Category Archives: History

China’s memory manipulators | Ian Johnson

seThe Long Read: The country’s rulers do not just suppress history, they recreate it to serve the present. They know that, in a communist state, change often starts when the past is challenged

Source: China’s memory manipulators | Ian Johnson

In November of 2002, my colleague and I went to Xi’an one weekend. At the time, the walls of the ancient city were being rebuilt, but there was a gap or perhaps about a kilometre left. There were large plaques up on the new walls proclaiming that the money for rebuilding the walls had come from UNESCO (I think; I can’t recall exactly). I realised in fairly short order that there’s very little in China which is more than about twenty-five years old. There may have been a temple on some site for 1,400 years, but the current incarnation is probably a recent “fake” built during the current dynasty. 大钟寺 in Beijing was being renovated when I visited it ten years ago, but how much of the building or the site was original beyond its boundaries, I can’t say.

Such places end up being little more than museums; a bit more than a building where relics are on display, but still little more than museums. I assume that most cathedrals in Europe, even if they are mainly modern tourist traps, are more than just the remains of history and are still functioning buildings. Of course some, such as Yonghe Gong (雍和宫) in Beijing are still in use; elsewhere, such as Fuzhou, where there are a lot of temples, they appear to be largely neglected.

One of the things I’ve also noted about my pupils in China is their ignorance of history, their knowledge of which, as far as I can tell, rarely goes beyond 1911, apart from key events in the 19th century such as the Opium Wars, which serve a nationalist agenda as a shorthand for something the wicked foreigners did to the Chinese Empire and something to distract people from the truth. My own knowledge of Chinese history may not be that detailed, but it seems to be more extensive than your average Chinese schoolchild, and although I’m not overlooking potential bias, my knowledge of the subject is at least not filtered through the grimy lenses of the Party’s self-serving view of history.

“Modern” China seems to be at about the level of Tudor England when Tudors usurped the throne (“It was empty, so I sat in it,” said Henry Tudor. “That makes me Henry VII”) with no legitimate claim to the kingdom, but plenty of propaganda behind them throughout their short-lived dynasty.

The forgotten army of the first world war: how Chinese labourers helped shape Europe

The forgotten army of the first world war: how Chinese labourers helped shape Europe.

An article in The Guardian this morning (First world war’s forgotten Chinese Labour Corps to get recognition at last) reminded me of this much better piece on the South China Morning Post about the contribution of Chinese labourers on the Western Front during World War One.

But just as Europe has forgotten about the Chinese Labour Corps, so too has China, it seems. Although the country did enter the war late in the day (1917), there’s been no mention of the centenary of the start of WWI, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s no mention of the war in 2017, either.

This is also one of those disgraceful stories in which the Chinese themselves are treated badly from the way they were transported to Europe via Canada to the conditions they endured and lack of recognition for their work.

What if… The Opium Wars

More idle speculation.

As part of the theme of drugs, which we’ve been finishing off as we try to get through the remaining topics (not to mention everything else), we thought we’d look at drugs in history, and in particular at the Opium Wars.

They were the result of a trade imbalance with China in that the country was interested in nothing but silver for its goods. Opium from India flooded into China to such an extent that 90% of the male population of the eastern seaboard was addicted. (I assume that like today, smoking was a social habit in 19th-century China, which meant that it must have been nearly impossible to avoid addiction.) The Chinese enacted laws to outlaw the import of opium, and Lin Zexu, who was sent to deal with the matter, was resolute in his disposal of the drug.

This led to the First Opium War for which China was ill-prepared, having nothing which was able to counter a ship such as the Nemesis or the more modern technology which the British had at their disposal.

But what if there had been no Opium Wars? It is hard to imagine that there would not have been some conflict since other countries could not have sustained an endless flow of silver into China, but if there had been no conflict there would probably have been no Taiping Rebellion, no 1911 Revolution, and perhaps no civil war, thus sparing China the horrors of the first thirty years after 1949.

It is possible that someone in China might have seen the writing on the wall and have done something about trying to modernise the Empire, accepting that a head-in-the-sand attitude was going to damage it. Probably China would have remained a large, fragile, and backward entity in which the centre persisted in seeing unity where none really existed. Even without the Opium Wars there may still have been at least one revolution and the end of imperial China.

This is a complex what-if because I would not be surprised if the Japanese had invaded China anyway so that sooner or later, history would have happened as we know it. And even if that had not happened either, I would not be remotely surprised if China had still emerged much as it is today with its authoritarian government merely following from its predecessors.

Infographic: Historical Chinese and foreign-inflicted deaths: Shanghaiist

Infographic: Historical Chinese and foreign-inflicted deaths: Shanghaiist.

