Is the Shanghai Textile Museum the best museum in China?

The Shanghai Textile Museum 上海纺织博物馆 150 Aomen Rd; 澳門路150号(right near the M50 art district) is not one of the most famous museums in China. Lonely Planet dismisses it as “The sort of place visitors got taken to in the 1980s before China fully opened to tourism,” Ouch. Is it the best museum in China?

No, No, and Yes.

First the nos. One thing that can make a great museum is to have something great to build it around. The Forbidden City. Qin Shihaung’s grave. You basically can’t mess something like that up. This site is just a modern building in what used to be the old textile district. Another thing that can make a great museum is great story-telling. Ideally a good museum has lots of text that, together with artifacts, tells a bunch of stories and says something about history. The Chinese text here is not that good, and the English text is often terrible.

The yes is that they have a good idea and a good collection. This is the most complete “built” museum I can think of in China.1 Textiles are the story of Shanghai, and while parts of this could be better done, they cover almost everything. This is as close to a museum of the social history of Shanghai as you will find.

They go back the the very beginning of textile history, but the collection really begins with Late Imperial Songjiang and its cotton growing spinning and weaving. This section is helped by the Chinese willingness to use reproduction artifacts and cheesy dioramas more than American museums usually like to. This is also the section you are most likely to find pictures of on the web, as it is the most “traditional China” part of the place and the most likely to get pictures from tourists.

For me of course the best part are the modern sections.  Shanghai was the Treaty Port, and textiles were the center of both foreign and Chinese controlled industrialization, and the birthplace of the Chinese working class. This is a bit complex for a Chinese museum to deal with. Foreign imperialism is of course bad, although you can certainly brag about Shanghai’s growing industrial clout. The museum has displays on both the early Chinese textile capitalists and the workers movement. They don’t do much to explain how these relate, but that might be asking a bit much

They also have a lot on consumption. Shanghai did not just produce textiles, they bought them and set trends for the whole country.

Of course while there is a lot of Republican era stuff, there is also lots of later stuff. In 1949 New China was established, and the workers of the Shanghai textile industry took center stage. We get lost of model workers, visits from every important leader


Visiting delegations of workers from around the world

The Cultural Revolution is skipped over, and this section has less explanation than a lot of the earlier ones, but still there is a lot of stuff on Worker’s China here.

With reform and opening up Shanghai remained of central importance. The rustbelt communist industries of Manchuria were quickly left behind, but textiles and light manufacturing were at the forefront of China’s exports. If you want to see  boxes of Three Guns underwear from the 1980’s this is the place to go.2

Eventually, of course, the textile industry was moved out out its prime real estate location, and at least according to the pictures attempts to find new jobs for the textile workers were a great success

Finally there is a whole floor on modern textiles and science and such. And, of course, an exhibit on the colorful costumes of minority groups.

Parts of this are less good than they could be. The science part could use a lot more explanation. It is good that I can now tell serge from seersucker, but how are they made and when do you use them? Given that almost all the worker photos are of women, one would like some more focus on gender. Still, the museum does touch on almost every aspect of Shanghai textile history, and by following this thread3 they touch on almost every aspect of Shanghai. Admittedly it is a place that requires you to do a lot of the work yourself in figuring out why these things matter. Still, they do more to construct a story than most museums I can think of.

  1. Built as opposed to found. The site itself gave them nothing, they had to do all the work. I should note that I have not been to all the museums in China.  

  2. No pictures, this is a family blog.  

  3. sorry  

Visual Shanghai

I went to the Shanghai History Museum today and got some nice teaching-related images. Some of them are useful, but not that exciting, like a nice rickshaw and a queue-cutting proclamation from 1911






One thing that I did find interesting was a set of records of Sun Yat-sen’s speeches. I knew he was big on film, but I did not know that they did records, and I sort of wonder how they were distributed and used and of course how common they were. It all fits in with the Soviet-influenced propaganda machine they set up, but I did not know they did records.

The thing I like best of course was the movie about Shanghai Industry, which gave me a clip of the airplane donated to the nation by the 天廚房 MSG company. This was part of the movement for Aviation to Save the Nation, (航空救國) and I think it happened in 1933. I had seen pictures of this, but no video. Very cool, although not surprising.

