March 02, 2006

Hankow: Commerce and Society in a Chinese City, 1796-1889, William T. Rowe

Rowe was writing to demonstrate that Weber and his followers were wrong about many factual matters in late imperial Chinese urban society. This implies that Weber etc. may not have proven their theories about ?what's necessary for industrial capitalism to emerge?. Personally, since we only have the one case of i.c. actually emerging, the rest of the world having caught it like a flame or a disease, I'm dubious that we could possibly prove any such theories, so I'd rather have detailed descriptions with some narrative verve. I read this as a bridge between Fernand Braudel and Hong Kong wushu movies, and it was good dry fun.

Most of it details the kinds of organizations that formed in Hankow while it was the trading center for much of China (the comparable US city is Chicago, for its commodities, its transshipping, and its distance from governmental and banking centers). I gather that Weber believed that China never had a bourgeois consciousness, never had a group of burghers who could run their city for mercantile ends. On Rowe's description, this is pretty easy to refute; merchant families lived for generations in their chosen cities, built mansions and institutions, sent sons into officialdom, organized and died in militia defenses. Weber was perhaps misled by the legal identification of everyone with a home village. Rowe points out that many families moved their legal identification to their trading cities, and some went back and forth or even maintained two (illegally) to gain advantages in the school districts (apparantly also a constant of capitalist/mercantilist societies?).

What strikes me more, but I don't remember Rowe mentioning, is that the spoken language from distant regions of China was mutually incomprehensible or nearly so [check this]. Of course people would seek out language communities, as the Knights Templar sorted themselves into langues. However, they were also sorting themselves into trade communities, often starting as "rope traders from Shansi" or something, and the trade communities tended to grow and join into the all-Hankow rope organization. The trade communities were usually recognized by the government, and seem to have spent much of their time on weights & measures and on market organization. (Also they had tremendous feasts and built glorious theaters and guild halls.) A third-generation Hankow merchant might have belonged to both a regional and a trade association, in which case perhaps Hankow invented matrix management.

There's a whole other argument I would like to see about the different interaction between "divine right of kings" and "mandate of heaven" and commerce. The imperial government seems to have had, in theory, a more practical and friendly attitude towards trade than Europe's governments had had in the, say, sixteenth century; I can't tell if they were as mercantilist [even in a loose sense] as England's government was at the time. If so, why did England so reliably have the whip hand? Lots of this book is about the English, mostly, traders forcing themselves progressively deeper into China, and misunderstanding some of the organizations they were dealing with, and pulling huge swaths of agriculture from food production into the world tea market and then decamping for Indian tea.

Braudel has some hypotheses about why Europe won in A History of Civilizations, I think, but I can't remember his conclusion.

Find in a Library

So wrote clew.

August 19, 2005

The Principal Navigations... of the English Nation, v14, America part 3, Richard Hakluyt

When reading history or historical fiction, and especially when arguing about present mores based on past actions, it's easy to wonder how past people justified actions that to us seem obviously in contradiction with their beliefs. On the whole, I think they did what we do, and mostly failed to live up to their beliefs without trying to pretend they had... A snippet in support:

Afterward they mended the other ship from Saturday till Munday, during which time all those were shriuen that had not confessed, and receiued the communion, and it was resolued by charge of the confessors, that all those seale-skins which they had taken from the Indians should bee restored againe; and the Generall gaue charge to Francis Preciado to restore them all, charging him on his conscience so to doe.

This is a translated report of a very early Spanish investigation up the coast of California; the ships have put in for recaulking, because one of them is too leaky and they've both lost too much of their furnishing, but they aren't particularly in fear of their lives. From what context I get from proofreading the passage, they're actually having a good voyage and enjoying their harbor and expecting to make it at least halfway home.

Find in a Library

So wrote clew.

