Teaching East Asia ​In the Humanities

This looks like a cool conference, at least till the last panel.

Teaching East Asia In the Humanities

April 24-25, 2021


The last panel has me talking about my experiences teaching Introduction to Asian Studies, which is something I also post about a bit here. I am posting all the documents (Draft paper, a bunch of syllabi and a bunch of paper prompts) for the presentation here. Hope to see you at the conference.

Disciplines and Narratives-Introducing Asian Studies in the Undergraduate Curriculum-Final

The economics of maize

Here, for your teaching pleasure, is a long quote on the value of corn (maize) in China. I often mention in class that New World crops were economically valuable, but I usually do not have much for details. Here is a long description of the Ten Conveniences and Five Profits of maize, taken from a memorial written to the Qianlong emperor in 1762 by a district magistrate named Wang Chongli. Wang seems to be pretty knowledgeable about the economics of peasant life.

Many grains are constrained by the season when it comes to planting and cultivation. Maize can be sown from February to April. There is no need to rush planting and rush harvest, this helps with utilizing agricultural labor. This alas is its first convenience.

When it sprouts , it grows into rough leaves and tall branches. they are not disrupted and impacted by wild grasses, weeding hence can be done later (not rushed) this is its second convenience.

It can be sown closer or far apart, the taller varieties even more so. It is very east to weed and tend, as they are not closely clustered. This is its third convenience.

When it blossoms, it grows a fluffy tail; strong wind and heavy rain don’t damage it. This is its fourth convenience.

It ripens but doesn’t turn yellow, drop to the ground and ruin itself. It can wait until you have harvested and stored other grains. This is its fifth convenience.

Its grains are firmly engrained to its kernel such that it would not fall unless you peel it; This makes it easy to pick and harvest. This is its sixth convenience.

Once it is picked, one can leave it anywhere, hence no need for pots and containers. This is its seventh convenience.

With other grains we need to separate the grain from its shell. Maize does not need this process of shelling. This is its eighth convenience.

We can pound it, grind it, turn it into grain or powder or make noodles; we can cook it whole, boil it and eat it any way we prefer. This is its ninth convenience.

We can tuck it under the sleeves (Chinese sleeves were often long and wide and could serve as wallets or bags) and take it on the road; we can eat it when it’s cold. This is its tenth convenience.

It grows deep and into four to five branches, each branch yields hundreds of grains, and this is far more than any other grain species. This is its first profit.

The red ones are hardy and the white ones are stickier, similar to other grains: this means it can be used as rice, it can be used to make wine or steamed buns, and they are filling. This is its second profit.

Its grains do not have skins; this makes its powder purer and softer than other grains. each dou (Chinese unit of dry measure for grain = 1 decaliter) can turn into 8 0r 9 sheng, the leftover can turn into 1 or 2 sheng to feed the animals which grow fatter on this. This is its third profit.

It can be eaten alone; it is even better when mixed with others like rice and wheat. This is its fourth profit.

Its brushed and branches can be used as fuel and they last longer than other do; they can be used as cushion materials for building and roofing. This is its fifth profit.


This quote is from Zheng Yangwen China on the Sea: How the Maritime World Shaped Modern China. Brill, 2011. pp.123-4. Zheng points out that this opinion is “virtually the same” as that published by a Spanish doctor in Mexico, published in 1591.

The American Geographical Society’s China

In a recent posting, I took a look at the Taiwan volume in an old series of colorful books called the “Around the World Program” published by the American Geographical Society. After discussing the series as a whole, I suggested that some of the most interesting features of the Taiwan volume (1968), specifically, was its lack of interest in the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the island, and the way in which it seems to minimize any engagement with the political context of Taiwan’s history and society, with its boldest critique of its dictatorship being to admit that it was “not so democratic as some may wish.”

Out of curiosity, I returned to ebay to order an old copy of the China volume in the series, published in 1972, the same year as Nixon’s visit to China that February. What would the volume have to say of the Chinese government in the depths of the cold war, but at a transition point in US relations with China?

It is primarily the images and maps of the book that give a geographical or anthropological feel. The text of the book is largely built around a chronological narrative, open with a tired reference to Napoleon’s warning about China as the sleeping giant, and taking us on a whirlwind tour from the Shang dynasty to the present. There are lots of the usual patronising, or stereotyped depictions, sometimes couched as compliments, but this doesn’t exactly make a work of this time (or our own) stand out as unique.

The narrative of China’s modern times is fairly straightforward. A critical overview of Western imperialism in China, Sun Yat-sen and the founding the republic, and an admission of the failures of the Nationalist government, which “did not really represent the people, nor was it successful in promoting democracy…” It continues with criticism of the corruption of the nationalist government during the second Sino-Japanese war, which “made no attempt to improve conditions for the farmers…” In contrast, the Communist-held areas, “fared somewhat better” where “everyone was poor, but equally so.” In 1946 “the civil war behan between Nationalist and Communist armies, and the exhausted, ill-fed, disillusioned people refused to support the government any longer. Thousands of government troops surrendered to the Communists with their modern American trucks and arms, and in 1949 the People’s Republic of China was set up in Peking.”

The narrative then abruptly switches to Taiwan to track Nationalist rule there and noting the 1971 loss of its control of the United Nations seat for China, ending with the ominous observation, “the question of who will finally control the island is still unfinished business.”

What really stands out in this volume, however, is the section on post-1949 PRC history. It opens with a short overview of the plucky Mao, and the lesson he learned during his time underground, “work for the interests of the poor people, especially the peasants, since they are the majority of the population.” In everything that follows we see the same “optimistic, modernist tone” that Janice Monk has argued is a feature of the series as a whole, regardless of the specific challenges of the country under examination.1. Lots of details on infrastructural development under Communist rule follow, including great strides in agriculture, mining, industry, and education.

From our present 2020 view, the moment that stands out most in this narrative, comes on page 50:

“If the weather is bad, as it was in the years 1959, 1960 and 1961, people just tighten their belts and use less, hoping there will be no famine, that the weather will improve soon, or that grain will be brought to their region from some luckier part of the country or from abroad. During those three years China suffered very severe droughts in both the rice-growing south and the wheat-growing north, but as a result of tight government control there was no widespread starvation. This showed what the Chinese could do in hard times, and it also showed how important it was to expand farm production rapidly.”

Here is the “three years of natural disaster” or “three years of difficulty” explanation, attributing to adverse natural causes any “belt tightening” that might have been required at the time. The Great Leap Famine, which resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese thanks to a combination of catastrophic government agricultural policies was a devastating low point for the regime. Here, we are assured that, thanks to “tight government control” there was “no widespread starvation” – which is almost an exact inverse of the truth.

Beyond memoirs of those who visited China I’ve not read widely in publications on China from this period written by foreigners and in the global press, so I can’t say anything about how unusual this presentation of this CCP standard line is for its time beyond the writings of enthusiastic fellow travellers.

More generally, however, this book shares with its Taiwan volume counterpart an uneasiness about lingering too long on awkward observations about political realities that stray from its, “things are getting better all the time” general message. Its section on the operations of the government admits that Party control is “far-reaching; in fact, there seems no part of life that is beyond it.” After explaining how the National People’s Congress is elected, it notes, without further comment, that they gather to “approve laws recommended” to it by the party.

It is the absences that are most striking. Perhaps because children are one target audience or some other desire to avoid spoiling the mood, violence finds no explicit mention anywhere in the volume. Even the section on the war against Japan merely notes that people became impoverished and refugees fled west. It is acknowledged that the Cultural Revolution (still technically ongoing at publication of this volume) was “an important event” that involved the “purge” of some of the party leadership, but the closest we get to mention of violence is that there were two years of “virtual chaos.”

