Mapping China from the air

Since I have been posting maps, I thought I would put this up.

This is from Shigeru Kobayashi 小林茂, Gaihōzu : Teikoku Nihon no Ajia chizu 外邦図 : 帝国日本のアジア地図 (Tōkyō : Chūō Kōron Shinsha, 2011) Although a -lot- has been written about cartography and ways of mapping national territory much of this focuses on the nineteenth century and before. Part of the reason for that focus is probably that by 1900 much of the world had been mapped. No need to map the China Coast in 1901, it has already been done. Another reason may be that after the airplane mapping was a lot easier and thus there is less to say about it. This is a diagram of the photo-mapping of Shandong the Japanese did during the Jinan Incident

The purpose of sending Japanese troops to Shandong was not to bring along planes and start mapping Chinese territory, but as long as you are there….The text talks about some of the difficulties with this process, but basically mapping your territory (or someone else’s) got a lot easier in a hurry at this point. Also see Sakura Christmas, “The Cartographic Steppe: Mapping Environment and Ethnicity in Japan’s Imperial Borderlands,” (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 2016),

Radio in China

I was looking around for some information on Chinese radio during the Republic and discovered that there is not much out there. There are some cites in this thesis, (Wei Lei, University of Technology, Sidney 2015) which is not written by a historian.

More fun, however, is this article

This feature originally appeared in Modern Mechanix, an American magazine, in 1937. I am not sure how good the early history of radio part is, but the later bits seem to have been drawn from some American who was working in the thriving business of selling radio equipment in China. Some interesting stuff to follow up on….

The other religious station is of a different nature. It is the Fo Yin station, and is operated by the Shanghai Buddhist Association. The organ of a section of Buddhists which believes in discarding the old tradition of tranquility and making an aggressive campaign for religion, this station reflects an evangelistic fervor comparable to that of many American Christian institutions. Music, impassioned orations, lessons and plays with a religious motive can be heard at almost all hours of the day or night, and the station is among the best known in China.

Mass education activities in Hopei province also make wide use of the radio. Conforming to orders of the Ministry of Education, radio sets have been installed in all middle schools of Hopei province, and programs of the mass-education movement are sent out from several government-owned stations simultaneously. In its campaign to educate adults as well as children and to make the masses literate, the Ministry of Education plans an increasing use of the ether waves.

Recently the Chinese Government ordered all stations in China to pick up a broadcast from XGOA at Nanking between 8 and 8:30 o’clock every night and to re-broadcast it. The program, it was announced, would consist of good music, talks, and news announcements in both English and Chinese. A howl immediately arose from operators of stations in Shanghai, particularly the foreign-owned stations, who resent the surrender of one of their best broadcasting periods to the Government. Although the Chinese stations objected also, they quickly complied with the Government order, but the foreign stations showed a disposition to resist. Finally, however, all except two, an American and a French station, decided to comply. The Government is still attempting to reach an amicable agreement with the two defiant stations which will result in their following the example of their colleagues.

Princess Iron Fan and the origins of Asian animation

Like most of you (I assume) I knew that Princess Iron Fan 鐵扇公主 (1941) was China’s first full-length animated film. Also like most of you I assume that you wanted to know more about the background of a full-length animated film made unoccupied Shanghai ( i.e. in the gudao 孤岛 or isolated island, the part of the city that was not occupied by the Japanese between 1937 and 1941) I also assume that like me you were too lazy to research the background of this film. Fortunately for us all, Daisy Yan Du is less lazy, and has done a fine job of explaining the background of this film in Daisy Yan Du, Animated Encounters: Transnational Movements of Chinese Animation, 1940s–1970s (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2019). One of the reasons the film is so famous is that Tezuka Osamu the “God of Manga”saw it in Japan as a kid and was profoundly influenced by it. In discussing his version of the Sun Wukong story he said

However, what really opened my eyes , impressed me deeply, and sparked my desire to create today was Princess Iron Fan, the first Chinese animated feature film., which premiered in Japan in 1942. (pg. 58)

Du gives the background on inspiration for the film (Disney’s Snow White) , but most interestingly, for me at least, deals with how it ended up being shown in Japan and becoming, in some respects, the origin story of Asian animated film. It was the direct inspiration for 桃太郎の海鷲 Momotarō’s Sea Eagles (p.52), Japan’s first almost feature length animated film.

She also deals with what to make of Iron Fan, which was a big issue for the film at the time. It was made by the Wan brothers and a team of 250 artists starting on April 25, 1940. The film opened on Nov 19, 1941, in Shanghai. As you can see below, it was still running on Dec 8, 1941, when Japanese troops marched into the International Settlement and French Concession.

