David Todd Roy has died


This saddens me a great deal. I saw him speak years ago when only one volume of his Jin Ping Mei translation was out, and I wondered if he would finish. He did of course, and my attitude was a pretty obnoxious one for a reader of an author or translator to have, but also a pretty common one. As you can tell from this interview. it really was his life’s work, not an academic move forward in your career thing, and I am glad that he got to finish it and hear the entirely justified plaudits he got for it.


P.S. If you are interested, the whole thing is available as an e-book, if like me you increasingly tend to read novels as e-books.




Visual Digital History

Laura Putnam has an article out in the new issue of AHR “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast

One of her points is the modern, digitally searchable sources make it easier to do transnational history. It used to be that doing transnational history meant going to several archives and learning several sets of sources. That’s why so few people did it. Putnam is of course not opposed to the new “drive-by transnationalism,” but she does want to point out some of the problems it creates. Scholars in the global south, or at smaller schools, can’t really participate. More importantly, you loose a lot of the context for the sources you are looking at. It is easier to collect sources that you don’t really understand when all you need to do to find them is push a button.

I of course agree with this, and I would expand on the problems a little. Digitization really does encourage the use of the type of sources that are likely to be digitized and made available. Newspapers are a good example. Many years ago Lloyd Eastman claimed that the China field should be getting beyond the point where finding the references to an event in the major Shanghai papers counted as good research, but we are sort of moving back that way. Of course there is nothing wrong with that, or rather there are some good things about making it easy to find out what Shibao said about something. This is just a new version of of the old fact that historians use sources that are easy to find. Putnam even quotes E.H. Carr about historians and fish.1

Most of what Putnam is talking about are the cooked digital sources. Things like digitized newspapers and archives, where someone has done the work to figure out was this is, classify it, and make it cite-able. Some of these are lightly cooked sources, like a digitized archive, where you are just looking at the same thing you could see on paper, only on a screen. Some are cooked a bit more, like newspaper archives, where they may have done OCR to make things searchable, and even added keywords, but is still the same stuff you could have found the old fashioned way.

What about the raw sources? The things that you can find with a google search that don’t turn up in libraries or archives? As an undergraduate my professors never had to spend time explaining to me how to assess sources I could not find in our library, since I was not going to find anything like that. Undergraduates actually make a good example of how things have changed. As an undergrad, I always liked books. Easy to find under topic headings in the card catalog, or even by shelf reading. Journal articles meant looking for bibliographies or indexes or something. Now JSTOR is step one for undergraduate research. Well, maybe step two. Now people find all sorts of things out in the wild. This is sometimes true of texts with things like Google books and Internet Archive, but the best example is pictures. Google Image search will find you lots of things, but what are they? Nowadays even modern historians are becoming like archaeologists sorting through a bunch of Victorian loot. It’s cool stuff, and you really want to use it, but there is no chain of custody. What is this stuff?

My example here is China Postcard, who I have posted about before. I have no idea who China Postcard is, but they have a Flickr account where they post…all sorts of China pictures. I mostly use this for teaching. There is all sorts of stuff in here, but it is not always easy to make sense of.2

Here we have foreigners, ready to defend Shanghai in 1937

WarComes to Shanghai

and posing under a poster for the film “You Only Live Once.” This is obviously a staged shot, in the sense that I am sure they chose to pose under that poster for a reason. More importantly, you can’t really cite it, since it is clearly taken from a book, but they do not tell you which one (although I suspect you could find it.) For teaching purposes this does not much matter. If you need a picture of the Marco Polo Bridge WITH CAMELS…here you go. Well, I think they are camels.


A lot of the stuff here is old press photos, and they are pretty good at including the captions. So here are Chinese female pilots learning something in 1973. If you are working on aviation in China, this is a nice find.

Press Photo 1058 1973-FemalePilots

Some of them tell you what they are, but you still can’t make sense of them. Here is a foreigner, walking through a Beijing park in 1967…with a copy of Playboy. Press Photo 1230 Playboy 1967

With this even knowing the caption does not help you figure out what is going on.

Most interesting to me, and most relevant to Putnam, are the less sourced things. Here is a photo taken by a British sailor outside the military harbor in Qingdao in the 1930’s. Or at least that’s what China Postcard says.


I assume anyone interested in the cult of Sun or GMD propaganda would find this interesting. Was the Will posted all over China? Just on the borders? Always in both Chinese and English? They might want more information, but place, decade and taken by a British sailor is actually pretty good. Some of them are a lot more vague. These are Chinese police in Shanghai in the 1910’s. Obviously some of the New Policies police reforms have happened, but the physical infrastructure of modern policing is not quite there yet. Cops seem to be a popular topic for both photos and commercial postcards, so someone interested in the New Policies could find a lot of data.

1910s Shanghai Police Station in Chinese City

All I have for this is 1930’s, a family shrine, probably in Dongbei.

Family Shrine 1930s Manchuria

This is a really interesting photo, and it makes me think of all sorts of questions about popular religion. Is this really a family shrine? It looks public to me. Are some of the painted-on worshippers non-Chinese? Does it say something in the upper right? Is this even a Buddhist shrine, or is it one of the New Religions or something else? Without more context it might be hard to figure out what to make of it, however. China Postcard seems to have gotten it from a blog post, so the trail runs cold.

So, to sum up, you should read the Putnam, because it is good, but there is more to it then that. Digital history not only making it easy for us to find things quickly, even if we don’t know what they are, it is also making it easy to find things that we have no clue what to make of, or even how to date. Modern historians are becoming ancient historians, at least in some ways.

