Reading: Aleko E. Lilius — I Sailed with Chinese Pirates

A stack of books waited for me while I was in Bologna, and yesterday I had my first riding in snow of the year to pick them up. I didn’t know which one to start with, so I started with them all; I think the word for that is gluttony.

I Sailed with Chinese Pirates, I discovered this on China Rhyming, a blog responsible for a not insignificant number of the books on China I pick up (and yes, the actual work being discussed there, White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates, is also on my list). I’ve had a thing for southern Chinese pirates ever since I discovered their leader for a period in the Qing dynasty was a woman named Jihng Sih (or Ching Shih in Mandarin), who commanded hundreds, or maybe thousands of junks and tens of thousands of crew, and despite appearances in popular culture has not had much written of her in the way of biography. Jorge Luis Borges though wrote a story about her, “The Widow Ching, Lady Pirate” in A Universal History of Infamy.

As for Aleko E. Lilius, he was one of those comically hard journalists who threw himself into highly improbably situations and lived to write about them, somewhere between Peter Hopkirk and Ernest Hemmingway, though unlike the latter, he’s not embarrassed to write of his terror when the pirate junk he is sailing on goes into battle with canons pounding.

Originally published in 1932 during the Republican era, I Sailed with Chinese Pirates was republished in 2009 with a short forward by China Rhyming’s Paul French, who also wrote about the book, which makes for a good read as well. And what else? It’s full of photos! Photos of Cantonese pirates and southern China from the 1920s! It’s also a very fast gallivant of a read; I’ll probably finish it tonight.

Reading: Paul A. Van Dyke — The Canton Trade: Life and Enterprise on the China Coast, 1700-1845

Continuing my return to reading China, as with my focus on women in the history of China, so too is there a strand which pays attention to the south, Lingnan, Guangdong, Canton.

So much of what is written on China is in fact only a small part thereof — Beijing as China, Shanghai as China, the eastern core. Other parts of the country are so distant as to be other countries, and despite the ongoing Han homogenisation programme, these other parts still retain their individual histories.

Paul A. Van Dyke’s The Canton Trade seemed like a good place to continue, after reading Julia Lovell’s The Opium War a few months ago, and now, more than half way through reading, I can say he hasn’t skimped on thoroughness.

pestilence – a crypto-history of the black plague

Amidst all this grant-writing that is seriously damaging my eyes – colours and objects are permanently dimmer and intangible after each successive submission – I’ve managed to fit in a great slab of research. Yay for internet, saviour of humanity, etc. The heading pretty much says it all, pestilence is the next work in the cycle following hell and extermination, in short, more of the same.

pestilence is something of a choreographed crypto-history of the Black Plague during the Age of Reason in Europe and in the late 19th Century in southern China. I mean crypto-history not in the erroneous sense of historical revisionism, rather in the sense of hidden and secret, in that the traces of a cataclysmic event remain on both the bodies of the victims and on the society long after the trail of destruction has passed

Underlying this is a historical investigation into the manifestations of disease and sickness in human bodies, the medicalisation of bodies, and treatments of illness in both European and Cantonese culture of these eras. From this follows cultural responses to disease, including the pantheon of plague gods, plague festivals and rituals in Guangdong Province, the demarcation of public space in 17th Century European urban areas, and contemporary continental philosophical analysis in the writings of Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard.

My research yesterday gave me a repeated experience of “waah! awesome!”, a bit like a sneezing attack, and started with a fairly innocuous visit to The Chinese Museum in Melbourne. I’m continuing all the Cantonese Opera study that I started in hell, and still have no idea how it’s going to be entangles in whatever I do, but … it’s like a Cantonese Gothic and has an attraction to me the way the Baroque and Grotesque does. From there I stumbled upon 大金山金龙博物馆 Golden Dragon Museum in Bendigo, with a whole temple full of old dragons. So a trip to Bendigo is planned.

Staying in Canton, I was looking for the annual Cantonese Opera Festival that I thought took place in Maoming, but I discovered one in Foshan that seems of equally huge size. I came across the festival and a rather extensive English language section on the Opera on the 佛山市博物馆 Foshan Museum’s website, there’s no link to it on any of the main pages, so: Cantonese opera in Foshan, including 86 pages of 11360 operas. They also have a collection of over 300 opera movies. Yes I will be going to Foshan when I go back to Guangzhou.

A couple of other good resources I fell into include Chinese Heritage of Australian Federation and Columbia University’s Asia for Educators, and Universität Bielefeld’s BieSON, where I found a bunch of papers relating to my current favourite thing, 瘟神 Plague Gods.

From there it was back over to Europe, where I’m still searching for the equivalent. There’s plenty of gory Eastern Alps mayhem that’s hanging over from the Middle Ages, like Krampus, and other demon-resembling paganism, so I’m fairly sure what I’m looking for, a riot of berserk, plague-crazed villagers wrapping themselves in the blood of slain cows and performing ritualised obscene acts till their inflamed buboes pop, is certainly to be found in the mountains of Switzerland and Austria.

puk gai and other cantonese words of love

What I really like when speaking Cantonese is how it makes me sound like a slutty canto-porn star about to give head, even when I’m cursing like a pimp on the waterfront. Not that I speak it too well, or even much. Despite living in Guangzhou on and off for the last almost four years, it’s been my Putonghua that has gotten a workout until recently. Partially because of the central edict pushing a fatuous and propagandistic ‘one-country-one-language’ agenda that means government businesses – even in the government-run arts companies – speak Mandarin, and partially because the province, being one of the economic miracles is awash in people from places where ‘Chinese’ as it as spoken is as different from the official tongue as Glaswegian is from Hungarian. So as English becomes the de-facto language of communication across Europe, so too does Mandarin become that across China. Which isn’t to say it’s an all-consuming juggernaut obliterating cultural diversity wherever it is set loose. Mandarin as it is spoken in Guangzhou is as unique a dialect as Cantonese is an unique language.

Cantonese, a sharp, cackling dialect full of slang and exaggerated expressions, was never the dominant language of China. But it came to dominate the Chinatowns of North America because the first immigrants came from the Cantonese-speaking southern province of Guangdong, where China first opened its ports to foreigners centuries ago.

It is also the chief language of Hong Kong, the vital trading and financial center that became China’s link to the West.

But over the last three decades, waves of Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants have diluted the influence of both the Cantonese language and the pioneering Cantonese families who ran Chinatowns for years.

The surging Chinese economy today has challenged Cantonese further. Because Mandarin is China’s official language, entrepreneurs like Hom have been forced to adapt, often learning the hard way that business can’t be done with Cantonese alone.

Many Cantonese speakers are racing to learn Mandarin any way they can — by watching Chinese soap operas, attending schools, paying for expensive immersion courses and even making more Mandarin-speaking friends. This is no cinch. Although Cantonese and Mandarin share the same written language, they are spoken as differently as English and French.

— LA Times

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