Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category

We now return to our regularly scheduled set of book/article reviews.

*Kang, David C. “Hierarchy and Legitimacy in International Systems: The Tribute System in Early Modern East Asia.” Security Studies 19, no. 4 (2010): 591–622.

*———. “Hierarchy in Asian International Relations: 1300-1900.” Asian Security 1, no. 1 (2005): 53–79.

*Schottenhammer, Angela. “Empire and Periphery? The Qing Empire’s Relations with Japan and the Ryūkyūs (1644–c. 1800), a Comparison.” The Medieval History Journal 16, no. 1 (April 1, 2013): 139–96.

Having spent the better part of seven pages in my previous post summarizing Zhang Feng’s argument,1 with only a sprinkling of Kang and Schottenhammer for comparison, I think I will start afresh in comparing and contrasting Schottenhammer and Kang’s approaches, in these few particular articles under review.

The investiture ceremony for Ryukyuan kings, a crucial part of the China-Ryukyu relationships, as seen in a model on display at Shuri castle.

While Zhang, as discussed in the previous post, offers much valuable critique of Fairbank’s “Chinese World Order” tributary system” model, “Empire and Periphery?,” just one of Angela Schottenhammer’s many broad-ranging and yet thoroughly detailed essays on maritime East Asia, seems to actually put these suggestions into practice. Schottenhammer demonstrates recognition of the so-called “tribute system” schema articulated by John K. Fairbank as pointing to some meaningful and important historical structures, but also as being only a model, describing only one of a complex of institutions in the very complex world of East Asian maritime trade relations. She examines the actual relations that took place between Qing Dynasty China and Japan & the Ryukyu Kingdom, in particular, comparing ideology and reality, and tracing shifts and developments in Qing attitudes and policies. She writes,

We will discuss not only why and in which respect China’s relations with these two countries differed but also if her concepts and visions correlated with reality or were simply ‘Chinese projections’ that drew an idealistic picture of the East Asian world. … Did the Qing rulers simply act on the basis of a traditional vision that saw them in the center of East Asian civilization, or were they able to distinguish between vision and reality, consequently making decisions on the basis of political necessities[?] (142)

Zhang, quoting John Wills, also advocates not taking the tribute system or Sinocentric worldview themselves as a starting point, as this “short-circuits” thinking about, seeing, recognizing, the fuller, more complex, more nuanced range of interactions going on in the region, outside of the tribute system.2 Schottenhammer certainly does seem to epitomize this complex and nuanced approach, though she does begin with a Chinese / Confucian definition of “empire,” as being the idea of tianxia, or “all-under-heaven,” a realm within which all is ordered, peaceful, and harmonious because of emulation of the emperor as the paragon model of virtue (141).

All in all, Schottenhammer provides a nuanced and complex view of the situation in mid-Qing maritime East Asia, covering the reigns of the Kangxi (r. 1662-1722), Yongzheng (r. 1723-35), and Qianlong (r. 1736-1795) Emperors. Balancing both ideology and practical reality, she explains that Qing attitudes and policies shifted over the course of time, from flexibility and toleration at the beginning of the dynasty (1644) through the Kangxi reign, to guarded caution under Yongzheng, to self-assured disinterest under Qianlong. For the first decade or two after 1644, despite the Manchus’ need to establish themselves – and not the Ming pretenders and loyalists – as the legitimate rulers of China, or perhaps because of this desperate need for legitimacy, the Qing were quite flexible in their relations with other courts and polities. They did send out missions almost immediately after the conquest, to seek the establishment of tributary relations with Korea, Ryukyu, and Annam, securing such relations by the early 1650s, but Schottenhammer suggests that at that time,

while foreign countries were requested to emulate a good action and return to allegiance, to submit tribute items (nakuan 納款) and pay the [new] court its respects, … the formal recognition of the ruler of a tributary state, in the form of investiture (cefeng 冊封), does not seem to have been an absolute prerequisite for the tributary trade (144-145).

As an aside, the regular, consistent willingness of Schottenhammer’s publishers to include Chinese characters within the text makes her work not only much more helpful and informative, but also makes it feel more professional, more scholarly. So, insofar as this is a review, two thumbs up for including the original Chinese, Japanese, Korean terms in the paper – not only does it show that Schottenhammer is engaging with the original texts, and the original language (complexities of translation, nuances of meaning), but it also provides the tools for the reader to more directly engage with that, on a higher level. Speaking to that point, Schottenhammer introduces and engages with a number of Chinese terms and the associated concepts, elucidating how relations were understood, or at least how they were described in the rhetoric of the day.

Right: Map of the traditional Chinese conception of the world, with civilization at the center, and barbarism at the edges. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Even a single phrase such as that inscribed on a 1751 world map commissioned by Qianlong can contain great insights, when the characters are given, and the meanings unpacked and discussed a bit. The inscription reads: “After our dynasty had unified the Empire, all non-Chinese peoples (苗夷) in the regions of the universe (區宇) have paid tribute and pronounced their cordial bonds [with us] beyond our [borders]. They approached us, in order to come under our transforming influence (輸誠向化).” (151) The term given for “non-Chinese peoples” here, miao-yi, incorporates two of the traditional Chinese terms for barbarians of the four directions – the miao to the south (today, the term has become a proper noun to refer to a particular ethnic group), and the yi to the east.

The “regions of the universe” (quyu), Schottenhammer explains, covers not just the realm (tianxia) itself, but all the world, conveying a paternalistic, possessive, and universal connotation – no more universalist or paternalistic, though, than European rhetoric of the Enlightenment, rationalism, imperialism, and the “White Man’s Burden,” however. Finally, this concept that “they approached us, in order to come under our transforming influence” (shucheng xianghua) is of particular interest, giving the reader a direct insight into the precise language, and through that the character of the logics, employed in this system. Though we may never truly be able to understand the past quite exactly as it was understood at the time, looking at the actual language gets us a little closer, removing one more intermediate layer of translation.

Returning to the dynastic narrative, Schottenhammer explains that this initial period of flexibility blended into a period under the Kangxi Emperor characterized by toleration. The Tokugawa, by the beginning of the 18th century, were working to make Japan more economically self-sufficient, and in particular to stem the great outflow of silver and copper from Japan to China. The Ming had severed formal relations with Japan in the 16th century, and the Tokugawa never made any effort to enter into formal relations with the Qing; many regarded China as having fallen to the barbarians, and some, such as Hayashi Gahô and Nobuatsu, in their book Ka’i-hentai, even advocated taking military action to drive the Manchus from China (158-160). Though the Qing also did not make efforts to bring Japan in as an official tributary, the Qing Court tolerated Japan’s official stubbornness, and took a number of steps towards the end of the 17th century to not only implicitly allow, but to even encourage the unofficial trade with Japan, which was, after all, essential to China’s precious metal needs (160). Despite the lack of official relations, which many analyses might take to mean there were no governmental interactions at all, the Qing even sent secret agents, or spies, to Japan, during this period (160-161).

Not the most popular attitude in Japan at that time.

Schottenhammer goes into wonderful detail about relations between the Tokugawa and the Ming loyalists based on Taiwan, such as we do not see regularly discussed elsewhere in the scholarship, almost at all. This is what I love most about Schottenhammer’s scholarship – she goes beyond the standard China-Japan-Korea metropole-politically-centered narratives to show the vibrant, colorful, textured complexity of history, bringing in all sorts of other actors that we just don’t hear about enough otherwise. In connection with this Japan-Taiwan relationship, and perhaps other causes, the Yongzheng Emperor’s reign came to be characterized chiefly by an increase in coastal patrols, and other steps taken to secure China’s maritime borders. Schottenhammer emphasizes numerous times that China’s rhetoric of centrality and superiority, and its aloofness, did not necessarily mean that the Court was willfully oblivious of goings-on in the region, including within Japanese politics. They kept an eye on such things, through a variety of means, including secret agents (166), though one imagines that Korean and Ryukyuan officials, and southern Chinese merchants and port officials, probably contributed to the providing of information as well.

