Bitter First, Sweet Later

Chop Suey Nation, Anna Hui’s account of Chinese food in Canada, begins with a moment of horrible shock, when her childhood school’s “China Day” sees the kids served with unidentifiable day-glo slop. This is not the Chinese food she gets to eat at home, but as she comes to discover, it is what constitutes “Chinese food” to many non-Chinese people.

Eventually, this moment of culinary misery transforms into a road-trip across Canada, poking around the obscure restaurants that seem to exist in every town, reminiscing all the while about those many Chinese migrants, including her own family, who came to make a new life in North America.

This is hardly unexplored territory – Hui’s own bibliography includes Lily Cho’s Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small-Town Canada, which answered many of her questions nine years in advance. That was, however, an academic book steeped in the cant of cultural studies, so Hui’s resolutely chatty approach certainly makes the story more accessible. She also, mercifully, treads lightly with the coming-to-Canada story of her own family, which, devoid of a scandal, war, murder or zombie infestation, is frankly rather jejune. The value, however, of the Hui family background is a revelation that crops up early in the book, that even though the infant Anna was traumatised by the sight of ersatz Chinese food, her father had enjoyed a brief career serving it in small-town Canada, before she was born. Hui reacts to this in much the same way as she might react to a parental admission to a backstory as gender-flexible swingers with a penchant for golden showers.

She comes into her own both with the gin-clear concision of her prose, which is so readable that the book just rockets past before you know it, and with the odd-couple experiences of her discount road-trip, for which she has inadvertently rented a comically unsuitable Fiat 500. In a discovery that has also hounded my own investigation into Chinese foods, she grapples with the difficulty of being able to adequately access the contents of a new menu without stuffing herself so full every day that she never needs to eat again. She also contends with a common problem in folk history, which is that often those who are most available to be interviewed are the least likely to have anything pertinent to say. I feel for her in a Fisgard restaurant at the very start of her journey, facing a waitress with no interest whatsoever in answering any of her questions.

Some still go unanswered. There are some tantalising moments in early chapters when she seems poised on the verge of investigating a fascinating issue in cultural history – who the hell designed the generic look of all those far-flung restaurants with their matching roof adornments, chop-socky fonts and red vinyl seats? Instead, she concentrates on the spread of intellectual property – how cooks like her father learned specific recipes, some of them invented in Canada like “shredded ginger beef”, and adapted then to satisfy the whims of local diners – the restaurant in noodle-free Newfoundland, for example, that substituted shredded cabbage and completely confused east-coast definitions of chow mein, or the manager in pensioner-packed Deer Lake, who realised that his diners hate his crispy-skinned spare ribs because they could only chew soft meats. And in Quebec, home of already-stodgy poutine, the terrifying prospect of stir-fried macaroni.

By the time she has reached peak weird, dropping in on a lone Chinese lady running a year-round Chinese restaurant on a remote island, she has found her true subject, and it does indeed lead to some family revelations. Possibly by total coincidence, Hui’s story displays what appears to be a template for many books I have read on Canadian themes, most notably Colleen Mondor’s Map of My Dead Pilots – a family narrative nested within a broader tale of human migrations, but here leavened with the image of a shivering Chinese woman and her Star Trek-loving husband, trying to drive several thousand miles in a toy car.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. Chop Suey Nation is published in the UK on 26th September.  

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Poppy Culture

“This land would shut me out at first and then absorb me – suddenly or gradually, but irresistibly – until nothing was left of me as I was now.”

Jan Jacob Slauerhoff’s narrator, Cameron is Adrift in the Middle Kingdom, a man sure of himself at sea, but increasingly out of his depth on land as he journeys ever inwards from the coasts on a mission to a distant city. On the way, he experiences a China that both is and isn’t the real-world place of the year 1934, when Slauerhoff wrote this novel, only now translated into English.

There are two Chinas nested in Slauerhoff’s narrative. One is born of his the author’s visits to the ports of the Chinese coast as a ship’s doctor – a gritty, realistic, and beautifully detailed snapshot of life in inter-war Amoy and Shanghai (here renamed Taihai). “People here may earn ten times more than in Europe, but they spend it twenty times as fast and enjoy it a hundred times less,” he writes, of the city that is a playground for the European visitors, but a ghastly sentence for its Chinese inhabitants, with “the ruthless grind of the city consuming its people.”

But as he travels into the Chinese hinterland, he leaves behind the sure-footed, personal observations of the author, and comes to rely increasingly on a China of the mind. One imagines Slauerhoff in his cabin on yet another long voyage, putting aside his diary and devouring the reportage and fictions of his era – James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1933) and Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (1931), before spinning his own story of a man adrift in China.

