Taisho Project assessment

The project is here

I thought it went pretty well, although there are some things I need to work on.

I had the students do a survey about it, and most of them found it helpful, and other than a few complaints about the reading load  they seemed to have liked it and claim to have learned something from it.

I was reasonably happy with what they ended up doing. All of them read some stuff, and all of them learned something. Almost all of them were able to at least summarize an academic article.

In general, I need to do more to help them with synthesis and analysis. They mostly did fine with the chapter/article summaries, but had more problems with the group papers and final papers. The group papers tended to be summaries of the three articles/chapters they read rather than much of a synthesis or analysis. This was a common complaint from students about the oral presentations as well. They tended to do better when they were asked about things (usually by me) after their oral presentations. In general, they seem to have only started thinking beyond summarizing a reading when they got to writing their own papers.

-So maybe the solution is to meet with the groups after they have done their readings and before they do their group papers? Admittedly that may be a small window. Maybe meet with individuals after they have done their individual articles?

-They chose their topics from a large group of possibilities  To some extent I lucked out on topics, since they all picked things that went together well so the group presentations seemed related. (Military, Police, Radical Right, Technology for the nation, Colonial Korea, Taisho Democracy, Great Depression, Religion and Drugs.) You may notice a bit a skew towards the “right” and the state here. Consumerism group did their best, and I did a sample presentation on café waitresses, but the cultural side of Taisho ended up a bit left out.

-I think the prompt for the final essay mattered a lot. That is the target, and they will fixate on it. McClain helped by giving me something from the text that was both broad and steered them a bit, but maybe I could do better.

-Oral presentations should be about 10 minutes each. That is about where they all ended up in any case.

-I had a set of “big picture” articles that I shoved to the end of the list, in hopes nobody would pick them as their topic. I had considered having everyone read them, but that would have been way too much reading. I did recommend them when a few students asked, and they seemed to help

In general I think the idea of trying to do a sort of distributed research project, i.e. setting up the scaffolding so that undergraduates can sort of do a joint research thing like grad students in a seminar is one that can work. Taisho is a topic that works well for this, since it fits right into the middle of the class, comes after a clearly defined period (we did a book on Meiji) and before the rise of ultra-militarism. I supposed the Nanjing Decade in Modern China, amd Han and the Outcome of Classical Chinese Philosophy in Early China could sort of work for this. Less sure on how to do it in the Early Modern China and Japan classes.

Ask Historians!

You would probably not think of Reddit as the best place to go for historical knowledge. For those of you who don’t know it, Reddit is the place where anyone can discuss anything. There are sub-reddits on Disney Princesses, and on Toledo Ohio. More relevant to this blog, there are also 20 subreddits on  触手強姦

Ask Historians has more rigid standards about what they will post as questions and answers than most of reddit, and they also have 1.4 million readers. They call themselves “The Portal for Public History”, which is bothersome, since it gives the impression  that they don’t know what Public History is.

It is a great place to find out what The Plain People of the Internet want to know about the past.

So today we have questions about sexy ninjas

Were kunoichis/ female ninjas in ancient japan actually trained to kill their target by seduction and wearing revealing clothes and get their guard down, using hidden weapons, or is it just another women on the battlefield trope by movies?

but also broad comparative things that are really hard to answer, but that people like to ask

Why didn’t the Mongolian language spread as a prestige language in the Mongol Empire like Latin & Arabic did in their respective empires?

or questions like

According to the Pew Research center, 29% of South Koreans identify as Christians. Why were Christian missionaries so successful at converting people in South Korea, whereas they experienced far less success in other East and Southeast Asian countries?

One nice about the site that in many cases the questions will just not be answered. If nobody can come up with a good answer based on solid sources to a question like “Who would win in a battle between Alexander the Great and Oda Nobunaga” then the question just sits there.

 The other nice thing is that in many cases they will just point people to answers to the same question that have been given before. They have FAQs for Frequently Asked Questions. Also for Very Frequently Asked Questions.

Looking through these gives you a probably not very surprising view of what people want to know about history. Are you surprised that in the Japan section there are a lot of perennial questions about samurai warfare? Or that Korean history begins with the Korean War?

On the other hand, there are a lot of really good questions and answers that are both worth reading and worth pointing students to so that you don’t have to write long e-mails on

Why is there such antipathy to ‘New Qing History’ among mainland Chinese scholars?


In 19th century Yunnan there was a Muslim led revolt called the Panthay Rebellion. Why did this rebellion happen and why was there a Muslim population in Yunnan in the first place?

If you are looking for something to give you hope on the state of history on the Internet, this is a good place.

Syllabus Blogging for Spring 2022

As in the past, I need to order books for classes, and more generally think about what I will be doing next semester, so as always I am posting here.  Posting these things forces me to think about what I am going to do, gives students who google a chance to drop the class, and lets me benefit from your advice.

I am teaching three classes in the Spring (Being Asian Studies coordinator gets me out of one.) HIST 198 (Rise of Modern Asia) HIST 332 (Early China) and ASIA 200 (Introduction to Asian Studies) I will do these in reverse order of complexity.

