Amy Stanley – Selling Women

Amy Stanley, Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan, UC Press (2012).

Amy Stanley’s Selling Women provides a much-needed counterpoint to discussions of Edo period prostitution which focus on the pleasure quarters primarily, or solely, as a romantic(ized) site of cultural dynamism – a font of popular arts, fashion, and attitudes. Indeed, the significance of the pleasure districts upon painting, prints, publishing, music, dance, theater, fashion, and literature cannot be understated. Places like the Yoshiwara were in fact profoundly influential upon Edo period popular culture, and upon much of what has since come to be regarded as “traditional” Japanese culture, as described by Cecilia Segawa Seigle in her book on the Yoshiwara, Eiko Ikegami in Bonds of Civility, and in countless other works on ukiyo-e and Edo period popular culture. However, the suffering and exploitation of the women in these districts, the functioning of prostitution across the archipelago, and attitudes towards prostitution have very much been under-discussed in English-language scholarship.

Stanley’s Selling Women represents a powerful step in rectifying this. Though prostitutes were officially seen as marginal people in the official status hierarchies of the day, along with other types of entertainers, Selling Women clearly shows they were hardly marginal at all in the economy, local culture, and everyday society of many villages, towns, and cities throughout the archipelago. Moving beyond the Yoshiwara, Stanley discusses and contrasts prostitution in a variety of different spaces of early modern Japan, including the big cities of Edo and Nagasaki, a small mining town in Tōhoku, the ports of Niigata and of the Inland Sea, and post-stations along the Nakasendō, each at a different time within the period.

In the process, we also see something of how women, in general, were regarded in society at the time, as wives, as daughters, and sometimes as property, and how they were treated, economically and legally, as a result. By illuminating the logics underpinning women’s (and especially prostitutes’) circumstances in Edo period Japan, showing how fundamental assumptions and attitudes particular to that historical period contributed to a distinctive set of repercussions, Stanley makes a valuable contribution to a more global, more diverse, conception of women’s history, and to scholarly discourses on sex, women’s role in society, and so forth as well.

Right: An image of Nagasaki yûjo entertaining Chinese clients in Nagasaki, from the ”Nagasaki meishô zue”, c. 1820.

As Stanley explains, prostitutes in early modern Japan had the most advantage in defense against exploitation or ill treatment, ironically, when representing themselves as passive victims, and when having someone else speak for them. This was perhaps most powerful in Nagasaki, where girls of the Maruyama and Yoriai districts, who chiefly served European and Chinese clients in the foreign districts of the city, maintained close ties with their families and local communities. Parents or guardians could speak on a girl’s behalf, presenting her as a dutiful and filial daughter, working and suffering in order to help provide for her family. That prostitution contributed positively to moral order or the social fabric, or was at least a necessary evil, is a recurrent theme throughout the places and times Stanley discusses in the chapters of Selling Women. Among other arguments, brothel owners, local officials, and others argued that prostitution provided an outlet for men’s sexual urges (thus protecting village daughters from men acting on those urges), and also that it was essential in many cases (especially in port towns and post-stations) for the prosperity of the town, as it brought travelers and traders who would otherwise bring their trade and custom to other towns instead, thus dooming the town to economic decline or collapse. The ability to provide for one’s family by engaging in prostitution, especially if it means rescuing one’s parents from poverty, was also often seen as a virtuous and self-sacrificing act on the part of the girl. As such, protecting prostitution – and thus protecting the economic prosperity of the town, and the wellbeing of the prostitutes’ parents – is often framed as “compassionate” or “benevolent governance” on the part of officials, a key element of Tokugawa Neo-Confucian attitudes about government. Stanley shows, however, that at other times and places in the archipelago, however, especially later in the Edo period, commercialism grew more influential, and many brothel owners, as well as local officials, began to appeal less to the idea that prostitution served a valuable moral or social function, and more to the simple commercialist idea that businessmen had a right to a certain degree of freedom in how they pursued business. Producers supplied purchasable sex because consumers demanded it, these men asserted, and all was done fairly and properly according to contracts and agreed-upon (if unspoken) rules of the business.