But what to make of it? Chinese film censors were not big on films that were not clearly and explicitly war propaganda, and Japanese censors were on the lookout for any signs of anti-Japanese thinking. What to make of a traditional fantasy story about a monkey fighting a Bull-Demon King? Was this a resistance film? Tezuka Osama certainly thought so, and the Wan brothers claimed as much after the war. Was it part of folding Chinese culture into the Greater East Asian Film Sphere? Those who brought the film to Japan clearly thought so, and the Wan brothers were congratulated for striking a blow for the “Oriental Spirit” against Hollywood and Western films. (p.48)

I was also happy to find out that, as shown in the link at the head of this post, there is now a free version with English subtitles so I can show it to my students.

Confucius hates Japan

Once upon a time I was big into Chinese currency. Not so much as a speculator, but as one of the people who bought old banknotes from people who were selling them all over China and Taiwan. I even did a post about it, and published a version of it. I still have a lot of the old stuff around and use it in classes, but there is one question that has always eluded me.

A number of the people selling me old banknotes had a story about the Japanese occupation notes, and while it took several forms, the basic gist of it was that one of the Japanese occupation governments issued a note with Confucius giving an obscene gesture to some sort of symbol of Japan. The artist who slipped this in was supposedly executed, although of course that would be a small price to pay for pulling off something like that.

Confucius does indeed turn up on a lot of puppet banknotes, which is not surprising, since he fits in well with the whole Pan-Asian Kingly Way (王道) ideology. Is the story true? Well there is some evidence. Here is a standard Confucius, who turns up on a lot of puppet notes. As you can see, his hands on most of the notes are in that standard Confucius mudra,

But, as you can see on this note, he is sometimes different.


What I would like to know is First, does anyone know if this is an actual obscene gesture that he is making with his hands? Second, does anyone have a source for the story about the engraver slipping this in that is better than my source “some guys who sell banknotes told me this”?

Iron Man Wang

For your teaching pleasure, here is the story of Iron Man Wang, from China Reconstructs, Sept, 1977. I have a pile of old 70’s Chinese propaganda magazines that I scored when the University of Illinois East Asian Studies Center was tossing them out. I would have saved a lot more, but I assumed that piles of this cool old Maoist stuff would always be pretty much free for the taking all over. Foolish boy.

I use some of these for student assignments, and this is a nice story of a hero worker that gets into a bit on conflict between different lines and the importance of Maoist enthusiasm. It should work well with Son of the Revolution, which is the final book for this class.

Opening vignettes on Tokugawa prostitutes

I never really responded to Jonathan’s post on opening vignettes as pedagogy, but I do like using them. In fact, I will be using a couple Monday. Sometimes I do this by putting a short bit of text on the screen and reading it with them. Sometimes, like this time, I print things out.1

Next Wednesday the students will be leading a discussion on Amorous Woman and so Monday I need to talk about Geisha and prostitutes and the trade in women on Monday. I hope to do this by stealing shamelessly from Amy Stanley. Her chapters tend to start with a story, and I will be passing out one of hers and one from a review. We will see how this goes.

Two stories about Tokugawa prostitutes

Kokane ran away with a man named Sodayu in 1614, leaving behind her husband and her home in the remote mining town of Innai Ginzan in Akita domain.1 She was taking her life in her hands. It was illegal for a married woman to leave town without her husband’s permission, and it was also extremely dangerous. Although the major military engagements of the Sengoku, or Warring States, era had come to an end, this corner of the archipelago was far from peaceful. Even the newly appointed lord of the domain (daimyo), Satake Yoshinobu (1570–1633), a fearsome warrior in his own right, found it difficult to impose order. While he ensconced himself in the fortified castle town of Kubota, the area along the domain’s southern border remained ungoverned. Bandits hid out in the mountains, ready to ambush those who dared to traverse their territory.2 For a woman, even one accompanied by a male companion, the journey over the steep and thickly forested terrain would have been perilous.

Kokane must have had a good reason for breaking the law and risking her life. The record of her disappearance offers an explanation for her reckless escape attempt: her husband, Tahei, had been hiring her out as a prostitute (keisei). There is very little information offered about her accomplice Sodayu, who could have been her lover, a procurer who promised her a job in another city, or a guide she paid to lead her through the mountains. In any case, it made little difference to Akita domain officials. Regardless of the circumstances, the couple had committed a serious crime by absconding. Since the domain had a financial interest in retaining Innai’s population of laborers, who extracted silver for the government’s coffers, officials imposed the death penalty on those who left the mine without special permission.3 Some absconders were able to argue their way into more lenient punishments, but Sodayu had compounded his offense by stealing another man’s wife. Clearly, he deserved the harshest possible sanction.

