Archive for the ‘Academia’ Category

Prof. Doris Sommer came and gave a talk here the other day, on the value and importance of art and beauty, and boy was it inspiring. The topic, ostensibly, was related to the defense of the humanities, the defense of the importance of the arts, as fields such as STEM, economics, business, continue to gain greater and greater traction with students, parents, university administration, and lawmakers alike.

Above: Not apparently a true quote. But a powerful and important notion nevertheless.

We so often don’t know what it is we have until we lose it, and shifting from an Art History department to a department of History, I never suspected that a cultural, or aesthetic, view of the world would be so lacking in the latter. Or that I, who had been steeped in such a view for so many years, would so quickly and so easily forget it, lose it, and become adrift. Some art historian I am. I adore my colleagues, and faculty mentors, in History, but whereas that love of the value of the aesthetic was so taken for granted in my Art History program, here I feel it’s left up to me to keep that energy, that perspective, in my work, as my professors can’t advise me in that direction … and so I am struggling to retain that art/culture aspect to my work, amidst (even unintentional) pressures to focus on “real” political concerns, and more than that, subtle pressures simply to see the world in a different way, a way other than that of the aesthetic or cultured lens.

The Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky wrote on this aesthetic view in his 1917 essay “Art as Technique.” In one section, he writes:

Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. “If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.” And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, … Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object: the object is not important…

(Emphasis added.) Reading this quote, I cannot help but think of Chinese landscape paintings. For centuries and centuries – and most certainly after the writings of Dong Qichang (1555-1636) were taken up as the orthodoxy – painters in China rejected realism as a mere parlor trick, embracing as the true artist’s talent the ability to paint things not merely as they appear, but as they truly are. In other words, capturing the spirit of the thing, or the place, and not just its visual perceived appearance.

And I do think there’s something wonderful and powerful and inspiring about this notion of seeing things not merely as they appear, but as they are – thus cutting through to a deeper sense of the character or nature of a thing – as well as this notion of making objects unfamiliar and forms difficult, so that we might better recognize and appreciate the vibrant aesthetic world of colors, shapes, and textures all around us, rather than taking these for granted and thus allowing them all to fade to grey. To be sure, Shklovsky’s aesthetic lens makes everything we encounter in life new, novel, and interesting by alerting us to color, form, texture. And I imagine we could extend this too to the modernist art of the 1890s-1960s, that put aside realism, or naturalistic illusion, to ask viewers to consider the materials and forms themselves – the texture of the canvas, the thickness of the paint, the greenness of the pigment, the squareness of squares, the coldness of stone, the warmth of wood. But I don’t think we even need to go that far to simply say, let us appreciate the vibrant, colorful, exciting, cultural diversity of our world. Let us revel in, and take some enjoyment from, the myriad forms that things take, and not focus only on their function.

As wonderful as Shklovsky’s quote is, I think I like Prof. Sommer’s paraphrase (as it appears in my notes, likely somewhat misquoted) even better:

“Habituation kills everything – it kills my relationship with my wife, it kills how I dress, it kills my fear of war. Art makes me fall in love with the world again.

After all, when we get bogged down in our daily routines and personal family obligations, and when we get caught up in all the great many political and social ills in our world, it can be severely demoralizing. But, thinking about all the beauty in our world, the power of human creativity, can really revive our love of the world, and our desire to contribute to it, or even just to keep moving forward.

I did not get into the study of history so I could think about oh-so-grey things like economic forces or political structures, policy papers or ideological writings. I got into history because I was excited by, enthralled by, enraptured by, the sights and sounds of the culturally diverse worlds of the past. The architecture, the costumes, the admittedly rather romanticized imaginings of what it looked and felt like to be there, in that time and place. I want to highlight the colorful, the vibrant, the musical, in order to contribute to enlivening the world, by introducing my reader to something beautiful and exciting. Our world is full of such beauty, and I think that highlighting this, emphasizing it, getting my reader, and my students, to see that beauty and to expand their love of the world, is just as important – if not, arguably, even more important – as making some argument about our interpretation of political or social structures or patterns.

I have written things like this on this blog so many times – I am ashamed to have forgotten it, to have lost that vision, and the passion for that vision. And so I am so thankful to Doris Sommer for reminding me, reminding all of us in that room, of the power of art and the importance of aesthetic vision.

I don’t know if I will be taking the time to read Kant’s Critique of Judgment, Hannah Arendt’s lectures on Kant, Friedrich Schiller’s Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Man, and Doris Sommer’s commentary on all of these. But, I do think I will continue to struggle, with renewed determination, to find ways to include the color, the vibrancy, in my work in a way that centers and foregrounds it, and in a way that my advisors find is essential enough to my argument for it to be allowed to remain included within the paper (the dissertation).

Thanks to Flickr user duncan c for making this image Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0 licensed.

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Recently (okay, not so recently, a few months ago), Nate Ledbetter and Chris West, my fellow podcasters on the Samurai-Archives Podcast (where I am frequently the third person talking) did a two-part discussion (for which I was not present) about the tensions and difficulties surrounding the pursuit of Military History today within the fields of Japanese Studies, and History.

Frankly, I have little to add, but I did think it was a rather interesting, and important, conversation, so I wanted to re-share the two podcasts here.

EP118 Military History and Japanese Studies Part 1click through for the podcast blog, or listen directly, below:

EP119 Military History and Japanese Studies Part 2click through for the podcast blog, or listen directly, below:

Blogger T. Greer then responded, expanding upon Nate & Chris’ conversation on his blog (The Scholar’s Stage), in a post entitled East Asian Military History: A Few Historiographical Notes.

It is certainly an interesting phenomenon, that military history should be so discouraged, so marginalized, within our field. To be sure, social and cultural histories, including post-modernist and post-colonialist perspectives, histories of race & ethnicity, and gender studies, have grown more central and more dominant in recent decades, as the political and economic histories which were so standard in past generations have become decidedly less so. And, to a large extent, I think this is a good thing. We are engaging with myriad new and different perspectives that were never addressed before, challenging standard understandings, and exploring new aspects and new avenues which the old approaches – which excessively privileged political and economic narratives, particularly of institutions and great men – discouraged, marginalized, or ignored entirely. We’re seeing women’s perspectives, indigenous and non-Western perspectives, culturally-informed and interdisciplinary analyses, and so on and so forth. I am certainly glad that I get to do what I do, looking at Japanese and Okinawan perspectives (with a minimum of attention paid to European actors or European Theory), and doing capital-H History while looking at music, dance, costume, and art, as well as ritual/ceremony and identity performance, without being told I have to focus more on the politics or economics of the situation. I do think it a shame, though, as I have ranted about in previous posts, that detailed or narrative history, in general, is so discouraged, and theoretical or conceptual analysis so privileged. There is so much out there to know, to uncover and extract from the archive, and to simply put together and put out there – here’s something we didn’t know before, and now we do. Why should I always have to be forced to answer “so what?” and to have it connect into some broader conceptual argument?

The Sekigahara Kassen Byōbu held by the Gifu City History Museum. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

But, I’m getting off-track. What’s interesting here is that among the innumerable aspects of history one could study, the myriad topics, military history seems the only one that’s as marginalized as it is. Maybe I’m just overlooking something, but I truly cannot think of a (sub-)field that’s discouraged and marginalized like Military History is. Sure, some things are crazy popular right now – Memory, Identity, and Empire, for example – and some things perhaps less popular. But I know people doing histories of science and medicine, deeply Marxist histories (yes, still), religious history, women’s history, urban histories of space and place, studies of travel and tourism, studies of radio and music in statecraft, studies of fashion and of sewing machines, studies of local wine festivals, and of horse racing. Some people absolutely are studying individual leaders’ policies, if not their biographies per se, and some are deep in economic history. Morgan Pitelka has just put out a new book on Tokugawa Ieyasu, focusing on material culture approaches, and in particular on Ieyasu as a collector of tea implements.