ASIA 200 is always the most fun to teach, and the hardest to figure out. The basic idea of the class is to introduce students to different parts of Asia and different disciplinary approaches. So there are a bunch of units built around a book about China/Anthropology, Japan/Film, etc. If you are really interested in this I did a presentation on this, and you can see part of it here (recording started a bit late).

This class will run pretty much the same way it always has. They will be recording their movie presentations, so the only one who has to sit through all of them is me. The units (for now are)

China/Philosophy Nylan, Michael. The Chinese Pleasure Book.  New York: Zone Books, 2018. This worked great last time, so I will use it again. Of course it may have been because last time was the first Covid Spring, and students were in their rooms with nothing to do but read, but still, it was a good book that they got a lot out of. We used Perusall for discussion and this was the one time I got that to work. I think this book works well because it does what the students want (Help them think about themselves, give them the Wisdom of the East) and also does what I want, which is teach them something about Asia.

Journalism/ Afghanistan Gopal, Anand. No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes.  Metropolitan Books, 2014.

Journalism is always the first unit, since it makes a nice transition from general reading to more serious reading. I would be open to something else here, but this seems like the best recent book on Afghanistan before it vanishes from the public eye entirely, if it has not already.

The next few are a bit trickier.

Korea/Anthropology Kendall, Laurel. The Life and Hard Times of a Korean Shaman: Of Tales and Telling Tales.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988.

I was going to do this because it is a good book, and also because I could pair it up with some of her other writings so they can get both the ethnography version and the “academic” version. Also I need a Korea book because a lot of our students take Korean, and this unit will be some of the only non-language Korea content they get. Available cheap as paperback, which also helps. In theory anthropology is the one discipline I could drop, since they are likely to do other classes on Asian anthropology. On the other hand, if you want good, accessible books on Asian culture…Anthro has a lot.

Japan/Literature Shusei, Tokuda. Rough Living. Translated by Richard Torrance. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001.

I always do a literature unit in part because our school offers almost no classes that deal with Asian literature, and because this is a type of reading they are somewhat used to. Also, I can sneak some history in. This may end up being too close to Kendal in theme, but other than than it seems perfect. Tanizaki’s Naomi might work here, but some of the people who did that in History of East Asia may still be around.

History/Asia Perdue, Peter C., Helen F. Siu, Heidi Walcher, Victor Lieberman, Nancy Um, Charles J. Wheeler, Kerry Ward, et al. Asia Inside Out: Changing Times.  Harvard University Press, 2015.

f I did a fifth book there might be an open revolt, so maybe have them each pick something and do some sort of semi-group project base on the Asia Inside Out books. I am still sort of unsure about this, but in that this gets me away from the national straitjacket, and away from the “read a book and discuss/ write a paper about it” model. This struck me as the most obvious collection to use for some sort of group project , although maybe there are others?

Then the same film unit I always do.


HIST 332 Early China

A class I always like (well I like all of them) but that does not always fill up. This one has become pretty fixed. Start with

Lewis, Mark Edward. Sanctioned Violence in Early China. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.
Which does a good job of linking up and making sense of a lot of the early political history. (Also, since I am going to steal so much of the rest of the class from his other books it makes sense to have them get some of it right.)
Huainan, An Li King of. The Essential Huainanzi. Translated by John Major, Sarah Queen, Andrew Seth Meyer, and Harold Roth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.
Since the library database has the full edition, and you can do all your philosophy and have them do some sort of project.

Then the hard part. What do to with the Age of Disunion/Tang? One problem with all of Early China is that a lot of the stuff is pretty technical, and thus hard to find cheap paperback copies of and hard for students to get into. I have had luck with Teiser’s Ghost Festival book, very little luck with anything else. This time I thought I would try

Rothschild, N. Harry. Emperor Wu Zhao and Her Pantheon of Devis, Divinities, and Dynastic Mothers. Columbia University Press, 2015.
since this gives you both a bunch of politics and religion and other things. Any other suggestions?
HIST 198 Rise of Modern Asia The class for non-majors.  This will be the same as in the past with
Ghosh, Amitav. The Glass Palace: A Novel.  Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2002.
which they tend to like
Esherick, Joseph W. Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey through Chinese History. First edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.
which should pair well with it. They are both looking at a broad sweep of Asian history using the story of a family. In practice maybe half of them read Ghosh and far fewer read Esherick. I probably need to come up with some sort of short writing assignments for these. Most of our freshman can’t write an essay on one of these (or part of one of these) without a lot of scaffolding that I don’t have time for. Any advice on what type of short writing to try would be most welcome.

Sources in the digital age -馬馬虎虎

Particularly as I work on the visual culture of aviation (one of my current projects) I am getting both encouraged and discouraged about the state of sources in the New Era. You can find all sorts of cool stuff, but often in unusable or unstable forms. (not a revelation, I know.) Two examples (not involving old photos of airplanes)

Here is a map I used in my Modern Japan class, showing the Boxer uprising (one of Japan’s first internationalist adventures)

I found it here https://weaponsandwarfare.com/2015/08/page/46/

via a google image search. Its a nice looking map, with a lot of information, and an impressive degree of specificity. The image says it is copyright Australian National University, but there the trail runs cold. I can’t find it via a google reverse image search (which seems to be getting worse over time), so if I wanted to publish it, or more likely trust it more when I teach about the Boxers in a China class, I am out of luck, unless I ask around on Facebook. More access, less solid sourcing.1

Here is another image, from this very blog, showing Chinese exports to the US in 1976.

the blog post (link below) discusses how you can use https://oec.world/ to generate images to talk about the changing trade relations between China and the U.S. Could I make up a similar set of images to talk about Japan- U.S. trade for this semester? Well I could have then, but the site is apparently now paywalled, has dropped a lot of the historical data and/or no longer updating. The print archive was never as stable as it promised, but the digital archive seems to be even worse.