Because Sodayu’s crime was so straightforward (and so egregious), domain officials knew exactly what to do with him when they apprehended the couple in the mountains east of the mine: they beheaded him on the spot. But they could not reach an immediate decision in Kokane’s case, which was unprecedented in Akita domain’s short history. What was the appropriate punishment for a married prostitute who ran away with another man? At a loss, they gave her Sodayu’s head and sent her back to the settlement at Innai. The decision about Kokane’s fate was left to the domain’s general mine magistrate, Umezu Masakage (1581–1633). In a terse account of his deliberations, sketched out in a few sentences in his diary, he stated that Kokane deserved the same punishment as Sodayu. But then he seemed to reconsider. In the next line, he mentioned that her husband, Tahei, had invested a large sum of money in her. By juxtaposing these concerns, he suggested the contours of his dilemma: he could not execute Kokane without unfairly depriving her husband of his property, but he could not pardon a married woman who had absconded with another man. Because she was simultaneously a wife and a prostitute, a person and a possession, the magistrate puzzled over the correct response to her transgression. Stolen property would be returned, but an adulteress, particularly one who had compounded her crime by absconding, might deserve to be executed. While he struggled with the implications of Kokane’s multiple identities, Masakage never condemned Tahei for sending his wife out to work as a prostitute. In Kokane’s situation, the categories of “wife” and “prostitute” had come into conflict, but only because she had absconded without her husband’s permission and forced the magistrate to make a decision about her punishment. The idea that the roles of “wife” and “prostitute” were inherently contradictory, that a woman whose sexual body was available to multiple men belonged in a fundamentally different category from a woman whose sexual body was available only to her husband, did not enter into his deliberations. From Masakage’s perspective, his task was not to disaggregate two mutually exclusive categories of women, but to decide on a penalty that was appropriate for someone who belonged within both at once.         

In the end, Masakage ordered an unusual, and rather spectacular, punishment: he forced Kokane to parade around the mine holding Sodayu’s head. Apparently, the magistrate believed that the sight of a woman carrying a severed head (which was by then a few days old) would serve as a disincentive to others who might be tempted to commit similar crimes.4 After she had completed this humiliating task, he returned her to Tahei. This compromise reconciled Masakage’s desire to punish Kokane with his unwillingness to deprive her husband of his property. Yet it did nothing to settle the larger question about her legal status. She remained both a wife and a prostitute.

Amy Stanley Selling Women Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. 23-24

In 1806, a resident of the castle town of Hamada in Iwami province petitioned that his older sister Kinu be removed from their family registry due to her disappearance together with a man named Tokubei. Yet nearly eight years later, both of them suddenly returned. Asked about their unexplained absence, Kinu related that Tokubei had initially convinced her to accompany him to Osaka with the promise they would marry. In her testimony (kōjō-oboe), which was submitted to domain officials within a few weeks of her return, Kinu provided a detailed account of the many events that had transpired thereafter.1

To begin with, upon arriving at Tokubei’s residence, Kinu quickly discovered that he was already married. After a short stay in separate lodgings, she was sold for five ryō to work at an establishment in the city’s licensed quarters (yūsho). Almost six months later, Tokubei again visited Kinu, this time to take her to a Kyoto middleman through whom he had arranged for her sale to an interested party in Edo. Because the move required Kinu’s endorsement and she expressed strong reservations about making the journey alone, Tokubei agreed to escort her. Even so, his role as chaperone lasted only as far as their entrance into Edo’s Yoshiwara district, at which point Tokubei furtively negotiated Kinu’s sale to a local brothel owner and promptly absconded with a profit of thirty ryō. Left with no other choice Kinu continued to work as a prostitute (yujō) until, later that same year, her contract was bought out by a man from Kawagoe with whom she then cohabited for the next seven years.

Following the man’s death, Kinu grew lonely and longed to see her mother back in Hamada. She therefore sought out the assistance of relatives living in Edo and through their intervention acquired permission to join the entourage of a warrior from her native domain who was just then departing for home. Travel proceeded smoothly until the group passed through Osaka, where Kinu parted ways with these companions and an old associate cajoled her into meeting with Tokubei once more. Despite avowing to have learned her lesson  from the events of recent years, Kinu nevertheless consented to speak with Tokubei and even accepted his offer to schedule and pay for the remainder of her trip. That night, however, while feigning sleep, Kinu chanced to overhear a conversation between Tokubei and his wife in which they discussed plans to sell her into service in one of the many port towns that dotted the Honshu and Shikoku coastlines of the Seto Inland Sea. A few days later Kinu attempted to escape, but she was soon caught by Tokubei and beaten severely. Undeterred, Kinu apologized repeatedly and pleaded for permission to visit her family, if only briefly. Tokubei ultimately relented and brought Kinu back to Hamada on the fourteenth day of the tenth month of 1813.

Eason, David. “Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan by Amy Stanley (Review).” Monumenta Nipponica 69, no. 2 (2014): 278–83.

  1. Don’t tell my chair, we are in a budget crunch  

Classical Chinese for Everyone

Looking for a fun book? Look no further! Bryan Van Norden’s
Classical Chinese for Everyone: A Guide for Absolute Beginners is it.

