Who are the shi?

Since I am teaching Early China this semester, I am drawing from Yuri Pines, Envisioning Eternal Empire: Chinese Political Thought of the Warring States Period (University of Hawaii Press, 2009) Pines points out a really good story to use in teaching about who the shi,士 were. They were, of course the new class of literate experts who started running China in the Warring States. In 1910 China was still being run by people who called themselves shi, although the social class referred to had of course changed a lot. He gives us a great, much later quote, from Fan Zhongyan on their self-identity.

The heart of the ancient benevolent persons . . . was neither to be delighted in things nor to feel sorry for themselves. At the loftiness of [imperial] temples and halls, they worried for their people, in the remoteness of rivers and lakes they worried for their ruler. Hence entering [the court], they worried; and leaving it, also worried: so when did they enjoy? It must be said: they were the first to worry the worries of All under Heaven, and the last to enjoy its joys. Oh Without these persons, where could I find my place?

– Fan Zongyan 989-1052

Those idealistic shi, always longing for a job at court and always worried about the common people when they get there.

Of course, in the Warring States, they were also free agents looking to benefit themselves, as this story from Zhanguoce shows.

West Chou opens the sluices and Su-tzu takes fees from both sides

East Chou wished to sow its land to rice but West Chou would not open the river sluices. Chou of the east was troubled over this but Su-tzu spoke to its ruler and begged permission to treat with West Chou for water.

He arrived in Chou of the west and spoke to its ruler: ‘My lord’s plans are faulty; by withholding water from East Chou now he is making her wealthy. Its citizens have all sown to dry grain and no other! If my lord would really do them harm he should open the sluices immediately and injure their seeds. With the sluices opened East Chou must replant to rice. Then when you deny them the waters they must come to West Chou as suppliants and receive their orders from your majesty!’

The king agreed and released the waters and Su-tzu received the gold of both countries.

From Zhanguoce 戰國策 Crump 24

Pines spends a good deal of time on another story from Zhanguoce that works really well as a handout to students for us to read and discuss in class and look at what a persuasion is and what the ruler-minister relation was. As I don’t think this is enough to be a copyright violation, I post the handout here for your (and my) future teaching convenience.


Did Chinese women go to opium dens?

Since someone asked me if Qing women went to opium dens, I thought I would answer and put up some of my evidence.

Short answer – I don’t think so, at least as customers. Certainly in the Republic, when they started registering opium “addicts” only a very small number of women registered (although there seem to have been women registered everywhere) In Qing pictures, like the ones below, opium smoking places seem to be male spaces, although we do get a picture of a wife showing up at one looking for her husband. There seem to be female attendants/possible prostitutes smoking with men in the classier place. I also include the picture of Mr. Conspicuous Consumption, which students always like.

These are all from Dianshizhai huabao. Sorry they are reversed. I think I took these from the transparencies I used to use before Powerpoint


Canadian pot and the lessons of opium

Image result for canada flag pot

Apparently Canada has legalized pot. The New Republic is speculating that they may find it hard to get an official distribution system to replace the old illegal one

I agree that this is a concern, but I don’t think de-Ba’athification is a good historical analogy. The old illegal sellers will no doubt want to keep selling, but if no producers want to sell to them and no buyers want to buy from them that hardly matters. Colonial opium monopolies in Asia (and to a lesser extent in China) faced exactly the same problem, How to get people to buy the legal opium when there was an already existing illegal system? This was particularly difficult since in the early period the legal system was run by tax farmers (mostly Chinese) who were in a perfect place to slip illegal stuff into the legal distribution channel. This is a problem with booze as well. Who better to sell untaxed kegs of beer than a legal beer distributor? Today of course that is not a problem, the two channels are, at the distribution level anyway, mostly separate. Few legal sellers of booze or cigarettes are going to risk loosing a valuable license for a tiny profit.

I suspect that if our friends Up North want to really get rid of the illegal market they will need to really legalize pot. From what I know of legal pot in the US 1  it is distributed in special dispensaries (which there are not many of) you need to roll your own and show quite a bit of ID. Buying a bunch and then splitting it with your friends at the Chamber of Commerce or your church group is, technically, illegal. This is not that different from the Asian opium systems in the 20th century, where they drug was still being sold by state-approved channels, but was seen as problematic for moral, public health and public relations reasons.

