Category Archives: language

China’s Repeated Unity

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), p. 50:

Unlike Europe, where the Holy Roman Empire was but a faint echo of Rome’s glory, China’s medieval period was one of the most powerful and resplendent eras of her history. Once again a short unifying dynasty (the Sui) was followed by a powerful and long-lived inheritor the T’ang. In many ways, the T’ang was even more glorious an era than the Han had been, but after roughly two centuries, its lustre was rapidly dimming. By the end of the T’ang, the frontier marches were virtually independent, and the succeeding Sung dynasty was never able to solve its border problems. In the twelfth century, frontier defenses collapsed. North China fell once again into the hands of barbarians, this time from the region we today call Manchuria, and once again a refugee Chinese regime the Southern Sung was driven south to the lower Yangtze, the lands of Ch’u and Wu, where it made its “temporary” capital in the lovely city of Hangchow.

After the Southern Sung the late empire there were interregna but never again a long period of disunity. Ironically, however, this unity was twice imposed by non-Chinese peoples from beyond the Wall: the Mongols of Genghis and Kubla Khan, to whose court came Marco Polo; and then the last dynasty, and in some ways the culmination of the imperial process, the Manchu Ch’ing dynasty, which occupied the Dragon Throne from 1644 until 1911, when in one of history’s greatest not-with-a-bang anticlimaxes the abdication of a six-year-old boy emperor ended not only that dynasty but all dynasties, and more than 2,000 years of imperial history came to an end. These two alien dynasties the Yuan (1279-1368) and the Ch’ing (1644-1911) were the only two periods of foreign rule over all of China.

This very brief chronological survey introduces the names of the principal dynastic periods, and provides a reference chart, since I will be moving back and forth in time through most of the essays in this book. Periods of disunity also influence the story directly, since it was under the impact of barbarian onslaughts that Chinese influence was pushed into the Yangtze Valley more rapidly and forcibly than would otherwise have been the case. Indeed, during the three and a half centuries between the Han and the T’ang, refugee populations and exile dynasties so developed the lower basins of the Long River that by the time of the Sui-T’ang unification this region had replaced the North China Plain as the economic center, the grain basket, of China. A similar developmental pulsation took place again during the Southern Sung dynasty approximately A.D.1100 to 1300 when the north was lost to the Chin, before both were overwhelmed by the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan and his grandson, Kubla.

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African vs. Indian Experience in Mauritius and Seychelles

From “Slavery and Indenture in Mauritius and Seychelles” by Burton Benedict, in Asian and African Systems of Slavery, ed. by James L. Watson (U. Calif. Press, 1980), pp. 154-168. Both colonies depended very heavily on imported labor for their sugar plantations. Watson attempts to explain why Indian cultural traits survived better in the two island groups than did African cultural traits. The following summaries are closely paraphrased.

1. ORIGINS: African slaves came from all over the continent and lacked common cultures or political systems. Indentured Indians came from diverse cultures that had nevertheless all coexisted within a more or less unified political and economic system ruled by the Mughals and then the British.

2. RECRUITMENT: African slaves were nearly all unwilling recruits who had usually passed through many hands in many markets. Indentured Indians were volunteers recruited by men from their own culture and often from the same village, caste, or tribe, even though they usually had no idea about their destination or working conditions, and their voyaging conditions were hardly better than that of the African slaves.

3. FAMILIES: Most Africans arrived as isolated individuals, with no guarantee that any surviving relatives would be sold to the same plantation. Indentured Indians left their wives behind during the early years, but were later assigned as family units, whose marriages were recognized by the local courts. They were better able to preserve family life.

4. YOUTH: Many African slaves were kidnapped as children, and children were favored over adults by plantation managers. They received little education and adapted to local French culture. Most Indians came as young adults, some with children, who learned Indian customs and values at home and at vernacular schools.

5. LANGUAGE: African slaves spoke many different languages, and had to communicate among themselves in Swahili, Arabic, or the languages of European traders. On the plantations, they learned the local French Creole. Most of the Indians came from three major language groups (Bhojpuri) Hindi, Tamil, and Telegu. Employers relied on bilingual overseers and the Indians preserved their home languages, in which they transmitted their home cultures. Many man but far fewer women learned Creole, even into the 1960s.

