22 June 2014

Reviews of Some Recent Histories of China

by Robert Bickers
(Allen Lane, 2011) 

Robert Bickers is without doubt the foremost historian currently working on the history of China's treaty ports. This book is very much a 'grand narrative' within that frame, and its balanced approach is perhaps best summed up in the jacket blurb that this was a clash of "two equally arrogant and scornful cultures." The history which Prof. Bickers narrates and reflects upon goes well beyond the subtitle's cut-off year of 1914, as he discusses the contemporary relevance of much that happened within China's "century of national humiliation" which is still very much of relevance today. Bickers' essential argument is that the way this history is currently being read is of more contemporary importance to China than it is to the West, something which we could do well to redress in our own reflections on the 'here and now' of such shared history in terms of its influence on the present, and potentially the future too.

Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai (Penguin, 2009) was a tour de force in demonstrating how 'micro-history' can be employed to illuminate a bigger picture, however, The Scramble for China in some respects feels somewhat like looking down the opposite end of the same telescope. Given that this is such a broad canvas, for all the personal nuances of individual stories which Prof. Bickers manages to weave into his narrative, in some places it requires a rather broad brush to make certain necessary narrative leaps where we might otherwise wish the author had space to go into more detail (eg - Taipings; Boxers, May 4th, etc). That said though, it is still an excellently crafted overview of the period of 'informal empire', told with Bickers' characteristically assured boldness and wit, which makes it an entertaining, as well as a thought-provoking and profitable read for anyone interested in Western Imperialism and modern (pre-Mao) China.

* * *

by William T. Rowe
(Belknap, 2009)  

This is an absolutely excellent book! It covers a vast period and very capably examines many diverse historiographical themes in a relatively slim volume. It's written with exceptional clarity, and is even quite pacy in parts. It provided a good overview of certain events, and provided a clear and balanced discussion of its main 'revisionist' points, with a great bibliography for delving further into areas of specific interest. I used it mainly for an MA essay on the rise and fall of the Qing, however, I'm more familiar with the transitional era around the end of the Qing Dynasty and so was surprised to find no mention of the May 4th movement, nor Yuan Shikai's failed attempt to establish himself as Emperor in the final chapter which looks at the revolution and the early Republican era (perhaps very minor and largely inconsequential quibbles given that the book is meant to be a general history of the Qing). It is certainly a work which I know I shall return to for reference for quite some time to come, and one which I would without hesitation highly recommend.

 * * *

by Julia Lovell
(Picador, 2011)

Reading this book I couldn't help but think of the Rudyard Kipling line: "East is East and West is West ..."

This is a very ambitious book which seeks to show how in many senses the Opium Wars were an event of epochal change, in many ways these wars are the root of all that China has become in the modern era; this is essentially the story of how China has struggled as much with itself as with the outside world. Lovell shows how the confrontation between the Chinese empire and the forces of Western imperialism (lead foremost by the British) in the 19th & 20th centuries is something which the Chinese have never forgotten and how these wars are something which the West would do well to remember when attempting to interact with China today. As Rana Mitter has succinctly summed up: "This book serves a crucial purpose in reminding Britain of a shameful episode in its past that still shapes relations with China today. But official China could also learn from it that reconciliation with the past comes by understanding its complexities, rather than turning it into a simple morality tale."

Whilst the first two thirds of the book are a straight narrative of the military and diplomatic history of the Opium Wars, the last few chapters examine a wide range of themes which could be bracketed together as the long-lived aftermath or continuing afterlife of these conflicts - from the rise of the external racism which can be summed up in the Western notion of the 'Yellow Peril' to the seemingly self-contradictory confusion and fanaticism of perceived threats both external and internal wrought by the rise (and often state-sponsored manipulation) of Chinese nationalism, which has been a knife edge act both for those in power and those whom the Chinese state governs, as well as how these issues have been received and interpreted within and beyond China's modern borders.

Julia Lovell paints a complex portrait of China in the modern era. One which explores the myths and caricatures of the Chinese in Western eyes as well as the assumptions made by the Chinese about the world beyond their own cultural sphere. She shows how the contradictions of China's attempts to embrace as much as isolate itself from the influences of the modern world system wrought by Western imperialist expansion still pervade the collective social psyche of the Chinese nation - it's tempting to take a very cynical view of such state-sponsored manipulation which arguably goads its citizens to throw stones at foreign embassies in protest at perceived slights and infringements of sovereignty or want of apologies for historical wrongs whilst simultaneously embracing foreign goods and aspiring to study abroad in Western institutions; yet ultimately such a book can only offer the author's own subjective views and experiences - as Lovell certainly does in the last chapter which takes a very personal tone, recounting her interviews with modern journalists, teachers, students and 'angry young men' as representative examples of modern China's deep/superficial self-contradictions. But ultimately one can't help wondering what the future outcome will be of this continuing muddle. I've been to China on many occasions and had many interesting conversations with Chinese friends as well as people I've bumped into in the street or while visiting historical sites, and I'd have to say I've not yet made up my own mind about my own subjective view. As such, this very excellent book has provided me with food for thought, rather than answering what questions I might have on these topics. In that sense (as the book's subtitle suggests) this book is more than a mere history, it's an attempt to place a remarkably detailed history into the context of the present - and as such, for me at any rate, the book ends with a rather doleful, unresolved outlook which seems to re-enforce the old adage, borrowed from Kipling, that: "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall [truly] meet."

