Tag Archive for sources

A Long Time Ago in a China Far, Far Away …

A few of my lianhuanhua (the Li Huiniang - a reprint - is unusually large)

A few of my lianhuanhua (Li Huiniang – a reprint – is unusually large)

As much as I don’t miss large swaths of life in China, I do look longingly at kongfz.com, the world’s best secondhand book website, and remember with pleasure being able to purchase a lot of sources and other bits of historical detritus with a minimum of effort. These days, getting ahold of things that catch my intellectual fancy requires contacting several friends, a good bit of guilt on my part for imposing, a wait of months, shuffling money in between international bank accounts, etc. And in addition to online book shopping, there’s a lot of other places to buy secondhand books and other types of sources – places like flea markets (which have proven to be a real boon for a number of PRC historians – documents that seem like they ought to be in an archive, and sometimes were previously in the hands of work units or other official places, sometimes show up) and book fairs. In Shanghai, the Confucian temple – Wen Miao 文庙 – is a beautiful, tranquil gem in the middle of an enormous, bustling city; it also happens to host a nice book fair each week. The sellers, spreading out on tables and on blankets, have everything – from foreign language books, to text books, to expensive coffee table art books, to generic publications of a more recent vintage, to old things of many types.

In addition to owning a lot of 1950s and 1960s publications of various stripes, I have a small collection of lianhuanhua 连环画, picture storybooks, or comic books (though they’re a different format than the ones commonly seen in the West). They are readily available, and at the Wen Miao, several sellers had heaps and heaps of them every time I went. They tend to be cheap – with a few exceptions, Cultural Revolution-era ones being rather desirable and thus, more expensive – and tiny, and come in a pretty diverse variety of topics. I collect ones related to opera, of which there are a great many. Some of them are actually quite beautifully done – I have a few versions of Li Huiniang 李慧娘, one in particular has drawings that are lovely and evocative. Sometimes, popular movies would receive the lianhuanhua treatment, with the text illustrated by movie stills. These I find much less interesting than their drawn companions, but does indicate something about the relative reach of certain kinds of films.



They don’t really have anything to do with my research, but it’s interesting to see how different stories have been interpreted, which stories have been popular over the years, and so on. I don’t go out of my way to acquire them (unless they are related specifically to one of the few plays I pay a lot of attention to), but at the Wen Miao, it was easy to buy them by the handful. Once, a seller who queried me about what I was looking for in somewhat halting English reacted with surprise when I responded in Chinese that I was looking for opera lianhuanhua, especially anything with ghosts. He dragged a few things out (most of which I bought), then pointed to another one, which was neither opera nor ghost related.

It was Star Wars. In lianhuanhua form. From 1980. It was simply so incongruous I couldn’t leave it behind. It also cost about a dollar (which is one reason I’m not terribly discerning with what lianhuanhua I pick up on whims!).


I’m always very interested in how culture circulates and changes through time and space – although my current research focuses on culture being reiterated and refashioned over time, more simultaneous instances are also of great interest to me (if not quite an issue with 16th c. Chinese ghost plays). I suppose one of the defining features of modern Chinese cultural production (or perceptions of it, at least) is rather rampant IP violations. But at the same time people are amazed by the speed with which Chinese pirates hop on all sorts of (re)production, I think we often forget how quickly culture circulated before the internet. My students, for instance, are often surprised to discover how hip audiences in Shanghai were to Western films in the 1920s and 1930s, or music; and how these things flowed back and forth across the Pacific. Considering the delay in getting from point A to point B in an era where air travel – never mind the internet – was not the primary way of moving people and goods, it’s really pretty impressive.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that in 1980, an enterprising press in Guangzhou put together a lianhuanhua of a popular Western movie – one that had come out three years before in the US, and a year after that in Hong Kong (my guess as to where the “libretto” and stills, etc. came from: it seems pretty obvious from the drawings that the artists weren’t always working from an actual film, or really much at all). But we’re very accustomed to thinking of China at this point-or-slightly-before as being so very cut off from outside influences. And it’s true to some degree, the Cultural Revolution had just ended in 1976, shortly after Mao’s death, and China was culturally isolated (from Hollywood, at least) in a way it hadn’t been in, say, the 1930s.  So I admit that Star Wars popping up amidst the classical tales and stories of brave revolutionaries did surprise me a little bit, and I’m supposed to know better! But one presumes this wasn’t exactly the sort of thing Deng Xiaoping was really gunning for with reform and opening (gaige kaifang 改革开放).

The actual lianhuanhua is a fascinating document, with weird bits sticking out here and there; but it’s also a fanciful imagining (I think) of American – or generalized Western – life, especially evident in the dinner scene where a duck (?) is being stuck into a toaster oven (!) & the table has not only a little hot plate, but a crockpot (or rice cooker) there, too. The artist also makes some amusing flubs – Chewbacca appears in some scenes in a relatively credible way, in others looking like an outtake from Planet of the Apes. It also often looks like something out of a Cold War-era propaganda poster, at least where the details are concerned. Were the actors really garbed in Soviet looking space suits? Was Darth Vader really pacing before a map bearing the location of the Kennedy Space Center?

