The first time I saw Lost in Translation, it was for me 100% about the city of Tokyo, and about my own nostalgia and love and longing for that city. I had had a whirlwind 4 months there as a study abroad student, my first time so far from home on my own, my first time in Japan, exploring and experiencing Tokyo in the way that I imagine many 20-year-olds do, running around in groups of five to fifteen, experiencing and enjoying everything. Tokyo that city of such energy and excitement, and it was just such an incredible time, one of the absolutely best times of my life thus far. And when Lost in Translation came out later that year, I didn’t know at that time whether I would ever be in Japan again.

So, for me at that time, Lost in Translation was all about re-living that experience, in a sense, taking in the lights and sounds and fun and enjoyment, and about identifying in a sense with these two characters for whom Tokyo is also very new and very strange… For me the movie was all highs and lows, fun and engaging, but also sad because it reminded me of something very exciting and also very engaging that I might never experience in the same way again – or, might not experience at all.

After all, the first time I went to Japan I never expected that I would ever go back. It was a crazy one-time adventure, something far beyond the bounds of anything I’d ever done, and indeed beyond the bounds of where either of my parents had ever traveled, or thought to. I went to college a mere four hours away from home (insisted on going out-of-state, because I did want to get away a little, but still went to Boston, a much “safer” choice in terms of big culture shock or whatever; didn’t even consider California or anywhere nearly that far away) … and I just always assumed that with the exception of this one crazy time in Japan, I’d come back home to the East Coast, and get a job in New York, and be “home” in New York the whole rest of my life.

The lights of Akihabara, from my first time in Japan, way back in 2003.

But I’m getting off-track. I have seen Lost in Translation several times since then, and I don’t really remember how I felt about it the third or fourth time. But now it’s been a long time since the last time, and, well, it’s interesting how incredibly different the film feels this time around.

I’m glad I never did end up watching it with my (now ex-)girlfriend. I had wanted to watch it with her because I wanted to share my love for Tokyo, share with her what the film meant to me in that way. But she’s very much the type to engage deeply with the characters’ emotions and motivations, their dramatic arcs and the overall emotional or interpersonal themes of a film, and watching it now, again, I can see those things so much more starkly than I ever did the first or second time I saw the film.

What exactly is this relationship? I had completely forgotten that Bob and Charlotte kiss at the end – a seemingly romantic kiss, not like the kiss on the cheek in the elevator a few scenes earlier. And watching it this time around, I got a much clearer sense of these two people, their relationship developing. Both of them, and the viewer, wondering how far it will go, or where it is going, or whether the both of them are losing interest in their own relationships. The scene where Bob is in the bath and on the phone with his wife, and she says something like “well, if you like it so much there, maybe you should just stay” – I had previously read that through the lens of how much I loved Japan, and basically just that she was being difficult or obnoxious or whatever because she didn’t “get” it. And similarly, I guess, the scene where Charlotte is at a shrine in Kyoto and she sees a Shinto wedding – I had taken that to be just one more element of how she is experiencing and appreciating Japan, and how the filmmakers are sharing with us that beauty, that peace, that experience. Watching it again, now, I realize the connection, where just a scene or two earlier, Bob and Charlotte had been talking about how marriage is difficult. And both of them are in such difficult places at this point in the film (well, throughout the whole film) in terms of how they feel about their partners, their relationships. And so she sees this newly married couple, and I suppose there’s supposed to be something unspoken there, about wishing and hoping that they’ll do better, that they’ll actually be happy … or something about how we all have difficulties, but it’s worth it, and it will be the same for them.

There are also these moments where Bob and Charlotte realize they don’t actually know each other that well – they surprise one another at the choices they make. Like when Bob sleeps with the red-headed singer from the bar.

I see even more clearly and strongly now how it’s not necessarily really a movie about Japan, or about Tokyo, but rather about people, and relationships, and it’s really a story that could be set almost anywhere in the world. Though Tokyo does present a particularly good location in terms of being very foreign, very different, and yet at the same time very comfortable and navigable.

That said, though, whether Japan or not, it *is* also a movie about a particular style or mode of experience. Most of the movie takes place inside the same hotel – at the bar, at the pool, inside their guestrooms. Hotel life can be extremely comfortable, luxurious even. That’s kind of the point. And they’re definitely staying at a really nice hotel. But it can also be sort of sterile and isolating. It’s one way of experiencing a place, and it’s certainly a valid experience, but it’s a very different one from experiencing the city in other ways. Yes, Bob and Charlotte do get out and meet people and go to some clubs, and so forth, and I suppose we can maybe assume that they get out and see and do a lot more, in between the scenes, that we never see. But then again, maybe they don’t. We’re supposed to believe that the entire film takes place over the course of just one week or so, and I haven’t counted how many days and nights we actually see them experiencing, but… I dunno, I think we maybe do get the sense that they really have spent most of their time in the hotel, that both of them are in a sort of frame of mind that they wouldn’t even know where to go, what to see, if they did get out. I don’t know if either or both of them are “depressed,” per se, but they’re definitely lost, and they’re definitely spending a lot of time in their rooms (or in the pool, or the bath, or the bar) just thinking and being alone…. So, they’re experiencing a very particular experience of the city. When they do go out, it’s a lot like my first time in Japan, I suppose, in terms of going out to bars and cafes and karaoke and just having a good time… Very different from my experience on later trips, where I speak the language and know my way around, and …

Bob in the hospital, waiting for Charlotte to get her x-rays done, holding a giant fuzzy owl he bought for her. Image from IMDb.

But, anyway, getting back to the relationship, it’s an interesting one. It’s kind of wonderful to see people having that kind of relationship, and it’s really kind of romantic in a way – I mean, in the sense of a fantasy, an ideal, that one is envious of, even if we put aside the ways in which it’s a romantic relationship in the sense of romance. Even putting aside the romance aspect, if we pretend it’s a slightly different movie from what it is, if we pretend that they stay (just) friends throughout the whole thing, keeping in mind after all the big age difference and that they’re both married and that the romantic relationship between them is therefore really kind of dangerous/cringey at times (I can’t count the times that I was thinking, yikes, Bob, be careful make sure you don’t accidentally cross a line. She’s 22, Bob! Not to mention the fact that Scarlett Johansson was under 18 when this was filmed…) … but pretending they were to stay just friends throughout the film, what a friendship that is. To take her to the hospital, in a foreign country, in a foreign language, and to do it while playing around in that way (with the wheelchair and so forth); ribbing on one another and messing around, and somehow knowing (I guess not knowing, but just because it’s scripted that it works out) that the other one won’t be offended… What a beautiful wonderful friendship. I’m not sure that I feel like I have any friends like that anymore, who I’m that close to. Everyone I know, I still feel a certain distance, a certain anxiety and awkwardness about whether they really want to be my friend, about how much is too much to ask of them or to expect from them. And the older I get, the more of my friends are married – they have someone else to go home to, someone else to spend so much time with, and so no one is looking to spend that kind of intensive friendship time with me.

I think I had friendships like that when I was younger – certainly when I was in Japan for the first time, I think there are friends who I could call up and arrange with to just hang out, to just go out all the time. Thank god none of us ever had to go to the hospital, but I think we would have gone with one another – being in a foreign country, and needing that kind of help and solidarity makes a big difference: sure, I’ll go with you, and we’ll figure things out together. Whether it’s the hospital, or getting a bank account, or getting a cellphone, we did it together, so we could be there for one another, help one another figure it out, etc.

Bob touching Charlotte’s foot while they lie in bed together. Image from IMDb.

To be honest, I’m not even sure what I think of the film anymore in the end. The fact that they kiss at the very end actually gives me problems, I think. Because if they didn’t, then it would mean that this was a film about how other kinds of relationships are possible. That when staying in a foreign city for only a few weeks, and even when committed to other people, you can still form friendships of a particular type, that’s exciting and fun and at the same time really close and deep and meaningful, even if only in that place, even if only for that time. I know plenty of friends who I’ve had an amazing time with traveling, and either not really kept in touch with at all otherwise, or just had a different friendship, a different experience with otherwise. And whether Bob and Charlotte ever see one another again after parting ways in Tokyo is left completely open; I could of course imagine it going either way, either that they never see one another again but they just have this one incredible experience in their memories, or that Bob whispers in her ear something like “hey, if you’re ever in town, let me know, and let’s hang out, let’s get together again.” Which, I guess we’re supposed to think they both live in LA, but that would work better if they didn’t, and then we could imagine that maybe X years down the road, or once every few years from then on, they get together and just hang out again. But that really only kind of works if they’re friends – the kiss at the end means they basically have to either break it off with their spouses and try to get together, or break it off with one another and either never see one another again or really try to set some kind of boundaries to force this romantic relationship to be only a friendship…. It complicates things terribly.