We are like this little guy, fleeing China in 1949, with no clear idea where we are, where we are going, or how to make sense of it all.


Admittedly, most of us are not as cute as he is.

  1. The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation. What is History p.23. Why do I include this quote? Well, its a good quote. Also, I found it by googling to wikipedia and thus could drop it in here without having to dig up a copy of Carr and type it in.  

  2. It is also not all that well key-worded, so you have to do old fashioned look at everything research.  

Memory Politics and Memory Drama

Jordan Sand’s A Year of Memory Politics in East Asia: Looking Back on the “Open Letter in Support of Historians in Japan” is immensely timely: I spent a few hours just yesterday arguing with people on twitter about the Comfort Women issue. I had tweeted about a new documentary, testimony from some surviving women, and got … well, the usual pushback, using the usual arguments.

The film is called “The Apology” by Tiffany Hsiung of Canada and it sounds fascinating.

The Apology follows the personal journeys of three former “comfort women” who were among the 200,000 girls and young women kidnapped and forced into military sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. Some 70 years after their imprisonment in so-called “comfort stations,” the three “grandmothers”– Grandma Gil in South Korea, Grandma Cao in China, and Grandma Adela in the Philippines – face their twilight years in fading health. After decades of living in silence and shame about their past, they know that time is running out to give a first-hand account of the truth and ensure that this horrific chapter of history is not forgotten. Whether they are seeking a formal apology from the Japanese government or summoning the courage to finally share their secret with loved ones, their resolve moves them forward as they seize this last chance to set future generations on a course for reconciliation, healing, and justice.

Jordan Sand writes, regarding the counterattacks on the Historians’ Statement (of which I was a signatory, as was my colleague Alan Baumler) “With regard to the comfort women issue, the Japanese right continues, on the one hand, to be highly selective in its use of evidence, and on the other hand to treat any criticism of wartime Japan as a personal insult. … a defensive nationalist bias that privileges the state and seeks to minimize the suffering of its victims has no place in either the historical profession or the classroom.” This was very much in evidence in the twitter discussion: “we Japanese” and “testimony alone is not evidence” and “objective proof” and “identified incidents.”

What finally put an end to the discussion, aside from exhaustion, I suppose, was asking the anonymous/pseudonymous tweeters … why it matters so much? “I don’t understand what dire consequence results from the Japanese state apologizing for what you’ve already admitted happened.”

In fairness, I do know why it matters, or at least there are a number of fairly obvious reasons. Jordan Sand discusses quite clearly the implications of ‘mainstreaming’ Japan’s wartime experience:

If you believe, as many Japanese conservatives do, that Japan at the time was engaged in a necessary war of national defense, then it will be easier to accept the view that the comfort station system was simply an unfortunate by-product of war, and that reports of abduction and rape by the Japanese military are either false or rare aberrations.

Similarly, since many Japanese conservatives believe wartime Japan was not abnormal, and in their view a “normal country” (with the United States often providing the implicit model) is one for which citizens are prepared to give their lives, it becomes natural from this perspective to treat all Japanese deaths in the Asia-Pacific War as noble sacrifices. In this context, the wartime slogan “suppress the individual, serve the state” (messhi hōkō) becomes simply an expression of national duty, rather than of an ultranationalism that abrogated private rights and ultimately led to forced mass suicides.

Tenno 1988 - Right Wing Trucks - mergedAs I’ve suggested before, I think that the historical denialism and conservative revisionism that we have seen in Japan is part of a larger right-wing turn in East Asian and global affairs (obviously, my previous list can easily be updated with reference to rising European right-wing parties, the dramatic turn of the US Republican party and historical revisionism aimed at the Civil War, Putin, etc.). Jordan Sand points out that his students read the Japanese historical revisionist manifesto positively, believing that nations have a right to a positive self-understanding. I see in my own students the same conflations that attacked me on twitter: the conflation of state and nation and self, the conflation of useful and positive and true history, the difficulty of changing minds with even the best evidence….

Well, I have to grade now, and it’s not like I’m going to solve this problem anytime soon. It does sound, though, like Hsiung’s “The Apology” is a film well worth seeing and sharing, and I hope it does get good distribution.

The Oriental and its readership

Here are two pictures


The one on the right is a cigarette ad from the 1930s. The one on the left is the Chinese aviatrix Lee Ya-Ching, who I have mentioned before. As you can see, they are pretty much the same picture.

The picture of Lee is from the cover of the Oriental, which is a Spanish language magazine from Lima, and it is obviously connected to Lee’s wartime fund-raising tours in South America. Other than that I knew nothing about the magazine, but luckily for me at AAS this weekend I heard a very good paper by Ana Maria Candela, where she discussed the magazine. It is, as I mentioned, in Spanish, which I found odd, since North American Overseas Chinese published a lot in Chinese. She explained that the Peruvian Chinese were raising a generation of mostly Spanish speaking kids, and so a magazine that defined Chineseness in Spanish was useful to them.1 The magazine circulated well beyond Peru, although that was the center of it. They often had these sort of photoshopped calender girls on the cover, and wanted to portray a very modern Chinese woman with lot of athletics, and, of course, flying. It was a very interesting paper and panel. You should have been there.