And yet, even among all these incredibly varied topics and approaches, one thing is still missing: military history. And, for example, in the case of Tokugawa Ieyasu, even someone such as myself, deeply interested in the material culture side, can see there is something ridiculous about the absence of works closely examining Ieyasu as a strategic & tactical commander. Nate and T. Greer suggest that the culture surrounding the Vietnam War – particularly on college campuses – brought a significant shift away from military history. It was no longer seen as appropriate, or acceptable, I guess, politically, within the discipline to be studying war. I myself really don’t know anything about this, though I can certainly vouch for the unspoken pressures to adhere to liberal/progressive ideological values, even as we speak about open-mindedness, critical thinking, and embracing diverse perspectives and ideas. Yet, regardless of politics, regardless of left/right, liberal/conservative, Nate makes an extremely important point, in that just because someone studies military history doesn’t mean they agree with war, or violence. So many of us study a great many things we don’t agree with, from slavery to imperialism to fascism. So, that’s really no explanation. In truth, the discipline of History (and academia more broadly) should be accepting and incorporative of the study of any and all aspects of history. If book history and the history of sewing machines are important and valid objects of study (and I believe they are – I’m not making fun), if the histories of chocolate, sugar, and coffee, of conceptions of race & gender, of theatre and painting, are all taken as valid – if the study of manga and K-pop and video games is taken as valid – then why not military history? It really seems a crazy oversight.

Statue of Ii Naomasa at Hikone Station. Photo my own.

And, as T. Greer points out, as in so many things with East Asian history (and, indeed, with non-Western history more broadly), the trends have leapt past too quickly, passing over all too many subjects. I would not be surprised if you told me that the major battles of European and American history – from Salamis to Agincourt, to Valley Forge to Gettysburg, from Normandy to Iwo Jima – have been analyzed and over-analyzed to the point of excess. And, from the Western point of view at least, things like the Boer War and the Maori Wars may have received considerable attention as well. So maybe it really is time for Military History, as a sub-discipline, to move on, in certain respects, and for History as a discipline to move on from tactical & strategic analyses, at least for certain topics. I do think that the new social-cultural directions military history has been going are fascinating, and important, including discussions of war photography, gender performance, the social & cultural impact upon civilians on the home front and on the battlefront. But, when it comes to non-Western battles, we can’t move on so fast! Firstly, there are plenty of battles to be re-examined from the non-Western point of view. I touched briefly, in a post last year, upon a fascinating essay by James Belich on how British historiography has severely distorted understandings about the wars against the Maori, in New Zealand. The British refusal to admit intelligence on the part of the Maori, or a lack of technical, technological, or strategic superiority on their own part, severely skewed the historiography on the whole thing.

But, secondly, and coming back once again from digression, while Crecy and Midway, Marathon and Antietam, may have been analyzed to death already, there are countless East Asian conflicts which haven’t been (not to mention conflicts in even less-studied parts of the world). The many campaigns and battles of Japan’s Sengoku period, the Taiping Rebellion, and the battles of the Qing conquest, are only three of the many, many, conflicts which desperately need greater attention. There’s seriously nothing I can add, except to repeat and support what Nate has said, which is (1) that much of what’s already out there about these battles is wrong, from a strategic and/or tactical point of view, and (2) that it’s patently absurd to study the political, economic, social, and cultural history of a particular time and place while just skipping right over the details of the warfare. For me too, it’s not at all my specialty, and I don’t anticipate I’ll ever be doing tactical or strategic analysis in order to really write a military history of anything, but I am definitely interested to learn more about, well, any and all of this, but in particular about the Okinawan conquest of the Ryukyus in the 1500s, the Satsuma conquest of Okinawa in 1609, and the 1874 Imperial Japanese Army expedition to Taiwan… but if military history continues to be as sidelined as it is, we’re only going to continue to be in the dark – repeating the same stuff we already know about the political implications, but still not better understanding just what kinds of weapons and tactics, what kind of military organization, these groups had. How exactly /did/ these fights go? You’d never skip over a political debate, to only talk about its outcomes, so why would you skip over a military campaign?

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Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. Oxford University Press, 1992.

Catherine Bell’s Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice offers an extensive summary of a wide range of theoretical writings on ritual, from more general theorists such as Derrida, Foucault, and Durkheim, to the thought of specialists on ritual such as Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz, and Valerio Valeri. Bell’s intertwining and cross-referential summaries of the thought of these various scholars demonstrates clearly her profound expertise and grasp of these complex and theoretical concepts, albeit without conveying an understanding of those concepts to the reader in a clear fashion. These innumerable references amount to, essentially, a state of the field overview of scholarship on “ritual,” and provide a valuable resource for a reader to discover which particular works, of the many in the field, one should read in order to learn more about particular arguments or approaches. Bell’s own argument is often subsumed, or even absent, as she presents an array of conflicting ideas, or ideas addressing different aspects entirely, often (though not always) without making clear which approaches she agrees with, or advocates. Often in the volume she simply lays out a variety of ideas, allowing the viewer a fuller view of the range, and seemingly allowing them to simply pick and choose for themselves, without judgment on Bell’s part.

These references to others’ arguments are almost always very brief, and related in vague, broadly (in)applicable, and generalizing terms. They occupy an interesting in-between space, in which the reader is expected to be familiar enough with these thinkers to be able to understand and to follow along, but also unfamiliar enough to require the summary / explanation to begin with. We are told, for example, that “V. Turner developed [a] notion of ritual as social drama” (71), something anyone familiar with Turner would already know, and which anyone unfamiliar with Turner would not understand. The very next sentence begins a new paragraph, changing topics somewhat, and no further explanation is given as to what Turner means by “social drama.” This pattern of introducing others’ ideas in only the briefest and vaguest of theoretical terms is repeated throughout the volume.

Bell is extremely hand-wavy throughout the book. While her mastery of the literature is clear, her approach offers little evidence that she has studied any actual, specific societies to which these theories might apply, or from which these generalizing statements might derive. How is one to understand actual, living or historical societies, and the function of ritual within them, only by reading theorists, and not studying actual societies?
Even if we were to take it on faith that Bell has studied actual societies – we are led to understand that she is an expert on Chinese religion, though one would never know it from the text – Bell offers no evidence to indicate that her theoretical concepts are true or applicable, nor to indicate to which cultures, in which periods, in which ways, these might be applicable. While Geertz’ arguments about the functioning of the Negara rituals in 16th century Bali, and about Balinese attitudes and beliefs about ritual at that time, may be too culturally specific to be easily applicable to the study of ritual in other times and places, Bell’s work speaks to no culture at all. Specific examples taken from a wide range of cultures would help to suggest how these theoretical concepts might be applied to societies across space and time, but instead we are left completely to fend for ourselves as to whether these ideas make sense for our particular object of study. And, we are left to fend for ourselves more generally. With no concrete illustrative examples to latch onto, the reader is forced to contend with Bell’s ideas on a purely conceptual level, imagining for each and every phrase what she might mean without any evidence as to her intention.