Bob catches up to Charlotte on his way to the airport, after saying goodbye at the hotel. Image from IMDb.

I don’t know. I really kind of hate that they put that in there at the end. And it makes me think of Kimi no na wa also – where it’s not spelled out explicitly, it’s not shown on screen explicitly, that they get together in the end romantically, and I wanted to imagine that they might just form a friendship, a special friendship, where they get together once every few weeks or months and share that special bond they don’t have with anyone else, those memories, those experiences, but why should it have to happen romantically? Why can’t they each end up with different people, and be happy for one another, and still be friends? There are most certainly women in my life who I would like to thing I have a special, close, friendship with, even though they’re married to other people. But, regardless, even when they were dating (or even married) to other people, we still had lunches and coffees and drinks and had what I thought was a special time, a special close friendship.

It’s funny, now that I know the city so well, and really live in it, a film like Lost in Translation comes across as covering so little of the city. Such a foreigner’s, visitor’s, superficial experience of the city. And, actually, unless I missed it, I’m not sure we even saw Takeshita-dori in the film at all. They spend most of their time in the hotel, and when they do go out they take taxis, and yes they go to some clubs, and even to some friends’ apartments, but for the most part they’re not really getting out into the city, not nearly as much as my friends and I did in that first 4-month study abroad experience, and most certainly not anything like what I’ve experienced since. … Of course, they’re only there for a week, in a hotel, so what are you supposed to expect? It’s much more like… where have I been recently? Like my time in Jakarta, is probably a very comparable case, where I don’t speak the language and I don’t even know what’s to see, where to go, even once I do get out and go into the city… And so I ended up spending most of my time at the conference hotel, and at the shopping mall, and otherwise just walking up and down one main street….

In a Crash Course: Film Criticism video, Michael Aranda references a film scholar/critic as interpreting the entire film as a critique of capitalism. Both main characters seem overwhelmed and alienated by the excess of the city. An interesting interpretation, and well-argued, with some good evidence: both spouses (the wife back home in the US with her constant talk of carpet squares and remodeling, and the photographer husband – along with Anna Faris’ character – in their eager pursuit of the racing, exciting, but ultimately empty world of celebrity and so forth) represent excess, and petty, empty, capitalistic desires. The process or experience of filming the Suntory whiskey ad (“For relaxing times, make it Suntory times“) feels empty, nonsensical, meaningless. And when Bob & Charlotte do go out into the city, it’s loud and flashy, cacophonous. Their own relationship emerges more in absence, and in quiet.

Okay, sure. A compelling, well-argued argument. But I just never got that. I watch this film, and through these two protagonists I see myself, desperate to engage with all that the city has to offer, wanting to get the most out of it and enjoy what everyone else seems to be enjoying, but never knowing how to get there. How to find the right bars, how to find the right people and places to create those experiences. And so, when Bob & Charlotte go out with friends and end up listening to great music – great music that Bob says he’ll try to find and buy, and which his wife just doesn’t get – or when they go out to karaoke, or when Charlotte goes out to temples & shrines in Kyoto, they do find things to engage in and engage with and enjoy. It’s sitting in the hotel that’s alienating – gazing out at a city they don’t know how to engage with.

Aranda’s second key point, taken from a different film scholar, has to do with the way Japan is used for comedy, and in stereotypical ways. Yes, for sure, there are elements that are very stereotypical. But I think it represents honestly and genuinely an American’s, or a Westerner’s, first experiences of Tokyo. This is what you’re going to see, this is what is going to stand out at you. This is what you’re going to expect to see, and then see, because those are the stereotypes. Okay, sure, the “massage artist”/escort who someone sent to Bob’s room, who asks him to “lip her stockings,” was totally unnecessary and meaningless, and perhaps one of the most cringe-worthy moments in the film. But this idea presented in this video of focusing on the quiet, deep, meaningful things like temples, shrines, and ikebana, and then showing how most Japanese (e.g. in the pachinko parlor, or the game arcade) seem to have forsaken or forgotten those things, as if the film is trying to tell us that the Japanese people are hypocrites about their own culture – I think that’s maybe reading too much into it. I watched this and I thought, simply, this is an accurate representation of Tokyo, and especially it’s an accurate representation of one’s first experiences. Tokyo has both. It contains multitudes, to use a cliché. That doesn’t mean that one thing is more vapid than another; I watch this, and I see Charlotte enjoying herself, being amused and entertained by seeing in person the lights and sounds of a Tokyo game arcade, as well as also enjoying and appreciating the quiet beauty of a temple or shrine. Bob and Charlotte go to karaoke. They walk (or take taxis) through the lights and sounds of Shibuya’s famous scramble crossing. They go out with friends and enjoy some classic Japanese rock. They’re enjoying and experiencing Tokyo. This is Tokyo. This is how it is. Some of it is playing into stereotypes; some of it is gratuitous. But most of it I think is just representing what many people’s first experience of Tokyo actually is like.


The main tower keep of Wakayama castle, reconstructed since the war.

Wakayama wasn’t exactly top of my list. Sure, if I were to go, I figured, they’d probably have some really good exhibits about each of the Kishû lords (close relatives of the main shogunal lineage, incl. some particularly historically significant figures), and some nice historically significant sites or plaques I wouldn’t have known about or expected…

In the end I actually didn’t see very much of that. But I am still very glad that I went.

Copies of the Gunsho Chiyô, printed in Wakayama. In a different context, maybe I’d think this was super cool to get to see. But they provide no context for it, no inspiring exhibit design, just objects in cases with minimal explanation …

Wakayama castle, to begin with, is gorgeous. From the outside, at least. Very photogenic. Sadly, the inside is much like a number of other castles I have visited (Hiroshima and Fukuyama come to mind); displays of weapons, armor, calligraphy, paintings, and other items representative of the both civil (cultured) and martial history of the castle and of its lords, but without much context and without much exhibit design to it. There were some cool objects, to be sure, including matchlock firearms, calligraphy and paintings by the lords themselves, but if you don’t know much about the history of the castle, history of the town, history of the Kishû Tokugawa house, you won’t get it here.

After seeing the Wakayama Prefectural Museum a few days later, the contrast was even more stark. Though surprisingly small – consisting of basically just two rooms – the permanent exhibition at the Wakayama Prefectural Museum was extremely well-done, I thought. Upon walking in, it immediately reminded me of the Kagoshima Prefectural Museum (Reimeikan) and Fukuoka City Museum. Lots of gallery text and displays, reproductions of images, maps, and diagrams, and of course an excellent selection of interesting and historically significant objects. But the Wakayama Museum takes it further: they also have wonderful little models, at least one for each era I think, showing what a village, a Buddhist temple, or some other architectural assemblage would have looked like in each period. Each is beautifully done, and is set with a large reproduction image behind it that provides a very photogenic background. In the section of the exhibit on religion, they have models of how certain rituals were performed. And the museum also displays quite a few hands-on objects, so you can touch and feel plastic reproductions of things from Jômon/Yayoi pottery to how a multi-piece Buddha sculpture is assembled, to roof tiles, to Noh masks. To be frank, I didn’t get much out of handling these plastic objects – you don’t get a real sense of the weight or texture of the actual wood, clay, or metal objects – but even so it was very cool to see them there, an extra feature beyond what most museums have.

Model of an Edo period local official’s residence (for an Ôshôya 大庄屋, appointed by the domain to oversee several, or several tens, of villages.

It was a little disappointing, or maybe I should just say surprising, to see the early modern section be so short. Where other prefectural and city history museums might highlight each and every successive Edo period lord of the domain, the Wakayama Museum just sort of blew through the Edo period in just as short a time as it did each other period of history – again, remember, the entire exhibit is only two rooms. I was disappointed to not have that chance to photograph displays about each lord and thus learn a little bit more about each lord, but at the same time, I think I was actually impressed and saw this as a positive thing, that perhaps (intentionally or otherwise) the Wakayama Museum is in a way rebelling against the undue lionization, valorization, of these figures.

The main gate at Kishû Tôshôgû.

It was only a very short trip, and we didn’t bother to see very much of Wakayama City itself, but from what we did see, and what I gather from Google Maps, travel pamphlets, and so forth, Wakayama sadly seems to be a rather sad city (from a tourist / traveler point of view). Similar to what little I saw of Himeji, and starkly unlike what I’ve experienced of Kagoshima, Kanazawa, and Kamakura (for example), not to mention Naha and Kyoto, Wakayama doesn’t really seem to have much energy to it, as an interesting or exciting urban environment. I’m sorry to be this blunt about it, but softer words aren’t coming to mind at the moment. I can walk around Kagoshima or Kamakura and get the feeling of being in a particular, unique city, and feel I’m experiencing a particular cultural, historical, aura unique to that place. Wakayama, from what little we saw of its department stores, hotels, chain restaurants, and just block after block of concrete, steel, and glass, just doesn’t seem to have that energy. And it makes me sad for what so many other Japanese cities might be like. Is this what Takamatsu or Nagano or Hirosaki or Ichinomiya are like?