  1. That’s what I took from it anyway  

Archives, China and America: A Review of Wang Chengzhi and Su Chen

  Columbia University Press sent me a copy of Wang, Chengzhi, and Su Chen. Archival Resources of Republican China in North America. Columbia University Press, 2015.1 9780231161404

As a reference book it is incredibly handy. As you might guess, it is most useful for the types of topics where you might find archival sources in the U.S., which means diplomats (considered broadly), journalists and missionaries. They also pay a good deal of attention to photo and film archives. Some of this is merely useful, saving you the trouble of going to the Hoover Institution website to remind yourself about some of the major things they have, or checking out all the Columbia Oral History stuff. More significantly, the authors have done a pretty good job of digging up obscure archives you may not have been aware of. Did you know that Harrison Forman’s papers are at the University of Oregon? Forman was “a U.S. explorer, aviator, photographer, journalist and author” who interviewed Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, and, given his time in Tibet, was the technical director for the Oscar-winning film Lost Horizon. You may remember him as the author of Report from Red China and How to Make Money With Your Camera. Wang and Su describe the collection, tell you that there is an on-line finding aid here. Parts of it have been digitized by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries. Diaries are here Photos here.

So if you need pictures of pre-1937 Red Army soldiers playing croquet, posing with their bicycles, or learning to denounce Japanese imperialism (in both characters and cursive pinyin. Why cursive?) you can find them.




The whole book is like this, providing you with both descriptions of the collections and links to on-line finding aids and also to related collections. It really is an invaluable tool if you are trying to track down sources in North America. Many collections are in the process of digitization, and this volume is really helpful for finding out how far the process has advanced and where to find things.

There is an introduction by Joseph Esherick,2 and he points out, correctly, that having all the entries in both English and Chinese may encourage Chinese scholars to use these collections, which is of course all to the good. Esherick also points out that access to archives in China is becoming more and more problematic. In his own work on Chinese archives, Esherick discussed the openness of various Chinese archives.3 Today you can track openness, to some extent, through Dissertation Reviews.

On the one hand, I wondered why this book was published in dead tree form at all. More things are going to be digitized, there are plenty more archival sources that could be included. The authors mention possible future editions, but why not just do it on-line so you can update constantly, like Dissertation Reviews? That would be particularly helpful for questions like “Did anyone actually get to look at anything at the Number Two last summer?” On the other hand, given that these are North American collections and under the North American archival culture, I’m not sure how much that matters. All these collections are open, and will almost certainly remain so. The only question is how much digitization has been done, and what is the URL. Twenty years ago it was possible to hope that China was on a path towards open archives (also, democracy) but it is harder to hope for that now. Chinese archives are being digitized, but this is not to increase access. I have blogged about the digitization process before.

But today I am less hopeful that digitization will lead to more open archives.4 China’s archive culture is quite different than that in North America. Esherick mentions the many Chinese scholars (academic and not) looking at Chiang Kai-shek’s diaries at Stanford. This book is, among other things, and invitation to Chinese scholars to use other North American archives. I hope they do. The Chinese archive culture does not seem to be moving in the direction of greater openness, however. I remember visiting one Chinese archive, ready for the normal process of negotiating access, and having my heart sink as a saw a giant calligraphy scroll declaring

保护档案 (Protect the archives!

Protect them from what? People looking at them, of course. Will we end up with with a situation like we had before 1976, where the best place to do research on Chinese history was outside China? I hope not, but if we do, this book will be even more valuable than it is now.




  1. Do you know if you are part of a group blog publishers will send you cool books to review/comment on? Nice work if you can get it. And you can. Drop me a line. 

  2. There is also an introduction by Eugene Wu.  

  3. Ye, Wa, and Esherick eds. Chinese Archives: An Introductory Guide. Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 1996.  

  4. For what it is worth, after I was invited to look at the digitization process in Shaanxi, I ended up banned from the archives for a few days while, I assume, a power struggle took place about openness. I got better.  

Syllabus blogging for Fall 2016

I seem to have forgotten to blog about syllabus ideas for the current semester, so I am going to do something unprecedented to make up for it, which is to blog about syllabus ideas for next semester now, before I even order books for Fall. (It’s a topsy-turvy world, I tell you.)

If you are interested, all the syllabai for this semester are here.

For Fall 2016 I have pretty much the same line-up

The new class for Fall is HIST 437 History of Modern Japan (Meiji to present) This is the first time I am doing it this way. I have split Japan in half, since I was getting tired of spending the whole first part of a 1600 to present Japan class talking about social and economic history and then the whole second half putting politics in command.

For a textbook I am going to use

Goto-Jones, Christopher. Modern Japan: A Very Short Introduction. OUP, 2009.

I like these Short Introductions, and given how hard it is to get students to read a textbook, shorter is better.1

Nagatsuka, Takashi, and Ann Waswo. The Soil: A Portrait of Rural Life in Meiji Japan. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1989.

Need a primary source for an upper-level class, and this one works well for rural life, family, etc.

Silverberg, Miriam. Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times.. University of California Press, 2009.

Given that a lot of the class will be about films and modern culture this seems like a good monograph to use, and of course you need one of those.

Then I was thinking of using a few films, possibly Eijanaika, 1981; Stray Dog, 1949; and Akira, 1988

What else could I put in here? Anything you would substitute for one of these?

HIST 198 The Rise of Modern Asia (India to Japan, 1850 to present) will remain pretty much the same, and the books will still be

Amitav Ghosh The Glass Palace: A Novel.

I could see replacing this with something else, if I could think of anything else that covers as much time and space in a well-written historical fiction novel as this.

Guha, Ramachandra. ed. Makers of Modern Asia.

I think this is working o.k., for the kids who read it. I really like the idea of focusing on biography as a way to bring all the stuff that was happening into focus, although of course that leads to and emphasis on political leaders. Honestly I can’t think of anything else as a substitute.