Teaching export-led growth

  1. I think the scholarly world is picking up on this a bit. I recently used an old Chinese cigarette ad. The citation I gave (and that the journal was fine with) was

    Shanghai cigarette advertisement, Fuxin Tobacco Co., 1935.
    This is an image that appears in many on-line and printed collections of Chinese
    advertisements. A version of it can be found at <http://www.confuciusinstitute.

Notes on Japanese Cuisine 1946

The table is set for sukiyaki I picked up a cheap copy of an old 19461 tourist pamphlet Notes on Japanese Cuisine by Katsumata Senkichirō (勝俣銓吉郎). I’ve scanned my copy and uploaded it to the Internet Archive here.2 The pamphlet pops up in at least two recent works by Eric C. Rath: in his afterward to Devouring Japan: Global Perspectives on Japanese Culinary Identity and his new 2021 Oishii: The History of Sushi. In the latter, Rath highlights one of the points that also first struck me when skimming Notes on Japanese Cuisine the first time: that it celebrates sukiyaki as Japan’s ‘national dish’.3 “Sushi (Fancy Rice Balls)”, the last entry in the pamphlet, is introduced as the final boss to beat in the game:

Along the safe lines of approach are—sukiyaki, kabayaki, tempura, and soba. When these Japanese delicacies appreciable even to the exclusively European palate have been tried with success, the explorer is in a position to penetrate deeper from this borderland into the realm of the strange. What next? The voice of experience will whisper to him—sushi.

Eels to broilThis is a fun little pamphlet to explore. Most of Katsumata’s extensive career of publications, including his 1901 collection and translation of humorous English language anecdotes to his role as editor of the 1954 edition of Kenkyūsha’s New Japanese-English Dictionary were related to English language learning and it is on show in the pleasant, if occasionaly hyperbolic, prose of the pamphlet, which offers a “rough charting of the sea of taste” in Japan. The rough waters are generated, at least in two sections, by the tension between “Tokyo” (Kantō) and “Kansai styles”4 of various dishes described, with those favouring the former sometimes given more voice their their claims to authenticity than the latter, e.g., “[the conclusion of those who favour the Tōkyō style of “sukiyaki”] is that the Kansai style may have fair claim to good economy, but that the Tōkyō style is the true way of a genuine lover of delicate taste…”5

The usual way of eating soba The most passionate language in the pamphlet is found in the section on soba or “Buckwheat macaroni”, Japan’s “food for the people.”6 The crop of buckwheat itself is described as having “a queer destiny of receding before the advance of civilization,” shifting over time and “follow[ing the] Ainu in its northward retreat from developing culture” and ending up in the “backward provinces” on the “shady side of Hokkaido”7 This “retreat” north of buckwheat is given an unusual amount of space and at once replicates a standard narrative of combined civilizational progress and northern conquest, but then pivots to celebrate its use: praising its more “primitive” milling methods and its rich nutritional content, or highlighting its deep connection to the Japanese people. “A public bath and a soba shop are the earliest suppliers of wants that come into being in a developing Japanese community; so intimately is soba interwoven with our life.”8

Of the various foods discussed in the book, it is interesting to note that the only lines connecting Japanese cuisine to the world beyond the archipelago are found in the second to last paragraph of the pamphlet, concluding the section on sushi:

It is on record that the heroic Empress Jingū had sushi among the provisions for her expedition against Korea some seventeen centuries ago. Sushi in those old days, however, was preserved fish, or, rarely, meat, pickled not in vinegar but by preservation in salt for a long time. The original idea of the present form of sushi is said to have been brought from China by people who were sent out amity, commerce, or intellectual pursuits…9

See Eric Rath’s new work on the history of sushi for a more extensive discussion of these origin tales, but most interesting to me is that this was what Katsumata decided to go with for the conclusion of his pamphlet: a nod to Chinese connections. Was this part of a likely earlier 1935 edition of the pamphlet, or something new added in 1946, one might wonder. This is followed by the final sentence of the pamphlet, which doesn’t exactly leave one with the image of sushi as the pinnacle of refinement: “Sushi is now widely used for convenience of handling in garden parties, athletic meets, and picnics.”

Nothing in the pamphlet is said, of course, of the most fascinating transnational culinary characters in Japanese history. In 2016 I was invited by our university’s student-run Japan Society to give a short talk on the history of Japanese food. I protested that I was knew nothing about the history of food in general, and not much more on Japanese food history, in particular. No matter, they assured me, just come and tell us a few interesting things about your favorite Japanese foods, and in exchange they would prepare exmaples of these dishes for everyone to try. So I replied that I could offer some historical background notes associated with the first edibles I was introduced to by my host family on my first trip to Japan, when I spent a wonderful summer homestay volunteering at a kindergarten in the countryside outside of Tateyama, on the Bōsō peninsula in 1995: korokke (paired with something), ramen, and Japanese curry.