An important and interesting distinction raised by Stanley throughout the book, highlighting differences from modern/Western discourses on sex, is that in early modern Japan, prostitution was not stigmatized for the same sorts of reasons that it has historically been (and still is) in our own society. Japanese did not see sex itself, female sexuality, or promiscuity, as inherent evils. That a woman was unchaste, or even promiscuous, was not seen to make her “dirty” or otherwise undesirable, let alone sinful. What was seen as dangerous, distasteful, and problematic, on the other hand, was women acting independently, for their own personal monetary benefit. This was seen as posing a threat to the patriarchal social order, to Confucian relationships, and thus to community and society itself. The stigma against prostitution thus came primarily not from any association of sex itself as being stigmatizing, but rather from a Neo-Confucian morality which both opposed greed, and supported a patriarchal conception of women’s passive relationship to the men in her life (father, husband, employer) as rightful and appropriate. When women were seen not as self-sacrificing dutiful daughters, but as profit-seeking independent women who sought to entice young men away from their work, their families, and their wallets, this, Stanley argues, was the key source of stigma and attitudes against prostitution.

Meiji period hand-colored photo of courtesans on display in the Yoshiwara.

Another significant trend seen in Selling Women is the commodification of women. Whereas in some times and places, such as Nagasaki in the mid-Edo period, prostitutes were treated much like full subjects and members of the community, with, Stanley asserts, prostitution being seen as little different from any other job, in others, such as the early 17th century northern Japanese mining town of Innai, or the highly commercialized networks of trading women from brothel to brothel across the mid-19th century Inland Sea, women were essentially objects, owned by their families or by brothel masters, to be bought, sold, loaned out, or moved about as men wished. The commodification, or objectification, of women is key to women’s exploitation and ill treatment both historically and today, and so in addressing this issue, Selling Women becomes an eye-opening introduction too, in some respects, to some of the most key issues in women’s history and feminist studies more broadly, bringing the reader insights into how these issues play out beyond their own place and time (the 21st century Western world / US), informing about early modern Japan while at the same time containing great relevance beyond simply that which pertains to the early modern Japanese case.

That Stanley addresses multiple different places, and types of places, across the archipelago and across the Edo period, makes her study far more valuable and meaningful than it might have been otherwise. The Yoshiwara cannot stand as representative of prostitution throughout the realm, but neither could a case study of a post-station, mining town, or port town alone appropriately represent the archipelago-wide situation and thus remedy that problem. In this sense, Selling Women could serve as a model, or as inspiration, for other works, which might similarly bring a more regionally diverse approach to any of a myriad of other topics. Certainly in my own work I intend to examine how the Ryukyuan missions processed through the streets, and were received, not only in Edo, and not only in Tōkaidō post-stations, but in Kagoshima and Inland Sea port towns as well. In doing so, Stanley provides a much more illuminating and informative treatment of how prostitution manifested itself, across the realm, than perhaps any other previous work.

However, her approach also creates some difficulties, in that by spanning both space and time, the book compares apples and oranges, and fails to provide a clear indication of which differences manifest across time, and which across space. In Chapter Four, village headmen and the like in villages surrounding Kantō area post-stations are shown to have seen prostitution in the post-stations as a distraction pulling young men away from the farms, as a waste of money, and as a threat to social order and to village culture otherwise. Meanwhile, Chapter Five illustrates that urban/commercial town officials in port towns in the Inland Sea encouraged the opposite, seeing prostitution as essential to the prosperity of the port. It is laudable that Stanley shows both townsmen and villager perspectives, silencing the voices of neither. However, her case studies leave unclear the ways in which Inland Sea port officials’ attitudes aligned (or not) with those of the post-station officials the Kantō villagers were opposing, and likewise, how much the people of fishing villages in the Inland Sea might have been comparable in their views and desires to those of the Kantō farming villages. Similarly, Chapter One describes the all-but-complete commodification of women in the mining town of Innai, in northern Japan, in the early decades of the Edo period, before the reach of Tokugawa legal & administrative authority had quite extended into such an area. Yet it is left fairly unclear whether the same took place at that time throughout the archipelago, or only in the north, or perhaps even only in some towns and villages of the north and not others. As women are presented as more commodified again towards the very end of the Edo period, in the Inland Sea ports of Chapter Five, here too we are left wondering whether this is something distinctive of the Inland Sea cross-temporally, or distinctive of more archipelago-wide developments by the 1850s-1860s.

A view of the Inland Sea port town of Mitarai.