This is a book for anyone who would like to learn a bit of Classical Chinese. Although the standard assumption is that if you are studying Classical Chinese you already have a few years of Modern Chinese this is not really necessary. If you look at the reviews of classical Chinese textbooks on Amazon you will see that there is a sizable group of people who are not planning on careers as Sinologists but would like to learn some Classical Chinese. This book is for them.1

One nice thing about the book is that it does not exist in a vacuum. He gives you references to all the other books out there and electronic resources like Pleco and C-text. He even admits that if you want a quick but good explanation of Kanbun the place to go is Wikipedia. While this is a book for beginners, it gives you all the tools you need to keep going. You don’t need to know about reading pronunciations 讀音, or the sexagenary cycle 六十干支, but Van Norden explains these and leaves you hungry to learn more. He is a philosophy teacher, and he is teaching Classical Chinese as a way of getting students into philosophy, so there is a good deal of philosophical content in here.2 Have you really been introduced to Analects if you have never read one of Zhu Xi’s commentaries? Not for Van Norden.

The other nice thing about the book is that it is a lot of fun. Van Norden has actually printed a lot of his classroom jokes here, and they are pretty good.

James R. Ware was the first person to receive a PhD in “Chinese Studies” from Harvard University (1932), but today he is best known for his translation of Analects 2.12: “The Gentleman is not a robot.” I would give you the original Chinese text of that passage, but it wouldn’t help.3

He also includes a few bits where he gives you various English translations of things so you can try to work out how different people tried to work out a translation. Or you can just gaze in wonder at Boodberg’s translation of 道德經 1

If you, or one of your students, or someone on your holiday gift list are interested in a career as a Sinologist, or would like to learn just enough Classical Chinese to say you know a bit, or just like learning interesting things from a good teacher you should get this book. It is by far the most fun language textbook I have ever read.

  1. Van Norden uses Rouzer’s textbook for his students with some background in Modern Chinese. I have used that as well, on the few occasions I have taught classical, but this seems a better introductory book.  

  2. That is probably unavoidable, since so many of the early texts are “philosophy”, but he frequently steps away from the language lessons to specifically explain the ideas in the text.  

  3. I will give it to you though, 子曰君子不器  

Bullets and Opium-Tiananmen thirty years later

Image result for Bullets and Opium

Part of my summer reading has been Liao Yiwu‘s Bullets and Opium: Real-Life Stories of China after the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Liao got in trouble after the Tiananmen massacre,1 spent time in prison, and then spent a number of years trying to get by in Chengdu before moving abroad. Like his previous Corpse Walker this is a book of interviews. Like Corpse Walker it is not something I am likely to assign in class, but it is a really good book.2

You will note that I say he got in trouble during the Democracy movement, not that he was part of it. He was part of it in some respects of course, but the focus of this book are his fellow thugs. These are the non-university students who got involved in the movement, and got tossed in jail for it. There is a clear class divide in this book between the university types (who were rather cold towards these working class supporters even in 1989) and the people in this book, who are not likely to turn up at Davos.

Some of these people have sold out. Liao tells the story of meeting with couple old friends.

At the time, my wife was editing a weekly entertainment magazine published by a Chengdu nightclub. She was afraid that my shaved head was too conspicuous, the sign of an inmate, so she bought me a wig and forced me to wear it. I once went to the club to pick her up because it was late and I was worried about her getting home safely. As soon as I entered the club, I ran into the two managers, one fat and the other skinny, both of them drunk, both old friends of mine who used to be poets. Together we had run an underground poetry zine that poked fun at the Party. Of course they were both more idealistic and patriotic than I was during the 1989 student protests, publicly reciting their anticorruption poems on cam­pus. The night of June Fourth found them in Tianfu Square in Chengdu, bringing food and water to the students who were skirmishing with the military police, and ferrying the injured to hospitals.

At the club they recognized me right away. The fat one seized my wig and cried out, “What’s this counterrevolutionary doing in disguise?” The thin one yelled, “A girl for the counterrevolutionary!” I broke out in a cold sweat. They both roared with laughter and pulled me into a private room for a drink.

