ahorbinski: A snakes & ladders board.  (struggle & stagger)
Bibliographic data: Spence, Jonathan D. God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1996.

Main argument: The so-called Taiping Rebellion of 1850-64 in eastern and southern China was one of the largest wars of the 19thC and one of the bloodiest conflicts in history, costing in the final total at least 20 million lives. Before its bloody final defeat, however, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom promulgated a fascinating, revealed version of Christianity as well as offering a vigorous challenge to many of the gender, social, and political norms of traditional China as embodied by the ruling Qing dynasty, and arguably acted on many of the same dissatisfactions that eventually brought about that dynasty's downfall, in which the near-bankruptcy the Qing court incurred defeating the Taiping played at least some part, at a lengthy delay.

Historiographical engagement: As well as reading the secondary scholarship on the Taiping, Spence also engages with the body of primary, documentary evidence on the Taiping that remains, and in particular with the body of religious scriptures published in Nanjing during its years as the Heavenly Capital and with documents by and relating to Hong Xiuquan himself.

Critical assessment: This book reads like a living, breathing illustration of some of the points that Dipesh Chakrabarty makes about the limits of modern historiographical discourse, or more precisely, like an illustration of how a gifted historian can thoroughly circumvent them using a fairly basic set of narrative strategies--in this case, telling the narrative entirely in the present tense (what in Latin is generally referred to as the historical present). Spence is a master of narrative, and of his sources, and he brings the fascinating, strange, and marvelous (in the medieval sense) story of Hong Xiuquan and the Taiping kingdom to boggling life. It's a prodigious narrative of a little-known historical incident, and well worth the read.

My only major complaint is again, I think, how closely Spence holds the cards of his historiographical purpose to his chest--I think that he is interested primarily in Hong Xiuquan's version of Christianity and its interplay with the times and the circumstances surrounding Hong, and secondarily with the astonishingly bloody cost of that vision, and why it appealed to so many people. As Spence writes,

As the epigraph to this book suggests, in the words of Keats, which themselves build on those of the Book of Revelation, Hong was one of those people who believe it is their mission to make all things "new, for the surprise of the sky-children." It is a central agony of history that those who embark on such missions so rarely care to calculate the cost. (xxvii)

But this gets little explicit play in the text, and the ending is, in some sense, rather abrupt, though in others it's a foregone conclusion from page one. As vivid and masterful a storyteller as Spence is, I can't help but feel that his books would be even stronger, from an academic perspective, with a little more explicit discussion of his arguments.

Further reading: Jen Yu-wen, The Taiping Revolutionary Movement; Dian Murray, Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790-1810

Meta notes: Truth really is stranger than fiction.
ahorbinski: A snakes & ladders board.  (struggle & stagger)
Bibliographic data: Spence, Jonathan D. The Death of Woman Wang. New York: Penguin Books, 1978.

Main argument: Spence's concern in this short, classic book is to illuminate the experience of life in rural China across the Ming/Qing transition of the 17thC, focussing explicitly on a highly local, obscure area that had nothing to recommend it beyond its poverty and the disasters its denizens endured without rebelling, so as to provide a corrective to the generalizing, national perspective of previous histories of rural China at the time.

Historiographical engagement: Spence relies primarily on three primary or nearly primary sources: the 1673 Local History of T'an-cheng (I believe this is a gazette), the memoir-cum-manual written in the 1690s by Huang Liu-hung, who was posted to the county in the 1670s; and the stories of the writer P'u Sung-ling, who lived one county north of T'an-cheng and was writing primarily in the 1670s.

Critical assessment: This is a famous book outside of academia, and deservedly so; it's said that Spence originally wanted to be a novelist, and this book certainly represents an early flowering of his literary talent. This may sound like a backhanded insult, but I don't think there's any inherent conflict between beautiful writing and rigorous scholarship; my one quibble with Spence, always, is how close he plays his authorial cards to his textual vest, so to speak. He says explicitly in the preface that he wants to illuminate life in rural China, and he succeeds brilliantly at that goal, but it's never mentioned again after the first time and he relies always on the readers to bring a large chunk of their own perspective and interpretation to his text. I think that the marriage of Spence's unquestionable style and his willingness to leave so much of the interpretation to his readers is what makes him so popular outside the academy as well as in it, and in this respect this book is typical Spence.

Having read most of my way through R. Bin Wong's China Transformed, what struck me in Spence's narrative were the details of administrative and urban security procedures that, in another context, would seem frankly modern or even, in an sff novel, dystopian. This book certainly provides a handy corrective to an economic historian like Wong or Andre Gunder-Frank, both of whom cover continents and centuries and who tend to underplay any and all human conflict, particularly in China, both as a consequence of their arguments and of their professional training. The casual violence and avarice that was apparently a fact of life in rural China isn't unusual historically speaking, but it is necessary to bear in mind.

