Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

History of Modern China 

Soap ad from the Minguo period in China

Overview of Chinese History

This group of documents is particularly helpful for developing a basic familiarity with the historic dynasties. Pay special attention to the History Timeline.

Timeline Of Modern Chinese History

This timeline provides a very readable overview of the period of time covered by this course. It is not by any means an exhaustive history, but can be very useful in helping to "get your bearings" with respect to modern China.

Chapter 10 of "The Civilization of China," by Herbert A. Giles

This is an old book, but the chapter to which this link connects provides a brief and very informative description of the transition from the Ming to the Qing Dynasty.

The Macartney Mission

This paper contains several key documents relative to Macartney's mission, including his original commission, his own description of his meeting with the emperor, his assessment of China's government, as well as the complete text of the Qianlong Emperor's two edicts repudiating Macartney's mission.

The Reception of the First English Ambassador to China

Brief description of Macartney's audience with the Qianlong Emperor.

Letter of Advice to Queen Victoria (1839)

Text of Commissioner Lin's letter to Queen Victoria, excoriating her for British involvement in the opium trade.


  Emperor of China Declares War on Drugs

Excellent synopsis of the events leading up to the war between Britain and China over the opium trade.


  The Opium War and the Opening of China

I am always nervous about discussing how the Opium Wars helped to open China, because there is a subtile tendency to use this "end" as a justification for the clearly immoral "means." But there is no question that the Opium War did have the effect of opening China to trade with the rest of the world, and it is important to understand how this process came about.


  The Economic, Social, and Political Effects of The Opium War

This is an old article, but it does contain a good summary of some of the effects of the Opium War. The debate about how the Opium War affected the relationship with China to the rest of the world will never end, but it is helpful to study a variety of positions and compare them.



Friday, July 19, 2019

Blowin' in the Wind 

The video below is the third part of what appears to be a three-part treatment by The Pulse on the problem in Xinjiang, China's far western province, where at least hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and Kazakhs have been detained in re-education camps. The first segment talked about the way Muslims are being treated in China. The second segment pointed out that many Kazakhs are also being detained. This problem does not only affect Uyghurs. This final segment (below) focuses on the fact that many of those who are detained are not in need of vocational training, but are detained because of their relationship with those outside of China. In one case, a man was detained because his daughter, who was living in Kazahkstan applied for citizenship there. In another case, a woman was detained supposedly because she had WhatsApp on her phone. It is a big problem for citizens of China to have a non-Chinese commmunications app on their phones. The first part of this video is about a completely non-related Hong Kong issue, so I have configured this video to start at Part 2. So the segment takes up half of a twenty-minute program.

Every country has internal matters dealing with its people that outsiders don't necessarily need to be involved in. But as I have said before, cruelty to innocent people is always everybody's business.

Those of you who lived through the Vietnam period perhaps remember Bob Dylan's song "Blowin' in the Wind." It is often associated with the Vietnam War, but Bob Dylan actually wrote it in 1962, before the Americans really got involved (in 1964). So it is really an anthem for how we view any injustice. These lines from that that song come to mind when I consider the current problem in Xinjiang:

How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn't see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.


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Saturday, July 06, 2019

Bride Kidnapping 

Actual bride kidnapping in the country of Kyrgyzstan

This video (below) is disturbing. So why watch it? Later, I am going to do a podcast about arranged marriage. This video shows an extreme example. It serves two purposes:

First, it helps me to make the point that arranged marriage and forced marriage are not the same. A forced marriage is one type of arranged marriage. But arranged marriage is not necessarily wrong. In the community I grew up in (northern Japan), every marriage was arranged, but I never saw a forced marriage.

Second, sometimes when you are at the point of discussing an issue about which there can be significant disagreement, it is useful to take the issue to an extreme that both sides can either accept or reject. So, for example, during the Cold War, Democrats and Republicans disagreed about many points of policy, but they all agreed that Communism was bad. They were right, of course. Even China has now rejected traditional Communism.

More recently, we were beset by ISIS. Democrats and Republicans have been at each other's throats like never before, but on this issue they agreed. ISIS was bad and had to be defeated.

