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.

Pedagogy In The Wild

In a thoughtful discussion of teaching at USIH, I commented

In addition to all the other qualifications and tensions around teaching, there are gaps between disciplines that are frequently ignored by both pedagogy “experts” and administrators alike. I’ve gotten to the point that I tune out of any discussion of teaching that isn’t centered on history, because there are just no other disciplines that have the same mix of content, skills, sources, and myths. I’ve looked at all the fads and trends, including the ‘lecture is dead’, and there’s maybe one person in ten writing on this that even considers history, much less actually teaches in it.

And, to be completely honest, as a World/Asia specialist, I’ve started just skimming over the history pedagogy discussions that only involve US history. I know, it’s a lot to cover in two or three semesters, that whole 300 years or so, with all those sources in English, and as much as we complain about the lack of preparation on the part of our students, at least they know *something*…. It’s all very well to talk about ‘uncoverage’ (and most discussions of the coverage debate are disengenous, at best, anway, because nobody really tries to cover everything and we all make choices and skip stuff) when the basics of the narrative are part of the dominant culture, reinforced constantly by media and entertainment, but when most of what an incoming student knows about the field is just wrong, you have to work in a more integrated and cohesive manner.

Seriously, if I have to sit through one more “uncoverage” discussion that sets up “teachers who thoughtlessly cover everything” as the strawman on “the other side” I’m going to go running into the night, or at least go back to the book exhibits.

Ichi-F -Japanese workingman’s blues

One of my Christmas gifts was Ichi-F: A Worker’s Graphic Memoir of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant

As it says on the cover, it is a worker’s memoir. The book has been criticized as being insufficiently muckraking. The author has a generally positive view of the nuclear industry as a whole. He is not analyzing anything or blaming anyone for anything, other than the journalists who are spreading false stories about how bad things are there.

What I find it most useful for is as a look at Japanese working class men and labor. The narrator is a  semi-employed manga artist who goes to considerable trouble to get work at the Fukushima nuclear clean-up site and to work in the most dangerous parts of it.1 Why does he want to to this? It is not to draw about it, although he does end up doing that. He mentions the money, but that is not really it. It is pretty clear that he wants to do useful work. Lots of people have bullshit jobs. He wants to be a hero worker, boldly building Magnitogorsk or Daqing or the Hoover Dam or something. He downplays this a bit, but his motivation is always to get back to the worksite and get back to work, or, as he sometimes calls it, the front line.

He likes drawing wreckage.

He may not be writing this as an expose of the subcontractor system and the many ways it hurts workers, but all that stuff is in here.

His subcontractor boss. He’s not shady, he’s just drawn that way

He spends most of his time on (unpaid) standby,

the subcontractors charge him for all sorts of stuff, and the entire system is extremely opaque, meaning that he spends much of the book trying to move up to a second or third level subcontractor (Their are at least 6 levels of subcontractors,  so if you want to figure out who is responsible for what or where all the money is going, well, good luck.)

Who does he work with? Other men, of course. Real men who do things with their hands and bond together in manly manlyness. Other workers play a lot of pachinko (which he does not) and drink (which he does, but not that much.) He sometimes comments on the fact that pretty much everyone who works there is male. There are some bits about trying to find shared housing and such, but mostly what they do is work. Some of it is trivial work, (lots of form filling out and safety inspections, but we are all part of the same team)

some of it is heroically rushing into a high-radiation area to move something,

some of it is using a off the shelf video game controller to run a robot, but all of it needs to be done carefully, efficiently, and as part of a team. He had actually paid for his own training as a welder and crane operator before even getting the job, but he is in awe of the skilled workers he meets at Ichi-F.

This of course fits in with a lot of Japanese manga that focus on work, but I think that mostly those have not been translated. If you want a lot of details of nuclear clean-up work, this is the manga for you.

As I mentioned, he is not blaming anyone, other than journalists, for anything. The whole tone is quite positive. More and more areas are radiation free. He can now drive north and eat delicious local delicacies and play folksongs at old folks homes! Our work is achieving something! Every day and in every way, things are getting better and better.

The review I linked to above speculates that the real reason he uses an assumed name is not to avoid getting fired, but because he is a nuclear company shill. I’m not sure if that is true, but honestly, the book would not be that much different if he were.

