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Archive for the ‘China’ Category

The Royal Ontario Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Back in New York for just a few days, of course I had to visit the Met. After going to the bank and getting a letter officially noting me as a New York State resident so that I could avoid the new $25 admission fee ($12 for students) and continue to “pay-as-you-wish,” I made my way to the museum. The one big must-see show up right now (until May 28) is Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas, which I blogged about when I saw it at the Getty a few months ago. If you have the chance, do check it out. It’s a really incredible exhibit.

But, having seen that already, I skipped it, and headed over to the Asian Art section, stopping first at Arms & Armor, where I found to my surprise a delightful little display (three or four cases, maybe about 12 objects total?) of Qing dynasty arms and armor. Most certainly not something you see everyday. The Qing was a major empire, which fought many wars and battles and expanded “Chinese” territory considerably over the course of its nearly 300-year reign. Further, while the Ming and Song and Tang and Han and nearly every other Chinese dynasty also had extensive armies and their share of wars, the Qing in particular was founded in Manchu warrior culture, from the warrior bands of the nomadic steppe. And yet, while just about every museum in America has at least one samurai sword or samurai suit of armor on display, it is all too rare that we see anything at all of Chinese arms and armor. So, this was a most pleasant surprise.

The exhibit includes some small decorative knives, ornately decorated saddles, a Qing helmet just like seen in many paintings of the time, and a princely seal granted to Mongol Princes. But what really caught my eye was an 18th century matchlock gun decorated with carved red lacquer. According to the gallery label, this gun is “extraordinary, possibly unique,” in having such extensive lacquer decoration on a firearm. One wonders how this was used – purely for display?

Next, I found my way to the main China galleries, where they were showing yet again yet another show of gorgeous landscapes. But what I quite liked about this show was the inclusion of some wonderful quotes from all across Chinese history, on the gallery labels. In each section of the exhibit, we were greeted by a new label introducing us to a new aspect of landscapes and landscape paintings, and each of these labels had a just wonderful quote on it. A small touch, but something I absolutely took photos of, and will use if/when I ever teach a course on Chinese history or Chinese art history.

The Museum is also in the process of finally reopening its Musical Instruments galleries, after a lengthy renovation. And they’re beautiful. I quite enjoyed seeing not just beautiful examples of instruments from across history, from around the world, but examples directly associated with notable historical figures, including a guqin commissioned by Zhu Changfang, one of the Ming loyalist rulers of the Southern Ming; a cello made for George, Prince of Wales (crowned King George IV in 1820); a Turkish ud by Manol, once owned by Udi Hrant, and another ud previously owned by Mohammed El-Bakkar – not that I know who those people are, but I’ve been getting into Turkish music lately, courtesy of my girlfriend, and it’s fun to not just see yet another ud, but to also start learning some names.

The one half of the gallery currently open is organized by Time, from the most ancient instruments, including something resembling King David’s harp, to the most contemporary, including an electric pipa. I’m eagerly looking forward to the reopening of the other half, which will be supposedly organized by Space.

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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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I found something kind of neat today. Continuing my investigations into the Ryukyuan tribute missions to China, I started reading a short article by Maehira Fusaaki 真栄平房昭, entitled Ryûkyû shisetsu no ikoku taiken1, and discovered a mention of George Lord Macartney coming across Ryukyuan ambassadors on their way to Beijing.

Right: Image of Lord George Macartney. Quite the fashionable looker. Source unknown. Public domain image courtesy Wikipedia.

For those unfamiliar, George Lord Macartney was the head of the first official British mission to China, in 1793. This has become a particularly famous event in Chinese history, a meeting in which British and Chinese notions of diplomacy, and cultures of court ritual, clashed and resulted in misunderstandings and a general failure to achieve good relations. This was also the occasion of the Qianlong Emperor’s famous saying, that China had all the things it could want in the world, and that China had no need of such nonsense trinkets as some petty small country such as Britain might have to offer.