The thing I like best of course was the movie about Shanghai Industry, which gave me a clip of the airplane donated to the nation by the 天廚房 company. I had seen pictures of this, but no video. Very cool

Was Hirata Atsutane Japan’s first Science Fiction writer?

Maybe. Well, sort of. It kind of depends on how you define things.

Hirata Atsutane (1776-1843) was one of the key thinkers and popularizers of Japanese Nativism. He was a prolific writer, and most of what he wrote was aimed at proving that Japan was the center of the universe. In particular, he argued against Chinese learning, which was pointless, and to the extent it was any good, the Japanese had done it first. He argued against Indian (Buddhist) learning, which was pointless, and to the extent it was any good, the Japanese had done it first. He argued against European (Dutch) learning, which was pointless, and to the extent it was any good, the Japanese had done it first. As you may guess, he was a bit polemical. He was also pretty important in the creation and popularization of a specifically Japanese identity.

One of his important works is Senkyo Ibun (Strange tidings from the realm of the Immortals), 1822. This is an account of his interviews with the teenage tengu Kozo Torakichi. Tengu (天狗)are the trickster/mountain goblin figures of Japanese folklore. Torakichi claimed to have been raised by them, and to have learned all the secrets of true Japanese-ness in the process. It is not clear if Kozo was conning Hirata or if they were both conning everyone else, but there are a lot of conversations between the two in Wilburn Hanson’s When Tengu Talk: Hirata Atsutane’s Ethnography of the Other World

One of the things lots of Japanese people were interested in at this point was Western knowledge about astronomy. But why bother reading books by foreigners when Japanese people had actually been to the stars and could tell you about it?

Atsutane asked, “When you flew up to the stars, what did the moon look like?”

Torakichi said, “As you approach the moon it gets  bigger  and  big­ger, and the cold air starts to really cut into you, so I thought it would be impossible to land there,  but finally we were able  to get a good look from a place about two cha square, where we landed, and it was unexpectedly warm. Anyway , in the places where the moon appears to be shining, there is something like the oceans we have on our land, and they appear to have mud mixed in  with them. In  the place where  there is commonly  thought  to be a rabbit pounding mochi,1 there are two or three open holes. But then we left right away, so I don’t know their shapes exactly.“

Atsutane said, “You said that the shiny part of  the  moon  is like the  sea we have here. I recall that Westerners have speculated  that  that was the case. However I do not quite see how there could be holes in the place where the rabbit pounds mochi. I have heard that in that area, there are mountains like we have here .“

Torakichi laughed and said, “Your theory is flawed because it’s based on information you found in a book. I don’t know about books; I speak from seeing it up close. Even my master had said there were mountains there, but when we got close and looked, there really were two or three holes, and through those holes we could see the stars behind the moon.”

Elsewhere we learn that both planets and stars are made of mud and that both of them did not generate light but reflected it from the sun.

So is this Science Fiction? Not really, in that Hirata did not claim that it was fiction, and it was not part of a self-identified genre who’s purpose was to win a Hugo award. Wikipedia says that Japanese SF began with the translation of Verne in the Meiji period. Well, what is Verne? He was a writer of fiction which popularized “modern” science. Lots of cultures have stories of “fantasy” trips to the moon or stars, but I suppose you could define Science Fiction as writing that popularized modern science. In that case, Hirata would fit. For teaching purposes this is a nice example of how connected Japan was to the outside world. Students will usually come in with the idea that Japan was totally isolated before 1853. Showing them that Japanese Science Fiction sort of existed in 1822 helps in getting around that.

  1. Westerners think there is a Man in the Moon. In East Asia there is a rabbit, who in China is mixing up the exilir of immortality and in Japan is making rice cakes –Mochi  

Pan-Asian Hell

People like Hell. Most religions seem to have one, and depicting it is a classic way of instructing the masses about the wages of sin. Reproducing these images is popular with modern folk for different reasons. My students seem to find it easy to identify with pictures of victims suffering horrible torment at the hands of demonic creatures.

One book I have been looking at recently is Hell in Japanese Art by Ryouji Kajitani This is a really good book if you like Japanese Hell. They reproduce a bunch of Japanese paintings and scrolls of Hell and judgement. As a book to pull images from it is mixed. They have good, high-quality reproductions, provide provenance (or at least dates) and reproduce and translate the texts. They don’t really explain the evolution of these images, and the binding sometimes gets in the way if you want to scan something for use in class.

