, advocated a Republic of China which would stand apart from the Four Barbarians, meaning he saw no need for the Republic to include Manchuria, Tibet, Mongolia, or Muslim- majority areas (67). Liang Qichao took a different tack, however, suggesting that the Han Chinese were not truly from a single pure origin anyway, but were descended from a mixture of different groups (back in pre-Qin ancient times), that nations across history are constantly changing and merging into one another, and that the Manchus, Mongols, Miao, Hui, and so forth should be included within China, and within Chinese history (68).

I found Ge’s chapter on Ethnicity quite informative and interesting as to the historiography of that time regarding Chinese ethnic origins, etc. We must remember, this was happening right around the same time as the peak of nationalist ideologies and nationalist movements around the world, and the peak of a certain form of late 19th-early 20th century anthropological discourses regarding race, ancient origins, ethnicity, and so forth. We see Chinese scholarship being powerfully influenced by these ideologies, worldviews, and (global) scientific/scholarly trends, as well as by the politics of the time, and by Japanese scholarship which supported Japanese imperialist claims to Qing border regions etc., inspiring Chinese scholars therefore to feel a need to refute those arguments, to research Manchu, Mongol, Miao, and Tibetan history, and to assert stronger or closer ties to China. As Ge quotes Gu Jiegang as writing,

in times of peace, there is no harm in scholars practicing “scholarship for the sake of scholarship,” but in times when “the country is in decline and fear reigns,” then they can only “pursue scholarship for practical ends” (75-76).

On a more practical political level, Ge indicates, no one who took the reins of power after the Revolution was willing to risk being blamed for allowing the country to be broken up or have territories cut away. The abdication edict of the last Qing emperor called for continuing “to preserve the complete territory of the Five Nations of Manchus, Hans, Mongols, Hui and Tibetans,” and Sun Yat-Sen declared that he accepted the program of Five Nations under One Republic, and assumed responsibility for unifying Chinese territory, combining the lands of Han, Manchu, Mongolians, Hui, and Tibetans into one country (69).

Ge today writes that

“because the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China inherited the Qing’s national groups and domains, any discussion of “China’s” territory, peoples, or identity must take into account the history of the Qing dynasty” (65).

All of this is I think of incredible importance today, and perhaps especially today on Oct 1, 2019 as I write this (though I know I won’t finish and publish it until later), the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Throughout China, as well as in Hong Kong, Tibet, and most violently and egregiously in East Turkestan (Xinjiang), we are seeing the Chinese government violently enforce the idea that there is only one correct way to be Chinese; only one correct set of Chinese cultural beliefs, practices, and customs; and that engaging in any other cultural identity or practices is disloyal, un-patriotic, un-Chinese. Even as they continue to spit their propaganda about how wonderfully multi-ethnic China is, with its 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, they simultaneously exercise genocidal assimilation policies. During the Beijing Olympics, I watched videos like “Beijing Welcomes You,” and of course even back then I felt complex and weird feelings about it, but now it feels like watching a Riefenstahl film, or something out of 1984. Just pure propaganda, making it look like things are perfect and good and happy and safe, while meanwhile over one million people are in concentration camps in the northwest; mosques, churches, and centuries-old Buddhist monastery complexes are being demolished; and the police have turned Hong Kong into a warzone.

So, which is it? Is China a multi-ethnic country, a multi-ethnic people, in which the Five Nations (or the 56 ethnic groups) all play a role? Or is China a Han Chinese + Communist/Maoist country, in which there is only one correct culture to which all must submit?

Towards the end of the book, Ge turns to talking directly about “national learning” (guo xue 国学), that is, the national(ist) curriculum taught and promoted in China today. He writes, “Does the plural nature of Chinese culture allow for the inclusion of Manchu, Mongolian, Hui/Uighur, Tibetan, and Miao culture? … In the face of a plural culture, national learning opts for a singular one.” What exactly is this national learning? Some, Ge tells us, say it should focus on the Five Classics, while others say it should focus on the national past. Some, however, advocate a “greater national learning” (da guo xue) that would include the many national groups (111).

These were the three chief threads which intrigued me, and which I focused on throughout the book. Though, as excellent as I found this book overall, I was also frustrated at times that Ge’s interests, Ge’s points, often seemed to trail off in different directions from what I expected or desired. But, then, I suppose, he’s coming from a very different perspective, and the issues that are most glaringly important and interesting to me are not the same as for him.

We must remember that Ge is writing from within China, within Chinese politics, within Chinese discourses. And so, while there was a lot in this book which confused me – including, for example, his often way-overgeneralizing statements about how European or Western civilizations are (in contrast to China) – I just reminded myself to take it as an opportunity to learn something about how Chinese historiography, Chinese education, Chinese news or politics typically (perhaps) sees the world, how they (perhaps) typically talk about such things.

In any case, let me bring this back around. While Ge does not address nearly as directly as I might have expected (or hoped) issues of Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan, the (il)legitimacy of PRC claims to those territories, or the powerful need for stronger recognition and support for minority rights and freedoms (and, hell, rights and freedoms for everyone) in China, I think his discussions of what is (and is not) Chinese history, Chinese culture, Chinese territory, how we think about those questions, is really quite valuable. I absolutely intend to assign this book, or significant parts of it, in my hypothetical future East Asina Studies seminars, and, again, I think his broader discussions of how we approach history, national(ist) history, East vs. West, and so forth, should be valuable reading for any broader general Historiography course as well. (And, I should hope that “China hands” or China policy wonks, whatever they call themselves, are reading this as well. Please, policy/politics people, you can’t understand the present without engaging at least a little bit with history!!)

