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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ge today writes that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gregory Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 1050-1650, University of Hawaii Press (2018).

After waiting some time for my library to pick up a copy of Gregory Smits’ new book, Maritime Ryukyu, I finally gave in and bought my own copy at the over-inflated price of $68 (hardcover). I justified it to myself with the idea that (1) everything else in my order was at the ridiculously low sale price of $5/each, and (2) by spending this much I was becoming eligible for free shipping, and thus saving money. In any case, as I had had hints that this new book was going to present some radical new arguments, interpretations, or findings regarding the foundations of how we approach Ryukyuan history, I knew I pretty much had to read it for my dissertation.

Maritime Ryukyu was a fascinating read. Knowing some of what Smits was going to argue, and the controversy they might stir up, I went into the book with some trepidation and considerable skepticism. But, I have to say, for the most part, I do find his revisionist approach pretty compelling. While there are certainly elements that will spur “political” (for lack of a better word) controversies, due to their profound implications for notions of historical Ryukyuan cultural, ethnic, and national identity and indigeneity, and while I’m still a little on edge to see what activists, scholars of modern Okinawa and/or indigeneity, traditional arts practitioners, etc. may have to say about it, and while I’m also a bit scared and hesitant about exactly how I will engage with these ideas in my own work for fear of stepping on the wrong toes and putting myself on the wrong side of these controversies, the actual historical narrative he presents seems, as far as I should know, quite plausible.

A copy of the Chûzan seifu 中山世譜 on display at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. A version of the earlier Chûzan seikan 中山世鑑, revised in the 1700s-1720s to be written in classical Chinese (rather than a form of Japanese), and to present a more pro-Chinese narrative.

One of the core arguments of Maritime Ryukyu is that the official histories written in the 17th century, which have become the foundation of the overall narrative of Ryukyuan history, are simply not nearly as reliable as people have been treating them. Smits draws a strong line between the Ryukyu Kingdom (or “empire” as he calls it) from 1609-1879 and what came before. The islands were invaded in 1609 by forces from the samurai domain of Kagoshima, and though the kingdom was allowed to remain politically, administratively, intact for the most part (territorially speaking, Kagoshima seized nearly all the islands north of Okinawa), they became subject to Kagoshima’s authority in various ways, and perhaps more importantly became far more cut-off, isolated from the wider region, and thus more internally integrated as well. Both to appease Kagoshima’s desires and simultaneously as an act of resistance, the royal court at Shuri enforced policies of Sinification and de-Japanization, at least at the elite level. While Ryukyuan villagers continued to maintain some form of the “Japonic” culture they’d always maintained, the royal court and aristocracy, officials, and so forth, redoubled their adoption and use of Ming (and sometimes Qing) style practices, including Confucian political philosophy, Ming-informed architecture and political organization, Ming- and Qing-inspired court ritual and court music, Chinese-style names, Chinese-language official documents (though many official documents were still written in a form of Japanese nearly indistinguishable from that of Japanese records of the time, thank god), and so forth.

The Shimazu lords of Kagoshima forced Ryukyu to enforce strict restrictions on who could come in and out of the islands, and for what reasons. What had previously been a diverse intermixing of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and islander peoples coming and going was now a much more strongly strictly islander (i.e. Ryukyuan) society, with only a very few Japanese officials resident in the main Okinawan port-city at any given time, the occasional Qing embassy, and I suppose at least some traffic by Buddhist monks/priests, as well as of course petty fishermen and the like blurring the boundaries at the margins. Japan as a whole was, of course, rather cut off from the outside world as well, though not as severely as our high school World History textbooks with their emphasis on the American Commodore Perry “opening Japan” would have liked us to think. The point being that it was this particular set of circumstances at this time which caused Ryukyu to develop as a much more politically and culturally distinct entity than ever before; and it was during this time, for very particular political reasons relating to Shuri’s tenuous and complex relationships with the Ming, Qing, Shimazu, and Tokugawa, and with Ryukyu’s own “Chineseness,” “Japaneseness,” and “Ryukyuanness” that these official histories such as Chûzan seikan (“Mirror of Chûzan”) and Kyûyô (“Ryukyu Yang” or “Ryukyu Sun”) were written.

The rear gate of Nakagusuku castle, on Okinawa.

Like most official histories compiled by East Asian courts, they emphasize continuities stretching back farther in time than other sources corroborate, and otherwise emphasize or assert greater unity, organization, culture or civilization, than a skeptical and revisionist history based on other sources (seemingly) reveals. I must admit, I had never truly considered this aspect, of just how politically-motivated, biased, and therefore unreliable the official histories are. As Smits points out, numerous kings’ reigns and numerous major events are given only minimal treatment or no treatment at all in these official histories, wherever their discussion would go against the larger narrative – that is, a Confucian narrative of a kingdom in which the virtue of the ruler and of his rule is the primary driver of the peace and prosperity (or lack thereof) of the kingdom, and not complex politics or outside forces. This is a narrative, too, of Ryukyu having a particular type or style of history of state formation akin to that of China, Korea, or Japan, in which kings created dynasties, and dynasties sometimes gave way to other dynasties, each of which had particular long-standing loyal or at least peaceful/prosperous relations with China and Japan …

I have to say, even just from what I’d read in George Kerr’s Okinawa: The History of an Island People – the only full narrative survey of Okinawan history available in English, written in the 1950s and only somewhat revised in a 2000 edition – and in other works, I’d always been sort of skeptical of the earlier sections of Okinawan history, up through the 14th century or so. We are given only the vaguest impression of what sort of political arrangements might have existed previously, and then suddenly in the 12th century or so, we have “kings” emerging, with only two- or three-character names, no dynastic surname, and we are told only the littlest bit about any of them, before the Shô dynasty comes to the scene at the beginning of the 15th century. And even then, while the official histories tell us some degree of a more normal, fuller, account of the events of the 15th-16th centuries for the Shô dynasty and for the kingdom of Chûzan, we are left with only the most minimal and ambiguous information about the other two 14th-15th century kingdoms active on Okinawa Island, Hokuzan and Nanzan (or Sanboku and Sannan), and only the most minimal information about what happened on any of the other islands. Of course, that’s Kerr and a few other secondary sources (works by modern historians) – I haven’t actually read the official histories myself to know exactly what they do and don’t cover. But, regardless, I did always think it was strange. The few books I have read on this period, in both English and Japanese, could never seem to agree on the birth, death, and reign dates of the kings, often leaving considerable gaps (seeming interregnums) between the death date of each king and the date of succession of the next; they could never seem to agree on the names of the kings of Hokuzan and Nanzan, or even on whether they should instead be called Sanboku and Sannan.

So, it didn’t take much therefore for Smits to hook me, as early as page 2, with the notion that “for the most part, the details of early Ryukyu in the official histories are based on lore of unverifiable provenance,” and that looking at other sources might provide a very different (hi)story indeed.

Masks and costumes for folk festivals from some of the northern Ryukyu/Amami Islands, on display at the Reimeikan Museum, Kagoshima.

Maybe it’s just because of my positionality as an American, as someone with less personally invested in Ryukyuan identity, that I am able to say so, but I do find something quite fascinating and compelling – exciting – about the idea of a revisionist history. Maybe this is saying too much, saying that I’m too gullible, not critical enough, but I must say this book makes me feel quite similarly to work in the vein of the so-called “New Qing History,” which suggests that China was part of a larger Qing Empire, and focuses upon the ways that the Qing Empire was rather Manchu, or non-Chinese (non-Han Chinese) in character, in contrast to the received wisdom still touted as the party line within China, that the Qing Dynasty was a dynasty of Chinese history, a part of the greatness of China, not some larger other entity which simply conquered or contained China within it, that the “barbarian” Manchus adopted Chinese culture/civilization, Sinified (Sinicized?) themselves, and only because of that were able to rule as effectively as they did.