I don’t think this would work all that well as a classroom book. Most students would drop the class at once if they saw a book this thick on the bookstore shelves. Also, it reads backwards, which will turn off your serious manga students. Still, it is a good book to give a student (or professor) interested in labor.



  1. I will leave aside the question of how reliable a narrator he is  

Huainanzi and teaching Early China

I really liked using Huainanzi in my upper-division Early China class this semester.  I have a habit of switching books a lot in all my classes, in part because I just like to and in part because I am always fiddling with stuff. Early China is always hard, since there are not that many undergrad accessible books out in paperback.1

I kept Lewis Sanctioned Violence in Early China as our first book, since it is a good read (Early China books can get pretty technical) and runs them through a lot of stuff. The big question has always been how to deal with all the philosophy stuff in Warring States. You need to do it, but Mote’s Intellectual Foundations of China is both out of date and out of print. Van Norden Introduction To Classical Chinese Philosophy might work, but it strikes me as being more geared to a philosophy class. Plus, this is your best place to get a primary source in there. The Essential Huainanzi fits perfectly. For those of you who don’t know the text, it is sort of Chinese thought for dummies (well, emperors) compiled in the Han. For those of you who don’t know the edition, they did a full translation and also this shorter version. Students like it, since there is something in here for everyone. The text goes through all of the political philosophy, cosmology, ethics etc. an emperor needs to know, but illustrates a lot of it with fun anecdotes from the histories and classics.  The text is a bit emperor centered (which makes sense) but it does give a synthesis of a lot of different traditions, so you can sprinkle chapters in the Warring States to cover Confucianism or whatever and use the rest of the text when you get to the Han. Since there is a full edition you can seem wise in class by knowing more about the topic than students would expect. Since we have the e-version of the full text you can also get a good assignment out of having them compare one of the full chapters to one of the essential ones. Two thumbs up.

  1. I usually don’t use a textbook, since our students overwhelmingly won’t read a book that “is not required” meaning there is no specific graded assignment attached to it. You can get them to read a textbook by making theme do specific chapter summaries or quizzes or something like that, but if I am going to put that much of the class into forcing them to read a book I prefer it to be a real book. This semester (Fall 2018) I did have them read the Early China bits of Ebrey’s textbook (about 100 pages) and do an assignment on that in the first week. This seems to have helped a bit. 

Teaching with old photographs

One thing that I have started teaching with this semester is

Ed Krebs and Hanchao Lu, eds., China in Family Photographs: A Peoples History of Revolution and Everyday Life, (Bridge 21, USA, 2017).

For those of you who don’t know it,  老照片 (Old Photos) is a Chinese magazine the publishes old photos and the stories behind them that readers send in. The magazine has become quite the phenomenon, and the translators have selected some of the best ones that show how ordinary Chinese understood history and their place in it.1 This is a really good teaching resource, since it gives you well-introduced life stories of all sorts of people and things, from women holding up half the sky, tractors and sewing machines, and political campaigns to geologists, engineers, soldiers and taxi drivers. The focus is on everyday life, but of course since politics was in command in most of this period (Some of the essays discuss family history going back to the Late Qing, but none of them go past the 1980s.) Besides a nice collection of topics, the readings themselves are really good. As anyone who has worked with Chinese memoir literature knows, Chinese are really good at placing their lives in historical context. I credit all that self-criticism and political education. The editors do a great job of pointing out things that would not be clear to a foreign reader in their own brief introduction.

All I am doing with it this semester is putting one of the readings on the final as a primary source,2 but it would work really well as a reader for a Modern China class.

  1. In addition to the introduction of the book, see Edward S. Krebs (2004) Old in the Newest New China: Photographic History, Private Memories And Individual Views of History, The Chinese Historical Review, 11:1, 87-116, DOI: 10.1080/1547402X.2004.11827198 

  2. I often give them a couple short primary source readings to analyze in the take-home part of the final exam. No better way to get students to read a source than putting it on the final  

Pinyin is coming to get you!

