Advice from Xu Gan in the Balanced Discourses

Over the holidays I had a chance to read John Makeham’s translation of Xu Gan’s (170-217 CE) late Han dynasty Balanced Discourses 中論 (Ctext).1 The work is a collection of philosophical essays written at a time when the Eastern Han dynasty was on the verge of collapse. In addition to helpful introductions by both Makeham and Dang Shengyuan, the text was a delight to read thanks to the side-by-side Chinese and English texts and even more so because of Makeham’s wonderful notes, which go into all sorts of delightful tangents beyond the immediate text so that the reader may come away having learned exactly how tallies were used for contracts and issuing orders in early China (p301), the three different types of ming fate during the Han (p309), an explanation of the five skills of archery (p315), and the six classes of script (p316). I confess, in some of Xu Gan’s essays, I found the notes more interesting than Xu Gan’s grumpy school master moralizing. A few thoughts on two of the chapters:

Ch 3. Cultivating the Fundamental 脩本 (Ctext)

This chapter include’s Xu Gan’s take on an old debate on human nature. The great Confucian figure of Mengzi believed that our nature is good (3A1, 6A6), found in all of us in the form of sprouts of benevolence that needed careful nurturing in a good environment. It can be directed right or left, but naturally ran downhill [towards goodness] (6A2). He said we should not be surprised to find that those lacking any “constant livelihood” would fail to have a “constant heart” and that most of us are gentle in years of plenty but violent in years of poverty (6A16). Mengzi is often juxtaposed with Xunzi who believed that “people’s nature is bad,” (Ch 23) but that with a little “steaming and bending” thanks to education (Ch 1), anyone can be put on the path to righetousnessness. If Mengzi was fortunate enough to never meet a psychopath in his life, Xunzi’s view always puzzled me a bit as having the opposite of the “Problem of Evil” – that is, the problem of where goodness comes from (or, in his case, the original impetus towards ritual as a way to offer constraint upon us) if it is the case that we all naturally delight in evil. Did we all stumble onto a few sacrificial vessels and instruments, and suddenly discover restraint and goodness?

Xu Gan offers a nice middle ground to this problem (if you are into this sort of moral reasoning) by choosing a position between Mengzi and Xunzi:

Pearls contain grains of sand and jade harbors flaws. This is their nature. A good craftsman works on them to purify their natures, making them appear as if they had alway been thus. Thus when one sees these two things after they have been purified, one can know that the virtue of humaneness is able to be refined.2


That is to say, we are neither all benevolently flowing water, nor pieces of wicked wood waiting to be bent, but imperfect creatures that need to get the wabi-sabi whacked out of us. Mengzi has a rich sociological approach to virtue in his emphasis on economic well-being and environmental influences on our conduct but is perhaps too optimistic in his evaluation of the universality of empathy and Xunzi has his “the problem of good” Xu Gan, on the other hand, runs into trouble when he moves from individual to society, with a pretty problematic explanation for why things are just awful in the world of the imploding Han dynasty: his concept of bianshu (變數):

In times of order, practictioners of good reap good fortune, while wrongdoors meet with misfortune. In times of chaos, however, practitioners of good do not reap good fortune and wrongdoers do not meet with misfortune. This is caused by departures from regularities.3


Normally, things work the way they should, do-gooders get the goodies. But in ages of chaos, the cosmic correspondence between good deeds and lives of fortune breaks down. In a way, this is Xunzi’s problem up-scaled: that of origins. The great early Western Han dynasty historian Sima Qian once lamented the seeming senseless injustice in the sad story of the starvation of the virtuous figures of Bo Yi and Shu Qi, and thus the presumed lack of a grand moral order standing behind human affairs but it his despair may have helped him build us such a powerful and multi-sided narrative of his past.4 Xu Gan, on the other hand, offers order as a kind of magnetic force that sets the moral poles in their rightful direction. But if it is the 善者, who while reaping their good fortune, are busy maintaining the 世之治, then what brings about the that turns this on its head? Of course, from the perspective of our own times, we have all heard descriptions of the horrors of our time in similar fatalistic terms, while others have been shouting for years that it was in those very “times of order” that there were plenty of wrongdoers who failed to meet with misfortune, and deep systemic flaws that could use more than a little polishing. In other words, far less than his ancient predecessors of Mengzi, or even the Daoist Zhuangzi, Xu Gan fails, in his work, to offer much of a structural analysis of social change.

8. An Examination of Disputation 覈辯 (Ctext)

One of my favorite passages in the 中論, and also one that Makeham reproduces in his introduction, is Xu Gan’s discussion of disputation. Debate is described in early Chinese texts as a zero-sum game of winners and losers and Xu Gan doesn’t contradict this idea, but there is a section of the chapter on disputation () which shows rather more sensitivity to the relationship between two committed discussants.

