Friday, March 27, 2009

Remembering Zheng He

While in Nanjing recently I visited the Jinghai Temple, in the northwest of the city, which was built during the Ming dynasty to commemorate Zheng He, the great Chinese mariner who made seven voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, and parts of the African coast in the early fifteenth century. Zheng He is usually remembered in contrast to European explorers, whose discovery of foreign lands was quickly followed by colonization. Zheng He’s fleets consisted of dozens of huge ships and tens of thousands of men, but the most he demanded was tribute to the Ming emperor. His voyages were not the harbinger of aggressive imperialist policies, unlike early European explorers such as Christopher Columbus, whom Zheng He is most often compared with.

Such historical imagery was probably not on the minds of the British when, in 1842, they negotiated the terms of the Treaty of Nanjing in Jinghai Temple, the first of the so-called “unequal treaties” that helped cripple the Qing government. It is somewhat ironic that the beginning of European imperialism in China—and, in many textbooks, the beginning of modern Chinese history itself—occurred in a place dedicated to what amounted to peaceful exploration (even if relations between China and other states in the fifteenth century assumed a culturally superior position on the part of the Ming).

If the British missed this implicit comparison between European and Chinese maritime exploration, the Chinese Communist Party certainly did not. In one part of the temple is an exhibit glorifying the peaceful voyages of Zheng He; in another, an exhibit denouncing, in a predictably hysterical way, the imperialism of the British. A full third of the exhibit is devoted to the reclamation of Hong Kong in 1997. The Zheng He exhibit, in contrast, emphasizes the friendly nature of China’s exchanges with other peoples, though what it leaves out is as interesting as what it includes: for example, there is no mention (at least that I could find) of the fact that Zheng He was a Muslim who was captured by the victorious Ming army at the age of eleven in what is now Yunnan province, made a eunuch, and brought to the Ming court, where he gained favor with the Yongle emperor. Perhaps that would complicate the image of him as a hero of the Chinese nation.

On the wall of the Zheng He exhibit is a set of three quotes that pretty aptly summarizes how China’s masters hope he will be remembered:

孙中山:乃郑和竟能于十四个月之中,而造成64艘之大舶,载运二万八千人巡游南洋,示威海外,为中国超前轶后之奇举;至今南洋人犹有怀想当年三保之雄风遗烈者,可谓状矣。 “And so when Zheng He was able to build 64 large ships in just 14 months, which carried 28,000 people to make a voyage around the southern seas [i.e., Southeast Asia], he demonstrated to the outside world the wonder of China’s advancement; the people of the southern seas, at least, still cherish the memory of [Zheng He’s] stately bearing [雄风遗烈者].” – Sun Yat-sen

邓小平:明成祖时候,郑和下西洋还算开放的。 。。。 不开放不行。你不开放,再来个闭关自守,五十年要接近经济发达国家水平,肯定不可能。 “In the time of our accomplished Ming ancestors, Zheng He’s voyage was one of opening up [开放]. … Not opening up does no good. If you don’t open up, and instead adopt a closed-door policy, it is impossible to come close to a developed national economy even in fifty years.” – Deng Xiaoping

江泽民: 就古代而言,中国对外交往可以追溯到公元前二世纪的‘丝绸之路’和公元十五世纪的郑和七下西洋,这些都给我留下了深刻的印象,这说明,中华民族在历史上就致力于同各国人民的友好往来,进行文化和经济交流,共同创造美好的未来。 “With regard to ancient times, we can trace back China’s relations with the outside world to the second century BCE, when the silk road [began], and to the fifteenth century CE, when Zheng He went to the western seas seven times. These [events] have given me a deep impression, because they show that the Chinese nation [中华民族] has historically devoted itself to establishing friendly contact with the people of every country, to carry out cultural and economic exchanges and to create a glorious future for everyone.” – Jiang Zemin

Friday, March 20, 2009

American voices in China

While in Shenzhen recently, I picked up the March 3 issue of Southern People Weekly magazine (南方人物周刊), whose main feature was intriguingly titled “America’s view of China.” The front of the magazine showed twenty covers of Time magazine that had to do with China—the first, I believe, from 1924, and the last from 2008. The implication was clear: Americans have always been interested in China, but what exactly does that interest consist of? What do they focus on when they look towards China?

I was expecting the feature to be a series of articles by Chinese experts on American politics and society, but I was surprised to find several pieces by well-known American writers. The familiar names included Susan Shirk, who writes about Chinese politics and recently published a well-received book on China’s rising status as a world power, and Peter Hessler, probably the best mainstream writer about China in English.

The ideas in both their articles would be familiar to those who have read their work. Shirk’s article focuses on American anxieties and expectations regarding China’s economic and political rise. She notes that many Americans fear Chinese competition and Americans often seek to impose their own value systems on China, while stating in general terms what people in the US hope to see from China: “Westerners hope to change China based on their own value systems; this is hardly a secret. Of course, we hope China will be able to develop gradually and peacefully; nobody wants China to experience a political crisis.” (西方希望按照自己相信的制度改变中国,这不是什么秘密。当然,我们希望中国能够渐进地,和平地发展,没人希望中国出现政治危机。) Her article is generally couched in these kinds of vague and general terms, but she does poke gentle, if familiar, criticism at Chinese politics: “We greatly respect the importance of stability, but to a greater extent [we hope for] what Mr. Clinton said in a speech at Beijing University in 1998: that true stability should come from below, and should be based on the agreement of the people.” (我尊重稳定的重要性,但正如克林顿先生1998年在北大演讲所说,真正的稳定应该是自下而上的,应该来源于人民的同意。)