Read Full Post »

The Royal Ontario Museum

Visited the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto the other day. It’s an incredible museum, spanning not only history and art, but also natural history, and covering a considerable number of cultures. As with the British Museum, I really appreciated that the focus wasn’t exclusively on art as it is at so many US museums – on highlighting style, creativity, and beauty – but rather incorporated some treatment of the fuller cultures and histories of different peoples or different parts of the world. A special exhibit on ancestor worship and Chinese New Year absolutely featured beautiful objects, and some great videos and displays of how woodblock printing is done; indeed, I think I learned more about Chinese woodblock printing from this exhibit than I ever did in all my art history courses. It also included sketchbooks and other materials for how artists produced ancestor portraits – helping us to understand a bit more concretely or tangibly that artists produced portraits of clothed bodies in a relatively undifferentiated, non-personalized fashion, and then merely added in the more individualized depiction of the clients’ late loved one. But this exhibit was not strictly, or even primarily, about “art”; it was about ancestors and gods, about practices and customs, about traditions and beliefs, and I really learned something.

Going back downstairs to the regular permanent exhibition galleries, I found a China section that was particularly impressive. It begins with massive architectural elements and sculptures from a late Ming / early Qing dynasty tomb such as I have never seen at any other museum, and would not expect to see anywhere else outside of actually visiting China. This was wonderful – I am always on the lookout for the biases of what we think we know about a culture or a place, or how we envision it, based on the skewed body of materials available to us, as a result of the vagaries of what our museums have and have not collected and displayed (alongside myriad other aspects of media and popular culture, etc.). When all you know of China is paintings, pottery, lacquerwares, and not so much the architecture, because architecture is so big and so difficult to have brought over (or reproduced, replicated) here, you get a different perspective. So, in short, to see these tomb elements was just incredible. I understand that the question of who brought them over and when and how and why, and hoping it was done legally and ethically and so forth is a whole other matter…….. but, as a museum visitor, it was impactful.

A stone gate and altar table from the tomb of Zu Dashou (d. 1656), a Ming general who fought in the defense of the northern frontiers of the realm against Manchu invasions in the 1630s to early 1640s.

This focus on a broader approach to culture and history, and not only to “art” also meant that I got to see a few oracle bones, more so than I think I’ve ever seen before unless I’m misremembering, prominently displayed and with the inscriptions on them clearly visible. A small set of displays also featured “Chinese inventions,” providing visitors a very brief introduction to Chinese compasses and sundials, gunpowder weapons, and printing technology, things that an art museum like LACMA or the Metropolitan would likely generally skip over, except where it would fit into a fairly standard, mainstream, art historical narrative.

Two more things struck me about the ROM’s China galleries. One, they are filled primarily with tomb goods from the Han and Tang dynasties (among others), aweing in their sheer numbers and diversity. I’m not sure I can quite put my finger on it, but there was something about the way they were displayed that made them seem quite vibrant and interesting, not like the dry, old, feeling one can sometimes get about ancient archaeological finds. The richness and dynamism of these ancient periods came through, very much so.

Secondly, even if only in this and that corner of the exhibit, the ROM highlighted the ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity of premodern China in a way few other museums do. The many cases of Tang dynasty ceramics of course gave this sense, with their ceramic figurines of bearded Central Asian merchants and travelers on camelback and so forth, and accompanying labels discussing the Silk Road and the multi-ethnic character of the Tang period. Another case, situated amidst the Song dynasty section, also displayed a number of Liao (Khitan) objects, and took explicit time and space to introduce visitors to the Khitan people (Liao dynasty) who ruled over part of “China” for a time, and their culture.

Above: a 17th c. Torah case from the Kaifeng synagogue in lacquered wood.

Perhaps most striking and incredible to see was a section dedicated to (a small portion of) the history of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in China. I do wish they might have spent a bit more time on the Hui, Uyghurs, and/or other groups within China. The way it was presented here – including also the display of a number of Tang dynasty figures of “foreigners” – seemed to be like a narrative in which “Muslims” are a single type of outside foreign person, who came to China like immigrants or expats. And while that may have been true in certain senses, e.g. the Muslim Indian Ocean merchants and Silk Road merchants who set up mosques in places like Xian and Guangzhou, there are also these vast regions of what is now included within the western portions of PRC territory, where distinct peoples such as the Uyghurs have always lived and have always practiced their own particular culture… It’s a rather different thing from the case of the Kaifeng Jews. It’s one thing to say that historically there were some mosques and churches here and there, and even a synagogue, and it’s quite another to acknowledge that there are entire Muslim peoples, entire regions, that were absorbed by China, and that could (and should!) constitute an entire exhibition unto themselves.

But, even so, to see this many artifacts and images relating to the history of Jews in Kaifeng is something I have positively never seen at any other museum, especially not within the context of a regular permanent exhibit on China. I did see a beautiful Torah scroll from Kaifeng once, on silk, on display at the British Library, but this was part of a special exhibit on Bibles and Qurans from around the world, and not one on cultural diversity in China. The ROM’s exhibit includes not only a text page in Hebrew, but also a cylindrical wooden Torah case such as is typical among Mizrahi/Sephardic communities, a stone drain mouth from the Kaifeng synagogue (est. c. 1163, destroyed c. 1850), and a rubbing from a stele which used to stand at the synagogue, along with a number of objects relating to Islam in Xi’an and elsewhere, and to Nestorian Christianity.

Joseon dynasty helmets, one from the Imjin War of the 1590s, and two from the 19th century.