Still, there is lots of good stuff here. Lots of torment

One of the things I noticed right off is that a lot of this looks like Chinese Hell. They have torment there too. (Pictures from a temple in Xian)

Like Chinese Hell, there is a bit of a salvation narrative. We see in Japan the mirror that reflects your past lives1

And the power of the Buddha to save you.

Chinese Hell seems more likely to have pictures that tell you the story of Hell. Here is Mother Meng serving up the Broth of Oblivion that will let you forget your past life as you move on to the next, and souls getting new bodies.

You may note that I seem to be interested in comparisons to China. Part of that is that I mostly talk about Hell in my Rice Paddies class2 and I would really like to be able to talk about Hell in a comparative way. The Japanese are clearly borrowing things from China. Here are some Japanese Hell judges

Note how Chinese they look. Well, not that they look like Chinese people, but that they are dressed like Chinese judges in Hell, like this guy

There are some specifically Japanese elements. Japanese hungry ghosts eat hot coals, and while I think that happened in China too, I have not seen Chinese pictures of it.


There seems to be a Japanese genre of pictures of a beautiful dead woman who’s body decays in a series of pictures. This is a Buddhist theme, (life is only a temporary illusion, after all), but I am not aware of examples of it in China.

The Japan pictures also seem to modernize better. Here are some Tokugawa period demons tormenting people using various bits of food processing technology. Too bad I don’t teach a class on Tokugawa food.


Both places of course show pictures of punishments for sexual appetite by women.

Obviously what I need is a good article on the comparative evolution of ideas about Hell in China and Japan. Maybe Korea too.  I am not aware of anything that really explains all these comparisons. If you know of such an article, post it in comments.  If you plan on writing that article, this book will help.

  1. which I have never seen in a Chinese temple, although I have not been to many  

  2. History of East Asia  

Too Many Men Again

There’s an article about China making the rounds: “Too Many Men” ; “In China and India, men outnumber women by 70 million. Both nations are belatedly trying to come to grips with the policies that created this male-heavy generation.” By Simon Denyer and Annie Gowen

This is the kind of reportage that comes up every couple of years: the gendered effects of the one-child policy have been a topic of discussion since I started studying China, at least, and similar discussions of Indian sex-selective abortion have been going on for at least fifteen years that I can recall. Literally 13.5 years ago I wrote:

China’s”One Boy Policy”…. sorry,”One Child Policy” has resulted in gender ratios for recent births of 117 (105 is normal): classrooms full of boys; orphanages full of girls. India has pockets of similarly skewed demographics. A student asked me about the causes of this, and I said”sexism and technology,” particularly cheap ultrasound and safe abortion in strongly patriarchal regions. Some people have suggested that this could lead to women having greater social power and freedom as they become rarer commodities (Frank Herbert’s apocalyptic novel The White Plague takes this tack, after all the death and suffering are over)… but I tend to agree with those who argue that it will strengthen the patriarchal controls on women who are already seen as commodities. Though, as my wife points out, all those Chinese girls growing up in the US (many of them, in our circles, being raised by lesbian families) may find themselves in a particularly strong position, and, having been raised in the US, more likely to take advantage of it. China, ironically, had a serious oversupply of males in the 19th century as well, which contributed greatly to the instability of the late Qing era, but that went away as polygamy was eliminated. Now it’s back.

Now it’s been going on long enough that we can actually measure some of the social effects, but there’s some very ahistorical elements to the discussion that bother me: China and India have had polygamous marriage systems for centuries, millenia even, and one of the known effects of allowing powerful and wealthy men to have multiple wives and concubines is that it creates a shortage of marriagable women for men who are low in social status or resources. This has been going on for a very long time; only in the last century or so has it changed. Excess populations of unmarriagable men have been cited as problems in Chinese uprisings in the 19th century. Excess mortality in male workers, especially in systems of indenture and migrant workers, have often helped redress some of the imbalance otherwise, but nobody really cared about their quality of life or emotional fulfillment.

Who likes short shorts?

Columbia University Press sent me a copy of Mu Aili and Mike Smith’s Contemporary Chinese Short-Short Stories: A Parallel Text. The book is, as you might have guessed, a collection of Chinese very short stories (4-5 pages at most) presented as parallel texts, with glosses for the hard Chinese words, author bios, study questions etc. It is intended to be used in advanced Chinese language and culture classes.

