[5.23.2015] Eastasia and Oceania Redux

I like some blogs in which people blast out whimsical comment on whatever is going on. My favorite was "Dick Destiny" before he went back to music-all-the-time. I spent my teenage years in the same land where Dick grew up and some of his rude and always acute comments on everything from nasty farm jobs to myths of international security threats were welcome reading. But none of us likes reading too much about things close to home, and especially not when our own names and minor misfortunes are used to push ideas with which we have a profound lack of sympathy. I came across an example of that when reading a blog with the topic "We have always been at war with Eastasia." The column was featured in the website "The Rectification of Names". At first glance one assumes that the column title, with its invocation of Orwell, is intended to be read as Newspeak, meaning only that the ideological forces of Oceania wish the bleating public to believe it is so. There would be something in that.

The author quickly pins up the basic problem of current American and rising Chinese historiography of the Qing empire: Qing history is treated as a conquest history, in which the conquerors not only did not become quickly transformed into Chinese but actually continued their conquests, as a distinct conquest caste, through Taiwan, Mongolia, Tibet, Qinghai, and Turkestan. He (or she) then goes on to point out, very acutely, that in the attacks on American and indirectly on Chinese historians "we are not looking here at a revived Cultural Revolution style of terror-enforced groupthink, but at a conservative establishment that knows its days of being taken seriously are numbered."

A few of my colleagues in the USA, in print and over the airwaves, have compared the recent criticisms of "New Qing History" to the terrors of the Cultural Revolution. That strikes me as overdone. There is no doubt that for our colleagues in China, the indirect intimidation threatens significant career and life difficulties in the event of a misstep. Despite that, three or four Qing specialists in China have shown courage in addressing not only the absurdities in Li Zhiting's broadside but also the more detailed points raised by lesser lights. They may suffer consequences in the short term, but the blogger's observation that in the long run the Party cannot continue to insist upon a fantasy story of the creation of the current boundaries of the PRC must be true. The founders of the future historical profession in China are the historians who today are suffering the frowns and wagging fingers of Party-encouraged scholars who have lowered themselves to polemicism. This is not the Cultural Revolution or anything remotely like it. It is not about who is red, but about who is expert. Those who will in future argue that China's expansion over the millennia has depended solely upon the charisma of Chinese culture or the persuasions of the Chinese economy will be forced into retreat by historians who, on the basis of documentation in many languages and comparative perspectives on the expansion of all great empires, will show that Qing was just another conquest empire. At that point the Party historians will have to resign themselves to talking unpersuasive nonsense, or revise their paradigm dramatically. Nobody likes revising the paradigm. It means, among other nightmares, textbook revision (the prospect of which is sufficient in itself to inspire many campaigns of villification against revisionists no matter where they reside).

Would regarding the Qing as one of several conquest empires of the early modern period really be so threatening to the Party? For it to be so, one has to make a few assumptioms that have no basis in any kind of fact, philosophy or legal thinking. Millenium is not a valid unit of human history, and sovereignty in the present has no necessary relationship to remote historical configurations of political or military power. Yet the Party may not be the only ones making the connection. The blog author, and not a few professional historians, have linked the "New Qing" narratives to denunciations of cultural destruction in Xinjiang and Tibet, which it is implied would not occur without PRC claims to historical sovereignty in these areas.

Historical journals in China have for the past decades prominently featured articles attempting to demonstrate that Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Taiwan were always "subsumed by" (属于) "China" (in the guise of the Han, Tang, Ming or Qing empires). What history actually shows is that these regions and others (particualrly Yunnan) were in complex relationship with various states based in China, and that these relationships sometimes fluctuated by the decade. What is clear is that Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Eastern Turkestan are all today part of the PRC, and home to provinces or special autonomous regions that are clearly and specifically under the administration of the Chinese state. Why would it be important to make a historical case (that cannot be made) that the historical condition of these territories adumbrated and in fact entailed that they would be part of the PRC today? Does American history forbid the study of the Three Rivers Republic of Vermont, or of the confederation of the Haudonesaunee, or of the Republic of Texas, or of the United States of Mexico when it subsumed California and New Mexico, or of the kingdom of Hawaii? Those are not sensitive subjects today, but there was a time when they were, and textbooks that made mention of them or did not overtly distort history were rare.