Three hostesses came in and started up the karaoke machine. The fat man produced his wallet and gave them all 100-yuan tips as if he were handing out candy. “Do you still write poems?” asked the skinny man.
“I haven’t been able to. I guess I just don’t feel like it,” I said.
“Well, if you do ever feel like it, try changing your tune and writ­ing poems that sing the praises of nightclubs, Chengdu nightlife, sexy women, and spicy hot pot,” he advised. “We can print your poems under a pseudonym in our magazine, the one your wife edits.”
I was dumbfounded. “You guys used to be dirt-poor poets who couldn’t even afford a decent bottle of booze. Where did you find the money for this place? The rent alone must cost you hundreds of thou­sands of yuan per year.”
“Just take out a loan and you can spend all you want,” said the fat man. “There’s someone I know at the bank who will take the building and facil­ities as collateral. Unfortunately, the girls don’t count as collateral.”
“Being poor hasn’t been socialist since Deng Xiaoping touted eco­nomic reform on his famous tour of southern China back in 1992,” the thin man chimed in. “Protesting for democracy won’t get us any­where. Money will.” p. 12-13

While some are selling out, that is not really the theme of the book. Most of these are people who were left behind. They might be willing to sell out, but nobody is buying. After some years in prison doing hard labor (did you buy latex gloves in the 90’s? One of these people may have been blowing into them to check for leaks. Did you see Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower? The armor was made by prison labor.) they are dumped on the street to fend for themselves, and mostly not succeeding. Divorce, booze, lousy jobs and constant harassment are their lot. “It was all very well to be killed for what you believed in, but I had been condemned to eke out a miserable existence indefinitely”3 In Liao Yiwu’s own story he mentions erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation several times, and all of these men (they are all men) are having trouble with what seems to be the main goal of their lives, which is settling down with a wife and a job and having a family. They have not really given up on politics, in the sense that they have forgotten what happened or have forgiven anyone. Some of them continue to defy the authorities, subtly or not so subtly, and we get to see the Chinese justice system in action, as in the story of Chen Yunfei

Chen had read my account of Wu’s death in The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up and had long wanted to get to present a bouquet of flowers at Wu Guofeng’s grave. He wanted to meet Wu’s parents, one of whom suffered from migraines, while the other had lost a kidney, and see if they would take on the animal tamer as a kind of adopted son. But when the animal tamer got to Xinjin, he was surrounded and captured by over a hundred “police beasts.” His crime, long ago determined by the relevant organs, was incitement to overthrow the government and troublemaking.

After being locked up for two years, Chen’s animal taming case was taken up in court. The prosecutor read the indictment. When Chen’s law­yer argued that he wasn’t guilty, the judge constantly yelled and inter­rupted him. People from his home village, who had gathered outside the courtroom to support him, were put one by one into a mobile animal cage. When the time came for the animal tamer to make his final statement, the judge glanced at his watch and told him that he had one minute.

Chen took a deep breath and started reading his statement. “Dear lawyer and swindlers of the prosecution: I have been tortured for over two years now. I feel like the legendary Monkey King who was thrown in the furnace for concocting the pills of immortality. It felt so good in there. The prosecution, the beatings, the wearing of leg irons that I have gone through are like math problems: the more difficult they are, the more interesting they get, and the more significant they become. I want to thank the swindlers of the prosecution again for making me the man I am today. Thank you for making me into a household name for spread­ing propaganda throughout the whole world on behalf of the cause of freedom of speech and opposing dictatorship and tyranny. It satisfies my vanity, though in reality I am not so good or brave as a person- ”

“Shut up!” roared the prosecutor.
“I always warn officials wandering near my prison door, for their own good: Ahead is a great abyss; retreat from it, repent, and be saved, or they will destroy you in the end-and they always do. People on the Internet ridicule me, saying that I am the black crow prophesying doom. Whoever I mention ends up going to jail … ”
“Shut up!” yelled the judge, the prosecutor, and the court stenogra­pher all together.

“Swindlers, stop before it’s too late … ”
“Seal his mouth! Son of a bitch!” they shouted, and the court bec­ame a combat zone as the roars of lions vied with the growls of tigers. The police rushed forward, but the animal tamer dodged them. The police swung their clubs and hit the face of the accused. Blood splat­tered in all directions, but he kept on reading his statement: “Lord, please forgive me . . . and forgive the swindlers of the prosecution because they know not what they do. I say this prayer in the name of Jesus, the son of our Heavenly Father … ”
They pushed the animal tamer to the ground. Once again his lips swelled up like a pig’s snout. The judge wiped the sweat from his face and sentenced Chen to four years in prison. Chen said he refused to ac­cept the sentence, swearing to appeal because it was too light. p.161

The state continues to persecute them, but for most of them their only sentence is to be poor and lack connections in contemporary China. Liao Yiwu is not happy with the direction China is going.

The Chinese people have become slaves waiting and willing to he plundered and trampled. And the Party said to Westerners: Come on over, build factories, set up businesses, construct tall buildings, and design computer networks. As long as you don’t talk about human rights or pick political scabs, you can do whatever you want. In your own country there are all those laws to obey and public opinion to worry about. You aren’t free to do as you like. You should come here and work with us. Come to our country and get dirty with us. Please go ahead and mess up our rivers, skies, food, and underground water resources to your heart’s desire. Come use our cheap labor. Make our people work day and night. Reduce them to nothing more than machines on the assembly line. By the time most people in China come down with different kinds of cancers in their bodies, minds, and characters because of all the pollution, you will have made even more money in this, the world’s biggest junkyard, where there will always be more business op­portunities than anywhere else.