Disputation is about persuading people in their hearts; it is not about verbal submission. Hence disputation is to articulate distinctions, and also to separate and distinguish different categories of affairs skillfully, so as to arrange them clearly. Disputation does not mean being quick-witted in one’s words and speech to talk over people’s heads…5


And again a bit further down:

Deriving pleasure from letting the other person complete what he has to say, and being skilled at bringing forth the intention behind the other person’s words enables each discussant to achieve fully their wishes, and each interlocutor to understand what the other speaker is saying…6


This is not the rhetorician’s toolkit, but a step back from the point-scoring to appreciate the pleasure one can take in the other’s finished thought. He points out how rare it is that any exchange with someone will produce the change of heart one is aiming for, “…would he be likely to look for victory in a single round of argument?” As I reflect on my own goals for self-improvement in the coming year, I found myself reflecting on room for improvement in my own impatience in conversation on matters I am passionate about. I shall endeavor to heed Xu Gan’s advice to 樂盡人之辭 a little more.

Alas, Xu Gan doesn’t exactly end the chapter on a warm and fuzzy note. After a critique of glibness, he rants against the many wrong people in the world, and reminds us that, in the good old days, those “who recorded what is scandalous and spread it widely, or who followed what is wrong as if it were beneficial were…put to death. This is because, by sowing doubt among the masses and confusing the people, they caused disorder to spill over the supreme way…”7

  1. Xu, Gan. John Makeham trans. Balanced discourses. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.  

  2. Ch 3 p39  

  3. p47 

  4. Ch 61 of Shiji. Stephen Durrant discusses this in his The Cloudy Mirror: Tension and Conflict in the Writings of Sima Qian. SUNY Press, 1995, 20-23.  

  5. Ch 8, p99  

  6. Ch 8, p101  

  7. Ch 8 p103  

Syllabus blogging for Spring 2018

This is way too early for me, but I thought I would procrastinate on grading a bit by thinking about what I will be doing in Spring and asking for some advice.

My classes are

Asia 200 Introduction to Asian Studies

In this class I introduce our Asian Studies students (and anyone else who cares) to Japan, sociology, Korea, history, India, literature,  etc. Old vesions here, here and here.There are usually 5 books/units, with the goal of covering various parts of geographic Asia (including the Middle East) and different disciplinary traditions. Students are encouraged to read all five books, although they only write about two of them. Obviously they all need to be cheap paperbacks. I usually pair each book up with a couple of articles/chapters from a different country/discipline, and that is the place where I could use the most help.

Image result for Kapur, Akash. India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India..

Kapur, Akash. India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India.. Riverhead Books, 2013. India/Journalism

The first unit is always on journalism and how good journalists can help you understand Asia and bad ones….can’t. This is a nice book on the modern transformation of India. I need at least a couple short things to go with it. Since this one is about India and journalism I guess I would want to pair it up with an academic article/chapter about rapid social change in….Taisho Japan or something. Maybe re-use  Folding Beijing? There are many options, so I am sure lots of people can suggest stuff.

Image result for King, Maggie. An Excess Male Harper Voyager, 2017.

King, Maggie. An Excess Male Harper Voyager, 2017. Literature/China

A Science Fiction novel about a 20-minutes in the future China where the state starts pushing a new family structure due to the lack of men.  I like the idea having them read science fiction for the literature section, since they all really like contemporary stuff and this forces them to think about the historical development of societies while also dealing with a lot of contemporary issues like gay rights, the social credit scheme etc.

I think I will have them read some of Matt Sommer’s book on polygamy in the Qing. Sommer, Matthew H. Polyandry and Wife-Selling in Qing Dynasty China: Survival Strategies and Judicial Interventions. California, 2015. Besides the fact that it is a great book, it does bring a bit of a pre-modern flavor to the class. As a historian I like to think that understanding Asia involves understanding things that happened before 1800, but that is always a hard sell.  Maybe bits of White, Merry. Perfectly Japanese: Making Families in an Era of Upheaval. California, 2002. for the evolution of families?

Image result for Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. Pantheon, 2004.

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. Pantheon, 2004. Manga/Iran

Wait, Manga are not Literature? Well at least this semester they are not. I like the idea of putting in a manga/manhua/graphic novel unit given that that so many students are drawn to the study of Asia through them, and they rock. Persopolis is the obvious choice, since it is good and pulls us away from Japan. I suspect I will require a bit of McCloud, although if I could find a more Manga-oriented version of that it would be good. Then I need some other stuff. Barefoot Gen seems obvious, but there must be something less obvious. I was thinking of Nick Stember’s translation of Manhua Journey to the West, (I did a paper on that once) but that leads me down a lot of rabbit holes, and add-on readings should be easier. Any ideas? There has to be a good historical Japanese manga I could use.