6. NAMING: African slaves were given European names, usually French or English for given names. Over time, African surnames were replaced by French or English ones. Indians retained their Indian names and gave their children Indian names, although some Christian converts took European names.

7. RELIGION: The dominant religion in Mauritius and the Seychelles was Roman Catholic, from when they were French colonies, and African slaves were heavily evangelized. Catholic and Protestant churches were controlled by Europeans. The Indians were generally Hindu or Muslim, and Europeans made little effort to convert them to Christianity. Moreover, temples, mosques, and religious ritual and education were controlled by Indians, not Europeans.

8. MUSIC AND DANCE: Africans lost not just their traditional religious rites of passage, but also music and dance connected with them. The latter became entirely secular, adapted to European and Creole cultures. Indians retained Hindu and Muslim ceremonies for rites of passage, along with their musical and dance components.

9. OVERSEAS CONNECTIONS: African slaves were completely cut off from Africa. Those who went overseas for training went to France or Britain, not Africa. Indians were also cut off from home, but many of those indentured returned to India, the Indian government took frequent interest in their welfare, and Hindu and Muslim missionaries came to preach to them. Many went to Europe for training but others went to India.

10. ECONOMIC BASE: Africans lost their kinship organizations, which had been their principal units of production and consumption. The sugar plantations produced cash crops, not subsistence crops, and individual workers purchased what they consumed. Indians came from highly stratified societies with complex, caste-based divisions of labor that produced goods and services. They were used to sharecropping and wage work (which was why indentured themselves), but the family remained the basic unit of consumption.

11. ENDOGAMY: Marriage in both European and Indian societies was very much about property; brides came with dowries. Both groups also tended to marry within their race, class, or caste. In African societies, marriage was more about building alliances; brides required bridewealth. African social stratification was much more fluid; chiefs could marry commoners.

Watson concludes “that there was a concatenation of factors which militated against the retention of African cultural traits (or conversely which fostered the adaptation of European cultural traits) and that these factors did not operate in the same fashion for Indians” (p. 167).

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When Chinese Was a State Secret

From God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, by Jonathan D. Spence (W. W. Norton, 1996), Kindle Loc. 240f.

Language might seem a problem, since in all of Canton and the foreign hongs there is no Chinese who can read or write in English or other European languages, and only a few Westerners who know enough Chinese to write with even partial elegance. This has not always been the case. In the 1810s and 1820s, when the East India Company was at its peak of power, there were a dozen or more young men from England studying Chinese in the Canton factories. They translated Chinese novels and plays, and even the Chinese legal code, so they could assess the equity of the government’s rules more carefully. Though the local officials on occasion imprisoned Chinese for teaching their own language to foreigners, and even executed one, and Chinese teachers often had to shelter privately in their pupils’ lodgings, the East India Company representatives fought back. By tenacity, they won the right to submit commercial documents in Chinese translation, rather than in English, and to hire Chinese teachers, for study of classical texts as well as Cantonese colloquial dialect. And though the company directors never won official acknowledgment of their right to hire Chinese wood-carvers, they went ahead anyway and block printed an Anglo-Chinese dictionary using Chinese characters; in addition, they managed to accumulate a substantial library of four thousand books, many of them in Chinese, which they housed in their splendidly appointed hong, with the company’s senior physician doubling as the librarian.

With the termination by the British government in 1834 of the company’s monopoly of China trade, these glory days were over. Most of the language students and experts were reassigned to other countries; their finest teacher, Robert Morrison, died the same year; and the great library was scattered. Only three young men, who had been classified on the company’s roster as “proficient” enough to receive an annual student’s allowance, are left in Canton by 1836, and their main role is to be caretakers of the company’s former buildings and oversee their closing down. Nor are there any established bookshops to be found in the foreigners’ restricted zone of residence, for specific laws forbid the sale of Chinese books to foreigners, and even make it a crime to show them one of China’s local histories or regional gazettes. Those who wish to search out books must walk some distance to the west, where two bookshops on a side street (a street with gates locked and barred at night) will break the law to the extent of selling novels, romances, and “marvellous stories” to the foreigners, and sometimes arrange for purchases of other titles from the larger stores within the city.

