Potential for Industrialization in China and Europe

The obsession with European economic dominance is widespread among writers writing in Chinese and English alike. Chinese intellectuals particularly became concerned by the end of the 19th century. Many Western countries used their superior command of technology and military to subdue the ailing Qing dynasty and the future of a sovereign state was uncertain. Since industrialization has been a closely connected idea with modernization, Europeans also have celebrated their unrivaled progress across the globe, contrasting itself to other “savage” regions or a “stagnant” Third World.[1] Even as people accept that “China came within a hair's breadth of industrialising in the fourteenth century,” China’s later demise is still subject to much debate and influence of the stagnant-Orient view. [2] David Landes suggested that Europe’s multiple, competing polities in contrast with the “all-encompassing empires of the Orient or of the Ancient World,” which allowed for more technical dynamism. [3]

Stagnation does not out rule economic growth: China experienced economic growth even in the Qing dynasty, which was notorious for its lack of innovation. Thus the indicator of change should not be growth, but rather technological dynamism in for a meaningful comparison of China and Europe. Joel Mokyr argued that “technological opportunities and constraints by and large determined where and when improvements were to occur” in various places. [4] Thus this paper will examine this debate with a focus on technological innovation. In the chapter of The Levers of Riches comparing China and Europe, Mokyr demonstrates how China’s different government-civil relations, different bureaucracy, lower demand for foreign goods, and Luddism ideology against social conflict and rapid change in comparison to Europe created a disadvantage for technological transformation. But many revisionist economists have engaged this debate and demonstrated that Europe only gained certain advantages through technological merit, and most other advantages through fortuitous global conjectures, such as colonial expansion. As historian Kenneth Pomeranz argues, the number of European macroinventions from 1500 to 1750 was very small and the advantages of merit only played a significant role after 1830. [5] Pomeranz holds the view that before then, many trends in China were similar to Europe, such as efficient economic institutions and labor division patterns. Furthermore, Europe had many ecological constraints that could have stalled progress. Thus for him, Europe’s rise was not inevitable based on earlier socioeconomic trends. This paper will first compare Pomeranz and Mokyr’s approach to this debate.

China’s Lead and Disuse of Technological Innovations

Both Mokyr and Pomeranz acknowledge China’s technological innovation prior to Europe. Improvements in plows, rice cultivation through wet-field techniques, new fertilizers, and hydraulic engineering helped a stable supply of nutrition. [6]  China also led by at least one thousand five hundred years in iron casting technology and one thousand years for paper and the modern horse collar prior to Europe’s adaptation. Weaving equipment for spinning silk appeared as early as 200 B.C. and was later adapted to cotton. While the mechanic clock has been lauded as a “macroinvention” in Mokyr’s book, China during the 11th century also created water clocks. (A macroinvention is “an invention without clear-cut parentage, representing a clear break from previous technique.”) In the 15th century, China also created water-worthy ships, but later could not maintain its superiority due to Ming dynasty’s closed-door policy that terminated sea exploration. Many of China’s technologies were often imported or reinvented in Europe later.

Yet certain inventions in China were not used as much as the European scales of capital accumulation. Iron casting was used for weaponry, but not later improved weaponry such as guns and cannons. China thus had to import weapons from the West in the 19th century when it faced invasion. Mokyr also provided many social and political reasons for China’s slowing innovative progress. The imperial state structure placed a heavy emphasis on meritocracy and examinations. The resources and prestige lay in entering the government, which caused the flow of talent towards bureaucracy rather than fields involving technology. The state could also halt projects very quickly with its central control. Once the Chinese state stopped supporting technology and knowledge dissemination as much as the Song dynasty, there was a discontinuation due to lack of support from the private sphere. Many historians interpreted the role of intellectuals inhibiting the progress, from lack of interest in technical knowledge to benevolent intentions to limit social conflict.[7] Pomeranz himself agrees that the elite men-of-letters conducted few scientific discussions. I agree with Mokyr: he has successfully showed the degree which China’s technological edge lessened its chances for industrialization.

Europe’s Inevitable Rise?

Mokyr showed that inventions played a crucial role in the Industrial Revolution. While Pomeranz accepts that Europe had revolutionary inventions, he indicates that the current increase in studies of private initiatives-cum-miracles are due to the dominant pro-market narrative. Pomeranz complicates this claim of technological progress and shows how European state interventions played a significant role. The usual argument was that labor-saving innovations came about because laborers in the “West” were freer and received higher wages compared to the “Rest.” “The Rest” busied over saving over land, capital, or another scarce material. The European exceptionalists often champion the process of Proto-industrialization, in which they saw encouraged people to engage in non-food related work, while the rural areas started creating surplus in food for town. [8] The increase in demographic growth in towns reinforced this process. Historian Andre Gunder Frank holds that China only engaged in a similar process between 1500-1800 (increase in labor and population) after Europe introduced the currency system of New World Silver. Pomeranz challenges this idea on many grounds: China had domestic demand much larger than exports to Europe; China had more labor mobility than Europe and the state facilitated migration; low wage costs do not necessarily inhibit the use of labor-saving technology; many British technologies aimed to save money on fuel, such as coal, rather than labor; finally, the people who did invent technology for saving labor were not aware of it.[The Great Divergence. 52] “In a study of eighteenth-century English patentees, Christine MacLeod finds that most declared the goals of their innovation to be either improving the quality of the product or saving on capital...only 3.7 percent cited saving on labor as a goal.” This is understandable since Europe had used certain land-intensive products inefficiently, such as fuel wood.] Thus Pomeranz supports Jan DeVries’ argument that Europe invested much labor over many years which had high yield--an “industrious revolution” rather than one of rapid productivity increase.

Pomeranz also argues that the while the inventions were labor-saving, only some inventions had long term importance. Global conjectures of colonial conquest mattered more for solving land problems. The expanded land abroad allowed western European countries to feed a growing population despite diminishing per capita resource at home. This development saved labor and allowed the inventions to have larger impacts compared to the marginal technological improvements in China and India.

Female Labor and Involution

Labor output serves a key category in the evidence for proving that China was involuted. Pomeranz also discusses the point made by many social historians regarding China’s female labor and nature of demand. DeVries has argued that in Europe, labor increased and reallocated for industrial and semi-finished goods, such as bread and candles, due to more employment of women in non-domestic workforce. Philip Huang adds that China’s society only increased female labor for domestic needs and thus lacked demand for the same goods. Pomeranz holds that 1) Chinese women also participated in the non-domestic workforce and 2) Empirically, like Europe, China also had an increase in demand for finished goods and services, such as candles and ritual expenses; 3) China also copiously consumed sugar and tobacco and experienced an equivalent rise of the commercialized leisure life in Europe.

