Category Archives: China

Wordcatcher Tales: 難得糊塗

I just came across a handwritten four-character Chinese phrase on a souvenir magnetic bookmark from Taiwan that leaves me uncertain about its meaning, despite many attempts to parse it.

The first character of what turned out to be 難得 (simplified 难得) nándé ‘rare(ly)’ was written with the more complicated (11-stroke) bird radical 鳥 (called tori in Japanese) on its right, rather than the simpler (9-stroke) 隹 (called furutori ‘old bird’ in Japanese). I searched and searched both the common and rare (難得!) sections of the Rikai Unicode Kanji Tables but couldn’t find a copy to cut and paste into this post. The two ‘bird’ shapes can be combined into one character (in either order, 鵻 or 䳡), but both kanji appear to be obsolete. (According to my old Canon Wordtank Kanjigen, the kanji 鵻, pronounced sui in Sino-Japanese, once named a kind of squab with a short tail.)

The second pair of characters, 糊塗 (simplified 胡涂) hútu, means ‘muddled, confused, bewildered’ or ‘stupid, foolish’ as an adjective in Chinese. But the Japanese verb 糊塗する koto suru means ‘gloss over, patch up’, literally ‘coat with glue’, from 糊 nori ‘starch, paste’ (with the ‘rice’ radical 米) and 塗 nuru ‘paint, daub’ (as in 塗物 nurimono ‘lacquerware’ or 塗工 tokou ‘painter, plasterer’).

So, the four characters on the bookmark probably intend to praise the astute reader as ‘rarely bewildered’, but they could also suggest that the reader is ‘rarely plastered’, is ‘rarely pasty’, or even perhaps ‘rarely [reads] glossy [magazines]’.

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Rapid Fall of Germany’s Overseas Empire

From African Kaiser: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa, 1914-1918, by Robert Gaudi (Caliber, 2017), Kindle Loc. 365-394:

Today, a bronze historical marker in Belgium memorializes the first British shot of World War One and the first death in battle involving British troops. According to this marker, the opening round of uncountable millions was fired by Corporal Ernest Thomas of C Squadron, 4th Royal Irish Dragoons on August 22, 1914, in a cavalry action near the town of Casteau, Belgium. The first combatant killed, a German uhlan (mounted infantryman), is credited to Captain Charles B. Hornby in that same action. Captain Hornby pierced the unfortunate uhlan’s heart by saber thrust—an ironically old-fashioned death (on horseback, with a sword) in what was to become a decidedly modern war (mechanized, faceless), its human toll exceeding 14,000,000. But the markers’ assertions do not stand historical scrutiny; their authors disregard earlier campaigns in far-off Africa.

The first British shot of the war actually occurred on August 5, fired off by Regimental Sergeant Major Alhaji Grunshi, a black African soldier serving with British Imperial forces a few miles north of Lomé, in German Togoland. The first recorded British death in battle, one Lieutenant G. M. Thompson of the Gold Coast Regiment, took place sometime over the night of August 21–22, also in Togoland: Lieutenant Thompson, given command of a company of Senegalese Tirailleurs, fought it out with German askaris in a confused action in the thick bush on the banks of the river Chra. His comrades found him in the morning, lying dead and covered with insects in the midst of his slaughtered command. They buried them that way; the Senegalese arranged around Lieutenant Thompson’s grave like a loyal pack of hounds around the tomb of a Paleolithic chief.

After less than a year of war, the German Overseas Empire—one of the main catalysts for the war in the first place—seemed nearly at an end.

In China, on the other side of the globe, the small German garrison holding the Kiao-Chow Concession found itself besieged by a Japanese Army 23,000 strong, supported by a small contingent of the 2nd Battalion of South Wales Borderers. The Concession—a 400-square-mile territory centered in the fortified port city of Tsingtao on the Yellow Sea—had been ceded to Germany in 1897 as compensation for the murder of two German Catholic priests by anti-Christian Chinese mobs. Tsingtao’s commandant, Kapitän zur See Meyer-Waldeck, held out against the siege behind the city’s thick walls for two months, under continual bombardment from land and sea as Japanese Infantry assault trenches pushed relentlessly forward. Realizing the pointlessness of further struggle against the combined might of the Japanese Army and Navy, Meyer-Waldeck surrendered his garrison of 3,000 German marines and sundry volunteers at last on November 16, 1914. It came as a surprise to him that the Japanese and the British were fighting together against Germany—they had signed a secret mutual defense treaty in 1902, only now bearing fruit.

