Asian History Carnival Coming Soon!

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 8:50 pm

I will be hosting the third edition of the Asian History Carnival on Sunday, March 5. Deadline for nominations of posts — anything about Asian history written since the last edition in mid-December — is Saturday, March 4th.

You can send nominations to me (jonathan at froginawell dot net) or use the handy Blog Carnival Submission Form.

Spread the word!


Other Well-dwellers

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 2:47 am

Some years ago while studying in Beijing I bought a good number of nicely bound hardback volumes from a series entitled the “Library of Chinese Classics” (大中华文库, published by the 外文出版社 and 湖南人民出版社 in 1999), which includes many of the standard Chinese philosophical works one might expect to find in such a collection. What I found so delightful about the collection was the very useful way it put the original classical Chinese together with a modern Chinese translation of the classics on the left side of each page, along with an English translation on the right side of the page. In addition to letting me see how certain classical Chinese phrases are rendered into modern Chinese, it made it easier for me to find the original literary Chinese when I’m looking for a particular passage I have seen in other translations.

After a failed attempt in China, I’m taking first year “literary Chinese” again this year and after a semester of mostly reading some famous accounts of great assassins, we have moved on to Mengzi (classical Chinese is one of those wonderful languages where first year students dive straight into reading great literature). I often refer to other translations as a check on my own pitiful attempts and learn a lot from the ways various scholars have approached difficult passages. Unfortunately, from the perspective of English readability, the English translation in the above mentioned series is usually the worst I have come across. Many sentences feel like direct literal translations and are often horribly bland. While I’m in no position to evaluate the accuracy of this relatively new work, even if it were to trump all previous translations by correcting various egregious errors or misunderstandings, I wouldn’t want to use it by itself. Look, though, what one of the English editors, Chu Zhida, has to say in the introduction to the Mengzi volume in this series after he has listed other existing translations of the work:

“From the above-mentioned translations and theses we can see, Mencius bears certain influences in the west. But in modern cultural, the flow-in and flow-out are not balanced. Those flowing out were most completed by foreign missionaries, and later introduced and translated by foreign sinologists. Those completed by Chinese scholars especially systematic introduction are next to none. Since the study of the Chinese traditional culture has been orientated by the westerners, it sounds that the secondary supersedes the primary. As a foreigner, even if he is a sinologist, his knowledge of Chinese ancient history and cultural background is surely limited. As a result of the great differences between the east and the west, those translations and reviews must have born some negative influences. The author once wrote an article entitled Comments on James Legge’s Translation of Two Passages from Mencius (published in Chinese Translators Journal, the 6th issue of 1995), in which he pointed out: The work of translating The Four Books and Five Classics had better be completed by Chinese scholars in certain institutions and in a planned way and a number of learned scholars should join the work led by an authoritative administration, thus making those Chinese national treasures have better versions of foreign languages and become an important component of the world cultural treasure-house….As a translator it is an honour for the author to join part of the work. Working as a reviser of the English version of Mencius gave him an excellent opportunity to learn. Mencius mainly translated by Professor Zhao Zhentao is of high quality and better than the earlier versions such as J. Legge’s. It is worth admiring.” (41, my bold)

Fortunately, the English in the translation of the main text is at least better than Chu’s own introduction. What can we say of the claim made here though? On the surface it seems fairly harmless, if not common sensical to suggest that “foreigners” are at a distinct disadvantage when attempting to tackle such great Chinese classics, and it is certainly not controversial to claim that their knowledge is “limited.”

However, Chu is making the stronger claim that the translation of such works should be left to Chinese scholars. The result of this in this particular case, as I have indicated, was a translation that judged on its English alone, left much to be desired. The solution, of course, would have been better cooperation between the Chinese scholars and translators on this project, and truly fluent and eloquent English speakers (of any origin) who could have pointed out the many places where the resulting English prose suffered.

While the discussion here is specifically about translation, this issue is closely related to one that many of us “foreigners” who study East Asia must face time and time again. Must all of us humbly concede at the start of our careers that due to our “limited knowledge” and “cultural background” everything we do must be tainted with whatever Chu means to imply with the term “negative influences”? Must we confess that we can never truly do important and inspiring work in the field of, say for example, Chinese history and constrain ourselves to the subordinate task of introducing this room of the world’s “cultural treasure-house” to the ignorant West? Indeed, doesn’t the title of this website, 井底之蛙, suggest that we have already submitted to the verdict?

I think many of us would contest all of the above, and dismiss many such attacks as arrogant nativism. However, as this passage suggests, it is still more common than we might like to think. A friend of mine who studied early Japanese poetry for her dissertation was told by the professor she was to work with during her time in Japan that, “Foreigners can’t possibly understand the Manyôshû.” She had to switch to another professor, at another university, who had more faith her capacities.