In the name of free trade, many Western companies conspired with the butchers. They created a junkyard. Their profits-first “garbage system of values” became ever more influential. The Chinese people all knew that the butchers had the money and had their escape routes ready-that they would, in the end, abandon their scarred and battered motherland. They would all emigrate to the West to enjoy that pure land and its sunlight, its liberty, equality, fraternity. They might even join a church there and ask that same Jesus, who was nailed to a cross in ancient times by tyrants, to atone for their crimes. p.9

Perhaps the most depressing thing about the book is that he and his subjects almost seems like time travelers, still talking about democracy in China in 2019.

  1. I suppose as an American it is my patriotic duty to call it a riot, like our president does, but I think massacre fits better 

  2. It does not really work for me as a classroom book because the focus (like Corpse Walker) is on people at the absolute bottom of society. This makes it less representative than I would like for a classroom book for any of the things I teach. It might work well for a Contemporary China class 

  3. p.17  

“What I Read Over Summer Vacation” (part one?)

I’ve been on something of a tear through my to-read pile in search of… well, I’m not entirely sure some days. A lot of what’s in that stack (conceptually, it’s a stack, a pile, a shelf, whatever. In practical terms, it’s scattered around my office and there’s a branch of it at home.) is there because of my teaching, looking for new books to assign, or new work that might refresh/change my understanding of something which I teach about.

Only one of the books has been about Japan: Unbinding The Pillow Book: The Many Lives of a Japanese ClassicBook by Gergana Ivanova. This is one of a new genre of works – well, new to me, anyway – that I really like: histories of the changing reception and understanding of a work over time. It’s kind of a literary historiography, and for certain works, knowing how those shifts happen really can help immensely in understanding why something’s important. I’ve assigned a couple of the Princeton Lives of Great Religious Books in my South Asian survey – it’s one of my few courses that takes a rocks-to-rockets approach, so connecting the classics to modern reception is a great way of spanning the whole territory – and I thought this one might work for my similarly broad Japanese Women’s History course. In the end, I don’t think I’d assign it, though I certainly got a lot out of it, which will affect the way I talk about it as a source, at least. And as a quick introduction to Edo-era literary publishing and genres, it covers a lot of interesting ground.

China - 6c Northern Western Wei - Acrobat Tomb Figure
I’m always looking for ways to broaden my Historiography course, too: it’s very US-centric, because the vast majority of our graduate students are focused on, or at least mostly trained in, US history, though I do assign Paul Cohen’s History in Three Keys which covers some fascinating ground and basic theory. So I had some hope for The Letter to Ren An and Sima Qian’s Legacy, something I picked up at ASPAC a few years back, I think. It’s not long, but it should have been either shorter or longer… it’s a fascinating project, actually, an edited volume that takes an intense look at the provenance, authorship, and historical meaning of a short, but culturally important, document, though philological, historical, historiographical, biographical, and political lenses. But it’s repetitive, because each scholar has to describe the letter, context, and arguments in their own way, and they do; it’s also so focused on the authorship question that the “Legacy” part of the title is largely implicit, which I found quite disappointing. The authorship question itself is fascinating, and as a window into the immense challenges of talking clearly or even confidently about ancient texts and people, it’s first-rate. (If you’re the kind of person who assigns chapters instead of whole books, you could easily get away with picking almost any of them, because they all address each other’s arguments… like I said, repetitive)

Perhaps most disappointing, in terms of syllabus construction, is the last two books I just read, Timothy May’s The Mongol Conquests in World History (2012) and Valerie Hansen’s The Silk Road: A New History with Documents (2017, revised from her 2012 edition). Not that Hansen’s book was a disappointment: I learned a great deal, and she’s doing her usual thing of drawing on concrete details to sketch out real lives, and her final conclusion is immensely thoughtful (spoiler: the Silk Road was mostly about ideas and skills, mostly transmitted by religious pilgrims and refugee migrations, and mostly not about stuff except when governments like China threw enough resources into garrisoning strongholds to provide the economic stimulus to move large quantities). It’s just that she spends so much time and energy telling the reader the sometimes exciting stories of how the documents were found, and how the stuff was found, and how they’ve been fit into the historiography, and focusing on findsites (a term I didn’t know until I read this book) by organizing the story around specific sites, only roughly chronologically sequenced, that I fear only an extended close reading with students would be pedagogically sound, and when I’m looking for a supplemental reading in World History, that’s not really what’s going to work. I could see making graduate students read it, especially in a methods class, but the disjunction between the historiography-centric chapters and the “let’s assign these to beginning students” questions attached to the documents (which are mostly too short to be really fun for me, but then I assign long stuff) just doesn’t work. But at least she’s making a case, and doing it in an evidence-centered way; it’s good historical work, and even if you don’t like her conclusions, you can’t say she doesn’t show her work.

