An Insane Collection

I was recently talking with a Chinese friend in Minnesota who had just returned from a road trip to New York and Washington with her husband. “Tell me something interesting you have observed in your travels around the US this year,” I said to her.

“Every little town has a museum,” she told me. “In China,” she said, “only the government runs museums and they are mostly about ancient history. But here, there’s a museum about everything.”

I thought it was a brilliant observation.

Shortly after that conversation, I ran across this short film at China File about a man in Sichuan who runs a bunch of small museums near Chengdu. These museums house millions of items he has collected over the years, many of which represent events and eras the government would rather people forget about. The title of the film is “Collecting Insanity.” From the introduction:

Every country has a past it likes to celebrate and another it would rather forget. In China, where history still falls under the tight control of government-run museums and officially approved textbooks, the omissions appear especially stark. An unusual museum dedicated largely to what is absent in China’s self-presentation is the subject of Joshua Frank’s short film “Collecting Insanity.” Frank tours the Jianchuan Museum Cluster, of Fan Jianchuan, an ex-official and real estate magnate, in the town of Anren, near Chengdu. The group of exhibits, named after Fan himself, display their owner’s collection of millions of historical artifacts, gathered over a lifetime of obsessive accumulation. Fan’s museum displays objects from various historical events, including the officially memorialized Sino-Japanese War and the far more taboo fallout of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

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Stealing Tea and Saving Face

On our 5200-mile road trip last month, I listened to the audio version of the book For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History by Sarah Rose.

 

For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History

Here is the Amazon description of the book:

In the dramatic story of one of the greatest acts of corporate espionage ever committed, Sarah Rose recounts the fascinating, unlikely circumstances surrounding a turning point in economic history. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the British East India Company faced the loss of its monopoly on the fantastically lucrative tea trade with China, forcing it to make the drastic decision of sending Scottish Botanist Robert Fortune to steal the crop from deep within China and bring it back to the British plantations in India. Fortune’s danger-filled odyssey, magnificently recounted here, reads like adventure fiction, revealing a long-forgotten chapter of the past and the wondrous origins of a seemingly ordinary beverage.

The book is a treasure trove of historical information about China in the mid-1800s, as well as all things related to tea. Occasionally, there are cultural gems to be mined. In chapter 5 Rose describes an incident that took place in Hangzhou between Fortune and his servant, Want. Having failed to follow Fortune’s instructions, they find themselves in the city of Hangzhou, where if it is discovered that Fortune is a foreigner and not a Chinese official (he was disguised as one), he could be killed. So he gives the servant a public scolding. In the course of describing this incident, Rose (perhaps inadvertently) gives one of the best descriptions of the Chinese notion of “face” that I have found anywhere!

But Fortune’s recriminations had little effect, for a master’s scolding his servants publicly only served to build their self-esteem, or “face,” as even a reproach was a tacit declaration that the servant was important enough to merit the notice of a wealthy mandarin. In China “face,” or mianxi [sic] was a concept that a Westerner like Fortune did not instinctively understand, describing as it does the prestige and reputation one gains from every human interaction. Relationships in China were defined by the reciprocal obligations between people, whether of the same or a different status, and every individual existed within a network of influence, a matrix of duties and social connections, or guanxi.

The family came first, then the extended social neighborhood. “Face” expressed a person’s position within his or her network and was the mechanism by which the Chinese assessed their obligations: which orders to obey, which favors to grant, and which supplications and apologies to make. A son might perform humble acts for his father, or an employee might bow before his master or a student before his teacher, but in turn the father would have a set of defined responsibilities to the child, the master to the slave, and the teacher to the student.

However subtly they were expressed, mianzi and guanxi were inescapable facts of life in China; then as now they forged the social fabric of the nation. Social connections determined the measure of justice received and discrimination suffered. While no Chinese person was free from these relationships, many peasants had very little face and therefore little access to justice, wealth, or freedom. When social obligations were met, someone gained face and an increase in status; when a person failed those to whom he was socially connected and thereby obligated, he suffered loss of face (diumian) and a downturn in his social standing. When Wang was shouted at by Fortune for failing to follow orders, it demonstrated to the world that he had responsibilities to an important man. Wang lost face with Fortune, while simultaneously gaining it in the wider neighborhood of Hangzhou.

Face was a very Confucian concept. The great philosopher, whose ideas gained influence during the Han Dynasty, 206 BC-AD 220, described a world where familial connections and obligations to ancestors were the highest good and the greatest aim of an individual. A single person was nothing if he did not bring honor to the world from which he came.