Where Bell’s own argument does appear in Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, it appears to be largely single-fold. Though Bell spends the majority of the book rehashing a myriad of arguments by others as to just how to define “ritual,” or how it works, ultimately her argument is that this is not a useful question, and that we must consider ritual not as a separate category of actions unto themselves, but rather as a strategic choice in how we perform otherwise mundane actions – a choice of ritualization. This, along with the summarized arguments of dozens of other theorists presented in the volume, offers some intriguing food for thought, potentially informing how one thinks about ritual, how one approaches or discusses ritual in one’s own work, but only I think in an organic sort of way, incorporated into one’s thinking at the back of the mind. Bell is quite explicit that she does not intend to offer a concrete new theory, new approach, for ritual, and indeed, it would be difficult to apply almost any of the Theory from Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice directly into practice in one’s own ritual research. Bell operates almost entirely in an aetherial, conceptual realm of Theory, providing very little concrete evidence to explain, or support, her theoretical assertions and those of the scholars she is quoting. One can open to almost any page and find a statement like

… ritualization [is described] as a means of preserving strained social relations by simultaneously escalating and orchestrating conflict in such a way that it has to be and can be resolved (172).

Bell offers no concrete examples whatsoever to support this assertion, nor to help explain to the reader what is meant by this, or how it might function. The reader then is left to attempt to make sense of the theoretical assertion by considering her own examples. Does a royal entry preserve strained social relations? Does it escalate and orchestrate conflict? Let’s hope not – ideally, there should be no strained relations, or conflict, between a king and his subjects. How about a religious ritual, such as calling a Bar Mitzvah boy or Bat Mitzvah girl up to read from the Torah for the first time as an adult member of the community? Where are the strained relations, or conflict, in that? Without any explanatory examples provided by Bell, it is difficult to understand the theoretical assertion, and therefore difficult as well to be convinced, i.e. to find the argument compelling, a necessity in nearly any work of scholarship.

Further, Bell explicitly refuses to acknowledge that her theoretical frameworks derive from, or apply particularly applicably to, any particular culture. She acknowledges time and again that the specific cultural context is essential for understanding the particular functioning, or meaning, of specific rituals; in fact, she argues quite strongly at times that there can be no all-encompassing “ritual theory” that serves to explain all ritual cross-culturally. And yet, still, she goes on to speak only in vague, generalizing statements that are connected to no particular time or place, no particular people or culture, and no particular type or category of ritual (e.g. religious vs. secular, tribal vs. court ritual vs. modern political ritual). Bell writes that discussing specific cultures is not the point of this study, and that the application of these ideas to particular cases is left for future works by other scholars, perhaps drawing upon the ideas presented in this volume. She thus leaves us completely ungrounded, and lost. What kind of rituals is Bell imagining as she writes this? What kinds of rituals are we meant to imagine as we read it, in order for the various theoretical ideas being presented to make sense? Are certain sections meant to apply more fully to (Judeo-Christian) religious rituals, thus explaining why they do not seem to quite serve to explain tribal or animistic/shamanistic rituals? Does the entire book secretly take religious and/or tribal rituals as the focus, without considering “secular” political ritual? Bell refuses to say so, instead leaving the reader with a vague sense that everything in the book applies variously to everything (and nothing) in the broad world of ritual activity.

In sum, Bell’s Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice is a superficial and introductory, but extremely extensive, compendium of past scholarship on “ritual,” from Bourdieu, Saussure, and Durkheim to Roy Rappaport, Terrence Ranger, and Stephen Lukes. It serves in this respect as an excellent resource for discovering which scholars’ works to investigate more deeply. Bell’s arguments regarding ritualization as a strategic means of differentiating actions or activities within a broader context of (mundane) action and activity, also provides a valuably different and refreshingly new perspective on “ritual.”

In sum, Bell’s Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice is terrible. It’s one of the most hand-wavey, abstract, and ultimately meaningless academic books I have ever read, and that’s really saying something, given the things by Foucault and others which I have read for many a Theories & Methodologies class. rather problematic, as a source for trying to understand “ritual” further. The theory presented in this book is so far disconnected from any specific cases, specific cultural or historical contexts, or categories (political ritual? religious ritual? rituals performed at home, rituals performed in public), as to be extremely difficult to understand, let alone apply, to any particular case that one is examining. It is a wonder to me that anyone manages to make use of this book at all, and that it remains so prominent, so oft-cited. I would never have come across the book myself, or thought to add it to my reading lists, if not for how widely cited it is. It is so widely cited, in fact, that I had had the impression it was a must-read. Well, I suppose I am glad to have read it now, to know for myself just what it is, rather than having that continue to linger out there, not knowing whether it might have been useful for me, for my own research. And now I know, and the answer is, not in the slightest.

We shall see when, or if, I end up posting more extensively about some of the other works on ritual & performance that I have been reading… but, for now, in order to provide some contrast, let me maybe just say a couple words about some of the other works I’ve already posted about. Whereas Bell speaks broadly and vaguely about “ritual” in “societies” in general, Hevia, for example, speaks specifically about Qing and British diplomatic ritual in the late 18th century, giving us much concrete context for better understanding Qing ritual, British ritual, court ritual, and diplomatic ritual, among other categories. How bodies move in space. How hierarchy is constructed through ritual action. How differences in cultural attitudes or assumptions about ritual can result in problems. Edward Muir, who I have not yet posted about, along with Tom Pettitt and numerous others, analyze specific parades, processions, or other events in medieval and Renaissance Europe, using these as generalize-able examples, to point to how banners and music are used in parades, how processions might function – in terms of meaning-making, or emotional, social-political or psychological impact – both from the point of view of participants and observers. They point out to us how parades & processions function differently from theatre, since they pass us by rather than standing still. How parades & processions map out space, and negotiate relationships between different groups. How the members of a parade might be arranged before, after, or around the figure or object of the greatest importance, whether that be a king, ambassador, or relic. I know I am being quite vague and general here, but I promise you, even in this I am being far more concrete than Bell; and scholars such as Muir and Pettitt are more concrete still. Even the theorists, such as Victor Turner, provide specific examples to show what they are talking about. Hell, even Foucault does this, as he speaks of incarceration, schooling, specific episodes in the history of science, as examples to illustrate far broader, more abstract and conceptual topics. That Bell manages to so completely avoid providing any such concrete examples would be impressive, if it weren’t so exceptionally frustrating.

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This is my third and final post on the Wahon Literacies workshop held at UCLA & UCSB a few weeks ago. As I mentioned in the previous posts, the workshop was dedicated largely to discussions of book history, and of shifts in scholarship towards a greater appreciation of not just the text (the content), but the book as a whole, in its production, circulation, usage, and material history otherwise. This last post begins with a few scattered different thoughts, but after that, I get into a discussion of what it is we should be doing in our university departments, in our graduate training.

We talked a little bit about connoisseurship skills, though I really would have liked to do more of this. One thing we did touch upon is how to look for damage or defects in the printing blocks. Most often these will appear as tiny gaps in the printed portions; they are especially easily noticeable in the solid black lines that frame every page. Finding such a defect shows that the book is from a later impression, after the blocks have gotten worn to some extent. Finding the same defect in the same place in another copy of the book shows that the two copies were printed with the same block. However, as was explained, finding a copy without that defect does not always mean it is an earlier impression, from a pre-damaged block. Rather, it could be from a later impression, from repaired or remade blocks. Through a technique called kabusebori, a printed page could be used to create new blocks, either as replacements for blocks lost in a fire, or as a means of creating blocks from which to publish pirate editions.

A break in the black frame around a page, indicating a damaged woodblock. Click through for the fuller image.

