Writing up the report on Mark Erdmann’s paper on Azuchi Castle got me thinking. Discourses of legitimacy play a major role in my field of research; when Ryukyuan ambassadors journeyed to the shogun’s castle in Edo, it contributed to stories the shogunate told about itself, and stories others told about the shogunate, which represented the shogunate as being so powerful, and so virtuous, that envoys from foreign kingdoms would, of their own volition, purely out of awe and respect for the Shogun as a shining source of virtue and civilization, come to pay their respects. Of course, the truth was much more complicated, more political, and not nearly so freely performed at it might have seemed. But that’s besides the point – things may not always be what they appear to be, but appearances have power.

“Discourse” sounds like a big fancy academic-type word, but basically all it means is these kinds of stories, these tellings and retellings of meaning; conversations people have with one another, or with themselves, repeated again and again and transmitted throughout a society, creating and reinforcing a given set of ideas, associations, or meanings.

The reconstructed Fushimi-Momoyama castle, looking mighty impressive.

Now, it’s not hard to see how an embassy like I just described could contribute to discourses of the shogunate’s power and legitimacy. Big castles sitting high atop a hill, overlooking the city and visible from many places within the city, are also not particularly difficult to understand, in terms of their discursive impact. Whoever lives in the castle has the power to continue to hold that castle, and the money to build, maintain, and operate such an expansive and lavish living space. The power to see without being seen, the power to look down upon people, which also plays a key role in the discursive power of a castle, is a bit more complicated to explain, but is also a major concept in “discourse theory.” In fact, it’s such a major part of so much that I’ve read and been taught (see, the power of the gaze, and the panoptic), that I’m surprised Foucault spends so little time on it in his famous book Discipline & Punish; I fully expected that a majority of the book, rather than just one brief chapter, would be devoted to this important concept.

And, with certain cultural understandings, certain systems of symbolism in place (widely understood by the populace), we can easily understand how certain symbols worn by a king, or certain artifacts wielded by an emperor, would enhance perceptions of his legitimacy. This sort of thing can be seen in countless other examples too; riding a horse and wearing swords at one’s belt is a symbol of one’s martial/warrior identity, and is not only imposing and intimidating on a fundamental level, but is also tied into discourses of samurai identity and social class within that particular society. When considering the case of someone seen (or, rather, not seen) riding in a palanquin, it is easy to imagine the thought process, of understanding that only people of a certain class get to ride in palanquins, and that, bumpy ride though it may be, the very idea of not having to walk on one’s own feet – to not get one’s feet dirty, calloused or chafed, and to not have to put in the energy and effort of walking (rather than growing tired, sore, and thirsty) – implies something about the person’s high station. And, of course, by being hidden within the palanquin’s basket, going back to this whole issue of the gaze, we can understand that they are someone too important to be seen by just anyone; they have the power to see you, but you don’t have the power to see them.

But, finally getting to my point, how is it that someone like Nobunaga can create his own discourses of legitimacy? Sure, his castle is big and impressive, and it represents his wealth and power insofar as that he built it, and has the military power to hold it. But, supposing that no one considered him the rightful ruler to begin with, how would appropriating imagery from past shoguns or emperors change that? No one can be king, or emperor, unless the people (whether than means just the nobility, or whether it means the masses) regard him as that. Without that recognition, he is merely a pretender.

If Nobunaga had simply moved into the shogun’s palace, and begun performing the role of shogun, thus allowing people to situate him within already-established systems, that would be one thing. Even then, he might simply get called a false shogun, an interloper or “pretender.” But, Nobunaga isn’t doing that. He’s not calling himself Shogun or Emperor, and he’s not dressing himself up as the next in a line of succession of a position that already exists. No. He’s building a castle, and filling it with all sorts of different artistic and architectural symbols of legitimacy, but, what does that really do for him? Sure, it’s impressive, and anyone who sees it will surely think of him as having wealth and power. But, anyone with sufficient wealth and power can build a replica of the Kinkakuji, and a Mingtang, and have them filled with paintings of great Emperors of the past, by way of trying to associate oneself with those Emperors; commissioning a building, or a painting, doesn’t make you rightful ruler any more than commissioning some local smith to make you a crown and scepter would.

So, in all sincerity, I ask you, my fellow academes, how does this work? Symbols of wealth and power, I understand. Exacting formal titles and such from the Emperor, as symbols of legitimacy, I understand. But as much as I love architectural and art history, and am fascinated by ideas of symbolism and discourses, I just don’t get how surrounding yourself with architecture or paintings recalling themes of virtuous rulers functions, discursively, to actually enhance your legitimacy among your followers, among your enemies, or among the masses. Your thoughts and input would be most appreciated.

One of the most interesting presentations of the conference, I thought, was one by Mark Erdmann, on “The Chinese Roots of the Azuchi Castle Donjon.” Now, I am by no means an expert on castles, let alone on Azuchi, and so I’m sure that a lot of what I found really new and exciting in this presentation might be old hat for some of my friends at the Samurai-Archives, who are more well-read, and more focused, on such topics. But, precisely because I know relatively little about Azuchi, and as it relates to artistic display, and performance of legitimacy (performativity), and intertextuality – on top of the basic fact that castles are cool – I found it a really fresh, exciting presentation.

