Archive for the ‘research’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Urashima Monogatari Scroll (detail), L. Tom Perry Special Collections, BYU. An amazingly rich, gorgeously painted object.

I’ve just come back from a workshop at Brigham Young University (in Provo, UT), where they invited grad students and professors to come and check out their library’s stunning collection of Japanese objects.

The objects themselves are quite incredible. They have some 400 items in the collection, which is roughly 390-something more than we have here at UCSB* … While some experts in such things may be able to speak to the rarity and exceptional quality of the items in the BYU collection, and how they compare to those at Harvard, Yale, etc., what was of much more interest to me was simply the objects themselves, the topics they covered, and their incredible beauty. Sure, it’s great to have a high-quality (tokusei-bon 特製本) copy of a Kôetsu-bon of the Noh play Tatsuta – an extremely fine and presumably quite rare example of one of the earliest forms of Japanese movable type printing, from the very beginning of the 17th century – but, for me, it was the lengthy, highly detailed, vividly colored scroll paintings of mining on Sado Island, as well as even more gorgeously painted scrolls of foreign peoples & ships, that struck my eye. How many universities have such wonderful primary resources for studying early modern Japanese mining? Or early modern Japanese attitudes / perceptions / conceptions of foreigners?

EDIT:These are not only aesthetically, stylistically, technically, masterful works, many of them in amazingly good condition, but they are simultaneously excellent historical works. They tell us something not only about the artist, or the cultural milieu, the way the endless rotations of landscapes & birds-and-flowers at so many of our art museums do; these are stunningly beautiful while also serving as a window into the history itself – the history of mining, of ships, of foreign relations. Boy, I so want to secure a museum job some day so I can put together shows of works like these.

Sado Kinzan (Sado Gold Mine) Scroll, detail.

Two things I found especially wonderful and incredible about this collection, outside of the objects themselves. One, Prof. Jack Stoneman and others are using the collection as an opportunity to teach BA and MA students, in a very direct and hands-on manner, how to handle such objects, how to examine them closely and use them as research materials, and how to perform research about them, i.e. gaining first-hand experience at bibliographic research, tracking down provenance, comparing extant examples to determine how rare or how high-quality your copy is…. all skills that are essential for anyone seeking to go into museum, library, or archive work (or, nearly so, I suppose, depending on the position and the institution), and valuable too for a wide variety of other career paths. I’ve interned at several museums, and have an MA in Art History, and I don’t think I have quite the experience, the practice, that these students are gaining. Plus, the professors at BYU are using these primary sources to teach students hentaigana and kuzushiji.

Second, Prof. Stoneman told us something about the history of the collection, and it’s pretty incredible. Most of this collection comes from a man named Harry F. Bruning, who collected a wide variety of things, and sold much of it to a David Magee, who then sold it to the university. As far as we know, Bruning never went to Japan – didn’t even speak Japanese – and so, with my apologies for saying so, I’m not sure that Bruning himself is quite as fascinating a figure as, say, Bigelow, Morse, or Okakura, who traveled and dressed in traditional clothing and more actively engaged with the artistic & cultural worlds of the introduction of Japanese art into the US, and of the introduction of Westerners into Japan…. What’s really fascinating about the Bruning story is the way that Stoneman began to track down information about the collection. While looking through reference books from BYU’s library, such as a 1931 hard copy print catalog of the Art Institute of Chicago’s holdings, he noticed prices and checkmarks and the like penciled into the margins. And he noticed the same marks, in the same handwriting, in a few other books from the BYU library. And then he found, by some wonderful expert searching, a ledger or account book, also in the BYU Special Collections, but not well-cataloged or labeled (simply because no one had really looked at it closely enough before), which it turns out was Bruning’s own ledger, a daily diary of things he bought, sold, or inquired about!! But, this diary doesn’t happen to have any Japanese materials listed in it, and further, while there is reason to believe Bruning compiled a highly organized and detailed list of his own collection before handing it over to Magee, that book, if it still exists, is yet to be found. Is it also in the BYU library somewhere? Is it in the possession, somewhere, of Bruning’s relatives? … In short, it turns out it’s not just the Japanese materials themselves (and a huge wealth of other materials, incl. Western sheet music) which were The Bruning Collection, but actually it would seem a whole ton of reference books, booksellers’ catalogs, etc., which have now become scattered across the library collections, and so it’s sort of a treasure hunt to find Bruning’s handwritten notes in books throughout the library, and to piece this back together.