Clearly, my hosts correctly judged their new arrival as anything but ready to penetrate into “the realm of the strange”, but the “borderland” to that realm I was first exposed to was not the one Katsumata was referring to in the form of sukiyaki and soba, but rather the borderland between Japan and its historic culinary interlocutors. None of these three, which all have their origins outside of Japan, were likely to be what the students had in mind, but the latter two, ramen and curry especially, have particularly rich culinary histories in Japan, and are still my two favorite things to eat in Japan today. To be honest, and forgive this blasphemy, I would still choose a cheap but delicious bowl of udon or soba with a nice crispy korokke, consumed standing (立食い) on the platform of some station over the most delicious sushi in Japan. Platform noodles were apparently already common when Katsumata wrote his pamphlet in the 1930s or 1946: he refers to “station buffets” that sell soba to passengers who “desire to snatch a quick lunch during the short stay of their train at the station”. My preference for a bowl of noodles and a potato croquette is obviously revealing: it is not you, sushi, it’s me! It is just the kind of carbs with carbs definitely-not-slow-food barbarian I was raised to be, taking my meals through life as I change trains from one task to another.

  1. A work by the same title, with Japan Travel Bureau as the author, is listed in the Japan, the New Official Guide (1941) p832 as a work published in 1935, which overlaps the period when Katzumata was, acccording to an autobiographical article (「私の歩んだ道」) by him, writing essays for the JTB. If a copy of the earlier 1930s edition is out there, it would be interesting to see what didn’t pass the SCAP censors for publication in a Japan under US occupation in 1946.  

  2. It should be out of copyright as of 2009.  

  3. Eric C. Rath Oishii: The History of Sushi, p139. Katsumata, Notes on Japanese Cuisine, p2.  

  4. in the case of Kabayaki, “lake Hamana seems to be the dividing line of the two different styles”, p7.  

  5. p4. 

  6. p14.  

  7. p16.  

  8. p21.  

  9. p24.  

Can a historian malign a ruling race?

A book I have been reading for fun this summer is Tim Harper Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire. It is a history of the various interconnected radical movements that tried to liberate India, Vietnam, Indonesia, China, etc in the early Twentieth century and how these people met up in Shanghai, Vancouver, Paris, Berlin, Batavia, etc and were tracked and manipulated by the governments of Britain, Japan, the U.S. etc. Here is a sample.

In May 1916 a Rumanian dentist called Max Kindler, who had arrived in Shanghai via Alexandria, Madras and Singapore -where he was wanted for ‘cheating’- came forward to inform on Ettinger. [Ettinger was previously identified as a “Yiddish-speaking Turkish subject under German protection”.] Short of money, Kindler had got caught up in the passport forgery racket. Here he picked up word, from an unnamed Greek, of a plot by Koreans -who were becoming the connecting tissue of many of these underground networks. They planned to raid an ammunition store and blow up the railway between Harbin and Vladivostok in return for German assistance in their struggle against Japan.1

It is a wonderful conglomeration of a book. I say conglomeration in part because it is mostly based on secondary sources but also, as the above quote sort of shows, it does tend to ramble a bit. There are certain themes he comes back to, like the growing state efforts to control free movement, but Harper is not making much effort to shove all this history into a 250 page monograph on Radical Asia. Instead we get a 600 page narrative that tries to follow all these people and groups through their activities, wanderings, love affairs, and prison terms.  Later groups like the Comintern would try to organize and rationalize all this, but one of the points of the story is that these people (rebels, con artists, romantics, students, informers and lost souls, sometimes all at once) don’t fit well into any categories. A tighter book would not have room for discussion of historiography.

This is from the court’s condemnation of Bhai Parmanand in the aftermath of the Lahore Conspiracy Case of 1915. Even the government’s informers agreed that he was not involved in the conspiracy. He had been arrested in 1909, however, in possession of the manuscript of his never-published History of India. This radical document, (researched in the British Library Reading Room), was enough to get him condemned to death. (Later commuted to transportation to the Andaman Islands). I think it is the longest quote in the book.

No doubt a historian enjoys certain privileges. Criticism, exposure and condemnation of what is wicked or unethical; approbation of what is noble and chivalrous; and vindication of the truth are some of the privileges universally conceded to him; but he has no right, under the guise of a historical treatise, to malign, traduce, or calumniate anybody; much less a ruling race, with the object of bringing the subject of his criticism into hatred and contempt, which as a citizen owing allegiance to a Government, he has no rights to assail. He may point out the demerits of a Government, or of a race, or of an individual; but if a historian takes up only the dark side, and studiously avoids all mention or does not even hint of any merit of the subject of his criticism, he is not a historian but a man who abuses his privileges and renders himself accountable to Government and the public.

Now there are times and times. In times of peace a dispassionate condemnation of a people or persons, albeit they be rulers or Kings, cannot be impugned; but to take up old things long buried and forgotten except in books, and to impress upon the subjects of a Government that it is an evil worth ridding themselves of is nothing short of sedition clothed in an ostensible historical treatise. Mutilation and distortions may be forgiven a historian, few are free from this fault; bias may be excused as human fragility; but perversion with a sinister motive cannot be forgiven.2

  1. p.283  

  2. pp 256-257  

Visualizing Qing history

Liu Junde has created a data browser you can use to draw things from the CGED-Q database of Qing officialdom.

