Asian History Carnival #18

Somehow the items that have caught my eye since the last Asia Carnival are more cultural than historical – future carnivals will right the balance. But culture, after all, can’t be separated from history. History doesn’t stop. As Ambrose King of Chinese University of Hong Kong once put it in very Confucian terms: “we live in history, not in the past.”

December offers a number of days to remember. I’m sure you’re all looking forward to the Holiday – December 26? In England this is Boxing Day, but to us it’s the birthday of Mao Zedong.

To celebrate, the nomination for the year’s most original use of the concept “Cultural Revolution” is an editorial in Taipei’s China Post, “Cultural Revolution Redux“ (December 7) which comments on the demonstrations and counter demonstrations between the followers of President Chen Shui-bian and his critics. The immediate occasion for the conflict is the government’s move to change the name of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial to Democracy Square. The editorial, decidedly in the anti-Chen camp, sees this conflict as “almost a re-run of the violent struggle between Mao Zedong’s Red Guards and the reactionary ‘black five categories.’” The standoff is but a “tip of the iceberg in Taiwan‘s cultural revolution,” which has been in progress since Chen won the 2000 presidential election. Chen’s ultimate goal, of course, is to wipe out Chinese culture in favor of Taiwan‘s indigenous culture.”

Further Taiwan coverage of the demonstrations is posted on the exemplary blog EastSouthWestNorth , including stories detailing the intense heckling.

In a more scholarly vein, popular movements in Taiwan politics are analyzed in “The ‘Red’ Tide Anti-Corruption Protest: What Does it Mean for Democracy in Taiwan?“ by Fang-long Shih. The article appears in a new free online journal: Taiwan in Comparative Perspective. The journal has a stimulating lineup of articles, review articles, commentaries, and reviews which use Taiwan as a reference point for global issues. The journal is published by the Taiwan Culture Research Programme of the London School of Economics.

Also free online is How Taiwan Became Chinese: Dutch, Spanish, and Han Colonization in the Seventeenth Century by Tonio Andrade, published in the Columbia University Press Gutenberg-e project (all books in the project are now online for free). Andrade argues that it was Dutch protection that made Chinese settlement on Taiwan possible.

[Addendum: After I posted this edition of the Carnival, Michael Turton at The View from Taiwan added to his string of analytical and deeply informed articles “Minimum Differentiation, Maximum Indentification” (December 14). Michael points out that aside from (very important?) difference of being either “pro-Taiwan” or “pro-China,” the two parties have basically similar stances on a range of important issues. The “renaming of the Memorial Formerly Known as CKS must be seen as part of the normal electoral dance between the two parties…” not as primal warfare. My only complaint about this article is that I wish I had read it two days before.]

Returning to Mao. At the Harvard Business Review, Kuang S. Yeh and Shaomin Li report on “Mao’s Pervasive Influence on Chinese CEOS.” Executives over the age of forty are deeply influenced by Mao. They often use “Mao-style tactics,” such as mobilizing workers at the level below a leader to defy him in order to force him to resign, playing one group off against another, and the reluctance to appoint a successor. Now I wonder if this isn’t using exotic concepts to explain behavior that can be better explained by circumstances. Each of the examples, it seems, is common enough in places where Mao is scarcely known, much less “pervasive.” To be sure, the executives themselves said they turned to Mao for inspiration, but more skepticism from the authors would make their conclusions more convincing.

The etymology of the word “carnival” involves “carne,” or meat. Meat without spice is dull, so it’s appropriate to welcome Stewart Gordon’s handsome new website Spices and Networks. Pages include a long one on Gordon’s writings (five books on India and the Asian world), a section of photographs, and his blog.