December 19, 2004

The Age of Shakespeare, Frank Kermode

The title is misleading; it seems accurate if compared to Kermode's book on the language of Shakespeare, but the Age is still only a frame in this one, used to situate short comments on the language. The result is brief and tidily laid out, but I would rather have read a whole book on the politics, or the economics, or the poetry.

ISBN: 0679642447

August 31, 2004

A Calculating People, Patricia Cline Cohen

Subtitle: The Spread of Numeracy in Early America

The spread of numeracy is reasonably interesting if you're interested in economic history, or in how skills travel between "rote skills" and trade schools, and "knowledge" and liberal schooling. Reckoning was a practical, even embarrassingly practical, skill for hundreds of years of the rise of commerce; the first colonialists weren't especially numerate, since the Puritans believed in theological studies instead, and the tobacco planters were above such petty things. (I overstate.)

Some people found argument by number irresistible as soon as it was imaginable, though; for instance, the Virginia Company got into a long brangle over how many of its colonists had died, and of what. Also, of course, the rise of the organized state and of mercantilism paid for surveying, muster-lists, etc. Reckoning became a strength of the state. Around this time the rhetorical claim that women couldn't do arithmetic was swept under the rug in the interest of hiring math teachers out of a cheap labor supply.

My favorite chapter is on the Census of 1840, though, and most of that is about an error in the census, probably exacerbated by difficult form design, which followed a decade of brangling in the courts and had results that probably lasted through Jim Crow.

The most controversial "finding" was that the black population of the North appeared to be beset with epidemic rates of insanity, which suggested to some that "science," as revealed by tables of figures, had proved freedom to be detrimental to blacks.

By 1840 physicists had learned that you can't carry out chains of calculations on bad data and get good results; but most number-enthusiasts apparently started with the belief that a number, however arrived at, had more credibility than words. Sir William Petty, for instance, was more precise than accurate.

What was measured by the 1840 census was already skewed by interest. The age groups for blacks and whites were different, possibly to preclude comparing mortality. Insanity was to be measured to judge outlay for the support of dependents, employment was measured in more categories than the 1820 census had needed, the president wanted to know about military pensioners, education and literacy took up another several columns.

Each schedule contained seventy-four columns, with headings in microscopic type printed across the tops of two pages.

It would be only mildly interesting if a complex form had produced randomly untrustworthy data; but this one probably invited a particular error. Because the error was pleasant to racists, it became a popular claim even though it was inconsistent with the rest of the data in the same census, and was often explicitly disprovable.

So Jarvis checked for internal consistency and was mortified to find that many of the towns reported to harbor insane blacks in fact had no black population at all! A study of the printed statistics of other northern states turned up the same pattern...
...individual assistant marshals had indeed entered digits in the columns for "insane and idiot" blacks in families where there were no blacks.

This Jarvis, who was a member of both the American Statistical Association and of the Massachusetts Medical Society, worked out with his colleagues that it was common in the North for "insane or idiot" white family members to be listed in the column for black family members. The Census had already gone through a conflict, or even scandal, over who had the right to print it; and the printer Weaver made an excellent front for the political interest, i.e. John C. Calhoun, who wanted to use the results. Much I'm-rubber-you're-glue was printed, and I would guess that most of the country was already tired of the whole issue. Jarvis got no traction.

Cohen consulted the manuscript returns on microfilm, and has a theory as to why the error was systematic:

Suppose, then, that a certain number of senile whites were considered idiots in the common parlance but not insane; suppose that some fraction of them were entered in the column for insane and idiot blacks merely because the word "idiot" was not prominent in the section for whites, while the word "colored" was not prominent in the section for blacks. It stands to reason, then, that a series of ratios comparing insane blacks to the total black population would exhibit an interesting gradient from North to South and from East to West, because there was an excess of elderly people in the East and a deficiency of black people—the denominator of the ratio—in the North. In regions with large black populations, such as the South, the small numbers of errors recording senile whites would fade into insignificance.

Parallells to ballot design and climate data crunching are an exercise for the reader.