It will always be the case that well-trained “native” scholars will be able to read more, faster, and will in many cases have “better instincts” on interpreting various material. I for one am constantly reminded of my own linguistic limitations, not to mention my vast areas of ignorance when I was doing some of my research in Tokyo and Taiwan, especially when compared to others I met there sharing my interests. However, I have also encountered plenty of counterexamples to the latter “better instincts” claim, especially with scholars who may have spent greater time studying and working with certain kinds of material than their “native” counterparts. Whatever raw skills we attribute to certain individuals, however, and however easily we dismiss the idea of an innately superior interpretive ability of a people for their “own” history, it doesn’t change the fact that all of us studying the history of East Asia suffer from severe limits to our vision (and I don’t mean to suggest by this metaphor that there is one “complete picture” out there to be seen), whether we are working/raised in the United States or in Taiwan, China, etc. That, I believe, is what I had in mind when starting out on this 井底之蛙 project. I would love to see more interaction between graduate students and professors in the less formal and hierarchical setting of a weblog like this, between academically minded students/professors and the greater public interested in East Asian history, and between those of us studying East Asia “over here” and studying East Asia “over there.”

–As a final provocative afternote, I should mention that I feel strongly that the fact that Orals/Comprehensive Exam PhD reading lists are in many cases largely or sometimes completely limited to English language works is one of the first steps within the graduate education setting here to creating the mental divisions between “our academic” world and “their” academic world.


I won’t cry for the wasted years

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:58 am

Reading Mote’s Imperial China 900-1800 I came across an interesting quote (p.45)

On the (rather irregular) death of Emperor Zhuangzong of the Later Tang in 926 an ambassador was sent to Abaoji, ruler of the ethnically Khitan Liao dynasty to inform him of this fact. According to the ambassador…

Abaoji uttered a wail of grief, then speaking through his flowing tears he said: “I swore brotherhood with the father of that lord of Hedong Province; that Son of Heaven is Henan was my son, as the son of my dear friend….That my son should have come to such an end! It is so unjust! He wept uncontrollably.

It is a long account, and Mote mines it for a number of interesting things on Abaoji and his attempts to appear a good Confucian. I was struck by the tears. Did he really cry? He had no doubt heard that Zhuangzong was dead some time before (Abaoji was on campaign against the Bohai, so the ambassador took a long time to find him), so even on the off-chance that Abaoji really cared about Zhuangzong personally, it seems unlikely that this is what we would call a spontaneous reaction. I suppose the ambassador could have lied, but according to Mote this comes from a fairly private account, and that would only push the question back a bit, why would the ambassador think that the tears would reflect credit on Abaoji? That he would get credit for having a close friendship with Zhuangzhong makes sense, but why the tears?

Of course as an American male I am never supposed to cry, but as a historian I am well aware that this (men don’t cry) is a cultural construct that, if pressed, I would associate with the Victorians. I know that medieval white men cried, and that we don’t so it seems like blaming the Victorians should work. Certainly I try to teach my son (and daughter) to display their emotions in a socially appropriate way, which may mean not crying but certainly means not melting down in the cereal aisle when I won’t buy them what they want.

Abaoji was apparently raised to emote visibly in appropriate situations. I’m wondering if this is a Chinese thing. At least in the Secret History I don’t recall any displays like this from nomadic leaders, which Abaoji sort of is. On the other hand in at least some Chinese texts visible signs of emotion are signs of sincere emotions.

The one that pops to mind immediately is a Mock Contract between a Slave and His Master, a Han dynasty text reprinted (p.231) in Cho-yun Hsu’s Han Agriculture The story begins with a slave insisting that serving wine is not his job, and then having the master write out a long contract explicitly stating every duty a slave could possibly have. The document is a nice tour of the Han rural economy. It is a student favorite in part because of the slave’s reaction to having his duties spelled out.

After the contract was read, the slave was utterly speechless. In reckless agitation, he knocked his head repeatedly, and struck himself with both hands. Tears fell from his eyes and snivel from his nose hung down a foot.

Students of course love snot. The way I explain this is to say that given Chinese medical ideas about proper balance of the 5 elements and such any physical or emotional upset almost has to lead to visible tears and oozing viscera. The slave is emotionally upset, and you can see this in his losing control of bodily functions. (I’m not sure how accurate this is, but they seem to accept it.) Abaoji has to cry to seem really sad, so he does. I’m not so much saying he is putting it on as that he has been raised to emote visibly in socially appropriate situations. Is this a common thing in East Asia? When were Heian courtiers supposed to cry? Qing bureaucrats?

For a picture of Abaoji’s home town, go here


Pruning hooks into spears

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:46 am

K.C. Johnson calls our attention to a post by which discusses the state of military history. K.C. is mostly interested in getting military historians the representation they deserve in the academy. He links to Tom Bruscino at Big Tent who is more interested in making military historians a bit less defensive about what they do.

As luck would have it, my copy of JAS has arrived, and in it is Mary Elizabeth Berry’s Presidential Address to the Association of Asian Studies “Samurai Trouble: Thoughts on War and Loyalty.” Presidential addresses are often things best listened to over drinks, and in most cases probably don’t need to be printed. Usually they are think pieces which are sometimes quite good, but often are both not very revealing to those who know the President’s work and opaque to those in another field (a real problem in the Association for Asian Studies, a “big yurt” sort of organization.)

