New Books in East Asian Studies
Summary: Discussions with Scholars of East Asia about their New Books
In what must be one of the most well-organized and clearly-written books in the history of academic writing, Yi-Li Wu‘s book, Reproducing Women: Medicine, Metaphor, and Childbirth in Late Imperial China (University of California Press, 2010), introduces readers to a rich history of women’s medicine (fuke) in the context of late imperial China. Reproducing Women offers much more than a history of ideas and practices of women’s health in the late Ming and early Qing, however. Wu weaves together an impressive range of sources, including comparative perspectives from contemporary contexts, to create a fascinating account of the ways that human bodies were experienced and understood in Chinese medical history. In the course of our discussion and our journey through the book, we touched on topics ranging from monastery handbooks, to the late imperial version of Kinko’s, to the comparative history of pregnancy tests.
Peter Mauch‘s Sailor Diplomat: Nomura Kichisaburo and the Japanese-American War (Harvard University Asia Center, 2011) is an exhaustively researched and very rich biographical account of the man who was Japan’s ambassador to the US in the years leading up to the Pearl Harbor attack. Mauch traces the geopolitical developments of Japanese/US relations from 1877-1951, a crucial period that embraces two World Wars and many fascinating transformations in modern transnational history. The book relates this story through the life of Nomura, naval officer turned ambassador, allowing readers a rare glimpse into the processes and negotiations through which this sailor-diplomat wrestled with conflicting senses of duty, commitment, and reason. A boon not only for scholars of Japan, the book is also a fascinating model of the historian’s craft in its use of biography to simultaneously offer a macro-history of modern global politics, and a micro-history of a vibrant and critical mind reasoning in the course of some very difficult decisions.
Cuisine in early modern Japan was experienced and negotiated through literature and ritual, and the uneaten or inedible was often as important as what was actually consumed. Eric Rath‘s recent book Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan (University of California Press, 2010) is a rich study of the culture, practices, performance, and literature of food in early modern Japan. Rath takes us from medieval culinary manuscripts penned by men of the knife, all the way to sukiyaki recipes clipped from newspapers in 1950s America. Focusing on late medieval culinary manuscripts and early modern printed cookbooks, Rath shows that cuisine in pre-modern Japan blended the edible with the uneaten, puns with pickles, and rituals with rice cakes. This is a wonderfully written account of the history of food in its many spaces: on the page, on the cutting board, on the tray, in the kitchen, and in transit. In the course of our interview we talked about the practical challenges of researching the history of cuisine in early modern Japan, the theater of slicing up carp, the Iberian roots of tempura, and the proper way to eat a flying quail food display.
In the course of his concise and clearly written new book Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking (Princeton University Press, 2011), Michael Keevak investigates the emergence of a “yellow” and “Mongolian” East Asian identity in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. Becoming Yellow incorporates a wide range of sources in its exploration of the European imagination of an East Asian racial identity, including poetry, travel accounts, medical and anthropological texts, and children’s toys. Over the course of our interview, we talked about the difficulties and rewards of trying to situate the idea of a “Yellow Peril” in historical context, and the potential pitfalls along the way.
Anyone who has been following the news this year has likely heard of Ai Weiwei. This provocative and gifted Chinese artist-activist has made 2011 headlines for his controversial work Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads and for his recent arrest by Chinese police. What has been less widely appreciated is Ai’s profound impact and insight as a cultural critic, Internet artist, and chronicler of contemporary events in China. Before it was shut down on 28 May 2009 by Chinese authorities, his blog provided a Chinese-language digest of Ai’s perspectives on topics ranging from the nature of humanity to hair cuts, from his “Fairytale” project to his efforts to compile a list of the children killed in the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake, from the contemplation of a “Bullshit Tax” to the 2009 Xinjiang protests. By turns hilarious, touching, and tragic, his online writing offered a perspective on current events in China that was very different from the sort of coverage available in popular Western-language news outlets. With the support and collaboration of Ai himself, Lee Ambrozy has collected, edited, and translated a selection of the artist’s written and photographic blog posts and tweets in Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009 (MIT Press, 2011). Spanning the period from the founding of Ai’s blog in 2006 to his final posts in 2009, Lee’s translation is a treasure-box that not only offers a glimpse into the life and work of this transformative artist, but also speaks to the nature and power of internet culture in today’s China. We spoke for an hour about her experience creating the volume, the challenges and joys of the translator’s practice, and the story of the Grass Mud Horse, among many other things. It is an inspiring volume, and well worth a read.