Meanwhile, Australian, New Zealand, and Japanese forces easily captured German possessions in the South Pacific. These included the Bismarck Archipelago, the Caroline Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Marianas, Palau, New Caledonia, and Samoa—where the Kaiser’s barefoot native soldiers sported fetching red sarongs beneath their formal German military tunics—and Kaiser-Wilhelmsland, now the northeastern part of Papua New Guinea. Here one intrepid German officer, a certain Hauptmann Herman Detzner, who had been off exploring the unknown interior with a contingent of native police, refused to surrender and remained on the loose in the wilderness for the duration of the war. He turned himself in to the occupying Australians on January 5, 1919, wearing his carefully preserved and outdated Imperial German uniform—a kind of German Rip van Winkle who had been asleep in the jungle while the world changed irrevocably around him. By July 1915, of Germany’s prewar colonial possessions, only German East Africa remained.

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Filed under Britain, Cameroon, China, Germany, Ghana, Micronesia, migration, military, nationalism, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tanzania, war

China’s Agricultural Revolutionaries

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 5314-5338:

The transformation of agriculture in 1978 and 1979 proceeded with little instigation from the top. The peasants sensed the opportunities provided by the loosening of the party’s political control and pushed ahead. It was a process marked by wide regional variation; there seem to have been as many different names for agricultural reform experiments during this period as there are counties in China. It was also very much a matter of trial and error. When the politicians learned what the peasants were up to, they usually waited for evidence of success before they committed themselves unambiguously. Wan Li and Zhao Ziyang could claim credit for letting the farmers do what came naturally. When the experiments of the peasants bore fruit, Deng publicized their success, recognizing a good thing when he saw it. But he certainly could not take credit for giving farmers the idea.

The irony, as American anthropologist Stephen Mosher realized, was that Western scholars at the time regarded the Chinese as incorrigible collectivists. “Group thinking” was considered an indelible part of traditional culture that predisposed the Chinese to Communist ways. As a result, Mosher had come to the countryside expecting to discover evidence that the peasants were fundamentally satisfied with the stability and predictability furnished by the regime. According to scholarly reasoning, the Communist Party had taken power in 1949 largely due to the support of the country dwellers. It had promised to improve the lot of the peasantry, and in this it had surely succeeded. After all, hadn’t the Communists brought schools and basic health care to even some of the most remote villages? Hadn’t they eliminated the corruption and tyranny of the old landlords? Upon his arrival, Mosher carefully noted all the characteristics of a traditional society that skewed visibly to collective ways of doing things.

The rampant cynicism and apathy that he encountered in China’s real-existing countryside thus came as something of a shock, and his account provides a fascinating chronicle of how a preconceived view can disintegrate upon contact with reality. But amid the ruins of Mao’s utopian edifice, Mosher also discovered intriguing evidence of a powerful source of transformative energy: individual initiative. Though they were far from the places where the most important experiments were under way, the people in Mosher’s remote Guangdong village had already picked up on the spread of the household-responsibility system, and he succeeded in capturing a nice snapshot of the spirit that, once unleashed, would soon lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. The old entrepreneurial mind-set of the Chinese “flared anew once opportunity presented itself,” Mosher noted. When one woman heard that the party might soon allow a return to household farming, she immediately began making plans to start cultivating her own mulberry patch, planting the bushes between the rows of trees on the farm. “You can’t do that now because people are careless when they work,” she explained to the American. “They would step on them when they are spreading mud [as fertilizer] or picking mulberry leaves. But I’ll be careful because they’ll be mine.”

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Wordcatcher Tales: getihu, baochan daohu

I learned a few new Chinese terms from reading Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014).

个体户 (traditional 個體戶) getihu (‘individual-body-enterprise’) – Even during the heyday of collectivization, Communist China allowed very limited small-scale entrepreneurship. The term for such businesses translates literally as ‘individual’ (个 ge, used as a counter for individual items) + ‘body’ (体 ti, also ‘form, style; system’) + ‘door’ (户 hu, also ‘household, family; [bank] account; type of professional’).

包产到户 (traditional 包産到戸) baochan daohu (‘assure-production reach-household’) – The method used to abolish China’s disastrously underperforming collective farms was to reassign production quotas down to the level of individual households. The term for production quota is baochan, composed of 包 ‘wrap; envelope; include; take full responsibility for; assure, guarantee’ + 产 ‘give birth to; produce’ (or ‘product[ion]’). The reassignment of responsibility to households was conveyed by adding the modifier 到户 daohu, from 到 dao ‘arrive, reach’ + 户 hu ‘door; household, family’.