The final paragraphs of the book focus on China’s changing role on the world stage. “In the world arena one of China’s primary goals has been to challenge the power and leadership of the Soviet Union in the Communist realm,” and, bringing the book to a close, you’ll be glad to know that “China’s explosion of an atomic bomb…and the launching of an artificial earth satellite…were proof of what a poor backward country can achieve in twenty years, if the people are willing to work hard. Indeed, China’s achievements since the revolution show that it must be recognized as one of the great powers of our time.”

  1. Janice Monk, “Women’s Worlds at the American Geographical Society” Geographical Review 92.2 (2003)  

Korean social history through yadam

I was recently sent a copy of Si Nae Park The Korean Vernacular Story: Telling Tales of Contemporary Chosŏn in Sinographic Writing (Columbia U.P., 2020) It’s not really a book I can teach with, since it is $65.00 in hardback and I don’t teach any classes that would call for a book on the genre of yadam, stories of daily life in Korea written in Literary Sinitic. Park “combines historical insight, textual studies, and the history of the book. By highlighting the role of negotiation with Literary Sinitic and sinographic writing, it challenges the script (han’gŭl)-focused understanding of Korean language and literature.”

Yadam apparently used to get less attention than they should, in part because they don’t fit very well in the categories that later Korean scholars would like. They were written in Literary Sinitic, but grew out of oral stories of the upwardly mobile non-Yangban groups of Late Chosŏn. So where to they fit? Are they elite literature or popular? Oral or written? Are they -Korean-? Needless to say for modern scholars this sort of border-crossing, genre-bending stuff is exactly what they want to study. Park is mostly looking at No Myŏnghŭm‘s (d. 1775) Repeatedly Recited Stories of the East, which included 78 stories on topics from the Japanese and Manchu invasion of Korea to marriage, the lives of scholars (and especially those on the edge of the scholarly world), kisaeng, the sons of concubines, the wonders of Seoul, stories of history and kings, etc.

I found the book enjoyable and informative on that level, but what it mostly did was make me wish there more translations of yadam collections that I could use in class. I rather like using things like Feng Menglong’s Sanyan Stories where the whole class can read a few together and then you can turn them loose on a larger corpus of stories to do some sort of research project. Park only includes two fully translated stories here. One of them is “The Story of a Slave Girl from Chirye” This is a pretty standard “Slave girl uses thrift and geomancy to rise in the world, becomes concubine to a poor scholar and forges a marriage certificate, moves to Seoul with her two talented sons, has someone who is about to expose them murdered and then lives happily ever after” sort of story. It is a fun story to teach with, but you need more to build a big chunk of class around.

Park has actually been involved with the editing of a larger collection of yadam stories Score One for the Dancing Girl, and Other Selections from the Kimun ch’onghwa: A Story Collection from Nineteenth-century Korea James Scarth Gale trans. Ross King and Si Nae Park eds. (U. Toronto, 2016) Gale was a missionary who died in 1937, and it shows, but 704 pages of stories is worth getting into print. The Kindle edition is $66.00, so you could not use it in class, but my library has the e-version through EBSCO. As you can see from the story below, the translation is a bit old-fashioned, but it has both the Korean and the Literary Sinitic text as well, so if you want to get your students into things like that this would be a good collection.

Pages from KimDongukKingRo_2016_6_ScoreOneForTheDancing

The Songs of Chu

Columbia University Press sent me a copy of Gopal Suku’s new translation of Qu Yuan’s The Songs of Chu. I am not qualified to speak about it as a scholarly translation, but in any case I was mostly interested in it as a possible book for a class.

I don’t usually assign much poetry to my students, since they tend to be more resistant to that than to other forms of reading. I usually have them read bits of Book of Songs in the sophomore-level History of East Asia1 and I have had them read some Sima Xiangru in the upper-division Early China class, but that is about it. I have used some of Qu Yuan in class, and I did assign the Hawkes translation once in Early China. (I like to rotate texts a lot.)

The reasons you might want to use this are pretty clear. “The central theme in the Chuci is the hardship encountered by a moral person born in a corrupt age, specifically one who serves a benighted king.” (p.xv). Qu Yuan was so popular for so long because he was a figure from the Age of Philosophers who’s story fit in with the concerns of the later literati elite. Plus since the poems are from Chu you can bring in issues of central vs. regional cultures, there is lots of stuff on cosmology and religion, stuff on slander and court politics, and the text fits in with a lot of stuff on how the Han re-worked and “rationalized” a lot of classical culture and texts. Also, you can encourage your students to join your school’s Dragon Boat team.

The problem, of course, is that a lot of these themes not as obvious in the text as you might hope. The Hawkes translation, like this one has a long introduction explaining a lot of the context and relevance. This edition is better than Hawkes for a few reasons. Most obviously, a lot of work has been done, and a lot of texts found, in the years since Hawkes did his translation, and thus in this edition the context is a lot clearer. You can dig a lot deeper into teaching Li Sao with Gopal Suku that you could with Hawkes. Of course both editions suffer from the problem that they have lots of long endnotes, and you have to read them to understand the text.  -I- like this, since it gives you a way to actually understand a fairly allusive set of poems and you learn a ton of stuff from it. On the other hand, it is also a lot of unfamiliar work for students. In this respect the Sukhu edition is better than Hawkes, in that it explains far more of the people and events touched on in the test. Hawkes seemed to have assumed you either already knew who Shensheng of Jin was or could guess well enough from the context to go on with the poem. Sukhu gives you a note with the whole story. One thing I would like to see done differently is to post the notes to the CUP web page as a single file. This would cost nothing, make reading and understanding the text (with your phone or an additional screen) a lot easier.

How is it as a translation?

Here is the first bit of Yuan You (Wandering Far Away) from Sukhu

Grieving at a dead end in a degenerate time,
I wished to be weightless, to ascend and wander far away,
But with no such power among my feeble gifts,
What would I ride to float in the sky?
I was sinking into a bog, overwhelmed by filth,
In stifling sadness-who was there to turn to?
Wide-eyed, sleepless nights I lay alone,
Till morning light fell on my cowering soul.

Here is the same from Hawkes

Grieved by the parlous state of this world’s ways,
I wanted to float up and away from it.
But my powers were too weak to give me support:
What could I ride on to bear me upwards?
Fallen on a time of foulness and impurity,
Alone with my misery, I had no one to confide in.
In the night-time I lay, wide-eyed, without sleeping;
My unquiet soul was active until the daylight.

Here is the Chinese, from C-text

Translating archaic poetry is far above my scholarly abilities, but the new version reads better for me even if it is less literal. “My unquiet soul was active until the daylight.” may be closer to 魂營營而至曙, but it does not sound as good as “Till morning light fell on my cowering soul.” I think students would react a lot better to the new version. Of course this bit also emphasizes one of the problems with Chuci as a teaching book. For me the whinging of a middle-aged man who thinks the world is shit and he has wasted his time trying to make things better is a UNIVERSAL THEME worthy of Joseph Campbell.  Students don’t react as well to this, but as early texts tend to not have a lot of student-friendly themes I suppose I can deal with that.

So it this a good book to assign? I would say yes. The main reason is that it is a good translation and I think some of it will stick with students who read and think about it, which for me is a huge part of why I assign things. It is an ideal source for illustrating the self-image of the Confucian scholar-official, a fine source on the nature and complexity of early texts, and an excellent source on early Chinese cosmology and the relationship between society, the state and the cosmos.