* * * 

by Par Kristoffer Cassel
(Oxford University Press, 2012)

I first came across Grounds of Judgement soon after it was published, and reading the opening sections of the book it was immediately apparent that this is a highly significant and important work.

As a "nuts and bolts" study of how systems of extraterritoriality in China and Japan came into existence, how these systems functioned, and how they eventually came to an end, this book gives a highly creditable, lucid and engaging account. In this sense it was exactly what I'd been looking for in seeking to get a better understanding of the day-to-day workings of how extraterritoriality was understood and how it operated; and the reason for this is largely based on the author's excellent use of a diverse array of hitherto untapped sources. Indeed, Cassel argues that to date the historical view of extraterritoriality in this region has been skewed towards a bilateral, Western bias which has been unduly emphasised by an over-reliance upon predominantly Western language source material. Cassel's study seeks to rectify this anomaly by taking a more nuanced transnational and transhistorical approach - in so doing he doesn't simply examine the cases of a) 'China and the West', and b) 'Japan and the West', concluding his study with c) a straightforward comparison of the two; he also examines the far more fascinating case of the interactions between 'China and Japan' as well, thereby managing to explore and illuminate multiple angles and reflections which have hitherto remained largely overlooked by other historians. Cassel examines not only the different ways in which China and Japan responded to and accommodated extraterritoriality, he also shows the differing ways in which they each used extraterritoriality in conjunction with their burgeoning acceptance, understanding, and interpretations of international law. Rather than simplifying extraterritoriality to a straight two-way process he argues that the reality was much more about a fluid, pluralistic, triangular system of interpretations and interactions.

The cases Cassel uses to illustrate his argument are interesting not least because of the differing handlings of extraterritoriality by China and Japan - for instance, how Japan not only managed to throw off extraterritoriality much sooner than China, but how Japan even moved very swiftly to exert its own extraterritoriality upon China having formerly been an acknowledged "tributary state" of the Chinese Empire. Cassel completes his study by showing how the legacies of such differing encounters with Western imposed extraterritoriality continue to affect international relations in the modern era, not least in the prickly way China currently views and interprets what it deems to be 'Western interference' in its sovereign internal affairs (e.g. - with regard to on-going criticisms of, and international pressure exerted in relation to, China's human rights record), but also, in the case of Japan, the perceived 'extraterritorial immunities' which are seemingly afforded to US Military personnel who, in accord with diplomatic agreements made following the US occupation of Japan after the Second World War, still maintain a presence on what is internationally recognised sovereign Japanese territory.

Grounds of Judgement is a rare and significant scholarly study which offers new angles and new insights. It is a highly accessible book which adds a new dimension to the historiography of Imperialism and extraterritoriality; and also to the comparative histories of the legal systems of Asia and the West, as well the processes of modernity which were seeded in the era of Western imperial expansion that has ultimately culminated in today's globalised system of nation states and the shared system of international law. This book is an absolute "must read" for any serious historian of the subject or the region.

To hear an interview with Par Cassel discussing his book, Grounds of Judgement, on the 'East Asian Studies' website - click here.

8 June 2014

From Coast to Carn Euny

Last summer whilst on holiday in Cornwall I set myself a challenge – to walk from the old fishing village of Mousehole to the ancient site of Carn Euny in Penwith. This is familiar ground for me as my family have been holidaying regularly in this part of Cornwall for several generations. Every summer, whilst growing up, was spent exploring the coastal footpaths, coves, and villages around Land’s End. In my early teens my brother and I would hire mountain bikes, and, armed with an Ordnance Survey map, we’d spend a day or two cycling around from one monument to the next – visiting well known landmarks, such as ruined tin mines and stone circles, or picking lesser known sites which were simply marked as ‘tumuli’ on the map, intrigued as to what they might be, hoping to see if anything was still visible at these spots. Cornwall is littered with prehistoric sites, and so, for me, spending our summers there was an ideal way to nurture my growing archaeological interests. So whilst this was familiar ground, having visited Carn Euny several times as a child, this was the first time I’d decided to walk there; but the real challenge I’d set myself was to get there using as few roads as possible, sticking as best I could to footpaths. The other part of the challenge was to incorporate as many points of historical interest along the route as I could manage. 