I mostly don’t teach advanced Chinese language, so I can’t say much to its use for that. I guess is it would work well in that context. It is hard to find good texts with teaching apparatus that are not old, and this is pretty modern Chinese. All of these are short short stories that seem to have been published in literary magazines about a decade a so ago. I suppose now these type of things would be entirely digital and appear only on-line. If you want a good way to teach your students the Chinese that people read on their phones today, this is your book.

I do teach about Chinese culture, and I will be using bits of the book in class (although not making them buy it) although I do have some problems with it. The reason I will use this and the reason I have problems with using it, is that the book is aimed at not only presenting Chinese texts, but also key ideas in Chinese culture. Thus there are sections on Li and Ren 礼和仁, Xiao, Yin-Yang 阴阳, Governance(统)治,Identity 自我, Face, 脸面,Romantic Love 情爱, Marriage 婚姻,and Changes .1

To some extent I can work with this. My History of East Asia (Rice Paddies) is a sort of chronological/thematic class. So to start we do the Shang and oracle bones and ancestors, but also the Chinese/East Asian model of the family through time. Then the age of 100 schools, but also Confucius as the model thinker and what a school of thought is in East Asia. I am planning on using a couple of the stories on Xiao, filial piety to show how parts of the multi-generational model of the family extend into the present. That is fine, but as a historian it gets my dander up to present things to students that make Chinese culture look unchanging. If a student reads the introduction to the Xiao section very carefully they will understand that the Classic of Filial Piety was not written by Confucius. If they are less careful they will not come away with that impression, or with any real entry into the evolution of the idea. Romantic Love today is not the same as Ming Dynasty 情爱, but that is not the impression a student would necessarily get from this. I realize that I am being pedantic, and that the point of the book is not to introduce students to the evolution of Chinese ideas about…anything, but the book is a bit too “5000 years of unchanging Chinese culture” to make me comfortable with the idea of building a class around it.

However, these are really good stories, and if you want to give your students a grip on Modern Chinese culture, there are some fine tales in here.


  1. Maybe add a section on Rebellion to fit in Water Margin and Mao Zedong?  

President Trump’s Historical Consciousness: Bowling Ball Edition

President Trump, at a recent event, recycled an old chestnut I haven’t heard in years

He accused Japan of using gimmicks to deny U.S. auto companies access to their consumers, …
“It’s the bowling ball test. They take a bowling ball from 20 feet up in the air and drop it on the hood of the car,” Trump said of Japan. “If the hood dents, the car doesn’t qualify. It’s horrible,” he said. It was unclear what he was talking about.

Apparently the reporter didn’t live through the 1980s, because it’s precisely the kind of urban legend that flourished in the heyday of the trade wars.

It’s true that Japan did invoke standards to limit American market penetration – “non-tariff barriers” was a term we heard a lot in the 1980s – but more often than not the problem was more informal barriers: consumer tastes (or biases; there’s a subtle difference between Japanese shopping preferences for uniform and unblemished fruit, say, and Japanese myths about local rice being both superior or about Japanese not buying American meat due to biological differences), closed distributor systems, and incompatibility with local needs. Cars, for example: in addition to weak consumer demand and the complexities of distribution and marketing, US producers never seemed interested in modifying its vehicles for the literally left-side-of-the-road Japanese system.

Then there’s areas where Japanese products were just better than anything produced in the US: cameras, especially digital ones; cell phones (in the 1990s, anyway); kitchen appliances (where US brands also focused on bigger, which was a terrible match to small Japanese kitchens, and the most important ones – rice pots and hot water kettles – weren’t made in America at all).

Apparently Trump went on to complain about Japanese car manufacturers not doing enough in the US, which hasn’t been remotely true since the late 1980s.

