(all original material on this site © Pamela Kyle Crossley)

[4.15.2016] The Second Sentence

Professor Zhong Han has undertaken an “interview” (by 中国社会科学报) in which he raises some interesting points and also returns to several worn-over points about “New Qing History.” Once again I am struck by Professor Zhong's very limited knowledge of my work generally (no reason he should be expert in it, though making second career of criticizing somebody you know very little about seems like strange work to me), and he plainly misunderstands a few things that can be easily cleared up. 

Professor Zhong certainly doesn't like the interview between Hou Deren and me that was first published some years ago and has recently been reprinted all over the CASS site. But now an interview in the same layout between him and a helpful CASS interviewer is just the thing. My advice to American scholars is to not do these interviews. No matter how sincere the intentions of the interviewer, the effects of reducing many hours of talking in both Chinese and English to a confected "interview" in Chinese a couple of pages long has to be somewhere between unsatisfactory and disastrous. Some very early ones have actually come out well for me, but others show the problems of speaking, note-taking, speaking, note-taking and so on. The Hou Deren interview occurred well before the current teapot tempest about "New Qing" history, and I was far too casual about the whole thing. Deren asked me how many languages I could read for my research and I said, counting them, 10 (including English, I think). I made very clear that this was reading only, no speaking, no writing, no original research: reading of academic prose only. Seems fairly clear, especially since I know many Chinese scholars who read English very well but don't pretend to be able to speak or write. Zhong Han has quoted this passage (never quite accurately) numerous times to achieve the effect he wants, and he specifically claims that it is a good thing to talk about the personalities of those of the "New Qing History" persuasion. He knows one mangled misquote from an "interview" and has spun all kinds of fantasies around it without knowing anything else about me at all. He thinks this is an important thing to do.

The fact is it didn't matter if I said "three," or "ten," or "twenty" --we were discussing the importance of acquiring reading access to a wide range of scholarship, and learning to read for that purpose; we were not discussing who knows how many languages. As a matter of fact, when you look at Zhong Han's very interesting research it seems clear that he must be able to handle himself in Mongolian and Tanggut in addition to Japanese... why on earth would he be outraged by American scholars who can read some European languages in addition to some Asian ones? How that harms him is very unclear to me.

This basic lack of any understanding of the American history profession is glaring in almost everything Zhong Han writes (or opines about to "interviewers") about "New Qing History." One of the strangest of his new comments is 相比[that is, in contrast to Chinese scholars] 之下,虽然在学术语言的写作表述上没 有任何障碍,但“新清史”学者群的作品 却极少出现在西方内亚史的主流知名学术 出版物,如《中亚杂志》、《中亚研究》 、《亚洲史杂志》、《匈牙利东方学报》 、《乌拉尔—阿尔泰年鉴》、《满学专辑 系列》、《通古斯—西伯利亚专著系列》 、国际阿尔泰学会年会论文集系列和琳琅 满目的阿尔泰学家们的祝寿文集中。It is easy to dismiss this as just uninformed, on two points: First, it isn't actually true (Zhong must have missed my recent article in Central Asiatic Journal, or my name on the masthead, and I'm just one of his so-called "New Qing Historians;" I can't imagine he did the slightest bit of checking on this), but second it makes an assumption about American academics that is not true: After moving out of the junior ranks, American scholars tend to not publish in journals. Instead, they tend to leave that venue for younger scholars to introduce their work. What Zhong is talking about is an honest difference between American senior scholars on the one hand who tend to publish books instead of articles, and Euorpean, Chinese and Japanese senior scholars who publish articles regularly for their entire careers. In the major Chinese journals it can even be uncommon to see issues that do not include articles from the a roster of regular contributors. This is not to say that there is anything better about the American custom --it may be the opposite: I could see a lot of good coming out of American scholars publishing more articles. But American academices is now structured in such a way that scholars in the humanitiies and some social sciences are given a number of disincentives when it comes to publishing artticles, even in 匈牙利东方学报. It is a real difference that Zhong Han has noted but apparently without understanding the significance of it. He just assumes that there must be something wrong with the "New Qing Historians" because of this difference; he does not know that this difference is actually a difference between Chinese and American academic practice, not between the "New Qing Historians" and everybody else. 

This comes up again when Zhong Han rehashes the analysis (see below) of the research techniques of "New Qing" historians. He has taken this point for point from Xu Hong. As I said (below), I think Xu Hong's comments are generally accurate. I don't think he knows what it means about differences in Chinese and American academic practices, values and material circumstances. Xu Hong has not made a second career of criticizing American academics, so it doesn't surprise me that he did not note the context. Zhong Han is different. In Zhong Han's case I can't see the justification for judging American academic practices and standards without any apparent knowledge of what they are.