Before we get into it, though, I just have to take a moment to say how much I hate the word “donjon.” Okay, maybe hate is too strong a word. But, I really don’t understand why we should ever be using a French word – which is hard to be sure you’re pronouncing it correctly, which sounds too much like “dungeon”1, and which is just a tad too obscure to be sure that your readers/listeners know what you’re talking about – when we have the perfectly good English word “keep,” and the even more precise Japanese term tenshu.

The modern, post-war reconstruction of Azuchi Castle. I’m not sure which interpretation / version this was based on. But, the gold structure at top, and red mingtang-like structure below it, are clearly visible.

Anyway, that brief aside aside, Erdmann’s talk focused chiefly on two points: (1) the origin of the term tenshu, and (2) a new theory as to the symbolism of an octagonal section near the top of Azuchi’s tenshu tower, which he suggests played an important role in conveying discursive symbolism of Nobunaga’s legitimacy.

Perhaps we should start at the beginning. Azuchi Castle was built over the course of 1576-1579, by Oda Nobunaga, who had just secured his control over most of central Japan. As such, it was built not only as a residence and base of operations, but also as a monument to Nobunaga’s wealth and power, and was covered inside and out in elaborate architectural elements and ornate decorations. Its main tower keep, or tenshu, was decidedly unique and bizarre, and various major elements of its design were not emulated by any later structure; however, the very fact that it had this multi-story tower keep, built atop a considerable stone foundation, and decorated up with various sorts of gables and other architectural elaborations, set a groundbreaking precedent for what would soon afterwards become the standard form for Japanese castles – luxurious aristocratic residences posing as (or doubling as) military headquarters & fortifications.2 Perhaps indicative of how innovative a concept it was, Azuchi was not even called “Azuchi Castle” (安土城, Azuchi-jô) at the time, but rather, the “castle” and the town associated with it, were known as Azuchi-yama (安土山, lit. “Mt. Azuchi” or “Azuchi Mountain”).

The castle was destroyed in 1582 by Akechi Mitsuhide, the traitorous retainer who engineered Nobunaga’s demise at Honnôji. More or less all that survives, as I understand it, is what has been recovered through archaeological excavation – in other words, chiefly, the foundation stones. Based on this and various forms of textual and visual evidence, Naitô Akira, in the 1970s, proposed a certain understanding of the style and form of the castle; more recently, Miyakami Shigetaka has revised Naitô’s version, arguing that Naitô did not consider or corroborate enough different sources, and that his own (Miyakami’s) new version is more accurate to what the castle likely actually looked like. From what I gather, these two are the most prominent voices in this debate, and the most prominent competing conceptions of the structure.

What makes Azuchi so bizarre? Well, rather than having a tower of purely rectangular levels (stories), in a consistent, coherent architectural style & aesthetic, built atop a rectangular base, Azuchi included a couple of extra layers that, from the graphics Erdmann showed, look very much like two additional buildings simply stacked atop three stories of much more typical-looking tenshu architecture. The topmost story was three by three bays square, and covered in gold; Erdmann describes it as resembling quite closely the famous Kinkakuji, or Golden Pavilion, of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and in fact argues that it was directly, intentionally, based upon Kinkakuji, in order to draw a symbolic connection between Nobunaga and the Ashikaga shoguns, and to therefore bolster his legitimacy. The layer below that, octagonally shaped, and painted a bright red or vermillion, Erdmann argues, was meant to evoke the Chinese concept of the Mingtang.

Right: Diagram of a mingtang, showing the squares-within-circles arrangement Azuchi attempts to emulate.

The Mingtang (明堂, J: meidô), Erdmann explains, is a concept going back to the Duke of Zhou, an ancient Chinese figure who will come up again when we discuss the origins of the term tenshu. The Mingtang was a powerfully symbolic structure, roughly circular in shape, essentially just the circular space within a ring of columns, which would, like so much else in Chinese Imperial architecture, represent a re-creation of the cosmos. As the Emperor walked around the circle within the Mingtang, he would be symbolically passing through the four cardinal directions (plus center), and through the four seasons, as well as through the twelve zodiac signs, representing the hours of the day, the days, and the years. I don’t quite have the language to express it, and one of these days I really do need to learn the best way to express it – and thus also to understand it – but, traditionally, in China, the Emperor was seen as embodying, or reenacting, or simply existing at the center of, the functioning of the cosmos. And so, already, we can begin to understand what it would have meant, symbolically, discursively, for Nobunaga to walk around within a room resembling, recalling, the Mingtang of ancient China.