On the other hand…. May’s attempt to make “the Chinggis Exchange” a thing is legitimately disappointing as a work of history. While Hansen’s attention to provenance and interpretation might be excessive, May’s is nearly non-existent. Except for an early swipe at the Marco Polo doubters (more on that below), the only times May makes anything resembling a cautionary note regarding sources is when they say something bad about the Mongols; otherwise it’s just a straight narrative, plus some topical chapters that are also basically narratives around the idea of the Mongols as positive influences across Eurasia. I had flashbacks to reading Guzman’s argument about barbarians as positive forces in world history but with less historical foundation: May has a way of trying to track Mongol “legacies” through speculative chains of causation that remind me of sophomoric attempts to write final exam essays. Aside from a greater appreciation for the political fractiousness of Mongol rule, I feel like I learned very little, and couldn’t responsibly present this work to students. You could learn more about Mongols as world historical actors from Chapter 4 of Rachel Laudan’s Cuisine and Empire than from this book; in fact, a lot of what is actually presented by Laudan was absent from May’s storytelling.

The Marco Polo problem is still real, though Hansen repeats in this book her concession that she believes Polo’s story, to the extent that we have to believe something, though it’s also clear that she considers it highly unreliable. Unfortunately, Hansen’s engagement with the Mongol period of the Silk Road is almost entirely limited to discussing traveler narratives – Polo, William of Rubruck, John of Plano Carpini, ibn Battuta, Rabban Sauma – though her discussion follows the historiographical/critical vein she established in the other chapters, which does at least put Polo into perspective. But it’s not clear to what extent Hansen’s version of the Silk Road, mostly political and intellectual connections, with weaker economic activity along the land routes than the sea routes (which she acknowledges, but spends very little time explaining), conflicts with May’s maximal reading of the Mongols as economic miracle-workers (and ignoring the sea routes, in the context of economics), because the discussion is so different from her earlier chapters, and her conclusion is somewhat cagey, chronologically.

Still, if I had to assign one of them, I’d definitely pick Hansen for World History, and maybe for Historiography as well.

How’s your summer reading going?

The soldier-archeologist

Among other things, the Japanese empire was an empire of science. Conquest led to (or was proceeded by) masses of geographers, anthropologists, geologists etc. This is not a new thing in the literature of imperialism. I did find a nice example of it yesterday, however.

The Asahi Shimbun dated December 16, 1943, carried a two-column article titled, “Well done, soldier-scholar.”

Special dispatch from Nanjing on the 14′”: In the midst of battling anti-Japanese forces, a single soldier by chance dug up a nearly intact jar-shaped vessel from 3,000 years ago, providing an artifact valuable to the study of culture in Central China in the Neolithic Age. Private Teruya Esaka from the Central China XX Unit (from I 042 Akatsutsumi­cho, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo) studied archaeology under the guidance of his teacher, Ichiro Yawata at the Department of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Tokyo. Furthermore, after working as a junior assistant at the Department of Earth Science at Bunri University, he is now con­ducting research in archaeology at the Department of History, Faculty of Letters, Keio University. He is a young and energetic student who came to the battlefront after being drafted, and participated in XX military opera­tions at the end of this past November. While marching near Matsuryoseki in the Jiangning District approx. 25 km south of Nanjing, he keenly spotted a piece of a jar along a loess cliff facing northwest in the suburb of Shoshyanteo. He dug it out, carried it home, and researched literature to find that this jar dates from around the late Neolithic Age to the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period, and is at least 3,000 years old.

The young soldier-archeologist was encouraged to publish his find, although he does not seem to have ever dated it very well. In a later article he would explain the importance of archeology.

Imperial Army stations in the Greater East Asian War are located nearly over the entire Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The majority of these places are uneducated.” The text concludes, “Just as we cannot be neglectful of military service in the current battlefront, we stu­dents of archaeology stationed on the battle lines hope to carry out our duty of aiding the ethnic policy in the Greater East Asia War by being vigilant at all times in our endeavor to gather artifacts.” This communicated the thoughts of an archaeology researcher who found himself on the battlefield. Of course, this was Esaka ‘s impression, but it goes without saying that his profound daily thoughts compelled the discovery of the Shoshyanteo ruins. Esaka said, “There are museums of varying sizes in cities in each area of the Co-Prosperity Sphere. The archaeological artifacts from the areas housed in these museums were roughly organized and reported on by Western scholars in the past.” However, he points out that, “If we who live in East Asia and are researching the ancient culture of this region can view them, we may dis­cover many research aspects not comprehended by Western scholars.”

I assume there are people out there who know a lot more than I do about the history of archeology in Asia, but I found this to be a fun story to discuss in class about the connections between war and knowledge and science and looting.