Meanwhile, the Kingdom of Ryukyu became a tributary to the Ming Court in 1372, and continued to send tributary missions to Beijing quite regularly from that time, all the way up until the 1870s. For much of the 17th-19th centuries, Ryukyu was sending missions to Beijing once every two years, as Korea did as well. The Ryukyuans and Koreans presented gifts of local goods (i.e. Ryukyuan or Korean products) as tribute, as a show of their king’s gratitude and deference to the Emperor of China, and in return the Emperor bestowed lavish gifts upon them, as a show of his grace and generosity. Unlike what Lord Macartney had in mind, there were no policy discussions involved in these meetings. Rather, they were ritual performances, enactments, of the maintenance or reaffirmation of the relationship between the two countries. The Emperor of China invested the kings of Korea and Ryukyu in their thrones, officially recognizing them as King, and serving as the source of their legitimacy, and in return those kings dispatched tribute missions.

Given how frequent these tribute missions were, I suppose it should come as no surprise that the Ryukyuans would have crossed paths with Macartney. Still, it was a neat find. Coming across this mention in Maehira’s article, who quotes it in Japanese translation, I decided to go try to find the original English. Unsurprisingly, Macartney’s diary, An Embassy to China: Being the journal kept by Lord Macartney during his embassy to the Emperor Ch’ien-lung 1793-1794, has been reprinted in modern publication, and can be easily found in a 1963 volume edited by J.L. Cranmer-Byng. Turning to November 18, 1793, when Macartney & the Ryukyuans crossed paths on the Grand Canal just south of Hangzhou, on pp182-183, it reads:

Monday, November 18. The river spreads here a good deal, and is very shallow. The banks rich, pleasant and generally level, but we see the mountains at a distance before us, and approach them very fast. I suppose we shall be amongst them to-morrow.

This evening Wang brought two genteel young men with him on board my yacht, and presented them to me as the ambassadors from the King of the Liuchiu islands, now on their way to Pekin. Regularly once in two years this prince sends such ambassadors to Amoy, in the province of Fukien (no other port being open to these strangers), from whence they proceed by this route to carry their master’s homage and tribute to the Emperor. They speak Chinese well, but have a proper language of their own, whether approaching to the Japanese or Korea I could not well comprehend. They told me that no European vessel had ever touched their islands, but if they should come they would be well received. There is no prohibition against foreign intercourse; they have a fine harbor capable of admitting the largest vessels not far from their capital, which is considerable in extent and population. They raise a coarse kind of tea, but far inferior to the Chinese, and have many mines of copper and iron. No gold or silver mines have as yet been discovered among them, which may in some measure account for these islands being so little known.

The dress which these ambassadors wore I particularly remarked. It is a very fine sort of shawl made in their own country, dyed of a beautiful brown colour and lined with a squirrel skin, or petit-gros. They wore turbans very neatly folded round their heads; one was of yellow silk and the other of purple. They had neither linen nor cotton in any part of their dress that I could perceive. The fashion of their habit was nearly Chinese. They were well-looking, tolerably fair complexioned, well-bred, conversable, and communicative. From the geographical position of these islands they should naturally belong either to the Chinese or the Japanese. They have chosen the protection of the former, and when their Sovereign dies his successor receives a sort of investiture or confirmation from Pekin. It would seem that the Japanese give themselves no sort of concern about their neighbours. Concentrated and contented in their own Empire, they seldom make excursions beyond their own coasts, and are equally averse that their coasts should be visited by others. If circumstances permit, I think it may be worth while to explore these Liuchiu islands. The climate is temperate, rather cold in winter, but not very hot in summer.

As Maehira explains, “Wang” refers to Wang Wenxiong 王文雄, a Tongzhou military official. Macartney says Ryukyuans are limited to Amoy (Xiamen), when in fact it was the port of Fuzhou, but otherwise gets the basic notion of tribute missions once every two years correct. He is also right that the Ryukyuans have their own language and culture, close to that of Japanese, but distinct; and I would not be surprised if these ambassadors were well-educated in both Chinese language and Chinese customs, though at the same time, we must always be wary that when a foreigner, even a Japanese, says things like “the fashion of their habit was nearly Chinese,” they could be speaking from Orientalist stereotypes and fantasies, and not from accurate judgement. In any case, I am not sure whether any European ships had ever been to Ryukyu yet, but of course they were not truly open to foreign intercourse. I am also not sure of any iron or copper mines; seems unlikely, given the extremely flat terrain and coral limestone makeup of the islands.