The workshop ended with each professor sharing some final words of wisdom, and/or anecdotal stories of how they got to be where they are, in terms of academic interests, or approach. Unno Keisuke-sensei shared with us that earlier in his academic career, he had five different advisors, advising him five different things. I share this because I think any graduate student can likely sympathize. Unno had one professor emphasizing that he had to focus especially on thinking about the historical context surrounding whatever text or object he was working on. Another said to focus in on the texts themselves, reading very closely, carefully, and deeply. Another told him to read broadly, surveying lots of texts. A fourth professor told him to focus most on his own purpose, the purpose of his research effort. Finally, his final advisor told him he simply had to do all four at once. This is certainly a pressure I feel myself, to read deeply, but also broadly, while keeping in mind my specific purpose (esp. in terms of theoretical, historiographical, or conceptual angles), but also the broader historical context.

The same page opening as above, loaded with kuzushiji.

Of the entire workshop, one of the things I think I found most stimulating and engaging was a final discussion (in English, thank god) about the role of “Wahon literacies,” in the sense of intense focus on kuzushiji and kanbun reading training, in Japan Studies scholarly training today. This is a narrow element of a broader issue I have been very much weighing and thinking about for years. The focus on theory and broader cross-cultural issues so privileged in American academia means that none of us can ever be truly as expert in our particular fields of specialty as we might be otherwise. This could very easily be the subject of an entire blog post unto itself, and it is certainly something I have spoken about with my officemate, and certain other colleagues, at length. I have been feeling for some time that I would likely be happier in an East Asian Studies department than a disciplinary one – whether History, or Art History – because as much as people love to talk about interdisciplinarity, we don’t actually practice it much, and indeed most of our seminars run along a different axis, trying to address a given theme, or Theoretical or conceptual issue, across many different periods & places, in the hopes I guess of (a) being accessible to as many History students as possible, and (b) because of some disciplinary privileging of thinking & working cross-culturally, cross-geographically, cross-period, as if each of our subjects of study is really just a case study for some broader, more global understanding of broader themes. Sure, there’s great validity to that, but what about moving along the other axis? How much more could we accomplish if we worked alongside fellow Japanologists, in a variety of disciplines, rather than so heavily alongside fellow Historians (or Art Historians) in a variety of geographical and chronological specialties? If we brought together experts on early modern Japanese art, architecture, literature, theatre, music, politics, economics…. now *that* would really be something. This is why the AAS (Association of Asian Studies) conference is so much more engaging and productive each year than the AHA (American Historical Association) or CAA (College Art Association). This is why these workshops at Cambridge, and at UCLA/UCSB the last couple months have been so invigorating. Don’t get me wrong, there is incredible value in just about everything we do, and I am immensely grateful for all that I have learned by TAing World History, Western Civilization, and Writing, and by doing field exams on Chinese history, Pacific & Hawaiian history, and Performance Studies; and I have also learned a lot from some of the random seminars I have taken, such as in travel literature, gender in theatre & music, and museum studies. Historiography was a waste of time. But, I cannot help but wonder where I would be, what kind of scholar I would be, if I had devoted all of that time to studying Japan and Okinawa more extensively, studying kanbun, sôrôbun, and kuzushiji more extensively, and perhaps even taking more courses across disciplines, not that anyone was really stopping me from doing the last.

When we spend so much of our time reading Marx and Foucault, and thinking about transnationalism, post-modernism, and identity politics, and taking courses along disciplinary lines rather than focusing on the cultural and historical context of our specialty, and especially at a university that offers travel funding only for conferences & research, and not for language or workshops, when and how am I supposed to learn how to read this? And to learn about the material culture, political events, and social constructs the text refers to?

The privileging of broader conceptual concerns also means that scholars in Literature and Art History are today discouraged from doing work on individual works, or individual writers/artists, which used to be the bread & butter of these fields. Obviously, it is for the better in many ways that these fields have expanded past that. But, despite post-modernism telling us that nothing is ever black & white, that all things are a bit of this and a bit of that – or perhaps precisely because post-modernism advocates this more complex view – we cannot seem to be tolerated to go do those kinds of focused studies, even if we do it alongside a broader discipline, or field, which continues to do the broader concepts. As one professor at the workshop pointed out, no one ever did write a focused study in English on Saikaku, the biggest name in the Edo period literary canon, and now that time is past, and it simply cannot be done in the current academic environment. As a result, I don’t really know, since this isn’t my field, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there is no single book, or body of books, that one can go to for anything approaching a “definitive” treatment of Saikaku’s biography or ouvre, but only essay after essay examining his works through this or that theoretical lens, within the broader context of this or that -ism or -ality.

Meanwhile, Japanese scholars continue to put out wonderfully thorough treatments of individual subjects, describing them in detail and depth, without the obligation of coloring the entire project through the lens of a particular capital-T Theoretical approach, or argumentative aim. It’s hard to write anything that can ever come even anywhere close to being the definitive book on a given subject, when every book has to leave out vast swaths of aspects of the subject, simply because they’re not relevant to one’s argument.

Thank god for movable type.

This focus on disciplinary and theoretical training, over intensive linguistic or culture-specific training, explains in part the reason why, to a very significant extent, scholars in the West relied heavily upon Japanese scholars to transcribe manuscripts into movable-type published texts, and to otherwise catalog and detail the complexities of the historical subject. Western scholars, whose language abilities and cultural/historical knowledge paled in comparison to those of these Japanese scholars, then simply read the Japanese scholarship, and based their analytical, conceptual, or theoretical arguments on these secondary sources, combined of course with at least some direct in-person examination of primary sources. Now, don’t get me wrong, I find myself doing much the same. Things have surely changed dramatically from many decades ago, when many of the top scholars in East Asian Studies didn’t even read Japanese or Chinese at all, or read modern but not classical, and/or had never traveled to Asia. But, I’m not sure they’ve really changed completely; such, after all, is the conversation we’re having here right now. Here I am, so many decades later, and the resources to learn kuzushiji, kanbun, etc., not to mention to develop true fluency in Japanese like many scholars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries couldn’t even imagine, are so much greater, more widespread, more easily accessible. And travel and lengthy research stays in Japan are likewise quite accessible compared to the days of yore. And yet, here I am, with theory classes, TAing, and all sorts of other things getting in the way of me developing a more truly expert, deep, thorough, expertise in these things. After this workshop, I truly have a renewed drive to get to Japan, and to spend as much time as I can over there from now on, whether in diss research, or as a post-doc. The US system simply does not prepare students adequately in a depth of historical/cultural knowledge, let alone in language skills.

Right: The mission statement of the University of the Ryukyus, emphasizing the search for truth, making contributions to regional and international society, and pursuing peace and cooperation. Things that Shimomura Hakubun and all too many others, with their narrow-minded focus on engineering and corporate competitiveness, would like to see eliminated from Japan’s universities.

Some of the professors at the workshop suggested that as Western scholars have continued to take greater and greater advantage of access to Japan, and as the average level of ability among Western scholars has risen – combined with the demographic shifts in Japan, political shifts de-valuing and even seeking to gut entirely the humanities, and cultural shifts such that fewer and fewer students are interested in historical research – the modes of Western scholarship have come to become more powerful in the field overall. This division of labor has broken down, and Japanese scholars have either chosen, or felt pressure, to really begin paying attention to Western scholarship, perhaps even emulating our more argument- and Theory-driven philosophy. And yet, most Japanese scholars still retain a level of expert knowledge and skill that we do not – having handled hundreds more historical objects than us, having read hundreds more manuscripts, having engaged so much more deeply, in so much greater detail, than we have. For all of these reasons, and others, Japanese universities continue (at least for the moment, under the current trends) to shift towards bringing in more and more international students, and international lecturers. This is a good thing for someone like myself, as I think I’d really like one of those lecturer positions. But it also means you have an increasing body of students who are even less thoroughly familiar with Japanese history & culture, and less skilled in Japanese language, than their native Japanese counterparts. It means that for there to be next generations of scholars who are highly skilled in kuzushiji, and highly experienced in handling historical objects and examining them with a connoisseurial eye (for age, damage, earlier vs. later printings, forgeries, etc.), as the last generations of scholars have been, there is an increased need for engagement between Western scholars & students and these Japanese masters (and not only for Theory!). It is with this in mind that UCLA organized to bring these three professors from Tokyo for this event, and that UCLA is planning additional similar events in coming academic quarters / years.