I’ve long suspected that if you looked at who has killed whom in China over the centuries, foreigners were mere amateurs in comparison with the Chinese themselves. Assuming that the true figures are somewhere in the graphics, even the Japanese are barely as murderous as the Party has ever been.

If it was possible to compile the figures for deaths over the past 2,500 years, then I wouldn’t be surprised if deaths in various wars against foreign powers would still be dwarfed by deaths inflicted by the state.

Watch: Amazing Hong Kong in 1961!: Shanghaiist

Watch: Amazing Hong Kong in 1961!: Shanghaiist.

This is some fascinating footage of Hong Kong 51 years ago. While some of the scenes might still be found in corners of the territory today, there’s a Mainland feel to the place, viz. dirty, impoverished and squalid. I don’t know whether the clip is an accurate picture of life in Hong Kong in general at the time or whether that’s what people travelling on the tram saw.

[14.11.13. There’s also another, more recent post on the Shanghaiist of footage from China in 1937.]

Holinshed’s Chronicles

State-authorised history.

I’ve been aware of something called Holinshed’s Chronicles most of my life, but I’ve never known anything more about it than the name. I was having a glance at Francis Bacon’s Essays last night, which had various references to Holinshed, and decided to do a search online for more information. That led me to the Holinshed Project.

Like the Phil Soc, the site is based at Oxford, but unlike the Phil Soc, it’s not blocked (as it appeared to be at the time –JH.). It includes the texts of the two different editions, and they’re publicly available. Often with projects like these, you suddenly hit a paywall or have to be a member of Oxford University or the EETS (and a member of some university) or etc. The site includes some background about the writing of the Chronicles, an extensive bibliography, and various matters of related interest to professional historians.

The text itself is actually on the English Department website and attempts to be a faithful rendering of the original, right down to the old-fashioned long-s (ſ).

The first three books are about the history, geography, food, customs and divers other topics, including ‘Whether it be likely there were euer any Gyaunts inhabiting in this iſle or not’, which no doubt kept the pub philosophers of Tudor England quite busy. Our man says, “For this cauſe therefore I haue nowe taken vpon me to make thys briefe diſcourſe inſuing, therby to prooue, that the opiniõ of Gyaunts is not altogether grounded vpon vayne & fa|bulous narrations”, but he does seem to try hedging his bets a little.

In the section on language I learn

The thirde language apparauntly knowen is the Scythian or highe Dutche, brought in at the firſt by the Saxons, an hard and rough kinde of ſpeach god wotte, when our nation was brought firſt into acquaintance withall, but now chaunged with vs into a farre more fine and eaſie kind of vtteraunce, and ſo poli|ſhed and helped with new and milder wordes that it is to be aduouched howe there is no one ſpeache vnder the ſonne ſpoken in our time, that hath or can haue more varietie of words, copie of phraſes, or figures or floures of eloquence, thẽ hath our Engliſhe tongue, although ſome haue affirmed vs rather to barke as dogs, then talke like men, becauſe the moſt of our wordes (as they doe in déede) incline vnto one ſyllable.

Well, another amateur telling us all about language. 500 years and nothing has changed. I love the bit about barking like dogs and that old clarion cry from the 16th century that English was nothing but monosyllables.

In the section on the measurement of time is a version of the old rhyme I learnt long ago about how many days there are in the month (Thirty days hath Nouember, this one begins). The writer also laments the confusion between the calendar year beginning in January and the business year beginning on the 25th of March.

The Chronicles are like an old chest which has been lying half-forgotten until someone stumbles across it one day and finds curiosities rather than treasures inside, which are the diverting and amusing relics of a long-lost age.

Calais 1558

Neither king nor roi but cash.

When the French took Calais in 1558, what did the locals think about it? Were they all yearning to breathe the sweet air of Gallic feudal oppression? (Probably not; see below for further details) Was Calais the Hong Kong of its day? What influence did two hundred years of occupation by the English have on the place? Did anyone think of it as anything more than a French town under English management?

According to wikipedia, it was represented by two MPs. Did any of the locals speak English or did their lordships speak French the commons pidgin French? (Again, see below for further details.)

According to the entry for the 7th of January on Ward’s Book of Days, the French were turfed out after Calais was conquered by Edward III. I don’t know whether that meant the town did not see a single French inhabitant in 200 years, but I can’t imagine there being no long-term French presence in Calais for all that time. Dick Whittington, who was never as poor as his pantomime character, was mayor of London and Calais in 1407.

When the French did retake Calais, the new inhabitants were French Protestants. On one website I saw, the town was described as having a Flemish character.

The town was also under Spanish occupation between 1596 and 1598.

Thus, Calais was an English-populated town in France during the time of its occupation, and its populace would not have welcomed the French with open arms in 1558. Nor would the time of occupation probably have left much of a lasting impression, it seems.