Asia 200 Introduction to Asian Studies

This is the one where I try to come up with a set of books and movies that cover most of Asia and various disciplinary traditions. So this semester I used

Shadid, Anthony. Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War.  Picador, 2006.

Worked o.k. I always start with a journalist/travel book to make things easy

-Errington, Frederick, Deborah Gewertz, and Tatsuro Fujikura. The Noodle Narratives: The Global Rise of an Industrial Food into the Twenty-First Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.

Not a huge hit, although I am not sure why.

-Chan, Koonchung. The Fat Years. Translated by Michael S. Duke. New York: Anchor, 2013.

Worked o.k. Plus it breaks India’s long stranglehold on the novel/literature category.

-Jerryson, Michael K. Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Just starting this now

-Amrith, Sunil S. Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Have not gotten to this yet.

For movies I used Tampopo (1985), although they did not care for it, as it was too weird, and Paradise Now (2005) which they liked a lot.

This class is getting to be more and more difficult to figure out. I could of course repeat a book……I don’t normally do that, but I could. I am sort of stuck in a rut of doing Journalist books on the Middle East (have to have Middle East/Islam somewhere) because there are so many of them and, frankly, it is the easiest thing for me to teach in that region. I was thinking of pairing up

Suleri, Sara. Meatless Days. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. The autobiography of a Pakistani woman, so Islam and Literature. I did this before. Students hated with the passion of 10,000 burning suns, until some of them started to like it.


Hoesterey, James. Rebranding Islam: Piety, Prosperity, and a Self-Help Guru. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015. Anthropology and Southeast Asia

Maybe Meyer, Michael. The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed. Reprint edition. Walker Books, 2009. for Journalism/travel writing, and a good Pan-Asian topic of rapid urbanization

Then maybe do something weird, like

Slingerland, Edward. Trying Not to Try: Ancient China, Modern Science, and the Power of Spontaneity. New York: Broadway Books, 2015.

Yes, it’s a self-help book, and it’s based on Zhuangzi, who my students generally dislike, but it’s EDWARD SLINGERLAND. Plus, for the first time I will be able to include “Philosophy” as one of my disciplinary traditions. Alas, this is two China books.

A few of other possibilities are

Truitt, Allison J. Dreaming of Money in Ho Chi Minh City. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013.

White, Merry. Perfectly Japanese: Making Families in an Era of Upheaval. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

The problem with these is that while I could cheat and call Truitt Economics and White History they are both really anthropologists. I have no problem thinking of history books, and literature is easy, as is Journalism/travel. Lots of other disciplines (Sociology., Political Science, Economics) have pretty much abandoned the Area Studies approach, and so while I would like to fit them in, I usually can’t.

So what is your advice? What cool Asia books would you love to teach?

  1. If I am going to have to give short writing assignments, schedule class discussions and give quizzes to get them to read something I would just as soon it not be a textbook. 10 years from now none of them will remember the 200 pages of textbook they read, but they may remember a real book I had them read.  

Mei Lanfang and Bertold Brecht


Yes, not Brecht. I know

Looking for a nice little piece on  Mei Lanfang’s 1935 Moscow performances witnessed by (among others) Bertold Brecht? Here you go.

There is a nice description of his earlier American tour in Catherine Yeh “China, a Man in the Guise of an Upright Female: Photography, the Art of the Hands, and Mei Lanfang’s 1930 visit to the United States” in Henriot, Christian, and Wen Hsin-yeh,  History in Images: Pictures and Public Space in Modern China. Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, 2013.



For my next impression, Josephine Owens!

ms29_000_ModernSketchThis is a cover from the Shanghai magazine Modern Sketch. If you want to learn more about the magazine, you can go here. What I find interesting about this cover is that it is celebrating  the success of the “people of color” at the 1936 Olympics. Who is this lady? Helen Stephens would seem a possibility, although it does not look much like her.1  It actually looks like a cross between Jessie Owens and Josephine Baker to me, which may be the point.

1936 was of course the Nazi Olympics, and most Americans know how Jessie Owens stood up for the American principle of racial equality and humiliated Hitler.2 As far as I know, nobody has written about these Olympics from an Asian point of view. According to Wikipedia there were a number of non-white winners in Berlin. India defended its gold in field hockey, but I am not sure how familiar Chinese readers would have been with that sport. Son Kitei won the marathon for the Empire of Japan, but since he was actually Sohn Kee-chung and a Korean it does not seem likely that a Chinese publication would emphasize him. The suggestion that Asians could only be modern under Japanese tutelage does not seem like it would sell many magazines.  Khadr El Touni of Egypt won gold in weightlifting, and he shows how slim the choices are if you want a non-white, non-colonized winner.

There should have been another option, however. Lots of Chinese people had been hoping that Yang Xiuqiong would bring back gold for China in swimming. 3 The Mermaid was China’s heroine, model for women, and spokeswoman for the New Life Movement.

YangXiuqiong_0912 c2010128111428530(2)43b74a7c6e45996a269d019bfde4d4c8

It’s complicated. See Gao’s book. When she went to Berlin she stood shoulder to shoulder with blond women.


She lost. China loves a winner, and will not tolerate a loser, and so she became a national laughingstock. Here is the back cover of the same issue of Modern Sketch showing Yang with her goose egg.


So it is not that surprising that the front image shows a woman. If you want to emphasize China’s national humiliation, and that was a huge theme in the 1930’s, you need to tie it to Yang, so you need a female winner. Frankly, given the level of anti-African racism in China it is not surprising that Modern Sketch would emphasize the contrast with a figure that is half Jesse Owens (who won) and half Josephine Baker, given that many of the magazine’s jazz-listening readers would have been familiar with the star of Danse Sauvage and her image of African …sexuality and primitivism?