It is important in History that we be open to new ideas, revisionist interpretations. It can be so easy to fall into the trap of taking certain things for granted so deeply that we forget (or simply never even learn, never even realize to begin with) where those assumptions come from. And I do really appreciate Smits’ statements that he is willing to be proven wrong, that his entire revisionist narrative/interpretation may prove to have serious flaws, but that he is happy to have at least started a conversation. I think this is really important in Okinawan history, because so many people do invest so much into it, and into certain now-established positions about whether the work of Iha Fuyu and Higashionna Kanjun is or is not good scholarship – and whether they were or were not good people – for this reason or that reason. I’ve known some people to be truly put off by even the mention of one of these names. Okinawan history as we know it is based so heavily on the 17th c. official histories that Smits challenges here, and on early 20th c. writings by figures such as Ifa and Higashionna which are so foundational that they might as well be “official” histories… I’ve been skeptical of those writings from the beginning, but haven’t really known where else to turn.

The Shureimon – main gate to the royal palace at Shuri, and major symbol of Okinawa today.

I had always assumed that these deficiencies in concrete and widely-recognized knowledge about earlier periods of Okinawan history was because of the lack of documents. And it is. But where I had assumed it was because so much was lost in World War II, leaving the documentary record of Ryukyuan history far sparser than it might have been otherwise, Smits asserts that Ryukyu simply didn’t produce many documents prior to the 15th or 16th century. That the Kumemura “Chinese” or “Confucian” community was far smaller and less active than in the 17th-19th centuries, and the royal court, i.e. central government (even in the 15th-16th centuries, as the Kingdom was unified and the remaining islands were conquered and brought under Shuri’s authority) simply wasn’t as centralized, organized, developed, as we have been led to believe. That even more so than the issue of documents having been lost or destroyed, that they just never really existed; that the systems or practices of maintaining more extensive and more organized government records, in writing, remained undeveloped all the way up until the late 16th or even early 17th century. Sadly, my own level of expertise, my own level of familiarity with pre-17th century documents, is totally insufficient to judge for myself whether to believe this or not. But, I guess we just have to go forward, trying to play both the “believing game” and the “doubting game” at the same time, until such time as I have a chance to corroborate this with other scholars; the fact that Smits cites many other scholars on the period in supporting these claims certainly makes it seem more compelling – seems to lend credence to the idea that not only Smits, but also a number of Okinawan and Japanese scholars also now subscribe to this revisionist view, of medieval / premodern Ryukyu as a much more decentralized and diverse maritime space, deeply interconnected with the wider region perhaps to an even greater extent than it was in any way unitary or unified unto itself. But, on the other hand, just because he cites them on this and that point doesn’t mean that their entire books, with titles like Ryūkyū ōkoku to wakō (“The Ryukyu Kingdom and Wakô [Brigands/Pirates]”), necessarily support Smits’ interpretation or historical narrative. I would need to read them to find out.

So, while I don’t have enough personal first-hand experience with these documents to say for myself whether I believe Smits’ new narrative to be true or not, there is certainly something compelling about it. If we choose to take a skeptical view of the official histories, and to also not take the work of Ifa and Higashionna as “gospel,” then, sure, why couldn’t we believe that Ryukyu was never so unified as the conventional wisdom says it was, that Ryukyu was in fact much more of a pirate haven and a loosely-knit-together collection of competing maritime power-holders, competing not even so much for territory and hegemony in Ryukyu in the sense of the traditional nationalist sort of assumptions about history, but rather competing for prominent or dominant positions in trade and maritime activity otherwise. As soon as you say that the official histories are not to be trusted, that they were all written with a certain agenda of lionizing certain kings and ignoring or disparaging others, of exaggerating political unity, connections to high Chinese Confucian civilization, and connections with & respectful recognition from Japanese powerholders, it makes it so easy to just flip the whole thing upside down and say that maybe things were the reverse way around and the official histories were ashamed of it and wanted to hide it and so forth. Now, I want to be careful, I do not mean to imply that Smits is just making things up. Not by any means. Even without having the time or the resources to check these documents myself, I trust that he’s done due diligence and has performed his research in a properly rigorous manner. And I trust that he’s discussed these ideas with other scholars, other experts on the period. So, whether he’s right or wrong, I trust that there is rigor here. That there is some merit – and perhaps quite a great deal of merit – to what he is suggesting. And, furthermore, as he himself says, whether he is ultimately right or wrong, it is good, it is important, to shake things up and start a conversation.

A recreation on 30 Oct 2016 of a royal Ryukyuan procession, with members from the community playing the roles of King, Queen, and royal officials, all dressed in clothes and surrounded by music and physical accoutrements distinctively 17th-19th century Ryukyuan in character. An annual event, now, I believe.

If I have one critique of Maritime Ryukyu, though, I would say that in his zeal to challenge or revise our understandings about premodern Ryukyu (up to c. 1650), Smits fails to say quite enough about whether or not he recognizes the continued validity of these historical interpretations for later periods. Let me explain out what I mean: One of Smits’ key arguments in Maritime Ryukyu is that prior to the 16th century, there was never really a unified and centralized Ryukyuan state, nor a unitary or distinct Ryukyuan culture, and furthermore that because of these various influxes of people from the Japanese islands and elsewhere in the 11th-14th centuries, there really can no longer be any “indigenous” “Ryukyuan people” to speak of, if there ever was one. He is trying to emphasize the diversity and dis-unity of the Ryukyu Islands in the period prior to their forcible unification by Shuri in the 16th century, their fundamentally Japonic culture origins, and the relative lack of any particularly strong Ming / Confucian / Chinese cultural influence or political ties prior to 1550 or 1600 or so. Okay, fair enough. Very interesting, very compelling, and an important counterpoint to the conventional wisdom (based on the official histories, on 20th century political motivations spurring a desire to revive and take pride in Okinawan identity, etc.) that Okinawan or Ryukyuan identity and culture stretch back many many centuries, with a long and proud history of Chinese-influenced “high” “civilized” cultural traditions, and so forth.
But what’s also really important is that ever since 1609 or 1650 or so, and all the more-so since the 1870s, and all the more so since 1945 and since 1972, there is, there has been, a strong Okinawan identity. In focusing on how all of these developments developed only after the 16th century, and weren’t so true for earlier periods, Smits sort of de-emphasizes the fact that from the 16th or 17th century onwards, these things were in fact true, that they did come to pass (albeit only at a later stage than conventional wisdom would have had us believe), and that the fact of these later developments has a profound and real impact on Okinawan culture and identity today. One could fill entire bookshelves with books on the invention of tradition and all of that, and on how most if not all “national” and “ethnic” identities today can be traced back to invention or re-invention in the modern period (19th-20th centuries in most cases), but even so, notions of Okinawan and Japanese identity as developed through those early modern and modern processes (in the 17th to 20th centuries) are real today, and that includes indigeneity. I hope for Prof. Smits’ sake that he doesn’t attract too much backlash due to his assertions regarding Okinawan indigeneity (or, that he attracts lots of backlash and takes the point and shifts his tack). But, as I believe most scholars of indigeneity and many indigenous leaders will say, indigeneity isn’t really about the questions of whether your people truly have been there since ancient times (or whether they were displaced or absorbed many centuries ago by influxes of other peoples, as Smits asserts happened in the Ryukyuan case), and whether they have actually been a distinct and unified people with a collective notion of their own distinctive and unified identity for all of that time. Rather, it’s about identities formed in reaction to oppression, dispossession, displacement, and so forth, particularly in the modern period, particularly in colonialist/imperialist contexts, which have inspired the creation of assertions of “indigenous” identity. It’s about maintaining or reviving or re-articulating an indigenous identity for particular socio-political or cultural-political reasons, as resistance against assimilation, oppression, dispossession, displacement, etc.