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 5.04.55 PM Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 5.05.09 PM

I was reorganizing my bookshelves the other day and found part of my lianhuanhua stash, this little gem among them – I posted a few pictures on Twitter & Facebook, and a couple of people there begged me to put up the whole thing, so here it is. I just got a Doxie Flip scanner, since I realized (during the same bookshelf organizing session that turned up Xingqiu dazhan) that a lot of my precious 1950s and 1960s publications are disintegrating (they are usually quite tiny – about postcard sized – so hauling out my big flatbed scanner seems like kind of a waste) & I should digitize them posthaste, which made it easy to scan this sucker, too. As a bonus, Doxie has one of the best, most user-friendly scanning interfaces ever – including a nice stitch function, which I made good use of – so while it took me a bit of time to put together the scans, it was a smooth process (Doxie also has amazing customer service – a few months ago, I whined on Twitter about my relatively young Doxie One workhorse crapping out & they sent me a brand new one right away – for free!). Click below for the PDF scans (broken into 4 sections)

星球大战1 星球大战2 星球大战3 星球大战4

I’ve also written some extended thoughts on the post-Cultural Revolution cultural context of “rebel force vs. tyrannical empire.”

(Brendan O’Kane also kindly cleaned up & OCR’d my scans – there’s some loss of detail, but it’s a much smaller & more manageable package - which can be found on his site)

As a further update, some people have dug up other Chinese versions, linked to in this lengthy forum post. It looks like this 1980 version is pretty competent artistically, all things considered!

Susan Fernsebner, a fellow Chinese historian, put up some related musings on vintage science fiction covers.

Nick Stember, a grad student at UBC, has put together a fantastic post: Chinese Lianhuanhua: A Century of Pirated Movies. Nick is also posting a full English translation of the comic over at his website – Part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4

Jeremy Blum of the South China Morning Post also did an article on lianhuanhua – this one in particular.

We’re also on io9! … And the Hollywood Reporter. And Rolling Stone. And the BBC.  And a lot of other places, including (paper) newspapers! Who knew a humble shanghai Chinese comic book would get so much attention?

‘An eternal yet banal sensation’

There is a wonderful quote in a book I otherwise think is fair-to-middling (if that – Edvard Radzinsky’s The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II):

Nicholas kept a diary for thirty-six years without interruption. He began it at the age of fourteen, in 1882, in the palace at Gatchina, and ended it as a fifty-year-old prisoner in Ekaterinburg ….

This diary contains no reflections, and opinions are rare. He is terse – this taciturn, retiring man. The diary is a record of the principal events of the day, no more. But his voice lingers on its pages.

The mystical force of genuine speech.

The revolution punished him without trial, not allowing him a final say. The portrait of this puzzling man was created only after his death – by his opponents and his supporters. Now he himself can speak in the words he himself once wrote. I leaf through his diary. One experiences an eternal yet banal sensation in the archive: one feels other hands, the touch of hands across a century.

I just spent a week in the Shanghai Municipal Archive (上海市档案馆) tying up some loose ends. Archives are funny places: even when you’re not reading something as personal as a diary, there is something of that ‘feeling other hands.’ Even in the neatly typed and seemingly impersonal reports, those echoes are there – personal voices come from the most unexpected places. Most of my materials are bureaucratic detritus – typed records of things no one has thought about in decades, reams of 统计表 (tongjibiao, charts of statistics), scribbled communiqués back and forth between various government ministries. No smoking guns, no highly recognizable names. Certainly no diaries from deposed emperors. And yet ….

Archives in China are doubly funny places: even when your materials are merely the detritus of a somewhat bloated bureaucracy, there’s a shroud of secrecy drawn over them. Talk to a China scholar who has spent any time in PRC archives, and you’re likely to get an earful about some horrific experience or another. While my project isn’t precisely Shanghai-centric, topic-wise, I made a strategic decision in doing most of my work in the city. The archives there are pretty mellow, and access is quite open. We all know there are files nobody but Party historians are getting access to, but at least at the SMA, the stuff that’s out in the open is there for the taking. It’s a downright pleasant place to work – the fact it’s tucked on one end of the Bund and overlooks Pudong doesn’t hurt.

I hauled home a not insignificant chunk of photocopies, and I’m in the process of sorting and scanning them (well – the hundreds of pages of statistics are joining the hundreds of pages I already have; scanning adds an extra step as it is, no reason to be a masochist about it). It’s entirely banal yet somehow extraordinary. As much as putting the pieces of my narrative together is driving me batty at the moment, there is something really wonderful about wallowing around in sources and feeling those ‘other hands’ – even if they are unseen hands of an unknown bureaucrat, and not those of a highly mythologized ex-tsar.

Smashed jars & dictionaries

Being a Chinese historian – or, I should probably say, learning to be a Chinese historian – can be great fun, and also really frustrating, and fun and frustrating all at once.  Like most things in life, I guess, but I’m occasionally confronted with obstacles that make me wish I’d taken my mother’s initial advice and gone into some other field like … 17th century French history.  French: such a sensible language.

