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Blog Posts

Starting from Michaelmas, 2017, Prof. Hans van de Ven, who convenes the China Research Seminar series, has commissioned one of the Seminar's student helpers to write a blog post about each talk.

21st February, 2018

One Writer, Many Guises

Dr Ewan MacDonald, Peterhouse, Cambridge

In his lecture on Chinese vernacular fiction in the Ming dynasty, Dr Ewan MacDonald introduced listeners to this uniquely eclectic form of Chinese narrative literature through the lens of the late-Ming collection of stories known as "Slapping the Table in Amazement" (拍案惊奇). Composed of two collections published in 1628 and 1632, "Slapping the Table" used lively vernacular language and a focus on the extraordinary in the everyday to both entertain and edify its readers. These characteristics reflected the belief of the collection's author, Ling Mengchu (凌濛初), that entertainment and didacticism were key functions of vernacular fiction. As Ling said of his stories, "This collection is primarily about persuasion and warning. Therefore, [I have] made repeated efforts at this within every story." How, then, did Ling go about "persuading and warning" his readers, while at the same time entertaining them?

According to Dr MacDonald, the writer used a number of key literary devices in his guise as an entertainer. Story I-31 of "Slapping the Table" is based on source materials that outline the story of a female monk from Shandong known as Tang Sai'er, who amassed a large following and took a string of cities before her revolt was crushed. In his version of the story, however, Ling introduces a neater narrative parallelism, while also adding humorous episodes and elements of eroticism into what was originally a predominantly military and political plot. In his role as an educator, meanwhile, the author takes on the roles of both storyteller and commentator, with the two playing separate but complementary roles. While the storyteller represents genuine popular opinion, and narrates the story in the foreground, the separate, more educated "marginal commentator" persona stands in the background, reacting to events in the story and backing up the story's main argument.

Thus, as Dr MacDonald concluded, with its incorporation of poetry, song, prose, and disquisition, as well as its use of multiple voices, “Slapping the Table” is an excellent example of the formally heterogeneous Chinese vernacular short stories of the late Ming dynasty. The collection’s ability to marshal so many disparate characteristics and voices in service of a common aim, as well as its conscious and sophisticated manipulation of generic features, also make it one of the most innovative. 

Blogpost by Michelle  Eastman

14th February, 2018

Gender as a useful category of analysis in Chinese religions - with two case studies from the Republican period

Dr Elena Valussi, Loyola University, Chicago

According to Dr Elena Valussi, gender as an analytical theory, and "gendering" as social practice, are central to religion, and the under-investigation of such phenomena has had a deleterious effect on the adequacy of the scholarship that the scientific study of religion has produced. As Valussi explained, there exists a sort of "double blindness" in the fields of gender and religious studies, where religion is blind to gender, and vice versa. In her study, Valussi attempts to bridge this gap by explaining the relationship between gender and two Chinese religions, Buddhism and Daoism, in early 20th-century China.

The late Qing reform era witnessed, for the first time in Chinese history, women emerging into public space in collective groups. Women became actively involved in schools, charitable and religious organizations, and hospitals, while newspapers were used for learning, as well as for distributing information about religious practice. At the same time, a number of important lexical changes were occurring within the Chinese language. Western concepts of human rights were introduced to China, and terms such as "natural rights" (天赋人权), "people's rights" (民权), and "power" (权力) were coming into use for the first time. Accordingly, phrases such as "men are superior and women inferior" (男尊女卑) increasingly gave way to those such as "gender equality" (男女平等).

How, then, were these terms used in relation to women's religious practice, and not only in relation to women's political and social freedoms? According to Valussi, Daoist and Buddhist championing of women's spirituality and spiritual equality must be viewed as a recognition of the widening of public religious discourse to include women, but also as part of a larger project to create a modern, lay, and nationalist spirituality. Valussi provided a number of examples of the people and publications that drove this movement, with one of the most notable individuals being a female Buddhist monk known as Hengbao (恒宝), who challenged the very use of "woman" as a separate category. As Hengbao questioned, "How could there really be a female gender? The Buddha says that in terms of the (Buddhist) doctrine, there are no males and females, so you see the Buddhist view on gender differences, how it upholds equality!" Thus, according to Valussi, gender and religion played highly complementary roles in the development of gender consciousness and the women's rights movement, as well as the push for a more modern Chinese spirituality.

