Saturday, July 2, 2011

Prepping for Orals II

It has been two and a half weeks since my last post about "Prepping for Orals," and I haven't read as many books in the meantime as I had hoped to. This is likely because I got so caught up rallying at the New York State Capitol for LGBT rights - for the right of all New Yorkers to marry the person they love. And we won! On Friday evening, June 24th, after weeks of making phone calls to senators, delivering petitions to senators at the Capitol, and rallying many days after work inside the Capitol building, singing, chanting, dancing, and making new friends - after all that - many courageous Republican senators stood up for civil rights and voted "yes," making same-sex marriage legal in New York State!

This is one of my favorite photographs I took on Friday, June 24th, just hours before the New York State senate approved marriage equality. "Love is love is love."
More of my photos from June 24th can be seen at my Flickr page.

I took two videos of our chanting/singing on the Great Western Staircase of the New York State Capitol, just hours before the senate's passage of the marriage equality bill. This one was our anthem: "Chapel of Love"

This chant came out of nowhere, but quickly overpowered our opposition's chant of "Vote No!": "Love will win. Hate go home."

After rallying at the capitol on that final day, I got on a bus to NYC to be with my partner. By the time I arrived in Manhattan, the senate was just about to begin deliberations on the Marriage Equality bill. We joined nearly 50,000 others tuning in to watch the senate live online. We cried multiple times during the proceedings! I certainly did when Senator Steve Saland, from the Hudson Valley, spoke and for the first time publicly committed to supporting marriage equality. We both cried when Senator Tom Duane, the sponsor of the bill, explained why the bill mattered so much to him, about the discrimination he had faced his whole life as an openly gay New Yorker, and about the dream deferred that he and his partner, Louis, shared - the dream of marriage.

After the vote we joined nearly 1,000 others outside the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street where the LGBT rights movement began almost exactly 42 years earlier! What a celebration!

Celebrants outside the Stonewall Inn (covered in rainbow flags) along Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, NYC, June 24, 2011.
More of my photographs from that historic day can be seen at my Flickr page.

Two days later we marched alongside Governor Andrew Cuomo (and personally met former Governor David Paterson!) in the NYC Pride Parade:

View from within the Pride Parade, looking down Fifth Avenue. There were approximately 500,000 celebrants there! June 26, 2011.

And so, caught up first in the fight, and then in the euphoria, I missed the opportunity to really get ahead with my orals preparation. (Oh, boo hoo. Big deal.) :)

An ever-evolving bibliography

Now a word about what I've been reading lately. You can see my earlier post about orals for a refresher on my three examination fields, and what I've read so far.

Early American history:

Since reading Richard White and Karl Jacoby, I haven't picked up any other early American history reads except for one, and this one is by far the best of the lot: John Demos, The Unredeemed Captive (1994). Demos is pretty forthcoming in his introduction that, after decades of social-science-y social history - after reading too many books focused more on numbers than on stories - he really wanted to write "narrative history." And he has done a remarkable job. Scholars might accuse him of being a bit fast with the facts, or at least not fully forthcoming with where he gets all his ideas, but I say "so what?" I have never believed that history is a science. I think it truly is just another form of story-telling, perhaps one where we take ourselves a bit too seriously. I think facts are messy, fluid, and can change over time. Yup, I think facts can change. I don't even think objectivity was ever that "noble" of a dream! Anyway, after a colleague remarked that my effort to tell the story of a captive red-tailed tropicbird in the mid-nineteenth-century Pacific guano industry was like trying to write a "John Demos"-style history of birds, I knew I had to read this classic book. The book concerns Eunice Williams, a young girl from a Puritan family in Massachusetts who is captured as a child by Mohawk Indians and transported to a French-Catholic influenced Indian town on the St. Lawrence River. While her other family members are eventually released and return to good old Protestant English country life, she stays behind. She forgets English. She converts to Catholicism. She takes an Indian husband. She raised a family. She is "unredeemed." Demos tells a compelling story, and the reader learns a lot about early eighteenth-century America. Frankly, the book was so much fun to read! Why can't all history books be like this one?!

Chinese history:

Besides Demos, I've devoted the past three weeks to reading Chinese history. Yes, I'm still reading Elvin's Retreat of the Elephants. I have made little progress since last update, and I don't plan to make much more this summer. Spending a beautiful summer afternoon reading Retreat of the Elephants is like sitting next to a beautiful, cold stream in upstate New York and choosing to burn under the sun rather than jump in for a swim. (Let's just say reading John Demos is more like swimming!) I can be ascetic when I want to, but I think that selecting this book as summer reading went just too far!

I finished Frederic Wakeman Jr.'s Strangers at the Gate (1966). It really is a great work considering it was written in the 1960s, a dark time for history when few were concerned about the history of "little people." But Wakeman is concerned. He tells a tale of local resistance to Western imperialism in Canton (Guangzhou) in the 1840s and 1850s. Certainly allegiances shifted quite a bit over these twenty years, but the one constant was that local people just could not stand the idea of allowing Western peoples, or especially Western soldiers, inside the Canton city walls. Other histories I've read sometimes paint the 1842 signing of the Treaty of Nanjing as a done-deal: as if with the stroke of a pen Britain had conquered China and changed it irrevocably. Wakeman makes clear that the resistance did not end with 1842, and he shows nicely how the social disorder that led to the Taiping uprising (the largest internal rebellion / civil war in Chinese history, 1851-1865) was born out of the local disruptions caused by the imperial desires of the British.