I’ve been translating a play.  This is the first time I’ve ever translated a whole play from Chinese to English, and also the first time I have really taken a foray into Ming dynasty literature.  I’ve read a fair amount of poetry, but even long ci – lyric poems – are reasonably manageable. It’s been quite the experience thus far, and as I have recently decided to go to Beijing in April – after a month of March that is going to be crammed with family visiting and other things drawing my attention away from work – I’ve redoubled my efforts.  Partially because I just want to get this sucker done, partially because one of my friends I am terribly excited to see in Beijing also happens to be quite an amazing talent when it comes to the Chinese language – so I’m hoping to lean on her brilliance a bit, and go over the rough spots and smooth things out, as we catch up over a bottle of wine.  But of course, I want to have the best and most complete work I can possibly manage done so we’ll just have to tweak things here and there.

Though the non-aria (non-poetry) bits are actually quite clear and understandable, some of the arias have proved significantly more difficult.  The standout section (at least in terms of ‘I … what?’ reactions it garners) follows approximately this pattern:

  • Complain about how unjust and pointless your life is at the moment for 2 lines
  • Talk about the substance of your life in ephemeral terms for 2 lines
  • Mention the beauty of the scenery for 1 line
  • Sum up with a line about a smashed (pickle?) jar before moving into another aria that mopes for 8 more lines.

Yes, a smashed jar that appears to have something to do with sour somethings (potentially pickles).  A jar in the middle of an aria that is otherwise concerned with a mopey wannabe scholar official. I exhausted the dictionaries I had at my disposal at the moment – wishing I had my trusty Far Eastern, but alas, it is in a box in storage in San Diego – to no avail.  Googling the phrase was unhelpful, kicking back only Japanese websites having to do with food.  So as a temporary measure of last resort, I brought the play and my early, rough translation to a Chinese friend of mine, who is generally a font of information – he can usually instantly correct the areas I’m having trouble with and immediately knows the ‘answer’ to the meaning behind the phrase.

“What in heaven’s name is this talking about?”  I was expecting an answer that would make me feel silly for not immediately seeing it, as most of these are (“Oh, the jar refers to the Duke of Zhou’s issue with his nephew that’s quoted in the …” et cetera).  But instead of having a quick response, he looked.  He read the lines leading up to it (which I’d translated just fine). And looked again.  He read the lines below it (which I’d also translated just fine). And looked again.  He had been kind enough to drag out his big, most frequently used dictionary to Starbucks, so we consulted it.  We paged through.  We looked up characters that it perhaps could be (one of the frustrations of older drama is a somewhat “inconsistent” use of characters – frequently, homophones will be used interchangeably, which makes for great fun if you’re not paying close attention).  We flipped things around.  Nothing.  Clearly, more serious linguistic artillery was needed.

So I queried a few people on good dictionaries to have in your collection, particularly when dealing with texts of this nature & was told to pick up the Peiwen yunfu 佩文韵府, a dictionary originally compiled in the early 18th century at the behest of the Kangxi emperor.  It’s a rhyming dictionary.  It’s hard to use, they said, but very useful.  So I tracked down a copy, and it arrived – all four volumes, an early 1980s edition.  Now, I consider myself a pretty well-read person, and I’ve dealt with fearsome looking dictionaries in a couple of languages.  At the same time, one of the fun things about being a Chinese historian is getting to build up an interesting collection of dictionaries – some are really more like encyclopedias than “dictionaries,” but still.  So it’s a dictionary, how bad could it be?  They’re meant to be useful, usable reference works – those essential things we turn to when things like … the handy dictionary on the iPod isn’t cutting it.

I mean, that doesn’t look so bad, right?  Maybe a bit big, but dictionaries sometimes are – just look at the OED, after all.  My first inkling that we might have “issues” is when I discovered volume 4 (the one on top of the box) – the index volume – was in Four Corners, a system that I don’t understand, and neither do most of my friends who are in their 20s.  Luckily there is a small section for stroke order, so all was not lost (there’s also a handy Wikipedia page that lists a number of characters and how to find them in Four Corners, so I’ve got that bookmarked).

However, I flipped it open, curious to see what it looked like.  Oh no.

Not only is it somewhat more difficult for me to find things in the dictionary to start with (due to a limited – at least by some standards – index), the dictionary itself is in tiny print.

But not just that, oh no.  No, that would be too easy.

It’s in traditional characters – which I usually prefer – but simplified characters really show their strength when you’re dealing with tiny crammed text that isn’t of the highest quality, print wise.  It’s unpunctuated, of course – thankfully, it’s mostly a big list of various examples culled from the classics, and the titles (or indication of whose poetry the example came from) are helpfully, if faintly, circled.  If this is an indispensable tool of the antique translation trade, I thought to myself, I am very glad to be a modern historian, even more glad that I primarily deal with the PRC, and practically ecstatic that I research videogames, as well.