The Korea section of the galleries was likewise larger than I might have expected, and included a somewhat broader range of objects than I have seen elsewhere. While both the Korea and Japan sections included only a disappointingly small number of works of painting, they did include a set of images of Joseon dynasty royal processions (something I have only previously seen at the San Francisco Art Museum, and at museums in Seoul) and a small section on the history of Korean printing, something I have not seen emphasized or highlighted elsewhere at all.

Finally, while I have certainly seen many art history museums and art history textbooks & courses make mention of the Imjin Wars (Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasions of Korea in the 1590s) for their significance for the history of Japanese ceramics, I don’t believe I have ever seen any museum outside of Korea feature helmets, weapons, or armor actually used in those battles. Actually, I’m trying to remember now if I’ve ever seen Korean arms or armor on display at the Met at all. So this, too, was really something enjoyable to see.

“A Mohawk Family Group” diorama, revised from old (orientalist) museum practices to better represent First Nations people as contemporary, modern, human beings – members of society – and not objects of anthropological study or curiosity.

Of course, I was not surprised at all that the First Nations galleries at the ROM would be rather well-done. They’ve brought in Native curators and consultants to help ensure that First Nations cultures and history are portrayed in a way which First Nations people would want them to be shown, and they incorporate not only aspects of traditional culture but also contemporary arts and culture. They show clearly and boldly that First Nations people and their culture do not only belong to the past, but that they are also fully modern, just as much a part of the modern world as anyone else.

I very much enjoyed seeing this, and wish I’d had the time to view the entirety of the First Nations gallery – we saw it only at the end, before we had to end up leaving to head out. But I also enjoyed, as we saw in the China and Korea galleries as well, that the ROM focused not only on Native American / First Nations arts, craft, and “culture,” but also on these peoples as fully enmeshed as actors in history. We saw extensive displays on the role of First Nations peoples in the War of 1812 and in treaties, alliances, and other relations with European settlers across the 17th-19th centuries, in addition to displays of canoes, clothing, weapons, and other items, and displays of contemporary artworks relating to issues of suffering, settler colonialism, forced assimilation, and so forth.

And all of these exhibits, from the East Asia galleries to the First Nations ones, all look (at least at first glance) quite contemporary, quite newly done or newly redone. While I can’t necessarily speak in a more intricate way as to precisely how they were or were not following the latest newest innovative or best practices of Museum Studies, they certainly did not feel old, outdated, in need of renovation, at all. One critique my father pointed out in the vein of exhibit design, however, was that the gallery labels in the First Nations gallery in particular very often had far too much text, often in too-small font, and occasionally the labels themselves were located far back in the displays, making them especially difficult to read. My father simply flat-out could not read many of these labels, even with his reading glasses, and I had some difficulty as well.

That one critique aside, what a wonderful museum. I hope I get to come back and see it again sometime.

Read Full Post »

Back in New York for just a few days, of course I had to visit the Met. After going to the bank and getting a letter officially noting me as a New York State resident so that I could avoid the new $25 admission fee ($12 for students) and continue to “pay-as-you-wish,” I made my way to the museum. The one big must-see show up right now (until May 28) is Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas, which I blogged about when I saw it at the Getty a few months ago. If you have the chance, do check it out. It’s a really incredible exhibit.

But, having seen that already, I skipped it, and headed over to the Asian Art section, stopping first at Arms & Armor, where I found to my surprise a delightful little display (three or four cases, maybe about 12 objects total?) of Qing dynasty arms and armor. Most certainly not something you see everyday. The Qing was a major empire, which fought many wars and battles and expanded “Chinese” territory considerably over the course of its nearly 300-year reign. Further, while the Ming and Song and Tang and Han and nearly every other Chinese dynasty also had extensive armies and their share of wars, the Qing in particular was founded in Manchu warrior culture, from the warrior bands of the nomadic steppe. And yet, while just about every museum in America has at least one samurai sword or samurai suit of armor on display, it is all too rare that we see anything at all of Chinese arms and armor. So, this was a most pleasant surprise.

The exhibit includes some small decorative knives, ornately decorated saddles, a Qing helmet just like seen in many paintings of the time, and a princely seal granted to Mongol Princes. But what really caught my eye was an 18th century matchlock gun decorated with carved red lacquer. According to the gallery label, this gun is “extraordinary, possibly unique,” in having such extensive lacquer decoration on a firearm. One wonders how this was used – purely for display?

Next, I found my way to the main China galleries, where they were showing yet again yet another show of gorgeous landscapes. But what I quite liked about this show was the inclusion of some wonderful quotes from all across Chinese history, on the gallery labels. In each section of the exhibit, we were greeted by a new label introducing us to a new aspect of landscapes and landscape paintings, and each of these labels had a just wonderful quote on it. A small touch, but something I absolutely took photos of, and will use if/when I ever teach a course on Chinese history or Chinese art history.

The Museum is also in the process of finally reopening its Musical Instruments galleries, after a lengthy renovation. And they’re beautiful. I quite enjoyed seeing not just beautiful examples of instruments from across history, from around the world, but examples directly associated with notable historical figures, including a guqin commissioned by Zhu Changfang, one of the Ming loyalist rulers of the Southern Ming; a cello made for George, Prince of Wales (crowned King George IV in 1820); a Turkish ud by Manol, once owned by Udi Hrant, and another ud previously owned by Mohammed El-Bakkar – not that I know who those people are, but I’ve been getting into Turkish music lately, courtesy of my girlfriend, and it’s fun to not just see yet another ud, but to also start learning some names.