It was of benefit after reading Wakeman to read Paul Cohen's Discovering History in China (1984), a historiography of American writing on "modern" Chinese history. After all my talk last post about "early modernity" versus "modernity" in different historical contexts, Cohen gave me a lot more to chew on considering how our idea of "modernity" is shaped by a Eurocentric historiography. It was long considered that China's "modernity" began with the "Western shock" of the Opium War (1839-1842), but Cohen shows (and this was back in the 1980s) that younger historians were beginning to question this periodization. Contentious terms that Cohen attempts to deconstruct include "modernity" but also "imperialism" and "tradition," and he seeks to develop a "China-centric" approach to Chinese history. It is an interesting read, mostly because the book is now almost thirty years old. It is interesting because, in one sense, I think that teachers - if not scholars - still have a fight ahead of us in terms of moving away from a Western-centric approach to Chinese history. Students still find it much easier to memorize the Opium War as a moment of cataclysmic change in Chinese history, than to move beyond the generalizations towards an understanding of the currents of change and continuity within China that occurred apart from Western influence. On the other hand, Cohen's historiography is dated. His enthusiasm for "bottom up" social history is exciting to me - because I think we still need more of that kind of history - but it is also really "old news" now thirty years later. His concern with how the Vietnam War shaped American writing on China is also interesting, but now, in a post-Cold War world, where U.S. relations with China are quite different, how applicable are his concerns?

So now I turn to Keith Schoppa's Xiang Lake (now published as Song Full of Tears: Nine Centuries of Chinese Life at Xiang Lake) (1989; 2002). I only began reading this a few days ago. It deals with nine centuries of history around one small, artificial lake near Hangzhou in South China. I am already reminded that Elvin, in Retreat of the Elephants, wrote quite a bit about Hangzhou Bay and its millennium of ecological change in his chapter about Chinese water usage. But Schoppa's approach is so different, focused on stories told about the lake, rather than about the gritty details of silt deposition, etc. Robert Marks has dealt with a similar watery, silty topic in his analysis of the Pearl River Delta. Each author has a different approach to telling the history of watery change over millennia as forests are cut, soil erosion increases, deposition and sedimentation increase, deltas grow, rivers change course (especially the Yellow River in North China!), people reclaim lakebeds or polders, etc., etc. It is amazing to see the maps showing how the borders of lakes, rivers, or deltas have shifted so much over one thousand years, partly due to natural change, but mostly due to anthropogenic change. Anyway, I'm looking forward to reading Schoppa's book for what it might tell me about how historians can approach writing Chinese environmental history, because I need better models than what I've read so far!

Next up in Early American history is: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife's Tale (1990). I can't wait!

Finally, here are some photographs I took at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC to get us thinking more about Chinese history:

Early twentieth-century Chinese bridal chair. This object would have been made by the groom's family. A number of very influential Chinese films begin with scenes of brides being carried in this type of chair, although not nearly so elaborately crafted, including Yellow Earth (1984) and Red Sorghum (1987).

Detail from the bridal chair

Tobacco pipes from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Tobacco, an American plant, was first imported into China in the late Ming dyasty (early seventeenth-century), and was rapidly incorporated into Chinese culture. Timothy Brook, in his lovely book Vermeer's Hat (2007), tells this story in a chapter called "School for Smoking."

These are examples of snuff boxes used for holding tobacco. They also date from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Snuff boxes, be they carved from jade or some other precious material, showed the status of the smoker, much as smoking tobacco itself was often a signifier of status.

Between the pipes and the snuff boxes, we can see the great influence that one American plant had on Chinese material culture. Unfortunately, most museum visitors won't recognize this fact, because there is no interpretation about tobacco in this exhibit! Most visitors will see these objects as "indigenous" and "timeless" reflecting a long history of Chinese smoking culture (just as most Americans probably think Chinese have smoked opium for millenia). The reality is that recreational smoking was a learned activity in the Ming and Qing dynasties, and was greatly influenced by China's transoceanic relationships with European empires.

An imagining of Ming-era Beijing, probably fifteenth or sixteenth century CE. The view is from the southwest corner of the city wall looking in. It is interesting to note what is taking place outside the city wall: lots of dromedaries (!), obviously lots of traders from across Inner Asia; the canal and canalboats: more trade. Is what takes place outside the city wall extralegal? Who is allowed in, and who is allowed out? I find this diorama raises lots of interesting questions for me about Ming urbanity. Anyway, anyone who has been to Beijing lately (I was there in 2004 and 2006) knows that the city's footprint has expanded WELL beyond the original city wall!

Here is a close-up view of the Forbidden City, and the big hill next to it (which I climbed up in 2006) which was artificially constructed with landfill.

Well, got to get back to my readings! Happy summer everyone! And happy 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party! And happy anniversary of American Independence! It will certainly be a weekend of much history-distortion by our political leaders!

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