Smits notes in the book that there is a lengthy conversation to be had about how Okinawan identity is conceived or constructed today, and while I certainly appreciate that going into it in length would be beyond the scope of this book – in some respects, a real major digression – I think that his arguments about the premodern period could have benefited from a little more time and energy spent acknowledging the significance of later developments and the validity of the contemporary identities based upon those later developments; as well as attending to Indigenous Studies approaches, definitions, and sensibilities.

All photos are my own.

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In my ongoing search for a particular Ritual Theory approach or Performance Theory idea that will aid me in interpreting things for my dissertation research in just the right way, I somehow came across the 2008 book Ritual and its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity, co-written by Adam Seligman, Robert Weller, Michael Puett, and Bennett Simon (Oxford U Press).

It is obviously cited widely enough that I did come across it myself. But at the same time, it’s refreshing and interesting to see a book that’s not one of the same big names, that might be able to bring a new, different, foundational Ritual/Performance approach to work like my own. While in the grand scheme of things one might say the core arguments of the book only really contribute to one particular side or aspect of the much broader, more complex, topic of Ritual/Performance, even so, I think it a good solid book on Ritual Studies in general. If I were to go back over the list of all that I’ve read about Ritual and Performance and choose just five or six works to suggest to others, if I had to choose, this one would definitely make the cut.

———–

The book makes two chief arguments:

One, that whereas most scholarship on ritual discusses it as closely interconnected with harmony, unity, and so forth, Seligman et al wish to emphasize that the harmony or unity effected by ritual is necessary precisely because the world is fractured and imperfect. Ritual helps us create a “subjunctive,” as Seligman et al put it, an artificial and temporary space where things are as if the world were harmonious, unified, living up to some ideal. In other words, whereas much scholarship talks about ritual as reflecting political or social realities, Seligman et al say that ritual decidedly does not represent the world as is, but rather an imagined ideal, enacted artificially and temporarily, in a bid to help us bear and manage and create/maintain order in our world.

Two, the authors introduce a dichotomy, or rather a sliding scale, that I suppose no one in the field had quite articulated before, between individual or societal value placed on Ritual, and value placed on what the authors term Sincerity. The Confucian societies I am studying, along with many others around the world and throughout history, placed great importance on Ritual. As numerous scholars have written regarding Confucian concepts of propriety or etiquette (礼, C: , J: rei), and as Luke Roberts and others have written specifically about life in early modern Japan, the notion of propriety or etiquette, as well as the “authorities[,] were less concerned with orthodoxy, or correct belief, than they were orthopraxy, or correct practice.”1 What was important in Confucian society, for the most part, as well as in countless other times and places, was not that you believed correctly, but simply that you behaved correctly. Take your hat off when entering certain spaces, or the presence of certain people. Leave your hat on when in the presence of God (i.e. always). Bow deeply on these occasions, and not so deeply on those occasions. When meeting with the shogun, after lord so-and-so says such-and-such, you shift forward exactly three tatami mats, bow three times, say these words, bow again three times, and then present this document by holding it up and forward with both hands. Things like that.

One portion of a model of an investiture ceremony, at Shuri castle, Okinawa.

And there is a mountain of scholarship (well, presumably. I still haven’t found any that really explicates it to my satisfaction) pointing towards the notion that these kinds of actions, regardless of sincere belief underlying them, do function to create political realities. Bowing before a lord, or before a god, has emotional (affective) impacts, and it has discursive impacts through the process of seeing and being seen. When I attended reenactments of Ryukyuan court ceremonies held at Shuri castle, and individuals playing the roles of the Ryukyuan king or of scholar-officials in his service kowtowed to Heaven, to those playing the roles of Qing envoys, or to the one dressed as the king, the feeling of subservience, of hierarchy, was truly palpable. These might not be the greatest examples, as my own sense that it was palpable was likely very much influenced by my modern and American (individualist, democratic) perspective, rather than by some unattainable objective knowledge. Wish I had had the chance to talk to any of the performers about how they felt about it. But, regardless, when performed for real (and perhaps even when performed merely as reenactment), acts such as these are not “mere ceremony” or “mere formality.” Ritual actions such as bowing before a lord make you feel subordinate, and they make you look loyal. What, after all, is the difference between being loyal and merely acting loyal? So long as one bows and presents gifts and does all the things a loyal retainer should do, how is that any different from being a loyal retainer?

Seligman et al contrast this with “sincerity,” arguing that in many times and places throughout history but perhaps particularly in the post-Enlightenment, post-Protestant-Reformation “modern” world, society has been dominated not by a notion of ritual, i.e. correct practice, correct behavior, orthopraxy (a word which incidentally doesn’t appear anywhere in the book), but rather by an emphasis on sincerity, i.e. correct belief, or orthodoxy. Ritual is seen as just formality, as oh so much fluff – nonsense, really, under which lies truth; and if one is not truly loyal, or not truly devout, and is only behaving as such, then one is insincere – a deceiver, a betrayer, or at the very least simply inauthentic; less than, in some fashion. The Protestant Reformation, after all, attacked idols and icons, and excessive decoration and ceremony, and advocated a return to a more authentic form of worship, focused on the worshippers’ beliefs, their devotion, their love, and so forth. The Enlightenment, similarly, disparaged superstitions and emphasized the human mind – what’s real, what do we know, what do we think.

A church in Cambridge, England.

Some sections of this book really helped me shore up something I already had quotes for from other scholars, providing a necessary stepping stone for my work on ritual. Before we can talk about specific rituals, what they meant, how they functioned, after all, we need to first establish that it’s okay to not go down the rabbit hole of trying to figure out whether each and every participant was sincere in their enactment of the ritual actions. When daimyô prostrated before the shogun, gave him gifts, and otherwise ritually reaffirmed their loyalty to him, was this done begrudgingly, with gritted teeth, because political, economic, and/or military considerations required them to do so rather than to more openly oppose the shogun? Or were they sincere and honest in their reaffirmations of their loyalty, their recognition of the shogun’s authority, their praise for the shogun’s virtuous and benevolent rule? In the vast majority of cases, we simply don’t know. We can’t know, because the diaries or other sorts of documents that might indicate a lord’s innermost thoughts simply don’t exist.

Of course, it would be great if we did have such documents and could get some real insights into that issue. But, we must also acknowledge that rituals have meaning and impact regardless of the personal beliefs or political attitudes of their participants. By acting out the role, one becomes it – not in a magical sense, but in a discursive, functional sense.

————–

One thing I found particularly interesting about this book was the way it addressed major issues in modern history and contemporary politics – namely, (ultra)nationalism and religious fundamentalism. Their explanation of both of these phenomena as being founded in an excessive emphasis on sincerity, and on what Seligman et al call “gnosticism,” really helped me get a new perspective or insight into what’s going on politically in so many corners of our world today.

By Turkish political cartoonist Izel Rozental, from his book Karikatör.