I flipped back and forth between volumes.  I looked at the index and found a few characters – a few phrases, even – I was on the hunt for.  I found them in the Four Corners part of the index, and looked up their page numbers.  I went back to the dictionary volumes.  I looked again.  I put my nose nearly on the page so I could parse the characters.  I could even understand the text.  But what, exactly, I was supposed to do with it eluded me.

So I’m now in possession of a dictionary (a pretty expensive one) that I know will be very useful – when and if I figure out how to use it.  To that end, I’m lugging a volume out to coffee tomorrow so a friend can hopefully shed some light on what in the world I’m supposed to do with it.  Yes, we historians can be awfully wild at times – who needs a life when you’ve got a Qing dynasty dictionary to get acquainted with?

Maybe we’ll finally solve the mystery of the smashed jar that may or may not have anything to do with pickles.  I’ve exhausted the combinations I can think of, and I can’t find a trace of the phrase anywhere – but then, I don’t know how to use the dictionary. It is possible, I suppose, that it will be missing from the Peiwen – and we’ll have to go consult some even more terrifying dictionary (I can only imagine).  In the meantime, I’ll simply keep my fingers crossed that this is a little bump in what will prove to be a long and fruitful relationship between me and a dictionary that was first compiled 300 years ago.

(I suspect somewhere, the spirit of a certain emperor is probably having quite a good laugh at my expense)

Mystic chords of memory

Li Huiniang (who else?)

We read a great essay (which I of course cannot find now) when I was taking my methods class as an undergrad; the gist of it was that doing history can make for the loneliest profession.  We find ourselves growing attached to people who are long dead, and who don’t care about us (they can’t, being dead) – yet we care deeply about them, become familiar with them on intimate levels.  They become part of us in a way that we never become part of them.  Truthfully, I never really felt “lonely” – I’ve always approached history with a bit of Mengzi’s “looking for friends in history” description in mind.  It’s generally a friendly place, and an exciting one, to be in.

I didn’t feel lonely until I started studying someone most people had never heard of and who left a relative dearth of written materials (at least, for a writer!) – yet there I was at home, plowing through sources, trying to get at someone I had very little familiarity with and having precious little to go on, both in terms of his own writing and any secondary sources helpful to the cause.  What I wouldn’t have given to be able to speak with him, or read his diary – or do anything to get closer to the life of this author.  But as I read more and wrote more, I got more and more attached to this person – even though I had (at least as an undergraduate) written papers focused on a single person, I had never grown as attached to them as I was (am) to Meng Chao.

So it was with some relief I discovered plenty of people had remembered Meng Chao and had written eloquent memorials to him.  They’re not all serious; one of my favorites was written by someone who had been in Guilin with Meng Chao in the 1940s, during the war with Japan.  The author recalled that Meng Chao was perpetually in motion, always running everywhere, and while everyone else struggled with getting essays written, he seemed to have an uncanny ability to put pen to paper and just write.  It is such a different picture from the defeated septuagenarian – the Meng Chao I first came to know.

The first time I cried out of sadness (not frustration!) while writing a paper was when I had to write the story of Meng Chao during the Cultural Revolution; while I’ve certainly read plenty of history that has made me cry, I had never had to write anything myself that made me unbearably depressed.  Part of that was having to work off documents that had been written by those close to Meng Chao, and they were so full of affection for the man, and anger and bitterness for what had happened to him (and all of them – all of China, really) – it was difficult not to be moved in some way.   An essay written by one of Meng Chao’s daughters was full of pent-up vitriol and anger and grief; an essay by his friend and fellow writer, Lou Shiyi, was more tempered, but it still has a biting sarcasm that doesn’t translate well, a sharp and bitter edge.  Even though plenty of people suffered a lot more for having done a lot less, it was the first time I had to write a narrative that just about broke my heart – working off sources that did break my heart.

Lou Shiyi

Below are parts of Lou Shiyi’s essay, titled simply “I think of Meng Chao” (a partial, mostly uncleaned up version of an earlier partial translation I did), first published in People’s Daily in 1979 (three years after Meng Chao’s death). He has some real zingers that do translate pretty well, but a lot of the language is sarcastic to the extreme (at least, in terms of particular word selection), and it’s difficult to convey how sharp it is in Chinese without copious footnotes.  While I wish I could get my hands on something – anything – written by Meng Chao having to do with “the Li Huiniang problem,” it is comforting to know that he was loved, people did remember, people did care.  It is helpful to have their takes on the “problem,” their memories of those 13 years.

It’s of course wonderful to have more sources (as always), but on a less academic, more personal level, it’s nice just being able to get a little closer to one of my subjects and the people who cared deeply for him.  It helps a little when I get hit with yet another “You study who? Well, I’ve never heard of him” statement.  It’s nice to know that plenty of people who “matter” more on the spectrum of “important intellectuals of the 20th century” considered him a friend and a talented writer.  It makes me think sometimes that maybe I’m not barking up the wrong tree here.  I may not know any of these people (and most of them have “gone to see Marx,” joining the ranks of those who are out of reach on many levels), but I’m not actually alone.  Making friends in history can be a one sided venture, but it can be comforting, too.