I don’t know quite enough about the Ryukyuan garments to say what sort of “squirrel skin” or other lining they might have been using, but given that it’s November, and the mission is spending New Year’s in Beijing, I should hope that these Ryukyuans – coming from a rather warm climate – would have some kind of lining in their clothes to keep them warm in the North China winter. The “turbans” Macartney refers to are hachimaki – court caps indicative of the two men’s rank. The Lead Envoy, in a purple cap, held the title ueekata 親方, and must have been of the First or Second Rank, while the Deputy Envoy, holding the title of peechin 親雲上, would have been somewhere in the Third to Seventh ranks. It is interesting to see Macartney relate the notion of Japan’s isolation from the world, and his understanding that Ryukyu has “chosen” China, and has no relation with Japan – even with the Qing Court being aware of the connections between Japan and Ryukyu, I guess they were still able to fool some people. Finally, there is Macartney’s note about Ryukyu’s climate being temperate. I suppose that all depends, and is relative, depending on just how “cold” someone considers “cold” to be. I’ll be in Okinawa in winter for the first time this coming year; I guess I’ll find out what it’s like.

Right: A lithograph depicting Sōrikan Shō Kōkun, also known as Prince Yonashiro Chōki 総理官・尚宏勲こと、与那城王子朝紀, the chief Ryukyuan official who met with Commodore Perry in 1853. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Though Macartney doesn’t give their names, it is easy to deduce that the two Ryukyuans he met were the two heads of that year’s tribute mission, Lead Envoy Misato ueekata Mô Kokutô 美里親方毛国棟 and Vice Envoy Kanemoto peechin Mô Teichû 兼本親雲上毛廷柱. I don’t know much about Mô Kokutô yet, except that he would return to Beijing in 1801 as the head of a special mission, dispatched in gratitude for the investiture of Ryukyu’s King Shô On 尚温王. Mô Teichû, meanwhile, is a somewhat more familiar figure for me – not that he’s the most influential, significant figure in Ryukyuan history, not by a longshot. But, still. This was not Mô Teichû’s first rodeo – he had previously served as gieisei 儀衛生 (head of street musicians) on the 1790 mission to Edo, during which time he produced a number of notable works of calligraphy which remain in private Japanese collections (e.g. at Buddhist temples) today. Maehira gives his title as Gusukuda peechin 城田親雲上, though I’ve always seen him referred to as Kanemoto peechin. Perhaps he was promoted in between 1790 and 1793. If one were so inclined, one could check the Mô family genealogies, which if we’re lucky might be reproduced within the volumes of the Naha shishi (那覇市史, “City History of Naha”).

I love this sort of thing. It doesn’t add anything to my dissertation, I don’t think, as I’m really looking to better understand the Ryukyu tribute missions to Beijing themselves, and elements of formal ritual and performance in the execution of those missions. So, in that respect, maybe it was a little bit of a waste of time for me to pursue it today. And, while I suppose this does reveal something about British conceptions & misconceptions about Ryukyu at that time, in the grander scheme of things, I don’t think we actually learn that much from this passage. This likely won’t make it into my dissertation, and if I were writing a study of the Macartney mission, I don’t think it would make it into that paper either.

But! I do think it’s interesting, and fun, and of value to know that these people crossed paths in this way. Adds just one more instance, one more example, to a broader notion of the incredible complexity and vibrancy of historic interactions – a vision of the world of centuries past as vibrantly, busily, actively full of people crisscrossing back and forth, a world of interaction and interconnection… Macartney is of course a rather significant figure himself, and the Ryukyuans he ran into aren’t exactly nobodies either. Adds just a little more to our knowledge of the biographies of Mô Kokutô and Mô Teichû, and while I admittedly don’t really plan to be writing full-on biographies at any point, I do feel passionate about recovering the memory, the story, of figures like these – far too many historians treat historical figures (as individuals) as merely pawns, or footnotes, in their pursuit of some broader interpretive argument. But these were real people who populated the stories we are telling; history should be about stories, about people, about recovering and retelling the narratives of their lives and of the events they were caught up in; it should not be only about the broader interpretive analyses.

