Hong Kong Education in Chinese Schools 1929

Today I was browsing through US national archives microfilm reels containing state department records related to British Asia, 1910-29.1 There is always fun and unexpected materials in these collections and I thought I would share one that offers a little snapshot of what children in “Vernacular” (Chinese language) middle and primary school students were assigned to study in 1920s.

In February, 1929 the US consul to Hong Kong 1926–29, Harold Shantz composed a report on “Educational System of Hong Kong” which runs to some 34 pages, including a nice (but incomplete) list of the sources used. At the time, the report claims that there were an estimated 977,900 people in Hong Kong, 50,490 students, of which 37,417 students were in Chinese schools. Most of the British government materials can easily be found elsewhere, but I was particularly interested by the enclosures which purported to be (examples of?) syllabi for each year of “the Higher Primary division” and “the Middle School Division” for what I believe are the private Chinese schools for boys and girls. Shantz claims that there were 590 urban and 185 rural schools in operation as of 1927, with a third of the former and over half of the latter receiving subsidies from the Hong Kong colonial government. The report includes the form used to register schools, along the detailed ordinances for their regulation, including the requirement that “floors be washed at least once a week”, desks arranged “so that light falls upon the left of the pupils”, smoking prohibited, spitting only in spittoons, corporeal punishment of girls forbidden, detailed regulations for the administration of corporeal punishment to boys, etc.2

Below I have transcribed the material from the enclosures with the primary school and middle school syllabi, which I think are a great way to explore the focus of education in Hong Kong Chinese language schools, as depicted in these syllabi. It is not clear to me if this is from a particular school’s submission or an example drawn from patterns found across schools. The report doesn’t say anything about the origins of the syllabi:

Higher Primary First Year Class:

(1) Cho’s Commentaries [ Zuo Zhuan? 左傳 ]
(2) Mencius
Chinese History: 高級小學新選歷史教科書 一二册
Chinese Literature:
(1) The Kwok Man Reader with notes and Explanations Book 1 (The World Press)
(2) Selections from 古文評註補正
Chinese Composition & Letter Writing
Arithmetic: 高級小學新選教科書[專?]一册 [incomplete title?]
Geography: 高級小學新選地理教科書一二册
English Reading: “First Year English for Higher Primary School”
English Dictation from the reading book
English Writing – Vere Forster’s [sic Foster’s] Copy Book, Medium Book 1 & 2
English Conversation – daily & common expressions
English Composition – making sentences
Moral Lessons: 朱子小學集解
Nature Study: 高級小學新選自然教科書一二册
Chinese Writing: copying model specimens
Chinese Painting: Flowers & Landscapes

Higher Primary Second Year Class:

Confucian Classics:
(1) Mencius (continued from First Year Class)
(2) Confucian Analects
Chinese History: 高級小學新選歷史教科書三四册
Chinese Literature:
(1) The Kwok Man Reader with notes & explanations Book 11. [2?] (The World Press)
Chinese Composition on simple subjects & Letter Writing
Arithmetic: 高級小學新選算術教科書二册
Geography: 高級小學新選地理教科書三四册
English Reading: “Second Year English for Higher Primary School”
English Dictation – from reading book.
English Writing – Vere Forster’s [sic Foster’s] Copy Book, Medium Book IV.
English Conversation – on chosen subjects or lessons of the reading book
English Composition – making sentences
Moral Lessons: 朱子小學集解 (continued from First Year Class)
Nature Study: 高級小學新選自然教科書三四册
Chinese Writing: Copying model specimens
Chinese Painting – Flowers & Landscapes

Higher Primary Third Year Class:

Confucian Classics:
(1) Mencius (continued from Second Year Class)
(2) The Analects (continued from Second Year Class)
Chinese History: The Earliest Times
(1) 鑑史提綱
(2) 通鑑輯覽
Chinese Literature:
(1) The Kwok Man Reader with notes & explanations Book 111. [3] (The World Press)
(2) Selections from 古文評註補正
Chinese Composition on simple subjects
Arithmetic: 高級小學新選算術教科書三四册
(1) Notes on Hong Kong Harbour [Notes on the harbour of Hong Kong by F.J. de Rome and N. Evans?]
(2) 初中教書地大學
English Reading: China’s New Century Readers, Second Reader [China’s New Century Readers by L. T. Yoen, Hanson Lee and Fong F., 1915?]
English Dictation – from reading books
English Grammar: Nesfield’s Grammar Book 1 & II. [possibly a chopped up school edition of Manual of English Grammar and Composition by John Collison Nesfield]
Conversation – on chosen subjects or lessons of the reading nbook
English Composition – on elementary subjects
Moral Lessons: 朱子小學集解
Hygiene: 生理衛生學 [claims to be translation of Physiology and Hygiene John W. Ritchie
Chinese Writing: Copying model specimens  ([臨碑?])
Chinese Painting: Flowers & Landscapes

Middle School First Year:

Confucian Classics:
The Four Books (continued from Third Year Class Higher Primary Division)
Chinese History – continued from Third Year Class, Higher Primary Division.
(1) 通鑑輯覽
(2) 本國史中學教科書
Chinese Literature – Selections from the following books;-
(1) 古文辞[類纂?彙纂?]
(2) 古文評註補正
Chinese Composition:
(1) Essays on simple Classical & Historical Subjects
(2) Essays on miscellaneous subjects
General History – 中學用教科書西洋史上卷
English Literature: Aesop’s Fables
English Grammar – Nesfield’s Grammar Book III.
Translation – simple exercises
English Dictation – from English text or simple story books
Arithmetic – Beginning with Hall & Steven’s School Arithmetic
Algebra – beginning with Hall & Knight’s Elementary Algebra
Geography – [left blank]
Chinese Painting – Flowers & Landscapes
Nature Study: 中學用教科書植物學

Middle School Second Year:

Confucian Classics:
The Four Books (continued from First Year Class)
Chinese History – continued from First Year Class
(1) 通鑑輯覽
(2) 本國史中學教科書
Literature: Selections from the following books:
(1) 古文辞[類纂?彙纂?]
(2) 古文評註補正
(1) Essays on Classical & Historical subjects
(2) Essays on miscellaneous subjects
General History – 共和國教科書西洋史下卷
Geography – 中學用外國地理教科書上下卷
English Literature: Stories from Arabian Nights
English Grammar:
The parts of speech & simple parsing
Book – Nesfield’s Grammar Book III
Translation of short pieces
English Composition – exercises on simple subjects
English Dictation from English text or story books
Arithmetic – continued from First Year Class.
Book; Hall & Steven’s School Arithmetic
Algebra – continued from First Year Class
Book; Hall & Knight’s Elementary Algebra
Nature Study – 中學用教科書礦物學動物[每?]一冊