The Film Unit

There is always a unit on films and the students do a presentation of a film they pick themselves. I am leaning towards Paradise Now (two Palestinian friends try to decide if they should become suicide bombers) and Not One Less (Young girl faces the problems of developing China) Maybe do a depressing twin bill of Turtles Can Fly and Grave of the Fireflies? Any suggestions welcome. Although none of the films mentioned here fit, I usually try to include a comedy. Far too many student think that Asia, and especially Asian films, are all depressing things about oppressed concubines and peasants. I often use Let the Bullets Fly and Taxing Woman’s Return, but I could use other suggestions of good, teachable, Asian comedies.

Image result for Constable, Nicole. Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Migrant Workers, Cornell, 2007.Anthropology/Hong Kong/S.E. Asia

Constable, Nicole. Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Migrant Workers, Cornell, 2007.Anthropology/Hong Kong/S.E. Asia

I always try to get them to read one or two  academic monographs. This one of course deals with migrant labor in HK, and gives me Southeast Asia cred as well. I have a collection of other readings about this, so I should be fine, although I suppose something more political science or sociology -ish would be good. I will mention that I hate anthropology. When I am casting around for good books to use in this class I look for topics that seem interesting to students, usually contemporary and both easy to identify with and analytical. Far too many of them are by anthropologists. Why do they do all the cool stuff?

Image result for atkins, E. Taylor. Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze, 1910–1945. California, 2010. Japan/Korea/History

Atkins, E. Taylor. Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze, 1910–1945.  California, 2010. Japan/Korea/History

Probably the most academic unit, where we look at the invention of tradition. We also get some Korea content, which is good since a lot of the students are into Korea. I can think of lots of readings to tie to this, but most of them are China things, so any suggestions from the rest of Asia would be good.

HIST 436 Japan 1500-1850 Early Modern Japan

This is an Early Modern Japan class going from the Onin War or so to the end of Tokugawa. I ended up splitting Japan into two parts as the Early Modern stuff seems to lend itself better to a social/cultural history approach. This is the first time I am teaching it as a regular history class. For what it’s worth, here is the original course outline from the proposal.

So, how to teach a class like this? The textbook, obviously, is

Image result for Totman, Conrad. Early Modern Japan

Totman, Conrad. Early Modern Japan. California, 1995.

This is the only choice for teaching this class and the book that encouraged me to split the Japan/China classes in two. As you would expect from Totman it does a lot with environmental history, but it is really good on everything. If only the China field had a book like this.

They will also read

Image result for Ikegami, Eiko. Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese

Ikegami, Eiko. Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture. Cambridge, 2005.

I was thinking of using her samurai book, but that is a bit too modern (although less theoretical) and this one pushes back a bit earlier than Totman and is a bit more cultural. I will no doubt have them skip the first theoretical part to start with but I hope to be able to get back to it, since her emphasis on networks makes a nice contrast to the normal focus on Tokugawa as imposing control on society. Picking this book is part of my continued attempt to figure out how to teach upper division classes. (Many years before the mast, still thinking about it.) They have to read at least one monograph, but I am not really satisfied with the standard textbook/couple of monographs/maybe toss in a primary source model. I think I will let them each pick a monograph and an article/ primary source (from here or here) to read in addition to these. I have often used this Choose Your Own Adventure model for classes, and while I like it I also find it frustrating. You have to get them to engage early and pick out what they want to do before they are sure what the class is about. I have tried having them come up with a contract (this is what I will read/do) and probably will do something like that again. Any suggestions about managing this, or books/articles to recommend are welcome.

HIST 498 -Drugs in the Modern World

This is a topics class for history majors where they do a big (Huge, 15-20 pages!) research paper as the capstone of their time here. Although there will be lots of Asian content here (opium, tea, etc.) the class will actually go all the way back to the sugar islands and Mintz looking at how production, consumption and understanding of the “drug foods” were all tied together and from the early modern empires and their reliance on drugs to all the modern anti-drug crusades.