But, putting that aside, one thing that has little to do with modern development (or more recent contemporary phenomena of rural depopulation, etc.) is that simply because of how they were established in the premodern or early modern periods, a great many of the key sites of historical/cultural interest in Wakayama are well outside of the city. In Kagoshima, Fukuoka/Hakata, Kamakura, and quite a few other cities I have visited, of course there are plenty more sites of interest out in the suburbs and countryside, but the cities themselves are packed with notable sites. In Wakayama, by contrast, the Kishû Tokugawa clan established their Tôshôgû Shrine (a shrine dedicated to the founder of the Tokugawa house, Ieyasu, and to his son Yorinobu, founder of the Kishû branch) some distance outside of the city. And they buried their lords at a temple even further from the city. This is a choice, and it’s interesting. I wonder if there’s something to be uncovered or examined here – which daimyo houses were more city-oriented, building more of these sorts of sites within their chief castle-town, and which were not, and why? What does this have to do with the lords themselves (personal preference, politics, or other reasons), and what does it have to do with geography?

At Kishû Kôzan-ji.

We rented a car, basically just to get out and see the area a little bit, without any real destinations in mind… In the end, we saw the Kishû Tôshôgû, and also by sheer chance chose to stop at Kôzan-ji (not the big famous Kyoto Kôzan-ji, but another temple by the same name), which turned out to be very much well-worth it. The Wakayama Tanabe Kôzan-ji, though not necessarily of any great historical significance itself, is a beautiful space, with multiple buildings in different styles (and colors!) offering a beautiful peaceful energy and aesthetic, and some great views and shots. Plus, the grounds of the temple were also (much more recently) the site of significant archaeological discoveries, of both a Jômon era community (5000-8000 years ago) and of Kofun era tombs (roughly 300-650 CE). One of the Jômon era pots discovered there, we later saw at the Wakayama Prefectural Museum.

Additional Wakayama sites of interest, such as the Dôjô-ji temple famous in Noh, the tiny out-of-the-way train station where Tama the cat is stationmaster, and the shores at Kushimoto where an Ottoman vessel was (famously?) shipwrecked in 1890, all happen to be further out as well. Perhaps I’ll return to Wakayama some day and get to see these.

Moving to Tokyo

The Akamon (“red gate”) entrance to the University of Tokyo Hongô campus.

Well, talk about being way behind. It’s been more than two months, now, since I left Los Angeles, and more than one since I started my new job in Tokyo.

Things are going really well. I cannot say how truly I feel I lucked out with this position, how fortunate I am. Being back in Japan is exactly the place I needed to be to regain a sense of calm, happiness, and balance after everything that has happened in the last few months (years). 

As wonderful as it would have been to secure a proper tenure track position somewhere in the States, or a postdoc or whatever it may have been, and as happy as I could have been in any of those situations, I think that many of them would have involved “hitting the ground running,” the same levels of work and stress and endless busy-ness as in the final stages of the dissertation (if not more so, what with class prep and everything). For any potential employers reading this, yes, I do think I would have done well, and strived and worked diligently, and been happy and successful in meeting such challenges, and I certainly look forward to hopefully getting such a position in the future, getting to teach students and engage with them and all the rest. It would be such a privilege and a pleasure to have my own students, to teach courses, to see them excited, interested, inspired; to see them ask intriguing and insightful questions; to see them grow and learn and improve.

But for now, Tokyo is right where I need to be, to find my center and find myself again. 

A JR Sobu Line train passing by near Ichigaya Station.

I’m now a postdoctoral “Project Researcher” 特任研究員 at the University of Tokyo Historiographical Institute 東京大学史料編纂所 working as part of a team on a project creating an international hub for the Ishin Shiryō 維新史料, a collection of some 30,000 documents pertaining to events of Japanese (“national” political) history c. 1840-1870. I am not sure when any of the products of this work will become available to the public, as we are only in extremely early stages right now, but we are working on a glossary of terms relevant to the collection, and English translations of short summaries of the key events of each document. Whenever it does go live, X years from now, you’ll be able to search in English (or romaji) and see at an easy glance what documents are relevant to your search terms.

And, you’ll be able to browse through a list of the key events of the Bakumatsu period (*key events centered on the shogunate, the imperial court, and certain categories of domestic and foreign affairs, that is) and just get a sense of how events unfolded, day by day, overlapping and interspersing with other contemporary matters. For me, this has been one of the most interesting parts – whether in a general survey History of Japan or History of East Asia course, or in more in-depth studies e.g. reading for a graduate field in Edo period foreign relations as I did, we get a certain sense of a certain narrative of the most key events as they developed. But such narratives of foreign ships arriving; figures like Abe Masahiro, Shimazu Nariakira, and Tokugawa Nariaki reacting in certain ways; the shogunate and the daimyô putting certain policies into place; and so forth, these narratives skip from month to month, or even year to year as they try to simplify and condense down the story to only the most “significant,” i.e. directly historically impactful, moments. But then you delve into a study like Mitani Hiroshi’s Escape from Impasse or Marco Tinello’s work, and you see just how complicated these events were, day by day, element by element. And you see it in the Ishin Shiryô Kôyô 維新史料綱要 I’m helping translate as well.

And I’m continuing to plug forward on my own research as well. I am profoundly thankful that working on my own research is also included in the position and is considered part of my job – I don’t need to be working on the Project all the time. So, I’ve already started making appointments with museums and archives to see more Ryukyu embassy procession scrolls, buying books, and scanning tons of articles and book chapters to read later.

Seen at an Okinawa soba place in Shibuya.

Ever since I finished the dissertation, it’s been such an incredible weight off my shoulders. There’s no longer a pressure to produce something complete and polished by a set date, and now I can just go back to gathering more and building up and building around my knowledge of the subject, seeing what develops, seeing what comes together. 

And doing so in a city I just love. As hectic as it is, and as crowded as the trains can be, I actually find Tokyo very relaxing, and exciting. It’s an escape from the stresses of life in the US, and a place where, yes, I’m working diligently for more or less 40+ hours a week, but in between I’m also exploring new cafes and sandwich shops, meeting up with new and old friends, going to film festivals and theatre productions, visiting historical sites, attending symposia and workshops, visiting museums and archives, meeting new people and building my professional network, and so on and so forth. Both for informing my research directly, and for more broadly inspiring and informing me, deepening my connections and experience in Japanese culture/society, strengthening my connections in meeting and knowing people, and so forth, I am just so grateful for this opportunity, and will keep doing my best to make the most of it.

What is China?

Ge Zhaoguang, Michael Gibbs Hill (trans.), What is China?: Territory, Ethnicity, Culture, & History (Belknap Press, 2018)

Interrogating the nation-state is a core element of the postmodernist scholarship moment that we’re in. Not only as a specialist in Okinawan Studies but simply as a Japanese Studies scholar more broadly, and indeed as a Historian, period, I have been encouraged almost throughout my entire graduate student career to consider questions along the lines of “what is [and isn’t] Japan?” “who is [and isn’t] Japanese?” This comes up in terms of empire (are Okinawans “Japanese”?). But it also comes up in terms of ancient history (how far back in time should we say that “Japan” as a political entity, or “Japanese culture” or “the Japanese people” extends as a valid thing to talk about?). Gregory Smits’ book Maritime Ryukyu, which I wrote about recently, addresses similar issues for “Okinawa” or “Ryukyu.”

As a Japan/Okinawa specialist who ostensibly should have some considerable degree of expertise in “East Asia” a whole, and thus in China in particular, as well, I found Ge Zhaoguang’s What is China? (as translated by Michael Gibbs Hill and published in English in 2018) fascinating, and think I will make the book (or at least its Introduction, and perhaps another chapter or two) assigned reading in whatever “Intro to East Asian Studies” seminar I may teach in the near future. Indeed, I think it would be a good reading for any introductory “Historiography” seminar as well – get some of those US/Europe historians to think about another part of the world for a change, and not only in a colonialist/postcolonialist context.

For a great many parts of the world, there is perhaps less of a question of when the nation-states or national identities we know today emerged. In many parts of the world, the current nation-states and identities were preceded by a sequence of different empires rising and falling, coming and going. The Mongols, the Ottomans, and in many parts of the world the Europeans – the British, French, and Spanish Empires – this and that empire came and went, sweeping across vast swaths of land, incorporating peoples, drawing borders, suppressing and altering and redrawing cultures. I do not know how historians of those parts of the world talk about these things, but I would imagine it fairly accurate to say that prior to a certain point in history, we can’t really talk about Syrian and Jordanian identity, or the Tanzanian vs. Kenyan peoples, or of Argentinian vs. Chilean politics. Those borders, those categories, didn’t exist. And yet, we do talk about “China” (and the Chinese people, and Chinese culture) as going back millennia.