Genealogists use census data, so if you're willing to pay a modest sum, you can buy online access to images (of the microfilms of?) the census returns. Where the data is available as a database, I haven't found the categories relevant to this error listed at all. It looks as though many large libraries have the censuses in microfilm, at least the local censuses; but I admit I'm probably not going to hunt down an actual image of an inconsistent return, having failed to find one online.

ISBN: 0226112845

March 25, 2004

Samurai William, Giles Milton

William Adams, tactful and tactiturn, is only in the background of the failure of the English to found a trading outpost in Japan in the early 1600s. He is a mountain in the background, but half the history is the galloping stupidity of the crew sent out to build on his achievements.

It's like a dozen tales from the late 1990s of incompetence and poor social skills in ill-supported startups, but of course the risks were larger (syphilis, dismemberment) and the escape routes well closed off. Weirdly familiar: inane, self-delusional support from the home office; colleagues who didn't like each other before a year in close quarters, and who now drink too much, sleep with each others' concubines, and then write thinly coded letters to each other to gossip about it. That's better than having your adolescent embarassments pinned out in the Usenet archives: having them in the British Library, just waiting to be released to the Internet archives.

There was, actually, one trader in the factory who could make money. Unfortunately, he made it all in private trading (using Company boats) and covered his tracks by casting aspersions.

Adams had arrived earlier, the long way, by dint of being a stout mariner and navigator. He was also diplomatic enough to get along with the Dutch, who were rather like the English and therefore in perpetual competition with them, and clever enough to dissociate the English and Dutch from the well-established Spanish Jesuit presence in Japan. Adams learned Japanese, was honored with land and title by Ieyasu (the first Tokugawa Shogun). He and some of his surviving men built an oceangoing ship, one that did eventually make it across the Pacific; this though Adams hadn't ever overseen the construction of a vessel in Europe. It's a great pity that Milton doesn't quote him more often. I want more of the story of his successes; it's more impressive than A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. In light fiction, it would take up at least a C. J. Cherryh series, since Adams' tenure in this foreign land saw Ieyasu's consolidation of control, war between the Dutch and English, peace between them, the suppression and martyrdoms of Catholic converts, and a lot of trips to rough and exotic cities in the region. Oh, and Adams got a second (bigamous) wife and family, as well as a feudal estate, which seems more than a little hard on the wife and children he left in Limehouse.

The style of the book is somewhere between historical and popular. We might see a higher proportion of the racy quotes than the carpentry ones, but they're all marked off as quotes, although sources aren't given to the page-number.

Richard Hakluyt is in this story in person! he was a consultant on missions of exploration and trade, and seems to have realized that Japan, more cleanly and sophisticated than England, would be a different matter for trade than the commoner expeditions to less developed countries. His The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation has a brief mention in Milton's Notes and Sources, and the cited publications and republications of similar works by the Hakluyt Society are many.

Words: "Chargeable" was used for "expensive" in one of the letters Milton quotes. Less familiar is "homegers", vassals accompanying a lord to show his importance (p. 262; "homage-ers", I suppose).

One minor oddity; there's a copy of an engraving of Japanese prostitutes in décolleté kimono (p. 219) from what seems to be a European atlas of Japan, published in 1670. But, if I remember Liza Dalby's Kimono correctly, a seductive woman would instead have loosened her kimono to show the back of her neck. There are surely Japanese engravings of the same subject in the same period, which I could count up for evidence.

ISBN: 0-14-200378-6

September 02, 2003

Scorn of the Dutch

From an Aphra Behn play (The Lucky Chance, or maybe The Town Fopp) currently being polished at DP -

Bel. For what, said they, was he hang'd?
Ral. Why, e'en for High Treason, Sir, he killed one of their Kings.
Gay. Holland's a Commonwealth, and is not rul'd by Kings.
Ral. Not by one, Sir, but by a great many; this was a Cheesemonger--they fell out over a Bottle of Brandy, went to Snicker Snee; Mr. Bellmour cut his Throat, and was hang'd for't, that's all, Sir.