Ryûkyûjin dôro gakki zu (Ryukyuans Street Music Instruments Scroll)(detail). A handpainted copy of the scrolls I saw at the University of Hawaiʻi Library (Sakamaki-Hawley Collection).

I find the whole thing quite encouraging, because it means that just maybe, depending on the institution and the situation there, I just might be able to find myself – despite not having a PhD in Art History, despite not being Curator or Librarian or Archivist – nevertheless getting to work very closely with a collection, researching it myself and/or working with students to use the materials to teach them, and to help them acquire research skills as well.

All photos my own. All objects, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

*As far as I am aware, within the Art Library’s Special Collections, not counting “Main” Special Collections, or what may be owned by the Art, Design, and Architecture (AD&A) Museum on campus.

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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.

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I’ve added a new link to the Theatre section over there on the right. Much thanks to Prof. K. Saltzman-Li for introducing us to this list of available translations of Noh plays, and to Michael Watson of Meiji Gakuin for compiling and maintaining it. The list includes all 253 plays in the active repertoire, plus a handful more. A powerful resource for anyone who has ever struggled to figure out which plays are available in translation, and where to find them.

And, though the interface is quite plain – it really is little more than a pageful of text, with some links – it’s actually a wonderfully useful resource. Not only does it have the list of translations of a play, but gives some of the basic information about each play – presumed author, schools actively performing it, and the category of the play – as well as, in some cases, a bit more commentary or links to secondary sources discussing the work. If even for nothing else at all, just having such a complete list, easily skimmable in romaji, is a great thing to have.

Watson also provides links to:

(1) an extensive bibliography of Premodern Japanese Texts and Translations, including many writings about Noh by Zeami, Zenchiku, and the like, along with numerous other works, from Muromachi monogatari to poetry collections, diaries, and histories.

(2) The UTAHI Hangyō bunko (半魚文庫) website (all in Japanese), which has pure text transcriptions of over 300 Noh plays.

Below: the stage at the National Noh Theatre in Sendagaya, Tokyo. I think. Please correct me if I’m mistaken. Photo my own.

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Illustration from H.M. Stanley’s book In Deepest Africa, used here as an image of the metaphorical wilderness. No further implication of African, colonialist, etc. contexts is intended or desired.

Post-modern theory tells us that, either, there is no Truth out there to be discovered, or that it is out there, but it is simply unattainable. Everything is reflections and representations. Everything is subjective. Nothing is sure.

This exchange from West Wing (ep 1×03), taken completely out of context, expresses I think my feelings on trying to do history in a world governed by such attitudes.

Pres. Bartlet: “what the hell are we doing here?!”
Leo: “Of course, it’s not good. There is no good. It’s what there is. … It’s what our fathers taught us.”

There was a time not that long ago when we thought we knew so much. And now, we believe we know nothing. All is in doubt. Everything is in question. Nothing is true. And, so, what can we do? What can we do, but to just keep moving, keep doing history like our fathers taught us. Post-modern critique tells us there is no good history, there is no good scholarship. There is only what there is. We do what we can.

One of my professors calls doing history in the wake of post-modern discourse “pitching a tent in the wilderness.” And wilderness it is, indeed.

In a sense, I feel we have come full circle. In the early days of the historians’ profession, there was so much left unknown. So much to be learned. Even as we began to meticulously record, or narrate, the details of our own histories – for US & UK historians, the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Tudor and Stuart Dynasties, the Norman Invasion – massive fields went untouched. In those early days, there was so much yet unwritten (in European languages, at least) about China, Japan, Korea, India, and the Middle East, not to mention about Latin America, the Pacific, and sub-Saharan Africa. A wide open wilderness, it was. Documents yet to be read, entire histories yet to be told (in European languages). … Our supposed “knowledge” eventually expanded to encompass many of these histories, though, of course, there was always more out there to be uncovered. … And then it all came crashing down. So, today, with everything in doubt, with nothing known for sure, have we not, in a sense, returned to where we began, knowing nothing? The key difference, of course, is that where before we thought we had solid ground to walk on, today, the wilderness is made entirely of quicksand.

I think my tent is sinking.

