End of semester is here

The fall semester of 2015 ends with a shiver! Grades are done and should be mailed to you on time this year. If you want a rough preview, check your Moodle class page grade report.

Enjoy the snow up on the peaks around school, but be sure to bundle up and drive carefully if you take your motorcycle out. See everyone next semester!

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Idle reading

I confess to reading stuff on the internet when I should be working. Before you drag me off and shoot me, try this site. What is this? It is a sortable index to every article that has been declassified from the CIA’s in house journal, Studies in Intelligence, now published as a quarterly. The sortable index (a state of the art web-page, done by someone appropriately anonymous) is usually several months out of date; if you want the latest issue, try here the official website, here. Although there are always dense, chunky articles on policy, or new ways of thinking about intelligence, Studies in Intelligence is also full of great bits of forgotten or obscure history, such as “A Cable to Napoleon” by Edwin Fishel, who is identified elsewhere in Studies as a retired NSA analyst.

Another great feature are the book reviews; each issue has several lengthy reviews of books and/or movies, all intelligence related of course, and “The Intelligence Officer’s Bookshelf,” a collection of thumbnail reviews by Hayden Peake. Peake is an acknowledged expert in intelligence history, and an expert at condensing bulky stuff into a few pithy comments. Reading Peake coolly take apart yet another unreliable collection of spy anecdotes is a pleasure comparable to reading that other great debunker of historical anecdote, Ramon Adams (Burs under the Saddle; a Second Look at Books and Histories of the West. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964).

All in all, I rate Studies as a great return on the taxpayer dollars. Okay, now give me my blindfold and cigarette.

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Original German text of Darkness at Noon found

Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon, inspired by the Moscow show-trials of 1936-38, is one of the most important novels of the twentieth-century. Koestler originally wrote Darkness in German while he was living in Paris, supposedly between 1938 and 1939. It was translated into English by Daphne Hardy, an English sculptor Koestler was involved with at the time. Hardy’s translation was published in 1941, but Koestler’s German original was lost. When Darkness was later published in German, it was a back-translation from the English version.

Last month, however, the long-lost German original finally turned up in the Zurich Central Library. The text found was a typescript, with Koestler’s hand-written corrections on it, dated March 1940. The original German text is big news indeed. Darkness has been grossly under-estimated in German literature, partly because of the fact that the only edition available until now was a back-translation, partly because of its status as a central anti-Stalinist work. New and interesting work should come from this soon.

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A new semester’s greetings

A little late, but welcome to my students this semester! Looking forward to seeing you in class.

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Fixing textwidth in vim

I have had several problems with my program editor Vim recently.  Here is how I fixed one of them.

There are two directories that I had to mess with:
c:\program files\vim [vim directory]
c:\users\rabbit [user directory]

the vim directory is the standard installation directory for vim in windows
the user directory is new with Windows 7, and is where you’re supposed to put config files for programs in the default installation location

When I first installed Vim 7.* on Windows XP, I put in some basic preferences in the vim directory, then promptly forgot what I had done. When I updated to new versions of Vim, these settings, such as textwidth, did not get wiped out, but instead kept on doing what I set them to do. Now that I’m on a new machine with windows 7, these modifications are gone.

Windows 7 now bans editing files in the c:\program files directory. This is supposed to improve security. This means I can’t just go into the vim directory and fix things. Instead I have to put all my config files in the user directory

This is not as simple as it sounds. One particular problem I have had is vim’s textwidth. Vim out of the box breaks lines at every 78 characters in text files. I tried just issuing the textwidth = command which should turn this off. It did not. I tried the windows way, using my old _vimrc config file from XP. This did not work. Why?

It turns out that I turned off line wrapping at the top of _vimrc file. But then I added something else, so that my _vimrc file looked like this:

set nowrap
source $VIMRUNTIME/vimrc_example.vim
source $VIMRUNTIME/mswin.vim
behave mswin

So why is it still wrapping? Why can’t I just turn it off by :set nowrap, or textwidth =
Because ….
The vimrc_example.vim file includes the following lines:

” For all text files set ‘textwidth’ to 78 characters.
autocmd FileType text setlocal textwidth=78

This turns wrapping back on for every new text buffer I open. I have found and forgotten this problem 3 times in the last year and a half, each time wasting as much as an hour! Definitely worth an entry here as a reminder.

To fix this, I copy only the stuff I want from vimrc_example straight into _vimrc, omit source $VIMRUNTIME/vimrc_example.vim, and voila, no more mysterious text wrapping.

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A Historical Relic?

I recently ran across the Qing Research Portal, a website which unfortunately has stopped updating. It offers the “ECCP Reader”, an electronic version of Hummel’s Eminent Chinese of the Ch’ing Period, but the Windows version is not available, so I can’t say much about it. There is also a small chunk of the text presented in html.

The page has an introduction to ECCP which left me feeling odd:

    For decades ECCP was the first reference for the Qing period for both undergraduates and for researchers. Unfortunately, [the commonly available Caves pirate reprints] were printed on paper of high acidic content, which has now deteriorated so severely that most of these books cannot be used on a frequent basis. A more important factor in the decline of ECCP as a seminal reference work was the fact that its transliteration system, Wade-Giles, fell out of active use after 1979 and is now all but indecipherable to undergraduate readers. There is, finally, the problem that ECCP was never revised or updated, despite many reprintings. As a consequence, the critically important scholarship on the Qing period that appeared after 1943 is not included.

My copy of ECCP is fine, for a 30+ year old book. (It was printed by Ch’eng Wen 成文, 1970.) Dartmouth’s copy might have problems, but surely that’s not going to affect a generation of American students. Lack of post war scholarship is undoubtedly the main problem with ECCP today. But scholarship is not like canned food; there’s no expiration date. And even after you know more than earlier writers did, you still need to know how you got where you are.

But it’s the comment on Wade-Giles romanization that really leaves me wondering. I’ve been grappling with the old China Inland Mission system for the last few months, so I’m painfully aware of how tough outdated transcription systems can be. But the CIM system was not based on the Beijing dialect that became the basis for modern Standard Chinese. It is an abstraction, a conglomeration of features that came from numerous guanhua dialects, including some that still preserve the entering tone, which it diligently marks, without giving you a hint of how it should actually be pronounced. Trying to find a word based on its pronunciation in Mandarin is thus often annoyingly difficult. Not so Wade-Giles, which is a transcription of what is now the standard language of China. Hummel’s use of Wade-Giles is moreover rigorously correct. There are errors, but the percentage is far lower than the average academic publication today.

What’s the story then? No doubt that in the phrase “indecipherable to undergraduate students”, the word undergraduate is very important. But undergraduate students simply have little use for ECCP. It is a research tool for not just graduate students, but anyone who wants to undertake serious scholarly study of the Qing dynasty. How then to understand “the decline of ECCP as a seminal reference work”?

To say that Wade-Giles ‘fell out of use after 1979’ is misleading, to say the least. I used it in my dissertation, defended in 1996. I would probably not use it today, but I certainly object to the suggestion that it would be reasonable, or in the slightest way acceptable, for a graduate student to ignore or dismiss my dissertation because it used Wade-Giles. Similarly, Wade-Giles or no Wade-Giles, ECCP is STILL an essential reference for Western students of the Qing dynasty. If Wade-Giles is indecipherable to American graduate students today, it’s a sad reflection on the instruction they’ve received.

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Words to live by

Language is the most massive and inclusive art we know, a mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations.

Edward Sapir,
Language, 1921.

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Jacinto Chiclana

Recently listening to songs from the 1960s Borges-Piazzolla collaboration, especially the great ‘Jacinto Chiclana’. There is an amazing guitar version on Youtube played by Cesar Amaro; if you’ve never heard it sung, there is a lively version by Cuarteto Zupay and a more classical version by Marcos Fink. There is a translation of the lyrics by someone at UCB, but apparently it is not complete. Anyone know of other versions worth a listen?