This is no way to replace a black market distribution system. When you can buy a pack of pre-rolled joints at every Tim Horton’s -then- there will no reason for anyone to use the black market. What I am guessing we will get is a system more like China in the New Policies period. -Legal dispensaries for those rich enough to afford them and go through the hassle, and a system of semi-tolerated illegal sales with occasional arrests for everyone else.


Rush, James R. Opium to Java: Revenue Farming and Chinese Enterprise in Colonial Indonesia, 1860–1910. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990. is the classic work on this. I have not read

Sasges, Professor Gerard, David P. Chandler, and Rita Smith Kipp. Imperial Intoxication: Alcohol and the Making of Colonial Indochina. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2017.  but that might be even more relevant.

  1. which is not much. Maybe I should go to AAS this year. 

Women Warriors in Japanese History? Yes, but…

The subtitle to this article tells you most of what you need to know:

Christobel Hasting, “How Onna-Bugeisha, Feudal Japan’s Women Samurai, Were Erased From History: While most Japanese women were subject to rigid social expectations of domesticity, onna-bugeisha women warriors who were known to be to be every bit as strong, capable, and courageous as their male counterparts” https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/a383aj/female-samurai-onna-bugeisha-japan

My reaction when I saw this on twitter was

“Oh, no, Stephen Turnbull has another book. Massive conflation of eras and classes (Tokugawa-era samurai women described as ‘protecting their villages’!), uncritical use of sources (Tomoe Gozen, of Heike monogatari fame, of course), emergency measures as norms, etc.”

Obviously, I can’t tell until I see the book itself how many of these errors are built into the book and how many of them are the fault of the article-writer (It’s not a review, so much as an uncritical rehash). But I’ve read Turnbull works before, and I have not been impressed by his historical skills. He knows a lot, but he doesn’t know what to do with it.

In this case, there’s almost nothing in the article that isn’t pretty well-known to Japanese historians: Aside from Tomoe Gozen, the main figure in the article is the leader of the ‘women’s corps’ in the defense of Aizu during the Bakumatsu wars, who shows up in Shiba Goro’s and Yamakawa Kikue’s writings.

As usual, Turnbull makes way too much of Tokugawa era martial arts culture, and his argument about historical erasure would be much more convincing if historians hadn’t done all this work already.

As I said, I’ll have to see the book itself at some point – which apparently came out in 2012? (Yeah, it’s on the big river site.) – but this is not encouraging.

I’ve reviewed Turnbull work before:

Chinese Anti-Japanese films

There is a new book out, though sadly only in Japanese so far, about Chinese Anti-Japanese films. There are countless Sino-Japanese war movies and TV shows, and their absurdity has been noted by both Chinese netizens and the government for some time. I was struck by how the Japanese author was attracted to the films specifically for their absurd action, regardless of any supposed anti-Japanese content.

He recalled the “Nikkatsu Roman Porno” format in 1970s Japan, in which directors could make any kind of experimental movie, as long as there were naked female characters to boost box office earnings.

“Some famous directors directed Nikkatsu Roman Porno movies when they were young,” he said. “That’s why I am rooting for those who write shit scripts now – they may become great creators in the future.”

It strikes me as being similar to some of the reasons Americans might have watched Kung fu movies in the old days. Plus there are some great clips in the article if you want to teach with them.

Patriotic comedies? Japanese author compiles an encyclopaedia of Chinese anti-Japan dramas

Why Read Wineburg?

Like a lot of people, I got my copy of Sam Wineburg’s new book Why Study History (When It’s Already on Your Phone) [University of Chicago Press, 2018.] in the mail this week, and since I’ve literally just finished taking my Historiography class through Historical Thinking and other Unnatural Acts, I thought I should review it and see if it represents a great leap forward, etc. Sam Wineburg, "Why Study History (When It's Already on your Phone)"

Having read it, I can say with some certainty that it is not replacing Historical Thinking in next year’s iteration of this class. It’s a cranky book, with a kind of frustrated prophetic tone: my comment on twitter was that the title should have been Why Teach History (When You’re All Doing It Wrong).

It starts well enough, with a history of standardized testing and the relationship between those ‘normed’ systems and the constant repetition of ‘kids these days don’t know history’ that never seems to acknowledge that we’ve been complaining about that for as long as we’ve been measuring it.

