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.

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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.

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.”

All Tomorrow’s Parties

“Americans will dump all their trash on another’s doorstep and then, a few moments later, show up and say they’re there to help you clean up and that it’s all for your own good.”

Chen Qiufan’s endlessly inventive near-future tale The Waste Tide begins with echoes of Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac and Ben Elton’s Stark, pitting ecological protestors against a system that is already showing signs of terminal decline. A tense, action-packed scene of shipboard monkey-wrenching shows the high-stakes game being played out on the seas, but it’s a later, quieter scene that really establishes the ghastliness about to unfold. A lobster served at a Chinese banquet has three pincers and a carapace that has been repaired, as if diners are now gorging themselves on invalids and mutants. It doesn’t look good, no matter where you are on the food chain.

Well, unless you live on Silicon Isle. This south Chinese coastal enclave has become a world leader in e-waste recycling, a ready recipient of poisonous junk as part of a ploy to grab useful materials. There’s gold (and platinum, and copper) in them there circuit boards, as long as you don’t mind poisoning the local environment when you harvest it… as long as you don’t mind the miserable, dangerous working conditions.

Scott Brandle is a Dante-quoting rep from an American recycling company, who gawps at the pall of smoke from PVC fires, and the zombie-chic sight of an abandoned prosthetic arm, twitching on the scrap pile. But Brandle is no Old China Hand (sorry), he’s an observer, drinking in the sights of a surveillance state that has invaded the very bodies of its inhabitants, not only with environmentally unfriendly prosthetics, but with RFID chips that are the only things to ward off the guard dogs in your local district’s frequency.

It’s his guide, Kaizong, who is soon revealed as the true hero, a local boy made good, returning to his hometown to confront old ghosts and new problems, seeing Silicon Isle through the eyes of his foreign charges, reminiscing about his American college days in order to allow for moments of incisive infodump. Or is he? Because by the second part of the book, the point-of-view switches to Mimi, a lost girl from the underclass, whose memory is briefly transferred into the intelligence systems of a giant robot, and who has trouble readjusting to being back in her own body. If that sounds curiously “anime”, then it’s not the only playful echo of foreign science fiction in a story that still remains quintessentially Chinese, even as it tips its hat to Akira and All Tomorrow’s Parties.

Chen’s grasp of China’s future remains as chilling and believable as in his acclaimed short stories such as The Fish of Lijiang. Internet entrepreneurs offer online banking in the afterlife, dovetailing the virtual environments of online gaming with an artful religious swindle. A canny trash-comber slices out the still-working cybernetic vagina from a Japanese sex doll; superstitious locals seek shamanic help to deal with what is clearly an envirogenic disease; a factory girl knows nothing about the opposite sex, except that which she has learned from TV dramas. Repeatedly, there are allusions to Earth as a place where the Chinese have nowhere left to run – unwelcome in Australia or the United States, they drift homewards, to the trash heap of their ancestors. Wireheads download nostalgia apps that threaten to give them brain damage, but give them a moment in which they can wallow in how things used to be.

“You are what you eat,” observes Kaizong, in a world where everyone is ingesting granules of plastic, chemical poisons and carcinogenic additives. Capitalism has advanced to the stage where a tour guide will wait for a bribe before trying to rescue a drowning child, and sustained development projects are decried as “legalised looting.”

Translator Ken Liu, any Chinese author’s dream choice, has plenty of fun not only with Chen’s Mandarin, but with the echoes within it of a greater diversity within China – Cantonese slang and Teochew regionalisms. As in the controversial film Sap Nin, voice recognition software has advanced to the stage where it can pick up Mandarin, but southern Chinese topolects with their eight tones and sandhi slides are still beyond it. He also diligently footnotes those parts of the text that he doesn’t expect foreign readers to understand – references to Martin Luther King and Tennyson pass without comment, but when Kaizong alludes to a quote from the Dao De Jing, or a plant only found in south China, Liu has a hyperlink to hand.

Chen’s text gives Liu ample opportunity for cutting observations and satirical clangers – starting with Brandle, a visitor from America who’s tried to bone up on China by reading an “idiot’s guide”, and who is sometimes addressed as Mr Scott. He picks the blandest options on the menu, in what might have been a gentle dig at foreign tourists, except in Chen’s world, this is the only way he can avoid heavy metals.

