Tang cooking

Via Sinologists list, a Chinese news item on a Tang tomb in Taiyuan

There is a nice scene of food prep, so if, for teaching purposes, you need a picture of a woman doing laundry? while keeping an eye on the stove, here it is.


From text

In the workshop scene, there are scenes of a man pushing a mill to hull grain, a woman pushing a stone mill to grind flour, a man making noodles, a man stepping on a pestle and pounding rice, and a woman fetching water with a water pulley.在生活作坊图上绘有男子推碾为谷物脱壳、妇人推石磨磨面粉、男子制作面食、男子踩碓舂米、妇人用桔槔取水等场景



English version, with different pictures.  (They are more interested in the foreign groom.)


Teaching from the test -Chat GPT edition

One thing that I did in my final exam for Rice Paddies this Spring was to ask them to compare how how Wikipedia and Chat GPT did at explaining terms that in the past  would have been ID questions. (exam posted below)

I think this worked OK. I am increasingly using exams to try and teach them things, rather than to test if they have already learned something. I don’t really care for in-class exams, since the basic concept “How well can you answer this question without looking at any sources” is sort of similar to “how well can you fix this engine if your only tool is a Phillips screwdriver”. Of course the internet and above all modern AI1 make a lot of the types of things you could do in the past for a take home more problematic. Chat GPT can generate a D+ answer on literally anything. Plus it is harder to prove that they used it, assuming you are willing to be anti student centered enough to accuse them of that.

ID questions (write a paragraph explaining why this matters) used to be a great way to toss a lot of stuff into your exam that was important, but that you had not done enough with to make part of an essay. They are also the easiest thing to do a lazy Chat GPT thing on.

This seems to have worked pretty well, in that I got some good answers that showed that the students were assessing both sources as if they were a person who had taken a class on this (which they were) and some of them seem to have learned something about analyzing sources. Some were less good, but those are the breaks. I might fiddle with the prompt to force them to pull a quote out of Wikipedia next time.

  1. I hate AI

Air Policing on Taiwan

“Air policing” was a term the British seem to have come up with after the Great War. Although using the new technology to keep the natives down started almost as soon as men could fly, the development of the concept owed more to Churchill’s enthusiasm for a way to control the Empire on the cheap and Trenchard’s need to find a role for the RAF now that the war was over. Omissi is the standard source.1 He has all the stuff on the early efforts to intimidate Iraqis and Somalis and others from the air, as well as the early debates on how effective this could be. What I find interesting is how the technology’s role was fairly undefined at this point. Was the RAF supposed to morally intimidate primitives? Directly attack rebels (or people who looked like rebels from high altitude)? Map and survey remote areas? Drop leaflets? Would it work on the Irish? The line between war and policing, and domestic and colonial was not that clear. The RAF both delivered and dropped Conservative newspapers on  British cities during the General Strike of 19262 

This is something that has remained a debate down to the present. The promise that technology can control territory, hearts and minds gets made a lot. It also ties into a lot of bureaucratic politics. Do drones render the U.S. Air Force irrelevant? Of course not. How would we have Top Gun without an Air Force?

The reason I bring this up is that one of the most detailed studies of air policing is on Taiwan. 臺灣第一個航空隊——日治時期警察航空班的故事1919年~1927年的臺灣天空 This seems to be a school project, and may owe something to 曾令毅3

The project owes something to air enthusiasts’ love of things like identifying old airfields and collecting photographs.

It probably also owes something to the detailed and easy to access Japanese colonial records. 


The purpose of the project is to show that air policing helped the Japanese to subdue the wild hill people of Taiwan, especially in the early 1920s

As with all the other cases of air policing, it seems pretty obvious that aircraft did in fact make it far easier for the state to see new places, and that it probably did have some psychological and even practical effects. I am not sure that the aborigines really saw the overflights as “allowing them to bathe in Imperial benevolence”4, no matter what the Japanese said.  Mostly, it is interesting to see how easy it is to show the geography of this with modern tools.

  1. Omissi, David E. Air Power and Colonial Control: The Royal Air Force 1919-1939.  Manchester: Manchester Univ Pr, 1990.  

  2. Omissi p.41 

  3. 曾令毅,〈日治時期臺灣的「空中理蕃」:以警察航空班為討論中心〉,《臺灣史學 雜誌》,第16期,2014年6月  

  4. 使全島之民都能沐浴於皇恩 , alas, no direct cite for that  

The perfect wife

Three things to use in class

Epitaph for Mme Ren, titled Lady of Virtue (shuren)
The Honorable Bao Deming, the Assistant Regional Military Commander for my province, lost his first wife. Prior to her burial, he came to me, saying: “My first wife attended to me most diligently. Now that she has died and left me, I wish to request her epitaph from you.” My epitaph is as follows: Mme Ren was the daughter of Wei Qing, of the Xinyang Guard Battalion. When she married the Assistant Commander, she was honored with the title Lady of Virtue. This Lady of Virtue exemplified womanly virtues in her person, and wifely deportment in her household. In managing the concubines, she was not jealous. In her treatment of the servants, she was not cruel. Indeed, she was a woman who behaved as a gentleman (junzi) would do. When the Honorable Bao became Assistant Commander, the Lady of Virtue was very supportive, and kept her household domain perfectly in order. She did not regard household matters, large or small, as requiring Bao’s attention. Bao managed his official domain, and the Lady of Virtue managed her domestic realm. In this way, Bao was able to devote his entire attention to the public realm, with no worries at all about domestic matters.”

Li Mengyang’s epitaph for his own wife

Weeping, I said to someone: “Only now when my wife has died do I know my wife!” This person asked how that might be? I replied: “Previously I studied and took office, and paid no attention to household matters. Now, nobody pays attention to things, and they don’t get done. When I had guests, food and drink suitable to their needs were supplied. Now no more guests come, or if they do, nothing is suitable. Previously, I used things without any attention to where they belonged. Now, everything gets thrown about and nobody puts anything away, but everyone’s good at breaking things! Previously, we never lacked for pickles and sauces and salted beans, but now, it’s not like before! Chickens, ducks, sheep, and pigs were all fed at the proper time — now, they’re not fed at the proper time and they’re all too thin! When my wife was alive, there was no whispering and giggling inside. If I went out, the door was not barred when I came back at night. Now the door is barred, and inside I hear that giggling! Before, I had no idea of what dirty clothes were. Now, if I don’t order them washed, they don’t get washed. My wife’s hands were constantly busy with sewing, cutting, drawing, and embroidering; now, no hands are busy. Formerly, when I wanted to groan about past and present but did not want to talk with friends, I could talk to my wife. But now when I come
home, I have no one to talk to. That’s why I say: only now that my wife is dead do I know my wife!