In Peter Hessler’s article, he summarizes his experience in China and offers insights about differences between China and the US. As usual, his observations are right on the mark: Americans always think about political issues in relation to China, but Chinese people themselves often focus on completely different issues; Americans who visit China are often stunned by people’s freedom, at least their economic freedom; political change in China is the purview of Chinese people, which doesn’t only mean that Westerners shouldn’t meddle but also that Chinese people should, at some point, be more active in caring about the political health of their country: “I believe China needs political reform, but I don’t think this is America’s responsibility. It is Chinese people’s own affair, and they need to think about how to accomplish it. More contact with other parts of the world and with new ideas is beneficial. I also don’t think it’s a problem when foreigners criticize China. In America we also criticize the American government, so when Americans think China has a problem, they naturally state their views—I think Chinese people should realize this and work harder to accept it.” (我相信中国需要政治变革,但我不觉得这是美国的责任,这是中国人自己的事情,他们得自己想出解决办法。对于他们来说,更多地接触外部世界、接触新的思想是 有益的。同时,我也不觉得那些批评中国的外国人有任何问题。在美国我们也批评美国政府,所以美国人如果觉得中国人有问题,自然就要说出来——我觉得中国人 应该意识到并能够接受这一点。) Simple stuff, perhaps, but too little heard in this country.

Hessler also makes an interesting point about Chinese intellectuals: “It’s very difficult for me to have a close relationship with Chinese intellectuals. It’s very strange. Chinese intellectuals really care about history and international opinion [about China] … In fact, I think it’s easier for me get along with common people. … In China, there is a chasm between the intellectuals and the masses.” (我很难和中国的知识分子有密切交往。这很奇怪。中国的知识分子很关注历史,国际的观点 。。。我倒觉得自己更容易被工农大众接受。。。在中国,知识分子和普罗大众间的确有一条鸿沟。)

I’m often amazed by the insights foreigners can bring to a country—Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is probably the most famous example in the United States—and I’m frustrated when Chinese people dismiss foreigners’ comments because they cannot possible “understand” China. It’s therefore gratifying to see intelligent American commentators given a voice in a prominent Chinese magazine. But the value of these foreign voices doesn’t just come from their ability to offer insights about the country that Chinese themselves may miss. It’s also useful for Chinese to gain an understanding of how foreigners think about their country—the framework in which we think about Chinese affairs.

In Susan Shirk’s article, for example, she mentions American interest in “patriotism” and “nationalism,” and talks about what these terms actually mean: “Of course, the word ‘nationalism’ has a slight derogatory implication. We always say, I am ‘patriotic,’ while you are ‘nationalistic.’ [Part of] nationalism’s inherent meaning is anti-foreign, and it can put pressure on the government, compelling it to make choices in policy that might not be consistent with the interests of the country.” (当然,民族主义这个词本身有一个略含贬义的隐喻,我们总是说,我是patriotic(爱国的),而你是nationalistic(民族主义的)。民族主义的潜在威胁是排外,它可能给政府压力,迫使它选择一些并不符合国家利益的外交政策。) Shirk is treading carefully here, but what it sounds like she’s saying is that Chinese people should ease up on their nationalistic outbursts, which often border on hysteria and which foreigners always react badly to. During such outbursts, of course, western media almost always talks about Chinese “nationalism,” never about Chinese “patriotism.” Chinese would do well to be more aware of how their “patriotic” activities are seen in foreign countries.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Yesterday I went to the Longhua area of Shanghai for the first time, which has a memorial park to fallen martyrs and a very nice Buddhist temple. Longhua doesn’t see too many tourists, as it’s slightly out of the way and is usually relegated to a secondary position in guidebooks. But both sites are worth going to: the temple is from the southern Song dynasty (parts of it are older) and is well preserved, and it is very active, with a healthy contingent of monks, in their orange robes, and a steady stream of Buddhist worshippers.

Inside the temple:

Going to the martyrs’ park next door was a moving experience. A fairly large park, it was nevertheless almost empty when I went there. A smaller area called Tiaohua within the park was used as an execution ground by Chiang Kai-shek’s forces in 1927, when the Nationalist party viciously turned against communists, trade unions, intellectuals, and students, killing them in the thousands. Afterwards, a prison was built there, where political prisoners were held and often executed. Though it is now dotted with overdone memorials—huge statues, murals in the social realist style, poems in calligraphy about how brave the martyrs were, etc.—the park gets many things right. One part has many lines of small stone memorials, each with a picture of the person killed, his or her name, and the word “martyr.”

The adjacent museum has about 200 small exhibits of people who were killed by Chiang Kai-shek’s government. Some of the names were familiar. One newspaperman, Shi Liangcai, was machine-gunned by Chiang’s assassins on the highway from Hangzhou to Shanghai in 1934 while returning from vacation with his family. He had printed critical and well-written articles about Chiang’s government. (I first read his story in Frederic Wakeman, Jr.’s Policing Shanghai, which also gives a thorough account of the 1927 Shanghai massacre.)

Shi Liangcai:

Another figure on display was Miao Boying. A member of the communist party, she was involved in women’s issues in Shanghai, and was executed in 1929.

Miao Boying with her son:

Many faces:

It’s sometimes difficult to know how to approach such memorial sites. They are obviously used to boost the legitimacy of the communist party, but they also hold deep meaning for many people. The propaganda can be tiresome, but the figures these kinds of memorials honor aren’t responsible for that. Labeling an entire memorial, museum, or other site that deals with history as “propaganda” sometimes results in dismissing it too easily, and missing the deep resonance it can have.

For some people, it may be easier to stay away. Here is a quote from Lu Xun, written before his death in 1936:

“As for going to see the well-known place of Tiaohua, or Longhua, which is also a killing ground, I had several young friends who were killed there, so I have never gone.”