Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Manchus: first installment

I’ll be taking this book in several chunks, because it is assigned to me, and I have the time to read in leisure and contemplation before the beginning of school. So, The Manchus, by Pamela Crossley. This is the first installment of a Blackwell series called The Peoples of Asia. I’m not sure if this series was ever finished—particularly because Blackwell became Wiley recently. Having made a long-term study of introductions and prefaces, I found the introduction of this book slightly puzzling. It suggests at, but doesn’t describe the original vision of the book by the series editor, Morris Rossabi. The implication is that the book differs in some basic way from this original vision, and may somehow be linked to the book’s presentation of the Manchus as distinct from “China,” “the Qing Dynasty” and of course the Mongols. In some ways some of this discussion seems a little superfluous… all introductions these days have an extreme sense of modesty and apologetic quality that seems over the top. Alright already!

But let’s suppose that in 1997, the explicit statement that the Manchus need to be considered apart from their various organizations and empires had to be said. That is, if I’m reading her intent correctly! However, I’m unsure what she means by the “frontier of knowledge of Manchu history and culture is receding so quickly that it is hazardous indeed to pretend to write down anything about it for a general audience.” Does she mean that, populated by an excess of historians, the frontier is increasingly contested, and that the book’s lifespan may be short? This is the best interpretation I can offer, and yet, this is the occupational hazard of the historian in general.

Moving on, I ventured into the first chapter, which is dedicated further to the idea of separating out the ethnic-groups, movements, organizations, nations and empires the Manchus were created by or affiliated with. For someone (myself) who is less than well acquainted with the history of the European and Asian continents before 1800, this can be slightly confusing. We learn a truncated version of Asian history which equates these groups when convenient. On the other hand, we might think of the Manchu history in the same way we consider the peopling of America. It would be silly for an American to fail to distinguish between the Aztec Triple Alliance and the Iroquois, though they were both native populations of the Americas. Similarly, we know now that we can’t equate the nations of native populations as they were in 1500 with the organizations of native populations in the 19th century. Since we are Americans, we’re very much aware of the nuances of our own history, while Crossley finds that she has to explain the differences here.

After she has given us the basic ethnic derivation of the Manchus, she jumps into the current, or 20th century view of the Manchus, which is very much tied up with the Qing Dynasty or empire. She connects the identification of the Qing as a Manchu empire with the subsequent Chinese nationalism, and then socialism in the 20th century. Meaning that 20th century Chinese were eager to identify the 19th century failures of China with a non-Han ethnic group, and thereby explain those failures (maybe conveniently forgetting the strength of the empire prior to the 19th century). This is something I haven’t heard before, but which seems legitimate. For my own part, I have always attributed these 19th century difficulties to a gestalt of the time. Likewise, the Republican period and the revolution seem very much tied to what was in the air around the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, history is often used as a way of galvanizing public opinion, and I’m willing to believe that this was, consciously and unconsciously, perhaps.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Open Empire: first impressions

The Open Empire is a textbook that is assigned for the 114 survey course in Chinese history. Since I’m an assistant for the course, I thought I’d get ahead with the readings, starting with a general overview of the history that I hope will be useful grounding for the subsequent primary source readings. Hansen makes some bold claims in the introduction that she’s doing something different with the book. I’m not sure how different some of these broad points are . . . every newish text on China asserts that it, unlike others, is not portraying China as a static, closed entity based entirely on dynastic succession. But I guess it’s worth stating when that view prevails anyway (as does the idea that the reflection of the ocean makes the sky blue)—such misconceptions are difficult to dislodge.

It is interesting that she makes, as a primary focus, the disputed elements of dynastic succession, or the contested archaeological finding s, particularly (for me) in the period between 2000 BCE and maybe 500 CE. This is a period about which I know very little, in any context (save a rough idea of the Middle Eastern world)—I certainly know very little about European settlement and travel at this time. Hansen tantalizingly suggests a European/Caucasian settlement in region of Xinjiang between 2000 and 500 BCE. Not only is this pretty darn cool, but so are the unusual sculptures of Sichuan. These include a mask with stylings that look like Canadian first-nations art (ie. Haida), and a “tall priest” sculpture which looks like no art I’ve ever seen before. While I’m sure there are scholarly treatments of these nuggets, they are not yet overtold in the general history of China, and as a result seem excitingly new.

What Hansen really attempts to do—which may be different from most traditional textbooks—is include unusual sources to give a better glimpse into the lives of women, minorities, travelers, and other folks who don’t make it into the written histories of Sima Qian and his successors. I will be interested to see what elements of the textbook students attend to most, and what they think of the general tone.

Monday, August 02, 2010

The End of Victory Culture: overview

Tom Engelhardt’s The End of Victory Culture is interesting enough, and provocative enough to merit a few days worth of responses. I’m not particularly interested in reviewing the book (or any book)—reviews are boring, and plentiful enough in any scholarly journal. I did find quite a bit to respond to, however, and hopefully in the process of response I can provide a sense of Engelhardt’s book for the reader(s) that I have.

In brief, the book is an amalgam of personal experience of a Cold War youth, media and culture analysis, and history of the US between World War II and the present. His purpose is to expose the “victory culture” of the US (propagated by media and industry, particularly those that are geared towards children), and its decline from the Vietnam War to the present. Engelhardt makes this book relevant by tying it to America’s more recent efforts abroad—even as recent as our crash-and-burn attempts at installing democracies in the Middle East (or newfangled imperialism, either way . . . and incidentally, for my right-leaning readers, if you grow frustrated with what seems like a lopsidedly liberal reading list, maybe I will address this in a later post!). At any rate, Engelhardt is not only critical of American military and diplomatic approaches, but also sees the US as the next logical casualty of the end of the Cold War. If East Germany and the USSR went out with a bang, the US simply endured a more gradual slide from superpowerdom.

Anyway, I was able to flip to any page of this book and pick up reading . . . which more than anything else is a testament to my familiarity with this time, and this particular cultural history. It helps to be fluent in the films, literature, comics and toys Engelhardt talks about. In fact, there’s much to compare about our mutual experiences, despite a difference in age. One of the minor problems with the book is its tendency to jump around from cultural reference to reference, possibly leaving the reader with the sensation that he has lost the thread. I often lost the thread, and as a result wondered if I was missing the point.

I don’t think so, though. Ultimately, Engelhardt is doing this: complicating the picture and reading things against the grain. How modern historians (well, he’s an essayist, not an historian, but whatever) love to complicate things! I think I saw a humorous piece on that in The Chronicle of Higher Education. As frustrating as it can be to read work after contemporary work which complicates but does not answer, it reflects a reality about the world which is absent from the definitive histories of the past. This is particularly important when we are basically still living in this world. The people who experienced these cultural moments are still alive; the wisps of all this cultural miasma are everywhere, even now.

As for reading things against the grain (or even with it), I think Engelhardt does a creditable job—but misses some interesting phenomena that I wish I could mention to him, and get a sense of his reaction. I’ll discuss some of these things in a later post. I do appreciate his inclusion of himself in the narrative, in much the same way that Susan Douglas does in Where the Girls Are. The particulars of his and my experience of the Cold war are something that I’d also like to write about. Finally, this book prompts me to write about the uses of film and television as sources in academic work—the good, the bad, and the really memorable.