Tag Archives: The Past

Spence's New Book: Scholarly or Not, a Borgesian Passage

Jonathan Spence has a new book centered around a late-Ming intellectual Zhang Dai. I have not read the book (nor have I seen it yet in Beijing), but the folks at Frog in a Well have critiqued the New Republic review and it’s an interesting meta-discussion. Most interesting to me is a passage included by Alan Baumler in what amounts to his own review on the blog. Noting that the new book is no simple academic monograph (and fretting a little that related academic discussions are absent from the text), Baumler notes “There is more in heaven and earth than is in academic monographs, and Spence apparently thinks so as well, as he includes this little story…”

…. at the heart of the scholarly life itself there often lurked a real element of futility. Strangely, Zhang Dai followed up this particular theme most carefully with the example of his own grandfather, whom at many levels he had clearly loved and respected, even revered. Yet, despite all his brilliance, grandfather—according to Zhang Dai—spent his last years of life in pursuit of a truly impossible vision, the compilation of an immense dictionary that would marshal all knowledge in composite categories based on a rhyme-scheme series of classifications. As Zhang Dai wrote in an essay aptly named “Rhyme Mountain,” right up to the end he rarely saw grandfather without a book in his hands, and piles of books lay in disorder all around his study, under layers of dust. When the sun was bright, grandfather took his books out of doors so he could read more easily. At dusk he lit candles and held his book right close to the flame, “leaning across the desk into the brightness.” Thus he would stay far into the night, showing no signs of tiredness. Claiming that all the previous dictionaries were inaccurate, grandfather determined to create his own, using the idea of mountains as his controlling metaphor of organization: key words were termed “high mountains,” catch phrases were “little mountains,” characters that had variant rhymes were termed “other mountains,” proverbs were classified as “worn-out mountains” and so on. In this “Rhyme Mountain,” wrote Zhang, grandfather’s columns of little characters followed in tight columns “like the pleats in a skirt, on sheets of paper yellowed from the beat of the lamp”; he had filled, in this way, over three hundred notebooks, “each thick as bricks.” Some rhyme schemes might fill ten books or more.

Tell me this grandfather’s life work is not akin to something that might occur in Borges’ “La Biblioteca de Babel.”

100 Years Since Taft's 'Open Door' Speech, Remembering Diplomacy

I was delighted today to find a print edition of today’s International Herald Tribune in Beijing, a feat I thought impossible until the couple next to me drinking coffee could be seen peering over the top of their IHTs and deriding Thomas Friedman’s column (which curiously isn’t in today’s edition). I asked where they’d gotten the papers, which led me to an inconspicuous newsstand in a nearby mall. I also nabbed a paper copy of the South China Morning Post—an even better find, since its website isn’t free and Factiva is a poor excuse for an interface.

One of the only things you can get in the paper edition of the IHT that doesn’t seem to be online is its intriguing “In Our Pages” feature on Page Two. Yesterday, I discovered, marked the 100th anniversary of a speech in Shanghai by William H. Taft, then secretary of war and later to become the 27th U.S. president. I admit I’d never heard of this particular trip, but pulling up a couple of old articles reminds us of what U.S.–Asia relations were looking like a century ago, at least as far as U.S.-run media were concerned. Here’s what ran in the IHT today:

1907: Taft’s Speech in China

SHANGHAI: Disclaiming authority as an official spokesman of the American government, and insisting that he spoke as an American citizen, Mr. William Taft, at a banquet of the American residents of Shanghai, tonight [Oct. 8] strongly re-avowed the adherence of America to the “open door” policy. He said plainly that America would resort to every legitimate means to prevent injury to trade by the violation of the “open door” policy. He asserted that China would have the sympathy and support of America in every movement for her reform and uplifting, and congratulated the Chinese educated in America on teh part they are playing in the reform movement. He expressed satisfaction at the conclusion of the boycott and at the improvement of the relations of the two countries.

 The New York Times, which didn’t own the IHT at the time, had on Sept. 10, 1907, noted Taft’s activities before leaving on a 3-month trip around the world. Let me make a few newspaper nerd points before I quote the Times‘ account of the itinerary: (1) two weeks at sea from Seattle to Japan; (2) the age before newspaper stylebooks, or really, any consistency in formatting or typesetting at all; (3) periods in headlines.

“TAFT AT SEATTLE. / Makes Two Speeches and Will Sail for Japan Thursday.” concludes with this summary: “Leave Seattle Sept. 12; due Yokohama Sept. 25; Kobe, Sept. 29; Nagasaki, Oct. 4; Shanghai, 6; Hong Kong, 11; arrive Manila, 14, (via McClellan) and leave Nov. 4; arrive Vladivostok Nov. 11 and leave Nov. 12; arrive Irkutsk Nov. 16; Arrive Moskow, stopping two days, Nov. 23; arrive St. Petersburg, stopping two days, Nov. 26; arrive Berlin, stopping two days, Nov 29. Take steamer at Cherbourg about Dec. 4. arrive New York about Dec. 10.”

Diplomacy used to be something time-consuming. Imagine what stories you’d have to tell your friends in Washington when you returned from three months of travel with ample time to read, think, and consider what you see at each stop. I’m going to start taking ships.