Both of these are somewhat problematic, since they both reinforce the idea that students come in with that the 19th century western model of the woman’s sphere is a historical universal. Still, the first one is a nice Confucian version of governing the family, and the second one a more practical version.

The one thing these texts only hint at, and that was taken very seriously as the greatest danger to the household, was the threat of jealousy between wives and concubines. Fortunately, this article also has a story about this.

Here is Li Mengyang talking about a family he knew.

Originally, Dong had taken a wife from the Li family, but as Mme Li was sickly and had no sons, he took another wife from the Chen family. Shortly thereafter Mme Li died, and Dong took Shen as the wife who would succeed her. Chen felt greatly wronged by this, and she protested vigorously, saying: “I am the daughter of a scholarly family! My father and brother only let me become your secondary wife because they knew that Mme Li was sick, and had no sons. Day and night they repeated that if Mme Li happened by some misfortune to die, I would succeed her. And now you’re marrying Shen, are you?” When Dong’s relatives and members of the community heard this, they worried on Dong’s behalf, saying that when Shen entered the household the two women were bound to compete.

Still, Shen’s wifely competence won the whole family over, and soon, says
Li Mengyang, Chen herself began to pay Shen the deference due to a principal
wife. The two became like sisters, and the relatives and community
members were all delighted, saying to each other that Dong was a happy
man to have obtained two such sage and virtuous wives. Shortly, however,
the process of Chen’s erasure began:

After about a year, Chen bore a son Lan. Shen held him in her arms, and treated him as though he were her own. Chen bore another son Run, and then a daughter. Shen treated them all as her own, and none of them knew that Shen was not their mother. Someone teased them, saying: “You are not really Shen’s children!” The children did not believe it, and when finally they did learn the truth, they felt all the more strongly that Shen was their real mother.

“Even I,” marveled Li Mengyang, who had been a close friend of the family,
“had no idea that these were not Shen’s children.”

If you are wondering why I am starting to post things like this, it is because I am toying with the idea of assigning way less reading (they never do it) and instead selecting snippets from articles and chapters and having them read them at the beginning of class and going from there.


-Kathrine Carlitz “Lovers, Talkers, Monsters and Good Women: Competing Images in Mid-Ming Epitaphs and Fiction” From Joan Judge and Ying Hu, Beyond Exemplar Tales: Women’s Biography in Chinese History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).


On Shogun

It’s sheer coincidence, of course, that there’s a reboot of the classic tv miniseries Shōgun the semester I’m running my perennial Samurai: History, Literature, Mythology class, with the finale airing in these last weeks of class. I couldn’t have planned this if I tried. I haven’t watched it yet, myself, but fortunately I don’t have to (though I probably will before this event, just so I know what people are talking about) because some of my favorite scholars are tackling the question: https://mjha.org/event-5672414

MJHA Roundtable: Remaking Shōgun – Historians Assess
Thursday, May 2, 2024 | 7:00PM-8:30 PM ET | REGISTER FOR ZOOM https://rutgers.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJcqd-6prj0jGdEz_dQvqh6-gh5q5mW_Xa2g

Featured Panelists:

• Mary Elizabeth Berry, Class of 1944 Professor of History Emerita, University of California, Berkeley
• Eleanor Hubbard, Independent Scholar
• Morgan Pitelka, Bernard L. Herman Distinguished Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
• Henry Smith, Professor of History Emeritus, Columbia University

In the wake of the latest television remake of James Clavell’s celebrated novel Shōgun, a panel of distinguished historians of early modern Japan and England will consider what the shows and novel get right and wrong about history, examine how interpretations of the story and the source material have evolved over time, and look back on nearly 50 years of teaching with (and against) Clavell’s tale of an English sailor in late Sengoku Japan.

As I said to my students when I announced this as an optional event for our class, I noted

  • Mary Elizabeth Berry is one of my favorite historians, as I’ve probably said over the course of this semester, and getting to study with her in Berkeley is still one of the highlights of my career: she’s written on Hideyoshi, most famously, but also on 15th century Kyoto and 17th century Edo publishing culture. She once said that she really respects the people who make historical dramas, because they have to commit to things being a certain way, whereas historians can always fall back on ‘well, we don’t know for sure…’
  • Morgan Pitelka is an old online history blogging friend [and longtime Frog In A Well member!], and author of the book on samurai culture that I assigned for graduate reading.
  • Henry Smith is one of those people that gets called “the dean of American Japanese Studies” because of his work at Columbia over the course of the last sixty years or so. Most immediately relevant is his work as the organizer and editor of Learning from SHOGUN: Japanese History and Western Fantasy, a teaching text based on James Clavell’s original novel published right about the same time as the 1980 TV event. http://www.columbia.edu/~hds2/learning/
  • Eleanor Hubbard, I don’t know personally, but it looks like she’s a historian of 18th century English naval history, so she has some solid qualifications to talk about the non-Japanese side of this story.

And here is the commentary that I’m sharing with the class:

It’s a good thing, probably, that I have very little memory of watching the first TV version of Shōgun before my family went to Japan, so it really didn’t affect my experience living in Nagoya. I know I read Clavell’s novel at some point after that, but very little of it made an impression, except that it felt stilted and exaggerated. I was a sci fi kid, not a historical novel kid, and mostly I figured that it was historical fiction and not to be relied on. Professionally, as a historian and a teacher, my feeling about historical fiction is still mostly that it’s usually not good history and often not very good fiction.