As they write,

the Wahabbism championed by the Saudis [to take an example] rejected (and continues to reject) traditional religious practices and representations in search of an authentic, original religious experience—a pure, that is, sincere religious expression that cuts through the historicity of all real, lived traditional religious practice. In fact, it rejects tradition in favor of a putative original, founding moment, of which it claims unique understanding. This is the core of what today is so often termed “fundamentalism.” It equates truth, which is nonindividual and supraindividual, with its interpretation, which is invariably personal and conditional. This is where the basic contradiction between fundamentalism and true tradition lies. There is no tradition that permits the individual or group, solely on the basis of its own assertion, to proclaim its own knowledge to be infallible and absolute.”2

As this quote hopefully shows, they use the term “gnosticism” to refer, essentially, to attitudes in which one individual or group claims to have the true knowledge, and to speak for what the religion (or the nation) really is, or should be, and what it is not. It’s a form of modern nationalism or religious fundamentalism that claims I know better than everyone else, and the version of the religion, or society, that I wish to create is the best one, or the most true or authentic one, because I know so. It ignores and often actively rejects diversity, complexity, tradition. They give the example of Saudi Arabia funding the construction of Saudi-style mosques all across the Muslim world which gradually come to replace those in more locally traditional styles. This rejects the truth of how Bosnian or Syrian or Iranian Muslims have lived and worshipped for centuries – the reality of their tradition – in favor of some artificially imposed idea of one particular group’s vision of what constitutes the truer, more authentic, purer Islam. Of course, one could cite countless examples. Just look at nationalist revolutions in late 19th and early 20th century China, Turkey, Russia, and Japan for instance, each of which could be said to have rejected the ethnic, cultural, and political diversity of their societies, to impose upon everyone the vision of a particular leader, or a particular group, as to what “true” Chinese, Turkish, Russian, or Japanese identity meant, and what the “authentic” Chinese, Turkish, Russian, or Japanese nation should look like, or should be like.

these orientations gave birth in our times to the enormously powerful ‘‘secular religions’’ of the twentieth century: Nazism, fascism, and communism (or, perhaps better, Leninism rather than all forms of communism). The firmly held conviction of the leaders, followers, and elites of these movements—that they knew the course of history, the telos of existence, that they possessed both the practical and the theoretical knowledge necessary to realize the Endzeit — led to the worldwide horrors of what were, at their outset, reform movements par excellence.3

This gnosticism is very often intertwined with an excessive emphasis on sincerity. What’s really interesting is that on the surface, one might assume these sorts of fundamentalist, authoritarian, or ultra-nationalist ideologies to emphasize ritual. And they do, in certain ways. Stand for the national anthem. Fly the flag. Put up pictures of the great leader in your home and shop. Talk the talk when it comes to the “ritual” performance of claiming to stand for supporting our troops. Be sure to be seen attending all the right rallies or military parades or whatever they may be. But, as Seligman et al explain, societies that truly emphasize ritual over sincerity don’t care much what you believe, so long as you do what’s expected of you. By contrast, in authoritarian, fundamentalist, gnosticism-based societies, it’s not enough to just perform your duties as a good upstanding member of the group: you have to be pure of thought or belief as well. You have to be a true communist, or nationalist, a true islamist or evangelical, a true devotee of whatever the gnostic leader’s precise particular personal ideology may be. Disagreement, criticism, or debate are not tolerated – they are seen as traitorous. Non-believers or those who think differently are to be eyed with suspicion. They are criticized, ostracized, even imprisoned, “reeducated,” tortured, killed.

But, such matters are so pressing and so ever-present in our lives today that any further discussion could easily lead into an even more extensive digression than I’ve already done. Let’s move on.

Drinking kava (or ‘ava). A natural root, ground-up and suspended in water; relaxes your muscles without altering your mind. I really miss participating in ‘ava circles at East-West Center.

Another contribution I found particularly useful and interesting in this book was its categorization of ritual into four types. This is borrowed from work by Roger Caillois, but is nevertheless explained at length by Seligman et al, and was new to me.

The vast majority of work I’ve read on ritual either explicitly defines what types of ritual it is focusing on (e.g. Shingon Buddhist rituals supporting claims of sovereignty in 14th c. Japan), or it speaks of ritual in very general terms without providing a clear idea of the full range of what myriad types of ritual there are out there in the world – leaving the reader trying to imagine for themselves what types of acts or events any given theory or argument might (or might not) apply to. Caillois’ four categories help clarify this considerably, reducing down the wide wide world of ritual into four graspable categories:

(1) Agôn – Agônic rituals include ritualized sport, combat, and other forms of ritualized competition. Seligman et al give the example of a cricket game played out in such a way that it incorporates aspects or overtones of traditional ritualized combat “fought” between clans or tribes in that region. In agônic rituals, the participants both act as themselves (without taking on some other role or character), and they are in control of their actions, playing out the sport or combat just as freely as if it were real.

(2) Mimicry – Rituals in which participants take on roles or identities and follow a ritual script, but remain consciously in control of their actions. A great many religious rituals, from communion and baptism to Bar Mitzvah and the Passover seder, would seem to fall under this category, as would the diplomatic and court rituals I study. In diplomatic and court rituals, for example, the participants are not simply themselves (e.g. Steve Smith or Anne Black or whatever), but they are taking on the roles of lord and vassal, diplomat and head of state, and they follow a script, entering the hall in a certain way, bowing, presenting documents in a certain way, declaring certain pre-determined phrases, but remaining in control of themselves in contrast to rituals which involve, for example, spirit possession.

(3) Alea – and no, I don’t know where these names come from. I imagine it’s explained in the book but I’m afraid I’m not going back to look again. These are rituals in which the participants don’t take on roles or identities – they act as themselves – but they give over control to fate or the gods. Divination rituals are a key example of this category. Carve questions into bone and throw it into a fire to see how it cracks; leave the dregs of your tea or coffee and then see what forms they take; hold a seance; or simply roll dice. You’re being yourself, but the outcomes of the ritual are determined by some outside force.

(4) Ilinx – in the final category, participants give over both their identities and control over to some other force, such as a spirit or a deity. These are rituals of trance or spirit possession.

I really like these categories because, as I said before, they help make the broad wide world of myriad different rituals seem graspable. They help us to understand what types of things the huge wide category of “ritual” might include. And in doing so, they help us to understand what ritual theory is talking about, by helping us to know categories of examples.

The funeral procession of Marquis Shô Ten, last crown prince of the Ryûkyû Kingdom. This funeral was the last ceremony to ever be officially performed as a Ryukyuan royal ritual. Photo on display at Tamaudun (royal mausoleum, Shuri, Okinawa).

I do have one quibble with the categories, though. While they seem to cover all possible ritual in a nice broad way, covering all combinations of AA, AB, BA, and BB (whether participants give over their identities, and whether they give over control), in fact I feel that there is a problem with the second category (mimicry), or else that there is call for a fifth category. Seligman et al talk about the Passover Seder as one in which we imagine ourselves having spiritually or metaphorically been there at Mt. Sinai ourselves – not our ancestors, but ourselves – as Moses received The Law (the Torah) from God. And so, in that way, we are taking on roles, taking on identities, even as we remain in control of our actions (we are not possessed, even though our actions /are/ determined by a ritual script). Okay. And as I said, in political rituals one is performing as head of state, as diplomat, and not really as oneself, so in those cases too one is taking on an identity. But what about in the vast majority of other basic religious rituals, and secular rituals, that we perform? When you stand in synagogue and recite words out a book for three hours, sitting and standing and bowing at prescribed times, I suppose you’re playing the role of “worshipper.” But is that really so different from simply being yourself? Or, if we’re always playing a role – as teacher or student, as parent or child, as shopkeeper or customer – then what is the meaning of any category of “not taking on another identity; simply being yourself”? I think the slippage in these categories as applying to ritual comes from the fact that Caillois – something I missed on my first glance-through – wasn’t actually talking about ritual, but about games, or play. There, the categories (perhaps) make a lot more sense: games of competition, games of “make-believe,” games of chance, and games of just losing yourself.