Blogpost by Michelle  Eastman

7th February, 2018

Ritual, interpretation, and commentary in late Chinese antiquity

Prof. Michael Puett, Harvard University

In 142 AD, Laozi, the embodiment of the entire cosmos in human form, presented a revelation to a man named Zhang Gaolin. Zhang's grandson, Zhang Lu, would eventually take these revelations and begin the group known as the Celestial Masters, a community that rejected many of the teachings of the day and believed that through faith (信) in the purity of Laozi's teachings, followers could over time attain transcendence and usher in an era of great peace. Without such faith, the Masters believed, the era of human decline would continue, bringing an end to all, including the current cosmos. But what had brought about the decline to which the Celestial Masters were responding?

According to Professor Michael Puett, the Masters saw the words of Laozi as the words of the cosmos, which humans had failed to follow because they mistakenly believed they were the words of other human beings. This represented a larger trend, one of many people writing complicated commentaries that others would have to decipher. By treating the Laozi as a complicated text with complex language, rather than clear, plain prose giving guidance about the nature of the cosmos and how to behave morally and correctly, humans were slowly destroying themselves. The solution, according to the Celestial Masters, was to have complete faith in Laozi's teachings, which would involve stopping all the sacrifices of the day (believed to be "feeding ghosts"), so that humans could focus on what was truly important and generate the godliness (神) within themselves.

As Professor Puett also explained, however, the commentarial tradition to which millenarian movements such as the Masters were responding were not meant to be viewed as simple instructions or interpretations that had intrinsic value in themselves. Rather, they were meant to be seen as part and parcel of the human process of domesticating the world, of reconfiguring it and making it workable. Over the course of this process, humans developed ideas about what worked, both for human interaction and systems of governance, and the things that worked eventually developed into ritual (礼). The purpose of commentary was to refine dispositional response, and to instill understanding about the precepts of ritual. By memorizing the speeches of great sage kings, humans could refine their disposition and ability to act in the world. As such, key works such as the Xiang'er commentary were not trying to say "This is how to interpret x", but rather "How do we work with something from the past to make our current situation better?"

During the post-lecture discussion, questions for Professor Puett included those concerning possible influences from Buddhism on the commentarial tradition, as well as questions on how to resolve the commentarial tradition explained in the talk with highly descriptive commentaries such as the Liji (礼记), and Zhouli (周礼). Yet another question related to a Confucian scholar contemporaneous with the Celestial Masters, Zheng Xuan (郑玄), and how his ideas were (or were not) compatible with the ideas on commentary presented in the lecture.

Blogpost by Michelle  Eastman

31st January, 2018

The Sinosphere Simplified

Prof. Alan Macfarlane, Emeritus Professor of Anthropological Science, University of Cambridge

In his lecture on the sinosphere and the various social, cultural, and historical features that define it, Professor Alan Macfarlane argued for the validity and value of dividing the world into "spheres", with each sphere defined not only by its internal characteristics, but by its relationship with the spheres around it. The sinosphere, as with the other spheres that as a whole make up human civilization, defies easy description, but Professor Macfarlane nevertheless managed to encapsulate its essence in a few main themes.

The first of these is China's written language, which, being pictographic, can be read and understood independently of the spoken language. This greatly enhanced China's ability to communicate with and spread her influence to the peoples on her periphery. Other important themes included the influence of Confucianism, as well as the creation of a merit-based bureaucracy through the introduction of an imperial examination. According to Professor Macfarlane, both of these served as stabilizing influences in Chinese society, both by creating self-reinforcing rules for highly structured social interaction, and by creating mechanisms for upward social mobility, which would theoretically prevent the development of a powerful hereditary nobility that could potentially threaten the state.

During the post-lecture discussion, a number of attendees raised questions or comments for Professor Macfarlane. One attendee cautioned against the use of Confucianism to explain social phenomena in China, noting that the term is often retroactively applied by the Chinese government as a form of propaganda. Another listener inquired about Professor Macfarlane's experiences travelling through China, while yet another questioned the differences between the concepts of "sphere" and "civilization", as well as the way in which Professor Macfarlane had chosen to delineate the various spheres.

Blogpost by Michelle  Eastman

24th January, 2018

Ludic Modernism: Comedy and the Making of Modern Tibetan(s)

Dr Timothy Thurston, University of Leeds

In his lecture on ludic modernism in today's Tibet, Dr Timothy Thurston explained the importance of comedy in the Tibetan New Culture Movement through the lens of a comic form known as Tibetan xiangsheng, focusing specifically on a four-part series known as "Careful Village". Resembling the Han version of the form, Tibetan xiangsheng generally consist of a dialogue in which two performers stand before an audience and tell jokes, recount humorous anecdotes, sing songs, do imitations, and in general do their best to provoke laughter. The dialogues are not only bolder than the more traditional forms of entertainment, but also much quicker to reflect popular concerns. In "Careful Village", such concerns include modern technology, gender (in)equality and free choice marriage, religion, and education.