It makes lonely tasks, then, a little less lonely.

from Lou Shiyi, “I think of Meng Chao”

楼适夷 《我怀孟超》

Meng Chao wrote a kunqu script, Li Huiniang; when it premiered, he sent me a ticket. …That day, the theatre was full of familiar friends; the ghost of Li Huiniang entered the stage, her singing powerful and her dance graceful.  It certainly appeared like she was enchanting people.  Comrade Yan Wenjing happened to be sitting beside me; while he was watching the play, he said gently to me, “Look at Meng Chao, an old tree starting to bloom.” He said this to me, and I knew it was meant with kindness and encouragement towards me, but I was so ashamed I wanted to die.

Meng Chao and I had, in former years, both been members of the Sun Society.  He wrote poetry, I wrote utterly muddled short stories. … He published a little volume of collected poems … I love to read poetry, and I remember he sent me a copy, although I’ve forgotten the contents and the title.  I really liked it; he proposed to me that I edit a volume, I promised to do so with no hesitation.  But it’s easy to promise readily and renege easily … the result was I never edited it.  Afterwards, I couldn’t stay in Shanghai and left to sneak a trip to Japan.  Two years later, I returned to Shanghai.  The League of Leftist Writers had already been formed, but I couldn’t find Meng Chao.  Someone else told me, he had “changed his occupation” and was involved in “real work” (at that time, writing wasn’t considered real work), and he was currently squatting in prison.  From this point on, I had no news.

Not until the war of resistance was over did I finally know that he had been writing zawen in Guilin, writing plays.  After liberation, sure enough, he became a dramatist … we didn’t have much occasion to see each other, but when we had time would we go to the bathhouse to get together and chat.  He was the one who told me: there were the fewest people at the bathhouse around noon, and it was possible to avoid lines.  And it was also he who told me: this bathhouse in the past was a stronghold of the underground Communist party – if comrades were spotted by secret agents while they were out and about, they’d head for this bathhouse, enter to change clothes, and slip out the back door, shaking off the agents.  So we often met here.

The bathhouse attendants all knew him, and knew about the widely reported “trouble” regarding Li Huiniang.  They would see me leaving, and they would ask me, “How’s old Meng doing?”  Everyone was very worried about him.  At the time I didn’t really understand – how could “anti-Jia Sidao” count as “anti-party”?  Don’t tell me our great, righteous, glorious, and honorable party was harboring a Jia Sidao?  On account of this, this old, flowering tree was nearly cut down for firewood.  Meng Chao’s back grew more and more hunched, beautiful Li Huiniang became a “vicious ghost.”  Someone wrote an essay called “The some ghosts are harmless theory,” and immediately became an “ox ghost-snake spirit.”  For a short while, a ghostly atmosphere flickered, and we saw ghosts everywhere – everyone was afraid of ghosts, deathly afraid.  I was a shallow person, and rejoiced at my good luck, thinking I “had the luck of the lazy,” was an “old tree” who hadn’t “started to bloom,” at last I had escaped by sheer luck.  How could I have known that it wouldn’t be long before I was an “ox ghost-snake spirit,” entering a “cow shed” with Meng Chao.

Inside the “cow shed,” Meng Chao was a famous person.  Frequently, “young pathbreaking revolutionaries” would burst in and ask: “Which one of you is Meng Chao?”  Meng Chao could only stand up and show himself, whereupon they would box his ears, beat him with their fists, and beat his hunched back with a duster.  Meng Chao never made a sound, and took the beatings with his head bowed low – seeing this made my heart cold and filled with fear.

Well, we all attended cadre reeducation school. [The cadre in charge of their “cow shed” requested expensive “Red Peony” cigarettes from Meng Chao, which he dutifully provided every day]  On account of this, he was allowed to stay at the reeducation school, and didn’t have to go work in the fields ….

At the reeducation school [some] comrades were allowed to return home to visit family once a year, but we were “ox ghost-snake spirits,” and it wasn’t permitted.  We sometimes stealthily procured a little bit of alcohol to drink.  One time, I’d had a few glasses, and counseled Meng Chao: “Didn’t you have that ‘master of theory’ you grew up with? He was really good to you, that day we went to see the premiere of the play, he specially congratulated you and invited you out to eat Peking duck!  Why don’t you write him a letter and appeal, maybe you can be released a little early.”  Meng Chao didn’t say anything … and shook his head, I also didn’t say anything more.

[Meng Chao broke his leg while getting water from the well] It took a long time to heal.  Finally he was able to drape a tatty padded jacket around his shoulders, rest on a bamboo pole, and silently walk here and there, standing at the edge of the vegetable plot … herding away the old hens of old villagers, so that they wouldn’t ruin the vegetables.  After his wife died, to our great surprise one visit home was graciously granted.  You could say those “Red Peonies” finally had a good effect.