Here is a description posted to Facebook by Cameron Campbell

An HKUST undergraduate in our Quantitative Social Analysis program named Liu Junde took the CGED-Q 1900-1912 Public Release data and created a data browser to do simple tabulations and charts. He originally did it over winter break on his own, and when he came in and show it to me, I hired him as a student helper to make some changes and prepare it for wider use. It has now reach the stage where we are ‘beta testing’ looking for people who might want to try it out. Take a look if you get a chance. It is currently hosted on a server that can probably accommodate roughly 10-12 users simultaneously.
If it doesn’t load right away, wait half an hour or so. Junde periodically has to upload revised code to the server.

Here is a breakdown of banner and non-banner officials in the capital and the localities, 1900-1912. This is more something I would use for teaching (rather than switching to being a Qing person) but even at that level it is a great graphic for showing the growth of the government in the New Policies period and the relative decline of the banners in the last years of the dynasty. It also brings up questions like were were they getting all those bannermen from? There were plenty of underemployed exam passers, but was there really a reserve army of unemployed educated bannermen? Or were they lowering their standards?

Mass weddings in China-New Life Movement

This is a picture from a New Life Movement Mass Wedding in Nanjing. Couples could be married for a fee of only $20 after filling out a few forms and being checked out by the Bureau of Social Welfare.1 I was somewhat surprised that the brides were all, apparently, in white. A quick search did not find me much on mass weddings under the New Life Movement, but according to the South China Morning Post, the mass weddings were modeled on those in Italy, Germany and Russia, but that “the motivating impulse differed from that in Italy or Germany, with a desire for economy taking precedence over patriotism or “exaltation of the race”.” in 1935 “Fifty-seven couples saved approximately $57,000 today when they were married at a cost of $20 by the Mayor of Shanghai.”2 I have no idea what I might do with this information, but here is the picture.

Also, here is a picture of Zhongshan Road in the 1930s, for those of you who know what the city looks like now.

  1. from Ma Chao-chun Nanjing’s Development 1927-1937: Report on the Activities of the Municipality of Nanjing. Nanjing: Municipality of Nanjing, 1937 p. 64  

  2. https://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/short-reads/article/2069486/when-hong-kong-held-its-first-mass-wedding-11  

Syllabus blogging HIST 437 Modern Japan and the Taisho project

Update Here is the more or less final draft



So, a bit late,but some syllabus blogging for Fall. At present this is supposed to be an in-person class. This class starts in 1850 (Tokugawa has its own class) ,but the main thing I was hoping to get some advice on is

The Taisho Project

In the past I have usually tried to have them read and write about some articles/book chapters they choose themselves from the ones I have selected for them. Ideally they would each pick the things that interest them most, and each segment of the class would be enlivened by having a few students who have dug a bit deeper into the topic. It sort of works, but runs into all the problems you would expect. So instead we are going to do a thing were they all read articles/chapters on aspects of interwar Japan, present on them, and then write something based on what they have learned from each other.

Continue reading →

The changing Chinese press

Cécile Armand has been posting on her work on the evolution of the Republican-era Chinese press, based on Carl Crow’s Newspaper Directory of China. Although this is a source with limited coverage (it was aimed at advertisers who wanted to pick out the best Chinese and foreign language newspapers and periodicals to sell things in) it does provide a consistent series to let her track things like the expansion of the press outside the major centers,changing layouts etc. It also has circulation numbers, which are often hard to find. As she acknowledges, Crow’s coverage was not complete. From my own poking around Crow’s1935 edition lists 88 publications founded in 1931. 王桧林,朱汉国 编 -中国报刊字典(1815-1949 )- 书海出版社 太原, 1992 lists 142 for the same year, all in Chinese. There are a number of discrepancies between the two right off the bat. 西北文化日報 is the first new publication for 1931 that Wang and Zhu list, but Crow has it starting publication in 1929.1 The next is 读书月刊, published in Shanghai. This ceased publication in 1933, so it should not be in Crow’s 1935 edition, but it is also not in the 1931 edition. 安徽建设公报 is also listed in Wang and Zhu and not Crow, although it maybe did not take advertising. One thing I would have liked was a bit more on how representative Crow is. I suppose it would not be that hard to pick a year and try and come up with a list of a lot of the things that were in print that year that are not in Crow and say something about what the Crow sample -is-. What sort of journals is Crow leaving out? (I assume the more left-wing things were not selling much advertising. ) How would the changes look different if you counted pages published rather than number of titles? (A 30 page monthly is not the same thing as a 50 page weekly). Is the expansion of publishing into the provinces a change in the overall Chinese publishing industry? Or just an artifact of Crow’s clients reaching deeper into the provinces to find customers? How much of the change in English-language publishing (by far the most important non-Chinese language) is a change in foreign readership and how much a change in the Chinese readership for English language periodicals? (Wei Shuge dealt with some of this.) I am finding it really interesting digging through all this, but it is making me hungry for the later versions of the study with more context.


