Georeactor BlogRSS Feed
Reading Blog - October 2023
China, the US, and Chicago in history
God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan (Jonathan D. Spence, 1996)
After gaining access to untranslated Chinese documents, a historian retells the story of Hong Huoxiu, a farmer and schoolteacher in the mid-1800s, who interpreted transliterated names in the Bible to mean that he was the younger brother of Jesus. This started a journey to leading a cult and mini kingdom responsible for 20 million deaths. This story got a short mention in a middle or high school textbook, and now I finally get to some substance.
At the time foreigners and Christians were restricted in travel, but Hong visited Guangzhou/Canton to take civil service exams. Missionaries set up on the streets outside to reach people like Hong who came from rural counties for the exams.
The divine interpretation was also shaped by traditional Chinese mythology and a vision of heaven he had while recovering from illness. Hong's family became worried as he destroyed a Confucian schoolroom, then wandered the region baptizing his first followers. Eventually he and allies found a home base in the Thistle Mountains, where followers received more messages through trances and challenged locals' pagan taboos by desecrating shrines and temples.
The government was slow to protect temples because of bribes and the recent re-legalization of foreign religion. In 1850 there is a turning point where the believers become an army and the government were demons; by the end of the year thousands of Hong's troops battle Qing forces and slip away from city to city. This process continues (with a comparison to Exodus) until the Taiping rebels capture enough boats and weapons to sail down the river and take Nanjing.
Radical beliefs of the group included separating men and women (even married couples), communal property, reciting the Ten Commandments, and extreme beatings for any military or religious disobedience. Women were militarized, and men would wash and mend their own clothes. The author attributes the swift success of the Taiping to resentment of the Manchu emperor, breakdown of local law and order, the organization of punishment and rewards, and outrunning enemies. From the details of battles, the Taiping benefited from new tactics, and ordering civilians ahead of invasion to mark their houses to promise compliance.
Tension with Christians continued after establishment of the Taiping Kindom, with local Catholics being forced to use the new prayers, translations, and rewrites.
Missionaries reached out to Hong, but relationships inevitably grew strained. Of particular interest is Rev. Isachaar Roberts who met Hong when he was a nobody with visions. The author believes that Roberts's assistants, to protect their jobs, manipulated Hong into asking for payment and making his request for baptism look insincere. This is deeply personal 1840s office gossip, so I looked into it. The citation is The Visions of Hung-Siu-Tshuen, and Origin of the Kwang-Si Insurrection pg. 31–32, published 1854. Indiana University has an online copy with the same story and Roberts's recollection of events. Later he would visit Emperor Hong and come away disgusted.
Hong's impulsive mismanagement nearly fell to an internal coup. He replaced all deputies with family members in 1856–57. The historic death count includes those killed in plagues and famines during this rule. With the Qing cutting off all trade, and his armies pushed back from all corners, Hong and his empire eventually collapsed in 1864.
I thought about this book while following a modern-day cult / conspiracy podcast. This one far-off cult continues in Western consciousness because of the "that's not how any of this works!" reaction to the Jesus's brother thing. This is also highlighted in a humorous chapter where the three Western powers sail from Shanghai to Nanjing to attempt to meet and understand the new neighbors. Is picking this event out of Chinese history a type of Orientalism, or a peek into the chaos rolling over China in the stages of empire, colonialism, and republic?
There are a few scattered thinkpieces across the web on the meaning of the Taiping Kingdom to Chiang-Kai Shek, Mao, modern China, and Marx. Hong's initial peasant uprising got a mural in Tiananmen Square, so it seems to be in favor. There are statues and a former residence in Haidu as a tourist attraction. Archivists have found that Marx wrote about the rebellion while active, and took it as an example of why communism would form in industrialized, not agricultural societies.
The author paints a picture of particular cities, recent clashes with the British, pirates and the Triads, festivals and rituals, origins of Hakka people, etc. which were influential but not directly about the rebellion. I skimmed these sections, but they're likely spot on for someone who wants to visit distant lands and times through reading.
I Cannot Write My Life: Islam, Arabic, and Slavery in Omar ibn Said's America (Mbaye Lo and Carl W. Ernst, 2023)
Professors at Duke and UNC published this book this summer.
Omar ibn Said was one of the few people captured in the American slave trade whose writing survives for modern historians. His Arabic writing and Islamic scholarship drew curiosity from slaveholders, who invented stories around Omar being a prince and being grateful to convert to Christianity. Casual Arabists and a Yale expert only recognized some religious phrases in his writing. The Library of Congress credits an abolitionist with preserving his 1831 autobiography and letters. An article appeared in the American Historical Review in 1925: https://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/omarsaid/omarsaid.html
The writings were re-interpreted and recollected by native speakers at history departments in the 1980s and 90s (C-SPAN video says the autobiography was obscure until the 2000s, traveled the US, then was acquired by the Library of Congress in 2017).
In North Carolina Omar's enslavers were the Owens, a rising political family. Their work in government would thwart abolitionists and pressure free Black people to leave the state. The Owens appeared to use Omar's story to promote themselves as benevolent Christians, and to back a belief that a few exceptional Blacks should ask permission, buy their freedom, and resettle in Liberia.
Ibn Said wrote little about his life in Africa, but with solid researchers on the case it's clear that he studied for 25 years at a madrassa in Bundu, a multi-cultural city in present-day Senegal. His writings indicate that West African scholars were familiar with Islamic scholars as far off as Iraq. A few years after returning to his hometown, he was taken prisoner by an anti-Islamic group and sold to traders.
Rhiannon Giddens, already winner of a Grammy and a MacArthur genius grant, wrote an opera on ibn Said's life. The opera recently won a Pulitzer Prize: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgYuwXR9TMk https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZ0L8qbhea0.