So, what exactly is meant by “China,” and what is not?

The historians of the so-called “New Qing History” posit the very intriguing idea that rather than thinking of China as having always been a singular and independent “Chinese” entity (albeit with changing rulers and borders over the course of history), there are some valid and valuable insights that can be gained from considering “China” as having been just one part of the much larger Yuan (Mongol) and Qing (Manchu) empires. In other words, that it wasn’t “China” (under Manchu rulers) that conquered Taiwan, East Turkestan (Xinjiang), Tibet, and Inner Mongolia in the 17th-19th centuries, but that it was the Qing Empire which did this, and “China” was only one region within that empire, alongside all the rest. I find this idea extremely compelling; but at the same time, I appreciate Ge’s approach on this and many other points to introduce some complexity, nuance, moderation, noting that this approach to the Mongol and Qing empires runs the risk, however, of going too far in the opposite direction, giving too little attention & too little credit to the role of Han culture in these empires (17).

Even so, this question of whether the Republic of China is the direct political successor entity of the Qing Empire in all of the latter’s territories, of course, has profound implications for today’s politics, especially as a number of these regions became independent after the fall of the Qing Empire and were only later (re-)conquered or (re-)incorporated by the Republic of China or the People’s Republic of China. As I read this book, I could not help but continually think about the protests in Hong Kong, the ongoing colonization of Tibet, Beijing’s endless bullying of Taiwan and ongoing decades-long refusal to allow most of the rest of the world to recognize Taiwan as a separate country, and of course the genocidal horrors being visited upon Muslims in Xinjiang and elsewhere today.

Raised and educated in China, and writing in Chinese as a professor at a prominent Chinese university, Ge does not address these issues directly – or, at least, does not address them as explicitly as a Western scholar might. He presents us with a view from the inside – a view which instead of simply being plainly critical and hostile, instead engages with nuance and complexity, trying to reconcile difficulties in his own nation’s national narrative and national identity, and perhaps ever so gently suggesting criticism of the CCP’s top-down narratives and attitudes, along with gentle suggestions for the possibility of change.

The CCP’s colonialist and otherwise oppressive and suppressive policies, after all, stem from or are intertwined with specific notions of national identity, national history, and national culture which are created and imposed upon the people. It is because of particularly rigid, intolerant, notions of cultural homogeneity, political loyalty, and what does and does not count as “Chineseness” that Uyghurs, Tibetans, Hui, and so many others are being so cruelly forced to shed their native languages, native customs, native religion, in favor of a Communist national culture that anyone would admit has next to nothing to do with (historical) Han or Ming culture or identity. After all, that’s what the 1911 Revolution, and then the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s-70s was all about, wasn’t it? Shedding the old culture of imperial China, to build a new nation based on a new modern foundation? And so, Ge also engages with questions of what does and does not constitute “Chinese culture,” and critiques the across-the-board imposition of “national education.”

History informs politics, and politics informs how we interpret or understand the history, which then reinforces just what the politics wants it to. What is China? is an interesting book in that I can see it being both a history book for historians, and for political scientists. A book that can work quite well in a Intro to Historiography seminar or other deep academic setting, but which at times seems much more directed at (or pertinent to) policy wonks and the like.

A diagram of the emperor-centered worldview Ge calls the “All-Under-Heaven” worldview. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Ge divides his discussion of these issues into six chapters, of which I believe the first four (Worldviews, Borders, Ethnicity, History) really form the core.

One thread which runs through the book is a narrative of how views of China’s place in the world developed and changed over time, from a notion of China as the center and source of all civilization, which became more complicated but nevertheless retained power through the end of the 19th century, to a notion of China as but one nation among many, which Ge identifies as gaining some currency as early as c. 1000 CE, but which of course Beijing had no choice but to reckon with all the more so, all the more strongly, from the mid-19th century onwards. The former notion, which Ge associates strongly with the term “All-Under-Heaven” (Tianxia 天下), was the dominant worldview from the time of unification under the Qin (221-206 BCE) and Han dynasties (206 BCE – 220 CE), if not earlier. Under the Qin and Han, the various political, economic, and social systems, as well as the various languages and cultures, of the central regions of China proper (centered on the Yangtze and Yellow River valleys) were to some extent united; traditional rhetoric emphasizes the unification and standardization of the calendar, weights and measures, rites and music, writing, and the width of axles on carts, across the Empire.

Up through the Tang dynasty (618-907), China was the only major power in the region. While it interacted with “frontier” or “barbarian” peoples such as the Tuoba, Sogdians, Xianbei, etc. [and with Korea and Japan], and while the Tang Dynasty in particular invited in and incorporated much from other ethnicities and cultures (including Buddhism from Central Asia!), there was no concept of “foreign countries” that had anything approaching equality with China as the one and only civilized state/empire in the region [and, hence, in the world] (4).

The notion of the emperor as the singular highest authority, and the singular highest source of civilization, to whom all people (both within the empire and without) should look to as a model of civilized culture and virtue, was central to both domestic and foreign policy; both the regional lords within the empire and the rulers of foreign lands/peoples were expected to pay tribute to the emperor, and to recognize him as their cultural/civilizational if not political superior.

It was in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Ge convincingly argues, that “China” had to contend with other states, and with a multistate, international environment (4). While other scholars have identified the Song as “early modern” for certain reasons having to do with urbanization, technology, and so forth, Ge emphasizes the shifts that took place during this time in notions of a Chinese “nation” or “people” (minzu 民族) and “state” (guojia 国家). Faced with the neighboring Khitan state of Liao and the Tangut state of Xi Xia, the rulers of which the Song called “emperor” (huangdi 皇帝), warred against, and paid tribute to, the Song could hardly maintain the notion of being themselves the one and only center of all civilization (105-106). At the same time, neighboring states/cultures such as Korea and Japan which had viewed the Tang very much as a model of “high” civilization on which to base their own political structures, political philosophy, writing, Buddhism, art and architecture, literature, official histories, and so on and so forth, by the Song had turned away from such unidirectional admiration and cultural borrowing towards forging their own new directions, their own distinctive Korean/Japanese cultures. (Of course, this argument ignores the extent to which Ryukyu and Korea later aspired so strongly towards the Ming as a civilizational model, but I don’t think that really detracts from the validity of this point as it pertains to the significance of the Tang/Song transition.)

The All-Under-Heaven worldview remained strong through the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, and indeed the tribute/investiture pattern of relations with foreign courts reached its height, its maturity, in those periods. But, at the same time, the late Ming saw the introduction from the West of an early version of the modern international worldview – a world of “myriad states” (wanguo 万国) in which China is but one. Ge talks about world maps, and the encounter with (or against) European attitudes which by no means recognized China as the center. Borders are of strong relevance here as well. Not only in China but throughout East Asia (as well as elsewhere in the world), traditional worldviews placed little importance on strongly delineated national borders. Rather, there was a political & cultural center, identified in China as Hua-Xia (華夏) among other terms, surrounded by concentric circles each of which was less cultured, less civilized, than the last.

We might point to the Opium Wars of the 1840s and 1860s as marking the beginning of the Qing Empire being forced to contend even more fully with the international political reality of a world order organized according to this “myriad sovereign states” conception (i.e. what’s often called the Westphalian system) rather than one of All-Under-Heaven. And, of course, with the overthrow of the Empire and the advent of the Republic of China in 1911, followed by the Communist takeover of China in 1949, China as a modern nation-state in a world among many others became even more dominant.

12th c BCE Shang dynasty tiger bone oracle bone. Royal Ontario Museum.

A second thread concerns history. When does “China” become “China”?

Chinese history is typically presented in such a way that the Qin, Han, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties are all different periods of history within the history of a single entity called “China.” Even when those empires are broken up (e.g. in the Warring States period, the Six Dynasties period, etc.) or conquered from the outside (e.g. the Yuan and Qing), the standard narrative views all of this as still being “China.” And it views “Chinese culture” or “the Chinese people” as going back all the way to the very beginnings of civilization. I am not myself super familiar with just where we ought to draw the line between legend and history when it comes to questions of whether the Xia and Shang dynasties ever really existed, but, as with questions of whether the Jômon and Yayoi peoples were “Japanese” in any meaningful way, here too we must ask the question of just how far back “Chinese civilization” or Chineseness should be taken.