All photos my own.

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A letter from the great Kyoto painter Maruyama Ôkyo to Oku Dôei. Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.
The Wahon Literacies workshop at UCLA/UCSB a few weeks ago, to my surprise, did not spend any time on learning or practicing how to read calligraphy. But, we did spend some time thinking about the aesthetic appreciation of it. I actually took a whole graduate seminar devoted to the subject of Chinese calligraphy some years ago, and I must admit I still really struggle with how to appreciate it, aesthetically. But, what Prof. Ogawa Yasuhiko had to say shifted my thinking about this – it really put me over a threshold, towards thinking about this differently.

We are often told, particularly in Art History courses, art museums, and similar venues, that one does not need to be able to read the calligraphy, at all, and can still appreciate the formal qualities of a piece, overall. That is to say, we can look at a work of calligraphy – i.e. a rectangular space of black ink against a white background – and judge overall its balance of dark and light, its use of negative space, and so forth, as if it were an abstract work of modernist art. Okay, yes, true. One can do that.

But, the cry comes out, there is so much to be gained by reading the text! How can you claim to understand or appreciate a piece without reading the text that’s right there in front of you? It could be a poem about winter, or spring, about food, about birth or life or death, or it can be a joke about someone’s dick. Or, it could be something really mundane, like a letter or even a shopping list, treasured and preserved and hung up as an artwork simply because of its calligraphic quality – or the fame of the author – and not for its content. I would agree with this too: reading the actual content of what is written can make a huge difference towards understanding, and thus appreciating, a piece.

But, we did a hands-on activity with Prof. Ogawa that made me realize how to appreciate calligraphy in a new and different way, which strangely never did occur to me before – that reading it is not only about the actual content, but also about appreciating a work of calligraphy not as a formal aesthetic whole, but rather one character at a time, in order. Ogawa had us use tracing paper and regular pencils to trace over famous works of calligraphy, thus moving through the text one character at a time. Even with only minimal experience with calligraphy, atrocious skill at the real thing, and a near-total inability to read the text for meaning, tracing over the characters gave me a real sense of the flow of the thing. Did it flow quickly and smoothly from one character to the next? Did it stop and break after each stroke of a kanji, in sharp energetic movements, or in slow, deliberate ones? Did the characters run long and thin, or wide, and how did these alternate? Did the column of characters run straight down, or did it veer off to the right?

Some of this is, I suppose, what I’ve been told about calligraphy all along, in terms of trying to get a sense for the shape of the characters, their balance, the horizontality or verticality of them, the thinness or thickness of line. But I don’t think anyone ever before suggested examining the work one character at a time, from the beginning to the end, or tracing over it, either physically or in one’s mind. And this makes all the difference. If I remember to do so, I definitely think that the next time I teach Japanese (art) history I would love to have the students actually trace the calligraphy, like this, with pencil and tracing paper. Hopefully, maybe, this will give them a different insight into the art of it. I know I certainly got intrigued – I’m hopeless with a brush, and in large part because I’m left-handed and calligraphy, like all traditional arts, has to be done with the right. But, as I traced these characters with the pencil, and felt the energy and flow of it, even I became allured, tempted, to want to pick up calligraphy, and learn to play and explore in this world of quick & flowing, or slow & deliberate, or sharp and energetic, brushwork.

This could also be a great activity for learning how to think about kuzushiji and how to read them. I wish we had done tracing during the Cambridge program. I wonder if that would have helped. The key thing, though, to remember (this is basically a note to myself right here), is that especially if doing this kind of activity with students completely new to it, is to encourage them to think about reproducing the process, and not the product, of how it was actually written. When tracing a character, don’t do an outline of its shape and then fill it in, and don’t come at it from just any angle, any direction, to try to draw it. Start from the top, and the left, try to lift up your pencil as little as possible, and try to think about how a calligrapher with a brush would flow through the characters, darting or looping back to get to the next part, sometimes without leaving a mark, but most of the time still following along a line – not removing the brush entirely, and bringing it back to the page elsewhere.

I think this calligraphy activity, as well as activities like making our own yotsume-toji (sewn-bound) books, could be a great tool for Japanese history and culture classes, to get students interested and excited in traditional culture and history. We are fortunate in Japanese Studies that we have many students who are genuinely interested in the subject to begin with. Students who are primarily there for the anime & manga, for stories of cool/badass samurai and ninja often are open to at least some degree of interest in Kabuki, Ukiyo-e, geisha, and so forth. Our upper-division history course on “The Samurai” here at UCSB always fills up quick. But, even so, if my own personal journey can be taken as any indication of others’ attitudes, I think it really helps to have some thing, whether it’s activities, or whether it’s just certain readings, certain lectures, whatever, something that really grabs students, that really makes your class memorable out of their whole college career. I don’t know about students these days, who come in with so much drive, and so much pressure, to do college in the most efficient and career-effective manner possible, but at least for me, it was rather up in the air what I was going to major in, and my entire academic/career path since then was very heavily influenced by simply having the professors I did, including a medieval history professor who was widely regarded one of the most fun, must-hear, lecturers in the whole university, a Japanese language teacher who was strict but incredibly caring and nurturing, and a Japanese history professor who assigned Alex Kerr’s Lost Japan, which, for all its flaws, provided the kind of romantic view of Japan that clinched my decision to study abroad, and the rest was history. So, I take these activities as tools which might, hopefully, allow me to inspire my own future students similarly, to think that my class stood out, made an impression, and that Japanese history & culture might be something to pursue further.

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Having finished going through reviews of books & articles I read for my exam field in Pacific Islands history, we now finally come around to the China readings. I promise we’ll get to Japan before too much longer.

For now, we begin with a summary / synthesis / response to a pair of articles on the so-called “Chinese World Order” and “tribute system” of traditional East Asian international trade relations.

*Schottenhammer, Angela. “Empire and Periphery? The Qing Empire’s Relations with Japan and the Ryūkyūs (1644–c. 1800), a Comparison.” The Medieval History Journal 16, no. 1 (April 1, 2013): 139–96.
*Zhang, Feng. “Rethinking the ‘Tribute System’: Broadening the Conceptual Horizon of Historical East Asian Politics.” The Chinese Journal of International Politics 2, no. 4 (December 21, 2009): 545–74.

The East China Sea, where so much of this tribute trade was centered. As seen on a map at Pearl Harbor.

These two articles by Zhang Feng and Angela Schottenhammer are only two, chosen admittedly somewhat arbitrarily, from the body of recent scholarship on the so-called Sinocentric world order and tribute system. However, after reading them, they seem to present a good cross-section representation of the discourse. Further, Zhang and Schottenhammer draw extensively on a handful of other significant recent works on the subject, giving a sense of the key arguments and ideas of James Hevia, John Wills, Peter Perdue, Guo Yinjing (see book chapter), Cheng Wei-chung, Wang Gungwu, and Zheng Yongnian, among others.