A Guide to Chicago's Public Sculpture (Ira J. Bach and Mary L. Gray, 1983)
After reading Smashing Statues and the recent Chicago Monuments report, it's interesting to travel back to 1983 to see a short, carefully-researched blurb about each sculpture. It's a compact book ready to keep as a reference on your shelf or coffee table.
Bach had directed the city's planning and development departments, and Gray is an art historian affiliated with U. Chicago.
In 1905, lumber magnate Benjamin Ferguson left a million-dollar trust for recognizing public figures with monuments in Chicago. Only a decade later, the book finds a quote that the art world had moved away from populating parks with statues and monuments. The Art Institute of Chicago would use the fund for buildings until pressured by the public and courts to resume sculptures.
Independent of the fund, the Picasso sculpture in front of City Hall sparked a renewed interest in large modern art installations in the late 60s and onward.
Depictions of Native Americans were already in public art consciousness - two sculptures on the U.S. Capitol steps were put into storage in 1958. Controversy is briefly mentioned in the blurb on Potawatomi Rescue, a memorial for Fort Dearborn which would be removed from view around 1997. The section on the Balbo Monument (an original Roman column gifted by Mussolini) also hints at its controversy.
Some Lincoln Park facts:
- The statue of Goethe holding a falcon in Lincoln Park is rumored to be based on a statue of Zeus. I've already found it interesting because it was dedicated shortly before WW1, when German culture and language would lose its parity with English throughout the country.
- The standing Lincoln in the southern part of Lincoln Park got accolades as "the most important achievement [of] American sculpture" and as an accurate likeness. The sculptor had seen Lincoln campaigning, after death, and in "life masks" similar to those used for the memorial in DC. There are multiple copies around the world.
- One of the newest sculptures in the book is I Will, a 40-foot metal column which I completely ignored up until this read. That title is an unofficial motto of rebuilding after the Chicago Fire? Though it truly came from 1890s lead-up to the World's Fair and new century? Online sources say the artist named it Curve XXII, which the book doesn't mention.
Can we be honest about this sculpture? It is bland. It looks like it should show what businesses are in a strip mall.
The Ferguson Fund continued to commission sculptures in 1986, 1996, and one for the extremely-delayed DuSable Park at the mouth of the Chicago River. There are a few articles and blog posts about the Fund continuing but little mention since 2010.
In the 1980s the sculpture Chicago Rising from the Lake was about to be relocated. It got lost twice and is now viewable on the Riverwalk.
In 2012–13, long-lost Lincoln Park sculptures Fountain Girl and Emanuel Swedenborg were re-cast: https://www.cbsnews.com/chicago/news/sculpture-in-lincoln-park-replaced-decades-after-being-stolen/ https://www.chicagoparkdistrict.com/media/lincoln-park-emanuel-swedenborg-monument
Updates to Previous Reads
Wow this is a lot of links.
While refilling my bike tires I noticed and mapped a monument which was installed near the Chicago History Museum in 2021. It's an unearthed blob of metal melted down by the 1871 Chicago fire.
I also took the Haunted History tour at the zoo! Would recommend.
I thought that I knew all of the weird North Korea trivia, then Reddit talked about the pay-per-view wrestling match hosted in Pyongyang https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x81fht3
The New Yorker, New York Times, Washington Post, etc. have reviews out for a "comprehensive, landmark and riveting" 900-page book, Judgment at Tokyo. Bass's last book was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, so I imagine this will be a contender as well.
California math didn't get a deep dive book or a podcast, but it did get an article in The Atlantic which is paywalled for me. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/10/california-math-framework-algebra/675509/
The author of Smashing Statues wrote about a visit to Stone Mountain in Georgia: https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2023/september/at-stone-mountain
A new release of Noto Arabic font fixes the ligature ڵا (an issue I've followed since 2020). On Slack and GitHub I agitated OpenStreetMap Ops into updating all Noto fonts on their servers and maybe doing this more regularly. Unfortunately I don't know when this will fix the tiles?
Philadelphia's Mutter Museum is going through turmoil and public town halls over how it handles human remains in the museum, collection, and web presence. It's bound to be a case study. There was a moving story about someone producing a video with the museum about their condition and being disappointed it got taken offline: https://whyy.org/articles/college-of-physicians-mutter-museum-ceo-resigns/ https://www.inquirer.com/arts/mutter-museum-town-hall-human-remains-20231019.html
I had an extraordinary experience which got me thinking about libraries. This Reddit thread on alternatives to Dewey, allocation of decimal precision/space to Christian/white/American male norms, and individual libraries moving things around for their community was interesting.
The Good Food Institute posted about "blending" meat with alternative proteins. This objectively reduces the demand for meat, but remains difficult to market to meat-eating and flexitarian consumers.
The Australia Voice to Parliament referendum led me to re-read my post on the Puliima conference in 2019. Wiki has a good article on Aboriginal sign languages (separate from and/or merged with Auslan). The article on the Australian deaf community doesn't link to it though!
A recent article on Danish imposition of IUDs on native Greenlanders in the 60s, made me remember the fluid relationships described at that time in An African in Greenland.
An episode on Ireland's Good Friday Agreement is included in "The Negotiators" podcast.
China is planning to return samples from the Earth co-orbiting asteroid 469219 Kamoʻoalewa, mentioned in Aliens of Arxiv.
There's also continued study of repeating Fast Radio Burst 121102. Some pulses lasting only 5–15 microseconds. The difficulty in detecting these with a known, repeating source hints that astronomers vastly underestimated how many FRBs occur every day. Some FRBs release "as much energy in a thousandth of a second as the Sun does in a year".
Wikipedia has an article on the 2013 thematic debate on the role of international criminal justice in reconciliation held in the UN General Assembly. I can't find a lot of info about what was said here.