You see, sometimes if you can identify an extreme that you both sides find deplorable, it is a little easier to move from that extreme to the point where your viewpoints diverge, and then you can begin to establish what we call stasis. It's a rhetorical term, but it basically refers to the process of agreeing on what you disagree about. Sounds obvious, but you would be amazed how many times two people or groups of people will waste enormous amounts of energy arguing about something before they discover that they are basically on the same side (at least partly). This happens because they have not done a good job of establishing stasis, or because they are struggling with the process.

So watch the video. I have shown this video to many groups of students, with a variety of reactions (which we will discuss later). I should note that this is a very old video, so you will probably not be able to watch it on your mobile device. But I usually don't have a problem watching it on my laptop, although it may ask you to enable FLASH. Anyway, it is short (about 18 minutes), but very well done. Again, is quite painful to see (forced marriage is not pretty), but I do think it is useful as a take off point for our discussion of this issue. I also recommend that you full screen the video once you get it open.

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Saturday, June 29, 2019

Kazakhs Being Detained in Xinjiang 

This guy who has been helping Kazakhs in Kazakhstan who have relatives in
Xinjiang who have been detained, has now been placed under house arrest.
Click the picture to see the story.

The video below follows up on one I featured in a previous blog post. That video addressed the condition of Muslims in China, while this one focuses particularly on Kazakhs. In China there are two main groups of Muslims. the Hui Muslims and the Uyghurs. Both are Sunni Muslims, but the Hui have been integrated much more thoroughly than the Uyghurs.

But there are also the Kazakhs. For the life of me, I cannot imagine why the Communist party boss of Xinjiang is going after the Kazakhs. They are the most peace-loving people you could hope to meet. But there is one problem. Some of the Kazakhs in this video seem to be part Chinese, but most Kazakhs I have met do not look Chinese at all. They have a much more European appearance. Han Chinese people in Xinjiang tend to be a little paranoid of non-Chinese looking people. This fear is not entirely unjustified, because there has been violence. I know that some people outside of China, particularly Americans, will say that the local Muslims became violent because they were provoked. To my way of thinking, that's not relevant. Violence is never justified unless it is done directly in self-defense. So I do recognize that there are jihad Muslims in Xinjiang who have caused trouble. But this is a tiny minority of the Uyghur people, and I don't recall hearing anything about violence in Kazakh communities. But they are Muslim and they look foreign, and those two things together mean they are fair game. It's unfortunate. They are not foreigners. They are Chinese citizens. I have had Kazakh students. You couldn't ask for better. They are really nice kids. What's even more puzzling is that, as you will hear in the beginning of this program, the human rights leader involved with this issue (helping folks in Kazakhstan who have relatives in Xinjiang) is now under house arrest himself in Kazakhstan. That makes me think the Kazakh government is on China's side. And as late as the end of May this year, the Chinese Ambassador was emphatically denying that Kazakhs were being detained in Xinjiang. Incredible.

I think we need to keep watching this. But it is of note that no Muslim nation (except Turkey) has spoken out against the incarceration of Muslims in Xinjiang.


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Thursday, June 20, 2019

Hong Kong Explained 

Demonstrators in Hong Kong protesting the extradition bill,
which has now been suspended.

Over the past days there have been extraordinary demonstrations in Hong Kong. In this podcast episode, I explain the demonstrations and some of the history behind them.

Here are some links for statements I referred to in this episode:

Nisha Gopalan's explanation of the difference between the Occupy Central demonstrations in 2014 and the current demonstrations.

Statement by the British Foreign Office on the Joint Declaration.

Here are some resources that might be of use to you in studying this issue:

News Sources:

Newswrap on RTHK. This is a nightly radio news program discussing the events of the day. Very useful in understanding day to day events in Hong Kong.

The Pulse. Public affairs television from Hong Kong, with Steve Vines

Twitter Accounts to Follow

Vivienne Chow. Some time ago I was doing some research on the flag issue and I came across an article of hers that was really quite well written. Also, she is not a politician, so she writes about other stuff. Highly recommended if you want to keep tabs with what is going on in the SAR.

Chris Lau. Reporter for SCMP (South China Morning Post). I'm sure I would not agree with everything he writes, but I do like his twitter posts. Following him is a little like following Brit Hume--he points me to informative articles, which saves me a lot of time looking them up myself.