The one half of the gallery currently open is organized by Time, from the most ancient instruments, including something resembling King David’s harp, to the most contemporary, including an electric pipa. I’m eagerly looking forward to the reopening of the other half, which will be supposedly organized by Space.

Read Full Post »

Gradually getting there. After a year of doing this, I’m finally almost done posting these book reviews from my comprehensive exams. Feels like a whole other world – exams feel so far behind me; a month from now, I’ll be in Japan, for the next big step in this PhD process. Well, well. Looks like this was the last of the reviews. I didn’t realize that. Okay. Well, here we are, my last review from the exam process. Look forward to a return to some other sorts of posts, coming up soon.

In the meantime, Marius Jansen’s China in the Tokugawa World (Harvard University Press, 1992)

Jansen’s China in the Tokugawa World provides an outline of a wide range of major aspects and themes in the role of Chinese people in Tokugawa Japan, perceptions of China, Chinese cultural influences, and the like, nestled into overarching narratives of changes and developments in Japanese relationships with China during this period, both as a concept and as a real political and economic entity. He devotes particular attention to the Chinese community at Nagasaki, providing a considerable degree of detail as to the logistics and economics of trade activity, as well as intellectual and cultural interactions in Nagasaki, and the role of the fūsetsugaki, imported books, and visiting Chinese scholars and monks as sources of information and intelligence on goings-on in the outside world, complemented by intelligence obtained from the Dutch, Korea, and Ryukyu. Jansen also touches upon numerous other topics, including the introduction of Ōbaku Zen, interactions with Ming loyalists & their cause, and perceptions of China following the fall of the Ming among scholars, political elites, and the general populace. In the last thirty pages or so of this short 120-page volume, Jansen describes the turn in perceptions of & attitudes towards China, as over the course of the 19th century, the Qing Dynasty experiences considerable difficulties, and in the eyes of many Japanese, severe decline.

The volume serves as a fine introduction to these many themes or aspects, and to the overall arc of interactions with, and perceptions of, China. In a sense, it reads more like a textbook than a scholarly argument piece, summarizing the topic of “China in Tokugawa Japan” overall, and providing descriptions, rarely more than a page or two long, of a variety of individual topics, such as the biographies of Li Hongzhang and the monk Yinyuan Longqi, as a textbook would, less as examples of evidence to further an argument than as descriptions of items within a topical umbrella.

That said, there are significant chronological and thematic arcs presented. Jansen describes a number of related but differing understandings or imaginations among Tokugawa period scholars of a conceptual China, ranging from those who viewed China not as a real place existing coevally in time, but as a land of Sages, tranquility, and the ultimate manifestations of high culture and civilization, to the subtly but importantly different position of those for whom China served as a sort of straw man, an Other against which Japan could be described in contrast. While many Confucian scholars idealized China, many kokugaku scholars, some of them still looking to Confucianism or other aspects of Chinese civilization as an ideal, presented varying notions of why or how Japan superseded China as the civilizational center. Meanwhile, much of the popular discourse conflated China with the foreign more generally, making little distinction between various Others (e.g. Koreans, Ryukyuans, or Dutch). This topic is of particular relevance to my own project, as I attempt to gain some understanding of how Ryukyu was perceived, understood, or imagined at this time; while Keiko Suzuki has argued similarly in her article “The Making of Tôjin” of an undifferentiating perception of the foreign, the true story seems considerably more complex, given that there were numerous widely available popular publications describing or depicting Ryukyuan subjects as specifically Ryukyuan. In any case, I am eager to delve into this subject further, and while Jansen’s discussion of it is most welcome, and valuable in its way, it is also far too brief and cursory for my purposes. The same is true of his discussion of perceptions of Japan (or Korea or Ryukyu) as representing the place where the great high culture and civilization of (Ming) China survives, since it has been corrupted or destroyed in China’s fall to barbarian (Manchu) invaders. This, in particular, is a topic which I think to be of great interest, and potentially of great relevance to my project, and yet Jansen’s brief discussion of it remains, perhaps, the most extensive such discussion I have come across; he does not, in his citations, point the way to any more extensive treatments of the subject.

China in the Tokugawa World represents a great start, a great survey of the subject. The overall thematic and chronological arcs, of differing ways in which China was perceived, and how this changed over time, help provide a fundamental sense of the thing, informing and deepening one’s understanding of the character of the Tokugawa period as a whole. Jansen’s detailed description of the workings of trade and other activity at Nagasaki is also sufficiently lengthy and detailed to constitute a source one can turn to for citeable details. On other topics, however, Jansen’s volume serves as only a starting point, requiring one to look elsewhere for a more thorough or extensive description of kangaku or kokugaku, popular depictions of China, the influence of Ōbaku Zen, or any one of a number of other topics.

The Chinatown (tôjin yashiki) of early modern Nagasaki, as seen in a handscroll painting (detail) on display at the British Museum. Photo my own.

Read Full Post »

I found something kind of neat today. Continuing my investigations into the Ryukyuan tribute missions to China, I started reading a short article by Maehira Fusaaki 真栄平房昭, entitled Ryûkyû shisetsu no ikoku taiken1, and discovered a mention of George Lord Macartney coming across Ryukyuan ambassadors on their way to Beijing.

Right: Image of Lord George Macartney. Quite the fashionable looker. Source unknown. Public domain image courtesy Wikipedia.