Middle School Third Year:

Confucian Classics:
The Four Books (continued from Second Year Class)
Chinese History – continued from Second Year Class.
(1) 通鑑輯覽
(2) 中學用教科書本國史
Literature: Selections from the following books:
(1) 古文[類纂?彙纂?]
(2) 六朝文絜
(3) 古文評註補正
(1) Essays on Classical & Historical subjects
(2) Essays on miscellaneous subjects
General History: Great Men and chief events of the world.
Book: “Scenes from European History” by G. B. Smith
Geography: General Geography of the World
Book: Long’s Geographical Series Book 1.
English Literature: Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare.
English Grammar: The parts of Speech, simple Parsing & Analaysis
Book: Nesfield’s Grammar Book IV.
Translation: E. to C. & C. to E.
English Composition
(a) “Specimens of Short Essays” Book 1
(b) Exercises
English Dictation: Seen & Unseen pieces
Arithmetic – continued from Second Year Class
Book: Hall & Steven’s School Arithmetic
Algebra – continued from Second Year Class
Book: Hall & Knight’s Elementary Algebra
Geometry – to begin with Hall & Steven’s School Geometry Parts I – IV.
Physics – to begin with Gorton’s “A School Course in Physics
Principles of Economics:
中學用經濟學教科書 (supplemented by English Notes)
Chinese Painting: Flowers & Landscapes

Middle School Fourth Year:

Confucian Classics:
(a) The Four Books (continued from Third Year Class; to be completed to cover up [to?] the University syllabus)
(b) One section of the “Five Classics” as required by the University syllabus for the year concerned.
Chinese History:
The Earliest times to the Sui Dynasty or the Tang Dynast to the Ming Dynasty as required by the University syllabus of the year.
(1) 通鑑輯覽
(2) 本國史中學教科書
Literature: Selections from the following books:
(1) 古文[類纂?彙纂?]
(2) 文選
(3) 駢文筆法百篇
(4) 唐詩三百首
(5) 十八家詩鈔
(1) Essays on Classical & Historical subjects
(2) Essays on miscellaneous subjects
(3) Ping Man
(4) Poetry
General History:
The outlines of European History in the nineteenth Century
(this period has been stuck to in order to make the students understand the growth of modern nations & the sources of modern systems).
Book: History of Western Europe by James Harvey Robinson (to be helped by summary & supplementary notes given by the teacher)
General geography of the world as required by the University syllabus.
Book: Longman’s Geography series Book II.
English Literature:
Set book or books as required by the University syllabus of the year
English Grammar:
The parts of speech & their uses; Parsin; Analysis; Explanation of Idioms as required by the University syllabus
Book: Nesfield’s Grammar Book IV. (supplemented by notes on Idioms).
Translation: E. to C. & C. to E. Encluding [sic] passages from the Four Books.
English Composition:
(a) “Specimens of short Essays” Book II
(b) Exercises
English Dictation:
Seen & Unseen pieces
Arithmetic: As required by the university syllabus of the year
Book: Hall & Steven’s School Arithmetic
Algebra: As required by University syllabus
Book: Hall & Knight’s Elementary Algebra
Geometry: As required by University syllabus
Book: Hall & Steven’s School Geometry
Trigonometry: so far no time could be spared for this subject
Book Keeping – so far this subject not yet taught.
Principles of Law:
Book: 中學用法治教科書 (supplemented by English notes)
Book: “An Elementary study of Chemistry” by Mc Pherson & Henderson (Chinese equivalents for technical terms supplied by the teacher).

Interestingly, the report also includes works assigned for teaching training (“normal school”):

Normal School First Year:

Normal School Second Year:

From this we can get a closer look of the distribution of the mix of Chinese classical education with integration, increasingly, of English language materials and Western history in Chinese and English. Some of the textbooks can be found online and I have linked to online editions from before the year the report came out, where I think I have found something similar.

  1. Records of the Department of State Relating to Internal Affairs of British Asia, 1910-29 Roll 18 846g Hong Kong  

  2. Enclosure No. 2 to report of Harold Shantz, “Educational System of Hong Kong”  

Japanese and English Bilingual Seminars and Workshops

Sayaka Chatani, Hiro Fujimoto, and Maho Ikeda are starting a new bilingual Japanese and English research exchange seminar series. The first of these is coming up on 18 May: an online manuscript workshop featuring a manuscript workshop with Yuri Ōkubo, “Ambivalent Aspirations: Okinawan Collaboration with the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. You can register for this Zoom event online here.

As Sayaka, who was one of our early Frog in a Well members, puts it, “Use Japanese or English, whichever you feel more comfortable speaking in, to participate.” I find this to be a really exciting new initiative that I hope will really take off.1   This kind of multilingual spirit is similar to the one Frog in a Well was founded on back in 2004 (see our first post here). As a starting PhD student, I had hoped to develop an online space where scholars studying Japan, China, and Korean, across several humanities disciplines could post in either English or, for each of three blogs, Japanese, Chinese, or Korean. It didn’t work out that way, mostly due to my own failure to build up and sustain a community of posting graduate students and academics writing in languages other than English.

I have, however, seen great examples of the kinds of events Sayaka describes: truly multilingual spaces for academic exchange around the study of East Asian history. In Japan, I have really enjoyed being part of some small workshops that had both Chinese and Japanese languages as their working languages. In Taiwan, I have enjoyed some roundtables and talks that were bilingual Chinese and English. In Korea, I’ve been to both a Korean-Japanese bilingual workshop and a Korean-Chinese bilingual conference, and numerous events where Korean and English mixed. When they work well, the more free flowing discussion sessions often include lots of code-switching as technical terms and phrases are dropped in with the other language or a switch of language can heighten dramatic emphasis.

The place I have seen the most reluctance to try things like this is the United States – the world’s heart of English language chauvinism. There are certainly exceptions, including some wonderful Japanese studies workshops organised by Carol Gluck at Columbia University over the years. Unlike the fully bilingual events I have experienced in East Asia, these also usually included at least some sequential translation or summaries, especially during open discussion sessions. I think these Columbia workshops were easily the most stimulating academic exchanges I witnessed during my years as a student in the US.

When I have proposed such events myself, or lamented their absence, I’ve sometimes been told that these kinds of bilingual events are exclusionary. I find such responses bewildering. As if, by making an event that is primarily targeting a highly specialized group of experts English only, we are somehow being more inclusive? I think there are two ways to respond to this.

