Yellow Earth

From 15-18 September, the CUHK History and Anthropology AOE and Shaanxi Normal University arranged a field seminar in and around Xi’an.

The itinerary was arranged by Micah Muscolino at Oxford, and took us to about 8 villages in Baishui 白水县 and Chengcheng 澄城县 Counties, along with a large scale water reclamation project, and two gorgeous temples.


Most of what we were doing was to see the long history of terracing, which is a way of keeping the water in the soil, and keeping the soil in one spot. This is especially important in the “Yellow Earth” region of central China, where the soil is notoriously soft and wispy. Besides the terraces, the most notable feature of the landscape is deep gullies, which are created from water erosion. Even with plant cover, the ground just doesn’t want to stay still.

On the other hand, because the soil is so soft, it is really easy to work. People compress it into walls between fields to stop the wind, and famously dig houses (窑洞) into the hillsides. Mao and the Yan’an communists lived in these during the 1930s and 40s, and people think of it as a hardship. Surely it was, but the houses themselves are very comfortable – since the walls are two meters thick, the cave houses stay cool in summer and warm in winter.

Historical perspective on China’s NGO draft law

This past summer, China introduced a new law aimed at curbing the activities of NGOs operating in the country. The law itself was heavily criticized in the international press, in part because the law closely resembled measures enacted in Russia under Putin. Similar measures have appeared in other jurisdictions, such as Cambodia.


Above: the Guo Meimei scandal meets the Chinese Red Cross

The new restriction of NGOs in China raises questions about the direction of social change under the Xi Jinping government, which harken back to earlier debates about the origins and fate of civil society in China. These issues all turn on historical interpretation, whether the emergence of the NGO sector in China represents something fundamentally nw.


In some ways it does. China of course has its own tradition of charities, many of which operated hand in hand with government relief and social welfare, but the current sector is more visible and more politically vocal than anything China has seen before. It is also far larger. Compared to the size of the economy, the NGO sector today completely dwarfs the missionary charities of the early twentieth century, and are an order of magnitude larger and better organized than imperial-era charities.

For more on this topic, see my recently published article: “Before the NGO: Chinese charities in historical perspective.


Hulunbeier and Manzhouli

Hulunbeier — an expanse of grasslands the size of England — is one of the new tourist hotspots in China. I spent about three weeks there this July, as well as a good deal of time on the road to and from Harbin and Manzhouli, and on local busses to places like Ganzhuer Temple, on the border with Mongolia.

The purpose was to get to see as much of the countryside as I could (oh boy was that ever successful), meet as many people as I could (ditto there), and to set up a collaboration with some wonderful scholars at Hulunbeier University (three for three!). So I’ll be spending a lot of time there in the future. In the meantime, here’s some pics of my friend Nasuk and I booting around Hulunbeier and Manzhouli. I’m guessing the -40 degree winter might look a little different.

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Malacca – and here’s Jack Chia!

Oh where to begin with the Malacca stories?  Let’s just say that Malacca was one of my favorite parts of life in Singapore. One easy five hour bus ride, and you’re in one of the most charming cities in the world.

So, when my schedule had me in Singapore in late November, and Macao in mid-December, I decided to come and stay here and work on my book for the two weeks in between. Cheaper than flying back to Australia, and a heck of a lot more interesting.

Case in point – Jack.


Here’s me with Jack Chia, one of my former students from NUS who is currently tearing it up in the PhD program in Cornell. On my first night in Malacca,I saw Jack on Skype and we both discovered that we were both in Asia, in Malaysia, in Malacca, and as it turns out, staying about two blocks away from each other. Jack was in Malacca looking at some sources about a Buddhist monk who went back and forth between Malaysia and China. It was great to see him after something like four years, and just to show you that fate doesn’t know when to stop, one night while we were having dinner at a street stall, we heard firecrackers ad then someone off in the distance striking a big drum. That kind of sound at night can only mean one thing.


Yes, the temple just fifty meters away was hosting a spirit medium who was in trance giving some stern instructions to the temple committee. We stuck around for about a half hour and then left. Jack went back to Singapore the next day, but I went back to visit the temple as festivities continued over the next two days. I’ll post proper pictures of those two days once I get a chance to edit the video into something nice, but here are some pics of the first evening.



The temple is really interesting – I later found out that the deity (named Wenfuwang 溫父王) is one of the five brothers: another one is in the Leizhou huiguan (interestingly, the deity you can see from the street looks like Guanyin, I’m guessing the brother must be somewhere inside). Another deity is in a temple near the Hotel Equatorial, and a fourth lives somewhere out of town. The fifth brother lives in the ocean, since he is hot tempered, and therefore not suitable for temple life. On the 15th of the first lunar month, the four brothers are taken in procession to see the fifth. Besides the processions, there is a ritual involving large boat, which gets burned at sea.

Now that’s something worth coming back to see.