Thursday, September 30, 2010

Music and meaning

I read this article on NPR’s website this morning, and was initially curious, then disappointed, and then compelled to write. A father seeks to give his daughter the albums that “get you through adolescence.” Upon skimming the list, and even upon finding many musicians I loved, I wondered—where are the women? Like Susan Douglas writes in ’95, in Where the Girls Are: “I’m a fan of all these guys, but I can’t help noticing that no comparable celebratory tributes have been made to Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, or Aretha Franklin (6).” And in my head, I added more to this list, bringing my list into the immediate present with Ana├»s Mitchell, who I just saw live in Turners Falls last week. But something else was bothering me.

It’s just like adults, self-centered adults, to assume that we can impose on our children the same realities, the same experience, the same loves just by giving them the same albums that meant so much to us. Our love for our music is bound to time, and place and experience. Nothing can reproduce the feeling I had, riding around in Aileen’s first beat-up car, with Country Joe and the Fish blasting. At once I felt free and rebellious, and at the same time I squirmed, wondering whether someone in conservative Eastern Tennessee would get belligerent about Vietnam, and pick a fight with us. Nothing can reproduce the feeling of listening to John Coltrane’s Stellar Regions for the first time in the middle of the night in a dorm room on the South Side of Chicago. And even though I don’t care about these guys anymore, the songs of Blur, Oasis, and Weezer that my friends put on my mix tapes will still resonate, even when these songs feel hopelessly dated.

The fact is, kids have to find music on their own. I’m not saying that the daughter in question won’t cherish these albums—but that it can’t be forced. The moment dictates the feeling. I’ve known this for a long time, as an historian. I’ve long been an amateur historian, in the true sense: I do it for love. I go to the places my mother and father lived—look at their apartments, their houses their schools. I drive into the Bronx looking for the boulevard my mother walked up, holding her grandfather’s hand. The street is working-class, seedy and lovely, as it must have been then too.

I have in my hand an album of hers: The Cardinal (film by Otto Preminger, score by Jerome Moross). From inside the album, a piece of math homework falls out, done for a class at a Catholic school in Salt Lake City. The music, of course, is wonderful. But this is not an album of my adolescence. Even though I love the music, the feelings it evokes are wistful. Why? Because for me, it evokes a time that I know about, but never experienced. A wish, perhaps, that I could know how my mother felt on the edge of the West, in a sleepy city, in the middle of a decade where, everywhere else, the world was on fire. But I can’t know these things—not even when I listen to her old Rod McKuen or Glenn Yarborough records. No matter how much we love the past (our own, or someone else’s), we are each required to live our lives in the present, never knowing what’s coming next.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Mad World, page 4



(c) M. E. Wells, 2010

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Mad World, page 1



(c) M. E. Wells, 2010

Beyond the Pass

Beyond the Pass is an economic history of the Qing’s dealings with, conquest of, and maintenance of empire in Central Asia, or Xinjiang, from the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries. While the majority of the book examines trade relationships, Beyond the Pass also discusses the rationales given for maintaining a struggling or costly territory, and also Chinese perceptions of the land itself as romantic, foreign, barbaric, or even familiar. As a preface to this discussion, Millward has written an engaging historiography of the field, which skewers some of the icons of historical writing on China, including John King Fairbank, Owen Lattimore and William Skinner. Millward expresses dismay at the treatment of Inner Asia as secondary or peripheral to China’s interests, particularly given the Qing government’s emphasis on conquest and maintenance of empire there, at the expense of its borders in other places, and in the face of losses of control to the west (5). More importantly, perhaps, these authors are critiqued for their frameworks of understanding China’s relationship with its territories and ethnicities.

Millward begins in almost a narrative fashion with Qi Yunshi’s journey northwest to Xinjiang, and his preconception of the terrain there, in comparison with his actual findings. Millward brings this idea full-circle in his final chapter, by using Han Dynasty poetry about Xinjiang, and a modern “Xinjiang folksong” to illustrate perceptions of the area as foreign in varying ways. Even though Beyond the Pass is not a cultural history, Millward considers this perception of the terrain because the use of “terrain” in the division of China from Inner Asia has been so crucial to the arguments of Millward’s historical predecessors. This book is a re-examination of widely held ideas of assimilation into Chinese culture (Sinification), and a hierarchical and concentric system of tribute surrounding a central Chinese entity.

I was puzzled, at first, by the harshness of Millward’s accusations of prior historians Fairbank, Lattimore and Skinner, until I realized that Millward is taking issue with a very specific subgenre of literature on China—specifically, the social histories and economic analyses that had been written in the early to mid-20th century. These social and economic histories that Millward is challenging are distinct from other histories of the Qing by virtue of their closeness with social science. The social scientist’s outlook on China, particularly when examining the 19th century, would be overwhelmingly an attempt to explain the (perceived?) failure of Qing China to adequately respond to the intrusion of the west. This framework of response, and its focus on Western-Chinese relations may be a specific characteristic of 20th century American scholarship on China. Millward and others, at the end of the 20th century, find this model incomplete and possibly misguided, and with the help of newly available source material, are able to look at the Qing Empire from different perspectives—in its relationships with its territories, internally between ethnic groups, or economically, apart from dealings with the West.

