Help me pick some books

Book order forms for the Fall are on my desk again, and again I am going to ask for any advice people might feel like sending my way. The two Asia courses I am teaching are Modern Japan and Introduction to Asian Studies.

Introduction to Asian Studies is the tricky one. It is supposed to introduce our Asian Studies majors and minors to the study of Asia. I learned from my evaluations last time that some of them expect the class to cover all the societies of Asia from all possible disciplinary perspectives. I am a bit more modest in my goals and usually build the class around four or five books and a couple of movies that deal with several different parts of Asia from various disciplines.

The theme for this time will be “Protest and Dissent in Asia”  and I was thinking of using

-Multatuli Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company Indonesia, colonialism, and it’s a novel!

-Apter and Sawa Against the State:Politics and Social Protest in Japan Japan and Political Science. Has anyone used this?

-Nir Rosen In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq Iraq (obviously) and journalism. I like making them read something by a journalist, since they read a lot of journalism stuff anyway and should learn how to work with it. This title jumped out at me, but It has not arrived yet and I have not yet read it. Any other suggestions?

John W. Dardess Blood and History in China: The Donglin Faction and its Repression 1620-1627  China and history. I have my doubts about this. I liked it, but will it work for students? I like making them realize that the world existed before 1800, but this book may not work. There must be some biography or whatever of some pre-modern dissident that is out in paperback. Maybe do Keene’s Frog in a Well  and dump Apter and do something Poly-Sci ish on China, like Lee’s Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt?(really more Anthro than poly-sci, actually)

Basically, I am looking for good books that will stick with students. Any recommendations are most welcome.

For the Modern Japan class I am going to use a textbook and probably

-Walthall The Weak Body of a Useless Woman: Matsuo Taseko and the Meiji Restoration
The one stop shop for all your Late Tokugawa society, Meiji politics Gender and Economics stuff.

-Kawabata The Scarlet Gang of Asukusa looks very good, although I have not used it before. Has anyone tried this?

-Then something postwar. But what? I did Embracing Defeat last time and it worked o.k., although I think it was a bit too long.


  1. What do you expect your students to know and do after the course ? That they can read, or able to read further and understand what they read, or to be able to analyze social issues, literary issues, cultural issues, political issues, scientific issues ? What is the purpose of taking the course at all ? Just to get credits ? Without answers to these questions, it is very difficult to recommend anything, except the Dreams of the Red Chamber – a very good read, and some insight to the way Chinese works socially and politically. Some juicy stuff about life style too.

  2. If you’re looking for something Chinese to replace Blood and History, what about Spence’s Treason By the Book? On Japan, there’s fantastic stuff in Berry’s Culture of Civil War in Kyoto but it’s a tough book for undergrads: very dramatic material, but her arguments are subtle sometimes. I used it once, and was not terribly happy with their reactions, but it was kind of an outlier that semester — mostly primary sources, so it was the only real secondary material — and they weren’t well prepped for it.

    For the Modern Japan class, I’ve been using Bumiller’s Mariko’s Secrets for a while, very successfully — very solid journalistic ethnography for the immediate post-bubble — but I’m about ready for something else. If you want something closer to the war, Ezra Vogel’s old Japan’s New Middle Class is pretty good, and you can then talk about how predictions and patterns may or may not be borne out (though it may not be in print, of course). Re-imaging Japanese Women is another possibility: all post-war, but a variety of material.

    I’m in the process of trying to adapt my courses out of their three-course sequences down to two courses each, so I’m having to refine my choices to avoid piling on too much. I think I’m going to have to lose the Mao biography, or shift from Terrill to something much shorter, like Spence (though I’ve already got his textbook: might be too much Spence?)

  3. Shouldn’t a survey course on Asian Studies with a concentration on protest/dissent include India? On the Sepoy Rebellion there’s a recent title, War of No Pity by Christopher Herbert. On Gandhi and non-violence, one could allow the man to speak in his own words. Certainly Central Asia with its Muslim population is worth a stop-off: The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform by Adeeb Khalid. And for Inner Asia, anything by Owen Lattimore or Rene Grousset.

    As far as China, what about the Taiping Rebellion (God’s Chinese Son, Jonathan Spence)? The White Lotus Rebellion was interesting, but perhaps students might like The Vermilion Pencil by Homer Lea, a novel about triads and the Shaolin Temple by an American general for Sun Yat-sen. Broader concepts can be presented with these conflicts than a late Ming gasp of NeoConfucianist factional politics.

    I am uncomfortable with the heavy emphasis on monographs, but, when one breaks Asia into themes, I suppose that’s all there is. You have my sympathy: one longs for the sweeping generalizations of The Great Tradition and The Modern Transformation sometimes.

  4. Thanks to everyone for all the tips. I will probably end up using Mariko, and maybe Spence.

    Yes there should be something on India. One part of the class is always a research/oral presentation thing and I was thinking of having them do something on a contemporary Indian protest movement, since they can read the Indian papers and websites. Any tips on a short book on contemporary Indian politics for them or a long one for me?

  5. The Kawabata book sounds fascinating — if you use it, please let us know how it goes.

    You probably know Ian Buruma’s review in the New York Review, “Virtual Violence” (Volume 52, Number 11 · June 23, 2005).

  6. With apologies to Elizabeth Gaskill, contemporary Indian political science studies tend to be split between North (Hindi) and South (Tamil). There are some quite good specialist monographs (again), which can be a bit daunting for undergrads not familiar with the religious and political parties that have risen and fallen since 1947. Perhaps two surveys might suffice: Changing India: Bourgeois Revolution on the Subcontinent by Robert W. Stern from Cambridge UP; and Understanding Contemporary India, Eds. Sunit Ganguly and Neil DeVotta. The former focuses on caste, politics, and religion, while the latter covers “everything” in about 300 pages. One of the more trenchant researchers is Paul Brass, whose works you might look at: e.g., The Politics of India since Independence. A colleague recommended Religion and Political Conflict in South Asia: India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka by Douglas Allen. This book’s virtue lies in its coverage of areas with three distinctly different solutions to society (Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism). My friend also threw out the writings of Mark Tully, a former BBC commentator, and V.S. Naipaul as ones of a lighter sort (I submit “lighter” is not quite the word for Naipaul’s works).

    As an aside, there have been in the last 10 years several good films on India: Salaam Bombay, Monsoon Wedding, Earth, Bollywood Calling, English August, Hyderabad Blues, Gandhi, and A Passage to India. I live in the Los Angeles area where it is simple to see/get these movies; I don’t know whether you can where you are. You mentioned you use films so I suggest these as an aid.


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