I am not going back to reread Clavell, or rewatch the old series, or try to keep track of the historical figures that Clavell renamed to see if I could catch mischaracterizations. Personally, I think it’s hilarious that they kept Clavell’s pseudonyms for obvious historical figures: “historical” but also somehow not responsible for the blot on the family escutcheon. [That’s a Gilbert and Sullivan “Pirates of Penzance” joke, I don’t expect anyone to get it. I mean that using non-historical names means that Clavell, and his various derivative producers, are not bound by any factual rigor] This is, as so often happens, in contrast to the marketing (and internal signals) which bangs on about the authenticity of the period language (the Japanese, anyway, not the English and certainly not the Portuguese that everyone is supposed to be speaking when they’re speaking English) and costumes and architecture. All of that is true, and it’s even true that the values the characters profess constantly and loudly did exist in the literature and culture of the period, though it’s hard to believe that there was so much conflict between them on a daily basis.

Shogun is a romance, not a history. It needs a conflict of values to resolve, rather than a conflict of political economics or tactics. So the first part of the story is laying out the values and institutions that must come into conflict to frustrate the heroes. The second part of the story is the playing out of those conflicts and the various attempts to circumvent those strictures. The finale is the triumphal application of those values to the forces that block resolution, a reconciliation of culture with sentiment. That’s because it is, in classical terms, a comedy in which the heroes achieve success (but a modern one in which some do not survive and everyone is a little sad) rather than a tragedy in which the conflict of values and emotions is unresolvable and failure is inevitable. Clavell was not trying to tell the history of the founding of the Tokugawa Shogunate, or even to educate about the culture and values of Japan. Clavell was trying to set up a conflict in which his characters could strive, rise and fall, and give his readers an experience of adventure and emotional catharsis. This is why I don’t use historical fiction in my teaching, or enjoy it much outside of teaching.

For most of the other historical commentary, I’ll defer to Learning from SHOGUN and the roundtable Thursday night. The only thing I’ll say about the 2024 production is that the incessant use of shiny metallics in the clothing is very dramatic and probably not period authentic, and the opening credits remind me of nothing more than a Marvel cinematic universe series.

Anyone else out there have thoughts?

Art and cash

We talked about James Cahill’s. The Painter’s Practice: How Artists Lived and Worked in Traditional China. . New York: Columbia University Press, 1994 in class recently. You might be under the impression that Chinese artists (calligraphers, painters) lived only for Art and Truth, and disdained the material world. There was indeed a cult of the amateur artist that you can read about in the works of, well, James Cahill. He also wrote this book. Here is a quote from a friend on Zheng Min 鄭旼

The master immerses himself in old books, not caring whether it is cold or hot, living tranquilly, uttering few words, magnanimous in disposition, his mind fixed on distant goals [that is, unconcerned with day-to-day affairs]. All difficult questions in the classics and histories he can resolve. He is an accomplished seal carver, using the pre-Ch’in and Han [scripts] as models. His painting style is lofty and antique, completely following the ch’i-yin sheng-tung (“engendering movement through spirit consonance”) mode of expression. Accordingly, he can rival the Yuan masters. In the most refined of his works, whether feelings of sadness and melancholy or complaint and anger, if these were not aroused by his great talents then they must come from his own experience. Cahill Painter’s Practice p.g 4

A true artist. Here is one of his works

This is from an album of scenes of Huangshan He did two of these, one for a friend, and one for a friend of a friend. As he wrote in the inscription “In the future, after all his children get married, if Chuzhen ever travels there, I hope he will take this album with him to check against the actual sites. I will then become his tour guide.” This may make it sound like a gift of friendship, for a friend he has never met. As his diary shows, however, he sold art for money.

[1672] tenth month, fifth day: I did three fan paintings for Fu-wen.

Seventeenth day: cloudy. Yen-ch’ing and K’uan-chung “moistened my brush” [gave me money for painting] and I added bamboo and rock for them [to some previously done painting?]

Eleventh month, eighth day: I went into town and wrote a fan for Yen-ch’ing. . . Keng-yu summoned me, and I added to [retouched?] a painting by T’ang Yin for him …

(1673] sixth month, third day … Mu-ch’ien ordered a painting for Hsu Erh-ming, and I used the money for food.

(1674] second month, sixth day: cloudy. After supper I visited Tzu-yen, and entrusted him with three paintings to sell for me.

Sixth month, sixth day: I visited Hsiueh-hai, where the owner of the I-kuan [an inn ?] … Summoned me to do a painting for him.

(1676] first month, sixth day: rainy. Ssu-jo visited me to order a painting, bringing payment [lit. “moisture,” as above .]

Ninth month, eighteenth day: for my “elder brother“ Yin-nan I did a painting on satin. Also did five fans for . . . [names].

Twelfth month , fourth day: This line [of poetry] came to me: “To get through the year, I need the money from selling paintings.”

Twenty-ninth day. Snow has been falling for the whole month. Fortunately, I have managed to get through my New Year’s obligations with the small income from my paintings. I sit recalling that there are a great many really poor people now, and wish that I had a spacious, myriad-roomed house [to entertain them in]-an empty thought.

I am pretty sure that for enough cash Zheng Min would be your actual tour guide.

The book explains the business of art, but also less blatantly financial ways that art changed hands as gifts and favors. A talented painter who wants to keep eating needs to be able to both crank out the work and understand the social symbolism that his customers want to buy. A fine job for a failed scholar. These were the people who could crank out quick “parting paintings” for themselves or others. The perfect gift.

If you are not sure how to do one, well there are painting manuals for that. From a Japanese edition of Mustard Seed Garden

Of course the truly great artist could do amazing work while cranking things out on a deadline with a lot of patron meddling and pandering to the market.  At a higher level you could get more bespoke work. Cahill talks about the symbolism of of a gift of a painting of plum blossoms, but I talked about orchids instead.

The orchid can grow in the wild, and so it is a good symbol of the under-appreciated scholar.