That said, I am not sure I will assign it. A lot of the issues it does well with are a bit more than I want to get into in my Early China class. It would be hard to displace the Essential Huainanzi for a lot of the important political issues. It is a much easier book to recommend to a student than the Hawkes, however, and I could see some of the individual poems working well in class.

  1. I have assigned the whole thing a few times  

The American Geographical Society’s Taiwan

For over a decade, beginning around 1955, and then again during a short 1990s revival, the American Geographical Society (AGS) published a large series of colorful small booklets as part of an “Around the World Program,” each introducing countries in the space of about 60 pages. Copies of individual volumes or combination bundles can be found from sellers all over the web, and I recently picked up the Taiwan volume (1968, 64 pages, 21 color images).

In its decade long run, this series was edited by Alice Taylor, who studied geography at Columbia University and was also the editor of the AGS journal Focus from its launch in 1950 until 1977.1 Taylor also authored over a dozen of the Around the World volumes herself. According to the geographer Janice Monk, Taylor was one of the most important members of a small group of women to play key roles in the workings of the AGS at a time when academic positions for women geographers were rare. Monk argues, for example, that Focus journal and the Around the World Program booklets were publications that were key sources of income for the society with, at one point, monthly sales of the latter in the hundreds of thousands of copies.2

Apparently, these books were first targeted at children, and we can find advertisements for subscriptions to the series in Boy’s Life magazine in the 1950s. In 1962 the AGS published a multi-volume Around the World Program: Teacher’s Guide series filled with suggestions for teachers on how to use the booklets to teach geography to children in the classroom. In it you can find helpful suggestions like, “Ask the class why Japan is said to be in the Far East when a person usually travels west to reach it from Canada or the United States.”

So what is the Taiwan volume like? The title, Taiwan (Formosa) doesn’t bother to attach awkward subtitles like the 1956 Let’s Visit Formosa: Island Home of Free China or even clunkier 1956 Free China’s Island Province of Taiwan (Formosa) to point to its political status, but as we’ll see, it is certainly a book that puts it main focus on Chinese culture. In general, we can probably agree that this volume fits in with Janice Monk’s characterisation of the series as a whole having, “an optimistic, modernist tone. What we would now see as racist commentary appears from time to time.”3 Beyond this I think there are a two key features of the Taiwan volume worth mentioning: 1) The lack of attention to ethnic and linguistic diversity on the island. Let us explore this a bit more in depth below. 2) The near absence of domestic politics or regional geopolitics in the work.

Given the work comes out in 1968, only a few years after the 1964 ban on the use of Taiwanese (Hokkien) language in schools, we might note that the linguistic diversity of the island receives almost no mention anywhere in its 64 pages. The only exception to this comes in the form of some advice to tourists and reveals the language legacy of the colonial period, “Unless you are fluent in Mandarin or Japanese it is best to explain to your hotel porter where you wish to go…because most Taiwanese do not speak English.”

Even more problematically, there is very little acknowledgement of the indigenous peoples of Taiwan. In the main text of the booklet, they make an appearance in relation to the Japanese 1873 raid on Taiwan (p12). Their only other appearance in the main text is in the short section on Hualien, where we learn that

“Among the sights for the visitor in Hualien are the festival dances performed by one of the aboriginal tribes living in a village on the outskirts of the city.” (p59)

Outside of the body of the text, what may be depictions of indigenous peoples can be found in the decorative sketches between paragraphs, as well as on maps of the island, where we are told that “head-hunting used to be one of their favorite occupations.” There is also a photograph of some fishermen with “picturesque gear.” Beyond their “festival dances,” however, the reader will learn nothing about their culture, while Chinese opera, dragon boat festivals, and temples will get ample discussion.

I have rarely comes across something related to Taiwan from the 1950s or 1960s that does not thrust me into the cold war environment of the time. This booklet is a strange work that tried hard to scrape the politics from its pages. Of course, there is an obligatory line about the Communist victory in 1949 leading to a large influx of new arrivals on the island, along with the fact that now Taiwan, “claims to be the government of all China.” (p20) There is a brief mention of the provincial assembly and its nice location.

Beyond this, however, there is almost no reference to the mainland or the desire to recover it. The only place the mask slips, and we get a brief mention of the political context is in a short description of the current system of government:

“Elections of various kinds are held at intervals, but in practice most of the power, both political and economic, remains in the hands of President Chiang and a group of high officials, including many military men, who came from China with him in 1949. Although perhaps not so democratic as some may wish, this government has successfully carried out a land reform and launched large-scale schemes to increase agricultural and industrial production – with the help of massive amounts of financial aid from the United States – and has thus contributed greatly to improving the way of living of the average Taiwanese.” (p21)

“Not so democratic as some may wish” is of course, a rather gentle way of not talking about the White Terror and Taiwan’s ongoing state of martial law under a Nationalist party dictatorship.

The Japanese colonial period too is given a mostly gentle treatment, even if it acknowledges revolts and resentment. About 90% of the coverage of the period across almost five pages (p16-20) is a list of the “major achievements of the Japanese” who helped lay “some of the foundations for future economic prosperity.” Of course, along the way, wide powers were given to the colonial police and “their methods did little to endear them to the local inhabitants.”

The rest of the volume, much of which focuses on economic transitions after 1945 and some rather disappointing attempts to introduce Chinese culture and Confucianism in a few short pages mostly fits the “optimistic” and “modernist” tone Monk was referring to, plus some regular reminders that the United States is providing extensive economic aid to the island. It seems almost astonished at the acehivements of the island’s people with its “small but highly productive farms” and its “booming industries and trade”:

“Somehow, although it is a crowded place and growing more crowded every year, with a shortage of good cultivable land and of many of the materials needed for industry, the people have achieved a higher standard of living than in any part of eastern Asia except Japan.” (p3)

Taiwan, it seems, is populated by a happy people, and Taipei, “with a population of more than a million, its gaily festooned streets and sidewalks are usually thronged with people, black-haired and olive-skinned, dressed in bright clothes, and hustling about in pedicabs or on bicycles, their chief means of transport…” (p45)

Despite the hustle and bustle of the modern life it sees all around the island, Taiwan of 1968 is still an “out-of-the-way” place where one can enjoy a relaxed tropical experience:

“This lush green island lying across the Tropic of Cancer is increasingly becoming an attraction for the tourist seeking a place as yet uncluttered with tourists, and a number of good hotels and motels have recently been opened in major cities and towns. In the capital city of T’aipei there are now some thirty hotels, a few of which can be classed as luxurious.”

By the time this volume came out, the series was apparently wrapping up, and seems to have moved away from primarily being a child’s educational text. The final dozen or so pages feels more like a tourist brochure, with sections on locations to visit, recreational “resorts” and places to stay. The National Palace Museum, opened in 1965 gets several pages of attention. Janice Monk has argued that the volumes authored by Alice Taylor herself seem to be somewhat better in their depictions of women. If so, I’m not sure this volume shows that effort. While images of women active in agricultural labor can be found in drawings as well as photography, other depictions of women seem limited to adding the occasional “pretty and stylish lady” or colorful dresses and there is not even the usual mention of the powerful figure of Soong Mei-ling (“Madame Chiang Kai-shek”) in the work.

This volume of the Around the World Program series is thus a curious publication in the way it seems to fit oddly astride several genres, one that I found most interesting in terms of all that was unsaid about a Taiwan in the late years of Chiang Kai-shek’s rule, rather than any of the particular biases of its coverage. For anyone who owns a more extensive set of these books, it might be interesting to explore patterns across them, and learn more about whether the books were put to any extensive use in 1960s classrooms.