Niuntehund glorious years

Glorious years of what, though?

About a week ago or so, part of the car park beneath the bridge was sectioned off. I thought that it might be a workers’ camp because it appears that the the jetty from which the canal tours leave is being extended, and this was to be the temporary accommodation for the men and women working on it. Instead, the artisans have been working on metal frames, which are being covered in strips of coloured paper. The first recognisable ones were dragons, but today I found one in the form of a red flag with 1921-2011 on it.

As I’ve just discovered, it’s going to be hund-nigontig glorious [If that’s not sarcasm, I’m a one-legged kangaroo. –ed.] years this year since the Party was established (with Russian funding), although the first congress wasn’t until July. According to one source of information, there wasn’t a prole present, the delegates tending to be non-managerial professionals.

I’m sure there will be plenty of special events such as even greater restrictions on the Internet, the detention of people who want others to think for themselves, and specially thick, rose-tinted spectacles to prevent reality from obtruding. Don’t expect any apologies for the gross abuses during the past neunzig years. Unexpected announcement: the emperor orders people to refer to him as the son of heaven, and doesn’t even look faintly embarrassed about making such a request.

(Cross-posted from Green Bamboo LJ.)

Richard II’s cookbook

And seyde his tale, as ye shul after heere.
According to this story on The Guardian, the John Ryland’s Library in Manchester (the old one, I assume) is digitising various medieval manuscripts including a recipe book compiled by Richard II’s chefs in 1390. There’s a HQ picture here.
Not being trained in palaeography, I find parts of the text difficult to read. For example, this word appears to be a verb and looks like it starts ways-, but the rest is illegible to me. It seems to be a verb, but that’s about it.
I think it's a verb
According to the article, other medieval manuscripts are going to be reproduced for online viewing.
The style of writing got me wondering whether anyone had ever made a computer font. I found a couple of likely candidates on One is called Wir Wenzlaw Rough by Pia Frauss (on page 8 of Scripts > Calligraphy) and the other is Herman Decanus AH (page 9 of Scripts > Calligraphy). On further investigation, I find that Pia Frauss, the designer of Wir Wenzlaw, has an updated version of the font, which is available from her website. Her other fonts are also worth checking out.
In one of those nostalgia moments which, I suppose, I might be permitted at my age, the site reminds me that when I was at primary school I used to design alphabets now and then. In those days, I didn’t even know the word “font” and I don’t recall ever using my creations. I do remember that it took some time to create a uniform set of characters. These days it’s take even longer because I’d also be thinking about the design of accented characters and punctuation. I suppose you can get software and turn your own handwriting into a font if you so desire; but I’ll spare the world my somewhat medieval-style hand writing, and leave font design to the experts.

Telegram for Dr Jenner

“It’s the Turks.”

Edward Jenner is commonly credited with devising a way of immunising people against smallpox by inoculating them with a related disease called cowpox. There’s a well-known cartoon showing the people being immunised sprouting cows from where they’ve been inoculated. Apparently, some farmer called Benjamin Jesty used this means to immunise his wife and children in 1774, twenty years before Jenner made his discovery independently of him.

But I’ve just been formatting the letters that Lady Mary Wortley Montague wrote to various friends as she travelled across Europe to Turkey early in the 18th century. In one written to Mrs S. C. in April 1717, she says

A propos of distempers, I am going to tell you a thing that will make you wish yourself here. The small-pox, so fatal, and so general amongst us, is here entirely harmless, by the invention of ingrafting, which is the term they give it. There is a set of old women, who make it their business to perform the operation, every autumn, in the month of September, when the great heat is abated. People send to one another to know if any of their family has a mind to have the small-pox: they make parties for this purpose, and when they are met (commonly fifteen or sixteen together) the old woman comes with a nutshell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox, and asks what vein you please to have opened. She immediately rips open that you offer to her, with a large needle, (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch) and puts into the vein as much matter as can ly upon the head of her needle, and after that, binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell; and in this manner opens four or five veins.

In other words, the Turks were already using a similar means of inoculating people against the disease, but had been doing so quite some time before. Montague was so satisfied with the results that she decided to have her son immunised and planned to introduce such a treatment to England, although she says

…and I should not fail to write to some of our doctors very particularly about it, if I knew any one of them that I thought had virtue enough to destroy such a considerable branch of their revenue, for the good of mankind. But that distemper is too beneficial to them, not to expose to all their resentment the hardy wight (sic) that should undertake to put an end to it.

Clearly, if Montague did try and disseminate this means of inoculation, then it appears to have been unsuccessful. She herself caught smallpox later in life, but there’s no indication that she had herself immunised in this way.