Joshua Wong, one of the student leaders of the Occupy Central movement. You have to admire this guy--he does seem sincere, but sometimes his attitude toward the police annoys me. Also, I wish some of these student leaders would spend some of their energy trying to reach out to China--not kissing up to them, but openly and honestly stating what kinds of changes would help to improve relationship.


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Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Tiananmen: What happened, and why? 

Zhao Ziyang prepares to speak to the students at Tiananmen Square on May 19th.

It is generally agreed that the event that started the protests that eventually led to the Tiananmen Massacre was the death of Hu Yaobang, who was known as a reformer.

But I believe that the main event that exacerbated the conflict was when the Communist Party decided not to apologize for the editorial which was published in the People's Daily by Li Peng without the knowledge of the Politburo:

Deng's discussion with Li Peng and others on April 25 was supposed to be an internal affair. However, Li Peng decided to disseminate the contents of Deng's remarks that very evening to Party cadres of all levels, and paraphrased their talk in the editorial that he had the People's Daily publish on April 26, publicly designating the student demonstrations as "premeditated and organized turmoil with anti- Party and anti-socialist motives." [from Prisoner of the State, by Zhao Ziyang]
Deng was not happy that his remarks had been pubished without his consent. After all, his remarks were in response to the report that Li Peng had given him. Does this mean that Deng Xiaoping was deceived? Zhao Ziyang doesn't think so. According him, Deng leaned toward a hard-line approach. But expressing these thoughts in a private meeting is one thing. Publishing them really angered the students. Zhao Ziyang favored a softer approach, but he had been on a trip to North Korea, so he was not present to diffuse the situation, and by the time he got back, Deng's remarks had already been published.

This conflict between the hardliners, led by Li Peng, and the softer approach favored by Zhao Ziyang is, I believe, the central drama of the whole event. If Zhao Ziyang's peaceful, conciliatory approach had been tried, the tragedy of June 4th may have been prevented. I think it very likely would have been. Here's Zhao Ziyang again:

However, the crux of the issue was Deng Xiaoping himself. I hoped at the time that he could just relax things a bit, for example, by saying something like, "It seems that when Li Peng gave his report on April 25, we overreacted to the situation. It now appears that the student demonstrations are not such an overwhelming problem." With something like this to work with, I could turn the situation around without even putting any of the liability on Deng. [from Prisoner of the State, by Zhao Ziyang]
So why wasn't something like that done? Was it that they realized they had been too harsh, but could not admit it for fear of losing face, or was it the case that Deng never wavered in his original harsh assessment of the students' motives?

But the reaction of the students was also misguided:

Having grown entirely disillusioned with the government dialogues, the students decided to use the occasion of Gorbachev's visit to stage large-scale street demonstrations and a hunger strike. They believed it was the best opportunity to exert pressure on the government, which would be compelled to show tolerance during the state visit. But the students were mistaken, for the more they pushed ahead, the more pretext Li Peng and his associates had to crack down on them using violent means. [from Prisoner of the State, by Zhao Ziyang]
We all know what happened. Zhao Ziyang lost the power struggle and the Party decided to bring in the military. According to Zhao, this decision was made by Deng Xiaoping in a meeting on May 17th. What happened? Was Li Peng just more persuasive, or was it the case (as Zhao seems to think) that Deng himself tended to be a hardliner, so he didn't need much persuading? Whatever the case may be, Li Peng won the day and the tanks rolled in:
In the end, Deng Xiaoping made the final decision. He said, "The development of the situation has only confirmed that the judgment of the April 26 editorial was correct. The reason that the student demonstrations have not subsided is something within the party, and that is Zhao's May 4 speach at the ADB meeting. Since there is no way to back down now without the situation spiriling completely out of control, the decision is to move troops into Beijing to impose martial law. [from Prisoner of the State, by Zhao Ziyang]

Zhao Ziyang had given a speech on May 4th to the delegates of the Asian Development Bank. It was well received, but Deng seemed to believe that it was an attempt to out-stage him or something--showing a division in the party, which Deng probably felt was an encouragement to the students to keep protesting. Zhao Ziyang emphatically denies this, but I don't know. I don't have the text of the speech, so there is no way for me to assess it. I only have the report of Bao Tong, who wrote the speech.