Gordon’s most recent blog piece, Spices, Networks, and Asian History (December 10) explores how study of the 12th – 14th century spice trade can help historians avoid a long standing trap. Modern historical study takes the nation as its basic unit, so the temptation has been to use the boundaries of present day nations as cookie cutters to make pre-modern geographical units. Gordon wants to avoid this falseness by using “social network theory” to identify what we could call, to borrow a phrase from the news, “reality based” units. Social network analysis “looks at how relationships, especially social pressures, around a person, group, or organization affect beliefs or behaviors” and sees “properties of relations between, people, rather than the characteristics of individuals.” Networks form around any kind of exchange, whether of knowledge, slaves, spices, or blog postings. For the historian with adequate data, this has many advantages. By focusing on networks rather than regions, social network analysis “sidesteps the discussion whether change was ‘external’ or ‘internal’ and focuses attention away from ‘cores’ and ‘peripheries.’” And it “avoids European ‘exceptionalism’ by accepting that some networks included Europe and others did not.”

To keep up on Korea, Asia Carnival often depends on Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling. Well, he’s done it again, this time with “1941’s ‘Volunteer,’” a presentation of films from the Korean language DVD box set “Unearthing the Past.” The set consists of four films made in Korea from 1941 and 1943. Matt’s artful plot synopses and screen shots illuminate the cultural stance of the Japanese colonial regime, making a striking comparison with John Dower’s “Japanese Cinema Goes to War.”1 “Volunteers” (1941) is the story of a young Korean who is at first turned down in his attempt to join the Imperial Army and serve the empire: he is Korean. After many twists of the plot and help from benevolent Japanese, he joins the Army and rides off.

Mark Russell, who brought these films to Matt’s attention, presides over Korea Pop Wars: Notes on Entertainment, Culture, and More from Korea (Or Wherever). For instance, the New York Philharmonic recently agreed, under State Department pressure, to visit North Korea. In “Symphony for the Devil ” (October 14) Russell reports that the North Koreans take their classical music seriously and “have not politicized it the way the Soviet Union did.” They did ban the public performance of classical music in the 1960s and 70s, but it is “probably the least controversial part of high culture, accepted in a way that painting and the other Western fine arts are not.” For comparison, there’s a link to an article about Glenn Gould’s trip to the Soviet Union in 1957. Russell’s October 30 posting, “Naxos of Evil,” lists, with links, several other planned cultural tours to NK. Eat your heart out, NY Times!

Gusts of Popular Feeling also links to the red hot “I Got Arrested for Calling the Police“ on Scribblings of the Metropolitician. Mike, an African-American photographer and Korean speaking resident of Seoul, is harassed by a drunken Korean and retreats to a coffee shop. The drunk follows him and keeps up the poking and abuse. Finally, Mike calls the police, who take both him and the drunk to the station, then arrest and fingerprint not the drunk, but Mike!

Rashomon this is not, though the wild and diverse comments following the piece hardly seem to be seeing the same incident. The academic interest for us at Frog is the cultural reasoning on display in the comments section, as if in a museum, just lacking labels and accession numbers. Some make racist attacks on Korea’s racism, some apologize to Mike, some take him to task for not understanding Korea, others point out the differences in law (Korean police take all parties to a dispute to the station), still others blame Confucian culture.

One such comment links to “Honesty vs. Loyalty: Which is More Important?” by Horace Underwood, grandson of the founder of Yonsei University. Underwood argues that “It is not the case that Koreans are dishonest…. Korean culture has a strong sense of honesty. The problem is the hierarchy of values. Honesty is a value, but there is a higher value, and it is loyalty.” In other words, this commenter tells Mike, he is at fault for not knowing Koreans would be loyal to Koreans!

Well, peace to Mike, sobriety to the drunk Korean, and apologies to both for talking about them without having met them. To the commenters, thanks for demonstrating the challenges in explaining differences in culture (the article on the pervasive influence of Mao may show the dangers of assuming that culture explains behavior).

Japan Focus frequently runs articles on this question, most recently a sharp debate on Ruth Benedict’s classic The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (1946). Toru Uno’s “How to Critique: Lummis on the Legacy of Ruth Benedict,” (December 4) responds to C. Douglas Lummis, “Ruth Benedict’s Obituary for Japanese Culture.” (Japan Focus July 17) Dr. Uno’s critique of Lummis is full throttle: The “single minded pursuit of faults in Benedict’s work inevitably contributed to his tendency to reach sweeping and prejudicial judgments without benefit of evidence.” Lummis’ extensive reply includes a summary of his original objections:

1) Benedict confuses ideology with culture.