Under the Qianlong Emperor, the Qing made efforts to become more independent of Japanese exports, directly working on expanding mining efforts in Yunnan, for example. Qianlong also led several rather successful expeditions to expand Qing territory, and to suppress rebellions and so forth. Qianlong’s reign is thus characterized by a self-assured disinterest in maritime matters, stemming from a reassurance of Qing strength and centrality, and from the belief that it was Japan’s responsibility to seek better relations with China, and not the other way around (170-173). In short, Schottenhammer’s argument throughout this paper is simply that Qing Emperors were not blinded, nor immobilized, by tradition, and were very much capable of addressing “reality” and changing policy, when necessary.

The Ryukyuan throne room at Shuri castle, filled with gifts from Chinese emperors, and designed thoroughly after Ming (& Qing?) models.

Turning to Qing relations with Ryukyu, Schottenhammer walks through a nuanced but relatively standard description of the narrative. She describes Ryukyu as China’s most filial country, and writes that it is beyond a doubt that tributary/investiture relations were economically profitable for the small island country, as China practiced houwang bolai (厚往薄來, “giving much and receiving little”), a part of the broader Emperor-centric ideology, which portrayed the emperor as the benevolent and virtuous giver of gracious bestowals to his loyal tributaries. All trade and interaction outside of the official tributary/ investiture relationship was officially ignored – officially, it did not exist at all – but in truth, there was plenty of illegal and semi-legal trade and interaction between Ryukyu and China, as Schottenhammer explains.

She then goes on to touch upon China’s views on Ryukyu’s relationship with Satsuma. That Ryukyu was a vassal (or whatever the proper term should be) of Satsuma was an open secret. Under the belief that a no-longer independent Ryukyu, controlled by or incorporated into a Japan that refused to be a tributary, could no longer engage in tributary relations, the Japanese and Ryukyuans both made efforts to hide the relationship; however, these efforts were largely for naught, as Chinese investiture officials, and other sources of information, saw more than enough to reveal to the Qing at least the general outlines of the situation. Still, the Qing tolerated, or overlooked this situation, proving, Schottenhammer argues, that the Qing never had any political-military intentions in the islands – so long as the cultural-ideological relationship continued, they didn’t care. There is the question, however, of why the Ming rushed to the defense of Korea in the 1590s, and not to the defense of Ryukyu less than 20 years later. Was the Ming so weakened by the Korean conflict, and/or by other factors, that they couldn’t? Perhaps it ties into Schottenhammer’s initial argument, that continental borders and maritime frontiers are separate categories of matters. But, that’s a topic for another time.

A Ryukyuan lacquerware dish with mother-of-pearl inlay.

Both in her discussion of Qing relations with Japan, and with Ryukyu, Schottenhammer draws upon ideas and elements of the tribute system, but combines them with practical political, military, and economic concerns, and shows that the Qing were flexible and dynamic in their approaches to this part of the world, deploying their traditional rhetorics and systems, but using them as a tool, or sometimes as a screen, in concert with a rather vibrant and complex set of other modes of interaction. All in all, she seems to embody, or enact, the approaches that Zhang advocates.

David Kang, meanwhile, does not. Despite writing in 2005 and 2010, Kang shows little of the nuance or complexity, little of the post-modern(ist) approach that Schottenhammer does. In fact, he is rather dismissive of the criticism that has been leveled against the tribute system model, and argues quite boldly and straightforwardly, in essence, that the tribute system is clearly evidenced in the documents and that to think otherwise is absurd. Now, admittedly, both of the articles I happened to read by Kang were published in Asian Security journals (that is, the field of International Relations and regional security), and so they are written for a rather different audience – not for historians, but for policy wonks and political scientists who may have very little knowledge of the history, or the historiography. Still, nevertheless, rather than bring his audience up to speed on the latest interpretations and approaches – those of Zhang, Schottenhammer, and the numerous scholars they regularly cite, including Hevia, Wills, and so forth – Kang cites works as old as the 1980s as reflective of historians’ approaches “today.”3

Given that for the most part all that Zhang and others are arguing for is admission of nuance and complexity – and not for throwing the tribute system out entirely – Kang’s reactionary resistance, strict adherence to the traditional narrative, and refusal to accommodate nuance or complexity is shocking, and confusing. In discussing the feudal, decentralized, nature of the Tokugawa state, which many scholars since as early as 1989, if not earlier, have described as more of a confederation of pseudo- or quasi-independent states, Kang again blows right past any nuanced interpretation, ignoring entirely the various scholarship on this subject since then, to simply assert that, for all intents and purposes, the Chinese and Korean courts saw Japan as a single entity throughout the medieval and early modern periods. He writes, “we should not overemphasize the feudal nature of Japanese politics, nor its differences with the other Asian states,” and then, despite an entire section on the significance of the bureaucratic and centralized nature of the Chinese and Korean governments in allowing us to consider them “nation-states” even as early as the 1300s (if not much further back than that), asserts that “all countries were essentially feudal, and Japan was no exception” (Kang 2005: 58).

Does this look like a centralized unified state to you? Come on. (Charger with Japanese map design. 1830s-40s. LACMA.)

While, simply in terms of the “factual” details, much of the content of his historical details and narrative is quite interesting, and valuable, Kang is utterly uncritical of Fairbank’s approach, citing essays from the 1968 volume Chinese World Order as if those arguments are infallibly just as valid as they have always been; to take just one example, he uncritically asserts that “there is no doubt that China had at least a vague concept of state (kuo) by late Chou times (BC 400),” quoting and citing Lien-shang Yang.4 Perhaps it is his disciplinary bias as a specialist in modern/contemporary relations, and in particular in political science & IR rather than history, which leads him to unquestioningly apply generalizing modern definitions – such as the idea that a “nation-state” is sovereign within its borders, and had a concept of itself and its neighbors as 國 (C: kuo, J: kuni or koku; “countries”). However, historians such as Luke Roberts and Mark Ravina have written in some considerable depth questioning and problematizing the meaning of , which in the early modern Japanese usage really can mean “country” (as in Japan, China, or Holland), or geographic “province,” or lordly domain, just as it can equally mean hometown or home region, depending on the context. To simply ignore this shows, I don’t know, either ignorance of the field, or a willful rejection of those arguments.

Kang’s 2005 article starts off strong, boldly calling out the Eurocentrism at the core of “objective,” “universal” IR theory. His chief argument, throughout both this article, and one from 2010, that a hierarchical system could be just as valid, and in fact far more stable and peaceful than a Westphalian system based on maintaining balance of power between states that are considered equally sovereign, is a compelling, interesting, and valuable one. And there is, indeed, much merit to be found in Kang’s discussion; his treatment of the ways in which Chinese cultural or civilizational centrality – and not political power or influence – functioned (605-606) was particularly thought-provoking for me, and his assertions about the importance of considering ritual and rhetoric also do much to support my own positions. As he writes,

Norms and beliefs are not epiphenomal to material power; that is, they are more than a convenient velvet glove over an iron fist. Legitimacy in itself is a form of power, but it derives from the values or norms a state projects, not necessarily from the state’s military might and economic wealth (Kang 2010: 598).

Further, Kang is quite good in his critiques of the “functionalist” and “symbolic” approaches to the tribute system, which describe the system as either a series of arcane and comically unnecessary or excessive rules and procedures – an over-bureaucratization, perhaps – through which trade & relations had to be conducted, or else as a series of meaningless symbolic gestures, irrelevant to the task of examining the “true” political motives and actions underneath. His reactionary stance, though, against those who suggest further nuance or complexity, and who point out that it is, originally, a Western theoretical construct and not a native Chinese concept – a position he misrepresents as “challeng[ing] the tribute system’s very existence” (600) – and refusal to incorporate any such nuance or complexity, continues to be terribly off-putting.