The only assigned book is

Image result for Courtwright, David T. Forces of Habit : Drugs and the Making of the Modern World

Courtwright, David T. Forces of Habit : Drugs and the Making of the Modern World Harvard, 2002.

but each of them will be presenting on a monograph they choose on some aspect of the topic. I know some of these already, but if anyone can suggest good books on growing coffee in Java or drinking tea in Korea or cigarettes in North Africa that would be great. I have taught this class before, but only looking at Asia. This time I have to do it as a global class, so that will bring in a lot more possibilities. On the one hand I am really excited about teaching this class because I actually know something about this topic. On the other hand, it is a really broad theme, so it gives students lots of chances to get lost in their research projects. Fortunately, I am sure they will all get started early, work steadily, and come talk to me if they are having problems, so it should work out ok.



Teaching images- Glimpses of Modern China

Do you follow Glimpses of Modern China ( 秋海棠民國史地 ) on Facebook? You should, since they post all sorts of interesting images and videos you can teach with. Or that pose interesting research questions.

Did you know that China used to have different time zones? I  did not.

Here is a seal captured from a Japanese military unit in 1944. If you are teaching some sort of class where you want to talk about seals as a symbol of authority and authenticity (rather than crowns or signatures or whatever) this would be a good thing to use.

Did you ever mention in class the fact that Sun Yat-sen compared his death to that of Jesus? (I think I got that from Bergere.) Well, here is an illustration

Here is a Chiang Ching-kuo pic I used in class today. Chiang looking like a goofy grandpa, rather than the spartan/fascist look his dad favored.

And here is a parody of his dad’s look

Here is a nice video of communes pledging insane crop yields during the Great Leap


And finally, a couple I can’t figure out how to use. A phonograph picture

And one of the oddest Shanghai advertising posters I have seen. Chinese amazons, I guess.

Teaching Revolutionary China : China 1927: Memoir of a Debacle

A book that seems to have worked well for me in my teaching is Zhu Qihua China : China 1927: Memoir of a Debacle

The class was History of Modern China,, syllabus here

I was hoping that the book would draw students into “Revolutionary China” i.e. the China that was going to be transformed by an act of violence (physical, political or social) into a New China. The book itself is a memoir of Zhu’s participation in the Northern Expedition of 1926-27. He was a Left Guomindang/CCP type who worked as a propaganda officer with the troops of the western line of march i.e. headed to Wuhan.

It is a lively enough book, with some shooting and excitement, although does drag a bit in places, and lacks the either the clear plot of a fictional narrative or the “wartime absurdity” of a more literary memoir. Although Zhu is in some respects the The Good Soldier Švejk, he is not really aware of it. Instead, he is a dedicated revolutionary who is happy to commit his life to saving China. He does a lot of name-dropping (He meets Mao, Zhou Enlai, and lots of other important people) but the point of assigning the book is not to give a narrative of the Northern Expedition.

The main use of the book is to portray a revolutionary cadre and the contradictions of the revolution. Zhu is propaganda official who gives speeches, organizes groups and publishes things. He also engages in office politics and criticizes all of his rival units who are just going through the motions and trying to profit from the revolution. He could be Chairman Mao criticizing the bureaucratization of the party sometimes.

Although he (and the students) may sometimes doubt how much good his propaganda is doing, he does take a broad view of what he is work, and what the revolution is. He both drawn to the peasant Red Spear rebels and contemptuous of their political backwardness. (The masses are such a disappointment sometimes.) He talks a lot about his admiration for female comrades who were willing to abandon everything  for the revolution, and he is aware of how much more they are risking than he is. He also spends a lot of time speculating about their sleeping arrangements and trying to romance them. He never seems clear on the difference between a  revolutionary cadre and a traveling member of the traditional literati. We visit a lot of scenic spots and eat a lot of good food in this book. He is part of a revolutionary army that sometimes behaves like a warlord army, and he is aware of this.

I think the students enjoyed it, but more importantly, I got a good set of papers out of it. This was in part because they are good group of students, but also because the book gives you so many ways to get into interesting topics. It is the most readable introduction to the contradictions and of being a revolutionary that I know of.

“North Korea: Hangover of the 20th Century”

Missouri Southern State, Pittsburg State’s rival/sister school across the state line in Joplin, does “international semesters” in the Fall, and this year the theme is Korea. They invited me to present a talk, and I’m kind of proud of the title I came up with. A lot of things could be thought of as historical hangovers: might be a good theme for a series! Here’s the short version:

North Korea is often portrayed as a ‘rogue state’ and ‘unpredictable’ but like any other state it has a history which has to be taken into account to make sense of its present. Throughout the 20th century, Northern Korea has been on the front lines between empires, and between imperialists and liberators. The end of the Cold War globally has not solved the Korean separation the way it solved the German one, though the ideological rhetoric has changed. North Korean leadership invokes this history regularly to explain and justify its positions, and this has to be taken seriously in any analysis of North Korea’s 21st century development.

