This month being the 90th anniversary of the Armistice that ended the First World War it’s hard to get away from the plethora of upcoming anniversaries that in part stem from that.
Next year will be the 90th anniversary obviously of the Versailles Peace Treaty, which, of course, means we have the 90th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement in China. If there was a moment when China ‘stood up’ then it wasn’t 1949 when Mao stood on the rostrum in Tiananmen and announced such, it was rather May 4th 1919 (see demonstration picture above) when a large section of public opinion – worker, peasant, intellectual (as we used to say) – went through a major consciousness raising exercise that changed things in China forever.
So from 1919 we have 1949 and Mao making his claims in Tiananmen and so the 60th anniversary of the Communist Party’s usurpation of power of China.
After that of course we fast forward to 1979 and the 30th anniversary of the Reform and Opening Up policy which will occasion some Deng Xiaoping reappraisals, or in China just praise probably, even though it’s not actually one of his anniversaries (1904-1997). In China the official reaction to 1949 and 1979 are predictable but it’ll be interesting to see how they handle 1919, if at all.
OK – a spoiler. The Dragon Empress Ci Xi died on Nov. 15, 1908 so her centenary is approaching. She died one day after the emperor. The closeness of their deaths occasioned rumors of foul play, but whether he died a natural death or was murdered has never been determined. Personally I reckon she done him in. Whatever you think there’s no limiting her importance to modern Chinese history.
But what’s interesting is that here we are approaching Ci Xi’s centenary and there are no new biographies. We have a bunch of bios of Deng Xiaoping slated for next year (yawn!) and a bunch of histories of the Communist Party (I’ve read one draft and its OK but probably the others will be boring given the authors).
Why no bios of Xi Ci? – has the great Communist Party rewriting of history managed to eradicate her so completely. Tonight I tried to access the Wikipedia page about Ci Xi from Shanghai (please don’t take this as in any way an endorsement of Wikipedia) and it’s blocked in China as far as I can work out.
Paranoia? Maybe, or maybe my Internet connection was crap (let’s be kind) – can she still really be considered so dangerous?
Robert Capa is best known for his shots of the Spanish Civil War and the D-Day landings but in between he visited China in 1938 and took some impressive photos too. His most famous shots were of the battle of Taierchwang, the only significant Chinese victory of the entire war.
Currently the Barbican in London is running an exhibition of his work - This Is War! Robert Capa at Work – it’s on till the end of January 2009. Click here for details of the exhibition
If you can’t get to London the Guardian has a video with the author Geoff Dyer talking about both Capa’s work and the Barbican exhibition – click here.
Heard a few things recently that rather interested me given that all concerned George 'Peking' Morrison. I reckon Morrison was a bit of a fraud, a hateful gossip who destroyed careers on hearsay, not half as clever as he thought was and a lackey of the British Foreign Office. Edmund Backhouse and JOP Bland did most of his work for them - he then simply appended the necessary 'thunderbox of empire' rhetoric the Times demanded and then swanned off again gossiping, philandering and hunting small defenceless animals. Still:
The Earnshaw Books reprint series is publishing JOP Bland's Houseboat Days;
Someone is finally translating and reprinting Backhouse's Manchu Decadence which only came out in French I think and was deemed too spicy (or maybe just too fantastical) for an English readership at the time;
The Austalian author Linda Jaivin is writing a novel based on Morrison and particularly his obsesssions and affair with Mae Ruth Perkins, the American socialite he knocked about with for years.
So two reprints from the men who mostly wrote and researched the overrated Morrison's copy and a book about his darker side - excellent
The BBC has been following a container on a container ship, the MVCopenhagen Express, for some time from Southampton to Shanghai via Suez. As a lover of all things ships I’m interested but mystified as to what the BBC is trying to tell me – surely people know things mostly move by sea don’t they? Also, sadly the BBC didn’t cough up for anyone to accompany the box so we get no sense of life at sea, just a container bouncing from one place to another as they do – pretty pointless really and all fairly bloody obvious.
However, there is an interesting historical point that could be made about the box as it is unloaded at Shanghai – it’s full of Scottish Chivas Regal whisky for the Chinese market.
The ability to sell whisky and other western spirits to the Chinese is actually a business success for the west. After China was forcibly opened for trade following the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 wines and spirits were one of the products western merchants found themselves virtually unable to sell (except to other foreigners). Only towards the end of the Qing dynasty did some weak beers and sweet wines became popular at all.
My old hero Carl Crow sold the Chinese cigarettes, cosmetics and perm kits but never really bothered with booze, the market just didn’t exist in any worthwhile way outside of resident foreigners. Foreign firms now sell the Chinese cigarettes, cosmetics and perm kits again but also booze, which they didn’t before.