If an orchid grows in the deep forest, with no one present, is it not still fragrant? A gentleman cultivates the way and establishes his virtue and does not let his integrity whither although hard-pressed by poverty


from 孔子家語 

Put an orchid in a pot and it is a symbol of the wild and free scholar who happens to have a job. This is probably how they are used in this portrait of Yinli, Prince Guo

As a Manchu prince, Yinli was not starving the forest,but he did like posing as a scholar. The inscription on the painting is a poem written by the prince:

Humbled that through my kinship to the throne,
I was allotted a scepter in the prime of life,
I shall hold fast to the Way of antiquity,
And hope to preserve it without transgression.
Availing himself of this fine white silk,
That my figure may be transmitted on it,
The painter was indeed a marvelous hand,
Who erred in neither ugliness or beauty,
What is stored within is displayed without,
He has captured here my character as well.
Refraining from any wanton extravagance,
I shall follow in the footsteps of the former sages,
And by the bright window, at my clean desk,
Thrice replace the worn-out bindings on my books.

(Translation by Stephen D. Allee)

Money may or may not have changed hands here. but the artist is clearly helping both the subject and himself function as an “entrepreneur of the self” (Cahill pg. 144) The artist is selling a sample of his skill and culture and the buyer is buying it.1 This is not the same as loading your calligraphy on a donkey and taking it to town and selling it to whoever and using the money for wine, but it is on the same continuum.


Posted so I can teach this point again someday. And now so can you.

  1. This is not that different from Western art. Rembrandt is the comparison of the  “entrepreneur of the self” Cahill uses here  

Raising Cash for Mom’s Birthday

On 12 December, 1930,  in Shanghai’s International Settelement, a police officer C.D.S. (Chinese Detective Superintendent?) by the name of Wong requested permission to hold a birthday party for his 70 year old mother at a restaurant on Canton road (today Guangdong road) and send out some 70 invitations.

Finding this in a police file in the fascinating collection of the Shanghai Munipal Police records (see this wiki on the SMP archive, with an index), my first thought was how sad it is that even police officers had to request permission to host a birthday party for one’s aging mother.

However, this heart-warming record of a celebration turned into a potential case of police corruption, something all too prevelant in the SMP. A memorandum from the day after the party includes a translation of the invitation for the party, and appeals written on the back of two of them. Apparently, street lottery operators and “every opium smoking den” had received “invitations” to the party asking for donations of $10, in the case of the former, or $6 each for the latter. Interestly, the lottery seller merely asked that the requested amount be reduced to $3 or $4. The amount doesn’t appear to have been on the invitation itself, as translated, which offers attendees a feast, but one can speculate that the recipients knew that a donation was strongly recommended, while attendance to the party not so much.

The memorandum’s introduction writes, “These things are getting more prevalent now. I suggest that some of these detectives should be punished for distributing invitations without permission first being obtained.” On the first of the new year, 1931, an inspector reports that they had interviewed the detective concerned who claimed that all in all 37 invitations were sent out to different detectives and that he denies allegations surrounding them. Rather than local lottery and opium dealers, he “assumed that some of the detectives sent [the invitations] to the [police] as a case of spite in order to get him into trouble.”

How much is that goose in the window?

Another book I got for the holidays is Tim Brook. The Price of Collapse: The Little Ice Age  and the Fall of Ming China. Princeton, 2023.

Oddly enough, I read the whole thing from cover to cover, which is not always how I read academic books. The thing that makes this one such a joy is that it is both a collection of interesting stories and facts about the economic and ecological history of Ming China, and a discussion of price history and the role of the Little Ice Age in the fall of the Ming.

The price history stuff is rather fragmentary, which makes sense since there are really no series of prices like Qing grain prices for the Ming. Instead you (well, Brook), need to comb through various sources looking for data. There are some good numbers on what things were supposed to cost for official purchases in the early Ming, and then a lot of price lists at the end of the Ming, when the wheels are coming off, and everyone was complaining about how much things cost nowadays. In between there are the occasional lists of prices like those compiled by the honest official Hai Rui.

For 1/100 of an ounce of silver (one cent) you could get a catty of cucumbers, 18 eggs, a porcelain soup bowl, 2 exercise booklets a catty of hemp rope or 10 catties of coal.

1/10 of an ounce of silver would get you a wok or a wooden bed, a catty of winter melon or fine tea, a bolt of linen cloth or a visit from a doctor.

A full tael of sliver (1.3 oz to us) would get you a stove, an inkstone, 100 sheets of letter paper, a Spanish style gun, 4  volumes of Tang poetry, two new year door gods paintings,  or a boy singer. I should add that one tael is pretty cheap for a person. 4 to 10 taels was the range for domestic servants, according to the diary of a Shanghai resident of the 1590s, although he got a bargain, getting a housepainter and his wife for only two taels in the famine year of 1588. (pg40-45)

So how much money was that?

For the early Ming, 3 cents of silver a day (20-25 copper coins) or 10.2 taels per year was about the minimum wage. This is about what military laborers got. Silk weavers could get 4 cents a day, 6 if they had their own loom, and by the end of the dynasty 4 cents a day was the standard minimum wage (pp58-60) This is actually a large increase in bottom end wages over the time period. Sailors heading out into the South China Sea could make 20-30 taels a year. For a lot of these groups, (and above all for farmers) the cash wage was probably not the only source of income. The military laborers above were absconding all the time, in part because the pay was bad and the work hard, but also because there was no way to make extra money. Potters at Jingdezhen got 3 cents and 5 coppers a day, which was barely over minimum. They also got a grain allotment, however, which may have been worth 5 ½ taels a year, and would put them into the bottom of the respectable class. They may have also sold off porcelain on the side, which happened a lot at Jingdezhen.  A prison warden (rank 9b, the bottom of the official scale) got 19.52 taels in 1567, although also with a great opportunity to collect bribes and fees.

As you can sort of see from the prices above, the costs of ordinary living were just barely within reach of the poor. Even “capital goods” like a (small) wok were only 1/10 tael. Four volumes of poetry for 1 tael? Mass education here we come. One tael was about the dividing line for tempting someone to commit a crime Ming stories.

Brook ”If we recall the earlier estimates of the cost of living (just over 14 taels for a family living close to subsistence, and just over 23 taels for a respectable family) and compare these with these wage data (a poor wage between 5 and 12 taels, a respectable wage of between 14 and 22 taels” (pg 60)

There was a very different level of living for the rich, however. Officials in Beijing in the Wanli era were said to spend 4-5 taels a month, and a top quality painting could cost 30 – 300 taels, which is far more than an ordinary family would spend in a year.