I have a theory about President Trump: I don’t think he’s changed his mind about anything, or perhaps even learned anything, since the 1980s. It’s an interesting example of how someone’s consciousness of the world gets fixed at a certain time and everything else gets filtered through that body of knowledge (or “knowledge”) from that point forward. Doesn’t happen to everybody about everything, perhaps, but it’s remarkable how on many social and economic issues Trump harkens back to 1980s tropes and images. His depiction of urban blight, especially of gangs, are classic 1970s-1980s issues, thoroughly covered in the media and entertainment of the day. (and his view of guns and police seems to owe a lot to the “Death Wish” and “Dirty Harry” franchises) His use of “cyber” for online technologies had its peak in 2000, though it was eclipsed by “internet” in the mid-1990s. His view of trade as bilateral relationships (in which deficits and surpluses matter a lot) is decidedly pre-WTO (possibly pre-GATT, but trade wars definitely were a thing in the 1980s). He uses other outdated language, e.g.. His view of how the economy can and should function marks manufacturing as the height of productivity and profitability, and still takes autarkic independence (in energy and, now, steel) as a high priority.

Obviously, President Trump hasn’t literally learned nothing since the 1980s – his facility with twitter and reality TV mark him as a 21st century figure – but on fundamental issues of how the world works and what the critical issues are, it’s not clear to me that anything that’s happened in the last quarter-century has made much of an impression on him.

Teaching Tokugawa math

Do you teach Tokugawa Japan? If so you probably spend some time talking about the rise of popular education, the terakoya temple schools etc. I found a good book to help explain the rise of math education. It is Fukagawa, H., & Rothman, T. (2008). Sacred mathematics : Japanese temple geometry. Princeton: Princeton University Press. The book itself seems to be more aimed at people who  like solving math problems, but there are a lot of pictures that can help you teach about why people wanted to get educated. Here is a merchant who has prospered because he has learned math.

Why does math help? Well, here is an oil merchant who has measure out some oil using two ladles of the wrong sizes. I bet math would help him!

Ugh. A story problem. If I have to do story problems I am not going to be an oil merchant. Maybe I will grow up to be a ruthless bandit!

Bandits dividing a piece of stolen cloth. Maybe everyone needs math.

That math is useful for lots of people in a commercial society is not surprising, although the pictures help. What I found most interesting were the shrine geometry problems. Apparently there were math groups that would show up at shrines and try to solve the posted problems. Here is one of the placards

A later version

and a modernized version

They look like geometry proofs to me.

I would have liked more social history on these math groups. Was there some religious significance to them? I assume that to some extent math groups served as social networks, like poetry groups, but I would like more on that. They mention that women sometimes solved these, but little else on the make-up of the groups. This being Tokugawa Japan I bet there are several 12-volume studies of these math groups, but nothing I could quickly google led me to an explanation of the social background.  There is at least some info here Noel J. Pinnington. (2009). Sacred Mathematics: Japanese Temple Geometry (review). Monumenta Nipponica, 64(1), 174-177.

Fame! and journalism

Don’t you hate it when a good bit of teaching material comes to your attention just a little too late? I hate it when that happens. In this case the problem is that last unit, in Introduction to Asian Studies, we were talking about Journalism. How it gets created, and how you can use it to understand Asia but need to be careful with it etc. We read some sections from  Joris Luyendijk. People Like Us: Misrepresenting the Middle East. Soft Skull Press, 2006. He talks about the wires, and how a handful of stories get re-published over and over again, and how being a journalist is sometimes just trying to get the proper by-line for a story or a good quote.  He also talks about the frustration of being a good journalist trying to get editors to run stories that don’t fit their expectations.

As luck would have it, there is an Indiana PA. byline running all over the world right now. The story is from the AP. “A library without books? Universities purging dusty volumes” by Michael Rubinkam.

The basic gist of it is that universities are getting rid of dusty, worthless old books. Not just the regular weeding they always do, a new paradigm of library hood or something like that. Our library is mentioned because we are currently in the process of tossing about 1/3 of our books to make room for study tables. Also, they have put red stickers on (some of) the books that they are tossing, which makes for good pictures. As the article puts it “Bookshelves are making way for group study rooms and tutoring centers, “makerspaces” and coffee shops, as libraries seek to reinvent themselves for the digital age.” Our Library Dean is leading the charge, and establishing himself as a leader in the field! Some versions of the article mention digital repositories like Hathi Trust (which we are not a member of, and never will be), and our Library Dean has already pointed out that books will still be available through interlibrary loan from real universities. The article is not really all that good on the issues facing modern libraries.

Needless to say, a story like that would not be complete without a quote from some fuddy duddy old professor who likes books. I gave him a quote “We’re going to throw away as many of them as the library can get away with, which is not a strategy,” said IUP history professor Alan Baumler.