The first place of interest I passed through was the village of Paul, which is a short walk up a steep lane from Mousehole. Strictly speaking I could have done this stretch of the route using a footpath which runs through a place called Trevithal, but this would have meant missing the village of Paul where there are a couple of notable points of historical interest. First, on the road up to Paul there are two stone crosses, one on the approach to the village and the other set in the wall surrounding the Parish Church, which according to Cornish folklore mark the places where early Christian sermons were preached, converting the local population and thereby ‘saving heathen souls’ – also, if you keep an eye out and the dry stone walls lining the road up the hill aren’t too overgrown, at various points along the way you can make out some names and dates (mostly 19th century) carved into the stones. At the top of this lane is the Church of Saint Pol de Leon. Its tower dates back to the 15th century, but the church itself was largely rebuilt after the villages of Mousehole, Paul, and nearby Newlyn, were attacked in 1595 by Spanish raiders. Inside the church, some of the pillars still bear the scorch marks from the Spanish raid, and high on one of the walls near to the stone pulpit is a monument to William Godolphin (died 1689), whose family fought the Spanish raiders – the monument is adorned with a Spanish metal breastplate and two swords said to date from the 1550s. Next to this is a granite and glass monument to the crew of the lifeboat Solomon Browne, which was tragically lost with all hands in December 1981 whilst attempting to save the crew of the Union Star. The two vessels were wrecked in extremely bad weather on the rugged coast west of the nearby village of Lamorna. Outside the church, set in the wall surrounding the churchyard, there is a monument to Dolly Pentreath (died 1777), who is thought to have been the last native Cornish speaker (before the language was revived in the early 20th century). The monument was erected in the 19th century by the linguist, Louis-Lucien Bonaparte (1813-1891), a nephew of Napoleon I.

Heading west out of the village I took a footpath which runs alongside the new cemetery and then along a bridleway which eventually emerges by a stone barn on the road just north of the village of Sheffield. Here a very short dog-leg along the road gets you back onto a long footpath through the fields all the way to Kerris. The hedgerows were all teeming with ripe blackberries which soon stained my fingertips black and purple as I couldn’t help pausing to pick and eat them as I went. In one field I was greeted at the far end by a friendly group of horses who must have been disappointed I’d not come bearing sugar lumps, but still they happily let me rub their noses all the same. Hopping over the granite stiles in the hedge-banks I pressed onwards, through a wonderfully mossy, wooded dell up to Bojewan’s Farm, where I came upon a buzzard with very brown plumage and yellow feet, perched very close up on a nearby fence post. We looked at each other quizzically for what seemed like a very leisurely stretch of time before the bird lost interest and lifted off, almost effortlessly sweeping low over the field and away with its giant wings outstretched. Throughout the course of the day’s walk I often heard the distinctive calls of these very majestic birds echoing across the fields. 

Passing through another farm I soon found myself confronted with a second rather Withnail-esque dilemma. The footpath I needed to follow ran through a field in which I could hear the distinct sound of a large bull bellowing both loudly and often. Needless to say – I continued along the track, heading deeper into the field system (which wasn’t very clearly marked on the map), hoping to find another way through. As I stood contemplating my rather battered old Ordnance Survey map I heard the sound of a tractor coming closer. It roared past me, then rolled back and stopped. The back window opened and the driver shouted ‘hello’ over the rattling engine, ‘where are you trying to get to?’ 
‘The Blind Fiddler,’ I replied.
He put the brake on, cut the engine, and hopped down from the cab.
‘You’ve missed the path back there, but you probably don’t want to go that way as the bull’s out in that field,’ he chuckled.
And, as if on cue, the bull bellowed across the hedgerows.
Leaning on the gate we pored over the map together.
‘What you need to do,’ the farmer advised, ‘is cut across this field, then go up through “boot field” (See, we call it that because it’s shaped like a boot!); and then hop over the gate at the other end.’
I followed his finger as he traced the route over the map. It was a short cut I’d never have dared taken without permission.
After a bit more of a chat, swapping family histories, he opened the gate up to let me through and wished me well on my way as I set off across the long grassy meadow.

The Blind Fiddler is a standing stone well worth seeing. It’s tucked away inside a high walled field, and, though an ‘A road’ passes right by it, you’d be hard pressed to know it was there hurtling past in a car. It’s a megalith worthy of the name. A huge grey stone set upright and covered in turquoise lichen. Its slightly tapered tip is scored with deep striations which only serve to accentuate its ancient aspect, it seems to stand like a timeless sentinel. It really is a beautiful thing to behold. Stones such as this one are also known as menhirs, a term which derives from the Cornish words ‘men’ meaning stone and ‘hyr’ meaning long – ‘long stones’. Their original purpose or function is now unknown – they may have had a religious or ritual significance, or perhaps been boundary or way markers of some sort. Looking back at the Blind Fiddler’s location from afar it does seem to be situated at the apex of two distinct valleys which head down to the coast – but this is simply my speculation made from a single vantage point; perhaps a survey of the area, looking from a different angle, another interpretation could just as easily be read into its placing. Its name, ‘the Blind Fiddler’, is a modern appellation, perhaps attributed sometime around the 18th century, after local folklore which claimed that the menhir was a musician who had been turned to stone as a punishment for the sin of playing music on the Sabbath.

Continuing on from here I threaded my way along footpaths through various wooded gullies and a series of open fields until I reached a gate into what should have been a final field, at the other end of which the path was meant to emerge onto a narrow lane. But the field had recently been ploughed, and so rather than slog through the mud I skirted the outer edge of the field until I reached the point where the path was meant to end, only here there was no gate or stile to be seen – just a solid, overgrown bank which was taller than me. As I paused pondering what to do I became aware of a second tractor that day which was – this time rather more purposefully – heading my way. I wondered if I was in for an ear-bashing (or worse) as this tractor was clearly thundering across two fields at quite some pace in order to reach me, but – ever the optimist – as the door swung open and I was hailed with the question: ‘Can I kindly ask what your business is being in this field?’
I dug out my map, stepped boldly forward with a cheery smile and asked for the farmer’s help. Pointing out the footpath and querying whether or not I’d gone astray he sat back and marvelled: ‘You know, I don’t think anyone’s walked this path in over fifteen years!’
Apparently ‘they’ (the local ramblers association or County Council, he’d didn’t specify) used to come and keep the stile – which was a high, stone-tiered sort – clear, but no one had done this in over a decade and so the route had fallen out of use. As with the previous helpful farmer he asked me where I was heading and we got chatting about the ancient monuments dotted round about. The Blind Fiddler was on his land, although his son now ran the farm. He then very cheerfully pointed me on my way through two more long fields of dry stubble to a point where I could hop over a gate through the high bank into the lane. As he roared off across the field and went back to work I trudged on after him. Some while later, when I finally reached and successfully summitted the five-bar gate, I paused a moment and looked back across the field. Down the long slope I watched the tractor turn and begin to head back up the incline on another lap up the length of the field and I waved. I could see him waving back from inside his cab with a smile. 

From here on I followed the empty lane up to the village of Brane, where a short walk up a stony footpath brought me to my final goal: Carn Euny.

Carn Euny is the site of an Iron Age village. Prospecting tin miners in the 19th century happened across an ancient feature here which is known locally as a fogou – Cornish for ‘cave’ – although these features are always man-made rather than natural. They are long subterranean passageways, either hollowed out of the natural bedrock or trenches dug and covered with large stone lintels (in other parts of Europe these kind of features are usually referred to as souterrains). It’s not known what their original purpose was, but theories suggest they were either used for storage or as places of refuge, or, as some prefer to conjecture, they perhaps served some sort of religious purpose (my own opinion is that they maybe served some combination of all these suggestions at different times). The fogou at Carn Euny is unique though because it is connected to a circular subterranean chamber with a corbelled roof, rather like a ‘bee-hive tomb’. Notably the walls of the fogou passageway and the underground chamber are each footed with courses of smaller rocks which increase in size with height – a feature which adds an oppressive sense of weight when you enter inside. Beneath the flagstone flooring of the fogou archaeologists excavating in the 1960s-1970s discovered fragments of pottery which, dating to around 400 b.c., were stamped with decoration marks that seem to link the site to similar ceramic types of the early La Tène period found across the English Channel in Brittany. Other archaeological evidence from the site (pot sherds, a glass bead, and Carbon 14 samples taken from charcoal remains) indicate that Carn Euny was occupied from pre-Roman Conquest times, and was eventually abandoned towards the end of the Roman period. 


The layout of the village takes a very curious form, consisting of courtyard houses laid out in the pattern of interlocking circles. The low stone walls of these compounds can still clearly be seen and explored. The roof of the circular underground chamber has recently been repaired and made safe with a concrete cap and a metal grill allowing light in from above, creating a bald spot which rather detracts from the view above ground, but doesn’t impinge too much when you are inside. Opposite the doorway into the underground chamber there is a small niche, which looks rather like a fireplace without a flue. The niche backs onto natural bedrock and the archaeologists who excavated in the 1960s-1970s (led by Patricia M. Christie) speculated that this might have had some sort of ritual significance, linking it perhaps to some sort of earth god or goddess worship. It’s unlikely though that we’ll ever really know for certain what purpose or function this structure served – but in many ways this only adds to the mystery and the allure of such ancient sites, each visitor today can simply take their own time to sit inside and contemplate what they might have seen if they’d sat there some 2500 years ago.