Zhang summarizes and critiques the scholarship on the “tribute system” which has developed largely out of the work of John K. Fairbank, and essays published by a handful of other scholars in the landmark 1968 volume Chinese World Order, edited by Fairbank and published by Harvard University Press. Zhang emphasizes that the “tribute system” is first and foremost “a Western invention for descriptive purposes,” an analytical tool that even Fairbank himself thought should be revisited and revised in each generation. He explains that only since the 1980s have scholars begun to critique this model, “exposing hidden assumptions and bringing to light new historical evidence that contradicts existing interpretations.” Yet, even as more recent scholarship of the 2000s and 2010s (including numerous conference proceedings & edited volumes edited by Schottenhammer) has continued to explore the history of pre-modern / early modern East Asian foreign relations, few of these critiques have disproven or significantly revised Fairbank’s model, or offered satisfactory alternative models. Zhang admits he is guilty of the same, and writes that “Only James Hevia has set out to bypass it and construct his own analysis from a postmodern perspective.” In practice, however, I would counter that Hevia does not actually significantly depart from the tribute system model, but merely builds upon it, elucidating the conceptual and ritual (logistical) workings somewhat more deeply, and offering additional or alternative language for talking about it. His idea that the emperor “initiates” and the foreign envoy “completes” a ritual action, or ritual relationship, for example, while thought-provoking and evocative, does not substantially alter our fundamental notion that the Chinese emperor takes a superior position, requiring ritual submission from envoys from foreign lands if they wish to enter into formal relations. I expect I will cover Hevia’s book in greater detail in a future blog post.

Zhang, too, admits that the tributary/investiture relationship, and the Confucian/cosmological rhetoric and ritual practices associated with it, was “a prominent feature of historical East Asian politics,” but suggests that “overemphasis on it over the years has created biases in conceptual and empirical enquiries.” As we continue, endlessly, to struggle with the legacies of Orientalism, this is something we must take very seriously – to be guilty of perpetuating or reifying the artificial construction of a conceptual “Asia” that differs from reality is essentially the very crime which Said railed against. At its core, Zhang’s argument is simply that which dominates scholars’ outlooks and methodology today more broadly, regardless of chronological or geographic specialty (and quite rightfully so): the world is complicated, and no single model is sufficient to explain everything; it is imperative to acknowledge complexity, nuance, and difference. The tribute system, Sinocentric attitudes, and so forth, are not the beginning and end of East Asian attitudes or practices of foreign relations, but merely one of a number of institutions operating within the region.

Zhang devotes the majority of his article to summarizing Fairbank’s model, and offering critiques. Fairbank and Teng Ssu-Yu, in that 1968 volume, describe the system as “the medium for Chinese international relations and diplomacy” and “a scheme of things entire … the mechanism by which barbarous non-Chinese regions were given their place in the all-embracing Chinese political, and therefore ethical, scheme of things.” It was based on an extension of China’s internal hierarchies, with the Son of Heaven at the center, and at the peak of the hierarchy, and all others subordinate to the central, awe-inspiring, person of the emperor, from whom virtue and civilization emanated. “Respect for this hierarchy and acknowledgment of Chinese superiority were absolute requirements for opening relations with China.” China’s participation in the system was motivated chiefly by prestige, and that of foreign countries chiefly by desire for trade, according to this traditional interpretation. This model connects into Confucian and cosmological notions of the Son of Heaven as the source of all civilization and virtue, and the idea that foreign envoys come to pay homage and tribute in recognition of the Emperor’s virtue, which has extended even so far as their corner of the world. “Non-Chinese rulers participated in the Chinese world order by observing the appropriate forms and ceremonies (禮) in their contact with the Son of Heaven.”

A Chinese investiture ship, and to the left, Chinese investiture envoys being welcomed at Naha harbor, in a scroll owned by the University of Hawaii Library. Investiture was a crucial part of the so-called tribute system.

Zhang describes two alternate views of the system, but ultimately goes on to critique all three. His “Second View” (Fairbank’s model itself being the first) focuses on examining the rules and procedures of the Chinese system, while the “Third View” takes the tribute system and ideas of Sinocentrism as an “institution,” well-established and widely understood and agreed upon throughout the region. Zhang categorizes these things apart, but really they seem all just facets of the same thing, and with other facets, other approaches, possible – including the idea still popular among too many scholars that all ritual is merely symbolic, and can be (or must be) ignored, in order to examine the “real” underlying political motivations.

All of these interpretations, Zhang points out, run the risks of:

  • being terribly Sinocentric, focusing only on Chinese perceptions, attitudes, and constructions, to the detriment of an examination of what other polities thought of the system, and of their participation within it,
  • reifying a view of the system as fixed, as static and unchanging across the centuries, and finally
  • reifying the centrality of the “tribute system” and failing to recognize or incorporate other aspects of foreign relations attitudes, practices and developments. Further, these last two problems also tie into the risk of assuming the preeminence of the rigid structures and ideological beliefs of the system, denying the Chinese rulers agency and rationality, thinking them blinded or restricted by ideology or tradition, and thus overlooking or ignoring the pragmatism and flexibility with which the Court very often was able to act.
  • focusing too much on the forms, on the granting of royal seals and patents, the receiving of tributary goods, the performance of obeisances, and so forth, leaving the reader (or the scholar herself) wondering if the Chinese were capable of thinking, or doing, anything beyond just “going through the motions” of practicing the formalities.
  • ignoring relations that take place outside of the tribute system. Are military conflicts not “relations”? Are official communications between courts (or pretenders) outside of the tribute system – such as Yongle’s commands that the Ashikaga do something about the wakō, the Ashikaga’s response that they have no power to do so, and no responsibility over those independent non-state actors, and Prince Kanenaga’s execution of Ming ambassadors, not count as “relations,” or at least incidents in the history of foreign interactions?
  • taking Sinocentrism and the tribute system as givens, without questioning, problematizing, or investigating their actual meanings and functions. Zhang quotes John Wills as writing: “Sinocentrism might be the wrong place to begin the analysis of Chinese foreign policy, because it short-circuits the necessity of paying attention to all the evidence, to all institutions and patterns of action…” Scholars such as Angela Schottenhammer have done much to begin to complicate this picture, giving wonderfully vibrant and nuanced descriptions of the complex and very busy scene of the world of East Asian (and Southeast Asia) maritime trade.

Meanwhile, Adam Bohnet, who I will also talk about in a future blog post, is but one of a number of scholars whose work on Chosŏn Korea helps unpack and illuminate the meanings and functioning of “Sinocentrism.” In an article on “Ming Loyalism and Foreign Lineages,” Bohnet examines how the Chosŏn Court deployed its loyalty to the Ming to bolster its own legitimacy, and how the court’s views and treatment of the descendants of Ming subjects resident in Korea changed over the course of the 18th century. As David Kang emphasizes, the system was never about Chinese political domination or control over tributary countries, and indeed China did not interfere at all in the domestic policies of Korea or Ryukyu, let alone Japan. Rather, it was always about cultural superiority, and more than that, centrality.

“Confucianism is thus a set of ideas based on ancient Chinese classic philosophical texts about the proper ways by which government and society were to be organized,” and Korean elites “saw their relationship to China as more than a political arrangement; it was a confirmation of their membership in Confucian civilization.”