The painting point is kind of important. Although Brook does not say so, you can sort of see evidence for a growing mass prosperity in the Ming (and into the Qing). True, the first bad dip of the Little Ice Age creates a crisis, but the long-term increase of bottom end wages of about 33% is significant, and recorded prices for necessities are within the range of a lot of people. The price of art, however, especially good art, skyrockets.

Brook does not see the world silver trade as being the main driver of Late Ming inflation and economic chaos, and if you want a good recent summary of stuff on the silver issue this is it. True there were a lot of people lamenting the rising prices of things, but in non-famine years prices of many ordinary goods fell between 1368 and 1590, with rice and wheat remaining exactly the same. (see table below) Some of the things that went up, like firewood and rabbits, might indicate less “waste” land, which fits with the received picture.

Art was going up, maybe, because silver -was- flowing in from the New World, and it was driving up prices, but that was more at the top end of the market, where things like authentic Song paintings were in limited supply. The Ming elite may not have been going in for some of the same ways of showing off new fashions and such that European elites were. So maybe there was growing prosperity at the bottom and middle, with wild inflation at the top. Right where down on their luck scholars would write about it.

Regardless of what was happening in the late Ming, the Qing was convinced that the rural economy was on the brink of collapse form over taxation (See this post) https://froginawell.net/frog/2023/12/qing-taxation/ and thus agricultural taxes remained stable throughout the dynasty, and maybe the black-headed people did better than we used to think in the Qing.

Sorry this post is sort of a mess, but I am teaching about this tomorrow, and wanted to save the data points somewhere I could find them.

The Case of the Electric Projecting Killing Machine

Drawing of Electric Projecting Killing Machine

In May, 1939, while the Japanese military controlled the Chinese parts of the city, an “urgent report” was sent to the Louza Police Station (Laozha 老閘) in the International Settlement: “An appeal for your searching investigation of ‘Electric Projecting Killing Machine’”.

Supposed location of the said machine: It is said that in your Foreign Staff quarters of your Police Station. And it is further stated that the location of the said machine lies in the upper story east and north corner of the foreign staff square. Moreover it is heard that there are voices of more than eight or nine Chinese men and boy heard there. The voices of the men & boy are to be heard both day & night. That machine follow me estimate more than thirty years owing it can state my youthold story, the holder are all of your room boys I believe.
That machine is said to be a rarity in Shanghai, the projecting power is very strong, though there is no light or shade visible. It can kill any body’s life as soon as the projecting power gets in touch with him or her wherever one is on the boat or sleeping indoors or going outdoors no matter how far the distance is. To sum up it has the following killing powers:
It can get into human body and destroy the organs.
It can make every body abnormal and kill one
It can make his or her strains in their body feel inclined to drown in the water for death.
It can transmit words through another man’s mouth in order to disturb speaking of others.
It can make one’s intelligence fly away and become a stupid and no-minded person of usefulness.
It can make film picture at a long distance and project its harmful power into human body in order to cripple one’s mind and actions.
It can projecting the noise and voice to long distance
It is said that the machine can make one walk and feel nothing particular after he or she has not taken anything or slept or drunk etc. for more than a week or few days. It can in other hand, however, still one immediately without allowing anybody to help or save him…
…My third daughter has died of the effect of the machine…my fourth daughter is nearly suffered to death on account of the effect of the machine. Most of my family members have more or less received harmful effects of the said machine…
…As it is the duty of your police to maintain peace and safety of the community, so I firmly request you to investigate and search carefully the machine in the foreign staff quarters…as the machine is concealed and carefully hidden there…

The report came from a Chinese man, a Mr. Sung/Seng/Sun (孫) living in a refugee camp dormitory attached to the Yufo temple (玉佛寺 Jade Buddha Temple) on Penang Road (now Anyuan lu 安远路) and is preserved in a 45 page Shanghai Municipal Police file. This file contains over twenty more similar letters, in the same neat handwriting or typed with its distinctive mix of alternating eloquent and awkward English phrasing. All were sent to the Louza station between 1939 and February, 1941, with the same urgent request for the police to investigate a dangerous hidden “Electric Projecting Killing Machine” believed to be located in the station’s grounds.

A Special Branch police report on the letter’s author, dated 19 May, 1939, describes the mental health challenges of the 35 year old from Pudong, said to be suffering from “partial mental derangement.” He apparently worked as a clerk for the American Asiatic Underwriters company (17 The Bund) for some eight years, when “he suddenly became mentally unbalanced” at the end of 1936. A few months later he was discharged. The report, written by one D.S.I. Liao Chung Chian, concludes by noting that a cousin of the affected man says that the “mental disease is not really serious and in fact for many hours during a day his condition is normal.” 

In addition to the early report, there are two police replies included with the file.1 The first reply in June, 1940 says “The subject of your complaint has been thoroughly investigated without result, and I have to inform you that no further action can be taken in the matter” with a handwritten note, “Delivered by chit-book. I hope it will stop him.” A second and last reply in the file from the Divisional Officer, “A” Division, in August, says “I am satisfied that no such machine exists in Louza Police Station, therefore no further correspondence will be entertained.” Eight more letters will make their way into the file.

A few things about this case strike me. One is to once again marvel at the diversity of lived experiences to be found in these SMP police documents (browse an index of open access copies of them I’m working on here), even if they privilege an often problematic policeman’s gaze. Even when we get rich accounts from independent sources, as with these letters, they only allow us to read whatever was preserved by the police, and then later by the American OSS, which ended up with copies of some of the SMP files that, in turn, were preserved in the US National Archives CIA records (RG 263).

