In the book, you note that a Chinese national identity did not exist before the twentieth century. Could you describe the awakening of the Chinese people’s sense of nationhood and national belonging? What prompted this emergence of national identity in China?
In my book, I quoted historian Yü Ying-shih from Yale University who wrote that before the Republic of China, there was never a shared sense of national identity. His description is that in Imperial China, under the Qing and previously under the Ming, while there was a very strong sense of identity, these tended to be local identities that were united by imperial power. However, there was less of a sense of a country or a nation-state. If you asked somebody in the 17th or 18th century where they were from, they would not say China, but they would say I am from such a village, or such a region, and I am a subject of the Ming or Qing.
It was only in the 19th and 20th centuries that the new Republic of China attempted to start building the idea of a modern nation-state and a shared history and identity for all people who identified as Chinese. The project of creating the idea of the Chinese nation-state and of creating the idea of a unitary Chineseness began really with the New Culture movement in the early twentieth century, when people started writing Chinese in the vernacular, spreading Chinese language education and trying to build a new national identity for a new young republic.
Your book describes an interesting phenomenon of how British collectors disregarded the Chinese curators’ views and instead imposed their own definitions and descriptions of Chinese objects. How does this indicate the dynamics between power and identity?
This was a moment in 1936 when many objects from the Palace Museum made their way to London, and they were part of an enormous exhibition of Chinese art in London. The Chinese curators found that some of the descriptions of objects had been changed by British curators and collectors. The memoirs written by the Chinese curators at that time were quite sensitive, quite aware of the fact that these British curators, who are part of an enormous imperial colonialist power, ad decided that they knew better how to describe these works of Chinese art than the Chinese curators themselves. Clearly, this was quite a powerful imposition, which gave them a sense that the British viewed their own intellectual view of Chinese art as somehow more elevated or superior to that of the Chinese curators themselves, a colonizing mindset. The Chinese curators admired many other things about the organization of the British Museum, as well as the passion of the British collectors, but they noted very carefully in their memoirs that these British collectors seemed to think they knew better than the Chinese did.
Does this still happen today?
For sure, but I think curators in Europe and the United States are much more sensitive today. To those questions of power and identity, they are much more sensitive and open. They are much better at talking to Chinese curators and listening to their ideas. That has matured a lot. However, it’s still very much the case that some Chinese works of art are being authenticated by Europeans and Americans. For example, there is a precious piece in the United States right now, which some curators are examining in order to decide if it’s genuine or not. It’s been debated for a long time, whether this is really a very important piece of the Song Dynasty porcelain, or whether it’s a later reproduction. The people who are deciding that are two Americans. However, they are perhaps two of the greatest experts on Chinese porcelain in the world. They’ve devoted their lives to it, and they spent years in China doing excavations. One of them is a chemist, so the person understands the chemistry of the porcelain and the glazes very deeply. They are going to make a decision and it’s up to them whether this piece is authenticated as genuine or not, so that kind of authentication still does take place outside China and the Chinese sphere of influence. I think that’s okay, since these curators are absolutely at the top of their field. I’m sure that most curators will accept their decision.
You noted that the Second Sino-Japanese War is rarely examined outside East Asia and academia, even though the war prompted a cataclysmic series of events with global repercussions. What accounts for the lack of attention to this history? How does this reveal the connection between power and storytelling?
First, in the English-speaking world, we are in the habit of raising our own historical narratives at the expense of other historical narratives. I feel like we marginalize a lot of global history. It’s not just China’s history. It’s also Africa, South America, and the Middle East’s history. These histories are not widely or very responsibly taught in schools in Europe and the United States. When I was growing up, we did the history of the Second World War, but nobody mentioned the war in China. I never studied it as a student. The war was all about British people, Europeans and Americans. We didn’t even talk about the Russians in the World War II, either. It was a very Anglo-centric world. Our history and our view of history still is not very global, although it’s now better than it was. Secondly, in China, history about the war was suppressed before 1990. From the 1950s to 1970s, China wanted to repair its relationship with Japan, so it was very important that China had good diplomatic relations with Japan. Under Chairman Mao, a lot of the history was not talked about, because it was the KMT, the Nationalists, who fought the Japanese. It wasn’t really the Communists. If you lived in China in the 1950s, or 60s or 70s, and you’d been a soldier fighting for the KMT, you couldn’t talk about it or write a memoir, or you’d get in trouble. As a result, during that time, nobody talked about their wartime experiences, except talking about the Chinese Communist Party’s story about the Long March and so forth. That was the only narrative. None of the other stuff was ever discussed. The Chinese Communist Party suppressed it. The Japanese suppressed it; they didn’t want to talk about it because they’d done such terrible things. In America, everybody thought that Chiang Kai-shek was a failure, because he lost China to the Communists, and they didn’t want to talk about it. Therefore, no one wanted to talk about it for decades, and everybody kind of forgot about it. It was only in the late 1980s that historians started saying: Wait a minute, didn’t the Nationalists fight this huge war against Japan? Where are all the history books about this? Everyone looked around and there weren’t any history books. Therefore, historians finally got to work on it in the 1990s, and we started seeing the big works of history coming out quite recently. Since then, all this history has had to be uncovered again. It became okay to start talking about the war. Suddenly, soldiers from the Nationalist armies were allowed to tell their stories without fearing that they would be sent to prison. These are the reasons that the war was not well-known outside East Asia.
In your book, you mentioned several times the impact of Confucianism on Ma Heng. Could you please describe the influence of Confucianism on Ma Heng for our readers?
Ma Heng grew up in a quite traditional late Qing Empire family. His father was a Qing Empire official who was a magistrate. Ma Heng was taught from a young age about traditional Confucian learnings, as he read a lot of the classical texts. He grew up in the scholarly Confucian tradition, where he learned the traditional Confucian virtues, such as self-control, self-restraint, and filial duty. On the other hand, he was also part of the generation that got some modern teaching. He learned mathematics, economics, and geography. He had one foot in the Confucian tradition, and one foot in a more modernizing one. His behavior and his worldview were heavily influenced by the Confucian tradition. He was a very quiet man and didn’t show much emotion. He believed in beauty and traditional scholarship.
At the same time, he was also a modernizing man, as he was responsible for building the principles of modern scientific archaeology, along with several other people. Confucianism affected him emotionally and psychologically and helped shape his character, but intellectually, he was always half-and-half, caught between classical Chinese learning and the modernizing impulse to approach things in a much more scientific way. What makes him so interesting is that this is sort of like China itself at the time. Very much in tradition, but desperate to modernize.
What challenges did you face when writing about Ma Heng’s struggles with transferring the artifacts? In particular, how were you able in your research to uncover this impressive level of detail, which is displayed so expertly in the book?
Ma Heng never kept a diary until 1948, so we can’t hear his voice very much, except in his poetry. He wrote a lot of poetry, so we can track some of his thoughts and his interior feelings through his poetry. In addition, he wrote a lot of scholarship, which allows us to know a bit about what he was working on and what he was interested in. Other people wrote about him. In their memoirs, they wrote about Ma Heng, and described his personality, which helps me to build a picture of his character. Through those things, through the way other people described him, through his scholarly writings, and through his poetry, and then at the end of his life, through his diary, which he started writing during the last few years of his life, we can know him. However, it was still difficult to figure him out. There has not been a serious scholarly study of Ma Heng. There’s been some work done, but not very much, and he really deserves a proper biography.
Gary Todd from Xinzheng, China, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons