The second day of orientation was mostly devoted to tips on how to actually carry out our research. Obviously, this would vary a lot depending on what kind of research one is doing. The day started off with Professor HT, an old but vigorous scholar of the Song dynasty. (Working on the Song, that is, not dating from the Song!) His stories about getting into archives and libraries were most a propos for my particular challenges. But his general message was relevant and useful for everyone: a lot of times the answer you get starts out "no" and changes into "yes." The key is to be extremely patient and persistent, and never ever lose your temper.
He also told a true fairy-tale about going to an archive where the senior archivist had just returned from a visit from Harvard where he had been very well treated. As a result, HT (a Harvard grad student at the time) was given a full copy of rare text. When he brought it back his professors insisted it was a forgery because it had never been mentioned by anyone. But considerable research showed that it wasn't. It was the real deal. So this kid got first crack at it through serendipity. The flip side being that the archive had just been sitting on it. My prof. here, AP, once said that librarians and archivists in China consider their job to be protecting books from the public, not making them available! A number of times through the day this sort of thing came up--the idea that in closed stacks libraries and archives, no one wants to give you anything that hasn't already been worked on and published. Thus building a relationship is essential, so you can soften them up, get them to like you, and eventually they might hand you something you didn't ask for.
To all this, of course, my main reaction was one of dismay. I went into the dusty tome reading business because I thought it would be the one thing where I wouldn't have to use people skills!
Endless problems. Online catalogues do not match actual holdings. Parts of the collection are mysteriously off-limits. Hours change without warning. Photocopying is limited and expensive. Hand-copying is laborious and slow. Digital cameras and computers are often not allowed. I guess one just has to learn one's way around. And take a bibliography class. And bring letters of introduction from everyone. Archivists are sticklers for formality.
A funny story: one girl had found the photocopies she needed were just not forthcoming, day after day. Eventually she managed to talk to people and discover that problem had nothing to do with her being a foreigner or any such thing: they were out of toner and hadn't been able to get more. So she ended up donating a whole bunch of toner. Why not, huh? One of the subtexts of many stories is ways in which you can lubricate the system very tactfully and subtly. Because no one wants to see themselves as corrupt; no one wants to take bribes. Yet on the other hand it is natural to have a certain give and flexibility in the rules. As HT said: the last thing you want is to be dealt with according to the rules, which were written at a time when things were much more rigid.
Happily for me, I got my admission letter to Peking University (invariably referred to as Beida 北大), along with a tuition waiver. I was one of the lucky 25 (about half of us) who could put our minds at rest. The question of affiliation, a great source of stress for me in the past few months, was settled. The letter came with a pre-filled visa application that said, among other things, that I was married. I sort of liked that, frankly. I had already considered pretending something of the sort, having heard it is a highly effective antidote to unwanted attentions. And aside from that, it just seemed like a good omen.
At the beginning of the lunch-break, I boldly walked up to Professor HT and introduced myself, also saying that I'd really enjoyed his presentation. He had earlier mentioned some work he was doing on later views of the Three Kingdoms hero Zhuge Liang, and we fell into a conversation about this topic, which is quite relevant to mine in a methodological sense. Disconcertingly, it seemed that he knew a fair amount about me already. Perhaps he'd been involved in reviewing my application? In any case, he made some great suggestions. An article he'd written. The recent work of van Ess. German scholarship on the Shiji in general, and that I should seriously consider a post-doc in Germany. (Poor Colin.) That it would be a great way to launch my career and give me an in with the most serious work on my topic that's being done in the West. We had lunch on the patio, and were eventually joined by other archivally-minded FBs. It was nice to get them all selected out so I knew who they were.
The discussion inevitably became more broad, and ended up on the topic of unexpected Chinese perceptions. I should add that HT is about as white as white can be. But he told a story about arriving in a fairly small town late at night, and being turned away by the few hotels that were said to accept Westerners. So as a kind of last resort, he went into a smaller, wholly Chinese sort of inn. It turned out that he was able to negotiate for a room with the lady at the desk, and it was all going smoothly until she asked for his work unit ID. He said he didn't have one and offered his passport. At which point, the lady suddenly became hysterical and began screaming, "Waiguo ren! Waiguo ren!" (Foreigner!) HT said he was speechless. Like, that wasn't obvious before? She must have thought he was some kind of Uighur, or something? There are a few fair-skinned minorities, but gosh, he was pretty American looking! (A grand compliment to his skill in speaking Chinese, I would say!) He managed to get her calmed down and managed to be allowed to stay the night, but the next morning some grey, official vans picked them up and took them to one of the officially recommended hotels, which now of course mysteriously had room for them.
HT has a daughter who is half Chinese, and has spent some time in China, so I was naturally curious about her experience. Actually, just to emphasize what a small world it is, I gradually recognized her as someone Jesse had met during his workshop in Dunhuang two summers ago… but that's only by the way. He said she got all kinds of different reactions, from people just assuming she was Chinese, to being stared at for long periods of time, to being asked straight out. About like my experience in Taiwan, I guess.
In the early afternoon, we split up into groups. I was quite pleased with mine, as it was run by the former FB fellow who was an archivally-oriented PhD, a friendly-looking girl (bearing a slight resemblance to Renia, actually) who seemed most like me of the FB alums. It turned out her bf moves in the same circles as Kern, does Tang dynasty stuff. Small world again. Anyway, it was a great pleasure to meet her. She showed tell-tale signs of grad student insecurity (don't we all have a bit of it? Or everyone that's remotely human, anyway). But she did have a lot of good stories and bits of advice, and she was good at appealing to other people who might have expertise, while at the same time not being too self-effacing.