Viewed through the perspective of a critical lens towards nationalism and towards the modern state imposing its national narratives upon history, one could take a radical, revisionist, and indeed quite intriguing approach and say that there is something to be gained from considering each of these empires (the Qin, the Han, etc.) as a separate state, without continuity. After all, if Europeanists are going to draw some line at some point in history and say that “before X year there may have been Gaul, Franks, Anglo-Saxons, Picts, etc etc but there was no ‘England’ or ‘France’ and certainly no ‘Italy’ or ‘Germany,'” then why should we pretend that “China” goes back literally thousands of years? There is certainly plenty of evidence that (to a certain extent, in certain important ways) 17th-19th century Koreans and Japanese considered the Ming and Qing Empires to be different countries, considered “China” to have been fallen and conquered, and considered the Qing to no longer be the same country they had previously admired or interacted with. A similar set of developments can be seen, too, in Japan, in how the Tokugawa shogunate had to re-establish relations with Korea (and others) anew after establishing itself as a new regime in the 1600s, and how the imperial government which replaced the Tokugawa and established itself in 1868 likewise had to formally (re-)negotiate relations with all different countries around the world, whether the treaties signed with the shogunate would or would not still be held as valid, etc. To give just one more example, we see this again in the 1970s, when the United Nations, United States, and a great many other entities/countries formally changed their official recognition of the Communist government rather than the Nationalist (KMT) government as being the one and only recognized legitimate government of “China.”

Ming and Qing peoples depicted among the different peoples of the world in a c. 1800 Bankoku jinbutsu zu scroll, Brigham Young University Harold Lee Library Special Collections.

When it comes to many other parts of the world, we hold some skepticism, criticism, or critique as to whether a given modern nation-state should or should not legitimately, validly, be able to claim succession from a given regime of the past (is Turkish national pride in everything Ottoman appropriate or misplaced? Is it India or Nepal that gets to claim the Buddha? Are modern Arab Muslim Egyptians really the heirs to Pharoanic Egypt, etc.). And as historians/scholars we voice some challenge to the idea that the Safavids, Mamluks, Mughals, and so forth map easily onto who should be proud to be Turkish, Persian, or Indian. So why should we be uncritical towards similar claims when it comes to China?

But, Ge makes a compelling argument for not leaping too quickly to be too radical on this point. He emphasizes the stable continuity of not only politics but also culture and cultural identity within the core regions of “China proper.” He writes that the central core of China proper had a unified politics, commonly recognized territory, and commonly unified culture and nationality since very early on; that “the cultural tradition based on Han culture … extended across time in this region, forming into a clear and distinct cultural identity and cultural mainstream” even as it took in considerable foreign influences (19), and that

“regardless of how dynasties were established, they all believed that they were ‘China’ or the ‘Middle Kingdom’ and argued for the legitimacy of the dynasty in terms of the traditional Chinese world of ideas” (19).

I think there’s some considerable validity to this. While the notion of political discontinuity is important – and all the more important if the CCP wants to strategically claim only what it wishes from history while rejecting the rest (decrying the Four Olds, decrying “feudalism,” decrying superstition, decrying just about everything about Imperial China, but still claiming thousands of years of Chinese civilization and greatness?) – Ge says we should not confuse the political for the cultural. Just because China may not have been politically continuous, that is, just because there’s an argument to be made that different dynasties be seen as actually different empires, different states or countries, different political entities altogether, that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t “a continuous identity as “China,” and a cultural and political unity (albeit within dynamic borders) of places dominated by Han culture, within which the writing is the same” or that there isn’t a recognizable and significant historical narrative throughline as the History of “China” or the Chinese people or nation, however one wishes to term it, down through the dynastic and territorial shifts (27).

Ge identifies five key aspects to “Chinese culture,” which can be recognized as continuously prominent throughout history, and as distinctively Chinese:

(1) A writing system based on Chinese characters (hanzi).
(2) A complex of certain beliefs and arrangements regarding the individual, the family, and society, and their relationships with one another.
(3) The balance and combination between Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, with all three having considerable influence and no other religion (e.g. Christianity) ever coming to dominate over them.
(4) Beliefs regarding Yin & Yang, the Five Elements, and so forth, and various practices stemming from these.
(5) Notions of All-Under-Heaven and China’s place in the world (97-98).

I’m not sure this quite settles the argument, either as it pertains to how we understand “China” or “Chinese history” as continuously existing through dynastic changes, or as it pertains to just how far back we can go and reasonably still call it “Chinese” culture rather than the culture of some pre- proto- people who were not yet “Chinese.” But I think Ge introduces many of the key issues and aspects of this problem, and some good complexity and perspective.

The progression of Chinese territory over history. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

A third thread concerns peoples and cultures. Who is included in being “Chinese”? Does Chinese culture, Chinese history, Chinese identity consist only of Han culture, Han history, Han identity imposed on others? Are Uyghurs, Hui, Tibetans, Mongolians, Manchus also “Chinese”? Are their cultures also part of a rich and multicultural Chineseness, or are these things to be demeaned, marginalized, suppressed, erased, in favor of assimilation into (Han/Communist) “Chinese” culture & identity?

This gets not only to the very important and very political issues of today, in terms of the place of minorities and their cultures within China, a set of issues that chiefly concerns the Qing dynasty and the modern period which followed, but also a set of more historical issues: namely, whose history, or which histories, are included in the umbrella of “Chinese history” or “Chinese dynasties”?

Let me take a moment to touch upon the latter one first. As I mentioned in my post on the Royal Ontario Museum, I was intrigued and pleasantly surprised to see the museum devoting some attention to the Khitan Liao dynasty. I do not know what is standard within Chinese Studies today (esp. in the US and elsewhere in the West), but I am intrigued by the idea of choosing to take the Khitan Liao state, the Tangut Xixia state, the Jurchen Jin state, and so forth as “Chinese dynasties” or as part of “Chinese history.” What are the stakes here? What are the implications? I am certainly glad to have learned about Liao sculpture and architecture in my Chinese art history classes and to see them, from time to time, in art museums. The Liao and Xixia are known for their wooden statues of the bodhisattva Guanyin (J: Kannon), which are often among the most striking examples on display in many Western museums, and the Timber Pagoda built by the Khitans in 1055 remains the tallest and oldest wooden pagoda in China today. Including these states in courses and textbooks on Chinese history means including them at all and not erasing them from history, because as we must admit, if they weren’t covered under the rubric of “Chinese history,” when or where would we ever cover them? Extremely few schools offer courses on Central Asian History, and even those that do focus, I am sure, on other cultures.

But, the idea that not only the Han Chinese (and the Mongols and Manchus who conquered them) but also the Tanguts, Khitans, and Jurchens who conquered parts of Chinese territory, shared borders with Chinese empires such as the Song, and adopted some aspects of Chinese imperial culture should count as “Chinese” dynasties is interesting to me. What do we mean when we call them “Chinese”? What are the implications and ramifications for how we understand these dynasties/states, and for how we understand “China” or “Chineseness”? How does including these “foreign” dynasties in our imagined category of “China” change what “China” or “Chinese culture” means?

But let us return to the more presently politically pressing issue. Ge lays out in some detail the varying different attitudes and perspectives of prominent figures in the late Qing / early Republic (i.e. c. 1880s-1910s) regarding which peoples (and cultures, and territories) should and should not be included within “China.” As Ge describes, Zhang Taiyan, aka Zhang Binglin, advocated a Republic of China which would stand apart from the Four Barbarians, meaning he saw no need for the Republic to include Manchuria, Tibet, Mongolia, or Muslim- majority areas (67). Liang Qichao took a different tack, however, suggesting that the Han Chinese were not truly from a single pure origin anyway, but were descended from a mixture of different groups (back in pre-Qin ancient times), that nations across history are constantly changing and merging into one another, and that the Manchus, Mongols, Miao, Hui, and so forth should be included within China, and within Chinese history (68).

I found Ge’s chapter on Ethnicity quite informative and interesting as to the historiography of that time regarding Chinese ethnic origins, etc. We must remember, this was happening right around the same time as the peak of nationalist ideologies and nationalist movements around the world, and the peak of a certain form of late 19th-early 20th century anthropological discourses regarding race, ancient origins, ethnicity, and so forth. We see Chinese scholarship being powerfully influenced by these ideologies, worldviews, and (global) scientific/scholarly trends, as well as by the politics of the time, and by Japanese scholarship which supported Japanese imperialist claims to Qing border regions etc., inspiring Chinese scholars therefore to feel a need to refute those arguments, to research Manchu, Mongol, Miao, and Tibetan history, and to assert stronger or closer ties to China. As Ge quotes Gu Jiegang as writing,

in times of peace, there is no harm in scholars practicing “scholarship for the sake of scholarship,” but in times when “the country is in decline and fear reigns,” then they can only “pursue scholarship for practical ends” (75-76).

