Censoring History

Excellent article on the China File blog by uber-historian Joseph Esherick on the somewhat awkward process preparing his most recent book for Chinese publication.  Published in 2011, Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey Through Chinese History is a personal work following nearly six centuries of his wife’s family and looking at how the Ye family (Get it? Ancestral leaves?), many of whom are not unknown to Chinese historians, navigated the vicissitudes of China’s more turbulent periods.

Fine as far as it goes when published in English, but getting the book ready for a Chinese pressing proved a little more difficult than anticipated. First, his wife’s family requested some small changes in the Chinese version to help put the family in a better light.

Then there were questions of history itself. Did Sun Yat-sen oppose class conflict? Can you quantify the number of people who died as a result of the Great Leap Forward as “millions” in a particular province or would it be better to simply say “quite a few?” To what extent did Deng Xiaoping’s legacy repudiate that of Chairman Mao?

The book’s treatment of the Qing Dynasty also caused problems.  This is a subject on which Professor Esherick has written many times and is a noted authority. The post recaps the hilarity which ensued when he tried to publish in China an earlier essay on the transition from Qing Empire-Chinese nation-state.  In the case of Ancestral Leaves:

Members of the Ye family had been officials in China’s last dynasty, the Qing, and one had served as governor of the northwestern province of Shaanxi as it recovered from a massive and destructive rebellion by the local Muslim population, much of which had been wiped out in the process. The press admitted that the narrative could not ignore this rebellion, but all mention of its ethnic dimension had to be cut.

The same principle guided discussion of the Qing dynasty itself. The Qing was ruled by Manchus from the north, and their armies had conquered the previous dynasty and greatly expanded the empire to include Mongolia, Tibet, and the Turkic Muslim regions that are now Xinjiang. But the Manchus are now one of the 56 official “nationalities” that make up the Chinese people, so the Manchu conquest had to be rephrased as nothing more than one (implicitly Chinese) ethnic group coming from beyond the Great Wall to rule the rest of China.

Fortunately on this and many other points, Professor Esherick stuck to his guns and although the book was published with edits, these edits did not significantly alter the narrative of the original nor did they ignore or re-write historical evidence.

The Chinese translation of Autumn Leaves is now selling very well inside the PRC.

One wishes that more international authors showed the same backbone when working with Chinese publishers.



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And All My Words Come Back to Me…

by Scott D. Seligman

GangjiuAs police move to take control of Queensway and city workers with power tools are dismantling the barricades, it’s worth remembering that the PRC government was not always so threatened by unrest in Hong Kong. When it was Britain’s ox that was getting gored, China actually encouraged it.

It was probably inevitable that the turmoil that was the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution would spill over into the then-British crown colony of Hong Kong. In 1967, not long after it began, leftist riots that got their start as a labor dispute in a Kowloon artificial flower factory morphed into a full-blown protest against British rule.hk In contrast to recent demonstrations, those protests were quite violent. Police clashed with demonstrators, who detonated home-made bombs throughout the colony. There was even a brief border skirmish in the New Territories, where mainland militias actually fired on the Hong Kong police.

Fifty-one people were killed in the melee, and more than 800 were injured before Premier Zhou Enlai ordered the leftist groups to desist. The bombs added a new word to the Cantonese lexicon: thenceforth bolo – a term meaning pineapple – was also used to refer to home-made explosives.

Propaganda left over from that era carries some highly ironic messages in 2014. One poster from 1967 is captioned, “Millions of Red Guards in the motherland firmly support the compatriots in Hong Kong and Kowloon in their patriotic anti-British uprising.” The sign urges them to “resolutely counterattack British imperialism.” A second placard is even more pointed: “Kowloon and Hong Kong compatriots are not to be bullied!”

Food for thought?


Scott D. Seligman is a writer, a historian and a retired corporate executive. He is the author of The First Chinese American: The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo, Three Tough Chinamen and Chinese Business Etiquette, and co-author of the best-selling Cultural Revolution Cookbook and Now You’re Talking Mandarin Chinese. He lives in Washington, DC.

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Beware of Dog!

“When I awoke the Dire Wolf/Six hundred pounds of sin
Was grinnin’ at my window/All I said was “come on in”
Don’t murder me/I beg of you don’t murder me
Please don’t murder me!”  – Robert Hunter

One bitter November evening, the management office of our apartment complex in Beijing pulled a half-frozen and fully-starving puppy out from one of the rubbish bins. It was an ugly thing, as if Seth Brundle had tested his device by tossing in a bat, a squirrel, and a baby harp seal and then throwing the switch.

Her mouth was so crooked it looked as if somebody had stood ten feet away and threw a fistful of teeth in the general direction of her face. 

But the puppy needed a home and the management office knew we were suckers.