  1. See her obituary in the New York Times.  

  2. Janice Monk, “Women’s Worlds at the American Geographical SocietyGeographical Review 92.2 (2003)  

  3. Monk, 249.  

Syllabus blogging Fall 2020 -HIST 433 China 1300-1800 The Late Imperial Age

There is a tradition here of blogging about our syllabi and asking for advice.

This is my upper-division class for the semester, where I want to push students into doing some serious reading and perhaps a bit of research. And, of course, to teach and talk about some interesting history. This class came about when I split the old Modern China into two parts. I did this in part because Early Modern lends itself to social and economic and cultural history and modern is a more political class.1

The last time I did this the title was Bandits and Poets: The Cultural and Social History of Late Imperial China. I junked that title because rather than attracting students it made them stay away in droves. The last version went pretty well, but I attribute that to the students, who were smart and interested, rather than my course design.

The last version started out with a lot of Tim Brook’s Troubled Empire and watching Touch of Zen. Neither worked very well. Touch of Zen did not really engage them, in part because I had a lousy print, and Brook was too thematic for students who knew very little about the period.

I have decided to start with a series of lectures on Zhu Yuanzheng and the Ming founding. With a bit of luck that should give the students who do not have much background something fairly straightforward to latch onto. Plus Zhu is easy to tie to peasants and the economy, Buddhism, Confucianism, the Yuan legacy, etc.

The two basic parts of the class are reading and discussing things (mostly articles and book chapters) and a research project. We will see if Perusall makes the discussions work better, since in the past it was hit or miss. Still, this is mainly a discussion class, and since I like the “choose your own adventure” way of running the class there are lots of different options.

I am making the research project mandatory this time. In the past I always had a “possible research project” where they had to do some of the preliminary stuff for a research paper but then had the option of not doing the paper. Almost all of the bailed, so this time I will try making them all do it, with the option of a historiographical essay, or something along the line of “Ming religion/law whatever as seen in selected stories from the massive Sanyan collection.” This gives them a couple of options where the research is pretty straightforward.



  1. I also did this to some extent because I needed more upper division China classes to teach. I am almost the only person here who does (well, teaches) both China and Japan, and thus if we have no upper division China or Japan it helps for me to be able to offer either one.  

Student Handbook for Fall 2020 – MO3055 The History of History in East Asia

Inspired by Alan’s syllabus blogging for his History of East Asia class, I thought I would contribute my own new fall offering. Teaching in Scotland at my own university we have “student handbooks” instead of syllabi, and “modules” instead of classes, and a twenty point “marking” scale instead of US style letter grades. In our school of history we don’t have any introductory classes on East Asia but when students enter the third and fourth “honours” year of their undergraduate “masters” degree (someone told me the US uses the “Scottish” four year model instead of the English three years for university), each semester they may take two specialised seminars (in my case usually 5-15 students). In the fourth year they take a year long “special” module usually heavy in primary sources, and an honours project or dissertation in the spring.

We don’t have much in the way of modules on the world east of India, but I have been building up a rotation of a few modules over the past few years, including ones on the history of Japanese Empire, China’s Revolutions, Rethinking the World from East Asia, and a “special” year long module on The City in East and Southeast Asia. The last module I’d like to add to the rotation (at least for a few years) is risky for me, as it has a very long chronological stretch that moves well beyond my comfort area. I feel most comfortable in the 20th century, but wanted students to have the option to have a module on East Asia that takes on a theme across a broader range of periods: The History of History in East Asia.

This new historiography module will get its first test this fall semester and although the reading list is off to the library, I’m already thinking about ways to restructure it in future years. One disadvantage we have in our honours modules is that we have only ten weeks of class (in fall – due to “independent learning week” mid-semester; eleven weeks in spring) and only two hours of in-class time each week for the seminars. Though the students are expected to spend 15-20 hours a week on each of their two modules and the workload is very intense we have to boil down our modules to a relatively small number of topics. The resulting module I’ve designed thus has massive gaping holes in terms coverage. Avoiding an attempt to be exhaustive in chronological or geographical terms, I added some thematic weeks. However, I wish I had weeks to focus on some aspect of pre-20th century Korean historiography, for example, or the many possible topics in Japanese and Chinese imperial historiography after the period covered by the initial few weeks. I also would like to do more, not less thematic topics, taking a suggestion from James A. Benn, for example, to have a week on historiography in the form of visual sources.

In terms of structure and approach, I have been gradually settling on a standard format for all my honours modules: 100% coursework (no examinations), a series of public facing pseudonymous blog entries reflecting on assigned readings (see our City in East and Southeast Asia blog and Rethinking the World blog), an essay proposal with annotated bibliography, plus a research essay of 5,000 words. After I switched from examinations to only coursework, I noticed that seminar preparation dropped somewhat. To address this problem, I broke the 200-250 pages or so of weekly reading into two, split between common “required” and (equally required) “elective” readings. The latter category of readings are split between several categories and each student chooses one. The students must share a weekly outline of this elective reading and be prepared to be called on in seminar as the resident “expert” on that particular text. So far I have found that this works relatively well.

I welcome corrections, suggestions for improvements in the reading, or ideas for ditching some topic and replacing it with another! In future years, since I don’t need to submit any examination questions early in the semester to our internal and external exam question moderators, I may consider offering students a core of, say six required topics, and then allow them, in Week 1, to choose the remaining four from a larger set. But for now…baby steps.

As I was preparing this module I put together this Bibliography of works on East Asian Historiography, now posted up and maintained here at Frog in a Well as I update this module in future years.


Syllabus blogging for Fall 2020 HIST 206 History of East Asia

There is a tradition here of blogging about our syllabi and asking for advice.

Fall semester will be a bit different. We will be doing hybrid (well, actually Hawk-bryd)  classes. This means that the classes are not fully on-line, but students will rotate in and out of class in 3 teams, (I teach MWF) with the other two teams watching via Zoom. This is supposedly going to encourage innovative teaching methods.1 This is problematic, since it makes it difficult to do some of the things that seem to work well in an on-line class (asynchronicity, recorded mini lectures, etc. ) without really taking advantage of being face to face.

Parts of the structure of the class will remain the same.

-I usually do not use a textbook, and have the students read 4 books (all primary sources) and write short (5-7+ page) papers on two of them. This will remain the same.

-There are primary source readings each week, and they have to write short (2+ page)  analysis papers on four of them in the course of the semester. This is not changing.

-There is no-mid term. Usually I do a sort of distributed mid-term, where I have them do some short essay and ID assignments around mid-term and fold this into the quiz grade (the catch-all for all the short writing assignments they do). This will remain the same, with an essay on Classical Chinese philosophy and a bunch of ID questions (with terms the students come up with themselves) making up the bulk of it.

-There is currently supposed to be a final exam. This is usually at least partially take-home, IDs, source analysis and maybe an essay. Now it will be all take-home

-The one really new thing in terms of assignments is Perusall discussions. This is a site that lets students discuss documents and comment directly on them. This worked really well in the Spring, at least for a while. I am hoping to get them to discuss both the longer readings and the short primary source stuff. I have tried doing reading discussions on D2L, our course management system, but they generally don’t work that well, in part because the mechanics of discussion threads are lousy on that platform, but also because students have often not done the reading before they start discussing on D2L, or if they have done it their points are vague general statements not tied to anything in the text. Perusall seemed to help with this. It lets you know how many pages of the reading the student has done, lets them post questions about the reading. It also give them a score of 1-3 based on how much they contribute to the discussion. That final point should be really helpful, since I always struggle with getting them to talk to each other beyond I agree”. With luck, having discussed the readings on Perusall the papers will also be better.

Most parts of this are “extra credit” (students love that word), meaning that they can do as many Perusall discussions, primary source papers and outside book papers as they want (well, up to 4 on the book papers) and keep the high grades.

