A Couple of Notes on the North Korean Election

The elected body, the “Supreme People’s Assembly”, rarely meets and has very little actual power. So this entire March 9 election exercise and its lead-up became in part a vehicle for more regime-shaped symbolism (symbol as substance) about how pleased everyone is with Kim-family rule, and the benefits conferred by the socialist system. The fact that Kim Jong-un’s sister emerged for the first time as a named figure under the auspices of the election activity is probably in the long run more significant than the elections themselves.

The Chinese foreign affairs tabloid Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times) had a reporter “on the scene” in Pyongyang. Not that the information was sourced from a conversation she had at the polls (the candidate was there; she pledged to “follow Kim Jong-un if elected, and work hard to make Pyongyang a world-class city [isn't it already?]“), but the point was also made in that piece, published on March 10, about watching for a kind of “youth movement” in the SPA results. Specifically mentioned was Kim Yong-nam; being 86, it might be time to replace him.

If the SPA is markedly younger, or if Kim Yong-nam is no longer at the helm of the body, then we might be able to see some signs of at least marginal outward change — but this was largely about another post-purge cosmetic opportunity for people to hammer home how much they allegedly love and need Kim Jong-un’s leadership.

DPRK Ballot

Mao Zedong on “What to Praise, What to Condemn” (1951)

In the six volumes of Mao Zedong Nianpu (1949-1976) published in Beijing this past December 2013, a number of new texts can be located, and minor mysteries solved. Chronologically organized, the writing in May 1951 is particularly interesting. I located one discussion, on May 19, 1951, where Mao is revealed as the active co-author of Hu Qiaomu of an editorial on the subject of the film Wu Xun (武训传) which was published on May 20, 1951, without attribution in Renmin Ribao. 

Mao decries the lack of familiarity among contemporary Chinese writers with the system of exploitation of the late Qing, and their tendency to venerate and preserve old culture, rather than oppose and destroy it. I was rather struck by this writing, and marked it down for a more detailed translation when I had more time.

Then, in the course of preparing a lecture at Leeds University, in our Brotherton Library, I ran across a short paragraph by Mao on the same topic, dating from 1951, in a small volume of English translations done by the Party back in the late 1950s and published in 1960. Was this the same text? It was indeed an extract from the same editorial, but without any date attached to it other than “1951,” and which appeared to be autonomously written.

The lessons?

1. The Nianpu can answer many questions, but they aren’t necessarily the first time that many of the materials have appeared before; 2. the Nianpu can clear up certain questions about the background and context of previously-published documents; 3. Mao’s collaborative nature as a prose writer is again laid bare — what had been attributed to him alone was in fact written in close mind-melding with Hu Qiaomu; and 4. now that Stuart Schram is gone, it’s up to all of us to pay closer attention to such things.

Sources: Mao Zedong, Mao Zedong Nianpu, 1949-1976, Vol. 1 (Beijing: Zhonggong zhongyang wenxian chubanshe, 2013), pp. 343-344.

Mao Zedong, “What to Praise, What to Condemn (1951),” Mao Tse-tung on Art and Literature (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1960), p. 131.

Kunming, Lhasa, Chengdu, Berlin: Sources on Tibetan 20th Century History

Now that the minzu (ethnicity) question is so centrally on the table in China, it is a good time to be looking to the past, for roots of current disputes and opportunities to overcome that multifarious and often very wounded past. Just as the events in Kunming need to be embedded into their regional context, we also need to look to history.

By the Power of Goldstein | In preparing lectures for a Mao and Modern China course I am presently teaching at Leeds University, I was reviewing my notes about modern Tibet, specifically the entrance of the People’s Liberation Army into Lhasa and the period of accommodation prior to 1959.

Above all, I because very excited when I found out that Melvyn Goldstein’s Volume 3 of his monumental History of Modern Tibet was published in California this past November, 2013. It covers the years 1955-1957; an excerpt from the text can be found on the publisher’s website (via the link in this paragraph). To my knowledge, the book has not yet been reviewed in the standard journals, and there has been very little buzz about it, but it is surely deserving of any and all attention.

My previous posts on this website about Goldstein’s Volume 2 can be accessed here and here, inspired by scholars like Greg Youtz, a professor at Pacific Lutheran University who is an annual traveler to Tibet.

German Sources on pre-1951 Tibet | According to my Chengdu notes, in 1938-39, there were two SS expeditions into Tibet which included Ernst Schaefer; his colleague Bruno Berger was interested in head measurements. A film entitled Geheimnis Tibet based upon Schaefer’s footage was released in 1942.

In his chapter entitled “Tibetan Horizon: Tibet and the Cinema in the Early Twentieth Century,” (Imagining Tibet, pp. 91-110), scholar Peter H. Hansen describes some German cinematic fascination with Tibet in the 1930s.  A film entitled Möche Tänzer und Soldaten im Reich des Buddhas (1937; its title is rendered a bit strangely by Hansen), is available in Filchner Haus in Göttingen. Other German films on Tibet 1929 to 1935 are at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Hansen also located various German films on Tibet from all periods are at the Kunst und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal German Republic).