  1. This is not that surprising, since any two sources may have different data and also these two were collecting data differently. Crow seems to have mostly worked from what the journal publishers told him, and Wang and Zhu were working from what they could find in libraries.  

Teaching East Asia ​In the Humanities

This looks like a cool conference, at least till the last panel.

Teaching East Asia In the Humanities

April 24-25, 2021


The last panel has me talking about my experiences teaching Introduction to Asian Studies, which is something I also post about a bit here. I am posting all the documents (Draft paper, a bunch of syllabi and a bunch of paper prompts) for the presentation here. Hope to see you at the conference.

Continue reading →

The economics of maize

Here, for your teaching pleasure, is a long quote on the value of corn (maize) in China. I often mention in class that New World crops were economically valuable, but I usually do not have much for details. Here is a long description of the Ten Conveniences and Five Profits of maize, taken from a memorial written to the Qianlong emperor in 1762 by a district magistrate named Wang Chongli. Wang seems to be pretty knowledgeable about the economics of peasant life.

Many grains are constrained by the season when it comes to planting and cultivation. Maize can be sown from February to April. There is no need to rush planting and rush harvest, this helps with utilizing agricultural labor. This alas is its first convenience.

When it sprouts , it grows into rough leaves and tall branches. they are not disrupted and impacted by wild grasses, weeding hence can be done later (not rushed) this is its second convenience.

It can be sown closer or far apart, the taller varieties even more so. It is very east to weed and tend, as they are not closely clustered. This is its third convenience.

When it blossoms, it grows a fluffy tail; strong wind and heavy rain don’t damage it. This is its fourth convenience.

It ripens but doesn’t turn yellow, drop to the ground and ruin itself. It can wait until you have harvested and stored other grains. This is its fifth convenience.

Its grains are firmly engrained to its kernel such that it would not fall unless you peel it; This makes it easy to pick and harvest. This is its sixth convenience.

Once it is picked, one can leave it anywhere, hence no need for pots and containers. This is its seventh convenience.

With other grains we need to separate the grain from its shell. Maize does not need this process of shelling. This is its eighth convenience.

We can pound it, grind it, turn it into grain or powder or make noodles; we can cook it whole, boil it and eat it any way we prefer. This is its ninth convenience.

We can tuck it under the sleeves (Chinese sleeves were often long and wide and could serve as wallets or bags) and take it on the road; we can eat it when it’s cold. This is its tenth convenience.

It grows deep and into four to five branches, each branch yields hundreds of grains, and this is far more than any other grain species. This is its first profit.

The red ones are hardy and the white ones are stickier, similar to other grains: this means it can be used as rice, it can be used to make wine or steamed buns, and they are filling. This is its second profit.

Its grains do not have skins; this makes its powder purer and softer than other grains. each dou (Chinese unit of dry measure for grain = 1 decaliter) can turn into 8 0r 9 sheng, the leftover can turn into 1 or 2 sheng to feed the animals which grow fatter on this. This is its third profit.

It can be eaten alone; it is even better when mixed with others like rice and wheat. This is its fourth profit.

Its brushed and branches can be used as fuel and they last longer than other do; they can be used as cushion materials for building and roofing. This is its fifth profit.


This quote is from Zheng Yangwen China on the Sea: How the Maritime World Shaped Modern China. Brill, 2011. pp.123-4. Zheng points out that this opinion is “virtually the same” as that published by a Spanish doctor in Mexico, published in 1591.

The American Geographical Society’s China

In a recent posting, I took a look at the Taiwan volume in an old series of colorful books called the “Around the World Program” published by the American Geographical Society. After discussing the series as a whole, I suggested that some of the most interesting features of the Taiwan volume (1968), specifically, was its lack of interest in the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the island, and the way in which it seems to minimize any engagement with the political context of Taiwan’s history and society, with its boldest critique of its dictatorship being to admit that it was “not so democratic as some may wish.”

Out of curiosity, I returned to ebay to order an old copy of the China volume in the series, published in 1972, the same year as Nixon’s visit to China that February. What would the volume have to say of the Chinese government in the depths of the cold war, but at a transition point in US relations with China?

It is primarily the images and maps of the book that give a geographical or anthropological feel. The text of the book is largely built around a chronological narrative, open with a tired reference to Napoleon’s warning about China as the sleeping giant, and taking us on a whirlwind tour from the Shang dynasty to the present. There are lots of the usual patronising, or stereotyped depictions, sometimes couched as compliments, but this doesn’t exactly make a work of this time (or our own) stand out as unique.

The narrative of China’s modern times is fairly straightforward. A critical overview of Western imperialism in China, Sun Yat-sen and the founding the republic, and an admission of the failures of the Nationalist government, which “did not really represent the people, nor was it successful in promoting democracy…” It continues with criticism of the corruption of the nationalist government during the second Sino-Japanese war, which “made no attempt to improve conditions for the farmers…” In contrast, the Communist-held areas, “fared somewhat better” where “everyone was poor, but equally so.” In 1946 “the civil war behan between Nationalist and Communist armies, and the exhausted, ill-fed, disillusioned people refused to support the government any longer. Thousands of government troops surrendered to the Communists with their modern American trucks and arms, and in 1949 the People’s Republic of China was set up in Peking.”