Still, despite this slippage, I found these categories a very helpful theoretical construct for wrapping our minds around ritual. All in all, I found the authors’ arguments regarding ritual and sincerity very interesting, and very important contributions to the larger conversation on ritual. Though I suppose I was hoping for too much to think that somewhere in the book they might happen to touch upon all sorts of other aspects of Ritual Theory, thus sparing me having to go out and read yet another five or ten other books. That was an unreasonable expectation on my part; that issue aside, taking this book for what it is – contributing one particular argument to one particular facet of the broader discourse on Ritual – I would definitely put this (or at least the Introduction, or some portion of the book) on any Ritual Theory reading list.

All photos my own.


1) Marcia Yonemoto, The Problem of Women in Early Modern Japan, University of California Press (2016), 221.
2) Seligman et al, 161-162.
3) Seligman et al, 132.

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Akamine Mamoru – “The Ryukyu Kingdom: Cornerstone of East Asia”, translated by Lina Terrell, edited by Robert Huey

The first overview of Ryukyuan history in English since George Kerr’s Okinawa: The History of an Island People, this is a most welcome publication. I have not read the original Japanese version, and so I cannot speak to how much it has been changed, but I am overall quite happy with this new book.

Though I expected it to address just one aspect of Ryukyuan history, serving as only one argumentative/interpretive piece of the scholarly tableau of Ryukyuan history alongside works by Tomiyama, Watanabe, Smits, Takara, Kamiya, and so many others, it really does serve as an introductory overview of the entire history of the kingdom, from the Gusuku period (roughly, 9th to 14th centuries, when elites and eventually “kingdoms” first began to emerge, before being unified under a single Ryukyu Kingdom) all the way up to the abolition of the kingdom in the 1870s, though it focuses most strongly on the early modern period (1609-1870s) and on relations with China over those with Japan. I have not had a chance to read the entire book through, and so I cannot say definitively what the book as a whole includes and what it overlooks, but generally it does seem an excellent overview, touching upon domestic developments, political relationships with China and Japan, Ryukyu’s prominent place in regional trade networks, and so forth.

I actually really appreciate this focus on relations with China. Any choice that an author makes, to emphasize connections with China over those with Japan, or vice versa, is a political choice. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, and is much more nuanced and complex than perhaps any one publication could ever really convey. So, you have to choose. The same is true for the choice to emphasize the integrity of “Ryukyu” as a unitary and cohesive political, social, economic, or cultural entity over its disunity and diversity, or the other way around. So, perhaps the best we can do is to keep putting out works that illuminate or highlight one side of it, one aspect, and just keep re-balancing, and further complicating, further nuancing, further (re-)correcting the narrative that emerges in aggregate.

For a number of reasons, starting with the fact that the Ryukyu Islands are today part of Japan, their connections to Japan have always been strongly assumed, emphasized, and discussed. And there is certainly validity to that – Ryukyuan culture (esp. folk culture, rather than elite/court culture) in many key respects originates fundamentally, in prehistoric times, from the same “Japonic” wellspring as Japanese culture. The language bears much in common with classical Japanese, the folk religion and folk customs otherwise bear much in common with those of Japan, and the occasional Chinese official’s assertion that Ryukyu “belongs” or “belonged” to China historically is a load of hogwash. But, this association with Japan being the dominant assumption, there is great value in explicating, or illuminating, Ryukyu’s own separate distinctive history, and its history of connections to China. In that respect, it makes me want to read more of Akamine’s work (and that of others, such as Watanabe Miki).

Speaking of the early modern section, which I focused on in my reading, I was quite happy to see Akamine discuss domestic, internal developments within the Kingdom, and to devote an entire chapter to “Reform and Sinification of the Kingdom.” Smits touches upon this, to be sure, but while it might be just the bias formed by what I have been choosing to read in order to research my own topic (and what I have not been reading), I feel as though there is so much debate and discussion about how we talk about Ryukyu’s relationships with China and Japan, and some of the internal developments drop out. This past year, as a visiting researcher at the University of the Ryukyus, I heard professors and grad students from time to time mention the gradual but significant Sinification of the kingdom over the course of the 17th to 19th centuries, shifts and changes in ritual practices, and so forth, as if this was already well-known and established. Well, maybe it’s because I still haven’t gotten around to reading the full-length monographs by Tomiyama, Takara, Watanabe, and others (because they’re lengthy, time-consuming, and intimidating, hundreds of pages in Japanese), but I just never felt I had come across any real explanation of this. So, I am very pleasantly surprised to see it articulated by Akamine. He also touches upon the introduction of feng shui into the kingdom, and into the organization and layout of Shuri castle, another of a handful of topics simply not explicated in other books or articles I’ve happened to read.

It’s really a great book, and I am glad to see the English-language coverage of Ryukyuan history expanding.

My only critiques are a few small points about language, which caught my eye.

To begin, I am still very much struggling with decisions to make in my own work as to how to represent names, places, titles, and other specialty terms, whether
(1) in an Okinawan (Uchinaaguchi) reading, which might arguably be the most accurate, and would help disrupt the assumption that the Japanese readings of these terms, imposed following Japan’s annexation of the islands and forced assimilation policies in the late 19th-early 20th centuries, are the natural and default readings,
(2) in a Japanese reading, as is standard in both English- and Japanese-language scholarship, and would serve purposes of clarity and consistency, or
(3) in a Chinese reading, as might be more accurate in many cases, but for which I just don’t know the truth.

I had drafted quite a few paragraphs trying to address this issue in my review of this book, going back and forth about a lot of different aspects of this issue, but if anything I think that merits a separate blog post of its own. So I think I’ll skip that mini-rant for now, and just say that I applaud Terrell and Huey’s choice to give Ryukyuan individuals’ Chinese-style names in Mandarin pinyin. Ryukyuan scholar-aristocrats often had multiple names, going by an Okinawan/Japanese style name in some contexts, and a Chinese-style name in others. For example, the great educator, scholar, and official generally known as Tei Junsoku 程順則 was alternatively known as Nago ueekata Chōbun 名護親方寵文 (or, I suppose, in Okinawan, something more like Nan ueekata Chūbun?). Yet, while he’s very well-known today as Tei Junsoku, one wonders if he ever went by that name, or if he and others pronounced it in a Chinese fashion, as Chéng Shùnzé. Throughout the volume, Terrell and Huey give these Chinese-style names in Mandarin pinyin; I don’t know if Ryukyuans genuinely pronounced them in Chinese,1 or in Japanese or Okinawan readings, but if the former is historically accurate, I think it’s excellent to push against the Japanization of these Chinese-style names, and to introduce readers to thinking about these people by the non-Japanized, pinyin, readings of their Chinese-style names. I just wish I knew if it was accurate.

Now, I must admit I cannot speak to the quality of the translation overall, as I have not read the original Japanese version of the book. However, if I have one criticism of the book, it is an under-critical use of terminology, including the Japanese readings and meanings of terms, here and there. To be honest, this only glared out at me a few times, but where it did, well, ideally it shouldn’t happen even once.