Pomeranz uses Jack Goldstone’s studies of Chinese female participation in the workforce and emphasizes that they earned above above subsistence rates in silk production.[ Goldstone, Jack A. 1996. 'Gender, Work, And Culture: Why The Industrial Revolution Came Early To England But Late To China'. Sociological Perspectives 39 (1): 1-21.] But he differs with Goldstone’s explanation that the Chinese society’s reluctance to allow women to leave the house for work hampered industrialization. The ideal was for men to plow the fields and women to weave at home. Yet there were many writings indicating women working alongside men in the Lower Yangzi Delta fields throughout the 17th and 18th century, while writings about Anhui, Guangdong and Fujian indicated women working outdoors throughout the 19th century. Pomeranz also cited the cultural impression made by empresses gathering mulberry leaves for silkworms as evidence of the widespread acceptance of women working out-of-house. He concludes that there is little historical evidence regarding the non-elite attitude towards women and thus he does not accept Goldstone’s hypothesis that China did not industrialize due to cultural norms that promoted female seclusion.

The Military Competition and Property Debate

Pomeranz has observed in the Introduction that recent scholarship tend to explain Europe’s success through endogenous growth. Pomeranz does not hold the Marxist theory of primitive accumulation, since Britain had accumulated surplus values prior to its colonies. Still, he attributes Europe’s crucial aspect of success to its spatial advantage in colonies (“peripheries”), the slave trade, and other forms of overseas coercion. He also revisits Eric Williams’ thesis of colonial accumulation’s role in Britain’s industrialization, and argues that without the military fiscalism, Britain would have later experienced a labor-intensive rather than capital-intensive growth.

Yet this difference deserves attention: China also had tributaries, yet the state did not establish itself as an economically productive empire. Pomeranz also puts forward that Chinese merchants and laborers had large presence in the sparsely populated land of southeast Asia. They created much revenue through land-intensive products, such as sugar and grain, but southeast Asia “never became for coastal China what the New World was for western Europe.” The “state had no interest in directly providing military and political backing” for these merchants. Why did the Chinese state not engage or exploit this linkage? The rulers of the Qing dynasty were more invested in Central Asian expansion and had budget surpluses every year to concern itself with revenues and taxes. Landes, K. N. Chaudhuri and M. N. Pearson to some extent supported variations of an explanation beyond China’s particularity: without intense military competition, major Asian empires did not need as much commercial revenues as Europe; thus these empires did not regard commercial property or revenue as important as tributaries. Pomeranz questions this claim and cites DeVries that argued military competition in Europe urged states to “put more offices, tax farms, and titles on the market was an impediment to this transformation, not an aid.” He also adds that war increased rate of asset and skills lost, and increased business costs.

But I still find the military competition argument persuasive and I hold that China’s unique imperial culture inhibited its industrial revolution. Pomeranz discusses Qing rulers’ paranoia regarding militarizing oversea efforts and “suspicion of any combination of mercantile and naval power in the same set of hands” as major reasons for the lack of support for a Chinese East India Company in Southeast Asia. But he does not explore cultural reasons that halted China’s seafaring initiatives in the earlier Ming dynasty. He also does not delve into the Chinese ideologies of the time that could have been comparable to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations or John Locke’s discussion of property. Pomeranz focuses on many aspects that de-emphasizes cultural difference, but these differences cannot be ignored in the discussion when comparing processes of industrialization.

Furthermore, most scholars mentioned have treated China more or less as a nation-state with a coherent citizenry, when in reality it was an ever-changing multi-ethnic empire during many of the periods discussed. Many comparative histories of technology assume China to be a coherent nation while each dynasty had its unique interests and priorities. Yet there is much debate within Chinese history regarding technology that these narratives overlook, such as the extent to which the Mongolian-established Yuan dynasty changed the dynamics and progress created during the Song dynasty. This picture can be lost in comparative approaches between China and the West. Rather than interrogating the multiple Chinas at stake, the discourse is shaped around questions like “how China can take over the West” or why it did not. This is a worthy question for another paper to explore.

[1] Landes, David. 1969. The Unbound Prometheus. Cambridge University Press. 7, 11. “The nations of the Third World have yet to effect their industrial revolution, and the gulf in wealth and standard of living between them and the economically advanced countries has increased to the point of scandal and danger. The disparity has been aggravated by the partial character of their modernization.”
[2] Jones, Eric L. 1981. The European Miracle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 160.
[3] The Unbound Prometheus. 15.
[4]  Mokyr, Joel. 1990. The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress. Oxford University Press. (Kindle Locations 1287-1289).
[5] Pomeranz, Kenneth. 2000. The Great Divergence. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 47.
[6] The Lever of Riches. Kindle Location 3356.
[7] Fei, Hsiao-tung, 1953. China's Gentry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[8] Kriedte, Peter, Hans Medick, & Jürgen Schlumbohm. 1981. Industrialization before Industrialization. 12.


Fighting Britain's War: India and World War II

Book Review of Yasmin Khan's Raj at War and Raghu Karnad's Farthest Field.  

The World War II has been taught based on the experiences of European countries on either side and the U.S.; the stories of China and India are usually absent from English bookshelves. In South Asia, nationalist agitations and Partition of 1947 dominated the stories of first half of twentieth century. Both Indian and European and people tend to forget the extent to which World War II influenced the Raj and the people under it. Millions of Indian soldiers were enlisted to fight for the allies in World War II and India also provided more than £2 billion worth of goods and services. Strategically, India was also situated between “both the Middle East and the China theatre” and supplied both troops and consumables. The impact in South Asia was also significant: The war increased social tensions and caused inflation. Indians also learned that the White Man was not inherently superior: Polish refugees at home, Japanese gaining upper hand over the British in the air, and Germans killed abroad by their fellow Indians all proved this point. The Raj could not protect its imperial subjects, and its credibility subsequently suffered. The Indian nationalist leaders also learned more about Britain’s political priorities, which were clearly not in favor of South Asian development. For leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, any wishes for the Raj to be a paternalistic leader of the Commonwealth vanished.
This year, two major books have replenished the scholarship on India and World War II. Historian Yasmin Khan’s book The Raj at War provides a lot of details and the statuses of people from all walks of life, from political leaders to businessmen, from new Tommy recruits, European nurses, and prisoners of war in India to Indian Lascars fighting for better wages. Her scope covers not only the war zone but also the factories and bedrooms. Journalist Raghu Karnad’s Farthest Field also serves to fill the gap of Indians in World War II, partly based on the experiences of his Parsi ancestors. Both books address the issues of political loyalty, the scorched earth policy, memories, and demise of the British Empire’s prestige. Both books acknowledged how different sections of society benefited from the War: businessmen in particular seized the chance for profits through supplying military needs, such as food and accommodation. Yet Karnad provides a more scathing critique of the War and colonialism.
One of the main reason for World War II’s forgotten status in India was its conflict with the national narrative. The main subject of Karnad’s book, Bobby, was not a story told or mentioned to Karnad’s generation. The Indian Army men’s “subaltern service to the British Empire became a quixotic memory, its political valency vague and its heroism diluted.” Like many unpredictable twist-of-fate moments in South Asian history, Bobby’s section, the 2nd Field of the Bengal sappers, was reorganized as a Mussalman unit and became part of Pakistan’s army. An even more cruel twist was that many demobilized soldiers slaughtered Indians of other faiths systematically during Partition. The grand dream of post-colonial countries usually glides over the fact that British Indian Army fought on the Dutch imperial side, against the Indonesian anti-colonial republicans led by Suharto.
Without the hindsight of Partition and Independence, the World War II was a trying time for Indians to determine political loyalties. Like in the case of World War I, the 1939 and 1942 Defence of India Act centralized British control in India for war efforts: state institutions had “powers of preventive detention, internment without trial, restriction of writing, speech, and of movement” over the King’s subjects in India, and in practice, mostly targeted against Indians. Punishments would be meted for “any contraventions which included that of death or transportation for life if the intent was to assist any State at war with His Majesty or that of waging war against His Majesty.” As a result, police and military’s power increased; the state’s civil and military functions blended. Many Indian activists were quashed unlawfully; official British statistics recorded 1,060 protesters killed. Nationalist agitations had increased to a certain level at that time. At the same time, the British and zamindari long-term neglect for agriculture increased the difficulty for the average Indian family to avoid working for the Raj. Even regions like Punjab which had increasing levels of wages suffered from famine. Congress Party leaders were largely uncertain how to take advantage of the situation. While Gandhi launched the Quit India movement and detested foreign soldiers on Indian soil, he did not call for an entire sabotage or even a peaceful hartal against the war effort; rather, he called for the Indians involved to act on their own consciences according to their own situation. Khan argues that it solidified anti-war sentiment despite its less dramatic character. Ironically, due to the War, the previously banned Indian communists now emerged from the underground as allies with the Raj against fascism.
The Raj at War highlighted how this era was truly contradictory and confusing, with South Asia pulled at both sides--Independence through fighting for the Indian National Army and thus aligning with the Japanese? Loyalty to the Raj? For example, writer K. A. Abbas wrote about his anti-fascist inclinations, but also disillusionment with the Raj. Yet India did not lack activists who directly opposed the Raj: The younger generations approached the issue more radically. Quit India activist Aruna Asaf Ali disregarded her husband Asaf Ali’s more moderate approach. She was regarded by the people as the modern day Rani of Jhansi and successfully evaded police search through a game of cat-and-mouse up till 1946. Moreover, there was a huge gap between military and non-military people’s political opinions, and even when they argued with one another, usually none were convinced. Similar to the starving Indian, the Nepali soldiers also lacked agency in the choice, since slavery was just recently abolished and their king volunteered to support the war effort. Karnad also cited how Parsis were traditionally loyal British subjects, even as his own family tried to deter men from entering direct service. Rather than outright support of swaraj, both books showed that the politics of Indians were in flux in the 1940s.

