Studying for exams was a great opportunity to finally read dozens of books I’d been wanting/meaning to read, and many I had not known of, and was glad to be introduced to. As I made my way through them, I produced 2-3 page reviews, or summaries, for each. I was a bit too overwhelmed with the studying process (and all my other responsibilities) to share any of those, but I was certainly excited to get around to doing so. After all, that’s what we do here, on academic & history/culture blogs, isn’t it? We share about different aspects of history that we’ve just read about, share about interesting books, interpretations, and arguments. A friend shared many of his summaries on Facebook, and I found it quite interesting and useful, actually, since this allowed me to get the basic gist of a whole bunch of different books, in a short, condensed version. Expand my knowledge of the field, and of the content, without having to go read the entire books. So, inspired by his example, I thought I’d do the same. Over the course of the summer, then, I’ll be sharing my reviews of books and articles on Pacific and Hawaiian history, Ming and Qing Chinese history, early modern maritime East Asia, and early modern & modern Japan. I hope you find them interesting; and, please don’t take any of these as the final word on these books – for some, I may focus on just one aspect or another; for some, I must admit, I did not manage to make my way through the entire book, but merely attempted to get the gist. For some, too, I may have had a particular impression upon reading it at that time, and I may not take the time/bother to dramatically overhaul what I previously wrote, thus giving just one impression, one interpretation or reaction, to the book, which might stand (for example) as quite different from how the book looks in comparison with something else I read later.
Without further ado, let us turn to one of my favorite recent books,
The Arts of Kingship, by Stacy Kamehiro (Univ. of Hawaii Press, 2009):
Looking at the architectural style and interior layout & design of ‘Iolani Palace, the adoption by Hawaiʻian monarchs of Western modes of dress and court ritual, and of Christianity, it would be easy to think that Hawaiʻi had either given in to colonial pressures, or had self-colonized, in a sense, as Meiji Japan did, in an attempt to resist Western domination. Indeed, as The Arts of Kingship reveals, the design of ‘Iolani Palace and of King Kalākaua’s 1883 coronation & other court rituals and practices, and the erection of national monuments such as the Kamehameha Statue and national institutions such as the Hawaiian National Museum, were aimed at proving Hawaiʻi’s modernity, and asserting its sovereignty, seeking respect from the Western powers, that Hawaiʻi should be accepted as a more-or-less equal member of the nations of the world.
However, as Stacy Kamehiro explains, these projects also served an important role in legitimating Kalākaua’s rule in the eyes of his Native Hawaiian subjects. He was elected to the throne by the Hawaiian legislature, over Queen Emma, a more direct relative to the Kamehameha line which had ruled the unified kingdom of Hawaiʻi from the time of its unification by Kamehameha I around 1800, until the time of Lunalilo (r. 1873-1874), whose short reign immediately preceded Kalākaua’s. Not being particularly closely related to the Kamehameha line, Kalākaua had to work to promote discourses of his legitimacy in order to secure the loyalty of his subjects, many of whom rose in revolt immediately following the announcement of his election in 1874. To that end, Kalākaua argued for his legitimacy by way of his genealogy, his mana, and his rightful possession of sacred royal artifacts; Kamehiro describes in detail the ways in which ‘Iolani Palace, the coronation ritual and regalia, the Kamehameha Statue, and the Hawaiian National Museum, served to advance these narratives.
In the process of her discussion, a number of important and interesting themes emerge. One is the complexity of identities and associations among the people of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Certain characterizations of the history cast it in stark categories of Native Hawaiians versus haole (white) businessmen and missionaries, a narrative in which the overthrow is a crime committed by all haoles, with all Native Hawaiians as victims. However, in Kamehiro’s account, we see many haoles who are strongly loyal to the kingdom, supportive of the revival or continuation of Hawaiian “traditions,” and of the strength, independence, and sovereignty of the monarchy, as well as many Native Hawaiians opposed to Kalākaua’s rule, and indeed many who viewed many Hawaiian traditions as pagan, heathen, or uncivilized. It becomes clear that we must consider a greater diversity of intentions and identities among the citizenry of Hawaiʻi – while it is likely that even the most loyal of royalist haoles (such as William Murray Gibson) held to some Orientalist or racist perspectives to some extent, we cannot say that they were unanimously responsible for, or in support of, the overthrow; in fact, some were quite staunchly against it. As emerges in Kamehiro’s narrative, haoles such as John Young played key roles in Hawaiian government from the very beginning, as Young played a key role in helping Kamehameha defeat his rivals and unite the islands, as well as in advising the king in various other matters.