For those unfamiliar, George Lord Macartney was the head of the first official British mission to China, in 1793. This has become a particularly famous event in Chinese history, a meeting in which British and Chinese notions of diplomacy, and cultures of court ritual, clashed and resulted in misunderstandings and a general failure to achieve good relations. This was also the occasion of the Qianlong Emperor’s famous saying, that China had all the things it could want in the world, and that China had no need of such nonsense trinkets as some petty small country such as Britain might have to offer.

Meanwhile, the Kingdom of Ryukyu became a tributary to the Ming Court in 1372, and continued to send tributary missions to Beijing quite regularly from that time, all the way up until the 1870s. For much of the 17th-19th centuries, Ryukyu was sending missions to Beijing once every two years, as Korea did as well. The Ryukyuans and Koreans presented gifts of local goods (i.e. Ryukyuan or Korean products) as tribute, as a show of their king’s gratitude and deference to the Emperor of China, and in return the Emperor bestowed lavish gifts upon them, as a show of his grace and generosity. Unlike what Lord Macartney had in mind, there were no policy discussions involved in these meetings. Rather, they were ritual performances, enactments, of the maintenance or reaffirmation of the relationship between the two countries. The Emperor of China invested the kings of Korea and Ryukyu in their thrones, officially recognizing them as King, and serving as the source of their legitimacy, and in return those kings dispatched tribute missions.

Given how frequent these tribute missions were, I suppose it should come as no surprise that the Ryukyuans would have crossed paths with Macartney. Still, it was a neat find. Coming across this mention in Maehira’s article, who quotes it in Japanese translation, I decided to go try to find the original English. Unsurprisingly, Macartney’s diary, An Embassy to China: Being the journal kept by Lord Macartney during his embassy to the Emperor Ch’ien-lung 1793-1794, has been reprinted in modern publication, and can be easily found in a 1963 volume edited by J.L. Cranmer-Byng. Turning to November 18, 1793, when Macartney & the Ryukyuans crossed paths on the Grand Canal just south of Hangzhou, on pp182-183, it reads:

Monday, November 18. The river spreads here a good deal, and is very shallow. The banks rich, pleasant and generally level, but we see the mountains at a distance before us, and approach them very fast. I suppose we shall be amongst them to-morrow.

This evening Wang brought two genteel young men with him on board my yacht, and presented them to me as the ambassadors from the King of the Liuchiu islands, now on their way to Pekin. Regularly once in two years this prince sends such ambassadors to Amoy, in the province of Fukien (no other port being open to these strangers), from whence they proceed by this route to carry their master’s homage and tribute to the Emperor. They speak Chinese well, but have a proper language of their own, whether approaching to the Japanese or Korea I could not well comprehend. They told me that no European vessel had ever touched their islands, but if they should come they would be well received. There is no prohibition against foreign intercourse; they have a fine harbor capable of admitting the largest vessels not far from their capital, which is considerable in extent and population. They raise a coarse kind of tea, but far inferior to the Chinese, and have many mines of copper and iron. No gold or silver mines have as yet been discovered among them, which may in some measure account for these islands being so little known.

The dress which these ambassadors wore I particularly remarked. It is a very fine sort of shawl made in their own country, dyed of a beautiful brown colour and lined with a squirrel skin, or petit-gros. They wore turbans very neatly folded round their heads; one was of yellow silk and the other of purple. They had neither linen nor cotton in any part of their dress that I could perceive. The fashion of their habit was nearly Chinese. They were well-looking, tolerably fair complexioned, well-bred, conversable, and communicative. From the geographical position of these islands they should naturally belong either to the Chinese or the Japanese. They have chosen the protection of the former, and when their Sovereign dies his successor receives a sort of investiture or confirmation from Pekin. It would seem that the Japanese give themselves no sort of concern about their neighbours. Concentrated and contented in their own Empire, they seldom make excursions beyond their own coasts, and are equally averse that their coasts should be visited by others. If circumstances permit, I think it may be worth while to explore these Liuchiu islands. The climate is temperate, rather cold in winter, but not very hot in summer.

As Maehira explains, “Wang” refers to Wang Wenxiong 王文雄, a Tongzhou military official. Macartney says Ryukyuans are limited to Amoy (Xiamen), when in fact it was the port of Fuzhou, but otherwise gets the basic notion of tribute missions once every two years correct. He is also right that the Ryukyuans have their own language and culture, close to that of Japanese, but distinct; and I would not be surprised if these ambassadors were well-educated in both Chinese language and Chinese customs, though at the same time, we must always be wary that when a foreigner, even a Japanese, says things like “the fashion of their habit was nearly Chinese,” they could be speaking from Orientalist stereotypes and fantasies, and not from accurate judgement. In any case, I am not sure whether any European ships had ever been to Ryukyu yet, but of course they were not truly open to foreign intercourse. I am also not sure of any iron or copper mines; seems unlikely, given the extremely flat terrain and coral limestone makeup of the islands.

I don’t know quite enough about the Ryukyuan garments to say what sort of “squirrel skin” or other lining they might have been using, but given that it’s November, and the mission is spending New Year’s in Beijing, I should hope that these Ryukyuans – coming from a rather warm climate – would have some kind of lining in their clothes to keep them warm in the North China winter. The “turbans” Macartney refers to are hachimaki – court caps indicative of the two men’s rank. The Lead Envoy, in a purple cap, held the title ueekata 親方, and must have been of the First or Second Rank, while the Deputy Envoy, holding the title of peechin 親雲上, would have been somewhere in the Third to Seventh ranks. It is interesting to see Macartney relate the notion of Japan’s isolation from the world, and his understanding that Ryukyu has “chosen” China, and has no relation with Japan – even with the Qing Court being aware of the connections between Japan and Ryukyu, I guess they were still able to fool some people. Finally, there is Macartney’s note about Ryukyu’s climate being temperate. I suppose that all depends, and is relative, depending on just how “cold” someone considers “cold” to be. I’ll be in Okinawa in winter for the first time this coming year; I guess I’ll find out what it’s like.