1) The first is what we might call the 最起碼的要求 or “minimum requirement” argument for scholars of East Asia. I don’t think it is an unreasonable expectation for scholars of Japanese history, for example, to know Japanese, as a bare minimum. The Chinese version of this phrase pops into my mind because I can hear the voice of a Chinese student I overheard many years ago commenting to a friend after someone asked whether an upcoming Japanese language roundtable, in Japan, on Japanese colonialism, would include English translation for the benefit of a few foreign students in the audience. Simply put: if you are going to study and publish about the region, learn the relevant language. At the very least be able to read and understand it, even if you are uncomfortable in presenting or publishing in it. Yup, it’s hard. Nope, I don’t want to hear your excuses. What’s that you say? You only understand 75% of what is said in the relevant language when those academics start talking back and forth at a rapid fire pace?

2) This brings me nicely to the second response, which we might refer to as the “Welcome to the fucking party” argument, or without the profanity, the problem of forgotten exclusion. At most international conferences, but to be honest, pretty much any event at a large international institution, your audience is likely to include non-native speakers of English. They may be really fantastic at English. You might never have heard them make an error, and their writing may only occasionally give away the fact that they worked damn hard for many years to master the maddening English language on top of their own. However, many of these participants won’t necessarily catch everything speakers say during talks, and they may have just a bit less willingness to join the fray in discussion if they have to produce polished academic speech on the fly. They may be unfamiliar with particular accents or idiomatic phrases. Their understanding may struggle more when the exchange speeds up in open discussion sessions. They may drift off for a minute only to discover that the loss of context makes it hard to follow the discussion when they re-focus. Their heads may start to pound after prolonged concentration and they may be less confident their fluency in their non-native language will hold up when fatigued.

If these things sound familiar to native English speakers then it is likely that you have experienced something similar in another language you are otherwise confident in, and it should be easier for you to flip the board and view things from the other side. These facts don’t change just because English is some kind of academic lingua franca. By making a specialist event bilingual, choosing a second language that everyone should know given the content/context of a particular event (of course, I’m not claiming general interest events need to do this – context matters), and giving people the freedom to speak the language they feel most comfortable in throughout, you take a serious step taken towards levelling the playing field. The outcome is never 100% mutual understanding and perfect dialogic utopia. A bilingual environment is one in which everyone except the native bilingual participants has to struggle at least a little bit. In that shared struggle is born a kind of mutual compassion that produces the best kind of academic exchange.

  1. I see there is another bilingual event coming in 1 June, with a “new books from Japan” series『医学とキリスト教 日本におけるアメリカ・プロテスタントの医療宣教』by 藤本大士. Register here. Both of these events are through the recently founded Modern Japan History Association.  

Cleaning Up Tables from Primary Sources in ChatGPT

I’ve been following with interest the debates around the rapid emergence of powerful large language models such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT, its Bing sibling Sydney, Meta’s Galactica, and Google’s Bard. One important recent discussion of this can be found here. My current status: deep concern mixed with pragmatic curiosity.

Summation of United States Army Military Government Activities in Korea (March, 1946)

Given the propensity of ChatGPT (mid-February, 2023 version) to happily invent facts, people, nonexistant citations, and quotations, I’m not yet too worried about how this impacts historical essays produced by students. However, while its shortcomings in this regard may give only temporary relief as these models evolve, it also limits its usefulness for quick information lookups on things you are not already expert enough on to call bullshit on. So are there any current use cases for historians? I stumbled on one potential use through a post on Mastodon: apparently, ChatGPT is not bad at cleaning up and formatting tables from raw text.


To test this, I took some very badly formatted data from a single table randomly chosen from my photo of a March, 1946 issue of a Summation of United States Army Military Government Activities in Korea. Here is a view of the original table:

Here is the poorly formatted text extracted from this:

From   To    Quantity (in suk)
Cholla Pukto  Seoul  32,000
             Inchon       6,000
                           Mukko       8,000
                       Chechon  2,000
                       Wonju  2,000
                       Chunchon    8,000
Cholla Namdo    Mukko              8,000
Chung Chong Pukto       Seoul 4,500
Chung Chong Namdo   Seoul 36,000
                Inchon          6,000
Kyong Sang Pukto   Chechon       5,000
                 Mukko    7,0000

Now give ChatGPT the instructions to clean up the table:

This produced the following:

Selecting the text from the entire table, copying (from Firefox browser, in my case) and pasting it directly into (Mac) TextEdit or Microsoft Word retained the table formatting perfectly. But here it is again below. I asked ChatGPT to reproduce the table as HTML for easy copy/paste here with prompt: “reproduce this table as html”:

From To Quantity (in suk)
Cholla Pukto Seoul 32,000
Inchon 6,000
Mukko 8,000
Chechon 2,000
Wonju 2,000
Chunchon 8,000
Total 58,000
Cholla Namdo Mukko 8,000
Chung Chong Pukto Seoul 4,500
Chung Chong Namdo Seoul 36,000
Inchon 6,000
Total 42,000
Kyong Sang Pukto Chechon 5,000
Mukko 7,0000
Total 12,000

You might notice that the model added “total” where it detected sub-totals for some sections. Also notice that the mistakenly transcribed 7,0000 is converted to 7,000 in the reply, but back to 7,0000 in the HTML table when I requested it in the next prompt (h/t to Janis for noticing this). Clearly a reminder to check the results as carefully as with OCR outputs.

There are lots of other places online that offer services for cleaning up messy data, but I have had mixed results with them. This worked quite well and can potentially save a lot of time cleaning up tabular data in OCRs of historical documents.

Confucius at Eighty: Sufficiently Decayed or Ready for a Great Xi Change?

克己復禮 Keji fuli (restrain the self, restore the rites).

Kong Qiu, Kongzi, or Master Kong, known in English as “Confucius,” marked the passing of the decades:

At fifteen I set my heart upon learning.
At thirty, I had planted my feet firm upon the ground.
At forty, I no longer suffered from perplexities.
At fifty, I knew what were the biddings of Heaven.
At sixty, I heard them with docile ear.
At seventy, I could follow the dictates of my own heart;for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right.

But eighty? Nothing. No help at all, perhaps because he had died?

So when I passed the age of eighty myself, I instead turned for advice to Koko, a supposedly Japanese character in W.S. Gilbert’s supposedly Japanese Mikado, who sings:

There is beauty in extreme old age.
Do you fancy you are elderly enough?
Information I’m requesting
On a subject interesting:
Is a maiden all the better when she’s tough?  