According to Chinese belief, only a proper rightful Sage King (C/J: ??) can build a Mingtang; therefore, the very ability of Nobunaga to construct one serves as a sign of his legitimacy. Ones built in China over the centuries have varied dramatically, but all follow certain common forms – namely, much like Azuchi Castle, the Mingtang is composed of squares topped with circles, as seen in the diagram above. This octagonal hall at Azuchi further resembles, or recalls, Chinese architecture with its inclusion of red roofing tiles, a relative rarity in Japan compared to the grey tiles seen on the lower levels of Azuchi, and thus very much evocative of China. Furthermore, the Azuchiyama-no-ki (安土山記, “Record of Mt. Azuchi”) explicitly describes Nobunaga as a “Sage King,” and as a genius for his choice of Azuchi as the site for his castle, recognizing that Azuchi-yama was just as great as Taishan (Mount Tai), the famous Chinese mountain where, incidentally, the first Mingtang was erected. Erdmann questions if Nobunaga’s welcoming of Jesuit missionaries at Azuchi was intentionally, consciously, intended to mirror the Duke of Zhou’s welcoming of “people of the Four Quadrants.” Going beyond the mere architectural forms, Nobunaga also installed within these top two stories (the Mingtang-esque level, and the golden pavilion-style level) series or systems of wall paintings, by great Kanô artists, depicting Confucian and Buddhist themes related to discourses of rightful, virtuous kingship.

There are a few problems with this system of symbolism, however, as Erdmann points out. Firstly, what are the proper dimensions for a Mingtang, and does Azuchi match these dimensions, and the arrangement of circles and squares, well enough to properly qualify, and function, as a Mingtang? Second, sometimes the same thing can have very different meanings in different contexts. The structure Nobunaga placed on this fourth story of Azuchi Castle may have been intended to resemble a Mingtang, but this is also the form of the octagonal halls (円堂, J: endô) seen at Japanese Buddhist temples, where they are associated with memorial functions. Erdmann gives the examples of the Yumedono at Hôryû-ji, dedicated to the memory of Shôtoku Taishi, and the Hoku’endô at Kôfuku-ji, dedicated to the memory of Fujiwara no Fuhito. In Japan, this form reminds people of memorial functions, when in order to serve the discursive purpose of the Mingtang, Nobunaga needs it to evoke ideas of his living power and righteousness.

Turning to another side of Erdmann’s talk, there was the issue of the meaning and origin of the term tenshu (天守), which refers to the castle’s tower keep. Erdmann traces the origins of the term to 1579, and identifies it with Nobunaga’s efforts at evoking discourses of legitimacy, by tying himself to complex and ancient discourses related to the Mandate of Heaven (天命). One of the first steps in his discursive schemes was the renaming of Inabayama castle to “Gifu” (岐阜), employing characters connecting him to the Qishan (岐山) of the Kings of Wen & Wu of Zhou, and to Qufu (曲阜), the home of Confucius, and of the Duke of Zhou. It would seem that the origin of the term tenshu is often associated with Gifu, but Erdmann points out that there was no tower keep at Gifu when Nobunaga first renamed it that, and that the term tenshu in fact only came into more widespread usage later.

In the 1570s, Nobunaga also began to employ a seal reading Tenka fubu (天下布武), which might be translated many ways, but which Erdmann, quoting another eminent scholar, translates as “overspread the realm with military might.” A rather awkward translation, in my humble opinion, but the important part is the use of the term tenka, meaning “All Under Heaven,” or, simply, the Realm. By invoking “Heaven,” he recalls connections to Tentô (天道, C: tian dao), a concept very closely related to the Mandate of Heaven, and to the Chinese concept of the Emperor as the “Son of Heaven” (天子, C: tian zi). Nobunaga further pushes his association with rightful rule by having the Imperial era name changed in 1573 to Tenshô (天正), meaning “Right with Heaven.”

Sakugen Shûryô (策彦周良, 1501-1579), apparently the last Japanese ambassador to Ming China, is attributed with coining the term tenshu (天主, “Heavenly Master” or “Master of Heaven” – note the different characters), to refer to a Buddhist temple at the foot of a mountain. This term was employed at Sakamoto Castle in 1573. Erdmann argues there is a connection to be drawn between the tenshu (天主) at the bottom of a mountain, and the tenshu (天守) at the top.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a lot more scholarship & debate out there on the origins, and meaning, of the term, but, for me, this was all quite new, and quite interesting.

Mark Erdmann is a PhD student at Harvard and, near as I can tell, has yet to publish anything. A shame, considering how fascinating his presentation was. I eagerly look forward to articles he might publish on these subjects, so as to fill in the gaps, learn more about these fascinating concepts, and have something concrete to cite. Best of luck with your dissertation, sir, and thank you for an excellent presentation.


1) Probably because they’re related etymologically.
2) Someone’s going to tear me a new one if I don’t make a point of being clear that the tenshu, the impressive tower keeps we most associate with Japanese castles, were not the residences; residential buildings were located elsewhere within the castle compound, though, clearly, still nearby somewhere, within the walls.

Okay, just a quick interruption in my AAS reports to give a little shout-out to my friends at the Samurai-Archives. Several of its pages have been over there on my Blogroll/Links for quite some time, but, maybe it’s about time I mention them (again?) a little more explicitly.

The Samurai Archives are quite possibly *the* leading site on the English-language web discussing samurai history. The Wiki is still very much a work-in-progress, but already contains nearly 4,000 articles, many of them covering material not on Wikipedia. The Forums are likely the centerpiece of the site, the most active area by far, with lots of really in-depth material & discussions about samurai history not (yet) reflected in the Wiki, Podcast, or anywhere else. Oh, and the site has a blog, too. I have also been privileged to be involved in most of the episodes of the Samurai Archives Podcast, which is now up to an amazing 62 episodes! In two of the most recent episodes, we attempt to crush the long-standing misconception that Japan was ever “closed” to the world… If you have any thoughts or comments, please share! We’d love to know what you think!

Anyway, I bring all of this up not to be a cheap shill for the site itself, but, actually, the main point of this post is simply to share the following link: Support the Samurai Archives on Amazon.

I have finally added this link to my Bookmarks bar, and, if you’re so inclined, you can do the same. Clicking this link will bring you to the normal Amazon site, with all the same products and functionality as simply going directly to Amazon.com; the only difference is that by shopping via this link, some small percentage of all your purchases will go to help support the Samurai-Archives website (server fees, etc.). This doesn’t cost you anything extra, or indeed change your Amazon experience at all – all the same products are available, for the same prices, and everything. So, in the hopes of not coming across as pushy, but as simply trying to help out a site I like (and the friend who runs it), I suggest this link.

Yoroshiku onegaishimasu!

And, next time, back to Japanese castles, and a discussion of Azuchi Castle’s Chinese influences!

Academic conferences can be really hit or miss sometimes. The titles of talks or panels can be deceptive, and often the talks that prove the most interesting, or impactful, are the ones you were never planning on going to to begin with. Strangely, this year’s AAS proved otherwise, and pretty much every talk at every panel was really great.

The second panel I attended was one on Japanese castles, a great fun topic all around, even if not of direct relevance to one’s research.

Lee Butler began the panel with a presentation on Japanese castles before Azuchi.

Above: The main tower at Fushimi-Momoyama castle, a beautiful example of precisely the type of castle we are not talking about in this post.

Azuchi Castle, built by Oda Nobunaga in 1579, and sadly destroyed in 1582, represents an important turning point in castle construction in Japan. More or less everything we stereotypically associate with Japanese castles – the stone foundations, the elaborate gables and roofing, the impressive or beautiful decorative elements otherwise – all begin with Azuchi, which we shall return to. First, Butler’s presentation, in which he discussed castles prior to that. These were “castles” which were not permanent residences, nor symbols of wealth and power, but were, rather, temporary structures made primarily of wood and earthworks, constructed chiefly for tactical purposes, to be used during battle, and were not structures to live in, or be based/quartered in, on any long-term basis. As a result, we should perhaps use terms such as “fort” or “fortifications,” rather than “castle,” in order to better represent – and better keep in mind – what it is we’re talking about.

Much of Butler’s talk focused on a document known simply as the Chikujôki (築城記, “Record of Castle/Fortification Construction”). The origins of the document are unknown; it is believed to have been recopied in the 1530s or 1550s, and is known to us today through a copy obtained from Asakura Yoshikage by Kawamura Seishin (sp?). The text, a guide to aspects of the construction of fortifications, consists of 44 articles, or items, including elements on how walls and gates should be constructed, etc. The most important considerations in choosing a site for one’s fortifications, according to the text, are geography, and the availability of water. If we were talking about long-term, permanent castles, this would come as no surprise. Availability of potable water is essential for supplying a residence or garrison, and especially essential for holding out against a siege. But, for these short-term fortifications, I do find it kind of surprising. Then again, I’m no expert at medieval military tactics, so what do I know? In any case, the text also makes suggestions such as the use of an earthen bridge over the moat, rather than a wooden one, since the latter can be set on fire; a fortification must also be designed so as to allow warriors to escape out the back – another good indication that we’re talking about a temporary structure here. Other features of the ideal fortification include yumi-kakushi (弓隠し, “bow-obstructions”) – bundles of straw placed atop the walls to serve as merlons – and rows of pikes embedded in the doi (土居, earthen embankment) so as to impale attackers at roughly waist height.

As might be expected, the Chikujôki makes no mention of stone foundations, or of a multi-story “keep” or tenshu. Where it does mention buildings within a “castle” compound, the Chikujôki generally employs the term ie (家, “house”), and not anything meaning “mansion” or the like. Mark Erdmann would discuss the origins of the keep, and of the term tenshu, in his talk.

I knew the basics of this important shift centering around Azuchi castle (and Hideyoshi’s Fushimi-Momoyama castle, hence the Azuchi-Momoyama period named after the two), but one thing from Butler’s talk that was completely new to me was the mention of a Nijô Palace or Nijô Residence1 built in 1569 for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiaki, which according to Butler is an equally important element in representing or marking this architectural turning point. Knowing next to nothing about the structure, my best guess is that, just like Azuchi and Fushimi-Momoyama, it combined fortifications (more so than previous palaces or noble residences) with luxury, permanent residence, and overt shows of wealth and power (more so than earlier fortifications). I’d be curious to learn more about this structure. I wonder why we don’t tend to hear more about it to begin with, if it truly is as important as Azuchi and Fushimi-Momoyama.


1. Not to be confused with the Nijô Castle still standing in Kyoto today, which was built a few decades later, by the Tokugawa shoguns.