By comparing the lexical structure of "Careful Village" with more traditional texts, Dr Thurston demonstrated how various signs of tradition have disappeared from Tibetan xiangsheng, and been replaced by new discourses of modernity. For example, while a traditional wedding speech is laced with religious language, in "Careful Village" these references vanish, giving way to lines that condone ideas of secular education and gender equality. "Praise the silk knot of love!", one such line exhorts. "Praise the creamy white path of free marriage." Such discourses have served to shape a dichotomy between a uniquely Tibetan version of modernity in which the "modern" polyglot performers, who use plain speech devoid of oaths, stand in contrast to the "backwards" monolingual villagers, who speak in verse and use oaths and curses.

Post-lecture questions for Dr Thurston ranged from those on penetration of the Tibetan xiangsheng into Tibet's more remote rural areas - are the dialogues widely listened to in the countryside, and if so what are the differences between the way they are received and interpreted in urban and rural areas? - to those on how new technology and social media have shaped the evolution of this unique comic form. According to Dr Thurston, while Tibetan xiangsheng are no longer widely performed, having been overtaken by other forms of media such as film, many of their lexical components have already become deeply embedded in everyday language in many parts of Tibet, specifically Amdo.

Blogpost by Michelle  Eastman

29th November, 2017

How China came to lead the global nuclear power industry

Presenter: Dr Simon Taylor, Research Associate, Cambridge Energy Policy Research Group and Director, Master of Finance, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge

In his lecture on China's evolution into a global leader in nuclear power, Dr Simon Taylor began by looking back more than half a century to China's first atomic bomb detonation at Lop Nur, explaining development of the bomb in the larger context of China's relations with the USSR and the United States. While China has long been using nuclear technology for weaponry, how was it that she also came to use it for energy?

According to Dr Taylor, China's need to develop its nuclear power industry on such a large scale can be traced to one important factor - coal. Despite the fact that the country has an abundance of the resource, power shortages were nevertheless endemic throughout the 1970s. As most of China's coal reserves are concentrated in the country's far north, transporting sufficient amounts of coal throughout the country required railway capacity that China simply did not have. Adding to this were concerns that coal reserves would eventually run out. In response, nuclear technology was included in the list of projects for the Four Modernizations in 1977, and technology exchanges began with both France and the United States the following year.

Today, China is experiencing a massive increase in nuclear power generation, with 22GW under construction, 47GW planned, and 114GW proposed. As Dr Taylor explained, China has become adept at localizing foreign technology, and has also been able to "learn by doing" - the sheer number of nuclear power plants constructed in China over recent years means that the Chinese are simply more experienced at building the plants than their foreign counterparts. This, in combination with an economy-wide cost advantage, lower cost of capital, and an overall need to develop clean energy to combat a serious pollution problem means that China has both a powerful motivation to develop nuclear energy, as well as an extremely strong competitive advantage in the area.

Questions for Dr Taylor included those related to the overall landscape of clean energy in China - with hydropower and wind power facilities already running below capacity, why is there a need for so many nuclear power plants? Other audience members expressed concern about how nuclear waste from the plants is disposed of and stored, and whether or not average Chinese citizens had any outlet for expressing similar concerns. Yet another question concerned whether or not development of nuclear fusion as a means of energy production is currently a priority for the Chinese. As Dr Taylor explained, nuclear fusion is less a priority than more efficient fission.

Blogpost by Michelle  Eastman

15th November, 2017

Chinese National Language Movement Under the Tradition of ‘Wen Zi Guo’

Presenter: Professor Wang Dongjie, History and Culture School, Sichuan University, Chengdu, China

Prior to the 20th century, China had long been a place where written text took social and cultural precedence over spoken language, with Chinese characters viewed as symbols of a well-regulated political and social order. Indeed, the Chinese phrases “知书达理” and “知书达礼” convey the idea that becoming literate is a process synonymous with attaining reason and civility. By the early 20th century, however, the appearance of the National Language Movement and a “turning to sound” of Chinese culture significantly raised the status of speech and spoken cultural forms, leading a push for “unity in pronunciation and writing” (言文一致) and allowing sound to move into and influence written culture. In his lecture, Professor Wang Dongjie enlightened listeners on the origins and aims of the National Language Movement, its successes and failures, and how its effects are still being felt today.

