Liberal Barbarism

The European Destruction of the Palace of the Emperor of China

Thursday, February 02, 2006 Erik Liberal Barbarism, research blog No comments

I just set up a number of web pages for my new book project, The Fury of the Europeans, on the destruction of the Yuanmingyuan in 1860. The pages are here. The idea is to gather all my notes on-line, together with pictures, eyewitness accounts, maps and other primary sources. Eventually my own book chapters will appear here as well. The book will be published by Paradigm Publishers in the U.S. in 2008 (who also publish Charles Tilly, Noam Chomsky and other luminaries).

Strange, I have never seen anyone put live research notes on the web in this way. But it’s very convenient when moving from one library to the other and it’s fun to set up. Perhaps others are afraid of having their stuff ripped off. Well, but as scholars we are also supposed to contribute to the knowledge of society. Besides, publishing the sources give me a great feeling of actually communicating with someone. Communication is what it’s all about in the end.

Yesterday I spent in the special collection reading room at SOAS. It’s great to be back with dusty primary sources again. It’s been years. Yesterday I read an eyewitness account by this Frenchman, Jean-Louis Negroni, who was one of the first to break into the palace. He claims to have saved the emperor’s favourite courtesan, he even claims she kissed him! Anyway he stole a lot of objects which he took with him back to Europe — well, more about him some other time.

Thursday, February 02, 2006 Erik Liberal Barbarism, research blog No comments

The article I wrote about the Yuanmingyuan continues to conquer Asia — if that’s the right metaphor. A friend of mine took the independent initiative to send it on to a journal in Hong Kong, Century China, which published it last week (without footnotes and with their own subtitle). The article has had over 1500 hits in a few days and is already linked to by tens of blogs. A google search of this version of the article gives 377 hits!

Meanwhile, an authorised version, with footnotes and all — and in traditional Chinese ideographs — has appeared in Cultural Studies Monthly in Taiwan. This is the only version officially endorsed.

This success is a good reason to try to get a book out early rather than late, and in Chinese too as a matter of some urgency. I wouldn’t really need to publish anything in a relatively small language like English. Still, it seems Millennium, the IR journal, is interested in another version of the article. Great! This means I can incorporate the most recent research and some more stuff on transgression.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006 Erik Liberal Barbarism, research blog No comments

I wrote an article on the destruction of the Yuanmingyuan — the so called “summer palace” of the Chinese emperor — by Anglo-French troops in 1860. Song Nianshen, a student of mine here in London, very kindly and competently translated the article and we sent it off to Tian Ya, a Chinese cultural journal. We didn’t hear anything for a long while and, strangely, they neither rejected nor accepted it.

Today it suddenly dawned on us that they might be reluctant to publish anything on this topic right now. Some three weeks ago, the Publicity Department — the old Propaganda Department — of the People’s Republic closed down the liberal journal Bing Dian for publishing an article on 19th century European imperialism and the Yuanmingyuan. In China history is never dead and this 150 year old event can still make the authorities take fright and make heads roll. The complete story is here. Too bad I couldn’t place the article earlier, I could have contributed to the discussion (or rather the lack there of).

Now I hope Cultural Studies Quarterly in Taiwan will publish it. It’s an ejournal and Google permitting maybe it will reach some scholars on the mainland. Nianshen is excited to see it published in traditional Chinese so at least something good is coming out of this.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006 Erik Liberal Barbarism, research blog No comments

The latest issue of the Journal of World History has my article on giraffes. You can get it here, here or here.

In the 15th century Chinese ships were traveling to Africa and as part of this trade a giraffe appeared at the court of the emperor in Beijing. A few decades later another giraffe appeared in Florence, Italy, as Amerigo Vespucci and his fellow sea captains were preparing to across the Atlantic. There is a puzzle here. In the 15th century, when the Chinese suddenly stopped their overseas discoveries, the Europeans began theirs. My idea is that the two giraffes could help tell us why.