Why are they selling more now (though not really the stellar amounts some boosters claim) than before? What deterred sales back then? Nobody seems to be quite sure – some say the acidic taste of most western wines and spirits, others say the Chinese propensity to the red alcoholic flushed face, some have argued it was down to cheaper opium and some even that the Chinese are more susceptible to alcoholic poisoning.
Of all of them I suspect the opium one was important. Personally having tried both opium and whisky I would rather sit around smoking a pipe or two than drinking bitter firewater - perhaps most pre-revolutionary Chinese would agree. We'll never know as the no fun governments of the world have got themselves all in a state over a little opium consumption while making fortunes in tax revenues off Scottish rotgut.
The relatively small role of alcohol in pre-revolutionary Chinese culture remains to be seriously examined as far as I know.
Excellent to see that the University of Washington Press has decided to reprint Graham Peck’s Two Kinds of Timeand also excellent that there’s a talk about it (organized by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China) if you happen to be near Beijing.
Armed with $2000 and some art supplies, Graham Peck first reached China in 1937 and stayed for a year. He returned in 1939, after publishing his first book, and stayed throughout the Japanese invasion and nationalist rule, leaving to write "Two Kinds of Time", which was published in 1950. The book's charming illustrations have made it a favorite of many generations of journalists who followed in his footsteps. The book is being republished now, and will be introduced by Robert Kapp, a former president of the US-China Business Council who will give the talk.
Date: Thurs, Oct 23, 2008 Time: 6pm Venue: private function room (upstairs), Paddy O'Shea's (address and map attached) Entrance: members free, non-members 50 rmb Bar deal: 30% off all drinks It helps the venue to know numbers, so please RSVP to email@example.com About the speaker: Robert Kapp was the from 1994-2004, and lived for many years in Beijing. He is now an independent consultant, specializing in China. He confesses a certain bias - he wrote the forward to the new release of "Two Kinds of Time", his all-time favorite China book.
2008 has been the year of the Chia history blockbuster it seems. Jonathan Fenby's The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850-2009 is large but worth a read and, I note, just got a great review in the Far Eastern Economic Review. Publishing a history in 2008 that goes to 2009 is pretty good going. But Fenby is good as he points out that all this economic change is being matched by a pretty stagnant political system - all perestroika and no glasnost. John Keay's China: A History is also out but I haven't read it and it's also pretty fat. And then there was Modern China: A Very Short Introduction by the over-rated Rana Mitter, (media friendly guy but not that clued up sadly as he gets a lot of airtime is the general assessment) which was very short as promised but also not very good largely because it overemphasises the transformative powers of the Communist Party. He's popular with the BBC though.
So it's very good news that Frank Dikotter has put out his excellent The Age of Openness: China Before Mao. Dikotter concisely and brilliantly argues the case against the Communist Party "Great Myth" that they 'saved' China and that only under them did China 'stand up' - the myth the hapless Mitter buys into and regularly repeats on the radio. Dikotter points out the achievements of the Republican era with numerous examples. I'll try and do a fuller review later but I really can't recommend this excellent one-sitting read enough. Of all the China histories out now this is the one you should read - sadly as it's from a smallish university press it won't be the one pushed at you in Waterstones or Borders. Shame.
Earnshaw Books is really churning out the excellent reprints. Robert Coltman’s Beleaguered in Pekingfilled a gap in my reading – the first-hand memoir, published almost immediately after the Boxer Rebellion was suppressed in 1900 as it had plenty to say on the mishandling of the Boxers and the subsequent siege by many leading diplomats including the US Ambassador Conger and that much overrated old fool Sir Claude MacDonald. Coltman takes us inside the besieged legations of Peking, describing the diplomatic missteps, daring sorties, broken friendships and international camaraderie during the siege.
I was especially interested in the light the book throws on one of the most interesting foreign women in Peking around the turn of the century and who became well known during the Siege.
Annie-Elizabeth McCarthy arrived in Peking on the eve of the Boxer Rebellion to marry Auguste Chamot, a Swiss hotel entrepreneur from Penthaz in Switzerland. Auguste’s French brother-in-law was working in Peking at the Hôtel de Pékin, the city’s most luxurious western-style hotel. Chamot was just 17 but very ambitious. He started out as a fairly lowly garçon de salle but was promoted every year until he eventually became the proprietor and director of the hotel in 1900. He married Annie McCarthy from San Francisco and they soon became a formidable pair tested in the Siege of the Legations as the Boxers attacked the foreign enclave of Peking in 1900. Auguste established a much needed bakery in the besieged British Legation that turned out hundreds of loaves a day. Annie was one of the few women trapped in the Legations who had a knowledge of guns – indeed she was a marksman, her father had taught her to be a crack shot in the basement of their San Francisco home, and so took her turn on sentry duty along with the men. When a group of Belgians found themselves cut off by Boxers and running out of ammunition, Auguste and Annie led a rescue party and succeeded in bringing the men back safely.