Are you old enough to marry, do you think?
Won’t you wait till you are eighty in the shade?
There’s a fascination frantic
In a ruin that’s romantic;
Do you think you are sufficiently decayed?

You can hear them sing it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4VsJPYqWv6Y

If Master Kong had responded using Gilbert’s trimeter anapests it might have looked something like this, but even Gilbert could not have found a rhyme for that infernal nonsense “Confucius”:

Yes there’s beauty in extreme old age.
My feet are not yet planted in the ground.
I’m an octogenarian
Waiting to be centenarian
I’m a junzi who is waiting to be crowned.

At seventy, the dictates of my heart
Would never let me stray into the wrong.
I heard them with a docile ear
That turned into a fossil ear.
I’m still waiting to be crowned King Kong.

You venerate my lecture “table-scraps”
(That’s “Analects” in English) to begin.
Commentators periphrastic
Made my legacy dynastic,
But some Confucians lost it in the Qin.

The Han drew all together under Tian.
But Latter Han then fell apart again.
Three heroes dared to eat a peach,
And Buddhists called out each to each,
Before Tang Taizu centered it again.

The Neo-Way philosophers of Song
Revived my Dao and searched for living roots.
Their philosophies might vary
But were Sources for deBary
And ripened into many Zhu Xi fruits.[1]

In recent years I ‘ve seen a big Xi change,
With China’s roots pushed back 5,000 years.
If to legacies Confucian
We add Maoist Revolution
The sum is oligarchic engineers.

[1] Some texts have the variant “Juicy Fruits” ®

Group research assignments

Final report on group research assignment.

It  seems to have gone pretty well. Of the 22 students who finished the class 14 did the survey about it (anonymous, but they got points for it) All of them claimed to have liked the assignment, and learned something from it, and, most importantly, to have learned things from other students presenting their research and from the group part of it.

This is the third time I have done this.

Abortive Revolution (Modern China)

Group research project -Abortive Revolution

Taisho project (Modern Japan)

Syllabus blogging HIST 437 Modern Japan and the Taisho project

Huainanzi (Early China)

Failure to communicate -Huainanzi

The point of these assignments is for students to read some stuff, discuss it in their groups, present on it, and then (individually) write something based on their own reading and what their fellow students have presented.

I think there are a couple things to change in the future. There are two parts of the process that need fixed. Right now it goes

-Students pick a group of 1-3 people, and choose a set of readings.

 -Students read their individual reading, write an analysis of it, and then discuss it with their group.

 -The group writes a paper synthesizing the three readings, and does a presentation to the class on them

   -I think I will get rid of the group paper. It is sort of the same thing as the presentation, and getting them to synthesize it once (for the presentation) is enough. It tends to be hard enough to push them towards synthesis of the three readings and why they matter, rather than just pasting the three reading papers together. Students tend to draw more from the presentations than from the group paper anyway.

-Students write an essay based on their own readings and the presentations of the other groups.

    This is probably the biggest weakness. I try to write broad “questions” as topics for their essay, and then encourage them to narrow it down a bit. This is something that is difficult to do at the best of times. Maybe add a meeting with me to help with the question framing?

The other issue, of course, is how to do this for my other classes. The Republican period in Modern China, Taisho in Modern Japan and Huainanzi for Early China all fit nicely in the early/middle part of the class and lend themselves to questions about how this period (or at least some of the things going on it it). How to do this for my other two upper levels, Early Modern Japan and Late Imperial China? Those are both classes that focus more on social and cultural history, and don’t really have a clear middle bit that would work for this.

Maybe for Japan something like “Representation and reality” focusing on elites and the reading public tried to understand and represent the society around them? For China maybe something on the shi as doctors to society? In other words, rather than something chronologically central, maybe more socially central?

The Banality of a New Spirit Movement 새마음운동

While poking around for English language materials to offer students on post-1945 South Korea, I came across The New Spirit Movement, a 1979 collection of short speeches by Park Geun-hye (Pak Kŭnhye, Park Keun Hae), president from 2013-2017 and thereafter convicted and jailed until 2021 on charges of bribery and various abuses of power. I believe the work is an English language edition of 『새마음의 길』published in the same year.

Park was daughter of the Korean president and dictator Park Chung Hee, who took power following a 1961 military coup and ruled as president from 1962 until his assasination in October, 1979. Her mother was also killed in 1974, after which the daughter stepped into something of a first lady role. One of the roles that Park Gyeun-hye embraced was as one of the leaders of a “New Spirit Movement” (새마음운동, also translated as New Mind, New Heart and New Spirtual Movement) in the late 1970s, a “vague and ineffective” campaign to “reform the thinking pattern of people.”1

This vagueness can be seen throughout this collection of speeches. It reminded me of the kind of warm good feeling fluff I had seen in lots of materials of another more international movement, the Moral Re-Armament movement, as well as Chiang Kai-shek’s “New Life Movement” (新生活運動), an observation already made by David Steinberg in a 1982 review article.2

In another 1980 piece discussing the movement, Hans U. Luther quotes one informant as saying “Not two persons could provide a definition for [the New Spirit Movement] that they would agree” and two others: “To the young female clerk at the post office, Saemaum is a term she could not being to define. But if she is asked what she did for Saemaum, she can tell about the flowers she helped to plant around the post office a month or two ago. To the taxi driver the Saemaum program might mean not spitting out the window of his vehicle.”3

All About the 충효예 忠孝禮

So what does Park herself (or whoever composed the speeches) have to say about the movement in a book of some 130 pages (in the English version)?

Park giving a speech to students at a New Spirit Movement. On the wall behind her: 忠孝禮는 우리 마음의 거울 (ch’ung-hyo-ye are the mirror of our heart/spirit).

Without a doubt the keywords in this “new” movement is a move to cultivate “traditional” values, the most important of which are loyalty (ch’ung 충 忠), filial piety (hyo 효 孝) and propriety (ye 예 禮). Anyone familiar with the history of the region will recognize here three of the key Confucian virtues, but one of the things I found interesting about this campaign and speeches is that, unless I’m mistaken, there is not a single mention of “Confucius”, “Confucianism”, or any specific Chinese classical text in the book. The closest it comes to this is, again vaguely, “The ways of chung, hyo and ye were expounded to the world by the sages of old” (120) and a mention of the Confucian scholar Yi Yul-gok (Yi I, 98). In contrast, a whole speech is dedicated to the compatability of the New Spirit Movement with Buddhism, as Park speaks to a hall of monks.