So the reeducation schools were dismissed.  Meng Chao and I returned home.  Meng Chao was all alone, and he had to ask an old granny in the hutong to cook for him.  I went to go see him when I had time – he was alone, reading Selected Works of Chairman Mao.  All of his books had been confiscated, only this one book was left.  Sometimes, he’d lean on his walking stick and come to my house to borrow novels. I once asked him: “Meng Chao, any news on your case?”  He set his mouth, shook his head, and I didn’t ask again.  Some days after he had come to borrow a volume of [Nikolai] Gogol’s writings, I heard suddenly that Meng Chao had died.  They didn’t say what big illness he’d had.  The hutong granny who cooked him food knocked on his door early in the morning; when he didn’t answer, she had to open the door and go in.  She looked, and Meng Chao was lying on his bed, blood trickling from his nose, dead.  At that time, the “Gang of Four” was still in power, several friends had to carry his remains on their shoulders to take him to be cremated – in the end, he never got to see the “Gang of Four” fall from power; he just wore his [bad element] cap and  “went to see Marx.”

Right now, Li Huiniang is back on stages.  I just received an official notice that there’s going to be a memorial service for comrade Meng Chao at Babaoshan.  I thought – as a reply – I ought to send funerary couplets. I thought for a long time, and finally came up with these two lines:

While living, you were made to be a ghost; for this we should whip the corpse of Jia Sidao three hundred times.

Though you have died, it is as though you still live; for this we should offer solemn song to Li Huiniang.

An edition of Li Huiniang used by the Beijing Kunqu Troupe; it is marked "poisonous weed" above the crossed out title - below is noted that it is "evidence for criticism." From my personal collection.

A few notes: Jia Sidao, the villain of Li Huiniang, is often portrayed as one of the great evil figures of Chinese history, hence Lou’s confusion over how an “anti-Jia Sidao” play became “anti-party.”

The “Some ghosts are harmless theory” (yougui wuhai lun 有鬼无害论) was written by Liao Mosha 廖沫沙 (under the pseudonym Fan Xing 繁星) in 1961.  He repudiated it in February 1965, in an article that appeared in People’s Daily.

An “ox ghost-snake spirit” (niugui sheshen 牛鬼蛇神) is the term for a bad element par excellence, the worst of the worst of class enemies and enemies of the party.  On being beaten with a feather duster, I initially scratched my head over this – a feather duster?  Fearsome?  However, after seeing some more “traditional” dusters (which tend to be longer and have a wooden rod as a core), I can imagine it would make a perfectly nasty weapon when wielded by zealous teenagers.

The ‘master of theory’ is Kang Sheng 康生.  When Lou Shiyi suggested to Meng Chao that he get in touch with him, he didn’t know that in the days of early criticism of the opera, Meng Chao had presented two letters from Kang Sheng praising Li Huiniang, as well as several photographs and the like (these all disappeared).  At the time Meng Chao did this, he didn’t realize who, exactly, was in charge of his case – as it turned out, it was his old friend Kang Sheng himself.

On a more ancient note, Mengzi’s thoughts on “looking for friends in history” is one of my perpetual favorite snippets of antiquity:


The best gentleman of a village is in a position to make friends with the best gentleman in other villages; the best gentleman in a state, with the best gentleman in other states; and the best gentleman in the empire,with the best gentleman in the empire. And not content with making friends with the best gentleman in the empire, he goes back in time and communes with the ancients. When one reads the poems and writings of the ancients, can it be right not to know something about them as men? Hence on tries to understand the age in which they lived. This can be described as “looking for friends in history.” (Mencius: 5B8, trans. D.C. Lau)

“Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves”

Hu Zhifeng 胡芝風 as Li Huiniang

Despite far flung (some might say a bit schizophrenic, even) interests, academic and otherwise, that usually mean I have my hand in a couple of different areas at any given time, I’m prone to bouts of obsessing – particularly with media (music, games, books, bits of literature).  Of course, it’s cyclical – I can go months without finding myself obsessing over any one song, routinely go months without even looking at a videogame, and usually devour enough literature (both for pleasure and research) that my brain is a jumble of lots of information.

Still, there are lots of things that I find myself circling back to (or getting led back to inadvertently), fueling the obsession.  I joke that the defining character of my career is likely to be mèng å­Ÿ, since it keeps appearing over and over again.  My favorite ancient philosopher?  Mengzi (孟子).  The author of the play I’m currently translating?  Meng Chengshun (孟称舜).  The name of one of my favorite friends and fellow Asian studies scholar (and font of all good things, musically)?  Menghsin (孟莘).  The name of one current research focus?  Meng Chao (孟超).  While you could say that meng is a pretty common character (it is a last name, among other meanings, after all), there are plenty of common characters – so sometimes I can’t help but feel that there’s something with me and meng.  When I get worked into obsessive frenzies, I sometimes stop and think, “Maybe I’m supposed to be hung up on this at the moment.”  Who knows where it might lead?