There are already a few references to the article — here and here. Everyone loves reading about giraffes! It was fun writing about them too although I was terrified my LSE colleagues would find out and start suspecting I wasn’t taking my work seriously. Somehow comparative giraffology just isn’t good enough for a political scientist. Now I can finally come out of the closet with my giraffes (and if you ever spent any time in a closet with two giraffes you know how great that feels!)

The secret reason why I wrote this article is that I wanted to make a reference to one of the most amazing book I’ve ever come across in my various readings:

L.C. Rookmaaker, The Rhinoceros in Captivity: A List of 2439 Rhinoceroses Kept from Roman Times to 1994 (The Hague: SPB, 1998)

Sunday, November 25, 2007 Erik Liberal Barbarism, research blog No comments

I’ve been reading The Great Wall of China by Arthur Waldron. He argues very persuasively that there is no such thing: The basic conviction that has thus emerged from my research is that the idea of a Great Wall of China, familiar to me since childhood, and with which I began my work, is a historical myth.

What does he mean by this? Obviously there are bits and pieces of walls, constructed mainly during the Ming dynasty, but there is no continuous wall stretching from the Pacific Ocean into the heart of Central Asia — and there never was! Instead the idea of the “Great Wall” was invented by Voltaire and other European philosophes at the end of the 18th century. It was part of their attempts to write-up the Chinese as a more rational civilization than Catholic Europe. To this day, the idea of “the Wall” lives on.

This explains a lot of things:

  • why the wall, according to excited and recurrent newspaper reports, “is about to crumble and fall apart” and why “large sections have vanished.” It was always thus.
  • why peasants living in the relevant area of northern China, to this day, don’t consider their local walls particularly “great.”
  • why you, contrary to rumors, can’t see the thing from outer space. There just isn’t anything to see.

OK, let’s check on GoogleEarth — I’ll do that tomorrow.

Friday, February 01, 2008 Erik Liberal Barbarism, research blog No comments

In his History of Persia and the Mongols, the 14th century Persian statesman and historian, Rashid-ed-Din, tells the story of how Kublai Khan, the Mongol ruler over China, had a vision of a palace in a dream. Waking up he decided to construct its material equivalent at his summer retreat in Chengde. This was the city Europeans knew as Xanadu.

In 1796 the English poet Samuel Coleridge took opium and dreamed of Kublai Khan’s palace. The poem he wrote about the place is a masterpiece of English Sturm und Drang. It’s images are violent, sexual and narcotic. The strange thing is that Coleridge didn’t know about Kublai Khan’s dream. The History of Persia and the Mongols was translated only in the middle of the 19th century.

Writing about this coincidence Jorge Luis Borges talks about the dream as eternal and the palace as temporal. Over time different people can participate in the same dreaming.

the similarity of the dreams hints of a plan; the enormous length of time involved reveals a superhuman executor… Such facts raise the possibility that this series of dreams and works has not yet ended. … Perhaps this series of dreams has no end, or perhaps the last will be the key… Perhaps an archetype not yet revealed to mankind, an eternal object, is gradually entering the world.

I know who the next dreamer was. I’m writing about him in my new book. It was James Bruce, the Eighth Lord of Elgin. He was a great fan of Coleridge’s and participated in his dreams of the exotic East. But Elgin was a vandal. He was responsible for burning down the Emperor’s palace on October 18, 1860.

This barbarian act made a joke out of the European plan to “civilize” the uncivilized Chinese. From the point of view of the dream, however, it might not have mattered. Elgin simply liberated the dream from its material foundations. Things last a short time but dreams go on for ever. The dream of the Emperor’s Palace is now waiting for its next dreamer.

Sunday, November 06, 2011 Erik Liberal Barbarism, research blog No comments

I came across this sign on the wall of one of the reconstructed buildings in the Yuanmingyuan compound. Perhaps it would have helped if they had had the sign up some 151 years ago — and perhaps it should have had text in French too.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013 Erik Liberal Barbarism, research blog No comments

One of last year’s greatest surprises was getting an article into IO, International Organization, the leading American journal on international relations. Now, it turns out, my article was also one of the most downloaded. OK, OK, I realize “most downloaded” doesn’t mean “best,” but still.


