The Chinese Press in the Spotlight

By Timothy Weston

In recent weeks, the Chinese press has struggled to cover a series of major and difficult stories. Moreover the Chinese press itself is being watched and critiqued by the Western world with intensity and curiosity. What we are seeing in the Chinese press now is a world in transition and flux.

First was the Chinese press’ discussion of the Tibetan demonstrations, its virtual refusal to acknowledge the validity of any foreign criticism, and its exposure of a reflexive, threatening, and brittle nationalism, especially among some Chinese youth. However, that was followed by its honest and educational reporting during the hand foot mouth crisis in Anhui in April and May, and then, of course, came the biblical earthquake of May 12. The earthquake may well have shot fissures into the long stalemated relationship between the Chinese media and the Chinese Party-State. In the West, the earthquake—in large part because of the way the Chinese media reported it—opened up another Chinese face, one that, following on several months of largely negative coverage, can be loved. The news stories about the earthquake have been truly moving. It appears that the Olympics will not be the “It’s Legit to Hate China Games,” after all, and that is a good thing.

The Chinese government encouraged full coverage of the natural disaster domestically and around the world (very different from the kind of “anti-coverage” it promotes in response to most human-caused disasters, such as mine collapses, about which I have written). The coverage in Shanghai on CCTV starting the day of the earthquake itself was much like it might be in the United States: the reporters wore resolved looks, humanized by a sense that they, too, were stricken by the sadness of the story. For what I saw, it seemed the network was truly trying to calm people, to be informative and to be caring. The loops on the videotapes from the earthquake zone that first night were tight. Not many images had come out yet, so the coverage was especially numbing. It reminded me of American disaster news coverage—such as of Hurricane Katrina-- which panders to our prurient interests by showing us searing and horrific images of what most of us fortunately will never experience personally. Somehow, though, in China this amount of information—tragic though it was—felt like a healthy thing. Most important, it felt open and thorough.

After watching the first few days of the earthquake coverage on Chinese TV, I returned to the United States on May 14. During the flight home I had a strange experience that made me think more about Chinese press liberalism and public relations. This involved the recent, special issue of National Geographic on China that came out last month. I had taken that issue with me to China, started reading it, and found myself pulled in by Leslie Chang’s (who has recently contributed to The China Beat) story on middle class anxiety and stress in China. I wanted to read more, but before having a chance to do so I gave my copy of the magazine to an interested Chinese friend. So later, as I prepared to board my flight home at the sleek and modern Pudong International Airport in Shanghai just two days after the earthquake and the astounding openness of the early coverage, I bought a replacement copy of the special issue to read on the plane.

I was probably four hours from Shanghai and six from California, when I came to a couple places in the magazine that had very thick pages, which I realized were actually several pages stuck together. They didn’t just pull apart with a hissing static sound. They were really stuck together, with glue. They had been censored. I wondered, why was someone or some agency in China directing people to put glue stick X marks on certain stories in the special issue of National Geographic? Why were they trying to block people from viewing those stories? And why, of all things, people who read the magazine in English? What was it that we English readers should not see either? In any case, I found the clumsy attempt at censorship annoying and old school.

Of course, I wanted to read those sections of the magazine now more than ever. To my surprise, I was able to pull the pages (grudgingly) apart, to see what I was not supposed to see, though some strips of paper tore off at the ends of key explanatory sentences I wanted to read. Yet, the question for me after prying the pages apart was what in the world was anyone doing censoring those things in particular? After discovering what the censors had tried to prevent me from seeing, I couldn’t sustain feelings of anger. Instead, I was puzzled. The stakes seemed so minor.

The first pages that had been glued together were 44-45. After working for a few minutes to pull them apart, I have to admit that I was disappointed. They contained a country map of China. I saw nothing on those pages that could in any way be deemed new or sensitive. The lines of the glue stick X mark were unmistakable and the map was badly damaged by my efforts to get access to what had been denied me, but had this been a mistake? Had the censor not been paying attention to what he or she was doing? The next thing I was not supposed to view was a short piece entitled “Mao Now” (pages 100-101). At least this had to do with a political figure. Yet it is hard to see why the few pop-culture images of Mao Zedong reproduced there or the accompanying commentary were deemed sensitive. One need only spend a few days in China to see equally irreverent images of one sort or another. This really did not seem like dangerous stuff.

The last two off-limits sections made a bit more sense. The two-page map of China on pages 126-127 depicting the country’s ethnic minorities—where they live and how many of each there are—focuses on a subject that, owing to the recent demonstrations in Tibet, may be deemed “sensitive.” Still, it is hard to see why a map that simply illustrates China’s ethnic diversity (which, one would think, is a good thing to make known) without any accompanying commentary should be considered offensive. Only the last glued pages made any sense to me; the short entry entitled “Cutting off Dissent” that appears on pages 128-129 deals with an obviously political and sensitive subject. There is delicious irony in the fact that my pages on the suppression of dissent and censorship contain a bold X mark and are difficult to read. It would be a good image to show in a lecture on censorship.

But all in all, pretty tame stuff. Was this censorship really worth the effort, and if so, according to whom? Who actually glued the pages together? At what level was the decision to censor those pages made? Were those deciders the same people who are allowing more press openness now during the ongoing earthquake coverage? If so, they seem to have shifted direction very fast. If not, is the press opening the earthquake space on its own, with other muscle?

Would I have run into the same thing if I had instead bought the magazine at the new Beijing airport, or the one in Canton? Fresh from viewing the open coverage of the earthquake on Chinese TV, I realized this is a moment of incredible possibility in China, one when greater press openness is emerging around a natural disaster, but also one that feels like it could close down again at any moment, especially after the Olympics. And if the next disaster should be human caused, perhaps in a way that implicates the political leadership itself, the frightened and rather arbitrary logic of the page gluers may once more prevail.


Culture and Collapse

By Pierre Fuller

China has shown a “dismayingly cavalier attitude toward the well-being of its people,” a British journalist turned pop historian determined recently in the pages of the New York Times. The Chinese, he explained, long ago handed over science – and by extension earthquake resistant engineering – to “the West,” leaving “themselves to become mired, time and again, in the kind of tragic events that we are witnessing this week.” The thrust of this piece by Simon Winchester (which simultaneously appeared in the International Herald Tribune and evidently stems from his latest books, The Man Who Loved China (2008), on Joseph Needham, the chronicler of the history of Chinese science, and A Crack in the Edge of the World (2005), on the San Francisco quake of 1906) was China’s fall in the sixteenth century from mankind’s technological pioneer to a “culture that turned its back on its remarkable and glittering history” and “became impoverished, backward and prey to the caprices of nature.”

On the face of it, this bestselling author is right to point out that China has a long way to go with quake-resistant construction. The fact that Sichuan, until recently China’s biggest province by population, is a mountainous area where landslides and cracked dams exacerbate such disasters does not help. But by asking why China has not kept pace with “America” on this, Winchester forgets that Western advances in this regard are remarkably recent. San Francisco, as he well knows, was reduced to a pancake in 1906. And I don’t know what he means by today’s “America” (trend-setting San Francisco? or the trailer home communities across the country that fly like poker cards from every tornado?) but the University of California from which I am writing started retro-fitting its buildings just in the last few decades. Winchester must then mean China is a few decades behind, but he makes it sound like centuries.

At what date did China become “impoverished” relative to Europe? By the standards of European welfare policies, eighteenth century Qing China saw as high a standard of living and remarkably thorough disaster relief measures. The very engineering feats Winchester sees abandoned after the sixteenth century continued for centuries to carry grain north through vast river control works and canals from the lush paddies of the south, a flow of food that the state consistently diverted to drought, flood, or earthquake struck areas. Only in the 1800s did silting and periodic neglect threaten the river engineering system. And only then did the Chinese state begin to feel the pinch of fiscal insolvency amid incessant rebellion and a bloated imperial bureaucracy. On this last factor, Winchester’s point that historically Chinese men simply wanted to be pencil-pushing bureaucrats in a Confucian mold overlooks the fact that being, say, a local magistrate and an engineer was not at all mutually exclusive; magistrates circulated from one post to the next reading dike or well-digging guidebooks written by their predecessors, revising them, sometimes putting out their own mass-produced editions on China’s printing block press. In sum, explaining historical change as an entire people consciously and collectively “turning their back,” without the internal divisions people usually see marking their own society, is dubious at best.