I found this in the article “The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and Archaeology in Japan” by Hideichi Sakazume, published in The Rissho International Journal of Academic Research in Culture and Society 2: The Academic Canon of Arts and Humanities and Science 2019This volume was sent to me (and possibly to you too) by Reisho University, and I am glad to get some use out of it.

Grand Centennial Best Opening Vignette Contest!

Jonathan’s “On the Opening Vignette” is so fresh and smart that the only response is to turn it into a contest: who can write the best opening vignette of their own. To keep things from getting out of hand, let’s run it only once a century.

Here’s my opening submission:

It was a dark, stormy night. The Qianlong Emperor © looked up, his brow furrowed with idle concern, his hand clutching the Imperial Red Brush. What could these Barbarians have in mind? No matter. Tonight he would dine with He Shen, his favorite enunuch. Minor matters could wait.

Can you do better? Of course!

The Marie Kondo thing

I’ve been avoiding getting into the debate about Marie Kondo’s konmari brand of modernist orientalism, mostly because I’m not that interested, but there are a lot of people making claims about the Japaneseness and historicity of her ideas, so I suppose a comment might be in order.

The most popular article I’ve seen is Margaret Dilloway’s attempt to claim Kondo’s method as authentically Japanese – specifically Shinto animism – and that critical comments are functionally racist, or at best Eurocentric.

I had never seen quite this level of concentrated venom directed toward a self-help/home decor person. Not Martha with her thousand-step craft projects. Not Rachel Hollis telling “girls” to wash their faces and to judge friends based on whether they can keep off weight. Not even Gwyneth when she told everyone to steam their lady parts and wedge a jade egg inside. All received backlash, but none garnered as much misguided indignation as Kondo, long after she managed to sell two million copies of her debut book.

Honestly, I think she’s missed the backlash in all of those cases: they were (and are) ongoing and pretty vicious (and very well-founded, in many cases).

More importantly, she’s making historical connections that don’t exist: Japan’s famously clean cities, and lack of school custodial staff, do not have deep religious roots, but functional and modern elements. As Susan Hanley argued, a society that was based on economically isolated islands (as Japan during the mostly-closed sakoku era of the Edo period) will naturally develop an aesthetic of conservation, minimalism, and efficiency. Though it’s always worth mentioning that there’s also a culture of excess, consumption, luxury, and pleasure, mostly in cities and among elites.

Similarly, when Japan encountered, experienced, and adopted modernism, it became as much of a consumer society as the US or France, accumulating stuff and disposable fashion in ways largely indistinguishable from other industrialized societies.

The concept of “a Japanese aesthetic” is as much a product of modernity as Japanese nationalism: an invented tradition, drawing on existing elements but syncretic, harmonizing seemingly disparate components of Japanese and non-Japanese culture into a distinct brand. 

Eiko Maruko Siniawer’s interview with Adam Mintner highlights the 20th century elements of Kondo’s work: Taylorism, Home Economics, the collapsed Bubble Economy of the 1990s, and the increasingly defunct, toxic idea that there’s infinite storage for garbage and waste in other countries or oceans.

What I’m uncomfortable with is people outside of Japan saying she is embodying these Japanese ideas of minimalism, and these are how Japanese houses kind of look, and so the aspiration is for American homes to look like Japanese homes. But no! She is peddling an aspiration in Japan as much as she is in the U.S. It’s not like Japanese homes actually look like that. In fact, they don’t. Which is why people in Japan, as in the United States, are buying her book.

I would add that Kondo’s work is part of a wave of anti-consumer consumption ethoses, mostly associated with Northern European modernism and fatalism (another invented tradition, but very marketable in the form of funiture line).

Ultimately, as is so often the case, Kondo’s presence in American culture tells us more about American culture than Japanese history or tradition.

On the opening vignette as pedagogy

A passage I wrote for one of my online course discussion boards:

One of my pet peeves about textbook, history, and journalistic writing is the use of the “opening vignette,” a scene or personality introduced at the beginning that somehow humanizes the discussion, and often (as used here) foreshadows something coming later in the chapter. In the last fifteen years, particularly, it seems to have become nearly universal in academic writing oriented to wider audiences — textbooks, op-ed pieces, magazine articles, etc. I find it unhelpful, at best, and often misleading with regard to the chronology, intent or import of what’s going on (I know because of what students write on their tests). The opening vignettes in this book seem mostly harmless, but I’m a little surprised by how obviously “dropped in” these openings are: it’s not clear why these dramatic moments were chosen over others and there’s no reference back to them in the rest of the chapter. I understand the value of storytelling and humanizing in making historical points to wider audiences (and even we historians can be entertained and even educated by good stories) but when it’s an imposed pattern instead of growing organically from the argument and material it loses its power.