E.P. Thompson: The rebelious traditional culture

Just read the introduction and a small portion of E.P. Thompson's Customs in Common. A couple of intriguing thoughts here:

---I really like Thompson's close attention to the "crowds," their moral economy, and what does "custom" mean to them. The 18th century English food riots should not be reduced to an economic man's instinctive reaction against hunger, but a deliberate defense of the paternalistic order of food pricing and distribution. While the urban elites were pushing toward an open and "free" market where price was supposed to be self-regulated, the "crowds," or the common men, seemed rebelious against these rationalized, "enlightened" new political economy. They were rebelious, yet also traditional.

---It made me think about the use and abuse of the word "mob" and "riots" and "the mass" in current China. Are the "mass" really ignorant of the State's authoritarian nature and the widespread inequality between privileged/unprivileged groups? If the current right-wing elites are pushing exactly what the English elites did in the early 19th century, could the anti-wealth sentiment in today's China mirror what Thompson described as "the rebelious traditional culture?"

---The word "custom" really says more than "culture." It's more personal, more reasonable and with more clues to start investigating with. Whenever people attribute anything solely to "culture," it really does not make much sense to me.

---JK focused on the transformation in late 18th-early 19th century England mediated by the elites in his class. What interested me more, however, was the "crowd," the "pleb," the ones who, according to Mandeville, "inure their bodies to work for others." Actually in his preface to his book published in 1991, Thompson noted that a historical inquiry into customs is important, because what we mean by "custom" or "popular culture" most notably include "needs" and "expectations." The raising expectations of material needs (along with the devaluation of traditional cultural satisfactions) continues with irreversible pressure today, says Thompson. The transformation was accelerated by "universally available means of communication," and "one billion Chinese" has begun to feel it, as well as countless people in Asian and African villages. If the liberalism elites share more or less the same creeds and intellectual legacies everywhere, the "crowds" (plural!) deserve closer attention and a fuller recognition of their customs and motives other than the economic, "primitive" ones.

---If you compare Thompson and Qian Mu, the difference is apparent. Qian really did not pay much attention to the crowds at all.

-----------dividing line between academic and sentimental moments----------
So much for Thompson now. I saw a videoclip of Guo Lanying singing "Ge Chang Zu Guo" last night and couldn't stop my tears. I still remember vividly how my grandma taught me this song usually late into the night, when I was only 7-8 years old. We will prepare warm water to soak our feet for a while, and she will teach me this kind of songs. That was the happiest time in my life, ever.

Mourn for Sichuan.


一格 said...

It seems that this memo is written for me, or at least partially:) Thanks for doing so. I've really got inspired by your notes! I admire your efficiency in reading and reflecting a lot!

eyesopen@bdwm said...


木头 said...