Aruna Asaf Ali

Aruna Asaf Ali
The Japanese were not the ideal allies for the Indian freedom fighters, since they also harbored imperial ambitions. Subhas Chandra Bose ceremonially celebrated the Andaman islands as territory under his government Azad Hind, even though in reality the Japanese authorities did not cede sovereignty. Under the influence of the Axis propaganda as well as material concerns, many Indian soldiers in South East Asia changed sides: Leaflets urged them to join INA and pursue self-determination against the Raj. Still, the INA was a dwarf in comparison to the giant British Indian Army.
Pilots of Azad Hind Sena, part of INA
Arguably, Indian soldiers for the first time fought for their own sovereignty from the Japanese, even though it was under a foreign master’s command. The Andaman and Nicobar islands were occupied in 1942 and many Indian cities were bombed by the Japanese Army. There were also intertwined destinies between Burma and India as the Raj’s subjects: the Japanese invasion caused many refugees of Indian origins flee from Burma. Many of the poor died on the way due to malaria or starvation.
Still, the War at large a British concern. The subjects who were usually loyal to British interests, such as rulers of princely states and North East tea plantation owners, donated many resources for the war effort. Others involved usually had no political stake, such as the Imphal jail convicts used for carrying loads or the Naga porters who facilitated refugees evacuation, or the tea plantation laborers who participated in building the India-China Ledo road and aerodromes. Even those Indians who did not support the War also could not outright deny the need for it, such as Nehru, who abhorred fascists but also wanted independence. In reality, this meant that the Raj got what it needed.
The war effort diverted most of the resources away from the Indian people. Viceroy Lord Linlithgow to a large extent disregarded the issue and spent no efforts lobbying on behalf of the situation. The viceroy who succeeded Linlithgow also tried to lobby the British parliament to send more grains for relief, but only achieved the promise for a quarter of what he asked. Khan equivocated and pointed to different reasons of the Bengal Famine, such as Bengal’s over reliance on rice, even while she cited evidence of the British being primarily culpable. Many famine victims saw the war as the cause of their plight. The Raj’s premature scorch earth policy destroyed and requisitioned a lot of boats of the fishermen. In comparison to Khan, historian Madhusree Mukerjee argues for a more direct causal link between the Bengal famine and the war effort. She wrote, that Raj’s readiness “to use the resources of India to wage war against Germany and Japan” was the primary reason for the famine. But given theories put forth by Amartya Sen (hoarders were the most responsible for famine), it is difficult to assess due to the varying statistics regarding how much grain was available after grain was given to war efforts.
Why did the British also forget the loyal subjects, especially the troops? This was mostly due to the idea of racial superiority as well as indifference to the native population during as well after the War. For example, when the Indian troops serving outside of India received better equipment than the natives defending the motherland. Winston Churchill, who was notorious for his racism and disdain, had said “by putting modern weapons in the hands of sepoys,” commanders were creating a Frankenstein. The former Commander in Chief Claude Auchinleck proposed the British government to establish a memorial for the men who serviced “Britain and the Empire” for the past two hundred years as well as in the “Old World” territories. But the proposal was delayed due to disagreement over the memorial site, then no funds were acquired and the plan for the memorial was discarded in 1949.
The major difference between the two books, aside from the sources, is that Karnad provides a more existential assessment of World War II: The White Man battled in sites that upheld Western civilization. The “Black men sent running and shooting in the jungle” such as Bobby’s army, would in comparison be seen as “ants disputing anthills.” The purpose of protecting democracy is elusive to most of the colonies; in “North and East Africa, in the Middle East and India’s North-West frontier,” both World Wars had the “climate of imperial control and contestation.” Karnad points out that behind supposed ideological differences between Axis and Allied powers, Germany and Japan “had mainly copied and outstripped Britain’s own example” of empire. He argued that the imperial war continues in different forms, such as 2008 drones over the village Datta Khel, where the Air Force also flew and battled. In contrast, Khan is much more measured in her assessments and hesitant to draw these solely regressive connections. She acknowledges the irony that Commonwealth soldiers helped in liberating Ethiopia from Italy’s colonialism, but the effects on Indian soldiers’ politics are hard to document. She also writes about black G.I.s and Indian soldiers sharing of notions of equality and visions of a new world order. She also addresses how some people viewed the Army as a modernizing force, and cites the increasing level of literacy among soldiers. Through both books’ new narratives, the nature of the War and the impacts on British colonies has become much clearer, but not necessarily clear enough. Further work needs to be done on the relationship between colonialism and the World Wars, with a focus on post-colonial countries and their positions during the Wars as well as the Wars' effects on subsequent nationalism and decolonization.

Edited from a paper for a JNU history course. Please contact me if readers need a footnoted version.