Again, I learned more concrete tips than I can possibly write down here, as well as many things that were not necessarily useful but extremely interesting. Advice on how to do interviews. (Boy, my advice to the FB people would be to insist that anyone planning to do interviews as part of their project get some training on how to do them! Some of the kids just seemed like babes in the woods. I mean, I'd be too, but I'm not planning to do any.) Miracle finds in dusty bookstores. Tips for putting off unwanted mail attention. How to structure time. The way the advisor system works. (Apparently, the university appoints you an advisor, who may or may not be helpful, may or may not be who you asked for. But they do have official responsibility for you. This was great to hear!) I also learned more about different people's specific projects. Male marriage mobility and cross-border marriage. Techniques of behavior control in pre-schools. Treatment of historic places within urban contexts (Shanghai). And so forth. The more intellectual, less activist projects, generally.
In the FB orientation setting generally, you felt kind of bad if you weren't doing something really contemporary and socially conscious. Others I talked to agreed. A certain envy, because the relevance for those folks is so clear and obvious. And (there were a couple of alums whose interests ran in that direction) they would get so swept up in what they were doing that their personal life and their project became one, total emotional commitment. That just isn't possible for dusty tome people, at least not all the time. But it's actually important to remind myself that there are trade-offs. It's important for some people--even a lot of people--to focus on the worst that humans can dish out to one another, and try their best to put it right. But (here the amorphous commitment to "intellectual cadres" has an intuitive sense) it may also be important for some people to look at the shining shining past, the ways in which people are admired not just for compassion in the face of atrocity but for brilliance and sophistication, for producing some of the best stuff humanity is capable of.
Well, civilization was a double-edged sword from the very start. Social stratification freed up some people's time for non-essential cultural production and condemned others to lives of mindless drudgery. Should we all be mindless drudges (a hellish averaging of the world income)? Should we all be leisured cultural elites (a utopian vision of some kind of highly mechanized future)? Probably there will always be some inequality. The future is a curious unexplored land, a murky obscured distance stretching so far and mysteriously we spend our whole lives in travel and discovery only to find that we die having experienced but a small piece of the seemingly infinite total territory. Perhaps that's why I like the grand vistas of the past. There are still frustrating uncertainties to be sure, not to mention trompe l'oeil illusions and deliberate deceptions. But studying the past is like getting to live for more than 2000 years, the early bits a vague and fairy-tale childhood, the middle parts full of painful and exciting growing pains, the most recent parts like being an adult saddled with the full and overwhelming complexities of life.
But I am going very much astray from my subject.
A pretty important fellow talked to us in the afternoon. He was a former ambassador, and current member of a think-tank. Right now he's working on mediating an improvement in Sino-Japanese relations, and was able to give a really informed view about them, as well as about Taiwan (it was one of his ambassadorial postings), U.S.-China relations (his specialty in the think-tank) and so forth. He was a fascinating guy, a real moderate, which I must emphasize because for some reason "conservative" and "think-tank" are so often associated that the latter almost seems to imply the former. But not in this case. Or if so, then I'm drifting right without noticing it. China, in fact, is a complicated political issue. It makes strange bedfellows, such as a different--quite anti-China--think-tank he mentioned which is comprised of former cold-war hawks on the right and labor activists on the left. His general view of U.S. policy toward China was that it has been basically unchanging for six successive administrations. Various presidents have tried to change it with disastrous results. It's stayed the same because there's no way to change it, at least no way that brings improvement.
The fellow talked for a while, but mostly answered questions. He struck me as very candid and very well-informed. I think we got to have him talking with us in order that we can have the best possible information on what's going on politically insofar as it relates to us, a real cut above the news media, if you see what I mean. Well, we're the State Dept.'s investment, after all, and we're a better investment if we're better informed! So it was again a feeling (for me) of getting a crash course in current events. This one was a really good crash course. Uncharacteristically, I was quite riveted--probably because it lacked the eye-glazing repetition, sensationalism, and obvious propagandizing of news media.
One thing he said, which brought together a bunch of other things I had been hearing, was that the only way to achieve human rights objectives with China is by focusing on issues that the government is either tolerant of or outright in support of. One that's hot right now is the idea of "rule of law." (Not a new one for China of course, if one looks at the whole of history!) American expertise in how to achieve this is actually reasonably welcome, though he emphasized that China has a long way to go (despite their de jure liberal constitution). Envision a supreme court ruling going against something the party wanted--that's how far. Still, in many things progress could be made and in fact is being made.
I could go on and on about all this, but it's getting late. There's nothing much notable about the rest of the day. Warm goodbyes to new acquaintances (friends? contacts?). I made my way back through the three separate trains. I was totally worn out by the time I got to the Junction, and, realizing I would face a half hour wait for the shuttle to Princeton and another half hour walk home (with suitcase in tow), decided on a 10 minute taxi ride instead. Exhorbitantly expensive (I really hate taking taxis in small towns, or at all actually)--why, it was like $2 a minute!!!--but it was pretty great to collapse into my own little house at 10:30 PM rather than 11:30 PM.
Today I have been exceedingly unproductive. The weather has been awful (rainy, hot, muggy), and I miss Colin a lot. He won't be back for another two days. I have to go to a baby-shower in the City tomorrow. I don't feel like virtuously working on my China trip or on my dissertation or on packing, all of which I really should be doing. Instead, I shopped around for a lighter, more reliable laptop. Bought a bigger suitcase and some Princeton junk for little presents to Chinese contacts (as recommended). (That crap is expensive.) Contemplated time differences. Ate weird food as part of the clean out the fridge effort. Got a headache. Eventually, I did some interesting bits of dissertation research, but haven't quite had the energy to write them up. Sigh. A downish day after all that excitement. Well, perhaps tomorrow will be better.