Simon Schama's Embarassment of Riches has examples of the disdain aristocrats had for the (wildly successful) Holland of the 17th. c; and here's another.

June 10, 2003

Restoration London, Liza Picard

More Pepys!

Picard was fond of Pepys, and fond of London, and happy to spend possibly quite a lot of time reading original documents from Pepys' era in London; she also has a felicity of expression something like Sarah Caudwell's. Do all British tax lawyers write like that? Should we read Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce straight?


London Bridge, built up with houses, deserves a book of its own; see Ex Libris, a good novel set there.

Petticoat breeches:

"'all open, like a short petticoat, having no sewing up between the legs'...heavily trimmed with yards and yards of ribbon, and also they were worn at half-mast, hanging precariously from the wearer's hips, no longer attached to the doublet...The gap was filled by an expanse of billowing linen shirt filled with point." [lace] (p. 117)

But no skateboards.

A 1792 drawing of a 16th-century mansion composed largely of windows; small panes, but large windows running around three stories at least, including the ground floor. Expensive! Seems to be set around a courtyard, perhaps a private one, maybe the windows were safe because of that. All the house that isn't window is heavily carved. It's grand and pretty.

Samuel records eating an enormous amount of meat, and no vegetables; personal taste, descriptive bias, or was that actually what people ate? Recipes are ambiguous (one 'grand sallet', p. 152, would do James Lileks proud: violets, capers, preserved oranges, and a architectural or geometrical arrangement stuck with rosemary and hard-boiled eggs and lemons. However, there is legal and economic evidence of a steady flourishing market in vegetables and fruits. She assumes that people ate them but didn't bother to talk about them.

Other good recipes: what looked like a pie but actually contained a live snake:But 'this is only for a wedding to pass away time', which can drag at such gatherings. (p. 153) Also, Take a male Pike, rub his skin off whilst he lives...(p. 155)

Complicated common beliefs about sex; female orgasm was believed necessary to conception (except by at least one midwife), and women were spoken of as dangerous sexual devourers, but Pepys' and other descriptions of actual dalliance are sometimes very explicit that the woman couldn't have enjoyed herself and the man didn't care. Picard can cite a period of six months in which Samuel did not lie with his wife (who he loved and admired) but did have encounters of various casual sorts with other women. Maybe it was the religious madonna/whore split, although that seems too etiolated for the age and man in question; maybe it sublimated guilt about the dangers of childbirth. After all, with no contraception and a serious risk of death with each pregnancy, a man would be helplessly moved not to have sex with a woman he loved; and the rationalizations around a double batch of helplessness would be severe. Not that I have any evidence for this; it just allows one to think a little more kindly of half of Pepys' behavior.

By 1671 there were fifteen Quaker boarding schools, of which two were for girls and two were coeducational. (p. 187)
Have you ever heard a well-trained actor reading Chaucer aloud? He sounds like a drunken Cornish bumblebee trapped in a jar of honey - with impeccable erudition, I am sure. Now turn your mind the the early years of our present Queen's reign; her broadcasts to the nation on Christmas Day could have cut glass at 50 paces. Between the two eras the Great Vowel Shift has occurred. (p. 199)

Maybe there are examples of each online.

Marriage - although theoretically marriage was indissoluble and well-defined, Henry VIII had fuzzed up the first, and actually the second was complicated by the sort-of-indissoluble condition of betrothal. I think The Knight, the Lady and the Priest has the background on why the Church philosophically needed to recognize private mutual promises as marriage. In practice, between human hotheadedness and parental opinion and what all, it wasn't always clear who was betrothed. Even a marriage recorded in a church register has to have been hard to prove if the participants wouldn't say where it had been. Finally, people abandoned by their spouses seem to have technically been married until they could prove they were widowed, but in practice were considered widowed after seven years. Collusion would have sometimes been irresistible, I should think.

ISBN: 0-380-73236-X