As the reader moves through one repetitive and vacuous speech on moral and spiritual reform to another, it becomes quickly clear that these three core concepts of loyalty, fillial piety, and propriety not only seriously overlap, but that they are such capacious concepts, that Park is able to fill them with almost anything.

Ch’ung is the key to an advanced nation, where “one can drink good coffee in any coffee shop” and ensuring that “when we make an appointment, the spirit of chung directs us to be there on time.” (17) Hyo (at level of family and nation) seems to be the only thing that can give humans purpose: “Suppose a schoolchild gets 100 marks in an examination but has no parents or family to whom he can brag about his performance. Suppose a sports champion wins in a world competition but has no fellow countrymen with whom he may rejoice and no fatherland to which he may bring back the glory. Then, what is the good of the triumph?” (39) As for Ye, “it is an act of propriety to answer respectfully the call of one’s parents and elders; it is an act of propriety to share food with a hungry person…keeping a promise is an act of propriety” (28).

Park doesn’t seem to be too bothered by the fact that care for one’s elders is sometimes filial piety and sometimes propriety; or keeping promises is sometimes about loyalty and sometimes propriety. In fact, in the speeches in the second half of the book, in the vast majority of cases, Park seems to give up disaggregating them entirely and merely refers to “chung, hyo and ye” or, sometimes, just the “new spirit” when she describes what virtue is manifest in an action. This new spirit calls on Koreans to suck it up and properly learn the honorifics of the Korean language. “Some say [they] are difficult to grasp. But I wonder if such people are not really shifting the blame from themselves to the language…If we are going to claim to be a cultured people, we should not expect everything to be simple.” (77), to behave yourself when in a foreign country (79, 87), stop pollution (91-93), and reprimand naughty children (56). Fairly often, she seems to get bored by the specificity of the examples entirely, and will roll out broad generalizations: “Our Campaign for a New Spirit impels us to reflect on and remedy all wrongs in all areas of our life.” (78)

Reading, or rather skimming, through these extremely repetitive speeches, one gets the impression you can tell more from the final lines of each speech that identify the audience Park is speaking to than anything else in them: ch’ung, hyo, and ye mostly become highly malleable containers for her to fill with whatever content best addresses whatever the message of the day is to a particular group.

Ironies and Aftermaths

In the relatively few places I have seen the 새마음 movement discussed, it has most often been connected as growing out of, or connecting to the much more famous “New Community Movement” (새마을운동). An interesting contrast can be seen between the New Spirit movement and Park Chung Hee’s publications on the New Community movement, such as in the English edition of Saemaul : Korea’s New Community Movement (1979) or his earlier musings in 1964 Our Nation’s path; Ideology of Social Reconstruction, with their relatively more concrete political program and, in the latter case, a negative assessment of the role of Confucianism on Korea’s past.

Unlike the more substantive debates on what was or was not an outcome of the New Community Movement, most of what I found in a cursory search doesn’t suggest that this campaign amounted to much more than some big gatherings to listen to Park Geun-hye and line up to meet her. I see Park was involved in a 새마음 hospital of some kind, though I don’t know what connections it has to the movement. One short piece suggests that the movement pops up again in a corporate setting in recent years.4

One irony of this moral reform movement is, of course, that rather than a paragon of moral virtue, Park came to personify corruption and the abuse of power. Her presidential record and the scandal that led to her eventual conviction has been explored in great depth by journalists, many of whom have looked back at her political career in the 1970s. Through our St Andrews library, I don’t have access to Korean academic databases to dive deeper into the scholarly literature on the campaign, but the most detailed exploration of the New Spirit movement and its contemporary political connections I came across comes in a 2015 Hankyoreh piece which explored the New Spirit Movement in connection with debates on textbook reforms: 2015년 ‘새역사 운동’ 뿌리는 1970년대 ‘새마음 운동’ (IA) together with this 2014 OhmyNews piece: 새마음운동으로 유신독재의 주역이 된 박근혜 (IA)

The more direct connection between this 1970s campaign and Park’s final years as president comes from the fact that a founding leader of the movement was the former colonial police officer and cult leader Ch’oi T’ae-min (최태민). Ch’oi had long exerted influence on Park, and, following Ch’oi’s death, his daughter, Ch’oe Sun-sil (최순실), who was also a leader in the movement, played the most central part in the scandal that brought Park’s downfall. This Korea Times article (IA) claims that the New Spirit volunteer organisation (새마음 봉사단) was created by Ch’oi T’ae-min in 1975 when he renamed an earlier National Salvation religious organisation (구국선교단) was renamed. I’ve seen a lot of different claims floating around about what, in practice, all these various 새마음 organisations (a hospital, a school, university organisation, buddhist group, and factory laborers) actually did in practice, other than line up in large numbers to hear Park’s speeches, but I haven’t seen all the evidence lined up myself. At the very least, the movement was a clear early example of bringing together these three figures. There is some nice footage (including two of the screenshots included above) in this news clip, 뉴스타파 – 최순실+박근혜 ’40년 우정’ 동영상 발굴 (IA), showing Park and Ch’oi Sun-sil together at a New Spirit Movement event at Hanyang University with a cameo appearance from former president Yi Myŏng-pak (이명박 Lee Myung-bak), who was also convicted for corruption and abuse of power.

The same year as the Hanyang University event in the clip, and only a few months before her father’s assasination, Park’s collection of speeches 『새마음의 길』(The Way to a New Spirit) was published, which I assume is the same work as the very rapidly translated New Spirit Movement. The leading conservative daily newspaper Chosun Ilbo reviewed the work in March (1979.3.10 p5), gushing with praise:

저자의 문장은 세련되어있 다. 저자의 話法은 有情의 對話와 같다.
전혀 구호나 이데올로기의 선전은 없다.

The author’s style is refined. Their manner of speaking is that of a warmhearted conversation. The work is completely free of slogans or ideological propaganda.

In a way, I agree with this assessment. Relatively vacuous moral/spirital political campaigns such as the New Spirit Movement, Moral Re-Armament, New Life movements, etc., which thrived most in deeply anti-Communist contexts, as they yearned to generate enthusiasm for innocuous broad umbrella “Do good better best, like we used to, but in a fresh new way” campaigns. There were plenty of slogans in the campaign itself, seen on banners hanging all around Park when she gave these speeches, but like the speeches themselves, they had to be almost empty of meaningful concrete content that might generate controversy: the banality of moral reform campaigns seems here to be on full display.

  1. Juergen Kleiner Korea: A Century of Change (2001), 157.  

  2. David I. Steinberg, “Development Lessons from the Korean Experience–A Review Article,” The Journal of Asian Studies 42, no. 1 (1982): 95.  