Here is a CIA report on Pinyin from, I think, 1961 or so. They lay out the history of pinyin as a method of romanization (or latinization) of Chinese, and from what little I know of the topic it seems fairly accurate. What I find most interesting is the final section, which does not recommend the CIA switching to pinyin, but does suggest that

But we should at least be keeping up with the Communists in our familiarity with the Pinyin forms, and as we set up new systems we should design them with an eye to convertibility to Pinyin. Otherwise we may find ourselves stuck, in a decade or two, with passing the bulk of our material through a superfluous routine of conversions into and out of the then antiquated and artificial Wade-Giles. We have succeeded in remaining for more than eleven years the frightened ostrich with respect to a single Communist rendering, Peking, but we should not try it for a whole language.

This strikes me as a pretty bold memo.1 Adopting pinyin was seen as a pretty radical pro-Beijing step in the West for a long time. Here the CIA is suggesting that they should get ready for the change.

Google n-gram shows us that Bejing was hardly used at all in English before 1975, and only passed Peking in 1985. There are still pockets of “pinyin is Communism” around now,  I expect, so it is interesting (but not all that surprising) to see the CIA bowing to the inevitable so early.

  1. See, I should have worked for the CIA. I may not be James Bond, but I know a bold memo when I see one  

Who are the shi?

Since I am teaching Early China this semester, I am drawing from Yuri Pines, Envisioning Eternal Empire: Chinese Political Thought of the Warring States Period (University of Hawaii Press, 2009) Pines points out a really good story to use in teaching about who the shi,士 were. They were, of course the new class of literate experts who started running China in the Warring States. In 1910 China was still being run by people who called themselves shi, although the social class referred to had of course changed a lot. He gives us a great, much later quote, from Fan Zhongyan on their self-identity.

The heart of the ancient benevolent persons . . . was neither to be delighted in things nor to feel sorry for themselves. At the loftiness of [imperial] temples and halls, they worried for their people, in the remoteness of rivers and lakes they worried for their ruler. Hence entering [the court], they worried; and leaving it, also worried: so when did they enjoy? It must be said: they were the first to worry the worries of All under Heaven, and the last to enjoy its joys. Oh Without these persons, where could I find my place?

– Fan Zongyan 989-1052

Those idealistic shi, always longing for a job at court and always worried about the common people when they get there.

Of course, in the Warring States, they were also free agents looking to benefit themselves, as this story from Zhanguoce shows.

West Chou opens the sluices and Su-tzu takes fees from both sides

East Chou wished to sow its land to rice but West Chou would not open the river sluices. Chou of the east was troubled over this but Su-tzu spoke to its ruler and begged permission to treat with West Chou for water.

He arrived in Chou of the west and spoke to its ruler: ‘My lord’s plans are faulty; by withholding water from East Chou now he is making her wealthy. Its citizens have all sown to dry grain and no other! If my lord would really do them harm he should open the sluices immediately and injure their seeds. With the sluices opened East Chou must replant to rice. Then when you deny them the waters they must come to West Chou as suppliants and receive their orders from your majesty!’

The king agreed and released the waters and Su-tzu received the gold of both countries.

From Zhanguoce 戰國策 Crump 24

Pines spends a good deal of time on another story from Zhanguoce that works really well as a handout to students for us to read and discuss in class and look at what a persuasion is and what the ruler-minister relation was. As I don’t think this is enough to be a copyright violation, I post the handout here for your (and my) future teaching convenience.


Did Chinese women go to opium dens?

Since someone asked me if Qing women went to opium dens, I thought I would answer and put up some of my evidence.

Short answer – I don’t think so, at least as customers. Certainly in the Republic, when they started registering opium “addicts” only a very small number of women registered (although there seem to have been women registered everywhere) In Qing pictures, like the ones below, opium smoking places seem to be male spaces, although we do get a picture of a wife showing up at one looking for her husband. There seem to be female attendants/possible prostitutes smoking with men in the classier place. I also include the picture of Mr. Conspicuous Consumption, which students always like.

These are all from Dianshizhai huabao. Sorry they are reversed. I think I took these from the transparencies I used to use before Powerpoint


Canadian pot and the lessons of opium

Image result for canada flag pot

Apparently Canada has legalized pot. The New Republic is speculating that they may find it hard to get an official distribution system to replace the old illegal one

I agree that this is a concern, but I don’t think de-Ba’athification is a good historical analogy. The old illegal sellers will no doubt want to keep selling, but if no producers want to sell to them and no buyers want to buy from them that hardly matters. Colonial opium monopolies in Asia (and to a lesser extent in China) faced exactly the same problem, How to get people to buy the legal opium when there was an already existing illegal system? This was particularly difficult since in the early period the legal system was run by tax farmers (mostly Chinese) who were in a perfect place to slip illegal stuff into the legal distribution channel. This is a problem with booze as well. Who better to sell untaxed kegs of beer than a legal beer distributor? Today of course that is not a problem, the two channels are, at the distribution level anyway, mostly separate. Few legal sellers of booze or cigarettes are going to risk loosing a valuable license for a tiny profit.