Two Talks: Bihar Elections, Caste-Based Affirmative Action

Intellectual life at Jawaharlal Nehru University is on fire. One usually never needs to venture off campus to get food for thought. After submitting three tutorials and a rough draft of two thousand words, I had some breathing space to attend many talks this past week. Four of them were especially interesting and I will reproduce some of the points below of the two which are most related: Bihar elections and Affirmative Action in India. Another post on informal labor and feminist organizing in India will follow soon after. Please note that I did not use a recording device and sometimes left early. This blog post is my takeaway of the talks. Readers can always find the people's original works to follow up on their opinions.

Public meeting at a mess in JNU, Prof. AK Ramakrishnan (the content of that meeting is not discussed in this post)

I went to a panel discussion on Bihar politics. I have also been drawn to this issue because two friends from Bihar, Abhay and Kishlay, are politically conscious youths from Bihar and have been closely following the events. I was puzzled by the extent to which politicians with constituents outside of Bihar even had to make the decision whether or not to enter the state election campaign. One friend said that the elections in Bihar had a coattail effect, akin to that of the president elections in the U.S. 
In acknowledging of this influence, The moderator / chair Prof. Manindranath Thakur said quite aptly that nowadays, most scholars now look to Bihar to understand Indian electoral politics. There are roughly four stages of Bihar politics, from 1952-1967, the Congress Party dominated the scene. From 1967 to 1972, the Congress Party was still central but had to form coalition governments with other parties. From 1972 to 1990, Congress Party had a comeback wile the chief minister changed with a volatile trend. Since 1990 to now, Bihar politics has been dominated by OBC activism by folksy and later corrupt politician Lalu Prasad Yadav and his party Janata Dal, later RJD. Before 1995 there were no special Dalit booths and afterwards their voter turnout increased significantly. Initially Lalu and Nitish Kumar started in politics together, then they split for decades with Nitesh heading the Janata Dal-United (JDU). Now BJP poses a larger threat in the region for this coming election and Nitish Kumar and Lalu have joined arms again against BJP and its NDA coalition. 

Among the four panelists, political analyst Ajit Kumar Jha gave one of the most forthright opinion on the matter. Unlike the elections in 1995, when only 1 survey poll was done by him and Yogendra Yadav, this year there have been around 10 survey polls. Only 3 of the 10 polls indicated that they favored the other parties over BJP. Thus Mr. Jha does not think the secular bloc can stop Modi, not because Modi is strong but because the previous government has bankrupted many constituents' goodwill. Mr. Jha sees Nitish Kumar frantically copying the styles of Narendra Modi's campaign, such as spending large sums on campaigning. Nitish has also built large museums like Modi, while Mr. Jha thinks it would have been better spent on infrastructure for his campaign. But Nitish has not established a successful campaign equivalent to Modia's Smart City for the village-dominated Bihar. Agriculture performance has been dismal and thus constitutes little leverage. Furthermore, according to his poll stats, more and more Dalits and upper castes are voting for the BJP. 

More reading

"Bihar politics is like Game of Thrones. There are no ideologies, no principles and certainly no ethics. Its pure politics, unadulterated and unsparing to the weak."

Ruled or Misruled: Story and Destiny of Bihar
by Santosh Singh
"Ruled or Misruled offers a 360 degree journey of Bihar politics since Independence, especially since the Congress’ downfall in 1990. An out and out reporter’s book, tells an interesting and tumultuous journey of the post-1990 legends of Bihar politics - Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad, Ram Vilas Paswan and Jitan Ram Manjhi with the legendary clash between Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi - with the untold version on the 2010 dinner cancellation and Nitish’s ambition, providing the third angle."
So how does the panel relate to the second talk I went to? Caste reservations and caste identity politics, such as the one we see in Bihar, go hand in hand. Many elites and middle class believe that caste politics have ruined Bihar. They often conflate the loud and seemingly rough politicians with the policies, and charge at caste reservations as ways of currying favor. But Professor Ashwini Deshpande's talk on affirmative action in India gives a nuanced and contextual study of Scheduled Castes and Other Backward caste reservations to debunk many of the myths held by the mainstream. In her words, "Everyone has an opinion [about Affirmative Action] but there are few rigorous studies."

Here is a breakdown of the several arguments she responds to and counters.

Common Argument 1: The benefits don't reach the poorest of the poor. 
Yes, that's true. But Affirmative Action is not an anti-poverty program, it only aims for public sector jobs and colleges. To get there they are already the privileged within their backward caste. It won't solve all caste inequalities, but Affirmative Action desegregates the elite and that is a huge development.

Common Argument 2: Job efficiency lowers after introducing Affirmative Action
Her study with Weisskopff of University of Michigan Does Affirmative Action Affect Productivity in the Indian Railways proves otherwise.

Common Argument 3: If lower castes do not get in with the same merit, their confidence decreases while their sense of inferiority increases.
The Shape of the River is a book about African Americans who were accepted in elite universities (Princeton and Ann Arbor); they said despite initial difficulties, it was worth it. Many college graduates reflected that they would go again even if they knew ahead of time about the humiliation they had to face.

Common Argument 4: The clustering effects bring the more privileged backward castes the benefits and positions, while replacing the economically poor upper castes. It's a regressive policy.
Empirical studies on the Indian case (Bertrand et al 2010) showed that in an engineering exam, the Dalits who got in the school were significantly better off than the other Dalits who didn't get in, while the upper castes who didn't get in sought other opportunities and were not so different than the upper caste students who enrolled. Thus the policy is not regressive.

Common Argument 5: Affirmative Action reinforces caste divisions rather than weaken them, such as the Patel agitation.
After the Right to Education Act, there have been reservations based on economic class as well. But the elites continue to complain. In Deshpande's opinion, having to share privilege is the main problem for these elites. 
One important point she made was that many discussions of caste reservations pertain only to the lower caste. The people under general category sounds like they don't have castes, while they do indeed benefit for being Brahmins or Kshatryias. 

I am very heartened to see defenders of progressive policies such as Prof. Deshpande. The same arguments are made by Chinese in the mainland against minorities as well as recent Chinese immigrants in countries that have even more progressive Affirmative Action policies. I hope that there would be more studies similar to Deshpande's angle done on minorities in mainland China as well.

More Reading:
Her book Affirmative Action in India. OUP, Oxford India Short Introductions series, 2013.