2) She treats Japan as though it were not a class society. Thus, she takes the modernized version of the bushi ethic as representing Japan as a whole.

3) She sees Japanese culture as essentially static. More precisely, she sees it as incapable of change from within, though it can be changed by intervention from outside (the Occupation).

4) She claims that Japanese ethics are entirely based on shame, and that guilt plays virtually no role there

5) She claims that American culture is the almost perfectly matched opposite to this.

6) As the combined consequence of 1~5, the book is not merely ethnocentric, but gives ethnocentrism a new basis, replacing race with culture.

A baleful anniversary: the entry of the Japanese Army into Nanking on December 13, 1937. Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust was amateurishly researched and preachy, but it turned half forgotten events into foundations for a new Chinese-American nationalism. Japan Focus continues to run terrific pieces. “The Nanking Atrocity: An Interpretive Overview,” by Fujiwara Akira (October 13) shows that the Japanese Army expected Chinese resistance to quickly crumble and had no plans for extended war, which all sides wanted to avoid. The atrocities were rooted in long settled attitudes and strategies but the particular events developed from chance and oversight, not orders or plan. Occupying armies commit atrocities; occupying a country requires terror.

David McNeill’s Look Back in Anger: Filming the Nanjing Massacre (Japan Focus December 6) reports that there are at least a dozen films being made in Japan, China, Hong Kong, and North America. Japanese right wing deniers, who are making their own film, will have a hard time refuting the visual evidence presented in the documentaries and the emotional impact of the dramas depicting John Rabe and Minnie Vautrin. Warning for the weak of heart: Oliver Stone seems to be developing a script on the subject.

Let’s not leave China out of the cross cultural marathon. One recent exchange tossed and gored the knotty relation of culture (a.k.a “history”) to current behavior. James Fallows, one of the star reporters of our time, is now in Shanghai for The Atlantic. His November 27 blog piece “The” way vs “a” way (Japan vs China dept) is brief but provoking. Fallows looked out his plane window in Changsha and saw the ground crew improvising a siphon to refuel the plane (he has a picture of it). Now in Japan, Fallows reflects, there was always a plan, “the” way to do it. From this, Fallows deduces great things about the respective National Characters of the two countries.

Dan Harris at China Law Blog said “right on” in his Planes, Trains And Automobiles: The China Way (December 3), but Paul Midler at The China Game wasn’t about to let them get away with it (James Fallows Turns On His Television Set; December 3). “Nearly anyone who has lived in China for an extended period of time,” asserts Old China Hand Midler, “knows that the Chinese love protocol. And while I am sure Fallows is a nice guy, he’s not a China guy.” Dan shot right back with Looking Out Airplane Windows In China Is For Grizzled Old China Hands ONLY (December 4).

The exchange is all in good humor, but the serious question remains. Do you have to be trained in Asianology before you are licensed to opine or can you just go on the basis of what you see? Are we just regurgitating Arthur Smith’s Chinese Characteristics (1894)?

One of Smith’s Chinese characteristics was “absence of sincerity.” Josh’s “Cross-cultural Honesty Catalysis“ (December 7) at Sinosplice comments on a movement for “radical honesty,” that is, saying exactly, I mean, exactly what you think. He got to “thinking about whether this could ever conceivably be tried in China, and about some people in my life who might be considered unknowing practitioners. It seems to me that the ones who come closest are certain English-speaking Chinese women, in their dealings with foreigners.” This is a question with a big footprint, and I’d like to return to it in future posts.

The radical honesty movement reminds me of George Orwell’s comment that “it’s fine to call a spade a spade, but you don’t have to call it a @#$ing shovel.”