You will note that pretty much I am just talking about readings and assignments. How will the actually classroom experience be different? From what I can tell, not much. It will still be lecture/discussion, only with 2/3 of the class not in the room. I am hoping the Perusall discussions (the only real asynchronous part) will help keep people engaged. Given that they can do as many of most of the assignments as they want, it should be possible for students who vanish for a couple weeks (either for Covid reasons or others) to still do well in the class.

I rotate the outside readings a lot. For this term the four books are.

-Ditter, Alexei, Jessey Choo, and Sarah Allen, eds. Tales from Tang Dynasty China: Selections from the Taiping Guangji. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2017.

I have, for the time being, given up on Zhuangzi, a book they usually hate. (This book is weird!) Not sure how much better this will work, given that they always have trouble with any sort of pre-modern literature. This should work well for commercial society, religion and family, so I have high hopes for it.

-Izumo, Takeda. Chushingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers): A Puppet Play. Translated by Donald Keene. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971.

A lot of them came for samurai. Here they are, and it is a good book for lots of other things too.

-Yuasa, Katsuei. Kannani and Document of Flames: Two Japanese Colonial Novels. Translated by Mark Driscoll. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2005.

I am using this instead of Black Umbrella in part because I am using some of the Black Umbrella stuff as short primary source readings and in part because Back Umbrella seems to segmented for them to get papers out of. We will see how this works, but there is a lot of good colonialism and imperialism in here.

-Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro Son of the Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1984

The old reliable.

Here is the draft HIST206syl.f20

  1. I realize that we don’t have any choice on this. Students want to be on campus. The University wants their room and board money. Nobody is a big fan of on-line classes. Still, I am pretty sure that if President Trump and Steven Miller were to develop a vaccine tomorrow we would dump the Hawk-bryd thing in a flash, rather than holding on to it to reap the benefits of innovation. I always hate the phrase “this will encourage innovative teaching methods” since it usually seems to be connected with something like teaching class on the back of a moving truck.  

Can you speak Chinese?


Friend-of-the-blog Gina Tam1 has a new book out.Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860-1960  Cambridge University Press, 2020 It is a really remarkable study of, as the title says, dialect and Nationalism in China.  On the one hand this is a very old issue, in that language reform has been one of the things that scholars have paid a lot of attention to in studies of nationalism around the world and in particular in China where the baihua movement was a huge part of May Fourth. This book is different from earlier studies of Chinese language reform because it is concerned not with reforming the written language or the script, but with spoken language and the relationship between fangyan (dialect) and guoyu/putonghua (national language).

Discussions of language reform can be pretty top down. The Ministry of Culture defines French, or a bunch of intellectuals at Beida define baihua and then it flows to the benighted peasants in the hinterland. In this book, however, there is a dialectical relationship between the local and the national,2 as the two help to define each other.  This is in part because the Chinese could never figure out which was “better”. Is fangyan a backwards, feudal, counterrevolutionary, heterodox thing that must be swept away by the modern, orthodox National Language? Or is local speech the pure preserve of real Chinese-ness, or at least the best way to talk to the masses? As Tam points out, despite over a century of governments and reformers going on about the importance of national language fangyan are still alive and well, and in fact not even all that well defined, since where national language stops and fangyan starts is often not clear. In Qingdao they claim to speak qingpu, a hybrid of putonghua and local dialect3 and you Qingdao is not that far from Beijing. And in Beijing, of course, everyone talks like a pirate, which is not really official putonghua. This despite the fact that, as the book describes, reformers and governments have gone to great lengths to make their dreams a reality, and this book does not limit itself to debates among intellectuals, but also looks at things like the folklore movement and language surveys that tried to determine how Chinese people actually spoke and things like school lessons and speech contests that tried to change them.

There are a lot of things to like about this book. One is that she really gets into the weeds of all sorts of cool things. Linguistic science, missionaries, Stalin’s theories of language (did you know that language is neither base nor superstructure? ), Japhetic language theories, local opera, the problems with social science surveys, and lots of debates among petty-minded scholars and bureaucrats. If you love this sort of stuff this is your book. It also really lives up to or even exceeds, its dates of 1860-1960, since it moves seamlessly from Late Qing phonologists to Republican-period scholars to the actions of the Communist state to contemporary Cantonese internet subversives. I also think I found out where my guoyu teacher got the idea that you could learn Wu just by mastering a handful vowel and consonant switches 4 , although this worked about as well for me as it did for a lot of Chinese peasants.

The book is also really well written. It is a revised dissertation, so you might expect it to read like a collection of chapters inexpertly pasted together, but instead it reads like a single narrative, or maybe a collection of chapters expertly pasted together. I can’t really tell. I am not sure how well it would work as a classroom book for undergrads, since, beyond the price, one of the fun things about it is that every intellectual in Modern China seems to have weighed in on fangyan, and while she explains who these people are it helps if you already know Zhang Binglin, Zhou Zuoren and Xu Shen, or appreciate a two sentence summary of Joseph Levenson. I give it an A+

  1. She is closely related to  former blog member Gina Russo  

  2. pg. 5  

  3. p.207  

  4. p. 177  

A Child’s Guide to Japanese Empire

学友年鑑I recently had the pleasure of browsing the 1936 edition of a most interesting children’s almanac or encyclopedia called the Gakuyū Nenkan (学友年鑑 School friend almanac). I’m most grateful to learn of the text thanks to Katy Hui-Wen Hung, co-author with Steven Crook of The Culinary History of Taipei.1 Katy had this colonial period book carefully scanned, which was once used by her father Dr Hung, Tsu-pei (洪祖培), born in 1926, when he was a student at the Kabayama (Huashan) elementary school (樺山小學校). The book, almost four hundred pages in length, is now up on archive.org and available here: 學友年鑑 1936. While I encourage you to explore the book yourself, especially if you can read Japanese, below I’ll give a bit of an overview of its contents. You can click on the images for a higher quality version.2

Early in the book, a map of Japan’s territories is presented along with a pie chart, offering the child a spatial overview of the relative size of Japan’s constituent parts. This edition of the book comes only a year before Japan’s full scale invasion of China and instead of dividing Japan into its home islands and then other colonial territories, areas are broken up into smaller units, with the Korean peninsula side by side with the largest land mass of Honshū island. Hokkaido, Taiwan, Karafuto (South Sakhalin), Shikoku, Kyūshū, and others are listed by size, but in one pie as a coherent whole, including Dairen/Dalian on the Liaodong peninsula. Naturally, being 1936, the nominally independent “Manchurian empire” is listed as well. Another feature we might note is that the former German possessions in the Pacific, the South Seas Mandate (listed here as 南洋諸島) is also part of this overall presentation of Japanese territories, despite the fact these islands were under a League of Nations Mandate. I would not be surprised if European empires did much the same in their maps.

One of the things that is immediately noticeable is the militarist nature of the book. Flipping only a few pages into the content, past the opening Japanese and world maps, the child is presented immediately with the location of Japanese army and navy bases, followed by lists of military ranks and insignia.

After introducing the child to the Japanese military on several pages, the book moves on to a comparison of military might, with a special inset in one corner with a comparison of naval forces between Japan, the United States, Britain, France, and Italy.

When it comes to raw soldier counts, a child looking at the numbers may think Japan, despite its small size, compares rather favorably to its potential rivals, with the exception of the Soviets with its over million troops facing ominously towards Japan. Interesting divisions are shown for different places. The British army is divided between regular army, regional army, and the Indian army. Italian and French forces distinguish with the army at home and “colonial” or “overseas” forces, respectively. German forces are divided between its regular army and “police units,” while the United States has numbers listed for regular army and its national guard.