A couple of other potentially fascinating articles briefly cited by Hansen include:

Reinhard Greve, « Das Tibet-Bild der Nationalsozialiste » in Thierry Dodin and Heinz Raaether, eds., Mythos Tibet: Wahrnemungen, Projektionen, Phantasien (Cologne: Du Mont, 1997), pp. 104-113.

Reinhard Greve, „Tibetforschung im SS-Ahnenerbei,“ in Thomas Hauscheld, ed., Lebenslust und Fremdenfurcht. Ethnologie im Dritten Reich. (Frankfurt am Main: a.M. Shurkamp, 1995), pp. 168-189.

Hansen (p. 93) describes how Tibetan government officials were a bit horrified at a foreign film made in 1924 of “dancing lamas,” and were self-conscious of such portrayals of Tibetan exoticism to the outside world.  On the flip side, Hansen describes how the Austrian journeyman Heinrich Harrer showed a film in the Norbulinka to the Dalai Lama in 1950 about the Japanese surrender (p. 103), an encounter which binds together multiple narratives into a single dense event pregnant with symbolism.

Imagining Tibet | Among the films about Tibetan history in the 20th century, two should be mentioned: Annaud’s 7 Years in Tibet (1997) and Scorcese’s Kundun (also 1997)

One wonders how the directors would respond to the more factual arguments put forth by John Powers in  Imagining Tibet (p. 141?):

In 1990, Tibetans were 9th of the 56 Nationalities [in terms of population, totaling] 4.6 million. [This equals] .4% of total PRC population, and 5% of all ethnic minorities (Zhuang were #1 with 15.5 million)…In 2000, there were a total of 106.4 million minorities, making them 8.4% of the population, up slightly percentage wise from 8% in 1990.

The focus of Powers’ essay is on sexy, exoticized minorities. But if they are idolized, then we might ask, as Alfred Gell does, “What do idols see, when they look?” (Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998], p. 118).

Gould and the British Expertise | Sir Basil Gould was not just an important British diplomat active in and around Tibet, but also a linguist. He co-authored a book with Hugh Richardson, entitled Tibetan Word Book; Tibetan Sentances; Tibetan Syllables; Tibetan Verb Roots (Calcutta: Oxford University Press, 1943). This is precious expertise. Gould plays an important if small role in another project I’m presently working on with respect to a young Chinese Tibetologist and translator and his view of Lhasa in the quiet but critical years of 1945-1949.

Miscellaneous Sources | James Cooper, “Western and Japanese Visitors to Lhasa: 1900-1950,” The Tibet Journal Vol. 28, No. 4, pp. 91-94.

Isrun Engelhardt, ed. Tibet in 1938-39

_______________. “Tibetan Triangle” Asiatische Studien (2004).

________________. „Mishandled Mail: the Strange Case of the Reting Regent’s Letters to Hitler,“ Zentralasiatische Studien Vol. 37 (2008): 77-106.

Bruno Berger, Mit der deutschen Tibetexpedition Ernst Schaefer 1938/39 nach Lhasa (Wiesbaden, 1998).

Martin Braven, ed. Peter Aufshaiter’s Eight Years in Tibet. Bankok: 2002.

Gruenfelder, Alice. An den Lederriemen geknotete Seele. Erzaehler aus Tibet: Tashi Dawa, Alai, Sebo. Zurich: Unionsverlag, 1997.

Finally, the controversial Reting Rinpoche supposedly wrote two letters to Hitler which are in the Bundesarchiv — though these sources are not discussed in Goldstein’s Volume 1. According to Peter Hansen, Reting (who was instrumental in finding the 14th Dalai Lama in the mid-1930s) also is said to have taken photos with Schaefer. Given the fixation that some Chinese scholars and enthusiasts seem to possess for linking the current Dalai Lama with anything evil, but particularly the Nazis, perhaps this is something to keep an eye open for in the Chinese journal literature on Tibetan history.

New Scholarship on China’s War Against Japan: Rana Mitter and the Wiles Lectures at Queen’s University Belfast

Rana Mitter is among the most dynamic, productive, and visible historians working on East Asia in the UK today. Dr. Mitter will be delivering a series of uniquely prestigious and endowed lectures in Belfast, at Queen’s University, from 28-31 May of this year. The series title is ‘Fighting Fate: Wartime Society and the Making of Modern China.‘  

I’m delighted to have been invited to participate in this event and am looking forward greatly to being back in Belfast, which has been a real cauldron of productivity for me personally and is also a city and department full of good friends. Beyond the massive dose of inspiration and knowledge that these lectures and associated structured discussions will doubtless provide, I am also hopeful that heading back to Ulster will trigger submission of a few of my own Sino-Japanese manuscripts that have been moving forward, shall we say, at a somewhat staggered rate.

Chronicling the History of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in the PRC: 1990 Edition

Ambassador Jim Hoare has written a delightful and very informative essay for SinoNK.com, the website for which I serve as chief editor. When based in Beijing in 1990, Ambassador Hoare took a trip up to Yanji with Warwick Morris (who, unbeknownst to him at the time, was another future UK Ambassador to North Korea). Their photographs and recollections are included in a newly released (and free) e-journal, entitled The Tumen Triangle Documentation Project, Vol. 2, which all are invited to peruse and enjoy, via SinoNK.com.