The elaborate, ornate costume associated with the Ming in kabuki, loaded with ruffles, can be seen in this “Battles of Coxinga” triptych by Kunichika.

Satoko Shimazaki was the third presenter on the panel “Early Modern News: The Fall of the Ming on a Global Stage,” which I wrote about in my previous post. I was particularly excited to meet her, as she is not only a kabuki specialist, but combines this with research on popular publishing, and on perceptions of the foreign – all things at the core of my research interests.

In her presentation, Shimazaki discussed the appearance of Ming China, or Ming individuals, in kabuki, with a particular focus on the 1715 play “The Battles of Coxinga” (Kokusen’ya kassen).

She first introduced the 1818 play Shitennô ubuyu no Tamagawa (四天王産湯玉川), in which a Ming princess travels all the way to Japan to see the great actor Ichikawa Danjûrô, and showed us some images of that scene, from illustrated woodblock-printed books of the time. I tried to find a similar image, on Google Image Search, to share with you, but was sadly not successful. This seems a wonderful, amusing example of how playful and humorous kabuki can be – and, also, the cult of the actor, i.e. the power of celebrity, which plays such a major role in the character of the kabuki theatre.

She then turned to discussing The Battles of Coxinga, an epic-length jidaimono based on the legend of Coxinga, aka Zheng Chenggong, a half-Japanese Ming loyalist who led forces on Taiwan in raiding the Chinese coast and otherwise fighting off the Qing (Manchu) forces which had taken much of mainland China. In the play, Zheng is referred to as Watônai, typically written 和藤内, but a reference to 和唐内, meaning “between (内, nai) China (唐, ) and Japan (和, wa).” Shimazaki argued, however, that these three characters can also be interpreted as meaning not only “both Chinese and Japanese,” but also “neither Chinese nor Japanese,” or “heard of in both China and Japan.”

Shimazaki tells us the term “Japan” appears numerous times in the script. What form this takes, whether it’s Nihon, or Wa, or some combination of those and other terms, is unclear (though I imagine one could figure out quite easily by just finding a copy of the play… and, at least in one scene, a Ming princess in Japan, asking for help, employs the term “Nihonjin”), but, regardless, this is pretty important. Many scholars argue that there was no sense of “national” identity in the Edo period, but, while I agree that there certainly is no integrated nation-state of Japan in the modern sense, and that modern(ist) discourses of “nationalism” might likewise not apply, it is nevertheless clear that there was a conception of “Japan” during the Edo period. It was not solely a local conception, in which identity was based in village, province, or domain. This conception of “Japanese” identity was, however, different from modern conceptions of ethnicity in important ways. David Howell writes about the Ainu being able to become Wajin (and vice versa) simply by changing their appearance, behavior, and customs. This sort of malleable notion of identity is seen too in the play, as Watônai converts some Tartars into Japanese by shaving their pates (i.e. giving them Japanese hairdos) and giving them samurai swords.

This brings us to the question of the word “Tartars.” “Tartar” is a broad, all-encompassing word employed in pre-modern Europe to refer indiscriminately to any and all steppe peoples, including Mongols, Manchus, and various sorts of Turks. This seems a pretty good translation for the Japanese word Tattan (韃靼), which similarly refers indiscriminately to a variety of steppe peoples. The similarity between these two terms – neither of which refers accurately to a specific people – is surprising and interesting; I wonder if Shimazaki addresses this in a fuller (published or to-be-published) paper. I’ve looked it up briefly in JapanKnowledge (an online resource which searches multiple encyclopedias and dictionaries), but didn’t find anything much on the origins of the term… Though, we are told that the Wakan sansai zue (one of the most prominent encyclopedias published in Edo period Japan) associates the term Tattan with the Mongols, Jurchens, Manchus, and even the Russians – anyone who could fit within the category of “Northern Barbarians” (北狄). Part of the identification of the Tattan as barbarians, Shimazaki explained, derives from their identity/location outside of the classic Three Realms: India as the home of Buddhism, China as the home of Confucianism, and Japan as the Land of the Gods (i.e. the home of Shintô), with Tattan thus being the home of none of the major Teachings (教) or Ways (道).

Through these examples, and others, Shimazaki showed that the Ming represented in Edo period popular culture was not the actual contemporary China, but rather an idea, an imagined space of a past era. In other words, the Ming survives on, as an idea in the Japanese collective imagination.

