Chasing Emperors

Thumbnail Dragon Pin Thumbnail Dragon Pin Backing

My wife found this pin in her collection, and has no recollection of how we got it. I did a little digging and found that the “Civil Air Patrol” was an airline which operated out of China — mainland and Taiwan — from 1946 to at least the mid 1960s. It was founded by Claire L Chennault and Whiting Willauer and purchased by the CIA in 1950. This pin was a souvenir item. The text on the backing reads

This is one of the famous Oriental symbols of CAT (Civil Air Transport)..the five-toed dragon. In olden days only the Emperor could wear this symbol; those of lesser rank wore dragons with fewer toes. We like to think that all of our passengers on CAT’s colorful Mandarin Jet — truly a flying Oriental palace — receive hospitality and cordiality beffitting an Emperor and his Lady.

Wonderful bit of orientalist marketing, I think. My wife’s family was in Asia in the late 1960s, so it’s possible that they might have traveled via CAT at some point.

The other chase: I’m using Ray Huang’s 1587: A Year of No Significance; the Ming Dynasty in Decline as the final text in my China to 1600 course, but I would really like to have a timeline to go with the book. The cast of characters and back-and-forth narrative is a bit confusing, honestly, and so I’d like a dramatis personae and chronology. Obviously, I’ve been looking on the web, but haven’t found anything. If anyone knows of a good source, and would like to share, I (and my students) would be deeply grateful. If I don’t hear of anything, I’m going to have to produce my own….

Elsewhere: Andrew Meyer is comparing China today to the Qing dynasty of a century ago: tottering, on the verge of vast social and economic changes, but without a strong reformist clique to take control. I like his analysis of China today, and I’ve got no quibble with his description of China at the end of the Qing, but I think he doesn’t take his own point — that China has a long history of extended fin de dynasty crisis eras — seriously enough. I have a sneaky suspicion, actually, that a better analogy might be to China two centuries ago: weak popular support for the monarchy/party, while the government tries to reassert increasingly irrelevant moral authority; growing but uneven economy; rising integration and tensions with international markets and diplomacy; increasing awareness of technological differentials but unwillingness to acknowledge power differentials…. maybe. Will Microsoft or Starbucks be the new opium?


  1. I can’t help you with a timeline of “1587,” but for a ‘dramatis personae’ you might want to try
    “Dictionary of Ming Biography: 1368-1644,” L. Carrington Goodrich, ed. I haven’t used it myself,
    but if it is anything like Hummel’s “Eminent Chinese of the Ch’ing Period” it would probably
    give (brief?) biographies of all the political figures involved, including the emperor.

  2. Thanks, that was very helpful. We actually have that in our library, and it does indeed have relatively short (anywhere from three to ten pages, the ones I looked at) and very clear commentaries. Hummel’s also on the shelf, which will be very helpful next year when I do the Qing survey.

    I also discovered, via H-Asia, that Pearson-Longman has an RPG based on the book and Wan-li’s succession crisis which was reportedly pretty successful. I’ve put in a request for an examination copy…. and I’m working on the handouts for my students, which I’ll post when they’re done.

  3. Your last section reminds me that I, too, have played the fun (if deeply flawed) parlor game of
    comparing contemporary China to some past historical period. I think it’s safe to say that most people
    in China today would wish, at least, that the best comparison was with the mighty Tang. Personally,
    I think perhaps a Ming/PRC parallel fits it best: starting off with extremely tight social and economic control,
    but eventually relaxing into a hedonistic consumer society. If anyone else has a pet anology I would
    be keen to hear it.

  4. What a brilliant idea! RPGs set in real historical contests…they did it for Lord of the Rings, for “samurai japan” – why not do it with real historical “scenarios” – We could be professors and dungeon masters at the same time!

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