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Speaking Latin in Sichuan

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle p. 330:

We met Father Li and chatted in his sitting room. Politely he spoke to my father, with me serving as the translator, and I mentioned that the priest still used Latin during weekday Masses.

“Tell him that I used to be an altar boy for Latin Mass,” my father said. Father Li nodded and said that nobody else in Fuling still understood the language. I asked my father if he still remembered the traditional service, and he nodded.

“In nomine Patris,” he said, “et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.”

“Introibo ad altare Dei,” responded the priest. “I will go in to the altar of God.”

“Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam,” my father said. “To God, Who giveth joy to my youth.”

For a few minutes they went through the beginning of the service. I had been translating for nearly a week, and now it was strange to sit silent, listening and not understanding a word between these two men that I knew so well. The priest’s Latin was tinged with Sichuanese; my father spoke with an American accent. Theirs was a rote, formal dialogue in a rusty old language, but it was clear that something about the conversation changed the way the two men saw each other. After they were finished, Father Li kept forgetting himself, addressing my father directly in Sichuanese, as if he would understand. But as we left he used Latin once more. “Dominus vobiscum,” he said. “The Lord be with you.”

“Et cum spiritu tuo,” my father said.

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Where Religion Preserves Language

From The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by David Eimer (Bloomsbury, 2014), Kindle pp. 181-182:

‘Many young Dai can’t read our language and don’t really understand our culture or Buddhism. A lot of Dai people can speak Dai, but they don’t teach it in normal school any more so you have to become a monk to learn how to read and write it,’ said Zhang Wei. As in Tibet, the monasteries have become the only place in Banna where locals can get an education in their native language. But unlike Tibet, and in another sign of the Dai’s success in convincing the CCP of their essential affability, novices in Banna are allowed to participate in the regular school system as well.

‘You can study Dai here in the morning and go to normal school in the afternoon,’ said Zhang Wei. He believed that was behind the recent rise in the number of monks. ‘A lot of young Dai were put off becoming monks because they thought it was a hard life and what they learned wasn’t useful in the outside world,’ he told me. ‘Now it’s not as strict a life as before. When I was a young novice, the teachers would beat you if you disobeyed them. But we’re not allowed to do that any more.’

Less welcome has been the diminishing of Banna’s role as a key centre of Buddhist learning for Dai people across South-east Asia, a result of the devastation wrought on Banna’s monasteries during the Cultural Revolution. Large numbers of monks fled across the frontiers, while villagers buried scriptures and icons in the jungle so the Red Guards couldn’t destroy them. Many of the temples have since been restored, but Wat Pajay’s status as a spiritual university has been superseded by monasteries outside Banna.

‘Before the Cultural Revolution, Thai and Burmese and Lao monks came to Wat Pajay to study. Now, we go to Thailand and other places. It’s a complete change,’ said Zhang Wei. Fluid borders mean Banna’s monks can visit monasteries in Myanmar and Laos unofficially. But the Dai’s position as a model minority makes getting permission to go abroad far easier than it is for Tibetans or Uighurs. Zhang Wei had already spent a year in Yangon, as well as three in Singapore.

Wat Pajay’s links with overseas monasteries are a crucial element of the cultural and religious networks that tie the Dai of different countries to each other. Da Fosi is an irrelevance in that scheme; its imposition on Jinghong just another instance of Dai culture being appropriated by the Han for the purposes of tourism. And, inevitably, pretty Dai women act as the guides there. But out in greater Dailand, in Banna’s villages and across the borders, the Dai are quietly getting on with worshipping their way, while keeping their language and traditions alive.