Right: A lithograph depicting Sōrikan Shō Kōkun, also known as Prince Yonashiro Chōki 総理官・尚宏勲こと、与那城王子朝紀, the chief Ryukyuan official who met with Commodore Perry in 1853. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Though Macartney doesn’t give their names, it is easy to deduce that the two Ryukyuans he met were the two heads of that year’s tribute mission, Lead Envoy Misato ueekata Mô Kokutô 美里親方毛国棟 and Vice Envoy Kanemoto peechin Mô Teichû 兼本親雲上毛廷柱. I don’t know much about Mô Kokutô yet, except that he would return to Beijing in 1801 as the head of a special mission, dispatched in gratitude for the investiture of Ryukyu’s King Shô On 尚温王. Mô Teichû, meanwhile, is a somewhat more familiar figure for me – not that he’s the most influential, significant figure in Ryukyuan history, not by a longshot. But, still. This was not Mô Teichû’s first rodeo – he had previously served as gieisei 儀衛生 (head of street musicians) on the 1790 mission to Edo, during which time he produced a number of notable works of calligraphy which remain in private Japanese collections (e.g. at Buddhist temples) today. Maehira gives his title as Gusukuda peechin 城田親雲上, though I’ve always seen him referred to as Kanemoto peechin. Perhaps he was promoted in between 1790 and 1793. If one were so inclined, one could check the Mô family genealogies, which if we’re lucky might be reproduced within the volumes of the Naha shishi (那覇市史, “City History of Naha”).

I love this sort of thing. It doesn’t add anything to my dissertation, I don’t think, as I’m really looking to better understand the Ryukyu tribute missions to Beijing themselves, and elements of formal ritual and performance in the execution of those missions. So, in that respect, maybe it was a little bit of a waste of time for me to pursue it today. And, while I suppose this does reveal something about British conceptions & misconceptions about Ryukyu at that time, in the grander scheme of things, I don’t think we actually learn that much from this passage. This likely won’t make it into my dissertation, and if I were writing a study of the Macartney mission, I don’t think it would make it into that paper either.

But! I do think it’s interesting, and fun, and of value to know that these people crossed paths in this way. Adds just one more instance, one more example, to a broader notion of the incredible complexity and vibrancy of historic interactions – a vision of the world of centuries past as vibrantly, busily, actively full of people crisscrossing back and forth, a world of interaction and interconnection… Macartney is of course a rather significant figure himself, and the Ryukyuans he ran into aren’t exactly nobodies either. Adds just a little more to our knowledge of the biographies of Mô Kokutô and Mô Teichû, and while I admittedly don’t really plan to be writing full-on biographies at any point, I do feel passionate about recovering the memory, the story, of figures like these – far too many historians treat historical figures (as individuals) as merely pawns, or footnotes, in their pursuit of some broader interpretive argument. But these were real people who populated the stories we are telling; history should be about stories, about people, about recovering and retelling the narratives of their lives and of the events they were caught up in; it should not be only about the broader interpretive analyses.

Even if we have no record of any particularly extensive or impactful exchange between Macartney and these two, even so, there is something interesting and meaningful about knowing that there was at least one occasion when Ryukyuan ambassadors to China crossed paths with a European embassy, and that that embassy was none other than the famous 1793 mission of George Lord Macartney; and further that the British mission encountered not only Chinese people and sights and culture during their trip, but Ryukyuans as well. And as a result, that Ryukyuans and Brits both had at least some notion of one another, at this early stage. I don’t know if it’s a result of my many years poking around as an editor on Wikipedia, but I’ve long had a real interest in the chance interconnections between people, places, events – as much as I do enjoy reading history scholarship that brings up new understandings, new interpretations, new insights, I enjoy in a different way reading works that introduce me to new people, places, events, or to new interconnections between them, or information about them, expanding my concrete knowledge of History, bit by bit. The kinds of works where I can feel that having read them, I’ve not only been exposed to one author’s opinion or interpretation, some hopefully possibly potentially thought-provoking ideas, but the kinds of works where I’ve really learned something I didn’t know before, however small or obscure.


1. Maehira Fusaaki, Ryûkyû shisetsu no ikoku taiken 琉球使節の異国体験 (“The Ryukyu Envoys’ Experiences of Foreign Countries”), Kokusai kôryû 国際交流 59 (1992), 60-67.)

Read Full Post »

I finish my series on Chinese history books (finally) not with a summary of a single book, but with an overview of a trend, or movement, in the field.

Things move amazingly slowly in scholarship, and what still seems quite new can often turn out to be as much as twenty or even thirty years old. I think this is due in large part to a combination of a few factors:

(1) Scholarship takes a long time to do, and a long time to publish. I heard at one point that it takes roughly ten years to research, write, and get published a scholarly monograph, and given how long my dissertation is taking already, how long my younger professors are working on getting their first books published, and how few books some of my more senior professors have published, I believe it.

(2) Scholarship takes an amazingly long time to trickle down into high school & college textbooks, and since no teacher is read up on the latest scholarship on all things, they are bound to teach you older understandings.