Along with Imperialisms past and present, North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs are offshoots of 20th century processes of proliferation, in which weapons technology passed from state to state, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. Perhaps more importantly, North Korea is drawing on the experience of disarmament over the last 25 years, a process that has not always gone well for states that surrender their nuclear weapons capacity.

All this is true, but perhaps more importantly, it appears to be the foundation of the North Korean understanding of how we got to this point, and what matters in this moment: regime survival in the face of multiple hostile controlling empires. We are historical beings, etc.

The basic argument isn’t probably going to be surprising to any of our regular readers, but I thought it put things in perspective well enough. There’s a subtle undercurrent towards the end of me disagreeing with Dr. Sheena Greitens, whose talk a month earlier focused on shorter-term considerations, but nobody seems to have picked up on it. (I’m somewhere in that audience too, but I can’t find me in the pictures).

You can watch me deliver the whole thing, all 72 minutes worth! I’m not doing a TED talk anytime soon, but it’s not a bad version of my lecture style: I work from outlines instead of writing things out, I like maps, and if I don’t have a clock that I can see, I don’t leave a lot of time for questions. Also, as my mother pointed out, I tend to talk to the map more than the audience (the audience was a little more sparse than when the governor’s wife came, so there weren’t a lot of faces to address directly). Mostly, when I watch myself lecture, I focus on what I could have said or should have added if only I’d had more time, but given that I wasn’t going to just rapid-fire read something, it’s OK.

If you just want to see the maps (and one Kim family chart), the slides are here. I’m available for children’s parties, corporate events, or community festivals…

Art and War in Modern Japan

If you teach Modern Japan you are probably used to having lots of cool pictures to show your students. You probably pinch a lot of them from the MIT Visualizing Cultures site. A new book that you should be aware of is.

Hu, Philip, Rhiannon Paget, Sebastian Dobson, Maki Kaneko, and Andreas Marks. Conflicts of Interest: Art and War in Modern Japan. Saint Louis: University of Washington Press, 2016.

This is based on the impressive collection of Japanese war-related prints, board games, clothing etc at the St. Louis Museum of Art. There was apparently an exhibition, but I missed it at the time. They have nice pictures of images you have probably seen before, but also lots of stuff I have not seen before.

Rowdy Satsuma women disturbing the peace in 1877. (All of these have great descriptions to explain the context.)

The Battle of the Yalu, looking a bit less glorious than it does in many prints

Taiwanese rebels

The girl he left behind (from the cover of a novel)

 Fukuchi Gen’ichiro as a war corespondent
In addition to prints they also have other forms of patriotic propaganda. You may tell your students about the cult of the three human bombs, who bravely sacrificed their lives for Japan, but do you have a Kirin beer three human bombs ad to show them?

There are also some good essays on how war fits into modern Japanese visual culture.

There is a lot more in there. This book makes a great gift for the Japan person in your life. I assume you can get it from the museum shop, but is is also available on a well-known South American website.

Internet Culture and Rough Music

Not really a post, but more of an idea. I ran across this, about victims of the alleged Las Vegas  shooting who are being harassed on-line. I say alleged, because apparently there a lot of Second Amendment Enthusiasts who are convinced that the mass killing is a government or liberal or Illuminati conspiracy that will, of course, lead to grabbing our guns.

O.K., so nutjobs are sending you nasty e-mails and abusing you on Facebook. What is a spam filter for anyway? Toughen up buttercup! On the other hand, most of us now have an electronic life that is just as real as our meat-space life. College faculty often tell our students not to put their social life on the internet, since it may come back to bite you later, but that is advice from the Middle Ages or the 1980’s or something. If your social life is not on twitter then you have no social life.

Rough Music, under several names, was the “carnivalesque rituals of mockery through which communities displayed disapproval of moral and social infractions.” In olden times community meant people you might physically meet, or, if you were important enough, people who might abuse you in print. Now it is everyone. There is now a universal community that can abuse you, although you have no idea what your connection with them is or what may annoy them. It makes me think of Chinese people studying the 1971 People’s Daily to try and figure out what might be about to come down on them.

One thing I take away from this is that we (meaning the legacy media and the people who act like it) should take internet harassment more seriously. I don’t go with those who claim that speech is literally violence, but it can be an act of serious social exclusion, and if you are the target (or the shooter) it always hard to know where the dividing line between symbolic and physical violence will be drawn.

Historians have worked on how technological change has created new communities. They have worked on it a lot. Ideally, someone should write a book on how all the Early Modern Europe stuff on grub street publishers and a new print public and the Asian world of electronic communities, from the search engine of flesh (人肉搜索) and all the forms of on-line shaming that go on in Japan are informed by each other. I am busy today, however, so if you have written this book, or ideas for it, please post it in comments.