The question of the representativeness of each of Stanley’s cases, and the extent to which they can stand to inform us as to circumstances in other port towns or post stations, recalls an issue we have wrestled with throughout this reading list, perhaps most eloquently addressed by Martin Dusinberre in defense of his discussion of Kaminoseki. No case can be truly representative. Reality is more complicated than that, variation is everywhere, and no study could truly even begin to approach representative comprehensiveness without doing an even more thorough examination of a far greater number of cases. None of the places described by Stanley in this book can truly stand as indicative that all other post-stations, or all other mining towns, were just the same. Indeed, she even notes that, for example, some domains (such as Hiroshima) largely looked the other way and tolerated prostitution in their ports, while others (such as Takamatsu) were far stricter on prohibiting it outside of entertainment districts such as those associated with shrines and temples. Yet, while Mitarai might not be able to stand for Murotsu, nor the Kantō area post-stations of the Nakasendō for those of the Tōkai region along the Tōkaidō, some general trends and recurrent themes are evident.

Prostitution in Japan is argued to have grown chiefly in the big cities in the 17th century, before expanding out to provincial villages and towns in a significant way only beginning in the mid-18th century. While Stanley’s often conflicting examples remind us to always acknowledge the great degree of variation which existed, still there are enough similarities between the cases to allow us to generalize about what likely took place, if not in any one particular locale untouched by Stanley, then still about what “likely” “often” happened in “many” cases. Officials often prioritized economic prosperity over protecting the social order, claiming this to be compassionate & benevolent governance and to be a defense of the economic well-being of the people, even as they ignored the suffering of a sub-section of those people: their female subjects sold into, essentially, sex slavery. Indentured servitude was represented as dutiful and self-sacrificing, and not as an affront to women’s personhood and autonomy, and assertion of that autonomy on the part of the woman was seen as socially destructive, and as deriving from selfishness and greed. As a prostitute, she was meant to be an outlet for others’ desires, not to possess or act upon her own, and since female passivity was seen as a virtue, a woman could not assert her own agency without compromising her own moral position. Though one of Stanley’s key purposes in this book is to counter the romantic vision of the Yoshiwara put out by much other scholarship, and thus she does emphasize the difficulties and suffering of women forced into prostitution, she also notes beneficial or progressive aspects of cultural developments. She notes, for example, that even in the case of Inland Sea ports in the 1860s, where girls were legally bound to their contracts, and to the unspoken “rules of the teahouses,” and where a brothel manager could transfer a girl to another establishment as far as several provinces away without much room for moral appeal by her parents, and indeed even in most prostitutes’ circumstances throughout the archipelago and across the period, even in these cases they still were treated as something more than purely property with monetary value. By contrast, in the mining town of Innai, a man frequently could not petition for debt forgiveness unless he had sold his wife and daughter along with all of his other possessions.

Thus, we are presented with both a handful of focused and informative case studies, and considerable overarching general understandings. Selling Women goes far beyond what (almost?) anyone else has previously done, examining prostitution and attitudes towards women across numerous different places and circumstances across the early modern Japanese archipelago, and while noting trends across time. Her study shows how many of the same issues which plague women in other times and places throughout world history played out in Edo period Japan, both similarly, and in distinctive ways particular to this case.

Public domain and Creative Commons images courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

On Politics, Left and Right

Richard Martinez, whose son Chris Martinez was killed in the Isla Vista shootings in May 2014. Photo from a memorial exhibit on campus at UC Santa Barbara, June 2015.

In the wake of yet another mass shooting here in the United States, yet another new multitude of blog posts, op-ed pieces, and the like have come out commenting on the issues of gun control, gun rights, mental health, and so on. I found one by David Roberts, published on VOX, particularly thought-provoking.

I’ll admit, I skimmed over a considerable portion of the article dealing with how liberals’ and conservatives’ brains are (apparently, according to research) observably different. I’m no neuroscientist, but from what I’ve read on that subject, please correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel like there may be a correlation / causation issue here. Do people become liberals or conservatives because they’re born with (genetically, physically, chemically) different brains, and thus see the world differently, and think differently? Or, are their brains different because of how they’ve developed, due to exposure to experiences, lessons learned from parents & teachers & media, etc.? Are our brains different because of how we think, or do we think differently because of how our brains are?

But, Roberts then goes on to talk about the psychology, ideology, philosophy, whatever we want to call it, of “Why mass shootings don’t convince gun owners to support gun control,” that is,

To our gun owner, another mass shooting is not an argument for getting rid of guns. It’s a confirmation of his every instinct, another sign of moral and societal decay, another reason to arm himself and defend what he’s got left.