Thus, following on Kang’s argument, we begin to get a sense that it wasn’t so much “Chinese” culture as an arbitrary choice in a cultural relativist world of equal options that was considered “superior,” so much as a recognition of Confucianism as the most enlightened, civilized, proper, and successful guide to ethics and governance there was. This gives additional force to the idea of the performance of membership in Confucian civilization. A comparison to court fashions in Europe seems apt, though it is not one Kang or Zhang address. While French language, court protocols, fashion, and so forth were for a time employed throughout much of Europe, as French culture was seen to be the peak of cultural refinement, this was at its core merely an aesthetic, cultural, fashion choice – France had no more claim to being “civilized,” let alone the source of civilization, than England or any of the Italian city-states. Chinese culture, however, from calligraphy and painting to music and language, to court costume, ranks, offices, and protocols, were all intimately tied into the ideas of Confucian government, Confucian society, and the arts of the refined Confucian gentleman. Thus, again, the emulation of Chinese, in particular Ming, norms in fashion and the arts was, arguably, perhaps, not merely a culturally arbitrary choice – e.g. to think that this style hat is somehow more culturally superior, more civilized, than that style of hat – but, rather, it is tied into a demonstration of the performance of Confucian civilization, as manifested in its most mature, fully-developed, form in the Ming Dynasty Court.

There’s nothing like the main hall of Shuri castle, seat of the Ryukyu Kingdom, for an example of a court demonstrating its membership in high (Ming Confucian) civilization.

Returning to Zhang’s argument, one weakness in his assertions about the complexity of Chinese foreign relations is, ironically, an element of Sinocentrism on his part. One prominent element of his argument for the complexity of Chinese foreign relations is that relations with nomadic peoples (e.g. Jurchens, Mongols, Manchus) and peoples & polities to the west (e.g. Uyghurs and Tibet) followed different patterns from the “tribute system,” and that thus there are multiple other institutions at play. From the Chinese Studies or History of China point of view, this is a very valuable and valid point. However, from the maritime East Asia point of view, and in particular for studies of Korean and Ryukyuan history, the nomads and Tibet are irrelevant. Korea and Ryukyu were the two most loyal tributaries to Ming & Qing China, and the two treated the most highly, the most beneficially, by China. The tribute system, or whatever we want to call it, however we want to envision it, along with the notion of Confucian (and Chinese, especially Ming, cultural) centrality, were fundamental to both Sino-Korean and Sino-Ryukyuan relations in this period. Schottenhammer’s essay lends support to this critique of Zhang’s otherwise important arguments, as she opens by saying “analysing Qing China’s relations with her neighbours, a distinction between her continental and maritime border space is evident.” While the Qing were vigilant towards threats from the continental border regions to the north and west, and often treated these regions with military force, “maritime space was viewed differently, but as we want to show, not simply as a distant periphery nor as frontier as it is often claimed.”

Zhang ends by reiterating that 朝貢體系 (cháogòng tǐxì) is a translation of the English “tribute system” – it is a neologism in Chinese, and so however the Chinese may have thought of this at the time, the “tribute system” as a model remains a Western construct. The chief task at hand, Zhang proposes, is to try to understand what lay behind these tributary relations, and to try to get a broader, and more nuanced, complex, picture of the full range of China’s foreign relations.

In summary, he critiques the Sinocentric tribute system model quite roundly, and well-deservedly, it would seem. It is important to keep in mind these critiques, and in the post-modern fashion, to keep in mind nuance and complexity – nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Motivations and means are myriad and multifarious. But Zhang does not dismiss the model entirely, in the end. He merely suggests that it needs to be taken as one element among many, and as less of a starting point than has generally been the case in scholarship up until now. We can keep the model, but we need to work around it, continuing to look for nuance and complexity, other models or institutions working alongside it (or at cross-purposes), and other viewpoints – we need to pay closer attention to the motivations, attitudes, and perceptions of other countries, and not just of China.

Schottenhammer may be doing more or less exactly what Zhang advocates. The Sinocentric model is not entirely mistaken, it is not entirely false, and so it cannot be thrown out altogether. In her essay “Empire and Periphery?” Schottenhammer focuses on the changing attitudes of mid-Qing emperors, as circumstances change, and in accordance with practical concerns, concluding that “Chinese ruling elites … were flexible enough to overcome traditional concepts and Sino-centric attitudes if they really considered it necessary.” When China was (or seemed, looked, felt) strong, there was less need to worry about dangers from outside; when China was less firm on its feet, Chinese rulers were not delusional, and absolutely took in real information about the outside world – albeit, information sometimes colored by traditional Sinocentric rhetoric (e.g. when the Tokugawa bakufu had no intentions of invading China, and pirates were few, Qing agents reported to their court that Japan was a small, weak, barbarian island country on the peripheries). Schottenhammer also closely examines motivations by foreign countries.

Perhaps the problem is simply in where one is looking. When Schottenhammer and Zhang allege that the field of scholarship is too focused on a Sinocentric perspective, are they speaking only of scholarship in Chinese Studies? I have no doubt that the field of Chinese History is largely focused on China, and, to be sure, works on the whole region could afford to be less Sinocentric in their analysis. I think Schottenhammer does a decent job of being less Sinocentric in her work. But, if one looks at the Japan Studies scholarship, and Korea Studies scholarship, there is no doubt that the interests, motivations, attitudes of non-Chinese courts *are* being examined and taken into account. Robert Hellyer’s book is just one of many that considers Japanese attitudes on foreign relations deeply; Greg Smits’ offers similarly for Ryukyu, albeit more in the intellectual history vein than economic/diplomatic policy.

So, what is the answer? What is the new framework? Maybe it’s just not time yet (still). Work on this topic has only just begun to really grow in the last decade or so, and so maybe someday, maybe soon, someone will be able to better synthesize the work of Zhang, Hevia, Schottenhammer, Oba Osamu, Smits, Hellyer, James Lewis, and all the rest, to come up with something new from which to work. But in the meantime, I think it’s going to continue to be a multitude of voices, a complex of different bits and pieces, and we just have to work within that…

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The reviews I have been posting for the last few months, centering on Pacific history, come out of my exam reading for a field in Pacific History. However, it was not actually strictly a field in Pacific History, but rather incorporated a component of consideration of how to incorporate the Pacific – so frequently overlooked – into World History. Or, simply, to do a Pacific field in order to not only have it (a) inform my Japanese & Okinawan studies, and (b) allow me to hopefully be able to teach Pacific History courses in future, but also (c) to have a deeper knowledge of the Pacific to incorporate into my World History courses.

So, getting to the point, here is a response essay I wrote some time ago, with some just very preliminary thoughts on how to approach thinking about, and organizing, a World History course. I’ve TAed for a Global Survey of Art History, and for World History 1000-1700 CE, as well as for Western Civ 1000-1700 & 1700-present, alongside numerous East Asia-centered courses, but I have yet to teach World History myself in any form. So, I imagine that if/when I get to TA for the first third or the last third of World History (Prehistory to 1000, or 1700-present), I’ll have more thoughts… But, for now:

The Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, in Queens NY, erected for the 1964 World’s Fair.

What is “world history?” What is the intention, goal, or aim of a “world history” course?

Is it (1) to convey some kind of narrative of the history of human societies that encapsulates in some fashion all human societies in history, whether in general or on average? Whether by way of a linear sense of progress, or a less straightforward approach, this could be a narrative of the development of kinship groups into clans or villages, then into chiefdoms, with some societies later becoming kingdoms, empires, republics of one sort or another, also addressing the matter of the modern “nation-state.” Is the goal of world history to cover some broad-ranging all-encompassing narrative such as that?

Or is it (2) to discuss more specific historical themes which emerge in specific periods, such as nationalism, Orientalism & racism, colonialism & imperialism, and modernity, with the particular aim of combating old stereotypes, Eurocentric worldviews, and the like, in order to produce more racially/culturally sensitive, critically-thinking, and globally-minded citizens?