Methods and Religious Studies

More than two years ago, I presented a paper on the medicine Buddha in pre-Republican era China at my liberal arts college. Without the adequate tools, I could not present the significance of the combination of ritual and medicine beyond the realm of superstition. I read this following passage and had an a-ha moment about religious studies--
A second approach to the question of cultural difference starts from a different assumption, namely, that “real,” substantive, and “immiscible” cultural differences constitute an actually existing dimension of human experience that needs to be dealt with in our analyses. While some analysts have argued that rendering “untranslatable” cultural practices transparent within the hegemonic languages of Western academia amounts to an act of “epistemological violence,” others have argued for the ethical necessity of doing just that. While keenly sensitive to processes of historical transformation in the constitution of modern subjectivities, historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, for one, is unwilling to dismiss the existence of (and constitutive role played by) radically different life-worlds within modernity. Self-critically reflecting on his own previous research into the history of factory labor in Bengal, where laborers commonly invoked the agency of Hindu gods to facilitate a range of tasks at hand, Chakrabarty writes that “a secular subject like history faces certain problems in handling practices in which gods, spirits or the supernatural have agency in the world.” Chakrabarty’s solution to these problems is not to cease and desist from writing history, however; nor is it to abandon altogether the task of “rough translation” required to make differences intelligible in academic writing. The latter choice Chakrabarty refuses largely on ethical grounds: “It may be legitimately argued that the administration of justice by modern institutions requires us to imagine the world through the languages of the social sciences,” he reasons, since “one cannot argue with modern bureaucracies and other instruments of governmentality without recourse to the secular time and narratives of history and sociology” (72, 86). At the same time, Chakrabarty urges historians to acknowledge both the “finitude” of history’s secular outlook and the “scandalous” nature of “rough translations” required to render radical forms of cultural difference intelligible in social-scientific discourse (90).
This theoretical analysis by William Glover from Making Lahore Modern’s Introduction (p xvi-xvii) explains precisely the difficulty I faced when writing about Buddhism and medicinal practices in history. It is very difficult to comprehend the development of medicine (and technology) other than a road of teleological progress. Without a broader understanding of medicinal practices at large at the period I was looking at, one can only compare to then-Buddhist practices of medicine and now. This would undermine the credibility of Buddhist tradition of that particular time. If a doctoral and above level work in social science can only amount to “rough translation,” I had an even coarser translation at the time. Is writing religious studies academic papers from a historical viewpoint at the liberal arts level ever possible? (This question is a reflection of my frustration towards historical methods at present; I do not want to question the wonderful aptitudes that religious studies introduced to me two years ago.)

Another question, If one uses history and historicizes religion, how can religion occupy a distinct theoretical space than from culture? I had a conversation with a Buddhist monk recently at JNU. He has completed his MPhil and will start his doctorate soon. He has read extensively and is well-learned in Sanskrit; he plans to tackle Tibetan next. His English conversation skills were limited and we talked in Mandarin. He was easygoing but still assumed more authority in the conversation. We talked about Buddhism both as an academic subject as well as a subject that carries inherent truth that we accept while others may not accept (I am a Buddhist, but for length-sake I will not get into whether or not we should call it a “religion” in this post). I tread lightly when we started historicizing Buddhism, since it was my first time meeting him and he was senior to me--I had no idea if he would at one point abruptly object to the secular social science assumptions which I might impose on the discussion. He never did, but the testing-waters feeling of having social science discussions with people of a religious identity remained.

tomb of Jahangir in Lahore

Another similar challenge that faced Islamic historical writing in the 19th century, also presented by William Glover (p187-188)--
One of the earliest was Sayyid Ahmed Khan’s Asar-us-Sanadid (Manifestations of the Noblemen), an account of the city of Delhi composed in the Urdu language. Sayyid Khan first published his history in 1846, illustrating the book’s six hundred pages of text with more than a hundred lithograph prints. The book described Delhi’s historical palaces, shrines, and religious buildings and included a 250-page account of “cultural life” in the city that described the city’s fairs and festivals, bazaars, and places for community gathering. Shortly after the book’s initial publication, Sayyid Khan presented a copy to A. A. Roberts, Delhi’s district magistrate and collector. Roberts, in turn, presented the book to the Royal Asiatic Society in London. On the suggestion of a member of the society, Roberts undertook an English translation of the book that for unknown reasons was never completed. In the preface to a later edition, however, Sayyid Khan claimed that the process of translating the work into English brought out “defects” in the original.
Put another way, the broader significance of the details recorded by Sayyid Khan—a significance that his British readership found missing— needed little elaboration for an Indian readership, since the mode of description he used established the context automatically. That context drew on an earlier tradition of IndoIslamic historical writing, in particular a mode Christopher Bayly has described as “genealogical.” This historiographic tradition assumed that certain known families and individuals embodied innate moral and spiritual qualities and that these qualities could be invoked for a reader simply by reciting lines of descent. More importantly, perhaps, the qualities did not need to be specified: Listing the names was enough to invoke them.


India's Search for Progressive Law

Sandipto Dasgupta, Columbia PhD of political science, gave a thought-provoking and lively talk on the Indian Constitution at my department this month. It was part of his long-term book project Legalizing the Revolution. He uses the important concept that critiques how legalism imposes linguistic constraints on the outcome, and thus makes law always backward-looking: precedence necessitates future decisions. Yet he argues that the Indian Constitution has a potential to become a more revolutionary document than other existing ones. It embodies transformative constitutionalism, termed by K. Klare in a 1998 essay, characterized as legally-driven empowerment and change. In South Africa, for example, readings of the Constitution focuses on issues such as "multiculturalism, close attention to gender and sexual identity, emphasis on participation and governmental transparency, environmentalism and the extension of democratic credentials into the ‘private sphere’."They are in contrast with contractual constitutionalism like the American and French Constitution, which has checks and balances as well as judicial review that prevents it from later turmoil. 

Land reform is one of the most important example regarding the Indian constitution's progressive status and interpretation. Dasgupta argues that this precedent made the later judicial activism through public interest litigation regarding environmental issues in the 1980s possible. Land reform was accepted as an important process to be implemented by the Congress Party when they come to power: on the one hand for the purpose of creative an equitable society in response to peasant movements, and on the other hand, for removing less productive feudal structures as part of the Modernization project.

Congress leaders also agreed that it should be compensative land reform, in which landowners would be compensated. Lawyers faced the problem of how to use it to implement the compensation: How much should the law compensate for land reform? The process is complex and one cannot tie it to one term because contexts vary. There was a consensus among the legal writers that there should be no qualifiers for “compensation” and that the local judiciary representatives should decide. There should have some coherent principle followed throughout the process, but it does not have to be good or just.

One example Dasgupta provided was the Bela Banerjee case. Her land was taken to resettle Partition refugees in Bengal in 1950. Yet Mrs. Banerjee only got compensation from the 1946 price, which has increased since. The Supreme Court declared that this act was unconstitutional because the word “compensation” implies just equivalence and should correspond with market value. I could not help but notice how this process was so much more calculated and technical than the impromptu tribunals in China's land reform that not only took away landowners land, but also in some cases executed them.

Dasgupta notes that this reform was not based on the notion that everyone has natural rights to property. My issue with this framework is the lack of foundation. If rights, such as right to land, are not absolute, the interpretation of them can go in many directions. The interpretive law can fall back on "Hindu" or "Islamic" custom like the British rulers, or it could be used for a progressive goal like land reform. This is the classic problem regarding constitutionalism in the U.S.: Interpretation v. Original Intent. I am not familiar with common law and the British probably have a different understanding based on their law; for example, while the U.S. Supreme Court may legalize gay marriage under the 14th amendment, the British law could have the same outcome with different legal reasoning. Yet I still think that one should have to have a clearer idea of what the ideology is when arguing for a progressive Indian constitution. 

Jawaharlal Nehru thought that writing better text could could help the political mandate of post-independence social justice and bypass conservative roadblocks, yet both Nehru and Dasgupta notes that the class status of lawyers was another issue new legal language could not bypass. Dasgupta quotes Nehru, the Indian constitution "has been purloined by lawyers." The parliament wanted to use legalistic language to mediate the process, but the parliament also has to cede the interpretation powers to lawyers or expert committees. Dasgupta is acutely aware of the question of interpretation under constitutionalism, and I look forward to reading analyses of central themes in Indian legal interpretation, perhaps with more case studies.