The American narrative reconciled its conquest history with the myth of democratization and equality; destruction of local identities and eradication of previous geographies of affiliation was justified by the insistence that a total marginal improvement in human well-being had been achieved. When China was still ideologically communist, a similar justification for conquest was available, and sometimes invoked, particularly in relation to Southwest China. In those instances, conquest became obliteration of traditional slavery, of the oppression of women, of the domination of landlords and warlords. In those American and Chinese narratives, conquest was celebrated as "liberation" -- liberation from ignorance, from physical hardship, from the superstitions that kept some people in thrall to others.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, both China and the USA were confronted by a reactions against the homogenizing ideology of just conquest. I don't know all the reasons why. One is surely the hollowness of the promises of equality of status and opportunity, which neither society achieved. Since obliterating difference did not actually create equality and justice, some communiites clearly saw reclamation of difference as a possible path to advocacy, agency, and basic rights. Another reason is that production of new difference is in fact a function of coercive suppression of difference. In the United States, the response to the tensions arising from reclaimed identities and rising advocacy was "multi-culturalism" in education and political rhetoric, attempting to neutralize the energies of coherently different identies by fragmenting and disassembling their expressions, substituting their parts for their wholes, and instituting a massive quoting-out-of-context enterprise. In China, the response to a similar problem was "nationalities unity" 民族团结), using the same dynamics of superificially diverse representation to neutralize true diversity. In both countries, by the end of the century state rhetoric had attempted to denature difference with a superficial code of inclusion applied to race, cuisine, language, and holidays while silencing narratives of difference and dissidence.

But there is one way in which China's approach to conquest history and the problems of difference is distinct. Unlike the USA, China's recognized "national minority" populations live at its borders, and they are sensitive borders --particularly the borders with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikstan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the other half of historical Turkestan resides. The northern and western boundaries of China, including Tibet, are underpopulated in comparison to the east, and that means what while the overall percentage of "non-Han" living in the PRC is small, they are the founder populations in the border areas and until the last few decades were sometimes the majority. The USA has never felt threatened by its vanquished cultures, but nevertheless expends good money surveilling and imprisoning leaders of Native American, Muslim or Anabaptist communities who do not confine themselves to the lanes of friendly multi-culturalism and patriotic pablum. China does not have the same freedom from fear of its distinct identity communities, and its reactions are correspondingly more arch. Separatism, localism, and coherent local identity --which the state places all on a continuous spectrum-- are interpreted as threatening if not outright seditious by their nature.

This partly explains why a history of conquest in China is so quickly associated with qualification of PRC sovereignty in the historically conquered areas. In the USA, conquest was justified by liberation, which was narrated as resulting in cultural and political homogeneity. But in China before and after (but not always during) communism, conquest was justified by the assertion that homogeneity preceded liberation, and in fact produced it. This is the essence of the objections of the Party to what they claim is the "New Qing History" critique of "sinicization." If the expansion of China's historical borders does not follow the cultural liberation that "sinicization" is historically asserted to have been, then conquest must in fact have been the primary cause of the enlargement of empires such as Qing. And for the PRC to claim the Qing borders, they would have to claim the Qing history of violence and subordination.

In fact the Party's objection falls oblique to the critique of "sinicization." The problem for me, when I wrote the critiques of sinicization in 1989 and 1990, was only indirectly related to Chinese nationalist historiography of the early twentieth century. I was writing about the English-language scholarship on China, which had --in my view-- ostentiously neglected words like "assimilation" and "acculturation" in favor of "sinicization," for the purpose of suggesting a unique process unrelated to historical processes such as military incursion or economic domination. As in the narrative favored by the present CCP, sinicization had posited a ineluctible force for cultural change, preceding military occupation and in fact requiring it. And as a second consideration, the process as described suggested not only cultural change in individuals and communities, but transformation of populations into Chinese --an idea wholly disconsonant with the understandings of modern cultural studies, where identity is multivalent and dynamic. The critique from the beginning had very little to do with what Chinese scholars understand as 汉化 and was related to it only by writers attempting quick calques, not from one language to another, but from one history of academic discourse to another.