(3) Relatedly, our own knowledge is based on classes and readings often quite out of date, and so what is actually old can often seem quite new. To put it another way, there are so many books out there that I haven’t read yet, so no matter how old the book may be, when I read it, it may seem quite new to me. Further, even as a member of the youngest current generation of scholars – those who haven’t even finished grad school yet – even so, my foundational knowledge of Japan comes from college classes from over ten years ago, taught by professors whose knowledge of the subject comes, foundationally, from decades earlier. Not to mention my fundamental understandings of American and European history, learned in high school and earlier, way back in the distant 20th century.

Qing imperial portraits on display at the Sackler Gallery of Art, at the Smithsonian Institution, in summer 2011.

So, when I say that “The New Qing History” is still, in some very real, meaningful senses, still “New,” I’m not being ironic or facetious. For decades and decades, ever since the origins of the modern scholarly field of Chinese Studies in the West, the dominant narrative was a China-centered one. Buying into China’s own (Confucian-informed) rhetoric about itself as the center and source of all civilization, scholars writing in English built their accounts of Chinese history around notions of Sinicization as the key process through which non-Chinese dynasties – such as the Mongol Yuan, Jurchen Jin, Khitan Liao, and Manchu Qing – attained stability and power. All of these dynasties, so the story goes, gained power and stability only because they adopted Chinese modes of governance, Confucian political culture, and other aspects of Chinese “civilization,” and collapsed in large part because of the infiltration of elements of their original “barbarian” or steppe nomad culture. The Qing are no different. I am not an expert on this, and do not know the historiography fully thoroughly, but basically, my understanding is that the traditional narrative has it that the Qing’s rise in the 1640s to 1790s, and its peak of greatness under the Qianlong Emperor in the 1790s, was due chiefly to the Manchus’ adoption of Chinese Confucian “civilization,” and that it was Qianlong’s efforts to re-introduce, revive, emphasize, or retain Manchu culture which sowed the seeds for China’s decline – the century of embarrassment which began with China’s defeat by the “barbarian” British in the 1840s, and went straight on through the various embarrassments of the Taiping & Boxer Rebellions (in which the British and French sacked & looted), defeat by the “barbarian” Japanese in 1895, and invasion, colonization, etc. in the 1930s-40s.

A scene from “The Last Emperor,” shown in “China Through the Looking Glass” at the Metropolitan Museum.

It was only in the 1990s, perhaps influenced by trends in post-colonial scholarship, that this story was fundamentally revised. The so-called “New Qing History” emerged at that time, calling attention like never before to the ways in which the Qing, in particular, was not so much a Chinese dynasty, but rather a Manchu one. The new story, advanced in particular I believe by Pamela Crossley and Evelyn Rawski, is that China was but one part of the Manchu Empire – that Tibet, Taiwan, Manchuria, and Xinjiang (East Turkestan) were never part of “China,” but rather were part of the Manchu Qing Empire, alongside China – much as China was only ever one part of the massive Mongol Empire, rather than us thinking of anything of the western half of the Mongol Empire as having been part of “China.” This is pretty revolutionary. Personally, I found it just a little mind-blowing. In accordance with the vein of postcolonial studies and cultural relativism percolating throughout the Humanities, one of the other major themes of the New Qing History, advanced by Crossley and others, is the radical idea (*gasp*) that Manchu culture is valid, meaningful, effective, powerful – not something to be dismissed or disparaged, and not something which necessarily inherently brings corruption or decline.

But, also, that Manchu identity is something invented around the year 1600; that “the Manchus” as a people didn’t exist until then. Now, I don’t know what the standard story was in scholarship up until then; surely we knew from the documents and so forth that there were no Manchus prior to that time, only Jurchens. But, even so, Crossley’s A Translucent Mirror: History and Identity in Qing Imperial Ideology (U California Press, 1999) forms the core of a constellation of new works in the 1990s-2000s which place real focus on issues of Late Imperial conceptions of identity, ethnicity, and so forth, and on the relationship between these and official (Imperial/court) ideology and policy. In A Translucent Mirror, Crossley details the evolution of Manchu identity, and of Han Chinese identity along with it, over the course of the 17th to early 20th centuries. There are some interesting and important elements I’m going to skip over, regarding specific policy attitudes of particular reigns towards intentionally shaping (officially redefining) identity categories, but, in a nutshell: Manchu identity began originally as an identity of affiliation, not of lineage, descent, or phenotype (physical appearance). Those Jurchens, Mongols, Chinese, and even a few Koreans, who gathered under Nurhachi’s banners in the very early stages came to be known as “Manchus,” while those Chinese and Koreans who lived north of the Great Wall and came under Nurhachi’s authority a bit later came to be known as the “martial Chinese” (Hàn jūn 漢軍). As the Qing Dynasty was formed (shortly before taking Beijing), they established a number of “banners,” categorizing society into Manchu Banners, Mongol Banners, Martial Chinese Banners, and everyone else. Each of these banners contained within them people we might today – whether by descent, lineage, or genetics, or by ancestral homeland, cultural practices, or certain other metrics – consider to have been Jurchens, Mongols, Chinese, Korean, or even of other backgrounds. To be sure, these banners were very much divided apart from the rest of society. They lived in their own separate walled-in sections of the cities, and worked to maintain particular brands of nomad & martial culture. In a sense, they remind me of the samurai of the Tokugawa period, working to perform the martial warrior identity despite being essentially domesticated bureaucrats; and the samurai, too, lived for the most part in walled compounds separated from the commoners. Yet, while the Qing does have the additional element of Manchu/Mongol vs. Chinese multiethnic origins, unlike the samurai vs. commoners in Japan who were all, after all, Japanese, still, at this stage, these banners remained largely identities of affiliation, not of “race” or “ethnicity.” This is particularly true of the Martial Chinese; though most were from the north, and most of the non-bannered everyone else were from the south, and thus had very different customs, lineage, ancestral homelands, and even language, and that’s definitely something to consider, still, today, we consider both groups to have been “ethnically” “Chinese,” regardless of whether they were in the banners or not. Being in the banners was a matter of status, societal role, societal categories, not something strictly divided between Chinese and non-Chinese.