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Numerology of 1979

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 4676-4704:

Many of the events of 1979 are linked with the mysterious power of anniversaries. The Communist Party in Poland feared the incendiary potential of the nine-hundredth anniversary of the martyrdom of a saint. The thirtieth anniversary of the Communist takeover in China was shrewdly exploited by Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues to reinforce the sense of a new beginning. The forty-day Islamic mourning cycle proved a crucial dynamic for the revolution in Iran—as did the millennial expectations of Khomeini’s followers, whose habit of referring to him as the “imam” fanned a longing for the realm of justice promised by the reappearance of the Hidden Imam. Indeed, the Islamic calendar itself was one of the many issues that fueled the discontent of Iranian believers. The shah’s decision to introduce a new, non-Islamic calendar in the mid-1970s served as yet another bit of evidence to good Shiites that the monarch was an enemy of their religion—and gave Khomeini’s supporters yet another potent argument.

In the Julian calendar of the West, 1979 is not an especially evocative date. But this was not true for Muslims. In the Islamic calendar, which is based on the phases of the moon and takes as its start the Prophet’s exile from Mecca in 622, the Western month of November 1979 coincides with the dawning of the new year of 1400. According to certain traditions, that is the year that the Mahdi, the Islamic messiah, is supposed to reveal himself to the faithful and usher in a new age of eternal justice. For Iranians, this is the moment when historical time and the forces of eternity coincide, and this apocalyptic expectation fueled the fervor with which Khomeini was greeted as the country’s new savior. Some demonstrators wondered whether he might, indeed, turn out to be the Imam of the Age himself; some of the faithful even claimed to have seen his face on the moon.

In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a group of provincial zealots came up with a particularly fateful reading of the Mahdi myth. Like the majority of Saudis, they were not Shiite but Sunni, and they hailed from a remote corner of the kingdom that had largely missed out on the new prosperity. In November 1979, as pilgrims were arriving for the annual hajj, the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca, heavily armed members of the group took over the al-Masjid al-Haram, the Grand Mosque, and took thousands of pilgrims from around the world hostage. They then announced that one of their leaders, a young man named Abdullah Hamid Mohammed al-Qahtani, was the Mahdi, the long-prophesied redeemer of Islam. All Muslims, they said, were religiously obligated to obey his commands. The Saudi authorities declined to do this and immediately set about the task of clearing the mosque. It took them weeks, covertly assisted by a team of commandos lent to the kingdom by the French government, to kill or capture the hostage takers. In the end, according to official Saudi figures, 270 people—hostages, hostage takers, and members of the assault force—lost their lives. Foreign diplomats who managed to get access to local hospitals concluded that the actual death toll was much higher, closer to 1,000.

The leader of the group, Juhayman al-Otaibi, was captured and executed a few weeks after the end of the siege. But his ideas would prove prophetic. He had categorically denounced the corruption of the Saudi regime and rejected the presence of infidel foreigners in a country that was supposed to be the undefiled home to Mecca and Medina, two of the three most holy places in Islam. (The third is the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.) A subsequent generation of Saudi radicals—Osama bin Laden among them—would not forget.

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Filed under Arabia, China, Iran, Islam, nationalism, Poland

Democracy Wall as Proto-Internet, 1978

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2721-2761:

Most of these malcontents were incapable of articulating their demands. But someone was prepared to do it for them. In September 1978, the editors of a magazine called China Youth, which had been prohibited from publishing during the Cultural Revolution, decided to relaunch it. They decided to mark its return in style by publishing some poems commemorating the Tiananmen Incident of 1976. Party censors intervened and thwarted the editors from going ahead with their plans. The frustrated literati refused to give up, so they resorted to a time-honored technique of Chinese mass communication: the dazibao, or “big-character poster.” They decided to print the poems in poster form and paste them up in a public place. They needed a venue where a big audience was ensured, so they opted for a spot that other unrecognized writers had been using for a few months. This was a long stretch of brick wall under a row of leafless sycamore trees next to a bus depot in Xidan, a spot in downtown Beijing, just a few blocks from the Jingxi Hotel, that tens of thousands of commuters passed through every day.

China Youth’s decision to use the site dramatically boosted its notoriety. Crowds of readers quickly formed. To everyone’s surprise, the authorities declined to interfere. Posters proliferated. Soon people were coming from all over China to take a look. Crowds gathered, eager to experience the heady atmosphere of a place where a myriad of views competed for attention.

This was Xidan Democracy Wall. Young Chinese described it as their version of Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park. For a few weeks in the winter of 1978–1979, it would become a key strategic asset in the battle for China’s soul.

At some point in late November, a poster appeared on the wall criticizing Mao by name. No one could recall such a thing ever happening before. The author of the poster, who called himself Work Permit Number 0538 (and gave the address of the motor repair shop where he worked), wrote: “In 1976 after the Tiananmen Incident, the Gang of Four made use of the prestige and power of Chairman Mao’s mistaken judgment on class struggle and launched an all-out attack on the cause of revolution in China.” During the Cultural Revolution, one man had been sentenced to fifteen years in a labor camp for absentmindedly scratching his back with a copy of the Little Red Book during a mass meeting. Now everyone waited to see what would happen to the author of this shocking text. Would he be shot? Surely, at least, the poster itself would be torn down. But two days later it was still there.