A celebration for the Crown Prince Yi Cheok (later, Emperor Sunjong of Korea), as depicted on a 1874 screen painting. National Palace Museum of Korea. Ritual is not merely empty prancing; it is powerful, and meaningful, as individuals enact their rank and position, constituting the political order through their acts.

Even if we look past this excessive conservatism, and forgive the numerous examples of iffy or outright incorrect dates, a number of the subordinate arguments in the 2010 paper leave me confused, and utterly unconvinced. One of these is the assertion that Japan (along with Korea, Ryukyu, and others in the region) “consciously copied Chinese institutional and discursive practices in part to craft stable relations with China, not to challenge it” (593). While this argument, too, has some merit in so far as those adopting Chinese modes could then play the part of “buying into” the Confucian world order, to display to itself, to China, and to others, how civilized it was, numerous academic articles by other scholars extensively detail how the Tokugawa shogunate in particular, as well as the Ashikaga shogunate, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, worked to construct a Japan-centric regional order, and to do that very thing: to challenge China.5 In the 17th century, following the fall of the Ming, and again in the 19th century in the wake of the Opium War, there were again numerous Japanese scholars, some of them directly influential in government, who pressed for Japan to take action against the Manchus, or at least for the idea of Japanese superiority.6

All of that said, though, skimming over Kang’s two articles again, I realize I may have been too harsh in my initial assessment. I suppose I shall have to revisit this. These articles certainly have their points where they raised red flags for me, but all in all, Kang’s articles are lengthy arguments against the idea that the tribute system & Sinocentrism are mere myths, and against the idea that engaging in tributary relations & Sinocentric rhetoric was merely paying lip service in order to attain “real” “practical” goals. He attacks the idea that Korea (in particular, maybe a lesser extent Japan) only ever wanted to placate China, and asserts that the thorough adoption of Confucian governance and political philosophy, as well as countless other aspects of Chinese elite culture, stands as evidence that neighboring states such as Korea, Japan, and Vietnam absolutely did see China as a cultural center, a source of superior civilization. And the tribute/investiture system allowed Koreans, Vietnamese, and Ryukyuans to perform or display their cultured refinement, and membership among the civilized nations of the world. So, in the end, who knows what to think?

(1) Zhang Feng. “Rethinking the ‘Tribute System’: Broadening the Conceptual Horizon of Historical East Asian Politics.” The Chinese Journal of International Politics 2, no. 4 (December 21, 2009): 545–74.
(2) Zhang, 557, quoting J. E. Wills, “Tribute, Defensiveness, and Dependency : Uses and Limits of Some Basic Ideas About Mid-Qing Dynasty Foreign Relations.” The American Neptune 48, no. 4 (1988): 226.
(3) Kang (2005), 64, citing Ronald Toby, State and Diplomacy, 1991, which is simply a newer edition of Toby, 1984. Admittedly, Wills’ book Illusions & Embassies, cited by Zhang and Schottenhammer, is just as old, and Toby is still largely valid and extremely valuable. His arguments very much inform my own understanding of the topic. But, even so, to say this reflects scholarship “today,” seems problematic, when there are scholars such as Schottenhammer putting out new stuff all the time, and when Toby is, in fact, problematic in some important ways.
(4) Kang (2005), 57, citing Lien-sheng Yang, “Historical Notes on the Chinese World Order,” in John Fairbank, ed., The Chinese World Order: Traditional China’s Foreign Relations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), p. 21.
(5) Arano Yasunori. “The Formation of a Japanocentric World Order.” International Journal of Asian Studies 2, no. 02 (2005): 185–216.; Tanaka Takeo, “Japan’s Relations with Overseas Countries,” in John Whitney Hall and Toyoda Takeshi (eds.) Japan in the Muromachi Age, Cornell University East Asia Program (2001), 159-178.; Toby, State and Diplomacy, op cit.
(6) According to Marius Jansen, China in the Tokugawa World (Harvard, 2000).

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

The same page opening as above, loaded with kuzushiji.

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

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

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

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

Thank god for movable type.

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

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

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

All photos my own.

Read Full Post »

I’ll return to my Chinese history book reviews, and talking about the tribute system, shortly. But, in the intervening time, I have just recently attended an intense week-long workshop at UCLA & UCSB on the subject of “Wahon Literacies.”

“Wahon Literacies” (和本リテラシー) is a movement both within Japan, and overseas, amongst scholars of Japanese literature, book history, and so forth, to expand scholars’ familiarity with Japanese books (wahon), and scholars’ ability to read the books. This includes several different aspects, from training in kanbun, kuzushiji, and so forth, as seen in the Cambridge program I recently attended, and also a renewed attention paid to the materiality of the book and awareness of the history of publishing, book production, and so forth, imploring scholars of literature and art history to go beyond the content of the book (the text, and pictures), to consider the book as a whole, as an object, and within a wider social and historical context.

The UCLA/UCSB workshop centered on bringing three scholars from Tokyo, to lead participants in lectures and hands-on activities, discussing book history and the like. To my surprise, we did not train in reading skills at all, but instead focused on the other half of Wahon Literacy, though perhaps I should take this as welcome, since a continued focus on textual reading skills, though absolutely crucial, still misses half of the equation.

I’ll be honest, I had a very difficult time following the lectures in Japanese. So, for me, I guess it was more an experience of practice in immersion in listening to Japanese lectures, than it was about really engaging in stimulating discussion on the content. Even so, a number of interesting and important points emerged.

Two different editions of an Edo period book. If you click through and look closely, you’ll note that it’s not simply that the blocks were more or less worn out when printing the image for the left side, but that in fact the text on the right side differs entirely, both in content and in style (“font”). Which one is earlier? Which one is the true original text? Can we, should we, even speak of a “true” version and a less- or non-true version? Who made these changes, when and why?

One is that when examining books, or indeed any historical material, you need to determine, and keep in mind, what format the object (or text) was in originally, and how and why it might have changed over time to come into the format you currently hold. This is something we historians take as one of our basic skills, a core element of our approach, but still, we often forget or neglect to think of it, and it is good to be reminded. Over the course of Japanese history, countless works were dispersed, or collected, or remounted, into scrolls, books, and folding screens. The vast majority of works we handle are also copies, whether manuscript or printed, and may be in different formats, or differ otherwise, from originals.

This summer, I myself examined a pair of books in the British Library which were clearly originally scrolls, and a scroll in the British Museum which may have had some of its sections rearranged in the past. I was also shown by Prof. Laura Moretti a series of albums in her personal collection which collected up a wide variety of ephemera – single-sheet objects, the equivalent of posters, flyers, pamphlets, newsletters, handbills – into a more permanent form. Countless examples of important historical documents, often saved as examples of fine calligraphy, are today extant as incorporated into scrolls, or folding screens, where they might have originally been individual sheets, or sections of other scrolls or books. Even within original Edo period printed books, one must be very careful as to whether the book one is holding is a second or later printing, as these vary widely, and typically are dated to when the blocks were originally cut, not when that copy of the book was printed. Variant versions of any sort of book are known in Japanese as ihon (異本).

A modern replica of a handscroll of, I believe, the Gosen Wakashû (“Later Selected Collection of Japanese Poems”), originally compiled 951 CE. What version is this a replica of? When was it written? By whom? Why did they copy it out? For whom? How was this later copy used? How might it differ from the original in format, in style, in content?