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A week or so ago, a colleague pointed out to me a new journal article by theatre scholar Steve Tillis, entitled “The Case Against World Theatre History.”1 Don’t be fooled – the article really should be called something like “On the Case against World Theatre History,” or “Against the Case against World Theatre History,” as this is precisely what Tillis argues. In the article, he lays out a number of the most common arguments made against “World Theatre History” as a subject for scholarly study, and then rebuts each of them. There is great relevance to this discussion for anyone thinking about “world art history,” “world music history,” or “world history” in general. Why is it that we study history on the global scale, and is it a valid, relevant, and useful pursuit?

This is a fascinating issue, far more intriguing and engaging – and far more relevant to my own interests – than the needlessly dense Theory essays I’m reading right now for my mandatory Historiography seminar. In crafting my response/review for this article, I couldn’t help but to write quite a few pages before I decided I ought to scale it back and focus in, rather than posting pages and pages here on the blog. For that reason – i.e. for the sake of length – I have omitted discussion of “world theatre history” or “world art history” as a subject of undergraduate courses, i.e. as a mode of organizing teaching the subject. Perhaps I will consolidate my thoughts on that matter into another blog post. In the meantime, this post has still ended up quite long, and for that I sincerely apologize. After sitting on it for roughly a week, I figured it was better to just get it out there than to put it off until I felt like refining it down – it might have gotten left for a pretty considerable amount of time had I done that.

So, please try to bear with me as I try to summarize the arguments & rebuttals in this paper, along with my thoughts, regarding “world theatre history” as a subject of research and study.

The stage set for a jingju, or Beijing opera, “The White Snake,” at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Winter 2010.

First, we have to see what it is Tillis means by “world theatre history.” According to him, it is not simply a matter of describing theatrical traditions in a variety of places around the world. Rather, “world theatre history” in his eyes is about considering the cultural exchanges and connections between traditions from around the world, as well as the slightly more abstract or theoretical-level underlying phenomena of how “theatre,” regardless of culture, functions. In his own words,

[“World theatre history”] seeks to investigate and explore the linkages between theatre forms of different world regions … and it seeks to understand how those linkages reveal structures that might have had a widespread effect on theatre: the relationship between theatre forms across the breadth of Eurasia, for example, or the widespread propensity to make use of meta-dramatic figures to supplement the dramatic characters themselves. And it seeks, finally, to analyze whatever interregional trends might be discovered in those links, such as the rising importance of urban forms of theatre (p381).

With this as his working concept, Tillis addresses seven arguments against “world theatre history” – three practical, and four ideological. As you will see, (spoilers!), I agree with Tillis on some of these, and disagree with him on others – as to what constitutes a problem, and as to the solutions or rebuttals he proposes.

(1) The problem of manageability – World history, as the argument goes, is simply not manageable – to address every period in every culture would result in a complete chaos of dissimilar, disconnected, cases and narratives.

Of course, this is not what Tillis is really talking about. Yes, in an undergraduate survey course, one could get into problems of how to fairly cover everything, and to do it in a cohesive way. But, for scholars trying to examine “what is theatre?” from a global perspective, I don’t think this idea of “completeness” or manageability is the problem. The problem comes in how you generalize, something we’ll get to with some of the later arguments.

(2) The second argument that Tillis addresses is the problem of detail. How do we cover all of the history of the theatre of the world without inevitably skipping over really big name individuals or events? Or, rather, how do we skip over subjects generally seen as of extreme significance and get away with it, justifying such omissions in pursuit of the study of the whole?

By way of solution, Tillis offers simply that every level of scale has its merits, that the global scale has its merits too, and that all of that lost detail is still there – to be addressed by other scholars, in other works. It’s not lost. It hasn’t gone anywhere. Still, there are serious dangers in generalizing too broadly, in essentializing cultures, and in ignoring significant counter-examples.