The narrative then abruptly switches to Taiwan to track Nationalist rule there and noting the 1971 loss of its control of the United Nations seat for China, ending with the ominous observation, “the question of who will finally control the island is still unfinished business.”

What really stands out in this volume, however, is the section on post-1949 PRC history. It opens with a short overview of the plucky Mao, and the lesson he learned during his time underground, “work for the interests of the poor people, especially the peasants, since they are the majority of the population.” In everything that follows we see the same “optimistic, modernist tone” that Janice Monk has argued is a feature of the series as a whole, regardless of the specific challenges of the country under examination.1. Lots of details on infrastructural development under Communist rule follow, including great strides in agriculture, mining, industry, and education.

From our present 2020 view, the moment that stands out most in this narrative, comes on page 50:

“If the weather is bad, as it was in the years 1959, 1960 and 1961, people just tighten their belts and use less, hoping there will be no famine, that the weather will improve soon, or that grain will be brought to their region from some luckier part of the country or from abroad. During those three years China suffered very severe droughts in both the rice-growing south and the wheat-growing north, but as a result of tight government control there was no widespread starvation. This showed what the Chinese could do in hard times, and it also showed how important it was to expand farm production rapidly.”

Here is the “three years of natural disaster” or “three years of difficulty” explanation, attributing to adverse natural causes any “belt tightening” that might have been required at the time. The Great Leap Famine, which resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese thanks to a combination of catastrophic government agricultural policies was a devastating low point for the regime. Here, we are assured that, thanks to “tight government control” there was “no widespread starvation” – which is almost an exact inverse of the truth.

Beyond memoirs of those who visited China I’ve not read widely in publications on China from this period written by foreigners and in the global press, so I can’t say anything about how unusual this presentation of this CCP standard line is for its time beyond the writings of enthusiastic fellow travellers.

More generally, however, this book shares with its Taiwan volume counterpart an uneasiness about lingering too long on awkward observations about political realities that stray from its, “things are getting better all the time” general message. Its section on the operations of the government admits that Party control is “far-reaching; in fact, there seems no part of life that is beyond it.” After explaining how the National People’s Congress is elected, it notes, without further comment, that they gather to “approve laws recommended” to it by the party.

It is the absences that are most striking. Perhaps because children are one target audience or some other desire to avoid spoiling the mood, violence finds no explicit mention anywhere in the volume. Even the section on the war against Japan merely notes that people became impoverished and refugees fled west. It is acknowledged that the Cultural Revolution (still technically ongoing at publication of this volume) was “an important event” that involved the “purge” of some of the party leadership, but the closest we get to mention of violence is that there were two years of “virtual chaos.”

The final paragraphs of the book focus on China’s changing role on the world stage. “In the world arena one of China’s primary goals has been to challenge the power and leadership of the Soviet Union in the Communist realm,” and, bringing the book to a close, you’ll be glad to know that “China’s explosion of an atomic bomb…and the launching of an artificial earth satellite…were proof of what a poor backward country can achieve in twenty years, if the people are willing to work hard. Indeed, China’s achievements since the revolution show that it must be recognized as one of the great powers of our time.”

  1. Janice Monk, “Women’s Worlds at the American Geographical Society” Geographical Review 92.2 (2003)  

Korean social history through yadam

I was recently sent a copy of Si Nae Park The Korean Vernacular Story: Telling Tales of Contemporary Chosŏn in Sinographic Writing (Columbia U.P., 2020) It’s not really a book I can teach with, since it is $65.00 in hardback and I don’t teach any classes that would call for a book on the genre of yadam, stories of daily life in Korea written in Literary Sinitic. Park “combines historical insight, textual studies, and the history of the book. By highlighting the role of negotiation with Literary Sinitic and sinographic writing, it challenges the script (han’gŭl)-focused understanding of Korean language and literature.”

Yadam apparently used to get less attention than they should, in part because they don’t fit very well in the categories that later Korean scholars would like. They were written in Literary Sinitic, but grew out of oral stories of the upwardly mobile non-Yangban groups of Late Chosŏn. So where to they fit? Are they elite literature or popular? Oral or written? Are they -Korean-? Needless to say for modern scholars this sort of border-crossing, genre-bending stuff is exactly what they want to study. Park is mostly looking at No Myŏnghŭm‘s (d. 1775) Repeatedly Recited Stories of the East, which included 78 stories on topics from the Japanese and Manchu invasion of Korea to marriage, the lives of scholars (and especially those on the edge of the scholarly world), kisaeng, the sons of concubines, the wonders of Seoul, stories of history and kings, etc.

I found the book enjoyable and informative on that level, but what it mostly did was make me wish there more translations of yadam collections that I could use in class. I rather like using things like Feng Menglong’s Sanyan Stories where the whole class can read a few together and then you can turn them loose on a larger corpus of stories to do some sort of research project. Park only includes two fully translated stories here. One of them is “The Story of a Slave Girl from Chirye” This is a pretty standard “Slave girl uses thrift and geomancy to rise in the world, becomes concubine to a poor scholar and forges a marriage certificate, moves to Seoul with her two talented sons, has someone who is about to expose them murdered and then lives happily ever after” sort of story. It is a fun story to teach with, but you need more to build a big chunk of class around.