Berry sidesteps this problem by building her talk around teaching. This was a good thing in a number of ways. One, I liked it, because an article on how Berry teaches the sengoku period is of course, worth reading. It also sort of immunizes her from attack and frees her up to take intellectual risks. In a presentation like that, or on a weblog, there is a certain tendency for historians to be timid. Don’t speculate, someone will jump on you.1 If you are just talking about teaching you can get away with more by saying its only for undergrads. The most important thing, however, is that it lets her give a fairly basic lecture to her colleagues without directly talking down to them.

One of her points is that military history is worth studying and that war is not just something to be skipped over. While I agree with that I also find it rather stunning that a scholar who published a book on Hideyoshi in 1989 in would be saying that in 2005. She gives a footnote to Geoffrey Parker whom she thanks for his “generosity in response to my many fumbling queries about his field.” To some extent this is just typical academic politeness, but I found it odd that she would call it “his field” and that the whole piece has the tone of someone discovering a set of ideas for the first time. Maybe this is just a ploy to help convince a probably skeptical audience, but it does not really feel like it. While I think what she is doing is admirable and interesting, I’m also a bit bothered that it has taken so long. As Bruscino points out “Is there a historiography on women’s history that goes beyond burning bras?” is not a question one would expect to hear among historians of any sort, and one would certainly not get points for open-mindedness for asking it.

A more substantive point of the Berry piece is that there is a complex relationship between the experience of war and the way it is remembered and re-made. Almost all of the lessons about loyalty and duty and such do not grow directly out of the experience of battle in sengoku but rather out of stuff like The Book of Five Rings and later movies. It is not just modern (P.C., liberal academic, etc.) scholars who try to obscure what war is. Berry was struck by the fact that while West Point takes its ethical responsibilities very seriously, a search of its web page for the words “kill” and “killing” yields mostly references to the volleyball team. It’s a good article and worth reading.

1 In the printed version she deals with some of the objections that were brought to her attention immediately after the original talk. It doesn’t take long.


World Historical Trends: Valentine’s Day Surgery?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:52 pm

My father sent along this article about the rise in Shanghai of plastic surgery being marketed to couples as a Valentine’s Day celebration/present.

I don’t know which is the more interesting world historical trend: the rise of Valentine’s Day as a secular world event or the spread of plastic surgery as a status symbol, in spite of its risks [via].

Of course, at some point someone will try to make an analogy or comparison or otherwise link this with footbinding, but I think it’s going to be a tough sell, given the temporal and cultural distance between the two practices, without some serious underlying theoretical foundation….

On slightly more serious note, the latest Japan Focus (which is going to have to change its name soon, given its broader scope) includes an interesting and nicely detailed article by Yonson Ahn about the historiographical border war between Korea and China.

Graduate Conference at Columbia

Filed under: — katrina @ 11:05 am

I participated in the East Asia Graduate Students conference at the weekend, and it was great to meet so many people working in the field, especially those with fields intersecting with mine. I also got to meet Motoe Sasaki-Gayle, another contributor to this site, as we were on the same panel, discussing the New Woman in China.

It is a shame there is nothing equivalent to this in Europe, it is an idea I kicked around a bit at my college at Cambridge, the idea of hosting a graduate students conference, having seen how successful the Columbia model is, I might try to pursue it further.

I hope the conference organisers publish the proceedings.


AHC #3 Coming Soon!

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 9:03 pm

The third edition of the Asian History Carnival will be on March 3rd (3/3), but we still don’t have a volunteer for host! So, if you’re an Asian History Blogger, or some relevant combination of those three things, and would like to host, let me know; the fun/work ratio is good, and the result is a permanent place in the blogging history (not to mention traffic and links!).

Until we have a volunteer, articles can be submitted to me: jonathan[at]froginawell[dot]net



Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:50 am

I think we need a new word for the study of colonialism, imperialism and the post-colonial discourses, pro and con. Pro? Who’s in favor of it? Well, this is what makes it interesting, these days: there are a lot of former colonial powers out there whose citizens and leaders, in their heart of hearts, still believe that they accomplished something that was ultimately positive, who still believe that their developmental initiatives and their anti-communist (or anti-capitalist) positions were justified by subsequent developments. This is usually — explicitly or implicitly — intended to mitigate or cancel out any discussions of political repression, economic exploitation, military atrocities or strategic abandonment. Sometimes it’s just good historical sense, but then it usually comes with very careful caveats about not canceling out the other stuff.



AHA Panel Proposal

Filed under: — katrina @ 5:59 am

Hello everyone

I am trying to put together a panel for the AHA next year. I am interested in the construction of modern womanhood in early 20th century culture in East and Southeast Asia. This panel could also include comparative papers from other geographical areas. If any Frog in a Well readers would be interested in contributing, please email me


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