But, that’s not to say we need to devote our attentions to eliminating later variation in a quest to discover the “true” “original” unblemished version of a text, for analysis. Done and past is the time when literature studies (or art history) need concern itself exclusively, or chiefly, with analysis of individual texts in true, original, forms. To the contrary, scholars are now realizing that analysis of a text need not be limited to the original, and are turning towards thinking about why later copies were made, their provenance, etc., not only for the sake of being more careful in one’s research on the original, but also as a research topic unto itself. Scholars used to restrict themselves to studying a variety of later copies of the Man’yôshû, for example, solely in order to determine, best as they could, the authoritative version, and then scrutinizing the themes and so forth of that version. But today, for the first time, we are told, they are opening themselves up to considerations of, for example, why people in the Heian period copied out the Man’yôshû, and why they did so in the way they did. Or, to take another example, how did people of the Edo period, even more centuries removed from the original, understand or think about this ancient poetry collection? Such topics do indeed seem to be trending, so to speak, these days, as I know a good number of graduate students not only in Literature studies but in Theatre and Art History as well, looking at how older themes or texts were transformed, remembered, used, thought of, or referenced in later periods.

One aspect of this is to ask, and to keep in mind, why it is that books come to exist in all these various, changed, forms. Why are books copied? To preserve them, to make copies available for wider access, and/or to practice one’s calligraphy (in the act of hand-copying out the book), among other reasons. Why are books taken apart and their contents dispersed? To reformat them into albums, handscrolls, hanging scrolls, or folding screens, often in order to take select portions of the original work as examples of great calligraphy, to preserve, admire, and copy or emulate. Further, we learned that with the rise of the elite popularity of tea ceremony, in the Muromachi period, there came increased demand for folding screens and hanging scrolls which could be displayed in one’s tearoom, in order to demonstrate one’s cultured refinement. Books can also be collected up into anthologies, or other sorts of collections, altering their format. What looks like a single bound book may actually contain a number fascicles, originally intended as separate volumes. Books, of course, can also be (re-)published, changing a manuscript into a woodblock printed text, or changing a manuscript or woodblock-printed book into a modern-typeset book, for wider accessibility.

An opening from “A book of drafts by the brush of Sakuragawa Jihinari himself” (桜川慈悲成自筆稿本), easily the most beautiful book we looked at during the workshop. Hand-painted (not a woodblock or modern printed copy) images, accompanied by calligraphy & poetry for each of the 53 stations of the Tôkaidô. Art historians and lit scholars working together could do such great work to analyze the pictures, calligraphy, and poetry, as well as the book itself, bringing it all together. For such a beautiful book, I truly would love to see the results of such investigation. I wish I had taken more pictures – this was one of those rare pieces that I really wish I could have owned it, and gone through it time and again.

One thing I do wish we had discussed further in the workshop is the question of what literature scholars and art historians have to offer one another. If lit scholars are moving in the direction of paying greater attention to materiality – to the object itself, the paper, the book, the format, and not only the text – well, art historians are making that shift as well. So, how can we work together on this Wahon project? I think this could have been a fascinating conversation. But, unfortunately, there were surprisingly few art historians at the workshop.

Prof. Michael Emmerich’s description of the role of imagination in thinking about these books made me think that maybe we art historians and literature scholars have more in common than we might normally think. After all, to begin with, each of us is only looking at one portion of the book – the text, or the images – and is only now beginning to start looking at the whole. All the more reason we should be working together! Where were all the art historians at this workshop!?

But, getting to what Emmerich shared with us, it was a personal anecdote about handling an Edo period book while in Japan many years ago. As he held it, he noticed a grey hair lying in between the pages. How long ago was that hair deposited there? Could have been last year, or it could have been an Edo period reader, whose hair happened to fall into the book. Thinking about this hair, and this hypothetical Edo period reader, the scene suddenly comes alive for us, and the book itself, as the actual physical object that has transcended all this time, gains renewed power, or attraction. It is precisely this sort of thing which got me so energized for History, and Art History, to begin with. Who held, read, this precise copy before? Who were they? Where did they live? Where did they sit while they read? Were they maybe drinking tea, or saké, while reading? Is this their commentary in the margins? Or someone else’s? How did they read it? A little at a time? Slowly, with difficulty? Or quickly, and with great interest? How did they keep the book? Stacked up nicely, carefully, on a shelf or desk? Or carelessly left around? Emmerich further shared with us a story about buying a whole stack of old books, and then afterwards (possibly?) being visited by a ghost. Though we might be hesitant to believe in actual ghosts, or curses, actually following books around, this too brings to life, or brings to further attention, the value, the energy, the spirit these books have, having survived through so many ages, passing through so many hands.

A number of book wrappers, most of them for volumes of Jippensha Ikku’s Hizakurige, or “Shank’s Mare.” It’s been really bugging me that I can’t remember what these covers are called in Japanese. But, while I guess maybe we don’t have this practice too much today in the States, in early modern Japan, books often came in light paper wrappers. And both because of their fragility, and their cultural ephemerality – do you keep the shrink-wrap, or indeed the cardboard boxes, for most things you buy? – few of these survive. So to see a whole stack of them was really something. The differences between what’s rare in US collections, and what’s utterly common in Japanese collections, never ceases to amaze me.

At another point in the workshop, Emmerich also suggested that, as long as we are talking about the books themselves, and their production, distribution, circulation, and so forth, might we not also consider a history of access to books? There is certainly a lot to be discussed about the most recent developments, in digitization – as more materials become more widely available digitally, many archives/libraries/museums are becoming more reticent to allow access to the actual objects. And we did discuss this to a certain extent. It is certainly a pressing issue for us today, in the practical and methodological side of what we are doing as scholars.

As to the question of where and how books and other materials might be best preserved – an issue connected to that of digitization – this is maybe just sort of an anecdotal aside, but Prof. Ogawa also spoke of how it was quite common in the pre-war era for a great many historical books to be kept not in the university library, or archives, but in professors’ individual offices. During the 1923 Great Kantô Earthquake, which devastated much of Tokyo & the surrounding area, and in which over 100,000 people were killed, he related that a great many pre-modern and early modern materials were lost simply because they were in professors’ locked offices, and no one immediately at hand (or perhaps no one at all but those professors) had the keys to the room.

In any case, without diminishing the importance of considering issues of contemporary practice today, and where we are heading in terms of document storage and access in the future, from the historical perspective, as a historical object of consideration, it is also interesting, and arguably quite important, to think about the history of collecting, including the ways in which, even prior to the advent of the modern museum, library, or archive, there were comparable institutions collecting and preserving objects, and restricting access – just think of Imperial or shogunate official collections, such as the Tokugawa shogunate’s Momijiyama bunko, or the private collections of samurai, court noble, and commoner families. We cannot draw such a simple line between the modern and the pre-modern, necessarily, when it comes to the “invention” of the collection, the private library, or the archive. Then, within these pre-modern & early modern collections, there is the phenomenon too, which several of the professors emphasized, of how and when and why an object shifts from being considered a more practical object, of whatever sort, to be read, or used in whatever way, to being considered a “treasure,” to be preserved above all else.

So, ending on a somewhat awkward point, I suppose, but, thus ends my first part of three, in debriefing from this workshop. It certainly left me with a lot to think about: the history of copying and reformatting, how to truly bring considerations of materiality into my own research – not just to be thinking about it, but whether, and how, to actually have concerns of materiality make it onto the page within my dissertation – issues of digitization and access, and perhaps most vexing, how to balance in-depth examination of individual objects (to determine what other copies exist, variations between copies, the precise conditions of production, etc.) with the demands of an academic world that demands broader conceptual analysis and thematic arguments, less grounded in specifics than in wider trends and phenomena.

In my next post, I’ll talk a bit about how to appreciate calligraphy aesthetically. And then, in my third and last post about this workshop, I’ll return to that last point, to talk about how to balance expert training, and deep focused examination, with the kind of broader disciplinary expectations of academia (in the US at least) today.