Race and Gender in Music

What is the boundary of a tradition or genre? Music grants creative license, and market forces are increasingly determining the success of musicians rather than politics expressed in the music. This creates problems such as cultural appropriation, and the clear solution is not yet to be found. Jazz started as a music genre that expressed black suffering and the African American experience. Nowadays it is often associated with upper-class taste and elevator music. Yet one also finds it hard to call for a purge in all elements that are inauthentic.
The politics of culture remains an important issue for the Indian diaspora in the Caribbeans, as Tejaswani Niranjana shows in her book Mobilizing India: Women, Music, and Migration between India and Trinidad. The diaspora faces the anxiety of trying to prove they are also adherents of “Indian culture,” which dangers on feeding into Orientalist interpretations of hierarchies of authenticity. Some migrants from India have treated caste as a personal ascription and adopted the styles of conduct to appear as a twice-born. Due to the disproportionate ratio of male to female migrants, caste endogamy to the extent of “back home” was almost impossible. This trend has led to people like controversial writer V.S. Naipaul to think of the diaspora in the Caribbean as “mimic men” and have not “produced anything.” Some of them have thus tried to show their continuance of (Hindu) tradition at home and racial similarity and create exclusionist cultural projects. The left in Trinidad thus faces problems of race, where colonialists and racial purists on both sides tried to maintain an antagonist position toward each other’s interests, despite working class similarities.

Derek Walcott responded in a momentous Nobel Prize speech that the Caribbean has always been looked in a way that it is "illegitimate, rootless, mongrelized." It stems from an expansionist idea that the Caribbeans across the ocean “is new, this is the frontier, the boundary of endeavor, and henceforth everything can only be mimicry.”[Women, Music, and Migration between India and Trinidad. 37.] Yet there is undue appreciation to the innovative uses of the mix in chutney-soca, with Trinidadian English as well as Bhojpuri Hindi being featured in explicit songs. In ways chutney-soca songs are more authentic, organic, and egalitarian than some other "traditional" Indian songs. As Walcott eloquently asked, why are these practices "not 'celebrations of a real presence'? Why should India be 'lost' when none of these villagers ever really knew it, and why not 'continuing'?"

Soca music events allows for many working class women to participate in festive cultural expression, even while incurring wrath from conservative commentators. There are many suggestive lyrics, such as those sung by the famous Drupatee, which have suffered the ignominy of vulgar or obscene. Others stated that "no Indian woman has any right to sing calypso."[Ibid. 112-3.] Racial purity, like caste purity, relies heavily on the circumscription of actions of a community’s women. Hindu opinions in Trinidad has are parallels with Confucian projects in China, such as the House of Female Virtue (女德馆) in which claims to tradition and cultural authenticity threaten female self-respect, freedom, and mobility. The question of gender is under-explored in the quest for authenticity. Trinidad provides a great ground for research since it carries many intersectional questions. Tejaswani Niranjana’s book is a great analysis for the politics of class, race and culture.

Fore more: see documentary on Calypso-Soca music, Jahaji Music


Inequality in the Business of Surrogacy

Carvings of men and women on Jagdish Temple, Udaipur. Photo credits: Adrian
Last month, Dr. Sheela Saravanan gave an excellent colloquium talk based on her research of commercial surrogacy in Gujarat. She highlighted the economic and legal inequality in these transactions. For example, Indian surrogates are not even given the copy of the contract and have little knowledge of the legal guidelines, while US surrogates have a choice over closed or open contract and choose the closeness of the ongoing relationship between her and the intended parents. The participants of the colloquium asked great questions, such as the role of doctors. Doctors have a lot of power to conduct this business and there seemed to be minimal regulation; there is still no authoritative data on the number of surrogate births in India. A Mumbai doctor in the business once even replied to Saravanan’s persistent questioning, “We are doing a favor for the mothers.” Another question asked the caste background of the surrogate mothers. One of the clinics Saravanan researched had a book of surrogate profiles for the intended parents to browse. In that book, most of the intended parents ask about religion and usually wanted mothers to be of the same religion. Furthermore, if the surrogate mother was a Brahmin, then she could receive more money. If one is better looking then one would also have higher chances of being chosen from the book. Yet this process does not occur in the reverse: the surrogate would not choose the parents or sometimes not even the number of fetuses inserted in her body.

Inequality between the global north and south pervades medical tourism. Indian film Ship of Theseus poses bioethics questions in one of the segment where an illegal organ trader poached a poor Indian man one of his kidneys. The organ trader provided it to man who needed a new kidney in Europe who knew nothing about the source. Later two Indian good Samaritans traced down the European man and questioned him about this problem. The European man coughs up more money for the man who lost a kidney, yet one of the Indians saw this act as an easy way for the European man to buy out of his guilt. The segment ends with the good Samaritans bringing the Indian man the money but still feeling ambivalent regarding the nature of the trade. Surrogates who sign up for money in the global south also are susceptible to deceit. The 10-minute documentary Mothers Anonymous shows that surrogates who give birth to twins or triplets may not always receive the promised compensation and have few legal channels of dispute. Saravanan noted in her paper on surrogacy that “Asymmetries of individual capacity (knowledge, contacts and financial capability) lead to trust amongst actors. This trusting process results in experiences that can either be positive or potentially exploitative.”

But the starkest aspect related to surrogacy among the many forms of medical tourism is the gender aspect. Many kinds of medical tourism arguably can become more transparent and legally regulated for both parties, but the gender issue of surrogacy will still remain a stickler: the social contract has been conveniently neutralizing patriarchy in legalese, and the same may happen to surrogacy. Sarvanan writes,

In her book, The Social Contract, Carole Pateman critiques the social contract theory and asserts that patriarchal control prevails in the marriage contract, the prostitution contract, and the contract for surrogate motherhood. She claims surrogacy contracts are the means by which women’s reproductive capacities are dominated and patriarchy is upheld. In Feminist Morality, Virginia Held regards the social contract theory as inadequate in representing children and women and in capturing the meaningful moral relationship between people.

Surrogates may read, understand and sign a surrogacy contract, but the contract would not signify the same amount of shame and guilt as for a person to read, understand and sign a contract for trading in his or her kidney. Cultural baggage is attached to surrogacy in the South Asian context. While some think that being a surrogate mother is fine for money in an otherwise a conservative society, with patriarchy in mind, I still found it hard to believe that women can ever pursue this chance in the open: understandably many work in collaboration with their husbands and immediate family to keep this as a secret. Another gender question: how does surrogacy threaten the social understanding and definition of motherhood? The surrogate mothers in the documentary feel emotion attachment to the babies, even though they are not genetically related. (In contrast, the popular trope regarding men is that they expect their offspring to be genetically “theirs.”) Women around the world face critiques that they are selling their wombs, which should somehow be regarded as a sanctified zone. Motherhood seems to mean legal ownership of the child, but in the case of surrogacy without the same amount of effort, which is so often labeled as “sacrifice.” The intended parent also may not experience the typical birth defining motherhood but still expects to enjoy all the experiences with “her” child thereafter.