I suspect that if our friends Up North want to really get rid of the illegal market they will need to really legalize pot. From what I know of legal pot in the US 1  it is distributed in special dispensaries (which there are not many of) you need to roll your own and show quite a bit of ID. Buying a bunch and then splitting it with your friends at the Chamber of Commerce or your church group is, technically, illegal. This is not that different from the Asian opium systems in the 20th century, where they drug was still being sold by state-approved channels, but was seen as problematic for moral, public health and public relations reasons.

This is no way to replace a black market distribution system. When you can buy a pack of pre-rolled joints at every Tim Horton’s -then- there will no reason for anyone to use the black market. What I am guessing we will get is a system more like China in the New Policies period. -Legal dispensaries for those rich enough to afford them and go through the hassle, and a system of semi-tolerated illegal sales with occasional arrests for everyone else.


Rush, James R. Opium to Java: Revenue Farming and Chinese Enterprise in Colonial Indonesia, 1860–1910. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990. is the classic work on this. I have not read

Sasges, Professor Gerard, David P. Chandler, and Rita Smith Kipp. Imperial Intoxication: Alcohol and the Making of Colonial Indochina. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2017.  but that might be even more relevant.

  1. which is not much. Maybe I should go to AAS this year. 

Women Warriors in Japanese History? Yes, but…

The subtitle to this article tells you most of what you need to know:

Christobel Hasting, “How Onna-Bugeisha, Feudal Japan’s Women Samurai, Were Erased From History: While most Japanese women were subject to rigid social expectations of domesticity, onna-bugeisha women warriors who were known to be to be every bit as strong, capable, and courageous as their male counterparts”

My reaction when I saw this on twitter was

“Oh, no, Stephen Turnbull has another book. Massive conflation of eras and classes (Tokugawa-era samurai women described as ‘protecting their villages’!), uncritical use of sources (Tomoe Gozen, of Heike monogatari fame, of course), emergency measures as norms, etc.”

Obviously, I can’t tell until I see the book itself how many of these errors are built into the book and how many of them are the fault of the article-writer (It’s not a review, so much as an uncritical rehash). But I’ve read Turnbull works before, and I have not been impressed by his historical skills. He knows a lot, but he doesn’t know what to do with it.

In this case, there’s almost nothing in the article that isn’t pretty well-known to Japanese historians: Aside from Tomoe Gozen, the main figure in the article is the leader of the ‘women’s corps’ in the defense of Aizu during the Bakumatsu wars, who shows up in Shiba Goro’s and Yamakawa Kikue’s writings.

As usual, Turnbull makes way too much of Tokugawa era martial arts culture, and his argument about historical erasure would be much more convincing if historians hadn’t done all this work already.

As I said, I’ll have to see the book itself at some point – which apparently came out in 2012? (Yeah, it’s on the big river site.) – but this is not encouraging.

I’ve reviewed Turnbull work before:

Chinese Anti-Japanese films

There is a new book out, though sadly only in Japanese so far, about Chinese Anti-Japanese films. There are countless Sino-Japanese war movies and TV shows, and their absurdity has been noted by both Chinese netizens and the government for some time. I was struck by how the Japanese author was attracted to the films specifically for their absurd action, regardless of any supposed anti-Japanese content.

He recalled the “Nikkatsu Roman Porno” format in 1970s Japan, in which directors could make any kind of experimental movie, as long as there were naked female characters to boost box office earnings.

“Some famous directors directed Nikkatsu Roman Porno movies when they were young,” he said. “That’s why I am rooting for those who write shit scripts now – they may become great creators in the future.”

It strikes me as being similar to some of the reasons Americans might have watched Kung fu movies in the old days. Plus there are some great clips in the article if you want to teach with them.