Then things go off a cliff, with two chapters that have been excerpted publicly: a history of the Teaching American History grants that he calls wasted money (here, with a typical response published here), and an attack on textbooks through the lens of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States (published here). I thought it odd for a pedagogy pioneer like Wineburg to be beating on a mostly harmless/arguably productive form of continuing education funding for failing to effectively assess learning, when his own research shows how nearly impossible that assessment is. (In a later chapter, he actually addresses the assessment question, or at least claims to have addressed it, but he doesn’t connect back to the earlier argument. Like Historical Thinking, this is basically a collection of essays, either previously published or talking about previously published work, and doesn’t hold together all that well as a whole.)

And his attack on Zinn’s work is mostly critiques that could have been targeted at a *lot* of more current textbooks. He’s basically griping that People’s History and the teaching materials that have come out of it are no better than average. E.g., his argument about the lack of up-to-date historiography on critical questions (atomic bombings, Soviet spies): how many chapters in current textbooks have “reading recommendation” lists from the authors’ grad school bibliographies, plus a token new work or two? (This is a pet peeve of mine.) Wineburg basically argues that newer scholarship must be better, but ignores that there are critiques of much of it, ongoing arguments. E.g., the idea that Soviet spies’ existence mitigates the political and social damage of McCarthy/McCarthyism is a bit of a non-sequitur, especially since we don’t have equivalent open sources on CIA work during the Cold War. And he attacks the textbook-like secondary materials, like primary sources and lesson plans, that have arisen around it for being … a bit less good than his own primary source lesson plans, but doesn’t give them credit for being better than a lot of other textbook ‘resources for teachers’ which are mind-numbing pedagogical atrocities. The chapters on “Historical Thinking =/= An Amazing Memory” are basically recapitulations of the work he did in Historical Thinking.

Chapter Six is the beating heart of this book, though: a career autobiography about how he revolutionized the field and got everything right. He’s not really wrong, it’s just not particularly interesting reading when it’s mostly about when he got the insights, who he worked with, how much money they got in grant money, and how many downloads that enabled. There’s about four chapters worth of good methodological potential here, but it’s overwhelmed by his cleverness: reminds me a lot of the self-reported careers of Silicon Valley “disrupters.” (I was particularly struck, given the ill temper of chapter 3, by his recognition that in some classrooms with english language learners and diverse populations, textbooks help).

The best chapter title may be “Why Google Can’t Save Us” (though we know this by now, surely) but it’s mostly the backstory to the creation of this paper and this article. Read the paper, or the equivalent chapter in T. Mills Kelly)

The last chapter, which feels like an afterthought at best, is a recycled version of this article about who people pick as “famous Americans” as some kind of paean to the success of broader educational goals and narratives over the last half-century. “The kids are alright” is an odd ending to a book that is almost entirely about what everyone else has gotten wrong but him and his collaborators.

I honestly don’t know who this book is for. It’s certainly not for students or non-teachers. Insofar as it’s for teachers, it’s not the inspiring-but-cautionary work promised by the title. It’s an odd mix of triumphal progressions and cautionary tales, without enough detail to be useful except as a bibliography update to the earlier work for further reading.

P.S. I realized after posting this that it really said almost nothing about teaching Asian history. That’s because Wineburg says nothing about teaching anything except American history. Which means that he’s never seriously wrestled with the problem of studying history as anything except as implicit self-study of one’s own culture. Even the study of modern Europe, or earlier manifestations of Western civilization are terra nullius in this pedagogic world, to say nothing of the wider World History revolution or specific study of non-Western cultures.

Syllabus blogging for Fall 2018

So, as is our tradition, a bit about what I will be doing in my classes in the Fall. As is also tradition, I am doing this way too late to incorporate any of your useful advice, but if you have any feel free to post it.

I have three classes this semester, once you take off my one course release for being Asian Studies coordinator. HIST 198 Rise of Modern Asia,  HIST 206 History of East Asia, HIST 332 History of Early China

HIST 332 Early China

China from Anyang to Tang. Mostly aimed at History and Asian Studies students, although given the topic and how I teach it I try to get some Philosophy and Religious Studies kids as well.

I am starting this in a new way, which seems to work a bit, as far as I can tell. I have them read a textbook section on the whole period and come up with some ID terms from it. The idea is that in a US history class they are pretty sure that the Civil War is coming, but they will get more out of an Early China class if we do a quick run through first.

The main books are1 Lewis’s Sanctioned Violence, which I like to use here. If you want a book that will take them from the Spring and Autumn to the Han in a sinologically impressive and clear way, this is it.