So, if you (or I) are looking for a nice set of images to teach about gender and internationalism in China, here you go.

Gao Yunxiang’s book is an excellent source on this. Also see Morris, Visualizing Modern China

  1. not that it would much matter to Modern Sketch 

  2. Soon after that we came to the aid of Poland  

  3. Gao, Yunxiang Sporting Gender: Women Athletes and Celebrity-Making during China’s National Crisis, 1931-45. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013. p.178 is where all this comes from.  

Teaching Japan with films

StrayDogNext semester I will be teaching a class on Modern Japan (Meiji to the present) and I was thinking of having them watch some films. I am guessing this will be done by making a short list of 10-12 films, showing one or two as a group, and having them watch and present on one or two others.1 Part of the problem with that is while I have some great ideas, there are lots of gaps in coverage. So I thought I would ask you all for some advice. Here is what I have now.

Bakumatsu EEEEEEEJIAAAANAAAAIIIIKAAAAA!  One of the films that made me think about doing this in the first place. This is a good film on the social chaos of Bakumatsu Japan. One I think we will watch together.

Meiji Then…some other stuff. Sadly I have not seen Ah! Nomugi toge (Oh! The Nomugi Pass) but I guess that should go here and….then what? What are some good Meiji into Taisho films?

Empire Dersu Uzala fits here, since I think you really need one movie about Japan’s imperial encounter with the romantic primitive and this is it. (Just pretend the Russian guy is Japanese.)

I really need something on Korea or Taiwan, and the more colonial colonial bits. What would be good?

War Well, this is clearly important. I figure the new Eternal Zero movie will be one, since it brings up all the issues of war memory. Then Grave of the Fireflies. It’s an animated movie, so it will not be a downer like so many war movies.

SetsukoOne of these two will probably be another one that we will watch together.

For postwar/Occupation Stray Dog seem good for this, Maybe use Stray Dog as a movie to watch together, since while they may not know much about postwar Japan they should be able to deal with a cop buddy movie.

Salriman society

The Bad Sleep Well (Although I would like this class not to be a Kurasawa Festival)

Ozu’s Good Morning

Boy (1969) Mostly just because I like it, and I can’t think of anything else to show the ‘working’ class in this period

I am probably missing a lot here. Maybe God Speed You Black Emperor?

The boom years Taxing Woman’s Return Since I don’ t have enough comedies and I like the movie. If you want a parody of every bit of corruption in Japan in the 80s, this is it.

Japan since the boom

I probably need something here. Probably some Anime too. You can sort of see my problem from this list of films I don’t have a lot of good historical films before 1945, things like Eijianaika that are good as movies and also do a good job with a period. After 1945 there are quite a few “contemporary” films they can use. I will probably have some students who are pretty serious film buffs, and could do a nice class presentation on, say, Momontaro’s Divine Sea Warriors. What I really need are more movies that are fun to watch and help you think about history without requiring you to know much about film or to be willing to sit through a silent movie.

If you were picking out two or three good films for this class, what would they be?

  1. If all students remember about your class 10 years from now is that they saw 3 or 4 good films (or read some good books) then that is not a bad result.  

Edward Alsworth Ross and the good old days of scholarship

Edward Alsworth Ross  was the father of modern Sociology, or maybe Criminology or Anthropology (disciplines were harder to distinguish back then) and also a major figure figure in the development of academic freedom. His academic freedom notoriety came when he was fired from Stanford for opposing allowing Asian workers into the U.S. As he put it

And should the worst come to the worst it would be better for us if we were to turn our guns upon every vessel bringing Japanese to our shores rather than to permit them to land.

It was not his racism that actually got him fired, however He was sticking up for labor by trying to keep Asians out, and cheap Asian labor was very popular with the Stanford family. Excluding Asians was, sadly, one of the few early victories for the American labor movement. Samuel Gompers, in Meat Vs. Rice: American Manhood Against Asiatic Coolieism, Which Shall Survive?1  (who says you can’t judge a book by its title?) cited Rudyard Kipling on the Chinese..

There are three races that can work, but only one that can swarm. These people work and spread. They pack close and eat everything and can live on nothing. They will overwhelm the world. p.8

The key reason that these yellow people were such a peril was, as Kipling put it, they could live on nothing, subsisting on poor food and in poor conditions that a white man could not endure. Thus, the only way to protect the honest white working man was to keep the Asians out. Ross added a level of scholarly gravitas to this idea of the Asians as a race of cheap-living semi-humans that would out-compete the white working class. In this case they would do so by coming to California, rather than making things in Asia and shipping them to California, but it is to some extent the same argument that some make now.

I find Ross interesting because after leaving Stanford he ended up, eventually, at the University of Nebraska. There he made a momentous choice.

ONE December night in 1908 I am making my way home in a snow-storm wondering what to do with the half-year’s leave of absence due me for teaching for nothing in two six-weeks summer sessions. Suddenly the thought flashes, ”I’ll go to China.” In the next twenty steps I make as momentous and happy a decision as I have ever made. At that time, only eight years had elapsed since the “Boxer” rebellion breached the old order in China and no “chair” sociologist had explored the Far East.2

His research methods are hard to square with modern disciplinary traditions. While he did read a bit before going, and praises the works of the missionaries Rev. W. A. P. Martin and Rev. Arthur Smith, the bulk of his research came in the form of a trip across Old China with a guide and native bearers like a proper Victorian explorer. This was what drew me to his work and to writing this post, since I have been talking to my students about what scholarly disciplines are and where they come from.