There are also essays in this issue of TTDP about traveling from China to Rason, the China-DPRK drug problem, interviews with refugees from the border city of Hyesan, and even a look at Kim Il-song and the history of North Korean potato cultivation in the northern provinces. Chris Green, the international managing editor of DailyNK in Seoul, has written an excellent piece on the topic of the “yuanization” of North Korea, surely something scholars at Yanbian University have shown great interest in.

I was unable to shoehorn my own new writing about the Hyesan-Changbai juncture into the text, but the pdf. only shines all the better for the self-initiated exclusion. Do have a read; you won’t regret spending the time.


Talking Sino-Japanese Relations in Leeds

My colleague Caroline Rose has been very generous in inviting me to join two conferences of the Sino-Japanese Research Network in the past year. With a focus on contemporary history and political disputes, the group marshals a great deal of expertise (both disciplinary and linguistic) and bonhomie.

At today’s conference, Professor Yinan He from Seton Hall University was the keynote speaker, discussing ‘IR Theory and Contemporary Sino-Japanese Relations.’ Dr. He’s homepage contains pdfs of many of her outstanding articles and her 2009 book comparing Sino-Japanese to German-Polish experiences of postwar reconciliation and historical politics is a must-read. As Dr. He said, China governmental point of view today toward Japan might be characterized as ‘Our door is always open to dialogue, as long as you adopt our correct view of history.’  Dr. He also challenged the notion that Sino-Japanese relations is at (as media often hyperventilate) ‘at a new low point,’ as such a phrase tends to be recycled.  

Caroline Rose presented some intriguing aspects of research on ‘people’s diplomacy’ of the 1950s between China and Japan, seeking to understand to what extent the traditional sub-structure of the bilateral relationship (mainly non-governmental organizations) has deteriorated under the new term of Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. Dr. Rose also noted that there are more anniversaries representing positive Sino-Japanese interactions than is often accounted for (such as the anniversary of normalization), meaning that what one author has called ‘China’s calendar of scars’ is not always a minefield (to mix metaphors) when it comes to relations.

Ed Griffiths noted that Abe had not necessarily been seen to be as overtly hostile or provocative toward the PRC as his predecessor, Koizumi Junichiro, but that Abe’s behaviour since taking office had actually burned whatever political capital he had earned with the Chinese in his previous term (putting a stop to the Koizumi method of visiting Yasukuni Shrine). But He Yinan countered by discussing how Abe had so little to gain politically from his Yasukuni visits, and I followed up by noting that Abe was not facing a strong challenge from his right (the disintegrating if entertaining Ishin no Kai) nor excess pressure from his neo-Buddhist coalition partners (the Komeito, whose posters were everywhere when I visited Tokyo during upper House elections this past summer), much less the Japanese Communist Party.

The visits of former Japanese Prime Ministers to China — Hatoyama Yukio, Fukada Hasao, and Murayama Tomiichi – was also discussed profitably, but with the understanding that even abundant contacts, people-to-people relations, and a thriving trade relationship was no substitute for a more stable, less acrimonious Sino-Japanese relations at the state-to-state level.  

As I continue my own work on the postwar Sino-Japanese relationship with a focus on the years 1945-1956, having such dialogue partners is absolutely vital and I look forward to more interactions with this dynamic group.

Assessing Chinese-North Korean Relations: Presentation at Ohio State University

On 9 January, I was fortunate to be able to address a group of scholars and graduate students at Ohio State University. Video of the talk will be available soon, and the abstract for the paper can be read here (opens as pdf). My colleagues at Sino-NK did a rather generous pre-presentation write-up with multiple links. Again, when the video becomes available, I will post it here.

China’s Soft Power Strategy and the DPRK

Is North Korea, as Joseph Nye once apparently argued, “immune” from soft power and persuasion? In a recent North Korea Review article, Steven Denney and I argue that the DRPK is not. Recent events in Pyongyang involving an American basketball delegation meeting with Kim Jong-un are not necessarily bizarre, nor are they without utility for both the Americans and the North Koreans. Certainly they should force another reappraisal of the role that cultural diplomacy, Track II exchanges, and cultural power plays with respect to our attempts to change or otherwise enter the North Korean thought stream.

If State Department officials in Washington DC struggle to craft an appropriate soft power strategy for Pyongyang, their counterparts in Beijing appear to be way ahead, being armed with decades of “fraternal relations” with North Korea. Or are the Chinese really ahead of the game? What cultural products from Beijing are North Koreans dying—or allowed—to have? Finally, as the PRC Xi Jinping pushes a global propaganda line on “the Chinese dream,” it should be clear that North Korea is far from immune from the pressures and opportunities brought with this wave of rhetoric—and resources.

Read the entire translation and essay, which is a collaboration with the protean German Sinologist Franz Bleeker, at Sino-NK.