Further reading: Spence's other books.

Meta notes: How much do I hate the Wade-Giles transcription system? So, so much. I can't even guess what sounds are being represented half the time, and what the heck is with all the strange punctuation breaking up the syllables? Pinyin forever!
ahorbinski: A snakes & ladders board.  (struggle & stagger)
Despite Huang's words, the world of ghosts and nightmares remained a part of T'an-ch'eng. The Local History mentioned how unusually superstitious the people were: over half of them believed in ghosts, and magical arts; they venerated women mediums who could conjure up the spirit world as if they were gods; when ill they would never take medicine but consulted the local shamans instead; neighbors would gather in groups and waste thousands of copper coins (which they could not afford) in making offerings as they prayed through the night.

--Jonathan D. Spence, The Death of Woman Wang (15)

Ah, classism.

(Also, how incomprehensible is Wade-Giles? After reading The Clash of Empires, I find it really hard not to feel that it was designed to make Chinese look dumb. I also can't understand how anyone ever attained native proficiency with it. Pinyin is so, so much better.)
ahorbinski: a Chinese woman with her sword (read books practice sword)
Henceforth I'm going to borrow Prof. Alexander Cook's recommended format for notes on books in preparation for qualifying exams for these posts.

Bibliographic Data:
Spence, Jonathan D. The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1998.

Main Argument:
Examining the attitudes "Western" observers have brought to the discussion of "China" from the time of Marco Polo until the late C20th reveals that "one of the proofs of China's strength is its capacity to stimulate and to focus creative energies at specific movements in time" (xvii). At the same time, the attitudes with which the people in question have made these observations--which may or may not have any basis either in experience or in reality--have as much to say about how the West has constructed itself at the given moment in question as about China at that same moment.

Historiographical Engagement:
Too many to list (48 writers in all), but especially Marco Polo, Baron de Montesquieu, Italo Calvino, Karl Wittfogel. On the ideas front, covertly both with Orientalism and with systems theory, though also openly with most of the broad movements in Western intellectual life since the C13th.

Critical assessment:
It's a neat meta-textual trick that Spence plays in that the reader's--the observer observing the observers--own historical-ethical framework ultimately determines her evaluation of the sources Spence marshals in the text; he's remarkably good at presenting both very little value judgments, as well as being remarkably light on the actual history of China during the periods in question, except at the end when the observers he considers actually start considering actual Chinese history and Spence has to provide enough context to make sense of their observations for the reader. The fundamental question of why the idea of "China" has continued to exert such a pull on Western minds remains unanswered, which is both kind of begging the query and also a whole other book in itself. It's typical Spence in that the reader's preliminary answer to that question ultimately comes down to perception, and his interest in the "way that layers of reality intersect and overlap" shines through in his presentation of the material (xviii). I'm also left questioning, in an epistemological sense, the possibility of ever definitively knowing anything, and by extension whether historiography can ever actually grasp the reality it purports to report on--does the ear that hears both what it wants and what it is expecting leave any room to hear things it is is not expecting? As historians, can or should we eradicate our own intrinsic beliefs and biases entirely? I don't think so; I think we ought to acknowledge our viewpoints and passions so as to better account for them in our histories, rather than pretending futilely that they don't exist and running the risk of reducing our work to what Graham Peck called "a practical joke" (203).

My other critical note here is that Spence collapses a meaningful distinction between pre- and post-Renaissance Western civilization for the sake of readability: i.e., it was during the Renaissance and especially during the Protestant Reformation and the long C17th that the West began to know itself as "the West"; before that people talked about "Christendom," and the medieval worldview of the observers of the first few chapters could, I think, be more clearly delineated--I've read A World Lit Only By Fire and Rivers of Gold, which teach how to discern and think of it, but I would like Spence's take on it here explicitly as well. Prester John even makes an appearance, and it's hard to find a more fitting emblem of the medieval era than that. (So does Sherlock Holmes later, hah.)

Further reading:
Karl Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism; Victor Segalen, Rene Liys; Anchee Min, Pearl of China; Edgar Snow, Red Star Over China; André Malraux, Man's Fate; John Adams, Nixon in China; Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (reread).

Meta notes:
I have a lot of thoughts about writing alternate histories secondary to this book that are out of the ambit of this blog. However, I think in one sense these observers observed can provide an object lesson, either in what not to bring to the history of Asia (i.e. Orientalism, racism, meta-narratives of civilizational "progress") or in how to bear our own experiences and beliefs in mind when writing history (Karl Wittfogel is my new hero). The other thing is not to make Ezra Pound's mistake, and to be content--as Spence manifestly is--to "leave a blank for something he did not understand, or disagreed with" and not to insist "on inserting his own words" (172).

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Andrea J. Horbinski

August 2017

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