On a more practical political level, Ge indicates, no one who took the reins of power after the Revolution was willing to risk being blamed for allowing the country to be broken up or have territories cut away. The abdication edict of the last Qing emperor called for continuing “to preserve the complete territory of the Five Nations of Manchus, Hans, Mongols, Hui and Tibetans,” and Sun Yat-Sen declared that he accepted the program of Five Nations under One Republic, and assumed responsibility for unifying Chinese territory, combining the lands of Han, Manchu, Mongolians, Hui, and Tibetans into one country (69).

Ge today writes that

“because the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China inherited the Qing’s national groups and domains, any discussion of “China’s” territory, peoples, or identity must take into account the history of the Qing dynasty” (65).

All of this is I think of incredible importance today, and perhaps especially today on Oct 1, 2019 as I write this (though I know I won’t finish and publish it until later), the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Throughout China, as well as in Hong Kong, Tibet, and most violently and egregiously in East Turkestan (Xinjiang), we are seeing the Chinese government violently enforce the idea that there is only one correct way to be Chinese; only one correct set of Chinese cultural beliefs, practices, and customs; and that engaging in any other cultural identity or practices is disloyal, un-patriotic, un-Chinese. Even as they continue to spit their propaganda about how wonderfully multi-ethnic China is, with its 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, they simultaneously exercise genocidal assimilation policies. During the Beijing Olympics, I watched videos like “Beijing Welcomes You,” and of course even back then I felt complex and weird feelings about it, but now it feels like watching a Riefenstahl film, or something out of 1984. Just pure propaganda, making it look like things are perfect and good and happy and safe, while meanwhile over one million people are in concentration camps in the northwest; mosques, churches, and centuries-old Buddhist monastery complexes are being demolished; and the police have turned Hong Kong into a warzone.

So, which is it? Is China a multi-ethnic country, a multi-ethnic people, in which the Five Nations (or the 56 ethnic groups) all play a role? Or is China a Han Chinese + Communist/Maoist country, in which there is only one correct culture to which all must submit?

Towards the end of the book, Ge turns to talking directly about “national learning” (guo xue 国学), that is, the national(ist) curriculum taught and promoted in China today. He writes, “Does the plural nature of Chinese culture allow for the inclusion of Manchu, Mongolian, Hui/Uighur, Tibetan, and Miao culture? … In the face of a plural culture, national learning opts for a singular one.” What exactly is this national learning? Some, Ge tells us, say it should focus on the Five Classics, while others say it should focus on the national past. Some, however, advocate a “greater national learning” (da guo xue) that would include the many national groups (111).

These were the three chief threads which intrigued me, and which I focused on throughout the book. Though, as excellent as I found this book overall, I was also frustrated at times that Ge’s interests, Ge’s points, often seemed to trail off in different directions from what I expected or desired. But, then, I suppose, he’s coming from a very different perspective, and the issues that are most glaringly important and interesting to me are not the same as for him.

We must remember that Ge is writing from within China, within Chinese politics, within Chinese discourses. And so, while there was a lot in this book which confused me – including, for example, his often way-overgeneralizing statements about how European or Western civilizations are (in contrast to China) – I just reminded myself to take it as an opportunity to learn something about how Chinese historiography, Chinese education, Chinese news or politics typically (perhaps) sees the world, how they (perhaps) typically talk about such things.

In any case, let me bring this back around. While Ge does not address nearly as directly as I might have expected (or hoped) issues of Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan, the (il)legitimacy of PRC claims to those territories, or the powerful need for stronger recognition and support for minority rights and freedoms (and, hell, rights and freedoms for everyone) in China, I think his discussions of what is (and is not) Chinese history, Chinese culture, Chinese territory, how we think about those questions, is really quite valuable. I absolutely intend to assign this book, or significant parts of it, in my hypothetical future East Asina Studies seminars, and, again, I think his broader discussions of how we approach history, national(ist) history, East vs. West, and so forth, should be valuable reading for any broader general Historiography course as well. (And, I should hope that “China hands” or China policy wonks, whatever they call themselves, are reading this as well. Please, policy/politics people, you can’t understand the present without engaging at least a little bit with history!!)

Royal Ontario Museum

The Royal Ontario Museum

Visited the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto the other day. It’s an incredible museum, spanning not only history and art, but also natural history, and covering a considerable number of cultures. As with the British Museum, I really appreciated that the focus wasn’t exclusively on art as it is at so many US museums – on highlighting style, creativity, and beauty – but rather incorporated some treatment of the fuller cultures and histories of different peoples or different parts of the world. A special exhibit on ancestor worship and Chinese New Year absolutely featured beautiful objects, and some great videos and displays of how woodblock printing is done; indeed, I think I learned more about Chinese woodblock printing from this exhibit than I ever did in all my art history courses. It also included sketchbooks and other materials for how artists produced ancestor portraits – helping us to understand a bit more concretely or tangibly that artists produced portraits of clothed bodies in a relatively undifferentiated, non-personalized fashion, and then merely added in the more individualized depiction of the clients’ late loved one. But this exhibit was not strictly, or even primarily, about “art”; it was about ancestors and gods, about practices and customs, about traditions and beliefs, and I really learned something.

Going back downstairs to the regular permanent exhibition galleries, I found a China section that was particularly impressive. It begins with massive architectural elements and sculptures from a late Ming / early Qing dynasty tomb such as I have never seen at any other museum, and would not expect to see anywhere else outside of actually visiting China. This was wonderful – I am always on the lookout for the biases of what we think we know about a culture or a place, or how we envision it, based on the skewed body of materials available to us, as a result of the vagaries of what our museums have and have not collected and displayed (alongside myriad other aspects of media and popular culture, etc.). When all you know of China is paintings, pottery, lacquerwares, and not so much the architecture, because architecture is so big and so difficult to have brought over (or reproduced, replicated) here, you get a different perspective. So, in short, to see these tomb elements was just incredible. I understand that the question of who brought them over and when and how and why, and hoping it was done legally and ethically and so forth is a whole other matter…….. but, as a museum visitor, it was impactful.

A stone gate and altar table from the tomb of Zu Dashou (d. 1656), a Ming general who fought in the defense of the northern frontiers of the realm against Manchu invasions in the 1630s to early 1640s.

This focus on a broader approach to culture and history, and not only to “art” also meant that I got to see a few oracle bones, more so than I think I’ve ever seen before unless I’m misremembering, prominently displayed and with the inscriptions on them clearly visible. A small set of displays also featured “Chinese inventions,” providing visitors a very brief introduction to Chinese compasses and sundials, gunpowder weapons, and printing technology, things that an art museum like LACMA or the Metropolitan would likely generally skip over, except where it would fit into a fairly standard, mainstream, art historical narrative.

Two more things struck me about the ROM’s China galleries. One, they are filled primarily with tomb goods from the Han and Tang dynasties (among others), aweing in their sheer numbers and diversity. I’m not sure I can quite put my finger on it, but there was something about the way they were displayed that made them seem quite vibrant and interesting, not like the dry, old, feeling one can sometimes get about ancient archaeological finds. The richness and dynamism of these ancient periods came through, very much so.

Secondly, even if only in this and that corner of the exhibit, the ROM highlighted the ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity of premodern China in a way few other museums do. The many cases of Tang dynasty ceramics of course gave this sense, with their ceramic figurines of bearded Central Asian merchants and travelers on camelback and so forth, and accompanying labels discussing the Silk Road and the multi-ethnic character of the Tang period. Another case, situated amidst the Song dynasty section, also displayed a number of Liao (Khitan) objects, and took explicit time and space to introduce visitors to the Khitan people (Liao dynasty) who ruled over part of “China” for a time, and their culture.

Above: a 17th c. Torah case from the Kaifeng synagogue in lacquered wood.

Perhaps most striking and incredible to see was a section dedicated to (a small portion of) the history of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in China. I do wish they might have spent a bit more time on the Hui, Uyghurs, and/or other groups within China. The way it was presented here – including also the display of a number of Tang dynasty figures of “foreigners” – seemed to be like a narrative in which “Muslims” are a single type of outside foreign person, who came to China like immigrants or expats. And while that may have been true in certain senses, e.g. the Muslim Indian Ocean merchants and Silk Road merchants who set up mosques in places like Xian and Guangzhou, there are also these vast regions of what is now included within the western portions of PRC territory, where distinct peoples such as the Uyghurs have always lived and have always practiced their own particular culture… It’s a rather different thing from the case of the Kaifeng Jews. It’s one thing to say that historically there were some mosques and churches here and there, and even a synagogue, and it’s quite another to acknowledge that there are entire Muslim peoples, entire regions, that were absorbed by China, and that could (and should!) constitute an entire exhibition unto themselves.