When determining that China fails to protect its people today, Winchester also confuses engineering know-how with the awesome sum of money required for its installation. The CCP’s Politburo is stocked with officials who were trained as engineers; China’s top leadership knows this stuff. But people want roofs over their heads today, not in a safer, richer tomorrow, which will come for China. The post-1949 regime saw faster increases in literacy (i.e. schools) and infant-survival and life-expectancy (i.e. clinics and hospitals) than ever before in human history, hardly a national “cavalier attitude” towards human welfare, and a policy that surely would have been stunted by requiring world-class building codes for these thousands of buildings. Of course, since Deng Xiaoping, China has exploded with foreign exchange – but this is spread thin by a population four times that of the U.S. And even when addressing the pervasive graft accompanying this veritable gold rush, different levels in the bureaucracy need to be distinguished. Many of the protests over neglected labor or environmental laws, or in this case, construction quality, are targeted at corrupt local officials in cahoots with private or family interests. If anything, the party leadership is bolstered in comparison. Think Premier Wen Jiabao, now affectionately dubbed “Grandpa Wen.” Regardless, after the fiasco of the New Orleans levee system and the Minneapolis bridge collapse, how different does this look from Winchester’s “America”? Maybe the problem here is one of perception. To us our problems are political or incidental: Bush's fault, money diverted to Iraq, a single inspector's negligence. But when people in Sichuan suffer, something is wrong with “China.” Then, it’s a cultural problem.

Pierre Fuller, a PhD candidate at the University of California, Irvine, is researching his dissertation on local famine relief in Republican China.


Praise for China: A Reader

1. "Can we outsource FEMA to the Chinese?" asks one reader at MSNBC's World Blog, in response to a post on the temporary villages the Chinese government is erecting in the disaster area. Other readers also make Katrina/China earthquake comparisons. The MSNBC World Blog has been providing continuing coverage of the earthquake.

2. One of the side effects of coverage of the earthquake has been an increase in “human interest” stories on quake survivors. For instance, the story of a couple who survived together, trapped under debris, was one of the New York Times’s top e-mailed stories in the days following its publication, and a feature on the wedding photograph couples aired on CNN yesterday.

3. Quake survivors were not the only ones “humanized” by the disaster. PLA soldiers, too, have been depicted as helpful and concerned (as they are primarily viewed within China itself). [Photo below is by Guang Niu of Getty Images; reprinted from the New York Times.] It is a depiction markedly different from the usual imagery of Chinese soldiers as menacing and thuggish (an imagery similar to the depiction of the uniformed, sunglass-wearing security guards who accompanied the torch on its run). Whether this has lasting impact on American views of the Chinese military—a perspective yet tainted by the most famous images of the Chinese military in the US, those of PLA tanks on the streets outside Tiananmen in 1989—remains to be seen.

4. Another figure humanized by the disaster, both inside and outside China, is Premier Wen Jiabao, who now even has his own Facebook page. (That links to an article at the Wall Street Journal; for Facebookers who want to become a Wen fan directly, you can view his page here, where you can also enjoy fan accolades like “You’re the hottest thing since penicillin.”) The enthusiasm for Wen is notable both for its youthful base (not seen to this degree for an official figure since the late 1980s) as well as for ways praise of Wen resonate historically (for instance, Danwei reported on efforts to preserve Wen’s chalkboard calligraphy—preserving, replicating, and distributing Chinese leaders' calligraphy has a long history).

5. All this praise for and reconsideration of China in the earthquake’s wake is perhaps balanced by the increasing expressions of nationalism it has also engendered. China Law Blog draws attention to a slew of recent writings by bloggers doing business in China about what they see as a new and unprecendented Chinese nationalism.


Cultural Responses to Disaster in China

By Pierre Fuller

A land of floods, fault lines and food crises, China has rarely been one of mercy in the Western imagination. Today, with millions of Chinese dealing with another world-class disaster on their soil, the Western press appears to be singing a different tune. For one, Tuesday’s New York Times heralded that “Many Hands, Not Held by China, Aid in Quake,” reporting that even official Chinese media sees private donations exceeding the state’s total so far of half a billion relief dollars. This “striking and unscripted public response” of “blood drives, cake sales, charity fund-raisers and art auctions” might even pose a threat, the paper ventures, to an authoritarian state whose monopoly on civil activity has been its mainstay. The question of political aftershocks from the recent tremor should be left to political scientists. More suitable for a historian is determining from where all this organized goodwill is stemming, unfortunately an area in which Western scholarship to date has been feeble at best.

Party sympathizers might lay claim to a social consciousness instilled by the 1949 revolution; others might say the seeds of civic activism were sown by Treaty Port-based New Culture modernizers of the 1920s; still others would credit the patriotic origins of the Chinese Red Cross or lay charity at the feet of nineteenth century missionary relief efforts. The tendency is to stress a singular introduction to China of certain ideals—Socialist, Western, Modern, Nationalist, Judeo-Christian—that are far more likely an amalgamation of disparate factors reaching as far back as China’s Classical past. Disentangling this Gordian knot is no easy task, requiring the study of a matrix of motives, voiced and unvoiced, cultural repertoires and historical contingencies.

Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley’s study of late Qing disaster, Tears from Iron: Cultural Responses to Famine in Nineteenth Century China, gets us closer to this goal. As implied in her title, Edgerton dismisses the idea of any singular “Chinese” reaction to the great drought famine of the 1870s. Instead, she argues that Chinese responses reflected diverging priorities: between the inland and Treaty-Port cultures, and between government factions split over how to run a state wracked by incessant rebellion, Indian opium foisted onto its markets, and the specter of vital grain producers in drought-prone regions switching en masse to poppies.

Edgerton presents two main relief actors: first, a struggling central state conflicted over its moral inheritance of High Qing state relief activism (as described in Pierre-Etienne Will’s scholarship on famine policy in the High Qing, a period of stability and wealth in the long eighteenth century); and second, lower-Yangzi philanthropists, whom she places squarely in the Shenbao-reading, self-strengthening-minded culture of treaty port Chinese elites. These latter philanthropists converted local charitable traditions into national programs to compete with foreign missionaries relieving a Chinese famine field largely for the first time. Notably little relief appears to come from the rural northern communities themselves. Focusing on hardest hit Shanxi Province (where once-thriving industries had just been sidelined by the economy’s coastal reorientation), Edgerton relates the “ground-level experience” of the famine’s horrors through the pens of several local literati. There, at ground zero, these accounts present a populace reduced to starvation, regardless of income, with village-level tensions exacerbated by famine effecting a total social breakdown. Still, a high expectation of aid from the center was expressed among these inland voices, who were no more than a few generations from the eighteenth century heyday of imperial relief. In contrast to earlier historical work, Edgerton defends “ultra-conservative” mid-level statesmen who lobbied to siphon funds from coastal defense and infrastructure projects to save what they saw as the foundation of the state, its rural population.

Edgerton does not focus on Western aid during this disaster, instead pointing out the tensions between the comparatively paltry Western relief efforts and the massively extractive Western commercial ventures. In an attempt to ease the state’s hemorrhaging of silver, one faction in the Chinese bureaucracy overturned the 1831 imperial ban on native opium production as a desperate import-substitution measure—just three years before the Great Famine. By the time of mass starvation, with one-tenth of Shanxi’s agricultural area planted with poppies, the London-based China Inland Mission journal China’s Millions remarked on how “humbling” it was that all of the money raised by the British public in a year to relieve famished North China amounted to the amount of silver the British Raj pocketed in just three days from its opium trade with China.

If the state and urban elite societies-turned-NGOs are the only actors of note in the 1870s crisis, what does this say of the ability of rural communities to help themselves? One suspects that back-to-back harvest failures might have translated into total famine in Shanxi, rendering a famine zone in which even nominal mutual assistance was impossible. But was this true all across the five-province famine belt? Maybe an example from current events could help raise the possibility of silent local activity there: What are we to make of the news that just a few days ago towards the southern end of the Asian continent, as foreign NGOs were kept at bay by a negligent junta, “wealthy Burmese” were seen depositing “enough” bags of rice at Buddhist temples serving as “makeshift camp(s) for refugees,” threadbare and ready to “do anything to survive.” Are these affluent locals and religious institutions consciously “stepping in” to a humanitarian vacuum? Or are they simply acting out another layer of local—and quite possibly ageless—charity that is often condemned to silence in the conventional sources from which histories are composed?

Pierre Fuller, PhD Candidate in History at the University of California, Irvine, is researching his dissertation on local famine relief in Republican China.


Writing Factory Girls

By Leslie T. Chang

I started writing my book on a March morning in 2006. About fifteen minutes into it, panic hit: I am no longer earning a salary just sitting here at my desk. By mid-morning, another realization had set in: I can’t go back to being a newspaper reporter.

The book, Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, opens inside the world of the young women working on assembly lines in the south China factory city of Dongguan:

When you met a girl from another factory, you quickly took her measure. “What year are you?” you asked each other, as if speaking not of human beings but of the makes of cars. “How much a month? Including room and board? How much for overtime?” Then you might ask what province she was from. You never asked her name.