It strikes me that our blogger's title "We Have Always Been at War with Eastasia" falls off a different side of the anti-New-Qing-History wagon. It is a reference to the protestations of Oceania, when it makes more sense as a protestation of Orwell's Eastasia itself. The condemnations, brutal as they sometimes are, of "New Qing Historians" and its putative practitioners are a tiny spec on the Party's attempts to deny and neutralize, rather than truly reconcile, the conquest history of the empire that preceded it (a dead empire, in fact). They go along with the imprisonments of Ilham Tohti and Pu Zhiqiang, with the discipline and suppression of newspapers and other media of news and opinion aross the country and in Hongkong, and Xi Jinping's general campaigns to eradicate "Western" influence --since that influence tends to agitate new questions of historical inquiry and cultural identity, and to question the new sandy islands of PRC reach. For the current Party leadership, "We have always been and always will be at war with Oceania" is the message; but as with all Newspeak, it is false on its face. As surely as the historical fantasies of the Party will fall to the patient work of Chinese historians, the insistence on the irreconciliability of all differences with the USA in particular will be rejected by a rational Chinese public.


This month has come the barrage of criticisms from Chinese Academy of Social Sciences against "New Qing History," which this week has morphed into a pointed attack on me, based almost entirely on the existence of goofs and gaffes in the details of my published work. This criticism is well-founded, and this website which has existed since 1995 is inspired by the problem. It is real and anybody who wants to pretend that it is the core of my work or the sum of my contribution is free to do so. I don't see it quite that way, but I do agree with critics (particularly Professor Zhong Han) that everything would be better without ridiculous errors no matter how small, whether typos or real slips. It can be done, and I know people who are letter-perfect historians. They are magnificant. That will never be me, I am truly sorry to say.

I've written repeatedly, but not very expansively, since 2008 on what I see as the mirage of "New Qing History" and what I regard as conceptual flaws in the work of some of the historians who affiliate themselves with it. Since I don't think that outside the constructions of some members of the historical profession, or at least the academic bureaucracy, in China, there is a "New Qing History" phenomenon, it should be clear that I don't think that my criticisms can be generalized to any group of people. For reasons that I partly understand and, to the extent I understand them, regard as naive, the idea became established in Chinese historiographical discourse some time ago that I am actually affiliated with "New Qing History school" and might be some kind of official in the cabal. So it is ironic this month to find that criticisms I have previously made of self-described "New Qing" historians, and citations that have been posted here for years or decades of my own errors, are now presented cartoon fashion as new and original criticisms emanating from the faculties of Central Minorities University or the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Professor Zhong Han of Central Minorities University can save himself a lot of time by using the material here, even though it only covers three books so far --plenty more to go, thanks to proof-reading and fact checking by my reviewers, translators and private correspondents.

I should be clear about this: Although I don't want to be considered a member of "New Qing History" or any other school, I will defend any of these historians against ludicrous charges of being neo-imperialists, frauds, or anything other than what they are: Careful, dedicated professional historians, who write about the world as they find it in their documents (which are not precisely the documents used by Professor Li Zhiting). That is actually true of me too. The evidence that is the basis of my interpretations has not been called into question by any of the enthuastic hunters of errors. But when it comes to Evelyn Rawski and Mark Elliott in particular, they are masters of careful detail of every kind. I'm an easy target and though --according to me-- it is impossible to discredit the "New Qing History school" by discrediting me, it is something for Professor Zhong to put on his resumé to show that he is resolute and ferocious enemy of very small and rather friendly foreign historians.

On the basis of the foregoing I would say it is not surprising that the anti-New Qing History squads should home in on me, but I have always found it curious that until very recently their primary target has been Evelyn Rawski, who I believe has over the years associated herself with the New Qing Historians because she is, first of all, sympathetic to large and comparative approaches to the Qing empire, and second she is an energetic encourager of younger scholars, including those of the New Qing affiliation. As a former president of AAS she is certainly the most prominent person to end up in the "NQH" corral, and she has a very specific sin for which she can be indicted: Her presidential address of 1995, later published in a review essay in which she cited recent research on the problem of "sinicization" and the changing views of the Qing empire (particularly the conquest elites). Unfortunately the essay has been mis-read by both English and Chinese critics to be somehow a denial of cultural change in East Asia, perhaps suggesting that nobody at all had taken up Chinese language, or intensive farming, or Chinese dress in the long history of states based in China. That, of course, was not what the critique of "sinicization" as a construct was ever about. It was about the tendency of historians of China to discuss what appear to be straightforward processes of assimilation and acculturation not as assimilation or acculturation, but as a charismatic and unique process of "sinicization" --inevitable, conscious and fully willing transformation of whole poopulations into Chinese. Not only was this construct one that would be inevitably challenged by modern understandings of cultural identity as multi-valent and dynamic, it was also inevitable that historians would notice that "sinicization" is unrelated to what we can see of history in the evidence. China itself is dynamic and has historically responded to influences from near and far, some of them transformative, as any other great society does. The one-way trope of "China" changing everybody else and never being changed was an impossible narrative, though it appears to be a dream still cherished by certain people in China and their sympathizers abroad. As if in the secret employ of Rawski and her co-conspirators, the waspish reply by the late great Ho Ping-ti proposed to refute her view of the changing field by demonstrating how unique and charismatic the process of "sinicization" had been. When the best reply you can offer to a critic is an archetypical demonstration of what is being criticized, you are not likely to persuade a whole lot of people. Rawski's characterization of the changing view of the Qing empire stands. Now it is what is loosely and creatively called "New Qing History."