One of the most prominent arguments throughout the book is an argument against the false binary of traditional vs. modern, and for a notion of tradition as always evolving, and as being incorporated into an alternate, distinctively Hawaiian, modernity. Both at that time, and today, many look at non-Western arts and traditions as having existed in some purely traditional form, and at any modern(ized) or Western-influenced arts or practices as being less authentic, and less Hawaiian (or less Japanese, as the case may be). That Kamehiro’s 2009 book is one of the first, or at least one of the most major, scholarly attempts to discuss these hybrid, neo-traditional, distinctively Hawaiian-modern forms, can surely be attributed in large part to such attitudes. In Japanese Studies as well, we can clearly see that for the most part, scholars both in Japan and in the West focused far more heavily on “authentically” “traditional” Japanese arts, all but ignoring, for example, Nihonga (neo-traditional painting), yōga (Japanese oil painting), and the like until only the last few decades.
In Kalākaua’s time, too, many Native Hawaiians and haole alike saw Hawaiʻi as losing its traditions, as losing its culture; in some very important respects, this was absolutely true, and it was for that reason that Kalākaua did much to promote hula, traditional or “ancient” (read: precontact) Hawaiian modes of knowledge, and the like. But, as Kamehiro points out, Hawaiian culture was at the same time evolving, developing, into something no less authentically Hawaiian even as it became something decidedly more modern. The Kamehameha Statue, in bronze, designed and cast by a Bostonian sculptor in Florence, depicted a Hawaiian monarch bearing fully traditional symbols of Hawaiian monarchical power and legitimacy, even as it also incorporated the pose and stylistic form of ancient Roman statues of emperors. The Hawaiian National Museum, similarly, displayed objects symbolic of (or manifestations of) Kalākaua’s rightful royal power and lineage, a sort of modern version of the ways these objects might have been displayed in more “traditional” contexts, serving a decidedly Hawaiian discursive purpose even as the national museum itself, as a concept, and in various aspects of its form and activity (collections, display, open to the public for public moral education, etc.), was a Western invention (with the British Museum & Louvre, among others, as the most prominent examples, evolving out of and alongside the exhibitionary complexes of the World’s Fairs, etc.). And, ‘Iolani Palace, though constructed in brick and concrete, wired up for telephone and electric lighting, and furnished throughout in the Western style, as Kamehiro explains, also incorporated numerous elements of distinctively Hawaiian iconographies, including representations around the main entrance referencing “traditional” symbols of kapu.
The parallels to Meiji Japan are striking, and I think The Arts of Kingship could serve a very useful role in a comparative discussion, or comparative consideration, of non-Western polities seeking to assert their sovereignty and modernity in that historical moment (or other ones). I have yet to read anything too much in depth as to the origins of the National Museums in Japan (in Tokyo, Nara, and Kyoto), their layout, philosophies of display, and architectural styles, but it is easy to imagine parallels between the Hawaiian National Museum and these Japanese museums; between ‘Iolani Palace and the Akasaka Palace (along with various other examples of Meiji period architecture, incl. e.g. railroad stations); between the Kamehameha Statue and various examples of bronze memorial or monumental statuary erected in Meiji Japan; and between Kalākaua’s coronation and the associated regalia on the one hand, and the various Western-influenced costumes, court practices, and modes of display (e.g. photographs) of the Meiji Emperor. How might these compare, too, with Westernizing/modernizing and nationalizing efforts by imperial or royal courts in China, Korea, Siam, Samoa, or Tahiti around this same time? Kamehiro’s work not only fills a glaring lacuna in scholarship on Hawaiian (art) history up until now, but also inspires pursuit of similar projects of investigation and analysis for other cultures/polities.