From the Ruins of Empire…arise the nation-state

One of the best books on empire, colonialism, and de-colonization I have read in the past few years is Pankaj Mishra’s brilliant From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia. It’s a sprawling story told through the biographical sketches of major Asian intellectuals such as Liang Qichao, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, and Abdurreshi al Ibrahim, near contemporaries who witnessed the crumbling of empire and worried about what might come next in a world still dominated by North Atlantic states and Western value systems.

Mishra has a new book coming out, A Great Clamour, a collection of essays specifically about China (and Greater China.) I haven’t read it yet (I will soon) but in a Q&A with Ed Wong of the New York Times this morning, Mishra touched on a number of topics related to China, including the Hong Kong protests, the administration of Xi Jinping, and the difficulties that the CCP has had dealing with issues of nationality and ethnicity in border and minority regions of China.

NYT: You’ve written about the peripheries of China and their importance to Beijing. We’ve seen strong rebellions in Tibet and Xinjiang, and now in Hong Kong. What is your take today on how China is managing the aspirations of people in its far-flung regions? Are the problems China is facing the same ones that empires had before? Do you see potential political solutions to these problems that would be consistent with the ethos and behavior of the Communist Party?

Mishra: I don’t think it has been sufficiently recognized that the C.C.P. has been incredibly adaptive since the days of Mao. The fact that it has not only survived great disasters but also grown and strengthened itself by including people from all sections of Chinese society shows that it has the capacity to absorb and defuse many apparent contradictions. But it has yet to demonstrate that it can deal with challenges from outside its circle of influence — the ethnic minorities and, now, Hong Kong. The usual method of incorporating local elites through bribery and coercion into the network of capitalism and modernization doesn’t work. The Tibetans, for instance, still feel trampled upon, their dignity defiled, their identity dishonored. I am still waiting to see a new initiative from Xi Jinping in this regard. And this is a bigger problem for Beijing than the ones faced by empires like the Qing or Ottoman. The latter were not asking their minorities to radically overhaul their societies and lifestyles or forcing changes in their identity. Even British and French imperialists left many minorities alone for the most part.

I complete agree. I wrote something very similar in a 2008 post on Tibet entitled “From Imperial Subjects to National Citizens.”  Former students will recognize parts of this because it is a key component in my lectures on Qing Empire and the relationship between the Manchu rulers and their subjects:

The Manchus did maintain garrisons on the Τibetan plateau while administering the region through local elites. The Qing rulers, great patrons of Lamamism, consolidated their rule by maintaining cultural and religious ties with Τibet beyond mere military occupation. They also–generally but not always–ruled with a light touch, allowing relative autonomy in religious and cultural matters, which suited the situation quite well. The Qing Dynasty was, after all, a large, multi-ethnic empire, and maintaining order and peace in outlying territories was the utmost concern.

The problem is that the PRC is a nation-state, and the demands a nation-state places on its people are different than those of an empire. It is not enough that Tibetans merely pay taxes and not revolt, they must also identify with the nation-state first and foremost, with other cultural and religious aspects secondary to the demands of modern state building. Empires want to be respected, nation-states want to be loved. That’s a sticky wicket the Qing never had to face.

It’s not surprising that when we look at the world’s hot spots we see the legacies of colonialism and decolonization. As empires give way to new forms of political organization there is resistance and tension. Modern states attempt to preserve the territories bequeathed to them from empires of old, while subject peoples seek greater autonomy and even independence.

While it is always possible that both Mishra and I are wrong, and the CCP and its parrots supporters would certainly feel that way, it is validating to know that one of my favorite writers and thinkers on the subject of empire has views consistent with what I’ve been lecturing about for years.

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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 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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