Two years later we have a dog. We soon found out that not only was she ugly, but stupid. I would say she’s as dumb as a rock but I would hate to presume about rocks. 

The dog is also gassy. She perpetually smells like old soup.  I’m starting to worry that the next fart will have the Chinese government swooping in to plant a flag in her butt and declare her colon “Inalienable Chinese territory with concomitant mineral rights.”  

Nevertheless, she is sort of cute — in an ugly, stupid, and malodorous way — and despite her many flaws, you wouldn’t think of her as a menace to society or really to a menace to anything larger than a caterpillar.  

My neighbors disagree. 

I have seen grown women (and even a few men) throw themselves against the side of the elevator in terror when they realized they are being hoisted aloft in a confined space with…well, my dog Snickers. 

Menace to society.

Menace to society.

Walking her down the street and watching people recoil in absolute terror, you’d think I was unleashing a dire wolf rather than a 10-pound mutt who just three weeks ago figured out that the thing which follows her around everywhere  was her tail.  

There are many theories as to why people in Beijing are terrified of dogs. The Beijinger earlier this month posited a few of their own ranging from the prevalence of rabies in China to the fact that many Chinese never grew up with pets. Both of these make sense for older residents, but parents — at least in my neighborhood — seem intent on passing their fears on to the next generation.  

Two nights ago I was taking Snickers out to the only square meter  in the entire city of Beijing where she feels comfortable evacuating her bowels. On our way, we passed a woman and her ‘tween daughter.  Since it was dark, mom had apparently not spotted black-and-brown Snickers until it was too late and my little dog had already approached within 10 meters of this woman’s precious offspring.  The mother began screaming and yelling at her daughter to get behind her.  At first I was alarmed — until I realized she was screaming about  the existential threat to her daughter that was my dog, Snickers.  

Mind you, I’ve seen people in my complex roll out into traffic without so much as a glance in either direction and their children balanced on the handlebars, but I digress…

I wish I could say that this woman screaming was an isolated incident but it happens with some regularity.  For whatever reason, a shocking number of people are terrified, actually overcome with fear, by Snickers.

Frankly, I think in the dim recesses of her pea-sized brain, the dog is secretly happy. “Yeah, that’s me. Ten pounds of Bad Ass.”  I can’t wait until the day comes when we return home to New Hampshire and our dog encounters a moose.  My prediction is that she’ll poop twice and then die. 

Nevertheless, for now we live in Beijing. She’s registered, not too big, refuses to be used as a tool of Western propaganda, and is kept on a leash when out in the civilization. I guess that means she’s street legal…but apparently still dangerous.  


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Kennedy’s Aggression is Meeting with Growing Revulsion: 1962 Poster

Kennedy’s Aggression is Meeting with Growing Revulsion: 1962

by Scott D. Seligman 

China didn’t have a lot of friends in 1962. For a host of reasons, it had already split with the Soviet Union, which had drifted away from Stalinist orthodoxy under Premier Nikita Khrushchev and had begun to advocate peaceful coexistence with capitalist countries. Chairman Mao Zedong had condemned “Soviet revisionism” and challenged Russia’s traditional leadership of the world communist movement, reaching out to emerging countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America and attempting to position the PRC as their champion.

Nor did China have any use for the capitalist West. “On the question of how to deal with imperialism and all reactionaries,” the People’s Daily asserted in that year, “the Chinese Communist Party has always maintained that one should despise them strategically but take full account of them tactically.” And by the early 1960s, Beijing was taking full account of a litany of American transgressions, some of which were hitting quite close to home.

The PRC had clashed with the United States in the Taiwan Strait in 1958, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent the Seventh Fleet to aid the Nationalist government in its defense of the offshore islands of Quemoy (Jinmen) and Matsu (Mazu). And when President John F. Kennedy escalated American involvement in the Vietnam War, China began arming the North Vietnamese. Everywhere Mao looked, America seemed to be pursuing interests antithetical to those espoused by China.

China’s gripes with the Kennedy Administration as of March, 1962 were neatly catalogued in a vintage Xinhua News Agency poster I found in a Beijing open-air market.

1962 poster published by Xinhua entitled, "A Look at John F. Kennedy After a Year in Office."

1962 poster published by Xinhua entitled, “A Look at John F. Kennedy After a Year in Office.”