  3. Hans U. Luther “Government Campaigns in South Korea: Exorcism and Purification of Nature and People” Internationales Asienforum no. 1-2 (1980), 63.  

  4. 새마음운동을 생각한다  매일경제 2013.11.11 IA  

Drawings in the North Korean Magazine Hwalsal/Hwasal

I’ve been watching Twitter not-so-slowly go into decline and it has made me reflect on  how, increasingly over the last decade, I’ve been sharing fun sources by twitter thread than on the Frog in a Well blog here. I’ve since made the move to Mastodon (@konrad@coop.social) but for whatever reason, that new home seems like a better place to share links to blog entries instead than confusing threads with short posts. I’ve downloaded a backup of all my old tweets and thought I would start picking out some of the source related threads I’ve posted there to share again here in the form of blog posts.

This first post will share a series of images I came across back in May, 2021 while browsing the issues of the North Korean journal Hwalsal (활살)/Hwasal (화살) or “The Arrow”, which can be found in the wonderful Library of Congress digitized North Korean Serials collection. This publication (looks like Hwalsal 활살/弓矢 is a variant and was common in Hamgyŏng dialect, the journal switched to Hwasal in 1959) is full of political artwork and slogans, a few of which I have shared below.

The reactionary author (활살 1956.5):

Taking out the paperwork-ist’s compost (활살 1957.3):

The blindness of the “Empiricist’s planning” (화살 1959.4):

The subjectivist puts together its agricultural plan (화살 1960.3):

Making imperialism puke out its colonies (화살 1959.2):

North and South Korea compared (화살 1961.9):

At the new Pyongyang zoo, the animals will tell you if they are gifts from the Soviet Union, China, or Mongolia (화살 1959.8):

An employer who doesn’t understand the Juche ideology. All these books, and yet not a single volume on Korean history (활살 1956.4):

Things detrimental to agriculture: locusts, sparrows, weeds, and idlers (활살 1958.4):

“The Dogmatism Machine” (활살 1956.5)

“Life changes with every step.” (활살 1956.2):

Aesop’s ant and the grasshopper fable put to work (활살 1955.9):

Beware the poisonous bourgeois thought found in reactionary literature (활살 1956.2):

Self criticism will save you from carrying your bureaucratism bundle off the cliff into the jaws of capitalist thought. (활살 1955.5):

Stopping floods and drought by planting trees. (활살 1954.3):

Heading to work. Yesterday vs today. (활살 1958.12):

Group research project -Abortive Revolution


Here is the semi-final list of topics for the group research project. So if you want a definitive list of all the things that were going on in Republican China… This is not it. More a list of things I came up with, but it does cover a lot of ground.

Abortive rev topics-E

This Fall I will again be having students do a group research project. They will split into groups and read some articles and present on them and then write something based on what everyone has presented. (Some links to previous versions of this type of thing below).


Here is a draft of the project assignment, along with a start of a list of possible readings. Any advice about possible topis is welcome!




Failure to communicate -Huainanzi

Taisho Project assessment

Teaching the death of Mao Zedong

If you ever have to teach about the end of Maoism, Ai Qing‘s poem “On the Crest of a Wave” is a good thing to use. Ai was one of China’s best known modern poets, who was arrested and tortured by the GMD, (which is why he changed his surname from to ) then wrote poetry in service of the war effort, then moved to Yan’an. He was purged in the 1957 Anti-Rightist Movement and spent the Cultural Revolution cleaning toilets. He was rehabilitated in 1979, and in 1985 French president François Mitterrand was made a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters. Quite the career. He also had an interesting son, who’s work you can use later in the class.

This poem is good to use because it gives you the fervor of the CR, lots of campaign type language, the disgust with the results, and the continued loyalty to the party and the revolution. (Now with Zhou Enlai!). You would have to do a bit of background with them on the first Tiananmen Incident and the Fall of the Gang of Four, but the poem itself should not present huge problems.

On the Crest of a Wave

  • Written for Han Zhixiong and young friends
    of his generation

I. “I Am Only Han Zhixiong”
Let me introduce you to the others:
“This is a hero.”
You laugh and protest:
“No hero. I’m only Han Zhixiong.”1

A self-seeking hero might prove embarrassing,
The people paid you their most glorious compliment –
Still, you could, quite without embarrassment,
Consider yourself the hero of “The Tiananmen Incident”.

When the wolves bared their teeth, flashed their claws,
Right away, you dared to go up and pluck their whiskers,
You were brave in the fight,
Enough to bolster the pride of a generation!

And you were clear-headed,
Like an island steadfast against wind and wave,
Under the blue dome of the sky,
Silently watching ten thousand waves ….

Continue reading →

  1. There is a pun in Chinese impossible to preserve in English. The Chinese for “hero” is yingxiong; Han’s name is Zhixiong, which means “will-to-be-a-hero” – Ed.  

Failure to communicate -Huainanzi

So, the Huainanzi project in my early China class went ok, and would have worked better if I had been better at explaining what I wanted from the final paper. I did an anonymous survey and the students pretty much all claimed that they got something out of it, and the only complaints were about the massive workload (one) and that they procrastinated too much (many). They seem to have liked the group research project thing. To summarize, each group of 1-3 (they got to choose how big a group they wanted) had to present on one of the chapters in The Essential Huainanzi, and they were expected to also draw on the chapter in the full version. Then each student wrote a paper on the work as a whole, drawing on their own readings and what others presented.

As I said, it went ok, but the final papers would have been better if I had come up with a prompt that got them to focus more on specifics. The prompt was fairly general, and while I encourage them to limit it somehow, many of them did not, and I ended up with a lot of papers on “the meaning of the Way in HNZ” that did not dig much into the specifics of how the text explained things and made its points and were, as a result, pretty vague. I should have used this

… if we spoke exclusively of the Way, there would be nothing that is not contained in it. Nevertheless, only sages are capable of grasping its root and thereby knowing its branches. At this time, scholars lack the capabilities of sages, and if we do not provide them with detailed explanations,

then to the end of their days they will flounder in the midst of darkness without knowing the great awakening brought about by these writings luminous and brilliant techniques 21.3

They seem to have assumed that their reader was a sage, and I need to encourage them to dig more into the specifics of the text so that they could explain (and understand) things more clearly.Huainanzi assignment.332.s22

The Jiankang Empire

I don’t usually post book reviews here, and this is not really a book review, but I got a lot out of Andrew Chittick’s new book The Jiankang Empire in Chinese and World History. This is a book that integrates South China into Chinese history and world history by both emphasizing the unique and interesting aspects of Southern culture and systems and analyzing how some of the same categories used to explain Northern history and Southeast Asian history can be used to explain the South.

