Friday, May 19, 2017

Conferences in Tel Aviv University

It was my first time in Israel. I met some new friends like Asaf Goldschmidt, Gadi Algazi, Mark Gamsa, Ron Sela and saw many old friends and colleagues. The organizer Ori Sela impressed all of us with his attention to details and logistics, gourmet food, boutique hotel, beautiful campus and, most importantly, intellectual stimulation and archaeological tours! Ori also demonstrated his superhuman ability to participate in two intense conferences consecutively over the span of five days. The first one is called Rethinking Time in Modern China: An Sinological Intervention and the second one Asian Spaces: Border-crossing Dialogues. Moreover, Ori took us to two archaeological sites: Beit She'an and Tel Megiddo.

Below is a picture of me and my PhD advisor Benjamin Elman in Beit She'an.

Facing the Roman baths in Beit She'an.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Matthew Mosca's review of China's Transition to Modernity in the first issue of Journal of Chinese History

Professor Mosca is a meticulous reader. His summary of my book intrigues me, and I agree with his identification of all ambivalent and ambiguous parts of my interpretation. I truly appreciate this review.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

On-cho Ng's review of China's Transition to Modernity on The Journal of Asian Studies (JAS)

Professor Ng's review provides an interesting distinction between retrospective and prospective dimensions of my work. Some food for thought.

Friday, November 18, 2016

UCSC seminar––part 8

The eighth set of readings is Tonio Andrade's The Gunpowder Age, which encompasses a fairly large literature on history of science, technology, warfare, state formation and competition. Andrade asks a poignant question: How did Europe conquer the world? Industrial revolution and capitalism alone could not explain Europe's military conquest and colonial power around the world. Steamships could go far and fast around the globe, but the cannons equipped on the steamships were the main advantage for them to defeat Chinese navies. How did this great divergence of military technology take place?

Andrade's part 3, dubbed the age of parity, describes several battles between Dutch and Zhengs in Taiwan on the one hand and the Manchu-Korean coalition against the Cossacks on the other. I think this is the best part of the book and the most important contribution he makes to the field. He explains in convincing details why Europe's military technology advanced while the Ming dynasty enjoyed its peace and lagged behind in terms of firearm technology and fortress construction. However, the gap was neither large nor significant. Ming dynasty elites were able to enlist missionary assistance and translate technical documents into classical Chinese. More importantly, the Chinese and Manchu elites could modify what they learned from Europeans and put the newly acquired technology into use throughout the seventeenth century.

I think Andrade's part 4 is the weakest link of his book. The rise of Western military power throughout the eighteenth century was well known. The British empire was able to colonize many parts of the world and defeated the Qing dynasty with ease in the nineteenth century. If you're interested, you should consult Marc Matera for the updated survey on the field of history of the British empire. The Chinese story in the nineteenth century, on the other hand, is sparse and requires more in-depth research. It reflects the current state of the field rather than Andrade's analysis. As both Philip Kuhn and Susan Mann called for before they retired, we should direct our resources and energy to study nineteenth-century China. I could not agree more.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

UCSC seminar–part 7

The seventh set of readings include parts 2 and 3 of Matthew Sommer's Polyandry and Wife-selling in Qing Dynasty China and a collection of judicial records called True Crimes in Eighteenth-century China, translated and edited by Robert Hegel.

Sommer speaks broadly to two bodies of literature. The first (social and economic history) searches for the roots of social crisis and revolution in China. The second (social anthropology) analyzes the disjunction between a variety of non-normative marriages and some practices were stigmatized but solved problems and met needs that normative noes could not. His case studies on wife sale is our focus. By meticulously tabulating and classifying his cases from court central archive to various local archives, Sommer analytically divides his cases into "anatomy of a wife sale," "prices in wife sales," "negotiation between men in wife sales," and "wives, natal families and children." Then he brought them together into a powerful and unified theme.

Sommer argues that both polyandry and wife sale were not flukes but widespread practices in peasant society. Majority of farmers were barely making it (subsistence farming) and any sequence of unfortunate events would knock them out of a delicate balance that kept their head above water. The extreme poverty was the main reason many peasants prepared an illegal contract to sell his wife. These sellers would subsequently sink to the bottom of peasant society without any access to land or sex.

The survival strategy in subsistence farming peasant society was precisely the roots of social crisis in China up until 1940. Chinese revolution structurally altered the peasant livelihood and set the path of state-driven primitive accumulation of capital in PRC.

Sommer's book is written in a clear and elegant prose without any jargons. His approach, however, differs from divergence model and measures proposed by several writers we read, including R. Bin Wong's revision of divergence model as well as Richard von Glahn's survey of disputes between involution and divergence models. The intellectual and cultural practices, described by Alexander Woodside, Benjamin Elman and Andrea Goldman, seem to be an entirely different China from Sommer's. How do these different approaches square off and how do you make sense of China as a whole? Perhaps there were two, three of even more layers of Chinese reality in parallel?

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

UCSC seminar–part 6

The sixth set of readings includes Andrea Goldman's Opera and the City and Stephen Roddy's "Toward a Buddhist Cosmopolitanism" and "Cultural Solidarity in Troubled Times."

In this section we examine the contested and moving lines between China's elite and popular cultures as well as between center and periphery in the nineteenth century. Goldman's Opera and the City can be read along four lines of inquiry. (1) The difference between urban and rural experience. She lists three kinds of venues for theatrical performance in Beijing–commercial playhouses, temple fairs and salon. Only temple fairs were available in rural market towns, depending on the economical scale of each town. (2) Grey area between elite and popular cultures. The entertainment values of sex and violence came largely from popular imagination based up some historical anecdotes or fictions like Water Margins. What was considered high brow (Yabu) or low brow (huabu) could be attributed to the evolving tastes of court patronage, urban consumers (including both merchants and scholars) and the cultural import from Jiangnan. (3) Gender transgression in theatrical performances. This was discussed at the level of performers (boy actresses), audience (female fans and male connoisseurs), writers (improvisation of scripts for performances) and political control (state intervention on gender norm). It was quite a dynamic process for gender roles to be shaped and reshaped. (4) The intersection of political power and elite (or popular) tastes. In this line of inquiry, I think Goldman could make more explicit claims on how court patronage and/or regulations could or failed to change the theatrical performances in all three venues. Many examples and concrete analysis of patronage are provided. Perhaps Goldman could reach a stronger conclusion?

Roddy's both essays touch upon the elite perception of what constituted heretical, alien or marginal belief systems. Intellectual and political elites in nineteenth century China did not homogeneously agree on what imperial orthodoxy should be and debates only took place on how heresy could threaten orthodoxy. Roddy's cases on Buddhist cosmopolitanism and Japanese exchange provide an interesting interpretation to this issue.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

UCSC seminar–part 5

The fifth set of readings includes Alexander Woodside's Lost Modernities and the first two parts of Benjamin Elman's Civil Examinations and Meritocracy in Late Imperial China.

Let us focus on rational bureaucracy as a form of modernity and how its institution–civil service examination system–endured for more than seven hundred years. As Richard von Glahn has shown, the rise of market economy was coupled with transformation of social and political elites from aristocrats to "literati" during the Tang-Song transition. Literati then thrived on the expansion of civil services until 1850. How does Elman account for its history?

Woodside, on the other hand, describes the rise of postfeudal professional bureaucrats in China, Korea and Vietnam as alternative modernities. These modernities then were lost in narratives of world history. What does he mean by that?