I stumbled on to Meng Chao with the help of Ye Wa, our utterly wonderful and totally brilliant prof who helps us slog through the difficult bits of Chinese documents while we work on our yearly research projects (back in the halcyon days of coursework).  In the winter of 2009, I was on the hunt for a research topic and came back to one of my favorite Ming dramas (which has proved to be a bit of an obsession over the years, both textually and musically), The Peony Pavilion (Mudan ting 牡丹亭).  I initially wanted to look at the status of the classic opera after the Cultural Revolution, but quickly discovered it really had been in need of a revival in the 1990s – it simply wasn’t being performed in the 1980s.  This meant very few sources – not a very promising basis for a research paper!

I went back to square one, sorted through a bunch of post-Cultural Revolution xiju nianjian 戏剧年鉴 (drama yearbooks) and entered every play performed by every kun opera troupe from 1979 to 1989 into a spreadsheet. Despairing over ever being able to look up the hundred plus plays I had now listed out, I asked Ye Wa to take a look at it.  She immediately noticed Li Huiniang‘s presence, and gave me the quick and dirty introduction (famous new edition ghost play from the early ’60s, the play and its author criticized during the early part of the Cultural Revolution, like Wu Han’s Hai Rui Dismissed From Office (Hai Rui baguan 海瑞罢官)).  Going home and checking JSTOR, I noticed that – unlike Wu Han or Tian Han’s stories – very few people even mentioned the play (or the author).  Topic: found!

Meng Chao (1902-1976)

At some point I found myself receptive to Ye Wa’s suggestion that it would be a fine dissertation topic.  I genuinely enjoyed researching the play and its author, I liked the idea of taking on a topic that let me indulge in my fondness for interdisciplinary work and return to my classicist roots (that is, playing with literature – and lots of it).  Besides, ghosts are a pretty sexy topic.  I’ve found myself at more that one gathering with non-Chinese historians, and people’s ears generally perk right up when I say I study Chinese ghosts (which isn’t the most precise way of putting it, but close enough).  Having a topic that doesn’t instantly put people to sleep is never a bad thing.

So that’s how I wound up based in Shanghai, researching ghost operas, kun opera, and their authors and artists – I rather doggedly held to my deep affection for China’s most famous ghost play, and with some help from Ye Wa, found my next ghostly obsession.  Doesn’t sound so obsessive, really, but I’ve found myself coming back again and again to Meng Chao.  Some of it is certainly due to my uncertainty upon being confronted with the whole range of Chinese libraries and archives – I know Meng Chao’s story backwards and forwards.  Using his story as a marker is one way to at least continue making progress when most of me is going “Where am I, how did I get here, what am I doing, and where do I go from here?”. Here’s where having an obsessive streak is probably a good thing: in running down every bit of information I can get my hands on regarding Meng Chao (not just because I need the stuff as sources for my dissertation, but because I must have it, just because), I’ve been running down of every bit of information I can get my hands on regarding his friends, associations he was involved in, things he worked on.  What this means is the number of primary and secondary sources that have only the barest connection to Meng Chao, and some with none at all (ranging from novels and poetry collections to edited volumes on the 1930s literary societies), are piling up daily.

Which leads me to my next obsession (which has been running about as long as I’ve been nurturing my historian’s affection for Meng Chao, and is intimately tied to how I approach this research project) – it’s not an obsession so much as an ever-present bit of literature that I’m reminded of on a near-daily basis.  At the same time I was digging into Meng Chao and Li Huiniang initially, I reacquainted myself with T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, particularly part one, “Burnt Norton,” which has the following lines:

What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
                            But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
                    Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?

I actually have the last two lines engraved on my iPod.  The poem brought to mind a whole host of associations – from Peony Pavilion‘s famous section, “Walking Through the Garden” (Youyuan 游园 – one of my very favorites), to a bunch of things I’ve read with my Japanese history professor relating to time, to Meng Chao.  I always read it and think of Ye Wa saying Meng Chao was a good starting point to get at a lot of other cultural figures in the early PRC – the other echoes inhabiting the garden, if you will.  And having fallen academically for a mostly neglected figure (most people, even in China, have never heard of him, though many have heard of the play he wrote), I frequently feel that I’m kicking up a lot of dust – and for what purpose, I’m not quite sure yet.

Meng Chao (r) with family (1976)

Obsessions are selfish.  At the moment, I’m selfishly building up my collection of Meng Chao-related materials – partially for the simple reason that I feel really bad for the guy.  A beautiful writer, someone who moved among more famous names and was an intellectual equal, but never hit “household name” status, and someone who (like a lot of others) suffered mightily during the Cultural Revolution – and who seems to have been mostly forgotten by just about everyone.  Why doesn’t anyone remember him?  Where is Meng Chao’s collected works volume?  It seems like practically everyone else in this country has one!  (I continue to nurture a secret hope, that someday, somehow, he’ll get his own wenji 文集)

So while going about my daily business of collecting materials and figuring out what, exactly, I’m collecting materials on, I try to keep in mind a few things: some of this is purely for selfish interest in a person I’ve written on (thus should not be the sole focus of my hunting, which I’ve done a good job of remembering).  Some of this is part of an obsessive collecting spree, but is, in fact, leading to other useful things that gradually spiral away from my little nucleus of a mostly unknown author.  And finally, some of this is the intellectual equivalent of opening doors that haven’t been opened in a long time (if ever), and doors all lead somewhere – if not always to the expected destination.