Maps which highlight important sites with small drawings of objects, people, or depictions of events, are found most often in tourist maps, but play an important role in educational texts as well. They are literally “writ large” on the map, and the large size of the scene relative to the scale of the map severely constrains the number of events a mapmaker might include. In historical maps like this, they thus offer us a particularly clear view of what was seen as important from the viewpoint of its author.

The events depicted inside of Japan’s home islands are iconic moments in Japanese national history, as we might expect. We might note, however the way that most of the events chosen for depiction outside of Japan proper similarly highlight moments of Japanese expansionist glory, including the depiction of a Japanese person in what looks like a bowler hat shaking hands amiably with a stereotyped Korean yangban (Year 2570/1910). Japanese soldiers fill the Shandong peninsula to represent the fall of Qingdao in the imperial year 2574 (1914) when Japan joined the Allies in World War I and swiftly moved to seize the German concession in China.

For Taiwan, only two events are given mention. There is a depiction of Prince Kitashirakawa Yoshihisa-shinnō (labeled Yoshihisa-shinnō 能久親王) whose major achievement was dying of malaria in Taiwan in 1895. Interestingly, the 1930 Wushe Rebellion / Musha Incident against Japanese oppression is mentioned, and two indigenous Tgdaya are depicted with their weapons held high. While the March 1 movement of 1919, so important in the colonial history of Korea is unsurprisingly not depicted on the Korean peninsula, the inclusion of the Musha incident on Taiwan may have something to do with the proximity of the event to the 1936 publication but perhaps even more to the changing views about the indigenous population of Taiwan in the aftermath.3

The map mixes two ways of reckoning the year, one each for events prior to the beginning of the Shōwa era in 1925 and the other for those after. Thus, we see various occupations of Manchurian sites listed in both the Japanese imperial year (皇紀 kōki) dated from the legendary founding of Japan and the Japanese era year (年号, nengō). The occupation of Mukden (奉天, Fengtian, Hōten, now Shenyang) during the Russo-Japanese war is depicted for year 2565 (1905), and the founding of Manchukuo (満洲国, Manzhouguo, Manshūkoku) as Shōwa 7 (1932). Here, central China gets none of its own history depicted – though they do get a few in a later map of world events, and instead three events related to Japan’s brief 1932 attack on Shanghai are shown.

Through a similar form of selective representation a child can browse more detailed maps of each part of Japan, including its colonies, where icons for major resources and industries are shown. Whales, ships, and random airplanes dot the seas and land to complement the resources. Before moving onto maps of the continents, the map of the “empire” of Manchuria gets a full two pages, despite the fact this is not a “region” of Japan.

Japanese Dairen/Dalian and the Korean peninsula are seen in red at the bottom, while the larger two page spread for the map helps reinforce the (false) impression of Manchuria as a vast and, compared to the maps of other areas, more empty space.

Maps are also included that explore the transportation networks by sea and air, both within the empire and its Manchurian client state, but also globally. The world map, somewhat poorly drawn, places Europe in the center, rather than Asia in the center as seen in some maps. Routes are divided into white, for “foreign” lines, and red lines for Japanese routes.

After exploring Japan and the world in terms of its products and famous places, there are over 20 pages of comparative statistics visualized. One of the visual techniques for visualizing statistics very widely used around this period and well into the postwar period is the use of the size of images to depict larger or smaller numbers: populations depicted with larger or smaller human figures on a map, for example, but other examples await us below. They also make frequent use of decorative images around pie charts and other graphs which are no doubt appreciated by a child less interested in the numbers, such as the 1934 import and exports of the country presented in pie charts. One information packed pair of pages compares countries by the distribution of labor forces in various countries. Japan is shown with just over half of its labor force in agriculture is next to Britain with industry and “other” making up about two thirds of the whole. France, the United States, Germany, Italy, Belgium are listed, which we might expect, but the pages also include India, Austrlia, Manchuria, Denmark, and Finland. The Soviet Union and China are not included, we might note, though both feature in the statistics visualised along the bottom where area and population are compared and the world’s overall population proportions are shown.

Other comparative maps follow. One map compares the highest mountains of the world, and another compares the length of Tokyo station with the height of various skyscrapers, towers, and other buildings. Another is split between a comparison of how far different things can move in a single second, from a slow 10m per second for a human, to 810m for a bullet and 300,000km for the speed of light, with a separate graph comparing the length of rivers. Another double page visualisation compares the distances that various modes of transportation can go, beginning in Tokyo. A human goes a leisurely four kilometers or 16.7km, arriving in Kawasaki if running the entire way. A Japanese train can go 95km, and speedy German train 150km. This is still slower than a (regular?) car listed with a top speed of 251km per hour (?!).

One of the most eye-catching of the comparative charts is that related to nutrition. The water (white), mineral (brown), carbohydrate (blue), fat (yellow), and protein (red) content of various foods are presented from a range of foods from chocolate (チョコレート) to butter (バター) and from soybeans (大豆) to milk (牛乳). There are some surprises. Coffee (コーヒー) is listed as 42.6% carbohydrate and 13.7% fat, which I assume means that milk and sugar were included in generous amounts.

A graduated symbol map comparing the population of Japanese cities as of October, 1934 notes that Seoul (京城 Keijō) is the 7th largest city of the empire (claimed to be a population of 374,000), Dairen (Dalian) in 9th with 290,000, and Taipei (台北 Taihoku) in 11th place claimed to have a population of 266,000. Tokyo, with over five million is depicted on the following map as the second largest city in the world behind New York with 6.9 million and ahead of London with a claimed 4.4 million (both of these seem to be an undercount).

Another important population map depicts the distribution of Japanese outside of Japan, depicted by large black bowler hat wearing figures planted in various places, as well as the location of embassies and consulates. The child will notice the large number of Japanese in Brazil (173,500), in Hawaii (150,832), the rest of the US (146,708), Manchuria (over one million), and China (56,049) as well as over twenty thousand Japanese in the Philippines, then under American imperial rule.

Relative economic wealth is shown, including a depiction of the per capita wealth of Americans (7052 yen), British (6380 yen), French (3205 yen), Japanese (1710), Germans (1380 yen), Italians (1317 yen) and Soviets (899 yen). A separate chart shows the per capita income of the British (1412 yen), Americans (1251 yen), French (688 yen), Germans (601 yen), Soviets (509 yen), and the Japanese (165 yen). Other comparisons such as national bonds, per capita postal savings, and others. For example, the child will learn that for every car there are only five Americans, but 725 Japanese, and that when it comes to military expenditures, Japan is third (9.4m yen) behind Britain (10m yen) and the United States (14m yen), but well ahead the reported spending of Germany at 3.2m yen).

What I have shown above are some of the books most visually rich pages, but the more text heavy pages from around p89 to p390 are filled with reference information of every sort. They include a list of important laws and imperial edicts. It even includes Japan’s imperial edict withdrawing from the League of Nations. It includes the text of the Meiji constitution, famous poems, timelines, imperial genealogies, lists of important shrines and temples, government cabinet members, key statistics on population and area, and the list of populations of cities throughout the empire. Note that the young Dr Hung, or someone else he lent the book to, has underlined most of the Taiwanese cities such as Taipei (台北 Taihoku, Taibei) Keelong (基隆 Kiirun, Jilong), Kaohsiung (高雄 Takao, Gaoxiong) and many others, and offered some corrections to the numbers.