Even if we have no record of any particularly extensive or impactful exchange between Macartney and these two, even so, there is something interesting and meaningful about knowing that there was at least one occasion when Ryukyuan ambassadors to China crossed paths with a European embassy, and that that embassy was none other than the famous 1793 mission of George Lord Macartney; and further that the British mission encountered not only Chinese people and sights and culture during their trip, but Ryukyuans as well. And as a result, that Ryukyuans and Brits both had at least some notion of one another, at this early stage. I don’t know if it’s a result of my many years poking around as an editor on Wikipedia, but I’ve long had a real interest in the chance interconnections between people, places, events – as much as I do enjoy reading history scholarship that brings up new understandings, new interpretations, new insights, I enjoy in a different way reading works that introduce me to new people, places, events, or to new interconnections between them, or information about them, expanding my concrete knowledge of History, bit by bit. The kinds of works where I can feel that having read them, I’ve not only been exposed to one author’s opinion or interpretation, some hopefully possibly potentially thought-provoking ideas, but the kinds of works where I’ve really learned something I didn’t know before, however small or obscure.


1. Maehira Fusaaki, Ryûkyû shisetsu no ikoku taiken 琉球使節の異国体験 (“The Ryukyu Envoys’ Experiences of Foreign Countries”), Kokusai kôryû 国際交流 59 (1992), 60-67.)

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I finish my series on Chinese history books (finally) not with a summary of a single book, but with an overview of a trend, or movement, in the field.

Things move amazingly slowly in scholarship, and what still seems quite new can often turn out to be as much as twenty or even thirty years old. I think this is due in large part to a combination of a few factors:

(1) Scholarship takes a long time to do, and a long time to publish. I heard at one point that it takes roughly ten years to research, write, and get published a scholarly monograph, and given how long my dissertation is taking already, how long my younger professors are working on getting their first books published, and how few books some of my more senior professors have published, I believe it.

(2) Scholarship takes an amazingly long time to trickle down into high school & college textbooks, and since no teacher is read up on the latest scholarship on all things, they are bound to teach you older understandings.

(3) Relatedly, our own knowledge is based on classes and readings often quite out of date, and so what is actually old can often seem quite new. To put it another way, there are so many books out there that I haven’t read yet, so no matter how old the book may be, when I read it, it may seem quite new to me. Further, even as a member of the youngest current generation of scholars – those who haven’t even finished grad school yet – even so, my foundational knowledge of Japan comes from college classes from over ten years ago, taught by professors whose knowledge of the subject comes, foundationally, from decades earlier. Not to mention my fundamental understandings of American and European history, learned in high school and earlier, way back in the distant 20th century.

Qing imperial portraits on display at the Sackler Gallery of Art, at the Smithsonian Institution, in summer 2011.

So, when I say that “The New Qing History” is still, in some very real, meaningful senses, still “New,” I’m not being ironic or facetious. For decades and decades, ever since the origins of the modern scholarly field of Chinese Studies in the West, the dominant narrative was a China-centered one. Buying into China’s own (Confucian-informed) rhetoric about itself as the center and source of all civilization, scholars writing in English built their accounts of Chinese history around notions of Sinicization as the key process through which non-Chinese dynasties – such as the Mongol Yuan, Jurchen Jin, Khitan Liao, and Manchu Qing – attained stability and power. All of these dynasties, so the story goes, gained power and stability only because they adopted Chinese modes of governance, Confucian political culture, and other aspects of Chinese “civilization,” and collapsed in large part because of the infiltration of elements of their original “barbarian” or steppe nomad culture. The Qing are no different. I am not an expert on this, and do not know the historiography fully thoroughly, but basically, my understanding is that the traditional narrative has it that the Qing’s rise in the 1640s to 1790s, and its peak of greatness under the Qianlong Emperor in the 1790s, was due chiefly to the Manchus’ adoption of Chinese Confucian “civilization,” and that it was Qianlong’s efforts to re-introduce, revive, emphasize, or retain Manchu culture which sowed the seeds for China’s decline – the century of embarrassment which began with China’s defeat by the “barbarian” British in the 1840s, and went straight on through the various embarrassments of the Taiping & Boxer Rebellions (in which the British and French sacked & looted), defeat by the “barbarian” Japanese in 1895, and invasion, colonization, etc. in the 1930s-40s.

A scene from “The Last Emperor,” shown in “China Through the Looking Glass” at the Metropolitan Museum.