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The Green Gang and the Blue Villa

Over the last four or five years, I’ve put in many hours looking at the details of Sterling Seagrave’s 1985 book, The Soong Dynasty. The book describes the rise and fall of China’s influential Soong family, and its connections with Chiang Kai-shek, the politician and general who played a central role in China’s government from the 1920s until 1949, when the Nationalist government he led was defeated by the Communists and moved to Taiwan.

The Soong Dynasty spent 14 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and has been surprisingly influential on later writers, something which I will go into if I ever finish my critical review.

The notes in Seagrave’s book give the impression of great detail, and the bibliography, listing over 200 books, is massive. But a closer look shows something quite different: the notes are riddled with errors, over half the books in the bibliography are never used in the text, and large chunks of the book are either unsourced or incorrectly sourced.

Trying to track down these references and sources has given me some entertaining hours. I doubt I will finish my critical review any time in the near future, but I’m going to post some of the more interesting results of the search here over the next couple of months to at least get some use out of all this; perhaps it will stir me enough to eventually finish my review.

The first of these posts is on one of the main themes of Seagrave’s book: the role that Shanghai’s Green Gang played in the rise of the Soong family, and Chiang Kai-shek. Seagrave lays out his theme at the beginning of the book:

A recent flurry of scholarship on China has brought to light the stories of a number of Chiang’s early intimates, which I have included in the bibliography. By carefully piecing these elements together and showing how these cronies interacted with Chiang in the early 1920s I have been able to reconstruct enough of the basic outlines of a major political conspiracy to show how it worked and who were the principals involved. (12)

This major political conspiracy is no less than a “pact” between Chiang Kai-shek and the Green Gang to take over the government of China. As Seagrave says:

Chiang’s direct connection with the notorious Shanghai Green Gang after the winter of 1926-27 has been known for many years, but there has been only a vague understanding that those links went back much earlier, and of how they affected his career. It is now possible for the first time to see the “Divine Skein” linking them all the way back to his youth, before 1910, and the manner in which the Green Gang leaders used Chiang decisively (and were used by him) to snatch the revolution from the hands of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s coalition. (12)

Seagrave’s description of how Chiang and the Green Gang pursued the ends of their conspiracy, aided and abetted by the Soongs, is full of lurid details, but the sources of these details are sometimes utterly obscure. Tracking these details down is sometimes amazingly difficult, and there are many points that I’ll probably never figure out, but there are some points I can now resolve.

The post for today is on just one small item: a brothel that Seagrave claims the Green Gang owned or controlled, called the Blue Villa. The Blue Villa appears only twice in Seagrave’s book, but it can illustrate both Seagrave’s writing style and the problems involved in tracing his sources.

The Villa’s first appearance is on page 152, where Seagrave is describing the different social positions of the Soong family and Chiang. The Soong family, whose daughter Mei-ling eventually married Chiang, is at the high end;

At the opposite end of the Shanghai social scale, Big-eared Tu enjoyed visiting the famous Blue Villa and cruising the other Green Gang brothels in the Blue Chamber district with a young, ill-tempered bravo by the name of Chiang Kai-shek.

Big-eared Tu is Seagrave’s favored designation for Tu Yueh-sheng, one of the main figures in the Green Gang from the 1920s up until war broke out between China and Japan in 1937. This anecdote of Tu and Chiang in the red-light district (Blue Chamber district) is Seagrave’s attempt to put some detail on his claim that Chiang had links to the Green Gang “all the way back to his youth, before 1910.”

The second appearance of the Blue Villa is on page 158, where Seagrave gives a description of Shanghai’s decadent nightlife:

It is estimated that one out of every twelve Chinese houses in Shanghai was a brothel, which put the total number at 668 brothels for the International Settlement alone. One out of every 130 residents of the city was a prostitute. Of this number, more than half were owned by the Green Gang or owed allegiance to it. There were 121 prostitutes in the Blue Villa alone.