Reading this article, I find myself also thinking about the inevitable choice I will have to make as to my ‘fields’ of study for my PhD qualifying exams. There is a lot of pressure to do “world history,” but, if that “world history” is the same as that which Tillis is talking about here – focusing on the interconnections and broader themes – then that is decidedly not the type of history I am interested in, personally. In theatre, as in art and in history in general – I am interested in color, sound, movement, and stories. I am interested in the vivid ‘world’ of a specific time and place, such as the cities and post-towns of early modern Japan, as composed of the architecture, clothing, systems of social classes, logistics of travel and urban planning, elements of elite and popular culture, and the countless other aspects of that time and place that, when taken altogether, combine to provide some semblance, some hint, of the feeling of actually being there and experiencing it. I am not interested in how “societies” (in general) work, how “regimes” (in general) rise and fall, or how “art” or “theatre” function in some universal, pan-cultural, human sociological or psychological fashion; and I am most certainly not interested in taking historical events or cases as mere examples in arguing some broader point. I’m interested in the specifics, and in putting the specifics first, as interesting and worthy of attention in their own right. So, I think I need to talk to my professors about what exactly a study field in “World History” means, and whether I would be better or worse to focus on something that more specifically, directly, interests me, such as “Early Modern Britain & the Netherlands.”

The Noh stage at the Ôe Nôgakudô in Kyoto.

(3) Tillis’ third argument addresses the supposed problem of the world historian’s reliance on secondary sources, but, frankly, I see no problem with this. Operating on that scale requires one to understand (or at least claim to understand) a very wide range of cultures, events, trends, structures – in the case of theatre and art history, perhaps the most relevant word is “traditions” – and so, of course, one would have to rely on the syntheses produced by other scholars. No one can know enough about every culture, about the complexities of the cultural context in every historical period, nor possess sufficient language skills, to do sufficient research from scratch to understand each of these different traditions well enough to talk about them in a comparative mode – not to mention the inconceivable amount of time it would take. Besides, what use is it, really, to be examining a 17th century playbill or translating an 18th century play, word by word, when your argument concerns kabuki (or jingjiu or Randai) as a whole? The idea that the reliance on secondary sources is problematic seems, to put it plainly, stupid.

The trick is, simply, that the scholar does need to be relying on reliable sources, and to have a good idea what she is talking about. The danger in using secondary sources is that one can get an incomplete or misguided understanding of the subject – but, so long as one reaches out sufficiently to his colleagues, experts in those respective theatre forms, to help guide her to the right sources and the right understandings, the reliance on secondary sources should not be seen as such a problem. Moving on.

At Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, as reconstructed in London today.

Thus, we finish with the practical problems, and move ahead to the ideological ones.

(4) The next issue Tillis presents is the argument of Western dominance – that is, the argument that it is only natural that a treatment of “world history” (or “world theatre history”) would focus chiefly on the European path.

The first ideological argument seeks to justify a Eurocentric approach by appeal to what it takes to be historical fact. Europe, it argues, has been at the centre of history for many centuries – in theatre history and general history alike. To deny this centrality is to deny the facts of history. We can call it the argument of Western dominance. … For many centuries, the argument contends, only the West experienced historical progress. (p384)

Wow. I couldn’t say this more boldly or directly if I tried.

For anyone who has studied (anti-)Orientalist theory, in the vein of Edward Said, the above statement that only the West has history or progress is not only patently absurd, but downright offensive.

I am sorely tempted to hold onto this article to assign to my eventual future students. Sure, the overall argument of the paper – the topic of whether or not we should consider ‘world history’ a valid field of study – along with the theatre focus, might not be perfectly relevant to, for example, a general course in Historiography. But, the paper is decidedly historiographical in its approach, and addresses numerous important points, addressing and refuting arguments for a Eurocentric or Westcentric approach to history, and introducing the reader to the basic concept of Whig History, as well as to the Orientalist idea that only the West has history while the non-West is unchanging, and saying it all boldly, clearly, and directly.

Tillis goes on in this section to talk about the argument that since non-Western art forms tend to remain fairly constant, like animated museum pieces (as we do see, admittedly, to varying extents in Noh, kabuki, etc.), these cannot be so relevant to a history of the evolution/development of theatre. In other words, if Noh and kabuki are relatively unchanging, then all innovation and progress is to be found in the West. This is an argument that we very often see argued, as well, in regard to Modern Art. We can see this at play in Wikipedia’s article on Modern Art. Twentieth-century developments in the non-West (e.g. Nihonga, Guohua, not to mention the countless prominent non-Western modern and postmodern artists, from, for Japan, High Red Center and Gutai, to Murakami Takashi) are ignored at the “global art history” scale to instead devote attention almost exclusively to Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, up through Fluxxus, Warhol, Pollock, Mondrian and the like. A Westcentric mindset as to what constitutes progress, or what is to be defined as “modern art,” imposes itself upon the choice of which artists, artworks, and movements to discuss.

