Reading: Justin Tiwald, Bryan W. Van Norden (eds.) — Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy: Han to the 20th Century

A much easier one to trace why I’m reading it. Published in September, Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy: Han to the 20th Century edited by Justin Tiwald, Bryan W. Van Norden was on Warp, Weft, and Way: Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學, and looked like the kind of thing that would nicely summarise a couple of millennia of Chinese thought, philosophy, and religion.

Besides some Chuang Tzu—I mean Zhuangzi, (and some decidedly awkward teenage messing around with the I Ching) my exposure to Chinese philosophy has been by osmosis. Even communist China in any of its forms is unavoidably aligned with some form of Confucianism. To read the the sources, for all my China reading is something I haven’t done.

I do dislike Confucianism, and everything in the translated selections here only confirms that. The Cosmology section (coming chronologically before Buddhism) alone for me is worth the “Oh why am I paying so much again for a book?” price. Not the least for the notes on that favourite pop-spiritual object of Western culture: Yin and Yang, which can only be understood as unmistakably misogynist and generally hegemonically normative.

For me, the dogmatic aspects of Confucianism in Chinese history and culture seem to be balanced—or at least resisted from achieving complete dominance—by Daoism, Buddhism, and Mohism (this latter I’ve read effectively nothing on). Perhaps experiencing confirmation bias while reading.

It could do with a couple more female translators, especially as it suffers from that “women in the kitchen” problem of them represented in the Women and Gender section but a distinct minority elsewhere. Anyway, it’s my go-to book for the subject.

Reading: Robert J. Antony — Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China

I was aiming for Dian H. Murray’s Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790-1810, which is probably the definitive work on the subject in English. Alas! Have you seen the price for that? It’s like reading Michel Serres when the only translations were hardcover university press, for which said universities charged obscene amounts and I was reduced to photocopying below the sign that said “Do Not Photocopy Entire Books!” and accompanying security camera (thankfully now reprinted at normal person prices). Even I balk at haemorrhaging such quantities of euros for a book. So I settled on the second on the list, Robert J. Antony’s Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China.

This fits in closely with Wensheng Wang’s White Lotus Rebels and South Sea Pirates, and is so far the most concise and well-researched book on the subject (for which I have an unhealthy fascination) that I’ve come across. Antony describes his approach to history as coming from the bottom up, a little perhaps like Gail Hershatter’s The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past, an approach that is by far my favourite; there are only so many books you can read on important men fighting each other before you get the general idea on a subject. Mostly I think Antony achieves this, though definitely not with the same depth and rigour of Hershatter.

Mainly I wanted to read this for the Cantonese pirate Jihng Sih (or Zhang Yi Sao) the wife of a pirate who rose to command hundreds of junks and tens of thousands of pirates. Sadly there wasn’t much, as Antony seemed to regard her husband Cheung Po Tsai (Zhang Bao) as the real leader, which doesn’t agree with what I’ve read to date. Nonetheless, Antony introduces me to a couple of other formidable woman pirates who made things miserable and provided much-needed trade along the South-China coast.

I still have my eye on Dian’s book, but in the meantime, for a quick, well-researched (though a little dry) introduction to the subject that is also affordable, Like Froth Floating on the Sea does the job.

Reading: Wensheng Wang — White Lotus Rebels and South Sea Pirates

I came for the pirates, particularly Jihng Yāt Sóu, otherwise known as Zheng Yi Sao, the wife of Zheng Yi, bisexual Cantonese pirate. Sounds brilliant if I stop right there! Once I discovered the world’s foremost pirate was both a woman and from the city of my heart, Guangzhou, I knew I’d be devoting a meandering number of years to tracking her down. It’s proved remarkable difficult. European pirates are far better known, even the female ones like Mary Read and Anne Bonny are equal to Blackbeard, but Ching Shih, she commanded hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of sailors and wow but it’s hard to find stuff on her.