The posters that followed pushed the boundaries even further. One wondered how the all-knowing Mao had failed to notice that his own wife, Jiang Qing, was actually a “traitor.” Another called on the party leadership to observe the rule of law. Another demanded the rehabilitation of party leaders who had been purged by Mao in the early 1960s. Not all of the provocations were political. “Why can’t the national economy catch up with the one in Taiwan?” one poster asked. “How can the United States, a capitalist country only 200 years old, be the most developed in the world?”

By now the wall was besieged by visitors, day and night. People read, expostulated, and listened “with an openness unprecedented in the history of the People’s Republic.” Some visitors spoke their messages through bullhorns. The foreign correspondents and diplomats who came to see what was going on found themselves besieged by curious locals. During the years of the Cultural Revolution, ordinary Chinese had done whatever they could to avoid even the most cursory contact with citizens of other countries. Now, liberated by the air of candor around the wall, they peppered the foreigners with questions. Roger Garside, a Chinese-speaking British diplomat who wrote one of the most vivid accounts of the early reform period in China, recalled the scene:

They bombarded me with questions on democracy and human rights: “Can you really criticize your Prime Minister? Who owns the newspapers in Britain? How do they decide their editorial policy? How is the BBC controlled? How are elections organized?”

Some were by no means ignorant but wanted to check out the information they had acquired one way or another; others were simply thirsty for knowledge.

In Garside’s description, Democracy Wall functioned like a sort of proto-Internet: posters with derivative content were quickly papered over, while those that had something new or powerful to say were left uncovered. Readers wrote comments on some of the posters with ballpoint pens; when a popular one was torn by accident, visitors quickly glued it back together. Some of the texts were written on scraps of paper torn from notebooks, while others were composed on sheets of paper three feet high with brush and ink. Some authors used paper in pink or green to attract attention.

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Hua Guofeng and the Two Whatevers, 1977

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2594-2619:

In the wake of Mao’s death, the colorless Hua surprised everyone with a sudden show of initiative. Allying himself with two established party elders, Army Marshal Ye Jianying and veteran functionary Li Xiannian, Hua engineered the arrest of the Gang of Four. It was a startling gambit even by the Byzantine standards of twentieth-century Communist conspiracies. Hua had started by splitting off one of the Gang’s key allies, a man by the name of Wang Dongxing, who had risen with the Gang’s help to become the head of the party’s Praetorian Guard, the 8341 Special Regiment, which provided for the security of top officials. Hua and Wang arranged for two of the Gang’s leaders to be called to a special session of the Politburo. They were arrested at gunpoint as they stepped into the room. Jiang Qing, Mao’s widow and the Gang’s leader, was taken into custody in her bedroom; one of her personal servants is said to have spat on her as she was led away. Under orders from Hua, the People’s Liberation Army quickly moved to disarm the heavily armed militias and the powerful media machine that Jiang’s faction had built up over the years. The Cultural Revolution was finally coming to an end.

Yet what was Hua offering in its place? This was not immediately clear. Hua certainly understood that the country could no longer afford permanent revolution. Adopting a strategy originally envisioned by Zhou Enlai, he declared that China should push ahead with “the Four Modernizations” (science and technology, industry, national defense, and agriculture). He moved to restore the economy’s animal spirits by ordering a huge surge of investment in industry and agriculture. Like Gierek in Poland, Hua seemed to believe that part of the solution involved taking big foreign loans for flagship projects; also like Gierek, he seemed to have few concrete ideas about how these loans would be paid back.

Hua’s program did result in tangible growth. But it also led to big budget deficits and scandalous waste, since it failed to tackle many of the serious problems of management and organization bequeathed by Maoist excess. Hua had the right idea, but he was still, in essence, relying on mobilization and slogans rather than substantive economic policy. Some of his critics belittled the program as another Great Leap Forward, a utopian exercise with little practical foundation. Hua, for example, urged a rapid increase in the output of steel, which duly materialized. But to what end? What, precisely, was the underlying economic strategy?

Hua had eliminated the Gang of Four. He tried to revive the economy. But he seemed hesitant to put an end to the broader legacy of the Cultural Revolution. In February 1977, a few months after Mao’s death, Hua’s supporters published a statement containing a conspicuous quote: “We will resolutely uphold whatever policy and decisions Chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave.” This credo came to be known as the “the two whatevers,” and its adherents, “the Whateverists.” Like many factional nicknames, this one contained a large grain of truth. Hua’s legitimacy stemmed from the fact that he was Mao’s chosen successor. That counted for a lot. But it also limited his freedom of maneuver. He could not chip away at the memory of the Great Helmsman without undermining himself.

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