Rough Music and Charivari: Letters Between Natalie Zemon Davis and Edward Thompson, 1970–1972

North Korea in the News-Trump is a dotard

As some of you may know, Kim Jong-un has referred to Donald Trump as a “dotard“, and this has caused a good deal of comment. Does this mean that Kim has “cracked open what apparently was a 1922 edition of the OED and called the president a “dotard.”” ? Maybe, or maybe not. The western press loves to make fun of Asian governments using badly translated idioms from their own languages or messing up western idioms. Those wacky, primitive Asians!

At least some people in the West knew exactly what Kim’s speech writers meant when they put this word in. It appears in the Lord of the Rings, and some of us looked it up when we first read it. ‘Folly.?’ said Gandalf. Nay, my lord, when you are a dotard you will die. [speaking to Denethor] When I first saw the quote from Kim I sort of assumed everyone knew the word. Honestly, it is in LOTR, that is not exactly obscure to some people.

So what does this tell us? Is the North Korean propaganda apparatus filled with Tolkien fans? Or is their understanding of modern idioms based on an idiosyncratic selection of foreign texts? I would guess that it is the latter, but the former would be cooler and more optimistic.

Maybe Kim himself is a Tolkien fan. The Kims are notorious movie buffs, and while I assume there was a Korean translation of LOTR even before the movies came out, even if there was no translation before, Kim could have ordered one. I could see how the metaphor of a hermetically sealed kingdom ruled by and overlord opposed by all others could be applied to N. Korea, although maybe Kim does not see himself as Sauron. Or maybe he does. (I wrote that as a joke, but now that I think about it, it may explain things.)


On “Buddhist Atrocities”

One of the odd substrains of commentary on the ongoing Rohingya genocide in Myanmar is Americans (mostly, as near as I can tell) shocked that a Buddhist society is capable of the kinds of cruelty we associate with Western imperialism and 20th century totalitarianism.

As I said on twitter:

People saying that Rohingya genocide proves that “Buddhist atrocities” can happen apparently ignored Sri Lankan civil war, Imperial Japan.
The hell of it is, Buddhism is as much a ‘religion of peace’ as Islam,Christianity. Same basic lessons, most adherents perfectly nice people
Like Islam, Christianity (I’m just covering major world religions here), Buddhism intersects with systems of power that implement violence.
Like Islam & Christianity, Buddhist institutions have, historically, validated state violence when it was in their institutional interest.
Buddhism’s reputation in the West benefits greatly from being not associated with any particular 20th century power (unless you’re paying
close attention to states like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand and their treatment of non-Buddhist populations) and being strongly associated
with countercultural, anti-imperialistic movements (centered in 60s, but not exclusively) including association with Gandhian nonviolence.
(Gandhi was Hindu, not Buddhist, but *ahimsa* is common value among Jain, Buddhist, some Hindu traditions. Plus, sloppy Western orientalism)

I doubt any readers of this blog need me to fill in the historical details.

China-Burma-India and popular history sources

Looking for information on the American involvement in China in World War Two? Not too long ago that would have been the last thing anyone who did serious China work would be looking for, but given the new interest in transnational history, the war period,  some people might be interested all the old ephemera that is popping up all over the web to fascinate historians with its insight into the daily experience of the past while frustrating them with its poor sourcing. One example is CHINA – BURMA – INDIA Remembering the Forgotten Theater of World War II

It includes reprints of a lot of stuff you could get elsewhere, but it is easier to find it here, as well as accounts from vets (all Americans) and lots of pictures.

Some show Chinese wartime propaganda in situ

They have a collection of blood chits, which I found interesting since I never realized how 文言文 the early ones were. Hard to see why you would do that given the intended audience, but the later ones get better. Apparently the American military was working on how to communicate with foreigners.

And of course they have lots of maps. Ever wondered what Chongqing looked like to Americans?

A student could get a really good paper on American images of Asia from all this.

Syllabus blogging for Fall 2017

There is a tradition here of posting our syllabai and asking for advice on how to teach things. Ideally we would do this long enough before the semester starts to get advice on what to assign and do, but I don’t think we ever do that.

My two new-ish classes for Fall are

HIST 106/ASIA 106 Samurai and Gongfu Heroes: Masculinity in East Asia

and HIST 434 Modern China 1800-present

The Samurai and Gongfu class is mostly movies. This may sound like a shameless attempt to drum up enrollment by putting Samurai and Gongfu in the title and also promising to watch movies…and it is of course. On the other hand, it should be a way to draw a lot of students into some of the main narratives of East Asian culture in print and elsewhere and in both their modern popular and older versions. The original course title was Masculinity and Self-Cultivation but I was advised to drop the Self-Cultivation. We will still read some Xunzi, however. As you can see I have tried to split it into thematic units, which may or may not work. (some seem to make sense, some I struggled with.) I am hoping the student presentations at the end are good, since my main hope is to get them to the point where they can watch an Asian film and understand it in some sort of cultural context. We will see how it works.