This can be seen, too, in some of the works which I’ve been looking at in my own research, and which Shimazaki brought forward too; books such as Bankoku jinbutsu zue (“Pictures of the Peoples of the World”) by Nishikawa Joken show the Ming and the Qing separately. Of course, there is some validity to this, as in our modern conception of race and ethnicity, we would think to organize such a book separating the (Han) Chinese from the Manchus, which is essentially what they’re doing. But, in works such as Joken’s “Peoples of 42 Countries” (四十二国人物図) and “Expanded Thoughts on Trade & Commerce with Civilization & Barbarians” (増補華夷通商考, Zôho ka’i tsûshôkô, 1708), he labels the Ming explicitly as equaling Chinese civilization or culture (中華), and the Qing as being the Chinese civilization or culture of “today” (今の中華). In other words, there is a sense that the Qing is not the real China, that the Ming is the real China, controlled, occupied, or suppressed, that the Qing may be temporary, and that the Ming could come back. Of course, as of 1708 or so, not even the Qing Court could have predicted that their rule would last the better part of 300 years, all the way until 1911. Even today, when “The Battles of Coxinga” is performed, the Qing is represented as lasting only 180 years, as Chikamatsu had it (actually, it’s kind of surprising that Chikamatsu, in 1715, would put it at 180 years, and not some shorter period, if indeed people had a sense of the Qing being only a temporary blip, and the Ming rising again). Of course, it’s not as if the play is particularly historically accurate in other respects, anyway. It does end, after all, with the revival of the Ming, something that (sadly, arguably) did not occur in reality – the entirety of the Chinese Imperial system, and so much of its traditional culture, fell with the Qing, in 1911, or with the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

As the Qing Dynasty went on, Shimazaki argues, the concept of the Ming became detached somewhat from the geography – people recognized that Qing Dynasty China was the China of their time. Ming thus became a marker for historical China, for Chinese culture and civilization in a somewhat free-floating way, existing no longer in the physical space of China, but now in a more free-floating cultural, intellectual, conceptual space.

And, while certain aspects of the understanding or conceptualization of the Ming may have been based in accurate historical/cultural understandings, as Keiko Suzuki and others have also detailed, the conceptualization of what comprised Ming culture or identity quickly came to be confused and conflated with a variety of other elements, forming a broader, more general concept of the “foreign.” Shimazaki cites pennants carried in the production of The Battles of Coxinga which read 「清道」 (lit. “Pure Way” or “Way of the Qing”?), and which closely resemble those carried by Korean – not Chinese – embassies to Japan. Another prominent element which she shows us appears frequently in theatre and in prints is the association of the Ming with lavish, ornate clothing, with lots of ruffles. I am no expert on Chinese theatre, but I can kind of see how elements of this aesthetic could be taken from jingju costume; that said, however, when would kabuki performers or ukiyo-e print designers have gotten a chance to see jingju costumes or performances? Shimazaki also pointed out that the goddess Benten is often depicted in these Ming-style robes, looking very much like a Ming princess from the kabuki theatre; why, however, remains unclear, as Benten is, so far as I know, not generally associated with being Chinese any more so than the other six of the Seven Lucky Gods.

In the course of the Q&A after Shimazaki-sensei’s presentation, a number of other questions and issues came up. One was the question of how depictions of China in bunraku & kabuki, as discussed in her talk, compare to representations of China in the Noh. This is certainly an interesting question, given that the Noh comes from a different period, and a rather different cultural context. I would imagine, just off the top of my head, I feel as though Noh is more connected to classic stories of classic figures, and would represent China more as a classical source of Confucianism, Taoism, wisdom, magic, certain legendary figures or certain gods, rather than as a contemporary foreign country or culture in the way Coxinga does, when it engages with recent historical events.

Shimazaki had also mentioned at one point that it was difficult for theatres to put on productions of Coxinga, explaining that kabuki theatres operated on a schedule organized around certain themes. The majority of kabuki plays retell stories from the Japanese past (or from legend), and most plays fit into a particular sekai (“world”), whether that be stories of Yoshitsune & Benkei, or stories of the Soga Brothers; Coxinga, Shimazaki argued, did not fit well into this schema, and so, thematically, it was difficult to find a thematically appropriate time/space to fit it into the schedule of a theatrical season. Indeed, many 19th century guides to the various sekai of kabuki plays either omit Coxinga entirely, or list it under “miscellany.” I have never read or seen Coxinga myself, or studied much about it, but I was interested to learn that, in fact, it was originally composed as a gamble, as something very new and different, to draw audiences to the theatre and keep the theatre going after it lost its chief chanter (Takemoto Gidayû – more or less the founder/inventor of the chief bunraku chanting style). This brings us back to Sarah Kile’s presentation about Chinese playwright Li Yu, who was constantly preoccupied with remaining cutting-edge, new, and fresh, and which I wrote about in the previous post.

I think that Prof. Shimazaki’s research on conceptualizations of the foreign in the Edo period will be of great use for me as I move forward with my research on Ryukyuan-Japanese interactions in that period, and I love that she does kabuki as well. I suppose I won’t be working with her directly any time soon, since we are not at the same institution, but I do eagerly look forward to reading more of her scholarship, and perhaps getting a chance to speak with her more in future.

The first panel I made it to during the Assoc. of Asian Studies conference this year was one titled “Early Modern News: The Fall of the Ming on a Global Stage.” The use of the word “stage” here is quite clever, as the panel was discussing the representation of the Ming and its fall in theatre.

Now, before I go further, I’d like to offer a brief disclaimer: I apologize if I may misrepresent the facts or the arguments from any of these papers – I am merely going from my notes, and there is plenty of opportunity for mis-hearing or misunderstanding things said in an orally presented paper. Also, I am sure that in these panel summaries/reports, for the sake of brevity and cohesiveness of my blog posts, or for whatever reasons, I will be skipping over major sections of papers, or skipping some papers entirely. No offense is meant to those scholars; I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated all of the papers I heard presented at the conference.