A simple line drawing entitled, “A Look at John F. Kennedy After a Year in Office,” it depicts JFK as a sort of human scale, balancing a stack of documents labeled “empty talk of peace,” “peace” and “disarmament” in one hand against a plateful of missiles labeled “military buildup” and “more military buildup” in the other. Here’s my translation of this relic from a bygone era:

“The Kennedy administration took office a year ago, and in military, political and economic affairs it has done what the Eisenhower administration did not dare to do. In the United States, the Kennedy administration has built up the military to its highest count in peacetime. In Latin America, Asia and Africa, it has actively pursued aggressive, warlike policies and neo-colonialism, igniting conflict everywhere. The Kennedy administration has attempted to overthrow the Cuban Revolution, expanded the civil war in Laos, caused the collapse of patriotic nationalist forces in the Congo, continued the ongoing war in West Berlin and is currently stepping up its offensive in South Vietnam.

“However, Kennedy’s aggression is meeting with growing revulsion. As people around the world understand the Kennedy administration more clearly, ferocious opposition to its imperialistic policies of aggression and warmongering is breaking out all over.”

Although the PRC and the United States had no formal diplomatic ties in the 1960s, the two sides did communicate through bilateral, ambassadorial-level talks in Geneva and Warsaw throughout the decade. But tensions remained high until ping pong diplomacy and President Richard M. Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to China signaled willingness on the part of both nations to put ideology aside and launch a new era of normalized relations.


Scott D. Seligman is a writer, a historian and a retired corporate executive. He is the author of The First Chinese American: The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo, Three Tough Chinamen and Chinese Business Etiquette, and co-author of the best-selling Cultural Revolution Cookbook and Now You’re Talking Mandarin Chinese. He lives in Washington, DC.

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Book Review: The Incarnations by Susan Barker

How many lifetimes does it take for two souls to truly bond? Susan Barker’s remarkable book The Incarnations is a time-bending fantasy with an unknown (and possible unreliable) narrator sweeping us down the rabbit hole of history.

The story begins, as do so many journeys in Beijing, in the back of a taxicab driven by a man whose existence is defined by 12-hour shifts and a faded registration card on his dashboard.  But this driver, Driver Wang, has a past — a few of them in fact — and a mysterious stalker eager to reconnect.

These connections play out against a series of lavishly described and well-researched (allowing for a generous helping of creative license) historical backdrops which include the pleasure quarters of the Tang capital of Chang’an, the fall of the Jin capital Zhongdu, the Ming court, the Opium Wars, and the Cultural Revolution. Given the dramatic contexts for each of the incarnations, it is little wonder that the relationship between Driver Wang and the narrator is a fraught one. Just how fraught though is not revealed until much later in a semi-surprise twist ending that shouldn’t come as too much of a shock for those paying attention. Less observant readers will be flipping back though to find hidden clues while even the most perceptive will enjoy (and will likely not expect) a second twist just before the novel’s end.

Barker’s flights of historical fancy contrast with her depiction of today’s Beijing: A grey monotony shot through with the anxieties of living in modern China.  There are anxious parents. Anxious spouses. Anxious lovers. Sex and status drive characters mad, while friends, family members, and neighbors filter in and out of scenes. The characters in the present-day scenes are often petty and parochial and their relationships are at varying stages of decay and dysfunction. A tawdry affair between Driver Wang and a lover from his (much more recent) past adds to the mystery surrounding Driver Wang’s stalker although it does little to make Wang an especially sympathetic character. Wang’s relationship with his wife, father, and stepmother are equally frustrating and unhealthy. In such an environment, it is hard not to wonder what the future holds for Wang’s daughter Echo — one of the few likable figures — especially as the last few pages suddenly cast this minor character in a whole new and unexpected light.

If the descriptions of time and place tend toward the florid, it is only to avoid being overshadowed by the dramatic (and often tragic) circumstances of the vignettes. Barker’s recreation of post-Mongol invasion Zhongdu (present-day Beijing) and the grinding cruelty of life under siege and slavery are well-rendered. The shocking tale of Zhu Houcong, the Jiajing Emperor [r. 1521-1567], is vividly described with just the right amount of embellishment.

Other scenes work a little less well in their historical context. A story of sorcery and eunuchs set in the Tang era reads like one of the weaker tales from Pu Songling’s collection.  The Cultural Revolution plot, although important to setting up the novel’s ending and big reveal, feels like any number of similar stories, both fiction and non-fiction, of the chaos and cruelty from that time. Mind you, that’s probably the right approach when describing the era, but the familiarity makes it a little less compelling reading than some of the other past lives.

I enjoyed Susan Barker’s book. The descriptions of life in present-day Beijing are graphic and feel real to me. The historical sections are bold and outrageous but still seem sufficiently grounded, the weight of recurring tragedy perhaps sufficient to keep the stories from flying off into the rococo realms employed by most contemporary Chinese authors of historical fiction. The ending, while not entirely surprising, was still done well and the reaction of the main characters to the twist delivered a suitable emotional payoff. While a bit of a downer generally, it has, at its core a mystery which is always fun and, if nothing else, it made for stellar vacation reading. Definitely recommended reading.

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