A foreigner in China had no network of relationships of prescribed duties and no social capital, and therefore lacked any obvious signifiers of face. Many foreigners handled their outsider status adroitly. They engaged in relationships with the Chinese immediately, offering gifts and favors to officials and higher-ups; they recognized that a servant did not just serve but was owed things other than monetary reward, such as honor and respect. Fortune, however, seems to have paid little attention to the finer points of Chinese social interaction. He treated the Chinese as he would any employee: demanding excellence, refusing to hear excuses, and chastising failure. Wang and Fortune would travel together on and off for years, and the servant valiantly tried to negotiate the workings of guanxi on his master’s behalf. Wang effectively created Fortune’s identity as a mandarin by forging a fictitious network of prestigious connections for him, elevating his master’s face (and, not incidentally, elevating his own status by association). He also bribed and negotiated on Fortune’s behalf, not just for favors, but for face. (p.69-71)

“Note to self,” I thought, as I listened to this passage while driving across the deserts of eastern Oregon, “find a print version of this book and post the passage on my blog.”

Done!

Chinese in World War I

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand, an event that would trigger what we know today as World War I. One of the little known stories from the war is the role of 140,000 Chinese laborers on the Western Front.

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The Chatham House recently posted an article about these forgotten laborers:

On August 24, 1916, in the middle of the battle of the Somme, a contingent of Chinese workers arrived in France to help the Allied war effort. By the time the war ended in 1918, their numbers had grown to more than 140,000. They dug trenches, unloaded military cargoes in the docks, worked in railway yards and factories, and collected corpses for burial from no man’s land. More than 2,000 paid with their lives.

The story of the Chinese at the Western Front is largely forgotten by Britain and France, both preoccupied with their own suffering, and by successive Chinese governments, which have seen the labourers as victims of colonial exploitation.

Yet, as the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War approaches, scholars in Europe and China are studying their history and reassessing their role in China’s modern history. The Chinese republic’s decision to send non-combatants to the mud and barbed wire of the Western Front is now seen as a first, hesitant step away from centuries of imperial isolationism.

It was a gamble by the republican government, which had only a shaky hold on power three years after the overthrow of the Ch’ing dynasty.

The film was recently shown at Chatham  House House as part of a panel discussion on the Chinese contribution to World War I. The video an be viewed on the Chatham House site, or on YouTube.

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Fascinating stuff!

Image source: Chatham House

 

Mildred Cable: An Early Traveler in Northwest China

One of my favorite websites is the Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity, which posts short biographical sketches of famous Chinese Christians throughout history. Even though it focuses on Chinese Christians, they also include biographies of notable Western Christians.

MildredCable

They recently posted a biographical sketch of Mildred Cable, an OMF missionary who travelled extensively in western and northwestern China in the 1920′s:

“When the Trio asked themselves what China needed next, they felt led to leave their settled mission station for areas which were more remote and unevangelized. They were inspired by a report they heard on the absence of Christian witness for 1,000 miles along the Silk Road from Gansu province to Xinjiang province. On June 11, 1923, the Trio set out for Gansu. When they arrived in Zhangye, their first destination, they had been traveling for nine months and had covered 800 miles.”

Mildred was a prolific writer, chronicling not just her missionary work, but her travels as well.  A number of her books (co-authored by her colleague Fransesca French) are considered ‘classics’  because of their descriptions of life in western and northwestern China in the first half to the twentieth century.

These include the following:

The Gobi Desert – The adventures of three women travelling across the Gobi Desert in the 1920s

The Gobi Desert - The adventures of three women travelling across the Gobi Desert in the 1920s

Through Jade gate and Central Asia;: An account of journeys in Knsu, Tukestan and the Gobi Desert

Through Jade gate and Central Asia;: An account of journeys in Knsu, Tukestan and the Gobi Desert

For anyone interested in northwest China, both of these books are ‘must-reads.’

Image source: Scotwise

St. Matteo Ricci?

ricci

The Atlantic magazine  recently published an article about a move within the Vatican to canonize Matteo Ricci, the first Jesuit missionary to China, titled Can Matteo Ricci’s beatification mend China’s rift with the Catholic Church?

“When Matteo Ricci walked the streets of Beijing more than 400 years ago, he was a celebrity. The Jesuit was the first Westerner to enter the gates of the Forbidden City. He impressed the emperor by predicting solar eclipses. He created an enormous map that gave Ming dynasty Chinese a sense of the rest of the world for the first time. He spoke and read Chinese well enough to translate Euclid.

 

And even though, after 13 years in China, he began to dress in the garb of an imperial scholar-official, his goal was to convert the Chinese to Catholicism, which he did with some success and considerable flair.

 

Now all he needs is a miracle or two. Literally.