The heart of my China quest was the journey with Consul Julean Arnold 1200 miles overland from Taiyuanfu through Sianfu to Chengtu, taking us across the provinces of Shansi, Shensi, and Szechuan, the little-visited heart of Old China, and revealing the culture of antiquity scarcely contaminated by foreign influences. We made our way to Sianfu, ourselves and our Peking cook, borne in three mule litters. The 550 miles thence to Chengtu we were carried in sedan chairs. The ordinary traveler for short distances in an open chair is carried by two bearers; the official is carried by three bearers; it is not from pride that I had four men bear me, with an extra man carrying my suit-cases and taking turns with the bearers!

The cost of our caravan of fifteen, including our food and overnight at inns, came to $4.00 a day altogether! …

I got the repute of being a magician because, recalling my college physics, I wrapped the quart bottle of boiled water I carried as a thirst-quencher in a crash towel, wet the rowel and hung it in the front of my litter, where sun and breeze could get at it and speed up evaporation. My coolies could not understand why, the hotter the day, the cooler the water in my bottle became!

He travels around making observations about forestry, the role of women, the military, everything. Who would he write to for grant money for a trip like this now? He was, of course, a racist, in the good old-fashioned sense that he saw the world as consisting of different races and the purpose of science as being to determine the characteristics of these races. He was not, of course one of those foolish unscientific missionaries who saw the Chinese as people to be saved.

I did not assume the religious future of the Chinese to be bound up with Christianity or, indeed, with any existing religion. I did not assume that the culture of the Chinese is inferior just so far as it differs from ours. The idea that the yellow race is quite as gifted as ours was not in the least repugnant to me.

The missionaries are all too ready to lay the defects of Chinese culture to their “not having Christ,” forgetting that “having Christ” did not save the Dark Ages from being ignorant,superstitious, intolerant and insanitary.

“Insanitary” will turn up a good deal as a marker of backwardness in his account., but he was quite open-minded

In the back of my head, too, was an itch of curiosity regarding the yellow race. Had the Chinese physique, in the course of forty centuries’ sojourn in Eastern Asia, come to differ from ours in immunities and susceptibilities? Had the mind of this race gifts and lacks which did not tally quite with the gifts and lacks of ourselves? . My angle of approach explains why The Changing Chinese was such a success and appeared in French translation even when German shells were dropping on Paris.With such an unusual approach, I tackled the Chinese in a way to disarm them and win their confidence. At once their intellectuals perceived that I was free from racial arrogance and no blind devotee of the culture of the West.

He did find a good deal to admire in China

I like the cuisine of China, it is one of the world’s four great cuisines, the other three being the French, Russian and American.

 and he certainly did not dismiss the Chinese as being entirely outside the orbit of human life, and therefore incapable of providing lessons for other civilized people.3  In his section on the opium trade and the anti-opium campaigns that were going on while he was there he claims that
The experience of the Chinese with opium shatters the comfortable doctrine that organized society need not concern itself with bad private habits. p.173
If all opium were to do was kill off fools and weaklings “it might be looked upon as the winnower of chaff”, but as it was destroying society something needed to be done.This of course has lessons for the West and alcohol. The West has public opinion and laws to restrict the spread of vice, and this was, for him, a good thing. He was very much a proponent of managing society and individuals for the common good. There were others at the time who would have claimed that the Chinese were racially distinct from whites, and that there was nothing to be learned from their example and struggles, but Ross was not one of them.
So what was wrong with China? Their “conservatism [was] not a race trait, but a by-product of their social history” They were not permanently racially inferior, rather their national development had taken a wrong turn. Sometimes Ross sounds like Sun Yat-sen
In China the notion of a undistributed public good distinct from private goods has never established itself in the general mind. The State has been tribute-taker rather than guardian of the general welfare, so the community is sacrificed to the individual, the public to the local group, and posterity to the living. p.22
Ross is certainly willing to traffic in racial and regional stereotypes but he does see China as making progress. Oddly, as far as I can tell, his The Changing Chinese was not translated into Chinese until the 1990s, and he seems to have had no influence on the development of ideas about race in China. Or am I missing something?


  1. Samuel Gompers, and Herman Gutstadt. Meat Vs. Rice: American Manhhod Against Asiatic Coolieism, Which Shall Survive? American Federation of Labor and printed as Senate document 137 (1902); reprinted with intro. and appendices by Asiatic Exclusion League, 1908.  

  2. Seventy Years of It: An Autobiography, D. Appleton-Century Company, 1936. p.121 

  3. he repeatedly calls the Chinese civilized  

Teaching about lives

Empire made me

Since James Joshua Hudson brought it up on Facebook, I thought I would say something about teaching with Robert Bickers’ Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai. I have blogged about it before, but basically it is a biography of an English WWI vet and Shanghai policeman , Richard Tinkler,  who manages to go down the tubes at about the same rate the empire does.

I used it in an Honors Core unit that was supposed to deal with “How do we understand and use the past? What therefore, should we do.” and I built it around the theme of biography and autobiography. This is a good book to use for biography, since Bickers talks about Tinkler’s life but also how he came to know about it. He has a good but spotty collection of sources and talks a bit about how we find out about the past and what we can’t know. For instance, he has some photos and some other evidence that Tinkler was at one point in a pretty serious relationship with a White Russian girl. Then…nothing. What happened? You might think with more documents we could figure this out, but sometimes all the documents and interviews in the  world can’t tell you want went wrong with a relationship between two people.1 Bickers also does a good job of putting Tinkler in the context of the city and how it was changing around him. Chinese nationalism was growing, the British Empire was declining. Enough to drive a man to drink.