Millward’s sources are diverse, resulting from the increased access to Qing archival materials from which Crossley and other authors benefitted. Palace memorials, gazetteers, financial records, and a substantial historiographical collection from (mostly) the mid to late 20th century make up the majority of sources. As reviewer Linda Benson suggests, in the American Historical Review, Millward’s critique of earlier scholarship seems “somewhat disingenuous, as these pioneers of Chinese history in America had no access to the Qing archives that have clearly stimulated a re-thinking of Chinese relations with Inner Asia.”

A few parts of the book, in particular, caught my eye. The first is Millward’s “mapping” of Gaozong’s vision for the Qing Empire, in comparison to prior historical analyses (197-203). It certainly seems like one of the main points of the book to demonstrate the Qing view of the empire as not “starkly hierarchical,” but in a “parallel” relationship with Muslims, Mongols, Manchus, Tibetans and Han Chinese, with the Qing Imperial House (not identified as “Manchu”) at the center. I was amused and interested to read Millward’s analysis of the cover design for Fairbank’s book, The Chinese World Order, because in his view, the concentric octogons represent an older Sinocentric idea of China and its foreign relations in Asia. The skeptic in me, however, says that this design has about as much to do with Fairbank’s point as the interlocking cubes on the cover of Kuhn’s book have to do with the structure of scientific revolutions. Also interesting was Millward’s discussion of official and “out-of-office” scholars’ thoughts about the retention or possible loss of the Xinjiang region, and their rationales for maintaining it. In addition, Millward’s narrative moments, speculative though they may be, keep the book from becoming too dry, and add color to what could have been a personless economic history.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The Manchus: second installment

Well, that last post on The Manchus was a whole lotta verbiage for only the first 10 pages! I will try to get a little further with this second post. I wanted first to explore what I think is the intent of the series, which I have yet to verify. The intent that I can divine is to present the peoples of Asia apart from their connections to nations or empires. This might seem obvious, but at least in the case of the Manchus, the population that was so-named was very diverse and had streamed in and out of societies and alliances long before they acquired the name “Manchu,” or led a Chinese empire. So much for my assessment of intent; this may be the first book in the series because series-editor Morris Rossabi happens to be expert in this area. So, now, I’ll talk a bit about the sources used here.

Crossley expressly discusses her source material—and the available sources for all historians—in the introduction. She may, in part, feel this necessity because new sources have become available for a variety of reasons. American access to sources had been variable through the 20th century, and downright difficult at many points. Internally, the Chinese may also have found some difficulty finding or using unusual sources too, particularly during the Cultural Revolution. Some suggest, too, that sources which present divergent or non-nationalist viewpoints have at various times been suppressed or destroyed. I am not sure, at this point, how much that applies to the study of the Qing empire or the Manchu ethnicities, but it seems to have affected it.

The other source-related discussion is around new findings, or perhaps sources which have been used in non-traditional or innovative ways. Korean sources are essential to Crossley’s work, particularly the narrative of a diplomatic visit to “Manchu” khan Nurgaci. The narratives of travelers, students, and merchants add another dimension to official state records, upon which many histories have probably been formulated. Manchu sources of varying kinds have also enjoyed a resurgence, in part because of recent interest in the Manchu language. Like the Korean sources, there are non-traditional sources, like poetry, drum-songs, ballads, eulogies and other writings in the social-history tradition. The use of sources like these in a social or cultural context seems like a no-brainer, at this point—but the further into the past we venture, the fewer of these exist . . . not to mention, the meanings of these sources become increasingly contestable!

So, once having dispensed with these necessary considerations, Crossley leaps into the history of the Manchus. This gets a little complicated because the name “Manchu” is a 17th century invention following conquest of Han China by northern peoples (roughly speaking, the Jurchen, with Kitans and others). Crossley, then, must begin much earlier, in order to talk about the ethnic and linguistic background of the peoples who became the Jurchen, who became the Manchus. There are a series of complex allegiances on a large scale, and smaller familial or social groups which have been labeled “clans” to indicate “consciousness of mutual descent (25).” There are a couple points in this discussion that I found particularly interesting.

The first has to do with some of the linguistic origins of Manchu. I won’t discuss here, but I will suggest that the ability of early language to travel long distances and be adopted is a marvelous thing. The second is the historical/anthropological use of “clan.” This struck me as an oddly western and possibly pejorative usage, though Crossley clearly doesn’t intend it as such—the tern “clan” to describe the social groups of the Jurchens has been in use for some time. However, I was surprised to see Crossley retain it when she chose to use “Taiping War” for “Rebellion,” and “Qing Empire” for “Dynasty.”

Finally (for the time being!), I was interested in the “re-education” the Jurchens or Manchus used for their aristocrats who had strayed too far from the hunter/warrior persona. I was very much reminded of modern re-education of elites and professionals. This is not to say there’s a connection—there’s not!—but I was reminded of Umberto Eco’s colorful characters in the novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, who find that everything in the world is rife with connections, if we only make them.