You can see this quote in my old hometown paper

Chicago Tribune

In the Fresno Bee and the LA Times

In both the Washington Post and the Washington Times

It’s even going international. Mainichi has picked it up in Japan. So has the Borneo Bulletin. The Arab Times apparently puts me in the category of “print-loving scholars.”

I will probably talk about this in class tomorrow, as an example of how the same story gets re-used over and over. Of course one reason I find this so cool is that I have been quoted in the Daily Mail.

For those of you not familiar with the Mail, here it is explained by Fry and Laurie

Or, if you want to be a bit more highbrow, by the Right Honorable James George Hacker, Baron Hacker of Islington, KG, PC, BSc (Lond.), Hon. DCL (Oxon.)

Start at 1:00 if you are impatient


And, of course

The Beatles

The Last Supper (2012): Xiang Yu Overthrows the Qin in order to…protect Diversity?

I’ve been listening to the lectures given by Prof. Ou Fan Leo Lee (李歐梵) for his Coursera course Classics of Chinese Humanities: Guided Readings from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.1 I quite like the design of this very short course which, instead of discussing the most common classic texts or issues, gives you four little self-contained units that offers Prof. Lee a chance combine an introduction of some key introductory themes but also his own unique argument-driven ideas.

The first unit is on “The True Face of Hero”2 and uses Sima Qian’s “The Basic Annals of Xiang Yu” as its main text to discuss what Prof. Lee sees as a good example of a (tragic) heroic warrior tradition in Chinese literature that is often overshadowed by more dominant Confucian narratives of loyal ministers.3

Xiang Yu (項羽) was a military figure who rose out of chaos of the rebellions against the Qin dynasty and, together with a band of allies, including Liu Bang, the founder of the Han dynasty, brings about the ultimate destruction of the Qin before himself being killed by Liu Bang. The final part of the unit traces the long cultural legacy of the story of the rise and fall of Xiang Yu, whose final farewell to his consort is the story behind the play 霸王别姬, which is at the heart of the famous Chinese film Farewell my Concubine. There are a number of other films that more directly tell the story of Xiang Yu, including The Great Conqueror’s Concubine (西楚霸王), White Vengeance (鴻門宴) and The Last Supper (王的盛宴)

From the standpoint of the cultural history, two of the best remembered moments in the story of the rivalry between Xiang Yu and Liu Bang is the attempt to kill the latter at the “Feast at Hong Gate” and the final farewell and suicide of Xiang Yu and (though this is not included in Sima Qian’s version, as far as I can see) his consort.4

On the other hand, I think that what your typical document-loving historian finds most moving in the story, is Sima Qian’s claim for the contrast between the conduct of Liu Bang and Xiang Yu when each of them enter the capital of the defeated Qin: Xianyang. The former enters the capital before Xiang Yu can get there, supposedly much thanks to the fact that he, “forbade his men to plunder or seize prisoners” on his way there, leading to the rapid surrender of Qin forces. Once there, Sima Qian has him say that he did not, “lay a finger on a single thing,” “sealed up the storehouses containing Qin’s treasures and wealth,” and proclaim an end to the harsh laws of the empire.5 When Liu Bang turns over the capital at the arrival of the huge army of his lord, the grumpy Xiang Yu “led his troops west and massacred the inhabitants of Xianyang, the capital city, killing Ziying, the king of Qin, who had already surrendered, and setting fire to the palaces of Qin; the fire burned for three months before it went out. Then he gathered up all the goods, treasures, and waiting women, and started east.”6

In her wonderful work on The Five Confucian Classics, Michael Nylan argues that the famous “Burning of the Books legend” that claims that, under the Qin dynasty, there was a vast loss of classic texts and annals “does not bear close scrutiny.”7 Instead, she argues, we should pay more attention to the huge loss of texts that undoubtedly occurred at this later moment in 206 BCE when Xiang Yu burned the imperial palaces, and presumably, the imperial library. In Sima Qian’s account of Xiang Yu, though clearly he had some sympathy for the tragic hero, there are also plenty of other descriptions of massacres he ordered, as there are, though fewer in number, for Liu Bang.