To have a true friend inside the factory was not easy. Girls slept twelve to a room, and in the tight confines of the dorm it was better to keep your secrets. Some girls joined the factory with borrowed ID cards and never told anyone their real names. Some spoke only to those from their home provinces, but that had risks: Gossip traveled quickly from factory to village, and when you went home every auntie and granny would know how much you made and how much you saved and whether you went out with boys.

Almost everything is wrong with that opening, from a newspaper editor’s point of view. Who is speaking here? What is this story about? How do you know this? From the opening inside the factory, I move on to introduce a sixteen-year-old migrant worker named Lu Qingmin, tracing her arrival in Dongguan, her early job-hopping, and the overwhelming sense of isolation that is what most migrants remember from their first days in the city. Only ten pages into the book do I give some background: Today China has 130 million migrant workers…Together they represent the largest migration in human history, three times the number of people who immigrated to America from Europe over a century. But I have faith that the reader will stick with me—to be absorbed in the details of the factory world and a single young woman’s story before I stop to explain the broader context. Newspapers have no such faith: An editor would insist that these facts be up high. The reader must be told right away that this is a Very Important Story.

I hear the voice of this imaginary editor in my head all the time—I suspect that every newspaper reporter does. It is the voice that reminds you of all the rules you must follow in order to write an airtight story based on attributable facts. Journalism is a self-congratulatory profession; it likes to celebrate its courage in speaking truth to power and breaking taboos. What is almost never acknowledged is how rigid are its conventions when it comes to itself.


After graduating from college, I did a reporting internship at the Miami Herald and then worked at an expatriate newspaper in Prague. I joined the Wall Street Journal in 1993, first in Hong Kong, later moving to Taiwan and then China. I thought that newspapers offered the most writing opportunities to a young person. Only gradually did I realize that journalism is not writing, that its value lay elsewhere—particularly in explaining a place as complex and misunderstood as China. The Wall Street Journal, with its emphasis on long features that upset the conventional wisdom, suited me. Not every newspaper would run a series presenting grinding factory work as a path to upward mobility—as my bureau chief put it, “the happy face of exploitative capitalism.” I liked and respected my fellow reporters, and my editors as well. My quarrel has never been with them, but with the inflexible rules of the trade that they were called upon to enforce.

As I began writing my book, I realized I would have to unlearn a lot of what I had learned as a journalist. The biggest limitation in newspaper writing is its lack of a distinctive voice; use of the first person is frowned upon, perhaps because it detracts from the ideal of the neutral observer. When a journalist occasionally runs into himself in a story, the result is comically awkward: The subject of an article spoke to “a reporter” or “a foreign visitor” or perhaps “a correspondent for this newspaper”—any contortion to avoid the forbidden “I.” A journalist learns to write as if she does not exist.

Figuring out how to write about myself was the biggest challenge of the book. Along with following the lives of several young migrant women, my book also traces my own family’s migrations within China and to the West. That was my plan from the start, but carrying it out was painful. “You seem almost a frozen observer,” commented a friend after reading a first draft. “You are the connection between the stories of the girls and the family stories,” my editor reminded me. “Without you, the two parts don’t hold together!” It took two substantial revisions to write myself into my own book.

In place of the personal voice, journalism substitutes the voice of absolute authority. This posture is not only dangerous—it’s easy to be wrong—but it infects one’s writing style in subtle ways. Ideas are rendered in short, clipped statements of truth. Sentences follow an identical and repetitive structure, the better to hammer home a point. Paragraphs are frequently truncated—this is writing as PowerPoint presentation, one fact per paragraph, leading the reader to the inevitable conclusion.

The journalistic voice strangles the imagination. The editor’s eternal question—How do you know this?—leaves almost no room to bring a person or a place to life. In my book, this is how I describe Lu Qingmin, the sixteen-year-old migrant worker:

She was short and sturdily built, with curly hair and keen dark eyes that didn’t miss a thing. Like many young people from the Chinese countryside, she looked even younger than she was. She could have been fifteen, or fourteen, or even twelve—a tomboy in cargo pants and running shoes, waiting impatiently to grow up. She had a child’s face. It was round and open to the world, with the look of patient expectation that children’s faces sometimes wear.

In the Wall Street Journal story, I nailed her in one sentence: Min has a round face, curly hair and big eyes. I didn’t realize at the time the inadequacy of that description, because I was too busy fighting other battles against the newspaper’s rules of style. I didn’t want to refer to the teenage Min as “Ms. Lu,” which seemed jarringly formal; I argued against having to attribute every detail to a source, as is journalistic convention. I won those battles, but there were others I lost, and still others I didn’t even fight. As I said, the voice of the imaginary editor is always in my head.

The primary flaw of journalism is impatience. Ever mindful of the competition, editors always want the story sooner, and reporters internalize this urgency in their tendency to move in and out of places quickly. But this approach not only misses the nuances, it risks missing the story altogether. When I first met Min in February 2004, she had just finished a year at an electronics factory marked by bad conditions, low pay, and thirteen-hour workdays. Over three years, she jumped jobs six times, working her way up from the assembly line to a clerical position to human resources and finally a factory’s powerful purchasing department. At one point, she considered throwing it all away to follow her boyfriend to Beijing where he would work as a security guard; another time, she was robbed of her mobile phone and nine hundred yuan in cash as she slept in a cheap hostel. If a reporter had met her at any of those points, he would have come away with a grim story. Because I was able to follow Min for three years, I could see that migration, for all its ups and downs, had brought her opportunity and success.

The discoveries that come from patient observation are not necessarily things that your subjects will share with you. The lives of most Chinese have changed beyond recognition in the past two decades, yet it is rare to hear someone speak thoughtfully about this transformation. The instinct against introspection runs deep, and people are so caught up in the present that they often lack perspective. None of the factory girls I knew in Dongguan ever talked about what they had achieved since coming out from home; maybe they worried they would lose momentum if they looked backward. After my first article about Min was published in the Journal, I gave her a translated copy. She read the piece like a revelation—almost as if it were the story of someone else. Seeing the self I used to be, she wrote me in an e-mail afterward, I realize that I have really changed.


I don’t regret my years as a journalist. I learned how to get information, how to keep asking questions until I understood something, how to cobble together bits and pieces from multiple sources if there was no one Deep Throat—as there almost never is. Especially when reporting in a place as rapidly changing and statistically blurry as China, it is important to have faith that the truth can be found. For example, in my book I wanted to draw attention to the heavily female migrant population of Dongguan, but the city government did not have an official statistic; its figure, which counted only locally registered residents, was useless to me. So I did what I had been taught at the Journal: I began asking everyone I met what they thought the figure was. Eventually I combined the findings of a talent market executive, city officials, factory bosses, and a local newspaper survey to estimate that the city’s population was 70 percent female. The shortcomings and cautiousness of others should not keep you from making conclusions—this is one lesson you learn as a journalist.

Early in my newspaper career, I argued with a copyeditor who had changed a sentence in my story to something less graceful. “We’re not trying to be Emily Dickinson here,” he snapped—a remark whose sting lingered for years. I wish I had known then how many others had fought this fight before me. The young Mark Twain was regarded by his editors at the San Francisco Call as “incurably literary,” and his idiosyncratic writing style eventually got him fired. Ernest Hemingway, correspondent for the Toronto Star, complained, “this goddam newspaper stuff is gradually ruining me.” Both men became not only great novelists but also pioneers of literary nonfiction, using subjective impressions and the techniques of fiction to bring true experiences to life. As a longtime journalist, I feel some consolation to see the connections between the reporters they were and the writers they became.

Leslie T. Chang worked in China for a decade as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Her book, Factory Girls, will be published in October by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of the Doubleday Publishing Group.

Self-Promotion Saturday: Brief Notes

A few of our writers made it into the news this week:

1. NPR broadcast a brief interview with Jeff Wasserstrom on the Chinese government’s response to the earthquake on Wednesday, May 21.

2. In response to a review of Simon Winchester’s new book on Joseph Needham (the famous scholar of Chinese technology, among his other accomplishments) at Salon.com, one reader submitted a lengthy comparison of Jared Diamond and Kenneth Pomeranz. Read it here.

3. For those who subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, you can read an article that quotes Caroline Reeves, who wrote a two-part piece for us earlier this week on the Chinese Red Cross.

4. In an Australian debate over “China’s worthiness to host the [Olympic] Games,” one participant cited the work of Susan Brownell (and was subsequently quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald).


Giving Long-term Relief

By Yong Chen

May 12, 2008, will enter the history and China and the world as a day of sadness. At 2:30 p.m. local time, a devastating earthquake, registering 7.8 on the Richter scale, hit Wenchuan near Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan, and the confirmed death toll has soared to more than 41,000.