But, even so, to see this many artifacts and images relating to the history of Jews in Kaifeng is something I have positively never seen at any other museum, especially not within the context of a regular permanent exhibit on China. I did see a beautiful Torah scroll from Kaifeng once, on silk, on display at the British Library, but this was part of a special exhibit on Bibles and Qurans from around the world, and not one on cultural diversity in China. The ROM’s exhibit includes not only a text page in Hebrew, but also a cylindrical wooden Torah case such as is typical among Mizrahi/Sephardic communities, a stone drain mouth from the Kaifeng synagogue (est. c. 1163, destroyed c. 1850), and a rubbing from a stele which used to stand at the synagogue, along with a number of objects relating to Islam in Xi’an and elsewhere, and to Nestorian Christianity.

Joseon dynasty helmets, one from the Imjin War of the 1590s, and two from the 19th century.

The Korea section of the galleries was likewise larger than I might have expected, and included a somewhat broader range of objects than I have seen elsewhere. While both the Korea and Japan sections included only a disappointingly small number of works of painting, they did include a set of images of Joseon dynasty royal processions (something I have only previously seen at the San Francisco Art Museum, and at museums in Seoul) and a small section on the history of Korean printing, something I have not seen emphasized or highlighted elsewhere at all.

Finally, while I have certainly seen many art history museums and art history textbooks & courses make mention of the Imjin Wars (Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasions of Korea in the 1590s) for their significance for the history of Japanese ceramics, I don’t believe I have ever seen any museum outside of Korea feature helmets, weapons, or armor actually used in those battles. Actually, I’m trying to remember now if I’ve ever seen Korean arms or armor on display at the Met at all. So this, too, was really something enjoyable to see.

“A Mohawk Family Group” diorama, revised from old (orientalist) museum practices to better represent First Nations people as contemporary, modern, human beings – members of society – and not objects of anthropological study or curiosity.

Of course, I was not surprised at all that the First Nations galleries at the ROM would be rather well-done. They’ve brought in Native curators and consultants to help ensure that First Nations cultures and history are portrayed in a way which First Nations people would want them to be shown, and they incorporate not only aspects of traditional culture but also contemporary arts and culture. They show clearly and boldly that First Nations people and their culture do not only belong to the past, but that they are also fully modern, just as much a part of the modern world as anyone else.

I very much enjoyed seeing this, and wish I’d had the time to view the entirety of the First Nations gallery – we saw it only at the end, before we had to end up leaving to head out. But I also enjoyed, as we saw in the China and Korea galleries as well, that the ROM focused not only on Native American / First Nations arts, craft, and “culture,” but also on these peoples as fully enmeshed as actors in history. We saw extensive displays on the role of First Nations peoples in the War of 1812 and in treaties, alliances, and other relations with European settlers across the 17th-19th centuries, in addition to displays of canoes, clothing, weapons, and other items, and displays of contemporary artworks relating to issues of suffering, settler colonialism, forced assimilation, and so forth.

And all of these exhibits, from the East Asia galleries to the First Nations ones, all look (at least at first glance) quite contemporary, quite newly done or newly redone. While I can’t necessarily speak in a more intricate way as to precisely how they were or were not following the latest newest innovative or best practices of Museum Studies, they certainly did not feel old, outdated, in need of renovation, at all. One critique my father pointed out in the vein of exhibit design, however, was that the gallery labels in the First Nations gallery in particular very often had far too much text, often in too-small font, and occasionally the labels themselves were located far back in the displays, making them especially difficult to read. My father simply flat-out could not read many of these labels, even with his reading glasses, and I had some difficulty as well.

That one critique aside, what a wonderful museum. I hope I get to come back and see it again sometime.

Leaving Los Angeles

I meant to post this a week ago or so, but somehow I couldn’t seem to pull it together to write something more coherent and thoughtful… Still, I’d rather share this than nothing, so, here are some thoughts from my last days in LA.

I left LA a couple weeks ago, and am hanging out at home in New York for a few weeks until I make the move to Tokyo to start the next stage of my adventures. It still hasn’t sunk in, really, that this California chapter of my life really is over. After seven years in California, including one and a half in LA, it just still feels like I’ll be going back sometime soon, surely, after a break. Like it’s not really closed down and over. I think the fact that my gf was already away for the summer, and that I moved out just my stuff and otherwise left the apartment just as it’s always been, contributed to this feeling. No lengthy day(s) of saying goodbye, no experience of seeing the apartment all packed up and empty – just closing the door and walking away as I have nearly every day, leaving the apartment mostly just as it was, as if I were to be coming back. Weird to think I’ll never be back at that apartment again. One would think that breaking up with my gf would help me feel a starker break with that life – help make me feel more strongly that that chapter of my life is over – but actually it’s been a longer process of sort of coming to learn/realize that seeing her, talking to her, being under some obligation to think of her, is also over. …. Who knows, maybe I’ll end up going back to LA someday. You never know.

Meanwhile, I’m one of those weird people who never learned to drive until a bit later in life. As a result, I only first had my own car (or, any car) for the last year or so. I don’t know if this is how other people feel, but I found it astonishing how so long as I had my car parked outside I felt no need to drive it, no need to go anywhere, but as soon as I didn’t – those rare times when it was in the shop, or when my dad or my gf took it to go somewhere – suddenly I so wanted to go somewhere myself; suddenly, I felt so hobbled by not having the car immediately accessible to me.

On one of my last days in LA, with most (though not all) of my packing and other errands done, I drove out to West Hollywood to drop off some clothes at a thrift store for donation. Then I took the car in to get a proper wash outside & vacuum inside so that it would look nice for trying to get the best price out of it when I sell it. The cleaning took about an hour; I sat at Veggie Grill, nowhere special. I then drove to the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which is really close to my apartment but which I never made it to earlier in the year. And then finally stopped by the West LA Obon Festival. The first half of the day at least was nothing special at all, really, but even so it was just so nice to get out of the house, and beyond that to get out of my local neighborhood. I imagine it’s quite common, wherever you move to, that you have a certain あこがれ, a certain aspirational interest in the great expanse and range of restaurants, shops, neighborhoods that you could potentially visit and experience. But then by the time you leave, to move elsewhere, you haven’t actually touched even a fraction of those. But at the same time it hardly matters. It’s not like I’m actually going to go to half of those restaurants; and if I did, it’s not like they’re something so amazing that I really would have missed out on the experience if I didn’t go. But still, there’s this nagging feeling every time I leave a city and move elsewhere that I’ve missed out, that if I had just one more week I wish I might have driven around a bit more, seen and experienced a bit more of the city. I’m starting to think of all the neat bookstores and other places that we went to only once, that I figured I’d likely end up going to again someday, and never did. All the places like Los Feliz Cafe that I thought I’d go to someday, if only for the geekiest of stupid reasons (stupid mainly because it’s so far out of the way from where I live), and never did. Or even just to drive. Just to experience the city a bit more. I sold the car, and while I knew that literally just a couple days later I would be on a plane to NY and that it wouldn’t matter anymore, there was a part of me that already really missed the car and was already dreading having to spend even just one day without it, wishing all the more places I could have gone, all the more things I might have done.

I’m glad and grateful for this year in LA. For all that I missed in Santa Barbara, and there have been times that I’ve felt that very strongly, thinking and wondering about the friendships and dinners and movie outings and game nights and hallway conversations I missed out on by not being there, in the grand scheme of things I would never have experienced almost any of life in LA at all if it were not for this turn in my life. And even putting aside the city as a whole, or life in the neighborhood (farmers markets, thrift stores, whatever), even just to get to experience life at UCLA to a certain extent was a privilege. I don’t know that UCLA feels like home, or how to quite articulate just how much I do or do not feel like I “belong” there; certainly, the UCSB campus always consistently remained more familiar, like coming home, though UCLA especially towards the end acquired a character of being just plainly familiar, in an everyday sort of way. Like, I know my way around, I know what I’m doing and where I’m going. I have a sense of which things will be open on a given day or hour, and I no longer feel awkward like a guest or an intruder who’s bound to be found out. All of that it just really nice. I don’t really know if there’s anything tangible to say that I’ve really gained, specifically, practically, from having grown accustomed to the UCLA campus; the library resources were certainly nice, and the food options are a bit more extensive than at UCSB, but whatever.

But I do think that on some bigger, broader, level, simply as a life experience, I’m that bit more worldly, more experienced, for knowing yet another place. For the first three years or so of my UCSB career, UCLA was a place I’d only been two or three times, for conferences – a place where I definitely felt an outsider, felt unfamiliar, emphasizing for myself my “provincial” for lack of a better word status as a UCSB student. The one oddball in the group who wasn’t from UCLA, who didn’t know his way around, who wasn’t in on the social circles or whatever. … But, now, even though I never really did make any new friends at UCLA these past two years, or get involved with the Center for Japanese Studies events or anything, still, I can go out into the world and run into people in New York or Tokyo or wherever I may end up in future, and be able to say, yes, I do know what you’re talking about when you say X, Y, Z about UCLA or about Westwood, or about certain other parts of LA….