On May 19th, Zhao Ziyang went to Tiananmen Square to warn the students. Li Peng initially tried to prevent Zhao Ziyang from going to the square, but when he saw that Zhao was determined to go, he decided to go with him. But according to Zhao, he got cold feet and fled, so the only person we recognize from this picture is Wen Jiabao, who eventually became the Premier under Hu Jintao.

Western media tends toward hyperbole when describing events in China. Bad China sells in the West. I am wary of this. So I don't like words like "massacre." But in this case, there's just no other word that fits. It really was a bloody massacre, with government troops gunning down unarmed civilians by the tens and hundreds:

Within days of the massacre, Zhao Ziyang was arrested. He remained under house arrest for the rest of his life. This was a great loss for China. Zhao Ziyang was a superb administrator. After the Cultural revolution, he was made Party Secretary of Sichuan Province. As with much of China, Sichuan had been devastated by the mismanagement of the Great Leap forward and the Cultural Revolution. There was massive starvation. Zhao Ziyang's market reforms revolutionized the countryside. The laobaixing in Sichuan used to have a saying: 要吃粮, 找紫阳. It's a play on words in Mandarin, but it basically says, "If you want to have food to eat, go find Zhao Ziyang." Nobody went hungry after Zhao Ziyang took over.

Zhao Zihang died in January of 2005. I remember I was sitting in a coffee bar in Wudaokou reading the Asia Wall Street Journal. There were many tributes to Zhao Ziyang. Two pages of the newspaper were given to articles about his leadership, his gifts as an administrator, and his attempt to be kind to the students and find a peaceful solution to the Tiananmen crisis. After I left the coffee bar, I walked out into the street and bought a copy of the China Daily. There was just a brief article saying that he made "serious mistakes." I thought, "This is all??" The contrast between how he was portrayed in the Western media, and how he was portrayed in the governmet propaganda paper was striking.

Many years ago, I was a the English corner when someone brought up Tiananmen. One guy said, "The students lost."

I said, "Well, they lost the battle, but they won the war." The lost the battle, of course, because their demonstration was brutally suppressed. But they won the war, because China was forever changed. In a way, the same thing could be said about Zhao Ziyang. He lost the battle, because he spent the last sixteen years of his life under house arrest. But he won the war. During those sixteen years, he secretly recorded thirty hours of tapes giving his memoirs of the Tiananmen tragedy. The tapes were smuggled to Hong Kong and transcribed into a book (see three-minute video below). So we have an uncensored report of the inner struggle within the Party in the days that led up to the tragic events of June 4th:

When I think of the events of June 4th 1989, I am reminded of the Vietnam-era song by the Beatles, "Give Peace a Chance." How might history have been different if the Party had listened to Zhao Ziyang instead of Li Peng and decided to "give peace a chance?" I dare to believe that many lives could have been saved.

So what should be our assessment of the Tiananmen massacre? To borrow a page from Dickens, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times. It was the worst of times, because many people died. But it was the best of times, because it brought out the extraordinary humanity of the Chinese people and their attempts to help the students. The many rickshaw drivers who went into action to bring the wounded to safety. The precious medical personnel who worked their hearts out to save as many lives as they could. Then there was the bus driver who used his bus to block truckloads of troops trying to enter the city. An army officer put a gun to his head and ordered him to move the bus. The bus driver reached in and pulled the key from the ignition and threw it as far as he could.

George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." We cannot change what happened. It is not for us to change history. It is for us to remember it, and tell it to our children, so that it is not repeated. And in that effort, we are greatly assisted by Zhao Ziyang's little book, which will live in history as the final word on why Tiananmen happened.



Thursday, May 30, 2019

American Civil War  

Right-click on picture and save link to download slide presentation .pdf file.
Best to open in Adobe, then go to the View menu and select Full Screen Mode.

Back in the spring of 2016, I gave a lecture at my university on the American Civil War. I thought perhaps I would put it online, but I got busy with other things, so it sorta got put on the back burner. After all, it's not the kind of thing most people are interested in. Then, in the summer of 2017, came the riot in Charlottesville. I was quite taken aback by this, especially all the fuss about tearing down statues of Civil War figures. That and the "Black Lives Matter" controversy has made me begin to think that perhaps there is a value in today's young people having at least a cursory knowledge of the issues.