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Yanbian, the Third Korea

From The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by David Eimer (Bloomsbury, 2014), Kindle pp. 253-256:

Yanji was still the same tightly packed mass of greying apartment and office blocks, divided by the Buerhatong River, I had encountered on previous visits. But if Yanji looks like a typically undistinguished third-tier Chinese city, it feels very different from one. The first hint of its dual nature is the fact that the street signs are in same-sized Chinese and Korean characters. They are symbolic of the way Yanji’s 400,000 people are divided almost equally between Han and ethnic Korean, and how they coexist in a far more amenable atmosphere than is normal for Chinese and minorities in the borderlands.

There is no sense that the city is segregated, as Lhasa and Urumqi are rigidly divided between Han and Tibetan or Uighur neighbourhoods. Stand at a bus stop in Yanji and you will hear Korean in one ear and Mandarin in the other until they seem to blend into one bizarre new tongue. And the longer you stay in Yanji, the more South Korean it feels. Restaurants offering Korean delicacies like dog meat outnumber Chinese eateries. The city has its own TV channels in Korean, along with newspapers and magazines offering the latest updates on celebrity scandals in Seoul.

Security is unobtrusive here too. There are plenty of soldiers in the surrounding Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, the official Chinese name for the region, mounting guard along the nearby border with the DPRK. But in Yanji itself the main hint that the military is around are the jets from a nearby air-force base that scream over the city at regular intervals, coming in so low that the red stars on their fuselages are clearly visible.

Yanbian, Yanji apart, is one of the least densely populated regions of China outside the high plateau of Tibet and the deserts of Xinjiang. Around 2.2 million people live in an area of Jilin Province about half the size of South Korea, which has a population of fifty million. After the packed cities and countryside of eastern and southern China, where every inch of land is utilised, the empty landscape is both a shock and a relief. Forty per cent of the residents of the prefecture are ethnic Korean, the rest Han, with the remaining million-plus Chinese Koreans mostly spread throughout the rest of Jilin, or in neighbouring Liaoning Province.

Ethnic Koreans are known in China as Chaoxianzu [朝鲜族] which translates as ‘North Korean race’ [more literally ‘Chosŏn tribe’ or ‘morning calm tribe’], Chaoxian being the Chinese name for the DPRK [because the DPRK uses the same name]. It is a way of distinguishing them from South Koreans, but also an accurate description of their origins because nearly all Chinese Koreans come from areas that are now part of North Korea. [In current Japanese usage, North Korea is called Kita-Chōsen (北朝鮮 = North Chosŏn) and South Korea Kankoku (韓国 = Hanguk), but the use of “Chōsenjin” to refer to Korean people has a long history of derogatory usage and, at least to my ears, the Sino-Japanese reading of 朝鲜族, Chōsenzoku ‘Chōsen tribe’, sounds even worse.]

By [1945], there were 1.7 million Koreans living in Dongbei. With Japan occupying Korea, almost all supported or fought for the CCP in its battles against the Japanese and the nationalist armies, including Kim Il-sung who would later wildly exaggerate his success as a guerrilla leader, despite having spent much of the Second World War living safely in the Russian Far East. Even after the defeat of Japan in 1945, most Koreans in China chose to stay on, with only half a million returning to their homeland.

As Korea was plunged into the war that formalised the division of the peninsula into two separate countries, another Korea was being created. Beijing didn’t forget the sacrifices of the Koreans in Dongbei during the Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War. They were given land and, in 1952, became one of the first ethnic groups to be granted their own official region. Now Yanbian is a third Korea, only one inside China. With its people hailing from North Korea but bound culturally to South Korea, it presages what a reunified Korea might be like.

China’s Koreans enjoy advantages denied to other minorities, which only reinforces the sense that Yanbian is more like a mini-state than just another autonomous area. The most notable of these is the right to education in their own language at school as well as college. Unlike in Xinjiang, where the government has closed down Uighur-only schools, or Xishuangbanna and Tibet, where the only way to study Dai or Tibetan is to become a monk, the Yanbian government actually funds schools that teach in Korean.