Apart from the conventionally unpardonable sin of telling the truth, Rawski seemed for some reason or other to continue to attract disproportionate negative attention from some historians in China. It was curiously like the rabid amplification I have recently noted of what would otherwise be transient and sometimes muted criticism of me. Hm. I just wonder what could be at work here. Out of scientific interest I did take a peek at the self-description of a tweeter who seemed driven mad with glee at one of Professor Zhong's comments, in this case that because I mixed up Baikal and Balkash (which I do, and it was pointed out to me long ago by Chang Chun-shu and others, and it is already here in this site, I believe on the page about The Manchus), that all my work is to be discounted as amateur. Who, I wonder, makes a point of making sure that such remarks get the widest possible circulation? The tweeter had helpfully provided a self-description, fully public, and so here I reproduce it:

1.MA student in military history
2. Love Chinese studies
3.Hate Feminism
4. Don't believe in Global Warming

That's obviously it. Evelyn Rawski is, as we all know, a prominent advocate for recognition of global warming. In fact, I also happen to be an advocate for recognition of global warming. That must be what distinguishes us from historians who seem to attract less attention on the subject of New Qing History.

Serious now: As I told Ben Dooley, we are not the targets. It doesn't matter to the new polemicists in China whether I am one of the New Qingers or I am not. Which foreign names are dragged around to make the point that New Qing History is one of the Innumerable No's does not matter. We are not the targets. We all know who (generically) the targets are. There's nobody here but us chickens, if you see what I mean.

Most of my colleagues advise, I think with considerable wisdom, against engaging in Internet dialogue with historians in China. Their reasons, I believe, are primarily based upon good information suggesting that a great many historians, both professional and amateur, are paid to troll sites like Amazon and Google Books; each negative comment about a foreigner's book on China or Chinese history may actually be rewarded with a small payment. This practice is not limited to China, but the fact that it exists (or, has been brought into existence by unwise and intellectually destructive practices of Amazon, Google and others) at all argues against taking seriously any kind of comments posted in these fora.

Second, it is impossible to participate in direct dialog because sites in China publishing extensive reviews of foreign scholarship on China are actually closed to anybody not living in China. You can read the criticism, or in some cases outright trashing, but not respond to anything. In such an environment, the tendency of writers to make casually destructive, uninformed, or dishonest remarks is encouraged, while sober consideration or honest reading is devalued. This, again, is not exclusive to China. But it is another argument against bothering to even read, let alone respond, to anything written in China about foreign scholarship on Chinese history.

But while it may be wiser to refrain from any kind of comment on the Internet, complete refusal to engage with Chinese scholars there is nevertheless inconsistent with our purposes in being in this field. And while it is true that free-range trolling against foreign scholars is clearly regarded as both fun and profitable in some quarters, it is also true that there is a very considerable portion of the historical profession in China that has read foreign scholarship carefully and widely, makes well-balanced criticism, and acknowledges a debt to foreign research or analysis where it exists. They, too, work through the Internet. They should be distinguished from and talked to when possible, because we learn from it. We cannot neglect opportunities to learn from our colleagues in China.

In my own case I find that the most extravagant criticism is directed against A Translucent Mirror. There is much to criticize in the book (I would choose the footnotes relating to Mongols and Mongolia, but I will have opportunity to do that when I post errata for the book), but so far the criticisms I have read have nothing to do with the book, which is disappointing. But even when the criticisms are not actually related to what is in the book, there are still interesting things to learn.