The tale is set thirty years in our future – a gap the same size as that which separates our present from the Deng Xiaoping reforms that ended Maoism. When it was written in 2013, China was the destination for much of the world’s recycling. This open-door policy was suspended some time ago, causing massive jams and backwashes in many first-world recycling policies. Reporters are finding plastics and chemicals in Ghanaian chickens and Arctic seabirds, and my social media feed is clogged today with stories of environmental catastrophe. Chen’s apocalypse is hence both prescient and familiar – evocative in places of Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls (2008), Eric Tamm’s The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds (2011) and Paul Midler’s Poorly Made in China (2011), and also of the machinations around the suppression of the SARS virus. But that is something that Chen has always excelled at: telling true stories in the cloak of fiction. When his factual, historical discursions suddenly veer off into fiction, the line was so fuzzy I had to Google it just to be sure.

Jonathan Clements is a Contributing Editor at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and the author of A Brief History of China.

Animated Encounters

Over at the All the Anime blog, I review Daisy Yan Du’s new book about the inspiration and influences of Chinese animated films, which includes substantial detail on cross-pollination with Japan.

“Du’s concentration on Chinese animation in an international context is a rewarding account not only of films released, but of unexpected influences and projects that never happened. She regards the Wan brothers’ Princess Iron Fan (1943), for example, as’“far more influential in wartime Japan than in wartime China,’ but also reports that when Japanese animators came to Shanghai in 1988 looking for subcontractors on the Saiyuki TV anime, the Shanghai Animation Studio refused to work on it, because the Japanese version of the legend of the Monkey King deviated too far from acceptable norms.”

Money for Nothing

Hayao Miyazaki’s fluffy forest spirit Totoro has been around in China for thirty years, sneaking in through Taiwanese or Hong Kong DVDs, or stowing away in kids’ luggage on return trips from Japan. But his first official cinema outing in the People’s Republic did not come about until December 2018, when he suddenly burst out on 3,000 screens.

Interpreting the numbers, Totoro had a fantastic opening weekend, making $12.9 million and beaten only by Aquaman. But by the end of its second week in Chinese cinemas, its takings had slumped 75%. I’m writing this article on New Year’s Eve 2018, as Totoro’s total Chinese box office takings edge over the $20 million mark.

You might not think that $20 million is a lot of money, especially considering that half of that money stays with the Chinese distributors and exhibitors, and fair old chunk probably went on marketing. But Studio Ghibli certainly hasn’t lost any money by belatedly releasing its much-loved classic in China. In fact, it’s easy to forget that Totoro only made $5 million on its original Japanese release, and that was on a double bill with Grave of the Fireflies. Thirty years on, this is money for nothing. The Chinese box office last month counts for 80% of Totoro’s global lifetime theatrical takings!

But as long-time readers will know, movie accounting is often not about those numbers at all. It’s about a bunch of other issues, including the fact that the Japanese 2012 Blu-ray of Totoro created an all-new, cleaned-up pin-sharp copy of the film, ready for duplicating on 3,000 hard-drives to open on 3,000 Chinese screens. It’s about the fact that, unlike creaky old TV shows or low-budget video fare, movies have a much longer shelf-life, and a period piece like Totoro, with a rural setting and a feel-good tone, seems tailor-made for the Chinese provinces.

Meanwhile, with the suspension of the One-Child Policy, there are suddenly twice as many Chinese children to form a market. Children’s entertainment, along with clothing and toys, is a surging new growth area in modern China. Even considering the vast piracy of Ghibli products over the last few years – and I have never seen a Chinese video pirate who isn’t selling Totoro, usually a knock-off of the Taiwanese dub – there’s a whole new generation of Chinese kids who have never seen it, who now get to see it in cinemas, ahead of a roll-out of other Ghibli products. And is someone eyeing up the blueprints for Japan’s new Ghibli theme park, and wondering if they could transplant something similar to Shanghai Disneyland…?

[Since this article was published, the Chinese box office takings for Totoro climbed to $25.75 million]

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #185, 2019.