Many surrogates rationalize their decision by citing their economic needs and contribution to family income, as seen in the documentary. This attitude poses is a stark contrast with another group of women who also earn money for their family in Pakistan. Zehran Yasmin Zaidi’s Chaddors and Pink Collars in Pakistan: Gender, Work, and the Global Economy shows in one chapter that oftentimes women can

participate in non-traditional employment outside of home, but requires women to observe cultural norms in non-work related matters. The dynamics of this process can be understood by examining how class and gender operate in Pakistan. Many women workers who were interviewed by the author came from working-class backgrounds, yet made contradictory claims about working out of choice rather than economic necessity.
But in both cases, women earn approval through bringing financial gains to the family despite the acts are against previous convention.

Unfortunately there was not a lot of anthropological data on the gender questions: who makes the decision to become surrogates in the family and what are the different opinions of the informed participants (e.g. Fathers, mothers, in-laws)? How does gender relations impact the surrogates’ economic “rationality?” The intentions are very elusive, compounded with layers of ethics and gender politics. I speculate that it is possible that both sides who are participating in this transaction would not even approve of this kind of deal when asked in a polling exercise.


Dialogue in the Dark, Hamburg

This May Day, I went to this museum called Dialogue in the Dark in Hamburg, Germany. Here, "visitors are
led by blind guides through a specially constructed and completely darkened space. Conveying characteristics of a familiar environment such as a park, a street or a bar, a daily routine turns into a new experience." This was not my idea but I have always been open to understand different lives. I went with 8 other people in a group who I just met that very day; it was a trust building experience with them as well as with our guide. I just started learning German so our group had an English-speaking guide, who went by the name Ray. He "showed" us his "car," which we had to guess the brand; his "door," where we had to find the doorbell; as well as his "boat," all simulated in the dark.

image from internet

In the end we chatted at the “cafe." He helped us identifying the coins and paying for the drinks and snacks. He could see 7%, has traveled overseas, and enjoys Chinese martial art films. He also learned Taekwondo as a hobby. He is  enrolled in university and uses learning aid (I have seen a couple of visually impaired students guided only by walking sticks at my own university campus as well). At one point he said that his parents were Turkish. This struck me that I was assuming he was German all the time and it revealed a lot about the differences in epistemology. So I asked how do visually impaired people judge others if they cannot see their appearances. Ray said that people like him usually respond positively to sounds that are warm and enthusiastic, which was exactly his kind of speech.

When it was time to say goodbye, I asked if we could see what he looked like. Ray joked that if we see anyone who looks like Johnny 
Depp it would be him. But in the end he wanted us to remember him as a blind person would remember a new person, and we did not see him. I shook hands with him instead.

I looked up his full name "Rasim" means the one who draws. It reminds me of this visually impaired artist John Bramblitt who painted extraordinary paintings with the help of other senses.

I expected to understand the experience of the blind and visually impaired. As a student of social sciences, we work with categories, such as class or race. The same applied for people with disabilities. But this experience showed that people are not defined exclusively by their most salient feature. It is a cliche to list the achievements that blind people have accomplished, but after this time, I realized that it is so true that one should not judge anyone based on their disability. After spending 90 min in the dark with simulated environments and a walking stick, I understood myself better. I am that I am. Even visual disability cannot change certain aspects of myself. This is not to say that gender, class, and race does not matter--Being from an educated family helps. I could imagine sexual assault would also be more of an issue for women-identifying visual impaired than the men. (See film "Night on Earth") Still, disability is only one aspect and does not decide one's life once and for all.


Law as Ideology

South Asian history really helps one understand the underlying factors shaping facets of life other social scientists take for granted. Our history class studied law in colonial South Asia for the first two weeks of the new spring semester. Prof. Ahuja provided the following insightful commentary. These avenues of historiography are incredibly ambitious and challenging. I have yet to fathom if one day I can accomplish work to this extent. The late C.A. Bayly's first two books supposedly took 12 years. I must be patient on the way.

There are four different attempts for assessing law in colonial India (South Asia). First, the British created a new law that was unrelated to previous practice. The British authority's sometimes halfhearted, sometimes full-hearted attempt to "solve" the issue of sati is one example.

The second approach shows a clash of legal cultures in which a dominant structure imposed by the British reinvents older structures. Bernard Cohn's Colonialism and its forms of Knowledge shows & critiques Orientalist William Jones' efforts to remove "accretions of bad practice," find the proper Indian practice, and compose a Roman counterpart of "Hindu law." 

The third approach is the subaltern one which argues that colonial dominance did not "stick" onto Indian society. As a consequence, colonial law was not accepted by the locals and had no legitimacy. 

The fourth approach, mostly consisted of historians from Cambridge, attempts to look at Indian society as the basis of colonial power but also with Indian actors who have agency. Radhika Singha's A Despotism of Law falls under this category. Lauren Benton also shows how Indian subjects use the law to further their own interests in Colonial Law and  Cultural  DifferenceLawmaking should be understood as a “cultural enterprise,” and the state is just one of the actors in a social field. Law is a form of ideology; dissecting it shows the interplay between ruling powers and dissent. For example, penal law was linked to ideology and the consolidation of British authority. The British actors had an interest in centralizing the faujdari courts, which did not have clearly designated jurisdictions before. Zamindars shared power with other Kshatriya clans in governing an area and had overlapping regions of authority. This was the case in most early modern societies: ruling power worked with contractors that raised revenue and run jails. When colonial power enters, it sees venality everywhere and critiques it. The colonial power's need for militarization motivates the process of bureaucratization and centralization, but also the moral urge to weed out "venality."

According to Prof. Ahuja, whenever there is a lot of "corruption" or nonviolent but notorious and "immoral" legal misconduct, it usually is hiding a) historical change; b) class formation; c) clash of interest and ethical norms. There is a change in legal thought when the British tried to stop the practice of Blood Money, in a murderer is punished through compensating the victim's family. The British saw murder as a public offense rather than just a problem between two interest parties. The standard for "valid evidence" also changes under British rule. But the previous practices are not totally eradicated. It is like animal-hide paper, which is written over again and again. The text written previously is still visible, albeit hard to distinguish. As a result, India's law is a complex structure shaped by diverse regional actors and imperial cultures. In conclusion: "Law presents itself as generalized ethical ideas that seem universal and timeless. But one should look at varying social forces and dig for [law's] historical roots."

Old Court House and Writers Buildings in Calcutta by Thomas Daniell, 1786. © British Library Board.


Two Music Live Shows in March

Both of the musical personalities written below experiment with concepts. Both are considered as extraordinary pioneers in their own musical milieu. I had the privilege to watch them in the same month and I thought it would be a really cool post to write about them together. 

3/15 Xi Ban (戏班) at Kulturpalast, Hannover, Germany

I was delighted to learn that the band Xiban, which means "Theater Troupe," toured in seven cities in Germany starting in March. As students with semester tickets, we had two options to travel without cost: Braunschweig or Hannover. The train left earlier on Saturdays in Braunschweig than Hannover on Sundays, so we opted for the Hannover show. I joked to my companion Maaz that in China, "Kulturpalast" or wenhua gong (文化宫) was an actual place in cities where privileged young children would go for their weekend art activities. The venue was intimate and some audiences were standing by the bar, while others opting for a closer look sat around the stage. We sat against the wall and were duly impressed. Maaz compared the band's traditional styles to qawwali folk songs that he loves.