This idea is supported by the assertion that since Western theatre (or art) has been so influential all around the world, and so widely adopted, this justifies focusing on it. Tillis rebuts this, saying that “the notion that we should study Western theatre history because of its current global status is … both politically motivated and breathtakingly teleological. Because it looks at history only as a pathway to the present, it cannot help but offer a deeply skewed vision of the past” (p385). Tillis rejects, of course, these assertions, saying that in fact Western theatre has remained extremely conservative in certain respects as well – note the proscenium stage; the architectural form of the theatres we build and use follows much the same form throughout the Western world that it has for at least 100 years. And opera, to name one example of a Western theatrical form, hasn’t changed much either.

Preview/excerpts from a University of Hawaii performance of Randai, a Sumatran theatre form combining dance and martial arts with dialogue and plot.

(5) The Argument of Western Relevance – A similar, but less biased, argument, argues that we should focus on the West not because it’s inherently better or more important, but because it is more relevant to what the students (whether as performers or as audience) will encounter and experience. Nationalism plays a part in this argument as well, as it is felt there is a need to devote considerable time/attention to American theatre history when teaching in the US, or to British history in Britain, French art history in France, etc.

Tillis rebuts this one quite nicely, as well, writing that even putting aside other arguments as to the relevance, importance, or simple appropriationability of other traditions in developing one’s own art, at the very least, the global perspective is important in allowing performers within the Western tradition to see that tradition from an outside perspective. To not take things for granted, but to recognize and be aware of the artificiality of our assumptions. Assumptions about the shape a stage should take, the structure of a play or of a cast (i.e. how many lead actors, what it means to be lead), about the way the audience ought to behave, and about the way the actors ought to interact with (or ignore) the audience. Rethinking our assumptions helps us understand our own culture in much fuller, more complex, more nuanced ways, and thus helps us to be creative, innovative, inventive with it.

(6) The Argument of Western Inevitability – In short, the argument that all the world has come to perform theatre in a Western way, and that therefore, it’s okay to use Western definitions/conceptions of “theatre.”

It is true that “world theatre history,” like “world art history,” like “world history” in general, all too often rest on Eurocentric definitions of what does and does not count as “theatre” or as “drama” (or as “art”, or countless other descriptors). This results in statements like: “With a few possible exceptions, there is no tradition in Africa of artistic performances which include all the elements which might be demanded in a strict definition of drama – or at least not with the emphases to which we are accustomed” (387).

This makes me wonder if even Western theatre necessarily always contains all the elements which might be demanded of such a strict definition. What is necessary? There is not always music. There is not always a set, or props. Sometimes there aren’t even costumes – see: Naked Boys Singing. (Better yet, don’t.) There is not always a stage. There is not always a curtain. I suppose there must always be performers. But, there need not necessarily be dialogue. There need not necessarily be a plot or narrative.

On page 388 we find another of Tillis’ brilliantly bold and direct statements – a wonderful rewriting of the typical Eurocentric discourse: “At least until recently, [Europe] has been a dependent part of the general development of civilization. Rather than standing astride history like some Colossus, Europe spent numerous centuries playing catch-up with the rest of Eurasia.”

The first part of the Kumi Udui play Nidô Tichiuchi, a theatrical form from Okinawa.

(7) The Argument of the Metanarrative – Tillis ends with the argument against “world theatre history” that

Any totalizing metanarrative [e.g. some attempt to explain or to investigate “theatre” as a whole, regardless of when or where it occurs] will advance one or more particular ideological positions, and in doing so, will distort history to an unacceptable degree. … Such [master or grand] narratives offer totalized versions of history that use a homogenizing process in which a dominant ideology is imposed on any text … thereby eliding its diverse elements. (388)

Tillis concludes by arguing against this idea, that is, arguing for metanarratives, saying they are essential towards avoiding the chaos of disconnected mini-narratives. Of course, this is true. And there is, certainly, some merit to the kinds of investigations that question the effect of an actor on an audience, or what (in general) it means to “perform,” or any number of other, similar, fundamental or basic “performance studies” types of questions. However, in the end, I do believe that the argument about ideological impositions being inevitable is a valid one, and that we must either learn to live with that and be okay with it (as we do in all of our scholarship), or acknowledge the serious flaws with any sort of meta-narrative that claims to understand everything from Shakespeare to Broadway to kathakali to manzai, taishû engeki, and kagura, to Native Hawaiian forms of storytelling, well enough to draw conclusions valid to all of these traditions.