Student reaction to the book was mixed. I think they learned a lot, but they did not always enjoy it. He is not an admirable character, and was impossible for them to identify with, since he was a racist. Also, he was a loser, someone who started out as a promising young person but had become a failure by age 35, which is of course not a relevant trajectory for an Honors College student. Obviously identifying with the main figure in the book is not the only thing you can do with a narrative, but it is the one they are used to.

The book I usually paired it with was Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City, which is the story of his growing up in Istanbul. He is not a loser (won the Noble Prize, although only once so far) and like Bickers it is as much about a place as about a person. This was, I think, the one they enjoyed most, although it was also the easiest to enjoy as a series of vignettes. Also the Honors College used to do a regular summer trip to Turkey, and this may have helped get them interested. Still, the basic pattern of a smart,  person coming to understand the world around them is one that they could relate to.

I also tried it once with Alan Taylor’s William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic I thought it would pair well with Bickers since it is also about a place and a person. In this case it was about the founder of Cooperstown, New York (and father of the novelist James Fenimore Cooper) and his career as a land agent, speculator, and later judge and congressman. He is basically Tinkler made good, a young man who leaves home to go to a new place and gain the status and money he longs for.

They -really- did not care for this book, since it is long and, like Tinkler, Cooper is a hard person to warm up to. He was obsessed with becoming “genteel”, which was not a motivation modern students find easy to grasp. That was actually one of the reasons I assigned it, since I wanted at least one text on a pre-modern person.

One book that did work well was Hue-Tam Ho Tai. Passion, Betrayal, and Revolution in Colonial Saigon: The Memoirs of Bao Luong. The really got into this, in part I think because you can read it as a coming-of-age story, a murder mystery, a relationship gone bad story….All things they have read before. The fact that the main character is female probably helped too, as about 75% of the students were as well.

So I guess my take-away would be that if you want to engage undergrads (and these were freshmen) in understanding ways people write about lives you are best to choose an admirable character who is not that remote from them in time, and also fits in with some sort of narrative they are already familiar with. Of course part of the purpose of a class like this is to get beyond their comfort zone, but you start where you start. I guess this is why in a Modern China class I always get good results with Cultural Revolution narratives about a young person gradually realizing that everyone around them is crazy.

A couple other things I used were Ge Hong’s Autobiography (from Ebrey) and the first bits of Mark Twain’s autobiography. These both worked well as short examples you could use to show students how to do close reading.



  1. Interestingly, if you look at the picture of Tinkler’s funeral there is a white-looking girl in a white dress mixed in with the Shanghai Police contingent.. A daughter?  

The threat of Chinese imperialism in the 1920’s- Teacher training edition

In the 1920’s officials in the Dutch East Indies became concerned about the threat of Chinese Imperialism. This was a new concern for them. For a very long time the Dutch, and other colonialists had been eager to attract Chinese migrants, as they were the best way to develop a colony. They were “The only bees on Formosa that give honey.” One of the early governors of the Dutch East Indies said that

It is requisite by this monsoon to send another fleet to visit the coast of China and take prisoners as many men, women and children as possible… If the war proceed against China… an especial foresight must be used to take a very great number of Chinese, especially women and children, for the peopling of Batavia, Amboyna, and Banda.1

The Dutch eventually became worried about the Chinese, and by the late 1800s were creating all sort of ways to control and limit them they were mostly afraid of the Chinese as a race. (good old Yellow Peril stuff). They limited Chinese movement and tried to restrict their economic power, but were not terribly concerned with their contacts with China. Nobody was concerned with the actual existing Chinese state extending its control into Southeat Asia. According to Liu Oiyan, that changed in both the British and the Dutch colonies as more nationalistic education began to spread from China. 2 Jinan College was founded in 1906 and re founded in 1917 (first in Nanjing, then in Shanghai) to encourage nationalism among Chinese in Southeast Asia, especially those who would go on to teach in Chinese schools there.  “Jinan was the principle stronghold of Chinese Imperialism in the modern period that should not be welcomed by the colonial powers in Asia.” (p.100) Keeping out Chinese teachers became a key goal of Dutch policy. They also fought back by establishing Dutch-language education for Chinese students and setting up their own teacher training programs. Both side tried to encourage teachers to become citizens of the requisite state.

This seems like an interesting topic that a lot could be done with, but I was particularly interested in how much this worried the colonialists. Although it is fairly well known  that Chinese nationalists and Nationalists tried to spread Nationalism among the overseas Chinese, this has not been portrayed as wildly successful. Yes, the Chinese state did get some donations and such, but they were nowhere near taking over Java or Malaya or even the International Settlement in Shanghai. I can’t but help think that Chinese in Nanjing and Shanghai would have been gratified by the concern of the Dutch. Heck, even today Hanban would be overjoyed if it actually had the power that the Dutch thought the GMD did.

1 Vandenbosch, Amry. “A Problem in Java: The Chinese in the Dutch East Indies.” Pacific Affairs 3, no. 11 1930: 1001–17. doi:10.2307/2750073.
1 Liu, Oiyan. “Countering ‘Chinese Imperialism’: Sinophobia and Border Protection in the Dutch East Indies.” Indonesia, no. 97 (April 2014): 87–110,154.