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

The Japan galleries at the British Museum, looking back towards the entrance, and the Kudara Kannon, just barely visible here above the cases.

I visited the British Museum again, recently, for the first time in about eight years. The Japanese gallery hasn’t changed much. But, that’s fine. It’s still a really great exhibit – better, in fact, I would argue (*gasp?*) than the vast majority of rotations the Met has done in recent years.

Here’s the main argument of this post: In the midst of all this controversy over museums and Orientalism, I think the MFA and the Met could really learn something from the British Museum. Yes, yes, the British Museum is the very model of the imperial(ist) colonial museum, Hoovering up the great treasures of the world and so on and so forth. There’s certainly much to be said about that, and plenty of scholars and others have written lots of very valid criticism on that point. But, the museum’s problematic nature in that respect is, for the most part, tangential to what I would like to focus on for the purposes of this blog post, namely that unlike the Met, the MFA, and so many of the other greatest museums in the US, the British Museum is not an “art” museum, but rather a museum of the world’s cultures.

The British Museum’s Japan galleries, in particular, more so even I think than many of the other non-Western galleries, are organized in such a fashion as to tell the history of Japan, through art, rather than limiting itself to the far more narrow narrative of the history of art, in Japan. It begins with the Jomon period, and goes straight up through the present day, touching upon religion, politics, foreign relations, theatre, modernity, propaganda art & Empire, Hiroshima, pop & urban culture, rural culture, and manga. It shows Japan not as a fantasy world of aesthetics, art, and culture, but as a real place, with a complex and sometimes unpleasant political history, religious developments, and so forth, which interacted with the outside world in various ways, sometimes productively and sometimes in unequal or adversarial fashion. It shows a Japan that does not culminate in the greatness of the artistic flowering of the Edo period, but one that does that and also continues to develop over time, both before and after that, struggling with various developments, and changing continually over time.

A handpainted handscroll from the Edo period, depicting the lively activity of the Chinese quarter at Nagasaki. Truly stunning in person, in its vibrant colors and meticulous details, it simultaneously speaks to a broader historical/cultural topic.

And the exhibit does all of this while including some truly gorgeous artworks, some real masterpieces that people will come to see, and others that might really draw people in, and inspire in them a greater or deeper interest in Japan. Artworks that are beautiful, and interesting, and worthy of appreciation, even as they also relate to particular political developments. In short, the British Museum exhibit does everything the Met might do, but in a way that is so much broader – and in roughly the same amount of gallery space – covering a great many facets of Japanese history, and not just aesthetics, style, and so forth. The exhibit also includes a much wider range of pieces, thus showing a deeper, more complex vision of Japan, rather than one dominated only by ink landscapes, birds-and-flowers, and literary references. When was the last time the Met showed Japanese paintings or prints of scenes in Korea and Taiwan, or in Ryukyu or the West? Admittedly, the last several rotations of prints at the Met have focused on Yokohama-e and Meiji prints, showing Japan’s modernization in the 1850s-1890s, but, if I recall correctly, the labels are quite minimal, and little effort is made to really describe the broader political and cultural context of modernization efforts.

Looking a bit sparse from this angle, I admit, but, nevertheless, here is one of the British Museum’s many thematic sections, addressing not some artistic trend, but a broader wider cultural historical theme – modernity and urbanization – with beautiful artworks.

And, this historical approach touches upon numerous themes that could be developed out into an entire exhibit, and which I’m glad to see at least touched upon. The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco did an entire show on Korean royal ceremonies and parades, which was much more about the performance of the events, and the historical, biographical, cultural, political context, than strictly about appreciating beautiful objects for their beauty. The Asia Society in New York, some years ago, did a show of Maoist propaganda paintings which was, yes, about appreciating their aesthetic qualities, their stylistic relationship to Soviet socialist realism, and so forth, but was also very much about the politics. And yet I have a very hard time imagining the Met, in particular, ever, ever, doing a show extensively about artists’ responses to Hiroshima; or how Japanese artists engaged with and depicted the Empire (Taiwan, Korea, Manchuria); or about Tokugawa relations with Korea, Ryukyu, Holland, and the Ainu… New York’s Japan Society did a great show of Japanese Art Deco, which also showed at the Seattle Art Museum, and was also an art show, but sort of leaned in the direction of talking about flapper fashions, urban culture, cafés, jazz, and all of that in 1920s Tokyo.

As I continue to write this, I feel that maybe I’m being too harsh on the Met, in particular. After all, they have a different mission, and that mission – more closely associated to the idea of “encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts” – is a fine one. Connoisseurship, aesthetic appreciation, including teaching museum visitors that the things produced by non-Western cultures are still beautiful and worthy of appreciation, are all valiant goals.

Gallery labels for a wooden sculpture of an Edo period townsman, showing how the museum discusses the object itself, and art historical concerns, on one panel, and provides broader historical context and meaning on the other. It can be done!

But, I think a lot of the tensions and problems with our major museums, and accusations of Orientalism, as we have seen in recent months especially both with the Chinese fashion show at the Met and the kimono debacle at the MFA, is that the museums, as “art” museums, seem far too intent upon this particular approach of focusing on art appreciation, and too unwilling to turn their attentions to cultural understanding. The MFA Education program was clearly more interested in engaging visitors in appreciation or celebration of Monet than in anything directly having to do with Japan, or the complex lessons of Orientalism, and the Met curators went so far as to explicitly state that they “propose a less politicized and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a site of infinite and unbridled creativity,” a statement which, within the realms of scholarship, I think has its merits – exploring other sides of things, and so forth, as I explored in my previous blog post. But, still, this should come amidst a history and reputation for producing shows that explicitly tackle Orientalism, head-on. If one does shows about the Asian-American experience, about Chinese history, and about Orientalism, then you can then go ahead and do a show like this, exploring other sides of the issue. But if you haven’t explored the first sides yet…

Whatever else the British Museum may be, it is a museum of fostering cultural understanding, global oneness (in at least certain respects), an appreciation and celebration of the great diversity of cultures on our planet. I’m not sure you can find a hint of Orientalism within the British Museum’s exhibits, precisely because the central focus is not on aesthetic appreciation of [exotic] styles, motifs, sensibilities. In many ways, it reminds me of exhibits at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, the National Museum of Japanese History, and other history museums in Japan – that is to say, the British Museum is doing it just like the Japanese would, which is perhaps a strong indication that you’re not being Eurocentric or Orientalist about it. Despite being “art” museums, right there in the name, and in their mission statements, I think the MFA, Metropolitan, LACMA, Freer/Sackler, and so forth, would do well to consider a shift.

Read Full Post »

In this and the next post, I deviate a bit, I suppose, from my more typical history/arts/culture focus and (hopefully, maybe) vaguely academic approach, to write like a personal travel blog. Here, I’m talking about my experiences with the British Library, and about my research, so I guess there’s that. But the next post is really about hanging out with friends in London, and a bit about how I feel about visiting the city and wishing I were here for longer…


It’s been interesting being back in London. I lived here for a year while I did a Master’s, just a couple of years before starting this blog. And now, eight years later, I’m back for the first time since then, just for a few days before heading up to Cambridge for a workshop program thing. With only four days in the city, and especially since it’s been eight years, and who knows when I’ll be back here again, one would think perhaps I should be running around, seeing the sights, really taking in the city. Well, I haven’t been doing that, but I haven’t been sitting around in my room either. Coming up on the end of my fourth day in the city, I wonder if I should have gone out and seen more – there are so many parts of the city that I completely have not seen on this trip, and which I likely won’t see again for god knows how many years. But, at the same time, I’ve had a relatively productive time at the British Library, did a very successful run of the British Museum, and spent a lot of time with a few good friends, poking around a few areas of the city, going to a couple of quite nice little cafés and restaurants and so forth, and perhaps most importantly & most enjoyably, just hanging out with locals, like a slightly more regular visitor, or someone here to visit friends, might do – i.e. unlike the tourists.