I am surprised to find that Akamine himself – a native-born Okinawan scholar dedicated to the study of the Ryukyu Kingdom as a separate polity from Japan, or from Japanese history, and someone who did much of his graduate work at National Taiwan University, and not in Japan – would be so uncritical of Japanese perspectives or assumptions. Then again, perhaps this is more a matter of the translators/editors’ approaches. Or perhaps it’s just an accident or oversight. With apologies to nitpick on one thing, I do think this is of importance:

To note just one example which stuck out to me: on p80, they discuss the use of the term shi 士 (C: shì) to refer to the Ryukyuan scholar-aristocracy. Using that character to refer to the scholar-aristocracy is, so far as I know, accurate. I think, if I remember correctly, that term does appear frequently in the primary sources. However, the book then spends a good number of lines both in the main text and in the endnotes talking about how this term means “warrior,” and explaining how the Ryukyuan scholar-aristocrats were not, in fact, a warrior class. Now, I may be wrong, and if I am please do let me know, but my understanding is that the character 士 only has that “warrior” meaning in Japanese because it was appropriated by the samurai class in order to represent themselves as cultured, refined, elites. In Chinese, and in the context of Confucian discussions of the meaning of the term, it does not refer to a warrior (武士, J: bushi), but to a scholar-gentleman (君士, C: jūnshì), which it seems to me is precisely how the Ryukyuans were using it. So, in short, it is surprising to me that Akamine, and/or Terrell and Huey, find themselves tripping over untangling the word from its Japanese meaning, when they could have just skipped that entirely – or could have more explicitly stated that the association of this term with warriors, and thus the mistaken assumption that Ryukyu had a samurai (or samuree) class, is a mistaken understanding based on an insufficiently nuanced understanding of the meaning of the term 士 as referring (even from the very beginning, in the Analects of Confucius themselves) to an educated, cultured, well-mannered, scholar-gentleman.

On a somewhat similar note, likely in large part because it’s a translation of a Japanese work, and not originally written in English, the text does not engage with its own choices of terminology. For example, while Akamine describes out the character of Ryukyu’s relationships with Japan and China, how the kingdom was more directly impacted by Japanese rules and regulations, while on the Chinese side it was a more purely ceremonial and cultural (+economic) relationship – though he does do a good job of describing out this complexity, still the book calls Ryukyu a “vassal” of Japan and a “vassal” of China, without touching at all upon the questions of what we mean by “vassal,” “Japan,” and “China.” (p82-83) Earlier in the book, too, the term “client-state” is used without any discussion of the implications of that term. What is meant by “client-state”? How is this different from “vassal”?

So, those are my quibbles with a few language issues. But, overall, this really is a great book; I’m glad to see a new survey of Ryukyuan history out there on the shelves, and one which explores and explains quite a few aspects of the history not well-explained elsewhere in the very few other English-language books on Ryukyu. Glad to have finally gotten my own copy, and to add it to my shelf. Looking forward to Gregory Smits’ Maritime Ryukyu, 1050-1650, which promises to add to this story further.


1. And, of course, once you start getting into language issues, you start getting into issues of historical language as well. Of course, Ryukyuans in the 17th century didn’t actually pronounce anything according to modern 21st century Mandarin, Japanese, or Okinawan. And even if we did take the bother to try to represent these things in accurately early modern Beijing, Edo, or Naha-Shuri pronunciations (which is a nearly impossible task), this still wouldn’t properly take into account whether they might have spoken Fujian, Kagoshima, or other dialects. The issues are endless.

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I recently happened upon two new books on Ryukyuan painting (well, one new, and one from 2003 that’s news to me), which are exciting discoveries. So far as I’m aware, there are very few books like these, even in Japanese – full-color books devoted exclusively, explicitly, to the subject of the rich, colorful, vibrant tradition of pre-modern / early modern Ryukyuan painting. I’ll admit, I haven’t had the time yet to actually read through these two books. So, I’m “reviewing” them (so to speak) based on first impressions. Pardon me for any misrepresentations.

First, is Ryûkyû kaiga: kôgaku chôsa hôkokusho 琉球絵画-光学調査報告書 (roughly, “Ryukyuan Painting: Announcement of [Results of] Optics Survey”), published by Tokyo Bunkazai Kenkyûsho 東京文化財研究所 in 2017. The first half of the book dedicates about 150 pages to images of eleven artworks. We are given not only overall images of the paintings, but for each painting multiple pages of full-page full-color high-quality details. The texture of the silk still cannot be reproduced in print, of course, and no book will ever be a full and total replacement for seeing a work in person, but this is very much the next best thing – better on this particular point than I think I’ve ever seen in any book before. Seeing such details – including the fine brushstrokes, and the texture of the media – is what many art historians want to see, and it’s so difficult to see even in person, when you’re separated by plexiglass keeping you two or three feet away from the work. If you’ve ever had the privilege of seeing an artwork in person, without any glass, the painting mere inches away from your face, you’ll know it’s a whole different experience. And this book’s design brings that experience to the reader, as much as any book could. To have this is wonderful – to have it for Ryukyuan paintings, all the more so.

Details of the kimono patterns from a painting of a Ryukyuan aristocratic couple. Maybe a little hard to see in this photo of the page, but in the actual book, you can see the texture of the pigments, the shininess of the gold accents, the brushstrokes.

The book ends with essays on Ryukyuan painting and painters, and on the specific pigments employed, ending with a few pages on signatures and seals, and a family tree, as it were, of major Ryukyuan painters, charting out the links of master-student relationships.

Unfortunately, I don’t see the book available for sale anywhere, at least not yet. I expect that when it does become available on Amazon.jp, or elsewhere, it will be stupidly expensive. As all too often happens with art books, even though ink and paper are dirt cheap, and I find it very hard to believe that it costs anywhere near $15 or $20 to print each copy, publishers still continue to get away with charging $50 or $60 or even $100 for these things… and all the more so when it’s a “research results” volume. Cast the exact same book as a museum exhibit catalog, and it might still be expensive, but quite likely not as much so.

A portrait of Tei Junsoku, one of the most famous and celebrated Ryukyuan officials and reformers. The fine, naturalistic details of the description of the face are just incredible. I have seen this painting several times now at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, always behind glass, at a distance of several feet; I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see the original more truly up-close. this reproduction is the next best thing.

The other book I happened upon here in the bowels of the University of Tokyo Historiographical Institute library is entitled Haruka naru ogoe: yomigaeru Ryûkyû kaiga 遙かなる御後絵-甦る琉球絵画 (roughly, “Posthumous Portraits from Faraway: Looking Back at Ryukyuan Painting”). Written by Satô Fumihiko 佐藤文彦, a painter expert in traditional methods, and lecturer at the Okinawa University of the Arts, it was published in 2003. ”Ogoe” 御後絵 were official portraits of the Ryukyuan kings, produced by the Ryukyuan royal court after each king’s death. All are believed to have been lost, destroyed, in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, along with a great many other irreplaceable documents, artifacts, treasures (not to mention thousands upon thousands of lives and livelihoods). Prewar black-&-white photographs of the ”ogoe” survive, however, and are a hell of a lot better than nothing. Satô has conducted extensive research into these works, best as possible with the limited surviving materials, and has produced his own full-color recreations of all ten royal portraits which are known to have been produced.

Satô’s recreation of how the portrait of King Shô Shin might have looked in full-color.

This book opens with full-color plates of all ten of those full-color recreations. The meat of the book is a series of essays (or chapters) by Satô about the ”ogoe” – his research into their history, their style and composition, and his thoughts, struggles, and efforts in recreating them. This is of great value and interest in itself, of course, a beautifully lengthy treatment of such a niche topic (in the broad scheme of things), but a topic of great importance within the field of Okinawan art, especially of Ryukyuan royal art.