Patriotic comedies? Japanese author compiles an encyclopaedia of Chinese anti-Japan dramas

Why Read Wineburg?

Like a lot of people, I got my copy of Sam Wineburg’s new book Why Study History (When It’s Already on Your Phone) [University of Chicago Press, 2018.] in the mail this week, and since I’ve literally just finished taking my Historiography class through Historical Thinking and other Unnatural Acts, I thought I should review it and see if it represents a great leap forward, etc. Sam Wineburg, "Why Study History (When It's Already on your Phone)"

Having read it, I can say with some certainty that it is not replacing Historical Thinking in next year’s iteration of this class. It’s a cranky book, with a kind of frustrated prophetic tone: my comment on twitter was that the title should have been Why Teach History (When You’re All Doing It Wrong).

It starts well enough, with a history of standardized testing and the relationship between those ‘normed’ systems and the constant repetition of ‘kids these days don’t know history’ that never seems to acknowledge that we’ve been complaining about that for as long as we’ve been measuring it.

Then things go off a cliff, with two chapters that have been excerpted publicly: a history of the Teaching American History grants that he calls wasted money (here, with a typical response published here), and an attack on textbooks through the lens of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States (published here). I thought it odd for a pedagogy pioneer like Wineburg to be beating on a mostly harmless/arguably productive form of continuing education funding for failing to effectively assess learning, when his own research shows how nearly impossible that assessment is. (In a later chapter, he actually addresses the assessment question, or at least claims to have addressed it, but he doesn’t connect back to the earlier argument. Like Historical Thinking, this is basically a collection of essays, either previously published or talking about previously published work, and doesn’t hold together all that well as a whole.)

And his attack on Zinn’s work is mostly critiques that could have been targeted at a *lot* of more current textbooks. He’s basically griping that People’s History and the teaching materials that have come out of it are no better than average. E.g., his argument about the lack of up-to-date historiography on critical questions (atomic bombings, Soviet spies): how many chapters in current textbooks have “reading recommendation” lists from the authors’ grad school bibliographies, plus a token new work or two? (This is a pet peeve of mine.) Wineburg basically argues that newer scholarship must be better, but ignores that there are critiques of much of it, ongoing arguments. E.g., the idea that Soviet spies’ existence mitigates the political and social damage of McCarthy/McCarthyism is a bit of a non-sequitur, especially since we don’t have equivalent open sources on CIA work during the Cold War. And he attacks the textbook-like secondary materials, like primary sources and lesson plans, that have arisen around it for being … a bit less good than his own primary source lesson plans, but doesn’t give them credit for being better than a lot of other textbook ‘resources for teachers’ which are mind-numbing pedagogical atrocities. The chapters on “Historical Thinking =/= An Amazing Memory” are basically recapitulations of the work he did in Historical Thinking.

Chapter Six is the beating heart of this book, though: a career autobiography about how he revolutionized the field and got everything right. He’s not really wrong, it’s just not particularly interesting reading when it’s mostly about when he got the insights, who he worked with, how much money they got in grant money, and how many downloads that enabled. There’s about four chapters worth of good methodological potential here, but it’s overwhelmed by his cleverness: reminds me a lot of the self-reported careers of Silicon Valley “disrupters.” (I was particularly struck, given the ill temper of chapter 3, by his recognition that in some classrooms with english language learners and diverse populations, textbooks help).

The best chapter title may be “Why Google Can’t Save Us” (though we know this by now, surely) but it’s mostly the backstory to the creation of this paper and this article. Read the paper, or the equivalent chapter in T. Mills Kelly)

The last chapter, which feels like an afterthought at best, is a recycled version of this article about who people pick as “famous Americans” as some kind of paean to the success of broader educational goals and narratives over the last half-century. “The kids are alright” is an odd ending to a book that is almost entirely about what everyone else has gotten wrong but him and his collaborators.

I honestly don’t know who this book is for. It’s certainly not for students or non-teachers. Insofar as it’s for teachers, it’s not the inspiring-but-cautionary work promised by the title. It’s an odd mix of triumphal progressions and cautionary tales, without enough detail to be useful except as a bibliography update to the earlier work for further reading.