What do I have to say myself, in conclusion? I don’t know. There’s just so much here. I think that shifting both the academic discourse and the content of what we teach away from a Westcentric-perspective is of profound importance.

Personally, I am far more interested in the specific case – in kabuki, or Noh, for those things that make those particular artforms particularly interesting. My own scholarship will never address the “big questions” on a global scale, nor those that operate on a particularly fundamental level, nor those on a theoretical one. Some of these questions, many of these questions, are quite valid and of great importance. But I also am very hesitant about arguments that claim to speak for all traditions, all cultures, overlooking the possibility of counter-examples, of difference.

I guess I still stumble, or quibble, on the point of it being world “theatre” history. Sure, if you’re going to restrict your comparative studies to those art forms that match certain criteria – the focus on entertaining an audience, and lack of religious ritual purpose being a key one to my mind – then I suppose you could go and call it “theatre” history. Otherwise, if you’re going to include all sorts of ritual dances, then perhaps you’d be better off calling it “world performance history.” Yet, this still produces problems. Noh, for example, is very widely accepted as a form of “theatre” or “drama,” but is highly ritualistic, with a powerful spiritual component, and even in kabuki, which is absolutely a popular entertainment form, there are many ritual or ceremonial performances, which once may have been thought of as truly being performed ‘for the gods’ yet which are still today associated with bringing good luck, good fortune. And perhaps most problematic, ironically, is modern (Western) experimental theatre and the like. No one would argue that this is not theatre. And yet, it often disturbs, confuses, or thought-provokes rather than entertains, and often lacks discernable plot or characters, as well as, perhaps, costumes or sets. If we are to include this in our definition of “theatre,” but exclude cham dances or kagura performances not meant to be performed in secular contexts, on a stage, for an audience, then how do we define theatre? I guess I’ve set it up for the religious/ritual element, and/or the presence of an audience, to be the key deciding factor. But is this the case? Is this something we can agree upon? How do we define “theatre” in a non-Eurocentric, and culturally sensitive way? How do we approach and study theatre in a globally-minded way, guided not by Eurocentric assumptions? Or, do we not care that we are working based on Western assumptions?

Reading this article has gotten me quite curious, and interested, to go out and read more about contemporary historiographical debates on these subjects. How do we address “theatre history” or “art history”? How do we address “world history”? How should we maybe be doing it better? There are, I am sure, pages and pages and pages of journal articles on these subjects… Perhaps the 2004 issue of Theatre Survey, a special issue focusing on historiography, might prove a good place to start.

1) Tillis, Steve. “The Case against World Theatre History.” New Theatre Quarterly 28:4 (2012). pp379-391.

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Some time ago, there was a lengthy discussion on the Pre-Modern Japanese Studies mailing list, about the inclusion of kanji (Japanese/Chinese characters) in scholarly publishing.

For some reason, there seemed to be a widespread belief that including characters is somehow more difficult or expensive for publishers, and that many publishers are resistant to the concept. This is why we so often see either no kanji at all, or lists of kanji way in the back of the book, like from back in the days when everything was done on typewriter and characters had to be hand-written in, then photocopied or something. Well, surprise surprise, technology has advanced since then. And if I can type in a combination of English letters と日本語の字 and then publish it on the web, or print it out on my home printer, without any extra work *at all* to deal with layouts or “harmonizing” the size of the text, then so can any publisher. Right?

An excerpt from Hashimoto Yu’s essay/chapter “The Information Strategy of Imposter Envoys from Northern Kyushu to Choson Korea in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries.” in the edited volume The East Asian Mediterranean: Maritime Crossroads of Culture, Commerce and Human Migration. (Angela Schottenhammer, ed.) Harrassowitz Verlag, 2008.

Maybe scholars who’ve actually worked with publishers in the past have some special insights into this that I lack.

In any case, the Japan-based Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators (SWET) now has a nice short guide online outlining the arguments for and against the inclusion of characters in English-language texts, summarizing the advances in technology, and some material on how (and when) to include macrons and diacritics.