Xiban  is a really mind-blowing band in the way that they experiment with elements from the South Asian sitar, jazz,  and a lot of folk instruments and oral traditions from China. Their fusion does not aim to entertain and display the exotic with superficial crossovers, but to alarm and shock with the transgressive potentials of sound. I only learned about them in February, and I I did not know much about traditional Chinese instruments, such as the different "luo" and drums used in Xiban's double albums.  It was a musical education to see the different instruments in action, something more than what I expected of a live show. The lead singer Zooma has stated in Chinese interviews that he would like to see more people using Chinese instruments and hopes to revive that part of the culture by introducing it to a new context. 

A type of luo; though Xiban uses hands rather than the sticks to drum on it
As a northerner by speech style, I was really amazed to learn that the lead singer Zooma 竹玛 was from Shanghai, because he mastered the northern style of singing very well. My favorite song is sung in a northern style--Counting People for Fun. His multi-linguistic ability also helped him perform songs in southern languages as well. I was most impressed by Li Xing's sitar-playing with his guitar in the last song, 藏相守. I even asked where he had learned it, and he said in China, from an American born Chinese guitarist called Gu Zhongshan (Lawrence Ku). 

Music and film critic Mengjin Sun, a very active figure in the Shanghai jazz circle, also put on his own improvisation that night, although that was less musical and less agreeable for the ear... The band toured for their album 《太平有象》 & 《五石散》. You can listen to some tracks here.

3/21 Vijay Iyer Trio at Bergamo Jazz Festival, Italy

This was the first live show I went to alone in Europe, first jazz performance I ever attended, and first time ever traveling to Italy. I was understandably nervous about whether or not I would be able to procure the ticket. Luckily I got one and there were many seats close to the front rows when I entered.

I heard about pianist and composer Vijay Iyer first through Heems (Himanshu Suri), a rapper vocal about his South Asian identity. I had no clear understanding of jazz at the time and I was intrigued by the possibilities of collaboration between rap and jazz. Even though I had not seen the Open City performance, I have been more on the lookout for opportunities of jazz musical education. Vijay Iyer, with his insightful opinions on race and art, such as this phenomenal speech at Yale, served as an opportunity for a person with a liberal arts background like me to this daunting subject. 
I’ve found myself right in the middle of conversations about race for most of the past 20 years. Now I’ve managed to maintain a stable and consistent presence in the jazz world; by any measure I’ve been one of jazz’s success stories, and at this point I have no bitterness; I just observe how things unfold. For example, I’ve seen my work described repeatedly (mostly by white men, who tend to do most of the talking in jazz) as “mathematical,” “technical,” “inauthentic,” “too conceptual,” “jazz for nerds,” “dissonant,” “academic,” and just last month, a “failure.” Over the years a racialized component emerges in such language—basically a kind of model minority discourse that presumes that Asians have no soul and have no business trying to be artists, especially in proximity to Blackness, which is, in the white imagination, a realm of pure intuition, apparently devoid of intellect. No such critique, I should add, is typically leveled at white jazz musicians, of which there are many.
I really appreciated the album Revolutions as well as some parts of Accelerando. Vijay Iyer has been influenced by Thelonious Monk and Henry Threadgill, but also maintains his own style through incorporating improvisation as well as Carnatic inspirations. During the show Vijay introduced the trio members several times, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore. I unfortunately could not grasp the beginning and ends of each jazz track, so I was lost in the music (in the bad sense). I experienced the frustration of not "getting it." Compared to the controlled environment of my own computer, the live performance was even more challenging to my musical sensibilities. But when I saw Stephan Crump sweating at the end and audiences clapping with much enthusiasm, I knew the performance was something special. Vijay disclosed that there will also be a show in Italy again in June, and he looked forward to seeing the crowd again. I was determined to read more about jazz, and I found his illuminating conversation in 2005 with jazz sax player and South Asian American Rudresh Mahanthappa--Sangha: Collaborative Improvisations on Community (PDF available for download here. This was my favorite segment from the conversation:

Vijay: I guess I still have twinges of bad feelings about it, because I find that barriers are maintained in the way that music functions, in all these different cultures and subcultures. I find that what’s true in the mainstream superstructure gets transferred even to these little fringe subcultures, like the South Asian underground scene. And in particular, the role that jazz has today, or anything affiliated with or having any relationship to jazz: it’s sort of a pariah. It’s true what Wadada said; it’s the sort of thing that nobody wants to like. And that continues to be true even in the club culture scene. And what’s funny is that if you go to these Desi club nights where there’ll be DJ’s and people playing tabla and dholek and stuff, the way they promote the events and the way they talk about it afterwards, they’re using all this idyllic language about improvisation and freestyling. You know the kind: these people are “on some next shit” because they’re making it up off the top of their heads. And it just strikes me how that same language is never used by those people to describe what we do. 
Rudresh: Yeah. I think when people think of jazz, the younger generation thinks it involves too much homework. Somehow this idea of just going and listening and not trying to understandit is kind of inconceivable. Somehow when jazz comes up, people feel like they always have to have a background, they have to understand it. I was online and I found some blogs about your quartet shows at the Jazz Standard in June. And some singer had posted to her blog, and it was this whole rant about how she’s been trying to get down with modern jazz but she just can’t deal with it. And the whole thing was so laden with—it wasn’t about the music, really. It was about her feeling like she’s supposed to understand this but she can’t understand it. And obviously there was this psychological thing happening there, where she was maybe on the verge of feeling ignorant or stupid or something like that. So that’s actually seen as a reason for not liking it. I mean, do you feel like when you go to the museum and look at some crazy modern art, do you feel stupid? I generally don’t, but I kind of decided a long time ago that I was just going to deal with it on my own terms....So jazz just challenges people—just the word “jazz” challenges people in all sorts of bizarre ways. It’s really a shame that people can’t just come to it with a blank slate and then decide if they like it or hate it, or just be able to groove off the energy or the emotion of it…
In this sense, both jazz and experimental music such as Xiban challenge the audiences. 

This was my favorite performance of Vijay and Rudresh together, from 2008:

Bonus: Vijay Iyer talking about the importance of participating music events (even when one does not know what is exactly going on)
I was checking out a lot of these South Indian classical concerts in the Bay Area, mainly in Palo Alto, which had such a strong South Asian population because of the Silicon Valley. They were able to bring over artists from India to perform, so there was a regular concert series and I was going to that twice a month. And that was where I learned a lot about just the basics of listening to Karnatak music. Not that I’m an expert or know anything at all, really, about the details of it, but I know how to participate in that kind of event. That is something you don’t get from listening to records — some of those extramusical factors that you can’t really get from books or pedagogy, really. You learn a lot from being immersed in this community that’s participating in these events. 

What's next? Post-rock band Wang Wen (惘闻) will be playing in Dortmund. Looking forward to seeing them again. The last time I saw them play was in Chengdu, June 2012.