This is also a moment of perseverance. There are countless stories of surviving victims of the catastrophe—grieving parents, husbands and wives, children, coworkers, neighbors, classmates—doing all they could to rescue and help others. This is a moment of compassion and humanity. China acted swiftly, sending relief workers, volunteers, soldiers along with relief materials to the hard-damaged and difficult-to-reach areas in the midst of continuous aftershocks. The enormous disaster in the distant mountainous areas in inland China has also touched the entire world, as people in many countries are providing assistance in various ways, donating money and sending relief teams.

People in all Chinese communities throughout the world, including Southern California, responded immediately. Upon hearing the news about the earthquake, a UC Irvine graduate student from China tried to money through the Red Cross in Kong Hong only to realize that she could not get to its website because there too many people trying to donate money. At the same time, numerous organizations in Southern California established relief funds, including the SCCCA/ICS China Earthquake Relief Fund, which came into existence on May 13. According to incomplete numbers gathered by the Chinese-language newspaper Qiaobao, Chinese Southern Californians raised more than 3 million US dollars by May 20, while their counterparts in New York raised 2.3 million. These numbers do not include the money sent to China directly or through various overseas and mainstream U.S. charity organizations.

A friend of mine, a victim in Mianyang, another area hit hard by the earthquake, whose family has survived the disaster but whose house has become inhabitable, said recently: “We will rebuild.” She was talking about rebuilding not her home but her community and city. With such resolution and with all the help from China and the rest of the world, the damaged areas will stand up again from the rubble.

But for the earthquake victims, the building process will be a long one, and they need the continued assistance from us. Many people are especially concerned about the orphans, who have lost much: their family, teachers, many of their classmates as well as their toppled classroom buildings. Besides sending money to the victims, we also need to develop long-term plans to help them, especially the homeless, school-less children.


Disaster Relief: Material and Spiritual

Last night, the members of one of the Buddha's Light International Association (國際佛光會) relief teams returned to Taiwan, most in tears due to the horrifying devastation they had witnessed. They also reported a disturbing new development: an increasing number of survivors are starting to take their own lives.

To a certain extent, this should not be too surprising. Inland earthquakes often devastate economically deprived regions, where the livelihood of most people hangs by a thin thread even before a disaster strikes. This was the case for Taiwan's 921 Earthquake, which was also followed by a rash of suicides. Now that China is reasserting its control over the media, the extent of this problem may prove difficult to ascertain, but certainly it will be horrendous, especially since so many families have lost their only children in the rubble of shoddily-constructed "tofu schools". Sensing that the future has been lost, grief-stricken survivors will be even more like to commit suicide.

Now that the original shock of the disaster and the euphoria of dramatic rescues have passed, it is time for all concerned (and especially the Chinese government) to turn their attention to this problem. Counseling will be essential, including spiritual comfort. This is where religious organizations can play a vital role. As I noted in a response to Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley's post, one potentially important difference between current and past disaster relief in China involves the role of religious organizations in providing aid. During the late Qing and early Republican eras, not only Christian missionaries but also Buddhist organizations as well as "redemptive societies" like the Red Swastika Society (世界紅卍字會) and the Unity Sect (一貫道) were at the forefront of numerous relief efforts, a role that has been perpetuated in Sichuan by Taiwanese groups like the Buddha's Light International Association, Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation (佛教慈濟基金會) and Dharma Drum Mountain (法鼓山). The relief provided by these organizations does far more than address material needs; it also attempts to help survivors cope with the pain of suffering and death.

One example from my own research involves the renowned Shanghai philanthropist and lay Buddhist Wang Yiting 王一亭 (Wang Zhen 王震; 1867-1938), who helped lead a massive relief effort following the devastating Kantō 關東 Earthquake of September 1, 1923. Apart from arranging shipments of much-needed supplies, Wang also sponsored Buddhist services to pray for the souls of the dead and had a Bell for the Souls in the Dark Realm (the Underworld) (幽冥鐘) cast in memory of this tragic event, which was shipped to Japan in 1926. The grateful Japanese referred to Wang as a "bodhisattva" (菩薩), and he was granted an audience with Shōwa 昭和 Emperor that same year.

There has already been so much death. Governments, NGOs, and concerned individuals will now have to do their utmost to prevent more tragic loss of life.

Rumor and the Sichuan Earthquake

By Steve Smith

One of the intriguing aspects of the appalling crisis created by the earthquake in Sichuan on May 12—whose death toll as I write is over 40,000 and still rising—has been the role played by rumor. Just four days before the quake, the Sichuan provincial government issued a notice designed to quell “earthquake rumors.” Three days after it, on May15, Xinhua news agency announced that seventeen people had been arrested for circulating malicious rumors, and the Ministry of Public Security revealed that its bureaus in eleven provinces and municipalities had discovered more than forty messages on the internet that “spread false information, made sensational statements and sapped public confidence.”

In the weeks leading up to May 12, warnings of an imminent earthquake emanated from various quarters. Most significantly, Li Shihui, a scientist at the laboratory of geo-mechanical engineering of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, claimed on his blog that in April the seismologist, Geng Qingguo, vice-chair of the Committee for Natural Disaster Prediction at the China Geophysical Institute, had predicted a quake of 7 or more on the Richter scale in the Aba Tibetan and Qiang autonomous prefecture of Sichuan. On April 30, he claimed, the Committee for Natural Disaster Prediction had passed on a confidential report about his prediction to the China Seismology Bureau. Others less qualified posted warnings of an earthquake on their blogs, although most were vague on detail. On May 7, allegedly, a geological worker from Wuhan posted a notice on the internet predicting that an earthquake would strike on 12 May: “the epicenter should be quite near Wuhan. I hope Wuhan residents who see my blog will inform all relatives and friends and take precautions.” Another blogger claimed to have an uncle working in the Sichuan Seismological Bureau: “Even when there were already signs indicating an earthquake, the Sichuan Seismological Bureau still suppressed and failed to report the information, completely disregarding people’s lives.” On the basis of internet chat and reports in the press, a slew of rumors began to circulate that caused many citizens to contact their local earthquake prevention and disaster relief boards. Anxiety seems to have run particularly high in Aba county, specifically mentioned as the epicenter in Geng Qingguo’s unpublished report, and significantly, a major center of pro-Tibetan riots a couple of weeks earlier. The authorities were quick to deny the rumors. On May 9, the Sichuan provincial government issued a statement:

"May 3, 8pm. The Abazhou Earthquake Prevention and Disaster Relief Board got calls from members of the public, asking whether news that an earthquake would strike Suomo town in Maerkang county was true. The authorities quickly demanded that the Maerkang Earthquake Disaster Prevention Bureau take measures to find out where the rumor came from and to refute it, so as to stop the rumors from spreading further… The Abazhou Earthquake Prevention and Disaster Relief Board and the other cadres managed to clear up the misunderstanding in time, and life of the locals is back to normal."

On May 12 the statement was pulled from the provincial government website.

Much public concern derived from rumors—many of them fed by reports in the press—about animals behaving strangely. In Mianzhu, sixty miles from the epicenter in Wenchuan county, bloggers reported that over a million butterflies had migrated weeks before the quake. According to a report in Huaxi Dushi Bao (Western China City News) on May 10, in Mianyang, the second largest city in the province, thousands of migrating toads descended on the streets, many being crushed to death by vehicles and pedestrians. On May 13, 2008, Dajiyuan (the Chinese-language version of Epoch Times, the Falungong-sponsored newspaper) published a photograph of thousands of toads crawling out of the Tongyang canal in Taizhou, faraway in Jiangsu province, crossing the Dongfeng bridge “in orderly fashion.” Other warning signs, not involving animals, were, according to the Chutian Dushi Bao, that the Guanyin pool in Enshi in Hubei was suddenly drained of 80,000 tonnes of water on April 26. Whirlpools began to form at about 7 a.m., a roaring noise was heard, and within five hours the entire pool had dried up.

Many of these rumors and internet postings claim authority on the basis of science. Scientists have long hypothesized that animals can predict earthquakes, suggesting variously that they can sense the ultrasonic waves generated by a quake, that they can pick up low-frequency electromagnetic signals emitted by subterranean movements, or that they can detect changes in the air or gases released by movements of the earth. The US Geological Survey, however, which has conducted many studies of the phenomenon, remains skeptical. By contrast, Chinese earthquake scientists, who are among the best in the world, generally give greater credence to these hypotheses. Indeed during the Cultural Revolution, these hypotheses almost acquired the status of scientific certainty. Zhang Xiaodong, a researcher at the China Seismological Bureau, has confirmed that his agency has used natural activity—mainly animal activity—to predict earthquakes twenty times in the past twenty years. This, however, represents a fraction of the earthquakes that have beset the country during that period. The most famous case in which scientists predicted an earthquake on the basis of unusual animal behavior and changes in ground-water levels occurred in Haicheng, a city of a million people in Liaoning, on February 4, 1974. From December onwards, people began to report dazed rats and snakes that appeared “frozen” to the roads. From February there were numerous reports of cows and horses appearing restless, of chickens refusing to enter their coops, and of domestic geese taking flight. As a result, the authorities evacuated the city just days before a 7.3 magnitude earthquake struck. Serious doubt on the capacity of animals to give warnings of earthquakes arose the following year, however, when the second most lethal earthquake in history, measuring 7.6 magnitude on the Richter scale, hit Tangshan in July 1976.