With that in mind, and then reading about the latest textbook controversy in South Korea, I got to thinking… Maybe this is PoliSci 101, super basic. I wouldn’t know, since I’ve never taken an actual Political Science class. But, I wonder if there’s something to be said of the political left & right in many countries – or, perhaps, in all, by definition? – that the left might take the positive aspects of one’s history as given, thus seeking the negative in order to persuade improvement, while the right takes the positive as being in constant need of re-affirmation, or reassurance.

It really is no wonder that our politics today (in the US at least) is so polarized – not because of beliefs about gay marriage, or abortion, or Islam, per se, but because of the deeper *emotional* or existential roots of why people feel, or believe, the way they do. If you believe that whatever good in your society is under constant threat of crumbling, then of course you’re going to want to “conserve” it, and not only will you be conservative in your views, but you might take it as a deep existential and emotional crisis… How are we, as liberals, progressives, whatever the word is, to combat that? We can try to combat that by pointing out the faults, the negatives, in what the conservatives are trying to conserve – point out to them that the good things they’re trying to restore or conserve aren’t so good after all, or that the ‘good old days’ never really were real – but any such arguments only reinforce their notion that things are falling apart, and that it’s our fault, that the liberals /want/ to tear it apart… When such things come down to so many people’s very core fibers of their being, when it has to do with feelings of existential threat, I don’t know that rational argument or critical thinking can win the day. And that goes for both sides, in their own senses…

What resolution can there be when people come from such fundamentally different views of the world? As an American raised on particular notions of democracy and civics and so forth, I want to believe that the solution is that we need to re-learn how to once again come together to discuss our differing opinions together, rationally and compassionately considering the merits of all sides of an issue, in order to come to some kind of agreement, or compromise. Such are the ideals upon which our country is based. But, I’m not sure I see such removed, thoughtful, respectful discussion even in our university classrooms and quads. Are such ideals attainable? Were they ever?

The Stars and Stripes, flying over Pearl Harbor. Which America are we trying to conserve, or to achieve?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Takashi Fujitani, Splendid Monarchy: Power and Pageantry in Modern Japan, UC Press, 1996.

Alright. Japan books from my exam list. What we’ve all been waiting for. Here we go.

Much of the modern ideas about emperorship and nation in Japan today stems from ideological constructions of the Meiji period intentionally constructed at that time. Such ideological and ritual constructions claim to be a “restoration” or continuation of ancient precedents and unbroken tradition, but in fact were heavily reshaped, if not invented whole-cloth in many cases. This makes Meiji Japan a ripe ground for applying the general concepts of Hobsbawm & Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition, a project for which Takashi Fujitani’s Splendid Monarchy serves as perhaps the greatest effort in English-language scholarship.

This basic concept, that modern traditions of government in Japan were largely (re)invented in the Meiji period, is evident from almost any basic survey of the history, and scholars such as Amino Yoshihiko and Ben-Ami Shillony have discussed in some detail the evolution of terminology applied to the Emperor. But, while some art historians may have also touched upon the use of architecture to construct and convey Japan’s modernity, few if any have written in English on the Imperial Palace, or described the construction of Meiji era pageantry as Fujitani does.

Beyond this, Fujitani also contributes valuably to the field by illuminating the degree to which the architects of Meiji nationalism and imperial ideology did not have a single plan all along, and by detailing the chronological progression as plans changed dramatically over time, especially in the first two decades or so of the Meiji Period. While most survey treatments of the Meiji period represent it as a steady-going, directed, and rapid period of progress, with each of a number of significant metaphorical “bricks” being placed one after another (e.g. the move to Tokyo, the adoption of military dress for the emperor, the Constitution, public education, the formation of the Diet, and so forth), Fujitani reveals that for much of the 1870s and into the 1880s, there was much disagreement about the form and direction of nearly every aspect of modernization, and furthermore that from 1873 to 1889, there wasn’t even a palace standing in the center of Tokyo. As he explains, there were a multitude of opinions in these early years as to whether Tokyo should become the Imperial capital, and whether it should be the only capital, and the Imperial Court was, at times, seriously described as being ambulatory, harkening back to ancient precedents which had not been the case in over one thousand years.

A model of the Daijôkyû, a ritual space within the Imperial Palace.