At various points Zhong works in the now well-worn error reports (also not original with him) regarding the bits of my work translated into Chinese. This is puzzling to me in this sense: Let's suppose I am as incompetent and insignificant as Zhong Han claims (come to think of it, I have no evidence to the contrary). In that case, why does CASS and Zhong and Li Zhiting and whomever put themselves to such trouble to trash me? They won't be happy until I am unable to function as a professional. Why that should be so important, they don't say. Zhong has pointed out that I am frequently criticized for small errors, and that is quite true. He considers it definitive evidence of something. It could be. Let's stipulate first of all that the errors are criticized because they are there. If there is any mechanical connection between the amount published and the number of typos, incorrect transliterations, misidentifications or other flubs, then the absolute number of errors in my work could be a bit higher than average, I am guessing. Is it proportionately higher? Nobody says. But Zhong is correct that there is something else going on. He's right that some German scholars are particularly harsh. This is how harsh: A particular German scholar whom I won't name here, in reviewing a chapter I wrote for one of the Cambridge history series, complimented the chapter and could not refrain from remarking that there were in fact no errors in the long and rather dense piece. Think about that. A reviewer who, finding no error, nevertheless did not hesitate to induce in his readers the belief that my authorship and errors are nevertheless synonymous. At that point, you know you are dealing with a particularly brutal and rigid (even if quite unconscious) kind of prejudice. The reason for such behavior is irrelevant here. The effect is that a target is created at some point and unreflective people toss darts at it just because everybody else does. What is good about getting older is that one sees the effect of time on scholarship and readership. People really do, over time, see what is important. 

Fortunately, I have not found a case of a real error on my part that would have any kind of significance for my understandings of what has happened, or probably happened, in China's past. And that is actually what I notice about other people's errors. Except in the rarest of rare instances, they don't matter. I can't think of a better example than a passage in Translucent Mirror in which I discussed a string of errors by other historians relating to confusion over Ningguda and Ninguta. At least two of these errors were in entries in Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period. In those biographies, any confusion over Ningguda and Ninguta was absolutely immaterial to the original writers and their subjects. The errors did not matter. But I was exploring how the confusion of the two places was exploited, as part of a larger pattern, by Qing court historians hoping to make it appear that Qing political origins were actually much farther from the Ming perimeter than they were in fact. For me, the history of these errors was essential and evidence of some success for those eighteenth-century Qing historians. So what did the discovery of these errors make me think of the historians who made them? A Translucent Mirror was dedicated to the authors of Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period --every one of them, individually, errors or no. In the software for the digital version of ECCP, I or correspondents commenting on the texts still discover errors. It doesn't matter. We correct them in the notes and move on. It is the best book ever written. 

By the way, I wonder how Zhong Han imagines that the particular argument of mine I refer to above (Qing court obscuration of the political origins of the Qing regime) is compatible with his view of "New Qing History" or my supposed association with it. I am slightly skeptical that he would be able to pull that argument out of the book, however, because of another very odd error that he makes in reference to Translucent Mirror:

以上谬误从基本功的层面折射出作者在 历史与语言训练上的双重阙失,其他一 些错误则深植于其貌似牢不可破的理论 体系中。最刺眼的一例就是作者迫不及 待地要将安德森《想象的共同体》中提 出的命题适用于帝制晚期的中国:即反 映民族历史文化传统的书籍的大量刊印 会为民族主义的传播发展埋下种子。

Not very long ago Zhong Han had me down as a "historical nihilist." Now I am a slave to Benedict Anderson's "imagined communities" model. Actually I can think, myself, of a way in which both could theoretically be true (of somebody, not me), but I doubt somehow that Zhong Han has got as far as that. It is quite correct that Benedict Anderson is mentioned in the second sentence of the book. But here is what it says: "The explanation ["imagined communities"] has an appealing versatility, in that it can be and has been imposed upon an infinite variety of national histories. Yet no matter how well the paradigm works in describing the processes by which communitarian concepts become propagated as national identities, the substance of any particular national narrative remains elusive. The cultural bits out of which such identities have been cobbled have vastly divergent origins, and the bits themselves are not theoretically neutral or interchangeable."

My meaning in the second sentence of the book is completely the opposite of what Zhong Han states. I write that I am skeptical of the theoretical sufficiency of "imagined communities" and intend to move beyond it. He writes that I have a 不可破的理论体系中 based upon Anderson's model. I don't know how to explain an error like this, but the fact that Zhong cannot get through the first paragraph of the book (or just the second sentence) without inverting and mangling the meaning of the text is a bit discouraging. On the other hand, it is easy to see how the myth of "New Qing History" lives. All you do is ignore what people actually write and make up your own version of how a few things you see on the page relate. Then, write a critique of the text you just invented. Then, claim that five or six other people have written essentially the same text that you just invented, say they are a 學派, and condemn them all by condemning one. I repeat: You can't discredit "New Qing History" by discrediting me (because I am not and never have been an affiliate of "New Qing" history). 

I regret that Zhong Han sees no opportunities ahead for mutual learning between Chinese and American scholars on the question of Qing history (a field in which, apart from criticizing me and the shadowy "New Qing Historians", he has very little professional interest). American methods and interpretations are not only useless to him, they are obnoxious, possibly dangerous (but also in my case incompetent and insignificant). His insistence that there is no way to do history except the way that he does it (考 after 考), is very lowering in such a young scholar. On the basis of his bizarre mis-reading of Translucent Mirror he attributes to me a 不可破的理论体系中, but I wonder why this does not apply to him. Which is really better? Finding fresh evidence every day and always getting the same answer (as some Chinese historians do), or looking at the same evidence every day and getting fresh answers (as some American scholars do)? Neither is better. Both are essential contributions for doing history, and the people who do each of them need all the others. I know I need Zhong Han (and thousands of other Chinese scholars), but evidently he doesn't need me. It's really better I should find out now, isn't it? Don't want any heartbreak later.