I’ll return to my Chinese history book reviews, and talking about the tribute system, shortly. But, in the intervening time, I have just recently attended an intense week-long workshop at UCLA & UCSB on the subject of “Wahon Literacies.”
“Wahon Literacies” (和本リテラシー) is a movement both within Japan, and overseas, amongst scholars of Japanese literature, book history, and so forth, to expand scholars’ familiarity with Japanese books (wahon), and scholars’ ability to read the books. This includes several different aspects, from training in kanbun, kuzushiji, and so forth, as seen in the Cambridge program I recently attended, and also a renewed attention paid to the materiality of the book and awareness of the history of publishing, book production, and so forth, imploring scholars of literature and art history to go beyond the content of the book (the text, and pictures), to consider the book as a whole, as an object, and within a wider social and historical context.
The UCLA/UCSB workshop centered on bringing three scholars from Tokyo, to lead participants in lectures and hands-on activities, discussing book history and the like. To my surprise, we did not train in reading skills at all, but instead focused on the other half of Wahon Literacy, though perhaps I should take this as welcome, since a continued focus on textual reading skills, though absolutely crucial, still misses half of the equation.
I’ll be honest, I had a very difficult time following the lectures in Japanese. So, for me, I guess it was more an experience of practice in immersion in listening to Japanese lectures, than it was about really engaging in stimulating discussion on the content. Even so, a number of interesting and important points emerged.
Two different editions of an Edo period book. If you click through and look closely, you’ll note that it’s not simply that the blocks were more or less worn out when printing the image for the left side, but that in fact the text on the right side differs entirely, both in content and in style (“font”). Which one is earlier? Which one is the true original text? Can we, should we, even speak of a “true” version and a less- or non-true version? Who made these changes, when and why?
One is that when examining books, or indeed any historical material, you need to determine, and keep in mind, what format the object (or text) was in originally, and how and why it might have changed over time to come into the format you currently hold. This is something we historians take as one of our basic skills, a core element of our approach, but still, we often forget or neglect to think of it, and it is good to be reminded. Over the course of Japanese history, countless works were dispersed, or collected, or remounted, into scrolls, books, and folding screens. The vast majority of works we handle are also copies, whether manuscript or printed, and may be in different formats, or differ otherwise, from originals.
This summer, I myself examined a pair of books in the British Library which were clearly originally scrolls, and a scroll in the British Museum which may have had some of its sections rearranged in the past. I was also shown by Prof. Laura Moretti a series of albums in her personal collection which collected up a wide variety of ephemera – single-sheet objects, the equivalent of posters, flyers, pamphlets, newsletters, handbills – into a more permanent form. Countless examples of important historical documents, often saved as examples of fine calligraphy, are today extant as incorporated into scrolls, or folding screens, where they might have originally been individual sheets, or sections of other scrolls or books. Even within original Edo period printed books, one must be very careful as to whether the book one is holding is a second or later printing, as these vary widely, and typically are dated to when the blocks were originally cut, not when that copy of the book was printed. Variant versions of any sort of book are known in Japanese as ihon (異本).
A modern replica of a handscroll of, I believe, the Gosen Wakashû (“Later Selected Collection of Japanese Poems”), originally compiled 951 CE. What version is this a replica of? When was it written? By whom? Why did they copy it out? For whom? How was this later copy used? How might it differ from the original in format, in style, in content?
But, that’s not to say we need to devote our attentions to eliminating later variation in a quest to discover the “true” “original” unblemished version of a text, for analysis. Done and past is the time when literature studies (or art history) need concern itself exclusively, or chiefly, with analysis of individual texts in true, original, forms. To the contrary, scholars are now realizing that analysis of a text need not be limited to the original, and are turning towards thinking about why later copies were made, their provenance, etc., not only for the sake of being more careful in one’s research on the original, but also as a research topic unto itself. Scholars used to restrict themselves to studying a variety of later copies of the Man’yôshû, for example, solely in order to determine, best as they could, the authoritative version, and then scrutinizing the themes and so forth of that version. But today, for the first time, we are told, they are opening themselves up to considerations of, for example, why people in the Heian period copied out the Man’yôshû, and why they did so in the way they did. Or, to take another example, how did people of the Edo period, even more centuries removed from the original, understand or think about this ancient poetry collection? Such topics do indeed seem to be trending, so to speak, these days, as I know a good number of graduate students not only in Literature studies but in Theatre and Art History as well, looking at how older themes or texts were transformed, remembered, used, thought of, or referenced in later periods.
One aspect of this is to ask, and to keep in mind, why it is that books come to exist in all these various, changed, forms. Why are books copied? To preserve them, to make copies available for wider access, and/or to practice one’s calligraphy (in the act of hand-copying out the book), among other reasons. Why are books taken apart and their contents dispersed? To reformat them into albums, handscrolls, hanging scrolls, or folding screens, often in order to take select portions of the original work as examples of great calligraphy, to preserve, admire, and copy or emulate. Further, we learned that with the rise of the elite popularity of tea ceremony, in the Muromachi period, there came increased demand for folding screens and hanging scrolls which could be displayed in one’s tearoom, in order to demonstrate one’s cultured refinement. Books can also be collected up into anthologies, or other sorts of collections, altering their format. What looks like a single bound book may actually contain a number fascicles, originally intended as separate volumes. Books, of course, can also be (re-)published, changing a manuscript into a woodblock printed text, or changing a manuscript or woodblock-printed book into a modern-typeset book, for wider accessibility.