And I really enjoyed getting to attend and be involved with events at USC so much more than in the past. Funny, even though I spent multiple days a week every week at UCLA, I never really made any friends there, rarely attended talks or events, just generally didn’t find or run into anything on campus to be involved in or connected with – other than the Ethnomusicology circles where I tagged along after my gf. And admittedly, sadly, this whole year I never did end up hanging out with USC people outside of school, which was a shame. But I did attend quite a few talks and events on their campus, and dinners at the professor’s house… and that was just really nice. Building networks, friends, community, a bit.

It was a pleasure to get to live in LA this past year. To really experience and engage with (if in a limited fashion – I spent a ton of time home in the apt, or at UCLA, working on job applications or the diss) that city, getting to know it a little bit, getting to be involved in different social circles a little bit… And I think in a couple of weeks I’ll crash a UCLA party in Tokyo.

Leaving Santa Barbara

UCSB’s Davidson Library

The dissertation is done, and it’s time to move on to the next adventure. I wish I might have documented more of the diss-writing process; instead, this past year or two of the blog has just been very sparse, empty, silent. As if I just went to conferences and had nothing worth sharing otherwise. That’s of course not the case – I was just too busy, and too stressed-out. Now that that’s over, I wish I had blogged more… Nothing to be done for it now.

This is, of course, not the first time I’ve done this sort of thing. I’ve been very fortunate in my life to live in many different cities, doing different study programs and the like, but it’s funny, I don’t know, I guess it gets easier each time but at the same time I feel like the fact that it’s easier also means I’m not feeling it emotionally perhaps the way I feel I should. I’ve been in Santa Barbara for the better part of seven years now. That’s a really long time. Longer than almost anywhere else I’ve ever lived, in fact. And while grad school kept me too busy to develop deeper, fuller, friendships in a certain extent, at the same time I do think I’ve made quite a few very meaningful friendships. People I very much hope to see and spend time with again. People I very much hope to not fall out of contact with entirely. I got a little bit emotional handing in my keys, walking out of the Humanities & Social Sciences Building (HSSB) for what turned out to be the second-to-last time, and taking some photos to put into this blog post, but to be honest, that feeling of genuine emotion over it only lasted a few minutes.

HSSB. I probably spent more hours in this building over the last seven years (the first 3-4 especially) than anywhere else…

The most emotionally impactful part, I think, about leaving a given work/life/study situation is that shift in how your day-to-day is, where it is, who you see. That I will no longer be spending time in that office the way I used to. That I will no longer be going to that library. That I will no longer go up and down the hall of TA offices to see who’s in, and to stop and have a chat. To no longer see those people again on anything approaching a regular basis (if at all). And that leaving a place means a whole litany of lasts. My last time walking these halls, and these pathways, and this tunnel. My last time getting a burrito at Wahoo’s. My last time using the book scanners in the library or the copiers in the department. My last time taking the library elevator to the 4th floor for books in English and the 5th floor for books in East Asian languages. My last time getting a breakfast bagel and yerba mate at Caje. My last time making the drive to campus from LA (and back).

And realizing, too, all the lasts which have already past – after spending a week and a half in Santa Barbara earlier in July, I went back one more time, for just one more day, to see some friends and profs who I hadn’t seen during that earlier visit. During that one more day, I only went to campus and then back home; so, this means that my last time at anything downtown, and my last time at almost anything in Isla Vista, was last week, or even earlier. My favorite crepes/cafe closed down sometime last year, so my last time eating there was at least a year and a half ago. My last time having hummus and drinks with friends at Aladdin’s was also at least a year ago. My last time going to Draughtsmen Aleworks for trivia night was a couple weeks ago. … I haven’t been to the Funk Zone, or the Wharf, or just walking up and down (the fuller length of) State Street in years. It’s been a long time since my last time staying late into the evening in the office, sitting in that wonderful la-z-boy chair that Ryan (or was it Chris?) had brought into the office. My last time practicing sanshin outside of HSSB. My last time doing anything at the grad dorms at San Clemente.

Storke Tower, at the center of campus. The only bell tower, I am told, at any UC campus to have an actual bell carillon and not just speakers for pre-recorded sound.

Living in LA, I’ve felt really disconnected from life at UCSB. It was a step-by-step process, as I was away in Japan 2016-2017, then came back and was here only part-time, with no office on the hall, living here for 3-4 days out of every week – so, I was here a significant amount of time, but all the back-and-forth made me feel too hectic, too unsettled, to ever actually make the time to socialize with anyone. I would be up in Santa Barbara for only one day or a few days at a time, and each time I felt like I really had to make use of that limited time, that maybe I would be able to meet up with friends a different day, when I was feeling less hectic; but that day didn’t come until after the dissertation was done.

Living in LA full-time, and coming up here only very infrequently, I felt disconnected from my friends, for sure, and from how much deeper or more extensive those friendships might have been, especially with people who I never really got to know at all before leaving for Japan, and who I just never got a chance to see with any frequency. But I also felt disconnected these past two years from the campus itself, and from IV, and downtown. Almost like I’d graduated and moved away (well, I did move away) early – even though I was still a student here, I was already, a year or two early, dealing with the feeling of that I might never visit this or that café again, that I won’t be spending time in the library again. … But it’s not really about the individual places so much as it’s about a lost potential of the life I might potentially have had. I missed having an office on campus, and the social and spatial experience of that. Though I also recognize that the time for that has passed – even when I did regain an office in my last Spring quarter, I was in a different place now in terms of who I do and don’t know in the department, the pressure of work I need to do, the lessened need for social interaction…. But, I still strongly missed a life I might have had of spending more time in this library, of spending more time in and out of the cafés in IV. I guess to a certain extent, I had already made my peace with it. But to a certain extent, I had not. One real benefit to TAing in the Spring, time consuming though it was, was that I got to live a little bit of that life again before it was all over.

My cohort and our advisors, just before commencement.

I don’t know how big a deal to feel this is, but I was just thinking (again) about how I guess I now get to call myself “Dr. Seifman.” Or, well, to be called that by others. When I booked my flight home, I put in “Dr.” for my title. Felt weird, and there’s absolutely no reason to not keep using “Mr.” But, still…

It’s funny. Within grad school, and also in having so many professors, so many Drs., who I would consider to be more my friends, peers, and colleagues than my superiors, the degree, the title, doesn’t feel like it means that much in a certain sense. I’m sure that once I’m actually in a professorial position I’ll feel differently but for the time being, being in grad school just doesn’t feel all that elite or special in many ways… and so being a “Dr.” doesn’t feel that special.

But I guess it is? Sometimes I think about how I’ll be the first one in my family to earn a doctorate. Not the first to go to college, not the first to get a Masters, not even the first to teach in a college classroom, as both of my parents got Masters degrees, and my father has been teaching as a Lecturer for quite a few years now. But, still, the first to get a doctorate. My grandparents on my father’s side came to this country as refugees, arriving I can only imagine with more or less nothing at all. My grandfather worked 12+ hr days six or seven days a week, my grandmother doing the brunt of the work of raising five sons, really just scraping by most of the time. And my great-grandparents on my mother’s side, a generation earlier, likely also came here with very little; I don’t know the details, but they too were escaping persecution and seeking a better life. And now here I am, not a super high-paid engineer or corporate whatsit or anything, not a medical doctor or a lawyer, but even so a “Dr.” nevertheless, a college professor.

An alleyway in downtown Santa Barbara. That beautiful Spanish style.

It was really nice to spend another week and a half in SB before leaving for my new adventures. Much thanks to a friend who asked me to catsit for her, which meant that I had a place to stay for a whole week and a half. I don’t know if I made the most efficient use of the time, in terms of really making sure to see as many friends as possible, or what else I might have missed out on, but overall I think I did a pretty good job. Saw quite a few friends, visited a good number of shops and restaurants that one more last time, finally visited the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, caught a small but good exhibit of representations of the Tokaido at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art … got some work done, hung out in the office and the library and several cafes in both IV and downtown, went to pub quiz several times. Helped a friend move apartments. All in all, I think, an excellent way to re-engage with a regular pattern of life in SB, a taste of the regular life I might have had here had I stayed and not moved to LA. Which I think was actually better than if it felt like only visiting, felt like actively saying my goodbyes, trying to desperately get some “this is my last time” emotional experience out of it.

It’s really weird, after seven long years, to think that this really is goodbye. That last Wednesday really was my last time (for now) seeing that campus, that town, at all. It still felt like just another day – albeit, more like a summer vacation day than a busy-busy still being in school sort of day – but, really, without any of those feelings of it being goodbye. I guess I’ll just have to see how it feels next week, after I move out and fly home, leaving California entirely. I think maybe once I’m home in NY it’ll really hit me all the more so that this chapter of my life is done. Certainly excited for the next one, though.

Down by the waterfront in Santa Barbara.