P.S. I realized after posting this that it really said almost nothing about teaching Asian history. That’s because Wineburg says nothing about teaching anything except American history. Which means that he’s never seriously wrestled with the problem of studying history as anything except as implicit self-study of one’s own culture. Even the study of modern Europe, or earlier manifestations of Western civilization are terra nullius in this pedagogic world, to say nothing of the wider World History revolution or specific study of non-Western cultures.

Syllabus blogging for Fall 2018

So, as is our tradition, a bit about what I will be doing in my classes in the Fall. As is also tradition, I am doing this way too late to incorporate any of your useful advice, but if you have any feel free to post it.

I have three classes this semester, once you take off my one course release for being Asian Studies coordinator. HIST 198 Rise of Modern Asia,  HIST 206 History of East Asia, HIST 332 History of Early China

HIST 332 Early China

China from Anyang to Tang. Mostly aimed at History and Asian Studies students, although given the topic and how I teach it I try to get some Philosophy and Religious Studies kids as well.

I am starting this in a new way, which seems to work a bit, as far as I can tell. I have them read a textbook section on the whole period and come up with some ID terms from it. The idea is that in a US history class they are pretty sure that the Civil War is coming, but they will get more out of an Early China class if we do a quick run through first.

The main books are1 Lewis’s Sanctioned Violence, which I like to use here. If you want a book that will take them from the Spring and Autumn to the Han in a sinologically impressive and clear way, this is it.

I am trying the short Huainanzi this time as a way of summing up all that philosophy, and giving us a bit of Han synthesis. We will see how it works.

The Mollier Buddhism and Taoism book is new. Teiser’s Ghost Festival is the only other book I have found to work here. This may be a bit beyond them, but I have high hopes.


HIST 206 History of East Asia

Rice Paddies, yeah! This is a class a lot of our Asian Studies majors take. Since it counts for a number of things as an elective it gets a certain number of non-majors. Still pretty much the same class. Mostly chronological, but also pretty thematic. Thus, I start the class with explaining the Shang dynasty, but also the Chinese/East Asian family system through time.  No textbook since I am not trying to cover everything and if I am going to try to cajole them into reading something it should be something that will stick longer than a textbook. So what are the books?

Zhuangzi is back, although I have had mixed success with it. I would like to find a good way to introduce this to students, since one of the themes of the book is how to find your way in a bureaucratic world. How do you introduce this text, and when do you do it?2 Lots of kids find it too weird.

Sarashina Diary is the middle book. This is always a problem, and I have never solved it. You need a good, undergrad-friendly book somewhere between the required classical philosophy book and the modern books.3 It does the whole literary culture thing, and is shorter than Sei Shonagon, which I have given up on, since no matter how much I like it they all hate it.4 Sarashina is also a Japan book, which makes it better here than Waley’s Monkey, which I have also tried here. None of the warrior books seem to work.

Also, what would be a good Korea book? I am old enough that I remember when East Asia meant China and Japan, but now lots of students want Korea. I’m cool with that, and have tossed in a lot of short readings, but a good Korea book that works in a broad context would be great.

Fukuzawa is probably stuck here. A samurai who becomes a modernizer after going through a phase as a party-loving student? Many of them find it too long, but I can’t really think of anything to use it its place.

For the final book I tend to go with a Cultural Revolution book, since there are so many good ones. This is despite the fact that they are a bit tricky to fit in at the end. Spider Eaters is the current choice, although I have tried others. Liang Heng is a bit more accessible.

HIST 198 Explorations in Global History

This is our liberal studies class for non-majors. We are pretty free to pick topics for this. Mine is the Rise of Modern Asia, which does Asia from India to Japan from the Sepoy Rebellion to the present. The main books are still Gosh The Glass Palace, a nice historical fiction novel that traces an Asian business dynasty from about the 1880s to WWII. I am happy with this and will keep it. The next book is Guha Makers of Modern Asia, a collection of biographies of major political leaders. Guha is ok. I like the idea of working through modern Asia through a series of biographies. There is no way a class like this can cover everything, and short biographies are a good way to touch on lots of things. All of these are biographies of top political leaders, which is unfortunate. I have started adding in a few other short bios of non-politicians, but I could really use something like the Human Tradition in Modern Asia, which of course has not been published.

I am probably not teaching this class again in the Spring, but may teach in in the Fall. I was thinking of dropping Guha and using Ghosh, parts of Cochran’s the Lius of Shanghai and a magna about modern Japanese business. All I can think of for that is Salaryman Kintarō. Is there something better?