The discourse about animals and earthquake prediction appears to be highly modern: it circulates via the press and the internet, it invokes scientific argument, and raises uncomfortable political questions about the culpability of the authorities in not responding to warning signs and the advice of scientific experts. Yet it is rooted in a much more ancient discourse about omens. For thousands of years, Chinese people have attributed supernatural significance to unusual or destructive natural phenomena, such as earthquakes, comets or eclipses. These phenomena, for example, are systematically recorded in the Hanshu, alongside facts of political importance, and are interpreted variously by chroniclers as warnings of coming danger, warnings to the Son of Heaven not to undertake a certain course of action and, not least, as divine punishment for actions the emperor has undertaken. As is well known, the Mandate of Heaven rested on the emperor’s ability to maintain humankind in harmony with heaven and earth, so the occurrence of freakish natural phenomena was easily interpreted as a sign that the emperor had invoked divine displeasure. I do not wish to argue that there are millions of Chinese today who interpret such natural phenomena in this way. But I do want to suggest that there are millions—especially, in the countryside and among the elderly, although by no means confined to these groups—who take unusual or destructive natural phenomena as omens of some sort, i.e., that they have a supernatural significance in excess of any naturalistic explanation.

The salient characteristic of omens is that they have no fixed and obvious meaning, and it is through rumor that the debate about their meaning is transacted and argued over. If most of the rumors surrounding the current earthquake appear to draw on an essentially “secular” discourse, it is evident even from press reports that older discourses of omens are also being mobilized in the bid to explain the warnings that “heaven” gave in the weeks preceding the earthquake. The account in Dajiyuan about the toad migration in Mianyang, for example, tells us that the immediate reaction of many village people was: “What kind of omen of disaster is this?” It reports that many rural people were anxious and that the forestry department sought to assuage their fear by explaining that the toad migration was entirely natural, caused by the fact that rising temperatures and substantial rainfall had led to unusually high levels of breeding on the part of the toads. In Taizhou, scientists offered a slightly different explanation, saying that the toad migration was due to a rise in temperature and a lack of oxygen in the ditch water where the toads normally spawn. But the response of bloggers to these reassurances was dismissive. “It’s obviously an omen.” “Officials say that there are environmental factors behind it, but that just shows how ignorant they are.”

Why do many consider toads so richly ominous? After all, compared with the fox or the snake, the toad occupies a rather marginal place in China’s rich tradition of folklore, drama, opera and song. As a creature of warty mien, associated with dark, damp places, it does not obviously inspire affection. In “Talking Toads and Chinless Ghosts: the Politics of Rumor in the People's Republic of China, 1961-65,” an article that appeared in American Historical Review [111:2 (2006), 405-27], I discussed the symbolic associations that toads conjure up. The subject of that article was a rumor that circulated between 1962 and 1963 across a huge swath of China, starting in the northeast and reaching Shanghai a year later. This told of a conversation overheard between two toads which prophesied that old people would perish within the year unless young people baked toad-shaped buns for them. The most obvious message of the rumor, which came in several variants, was that the young should take better care of the elderly in circumstances where, in the wake of the Great Leap Forward famine, many old people may have felt their entitlement to food was no longer secure.

More relevant to the rumors around the Sichuan earthquake, however, is my argument that it is the symbolic meaning of the toad rumor that is all-important, rumor being an inherently emotional form of communication in which the affective charge often goes well beyond the propositional content. In Chinese folklore, the toad is linked to Chang E, goddess of the moon, and this sets up a chain of signifiers that links water, darkness and moon. Each of these signifiers is powerfully coded as yin within popular culture; and I suggested that the subliminal message of the toad rumor of the early 1960s was to indicate that there had been an alarming surge in yin forces. Since 1949, and especially since the Great Leap Forward, it had become increasingly difficult for people to observe the traditional rituals that serve to make ling—the power of supernatural entities—efficacious in the world and that, by extension, ensure balance cosmic balance. The toad rumor reminded people that unless rituals were observed, further chaos such as that that had resulted from the famine could be expected. I have come across no evidence in current reports about the Sichuan earthquake that indicate that the toad migrations are being interpreted in exactly this way. However, as powerful signifiers of yin forces, it seems reasonable to infer that the toad migrations play on fears that the natural and social worlds are out of joint: a fact dramatically highlighted when chaos erupted from the bowels of the earth.

I do not argue that this is the “real” meaning of the migrating toads, rather that it is one possible reading that is easily overlooked when the discourse about the portents of the earthquake appears on the surface to be so largely secular. Yet the response of the abovementioned bloggers suggests that at least some prefer a supernatural explanation of the omen to a naturalistic one. That said, we must acknowledge that since 1949, scientific or quasi-scientific explanations of natural phenomena have gained huge ground within popular culture. During the Cultural Revolution, for example, the idea that animals can foretell earthquakes became widely understood as proven fact, since ordinary folk were encouraged to watch for strange behavior on the part of animals and report it to the authorities. This was justified more generally in terms of ordinary people seizing scientific endeavor from the hands of “bourgeois” experts. It thus seems likely that there is a widespread assumption that animal behavior does predict earthquakes. Yet such an assumption can exist—with a greater or lesser degree of felt contradiction—with supernatural understandings of earthquakes as omens.

In a forthcoming piece, “Fear and Rumor in the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s” [Cultural and Social History, 5:3 (2008): 269-88], I examine two types of rumor that flourished in the 1950s, both of which were vehicles of fear and anxiety. The first were secular rumors of an imminent third world war or an atomic attack; the second were supernatural rumors about demonic invasions. I reject the temptation to see the first as a “rational” type of rumor and the second as an “irrational” type, arguing that millions of people in the 1950s, especially in the countryside, made little distinction between the two, seeing both as reflecting the fact that the cosmic order that regulates interaction between the human and spirit worlds was out of kilter. In the intervening half century, it is quite likely that supernatural explanations have lost much of their attractiveness. Increased technological control over nature, combined with basic scientific education, has helped to entrench within popular culture the conceptual distinctions characteristic of the post-Galilean world between man and nature, the natural and supernatural worlds, and cause and effect. Nevertheless, it seems likely that many can accept such distinctions and still believe that supernatural beings or forces have the capacity to intervene in nature. Similarly, they believe that supernatural events often connect directly with secular politics. At the time of the Tangshan earthquake, for example, talk of supernatural omens abounded, and many were quick to link these to this-worldly events, such as the deaths of Zhou Enlai, Kang Sheng and Zhu De in the preceding eight months and the death of the Great Helmsman himself, six weeks after the earthquake.

The harsh response of the authorities to the current bout of rumor-mongering reminds us that even the weirdest rumors can be seen as an implicit—if not always intended—challenge to authority. Rumor flourishes in situations of uncertainty, where people feel that it is dangerous not to know what is going on. A critical element in the current crisis around the Sichuan earthquake—at least in its build-up—was the absence of information ordinary people considered reliable or credible. Sharing stories about the strange behavior of animals created spaces in which they could share knowledge and gain a measure of psychological control over an ambiguous and threatening situation. Given that the government puts a premium on the control of public discourse, even the strangest supernatural rumors may be seen as political insofar as they represent a form of unauthorized speech—“an attempt at collective conversation by people who wish to enter their sentiments into a public discourse” (Anand Yang). Regardless of the intentions of the rumor-mongers, rumors ipso facto represent an objective challenge to the regime’s monopoly of news and information. Unlike official news, moreover, rumors travel horizontally rather than top down, setting up a “chain pattern of communication” that bypasses the vertical lines of communication of the centralized party-state.