It was only in the 1990s, perhaps influenced by trends in post-colonial scholarship, that this story was fundamentally revised. The so-called “New Qing History” emerged at that time, calling attention like never before to the ways in which the Qing, in particular, was not so much a Chinese dynasty, but rather a Manchu one. The new story, advanced in particular I believe by Pamela Crossley and Evelyn Rawski, is that China was but one part of the Manchu Empire – that Tibet, Taiwan, Manchuria, and Xinjiang (East Turkestan) were never part of “China,” but rather were part of the Manchu Qing Empire, alongside China – much as China was only ever one part of the massive Mongol Empire, rather than us thinking of anything of the western half of the Mongol Empire as having been part of “China.” This is pretty revolutionary. Personally, I found it just a little mind-blowing. In accordance with the vein of postcolonial studies and cultural relativism percolating throughout the Humanities, one of the other major themes of the New Qing History, advanced by Crossley and others, is the radical idea (*gasp*) that Manchu culture is valid, meaningful, effective, powerful – not something to be dismissed or disparaged, and not something which necessarily inherently brings corruption or decline.

But, also, that Manchu identity is something invented around the year 1600; that “the Manchus” as a people didn’t exist until then. Now, I don’t know what the standard story was in scholarship up until then; surely we knew from the documents and so forth that there were no Manchus prior to that time, only Jurchens. But, even so, Crossley’s A Translucent Mirror: History and Identity in Qing Imperial Ideology (U California Press, 1999) forms the core of a constellation of new works in the 1990s-2000s which place real focus on issues of Late Imperial conceptions of identity, ethnicity, and so forth, and on the relationship between these and official (Imperial/court) ideology and policy. In A Translucent Mirror, Crossley details the evolution of Manchu identity, and of Han Chinese identity along with it, over the course of the 17th to early 20th centuries. There are some interesting and important elements I’m going to skip over, regarding specific policy attitudes of particular reigns towards intentionally shaping (officially redefining) identity categories, but, in a nutshell: Manchu identity began originally as an identity of affiliation, not of lineage, descent, or phenotype (physical appearance). Those Jurchens, Mongols, Chinese, and even a few Koreans, who gathered under Nurhachi’s banners in the very early stages came to be known as “Manchus,” while those Chinese and Koreans who lived north of the Great Wall and came under Nurhachi’s authority a bit later came to be known as the “martial Chinese” (Hàn jūn 漢軍). As the Qing Dynasty was formed (shortly before taking Beijing), they established a number of “banners,” categorizing society into Manchu Banners, Mongol Banners, Martial Chinese Banners, and everyone else. Each of these banners contained within them people we might today – whether by descent, lineage, or genetics, or by ancestral homeland, cultural practices, or certain other metrics – consider to have been Jurchens, Mongols, Chinese, Korean, or even of other backgrounds. To be sure, these banners were very much divided apart from the rest of society. They lived in their own separate walled-in sections of the cities, and worked to maintain particular brands of nomad & martial culture. In a sense, they remind me of the samurai of the Tokugawa period, working to perform the martial warrior identity despite being essentially domesticated bureaucrats; and the samurai, too, lived for the most part in walled compounds separated from the commoners. Yet, while the Qing does have the additional element of Manchu/Mongol vs. Chinese multiethnic origins, unlike the samurai vs. commoners in Japan who were all, after all, Japanese, still, at this stage, these banners remained largely identities of affiliation, not of “race” or “ethnicity.” This is particularly true of the Martial Chinese; though most were from the north, and most of the non-bannered everyone else were from the south, and thus had very different customs, lineage, ancestral homelands, and even language, and that’s definitely something to consider, still, today, we consider both groups to have been “ethnically” “Chinese,” regardless of whether they were in the banners or not. Being in the banners was a matter of status, societal role, societal categories, not something strictly divided between Chinese and non-Chinese.