Modern China is part of my attempt to split up modern China. I know most people like to do Late Imperial and Modern in a single class, but for both China and Japan I think that Ming/Qing and Tokugawa lend themselves to a social/cultural approach and then after 1840 or 1853 it is time to put politics in command. This is also a class where I am starting to rely more on the books that are available on electronically via our library. Once upon a time you had to get them to buy books, and then you were more or less stuck using the whole book. They are still buying a couple books, but now it is easier to use bits and pieces of things they can read for free. We will see how this works. Any comments are welcome.

ASIA 106.f17

Modern China434Sylf17

Would the Boxers vote for Trump?

Of course not. They were not registered, and in any case that would be foreign interference in an election that would Hurt The Feelings Of The American People.

Still, if you want an interesting take on the Boxers and how they fit into Chinese ideas about the body, masculinity and the nation, you can look here, or see the same post here. Here a a sample

The physical culture of the Boxer era in China was, in its vague nationalism and muddled politics, remarkably similar to the physical culture of Germany in the mid-19th century. So why does the latter seem to encapsulate the very core of fascism as physical spectacle, while the former never merits a mention?

More (perhaps) later


Yi Soon Shin: Warrior and Defender and Yi Soon Shin: Fallen Avenger: Bad

At Planet Comicon in Kansas City last month, I came across a gentleman selling a comic book series based on the Hideyoshi invasions of Korea, known in Korea as the Imjin War, focused on the escapades of the national hero Admiral Yi Sunshin. Naturally, I was curious, and asked how historically accurate they were: “very,” I was told, though a bit of liberty had been taken with a few characters for the purposes of dramatization. A quick perusal suggested a lot of fighting, but it was a war comic after all, so I got the whole extant set, two volumes of a planned three-volume story1 ; this means that this is a review, of sorts, of a work in progress.

This is a terrible historical comic. It’s possible to do interesting and dramatic historical stories as comic books, and it’s possible to do historically sound stories as comic books, and it’s even possible to do interesting and dramatic and historically sound stories as comic books. This is none of the above. This isn’t even a good comic book, at least not compared to the sorts of things I consider good comic books. The chronology is more or less accurate, as near as I can tell without doing a lot more background work, but that’s damning with faint praise.2

In an interview with the Korea Times, Kompan said

“All we have is historical documents, journals, and fragments of weaponry and clothing. That being said, we don’t have a complete disregard of what actually happened. It is not our intent to be historically inaccurate but our objective is to bring Yi into the spotlight,” Kompan said. “We aim to give everyone around the world a fresh and new take on admiral Yi’s story.”

The team takes liberties to tell the story interestingly, but they also do their best to ensure that dates, battles and major events are historically accurate.

“Another important thing to note is that the integrity of admiral Yi is what drives this story. He is an incorruptible force that must overcome all the odds set against him. That’s not something that you can fictionalize. That’s what happened. That’s who he was. That is reality.”

The creative team has been stable except for the artist: Lead author, and convention seller Onrie Kompan is joined by DAK (David Anthony Kraft) as co-writer and editor, Adriana de los Santos as colorist, and Joel Saavedra as letterer; Giovanni Timpano did the art for the first volume, El Arnakleus did the art for the second, and they are looking for an artist for the third volume. Timpano was from Italy, de los Santos and Saavedra from Argentina, and El Arnakleus is “An artist from the Far East, who came to America to follow his dream.” I’ve never heard of any of these people before, but they claim to have extensive experience in the comic book industry, and they got Stan Lee to write a glowing foreword for the first volume. They also claim to have gotten a lot of help from Korean sources, including the Navy and the “Research Institute of Yi Soon Shin at Soonchungyang University.”3

Searching for that misspelled resource led me to this lovely graduate student historiography of Yi Sun-shin by Lee Seung Ho Historiography of Yi Sun Sin and Artificial Embodiment Within 2010. It’s a pretty damning indictment of the comic books, even if it doesn’t know it. It points out that even Yi’s own journals show his character to be … pretty normal for an elite professional. It points out that the mythologies around Yi are both relatively recent, and fading fast in Korean literature and history. Unfortunately, the heroic attitude towards Yi is one of the least terrible aspects of this book: if that were the worst thing about it, I could at least credit it with providing “a Korean perspective” comparable to the Chinese and Japanese perspectives I’ve read (though both of those were academic presentations that took Koreans and sources reasonably seriously).