Slauerhoff’s protagonist ends up in “Chungking”, a place that cannot possibly be the Chongqing of the real world, since it is on the wrong river and in the wrong location. It is not quite the lost world of Shangri-La, but instead a bastion of the true China, a trading post beyond the Great Wall where the local authorities diligently hold foreign corruptions at bay. The value of Slauerhoff’s China, in the words of Wendy Gan’s introduction, “lies in its rejection of modernity.” In a book suffuse with gentle orientalism, but also a melancholy assurance of the decline of the West, Slauerhoff’s Chungking is China at its purest, stoically resisting an onrush of foreign trinkets and concerns. Cameron even tries to dissuade a local warlord from acquiring a radio, pleading that it will be an anticlimax: “What you would learn about Western science and wisdom would greatly disappoint you. You will not like opera or music, propaganda speeches will offend your ears, sermons will bore you. The voices of science cannot be heard with this device. Most European countries are driving out whatever great minds remain to us.”

Beyond human traffic, two commodities dominate Slauerhoff’s book. One is oil, the discovery of which in Chungking creates a literal flood of problems for a town out of time – the onrush of the twentieth century. The other is opium, which, like China itself, is an addiction that washes gradually over Cameron until it consumes him. By the book’s final chapters, he is either so addled that he can no longer see straight, or finally, magically lucid, able to see the truth of the world, and the nature of an eternal struggle between ancient masters and the spirit realm. He is another drunken, broken expat in a Chinese village, smoking his life away, or a recuperating casualty in an ongoing war with another world.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. Adrift in the Middle Kingdom by Jan Slauerhoff is published in the UK by Handheld Classics.

Quartier Chinois

I’ve been in Montreal for the last few days, poking around the Quartier Chinois in search of Quebecois mutations to Chinese food like fried macaroni. Ticked off the mandatory statue of Sun Yat-sen and the bas-relief of Chinese lady musicians, as well as a roster of restaurants. Unlike San Francisco Chinatown, however, there were no T-shirts advertising that I had been to 满城. Come on, Montreal. Allons-y.

China’s Pirate Century

Young-tsu Wong’s China’s Conquest of Taiwan in the Seventeenth Century: Victory at Full Moon chronicles the hundred years of maritime trades and raids that preceded the Manchu naval campaign against the rebel island of Taiwan in 1683. The one-eyed admiral Shi Lang had once been a captain in the largely illegal smuggling operation of Nicholas Iquan (Zheng Zhilong), the “master of the seas” believed to have been the richest man in the world in the 1630s. After the invasion of China by the Manchus in 1644, Iquan had briefly served as the kingmaker of the Ming resistance, before defecting to the invaders. Shi Lang would also switch sides, a decision that would cause Iquan’s son Coxinga (pictured) to execute Shi’s father, brother and son in revenge. The aging Shi Lang returned a generation later, recalled out of semi-retirement to take down the island regime ruled by Coxinga’s grandson.

Wong sets the scene with stories of the Ming dynasty’s own struggles with porous borders, pirate attacks and swashbuckling punch-ups between rival Japanese traders in Chinese ports. He reminds us that Nicholas Iquan himself spent parts of his life on both sides of the law, in an era when almost all foreign trade was sure to be criminalised. He refers to the escalating coastal troubles of the 15th and 16th centuries as the “Great Pirate War”, as the authority of the Ming dynasty eroded on the coasts. The nation that had once sent vast fleets to show off its power overseas now increasingly huddled on the shore, fearful of pirate raiders which, for a number of reasons, were usually branded as “Japanese”.

Wong introduces the pirate/smuggler Wang Zhi (d.1560), who once proclaimed himself the King of Zhejiang, and who plied a route between Hirado in south-west Japan and the south Chinese coast. In linking Wang Zhi to his successor “Captain China”, and Captain China to Nicholas Iquan and Coxinga, Wong establishes a genealogy of marine warlords, the “masters of the seas”, stretching for more than a hundred years down to the fall of the Zheng regime on Taiwan – what we might call a transformative and disruptive “Pirate Century” running alongside Japan’s Christian Century.

As recounted in Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty, the pirate-smugglers of the Chinese coasts were dragged into the conflict between the invading Manchus and the retreating Ming dynasty. By 1645, the Ming court was a dwindling group of refugees, throwing itself on the mercy of Nicholas Iquan, the billionaire “admiral” who bankrolled early counter-attacks. Noble titles were handed out to Iquan’s family, including the conferral of the imperial surname on his eldest son by a childless Ming pretender. It amounted, at least in some eyes, to a symbolic adoption and the boy, thereafter as “the Knight of the National Name” (Guo-xing-ye, or Coxinga in the local pronunciation) would become the most famous loyalist to the Ming cause.

His father, not so much. Nicholas Iquan deserted in 1646, leaving the Ming pretenders to their fate. Coxinga fought on for another generation, taking over the Zheng maritime empire. The height of his resistance came in 1659, when he led an army up the Yangtze as far as the former capital Nanjing – a fact that caused the young Manchu emperor to hack up his own throne with a sword in a blind rage. Pushed back from Nanjing, Coxinga retreated to Taiwan, which he established as his new base. His family, the Zheng clan, would rule it for the next 21 years, until Shi Lang’s fleet brought them down.

Wong suggests that a “pirate psychology” – always counting on being able to rush back to the ships in times of trouble – was a fatal flaw in the discipline of Coxinga’s troops during the attack on Nanjing. There were other problems, too, particularly the fact that besieging Nanjing was itself “more symbolic than real.” He argues that Coxinga’s men stood little chance of storming the heavily fortified, well-situated former capital. Far from it – they were heavily exposed to counter-attack, and could not even prevent reinforcements and supplies reaching their besieged enemies. However, Wong doesn’t think that Coxinga himself shared the fair-weather loyalties of his father and crews.

Who was fooling whom? When Coxinga declined the title of Prince of Yanping, offered by the Ming pretender, was he really being gracious, or was he avoiding annoying the Manchus during peace talks? Conversely, did he ever had any intent of playing along with Manchu negotiators, of was it just a useful ruse to preserve the status quo? For as long as there was a prospect of a treaty, Manchu enforcers would leave Taiwan unmolested, fearful that they might get the blame if any actions caused Coxing to break off communications. In the words of one Manchu official, Coxinga’s demands were “an idiot’s daydream” – the question remains whether Coxinga knew that himself.

For Wong, the tragedy of the Zheng family was that they could have had it all. The Manchus had no interest in Taiwan, and did not particularly regard it as part of China – even after its conquest, it was dismissed by the emperor as nothing but a “ball of mud”. If the Zhengs had maintained the wily flexibility of Iquan, they could have clung on to Taiwan as an independent kingdom, offering tribute to Beijing but largely left alone. Instead, their insistence that they were the last loyalists of the defeated regime would prove to be their eventual doom.

If Coxinga’s son Zheng Jing had stopped harping on about the lost Ming dynasty, Wong argues that he would have either been ignored or afforded an honorary princedom in the Manchu order. Instead of sticking to profitable overseas trade from his island redoubt, Zheng Jing allowed himself to get dragged into the doomed Revolt of the Three Feudatories, in which a group of southern warlords belatedly fought back against the Manchus. His men briefly won victories on the southern coast, before the revolt collapsed – its only long-term effect being that of making Zheng Jing’s continued presence on Taiwan intolerable to the Manchus.

Wong devotes an entire chapter to the decades of intermittent peace talks between the Manchus and the Zheng regime, as Beijing tried to find a way of buying its enemies off with bribes and noble titles. For two decades, Zheng Jing insisted that his base was a second Ming capital, he kept to the Ming calendar and proclaimed himself a loyal Ming subject. Even when his stance looked hopeless, he tried to get the Manchus to agree to an independent status, as if Taiwan were a single surviving province of an otherwise lost regime. As if! Oh, wait…

In Wong’s eighth chapter, he leaps back in time to tell the life of Shi Lang, the man who served as a captain under the Zheng regime, before defecting to the Manchus and ultimately, in his dotage, leading the fleet that would bring them down. There is tantalising potential here for a dramatic popular-historical narrative – born in 1621, Shi Lang was only three years older than Coxinga. “There is no room for two tigers on one hill,” writes Wong, pointing to the prospect of a book unwritten, in which Shi Lang, rather than the Zheng family, is the hero of his own story.  But Wong is not interested in seeing the bright flash of a new, dramatic pathway through historical materials. As his blurb states, he is rather determined to “describe the historical process leading to Taiwan’s integration with Mainland China.” He does this with an incredibly wide array of Chinese-language sources, many of which do not appear to have cropped up in English before, on all sorts of interesting areas, from the ugly succession dispute that followed Coxinga’s death to the simmering feud between the Zheng clan and the defector Huang Wu.

Wong’s work sits within a welcome modern trend that flips the perspective of Ming piracy, asking how the world might have looked for a community that saw the islands and coasts, rather than the land, as its home. Peter Shapinsky’s Lords of the Sea, for example, reconsidered Japanese pirates not as nuisances and criminals, but as rulers in their own right, misnamed and misunderstood in histories of land-based politics. Maritime Ryukyu, by Gregory Smits has been similarly provocative, redrawing the map of the East China Sea to create a water-based territory incorporating not only the Ryukyu Islands, but coastal regions of Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan. Pushing a culturalist notion of China – that “Chinese” land is land where Chinese culture is paramount – Wong argues that Taiwan was not “Chinese” in any meaningful sense until the arrival of the Zheng clan and the subsequent seizure of the island by the Manchus.

You might be forgiven for thinking that Wong takes an entire book to get to just a single chapter about the actual conquest of Taiwan. But as his account makes plain, Taiwan was “conquered” multiple times in the 17th century, and Shi Lang’s campaign in 1683 was merely the finale. Although there are asides that point to the tense conditions on Taiwan – families burning down their own houses to avoid the newest emergency property tax, and Shi Lang himself welcomed by many supposed Ming-loyalist locals as a hero rather than an enemy – he does not deal specifically with the politics of the Zheng era.

I would have liked to have seen a little more incorporation of non-Chinese materials – a lot has been written about the period in the last 20 years, but remarkably few of Wong’s references postdate the turn of this century. He concedes in his introduction that much of this book was written some time ago, and it is a testament to his scholarship that so many of its sources remain fresh and original. But Wong has little to say, for example, about the impact of Japan (where Coxinga became a kabuki hero) on maritime politics in the region, when samurai wars were largely responsible for the large and lucrative trade in Taiwanese deer hides for use in armour. The cessation of Japan’s long civil war not only shut down the demand for hides, but created a flotsam of out-of-work soldiers that swelled China’s “pirate problem”, and supplied plentiful mercenaries to fight on the mainland. Arguably, the politics of Zheng-era Taiwan are outside of Wong’s area of interest, but I expect he could have derived some useful information from, for example, Yoshio Hayashida’s 2003 Japanese-language History of Taiwan Under the Zheng Clan: A True Chronicle of the Rise and Fall of Coxinga and his Descendants. His focus, instead, remains resolutely on the process that led to Taiwan becoming part of China, rather than the incredible personal stories, vendettas and battles that accompanied it.

The copy-editing is also remarkably shoddy for a book that retails at £80. It is riddled with little prepositional errors and mild malapropisms that suggest an editor for whom English is a second language. There are also some occasional (and possibly inadvertent) misattributions of action and agency – Coxinga’s grandson Keshuang, for example, is described as “murdering” his older brother in a power struggle “with the encouragement and support of his father-in-law.” It is surely more sensible to assume that the killing was arranged by a faction of adults acting in the name of Keshuang, who was only twelve years old at the time. Fortunately, such minor slips do not subtract from Wong’s personal accomplishment, of marshalling such a wide range of Chinese-language sources on such a fascinating period of world history.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. China’s Conquest of Taiwan in the Seventeenth Century: Victory at Full Moon is published by Springer.

Toronto Gosh

I am in Toronto Chinatown, investigating restaurants Shanghainese, Yunnanese, Cantonese, a smattering of Sichuanese, one Manchurian, two Xinjiang halal and some half-hearted Peking. So obviously I started with a Mongolian hotpot. Services in the church are two parts Mandarin to one part Cantonese. Signage, as is common in Canada and around the world, tells one story to Chinese readers and another to Anglos. Yesterday was the Chinese collection at the Royal Ontario Museum; today I’m off to see the monument to the Chinese workers on the Pacific railroad. Me the north, as they almost say here.

I’ll leave you with a Ming-dynasty figurine of one of Hell’s Torturers. No, really.

Big, Beautiful Women

BuYun Chen begins Empire of Style: Silk and Fashion in Tang China as any smart historian would, with the 2014 media storm over the plunging necklines in a TV show about Empress Wu. History’s best-loved bad-girl, Wu the Treacherous Fox even managed to scandalise from beyond the grave, causing modern-day Chinese censors to clutch their pearls in horror at the sight of all that medieval cleavage. More than a thousand years after the fall of the Tang dynasty, its fashions were still too hot for TV.

In an age when sumptuary laws tried to dictate an unofficial uniform for every class and profession, “the experience of dress and adornment [was] fundamentally one of meaning-making for the wearer, viewer and chronicler.” Chen details the weaves and patterns of a boggling array of beautiful medieval clothes, both extant and merely described, as well as the baubles and diadems that adorned many a princess’s head-dress and tiara. Nor does Chen limit her account to human fashions, detailing the elaborate decorations of the dancing horses of the Xuanzong Emperor, “with saddles of gold and silver, their manes and forelocks adorned with pearls and jades.”

Her materials are wonderfully diverse, spanning museum collections from Tokyo to Turfan, encompassing not only paintings, the poems of Li Bai, chroniclers’ descriptions and sculpture, but also tomb figurines from the western Chinese desert and pawn-shop receipts in the name of 7th-century dyers and “hairpin artisans”. Just as silk was regarded as a more durable and exchangeable currency on the frontier, textiles – necessary but discretionary – were one of the most common articles pawned in times of crisis.

Chen describes Chang’an (modern Xi’an) in all its medieval cosmopolitan glory, at the height of the reign of the Xuanzong Emperor, when the Serpentine Pond in the south-east of the city was surrounded by bars run by Sogdian immigrants, crammed with rowdy drinkers and dancing girls in diaphanous gowns.

An appreciation of fashion and material culture is of vital importance for the novelist or historian setting a scene, particularly in an age like the Tang, where the women adorned their faces with slashes of bright scarlet like kabuki actors, and where the most glorified female form was one that had internalised all the prosperity and wealth for which the age was famed – Tang men were chubby-chasers who liked big, beautiful women. Whenever there’s a Twitter storm about a Tang-historical TV show, invariably starring stick-thin actresses, I’m tempted to disrupt things by asking innocently: where are all the fat girls? But Chen points out that even this was a fluctuating trend – she quotes from the 9th-century art critic Zhang Yanyuan, who points to a tendency towards the voluptuous in artistic representations of Tang women along a time-line that more or less matches the rise of Empress Wu. The famously chubby Yang Guifei, contrary to the assertions of many later writers, was not a plus-size trend-setter, but a woman who fitted a new standard of beauty established a generation before she was born.

The mid-Tang dynasty saw an immense rise in the power and influence of women. Chen charts those moments where both wearers and observers of fashion used clothing choices to mark moments of rebellion or transgression, beginning with the moment when Empress Wu’s notoriously chippy daughter Princess Taiping turned up at a banquet dressed like a general. Clothing, notes Chen, was “perceived to be constitutive of the person.” We are what we wear.

Nor is this mere set-dressing. Curators at Luoyang Museum have created a massive pictorial genealogy of Tang hair fashions, exacting enough that archaeologists can often date a grave to the nearest decade from the hairstyles on the statues inside it. Fashions reflect not only material culture, but political changes, as evinced by the sudden rise of hufu (“barbarian garb”) among ladies who wanted to show off by wearing trousers and jackets with lapels. Chen runs with this idea, charting the prevalence of certain kinds of skirt or colour in tomb figurines from different decades. Her illustrations, on which many of the women’s faces have been scratched out while their clothes remain, serve to demonstrate the immense value of unexpected metadata in otherwise “spoilt” materials.

In an era where clothing was thought to be a reflection of reality and harmony, dressing decisions could be announcements of bold changes in status or grabs for power – Tang dandies literally dressed the part, even if the part was aspirational. The first Tang emperor decreed that a woman’s clothing should be selected in direct relation to the status of her father or husband. By the time of his daughter-in-law, Empress Wu, that had gone right out the window. By the time of her grandson, Xuanzong, even court ladies were going out in “barbarian clothes” – later taken as an omen that the dynasty had been corrupted.

Chen takes her account beyond the height of Tang fashions into the miserable scrabble for survival after the revolt that brought down Xuanzong. Fashion became a battle-ground for conservatives, with a backlash against women that sought to regulate their hemlines, while poets juxtaposed the image of the beautiful clothes of the aristocratic lady with the unkempt, dishevelled appearance of the weaver-girl who has made them. It’s a fascinating snapshot of changing styles and attitudes at the height of the Silk Road.

The “Serpentine Pond” pond is still there, by the way. These days, it’s part of a medieval theme park in Xi’an called Tang Paradise, where there are many parades, fire-breathers and kung fu displays: a lot of dancing girls, but lamentably little Tang-dynasty cleavage. People can’t leave well enough alone.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. Empire of Style: Silk and Fashion in Tang China is out now from the University of Washington Press.

Shandong: Land of Confucius

This appears to be blocked in the United States, but viewers in other territories can now see my National Geographic documentary Shandong: Land of Confucius (2018) on YouTube.

“Jonathan Clements takes us on a thought-provoking journey to the land where the young Confucius formed his earliest ideas: Shandong Province. Guided by Confucius’ most influential sayings and Clements’ unique perspective on Asia we explore this coastal province and learn how even after thousands of years the great sage’s thinking is still relevant in today’s China.”