But it is clear also that some who are circulating “news” via the internet or the press are engaged in a much more conscious effort to discredit the government, particularly by suggesting that it deliberately suppressed information about the impending earthquake in a bid to avoid panic in the run-up to the Olympic games. In the past, earthquakes have regularly stoked up distrust of the government. It is widely believed, for example, that leading scientists and geological monitoring centers issued warnings in advance of the Tangshan earthquake in 1976, but that neither the State Seismological Bureau nor the government took them seriously. Popular confidence in government was further undermined in the wake of the Tangshan earthquake when party leaders refused to acknowledge the scale of the calamity or accept international relief. In the wake of the current earthquake, at least one blogger has been quick to look back to this time: “I am one of the survivors of the Tangshan quake. Tangshan people are extremely hostile towards the China Seismological Bureau because of their failure to predict such a devastating earthquake…Now 32 years later, they have again failed to predict the Sichuan quake. The head of the bureau should resign.” Meanwhile Chang Ping, recently sacked deputy editor of the Guangzhou-based Nanfang Dushi Bao, has argued in the pages of that newspaper that the current epidemic of rumors surrounding the earthquake is evidence of the need for much greater freedom of information. In a context where the Chinese government has been applauded around the world for its openness in handling the crisis, such criticism will probably come to nothing. But there is always unanticipated political fall-out from earthquakes in China. So watch this space.

Steve Smith is Professor of History at the University of Essex, UK and author of Like Cattle and Horses: Nationalism and Labor in Shanghai, 1895-1927.


A Mid-Week Reader

1. If it isn’t already part of your media China blog circuit (it has just become part of ours), check out the Wall Street Journal’s China Journal. Run by Sky Canaves, the blog apparently draws on more than twenty journalists, and even ran a recent entry on Beijing’s air quality (that’s a favorite Western media story that has slipped out of sight lately).

2. Tim Johnson’s blog, China Rises, has a few moving recent on-the-ground reports from Sichuan. Zhongnanhai also has reports from an individual in Sichuan. For detailed information about the earthquake and its casualities (including maps), see the new documents at the China Data Center.

3. As Shanghaiist reported, the twitterati were chirping about implications of three days of mourning on online activities. Danwei lists specific prohibitions. EastSouthNorthWest references a blog that comments on the omnipresence of CCTV during the mourning period.

4. In recent days, Western reporters have noted a hardening of last week’s lax press standards (standards have snapped back for Chinese reporters too, though it has been reported that many Chinese press outlets are willing to go along). At the New York Times, Howard French describes the atmosphere as press denied the initial ban and got away with it. In referencing this article, China Digital Times contextualizes it with a quote from Chinese writer Shen Rui, who describes the re-tightened restrictions as “dancing in shackles.”

5. In response to the earthquake, the Dalai Lama has called on Tibetans worldwide to end anti-China protests.


Letters from Sichuan

By Peter Hessler

On May 13th, I filed a web report on the New Yorker’s site, based on what I heard from former students in the early days of the disaster. Since then, I’ve continued to receive notes, and I’ve copied a few below.

When I lived in Sichuan, I was most impressed by the sense of place. The landscape was rugged and beautiful, and the people had a distinct character. They seemed more emotional than in other parts of China; they laughed more freely and their street arguments were more vicious. It wasn’t any surprise that in 1999, after NATO bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the most violent protests occurred in Chengdu. People sometimes blame it on the spicy food, which seems a shallow explanation. I sensed it had something to with the land itself—so many mountains and rivers, so many people. Emotions have always moved fast in Sichuan, and over the past week they’ve moved even faster.

May 14, 2008:

Mr Hessler, When I am writing the e-mail to you. I am really sad and my heart is still blooding. My school was destroyed, and many of my students were killed in the earthquake. In my hometown, Guangyuan, the earthquake is really bad, I was teaching in class when I heard the terrible sound, all of us ran out of the classroom. Then the school is in trouble. I heard students crying sadly. I saw the teaching building fall down, we had two floors, I was on the ground floor, most of us escaped the building before it fell down. In our school, there are 400 students and so far 27 students died and about 40 were badly wounded, some of them are in Guangyuan, and some of them are in Mianyyang. I am now with my husband in my sister's home in Neijiang City. I really miss my students at school, I think I will go back tomorrow morning. How I wish I could be with my students, my headmaster told me in my class 6 students died. They are all my favorite students. They died so young and small, around 14 years old. If I can make calls in Guangyuan, I will call Mr Dai and tell him the news, I want him to email you, I have no internet connection in my school area.

I wish that everything will be fine



May 15, 2008:

My father called me, he told me that it had been raining the whole day. People in Sichuan's Bazhong City said that the fowls and the animals are running like mad, people say that there will be aftershocks. So my family are still very terrified. My nephew has stored the computer I sent him and the TV set in the cupboard. My whole family has to sleep in the chicken house which can be used as the shelter because it is low, and even it collapses, it does no great harm, my parents are afraid that the quake is like the one in 1976 in Tangshan.

Take care,

May 16, 2008:

Thanks for your letter.

This is my experience in the earthquake below. Close to the earthquake.

5.12 noon. Our group leader said: "The ground is shaking, earthquake!" My office is on the first floor. We ran out of the office and shouted to students on the 2nd , 3rd ,4th floor “ran, ran, ran to the playground.” In fact, at that moment we should stay under the desk. My student hold my clothes and cried “Will it shake again, Mr Yu?” I said “Never. Don't worry. Just stay in the playground. Don't move.” That moment my thinking was very simple: If the children in our school are OK, my daughter Zoe will be OK. Fortunately, all people around me are OK.

No doubt we are luck enough. Not far away, Qingchuan, a county of Guangyuan, the mountains were down, the river was up, the road was broken. The teaching buildings were down. Many students and teachers were covered under the teaching buildings, It was not hopeful for most of them to be saved.

In Guangyuan downtown 80 or so persons were killed in the earthquake. The first night we slept on the playground, we dared not go back home, some building were down, some building will be down. The whole city were camping. No tents, the second day we slept under the color-strip cloth, which was set for rain.

My cousin's daughter who is almost 2 years old, was frightened. She cried all night “Dad, let’s go home. Dad, let's go home.” Du Yiquan, our school's computer teacher, he took his son Zouzou to the playground, Zouzou did good, he just said softly to his Mum “Mum, My nose is uncomfortable” and repeated the sentence again and again. My daughter Zoe is just 50 days, she didn't know what happened, slept in my wife’s breast. Many of my colleague said “poor child! How poor the baby is.” My nephew, 7 years old, is studying in our school. I told him “Your house fell down in your hometown.” He didn't know it means too much, at least no place to live. And he continued to play in the playground happily.

Our school cooked porridge for the victims of the earthquake. I realized if there was not enough food for my wife to eat, my little Zoe would not take the breast. So the second day I sent them back to my wife's Laojia (hometown), where her parents once lived. There the earthquake did not affect the peasants too much. They slept outside at night because of the earthquake and got up early the second morning to harvest their wheat. In hometown I watched TV and knew many people died and tears came to my eyes.

Many volunteers went to the earthquake area. The 4th day after the earthquake, I went back home. I checked my email. When I was writing to you, my Mum in next room shouted to me “it is shaking again.” The chair I sat was shaking and I felt it. But I don’t care. I am accustomed to it.

Today I subscribed, anyway I am still alive and I can write email. I went to school and prepared for beginning class again later.

Thanks again, I will be OK. Zoe will be OK. Everybody will be OK.


May 18, 2008:

These days I am really sad for the situation in Sichuan and Chongqing. Tonight's show really moves me, I am really proud that China is getting stronger and stronger, and I really think Chinese government is so open and tries its best to help the people in the earthquake. I think the people in the disaster areas will get all the problems over. By the way, I am fine, all my students are fine, the earthquake did not affect us so much, but we are still afraid of it, some people say there may be one quake in Chongqing soon.


May 19, 2008:

Mr Hessler, these days too many tears ran down from my eyes. These days I have been so proud of being a Chinese, I am proud of the government's quick actions, and I am proud of the unity in China. Last night I watched the CCTV Charity Show, I was deeply moved, and today China held the national mourning day for the victims. I was touched again. I am sorry for Sichuan People, I know we will have a hard life for a long time, but I am willing to overcome the difficulties with my students. Thanks so much for caring us, we are very fine.

Chuck Du

May 20, 2008:

Hi, Pete. Here the people in Yueqing are having all kinds of activities to send condolence to the death in Sichuan. I am really sad to see the rising death toll and I am really moved by the policy about the National Mourning Days for the victims. And these days I am likely to shed tears for my hometown fellows. Yesterday when it was the time for us to show condolence in silence, I taped the scene on the express way, what I saw made both sad and happy, most of the cars and bus did not stop and they ran very fast as usual, only a few did. But I think all of the cars and buses tooted their horns at least, which is the drivers’ favourite (It is like what you wrote in River Town, maybe several hundred times a minute.) My school had a grand donation rally, and the school raised around 500,000 yuan, it is a big deal as for a school. Many people had their eyes full of tears when the host mentioned the sad stories during the quakes.

And these days, it seems that the aftershocks come one after another. People in Sichuan are still living in terror. All the people fled their home in Nanchong, they either go to the countryside or sleep near the Jialingjiang River. Nanchong has become a ghost city, my mom told me that the gate of my apartment in Nanchong is completely open the whole day, and the security guards have also fled leaving the whole area empty. The tents are sold 500 yuan compared to the price 50 yuan not long ago.

Friends in Nanchong told me yesterday evening the International food chain shop –Macdonald’s in Nanchong was smashed by some young people, some people said some university students were behind the incident. The restaurant was named the TieGongji (iron cock) or miser. It is said that some people are taking actions against the Nokia Agency in Nanchong because it also falls behind others when it comes to the recent donation for the victims in Sichuan.


History of Chinese Red Cross: Part II

By Caroline Reeves

As Chinese rush to aid their countrymen and other countries rush to aid the Chinese, it is important to note that Chinese participation in mutual aid and in the international relief community is not new. Here I continue with part II of the early history of the Chinese Red Cross Society.

At the turn of the twentieth century, China was being torn apart not by the movement of tectonic plates, but by political, social and intellectual currents. In a world shaken by the new imperatives of Social Darwinism (that posited a divide between “modern” nations that would thrive and “backward” ones that would disappear or be conquered) and split by international competition for colonies, China’s business, intellectual and political elites became seriously concerned about China’s place in the world and its very survival as a state. The international community of developed nations considered forming a national Red Cross Society as an important benchmark of “civilization,” distinguishing between world players and states deserving of domination and subjugation. This equation of a certain practice of humanitarianism with the right to be included in the community of nations is still with us today. Note the media’s outcry over Myanmar’s failure to conduct humanitarian relief according to international standards, and the acclaim awarded to China for its treatment of the earthquake crisis. In 1899, China’s leaders saw this equation clearly and took steps to sign the international Geneva Convention (the “Red Cross Treaty”) to improve China’s international reputation. Although thwarted by the Boxer Crisis (1899-1901), which began with a violent anti-Christian insurgence and ended with China being occupied by foreign troops from various countries, this initiative was taken up again four years later.

The first Chinese Red Cross Society was officially established in 1904 during the Russo-Japanese War—a war that Japan ultimately won. The founders of the Chinese Red Cross were a group of Chinese business and political leaders, led by Shanghai tea merchant Shen Dunhe. Shen chose to use the Red Cross aegis for his group because the neutrality provided by the Red Cross symbol allowed Chinese relief teams into the Manchurian war zones to aid Chinese civilians caught in the conflict between Japan and Russia. Shen created a Red Cross organization made up of wealthy Chinese and prominent Westerners living in China. This new Red Cross Society, supported by government officials, Chinese elites and Western medical workers provided aid to more than a quarter of a million people in China’s northeast.

After the war, the Chinese Red Cross Society expanded exponentially, now providing peacetime relief as well. There was no shortage of natural disasters in China for the new group to work on. Floods, famine and fire were endemic in the first half of China’s 20th century, along with the constant outbreak of civil war. The Society opened Red Cross hospitals in Shanghai and in other cities, while local Red Cross chapters blossomed throughout the country, staffed and funded by Chinese eager to participate in patriotic activities, particularly as part of an organization with international connections and an aura of “modernity.” By the 1920s, there were over 300 Red Cross chapters in China. The Red Cross mission and structure resonated with China’s long history of mutual aid societies (see Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley’s article on famine relief) and drew on Chinese expertise in social networking. Just as they did then, Chinese today want to help their country and countrymen personally, volunteering money, time, and even their lives to help their fellow Chinese (see this LA Times article).

What set the Chinese Red Cross apart from other Chinese charitable organizations then, much as it does now, is that this philanthropic organization was both a local organization and an international one, allowing the local practice of humanitarianism to take on an international cast. In 1912, China’s Red Cross Society was recognized by Geneva’s International Committee of the Red Cross. China took its international commitment seriously. In 1906, during the San Francisco earthquake and fire that killed 3,000 and destroyed the city, the Chinese Red Cross sent 20,000 silver taels to its San Francisco counterpart to help with relief efforts. In 1923, after the great Tokyo earthquake, the Chinese Red Cross sent a relief team, crates of medicines, and almost $20,000 (in 1923 Chinese dollars) to Japan. The Chinese Red Cross Society received aid, too, most notably during the second Sino-Japanese War (WWII in the Pacific), and worked together with other national Red Cross societies at international conferences.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and the reorganization of the Chinese Red Cross Society as simply another arm of the Communist party-state, the Chinese Society continued to exist, but in a controlled and less spontaneous manner (this arrogation of state power over social welfare groups had actually begun with the Guomindang (KMT) in the early1930s). In the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, no international Red Cross aid entered China, unlike today’s scenario (but not unlike Myanmar’s early rejection of international aid). The new Red Cross Law of 1993 and the gradual decoupling of the Chinese Society from the Ministry of the Interior has allowed the Chinese people to connect with and help each other once again on a private, grassroots basis. And in a welcome and refreshing departure from the recent past, the Chinese government has allowed the rest of the world to prove once again the truth of the motto bequeathed to the international Red Cross movement by founder Henri Dunant: tutti fratelli—all men are brothers.


Chinese Responses to Disaster: A View From the Qing

By Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley

Media reports of this week’s devastating earthquake in Sichuan highlight trends seen as impressive and new in terms of PRC responses to disaster. The quick response of state leaders symbolized by Premier Wen Jiabao’s much-heralded arrival in the disaster area only five hours after the earthquake hit on Monday, for instance, stands in stark contrast to the PRC’s handling of major catastrophes during the Mao-era, when Chairman Mao and other top leaders failed to act on reports that people were starving to death by the thousands during the Great Leap Famine of 1959-61. An estimated 30 million people died as a result of that famine, making it the most lethal famine in world history.

The willingness of the Chinese government to accept international aid, and most recently even rescue teams from Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore, provides an equally sharp contrast to the Mao-era government’s determination to keep news of the Great Leap Famine a secret, even if that required increasing grain exports to neighboring countries during the disaster rather than requesting foreign aid. The rapidity of the response and the massive scale of the government-led relief effort—100 rescue helicopters dropping soldiers into remote areas and 130,000 soldiers and medics mobilized for relief work within three days of the earthquake—may be new for Americans as well, particularly for those who recall how victims of Hurricane Katrina waited for a full week before 50,000 members of the U.S. National Guard were finally dispatched to the disaster area.

While helicopter drops and the acceptance of Japanese rescue teams are new for China, other facets of this week’s earthquake relief effort display interesting similarities to relief campaigns carried out in late imperial China. As a historian of famines in nineteenth-century China, I was intrigued to read that just as the rulers of China’s last dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911), sought to shore up social stability during disasters by seeking to regulate grain prices in famine areas, on Thursday (5/15) China’s current government imposed temporary controls on food prices and transportation fares in the quake-hit areas of Sichuan, Gansu, and Shaanxi in an attempt to stop hoarding and speculation. Officials even punished seventeen people for profiteering.

Some American media reports (most recently a front-page LA Times article from May 17th) take the PRC’s proactive response as evidence that the government is at last beginning to govern “in a manner befitting a modern 21st century state.” A broader historical perspective, however, suggests that in fact the current PRC government is acting in the tradition of imperial China’s Confucian rulers, who often acted with alacrity during natural disasters, both out of a sense of responsibility to nourish the people and a mindfulness that failing to do so might cost them Heaven’s mandate and popular sanction for their rule.

This week China’s state-run media also reported that quake victims can depend on the government to pay their medical expenses. In late imperial China, officials and local literati argued that disasters were a result of the interaction of natural and human forces. While Heaven might send the original drought that led to a crop failure, for instance, it was believed to be a combination of people’s failure to prepare for disaster beforehand and the selfish and greedy behavior of low-level officials and underlings that allowed a drought to escalate into a major famine. The earthquake in Sichuan is obviously a natural rather than man-made catastrophe. Nevertheless, PRC officials seem as anxious as their late-Qing counterparts to ensure that what starts as a natural disaster is not transformed into something even worse on their watch. As Deputy Health Minister Gao Qiang explained when taking responsibility for preventing the outbreak of large-scale epidemics in quake areas, “We should not add to the losses caused by natural disasters and let people suffer more just because we have not done our job well.” (China Daily, 5/16).

The involvement of large numbers of private citizens provides another parallel between late-Qing famine relief efforts and the current relief campaign. During the North China Famine that killed roughly 13 million people during the late 1870s, wealthy philanthropists from cities throughout the Jiangnan region (the lower Yangzi) worked together to raise relief money for their starving compatriots in North China. Some enterprising southern literati even traveled to the northern provinces themselves to distribute grain, bury bodies, build schools for famine orphanages, and redeem women who had been sold by their starving families. While some of these men later received state recognition for their relief work, their relief activities were separate from the Qing state’s official relief campaign.

Media coverage of the current disaster has highlighted the Chinese government’s response and the PLA’s crucial role in relief work. A few reports, however, show that private citizens are responding to the disaster in impressive numbers as well. The People’s Daily reported that by Wednesday Beijingers had filled the city’s blood bank, so hundreds of additional would-be donors were asked to leave their cell phone numbers and wait until more blood was needed. The Guardian observed that wads of cash and piles of donated food and water are being driven into Sichuan not only by army vehicles, but by private or company-owned cars “adorned with red banners proclaiming the names of the donor company or work unit.” The LA Times reported that although the government “has at times warned do-gooders to stay clear and let the army and police do their jobs,” Chinese individuals and businesses have continued to play an active role in relief efforts. “The outpouring of help from the people and the speed with which many groups became involved underscored a fundamental shift in recent years as more individuals and companies take the initiative, eroding the traditional government-led approach,” comments the Times (5/15). In a particularly vivid example of citizen activism, this Wednesday a group of eighteen mountaineers from Beijing, among them doctors and business owners, flew to a quake-stricken country to rescue victims by putting their survival skills into practice, thus following in the footsteps of the late-Qing literati who traveled to northern provinces to distribute relief (China Daily, 5/15).

Chinese philanthropists leapt into action in the 1870s because by that point the beleaguered late-Qing government no longer had the resources to carry out the type of massive relief campaign that Confucian rhetoric and eighteenth-century precedent demanded. The current PRC state, in contrast, is a strong state that thus far has proved to be quite capable of conducting a highly effective relief effort. The degree of initiative displayed by non-state actors during this crisis, however, demonstrates that the state no longer fully controls—and perhaps no longer feels a need to fully control—individual and company-sponsored relief efforts. The late-Qing government reluctantly allowed foreign relief workers—many of them Anglo-American missionaries—and Jiangnan philanthropists to distribute relief in famine areas because by the 1870s it was simply too weak to deal with a major crisis by itself. The present Chinese government, on the contrary, appears to be accepting foreign rescue teams and private initiative from a position of relative strength. The assistance of Japanese relief workers or Chinese citizens is no longer viewed primarily as a threat to an insecure state, but as a way to improve ties with neighbors and further unify the nation.

Further Reading On the Great Leap Famine:
Carl Riskin, “Seven Questions about the Chinese Famine of 1959-61,” China Economic Review 9.2 (1998).
Thomas Bernstein, “Mao Zedong and the Famine of 1959-60: A Study in Willfulness,” China Quarterly 186 (2006).

Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley is Associate Professor of History at San Diego State University. Her first book, Tears from Iron: Cultural Responses to Famine in Nineteenth-Century China, was published by the University of California Press this March. She is currently beginning a new research project on popular memory of the Great Leap Famine of 1959-1961.


History of Chinese Red Cross: Part I

We asked Caroline Reeves of Emmanuel College’s history department to do a two-part guest posting for us that puts the current actions of the Chinese Red Cross into historical context. Reeves has conducted extensive research on the history of the Chinese Red Cross and late Qing and twentieth century Chinese relief work.

By Caroline Reeves

Among the scenes of devastation—small bodies in shrouds; crumpled buildings and bridges; dazed survivors—another image flashes across the screen: something familiar, something reassuring to international viewers. Out of the chaos appears the symbol of the Red Cross, on the arm of a medic, on the side of an ambulance: a sign that there might be some hope—or at least some comfort—for these victims of China’s horrific earthquake.

As we watch the unreal footage of a natural disaster that has, so far, claimed almost 30,000 lives, we are brought back to our own comfort zone by the presence of that familiar symbol, the Red Cross. This is something we “know,” something that needs no translation from cryptic Chinese into English, or German, or whatever our language. But what we are looking at is not “our” Red Cross, but the Red Cross Society of China, Zhongguo Hongshizihui (RCSC). This is an organization with its own history and its own imperatives, a Society whose background gives us important insights into the China we cannot pull our eyes away from today.

The Chinese Red Cross Society was founded over 100 years ago.[i] It was established not by Americans or Britons or even Swiss intent on bringing their humanitarian institutions to China, but by the Chinese themselves. The Chinese Red Cross Society is a profoundly Chinese institution, much as the American Red Cross is deeply American and the Japanese Red Cross is inextricably Japanese. It is one of China’s most enduring social welfare institutions, outlasting diverse governments, changing conceptions of social welfare and dramatic policy swings on international involvement. Its existence reveals two important aspects about Chinese society often overlooked in the world’s media coverage of that country: first, the Chinese people’s desire to help their compatriots personally and directly, despite authoritarian governments or social systems; and second, China’s overwhelming desire to be included in the great international movements of the last 150 years, including the international humanitarian movement embodied by the international movement of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (see also Kate Merkel-Hess’s post on International Women’s Day). The media often portrays China as a monolith, “where the state decides everything and groupthink predominates” (see Wasserstrom’s formulation in his recent article), but today, when China is quite literally falling apart, it is precisely these two aspects that prevail.

Part 2: To come….At the turn of the 20th century, China was being torn apart not by earthquakes, but by political, social and intellectual currents. The formation of the Chinese Red Cross was a product of this turmoil.

i. I have written about various aspects of the Chinese Red Cross Society in a number of venues, most recently as a chapter in UC Berkeley’s publication, Cities in Motion: Interior, Coast, and Diaspora in Transnational China, and in a University of Hawaii Press book, Interactions: Transregional Perspectives on World History .


Further Reading Recommendations on China Earthquake

1. David Bandurski has written an interesting comparison of official and commercial coverage of the earthquake in China at China Media Project.

2. Increasingly, Chinese people are calling for probes into why so many schools collapsed in the earthquake. Recent coverage includes a report by Richard Spencer for the Telegraph and several from AFP: one here and another here.

3. Meanwhile, domestic Chinese media has begun to report that Western media is praising China’s relief efforts. Indeed, Monroe Price at Huffington Post (we have linked to several of his columns recently) writes about Western media’s “Olympic truce” with China.

4. For those interested in a better understanding of the geography of the earthquake zone, the BBC has posted an interactive map.

5. At the Chicago Tribune, Evan Osnos has written a reflection on the divisions between urban and rural China, thrown into relief by the earthquake.

6. And, in recognition of our occasional “self-promotion Saturday” feature, I also recommend Susan Brownell’s recent piece “America’s and Japan’s Coming-Out Parties: Lessons for Beijing 2008 (and the Tibet Controversy),” at Japan Focus.

Teaching Resource You Shouldn't Miss

Susan Glosser, professor of Chinese history at Lewis and Clark College and one of the first people to teach me about China in my undergrad years, has a delightful little publication that all manga afficionados and history teachers ought to know about. "Li Fengjin: How the New Marriage Law Helped Chinese Women Stand Up" is Susan's very clever means of getting an authentic and appealing primary source into English-language classrooms. Her full translation is highly suitable for both secondary and tertiary classrooms, and it's a steal for only $6.95.

A Saturday morning trip to a Shanghai antique bazaar in 1993 led Susan to a rare treasure: a delightfully (and somewhat childishly) illustrated comic book originally published in 1950 to educate the "masses" about the Chinese Communist Party's brand-new Marriage Law. This law, whose contents did not much differ from the Nationalist Party's Family Law of 1931, gave men and women equal rights to divorce and all prospective spouses an individual voice in choosing their marriage partners. All of these details and more are covered in Susan's fabulous book from 2003, Chinese Visions of Family and State, 1915-1953.

Due to its potential to upset the rural social order, the 1950 Marriage Law needed widespread support from urban and rural cadres and civilians in order to help people actually secure their newly decreed marriage rights. This comic book was part of the state's education campaign and tells the invented story of Li Fengjin, a poor peasant woman who seeks divorce from her monstrously abusive husband. After going through some machinations--some of which are made necessary by the fact that the local CCP official is not yet familiar with the new law, and others which stem from her neighbors' resistance to the change--Li Fengjin finally secures her freedom, freely chooses her new husband (a chivalrous farmer who had kept her safe from her ex-husband's goons), speaks out at public rallies about her oppression under the old feudal regime, and prepares herself for a bright Communist future with her new beau. As Susan points out, the drawings are illustrative enough that even the semi- and illiterate would have gotten the point.

Susan's wonderful translation of this delightful comic book includes an introduction explaining the sociocultural background, the entire text of the 1950 Marriage Law in an appendix, and a bibliography of English-language works on women's issues and family reform. It is available from Opal Mogus Books, the garage-side publishing press that Susan created in order to launch this project.