On time zones, patriotism, and memory

This last week I made two interesting trips courtesy of the Fulbright visiting lecturer program, which funds visits to universities across China to offer lectures, in my case, in American history. So far I’ve given 1 talk on the Civil War, 1 talk on slavery, 1 talk on American labor law, 3 talks on the American opium trade to China, and, suggesting what Chinese people are really interested in, 7 talks each on the history of American exceptionalism and on the Second Amendment and American gun rights and laws.

For the first trip I traveled to the city of Urumqi in northwestern China. When I told my friends in Hangzhou of my plans they were surprised. One said he thought foreigners weren’t even allowed to go. Two weeks ago Uyghur separatists in Xinjiang attacked a shopping center in Urumqi, killing 31. Uyghurs, about 43% of the population of Xinjiang, are Muslim, different from the Chinese majority Han people, who are largely secular, or Buddhist, or Christian (in Xinjiang there are also, in addition to Uyghurs and Hans, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Hui, Kyrgyz, and Mongols).

Security in Urumqi, already tight, has obviously become moreso. I thought of canceling the trip, since the whole family was scheduled to go, and the American embassy actually called to say, “have a great time. Be careful.” But the invitation was in place for some time and I hardly wanted to chicken out.

The trip proved interesting, of course. Everything is interesting. Urumqi is very much like…Ankara, Turkey. A lot of government and university buildings and associated state security. Stores sell beautiful veils, dried apricots, nuts, silk, and inlaid, razor sharp pocket knives, for which Xinjiang is famous. There is a beautiful huge mosque in the city, complete with sparkling minarets, the first one I’ve seen in China. My basic Turkish expressions “Merhaba, nasilsiniz?” and “Tesekkur ederim,” (Hi, how are you?  and Thanks very much) went a long way in the marketplace: Uyghur is a Turkic language.

Park sign in Urumqi: "Please Show Mercy to Grass and Flowers," in English, Mandarin, and Uyghur languages.

Park sign in Urumqi: “Please Show Mercy to Grass and Flowers,” in Uyghur, Mandarin, and English languages.



Sumner ready to stop shopping in the Muslim Bazaar, Urumqi.

Sumner ready to stop shopping in the Muslim Bazaar, Urumqi.

Urumqi is 3,900 km northwest of Hangzhou. But China has 1 time zone. The effect of this – both horological and political – hit me the second night we were on a street. I saw a big clock show it was 9:30 p.m. Funny – it was still pretty much bright daylight. I asked a student about what that was like. “Yes,” came the explanation. “the time system we have makes summer days very long.” Pause. “It’s 9:30 in Beijing. But it’s really only 7:30 here.” Huh? “Well, we consider the local time 7:30…. Beijing time is communist time.”

Zoe in the long shadow of Urumqi's central mosque.

Zoe in the long shadow of Urumqi’s central mosque.

Not really by design, when I finished the visit to Urumqi I flew, in fact, to Beijing to give additional lectures. Urumqi’s weather was turbulent: blazing hot the first day, hard rain the second, winds so severe the third day, cracking car windshields, that a day trip we had planned to the ancient Silk Road city of Turpan was canceled.

Beijing was more predictable – hazy, windless, and, given the significance of early June, thick with security.

Journalists’ reports seem largely true that the government has made the events of a quarter-century ago this week a matter, a little like religious belief, of private conscience, kept by older people, now pushing 50 or more. I mused to a student with me on a Beijing subway, “I guess the square tomorrow [the 4th] will have a lot of security.” The student replied, “Yes, of course. The Uyghur terrorist attacks a few weeks ago have made everyone a little nervous.”


A student’s query on the Santa Barbara CA shooting

On a visit to Guangzhou in southern mainland China near Hong Kong, I gave a lecture on Thursday at the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies. Coincidentally, the lecture was “Gun Laws and Gun Rights: a History of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” The next day this shooting happened. Americans’ gun violence baffles much of the rest of the world, especially, perhaps, among those foreigners who like the United States. Chinese people’s tradition with private gun ownership – and gun violence – is virtually the opposite of Americans’.

I have found Chinese students closely observant of American politics, society, and culture – much more so than me of theirs. It’s a myth that the Great China Firewall keeps Chinese people uninformed. There are too many Internet cracks in the mortar for that.

Below is an email I received from a student who listened to my presentation in Guangzhou, and, for what it’s worth, my response. “Lizzie’s” question reflects a typical level of awareness among Chinese college students of American issues, concerning not only specific issues pertinent to Chinese people like California’s debate whether to re-establish affirmative action programs for Asian-Americans (“SCA 5”), but also general news, and a question that I raised in the presentation – regarding gun rights, in any society, how do you balance private ‘rights’ and public safety? Is ‘bearing arms,’ possessing a gun, a ‘right’? What are ‘rights’?