The Chamots were duly decorated for their bravery during the Siege by several governments later, though perhaps more usefully for them they had become seriously wealthy having bought up many Chinese treasures looted by the allied troops that relieved the Legations at bargain prices from the eager for cash foreign troops.
Someone should do a bio of Auguste and Annie they deserve it.
I’m doing some research for a project around the Dongbianmen Qiao, or Fox Tower, in Peking at the moment. It’s an interesting area out on the edge of the distinctly less interesting Second Ring Road. The tower is one of the best preserved and houses the Red Gate Gallery, which despite being a good space is always deserted, badly lit and boring whenever I happen to visit. Still, at least it’s still there and you can’t say that about most of the old towers and gates of Peking.
What most people casually visiting don’t realize is that the railway line that runs out of Beijing station past the Fox Tower and that last few hundred meters of surviving Tartar Wall used to be on the other side of the wall. Where the line is now was a ditch with water and ducks on it. A train service ran round the walls of Peking and stopped at a station by the wall called Hatamen which linked with Hatamen Street which ran through the middle of the old Legation Quarter.
What I had never noticed before while walking from the Fox Tower along the Tartar Wall towards the Legation Quarter was that the station house still exists and looks as if it might have just dropped in from some branch line in the Lake District or Suffolk. Now it’s effectively marooned and has a little coffee shop that sells pretty bad coffee and a couple of tables outside. But still this is Hatamen Station and somehow it has survived the vandals’ axe in Peking.
Apologies for a short break in transmission - I've just spent 6 days on the 350 metre long, 61 metre wide, 22 metre high VLCC oil tanker Shinyo Ocean taking 180,000 barrels of oil from Saudi to Taiwan. I boarded the ship just off Singapore and sailed with them to their destination at Mailiao Port in Taiwan.
One of the joys of the trip was that the entire time my mobile phone said 'No Network' and there was no email onboard, hence no postings.
I was researching piracy through the Malacca Straits, around Singapore and up by Batan so hopefully I'll have something to say on pirates then and now eventually. And who doesn't like a good pirate story...
I’m always interested in what exactly was being exported to Britain and Europe from China in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. All this talk of China’s economic growth and exporting power as if it’s something new has been annoying naïve for years. Until the mid-nineteenth century China was easily the world’s largest economy – in 1820 it accounted for 32% of global GDP compared with Europe’s 26%. China’s output was as big as Europe, the US only (1.8%) and Russia (4.8%) combined. Strangely you don’t this simple fact often in the boom, boom, go, go pieces that appear in newspapers and magazines from breathless visiting journalists on a daily basis.
One export to England I wasn’t aware of, until reading Bryce Courtenay’s excellent The Potato Factory, was high quality dyes and pigments that were used by forgers making Bank of England fake notes. Banknote forgery was big in the early to mid 1800s through underground workshops in London and Birmingham and the criminal artisans who specialised in this work would use only dyes and pigments imported from China as well as India and Dutch Batavia.
Not sure where the dyes come from now the forgers use though perhaps some quality Chinese dyes and pigments are heading Pyongyang way to make their infamous US$100 Superbills?
Courtenay’s book by the way is a great novelisation of the life of Ikey Solomon, the famous Jewish fence of Whitechapel who may (or may not) have been the inspiration for Dickens’s Fagin in Oliver Twist. He ended up transported to Van Diemen’s Land (now more boringly known as Tasmania) where his legendary reputation just seems to have grown if anything. The book came out in 1995 and apparently the Australians turned it into a TV mini-series in 2000 though I just came across it in Melbourne on a recent trip. There's been some complaints about the historical accuracy but it's a good read.
Though totally non-religious I do rather like Shanghai's Holy Trinity Church, on Jiujiang Road, if for no other reason than I look at its spire from my office window and that's nicer than the blocks of horrendous, shabbily built cookie cutter flats nearby. Built in 1869, the Gothic-stylechurch was designed by the renowned English architect G.G. Scott and because of its brick colour became known as "Red Church". It's now being restored and someone was kind enough to send me along some photographs of the work in progress inside and out.
Marks and Spencer's open their first Mainland store today on Nanjing Road - nearly 5,000 square metres of clothing, food and homewares. M&S have been around for 124 years but never had a Shanghai store before the revolution. Still, the opening of a major new department store on the street seems a good excuse to put up a picture of the old Sun Sun Department Store, one of the Big Four stores that helped put Shanghai on the map as Asia's shopping mecca between the wars being dubbed the 'Oxford Street of the East'.
As someone who divides their time pretty evenly writing about China now and China back then this seemed like a place to throw all the interesting bits that fall through the cracks somehow and never get used anywhere else.
It's basically the stuff that doesn't get used in my writing about modern China or in the books I do about old China - i.e. probably of little interest to anyone but me and therefore ideally suited to an obscure blog up a dark cul-de-sac of the Internet.