I’d hoped Wensheng Wang’s White Lotus Rebels and South Sea Pirates — Crisis and Reform in the Qing Empire was going to say more than the one paragraph plus some lines that it did on her, though it has presented a good summary of South China Sea piracy from mid-1600s to the demise around 1810, enough for me to better decide what I’ll read next on this subject. The book itself is a little dry, even for my usual academic reading, and I even find myself disagreeing with Wang, for example with his description of Lingnan as a economic macroregion and therefore explicitly part of China and Chinese, whereas I’d see it perhaps better understood as a state under colonial control of China, yet fundamentally not-China and outwardly-directed across the South China Sea in its inter-state interactions. Possibly picking at straws here.

The history of the White Lotus Sect and the Qing Dynasty around the early-1800s is fascinating for me, but work is nowhere near the standard of Susan Mann or Gail Hershatter (despite the very nice cover). And the absence of a proper bibliography is either a mistaken omission or if intentional is bizarre.

Reading: Lydia H. Liu, Rebecca E. Karl, Dorothy Ko (Eds.) – The Birth of Chinese Feminism

This book turned up in my China feeds mid-June, though somehow I picked it up before I was in Vienna – or I’m confused in what I began reading but did not take with me there. There was an interview with Rebecca Karl on Shanghaiist, where the title was “China’s Qing Dynasty anarcho-feminists”, so obviously I was immediately interested, as well as mentions on China Rhyming and Frog in a Well – the former being a dependably good source of new reading for me and usually alone enough to make me put a book on my list. As well, Gail Hershatter, author of The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past one of the best books I’ve read in any field – has some high praise.

The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational History, edited by Lydia H. Liu, Rebecca E. Karl, and Dorothy Ko so far has made interesting reading having just finished Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Women with Mustaches and Men Without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity, the latter part of which covers approximately the same time period of early-20th century and thus a specific global period of colonialism and modernism, particularly in the parallels of feminism in both China and Iran wing formulated in no small way by male authors who locate women and their bodies within the discourse of nationalism. Without getting too involved here, being Sunday, it seems that feminism alone, without a theory or politics of intersectionality lends itself quite easily to fairly conservative ends, after all the concept of gender isn’t so far removed from that of nationalism, especially if it’s grounded in essentialism. Which perhaps is why – and what I’m rather eager to read about in this work – feminism needs some form of anarchist theory in order to expose the inherent biases that comes from working within a social and political situation built on colonialism and nationalism. Pretty much what bell hooks says, though I don’t remember her saying much about anarchism.

Reading: Margaret B. Wan — Green Peony and the Rise of the Chinese Martial Arts Novel

It’s seldom this happens, but I have no idea where I first came across Margaret B. Wan’s Green Peony and the Rise of the Chinese Martial Arts Novel. I’m fairly sure it was either during my first reading of The Water Margin, or during the second, Dent-Young translation (still working on this one as it’s six volumes). There’s nothing in my reading archives which mentions it, nor anywhere on supernaut, nor even do any of the searches for her and this book bring up anything familiar. I’m fairly sure though it arrived on my reading list over a year ago. Wait! No! Found it! Paper Republic mentioned her some undated time in the past, and they’ve been in my Feed for ages. They linked to SUNY Press, and that was probably enough for me.

So it was on my reading list for quite some time until I bought it, and then more time until I began reading. Then it was put aside during my recent fantasy fiction binge, and currently is my Brussels book, beginning from the start. This is good, because I have no distractions to cause me to put it down in favour of something easier, and so, page by page I’m getting through it. As almost a quarter of the work is notes, there’s a lot of flipping back and forth.

I haven’t read Green Peony, nor was I familiar with it, though I have a passing vagueness for some of the other classics, Honglou Meng, Xiyou Ji, and have been fairly drenched in Hong Kong and Chinese martial arts movies, so the general tropes of the genre were not unfamiliar. Reading this was an attempt to put it in some kind of context, with The Water Margin being like a barbaric, drunken, brawling, feasting epic equal to The Canterbury Tales (I have no idea why I compare the two other than an approximate correlation of writing).

It’s often pretty dry, though by the fourth chapter had picked up, or perhaps I’d trained myself to focus on the page, not to say it’s not fascinating; Wan definitely knows what she’s writing about very well. Curiously, having read Susan Mann not so long ago, I find there’s something of an absence of feminist scholarship in this; two examples I can think of: The first being a detailed description of role and character reversals in Green Peony, and how this undermines and parodies these forms. What I thought was missing here was to continue this line of reading to how the form of the role reversal parody in turn reifies the original form itself. Perhaps to say, the parody laughs at the artifice of the form, but does not the social philosophy on which the form rests.