More about 李漁全集The panel began with Sarah Kile, professor at U Michigan, who presented on Chinese playwright Li Yu (1611-1680). I’d never heard of him – I wonder how big-name he is, and if it’d be possible to study the sort of Chinese history in which he’d come up, rather than the course I took last quarter, which was pretty much a total wash, more or less completely useless for my interests. In any case, he sounds like a really interesting figure. I’m not positive what type of theatre he was involved with (kunqu? It’s too early for jingju, right?), but the ways in which he was involved in popular culture & literary circles, as well as his thoughts on theatre, make me very interested to learn more about him, and about the early Qing popular culture realm, in comparison/contrast to that of Edo period Japan.

Right: A collection of the complete works of Li Yu.

Kile said that Li Yu made himself known, by appearing in a variety of publication as commentator, author of the preface, etc. He wrote not only a lot of theatrical plays, publishing the scripts, but also wrote & published a lot of commentaries and writings about theatre. In these writings, and especially in composing his plays, Kile says, Li Yu was perpetually concerned about always staying on the cutting edge, producing something new, in order to attract audiences. I haven’t read that much of contemporary (Edo period) kabuki commentaries, but hearing about this makes me much more curious. How did kabuki commentators or playwrights talk about these same issues? How flexible was the early Qing theatre? Kabuki generally adapted plays into new and different forms with each production, so even if the play itself was largely the same, it still was very much aimed at remaining fresh. … This also places Li Yu more firmly into a popular culture sort of discourse, a very separate set of concerns from those concerned with maintaining tradition, and performing something “properly” according to the proper forms. Did even Noh have the same concerns of maintaining tradition during the Edo period that it does today? I wonder. Perhaps Thomas Looser’s new book “Visioning Eternity” has some answers.

Another very interesting bit that Kile introduced from Li Yu’s writings was his musings on the role of lighting in the theatre. He asserts that the dim light of evening is better than daylight for helping the audience focus in on the play. Daylight, he writes, allows the audience to see everything at once, and for their attention therefore to drift all over the stage; too much light also reveals too much of the artifice of the production, whereas dim light hides the artifice and emphasizes the drama or artistry. This certainly sounds like something relevant too to Kabuki and Noh, especially in terms of cultivating the correct spiritual atmosphere and effect, yûgen or whatever it may be called, in Noh, as well as a much wider variety of effects and atmospheric moods in kabuki. I wonder what kabuki and Noh commentators of the time said about lighting.

The second paper in this panel was given by Prof. Paize Keulemans of Princeton University. He presented on the fall of the Ming in Dutch literature, poetry, media, and theatre, touching especially on the idea of the fall of the Ming as the first instance of “global news”, and on certain prominent discourses at the time in Northern Europe regarding Self, and China.

The Ming capitol of Beijing fell to Manchu invaders in 1644. By July 1650, agents of the Dutch East India Company had conveyed the news to the Netherlands. Impressive though this may seem, given that it is, quite arguably, the first instance of worldwide news, transmitted/known in a great many places all across the globe in a relatively short amount of time, I’m frankly surprised it wasn’t faster. How long did it take for the news to travel within China and to reach Canton or Fuzhou or wherever it was the Dutch were based? Given the constant back-and-forth travels and trade of Dutch and Chinese ships going to and fro between China, Japan, Indonesia (Dutch East Indies), and Europe, you’d think it’d have spread much faster. No?

Well, in any case, some of the most interesting aspects of Keulemans’ presentation were the discussion of discourses relating to Dutch “Enlightenment.” He highlighted mainly two manifestations of these, both dealing with conceptions of “openness.” Firstly, the idea of China as “closed,” as represented for example in an illustration from the 1655 Novus Atlas Sinensis (“New Chinese Atlas”), which depicts Atlas opening a gate to China, and stating in a sort of “word ribbon” (the word balloon having not yet been invented), “I open that which had been closed.” The gate itself is in a large wall which might be taken to represent the Great Wall of China. By portraying China as “closed,” Kaulemans argues, Europeans could see themselves as “open,” by contrast, as valuing openness, and therefore as more Enlightened, in terms of the European intellectual Enlightenment movement, placing great value on the “open” free flow of information. The free flow of information is a progressive thing, a key to advancement and development of a society, while China’s closedness (to Europeans, at least; whether info flowed freely within China or not is a separate matter) is seen as backwards and self-stifling.

The second side of this Enlightenment discourse of openness which I thought quite interesting was the suggestion that (some? many?) Dutch writers saw the key to advanced, Enlightenment-era power not in possessing territory, but in strength in maritime trade. The idea of the oceans as being an open, free space belonging to no one (and thus to everyone), Keulemans tells us, was a rather new idea at this time, and a major element of this discourse of Enlightened “openness.” I think it should come as no surprise that the Dutch, who were a rather powerful maritime power & wealthy economy at this time and who controlled very little territory compared to Spain, Portugal, France or England, should think this way.