I am also drawn to the level of elaborate detail in the appeals of Mr. Sung (as he signs his letters). His death ray is equipped with far more than the usual lethal powers of the genre. In two letters he includes a dramatic illustration of the killing machine beaming its ray (see the first image in this post for one of them), while in several others he offers increasingly detailed drawings of the supposed location.2 In his early letters he appears to believe the machine is under the operation of a number of Chinese gangsters and a boy, or coolie, or servant operating out of a special room for the machine’s use. Later he will merely say that the “murderers” are hiding in the “Indian Police’s dwelling.” Louza station was predominantly staffed by a mixed force of Chinese and Sikh officers and a few Europeans but, despite the fact the latter were often depicted in unflattering terms by Chinese residents, I didn’t see anything detrimental said about either them or any of the police in Mr. Sung’s many letters.3 

Death Ray Popular Science 1936

The centrality of the death ray in this man’s paranoid letters is a strikingly global feature of the case. Though H.G. Wells has a heat ray in The War of the Worlds (1898), William Fanning has argued that the 1920s and 1930s were the high point for interest in the idea of a killing ray in both fiction and supposedly non-fiction contexts.4 There are plenty of sources across these two decades that might have inspired Mr. Sung. Working as he was at an American company on the Bund, I imagine him picking up a copy of the August, 1936 issue of Popular Science in his work place, where he could have seen a depiction (displayed here) of a machine that bears a striking resemblance to one of his drawings. It is at the end of that year that his condition was said to have emerged. 

One thing that puzzles me somewhat, however, is the fact that Mr. Sung is writing this stream of letters to a police station that is almost an hour walk away from his own place of residence. His temple is located in the western part of the international settlement inside the “Pootoo” police district. Even if he ignored the police station in his own area, walking towards Louza police station he would pass through the districts of two other police stations (Gordon and Sinza).

Shanghai 1938 NLA MAP G7824.S5 1938. Why does he believe the electric projecting killing machine is in a station at some distance from himself? His letters often describe his reconnaissance efforts around the station, to pinpoint the exact location of the ray. It is possible, of course, that he has been writing these letters to several stations, and these are the only ones that got preserved in his file, and I suspect we will never know for sure. Perhaps it is just the centrality of the station, located as it is just off Nanking Road, or perhaps its historical infamy. The police station is known for one of the darker moments in Shanghai history, the May 30 incident, or “Shanghai massacre” of 1925 triggering the movement of that name (五卅运动). On that day, police officers of Louza police station opened fire on a crowd of protesters, killing several of them and sparking widespread anti-foreign strikes and boycotts around China. If this had something to do with it, however, it is notable that the neither the police themselves nor foreigners are depicted as the villains behind Mr. Sung’s killing machine.  

There is one more interesting connection between the idea of a death ray, the Louza station and the May 30 movement to be found in Richard W. Rigby’s history of the May 30 Movement. While I have not yet been able to track down the citation5  and read the original source, Rigby describes a story published in a memorial issue recalling the events of May 30, 1925:

The story, ‘The Light of China’, tells of a young man who shuts himself off from the world for ten long years, working on a project to avenge his fallen comrades. He successfully invents and perfects an electric ray, and on 30 May 1935 he emerges from his seclusion to turn it on the foreigners in Shanghai, leaving their persons unharmed but completely destroying all their weapons and warships. Before long, China’s new secret having been made known, the whole world is disarmed and a world government devoted to universal peace and harmony rules from Shanghai. Only Japan, refusing to face reality, stubbornly attempts an invasion, is of course defeated, and her premier publicly scolded. This achieved, our hero departs on his honeymoon, observing that it had all been made possible by science and organization.6

It is hard to see how the above rather optimistic plot, and the relatively benign effects of the story’s ray have much in common with Mr. Sung’s imagined insidious gangster ray, but it is evidence that ideas about electric rays in Shanghai were in the mind of more than one person. Perhaps it is this Chinese language story, and not Popular Science or any other international sources that is the immediate inspiration for Mr. Sung ideas around a powerful ray? Or perhaps Mr. Sung was, in fact, right all along? Perhaps operatives of the Green Gang, with their deep police ties were indeed operating a powerful killing machine out of the convenient central location of the Louza Police Station? Special branch may have buried Mr. Sung’s letters deep in their files, but we can only hope a Netflix special will someday bring the truth of this conspiracy back into the light. 😊 

  1. p24 and p28 of the file. https://archive.org/details/smpa-files-361  

  2. p17 and p32 of the file for the drawings, and p7, p9, p13, p19, and p21 for his maps.  

  3. For more on Sikh police officers see Isabella Jackson. ‘The Raj on Nanjing Road: Sikh Policemen in Treaty-Port Shanghai’. Modern Asian Studies 46, no. 06 (2012): 1672–1704. Cao, Yin. From Policemen to Revolutionaries: A Sikh Diaspora in Global Shanghai, 1885-1945. BRILL, 2017.  

  4. Fanning, William J. ‘The Historical Death Ray and Science Fiction in the 1920s and 1930s’. Science Fiction Studies 37, no. 2 (2010), 253.  

  5. Rigby cites Tu-li P’ing-lun no 10, May 30 memorial issue, 30/5/26; pp. 11-14  

  6. Emphasis mine. I only have Rigby’s 1975 dissertation at hand “The May 30 Movement: an Outline” Australian National University, pp316-7. However, google books suggests that the anecdote is also included in his book The May 30 Movement: Events and Themes, p164.  

Obscene mystery solved! (Sort of)

At long last an issue is solved! Did an engraver creating banknotes for a Japanese puppet bank in the 1940s slip in a picture of Confucius making an obscene gesture to the Japanese? I  have asked this question before, and never gotten an answer.

I still don’t have an answer, but it turns out that I do have a locus classicus. Paul Linebarger  (a.k.a. Cordwainer Smith) included this story and the picture of the note in his Psychological Warfare pg 141.

Given his history in the Office of War Information, I would assume that this at least a period myth.


Shoplifting Japanese-English Dictionaries in Shanghai, 1942

I’ve been working on a website to help collect information related to documents in the (International Settlement’s) Shanghai Municipal police (SMP) materials. Since they are mostly in English, they are a wonderful collection for students to explore. This project builds on a resource page I have created here on Frog in a Well related to primary sources on Shanghai history, also with mostly students in mind.

There are so many fascinating, puzzling, and tragic stories in the SMP collections. One I found while browsing today is N-1416, a February, 1942 document “British Subject Arrested By Japanese Consular Police For Shop-Lifting” that includes some details on the arrest.

The international settlement was occupied by Japanese forces on 8 December, 1941. From that point on citizens of what were now enemy nations were in a precarious state of limbo until they were gradually detained and placed into civilian internment camps, especially from March, 1942 onwards, in the Shanghai case. I’m not sure what the fate of the individual in this document is, but on the eve of likely internment by the Japanese, he is caught trying to steal two Japanese-English dictionaries: something I imagine would come in rather useful in the years to come, if he had managed to get away and bring them with him into the internment camp.

