Category Archives: Chinese History


Happy Learn from Lei Feng Day!

On this date in 1963, Mao Zedong launched the “Learn from Lei Feng” campaign, which is great because the most important lesson I’ve learned from Lei Feng is to look out for falling telephone poles, but maybe I’m not the target audience.

In case you missed it (or have recently been hit on the head by a large wooden object) Lei Feng was a young soldier in the PLA whose selfless devotion to his brother troops, to the people, and especially to Mao Zedong and his country, made him a role model for young Chinese. If you want to think of him as a cross between a boy scout, GI Joe, and “Opie” from the old Andy Griffith Show, go ahead I won’t stop you.

How did he die, you might ask?

Fighting the dastardly American imperialists? No.

Sneaking across the Himalayas to beat back Indian encroachment into the Motherland? Not really.

Mortal combat with Soviet spies? Not so much.

He was directing one his fellow soldiers to back up a truck (Possible last words: “Dao! Dao! Dao! Ooomph…) when the truck knocked down a telephone pole right on top of poor Lei Feng.

After his death, Lei Feng’s Diary was, erm, discovered and lo and behold it turns out that he was quite the young man: always helping others, assisting old ladies, living a frugal life, darning socks for his platoon mates and of course diligently studying Mao Zedong thought.

It was almost too good to believe.

Actually, it was too good to be believed.

“Learn from Lei Feng” exhibits sprang up like mushrooms through the PRC, moving tributes to exhort the people to follow Comrade Lei Feng’s example. Generations of students in China have ‘learned from Lei Feng’ starting at a young age, even as the soldier’s image has been updated and revised to suit the times and political climate. (Lei Feng the homeowner. Lei Feng the entrepreneur. Lei Feng in an Audi A6 clutching a man purse. Ok, I made that last one up, but you get the idea.)

The fact that the diary was fictitious and a product of the propaganda department doesn’t necessarily rob Lei Feng of his significance. It’s nice to be nice to others, and as political campaigns go, urging people to help each other and be frugal definitely has its merits.

So, today let us all learn from Lei Feng: Help your fellow citizens, assist the elderly whenever possible, and, for goodness sake, watch out for large falling objects.

Originally published March 5, 2010

Image courtesy of Stefan Landsberger’s website



On cultural hybridity, ambassadors, and other low hanging fruit

Last week, an op-ed published by the China News Service referred to outgoing US Ambassador Gary Locke as a “banana.” It was, I suspect, meant to be satirical, and was a crude take-off on a famous essay written by Mao Zedong to celebrate the departure of another US ambassador, John Leighton Stuart.

The article was in bad taste and it brimmed with the kind of chickenshit pettiness that characterizes the more strident wings of the Chinese state media.

The term “banana” is an offensive term, especially when directed at an US Ambassador, but I’m not going to dwell on the epithet. I’m not Asian. I’ve never been called that. In fact, I’ve never been on the receiving end of any racist epithet.

As Mike Wilbon said on PTI last week when discussing the NFL’s decision to ban another provocative epithet from the football playing field, “Tony Kornheiser is my good friend of 35 years but he doesn’t get a vote in this.”

I’ll let others better qualified than I discuss the nature of that particular term.

But crude or not, the use of the term was just the most glaring example of how the writer of this essay completely fails to grasp a concept central to Chinese history: Cultural hybridity.

What somebody looks like, their DNA, their genotype, is of course irrelevant to somebody’s cultural make-up.

“Ethnicity,” “Race,” “Culture,” are all shifting and unstable ideas…except in China. Here ethnicity, race, culture are fixed constants. Hence, Xinjiang has always been “Chinese.” History books speak of a “Han” race which dates back millennia. Or, as in the case of Ambassador Locke, if you look Chinese, you must be—at heart—Chinese.

As Kaiser Kuo wrote as part of an excellent and insightful discussion on the subject at China File:

The expectation that anyone with a Chinese phenotype will have a “Chinese heart” to match, even at multiple generations of remove, is widespread in Chinese society. The plasticity of identity in multiethnic societies—that what you “owe” the race or the old country as, say, an American is entirely up to you—is still a fairly alien concept for most Chinese. We see this at work in the way Chinese law enforcement treats naturalized Chinese with U.S., Canadian, or Australian citizenship.

But looked at another way, Chinese history is filled with cultural hybrids and liminal figures. In his 2012 book Restless Empire: China and the World since 1750, Norwegian historian Od Arne Westad argues that cultural hybrids, those figures with the ability to operate in both East and West, were central to the development of a modern China.