As an example: I read a very interesting article by He Qilong 何启龙 entitled "Questioning Whether Yuan Buddhism Supports "Political Co-Rule" 质疑元代佛教能&# 25552;供& # 30340; 政治合法性 . The article is a critique of Herbert Franke, David Farquhar and myself, the charges being that we have characterized Yuan Buddhism as pluralistic, tolerant, and encouraging benevolent government. We have thereby suggested that the Qing invocation of Yuan Buddhism was an essential aspect of Qing legitimacy in China. But, according to He, we have neglected several facts. First, there are extensive Buddhist documents in Uighur that show the true character of Yuan Buddhism, which was neither pluralistic, nor tolerant, nor peaceful. Moreover, we have neglected the fact that China has its own Buddhist traditions, and have instead focused on medieval Mongol Buddhism as if it were the main channel of Buddhist influence in China.

I most certainly neglected all these facts, for the simple reason that they had nothing to do with the interpretation that A Translucent Mirror was based on. The book was about Qing imperial ideology --its sources in the seventeenth century, its apogee in the eighteenth century. As a matter of fact I have already been criticized for my discussion of Yuan Buddhism (not the imperial tradition particularly) in several venues by the venerable Professor Yao Dali 姚大力, and my response is still the same. I have never researched or published on Yuan Buddhism. The character and diversity of Buddhism in China generally was not my subject in the book, and it is hard to see how it could have got into the book without some strange diversions. The Uighur documents were unknown to me before I read He's article (which I do recommend to my colleagues and students), for the reason (again) that they had nothing to do with Qing imperial ideology, even as it related to the cakravartin traditions the Qing claimed (as I have it) to have inherited from the Chinggisids (not the "Mongols"). As interesting as I now find the documents, they are still not related to what my book was about. If the Qing emperors and their historians had known of these documents and discussed them in some way, it would relate; but they didn't and it doesn't. I don't think it relates well to David Farquhar's work on Mongol elements in early Qing rulership either. Franke's subject was more general, but whether esoteric Uighur documents shedding light on the origins of Yuan Buddhism would have been relevant to his interpretation is questionable to me.

As He makes clear in his critique (and Professor Yao's earlier critique is similar in many respects), his problem is less with what was said and more with what was not said; he dislikes the "omission" of material he thinks would force a new characterization of Yuan-period Buddhism. But most of us try hard to omit material that is not relevant. We all like to rag on people who try to ride our own hobby horses, or vulgarize our specializations by putting them in service of some larger problem or interpretation. That specialists in Yuan Buddhism find my discussions of the Qing perspective on the Chinggisid cakravartin tradition lacking from the viewpoint of a specialist on Yuan-period Buddhist belief is inevitable. I would like everybody to like my books, but if scholars specializing in subjects peripheral to my subject are unhappy that I have not incorporated findings irrelevant to the topics of my works, I have to just be philosophical about that. But there is another problem with respect to critiques such as He's. The author is concerned that my work somehow promotes an acceptance of Qing legitimacy, and this is a widespread criticism of the school of "New Qing History" (a mythical "school" which so far as I can see is an unfortunate mangling of the discussions of three or four specialists on the Qing). In this particular case, He is concerned about my discussion of the secular and sacred political zones in Tibetan law (how or why he transmutes it to a discussion of Yuan or Mongol Buddhism I am unsure). This form of co-rule, he suggests, was a source of the legitimacy of Qing plural systems of law and governance.

In A Translucent Mirror, this small reference to medieval dual government (not only in Tibet, but also Europe and the Islamic world) is used to establish a threshold for early modern rulerships --they are contrasted to the earlier dual system, not regarded as its descendants. Moreover, systems of dual governance or co-rule also have nothing to do with the book (though I am interested in them in my current research). The book was about exactly what the title says: "History and Identity in Qing Ideology." Yuan Buddhism, or systems of co-rule, were outside the subject of the book. There isn't much more I can say by way of response to this.

The mood of historical discourse in China on the Qing, and particularly in popular venues (foremost the Internet) promotes a relentless focus on the issue of Qing legitimacy, and whether foreign scholarship is supporting it deliberately or through a lack of understanding. To scholars in Europe or America (or Japan, I think), the whole idea that modern historians would make retrospective judgements on whether a government was "legitimate" or not seems ludicrous. Most of us would find no way to fit it into any kind of interpretive discussion, unless the discussion is actually about the intellectual, legal or cultural foundations of legitimacy itself. Yet, to a certain portion of the Chinese audience, anybody who writes about the Qing empire without specifically denouncing its illegitimacy is specifically supporting its legitimacy. This is probably an unbridgeable gap at present. So long as Qing scholars, students, and hobbyists believe that there really are things like "the New Qing History," they will continue to feel a disquiet about the motives of foreign scholars who look searchingly at the Qing empire.