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History professor looks at China's Century, country's intellectuals

One year after Ken Hammond began his latest research mission to China, he believes the country is beginning to reclaim some of the respect and power it once owned.



Ken Hammond, assistant professor of history at New Mexico State University. (NMSU photo)

"Many people in China feel that after almost two centuries of humiliation and oppression at the hands of the Western powers, and Japan, their country is finally reclaiming its rightful role as a respected and powerful nation," said Hammond, an assistant history professor at New Mexico State University. "There is an ever-growing pride in that country, even though the realities of China's economic position and military establishment lag far behind the kind of leading role China played throughout most of the world history before 1800."

As president of the Society for Ming Studies, the national academic organization for scholars studying the Ming period in Chinese history, Hammond has extensive knowledge of Chinese history and has visited China on numerous occasions since 1982. He lived in China from 1983 to 1987 and his most recent research assignment, from August through December 1999, was funded by a $20,000 grant from the American Council of Learned Societies.

In Beijing last year, Hammond conducted research on Chinese intellectuals of the middle 16th century. In particular, he studied how the intellectuals promoted their ideas and views during the Ming dynasty, which lasted from 1368 to 1644.

But he also got a glimpse of what to expect from China in the 21st century.

China symbolized the beginning of the year 2000 by ringing a giant bell that was modeled after one that was cast early in the Ming dynasty, around 1400. "The parallel to the early Ming is intentional," Hammond said. "That was the dynasty which restored China's rule after a long period of foreign domination."

According to Hammond, many in China are calling the new century "China's Century."

"The idea of a Chinese century may be seen as implying the end of what many have called the 'American Century.' But China's return to a prominent position in the world need not be equated with some decline or eclipse on the part of the United States," he said. "If the U.S. wants to continue to share the stage with China, it is incumbent upon American leaders to seek a realistic, clear vision of the future and the role of both countries in it.

"The sheer size and dynamism of the Chinese population and economy mean that before too many years go by, China will be a force which must be reckoned with."

Hammond believes if China's Communist Party can retain some minimal level of trust on the part of the mass of ordinary Chinese, it will be able to hold onto power. But trust, or the lack thereof, was one of the downfalls of the Chinese government during the Ming dynasty.

Hammond expected the focal point of his 1999 research mission to China would be on the south side of Beijing, at the 1540 to 1550 residence of Chinese intellectual Yang Jisheng. The house is a rare survivor of the 16th century domestic architecture in Beijing and is a protected property of the Cultural Relics Bureau of the Chinese government.

Jisheng and other scholars were not allowed to meet in political organizations, according to Hammond, but they were allowed to meet socially in poetry groups. Known as the Archaist Group, Jisheng and some of the other Chinese intellectuals wanted China to revert to a more archaic form of writing, which they believed promoted higher cultural values.

Jisheng got into trouble by talking openly about a corrupt government, Hammond said. He was executed in 1555 after he accused Yan Song, China's chief grand secretary, of trying to take over Emperor Jiajing's authority.

One surprise Hammond came across during his research trip was Jisheng's 36-page autobiography from 1555. Hammond found the relic at the Chinese Library of the Academy of Social Sciences. He also found a newly built shrine in memory of Jisheng in the small village of Beihezhao -- where 80 percent of the village's 1,400 residents are descendants of Jisheng and still carry the surname Yang.

"In 1967, Jisheng's old shrine was destroyed during China's Cultural Revolution," Hammond said. "In those days, buildings related to the old Imperial government were destroyed by the young Red Guard, and many of them were probably members of the Yang family."

Hammond has already translated Jisheng's autobiography into English and is now studying it further. "This document will become the focal point of the first half of my book on Jisheng," he said. He expects his manuscript could be finished in the fall.

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PHOTO: Hammond.jpg
CUTLINE: Ken Hammond, assistant professor of history at New Mexico State University. (NMSU photo)

Dan Trujillo
August 15, 2000