AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 462

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Session 462: The Past in the Present: Process versus Periods in China’s Revolutionary History

Organizer: Helen Fung Har Siu, Yale University, USA

Chair: David W. Faure, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Discussant: David W. Faure, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Chinese history is written with well entrenched concepts of periodisation. Period markers (e.g. 1949) are often presented as sharp breaks where discontinuities outweigh continuities. In contrast, the longue durée approach sees changes in time as processes, the description of which recognises the interplay between the observers’ interpretation and emerging trends. It examines not static institutional structures as given in historical periods, but their structuring, notions of past experience being improvised by purposeful human agents to shape the ongoing changes. The four papers on this panel discuss the sub-plots with special reference to cultural and political legacies crossing clear historical divides: the role of the overseas Chinese in preserving, and advancing their interpretations of Chinese traditions in post-Mao Fujian; legends of guerilla activities in the Guomindang railroad system which justify the railroad’s revolutionary legitimacy; the incorporation of radical trade unionism in a discourse of pre-revolutionary civic consciousness; and urban renewal in the post-reform era dominated by conflicting land rights and rural-urban statuses from the Maoist era,. In each of these examples, the author argues that different pasts have been frozen in time to be recycled to serve the present. The structuring process in China’s long history of revolution and reform has been closely intertwined with the appropriation of cultural and political capital. It requires continuous efforts by the state to redefine the roles of major stake-holders in that history -- overseas Chinese, industrial workers, guerilla fighters, villagers and urban citizens.

Seek lost rituals from afar: the Chinese Overseas in the preservation of Chinese traditions
Kenneth Dean, National University of Singapore, Canada

The role of Chinese overseas in the 20th century Chinese modernization project has been both passionate and paradoxical. They participated in reforms in education, urban planning and village renewal, but they also provided a steady flow of support for the construction or repair of traditional ancestral halls, temples, and monasteries. The paper discusses the unfolding of these processes between Southeast Asia and the Minnan and Xinghua regions of Fujian. In the case to be discussed, some collectively trained spirit mediums in the temples of the Jiangkou region of Putian traveled to Singapore in the 1920s, where they maintained the cults to their deities on makeshift altars. By the 1950s they had built a temple in Singapore. Further temples were built in Medan, Jakarta and elsewhere in Indonesia, and in Serembang and Kuching in Malaysia. The cult maintained its activities even as many members of the overseas Xinghua community rose to positions of considerable wealth through their near monopolization of the transportation sector. They were well positioned to return to Putian in the 1980s and 1990s to rebuild temples, conduct training sessions, and introduce ritual innovations such as female spirit writing groups. The paper argues that ritual activity in Southeast China today is not simply an archaic survival of “tradition.” Instead it is the site for exploring how forces of modernity are being negotiated

Anyuan and Pingxiang, integrating radical trade unionism into civic consciousness
Xi He, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

The trade union movement at the Anyuan Coal Mine in the 1920s has been written about as a major chapter in the history of the Chinese Communist Party. The mine, which was run as an economic enterprise, catered to industrial production rather than services for the 12,000 workers who gathered. Nearby was, and is, the city of Pingxiang, with a history stretching back into the 16th century when literati leaders, the Confucian temple and other city facilities prevailed. This paper argues that managers of industrial enterprises in the nineteenth century had not taken cognizance of the emerging urban environment. The shortcomings in workers’ welfare that resulted from such neglect provided precisely the opportunity for the Chinese Communist Party to mobilize the workers in the 1920s. The Guomindang government after the northern expedition made good on such neglect by incorporating the industrial workers into an urban strategy, thus bringing the mine closer to Pingxiang. Keeping the histories of Anyuan and Pingxiang apart has made it possible for party history to concentrate on class contradictions and the workers’ movement. A shift in the interest to Pingxiang and its civic culture raises the question where the city gentry might be given a more sympathetic role in China’s revolutionary history. Today, organizers of a new city museum must face the issue of reinterpreting and representing its past.

Putting Revolution on Track: Railroad Guerillas and the Image Creation of Railroads in Post-War China
Elisabeth Koll, University of Notre Dame, USA

Railroad development as vital part of the nation-building effort in China became successful after 1949 when the railway network expanded as physical and ideological representation of the new socialist state and its economic and national defense agenda. In order to establish the political legitimacy of Chinese railroads as vanguard of Communist activism in the post-1949 narrative, railroad guerrillas and their activities, especially their sabotage of the JinPu trunk line in Shandong, during the war of resistance against the Japanese experienced a political reinterpretation as railroad workers with revolutionary ambitions. Some of the guerilla activists were workers affiliated with the CCP and had basic knowledge about railroads. However, this paper argues that they had not gained their experience in the JinPu railroad workshops but the nearby coal mines at Boshan and other traditional mining areas on the Shandong peninsula. In 1940 the guerilla squads consisted predominantly of mining workers whereas the numbers of workers associated with the JinPu railroad company was relatively small. As the paper demonstrates, until 1949 railroad companies were under tight GMD control, and since their skilled workforce enjoyed much better working conditions than miners and workers in other industrial enterprises, they were not easily infiltrated by CCP activists. The popularity of the railroad guerilla squads, disseminated through novels, picture books and films, has been heavily exploited in the post-war narrative of the CCP, turning the image of Chinese railroads from conservative, technocratic bureaucracies into engines of patriotic resistance and institutions with a strong revolutionary past.

A second fanshen: big time village real estate in post-reform Guangzhou
Helen Fung Har Siu, Yale University, USA

This paper focuses on village life in a district of Guangzhou that is being developed into a new Central Business District (CBD). Villagers in the district are absorbed by the city while tied to collective property ownership and “rural” statuses left from a Maoist era. Labeled chengzhongcun, these urban village enclaves pose serious challenges to city governance. The penetrating power of the late socialist state, the intensely volatile global market, and (post)modernist landmark schemes dominate the residents’ predicaments and sentiments. Their lives are suspended in a political past and a cultural vacuum that they are ambivalent with, and an economic future they have little control. However, capitalizing on collective land rights that the government is not ready to revoke, the villagers reap unimaginable dividends from developers and planners. The paper identifies key features in China’s (and Asia’s) expanding urbanities that existing paradigms might have overlooked. It engages with theoretical literature on global urban restructuring and nationalist aspirations. Moreover, at a historical juncture where neo-liberal and late-socialist priorities intertwine to create China’s new urban dreamscape, it explores particular uses of the past and multiple cultural referencing by rural actors who are drawn into this compelling process.