The other example, I read while on the tram in Brussels, Wan refers to the reader of Green Peony as ‘he’. Perhaps the intended audience in the Qing Dynasty was male, but if so this was not made explicit, and so felt like a strange throwback to the days when masculine gender denoted the entirety, something I’ve not seen in recent writing. And even if the audience was largely male, there were plenty of literate women at the time who would have read it, which thus far leaves unanswered and unasked the nature of the parodies in Green Peony if the intended audience was male. Or perhaps I see everything currently through a myopic feminist perspective, having been spoilt by a deluge of excellent writers.

Reading: Tonio Andrade — Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West

Which is the one I’m ripping through at the expense of Women with Mustaches, Men without Beards, which I heard about on China Rhyming late last year – a blog that has been responsible for quite a bit of my book reading as Paul French’s meandering interests often suit mine.

Tonio Andrade’s Lost Colony is a bit of a gap-filler for me. Much of my reading on China has been mid- to late-Qing Dynasty, mostly in the 19th Century, dealing with the Opium Wars, or Republican Era, and despite knowing a little of the Ming Dynasty, it’s something of a blank – especially when related to Taiwan. Taiwan where I discovered southern Chinese cuisine was curiously laced with Portuguese herbs, and where acquaintances would announce their cultivated bonafides by declaring they were descended from Ming Dynasty migrants rather than the upstart Kuomintang rout.

I’m probably going to finish this book in the next couple of days. It’s one of those popular-scholarly works, nowhere near as dense as Afsaneh Najmabadi, more in keeping with, say, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, or The Canton Trade, though I think perhaps lighter than either. It suffers too a little from this strange populism that I’ve found in a couple of other authors, where references to specific, usually American, politics or current affairs turn up which might be comprehensible for someone who reads the news obsessively, but for others – particularly english speakers who aren’t American and don’t have an interest in Americocentricism – it comes across as odd and misplaced. I suspect though this has something to do with ‘appealing to the wider market’. It’s also got a quote on the dustcover from Jared Diamond, who has very recently been playing uncomfortably fast and loose with anthropology.

Anyway, another book, and one of several landing on me at the moment. I’ll read this one with a bit of distance, enjoyable as it is.

Reading: Stephen R. Platt — Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War

Back to China. Three of the unfinished books on my shelves are on China, and none of them light reading. But having finished my latest science-fiction frenzy, it’s time to read for self-betterment and such forth.

My attention lately seems to be coalescing around a period from late-Qing Dynasty to the end of the Republican Era, more or less from the mid-19th Century to 1949, but with plenty of leeway for adventures on the side, and there is masses of insanely good reading to be had. Perhaps it’s that my interest brings my awareness to what’s been published, but it feels like the last decade or so has seen some quite impressive research and scholarship done on this period (and China in general), and the resulting books are real gems. So, amidst my list of “want and shall buy”, Stephen R. Platt’s Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War made it to the top and after some time sitting on the shelf at Saint George’s, I picked it up last Thursday.

It’s probably an apt moment to be reading this, while the 18th Communist Party Congress grinds along, Hu Jintao and Grandpa Wen replaced by Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, lip service paid to dealing with corruption while whatever legitimacy the Party might have once had long vanished. It’s possibly a fascination for me, as well as a sadness in seeing a vast country of countries suffer such lost chances — the most recent almost-lifetime of communist-in-name-only rule being merely a prolonged rubbing of faces in the dirt — and finding the threads in its history of where things fell apart. The Taiping Rebellion is perhaps one such moment, or at least this is what Platt contends, and given I know not so much of these specific events, I am duly educating myself.

Let’s talk about presentation. A beautiful cover — very Chinese, set in Minion typeface, though a different sans-serif is used for titles which looks like Bank Gothic Light, I think a peculiar choice, and not so attractive. The pages are deckle edge cut, which is rather pretty to look at and to touch, so I will be thumbing them a lot. It’s not quite The Gender of Memory, but nonetheless looks and feels … mmm, fondling the dust jacket.

Reading: Susan Mann – Precious Records: Women in China’s Long Eighteenth Century

Shortly before departing for Brussels, I finished Susan Mann’s brilliant The Talented Women of the Zhang Family, and began Gail Hershatter’s equally sublime The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past, which I’m still slowly chewing through. Both these books mark something of a specific beginning or new direction in my reading, one which has been obvious before now, but with these two authors and some recent others either read or waiting to be read, I think it is worth noting.

My reading has drifted eastwards from Central Asia and Afghanistan (at least until Poetry of the Taliban is published) to arrive once more in China, and a China I am embarrassed to say I have neglected. It is easy to read on a subject such as these and follow the grand narratives – politics, culture … the longue durée, and yes, these matters are intriguing, essential to an initial general understanding, and can even consume one’s entire inquiry for years. It is also easy to unintentionally fail to consider nuances in these, to partially or wholly miss entire facets due to the relative unimportance they are afforded, or to only perceive them in a particular context, an aside to the central theme.

I am careful to say also, that these absences do not, by their being brought to the fore, constitute a ‘truth’ in opposition to the other, they do not substantiate themselves as the ‘real’ story. Merely, they provide another way of regarding things. Equally though, they should not be reduced solely to this regard; they are not symbols, representations or stand-ins for a singular agenda. They exist in and for themselves, without which any understanding can only ever be said to be partial and conditional.

That my reading is lately drifting from Central Asia and those western borders of China is in part because there is scant new to be said, when what is being said is either traditional generalist or filtered through the narrow gaze of America’s incoherent imperialism, both of which fail comprehensively on the subject of women. (And framing women as variously marginalised or emancipated in a dialectic centred upon the Taliban, pre- post- or during, is not equivalent to a proper attention given to the subject.) I would certainly read anything from the region of the likes of Susan Mann or Gail Hershatter, but with the exceptions of a couple of monographs have so far been experiencing disappointment.

So then, I arrive at Precious Records: Women in China’s Long Eighteenth Century. Perhaps to say, Susan Mann shows unequivocally that no account of the Qing Dynasty can be said to have genuine worth, or be a work of serious scholarship without giving equal weight to women and their place in this history, and by obvious extension, this applies to all fields of study. That she is a beautiful, subtle, poetic and sensitive writer with a serious and diligent intellectual approach of course means I’m having a thrill to be reading her once more.

Reading: (2nd time) Susan Mann — The Talented Women of the Zhang Family

In early 2008, before I moved to Berlin, I had a book-buying spree, and a couple of those books I didn’t finish before it was time to pack them all into boxes and off to storage, where they would remain for the next three years. I’m about to embark on one of the bigger, more serious books on my list, Gail Hershatter’s The Gender of Memory — Rural Women and China’s Collective Past, and noticed on the back cover Susan Mann provided a quote. Her The Talented Women of the Zhang Family was one of the unfinished ones I had to choose between taking on the plane or boxing up. At the time I found it a demanding read, and so it remained behind while I flew.

I’m not really sure why I decided to read it, thought I’m pretty sure it was a post by Nicole Barnes at The China Beat that was responsible, and feeling a little daunted by Gail Hershatter’s monograph, as well as somehow feeling drawn to this unfinished one, have instead spent the last few days immersed in one of the most beautiful scholarly works I’ve ever read.

Coincidentally, some of the names that appear in Julia Lovell’s The Opium War recur here, though from the opposite side; through the lens of late-Qing Dynasty literati and scholar-civil servants.

What draws me to this book now, and to much on my upcoming reading list, is the centrality of women in the historical narrative. I notice this near-total absence especially in Central Asian and Afghanistan scholarship, as well as in a significant proportion of Chinese writing — the history, culture, art of these regions as commonly presented is in fact the men’s history, and for no good reason.

Perhaps to say, in praise of this work and the author, that I have already put her other works on my reading list, and it is very unlikely I will not be writing about The Talented Women of the Zhang Family again. Also that it has unexpectedly rekindled my love of Chinese history and culture, and her passion for the subject has reminded me of this which I’d forgotten.