But, skip forward a couple hundred years – like I said, go check out the book, or reviews or summaries of it for the more nuanced, complex story – and these identities have become so entrenched that they really do get transformed into ethnic identities. As ethnic nationalism rises in China towards the end of the 19th century, and especially in the first years of the 20th, the bannermen come to be seen as colonizers, occupiers, barbarians, and most of all, as non-Chinese. The Han Chinese identity, which I suppose existed in one form or another before that, was now solidified into a “Chinese people,” or a “Chinese nation,” who were the good, rightful, moral, upright, indigenous (though I don’t think they would have used that last term) people of China, whose country had been stolen and ruined – run into the ground – by these barbarian nomads, and who demanded their country back. Suddenly, it was all about race and ethnicity, and suddenly those descended from the banners, regardless of Chinese phenotype (racial appearance) or genotype (genetics), regardless of whether they were in fact from China proper (and not Manchuria) going back centuries and centuries, or whether their ancestors were loyal subjects of the Ming, or whathaveyou. Bannermen – even Martial Chinese – became “Manchus.” Adam Bohnet’s work, which I’ve already discussed a few posts back, continues along a similar thread to Crossley’s, examining how the Korean court (in Bohnet’s case) officially defined and redefined identity categories for its own political purposes, as the successive Qing reigns did as well.

Right: The Qianlong Emperor on horseback, painted by Giuseppe Castiglione. Collection of the Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Michael Chang’s 2007 book, A Court on Horseback, can also be considered to fall within the vein of The New Qing History, though it comes nearly twenty years after Crossley’s. A massive tome, I will gladly admit I did not read it all. But, its core argument shows very much the New Qing History approach. Chang’s volume examines a series of “inspection tours” of the southern provinces performed by the Qianlong Emperor in the 1750s-1780s, which were previously considered through the lens of Chinese (Sinicized) Confucian civil government; in other words, these were seen as being examples of the Qing adopting Chinese modes of surveying and governing the provinces. However, Chang argues quite the contrary, that these were martial displays of a Manchu/Qing ruler to his conquered subjects. These were, he argues, essentially military campaigns, performed within a Manchu steppe nomad cultural complex, in order to “inspire adherence and subordination through demonstration of military might.”1 This might be compared to the way that sankin kôtai missions performed by Japanese daimyô can be considered military parades, or martial affairs otherwise, even though in both the Japanese and Qing cases there is no actual combat taking place – the land is already conquered and pacified. Chang describes his approach explicitly as ““Altaic” or “Qing-centered” Qing history” (9), and argues – drawing upon Crossley, or extending her argument – that Qing rule was centered largely on reinforcing and ensuring rule by the Manchu people (ethnicity) and the Aisin Gioro lineage (dynasty) in particular, something Chang terms as “ethno-dynastic” rule (8). He writes,

Ethnicity, then, matters to the study of late imperial China, but only in an ideological sense – that is, as a particular set of meanings, generated and mobilized in order to construct some belief in group affinity … the basis for establishing and sustaining relations of patrimonial domination (17).

and articulates the Qing state as one organized, fundamentally, on a patrimonial basis, in which the empire is conceived of metaphorically as a massively extended family, with the Emperor as Father. All loyalty is to fathers / lords / masters, and not to a semi-independent civil apparatus which transcends the dynastic household, i.e. to an abstract notion of the State or the Government (12-14). While Chang does not employ the term “feudalism,” or draw direct parallels to the Japanese case, this does certainly seem to describe the Tokugawa state, to my mind, and in any case it presents an informatively stark contrast to the Ming Dynasty, in which Ray Huang’s 1587: A Year of No Significance clearly shows the state – the rule of law, the systems of governance, the Confucian ideals – had more power than even the Emperor himself. Not the case in the Qing, at least ideally (ideologically), according to Chang.

Officials prostrating towards the Emperor, at the Forbidden City, in the film “The Last Emperor.”

Joanna Waley-Cohen summarizes the whole “New Qing History” movement in a 2004 article in the Radical History Review.

One additional argument she discusses is the idea of a shift in the Qing period away from the Sinocentric idea of Confucian civilization as the only civilization, to a multi-faceted, multicultural one in which the Qing rulers took on different identities & ideologies of rule for each of several different constituencies. The Qianlong Emperor was not only the Confucian source of civilization & axis between heaven and earth; he was also simultaneously the Manchu Great Khan, the Tibetan Buddhist cakravartin (“wheel-turning king”), and even claimed to be a reincarnation of the bodhisattva Manjusri.