What took the book to another level for me, though, is that this discussion of the ”ogoe” is followed by an additional chapter on Jiryô 自了 (aka Gusukuma Seihô 城間清豊), one of the few early modern Ryukyuan painters about whom we know anything much, and one of the few from whom we still have surviving paintings. A book only on ”ogoe” would be valuable enough in itself, but Satô builds upon that with this essay on Jiryô, a reprinting of a 1925 essay on ”ogoe” by Higa Chôken 比嘉朝健, an extensive timeline/chronology of events in the history of Ryukyuan painting, and finally a mini-encyclopedia of topics relevant to Ryukyuan painting. This last thing is a beautiful resource even all by itself; through visits to the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, and skimming through museum catalogs like that of that museum’s Ryûkyû kaiga ten 琉球絵画展 from 2009, I have come to gain some sense of the body of works that are out there. But, knowing that so many works were lost in the war, and that few survive, it is hard to know just how few; and are the works I have seen more or less the only ones that survive, or only the most famous, or most-displayed, for whatever various reasons? How much (or how little) is out there? This mini-encyclopedia is, of course, not definitive and complete, but it is certainly an additional help in understanding the extent, and content, of the body of works that are out there.

This book is available on Amazon.jp, but is unfortunately priced at over 5700 yen. I’m going to keep my eyes out for a cheaper used copy.

It’s wonderful to see these books coming out. I eagerly look forward to finding the time to actually read them, and expand my knowledge about Ryukyuan paintings. And I hope that I might someday enjoy the opportunity to bring this to the English-speaking audience – to bring these most-famous of Ryukyu’s paintings to a major US museum, and to publish a catalog about them. Ryukyuan textiles, lacquerwares, and ceramics are all wonderful, and any exhibit, any publication, that expands knowledge about Okinawa in any way is a wonderful thing. But Okinawa is not just a culture of “folk arts,” or “decorative arts.” They had just as lively and vibrant a painting culture as China, Korea, or Japan – they had court painters, literati painters, just like these other cultures, and people should learn that, see these beautiful paintings, and learn about this other side of Okinawa’s art history.

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Reading through a journal article by Prof. Asô Shin’ichi (Okinawa Geidai) on samurai gift-giving customs, and how that relates to Ryûkyû’s gifts to the Shimazu and to the shogunate, I found reference to this book edited by Asao Naohiro 朝尾直弘, which just somehow grabbed my attention. Entitled Fudai daimyô Ii ke no girei 譜代大名井伊家の儀礼, or roughly “Ceremonies of the Ii clan of Hikone domain,” it’s one of a series of books put out by the Hikone Castle Museum, using the Ii Family Documents 彦根藩井伊家文書 and other sources to explore a more extensive, detailed, complex understanding of the history of the Ii clan of Hikone domain, and by extension of aspects of early modern (i.e. Tokugawa period) Japanese history more broadly. Though it normally goes for 6000 yen (roughly US$60), I was fortunate to find a copy online for the far more reasonable 2000 yen. Thank you, Amazon.jp.

Even just on the face of it, this style of book, this approach, really appeals to me. I love the idea of using local histories in my own research. The scholars featured in this volume worked with the Hikone Castle Museum to produce something that doesn’t just take the Ii family as some kind of convenient case study, in order to examine something broader, more removed, more theoretical or abstract. Rather, it takes the Ii family, their records, their local domainal history, as something to be explored as a topic worthy of interest in and of itself. And so, while I admittedly am using them as a convenient example, a convenient resource, for my own project, nevertheless I find something really appealing about the idea of employing such research. I will also be reading, and citing, books like Yamamoto Hirofumi’s Sankin kôtai and numerous others which are more typical academic books, drawing upon whatever resources from here and there in order to build up an argument, or simply a description or narrative, of something much broader (in Yamamoto’s case, the “alternate attendance” or sankin kôtai system, as practiced not by any one domain, but by all of them, across the archipelago). But, reading this Hikone volume and drawing upon research that’s focused in on a particular set of documents from a genuine interest in the history of that particular family and their domain, makes me happy.

A section of Hikone castle, home to the lords of the Ii clan. Photo my own.

And, actually delving into the book, I find that at least some of the chapters – those by Okazaki Hironori 岡崎寛徳 – follow a really interesting format. Okazaki’s chapters, like all the others, like most chapters in most academic books, each address a particular aspect or sub-topic, and form an argument, or a narrative, about them, but they do so while quoting heavily from primary source documents – so heavily, in fact, that they serve as a pretty excellent resource for reading (and citing / quoting from) primary sources themselves.

To put it another way, Okazaki’s chapters read not quite like a normal essay, but more like something in between a normal essay, and a set of introductions or explanations for primary sources. Roughly half the text in each of his chapters is just direct transcriptions of excerpts from the Ii Family Documents, and while there certainly is some narrative argument being made, at the same time he’s also just showing the reader a number of different aspects of the topic, as represented in primary sources. Here’s a letter from the domain to the shogunate asking for confirmation on which kinds of gifts they’re expected to give on which occasions (and in what numbers/volumes), and here’s the shogunate’s response (including permission to reduce the amount of gifts, in these financially difficult times [the 1720s]). And here’s Okazaki’s introduction to what the document is that he’s quoting from, and what this excerpt is going to show us; and then, here’s Okazaki’s summary of the key points of what the excerpt said. All in all, I just find he strikes an excellent balance – providing enough of the primary sources, on enough different aspects around the same topic or theme, and enough information surrounding them, to allow you to use them for your own research, your own interests, beyond just the narrow focus of his argument (that is, in contrast to more typical essays, which only quote just enough to make their argument, and only very strictly those sections which are relevant to their argument, leaving everything else out); and, at the same time, he’s doing so within a narrative or argumentative framework, thus providing so much more framing context, and explanation, than a lot of works I’ve seen that are more explicitly dedicated to only sharing transcriptions of the sources (with minimal framing material), leaving it totally up to the reader to make of it what one will, depending on the reader’s interests.

A bridge near the entrance to the Hikone castle complex. Photo my own.

Let me see if I can give a more solid example. I think it’s easy to imagine a chapter or article from whatever book or journal that focuses solely on New Year’s audiences, for example, explaining out that one event, with maybe some minimal quoting here and there from primary sources, just enough to explain things out. And they of course would cite which sources they’re getting it from, and maybe they would explain a little bit what that document is, how it’s organized, why it contains the kinds of information that it does in the way that it does. I think it’s also easy to imagine a publication which just transcribes the entire primary source document, or significant sections of it, saying, essentially, “here it is. Use it as you will, for whatever aspects, whatever themes you may be researching,” without telling you much at all about the document itself – where it comes from; who wrote it, when, and why; which sections are about what; what new revelations might be learned from this document that aren’t found elsewhere; what to look for or to notice while reading; just the text itself, that’s it. Those are the two ends of the spectrum. Okazaki lies in between them. He spends a good paragraph or so introducing the Kôrei rinji gyôji tomechô 恒例臨時行事留帳, a 1736 document contained within the broader collection of Ii Family Documents – who wrote it, when, why, and what sort of stuff it contains. And then, while providing sizable excerpts from that text, sometimes a full paragraph, or even a full page or more at a time, he uses those excerpts to help show a full sampling of many of the different regular and irregular audiences & court rituals (at the shogun’s court, in Edo castle) in which the Ii participated. Here’s an excerpt explaining how for New Year’s, the Ii lord went up to the castle at X hour, sat in his designated waiting room (the Tamari-no-ma) in accordance with his rank, then moved to the Shiroshoin (one of several audience halls in the castle), and sat at such-and-such a spot, bowed X number of times, said such-and-such formal words, was told such-and-such by the rôjû (Elders) or by the Shogun himself, presented such-and-such gifts, bowed X number of times, then withdrew. And now here’s an excerpt showing how it was a bit different for the regular monthly audiences, for the “in-between” audiences (間之登城), for Girls’ Day and Boys’ Day and Chrysanthemum Festival. And here’s how it was for banquets following the shogun’s successful hunting expedition. And here’s how it was when the shogun decided to go horseback riding and to request (command, really) the various lords to come and attend just to watch him. Good-sized chunks of primary sources, presented not in-line just as quotes, just enough to make a single point within the course of an argument, but rather as good-sized chunks that are allowed to speak for themselves, surrounded by enough introduction, and summary, and explanation, to make them understandable and useful, and to present a broader narrative or argumentative description of a topic.