Joost van den Vondel, a rare Catholic Dutchman writing at the time, drawing upon similar discourses, and informed by Jesuit missionaries operating within the Chinese Court, blamed the fall of the Ming on the Emperor’s isolation from knowledge of the outside world. The walls built by the Emperors, he wrote, proved insufficient to defend the realm from invaders. If only they had converted to Christianity, he asserted, China would be able to defend itself against any invasion. In true Catholic fashion, he ignores, or is incapable of seeing, that converting to Christianity would itself be succumbing to foreign influence. How much of Chinese culture and identity – from ancestor worship & local deities, to the political culture surrounding the Emperor’s relationship to Heaven, to the geomantic significance of the layout of palaces and cities, to the numerous Court rituals – would be irretrievably destroyed, lost, if the country converted to Catholicism? But I guess we can’t blame van den Vondel for being a product of his times.

This idea of “openness” is, of course, not so foreign to us, as it is not so different from the logics behind the Open Door Policy extended to (imposed upon) China by the Western powers in the 19th century, and the attitudes surrounding Commodore Perry’s mission to “open” Japan in the 1850s. But, to see it emerging two hundred years earlier, and in a particularly Dutch flavor, is quite interesting. I’d be curious to learn more about exactly how it was articulated, and how it played out, at that time.

For the sake of length, I will leave my summary/discussion of the third paper on this panel, one by Satoko Shimazaki, until the next blog post.

Phew! Just got back from a whirlwind weekend, at the Association of Asian Studies (AAS) conference in San Diego. Conferences like these provide an opportunity, all too rare especially since I left Hawaii, to be surrounded by fellow Asianists, and to just immerse oneself in presentations and conversations about the topics of the most interest to ourselves. A bit exhausting, to be sure, and the talks themselves can be rather hit or miss, but, it’s a great chance to have some fun dressing up, put all normal schoolday work and concerns aside, and just be a scholar for a change. In some sense, it is here, at the conference, that it’s really all about – this is where we are not TAs, or students, not dealing with paperwork or assignments or errands, but where we are *scholars*, sharing our research, talking to others about issues of interest…

It was great to see some old friends, connect or reconnect with some prominent scholars, and hear some great talks. Though, there were also a lot of people who either didn’t come, or who were at the conference, but who I didn’t manage to meet up with…

Hopefully, maybe, later this week, I’ll manage to get together some blog posts about the various panels I attended – some of them were really quite excellent.

But! I also left with a pretty nice book haul. ^_^ When am I ever going to get a chance to read these things? Beats me. But, it feels good to have them anyway… (Click on pictures for more info about each book.)

The Man Awakened From Dreams by Henrietta Harrison. Traces the life of a Confucian scholar through the turmoil of the 1905-1911 collapse of everything his training and identity as a Confucian scholar was meant to serve. There are so many books out there addressing modernity and modernization, but here’s one of the rare ones actually addressing the transition process, and how it impacted upon those people firmly belonging to the cultural & political system, and morals and values, of the previous era. Alienated Academy, by Wen-Hsin Yeh, which I sadly don’t have a copy of, is another very interesting book in this vein, discussing the shift in academic culture & systems in the schools/universities of Shanghai, from the Confucian mode to the Western “modern” university system.

Nguyen Cochinchina: Southern Vietnam in the 17th and 18th centuries by Li Tana. One of a few key books I used during a paper I wrote on Japanese trade & diplomacy activity in 17th c Southeast Asia, and a great one on 17th c. Vietnam in general. “Vietnam is a country, not a war,” and this is a rare and excellent work that helps bring that out. I’m glad to have it on my shelf and to not have to rely on ILL for it anymore.

Okinawa: Two Postwar Novellas (Steve Rabson, trans.). I am generally not all that interested in literature, nor in certain aspects of modern Okinawa. But, it was at a great price. And, after seeing a dramatic reading of Ôshiro Tatsuhiro’s Cocktail Party, I figured it would be good to have the text, so I can cite it or whatever, if & when it might come up.

March Was Made of Yarn. One of the chief, prominent books about the March 11 disasters. Free from Random House! (The book exhibits at conferences often have dramatically reduced or even free books at the end, as the publishers don’t want to have to bring the books back…)

Publishing the Stage. An edited volume based on a conference on kabuki & its publication in early modern Japan which took place at U Colorado Boulder, in March 2011. All of the papers are also available for free, in PDF, at the U Colorado Boulder Center for Asian Studies website.

Obtaining Images by Timon Screech. If and when I ever find the time to read this, we shall discover just what exactly it’s all about, but on the surface, it appears to be the latest & greatest much-needed tome on the production & consumption of Edo period art – patronage, commercialism, all of that. Who buys what kinds of works, how much does it cost, and how does the whole process of commissioning or purchasing a piece work? All too often, art historians get so focused on the content or style of a work that they fail to ask who it was created for, for what purpose, and in what ways or what contexts it would have been displayed or viewed, all of which are crucial questions for better understanding Edo period society & culture.

Rethinking Japanese History by Amino Yoshihiko. A book I have written about before. It was wonderful to get to get a copy so cheap!


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