There are detailed trade statistics for locations within Japan and abroad. There is a geographical section with prefecture by prefecture information on cities, transportation, famous products, ruins, and even military installations. Similar tables are available for countries throughout the world. One page offers a map of the world’s “economic blocks” including a Japan-Manchuria block, the British imperial block, the French imperial block, the American block, and the Soviet block. The description below the map an explanation claims that the great powers are following a policy of being self-sufficient within their own area of control, raising tariffs and obstacles to trade and preventing foreign imports. “That is to say, even if a war were to break out, each block (unit) would be able to meet its needs for products from within.”

There are climate tables. There are lists of the important train lines and tables for the 1934 levels of production of certain agricultural or mineral commodities. There are military charts, including lists of ships in the navy of various kinds. There is a kind of biographical dictionary of important personages from Hitler to Gandhi. There is a list of common new words, including some easy loanwords like アイロニー (irony), スランプ (slump), but also more puzzling ones like エックス (ekkusu, defined as 疑問、未知の事物 doubt, unknown thing)4, and unexpected definitions such as that for ウラー (uraa, as in hurrah! Defined as ロシア語の万歳, Banzai in Russian. Apparently the Russian ура).

There is a separate section for Manchuria which offers an administrative map, the genealogy of its imperial family, as well as a range of statistics on the population, economy, education, trains, foreign investment, together with a very short list of countries that have recognized the new country, or at least have a postal agreement in place.

There are sports statistics, showing, for example, the fastest running times at various distances with the Japanese, world, and Olympic records printed with sections for both men and women. The sports section is followed by instructions for the all important radio calisthenics (ラジオ体操 rajio taisō) still performed by school children and many adults today.

Another fascinating section of this text is the 学校職業立身案内 section, a sort of guide to how to achieve the career of your dreams. After opening with some classic words of inspiration from sources such as the Confucian analects, Wang Yangming, Socrates, and Benjamin Disraeli, this section of the book offers career by career breakdown of a child needs to do beginning, of course, with seven pages on a full range of military careers. Then there are tips for one aiming for a career as a bureaucrat, a doctor, a bank employee, an author, a painter, a teacher, a musician, a train employee, an elementary school teacher in Manchuria, a wireless technician, a typist, a telephone operator, a dressmaker, and finally a beauty salon employee. The very list of careers itself seems to embed a normative order for social occupation and gender.

The book’s final pages are dedicated to some language reference tables and concludes with a list of flags and an advertisement for some of the other yearbooks/almanacs available from the publisher.

Gakuyū Nenkan is a children’s reference book for an increasingly expansionist Japanese empire, but it is by no means a unique text. Almanacs, gazettes, and encyclopedias packed with reference information could be found around the world on the shelves of children and adults in this period and since. Looking at an old copy of Pears’ Cyclopaedia from 1939 I picked up on ebay some years ago, I was struck by some of the similarities. The Pears’ books are more broadly aimed for a wider audience mostly of adults, but were no doubt useful to young students as well.

In my edition, published only a few years after the text we have been looking at I was struck by the flags of the world listed, with a full page dedicated to the flags of British empire.

Like Gakuyū Nenkan, we see that the book, over the course of its regularly updated editions has grown to incorporate a mish mash of different kinds of reference information. “Sixteen complete works of reference” are included in “one Handy Volume of 864 Pages.”

Pears’ Cyclopaedia too offered a “Students’ Compendium”, though it was far shorter than the several hundred pages of student targeted reference information we have been considering. A laughably short “historical dates” on the opening page offers only a minimalist list of historical events for a young British student to memorize: the Crimean War, the Gunpowder Plot, the Indian Mutiny, the Magna Carta, the Peace Treaty at Versailles, Trafalgar 1805, the Transvaal War, the outbreak of war with Germany on September 3, 1939, and the Battle of Waterloo. The “useful information” section, some few dozen lines, seems particularly arbitrary, and includes random facts one after the other beginning with the size of a badminton court, followed by the size of a battallion, and the price of a driving license.

The section that immediately follows it, however, mirrors that of our Japanese text: Careers. The careers section, like its Japanese counterpart, offers instruction to the young British child on how to aim for a career of their dreams. Like our Japanese text, it begins with military careers: Navy, Army, and Royal Air Force. Like our Japanese text, next up is the Civil Service, with subsections for Colonial Police, West Indian Constabulary, East and West African Police Forces, and so on. Here the two diverge, with the Japanese text listing doctors next, while the British reference work moves on to accountants. While the Japanese text at least included some career options that explicitly mention women, nothing of the sort in this Cyclopaedia, which moves directly on to its table of Latin and French verbs.

As with many such texts, their highly condensed nature, much like its maps showing historical events or local products, force its editors to make stark visible choices about what is in and what is out, what comes first and what comes last. For this reason and many more, they can be wonderful windows into the priorities of an age.

  1. See more images and comments supplementing the book on this collection of youtube vidoes.  

  2. This is just one of now hundreds of textbooks and educational materials from Japan’s modern history that can be found in digital form. A great starting place to look for these materials is the Hiroshima University library’s textbook collection: 教科書コレクション画像デーだベース  

  3. See Paul D. Barclay’s open access Outcasts of Empire: Japan’s Rule on Taiwan’s “Savage Border” 1874-1945  

  4. Update: Thanks to Michael Cannings, @formosaphile, who points out this probably is “x” as in the uknown factor in a mathematical equation. It would be interesting to see if it jumped math and made it into other conversational contexts.  

Was Late Imperial China Early Modern?

Zou Jiajun posted on the Sinologists Facebook group asking how the term “Early Modern” got to be used in China studies. This is a an interesting question, since we sometimes use the term Early Modern, sometimes Late Imperial. We also can’t agree on what time period this is. Late Imperial used to be Ming and Qing, but now maybe it goes back the the Song?

Since I am teaching an Early Modern China class in the fall I thought I would think about it a bit, based partially on some limited research and partly on Stuff I Remember From Grad School. Yes, I am old enough to talk about historiography just by remembering things.

First, I don’t really understand the evolution of the idea of Early Modern in studies of Europe that well. This promises to explain it,

Scott, Hamish. “Introduction.” The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern European History, 1350-1750, July 1, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199597253.013.29.

but I don’t have access.

One thing that I was reminded of right away when I started looking into it was that “Early Modern” was sometimes used to just refer to the 19th century in China, as here.

Fairbank, John K., Alexander Eckstein, and L. S. Yang. “Economic Change in Early Modern China: An Analytic Framework.” Economic Development and Cultural Change 9, no. 1 (1960): 1–26.

I’m not as anti-Fairbank as some people seem to be, but man some of his stuff, and Modernization theory in general, have held up even less well than you might think. Lots of talk of “Gestation”. Very mechanically listing the things you need to be modern, usually economic or political things, and pointing out that China lacked them or that the Chinese version fore some reason did not count. Free cities! Foreign Trade! It almost sounds like you are playing Civilization (or some other video game) and you can’t build Archers till you have discovered Animal Husbandry.

Still, that basic idea behind this -that “Traditional China” was not an undifferentiated mass, cut off from history in a slough of Oriental Despotism, unchanged from the Yellow Emperor to Lu Xun- was forward-looking at one point. The old stagnant China view was, I suspect, in part the influence of Western Orientalist ideas about the inferiority of non-European cultures and also the May Fourth rejection of Feudal China, a rejection that I suspect became more simplistic as it went from Chinese May Fourthers to their western students.

I do remember hearing that at the conference that resulted in Mary Clabaugh Wright,  China in Revolution: The First Phase, 1900-1913.  (Yale, 1971). Chuzo Ichiko was so ridiculed for his paper “The Role of the Gentry: An Hypothesis” that he went up to his hotel room and would not come back down until Akira Iriye was sent up to convince him to re-join the conference. Not sure how true that story is, but certainly the idea that the gentry (or the local elite, as we now call them) were an important part of making the 1911 Revolution (now a standard position) would have seemed absurd to some at one point.