Or, is world history about (3) providing a glimpse into a number of different cultures, so as to both inform students about the peoples, places, and cultures of the world they live in and inspire them to perhaps develop a deeper interest and to seek further knowledge?

The first type of class might be the best of the three for providing some historical background and context for courses in social sciences which might focus overmuch on more recent and contemporary events and political/economic/societal structures. The second might be the best of the three for preparing students for History and other courses which require critical thinking and which engage in difficult or complex socio-political issues, such as race and historiographical issues; such a course would, ideally, also help prepare students to be good global citizens more broadly, less racist, less US- and Euro-centric, and more nuanced and critical in their thinking about political, cultural, and social issues both domestically and internationally, and in interactions in their own lives. Finally, the third type of course, I can imagine, might best prepare students for knowing which upper-division courses they wish to take in History (or Art History, Music, Theatre, Politics, Economics, or a number of other disciplines), and might inspire them to travel, to take up interest in particular art forms or historical topics, perhaps even to pursue a job or career related to a particular culture (e.g. cultural or arts organizations, diplomacy, etc.).

A portion of a timeline of Korean-American history, at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle. An important history all too overlooked, and not actually representative of the kind of core canon I’m talking about here. But, visually, I think it’s evocative of the idea of a timeline of canonical events to memorize.

A fourth approach, once standard but now widely rejected, involves teaching a particular canon of names, dates, events – in short, facts – with the chief outcome of instilling in students a basic, common, shared knowledge of key referents, allowing them to understand, or “get,” references made in popular culture, the news, and the like. There is, admittedly, some appeal to this approach, insofar as there is a certain fear or disappointment that our students should be going out into the world with no idea (or, only a distorted, pop media informed idea) of who Genghis Khan, Charlemagne, or William the Conqueror were, or what is meant by “Elizabethan.” The impact of this is very clear already, as we look back at older sources – pop media, literature, news – and see them making reference to things that we ourselves aren’t very clear on. And what historical referents we do share today are so watered down into stereotypes that few can really be expected to know anything proper about the history of that subject. To take just one example, let us hope that the average person on the street (or the average student on our campus) has at least some vague sense of that Henry VIII had a lot of wives, and that he killed several/many of them (hilarious!). But do they know anything at all more than that? Is Henry VIII a historical figure, or a caricature? In any case, this fourth approach is lambasted by nearly all of the historians in Ross E. Dunn’s The New World History, and rightfully so. Such a canon, as it already stands, is terribly Eurocentric, and even if some more global canon were to be conceived, by what criteria are we to choose? And unless there is consensus in the choosing, it won’t serve the purpose of being a commonly shared knowledge. And, in any case, a course that focuses too overmuch on simply trying to cover everything certainly cannot cover everything – it’s impossible – and so would just become unwieldy, fractured, and confusing.

A model of a Dutch East India Company vessel at the National Museum of Japanese History. Are narratives of travel, trade, and so forth the most necessarily central themes of world history?

So, of the previous three, which should we be aiming for? Is there a way to balance these effectively? Most of the essays in The New World History seem to be focusing on the first two, and especially on political and economic narratives of cultural & economic interactions, the growth of trade routes & economic interconnectedness, leading eventually into colonialism & imperialism, and from there into other issues. Yet, is this the only narrative we can or should be telling?

A chapter on cultural history in Patrick Manning’s Navigating World History seems at first to offer a way towards a different approach, one which might more strongly forefront questions about the role of cultural practices (visual, material, and expressive/performative culture) and aspects of reflective culture (religion, ideology) in different (macro)cultures. Moving beyond the stylistic & formal obsessions of art history, and the disciplinary/departmental divides of art history, ethnomusicology, and theatre & dance, Manning suggests a cultural history approach which might focus on “what sustains traditions over time, and what brings about major innovations,” the role or meaning of arts and traditions in human societies, the different forms cultural practices or cultural production takes in different cultures, as well as how they developed and changed over time due to both internal forces and intercultural interactions. Manning stops short, however, of providing a clear way forward, by way of either examples of how a “world cultural history” course, or even a single lecture, might be conceptualized or organized, instead providing as he does throughout much of the book a dense, thorough, and at times extremely useful and interesting account of the historiography of cultural history as a set of approaches.

The Great Hall at Christchurch College, Oxford. What is the place of tradition in history? How do tradition and history lead to different parts of the world being what they are today?

Art historians, of course, wrestle with similar issues in their attempts to conceive and construct a more global/world approach to art history. As essays in James Elkins’ Is Art History Global? suggest, Eurocentrism presents even more of a difficulty for art historians than for historians. Not only is the master narrative of a Western-centered art history (from classical forms to their re-emergence in the Renaissance, the advent of perspective, the rise of realism, moving to abstraction in “modern” art, and so on) very powerful, but the very concept of “art,” at least as conceived by “art historians” in the Western tradition, is very much a Western invention. Even societies such as those of the Chinese literati, who have a written tradition of art criticism going back to the 5th or 6th century CE, did not conceive of “art” or “the arts” in the same way that Europeans did, and had to adopt new terms in the 19th century to refer to these new concepts adopted from the West (meishu 美術 and yishu 藝術, meaning roughly “fine arts” and “performing arts,” respectively, from the Japanese bijutsu and geijutsu, who engaged with these issues of modernity more directly first, and coined the terms first).

Many scholars of museum studies and of the art history of non-Western cultures have suggested frameworks for approaching the cultural products or practices of non-Western cultures not through the lens of Western aesthetic concerns (incl. form, symmetry, proportion, lines, taking the object in isolation as aesthetic object) but through a focus on its meaning within its native cultural context. However, while Elkins himself suggests the need for a “consistently non-Eurocentric art history” which instead of merely infusing Western art history with native concepts and categories, would instead abandon reliance on Western interpretive methods, Ladislav Kesner’s essay “Is a Truly Global Art History Possible?” reveals that many scholars (including Kesner himself) remain (perhaps problematically) attached to Eurocentric approaches and attitudes. Even as he suggests that art historians must consider objects within specific cultural context, asking “Why does it look the way it does? What did it mean to the people who made and used it? Why was it special or valuable for them?,” he also asserts that “only Western art history – unlike the Chinese antiquarian tradition or other culturally specific discourses on art and images – has been in a position to continually develop and be enriched by contact with other cultures and non-European art.” This of course ignores both China’s long history of intercultural interactions and the failure of Western art history theory to adequately adapt or change away from its own Eurocentrism. Further, while Kesner’s critique of culturally specific frameworks (e.g. categorizing a wide variety of things under the single umbrella of “Chinese art,” and then analyzing them using distinctively Chinese terms and concepts) as being “essentializing” may contain some merit, and is worth further thought, he then returns to assertions of the universal applicability of Western/European critical theory, psychology, sociology and the like, based on the notion that all people are people, and that therefore the understandings provided by these disciplines should apply universally – thus repeating, or reinforcing, the Eurocentrism fundamental to the issue.

The relevance of these art historical discourses for the cultural historian attempting to conceive of approaches to “world history” (within the History discipline/department) is not entirely clear. But, it has nevertheless given me much to think about. While I certainly have some ideas for which aspects or elements of the histories of particular non-Western cultures I might use to illustrate particular concepts within a world history class, and how their use can contribute to presenting a more powerfully non-Eurocentric or even anti-Eurocentric vision of the histories of the peoples of the world, much about the structure of such a course, the main themes or narratives, remain unclear.

All photos my own.

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