Access 2012’s most popular research from International Organization

Dear Colleague,

To kick off 2013, Cambridge Journals has gathered together 2012’s top five most downloaded articles from International Organization. Now through March 1, 2013, download these articles free of charge.

2012’s Most Downloaded Articles

  • The Illusion of Democratic Credibility (vol. 66:3) Todd S. Secher
  • Historical Institutionalism in International Relations (vol. 65:2) Orfeo Fioretos
  • The End of an Era in International Financial Regulation? A Postcrisis Research Agenda (vol. 65:1)Eric Helleiner, Stefano Pagliari
  • Performing International System: Two East-Asian Alternatives to the Westphalian Order (vol. 66:1) Erik Ringmar
  • Contingent Credibility: The Impact of Investment Treaty Violations on Foreign Direct Investment (vol. 65:3) Todd Allee, Clint Peinhardt

Stay tuned for the release of volume 67:1 later this winter, and make sure to explore Cambridge’s full catalog of political science and international relations journals at

Happy New Year,

Michael Marvin, Cambridge Journals

Saturday, April 20, 2013 Erik Liberal Barbarism, research blog No comments

Here are three suggestions for a cover that I just got from the art dept at Palgrave. I wonder which one I should choose?

I had an idea I wanted a peaceful, pretty, version of Yuanmingyuan to contrast with the often violent content of the book itself. I also don’t want a classical Chinese painting — covers like that are a dime a dozen. I really like picture in the middle, except that the house looks a bit too delapidated. What I want is Yuanmingyuan before the destruction. The cover to the right is out since it shows a building in the Forbidden Palace, not Yuanmingyuan. The cover to the left works, but since it is zoomed pretty heavily it looks a bit indistinct.

Diane doesn’t like the pink but I don’t mind. Admittedly it’s not a very Chinese color, but that’s sort of the point. I want to de-Orientalize the setting.

Another problem: there are too many words in the title. I wanted a colon between “Liberal Barbarism” and the rest, but Palgrave thinks that reduces the number of search results in Google or whatever. Perhaps there is a way to put “Liberal Barbarism” above the picture and the rest of the title below, in slightly smaller font.

Still, we’ll come up with something. This is good start 😉

Sunday, April 28, 2013 Erik Liberal Barbarism, research blog No comments

I had a bit of a bust-up with Palgrave regarding the cover. I thought it was beautiful and that they had done a great job coming up with an illustration, but I also thought the title was far to long. It looked ugly and was difficult for casual book-browsers to catch. I wanted to break up the title and put “Liberal Barbarism” above the picture and the rest below. This, apparently, is against Palgrave in-house style.

The Palgrave people then suggested that we break up with title in a main title “Liberal Barbarism” and a subtitle — and they provided various suggestions for subtitles. That way “Liberal Barbarism” could be in a large font and the sub-title in a smaller font. I then suggested that we’d go back to my original idea with “The European destruction … ” as the subtitle. Which Palgrave, very reluctantly and after serious arm-twisting, accepted.

There is a publisher’s lore that the main title has to be packed with key words and that it therefore can’t be catchy or too abstract. For that reason publishers always flip titles around. They thus originally wanted the book to be called “The European Destruction of the Palace of the Emperor of China: Liberal Barbarism.” To me, a title like this just screams of “academic book, hardback only, 87 dollars.” Or worse, “you are desperate to get your book in print so we can treat you whichever way you like and get away with it.” The original compromise was to run the main and the subtitles together into one and that’s what created the problem of the exceptionally long, and ugly, title.

The idea that titles have to be flipped goes back some 10 years and refers to the way search engines used to pick up key words back in the 1990s. Now it’s not a concern.  Google searches everything, all the time.

I won this one in the end, but I’m amazed at the stubbornness of the publisher and their lack of respect for my work and my efforts.