My own experience with the Civil War goes back to 1960, the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. As we will discuss, the Civil War broke out after the election of 1860. Sometimes in America, a candidate is elected that nobody expected to win, and the losing side gets really mad. That's what happened in 1860. Anyway, I started first grade in the fall of 1960. It was 100 years after the South seceded and it was also an election year. Kennedy was running against Nixon. Dad took Johnny and I down to Woolworth's. I got a blue cap and Johnny got a grey cap. That was all you really needed to play Civil War.

I didn't really know what I was doing at that time, but two or three years later, I read a book about the Underground Railroad that really fascinated me. Then, a couple years later, when I was in sixth or seventh grade, I read a book about the Andrews Raiders.

Throughout the sixties and seventies, the issue of race was kept alive, but partially overshadowed by the Vietnam War. I maintained an interest in the Civil War, but did not study it actively for twenty years or so. Then, in the eighties, I began a ten year study of the Civil War. I have always tended to study history by biography. In other words, instead of reading a book about events, I will study the players on the stage one at a time, and then piece together the events from what I have learned about those events by studying the people who made them happen.

When I began my study of the Civil War, my objective was fairly simple: I wanted to know what a winning general was like, and I wanted to know what a losing general was like. How do losers think? How do winners think? For example, in examining the lives of Grant and Lee, I noticed some interesting contrasts. Lee was brilliant. And he was a very disciplined, perhaps even a bit repressed, human being. In contrast, Grant had a more laid back personality. Lee went through four years of West Point without a single demerit. Grant wasn't at West Point more than a few months when he wrote back to his people, "Every time you turn around they give you one of those little black marks."

Grant came from a very stable, perhaps you could even say boring family. Lee came from a broken home (he was the son of Light Horse Harry). Grant was inclined to believe that keeping the Union together was of paramount importance for the stability of the country. In other words, if you keep the country together, the citizens thereof are better off. Lee was more inclined to think that sometimes division is necessary when two parties find it difficult to get along. Grant fought for the sake of the whole union, not for just his own state. Lee sacrificed the good of the union to defend his own state. The result of Grants victories was that the union was preserved, and the individual states thereof (including his own) were better off. The result of Lee's efforts were that the South was destroyed, and his own beloved Virginia was forever divided, never to be unified again.

You might say thay my observations are a bit amateur, and I would not argue. I am not a professional historian, and perhaps I have made a bit much of Grant's mediocre success in worldly pursuits--his lack of a career, so to speak. I make him sound like a loser, when he was actually a very good man. But the contrast between his lack of success in everything he tried, and his extraordinary success in battle is so profound that it cannot be ignored.

But something happened as I moved through the history of the Civil War. My knowledge of the characters increased, but my objective also altered somewhat. Sometimes, when you examine an event, and try to identify and study the major players, you run into a personality so profound that it eclipses all others. This happened to me. I studied mainly the generals, both North and South, but one personality emerged that could not be ignored, and that stood out as a defining character of the conflict. That personality was Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln was either loved or hated. Coming from northern culture (North Dakota and Minnesota) we were always taught to admire Lincoln. But there were Southerners who thought of him as a very bad man. Like my friend Bill. Bill was from North Carolina, but he taught in the country schools of North Dakota for many years. That's where I met him. I was teaching Palmer School, and he was at Stoney Creek. In the country schools in North Dakota, the front of the classroom had a standard appearance. There was a flag in the middle above the blackboard, then on one side, a giant picture of George Washington, and on the other, a giant picture of Abraham Lincoln. Later, I stayed at Bill's place in Bismarck during the time I was a lobbyist in the North Dakota State Legislature.

This was during the time that I was actively studying the American Civil War, and I used to bring up the subject from time to time. Every time I mentioned Lincoln, he uttered one static, unchanging statement. He never wavered from it, no matter how hard I tried to shake him loose. He said, "I'm not sorry Lincoln was shot. I'm just sorry he wasn't shot four years earlier."