As Professor Wang explained, the National Language Movement called for reform in three main areas: Chinese characters, which many reformers wished to alphabetize (汉字拼音化); style, which concerned writing in a manner resembling the vernacular; and language, which would involve the establishment of a unified national language and grammar system. In the end, each of these movements met with varying degrees of success. Moves to alphabetize the Chinese language encountered extreme resistance and eventual failure, but style reforms centered on the Vernacular Movement (白话文运动), which involved writing in a fashion more closely resembling spoken Chinese, were eventually highly successful. Attempts to create a unified national language were generally accepted, but interestingly enough did nothing to damage the “prestige” of local dialects. As Professor Wang concluded, in its attempts to create a new sound-based culture, the National Language Movement overlooked the true importance of characters and written language, which were an equally important part of China’s search for “modernity”.

The post-lecture discussion included questions on the role of vernacular Chinese (白话文) – what was its significance, and why did the reformers support it? According to Professor Wang, vernacular Chinese served as a “bridge” between classes, allowing those who could read to communicate with and spread their ideas to those in the lower classes. Other questions related to the status of local Chinese dialects today, as well as the impact of Putonghua, technology, and national policy in China on the survival and evolution of these dialects.

Blogpost by Michelle  Eastman

8th November, 2017

Laozi Leading Confucius to Salvation: Tracing the History of a Lost Text

Presenter: Dr Imre Galambos, Reader in Chinese Studies, Faculty of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge

In “Case files from the Qing court’s investigation of secret societies” (《清廷查办秘密社会案》), there exists an account of a sectarian movement leader known as Wang Bingheng, and his propagation of the Red Sun Teachings in the Jiangnan region during the early 19th century. After Wang’s capture, Qing authorities discovered that he had two precious scrolls in his possession. These scrolls, entitled “Laozi Saves Confucius” (《老子度孔子》) and “Confucius Bridging the Divide” (《孔子度元关》), purported to be the teachings of Laozi, and were used by millenarian sects for recitation. However, little is known about their origin. In his lecture, Dr Imre Galambos provided an analysis of the possible sources of the texts, using both their titles and the common thematic elements within them to trace their histories back almost a thousand years.

Dr Galambos successively identified various versions of the texts as precursors to those that appeared in the Qing and Republican periods, including testimonies of 18th-century scholars and a 16th-century text entitled “Record of the Elderly Lord at the Apricot Platform” (《老君杏坛记》). As Dr Galambos explained, while the titles of the texts differ, certain thematic elements remain constant: Confucius descends into the world, encounters a sage while travelling with a disciple, and becomes a pupil of this sage, now called Laozi. These elements allow the texts to be traced as far back as the year 1122, to a Tangut text (itself a translation from Chinese) bearing the name “Record of the Master at the Apricot Platform” (《夫子杏坛记》).

A number of questions during the post-lecture discussion centered around the temporal relevance of the texts, including the possible reasons why they tended to appear in times of increased sectarian activity. Other questions related to the purpose of the Tangut-language texts, and whether or not they were also associated with heterodoxy, as well as more general questions about Tangut, including the types of texts that were generally translated into the language. According to Dr Galambos, the vast majority of Chinese-language texts translated into Tangut were Buddhist, making Confucian Tangut-language texts such as “Record of the Master at the Apricot Platform” quite rare.

Blogpost by Michelle  Eastman

1st November, 2017

The Memory of an Assassin and the Problem of Legitimacy in the Wang Jingwei Regime (1940-45)

Presenter: Professor Zhiyi Yang, Professor of Sinology, Goethe University of Frankfurt

In late February, 1942, men of letters in occupied China became aware of a collection of curious poems published in the magazine Accord (《同声》), a prestigious monthly dedicated to the research and writing of classical Chinese literature. Published by the much-debated political figure Wang Jingwei and his followers, the poems drew comparisons between Wang and the ancient hero-assassin Jing Ke, a comparison that Wang wished to use to strengthen his political legitimacy. In her lecture, Professor Yang delved into the content and historical context of these poems, in the process painting a more nuanced picture of a man that has in the past been vilified as the most duplicitous of traitors.