Certainly, it is hard to imagine recent Chinese history without the likes of Sun Yat-sen (born in Guangdong, educated in Hawaii), Hu Shi (educated in the United States), or Chen Duxiu (educated in Japan). Overseas Chinese communities  made the first sizable private investments in developing China’s industrial and commercial sector. Many of the same overseas merchants, who often became wealthy despite native mistrust and hostility toward the Chinese diaspora in places like Indonesia, Malaya, and California, funded Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary activities.

Then there is Robert Hart, who was the head of the Maritime Customs Bureau for the Qing Empire for nearly a half-century beginning in 1863. Born in Northern Ireland, a place not without its own tricky terrain of identity, Hart operated a hybrid organization with both foreign and Chinese staff, often acting against the interests of his fellow foreign nationals in his service to the dynasty.*

Even those foreign nationals angry at Hart for having ‘gone native’ were often at a loss as to their own identity. British historian Robert Bickers and others have written about the “Shanghailanders” of the 19th century who saw their community as something separate from their home nations, all the while maintaining their superiority distinctiveness regarding the local “Shanghainese.”

Perhaps the greatest cultural hybrids were the Manchus (Yes, I can find a way to work the Manchus into just about any argument). The early Manchu rulers grafted foreign notions of Central Asian empire onto a Chinese state and in so doing were able to expand that state into something much larger than any previous “Chinese” Empire.  They did so as well without losing their own identity, even as markers of that identity gradually gave way to local ways of living.

Even today, cultural hybrids fill important roles in China’s academic, business, and artistic worlds. There are Chinese educated abroad. ABCs “returning” to a place they’ve never been. White dudes from NH teaching in a Chinese university. African migrants seeking a place to settle down.

There was a recent video celebrating Beijinger’s ability to be “Happy” even when having to take slow, shallow breaths under a polluted sky. What struck me was how diverse Beijing appeared in the video. Obviously, Chinese still outnumber foreigners, but what do those terms even mean? If identity isn’t fixed, isn’t it possible we all exist on some kind of sliding scale of hybridity?

And yet, as the op-ed crudely lampooning Ambassador Locke shows, and Kaiser alludes to, hybridity is also something which is still misunderstood and feared. 汉奸 hanjian (“race traitor”) is a common epithet used against Chinese who take a nuanced stand in regards to Chinese government policy, those Chinese who marry or date outside their race, or anybody who fails to live up to the most calcified idea of what it means to be “Chinese.”

In the same post above, Kaiser makes the fair point that foreigners are not immune from this. The vitriol given to Mark “Da Shan” Roswell for appearing too cozy with the Chinese establishment is but one example of a modern-day Robert Hart.

Gary Locke was an excellent ambassador for the United States. He was also an excellent example of somebody who, in a global world, showing what it means to transcend narrow national identities. Some are searching for roots a world away from where they are born born, some are searching for homes far away from our roots.

Those who cling to narrow and fixed notions of identity often do so for their own narrow reasons.  Liminal figures who have always been at the center of momentous change. Maybe that’s why repressive regimes seem so paranoid about those who don’t fit in any  neat little box of identity.


*Although it should be noted that Hart himself never quite got over his multiple identity crises. He ditched his Chinese mistress and their children in favor of a “proper” British wife midway through his career. Eventually, one of his Anglo-Chinese children ended up suing him.


Fatal Firing: The Tragic Story of China’s First Battleship

I’m visiting Weihai this weekend because a beach vacation doesn’t really count unless it’s 30 degrees* outside with a stiff sea breeze.

Weihai is a charmless—but very clean—city set on a historic harbor.  Most of the older structures (including whole villages once constructed using sea weed) have long since been plowed under.  In their place are rows of copy-cat ‘business’ hotels, bath resorts, and shopping malls. If the builders of the Mall of America in Minnesota had chosen to build their monument to American consumerism by leveling Mystic, CT it might look like Weihai.

Weihai is also the where the Japanese Imperial Navy and the Beiyang Fleet of the Qing Empire fought the decisive battle of the Sino-Japanese War.

The flagship of the Beiyang fleet was the Dingyuan 定远. She was an armored warship commissioned by the Qing imperial government and built in Germany in 1881. The Dingyuan was over 300 feet long and with a hull nearly a foot thick around the waterline and carried four 305-mm and two 150-mm guns manufactured by Krupp as well as six 37-mm guns and three torpedo tubes.  The 305-mm and 150-mm guns were mounted in turrets, with the smaller guns placed fore and aft.  The big 305-mm boomers, each with a range of over 6 miles**, were set just forward of amidships, the port side 305-mm gun placed just a bit forward from its counterpart on the starboard side.