  1. As always, a big part of the class for me is the books. When I was an undergrad Dr. Rosen explained to me that he assumed that all his students would forget his name, the name of the building the classes were in, all the essay topics they wrote on, but that they would remember every real book they actually read for the rest of their lives. This is still how I approach picking out books and designing classes.  

  2. I.e. can you tell them to read it first and then give them some idea what you want out of it, or give them something before they start? With the more modern books I am fine with just setting them loose, but for early books I think more set-up helps.  

  3. Four properly spaced books that are out in paperback or available as e-books in our library. That’s my goal. They get to pick any two they want to write longer papers on.  

  4. In their defense, it is a hard book to get into if you don’t already understand what it is.  

Is the Shanghai Textile Museum the best museum in China?

The Shanghai Textile Museum 上海纺织博物馆 150 Aomen Rd; 澳門路150号(right near the M50 art district) is not one of the most famous museums in China. Lonely Planet dismisses it as “The sort of place visitors got taken to in the 1980s before China fully opened to tourism,” Ouch. Is it the best museum in China?

No, No, and Yes.

First the nos. One thing that can make a great museum is to have something great to build it around. The Forbidden City. Qin Shihaung’s grave. You basically can’t mess something like that up. This site is just a modern building in what used to be the old textile district. Another thing that can make a great museum is great story-telling. Ideally a good museum has lots of text that, together with artifacts, tells a bunch of stories and says something about history. The Chinese text here is not that good, and the English text is often terrible.

The yes is that they have a good idea and a good collection. This is the most complete “built” museum I can think of in China.1 Textiles are the story of Shanghai, and while parts of this could be better done, they cover almost everything. This is as close to a museum of the social history of Shanghai as you will find.

They go back the the very beginning of textile history, but the collection really begins with Late Imperial Songjiang and its cotton growing spinning and weaving. This section is helped by the Chinese willingness to use reproduction artifacts and cheesy dioramas more than American museums usually like to. This is also the section you are most likely to find pictures of on the web, as it is the most “traditional China” part of the place and the most likely to get pictures from tourists.

For me of course the best part are the modern sections.  Shanghai was the Treaty Port, and textiles were the center of both foreign and Chinese controlled industrialization, and the birthplace of the Chinese working class. This is a bit complex for a Chinese museum to deal with. Foreign imperialism is of course bad, although you can certainly brag about Shanghai’s growing industrial clout. The museum has displays on both the early Chinese textile capitalists and the workers movement. They don’t do much to explain how these relate, but that might be asking a bit much

They also have a lot on consumption. Shanghai did not just produce textiles, they bought them and set trends for the whole country.

Of course while there is a lot of Republican era stuff, there is also lots of later stuff. In 1949 New China was established, and the workers of the Shanghai textile industry took center stage. We get lost of model workers, visits from every important leader


Visiting delegations of workers from around the world

The Cultural Revolution is skipped over, and this section has less explanation than a lot of the earlier ones, but still there is a lot of stuff on Worker’s China here.

With reform and opening up Shanghai remained of central importance. The rustbelt communist industries of Manchuria were quickly left behind, but textiles and light manufacturing were at the forefront of China’s exports. If you want to see  boxes of Three Guns underwear from the 1980’s this is the place to go.2

Eventually, of course, the textile industry was moved out out its prime real estate location, and at least according to the pictures attempts to find new jobs for the textile workers were a great success

Finally there is a whole floor on modern textiles and science and such. And, of course, an exhibit on the colorful costumes of minority groups.

Parts of this are less good than they could be. The science part could use a lot more explanation. It is good that I can now tell serge from seersucker, but how are they made and when do you use them? Given that almost all the worker photos are of women, one would like some more focus on gender. Still, the museum does touch on almost every aspect of Shanghai textile history, and by following this thread3 they touch on almost every aspect of Shanghai. Admittedly it is a place that requires you to do a lot of the work yourself in figuring out why these things matter. Still, they do more to construct a story than most museums I can think of.

  1. Built as opposed to found. The site itself gave them nothing, they had to do all the work. I should note that I have not been to all the museums in China.  

  2. No pictures, this is a family blog.  

  3. sorry