Wang Jingwei first rose to fame in 1910 after his failed attempt to assassinate the regent to the imperial throne, an attempt likened in the Accord poems to Jing Ke’s attempt on the life of the first emperor of Qin. The poems also implicitly compare Japan to Qin, which, according to Professor Yang, served to pre-emptively refute the institutional memory of the Reorganized National Government for future generations. In the end, Professor Yang raised a number of questions: might Wang have believed that winning over the hearts and minds of the Japanese was China’s greatest chance for victory over them? Could Wang have been planning to eventually stab Japan in the back? None of these possibilities can be ruled out, and therefore Wang Jingwei and his motives might not have been as simple as they are often portrayed.

During the discussion section, many questions related to perceptions of Wang outside of China, for example in Taiwan and Japan. As Professor Yang explained, while Wang is still viewed as a traitor in mainland China, there have been some attempts to portray him more objectively, though these studies purposefully avoid politically sensitive areas. In Taiwan, meanwhile, a pivot towards Taiwanese literature means that Wang no longer receives as much focus there. Other questions centered on how Wang acquired his excellent oratory skills, the significance of his preference for white clothing, as well as the possible whereabouts of the mysterious painting “Bidding Farewell at the River Yi”, upon which the colophorm that inspired the above poetic exchange first appeared.

Blogpost by Michelle  Eastman

25th October, 2017

The Beekeeper in Pre-modern China

Presenter: Professor David Pattinson, Director of East Asian Studies, University of Leeds 

Professor Pattinson introduced the history of the beekeeper in imperial China, focusing on the interactions between humans and bees as presented in Chinese literature. Professor Pattinson first explained the fact that information about beekeeper are rare in early Chinese literature from 3 AD onward. According to Professor Pattinson’s studies, the earliest reference to beekeeping in China appeared in Gaoshizhuan 高士傳, but details of beekeeping methods and products were not provided. More information about beekeeping methods, such as the use of bait hives, were mentioned in other texts written in the following centuries (e.g. Bowuzhi 博物志 and Taipingyulan 太平御覽).

From the Tang Dynasty onward, with the spread of printing, more information about beekeeping was written and preserved. Simultaneously, the techniques of beekeeping had significantly improved as well. Professor Pattinson introduced literature that detailed the methods used by beekeepers to try to increase production, control swarming, maintain colonies over the winter, and harvest honey (e.g. Song Yingxing’s Tiangongkaiwu 天工開物 and Pu Songling’s Nongsangjing農桑經). These texts were not only useful pragmatically, but of great literary values.

During the discussion, questions centered on the ways in which beekeepers were presented in Chinese literature. One person asked whether the beehive was presented in Chinese literature as analogous to the Confucian society, in which everyone performed its own duties. One person questioned whether beekeeping was ever popular among the Chinese literati, and whether bees were ever portrayed negatively because of their sting.

18th October, 2017

Saintly or Heretical? Legends about Buddhist Monks and Political Prophets

Presenter: Dr Wu Junqing, Leverhulme fellow in Asian Studies at Cambridge

In this seminar, Dr Wu first introduced her research on the changing images of monks as political prophets from Northern-Southern Dynasties onwards. Dr Wu categorized these monks into three types: Reincarnation of a Bodhisatva (e.g. Baozhi寶誌, a monk who was later portrayed as the reincarnation of Guanyin), Ruler’s sage assistant (e.g. Fotucheng 佛圖澄, a monk who served as an assistant to Shile石勒, a ruler of the Houzhao後趙 regime), and the fangshi方士 type (e.g. Li Chunfeng李淳風, an influential monk in Tang dynasty). Dr Wu drew attention to the prophecies made by the fangshi-type monks, which were straightforward and usually referred to the enthronement or death of an emperor and the result of a battle. This type of monks were favored by the rulers and survived, while the other two types of monks gradually disappeared, as time progressed.

Dr Wu later traced the tendencies in the portrayal of these monks in historical records. In general, the images of Buddhist monks declined from the Northern-Southern Dynasties. Dr Wu believed that the “heretics” enshrined in the prophets became intolerable to the rulers and caused this significant change. Also, the rehabilitation of Confucianism, which to a great extent inhibited the development of Buddhism in Tang and Song Dynasty, as well as the increasingly secularized views of political legitimation contributed to the decline in the portrayal of Buddhists generally.

During the post-talk discussion, one issue we debated was word choice. Words such as heretics, black magic, prophecy and messianism are derived from a Western tradition, but using them opened up new avenues for comparison and new topics for reflection. We debated contemporary meanings of terms such Buddhist and Daoist and the special place of the Yuan Dynasty in the chronology outlined by Dr Wu.