Subject: Hi! I’m Lizzie from Department of Diplomacy, GDUFS ….@qq.com

Dear Tim,
I’m Lizzie, the girl who asked you about SCA 5(Senate Constitutional Amendment No.5).The SCA 5 legislation was aimed at bringing race-conscious admissions and recruitment to California’s public universities, such as UCLA.I’m interested in this and I hope we can share some ideas when I get further thinking.
After hearing your lecture about gun rights & gun laws in American History on Friday, I kept wondering what if the gun holder is a phycho especially when this guy is a well-trainned gunner or veteran who’s been through trauma? It happened. Actually it happened a lot, like the navy shooting case. Besides historical factors, it is cool and rightful to have a gun so that you can defend yourself when it’s needed. But, will you still have the chance to hold your gun after you were shot without warning?
A 22-year-old man stabbed three people to death in his apartment before gunning down three more victims on on Friday night(US time).I really feel sorry about it. I know gun problem is a debating isssue even today. You mentioned exceptionalism, Europeans can’t understand the US, neither. In my opinion, forbidding gun nationwide in America is not a good option as people’s rights should be valued. Would it be better if government passes some laws to avoid selling guns to dangerous people? After all, people’s lives value the most.

Sincerely yours,

Hi Lizzie, thanks for writing. Unfortunately, this topic I talked about in Guangzhou is too timely. There are a lot of angry men in the world, as this young man in California seems to have been, who commit violence against their girlfriends, wives, animals, random strangers, etc.
The problem in America is that angry men have access to guns. The situation in California this week was too familiar – a young man with a psychological disorder still was able to buy guns legally. Given the amount of guns available in the US for private citizens, there needs to be preemptive law enforcement monitoring of people who have a mental disorder, to prevent them from being able to buy a gun. This young man might be able to get a gun illegally anyway, but maybe it would take longer, and he might try something else less lethal, if he’s still angry: resort to a knife, get drunk, etc…. Or even be found out in the meantime by somebody who wants to help, or at least stop him.
Living in China shows me a good example of tight gun restrictions – you don’t hear about random shootings in China (it’s possible they happen, but you don’t see them in the media). As I said in my presentation in Guangzhou, the USA has a particular history of gun laws and gun rights, which contributes a lot to the current predicament. But I would predict – hope – US states are going to start a movement move to at least make it very hard for anyone with a mental illness to hold a gun. That’s the most foreseeable change.

Best wishes, Prof. Tim



A Surprisingly? Crowded Labor Day

Today is International Labor Day in China. An ancient holiday to celebrate spring’s arrival, now it is a national holiday in about 80 countries.  May 1 was originally picked by socialist and labor parties of the “Second International” meeting in Paris in 1889 to commemorate the Haymarket affair in Chicago on May 4, 1886. The U.S. labor day in September was chosen to disassociate the American labor movement from international communism. So China, but not the U.S., celebrates May 1 to commemorate an event in American labor history.

Some images of workers, imaginary and real, we have seen recently:

CP poster at the Shanghai  Propaganda Poster Art Centre: "Strive to accelerate the achievement of agricultural mechanization"

Old Communist Party poster, captioned “strive to accelerate the achievement of agricultural mechanization,” on display at the marvelous Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre.

shanghai skyscraper workers

Workers commuting down a Shanghai skyscraper. In the background is the Pudong River, separating old and new Shanghai.



An inspector looks at 2014 World Cup scarves made in Zhejiang Province

An inspector checks 2014 World Cup scarves made in Linan, Zhejiang Province.

Accustomed to Labor Day marking the end not beginning of summer, we  find ourselves caught unawares. The alternative meaning of today in China for us is…crowds, even larger than normal, which is saying a lot. Here’s a bird’s eye view of boarding a subway in Beijing, and riding a bus in Hangzhou, not on holidays:

About 7:30 am at the Shuangjing stop, Line 10 of the Beijing subway system. I made it on this car, gently rammed in by people waiting behind me.  Whew.

About 7:30 am at the Shuangjing stop, Line 10 of the Beijing subway system. I made it on this car, gently rammed in by people waiting behind. Whew.


On our way to church on a Sunday morning. Pressed up against the windshield affords  a great view. Try to avoid getting grumpy.

About three-fifths of China’s 1.4 billion people live in cities; on May 1 and this weekend, passenger volume on urban buses, subways, and trains is particularly thick. Our great friend Kathleen, after a whirlwind six weeks’ visit, will leave us, and China, from Beijing on Monday. In our infinite wisdom in March we decided to take her there this weekend from Hangzhou – by way of buses, subways, and trains. Who in China knew  two months’ ago this is a busy weekend for workers getting a day off?


Quick note for teachers: we’re being watched all the time

Hi everyone, we just finished another eight-week term at Zhejiang University. After the last class we were all sitting around the seminar table and a graduate student confided, “Tim, you know, I liked the class, but the most important thing you showed me was on the first day.” “Hmm. okay. What was that?” “Do you remember that the dry erase board was covered with permanent ink and scratches?” “Yes.” “Well, after class you found rags and water and scrubbed and scrubbed it, so we could use it again.” “Right. I took the bark off. I needed it to teach.” “Well, do teachers really do that kind of stuff in America? If so, it’s different. Our teachers here would make us do that cleaning, or maybe try to get the department to go buy a new board. They would NEVER do it themselves.” I quickly explained that not all American teachers are so thrifty as that, and it’s more a family value we have than anything like a national virtue to reuse and recycle stuff, etc. She paused. “Well, anyway, I think it’s good that my American teacher did that.” So much for the all the lecture preps during the term!