As Fujitani explains, it was only in the 1880s that it was decided that Tokyo would become the sole imperial capital, and that Tokyo and Kyoto would be spun in a particular manner discursively, to emphasize the twin aspects of the Imperial institution and of the Japanese state: ancient and modern; with great traditions stretching back to the time of the gods, but also eminently modern; spiritual and mystical, but also with real economic and military power; feminine and masculine; and so forth. It was only at that time, and especially beginning with the completion of the Palace and promulgation of the Constitution in 1889, that Tokyo began to be reshaped in a more extensive and centrally-directed way, into a modern capital after the models of the Western powers; and it was only at that time that modern Imperial / political rituals began to be constructed in a more coordinated and rhetorically informed sense, with the architects of the modern Imperial institution carefully constructing the private image of the Emperor as spiritual, mystical leader, untainted by politics, descendant of the Sun Goddess and of a direct unbroken lineage, continuing supposedly ancient (in fact newly invented) rituals, as balanced with a construction of the emperor as modern, martial, and deeply engaged in the administration of the state. As explained by Fujitani, all of this was expressed through pageantry, architecture, and public monuments, designed both to impress the Japanese people, and foreign observers, conveying to both domestic and overseas audiences Japan’s power and modernity.

Right: A statue of Prince Kitashirakawa-no-miya Yoshihisa at Kitanomaru Park. The first member of the Imperial family known to have died outside of Japan, he died of illness in Taiwan in 1895.

Fujitani makes several bold and significant choices in structuring his book, which contribute to its strengths and weaknesses in various areas; no volume can do everything, and Fujitani has made his decisions. Firstly, he sacrifices deeper, more extensive discussion of particular topics in favor of a broader survey of the various different ways in which the Meiji state performed & expressed discourses of legitimacy and modernity. By touching upon the two Imperial Palaces in Kyoto and Tokyo, the development of the urban space of Tokyo, the museumification of Kyoto, Imperial tours in the provinces, Imperial parades in the capital, Imperial funerals, bronze monuments, triumphal arches, and so forth, Fujitani articulates a network of powerfully interlinked phenomena, and makes that interlinking more evident. However, he advances this important thematic / conceptual argument at the cost of sacrificing more thorough description of any one of those subjects. A reader looking for an account of the history of bronze statues in Japan, of the urban development of Tokyo, of the museumification of Kyoto, or of the architecture and layout of the Imperial Palace, will find just enough material to get intrigued, but not enough to quite cover the subject satisfactorily. But, this is the balance we all must choose.

On the positive side, Fujitani grounds his work in Meiji period Japan, and states emphatically that his objective is not “to construct universally valid generalizations about political rituals” (95). While the work might, hopefully, inform others’ examinations of other times and places, Fujitani does not use Japan merely as a tool, merely as an excuse or a case study to discuss broader conceptual topics; rather, he makes a solid and meaningful contribution to our understanding of Japanese history in particular, and does not allow theoretical concerns to pull him off course from producing something deeply informative about Meiji era Japan, in particular. I suspect that similar works have been done, building off of or inspired by The Invention of Tradition, to describe similar developments in Britain and Europe at this time; I have already posted about a work which does the same for the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. Fujitani’s Splendid Monarchy contributes valuably to this constellation of projects, providing the fruits for comparative work by presenting a treatment thoroughly grounded in the historical specifics of one nation, Japan.

All photos my own. (Book image from Amazon.)

Tea is Not Tea

Thanks to Mindy Landeck for introducing me to this wonderful poem & piece of calligraphy by Ii Naosuke, which reads:


Cha wa cha arazu, cha ni arazaru ni arazu,
tada cha nomi, kore cha to nadzuku.


“Tea is not tea. It is not not tea.
Just drinking tea, that is what we call tea.”

The title of my blog here has changed from “A Man with Tea” to “Nubui Kuduchi,” but, even so, when I saw this, I remembered it had been way too long since I had blogged about tea at all, and this is the perfect sort of thing to post about about tea.

I am a bit surprised to learn that Ii Naosuke – most famous for his political role as chief of the Shogunate Elders, who supported the ‘opening’ up of the country to trade & formal relations with Western powers, and who was later assassinated just outside the castle – was a major tea guy, at all. But, then again, so many of these daimyô engaged in various cultural pursuits. I am not surprised, though, that such a piece of calligraphy would be done as a gift for his Zen teacher. Thanks again for sharing this, Mindy!

(Image of 19th century public domain object reproduced in a book… not sure on the citation, though. Sorry!)