Thursday, I arrived early in the morning, and after checking in to my lodgings, made my way straight to the British Library, because I’m a dork. Within a few hours, ran into a colleague from my university back home, because she’s a diligent, responsible, and classy sort who does her studying at a place like the British Library.

The main lobby of the British Library.

Turns out the one thing I wanted to see at the BL isn’t properly catalogued into the system, so, you can still request it if you know the right call number (shelfmark, they call it here), but you can’t find it by any variation of the title or topic tags or the like. Fortunately, with the very kind help of the librarians, I did end up finding it in a printed catalog, and even more fortunately still discovered a companion piece, which I had not known about. On the downside, for reasons they refused to disclose, the Library wouldn’t allow me to take my own photos of these works. Most other works, yes, but not these. Because. The only option was to pay something like £80-90 to order images from the library. Assholes. I’ve taken my own photos at numerous other institutions, including at the British Museum, just down the road, not to mention the National Archives of Japan, and other such major institutions, and it was free. Seriously. Upwards of $125 just to get photos of something; the kinds of things I could do with $125 otherwise, the numbers are just really unbalanced. Digital photos of sixty pages of a book I could have photographed for free if only they would have allowed me to do so, versus buying five whole academic books (or 1-3, if they’re more expensive). I asked to make sure there was no way around it, no other possibility, but, anyway, so, that happened.

I appreciate from the institution’s point of view, (1) you want to conserve the objects, so you want to avoid people shoving a 200-year-old volume onto a scanner or photocopier, and so forth, and (2) if you are going to have the staff, rather than the visitors, take the photos, they have to get paid – for the staff, for the time & effort, for the equipment. And, maybe, the latter part really does add up to being just about this much money. But, I suspect that a large part of it is also that a lot of people have ample research budgets, and the archives, libraries, and museums can simply get away with this. It’s for a very similar reason that journal publishers get away with charging sky-high prices for institutional subscriptions to online databases like JSTOR. Still, the point remains, why wasn’t I allowed to take the photos myself? If I’m trusted enough to handle the book, shouldn’t I also be trusted enough to photograph it, with a tiny handheld digital camera? It’s shit like this that makes me wish I had Google Glass or a spy camera or something.

These are gorgeous books, and loaded with both images, and complex classical Chinese text. I really need the images. I can’t just take notes. Maybe if I were here for a few months, I could work with them closely, in person, and get everything out of them I might need, without taking photos home with me. But, even then, I would have to go into it with a truly full knowledge of all the questions I might potentially have, which these documents might potentially answer. As it is, I only know certain questions, and don’t know what else might come up, later in my research, for which these materials might be good. So, I paid the goddamned money. What choice did I have?

Illustration of a shawm, suona, or sonai, from Ryûkyûjin gakki kanpuku zu, in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum. Image from TNM Digital Archives.

Of course, I have no photos to show you, since it takes 2-3 weeks to process my request. Hence the above image from a completely different work; but, it gives a sense of what sort of thing I was looking at. The one book I knew about is a manuscript (handwritten, handpainted) album of records and images of Ryukyuan music and dance performances in Edo in 1796. As soon as I looked at it I realized it’s probably a handscroll that’s been re-formatted to become an album; each page consisted of multiple pieces of paper, with a vertical seam, just like that you would see in a handscroll, where papers are attached end-on-end to form a single long piece, which can then be rolled up. If it were originally designed as a book, the seams would all be on either the outer edge, or the inner spine, of the book, and not in the middle of each page. Anyway, they contain lists of all the dances & musical pieces that were performed, including lyrics and the names of the performers, as well as simple paintings depicting the dances, and the musical performances. The second book I discovered in the catalogs, is cataloged at just one number earlier in the tally, and bears nearly identical binding, interior marks (e.g. pencil writing that it was transferred from Printed Books on such-and-such a date), and so forth. Both, by the way, came to the British Library as part of the Siebold Collection. Siebold, in case you are unaware, is a pretty major figure. So that’s kind of neat. I suspect, though I have no real evidence, that this second volume may have originally been a second scroll, belonging to the same set as the other volume. This one contains, mostly, monochrome ink diagrams of the Ryukyuan embassy members’ clothing, musical instruments, and other accoutrements, from hairpins to banners. I found some exciting stuff in here, like sketches of the “mandarin squares” or chest badges worn by the Ryukyuan ambassadors, indicating their (honorary, or equivalent) rank or placement in a Ming Chinese hierarchy of officials, something I had been worrying about. While the book doesn’t, unfortunately, give any explanation of why the banners carried by the embassy bore the particular designs or symbols that they did, it does give precise dimensions for every object, and just seeing the images is a great help towards understanding what different things are. Many of the objects carried or used by the missions have multiple names, so this helps clarify that, and some are just unclear, without looking at the pictures – for example, the most typical Ryukyuan string instrument is called a sanshin, based on the Chinese sanxian, meaning “three strings” (三線). The missions are described as also carrying instruments known as “two-strings” (二線), “four strings” (四線), and “long strings” (長線). What do these other instruments look like? According to this illustrated book, the “two strings” is not in fact simply a two-stringed plucked version of the three-stringed sanxian, but rather is a bowed instrument, like a fiddle, more closely resembling the erhu or the kûchô.

Two erhu (二胡) and a Chinese sanxian (三絃) on display at Ryukyumura, in Okinawa.

I guess I can’t really just end on that note. So, let’s go a little farther. Well, let me sort of talk about the Library in general. I don’t actually know, don’t actually have a proper sense, of just how prestigious the British Library is. I mean, I can certainly guess, on an intellectual level. Their collections certainly contain tons of the greatest treasures in the country, and thus in the world, including numerous examples of the oldest this, and the only extant that; they of course also have extensive collections relating to many of the greatest British individuals and institutions, from the East India Company and Captain Cook, to Shakespeare and Thomas More, I am sure. And, it is most certainly a very clean, sleek, upscale-looking institution. Yet, somehow, perhaps because they are so open to the public, I don’t really feel like I’m so privileged to be there, or anything like that – a feeling I do get when visiting various other institutions. Perhaps the very modern feel of the place contributes to that, too; I’m curious to see how things feel at Cambridge – maybe just being in among a much older-looking place will make it feel that much more elite and exclusive. That said, the British Library has very few public stacks; the building is taken up mostly by numerous Reading Rooms, where you have to have a Reader Card to access (which means an application including your credentials as a researcher, and reasons for wanting to access these collections), and where you have to request items to be delivered to you from storage. So, it’s that sort of place. But, like I said, very clean, modern, well-lit, with public exhibits, free wi-fi, a nice café & restaurant… feels more like a museum than an exclusive research library, and even then, getting to go behind the scenes and look at objects in a museum collection still feels like a more exclusive privilege, a really special experience, than looking at things at the British Library… but, given how many libraries & archives have given me a really hard time getting in to look at objects, I’m certainly not complaining.

I’ll summarize the rest of my London adventures in another post. Cheers for now.

Except where indicated otherwise, all photos are my own.

Read Full Post »

It has been ages, and the links have really built up. I have just a couple very brief links/topics to share related to women’s history in Japan and China, before devoting the rest of the post to toxic masculinity, and the place of men and men’s issues in feminist discourse. These first two don’t quite fit the theme of the lengthy latter half, but as they’re too brief to put elsewhere, I figured I would just sort of tuck them in here, too.