Dunhuang, translation, and cultural contact

If you teach about Dunhuang, or the Tang dynasty, or inter-cultural contact, or just like to read interesting things, you should be aware of the Early Tibet website of Sam van Schaik. He is based at the International Dunhuang project, and has some interesting posts on Dunhuang as a site of cultural contact between Tibet and China. This is something everyone talks about in class, but van Shaik has lots of details on the functioning of the Dunhuang scriptorium that students might find interesting. Obviously today we don’t kidnap family members or flog people for loosing paper. When we say something has been written with blood we mean it as a metaphor, which may not always have been the case in Dunhuang.

Still, just like Dunhuang scribes, our students like to doodle.


While your students may not suffer quite as much as the Chinese scribes did under Tibetan rule, they may find the parallels interesting.


Understanding China-The interview

Stone Bridge Press is bringing out a deluxe edition of Jing Liu’s Understanding China Through Comics, which I have been reviewing here and enjoying very much. I recently had a chance to interview him about his work. and its future.

Why did you decide to do this? What were you trying to convey and to whom? Has the audience changed any over time?

In 2009 when we’re expecting our first child, I wanted to make a special gift only for him, so I thought about making books. I chose comic history because both history and comics are my long time hobbies. I also have 18-year experiences in running my design business, so I’m ready to turn my hobbies into a career. ‘Understanding China through Comics’ brings new method (present history graphically) and new perspective (how modern Chinese view themselves) for learning Chinese history. The series are intended for the general public.

Why in English?

I felt this topic deserves a global audience, so I wrote it in a global language, English.

At least for me some parts of teaching history are easier than others. It is not always easy to put all the things you want to talk about in a particular period into a clear story. What part of this history had been most difficult for you so far? Which did you enjoy most?

It’s easy to talk about history through personal stories. However, it’s more important and more difficult to look beyond these stories to see the long-term context (e.g. geography, economy) that plays a bigger role in history. The most difficult period is the Age of Division between the Han and Tang, too much going on at the same time, making it hard to tell a clear story.

What were some of the ways you got around this problem? For the Age of Division, one way to talk about it is through historical figures and events. I focus on the philosophical conflicts between Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, trying to explain how Chinese culture evolves in such a chaotic time.

Which period or topic has changed most in your mind as you worked on this? What figures or issues have you changed your mind about most?

The one thing I learned after working on the project is to be optimistic about the future – Today China has become a part of the globalized world. Once the change is done, there is no turning back.

Before I looked at Chinese history in terms of dynastic cycles (a traditional Chinese view), thinking what goes up must come down.

So it sounds like you have changed to a view of history as progress. Are there any parts of the Chinese past that you found difficult to fit into this pattern? Has this led you away from political history, or given you problems dealing with some periods? Are you thinking of extending the story into the 20th century?

From a long-term perspective, Chinese history is progressing from an agricultural empire to an industrialized nation, from the isolated “center of the world” to be a part of the world, and from traditional hierarchical communities with limited choices to diversified societies that offer more people more freedom to choose their own ways of lives. There are many short-term setbacks. But they didn’t stop history from progressing. Vol. 5 will cover the 20th century, but there is no fixed publishing schedule yet. The most interesting period for me is in Vol. 4, when China interacts with the Western powers.

What did you find most interesting about this? What did you find most enjoyable or difficult to write about in this period?

In Vol. 4, the most interesting part for me is that it’s no longer possible to tell Chinese history without relating to forces far away China. The previously more isolated civilizations start to blend together. For example, during the Boxer rebellions, such different sides as Chinese farmers, scholars, officials, foreign missionaries, and eight-nation allies played out and led to the eventual showdown. The history is still progressing in terms of the making of modern China, but personal experiences at the time could well be the opposite. It’s difficult to tell a balanced story.

Is there a main theme to your story? To Chinese history?

The main theme of the series is to explain what made the Chinese ‘Chinese’

The short answer is that, our history, our collective past, has made what we are today. History conditions individuals and societies, shapes the way we treat each other, and gives people complex accumulations of ideas. These ideas give us a sense of identity; these ideas became our culture. To put it in another way, Chinese history determines Chinese culture, and culture determines behavior, making the Chinese ‘Chinese.’

What has the reaction to the project been? Has this surprised you at all?

The reaction is very encouraging. Now I’m working with French, Korean and American publishers to release new editions. A Japanese publisher also expressed interest recently.

Will there be a Chinese edition?

Yes, a Hong Kong publisher just offered to publish the books in Chinese.

You have mentioned that you are re-drawing the series, which if fact you have done in part already. Why? How is the new version different?

Currently I’m re-writing and re-drawing Vol. 2 and 3 to improve the writings and drawings.

Battle1 Battle2

New                                                                  Old

Has does the format you have published in give you more freedom? Normally once a book is published the author can’t do any revisions. Was this part of your plan from the beginning?

Comic books are a great media to make a complicated topic more interesting. If possible, I’ll keep improving the story-telling and visual presentation.

What sources have you drawn on for the work? Which sources were most helpful? Which periods or topics were most difficult to find sources on?

My main sources are the works of Chinese historians: Lu Simian, Wang Tongling, and Ray Huang Renyu. It’s difficult to find sources on wars, as Chinese scholars generally don’t like to discuss them in great detail.

How about visual sources? What aspects of the project have been most difficult to picture in your mind and thus on paper? How did you work around this?

I try to find as many ancient paintings as possible to help my drawings. It’s hard to visualize abstract concepts like philosophy or economy. This is something that I need to improve on.

Do you have an example of an abstract concept that you think you did well with?

An example would be visualizing the dynastic cycle.

JL-Cycle1 Cycle2

The old editions are all still available on Amazon.