This doesn’t exactly put the subject to rest, as I think many publishers are likely more resistant than they ought to be, nor is this a full and thorough Style Sheet. But it’s something. Meanwhile, there is apparently some kind of fourteen-year-old Japan Style Sheet available from SWET, but only by contacting them and requesting a copy… Monumenta Nipponica’s Style Sheet is freely available online, however.


On a completely separate topic, we have an interview with kumu Tammy Haili‘ōpua Baker, the new Assistant Professor of Hawaiian Theatre at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. (Kumu means “teacher”; I tend to think of it as something honorable and worthy of serious respect, like sensei, though I don’t presume to be all that knowledgeable about the nuances of Hawaiian language or culture.)

This position comes as part of an initiative to create more positions for experts in Hawaiian traditional indigenous knowledge, in various departments throughout the university. A few years ago, I might have thought it to be all hand-wavey, and to be a obvious ploy at political correctness. But, in my time at Hawai‘i (oh, how I miss it there), I think I’ve come to a better appreciation of these things. It’s actually pretty cool to have traditional experts in the Law School, and in the Medical School, if only to help their graduates interface better with local communities who distrust anything that smells even slightly of colonialism.

An ‘oli and hula performed as part of welcoming ceremonies for students at the East-West Center in Honolulu, August 2011. Kumu Hula, Mapuana de Silva; Hālau (group/school) Mohala ‘Ilima

Hawaiian culture is, of course, one very much steeped in oral tradition. They did not have a written language until Europeans came, and so stories, history, morals, beliefs were all communicated via oral tradition, and through hula and other performance forms and ritual – so it absolutely makes sense that we ought to have a Hawaiian theatre / performance program beyond that which exists in the Dance department. I don’t know quite what “Hawaiian theatre” looks like or will be like, or whether kumu Tammy Haili‘ōpua is planning on drawing from something wholly traditional, or doing something more contemporary in form and style, but either way, I think it very neat that we (they) should have a Hawaiian Theatre track running alongside the very successful Chinese, Japanese, and Indonesian ones. People come from all over the country – and beyond – to study kabuki or Beijing opera at UH, and for those who want to study Hawaiian and Pacific Islands theatre forms, if UH didn’t have it, who would?

I also thoroughly enjoyed this interview because we can see quite clearly in it how people in Hawai‘i speak – even esteemed kumu like kumu Tammy Haili‘ōpua. You can really sense the distinctive culture and attitudes in the way Troy and kumu Tammy Haili‘ōpua speak in the interview, using very laid-back and friendly English, but also native Hawaiian phrases with serious cultural power.

Even though I never studied Hawaiian Studies, or got involved in cultural practices or the like at all, I do really miss living somewhere with that kind of special cultural and spiritual identity. Living in Hawai‘i, like living in Japan, is something really special for a boy from New York whose parents scarcely ever did much traveling and whose grandparents most certainly never traveled or saw the world the way that we can today. My apologies to Santa Barbara, but you’ve just not got that same energy, that same character. I have a number of friends who have very little interest in staying in Hawaii any longer than they have to, and I don’t blame them, but I surprise myself, I truly do, that I have come to like it there, to appreciate what I had there, and to very much want to go back. Maybe when I do I might get to see one of kumu Tammy Haili‘ōpua’s performances.


Finally today, we have an “open review” scholarly volume entitled Subjecting History. The concept is an interesting one – Prof. Trevor Getz and Thomas Padilla have posted the beginnings of a scholarly volume online, and are asking viewers, readers, to add their comments, which will then get added into the publication. They are also soliciting Chapter Proposals (deadline Nov. 15 2012), on topics related to questions of self-reflection on the discipline of History.

They ask, “how well does academic scholarship represent the past? Does it align or conflict with nonacademic ways of understanding the past? What are ways that academic scholarship can better represent the past without appearing to ignore interpretations that run counter to it?”

Personally, I’m hesitant to comment on the site, as anything I write there could end up in the formal, hardcopy published version of this book, and I just don’t know that anything I have to say would be perfectly well-phrased and perfectly well-thought-out enough for me to want to do that. Besides, these kinds of historiographical, philosophical, meta-analysis kinds of things make my head spin.

But I do think it a very interesting project. Go take a look, check it out.

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