仮宅の後朝 (Scene in the Yoshiwara) by Utamaro, 1790. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

*First, from Collectors Weekly, one of a number of articles and reviews published this spring in conjunction with the San Francisco Asian Art Museum’s exhibit “Seduction: Japan’s Floating World.” Paintings and ukiyo-e prints of the beautiful women (bijin) of the Yoshiwara – Edo’s chief licensed pleasure quarters – have formed the core of Japanese art exhibits in the West since the late 19th century, or so I would imagine. But it is in the last year or two especially that museums have begun (again?) showing shunga – the more sexually graphic/explicit subgenre of ukiyo-e – in a major way. In this respect, Seduction is just the latest iteration, following up on recent shunga shows at the British Museum and Honolulu Museum of the Arts.

To put the focus on the women of the Yoshiwara, and their rather negative and oppressive experiences as prostitutes – essentially, sex slaves – is not entirely new. Cecilia Segawa Seigle acknowledges this serious, dark, aspect of the Yoshiwara in her groundbreaking 1993 book, prior to moving on to focus on the more positive sides of the Yoshiwara as a crucible of cultural flowering and so forth.1 Amy Stanley, in her 2012 book Selling Women, which I’ll be posting a review for at some point, returns to a focus on women’s rights, women as commodities, and so forth.

So, this is not entirely new, but still a fight very much still being fought, to shift the discourse, especially in art museums and art circles otherwise, away from purely talking about the beauty of the works, and about the Yoshiwara as a center of arts and fashion, and instead towards talking about the quite harsh world the Yoshiwara was for these women. As Lisa Hix writes in this Collectors Weekly article, quoting curator Laura W. Allen,

“… The art of the floating worlds ‘ukiyo-e,’ which means ‘floating world pictures,’ usually depicts those two subjects [the Yoshiwara, and the Kabuki theatre].”

But, of course, by and large, this free-floating sensation belonged to men. Allen suggests that we, as viewers, resist indulging in the fantasies of Yoshiwara prostitutes presented in the artworks, and instead, consider the real lives of the women portrayed. …

“Don’t take these paintings at face value,” Allen says. “It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, yes, it’s a picture of a beautiful woman, wearing beautiful clothing.’ But it’s not a photograph. It’s some artist’s rendition, made to promote this particular world, which was driven by economics. The profiteers urged the production of more paintings, which continued to feed the frenzy for the Yoshiwara.

No matter where the discourse within particular circles – e.g. among scholars, or among Asian-American communities – may go, the broader, more general, more widespread popular discourse changes only at a very slow pace. And it is that public to which museums are, to a certain extent, in certain ways, answerable. It is that public which the museum must speak to, in order to get them in the door, and it is that public which includes donors, trustees, and certain other influential stakeholders as well, regardless of what the curators may wish to do, sometimes…

Seduction has attracted considerable controversy, of a variety quite closely related to that of the protests against the kimono event at the Boston MFA. And, indeed, there is plenty of room for constructive criticism of the Asian Art Museum, and there is this much broader conversation to be had about Orientalism in the museum world. However, for the moment, I would like to just touch upon this point – of how curators and other scholars are beginning to focus more and more on the Yoshiwara as not only a “glittering world” of cultural efflorescence, but also on the very difficult and painful lives these women endured, as well as the women’s agency and/or lack of agency as to their situation, and the nuance and complexity this brings into it. Seduction attempts to bring this more nuanced, complicated, story, this less Orientalist, less exoticizing, less essentializing story to the public, to combat the reification of old stereotypes.

An image originally from the early 20th century magazine Beiyang huabao, reproduced on the blog We Drive East.

On a somewhat related note, turning to China, the practice of footbinding is easily among one of the most prominent, most widely known (albeit misunderstood), stereotypical things about Chinese women. From the time of the Tang Dynasty (7th-9th c.) onwards, Chinese women bound their feet in order to look more elegant; it was a practice which first emerged among dancers, then among elite women, and then spread to the common women by the Song Dynasty (10th-13th c.). By the Qing (17th-19th c.), the practice was so solidly ingrained, even the Manchu government, which successfully forced all men to shave their heads and wear their remaining hair in long queues, could not root out this practice.

And yet, it would seem that all along, Chinese women were also binding their breasts, a practice I, for one, had never heard about before.

The blog We Drive East talks about the history of the practice in some depth, as does a post on the website of the the All-China Women’s Federation. Aihua Zhang has published a journal article on “Women’s Breasts and Beyond A Gendered Analysis of the Appeals for Breast-Unbinding: 1910s-1920s,” and Antonia Finnane’s book Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, History, Nation addresses this as well. The practice seems to have continued as late as the 1920s, when, by 1926-1927 or so, it became a prominent issue, being discussed at length in the Beiyang Pictorial (北洋畫報) and elsewhere; an interesting time for women’s fashion, gender roles, and changing culture the world over.

Now, moving along and turning to a different subject, way back in September, when Emma Watson spoke before the United Nations about feminism, gender equality, and her “He for She” campaign, there were of course a great many responses reflecting a wide range of perspectives. A great many praised her for championing this cause, and for inviting – really, demanding – that men need to get their act together and start being part of the conversation. This, of course, was wonderful to see. And it came at a time, for me, and I think for a great many of us, in the wake of the decidedly misogynistically motivated IV shootings, and the #NotAllMen / #YesAllWomen conversations which followed, when it seemed this was all the more needed. Men need to start realizing just how serious, how real, and how widespread these issues are; it may not be “all men” who are the problem, but it absolutely is (on average, in a meaningful way, just about) all women who are the victims – of cat-calling; of unequal pay and unequal treatment otherwise in their careers; of gendered expectations in myriad aspects of their lives; of laws threatening their bodily autonomy; victims of physical harm, sexual assault, and all too often of being killed simply for being women; victims of countless other ways in which our society, our culture, is deeply founded in male dominance, and female inferiority.

One article from TIME Magazine, written by Cathy Young, and entitled “Sorry, Emma Watson, but HeForShe Is Rotten for Men,” argues, however, that “Until feminism recognizes discrimination against men, the movement for gender equality will be incomplete.” And I would have to say, I agree.

Further, Young writes:

Watson asked, “How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?” Truer words were never spoken. Too bad they are belied by the campaign itself, which is called “HeForShe” and asks men to pledge to “take action against all forms of violence and discrimination faced by women and girls” but says nothing about problems affecting men and boys.

The fundamental cause of so many – if not all – of the problems of gender inequality, sexism, and so forth, is the way our society constructs and reinforces particular notions of masculinity, of machismo. This is at the core not only of myriad problems affecting men and boys, but of those from which feminism seeks to free women and girls as well. It is for this reason, and in this way, that men need to be included into the conversation. To fight for women’s protection, and rights, power, voice, and equality, as men standing behind (and not speaking for) women. To fight against sexual harassment and sexual assault, and all the rest. But, we can only do that by addressing the fundamental issue at the core.

It is not men who are the problem: it is masculinity. We need to stop forcing one another to have to behave a certain way in order to “be a man.” We have to stop judging one another and reinforcing upon one another a need to be strong, to be unemotional, to be sexually aggressive, to be all of these things. And when those things are expunged from what it means to be a man, or when the need to “be a man” is itself expunged from how we live our lives as human beings, as members of society who just so happen to have somewhat different parts but who are otherwise 99% similar, that is key to achieving cultural, social, gender equality. It is because men are constantly pressured to need to prove themselves, to perform up to an imaginary standard, and to compete with one another in manliness, that sexist attitudes are propagated and that sexist acts are eventuated. Kill the patriarchy, kill the machismo, break down the societal constructions of masculinity and not only of femininity, and feminist goals can be achieved. That’s my personal opinion, anyway, as a man. I may not be a woman, and therefore perhaps I should not have the right to speak on feminism – if you feel that way, that’s your prerogative, I suppose. But as a man, I should hope that I should be able to speak to how I feel as a man, my relationship to masculinity, my lived experience which few women would have experience with in the same way.