British Subject Arrested By Japanese Consular Police For Shop-LiftingRead the full file here: Reports Made 1943-1945 During Japanese Occupation – British Subject Arrested By Japanese Consular Police For Shop-Lifting

Teaching Late Imperial China

Chen Hongshou 陳洪綬, 1599–1652 Great Ford on the Yellow River

So, if the class makes1 I will be doing Late Imperial China in Spring. I was going to do a few weeks of basic stuff, do some Sanyan Stories, set up their research projects, and at the end do the Glory of The Qing and have them read Soulstealers. 

This is a pretty social and cultural and economic class, and there are a lot of things I could put in between. What I was thinking of doing was picking a dozen or so possible topics and then letting them vote for the 6 or so they like best. Here are some early thoughts. Any other ideas?

***update-here are the winners. I think I will consolidate some of these, but these are the final votes.

Bandits and pirates 65
Peasants and rebellions 44
Secret Societies 38
Elite women and culture 25
Common women and law 22
Lineages and family structure 16
Imjin War 15
Art-The painter’s practice 14
Tales of the strange 14
Borderlands 13
Agriculture and population 12
Tumu Incident 10
Opera 10
Jesuits 9
Taiwan 9
Urban life 9
Confucian rebels 9
Novels and popular literature 9
Commerce and silver 7
Tibet 4
Art-Collecting and cultural capital 3
Courtesans 2
Environmental history and the Little Ice Age 2
The Manchu Great Enterprise 1
Religion -popular 1
Salt 1
Local government and Yamen runners 0
Southern Ming 0
Religion- formal 0
Zheng He and Southeast Asia 0
The “tribute system” and foreign relations 0
Manchus and Han 0
Eunuchs and Bannermen 0
Law 0


Bandits and pirates Pretty obvious what this is about, although we will see that the line between bandits and soldiers (and pirates and ordinary sailors) was often blurry.

Tumu Incident In 1449 a Ming army, commanded by the Emperor Yingzong was surrounded and captured by Mongol forces. The ensuing crisis tells us a lot about Ming politics and foreign relations.

Art-The painter’s practice We will not be able to do a unit on Chinese art, but we can do one on people who painted for money, which was one of the ways poor educated people got by.

Art-Collecting and cultural capital Why do people want art? What role did owning and knowing about it play in being a shi?

Borderlands This is a more Qing topic, but throughout the period relations with non-Han people inside the empire were important.

Local government and Yamen runners What happened when the bottom level of the official system met commoner society?

Courtesans Buying sex and culture for money was something Chinese men loved to do and write about.

Tibet Tibet became part of the Qing empire in 1720 and Tibetan Buddhism was the cultural glue that held Qing Central Asia together.

Lineages and family structure The lineage was one of the most important innovations in family structure in the period.

Southern Ming Loyalists continued to support the Ming, and we can do a unit on why this was so important to them.

The Manchu Great Enterprise How did a small tribe become rulers of China?

Jesuits China was one of the great targets of missionary work, and the Jesuits of Beijing were at the center of one of the great examples of intercultural communication in the period.

Tales of the strange Sanyan Stories are pretty realistic. Well, at least they are less weird and supernatural than Pu Songling, and we could do a unit on his Strange Stories.

Religion- formal Buddhism was the most organized and socially important religions in the Ming, and Tibetan Buddhism had a huge political role in the Qing.

Religion -popular “Superstition” and the things people believed and did in their everyday lives.

Confucian Reformers From the Late Ming Donglin group to Qing Evidential Research there were all sorts of reformers around.

Zheng He and Southeast Asia Zheng He’s voyages are one of the famous events of World History, and while he did not conquer much the voyages did create a new relationship between China and Southeast Asia.

The “tribute system” and foreign relations This has been the topic of a lot of work of late, and versions of this system were important throughout the period.

Manchus and Han In the Qing the Manchus were the dominant group, and their relations with the Han majority mattered a lot.

Eunuchs and Bannermen In both the Ming and the Qing the rulers had a separate bureaucracy, but there were some important differences between them.

Women Two possible women’s history units would be

-Elite women and culture-Particularly in the Qing, elite women wrote poetry, produced art and participated in literati culture

-Common women and Law-More ordinary women tend to turn up in the sources when they get involved in a legal matter, so this is more a unit on the legal system and things like marriage, prostitution, etc.

Imjin War In 1592 Japan invaded Korea, and the Ming intervened to protect the Korean state. This is a great place to look at foreign relations and the military.

Opera The most popular art form

Secret Societies From the Red Turbans to the White Lotus these were the way ordinary people organized to protect themselves and get justice.

Agriculture and population Most people in China were farmers, and the rapid expansion of agriculture and population in the period were linked.

Peasants and rebellions A slightly different focus than the topic above

Taiwan Was a center of Ming resistance, a pirate haven, a Dutch colony and eventually a frontier region.

Salt A key source of state revenue, a great thing to smuggle, and something everyone would buy.

Environmental history and the Little Ice Age The Little Ice Age was one of the reasons for the fall of the Ming, and the growing pressure on resources was a major issue in the Qing.

Urban life Beijing, Suzhou, markets, temples, festivals. A huge chunk of Chinese culture happened in the urban areas.

Confucian rebels Li Zhi, and other literati eccentrics and rebels.

Novels and popular literature Love? Bandits? It is all here.

Law Law cases generated a lot of what we know about ordinary life.

Commerce and silver China was the center of the commercial world, and economic growth led to social and cultural transformation.



  1. Our administration is on the warpath against “boutique” classes and majors  

Qing Taxation

My Christmas stuff

Since I got a bit of flak for asking for Taisu Zhang’s The Ideological Foundations of Qing Taxation: Belief Systems, Politics and Institutions for Christmas I thought I would post…not a review but at least some thoughts.