More than all the rest, I’d recommend reading this, which summarizes the movement, or trend, as a whole, listing and describing eight scholarly monographs from the New Qing History field. I quite enjoyed learning so much more about China, in the course of reading for these exams, and especially reading about this intriguing new perspective on Chinese history.

This brings our survey of books on Chinese history to an end. Next up, the long-awaited summaries of books on Japanese history.

——
(1) Joanna Waley-Cohen. “The New Qing History.” Radical History Review 88, no. 1 (2004), 201.

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Ray Huang’s 1587: A Year of No Significance (Yale U. Press, 1982) is, perhaps, one of the most widely read, and recommended, books on Late Imperial China.

As you might guess from the title, this is not your typical history book. Huang takes a year of, really, pretty much no significance, and explores the late Ming Dynasty through chapters devoted to the lives/careers of a number of different prominent or influential figures, from a Grand Secretary to a frontier general, to a lay monk, to the Wanli Emperor himself.

One of the things I find fascinating about this approach is that Huang gets away with providing extensive narrative detail about figures and events that are, well, certainly far more influential within late 1580s China than, say, the average peasant or merchant on the street, but who really are not the big movers and shakers of more “significant” moments or periods in the dynasty’s history. And, he gets away with writing a very narrative history. I don’t know if scholarly priorities were just different in 1982, when this was published, but I have a hard time imagining that a scholar could so easily publish such a book today, without being asked over and over, “so what?” and “what’s your argument?” But, not only did he get it published, it became a rather standard book in the field.

Since I don’t a have a pre-written response paper to adapt into the blog post, maybe I’ll just share a few scattered thoughts and reactions.

One is that, throughout the book, Huang refers to Ming China not in the typical distanced scholarly manner, but rather by using phrases such as “our realm.” In doing so, he evokes or suggests the notion that he is continuing in the tradition of Imperial era historians, or if not that, then at least does contribute a more narrative feel. Simply through the use of “our realm” instead of “theirs,” Huang brings a refreshingly different feel to the work. It feels warmer, more personal – less dry and analytical. In a way it makes the flaws and mistakes more forgivable, as we get a sense that that’s just how it is, here in “our” country, and who is anyone else to criticize?, even as it at the same time makes the stakes seem higher, as this is “our” country on the line, not some far-distant Other land.

One critique, or I guess just question, is that Huang’s descriptions of the emperor’s attitudes and emotions, and of the attitudes and emotions of others, often veer into territory where as a reader one becomes skeptical as to how Huang could possibly know such personal details. Admittedly, there are presumably mountains of surviving memorials and rescripts, and if one is able to decipher past the poetic and Confucian language to reach the “real” meaning, I suppose it may be possible to determine in many cases the “true” emotions, desires, whims, attitudes of these figures. But, nevertheless, whenever I see such analyses of the personality of a given historical figure, it sends up red flags for me. Do we really understand these people? Even someone like Harry Truman lived in a fairly different discursive world from our own, and understood the world around him, and his place in it, differently from anyone today – how much more so George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, and how much more so than that the Wanli Emperor or Shen Shixing?

In any case, in the process of relating these biographical narrative histories (most especially in the first three or four chapters), Huang also provides some wonderfully thorough details about the lives of emperors and officials, and how the Court functioned. The interplay of the Emperor’s desires, and those of various officials; the way that paperwork, obligations, and orthodoxy hampered change; the way that factions at court gained and lost power – all of these are, perhaps, more clearly illustrated here than in anything else I’ve ever read.

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James Hevia, Cherishing Men from Afar: Qing Guest Ritual and the Macartney Embassy of 1793, Duke
University Press (1995).

James Hevia’s Cherishing Men from Afar is quite valuable not only as a wonderfully thorough and detailed account of the 1793 Macartney Embassy to the court of the Qianlong Emperor, but also for the arguments and frameworks it provides us for understanding political/diplomatic ritual and ceremony, as well as the conceptual underpinnings of the Sinocentric world order.