Which brings me to the 2012 film, The Last Supper, the English title being a reference not to Jesus but the Hong gate banquet (unless there is a Judas reference here, but there too many Judases to make this a meaningful reference). The most unfortunate omission in the depiction of the famous banquet, I thought, was the Sima Qian’s claim that Liu Bang slipped away from the banquet of death when he stepped out to use the latrine. Instead of reproducing this great vulgar and humorous moment of the classic history, the film has Liu Bang explain that he pretended to be drunk and ran off. However, more interestingly, the director Lu Chuan, who also made the remarkable Nanjing massacre film City of Life and Death (南京!南京!), offers an entirely new take on Xiang Yu. When Xiang Yu executes the last ruler of the Qin, he delivers the following speech as he divides the spoils of the former empire among his generals:


“This was the Qin king’s palace. Many people have suggested that I live here. I cannot. I will burn it down to avoid the possibility that someone will become another Qin Emperor. We didn’t overthrow the Qin to make another Qin emperor. The Qin Emperor unified the world and demanded that all must wear the same color, ride the same carriages, and write the same [characters/language]. He wanted to take the thousands upons thousands of different hearts of the world and turn them into one…”

This depiction of Xiang Yu as a generous proponent of decentralized rule is entirely at odds with Sima Qian’s critique of Xiang Yu’s arrogant desire to “make himself a dictator.” Later on Sima Qian has Gao Qi and Wang Ling tell Liu Bang that, unlike the new Han emperor, Xiang Yu, “was jealous of worth and ability…No matter what victories were achieved in battle, he gave his men no reward; no matter what lands they won, he never shared with them the spoils. This is why he lost possession of the world.”8 Sima Qian claims Xiang Yu’s reason for not staying in Xianyang was due to his yearning to return home to his home in the southern kingdom of Chu.

Instead, in the movie version Xiang Yu murders his way to the northwest to overthrow the Qin wants in order to reverse the massive standardization campaigns of the empire. His goal, rather than winning heroic valor, military glory, and feeding his insatiable hunger for power, is a destruction of the insidious cultural hegemony of the empire.

I can’t help but wonder if there is a far more contemporary political message being made here through the speech of this new Xiang Yu. Instead of the Qin, is it the Communist party’s goal of “uniting the hearts of the people” that is the real target here, especially with respect to the control over art? As Mao puts it in the 1942 “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art,”

“The purpose of our meeting today is precisely to ensure that literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part, that they operate as powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy, and that they help the people fight the enemy with one heart and one mind.” (帮助人民同心同德地和敌人作斗争)

Just as Xiang Yu’s speech is warming up to this theme, the film turns away to the reflections of Liu Bang on the affair as we see him prance through a field of memory. Curiously, if you watch closely you’ll notice a gap between what you can make out as Xiang Yu’s voice fades and Liu Bang’s comes in and what is in either the Chinese or English subtitles (at least the ones I could find). The last key audible phrase of Xiang Yu’s speech, and the one that is most biting politically, is completely left out of the transcript:

他要把天下千千萬萬顆不一樣的心,變成一個 “He wanted to take the thousands upons thousands of different hearts of the world and turn them into one…”

  1. Neat tip: if you have the Coursera app on your phone, you don’t need to watch the videos of the lectures, which is nice if you just want to listen to the lectures while at the gym or going for a run. It plays the videos fine when the phone is in another app, or “sleeping,” and even automatically starts the next lecture in a set when one is finished.  

  2. Indefinite and definite articles are so often dropped in the English spoken in Hong Kong, elsewhere in overseas Chinese English, and indeed many variants of English, I’ve almost stopped noticing it. I confess, I hope it is something that will spread to English everywhere (except for optional emphasis) as it would certainly make the language easier to learn.  

  3. You can find this in Burton Watson’s translation in Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty I, 17-48.  

  4. The story of the banquet is told in Watson’s translation of Sima Qian’s history on pp30-32, and briefly again in “The Basic Annals of Emperor Gaozu” p63. The farewell, in Sima Qian’s version, is on pp44-45.  