One of the things the book is good for is helping people like me, who don’t really know Early China, but have to teach it, to understand the South in the Age of Disunion. The whole Age of Disunion name is a problem, of course, and more modern treatments like Lewis  or Holcombe call it the Age of Cosmopolitanism and talk about the diversity of Chinese culture during this period etc.

Chittick claims that

“the Jiankang Empire’s (his new term for all the Southern dynasties) military and political culture both are seen as a ‘dead end’ that did not obviously lead to any period of greater glory for the Chinese people, or have decisive impacts on later Chinese, much less world, history.” (pg 8)

Chittick is -not- saying that other scholars who work on the period are writing old-fashioned Chinese nationalist “5,000 years of pure Chinese culture” history, where the great Chinese culture assimilates all the detritus of Asia, and the whole period is just an embarrassing gap between Han and Tang. He -is- saying that almost all of these works focus on the North. He is talking about many of the same things as these other books. Things like the difficulty of defining Sinitc (Chinese) culture during this period, the problematic relationship between the court and great families, the role of Buddhism in creating a unified polity etc.

This things all happened in the south, although in different ways. For instance, the “ethnic” division in the South was between the Zhongren (people claiming decent from the central plains) and the Churen and Wuren. (These are all terms he seems to have coined) and he goes explains how these groups went through a process of “partial ethnogenesis” that explains a lot of Southern politics and culture.

To some extent this fits into the old literature on Northern and Southern culture, wen and wu, Chinese and barbarian etc. He points out that the Churen were just as martial as Northerners, and that the role of Sinic high culture and “Chinese” and “non-Chinese” language were important and problematic, just like in the North, although it played out differently

The local customs value vigor and strength, and produce many brave and courageous men; the people are practiced at warfare and esteem deceit and dishonesty. Seven out of ten leading households are very much this way; families that store armor and clasp swords all pour out of their houses. Due to this, transformation by humanity and righteousness will have no effect; regulation by law and punishment will not succeed. Thus it has routinely been a failed country.pg 168

When Generalissimo Wang Dun was young he used to have the reputation of being a country bumpkin, and his speech also sounded like that of Chu.(pg96)

[Chen] Bozhi did not know books. When he was sent to Jiang Province, when he got official documents, he would only offer his general consent. Sometimes his document clerk would read them to him in vernacular language, and seize decision-making from his boss.(pg. 97)

but he is not just trying to defend the manliness of the South, he is explaining how the same sorts of categories -worked- (and did not ) in the South.

Some things were uniquely Southern. He points out that the Jiankang empire really fits pretty well with Southeast Asian ideas of kingship, where the ruler’s position came from the charisma he gained from -personally- achieving great things, either in war or culture or ritual, rather than by inheriting status. Among other things, this explains why Southern rulers were so often overthrown by younger relatives who had served in the garrisons (with the warlike men of Chu) rather than being sequestered in the capitol.

Some things are just better because he has done the legwork. Here, for instance, is his map of how much of the population was registered in different parts of the empire. This is based on his analysis in Appendix A, which I am not capable of critiquing, but the map makes a great visual if you want to talk about Jiankang as a regional state.

The only great weakness to the book is that it was published by Oxford University Press. Thus it is only in hardback, quite expensive, and not available on any of the (dwindling) number of databases my school subscribes to. Still, everyone who teaches this period, even in a survey, would get a lot of information and enjoyment out of reading this.

Works not really cited, but sort of handwaved at

Chittick, Andrew. The Jiankang Empire in Chinese and World History. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Holcombe, Charles. In the Shadow of the Han: Literati Thought and Society at the Beginning of the Southern Dynasties. Honolulu : University of Hawaii Press, 1994.

Lewis, Mark Edward. China between Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2009.


How to start the semester? Use a textbook, Luke

Covid willing and the creek don’t rise we will start the semester in person four days from now.

One problem I always have will upper-level Asian history classes is getting majors to sign up for them. Not the Asian Studies majors, or the weirdos who like Asian history, the regular history majors. I have heard plenty of variations on “I can’t take your Modern China class. I don’t know anything about Chinese history.” My reaction is usually something along the lines of “Don’t believe what everyone says, you will actually learn something about Modern China in my class. Honest.”

This student attitude actually makes a lot of sense.

-We don’t have any Asian American students who would have a personal connection to this history (Coal strikes in Pennsylvania yes, China, no. )

-These are mostly topics they have never heard about in high school or  World Civ in college.1 So there are not a lot of kids who want to know more about the Taiping rebellion or Taisho cafe waitresses because of what they learned before.

This last one is a real problem. A history class is a lot easier and better if you have some idea what might be coming next. In the past I have dealt with this by having them read the Modern Japan or whatever chapters from a World History text. This of course works better if you have them write something about the text, so this semester they will be pairing up and choosing terms from each of the chapters and then having them write short encyclopedia entries on two of the terms their partner selected. Ideally this should get them to engage with the text a bit and also learn something about the advantages and pitfalls of doing research via wikipedia (The place they should start) and how to go beyond that. We will see how it works, and I will ask them what they thought of the assignment afterwards.

Encyclopedia entry assignment.332.s22
Sample EncyclopediaEntriesHIST332.s22

  1. We are maybe introducing this, but to date we have not done so yet. 

Jonathan Spence has ascended to heaven on a dragon

Well, actually, that is how the death of the emperor was announced in the 1987 Bernardo Bertolucci film The Last Emperor, which came out just as I was starting graduate school. I spent a lot of time in front of students who wanted to know more about China because of that film. Wikipedia claims the film is based on Puyi’s autobiography, but really it owes a lot to Reginald Johnston’s memoirs. I am not much of a Reginald Johnston KCMG, CBE, (played by Peter O’Toole in the film) but Jonathan Spence CMG was.

That may sound like a put down, and that is sort of how his passing is being reported. The New York Times calls him a “noted China scholar” while the Washington Post calls him a “popular China scholar”. Ouch. A lot of the obituaries focus on his ‘textbook’ The Search For Modern China1 This makes sense because it was a big book (870 pages! Great research obit writers.) and one that a lot of journalists would have read in school. It is not really a textbook though, although it does sum him up pretty well.