I hesitate to even tell this, because you might get the impression that Bill was a hard guy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Bill was a poor boy from the old South who would never had much, but always shared what he had. I remember there was some controversy one time about Walmart clothes being made overseas in shops that paid less than a dollar an hour. Bill just could not make sense of it. "I don't know what they're complaining about. I used to mow lawns for twenty-five cents an hour."

I came through Bismarck one time in my truck and he had found a baby rabbit. He was trying to nurse it back to health, but the little critter just would not eat. This is a common problem for wild animals in captivity. So Bill decided let the little rabbit go. We drove to a large park in the city and walked to an open area. Bill set the little thing down, then he took his hat off his head and prayed to God to protect this little rabbit. He was that kind of a guy. But when I brought up the subject of Lincoln, same old answer: "I'm not sorry Lincoln was shot. I'm just sorry he wasn't shot four years earlier."

I'll have more to say about Lincoln later. Much more, because he was such a dynamic figure. But for now, just let me say that the change in Lincoln's thinking was, I have come to believe, the central drama of the American Civil War. He came to believe that God was very angry about slavery, and that if he wanted God to help him win the war, he had to help God put an end to slavery.

The effects of the civil war are pervasive. In this lecture I focus mainly on how it changed the status of the states with respect to the whole union. But later I want to talk about the residual effects of the Civil War on every aspect of American life.

I remember years ago when I was pulling a flatbed for E.W. Wylie out of Fargo, another driver and I were having lunch or something together. He was a Minnesota boy, and he was telling me about one time when he was south of Mason-Dixon and saw a driver with a cap that said, "Lee surrendered. I didn't."

Well, you can't do much truckin' in the old South without seeing that once in awhile. I said, "So?"

He said, "I went up to him and I said, "Grant accepted his surrender. I didn't!"

I laughed. War's over, boys. Give it a rest. But as we have seen from Charlottesville, it hangs on. Feelings run deep, even after all these years. On my father's side, I can get out of it. My grandfather came to North Dakota as a homesteader in the early part of the twentieth century. So my people on my father's side of the family were newcomers, relatively speaking. But my mother's people were from Bergen, and they came earlier. Among them were the brothers or cousins of my great-great grandfather, can't remember which, but they were in the Fourth Minnesota, and fought under Rosecrans in the Battle of Corinth. So even though I myself grew up on Japan, I'm a Minnesota Yankee on my mother's side of the family. I mention that because you need to be aware of it as you listen to me talk about the Civil War. There are so many things--things I am not even aware of it, that are affected by the frame of reference I was given by being born into the family I came from.

The slides can be watched a couple different ways. If you are the type of person who likes to scroll through just like a regular .pdf, you can just click on the picture above and the slides will open up and you can view them online. If you're like me, and you prefer a regular slide show, then download the file first, open it up in Adobe, and then go to the View menu and put it in Full Screen Mode, and then you can watch it just like a regular slide show, using the arrow keys to go back and forth.


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Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Islamic communities in China & Kazakhstan 

A gold dome is seen on the ground after it was removed from a hotel
in Tongxin county. Photo: Nectar Gan

Much concern has been expressed about the detention of Muslims in Xinjiang. The video below is interesting, because it also addresses the treatment of other Muslim communities in China. As I have noted before, the exact number (or even a reliable approximate number) of people detained is not available. So be aware that when you see or hear numbers mentioned, these are guesses. I don't know it it is true that there are over a million people detained. But I would think that it is at least several hundred thousand. But again, nobody knows.

Of course, as I mentioned in a previous post, the number of people detained is secondary to the question of whether they have been detained against their will without due process. Deprivation of liberty without due process is a violation of human rights regardless of what you do to those people once you have them locked up.

Another issue that is of interest to me is the response of surrounding Muslim countries. To my knowledge, the only country that has publicly taken a stand against the mass detentions is Turkey. That's not surprising, because the Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province are a Turkic people. I am thinking we may hear more about the response of other nations in months to come, but for now, it is significant that most Muslim countries support China's actions, or at least do not feel compelled to challenge them. It is one of the things I am going to be watching. This video is interesting in that regard, because it begins to explore the effect of the detention on neighboring Kazakhstan. More about that in a later post.

One further note about the video: The narration is a bit spotty. For example, they interview a Uyghur guy talking about a camp in a place called, "Kuldzha," without giving you any idea where that is. The nearest I can tell, this is referring to what is now called Yining, in northwest Xinjiang Province.