A good summary of the transition comes from the flyleaf of my copy of Madeleine Zelin’s The Magistrate’s Tael (California, 1984)

OUR UNDERSTANDING of China’s early modern history has long been dominated by the image of a backward empire, wracked by corruption and economic stagnation, thrust into the modern world when Western gunboats arrived in the 1840s. Madeline Zelin shatters this image by uncovering the dramatic process of state-building during the early years of China’s last imperial regime. Changes in economic and political environment brought about a shift from the decentralized agrarianism of traditional imperial administration to a centralized bureaucratic of taxes and public works during the early years of the Ch’ing dynasty. Relying heavily on archival materials, Zelin describes the implementation of these radical reforms and their effect on governmental administration in different regions of the empire. By providing an account of the indigenous evolution of the Chinese state, The Magistrate’s Tael makes it possible to judge the impact of the West on modern China’s development and to assess China’s inherent potential for and resistance to modern political and economic growth.

I like how it circles back to China’s response to the West at the end.

I think that Europeanists had, by the 60’s if not earlier, become unhappy with lumping everything before 1800 into “Pre-Modern” or medieval or whatever. The same thing happened in studies of Asia. K. Chadhuri’s  Trade and Civilization in the Indian Ocean came out while I was in grad school. In Southeast Asian Studies they apparently started using the term to get beyond Colonial / pre-colonial. Andaya, Leonard Y., and Barbara Watson Andaya. “Southeast Asia in the Early Modern Period; Twenty-Five Years On.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 26, no. 1 (1995): 92–98.

I think that to understand how the term came to be used in China it needs to put into the context of how scholars of other places in Asia were using it. Knight Biggerstaff looked at how scholars of Japan’s use of the term might apply to China. Biggerstaff, Knight. “Modernization-and Early Modern China.” The Journal of Asian Studies 25, no. 4 (1966): 607–19. https://doi.org/10.2307/2051494.

Still the same checklist approach, but In Japan they seem to have gone a lot farther in terms of working with the early modern concept then China people had. This may have been in part because Japan had the Meiji restoration (and thus had to find the “gestation” of “takeoff” somewhere) and also because Japanese scholars in particular knew a lot more about what went on in “traditional history”. I remember being told that the Japanese scholars at one of the early conferences were rather bemused that their American counterparts thought nothing happened in the Muromachi period.

I think the growing depth of knowledge explains how it became Ming/Qing that were Late Imperial China. As people like Fairbank and Zelin started digging into the Qing (and work became less political and more economic and eventually cultural) the Ming fits with the Qing. Thus the journal Ch’ing-shih wen-t’i became Late Imperial China. The whole field of Ming-Qing transition studies, culminating in Wakeman’s Great Enterprise emerged. (my first historiographical essay as a grad student was on the Ming-Qing transition). Now we may push Early Modern or Late Imperial back to the Song, but that would have been impossible earlier given how little we knew and how they were working back from 1840 to figure out what this Early Modern/Late Imperial China was.




Art and status and women and mirrors and…

This is an image from the back of a Song dynasty mirror in the collection of Martin J. Powers. As he describes it

One [woman], on the right, tends a child and sports an extremely elaborate coiffure. The larger woman on the left displays a plum painting she has completed and, pointing to it, appears to be explaining the fine points to the other women. Her hair is bound in a simple bun, and she wears a robe with a plum blossom design on it. Not all characters in the inscription above are readable, but the opening lines praise her artistic creativity, while the last two lines clearly read “She finds no charm in makeup; she lives for accomplishment alone,” pg.365

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Dress and identity in the Qing

I have been reading Guojun Wang’s Staging Personhood: Costuming in Early Qing Drama.

I am not particularly a student of drama, or of costume, but in the Twentieth Century a lot of attention was paid to dress and hair. From queue-cutting in the early Republic to the Sun Yat-sen suit to Maoist restrictions on dress to the modern Xi Jinping uniform (to cite only some Chinese examples), dress and appearance were always part of creating and changing identity. In the modern period there are lots of sources on all this, but what about the premodern period? How do you get at what people were wearing and what they thought about it without evidence from newspapers and film magazines and photos and propaganda posters? Well in the Qing you can look at theater costumes, which are sometimes pictured often described and sometimes mentioned in decisions to censor plays.

The Manchus, of course had required Han Chinese men to shave their foreheads, grow a queue and adopt new dress as a symbol of loyalty to the dynasty, and these restrictions showed up on stage as well. Wang points out on the very last page of the book that while historians are likely to think that Manchu-ness mattered in the Qing, literature scholars are less likely to think that. Although the book does not dig very deeply into the broader context of any of the issues of discourse and representations it raises, there is a lot of good stuff in here.

The book does not dig very deeply into gender in the Qing, but there is a chapter on the play Lovebird’s Reversal, (pg 61) which centers on a young man who avoids being beheaded by the Manchus by dressing as a woman (and thus avoiding the rules on male dress and to some extent leaving himself out of history) and a woman who avoids being raped by Manchu troops by dressing as a man. After she passes the civil service exams their parents fix them up and they only discover their gender on their wedding night.

The book does not dig very deeply into how Qing subjects understood themselves in history, but there is a lot on “historical” costuming on stage. At least some gentlemen supposedly joined theater troops specifically so they could keep wearing Ming dress and stay out of China’s modern transformation.(pg.49) There is a  section on Korean envoys, who’s “Ming dress” at first evoked tearful nostalgia but later in the dynasty evoked laughter since the envoys seemed to be wearing stage costumes. (p.51) Later in the dynasty rebels would sometimes use costumes as makeshift uniforms.

All this is interesting and fun, but the part of the book I liked best was the long section on Peach Blossom Fan  the classic, and wildly popular, story of Ming loyalism and nostalgia. Needless to say, clothing is a big part of how identity is represented in the story, from the hermits who dress in plain clothes as part of their rejection of Qing society and time to the gradual decline of Ming ritual (and clothing) as the dynasty declines. The death of the loyalist general Shi Kefa  is perhaps the most dramatic example, as he strips himself of his official Ming garb before throwing himself into the river where his body will be eaten by fish. His clothes, and thus his Ming identity are left behind and eventually rot away in the tomb that is built for them. (p. 168.) There is a lot of interesting stuff in this book.




Masks in recent Chinese History

So this is a post that already seems outdated, but I thought I would do it anyway. Masks now mean something quite different than they did before, and I am sure that there will soon be a lot of scholarship on “mask culture” in Asia and how it helped East Asian countries extend their advantage over backward peoples like the Americans.

Not to long ago, however, masks meant something else. The Hong Kong protests, which are still going on, are closely connected with masks. Not to keep Covid-19 in, but to protect you from tear gas. Masks, were, for a while, a symbol of resistance.

Thus you get images like this,

And this.

These are both foreign inspired images, and the CCP has been insistent that the Hong Kong protesters are spitting the nation and rejecting Chinese-ness. This is bullshit for lots of reasons, but one of them is that the Hong Kong protesters are specifically tying themselves to Chinese tradition and identity as seen here.


One of the slogans of the movement is “Be water”, and you can’t be much more Daoist than that, although a romantic couple is a modern touch.

I suspect someone could do more with all this, but I just wanted to post the pictures. If you want to know more you could contact the author of the presentation I stole all this from, Gina Tam. She does a good job of explaining the complexities of Hong Kong identity and its relation to the Chinese Mother-in-law land.