What Kompan, et al., have done is considerably worse than usual for historical drama: vulgar, incoherent, lurid, inaccurate, poorly executed, and, ultimately, boring. Women characters exist mostly to show off implausibly proportioned body parts4 , and to give the male characters motivations for conflict or a pallette on which to demonstrate their depravity. The pivotal figure in the story is “Baron Seo,” a treacherous slaver, abuser of women, two-faced spy, and generally disgusting character; loosely (almost libelously) based on the So family of Tsushima. Japanese warriors are predictably tedious, honor-obsessed, vicious, and effective.5 There’s a great deal of sexual deviancy in this comic: samurai homosexuality is portrayed as shameful and abusive; sexual abuse of slaves and captives is routine; pedophilia and pederasty are attributed to particularly evil characters, who get to carry it out with some frequency.6 The violence is accompanied by massive blood-sprays and, of course, the severity of the wound depends entirely on the needs of the plot, which reads like a kind of sado-masochstic soap opera.7 The bombastic warrior-speak is leavened with vulgar colloquialisms, all in English except for ninjas (whose untranslated Japanese appears to be machine-generated) and scattered technical terms: ashigaru and “BANGPOHARA!” (which appears to be the Korean for “Fire!”) are the most frequent unexplained vocabulary. As with the research institute, names are often sloppily rendered for no apparent reason. Some of the art in the second volume appears to be based on posterized photographs or models, which is distracting and unsubtle. And in at least one case, the writer and letterer appear to have had an epic breakdown of communication.

Hideyoshi’s execution of Sen no Rikyu is portrayed as a result of the tea master’s defiant doubt that the invasion would go well, and his prediction haunts the authentically angry, but ahistorically handsome and trim Hideyoshi in his appearances. This gets us into the historical questions raised by this drama, which are mostly of the “sins of omission” sort, and really too numerous to detail. Granted, this is focused on Yi Sun-shin, but that doesn’t justify skipping over five years in the middle of the war as though it were a lost weekend. Nor does it explain what was really going on in the land war, how the Chinese were involved (they are “just as bad as the Japanese” as far as the people are concerned), or even what the real strategies and issues were at sea, including some grossly oversimplified and mythical elements that turn Yi from a tactical and organizational genius into a kind of simplistic trickster. And we won’t even start with the imaginative weapons (samurai with battle axes!), armor, etc, and the fact that these characters spend a lot of time staring at reflective blades and seeing things in them that aren’t there.

As I said, it’s bad history. It postulates Yi as a national hero during the war, one whose popularity threatens the King’s position (who cites the frequency with which generals supplanted monarchs in the Choson dynasty, which I don’t remember being an issue), rather than being merely a good leader to his troops. While it highlights the pain and suffering of the Korean people during the war (well, during the interesting naval bits, anyway), it distills that experience down to sexual degradation (slaughter and other forms of slavery are mentioned, but not depicted, and forage/taxation burdens are implied). The intrigues and conflicts within and between Korea, Japan, and China, are turned into psychosexual dramas rather than politics, and the warfare, which should be the best part, is splashy and simplified and loud. It’s a pretty bad comic book, too, unless you like that particular sort of thing.

  1. technically, only the first volume is available, plus the four issues of the 2nd volume, which has yet to be published as a single volume. Also, since I bought them from the writer, I got them all signed! I do love comicons.  

  2. I’ve read a Chinese-oriented history of the war and a Japanese-oriented history of the war, but I don’t have either of those books at hand. Wikipedia, however, has a much more historically sophisticated take on these battles than this comic book.  

  3. also known as the Yi Sun-shin Research Institute at Soonchunhyang University.  

  4. this is a job requirement for whatever artist applies to work the third volume  

  5. except for the ninja, who don’t succeed in killing anyone, I don’t think. The surprised look in their eyes when they get beheaded was intended to be funny, which tells you a great deal about the level of maturity at work here.  

  6. Normally, I’d shelve this with my other historical manga and comics, in my office, but it’s so obviously inappropriate for a workplace or educational setting that I will have to refrain.  

  7. Cinematically, this would be a Quentin Tarantino History Channel production  

End of an Era

On this date, April 25, in 1644 the Chongzhen Emperor, last ruler of the Ming Dynasty hung himself from a tree on Meishan in Beiijng, bringing an end to Ming (and thus Han) imperial rule over China. Of course, if you are a Ming restorationist the dynasty may still be the proper rulers of China even today. Regardless of your political stance, his story is a good one, and the link above summarizes it pretty well.