But, skip forward a couple hundred years – like I said, go check out the book, or reviews or summaries of it for the more nuanced, complex story – and these identities have become so entrenched that they really do get transformed into ethnic identities. As ethnic nationalism rises in China towards the end of the 19th century, and especially in the first years of the 20th, the bannermen come to be seen as colonizers, occupiers, barbarians, and most of all, as non-Chinese. The Han Chinese identity, which I suppose existed in one form or another before that, was now solidified into a “Chinese people,” or a “Chinese nation,” who were the good, rightful, moral, upright, indigenous (though I don’t think they would have used that last term) people of China, whose country had been stolen and ruined – run into the ground – by these barbarian nomads, and who demanded their country back. Suddenly, it was all about race and ethnicity, and suddenly those descended from the banners, regardless of Chinese phenotype (racial appearance) or genotype (genetics), regardless of whether they were in fact from China proper (and not Manchuria) going back centuries and centuries, or whether their ancestors were loyal subjects of the Ming, or whathaveyou. Bannermen – even Martial Chinese – became “Manchus.” Adam Bohnet’s work, which I’ve already discussed a few posts back, continues along a similar thread to Crossley’s, examining how the Korean court (in Bohnet’s case) officially defined and redefined identity categories for its own political purposes, as the successive Qing reigns did as well.

Right: The Qianlong Emperor on horseback, painted by Giuseppe Castiglione. Collection of the Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Michael Chang’s 2007 book, A Court on Horseback, can also be considered to fall within the vein of The New Qing History, though it comes nearly twenty years after Crossley’s. A massive tome, I will gladly admit I did not read it all. But, its core argument shows very much the New Qing History approach. Chang’s volume examines a series of “inspection tours” of the southern provinces performed by the Qianlong Emperor in the 1750s-1780s, which were previously considered through the lens of Chinese (Sinicized) Confucian civil government; in other words, these were seen as being examples of the Qing adopting Chinese modes of surveying and governing the provinces. However, Chang argues quite the contrary, that these were martial displays of a Manchu/Qing ruler to his conquered subjects. These were, he argues, essentially military campaigns, performed within a Manchu steppe nomad cultural complex, in order to “inspire adherence and subordination through demonstration of military might.”1 This might be compared to the way that sankin kôtai missions performed by Japanese daimyô can be considered military parades, or martial affairs otherwise, even though in both the Japanese and Qing cases there is no actual combat taking place – the land is already conquered and pacified. Chang describes his approach explicitly as ““Altaic” or “Qing-centered” Qing history” (9), and argues – drawing upon Crossley, or extending her argument – that Qing rule was centered largely on reinforcing and ensuring rule by the Manchu people (ethnicity) and the Aisin Gioro lineage (dynasty) in particular, something Chang terms as “ethno-dynastic” rule (8). He writes,

Ethnicity, then, matters to the study of late imperial China, but only in an ideological sense – that is, as a particular set of meanings, generated and mobilized in order to construct some belief in group affinity … the basis for establishing and sustaining relations of patrimonial domination (17).

and articulates the Qing state as one organized, fundamentally, on a patrimonial basis, in which the empire is conceived of metaphorically as a massively extended family, with the Emperor as Father. All loyalty is to fathers / lords / masters, and not to a semi-independent civil apparatus which transcends the dynastic household, i.e. to an abstract notion of the State or the Government (12-14). While Chang does not employ the term “feudalism,” or draw direct parallels to the Japanese case, this does certainly seem to describe the Tokugawa state, to my mind, and in any case it presents an informatively stark contrast to the Ming Dynasty, in which Ray Huang’s 1587: A Year of No Significance clearly shows the state – the rule of law, the systems of governance, the Confucian ideals – had more power than even the Emperor himself. Not the case in the Qing, at least ideally (ideologically), according to Chang.

Officials prostrating towards the Emperor, at the Forbidden City, in the film “The Last Emperor.”

Joanna Waley-Cohen summarizes the whole “New Qing History” movement in a 2004 article in the Radical History Review.

One additional argument she discusses is the idea of a shift in the Qing period away from the Sinocentric idea of Confucian civilization as the only civilization, to a multi-faceted, multicultural one in which the Qing rulers took on different identities & ideologies of rule for each of several different constituencies. The Qianlong Emperor was not only the Confucian source of civilization & axis between heaven and earth; he was also simultaneously the Manchu Great Khan, the Tibetan Buddhist cakravartin (“wheel-turning king”), and even claimed to be a reincarnation of the bodhisattva Manjusri.

More than all the rest, I’d recommend reading this, which summarizes the movement, or trend, as a whole, listing and describing eight scholarly monographs from the New Qing History field. I quite enjoyed learning so much more about China, in the course of reading for these exams, and especially reading about this intriguing new perspective on Chinese history.

This brings our survey of books on Chinese history to an end. Next up, the long-awaited summaries of books on Japanese history.

——
(1) Joanna Waley-Cohen. “The New Qing History.” Radical History Review 88, no. 1 (2004), 201.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »