Tag Archives: history

On Chinese exceptionalism, politics in history, and an interview with Harvard's Mark C. Elliott

The China Story website from Australian National University has a wonderful interview with Mark C. Elliott,* a professor at Harvard University and an authority on the role of Manchu and other ethnic ideas in Chinese history. The full interview is very much worth the read. In dialogue with Elisa Nesossi, Elliott offers perspectives on the continuities of “China” across several thousand years, on competing definitions and understandings of the “Han,” and on the situation of China history scholars in the United States, the People’s Republic, and elsewhere.

Professor Mark C. Elliott

Professor Mark C. Elliott [via]

In the interview, Elliott takes up China’s place in the world and challenges any vision of Chinese exceptionalism (or any exceptionalism). This passage follows a good discussion of the various views of 中华民族 zhonghua minzu, variously translated as the “Chinese nation,” “Chinese ethnicity,” etc. (This is also the term used in Xi Jinping’s new language on the “great renewal of the Chinese nation.”)

What caught my eye for whatever reason is Elliott’s challenge to visions of recent Chinese history founded on isolation or apartness from the rest of the world. I follow the quotation below with some comments on what this means for understanding China and U.S.–China relations.

The idea of China being isolated is also still quite strong, a discourse that is still there as part of the story that people tell themselves – and that the textbooks tell – about history during the Qing, in particular. It is a little bit more complicated, and I think its complexity is recognized by Chinese historians more generally, because of a competing story, a competing discourse, of openness to the world during the Tang. You have the widespread, popular idea of the Silk Road, and of the fact that Chinese culture and cultures of Western Asia mixed in all kinds of ways in Tang Chang’an 長安 and in other places along the Silk Road.

So that China’s isolation is not seen as being eternal, but there is a disconnect, then, between that openness in the Tang and that ‘closing’ of the empire, say, after the Tang – which wasn’t opened again, according to this way of seeing things, until the arrival of the West in the nineteenth century. The fact that half of the silver in the New World ends up in China, coming through Manila from mines in South America and Mexico, is one of a number of powerful arguments to show how connected China really was with the rest of the world. That such a significant proportion of the wealth of the English crown came from the tax on tea, which could only come from China in the eighteenth century, is another – and there are more.

The so-called ‘California School’ of Chinese history, which, like the New Qing History, has received a fair amount of attention in China – people like Bin Wong, Kenneth Pomeranz, Hamashita Takeshi and Jack Goldstone – have argued for China as being very much a part of the world system of trade, from at least the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. I think that this is beginning to win over some people, and maybe with time the notion of China’s ‘isolation’ from the rest of the world will begin to fade, too. I see both of these as troublesome because they contribute to a belief in Chinese exceptionalism, that China is somehow different from everywhere else and that its history can’t be understood using models derived by the experience of other people in other places, ever, and that for that reason, whatever criticism anybody might have about China, or whatever argument that they might want to make about China’s past, doesn’t apply, because China is ‘different’.

I come from the United States, and there are a lot of people who like to argue the very same thing for the US! And of course, German historians have long made this kind of an argument, since the nineteenth century, that Germany follows a Sonderweg, its own ‘special path’. I don’t buy exceptionalism in any form, I certainly don’t believe it helps us very much when it comes to understanding the Chinese past. Any sort of habit of thinking that tends towards exceptionalism is one that I would have to take issue with. Both of these things fall into that category, I’m afraid.

This sense of exceptionalism is strong both among some Chinese political commentators and officials, and often among foreign observers of China. I have often found the notion of historical difference or independence useful in discussing the trouble in applying wholesale theories and models of politics and society originally built to understand Europe. But Elliott makes an important point: while there have been periods of less intense interaction with elsewhere in the world, China does not stand apart from world history.

In the passage I highlighted above, Elliott describes how historical ideas slip into political arguments, for instance that some rules may not fit China or that the Chinese government has a right to refuse compromise on a variety of points. (Here is one strong recent expression of frustration with the approach of some Chinese to the world—a valuable piece, but several steps too strong for a comment on one conference.) What Elliott drifts through there reveals the complexity of working to study and explain contemporary China whether abroad or within the region. One must work to collapse unhelpful assumptions (for instance, the idea of the self-same sovereign state) while nonetheless building bridges of comparability (trade, or power, or change in tandem with the world). In contemporary politics, one must fight the idea that the People’s Republic of China is just another country (at very least, it is unusually populous) while assessing the extent of similarities with other political systems (start perhaps by disaggregating the government, regions, or economic sectors).

In the end, I disagree with Elliott on exceptionalism, if only rhetorically. The People’s Republic and historical China are indeed exceptional, as is the United States, but so is any other country or civilization.

Recently in Beijing, Jeffrey Bader, a former top Obama official on East Asia, introduced his talk on U.S.–China relations in the Xi Jinping era and the second Obama administration: “Arguably we are the two most self absorbed—some would say selfish—countries on the planet.”[1] Perhaps the challenge for people on both sides of the Pacific is to recognize that their enormous roles in the world do not equate to a moral centrality.

*Disclosure: I took a class from Elliott during my master’s studies.
[1] From my notes at “U.S.-China Relations under Barack Obama and Xi Jinping,” Brookings-Tsinghua Center, November 29, 2012

'Chinese' proves U.S. citizenship by speaking Chinook

Sometime in the 1870s, a Chinese man named Ling Fu was brought before Judge Cornelius Hanford in Seattle’s courthouse, accused of not having the proper citizenship papers. Facing deportation, Ling Fu argued that he did not need to carry papers: he had been born on Puget Sound. To test him, Judge Hanford quickly shifted his inquiry into Chinook Jargon, which had become nearly as common as Whulshootseed or English in Puget Sound country. “Ikta mika nem? Consee cole mika?” (What is your name? How old are you?), he demanded of Ling, who in turn replied, “Nika nem Ling Fu, pe nika mox tahtlum pee quinum cole” (My name is Ling Fu, and I am twenty-five years old). Clearly surprised, the judge responded, “You are an American, sure, and you can stay here.” He then turned to the bailiff and decreed, “Ling Fu is dismissed.”

From Native Seattle by Coll Thrush, as quoted here.

On the unfortunate presentism of China political science

From Neil J. Diamant on why we might want to study things before Reform and Opening in order to understand Chinese politics:

“Given the short history of the PRC, and that much of what we have learned about its politics is based in the ‘pre-archival era,’ it is far too soon to relegate the foundational years and critical events of the prereform PRC to ‘history.’ Think about this: what would the field of American politics look like if anything that happened prior to the Carter administration was considered ‘historical,’ or if political scientists eschewed research in the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum because colleagues and others were more fascinated by the Obama administration?”

(Page 35 in Carlson, Gallagher, Lieberthal, and Manion. Contemporary Chinese Politics: New Sources, Methods, and Field Strategies. Cambridge University Press, 2010.)

“Unlike historians for whom archival research is a badge of professional métier, political scientists in the China field (less so in American, Latin American, or European politics, for whom forays into history are common) who rely on these sources might encounter a number of discipline-related hurdles. First, archival data can be very detailed and descriptive, which can militate against ‘parsimony’ in explanation, the gold standard for some political scientists. Second, despite the dismal record in predicting major political events, political science tends to reward ‘theoretical innovation’ more than the discovery of new information per se. Third, archival research is associated with ‘historical’ or ‘qualitative’ methods, which, in some quarters, are more suspect than methods such as survey research. Finally, there is the presentism issues. With all the news about China ‘rising,’ many political scientists, like the lay public, want to know what is happening in China now The rosier contemporary scene – not the brutal and poor Maoist period – is ‘hot.'”


California apologizes to Chinese Americans; U.S. Congress next?

Chinese migrants in California faced discrimination, violence, and forced expulsion from their homes on many occasions beginning in the mid-19th century. One historian’s account found almost 200 “roundups,” in which Chinese were pushed out of jobs, homes, and cities by those who resented the competition for jobs or mining spoils, or simply didn’t like Chinese people.* A lot of people are not around to hear the state of California apologize.

From Ling Woo Liu in Time Magazine:

On July 17, the California legislature quietly approved a landmark bill to apologize to the state’s Chinese-American community for racist laws enacted as far back as the mid–19th century Gold Rush, which attracted about 25,000 Chinese from 1849 to 1852. The laws, some of which were not repealed until the 1940s, barred Chinese from owning land or property, marrying whites, working in the public sector and testifying against whites in court. The new bill also recognizes the contributions Chinese immigrants have made to the state, particularly their work on the Transcontinental Railroad.

The website of Assemblymember Paul Fong (D-Cupertino), who sponsored the measure, reports that Gov. Schwarzenegger approved the apology measure on July 20. And Fong’s efforts are not to stop in California. Liu writes that Fong will seek a U.S. Congressional resolution apologizing for the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Full text of the resolution available here.

* Pfaelzer, Jean. Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans. New York: Random House, 2007. p. xxv.

Wasserstrom on the History of Chinese Boycotts

In The Nation, University of California, Irvine Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom writes on some recent and not-so-recent history of anti-foreign boycotts in China:

Between the 1910s and 1930s, several foreign powers found themselves the target of Chinese student-led boycotts. In the majority of cases, Japanese products were the ones that were shunned, in protest of Japan’s encroachments into North China. One of the biggest of these took place during the May Fourth Movement of 1919, one of the many Chinese patriotic struggles that have taken place around this time of year.

In more recent years, boycotts have remained a regular part of Chinese society. In May 1999, when I happened to be in Beijing, I saw “Don’t Buy KFC” and “Don’t Drink Coke” posters go up on local campuses soon after American bombs hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. In spring 2005, a series of rowdy demonstrations against Japan broke out.

These protests were triggered by talk of Tokyo getting a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and complaints about how certain Japanese textbooks treated the history of World War II. Yet again there was a call for a boycott.

So while the dueling boycotts of 2008 are linked, calls to pull out of the games and calls to refuse to shop at Carrefour have very different historical echoes and fit into different historical traditions. They also summon up some very different historical moments.

Nineteen thirty-six and 1980 have been common touchstone years in Western debates on Olympic boycotts. Those calling for action against Beijing say it is time to do what the world should have done when the Nazis played host to the games in 1936–refuse to grant legitimacy to a brutal regime. Those opposing a full or partial boycott of the Olympics like to counter by pointing out how little good it did when the US pulled out of the 1980 Moscow games.

Though Wasserstrom doesn’t mention it, probably because it’s not part of his point, the differences between the Nazis of 1936, the Soviet Union of 1980, and the People’s Republic of China in 2008 are nearly too obvious to state.