 

In May, the Vatican body that overseas canonization pushed ahead the case for making Ricci, who died in 1610, a saint. The Catholic Church has collected hundreds of documents that provide evidence of his “heroic virtues” and has dubbed him a Servant of God, which puts him on the first rung of four steps toward full-fledged sainthood. In order for him to advance, Ricci’s supporters must now find evidence of popular devotion to Ricci, that prayers to him have cured fatal illnesses, or that his body hasn’t decayed in the 403 years since his death.”

The article then goes on to give a good overview of the issues that remain sticking points between the Vatican and the Chinese government, and the likely impact conferring sainthood on Matteo Ricci would have on Sino-Vatican relations.

In 2010 I wrote a post about visiting the Metteo Ricci exhibit at the Capital Museum in Beijing to commemorate the 400th year of Ricci’s death. You can read it here.

Protestant or Catholic, anyone serving in China today is standing on the shoulders of Matteo Ricci.

 

Further Reading on Matteo Ricci:

The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, by Jonathan Spence

A Jesuit in the Forbidden City: Matteo Ricci, 1552-1610, by Po Chia-Hsia

Matteo Ricci (New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia)

 

Note: this was originally posted on the ChinaSource Blog.

Image source:  Asia News

The Great Wall — Fact or Fantasy?

Whenever I take visitors to one of the Great Wall tourist sites outside of Beijing, I have to break the news to them that the Wall is not visible from space, nor is it one complete wall stretching from west to east. The disappointment is usually palpable.

It turns out that there are quite a few ‘facts’ that we think we know about the Great Wall, that are actually ‘fantasy.’ Watch this funny video clip from the folks at Off the Great Wall to see how one poor fellow handles his encounter with reality.

And hey, you’ll learn stuff in the process.

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And if you’d like to read up on the history of the wall, I recommend the following books and articles:

The Great Wall: China Against the World, 1000 BC – 2000 AD, by Julia Lovell

Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, by Peter Hessler

David Spindler’s Great Wall (Danwei)

 

Related Posts:

A Tale of Two Hikes

Where Did the Wall Go? 

Port-a-potties at the Wall

Wham! Bam! Beijing!

Wham! Bam! Beijing! (2)

Outside the Wall 

Winter Wall

Fall Wall

A Great Wall Graduation

Don’t Sleep in the Shade

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Henan Famine

During my first year in China (1984), I lived in the city of Zhengzhou, capital of Henan Province. Before getting my assignment to teach there, I don’t think I had ever heard of the place and pre-internet, it wasn’t easy finding out information. I remember, though, stumbling across a book about the city that had been produced in the 1970′s by the Provincial Tourist Office. It featured pictures of broad (and empty) streets, squeaky clean parks, smiling people. Doctors, students, factory workers, peasants — all smiling! A true worker’s paradise!

Once there, I was able to learn a fair amount about the history of Henan. The city of Zhengzhou had been a dynastic capital 5000 years ago. The nearby city of Kaifeng had been a capital  during the Song Dynasty, 1000 years ago. A temple in the mountains to the southwest of the city was the birthplace of martial arts.

But it was hard to come by good information on Henan’s more recent history.

When I returned to the US for the summer, I set about trying to learn more. One of the key books I discovered was “Thunder Out of China,” by Theodore White. It was based on his reporting of the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s. One particular event that he also chronicled was the 1942 Famine that ravaged the province. I was horrified to read that the city I now called home had once been the center of a famine that killed 40 million people, and that during the famine, the streets were littered with dead bodies. The Zhengzhou that I lived in was by no means prosperous, but what he was chronicling was unimaginable.

I recently came across a website that cataloged 30 dramatic images of the famine in Henan. (warning: many of the photos are graphic and disturbing)

carestia-henan-1942-005

In a China that now has an abundance of food, it is good to remember that just 70 years ago this was not the case.

 

Two of My Favorite Things

 

tiananmen gate 2 (1 of 1)

I have lots of favorite things, but two that are right up there on the list are road trips and Chinese history.

Last week I found a way to combine those two loves by listening to episodes of the fantastic China History Podcast while driving across Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana.

If you are  a Chinese history buff or just want an accessible way to learn a bit more, then this podcast is for you.

It is the brainchild of Lazlo Montomery, a businessman from Southern California (not originally, as you can tell by his accent) who started it for the joy of educating people about Chinese history. What’s not to love about that?

On this last road trip, I learned about the Kaifeng Jews, and knocked off the 10-part series on the History of Hong Kong. Trust me…it’s more interesting than you think it might be.

For my next road trip, I’ve got the 8-part History of the Cultural Revolution cued up.

You can listen to the podcasts directly from the website, or subscribe in iTunes.

I would love to have listened to these on our drive to Alaska in June, but Chinese history is NOT one of my sister’s and mom’s favorite things, so they put the kabash on that idea from the get-go.

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