Speaking of which…

In “The Etiology and Elaboration of a Flagrant Mistranslation“ (December 9 guest post at Language Log), Victor Mair takes on the problem of Chinglish and the widespread appearance of “f*ck” in PRC signs and menus. When I first went to Taiwan in the 1960s, people claimed that the name “F*ck You Hairshop” was hung on an innocent barber by an American G.I. as a joke. Mair gives many examples of signs, including “spread to f*ck the fruit,” “f*ck to adjust the area” and “f*ck goods section.” He quotes a handbook which counsels readers to ask “what do you want to f*ck?” These are not random mistakes. The Chinese “gan” can mean “dry” or “do” but also “f*ck.” Mair has now located the particular translation program which used the last sense of “gan” to translate all senses. Mair is a Living National Treasure and skewers this “abomination” with the same gusto as he tracks down an idiom from a Tang dynasty tale.

There continue to be predictions of China’s future on the basis of China’s past – combining “extrapolation” with “speculation” to produce “retrospeculation.” Zizek Slavoj, “China’s Valley of Tears.”(posted on In These Times December 3) observes that the “explosion of capitalism in China has many Westerners asking when political democracy—as the “natural” accompaniment of capitalism—will emerge.” But Zizek challenges the logic: “China is not an oriental-despotic distortion of capitalism, but rather the repetition of capitalism?s development in Europe itself.”

Ralph Harrington, a fellow Independent Scholar, critiques Zizek in his December 7 “China’s Future is Not Europe’s Past,” (thegraycat blog, reprinted, History News Network Roundup section (where it was the number two most viewed piece as of December 12).

Rowan Collick’s The China Model (The American December 7) asks “How long can economic freedom and political repression coexist?” Developing countries in Asia and Africa admire the “China Model.” A “shorthand way to describe the model is: economic freedom plus political repression.” The article goes on to an extensive description of China today.

One last December anniversary. Although I did not see significant postings on the December 7 beginning of the war between the US and Japan, there was well flung controversy over the end of it.

At History News Network is “Conservative Revisionists and Hiroshima” (December 12) in which Leo Maley III and Uday Mohan comment on reactions to the November 1 death of Paul Tibbetts, pilot of the plane which dropped the Hiroshima bomb. Maley and Mohan claim that conservative commentators “took the opportunity to denounce any and all critics of the atomic bombing of Japanese cities as ‘left-wingers,’ ‘self-haters,’ ‘wacko communists,’ ‘ultraliberal Americans,’ ‘idealistic fools,’ and (one of our favorites) ‘peace-at-any-pricers and ban-the-bombers.’” But they then come back with a series of conservatives who slammed Truman’s decision, including Herbert Hoover, The Chicago Tribune (then an ultra-conservative voice), Henry Luce, and even the pater familias of modern conservatism, William F. Buckley.

The HNN page Hiroshima: What People Think Now has links to dozens of articles which they reprinted from many locations.

Finally, a few resources:

Recent articles about China are organized at China Digital Times, where you can search or read them. CDT is run by the Berkeley China Internet Project out of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. For instance, searching the tag “Foreigners in China“ yields 41 recent items. CDT also has photos, announcements, podcasts.

Asia Media (UCLA Asia Institute) selects English language news stories from all over Asia, with links to their texts.. If you add their feed to your reader, you will get several dozen articles a day. They also have commentaries, such as my own “Don’t Toy With China.”

Resources on Korean Film include:, maintained for many years by Darcy Paquet. The site includes reviews of Korean films year by year from the 1940s to the present, essays, and other resources and references. Especially useful is “South Korean Films About the Korean War….”

Korean Cinema Edition, a site rich with information, but unfortunately not mainained after 2004.

Korean Film Archive In Korean only.

Korean Film Council. The official government body. Detailed information on current and recent films, often with screen shots.

  1. Japan in War and Peace (New York: New Press, 1993): 33-54.  


  1. Great work! it’s funny you picked the Shih piece on the Red Ant protests in Taipei; it’s by far the worst of that bunch of otherwise good articles in the first volume of the Taiwan in Comparative Perspective.


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