In her elegant work of historical puppet theater The Crafting of the 10,000 Things: Knowledge and Technology in Seventeenth-Century China (University of Chicago Press, 2011), Dagmar Schäfer introduces us to the world of scholars and craftsmen in seventeenth-century China through the life and work of Song Yingxing (1587-1666?). A minor official in southern China, Song has earned a major reputation among scholars of Chinese history for writing the Tiangong kaiwu, a work on practical knowledge that covers topics ranging from salt-making, to gunpowder, to metallurgy. Schäfer’s book flesh out Song’s character, the social and physical world in which he lived, and the universe of his many writings, while opening a new stage for the study of technology and craftsmen in the early modern world. In the course of our interview, we explored Song’s fateful picnic, his thoughts on the morality of things, and the use of images as a form of argumentation, and we considered what might happen if you put a fish in a box for three days.
[Crossposted from New Books in Public Policy] How have the United States and Japan managed to remain such strong allies, despite having fought one another in a savage war less than 70 years ago? In Michael Auslin’s Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations (Harvard University Press, 2011), the author, an Asia expert at the American Enterprise Institute, explores the history of cultural exchange between the United States and Japan, and how important that exchange has been, and continues to be, from a political perspective. Auslin, who is also a columnist for WSJ.com, analyses the “enduring cultural exchange” between the two countries, and describes the various stages through which this vital relationship has evolved over the last century and one half. As Auslin shows, the relationship between the United States and Japan has had a large number of twists and turns, culminating in the current close and mutually beneficial connection between the two nations. In our interview, we talk about baseball, pop culture, gunboat diplomacy, and the first Japanese ever to set foot in America. Read all about it, and more, in Auslin’s useful new book. Please become a fan of “New Books in Public Policy” on Facebook if you haven’t already.
[Crossposted from New Books in History] Most everyone has heard of the Nuremberg Trials. Popular books have been written about them. Hollywood made movies about them. Some of us can even name a few of the convicted (Hermann Göring, Albert Speer, etc.). But fewer of us know about what might be called “Nuremberg East,” that is, the Toyko trials held after the defeat of the Japanese in World War Two. These proceedings generated few books, no movies, and therefore occupy only a minor place in Western historical memory. Thanks to Yuma Totani’s excellent book, The Tokyo War Crimes Trials. The Pursuit of Justice in the Wake of World War II (Harvard, 2008; also available in Japanese here), that may change. We should hope it does, because the Tokyo trials were important. They not only helped the Japanese come to terms with what their government and military had done during the war (truth be told, they are still coming to terms with it today), but it also set precedents that are still being applied in international law today. More than that, Totani offers a challenging interpretation of the trials. They weren’t so much “victor’s justice” (the common interpretation in Japan) as a lost opportunity. Reading her book one can’t help but get the feeling that the Americans and their confederates bungled the trials badly. Instead of trying to establish personal responsibility in all cases, the Allies simply arrested the upper echelons of the Japanese civil and military elite and selected those who were “representative” for indictment. Those who were not indicted—though probably just as culpable as those who were—were set free, giving rise to the myth that they had brokered deals with the Americans. The prosecution was headed by an inattentive alcoholic (Joseph Keenan) who preferred interrogating the accused to gathering hard documentary evidence. The defense was comprised of ill-prepared Japanese attorneys and their less-than-helpful Allied aids. Confusion reigned in the courtroom. And of course there were significant translation problems throughout. The trials were something of a farce. I always wondered why many Japanese today don’t think very highly of the Tokyo proceedings. Now, thanks to Yuma Totani’s informative book, I have a better understanding of why. Please become a fan of “New Books in East Asian Studies” on Facebook if you haven’t already.