Nor are the Koreans as obviously subordinate to the Han as most other ethnic groups, being well represented among local officials. Apart from during the Cultural Revolution, when the Chaoxianzu suffered along with all the minorities, the Han have always maintained a mutually respectful relationship with the Koreans. On the surface at least, the Han approach in Yanbian seemed to me to be a model which if followed elsewhere would certainly reduce, while not eliminating, tensions between the Chinese and the most restive minorities.

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Russians in Outer Manchuria

From The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by David Eimer (Bloomsbury, 2014), Kindle pp. 279-281:

In 1858, the Treaty of Aigun formalised the division of Manchuria. Everything north of what the Russians call the Amur River and the Chinese the Heilongjiang, or Black Dragon River, was assigned to Russia. Two years later, more Manchu lands went north under the Treaty of Peking. In all, Russia acquired a million square kilometres of Outer Manchuria. It is a massive area. Stretching from the present Sino-Russian border to the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk, it includes what are now the major cities of the Russian Far East – Vladivostok, Khabarovsk and Blagoveshchensk – yet the tsar’s army barely had to fire a shot to attain it.

Faced with internal rebellions and in the midst of the Second Opium War with the British and French, the Qing dynasty was so enfeebled by the late 1850s that Russia was able to take Outer Manchuria simply by threatening Beijing. The once mighty Manchu, who had expanded China’s frontiers in the west and south-west, conceded the territory in the bitter knowledge that they were now unable to defend even their own homeland.

With the western colonial powers establishing themselves in China’s major ports in the aftermath of the Opium Wars, Russia’s takeover of northern Manchuria was supposed to be the prelude to it conquering all of Dongbei. The extension of the Trans-Siberian Railway, first to Harbin and then south to Port Arthur, now known as Lushun, was another step towards that goal. From 1897, Russian workers started arriving in Harbin, then not much more than a fishing village on the Songhua River, to build the new rail line. So many Russians came over the border that they dominated Harbin for the next couple of decades.

Russia’s dreams of turning Dongbei into a colony were dashed by its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5. Instead, it would be Japan which occupied Manchuria from 1931 until the end of the Second World War. But Harbin remained primarily a Russian city. Like the Koreans who escaped the Japanese occupation of their country by moving to Yanbian during the same period, Russians sought refuge in Harbin from the chaos at home.

Well over 100,000 White Russians arrived after the Russian Revolution of 1917, joining 20,000 or so Russian Jews who had fled tsarist pogroms a decade earlier, making Harbin the largest community of Russians anywhere outside the old country. Far outnumbering the Chinese population, and with the new rail link boosting the local economy, the Russian residents, known as Harbinets, created a city which imitated distant St Petersburg and Moscow.

Harbin’s main shopping street, Zhongyang Dajie, offers an architectural history lesson. Art Nouveau hotels and department stores sit alongside baroque-style buildings, and once grand houses with large arched windows and iron balconies line the streets running off it. Former Russian Orthodox churches, as well as synagogues with window frames in the shape of the Star of David, are scattered throughout the city.

Along with other Chinese cities which have an extensive foreign heritage, such as Shanghai and Tianjin, Harbin is ambivalent about its cosmopolitan past. The buildings, even the crumbling houses which have been chopped into apartments, are much more distinctive and impressive than anything built in the communist era. Yet they are also evidence of how Harbin was more Russian than Chinese until 1949. To admire them is unpatriotic, and locals claim to be indifferent to structures like the former St Sophia Cathedral, regarding them only as unique backdrops for wedding photos.

Most Harbinets returned home after the Second World War or emigrated to the west. By the 1960s only a handful remained, although Harbin’s last Russian resident didn’t die until the early 1980s. But the city attracts many tourists from across the frontier – enough for the Chinese to assume that any foreigner in town is Russian. They come on shopping trips from Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, in search of a far wider and cheaper range of products than are available in the Russian Far East. There are also many Russians studying Mandarin, the language which may one day be the lingua franca of the former Outer Manchuria. Others arrive in search of work, prompted by the slump in the Far East’s economy that was precipitated by the break-up of the old USSR in 1991 and continues today.

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