Right: A Jewish wedding in Aleppo, Syria, 1914. Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Our racial politics, like so much else, is often framed as a dichotomy. Activists seek intersectional solidarity and allyship with all people of color (PoC), a giant category that seems to include everyone under the sun except whites. Or, alternatively, activists address African-American and Hispanic/Latino issues and overlook everyone else. This manifests in the diversity rhetoric of university rhetoric and countless other places, and of course it does so in different ways in different cases – life is complicated, and I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise. After all, the idea that this is complicated, that diversity and identity are not a dichotomy, not even a spectrum arranged unidirectionally from white to non-white, but rather a complex mess of factors, is key to the topic of this post: do Mizrahi Jews count as “People of Color”?

The Forward – one of the oldest and most major Yiddish newspapers in America, now published in English too – had a great opinion piece this past August, written by Sigal Samuel. I really love the nuance and complexity Samuel brings to this issue; the author’s journey, wondering whether she counts as a “person of color,” and getting very different answers from people she speaks to, points to the problematic nature of our dichotomous conceptions of race.

Okay, terminology time. Mizrahi Jews are those who themselves, or their relatively recent ancestors, come from the Middle East. The Jews currently fleeing persecution in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq are Mizrahi Jews. They are as Middle Eastern, as non-European, as any (other) Arab. If Ashkenazi Jews – those of Eastern European descent – are arguably to be considered something other than just plain “white,” then surely Mizrahi Jews, and Sephardic Jews – those of Mediterranean heritage, largely descended from those who moved to Italy, Greece, or elsewhere after being kicked out of Spain in 1492 – should count as “people of color” as well, right? But, of course, it’s not that simple.


Left: Sigal Samuel. Image from the Forward.

Samuel’s piece isn’t very long, so I don’t want to risk writing a blog post about it that repeats the entire thing, or that takes longer than her piece itself, though there are many excellent choice bits. I invite you to go read the whole thing, but, in a nutshell, Samuel writes that she, her family, and many members of her community, based both on their own feelings about their heritage (their self-sense of identity) and on the way they are treated in society, generally feel themselves to be something other than white. And yet, when she asks around, various people – including an African-American Jewish acquaintance and a (presumably Ashkenazi) Jewish professor of Middle Eastern Studies – tell her in no uncertain terms that she is not a person of color, because her people have never experienced such discrimination in the US as Asians and blacks. Further, with Ashkenazi being the dominant type of Jews (at least in a great many communities in the US), and with Ashkenazis having come to be considered white, “Jewish” as a category, as a whole, has likewise come to be considered white, separating Samuel from others of Arab or Indian descent, in many people’s eyes.

What I really like about this piece is that it not only illustrates these contradictions, and the failures of our black-white concept of race to accommodate the diversity of real human experience, but that it also highlights the ways in which identity is political. This is not simply about empirical categorizing – coming up with definitive determining factors and categorizing everyone “correctly” according to who they really are, or where they really belong. It is about the personal and political motivations, purposes, and (dis)advantages, in claiming a particular identity. This is why, for example, many Okinawans assert an “indigenous” identity, while Koreans and Tibetans, from rather similar historical circumstances, do not – for political purposes, and because of some sense of cultural affinity with Hawaiians and certain other groups.

Identity in our society is highly political, or politicized. As Samuel writes,

“Was I, a woman who sometimes gets read as white and therefore benefits from white privilege, wrongly co-opting the “of color” label in everything from internal monologues to health insurance forms?”

And in the end, she identifies her choice to identify as a person of color as a choice, and as a political one, not one for which there is a definitive correct answer. She writes:

Claiming the Jew of color identity, then, was not only a way to express my authentic feeling of moving through the world as a perpetual Other — it was also an attempt to destabilize [the idea that Jewish = white, and that Jewishness is opposed to Arab identity]. But was that, you know, kosher? Or did that performative aspect give my story some uncomfortable Rachel Dolezal-ish undertones?

She asks herself “Is there any sense in claiming an “of color” identity?” She decides that within the context of the history of race & discrimination in the United States, claiming a POC identity does not make sense for her, “But if you’re asking, “Does claiming a POC identity have a point, a practical purpose?” then, I thought, the answer might be yes.”

I love the way this piece highlights the complexities of race and identity. Many people seem to feel quite self-assured and self-righteous in policing who does and does not count, even as their own liberal-progressive discourses emphasize self-determination (see: gender identity, gender pronouns, who counts as indigenous?, who counts as black?). And yet, the world is more complicated than that. People – their experiences, their heritage – are more complicated than that.

The New Qing History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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