An opening from “A book of drafts by the brush of Sakuragawa Jihinari himself” (桜川慈悲成自筆稿本), easily the most beautiful book we looked at during the workshop. Hand-painted (not a woodblock or modern printed copy) images, accompanied by calligraphy & poetry for each of the 53 stations of the Tôkaidô. Art historians and lit scholars working together could do such great work to analyze the pictures, calligraphy, and poetry, as well as the book itself, bringing it all together. For such a beautiful book, I truly would love to see the results of such investigation. I wish I had taken more pictures – this was one of those rare pieces that I really wish I could have owned it, and gone through it time and again.
One thing I do wish we had discussed further in the workshop is the question of what literature scholars and art historians have to offer one another. If lit scholars are moving in the direction of paying greater attention to materiality – to the object itself, the paper, the book, the format, and not only the text – well, art historians are making that shift as well. So, how can we work together on this Wahon project? I think this could have been a fascinating conversation. But, unfortunately, there were surprisingly few art historians at the workshop.
Prof. Michael Emmerich’s description of the role of imagination in thinking about these books made me think that maybe we art historians and literature scholars have more in common than we might normally think. After all, to begin with, each of us is only looking at one portion of the book – the text, or the images – and is only now beginning to start looking at the whole. All the more reason we should be working together! Where were all the art historians at this workshop!?
But, getting to what Emmerich shared with us, it was a personal anecdote about handling an Edo period book while in Japan many years ago. As he held it, he noticed a grey hair lying in between the pages. How long ago was that hair deposited there? Could have been last year, or it could have been an Edo period reader, whose hair happened to fall into the book. Thinking about this hair, and this hypothetical Edo period reader, the scene suddenly comes alive for us, and the book itself, as the actual physical object that has transcended all this time, gains renewed power, or attraction. It is precisely this sort of thing which got me so energized for History, and Art History, to begin with. Who held, read, this precise copy before? Who were they? Where did they live? Where did they sit while they read? Were they maybe drinking tea, or saké, while reading? Is this their commentary in the margins? Or someone else’s? How did they read it? A little at a time? Slowly, with difficulty? Or quickly, and with great interest? How did they keep the book? Stacked up nicely, carefully, on a shelf or desk? Or carelessly left around? Emmerich further shared with us a story about buying a whole stack of old books, and then afterwards (possibly?) being visited by a ghost. Though we might be hesitant to believe in actual ghosts, or curses, actually following books around, this too brings to life, or brings to further attention, the value, the energy, the spirit these books have, having survived through so many ages, passing through so many hands.
A number of book wrappers, most of them for volumes of Jippensha Ikku’s Hizakurige, or “Shank’s Mare.” It’s been really bugging me that I can’t remember what these covers are called in Japanese. But, while I guess maybe we don’t have this practice too much today in the States, in early modern Japan, books often came in light paper wrappers. And both because of their fragility, and their cultural ephemerality – do you keep the shrink-wrap, or indeed the cardboard boxes, for most things you buy? – few of these survive. So to see a whole stack of them was really something. The differences between what’s rare in US collections, and what’s utterly common in Japanese collections, never ceases to amaze me.
At another point in the workshop, Emmerich also suggested that, as long as we are talking about the books themselves, and their production, distribution, circulation, and so forth, might we not also consider a history of access to books? There is certainly a lot to be discussed about the most recent developments, in digitization – as more materials become more widely available digitally, many archives/libraries/museums are becoming more reticent to allow access to the actual objects. And we did discuss this to a certain extent. It is certainly a pressing issue for us today, in the practical and methodological side of what we are doing as scholars.
As to the question of where and how books and other materials might be best preserved – an issue connected to that of digitization – this is maybe just sort of an anecdotal aside, but Prof. Ogawa also spoke of how it was quite common in the pre-war era for a great many historical books to be kept not in the university library, or archives, but in professors’ individual offices. During the 1923 Great Kantô Earthquake, which devastated much of Tokyo & the surrounding area, and in which over 100,000 people were killed, he related that a great many pre-modern and early modern materials were lost simply because they were in professors’ locked offices, and no one immediately at hand (or perhaps no one at all but those professors) had the keys to the room.
In any case, without diminishing the importance of considering issues of contemporary practice today, and where we are heading in terms of document storage and access in the future, from the historical perspective, as a historical object of consideration, it is also interesting, and arguably quite important, to think about the history of collecting, including the ways in which, even prior to the advent of the modern museum, library, or archive, there were comparable institutions collecting and preserving objects, and restricting access – just think of Imperial or shogunate official collections, such as the Tokugawa shogunate’s Momijiyama bunko, or the private collections of samurai, court noble, and commoner families. We cannot draw such a simple line between the modern and the pre-modern, necessarily, when it comes to the “invention” of the collection, the private library, or the archive. Then, within these pre-modern & early modern collections, there is the phenomenon too, which several of the professors emphasized, of how and when and why an object shifts from being considered a more practical object, of whatever sort, to be read, or used in whatever way, to being considered a “treasure,” to be preserved above all else.
So, ending on a somewhat awkward point, I suppose, but, thus ends my first part of three, in debriefing from this workshop. It certainly left me with a lot to think about: the history of copying and reformatting, how to truly bring considerations of materiality into my own research – not just to be thinking about it, but whether, and how, to actually have concerns of materiality make it onto the page within my dissertation – issues of digitization and access, and perhaps most vexing, how to balance in-depth examination of individual objects (to determine what other copies exist, variations between copies, the precise conditions of production, etc.) with the demands of an academic world that demands broader conceptual analysis and thematic arguments, less grounded in specifics than in wider trends and phenomena.
In my next post, I’ll talk a bit about how to appreciate calligraphy aesthetically. And then, in my third and last post about this workshop, I’ll return to that last point, to talk about how to balance expert training, and deep focused examination, with the kind of broader disciplinary expectations of academia (in the US at least) today.