This style of writing is typical of much of the book. Specific details such as the location (the International Settlement, a district of Shanghai under international control, and not subject to Chinese law), and the number of prostitutes (121) are essential to Seagrave’s evocation of time and place, and give a strong impression of both realism and accuracy.

Seagrave’s annotation does sometimes give sources for some of these details, and following these sources can often give interesting results. Other times, however, Seagrave gives no source at all for his vivid details. The Blue Villa is one of many such cases.

Without help from Seagrave, such trivia is difficult indeed to track down, and I looked for the Blue Villa’s source for some time. Eventually I had a chance to look at most of the works listed in Seagrave’s bibliography. I believe it is in none of them. Not even the name Blue Villa, much less a count of how many prostitutes worked there.

I’ve also looked through a fair number of the various books that have been published on “Shanghai, city of adventurers” over the last 100 years or so. There are surprisingly many of these, and I can’t swear I’ve gone over everything that is out there, but I have read close to a dozen books on the subject, and as far as I can tell, the Blue Villa, far from being famous, is not mentioned in one of them.

The closest I came to a nibble was a book by Eric Chou, a Chinese journalist. In addition to co-writing a biography of Chiang Kai-shek with Brian Crozier, Chou also wrote a book called The Dragon and the Phoenix: Love, Sex and the Chinese. This book has a chapter called “Shanghai–the Paradise of Sinners” that has some interesting details. According to Chou,

The best-known club in Shanghai at that time was run by Tu Yueh-sheng, the all-powerful leader of the Blue Gang. It was at 181 Rue Giraud, with a rear gate opening on to Rue Foche. The huge three-storey French-style house was surrounded by an enormous garden of several acres. With armed guards posted at both front and rear gates, the club could pass as the residence of some V.I.P. …On the ground floor, thirty-six roulette wheels kept spinning… The second floor was a different world, and only the very select guests had access to it. (109)

This passage is one of the most vivid description I have found of the “decadent nightlife” of Shanghai. Tu’s club sounds like an interesting place. Unfortunately, it is probably not the right place. The Blue Gang is indeed another name for the Green Gang, but the tantalizingly nameless club was located in the French settlement, not the International Settlement. Rue Foche is probably an error for Avenue Foch, now known as Yan’an Central Road. This road did not exist before 1920, yet Chiang and Tu visited the Blue Villa as customers in Chiang’s youth. And the luxurious club Chou describes certainly doesn’t sound like the kind of place that the then proletarian Chiang and Tu would visit.

Stuck, I gave up on the hunt for a couple of years until I starting thinking about putting together a class in modern fiction and at last stumbled across a Blue Villa. The source is a 1965 novel by the French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, called La Maison de Rendez-vous. I actually remember this novel from adolescence because of the paper-back cover, which I will put up if I can find a good picture of it. I had run across the Blue Villa in La Maison earlier while searching on Google, but confused it with a 1995 movie by Robbe-Grillet and mistakenly discarded it.

The “plot” of La Maison, like most of Robbe-Grillet’s works, pretty much defies description, but the Blue Villa is a central location in the story. It is a very vague sort of place, a brothel located in Hong Kong and run by a woman named Lady Ava. Hong Kong is not Shanghai, but it was still intriguing. Could the source of Seagrave’s Blue Villa really be here? French “new novels” are not normally a good source for works on history, to put it mildly. Still, perhaps Robbe-Grillet had learned of the Blue Villa, maybe from the same unknown source Seagrave had, and appropriated it for his own uses.

This seems not to be the case. Roch Smith, in a book called Understanding Robbe-Grillet (a necessary volume for those who want to read him), has a note on the origin of the name. In a 1997 letter to Smith, Robbe-Grillet explained that

The ‘Blue Villa’ of the novel has two sources: on one hand, the house of Victoria Ocampo, gray eminence and patron of Argentine literature … And on the other hand, a house of games (and of other more or less illicit pleasures) that was called ‘The Wide World’ and was in Shanghai. I visited it, but transformed into a conventional Communist house of culture. Edgar Faure told me about what went on there before.