Other chapters in this book, outside of those by Okazaki, seem at first glance to follow a more standard format. But, after eleven chapters addressing various aspects of the topic of “the Ii family and rituals,” the book ends with over 200 pages of more straightforwardly, more fully transcribed primary sources, along with maps and diagrams of several relevant buildings / rooms, and at the very end, charts of the family tree of the Ii family, a lengthy chart of where each Ii lord was on given dates (as they moved between Hikone, Edo, and other cities, on official and personal business), and a timeline of incidents and events relevant to the history of the family & of the domain.

The sankin kôtai procession of the lord of Iyo-Matsuyama, as seen in one section of an 18th c. handscroll painting at the National Museum of Japanese History. Photo my own.

One thing I do find frustrating, and a little disappointing, though, about this book is that like much other scholarship, it skips over explaining out the basic, general, foundational situation, and focuses overmuch on changes, exceptions, and complexities. As wonderful as it is to learn, for example, about how the type and amount of gifts changed through negotiations in the 1720s at a time when both the shogunate and many domains were experiencing significant financial difficulties, I would love to first have a more general explanation of what types and amounts of gifts were typical, to begin with. And while it’s really interesting to learn about these various different hunting-related banquets and occasion of watching horseriding or Noh, I still don’t think I’ve ever yet come across a basic, step-by-step, description of just what normally, typically, happened when a lord arrived in Edo on sankin kôtai. This sort of thing is even more a problem in many of the other books and articles I have been reading, works which overwhelmingly employ extraordinary examples, rather than anything that might be representative of “standard” “typical” practices – for example, the journeys of either Tokugawa Iemitsu (in 1634) or of Tokugawa Iemochi (in 1863) to Kyoto, despite the fact that no shogun ever traveled to Kyoto for the 220+ intervening years; or the 1862 wedding of Imperial princess Kazu-no-miya into the shogunal family despite the fact that (a) this was probably one of only a very few Imperial-Tokugawa marriages, and (b) presumably by 1862 it’s late enough that practices would be quite different from whatever was typical in the 1600s or 1700s or even up into the 1830s or 1840s; or the shogunal succession ceremonies of Tokugawa Yoshimune, one of a handful of shoguns who were not direct relatives of their predecessors – why not use as your representative example records of the succession ceremony for a “normal” succession from father to son?

Still, returning to what I was saying about Okazaki’s balanced approach to sharing primary sources & scholarly commentary, and about the character of the book as a whole, it makes me wonder what other books might be out there of a similar type, put out by local museums, foundations, History Associations, local Boards of Education, or by more mainstream or academic publishers, but that might contain a similar approach, a similar balance of scholarly explanation and extensive provision of primary sources. Books which might not quite come up on the radar, normally, because they are less mainstream and might get filed away under “local history,” but which might prove surprisingly interesting, informative, and/or useful, either in general, or for one’s specific research project…

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Gradually getting there. After a year of doing this, I’m finally almost done posting these book reviews from my comprehensive exams. Feels like a whole other world – exams feel so far behind me; a month from now, I’ll be in Japan, for the next big step in this PhD process. Well, well. Looks like this was the last of the reviews. I didn’t realize that. Okay. Well, here we are, my last review from the exam process. Look forward to a return to some other sorts of posts, coming up soon.

In the meantime, Marius Jansen’s China in the Tokugawa World (Harvard University Press, 1992)

Jansen’s China in the Tokugawa World provides an outline of a wide range of major aspects and themes in the role of Chinese people in Tokugawa Japan, perceptions of China, Chinese cultural influences, and the like, nestled into overarching narratives of changes and developments in Japanese relationships with China during this period, both as a concept and as a real political and economic entity. He devotes particular attention to the Chinese community at Nagasaki, providing a considerable degree of detail as to the logistics and economics of trade activity, as well as intellectual and cultural interactions in Nagasaki, and the role of the fūsetsugaki, imported books, and visiting Chinese scholars and monks as sources of information and intelligence on goings-on in the outside world, complemented by intelligence obtained from the Dutch, Korea, and Ryukyu. Jansen also touches upon numerous other topics, including the introduction of Ōbaku Zen, interactions with Ming loyalists & their cause, and perceptions of China following the fall of the Ming among scholars, political elites, and the general populace. In the last thirty pages or so of this short 120-page volume, Jansen describes the turn in perceptions of & attitudes towards China, as over the course of the 19th century, the Qing Dynasty experiences considerable difficulties, and in the eyes of many Japanese, severe decline.

The volume serves as a fine introduction to these many themes or aspects, and to the overall arc of interactions with, and perceptions of, China. In a sense, it reads more like a textbook than a scholarly argument piece, summarizing the topic of “China in Tokugawa Japan” overall, and providing descriptions, rarely more than a page or two long, of a variety of individual topics, such as the biographies of Li Hongzhang and the monk Yinyuan Longqi, as a textbook would, less as examples of evidence to further an argument than as descriptions of items within a topical umbrella.

That said, there are significant chronological and thematic arcs presented. Jansen describes a number of related but differing understandings or imaginations among Tokugawa period scholars of a conceptual China, ranging from those who viewed China not as a real place existing coevally in time, but as a land of Sages, tranquility, and the ultimate manifestations of high culture and civilization, to the subtly but importantly different position of those for whom China served as a sort of straw man, an Other against which Japan could be described in contrast. While many Confucian scholars idealized China, many kokugaku scholars, some of them still looking to Confucianism or other aspects of Chinese civilization as an ideal, presented varying notions of why or how Japan superseded China as the civilizational center. Meanwhile, much of the popular discourse conflated China with the foreign more generally, making little distinction between various Others (e.g. Koreans, Ryukyuans, or Dutch). This topic is of particular relevance to my own project, as I attempt to gain some understanding of how Ryukyu was perceived, understood, or imagined at this time; while Keiko Suzuki has argued similarly in her article “The Making of Tôjin” of an undifferentiating perception of the foreign, the true story seems considerably more complex, given that there were numerous widely available popular publications describing or depicting Ryukyuan subjects as specifically Ryukyuan. In any case, I am eager to delve into this subject further, and while Jansen’s discussion of it is most welcome, and valuable in its way, it is also far too brief and cursory for my purposes. The same is true of his discussion of perceptions of Japan (or Korea or Ryukyu) as representing the place where the great high culture and civilization of (Ming) China survives, since it has been corrupted or destroyed in China’s fall to barbarian (Manchu) invaders. This, in particular, is a topic which I think to be of great interest, and potentially of great relevance to my project, and yet Jansen’s brief discussion of it remains, perhaps, the most extensive such discussion I have come across; he does not, in his citations, point the way to any more extensive treatments of the subject.

China in the Tokugawa World represents a great start, a great survey of the subject. The overall thematic and chronological arcs, of differing ways in which China was perceived, and how this changed over time, help provide a fundamental sense of the thing, informing and deepening one’s understanding of the character of the Tokugawa period as a whole. Jansen’s detailed description of the workings of trade and other activity at Nagasaki is also sufficiently lengthy and detailed to constitute a source one can turn to for citeable details. On other topics, however, Jansen’s volume serves as only a starting point, requiring one to look elsewhere for a more thorough or extensive description of kangaku or kokugaku, popular depictions of China, the influence of Ōbaku Zen, or any one of a number of other topics.

The Chinatown (tôjin yashiki) of early modern Nagasaki, as seen in a handscroll painting (detail) on display at the British Museum. Photo my own.

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