Dr. Jed Diamond has written several books on the subject, and in a recent blog post, he shares the following experience:

In the book I wrote about going into a feminist book store in San Francisco because I felt that a lot of what I was reading from feminists was going to liberate me. A number of the women seemed fine with my being in the store, but others, including the person in charge seemed hostile. There was a young boy, about nine years old, in the store who was obviously the son of the person in charge. He would walk by me and “accidentally” bump into me. At first I didn’t notice how angry he was. On the third “bump through” he pushed a little hand-written note in my hand. What I read hurt my soul. “We don’t like men in here,” it said. It still pains me to remember that young boy and what he was learning about his own maleness.

Who is this boy going to grow up to be? Is he going to be banned from the shop himself at some point, purely on the basis of being a man, regardless of his character, attitudes, or intentions?


This brings us to Mad Max: Fury Road. I finally saw the film, and immediately came home to draft a post about it. But while I struggled with just what it was I wanted to say, Arthur Chu wrote a piece in the Daily Beast which pretty much says a lot of what I was going to (which is not to say I agree with everything he has to say, or necessarily how he says it, but..). What I have to add, below, is quite brief, but, SPOILERS AHEAD. LOOK AWAY NOW, if you haven’t seen the film.

Right: Much thanks to feministmadmax.tumblr.com for creating more or less precisely the image I was looking for.

I think it would be easy to mistake the conflict in Fury Road as being one in which women need to be rescued from men, and the world also needs to be rescued from men, and rebuilt. Furiosa is bad-ass, as are the Wives, and they work together to rescue themselves from the grips of the sex slaver Immortan Joe and his hyper-masculine, violence-worshipping Warboys. And the Mothers they meet towards the end of the film are also bad-ass in their own way, and help Furiosa and the ladies to take Immortan Joe’s Citadel, and to begin rebuilding the world. Tons of female badassery, lots of female characters with whom to identify. Excellent.

But, just as in real life, I don’t think this is necessarily a conflict in when men are the enemy. Who, after all, destroyed the world? If men are the enemy, then what is that boy in the feminist bookstore supposed to do? He will inevitably grow up to be a man (unless they decide to identify as non-binary or trans*), and then what? No. The enemy is masculinity: certain definitions of masculinity, certain conceptions and standards of masculinity, and of machismo, and all that comes with them. It is not only women who need to be rescued from men, but men and women both, from the world that toxic masculinity has created.


In a blog post entitled Rants of a Feminine Feminist, a graduate student at the University of Calgary eloquently attacks the notion that feminism is only for women’s benefit, or only for women’s participation.

She especially attacks the idea that feminism is the cause of men’s problems – a fight that, sadly, we still need to have, as far too many people remain terribly mistaken as to what feminism is really about. As she writes, “Feminism is not primarily concerned with women’s issues. … It is primarily concerned with the patriarch[y], i.e. the gendered system in place that (among other things) promotes unrealistic expectations and standards for masculinity and femininity.” I hope that some of the MRAs and dudebros get the fucking message.

But what was really powerful for me, what that she writes, further,

There is no such thing as a singular feminism. There are feminisms. … each person interprets feminism in a way that works for them and their unique life experience. … Feminism is not some institutionalized doctrine that has a list of rules to follow in order to be a member of the club. Feminism has no dress code, no required hairstyle, and no standard for one’s sexual frequency or preference. …

Feminism – put simply – is the call for equal social, political, and economical opportunities for all people. All. People. Not “all people except men”, not “all people except those who dress like cats on the weekend”, not “all people except misogynistic assholes.” ALL. PEOPLE. (emphasis in the original.)

I read this and I want to cheer. It’s posts like this that make me feel validated, that make me feel like I am welcome, like I am included, and that feminism does care about my problems. Regular readers will know I don’t post as regularly on gender issues as some others do… I have posted even less frequently in the last year or so on gender issues especially since certain people shunned me out, quite cruelly laughing to themselves, to their friends, to the Internet at large at how absurd it should be that a cis, het, white man should think he should be allowed to say anything within a feminist conversation. Well, this may come as a surprise, but like everything else in the world, there is nuance and complexity to sexuality and gender identity, and just because I was born into a male body, and raised as a man, and am not quite ready to say that I am “questioning” or am definitively “queer” or some other identity, and therefore am assumed to be, and present as, “cishet”, even if I don’t really identify as anything in particular, doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with my gender identity, and with my gendered place in the world. And if you don’t want me as an ally, or whatever the proper word is, then that’s fine. Fuck you too. But, with the validation and support of my friends, and of articles like this one, after a year of agonizing over it, and refraining from commenting on these issues for fear of blowback, I’ve finally come back around, that I’m just not going to let other people dictate that I cannot be a feminist, too – that I cannot have some place in the conversation, even if that place is standing behind my friends, and others, and not in front. Tempted as I am to place a big STFU gif right here, a gift to those people, instead, rather than silencing you as you wished to silence me, how about we both continue to accept one another as having some right to be in the conversation?


Finally, today, you’ve probably seen at least one of the many articles, interviews, and books, which have been floating around recently, asserting that women subordinate themselves, or present themselves as submissive, and need to act more like men – more assertive, more confident, in order to better compete with men in the workplace, in job interviews, in earning respect and promotions and so forth, and in society in general. A number of articles, actually, have come about defending the way that women talk: one in Jezebel says “let’s stop feeling anxious about feeling aware that we’re feeling our feelings. Feel me?”, while one from NY Magazine which I have seen going around a lot writes that “When we use words like so, I guess, like, actually, and I mean, we are sending signals to the listener to help them figure out what’s new, what’s important, or what’s funny. We’re connecting with them.,” and concludes that

“When women talk in ways that are common among women, and are seen as ineffective or underestimated, they’re told it’s their fault for talking that way,” the linguist Deborah Tannen, who’s written several best-selling books about gender and language, told me. “But if they talk in ways that are associated with authority, and are seen as too aggressive, then that, too, is their fault when people react negatively.” Asking women to modify their speech is just another way we are asked to internalize and compensate for sexist bias in the world. We can’t win by eliminating just from our emails and like from our conversations.

A satirical piece called Just Don’t Do It takes it a step further, in a direction I particularly enjoyed.

This week everyone’s been talking about an article in the Economist explaining how men’s use of language undermines their authority. According to the author, a senior manager at Microsoft, men have a bad habit of punctuating everything they say with sentence adverbs like ‘actually’, ‘obviously’, ‘seriously’ and ‘frankly’. This verbal tic makes them sound like pompous bullshitters, so that people switch off and stop listening to what they’re saying. If they want to be successful, this is something men need to address.

The Economist article referenced here doesn’t exist. This is a conversation that we are not, in fact, having, but perhaps we should be.

Here’s a thought – I’m sick of this “lean in” bullshit. How about instead of telling women they need to be more confident and assertive, instead we try to stem the plague of men confidently, assertively, obnoxiously, bullshitting their way through life. I show deference and apologize because it’s polite, and shows humility. It shows honesty about what I don’t know or can’t do, and it shows consideration for others. Rather than advising women, and men both, to be /more/ assertive, how about instead we take some kind of action to push our society towards a friendlier, more deferential, less obnoxiously in-your-face place. How about, instead of perpetuating the constant masculine/patriarchal pissing contests for dominance, we write articles that lambast such ideas of masculinity, such ideas of success, that point to such attitudes and make fun of them as the Neanderthalish, Mad Men bullshit that they are, and assert that here in the 21st century, the time for that rat race, dog-eat-dog, macho self-righteousness is over.

1. And as Segawa Seigle is a major, prominent scholar of women’s history, I don’t think we should see this decision as un-feminist or anything… I think we can trust Segawa Seigle to have known what she was doing, and to have made her decision knowingly.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,596 other followers