Argentina is not what we’re looking for of course, but it seems that Robbe-Grillet’s Blue Villa did indeed have at least part of its source in a real Shanghai location. “The Wide World” is Roch Smith’s translation, but he gave the French original, “Le Grand Monde.” This is a familiar name. The English version is the “Great World” and there is an article on it in the English Wikipedia. It was restored to its original function as an amusement hall plus theater for Chinese opera after the Cultural Revolution and is still a popular location today. (160)

It was not, and is not, a house of ill-repute, as Robbe-Grillet was led to believe, but there is an interesting, if distant, Tu Yueh-sheng tie that is explained in Brian Martin’s book The Shanghai Green Gang (pp. 192-194). Distant here means that it was not Tu, but Tu’s older patron, Huang Chin-jung (Seagrave calls him Pock-marked Huang), who eventually acquired control of the “Great World” in 1931 (through quite shady means, apparently).

Unfortunately again, the “Great World” was established in 1916, which is probably still too late for the Chiang-Tu cruising that Seagrave describes. And again, “Great World” was more like a modern pachinko parlor than an exotic brothel with 121 prostitutes waiting on customers.

So while the Great World may have supplied some of the inspiration for Robbe-Grillet’s Blue Villa in La Maison, it doesn’t fit most of the details in Seagrave’s account.

Why then did both authors have a place with the same name? Now very suspicious that Seagrave had found one of his sources in Robbe-Grillet’s fiction, I still had to admit that there was always the (remote) possibility that there really was a Blue Villa that Seagrave found somewhere that I failed to look, and that the Robbe-Grillet connection was simply a random coincidence.

But browsing through Robbe-Grillet’s works, I found one more reference to the Blue Villa, in a 1977 novel called Topology of a Phantom City. (I read the Grove edition translated by J. A. Underwood) The strangely appropriate passage is as follows:


If one is alone one must pretend to be two. With two, one must pretend to be three. Anything more than that is too difficult, even with several windows and several mirrors of different shapes. With more than three people it is best to pretend to be alone.

Doubtful Identity

Otherwise one has to resort to subterfuges such as wigs or cosmetics for painting the mouth and eyes, or wear a cloche hat with lace and flowers, the kind known as a “funny hat,” and assume an inspired, dreamy look (it is difficult not to laugh), imitating the drifting expression of the girl who has just had a letter from far away, from the Indies or the Andes or the Endies, from some country that does not exist, a blue letter recounting incredible things: the story of the three girls living at the bottom of a well, the story of the seven adolescents wed by Gille de Retz, the story of the twenty-four captives shut up in the underground prison of Vanadium, the one about the hundred and twenty-one underage prostitute of the Blue Villa in Shanghai, or the nine hundred and ninety-nine nocturnal companions of King Solomon, son of David; or it might be the story of the eleven thousand virgins of Cologne, or lastly that of an indeterminate number of girls who do not exist, as pretty as pictures and whose pictures multiply from page to page of a book one pretends to be seeing for the first time. (95-96)

Here at last we have the Blue Villa in Shanghai, occupied by 121 prostitutes. Now I don’t have a funny hat, but it really is difficult not to laugh. If this is not the source of Seagrave’s details, it’s one of the most goddamn remarkable coincidences I’ve ever heard of. If it is the source … well, he should at least have listed it in his bibliography. Or perhaps Seagrave’s publisher should have listed the book as fiction, which doesn’t require annotation for little homages like this.

[first posted Feb 21, 2015; revised Feb 23]

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Another semester goes by …

The grades for the fall semester are now all in. My apologies to my students for the delay! It was a silent semester at rabbit’s warren. Next semester I will be on leave for research so it will also be quiet in the burrow, unless I find more computer related problems I think are worth typing up here.

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