The main purpose of the book is to explain the fiscal weakness of the Qing state, especially the late Qing state. To some extent this is a comparative book, in that Zhang is putting the Qing in an early modern context, and trying to explain why the Qing only taxed the population at a rate of 1-2% a year, as opposed to Tokugawa and Meiji Japan with state revenue making up 15-20% of GDP, England at 10-15%, Tsarist Russia at 6-7 % and Ming China at 5% (pg. 4 and chapter 1). This was the source of all sorts of problems for the Qing  and even into the Republic. Zhang attributes this primarily to a strong ideological commitment to low agricultural taxes,  He sees as being unique in Chinese history, since almost every other dynasty expanded agricultural taxes at some point. So the book fits into both long run Chinese history and early modern global history.

This is all really interesting, but not really relevant to my research, or to my teaching. Even for Late Imperial China, which I am teaching next semester I will probably not get that deep into tax policy, and I will not do much comparative stuff. The book is a lot of fun to read, however, in part because it summarizes a lot of the recent work on state capacity, economic history, demographics the Great Divergence etc. Admittedly, it is written by someone from a Law school, so he spends a lot of time encouraging readers to take ideology seriously and explaining that a crude rationalism does not really work here. Nor does he have much truck with crude theories of “Confucian” aversion to “speaking of profit”. Rather, he argues that Qing taxation was driven by the empirical assumption that higher agricultural taxes were simply not possible.

This book argues that the Qing’s turn toward political pragmatism did not render its fiscal policymaking, at least in agricultural taxation, any less ideological than its Ming or Song predecessors. Instead, it merely rendered it ideological in a different sense: empirical and descriptive, rather than deontological and normative. Qing agricultural taxation was premised on the empirical belief that agricultural production was constantly in real danger of falling below subsistence levels, and simply could not support additional government extraction. By the early eighteenth century, the empirical validity of this belief had become deeply questionable, and would remain so for the rest of the dynasty, but it would maintain a vise-like grip over fiscal politics for another two centuries. Much more than any normative distaste for “snatching profit away from the people,” the longevity and political power of this dubious empirical belief was what made Qing tax policy ideological. In fact, only when we see Qing fiscal ideology through this empirical, rather than normative, lens, can we begin to explain the fundamental differences between Ming and Qing tax policies, or explain the latter’s differential treatment of agricultural versus non-agricultural taxes. pg. 17

The real fun of the book, for me anyway, is how it gets in the weeds of tax debates in in the Ming and Qing courts.1 He discusses the Ming tax debates, especially those over the Single whip reforms, and concludes that in the Ming the empirical link between higher land taxes and peasant rebellion was not as iron-clad as it would be later. (pg. 147) Indeed, the Ming lacked much of a theory of dynastic collapse at all. They blamed the Yuan collapse on them being Mongols, and earlier dynasties were far enough in the past that they did not work well as examples.

The Qing of course had very clear theory of dynastic failure, based on the Ming. In fact, I might say that the Qing was the most historically theorized dynasty in Chinese history. The Ming had just fallen, it was  close match in many ways, many Ming officials served in the Early Qing and the compilation of the Ming History was not completed till 1739. The big lesson that the Qing, and especially Qianlong, took from the Ming was that agricultural taxes, and even land surveys, would lead to peasant revolts.

The land survey problem is particularly interesting. At one point land surveys had been seen as a way of controlling the rapacious big landlords who oppressed the poor and did not pay their fair share of taxes.(pg.205) Surveys came to be seen as a major expense and undertaking (both true) and as something that would lead directly to unrest, as they were seen as harbingers of higher taxes and probably being instigated by local officials who just wanted to collect more money.

as Qianlong put it

If land surveying truly does not burden the people, but instead benefits them, then presumably they would welcome the practice. I have, however, never known this to be true. If land surveying will not lead to tax hikes, then why would local governments wish to spend their funding on it? If the argument is instead that surveying will lead to greater fairness in quota distribution, then why do the people fear land surveying as they fear fire or water hazards?pg. 225

After 1740 it was forbidden for provinces to conduct land surveys on their own authority, and it was pretty clear that the center would not approve them either.  (pg. 226). So the Qing was a modern enough state to have population statistics that told them about the huge population run-up of the High Qing, but not the statistics about growing amounts of arable and land productivity that would make them  less panicked about the pressure on the peasants. Almost the perfect (or imperfect) statistically misinformed modern state.

The book has its problems (including an apparent assumption that ever-growing revenue is the purpose of the state), but there is a lot of interesting stuff in here.

  1. Why yes, I am great fun at parties.  

Grilled Playboy

If you are looking for something fun and useful to teach in a Tokugawa class, I recommend Santo Kyoden  Playboy Grilled Edo Style from Kern, Adam L. Manga from the Floating World: Comicbook Culture and the Kibyoshi of Edo Japan 2d Edition, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019.

This is actually a piece that has been anthologized a lot.  There is a version in Sumie Jones and Kenji Watanabe. An Edo Anthology: Literature from Japan’s Mega-City, 1750-1850. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2013. (translation by Sumie Jones) and one in Shirane, Haruo. Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology, 1600-1900. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.  (translation by Chris Drake)

I like the Kern version for a few reasons (obviously I can’t judge the quality of the translation) First, it is printed as an illustrated book, with the text in English. The Drake version (in Hirane) is just text with the pictures as illustrations. The Jones version has the English text in the pictures, but I am not crazy about the font1 and the pictures are not as clear. The Kern is either from a better print or it has been touched up or re-drawn. It also reads right to left, which will impress the manga fans in your class.

The real advantage of Kern is that the notes explain all the visual puns and references in the pictures.

The others try to do this, but really don’t have the space for it. The Kern book as a whole is far too difficult to give to undergrads, but he does explain a lot of stuff about the visual culture of the Tokugawa that you can then explain to students and they will think you are smart, whereas really you just read the other parts of the book.

The story is so widely anthologized because it is a parody of the hero’s journey. The main subject, Enjiro, the son of a wealthy merchant, sets off to became a notorious libertine in the floating world.  This of course is what others try to avoid, but he embraces it. Just like those who set out to become master swordsmen or poets he has to train and learn and mortify his flesh and, given that his goal is to be well-known he has to publicize everything he is doing and above all get people to pay attention. Needless to say he fails at all of this, but there are a lot of good jokes and lots of points you can make about Tokugawa culture and how people navigated the new public worlds.

  1. Me a font snob!