Park has actually been involved with the editing of a larger collection of yadam stories Score One for the Dancing Girl, and Other Selections from the Kimun ch’onghwa: A Story Collection from Nineteenth-century Korea James Scarth Gale trans. Ross King and Si Nae Park eds. (U. Toronto, 2016) Gale was a missionary who died in 1937, and it shows, but 704 pages of stories is worth getting into print. The Kindle edition is $66.00, so you could not use it in class, but my library has the e-version through EBSCO. As you can see from the story below, the translation is a bit old-fashioned, but it has both the Korean and the Literary Sinitic text as well, so if you want to get your students into things like that this would be a good collection.

Pages from KimDongukKingRo_2016_6_ScoreOneForTheDancing

The Songs of Chu

Columbia University Press sent me a copy of Gopal Suku’s new translation of Qu Yuan’s The Songs of Chu. I am not qualified to speak about it as a scholarly translation, but in any case I was mostly interested in it as a possible book for a class.

I don’t usually assign much poetry to my students, since they tend to be more resistant to that than to other forms of reading. I usually have them read bits of Book of Songs in the sophomore-level History of East Asia1 and I have had them read some Sima Xiangru in the upper-division Early China class, but that is about it. I have used some of Qu Yuan in class, and I did assign the Hawkes translation once in Early China. (I like to rotate texts a lot.)

The reasons you might want to use this are pretty clear. “The central theme in the Chuci is the hardship encountered by a moral person born in a corrupt age, specifically one who serves a benighted king.” (p.xv). Qu Yuan was so popular for so long because he was a figure from the Age of Philosophers who’s story fit in with the concerns of the later literati elite. Plus since the poems are from Chu you can bring in issues of central vs. regional cultures, there is lots of stuff on cosmology and religion, stuff on slander and court politics, and the text fits in with a lot of stuff on how the Han re-worked and “rationalized” a lot of classical culture and texts. Also, you can encourage your students to join your school’s Dragon Boat team.

The problem, of course, is that a lot of these themes not as obvious in the text as you might hope. The Hawkes translation, like this one has a long introduction explaining a lot of the context and relevance. This edition is better than Hawkes for a few reasons. Most obviously, a lot of work has been done, and a lot of texts found, in the years since Hawkes did his translation, and thus in this edition the context is a lot clearer. You can dig a lot deeper into teaching Li Sao with Gopal Suku that you could with Hawkes. Of course both editions suffer from the problem that they have lots of long endnotes, and you have to read them to understand the text.  -I- like this, since it gives you a way to actually understand a fairly allusive set of poems and you learn a ton of stuff from it. On the other hand, it is also a lot of unfamiliar work for students. In this respect the Sukhu edition is better than Hawkes, in that it explains far more of the people and events touched on in the test. Hawkes seemed to have assumed you either already knew who Shensheng of Jin was or could guess well enough from the context to go on with the poem. Sukhu gives you a note with the whole story. One thing I would like to see done differently is to post the notes to the CUP web page as a single file. This would cost nothing, make reading and understanding the text (with your phone or an additional screen) a lot easier.

How is it as a translation?

Here is the first bit of Yuan You (Wandering Far Away) from Sukhu

Grieving at a dead end in a degenerate time,
I wished to be weightless, to ascend and wander far away,
But with no such power among my feeble gifts,
What would I ride to float in the sky?
I was sinking into a bog, overwhelmed by filth,
In stifling sadness-who was there to turn to?
Wide-eyed, sleepless nights I lay alone,
Till morning light fell on my cowering soul.

Here is the same from Hawkes

Grieved by the parlous state of this world’s ways,
I wanted to float up and away from it.
But my powers were too weak to give me support:
What could I ride on to bear me upwards?
Fallen on a time of foulness and impurity,
Alone with my misery, I had no one to confide in.
In the night-time I lay, wide-eyed, without sleeping;
My unquiet soul was active until the daylight.

Here is the Chinese, from C-text

Translating archaic poetry is far above my scholarly abilities, but the new version reads better for me even if it is less literal. “My unquiet soul was active until the daylight.” may be closer to 魂營營而至曙, but it does not sound as good as “Till morning light fell on my cowering soul.” I think students would react a lot better to the new version. Of course this bit also emphasizes one of the problems with Chuci as a teaching book. For me the whinging of a middle-aged man who thinks the world is shit and he has wasted his time trying to make things better is a UNIVERSAL THEME worthy of Joseph Campbell.  Students don’t react as well to this, but as early texts tend to not have a lot of student-friendly themes I suppose I can deal with that.

So it this a good book to assign? I would say yes. The main reason is that it is a good translation and I think some of it will stick with students who read and think about it, which for me is a huge part of why I assign things. It is an ideal source for illustrating the self-image of the Confucian scholar-official, a fine source on the nature and complexity of early texts, and an excellent source on early Chinese cosmology and the relationship between society, the state and the cosmos.

That said, I am not sure I will assign it. A lot of the issues it does well with are a bit more than I want to get into in my Early China class. It would be hard to displace the Essential Huainanzi for a lot of the important political issues. It is a much easier book to recommend to a student than the Hawkes, however, and I could see some of the individual poems working well in class.

  1. I have assigned the whole thing a few times