I am trying the short Huainanzi this time as a way of summing up all that philosophy, and giving us a bit of Han synthesis. We will see how it works.

The Mollier Buddhism and Taoism book is new. Teiser’s Ghost Festival is the only other book I have found to work here. This may be a bit beyond them, but I have high hopes.


HIST 206 History of East Asia

Rice Paddies, yeah! This is a class a lot of our Asian Studies majors take. Since it counts for a number of things as an elective it gets a certain number of non-majors. Still pretty much the same class. Mostly chronological, but also pretty thematic. Thus, I start the class with explaining the Shang dynasty, but also the Chinese/East Asian family system through time.  No textbook since I am not trying to cover everything and if I am going to try to cajole them into reading something it should be something that will stick longer than a textbook. So what are the books?

Zhuangzi is back, although I have had mixed success with it. I would like to find a good way to introduce this to students, since one of the themes of the book is how to find your way in a bureaucratic world. How do you introduce this text, and when do you do it?2 Lots of kids find it too weird.

Sarashina Diary is the middle book. This is always a problem, and I have never solved it. You need a good, undergrad-friendly book somewhere between the required classical philosophy book and the modern books.3 It does the whole literary culture thing, and is shorter than Sei Shonagon, which I have given up on, since no matter how much I like it they all hate it.4 Sarashina is also a Japan book, which makes it better here than Waley’s Monkey, which I have also tried here. None of the warrior books seem to work.

Also, what would be a good Korea book? I am old enough that I remember when East Asia meant China and Japan, but now lots of students want Korea. I’m cool with that, and have tossed in a lot of short readings, but a good Korea book that works in a broad context would be great.

Fukuzawa is probably stuck here. A samurai who becomes a modernizer after going through a phase as a party-loving student? Many of them find it too long, but I can’t really think of anything to use it its place.

For the final book I tend to go with a Cultural Revolution book, since there are so many good ones. This is despite the fact that they are a bit tricky to fit in at the end. Spider Eaters is the current choice, although I have tried others. Liang Heng is a bit more accessible.

HIST 198 Explorations in Global History

This is our liberal studies class for non-majors. We are pretty free to pick topics for this. Mine is the Rise of Modern Asia, which does Asia from India to Japan from the Sepoy Rebellion to the present. The main books are still Gosh The Glass Palace, a nice historical fiction novel that traces an Asian business dynasty from about the 1880s to WWII. I am happy with this and will keep it. The next book is Guha Makers of Modern Asia, a collection of biographies of major political leaders. Guha is ok. I like the idea of working through modern Asia through a series of biographies. There is no way a class like this can cover everything, and short biographies are a good way to touch on lots of things. All of these are biographies of top political leaders, which is unfortunate. I have started adding in a few other short bios of non-politicians, but I could really use something like the Human Tradition in Modern Asia, which of course has not been published.

I am probably not teaching this class again in the Spring, but may teach in in the Fall. I was thinking of dropping Guha and using Ghosh, parts of Cochran’s the Lius of Shanghai and a magna about modern Japanese business. All I can think of for that is Salaryman Kintarō. Is there something better?



  1. As always, a big part of the class for me is the books. When I was an undergrad Dr. Rosen explained to me that he assumed that all his students would forget his name, the name of the building the classes were in, all the essay topics they wrote on, but that they would remember every real book they actually read for the rest of their lives. This is still how I approach picking out books and designing classes.  

  2. I.e. can you tell them to read it first and then give them some idea what you want out of it, or give them something before they start? With the more modern books I am fine with just setting them loose, but for early books I think more set-up helps.  

  3. Four properly spaced books that are out in paperback or available as e-books in our library. That’s my goal. They get to pick any two they want to write longer papers on.  

  4. In their defense, it is a hard book to get into if you don’t already understand what it is.  

Is the Shanghai Textile Museum the best museum in China?

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

No, No, and Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Visiting delegations of workers from around the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2. No pictures, this is a family blog.  

  3. sorry  

Visual Shanghai

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






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

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

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

Was Hirata Atsutane Japan’s first Science Fiction writer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pan-Asian Hell

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

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

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

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

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

And the power of the Buddha to save you.

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

  2. History of East Asia  

Too Many Men Again

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

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

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

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

Who likes short shorts?

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

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

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

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

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


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

President Trump’s Historical Consciousness: Bowling Ball Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching Tokugawa math

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

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

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

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

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

A later version

and a modernized version

They look like geometry proofs to me.

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