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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

How Old is China? 

Click for larger image.

Last Thursday I went to the National Museum with some friends and saw this chart on the wall showing the dynasties of China. Studying the history of China is useful in helping to understand what makes a dynasty rise and fall, because China has had so many of them. Before I came to China, and even after I arrived, I found that Chinese people were fond of saying that China had five thousand years of history. So I would ask them, "Who was the first emperor of China?"

Invariably the response was "Qin Shi Huang."

Then I would say, "Ok, if Qin Shi Huang was the first emperor China and the Qin Dynasty was a little over two thousand years ago, what did you guys do for the three thousand years?"

But the problem is that if you make the argument that China began with Qin Shi Huang, and is thus only a little more than two thousand years old, you have a problem. China is nothing if not Confucian, and Confucius lived in the sixth century BC, so that would bring the beginning of China back to at least 2600 years ago. But if you say that China began with Confucius, you also have a problem. Confucius never presented his ideas as new ideas. He always saw himself as restoring the Rites of Zhou established by the Duke of Zhou.

The Zhou Dynasty lasted longer than any other dynasty (790 years). That is remarkable. The chart pictured above is a bit confusing, because it does not explain that the Zhou Dynasty is actually divided into two segments, the Western Zhou and the Eastern Zhou. This chart shows the Western Zhou, but it doesn't tell you that the Eastern Zhou is actually composed of the two sub-parts that are listed here, the Spring and Autumn Period (during which Confucius lived and taught), and the Warring States Period.

Why is the Zhou Dynasty thus divided? My thinking is that the second part of the Zhou Dynasty (the Eastern Zhou, made up of the two sub-periods I mentioned) represents the decline of the Zhou Dynasty. It seems that Confucius saw this decline and tried to correct it by restoring the values of the first part of the Zhou Dynasty (shown here as the Western Zhou), with particular reference to his hero, the Duke of Zhou. The extent to which he succeeded can be measured by the extent to which China as China became an enduring society.

I don't want to go any further in that direction, because the treatment of Confucius and his influence on succeeding dynasties is far too big a subject to be dealt with here. Suffice it to say that, in my opinion, Chinese dynasties have risen as they have stayed true to those values, and have declined as they moved away from them.

One further note: In my opinion, it is a mistake to refer to Qin Shi Huang as the "first emperor of China," although this is a very common practice. It implies that there really was no Chinese society before Qin Shi Huang, and that China was just a disorganized rabble. That may be true politically, but not culturally. In fact, as you can see, there were many rulers of China before Qin Shi Huang, spanning hundreds of years.

So how did this come about--I mean Qin Shi Huang coming to be thought of as the first emperor of China when, in fact, there were many monarchs before him? People in China usually respond that he was the first emperor of the unified China. Maybe. But in my opinion, a big part of it is due to the way he stylized his name:

It is evident that whatever we think of Qin Shi Huang, he thought of himself as the first emperor of China (or at least the first one that mattered), he stylized his name to reflect that, and he managed to convince succeeding generations of Chinese people to view him in that light.

Not me. I think he had an exaggerated view of his own importance. Don't get me wrong. I don't say that Qin Shi Huang was not important. That would be going too far the other way. No study of China's history is complete without a visit to Xi'an to view the Terracotta soldiers--more than eight thousand of them--who were buried with Qin Shi Huang to protect him in the afterlife. His own body has never been exhumed. He had himself buried in a sea of mercury. He was an extraordinary person, and his influence is important to understand particularly in light of the fact that Mao, who did not encourage the reading of ancient history by the masses, was a prodigious student of history himself, and saw himself as the modern version of Qin Shi Huang.

But calling him the first emperor of China is going to far, I think. The roots of Chinese culture precede him by centuries, and endured his attempts to minimize them in much the same way that Confucian ideas have survived the attempts of the early Communists to wipe them out.

So where does this all end? If you want to know how old China as China really is, you must go back before Qin Shi Huang. Confucius? No, keep going, all the way back to the first half of the Zhou Dynasty. Search there and you will find what makes China China.


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Wednesday, May 08, 2019

What is generosity? 

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