Among many others, one of the key threads running through the text focuses on court ritual, that is, formalized performances – words, actions, dress and appearance otherwise – as manifested in the interactions between Lord Macartney’s British embassy and the officials of the Qing court. As Hevia explains, a dominant view in the West both in 1793 and today, borne out of the Enlightenment tradition, identifies ritual as associated with the archaic, and the non-modern. The classic, dominant narrative of the Macartney embassy describes the Qing Court as blinded and hampered by “an insistence … on maintaining appearances or bending reality to fit appearances,” and identifies the emphasis on ritual as indicating “an absence of fully conscious rationality, a confusion of categories, and limited understanding of cause-and-effect relationships.” Hevia argues, and explains, however, that ritual must not be seen as mere theatre, nor as opposed to “real” political activity; rather, we must recognize the ways in which “ritual activities are themselves the very production and negotiation of power relations.”

Hevia also discusses the conceptual, ritual, functionings of Imperial “guest ritual” (賓禮, binli), and the so-called Sinocentric world order. Expanding upon the understandings conveyed in Fairbank’s Chinese World Order and other writings, Hevia explains that the exchange between the Emperor and tribute embassies can be understood as a process of initiating and completing, with the extension (da) of Imperial virtue (德, de) to encompass distant realms, and the response of that realm to send ambassadors and tribute, and to show sincere desire to join the Chinese world order (向化之誠, xiang hua zhi cheng), as the two crucial elements of the exchange required to enact, or maintain, the cosmic order. We come to understand more fully, now, how this ritual connects, too, to the process of investiture, the incorporation of imperial vassals and foreign rulers into the system as empowering them to replicate the same ritual relationships back home, with their own vassals. What was understood in previous scholarship as a concept enacted only within the Imperial Court, and within the minds of the Emperor and officials of the Court, now seems much more discursively real and powerful, as it is replicated across a network of hierarchical relations, manifesting throughout the Chinese Empire and its broader Sinocentric world. The tribute/investiture system, and its underlying logics, may have been a Chinese invention, but it was adopted and adapted throughout the region, and had considerable significance, perhaps comparable in some senses to the so-called Westphalian system of sovereign nation-states – a European invention which has now been adopted and adapted throughout the world.

Hevia’s inclusion of numerous specific Chinese terms relevant to the ritual conceptions, and provision of usable English equivalents, is additionally valuable for my efforts to be able to articulate these concepts in my own work. One of the most difficult aspects of my project researching Ryukyuan embassies has been the conceptualization, and articulation, of aspects of these concepts, and being able to understand 謝恩 (C: xiè ēn; J: shaon) as “expressing gratitude for imperial grace,” while still a bit vague and slippery, is a helpful step towards understanding, and thus being able to myself describe, just what it is that embassies are said to be expressing thanks for. That being said, however, one must be careful trusting Hevia (or any scholar, unfortunately) too blindly – Joseph Esherick published a review entitled “Cherishing Sources from Afar” in which he roundly tears Hevia apart for, allegedly, supposedly, mis-translating terms and misinterpreting documents. Who to trust? I don’t know. Much of Hevia’s writing is quite compelling – but if Esherick is right, and it’s based on mistaken interpretations, then we have a problem. But, if Esherick is the one who is mistaken, then perhaps we don’t. Beats me.

For Macartney, and in the dominant Western understanding since that time, ritual performance was merely representational; within the Chinese paradigm, however, ritual performance was itself constitutive – the ritual is not just a show of respect, but is indeed the construction and maintenance itself of power relationships, and of the domestic and international order otherwise. For the British, performing ceremony poorly or not at all was disrespectful, but for the Chinese, performing it incorrectly or not at all was destructive of the natural order itself.

The various aspects of the Chinese emperor-centric cosmological worldview, and its manifestations in foreign (“tributary”) relations, as well as the role of ritual and performance as not merely discursive, but constitutive, are two concepts which are central to my research on the Ryukyuan embassies to Edo. Certainly, both Ryukyu and Tokugawa Japan were deeply enmeshed in Confucian and Sinocentric discourses, with the Tokugawa shogunate appropriating those discourses to construct a sort of Japan-centric, or shogun-centric mode of constructing and performing hierarchical relationships (including the reception of foreign envoys from Ryukyu and Korea, in emulation of the Chinese Emperor’s reception of foreign envoys ); but, more examination and consideration will be necessary, I think, not only to more fully grasp these two concepts to begin with, but also to consider how they might be applied to the case of Ryukyu/Tokugawa relations, and how to articulate their functionings in that context.

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