  5. Watson’s translation, in Xiang Yu’s annals on p29 and in Gaozu annals pp61-62  

  6. Xiang Yu annals, p33  

  7. Nylan, Michael. The Five Confucian Classics. Yale University Press, 2014, 29.  

  8. “Basic Annals of Xiang Yu p48 “Basic Annals of Emperor Gaozu” p76  

Encountering Classical Chinese Philosophy Through Translation and a Text Adventure Game

Over winter break I usually spend a good deal of time with my nephew, codename Loke, now 11 years-old. Over the past few years, I have hidden a bonus Christmas present somewhere for him and developed a puzzle that reveals its location. I began with a cryptography puzzle that involved decrypting a message using a double transposition cipher for which the key was supplied. The second year’s puzzle was called “The Bestiary” and involved chasing down references to lots of monsters in various literary traditions and using their names to spell the location of the prize.

The mysterious bamboo slipsThis time I created a two part puzzle: one involving a translation exercise, and the other, a classical Chinese philosophy-inspired text adventure in which the translations were required to win the game and reveal the location of his prize. I first gave Loke a printed out image of fifteen bamboo slips with snippets from Kongzi, Mengzi, Laozi, and Zhuangzi in classical Chinese, along with a glossary tailored to these snippets. Although the Taekwondo-practicing Loke has been learning some Hangul of late, and a bit of Spanish at school, he has never studied Chinese or Classical Chinese, so it was important that even mangled translations could be used to help him in-game. I was delighted to confirm that one should never underestimate the ability of an eleven year-old to use their intuition to transform the product of a juxtaposition of matched-up characters-to-definitions into an intelligible sentence, and then, when asked, guess the philosophical message of that snippet (often not obvious in isolation) in most cases. Loke translated the fifteen slips, on average 2-3 per sitting and around 15 minutes per sitting, over the course of two weeks.

The inspiration for the second part of the puzzle was as a project to help teach myself the Python programming language. My code is an amateur mess but it works and it was lots of fun to recreate that nice 1980s text adventure feeling. There are a number of open source starter kits out there to help you create a text adventure game in Python. I used the lovely bwx-adventure Python module created and used by a school in San Francisco called SF Brightworks to help children create their own adventure, and modified it a bit to get it to run online in a browser through Trinket.

When Loke finished his fifteen translations, I gave him a web link to his game. His goal, essentially, is to explore the game and hunt down his fifteen quotes within it on signs, scrolls, and rock carvings found in the locations of the game. When he finds a match, he makes a note of a letter found with each quote. If he can find his way past various challenges to a special “machine room,” guarded by a tomb demon, he can input the code into the machine and it will spit out the location of his prize in the real world.

Loke has, as of this posting, explored about half the game, and identified about half of his translated quotes (along with a few misidentifications, which I hope he will spot when he finds the proper matches). As with puzzles in previous years, he has moments of excitement and enthusiasm for the puzzle, after which he puts it down only to return days, weeks, or months later. I was certainly no different at his age, and I can’t pretend my text adventure can compare to the lure of his joys in Minecraft (I decided not to develop the game in Minecraft, despite lots of great options for this, partly because I don’t think he would not be able to resist the urge to beautify the horribly newb work of his ancient uncle).

As he explores the game Loke is encountering lots of other quotes from the Chinese classics (citations for the translations used can be access by typing “about” in the game or also here), and while wandering through the domains of Kongzi (Confucius), Mengzi (Mencius), Zhuangzi, and Loazi, he has the opportunity to meet and talk to a range of interesting characters in addition to the main four, including but not limited to Mengzi’s mother, Ban Zhao, Mozi, Huizi, the Robber Zhi in monkey form (who will steal your stuff), a giant tortoise, a cook named Meng Shen, Jesus (who can be found hanging out with the Daoists), and a frog (take a stab at where it can be found).

I have created a generic version of the game so that anyone can play. You can also modify the final victory message, or create your own gamification of the Chinese classics with the code in this trinket, or via the code repository at github. The game, including a link to the bamboo slips and glossary can be played here:

The Hall of Sages Adventure Game

A brief note on Google Culture

Google Culture is apparently producing some original content: “A brief history of Kimono”

It’s… ok, but not fantastic. Pretty, yes, and some decent history. But just on a quick survey I’d note two fundamental errors:

  • the historical sections are illustrated by anachronistic Tokugawa-modern kimono, rather than historically appropriate images. It’s not like there’s a shortage of classical or medieval portraiture or other materials that could be used.
  • There’s at least one page on which a legend (about sword-resistant kimono dyes) is presented almost as if it could be factual.

There’s no citations or sources, either, that I can see.

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.