All in all, she was an impressive ship with one catastrophic design flaw.  I’ll give you a hint: It had to do with the gun placements.

dygunIn her day she was as imposing as any ship in the Western Pacific. Even after she had been declared sea worthy and ready for delivery, the French asked the British not to allow the Dingyuan or her sister ship (the Zhenyuan) through the Suez Canal. The French were fighting a war agains the Qing and felt that the new ships might tip the balance of power in the South China Sea.  The French  won that war and the Dingyuan had to wait two years before finally arriving into service on the China coast.

A decade later, when the Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1894, it was  the Dingyuan led the charge against the Japanese fleet, but despite the firepower provided by the Dingyuan and the Zhenyuan, the war proved disastrous for the Qing Empire.

At the Battle of the Yalu River, an early tactical error put the Beiyang Fleet on its heels. The commander of the fleet, Ding Ruchang,  originally lined his ships up in a row, with the Dingyuan and Zhengyuan at the center.  When the Japanese tried to outflank the Beiyang fleet, Admiral Ding realized the center battleships couldn’t fire their main guns on the Japanese ships without hitting the smaller Beiyang ships on the left and right.

Admiral Ding then ordered the captain of the Ding Yuan, Liu Buchuan, to change the course.  The maneuver would have given the battleship an open shot at the Japanese ships but would have exposed the Dingyuan to enemy fire.

What happened next is not entirely clear.

Port turret guns on the Dingyuan

Port turret guns on the Dingyuan

Some say the captain  refused to obey the order to bring the Dingyuan about and instead ordered the main 305-mm guns to fire forward.  It was well known since the earliest sea trials that the Dingyuan suffered  a major design flaw: the main 305-mm guns were mounted on the side of the ship. Bringing those guns to bear directly forward meant they would be firing directly at the support beams of the flying bridge…where Admiral Ding stood commanding the fleet.  The guns fired and the flying bridge collapsed. Several officers died instantly.  Admiral Ding was trapped under the wreckage, his legs crushed by a large piece of twisted metal.

Other accounts say that Liu was ordered to fire the main guns to give cover for the smaller vessels. The collapse of the flying bridge was an unfortunate error and not the deliberate act of a cowardly officer trying to protect his ship (and skin) from an overzealous admiral.  In this version, Captain Liu, as the only senior officer not incapacitated in the accident, bravely took command of the fleet thereby preventing (well, postponing) its total annihilation.

Whatever happened, with the flagship disabled the Beiyang fleet was at the mercy of the Japanese Imperial Navy. The remaining Beiyang ships limped back to the Port of Lushun before they retreated further to the relative safety of the harbor at Weihai.

Shrine onboard the replica of the Dingyuan.

Shrine onboard the replica of the Dingyuan.

120 years ago this month, the Imperial Japanese Navy pursued the remains of the Qing Beiyang Fleet to Weihai.  Rather than test the harbor defenses, the Japanese landed troops, marched them overland, and seized control of the guns defending the harbor. The Japanese soldiers then used the Chinese guns to fire on the Chinese ships.  The result was the complete annihilation of the Beiyang Fleet.

During the battle, the Dingyuan suffered catastrophic damage from both the shore guns and Japanese torpedoes.  Rather than see the his ship fall into Japanese hands, Captain Liu ordered the Dingyuan scuttled. China’s early dreams of being a naval power sank to the bottom of the Weihai Harbor.

Later that evening both Captain Liu and Admiral Ding committed suicide by opium overdose.

The remains of the actual Dingyuan have never been recovered although parts of the ship (the bell, Captain Liu’s desk) were taken as souvenirs to Japan. Today an exact replica of the ship is open to visitors on the waterfront in Weihai. On board there’s a museum to Chinese naval history, along with recreations of the ship’s quarters, officer’s mess, hospital, fire room, and the brig.  Those interested in naval history, or Chinese history, will find her an interesting way to spend a few hours, provided they can ignore the heavy patina of anti-Japanese propaganda.

Dingyuan (Ting Yuen) Warship Tourist Area. Posted admission is 75 RMB but we got in today (off-season) for 30 RMB per person. Admission includes a guided tour in Chinese.  Address: 山东威海海滨北路9号,海港大厦南首 (Weihai waterfront, located near the Haigang Dasha on Haibin Bei Lu) Telephone: 0631-5280718 Website (Chinese only)


* That’s -1 for you metric folks.

**Once again, as a service to the rest of the world, that translates to 11 km.