I never met Spence, but the first book of his that I read was Ts’ao Yin and the Kang-hsi Emperor, the most traditional monograph he ever did. I read it because my first historiographical essay in graduate school was on the Ming-Qing transition. That is a topic that has almost vanished from historiography, but at the time the detailed study of an actual dynastic transition was a big topic. Ts’ao Yin really made an impression on me because it actually worked well as a monograph, in that it explained a lot about the exercise of power in the period, yet it was also a very personal book about two people and their relationship. I still remember the bit from Spence’s Emperor of China where the Kang-hsi emperor is old and complaining (in a rescript, I think) that the officials who helped him build up the empire were now retired and writing poetry in their gardens while he was still getting up at dawn to read reports. That is exactly the sort of personal, almost novelistic thing that Spence would point out that made him less of part of the academic conversation. At the time it had a real impression on me as an example of how to get sources to tell you things that they did not want to tell you.

Saying that Spence was not part of the academic conversation requires a few caveats. He taught at Yale, which makes him an academic, trained graduate students, (in both Qing and 20th century, very old-fashioned) and was president of the AHA. His work was not, however in the form of monographs or really responding to a lot of what was going on in the field. Death of Woman Wang works well as a teaching book, and maybe Treason by the Book, but things like The Question of Hu or even The Chan’s Great Continent are not the type of things that the scholarly world produces or uses. I recall Spence pretty much owning the China part of the New York Review of Books for a long time, which sort of sums up where he stood, the ambassador between China Studies and the wider literate world.

Search for Modern China sort of exemplifies this. It is not a textbook. No sidebars. No study questions. Not broken up into neat sections. It is almost like a written version of an entertaining and enlightening class taught by a good teacher, which is how it originated as I understand it. I have taught with it, and it both worked well in that it was one of the only textbooks students would ever just read, and poorly, in that it was hard for them to dive into it and find things (which is part of what textbooks are for). I think it owes quite a bit to Gate of Heavenly Peace, which his book on Chinese intellectuals and revolution. There is a lot more to revolution than intellectuals of course, but the book is Spence’s take on it. Like almost everything he did it is about his personal encounter with a China that fascinated him. Like Reginald Johnston, really.

  1. After a few links it all turns into German and Portuguese and Italian notices. Scholars apparently don’t get much attention in the American press.  

Taisho Project assessment

The project is here

I thought it went pretty well, although there are some things I need to work on.

I had the students do a survey about it, and most of them found it helpful, and other than a few complaints about the reading load  they seemed to have liked it and claim to have learned something from it.

I was reasonably happy with what they ended up doing. All of them read some stuff, and all of them learned something. Almost all of them were able to at least summarize an academic article.

In general, I need to do more to help them with synthesis and analysis. They mostly did fine with the chapter/article summaries, but had more problems with the group papers and final papers. The group papers tended to be summaries of the three articles/chapters they read rather than much of a synthesis or analysis. This was a common complaint from students about the oral presentations as well. They tended to do better when they were asked about things (usually by me) after their oral presentations. In general, they seem to have only started thinking beyond summarizing a reading when they got to writing their own papers.

-So maybe the solution is to meet with the groups after they have done their readings and before they do their group papers? Admittedly that may be a small window. Maybe meet with individuals after they have done their individual articles?

-They chose their topics from a large group of possibilities  To some extent I lucked out on topics, since they all picked things that went together well so the group presentations seemed related. (Military, Police, Radical Right, Technology for the nation, Colonial Korea, Taisho Democracy, Great Depression, Religion and Drugs.) You may notice a bit a skew towards the “right” and the state here. Consumerism group did their best, and I did a sample presentation on café waitresses, but the cultural side of Taisho ended up a bit left out.

-I think the prompt for the final essay mattered a lot. That is the target, and they will fixate on it. McClain helped by giving me something from the text that was both broad and steered them a bit, but maybe I could do better.

-Oral presentations should be about 10 minutes each. That is about where they all ended up in any case.

-I had a set of “big picture” articles that I shoved to the end of the list, in hopes nobody would pick them as their topic. I had considered having everyone read them, but that would have been way too much reading. I did recommend them when a few students asked, and they seemed to help

In general I think the idea of trying to do a sort of distributed research project, i.e. setting up the scaffolding so that undergraduates can sort of do a joint research thing like grad students in a seminar is one that can work. Taisho is a topic that works well for this, since it fits right into the middle of the class, comes after a clearly defined period (we did a book on Meiji) and before the rise of ultra-militarism. I supposed the Nanjing Decade in Modern China, amd Han and the Outcome of Classical Chinese Philosophy in Early China could sort of work for this. Less sure on how to do it in the Early Modern China and Japan classes.

Ask Historians!

You would probably not think of Reddit as the best place to go for historical knowledge. For those of you who don’t know it, Reddit is the place where anyone can discuss anything. There are sub-reddits on Disney Princesses, and on Toledo Ohio. More relevant to this blog, there are also 20 subreddits on  触手強姦

Ask Historians has more rigid standards about what they will post as questions and answers than most of reddit, and they also have 1.4 million readers. They call themselves “The Portal for Public History”, which is bothersome, since it gives the impression  that they don’t know what Public History is.

It is a great place to find out what The Plain People of the Internet want to know about the past.

So today we have questions about sexy ninjas

Were kunoichis/ female ninjas in ancient japan actually trained to kill their target by seduction and wearing revealing clothes and get their guard down, using hidden weapons, or is it just another women on the battlefield trope by movies?

but also broad comparative things that are really hard to answer, but that people like to ask

Why didn’t the Mongolian language spread as a prestige language in the Mongol Empire like Latin & Arabic did in their respective empires?

or questions like

According to the Pew Research center, 29% of South Koreans identify as Christians. Why were Christian missionaries so successful at converting people in South Korea, whereas they experienced far less success in other East and Southeast Asian countries?

One nice about the site that in many cases the questions will just not be answered. If nobody can come up with a good answer based on solid sources to a question like “Who would win in a battle between Alexander the Great and Oda Nobunaga” then the question just sits there.

 The other nice thing is that in many cases they will just point people to answers to the same question that have been given before. They have FAQs for Frequently Asked Questions. Also for Very Frequently Asked Questions.

Looking through these gives you a probably not very surprising view of what people want to know about history. Are you surprised that in the Japan section there are a lot of perennial questions about samurai warfare? Or that Korean history begins with the Korean War?

On the other hand, there are a lot of really good questions and answers that are both worth reading and worth pointing students to so that you don’t have to write long e-mails on

Why is there such antipathy to ‘New Qing History’ among mainland Chinese scholars?


In 19th century Yunnan there was a Muslim led revolt called the Panthay Rebellion. Why did this rebellion happen and why was there a Muslim population in Yunnan in the first place?

If you are looking for something to give you hope on the state of history on the Internet, this is a good place.