Other echoes do indeed inhabit the garden, and I intend to follow them – and I won’t mind disturbing a bit of dust along the way.

On the joys of book shopping

With my first big batch of primary sources, Xiju bao 戏剧报 (1955-1959)

Or I should say, on the joys of kongfz.com.

One of the delightful things about living in China is the shopping (despite inflation worries, there are still a lot of goodies to be had on the cheap).  For a bibliophile like myself, who likes to own every bit of material related to my research that I can get my hands on, book shopping in China is an unparalleled paradise.  I was introduced to the wonders of the incredible Chinese book site kongfz.com in 2009 by a classmate, who kindly offered to pick up some purchases for me when she returned home to Guilin.  My spoils from that first foray included a 1960s practice edition of Li Huiniang used by the Northern Kun Opera Troupe (Beifang kunqu tuan 北方昆曲团) in the first performance of the opera  – mimeographed, torn cover, printed on appallingly bad paper (that I now realize is pretty standard issue for mimeographed anything from 1950s and 1960s China), and with old school brads holding the whole thing together (and putting nice rust stains on the cover).  I think I paid a whopping 20RMB for it (a little less than $3 USD).  I was hooked – it was like the Chinese Alibris, but cheaper!

Although I had said I’d be in a buying frenzy as soon as my feet hit Shanghainese earth, it actually took me a couple of months before I remembered the wonderful treasure trove I had been introduced to.  While I mentioned the site to a number of friends, general skittishness about dealing with the Chinese banking system and other pressing concerns put book shopping on the back burner until this month.

When I finally started poking through the offerings from book stores all over China, I had a hard time reining myself in.   Everything was fair game – old journals?  Check.  Old practice editions used by Chinese opera troupes in the 1950s and 1960s, like that very first one I had bought? Absolutely.  Picture book editions (lianhuanhua 连环画) of classic plays? Well, I have been looking to start a book collection of some type for a while ….  Even less thrilling finds were still exciting.  Secondary sources I’d found useful for 8RMB including shipping (that’s about $1 USD), books I didn’t even know existed (the collected poems of a 17th century woman poet I adore).

Packages arrive every day – usually little ones, but sometimes big ones.  Today, a set of the important drama magazine Xiju bao 戏剧报 arrived, marking the first part of my acquisition of all issues from 1955 to 1966 (which will later be rounded out with late 1970s and early 1980s issues).  Despite the availability of the magazine in libraries (both here and back in the US) and online, I find there is something so useful about flipping through hard copies of journals and newspapers.  Our databases make it easy to find every occurrence of a search term with a few keystrokes.  But it’s so hard to replicate the experience of simply paging through a source and seeing what leaps out when one is dealing in links and PDFs, and I’m thrilled to have my very own copies now.

A lot has changed since my advisors were doing their dissertation research.  The fact that we now have access to libraries and archives in the PRC is something that was only a pipe dream for a few decades.  Fantastic online databases mean we can access journals, books, and newspapers from the late Qing on (and, in some cases, things much older than that).  But I can’t help thinking that one of the coolest things, and certainly quite different, is the fact that I can hop online, type in a few search terms, and get kicked back a list of potential sources – sources that I can buy with my trusty USB key card from ICBC, and that will arrive at my house in a few days, carried by my harried post person (who still screams out my Chinese name at the top of her lungs upon arriving).  In the past few days, things have shown up on my doorstep that I didn’t even know existed before I found them on the world’s best second hand book website.

I always sit down with my new-to-me books, look through their sometimes crisp, often battered pages, and write my name and date of acquisition on the inside cover.  It’s an insipid ritual, but there is something that is so wonderful about handling these bits of history (even if I, as a PRC historian, only handle things that are at most 60 years old).  I’ve always liked the Japanese historian E.H. Norman’s description of the pleasures of the historian (as related by John Dower in Origins of the Modern Japanese State: Selected Writings of E.H. Norman):

On the most simple and intimate level, he spoke (in “History: Its Uses and Pleasure”) of “the magical pleasure that the reading of history can give” – the realization that there is no last word on any given subject; the recognition that when written by the greats, history has the pathos of a Greek tragedy; the dimensions of irony, mystery and poetry; and this: “that peculiar pleasure of reading in the calm of one’s study of turbulent events, of great triumphs and failures or simply of the everyday life of people in bygone ages. To cast one’s mind into the past and to have described vividly for one the passions and ambitions, the hopes and disappointments not only of great men, but of people like ourselves, is to feel an intimation of man’s immortal spirit. (5)

… and can’t help thinking that it’s all the more delightful when kicked back with an aged book that has somehow survived long enough to fall into my hands – here, now, in 2011.

[A revised version of this post appeared on The China Beat on 22 February, 2011.  It includes more in-depth nitty-gritty on how to shop with Kongfz.com (and illustrates the wide variety of materials you can get for a wide variety of prices!)]