New Books in East Asian Studies
Summary: Discussions with Scholars of East Asia about their New Books
Gennifer Weisenfeld‘s gorgeous and thoughtful new book explores the visual culture that emerged in the wake of the Kanto earthquake of 1923. Imaging Disaster: Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japan’s Great Earthquake of 1923 (University of California Press, 2012) charts a path through the widely-circulating visual tropes that comprised the intermedia landscape of the earthquake’s aftermath. Along the way, images of firestorms and catfish guide us though a genealogy of the belief in the moral connections between human action and disaster in Japan. Photographs, seismograms, and maps introduce us to a “visual lexicon of disaster” in which these images were simultaneously wielded as markers of authority and instruments for masking some important moments of invisibility in the aftermath of the earthquake. A decapitated building, the “ultimate modern ruin,” asks us to contemplate the relationship between the individual, the nation, and modernity in the context of a massive spectacle of destruction. Images of refugees, catfish, and naked bathers help us understand how different groups claimed the earthquake for various social and political purposes. Monuments, children’s drawings, cartoons, photographs of bodies and bones: the exceptionally wide range of materials mobilized and reproduced in Imaging Disaster provides the reader with a kind of visual archive, just as Weisenfeld offers us a model for how to write a history that is informed by a close reading of visual texts. The book also considers how disaster brings class and regional inequities into relief more generally, considering how we might frame the Kanto earthquake within this larger context that includes the March 2011 disaster in Japan while remaining sensitive to the particularities of each case. It is a wonderful and compelling book. For “Selling Shiseido,” the unit that Weisenfeld has developed for MIT’s Visualizing Cultures program, see this website. [Users can link to Parts 2 & 3 from this site, as well.]
First things first: this is a book of amazing, beautiful poetry, and you should read it. In translating Xi Chuan’s Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems (New Directions, 2012), Lucas Klein has given readers access to a bilingual journey through more than two decades of the Xi Chuan’s evolution as a writer, a person, and a historian. The poems collected and rendered in Notes on the Mosquito range from evocative lyric verse about shepherds and loneliness to historical essays that consider the “New Qing History.” (It is a striking range, and one that was quite unexpected for this reader and historian.) In our conversation, Lucas was generous enough to explain many aspects of his process and approach as a translator, and to read a number of the translated poems collected in the volume. We talked about several aspects of his work, including both practical issues and more conceptual questions about the linking of history and poetry in the writing of a poet and a reader’s approach to the resulting work. It was a pleasure, and I hope you enjoy listening.
What makes something a poem? What defines “poetry,” and how has that changed over space and time? Critics and Commentators: The ‘Book of Poems’ as Classic and Literature (Harvard University Press, 2012) considers such questions as they chart a path through literary studies in Chinese history. From the comparative poetics of a Han dynasty “critic in the borderlands” to the theories of May Fourth intellectuals, Bruce Rusk’s elegantly written and carefully argued new book traces the changing relationships between secular and canonical poetry over 25 centuries of verse in China. Rusk introduces readers to a cast of fascinating characters in the course of this journey, from a versifying “drive-by” poet to a gifted craftsman of textual forgeries. In the course of an analysis of the changing modes of inscribing relationships between classical studies and other fields in China, we learn about poems on stone and metal, literary time-travel, ploughing emperors, and how to excavate the first drafts of Zhu Xi. This is an exceptionally rich account that ranges from the history of literary anthologies to the circulation of interpretive tropes in poetic commentaries, and in doing so it transcends the disciplinary boundaries of historical and literary studies of China. Enjoy!
It opens with a parakeet named Homer, and it closes with a dog named Hachiko. In the intervening pages, Barbara Ambros explores the deaths, afterlives, and necrogeographies of pets in contemporary Japan. Bones of Contention:Animals and Religion in Contemporary Japan (University of Hawai’i Press, 2012) takes readers through the urban spaces of pet memorialization, from zoos and aquaria to pet cemeteries and household altars. The story begins with an introduction and two chapters that offer a broad grounding in the mythical and religious accounts of animals in premodern Japanese texts, as well as a modern history of animal mortuary rites in Japan. Modern animal memorial rituals, Ambros argues, emerged out of a context of the increasing commodification and consumption of animals, and she describes fascinating accounts of the memorializing of animals by whalers and fishers, in the food industry, and in the context of research laboratories and zoos. From the third chapter on, the book focuses specifically on pets and their hybrid status between animal and human, describing responses to some of the key questions that have animated attitudes toward and practices surrounding the death of pets in modern Japan. Are pet memorial rituals religious activities (and thus tax-exempt)? Are pet remains more like the bones of family members or the broken bodies of dolls, or are they simply trash? Should people be allowed to have their pets interred with them after death? Are the spirits of deceased animal companions angry and vengeful, or are they protective and loving? Across interviews, necro-landscapes, chat rooms, and books by a wide range of interlocutors from historians to psychics, Bones of Contention expertly traces the very different ways that these questions have been engaged and debated in contemporary Japan. Enjoy!
What do “Rip van Winkle,” Oliver Twist, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Aesop’s Fables have in common? All of them were translated into Chinese by Lin Shu (Lin Qinnan, 1852-1924), a major force in the literary culture of late Qing and early Republican China. In Lin Shu, Inc.: Translation and the Making of Modern Chinese Culture (Oxford University Press, 2013), Michael Gibbs Hill charts the rise and precipitous fall of Lin’s career in an exploration of the making of the modern intellectual in China. Completing over 180 translations of Western literary works into classical Chinese while not knowing a single foreign language, Lin built a “factory of writing” dependent on the mental labor of 20 assistants trained in a range of foreign languages. Hill examines the texture of some of the translations produced by this network, offering a model for the close reading of translations both as literary sources and as sources of conflict over competing visions of intellectual, political, and national authority. Lin was ultimately caught in the crosshairs of prominent scholars and activists arguing over the relative roles of classical and vernacular language within a national project, but not before using his writing as a space to work out ideas about the roles of race, slavery, filial piety, and ethics in the transforming society of modern China. It’s a fascinating story about what it has meant in the past, and what it might mean in the future, to render ideas across linguistic realms.
Texts have lives. They grow, travel, transform, fade, and are reborn into new and other lives. In The I Ching: A Biography (Princeton University Press, 2012), Richard J. Smith has given us a wonderfully readable (and assignable, and shareable, and enjoyable) life of one of the most important texts in Chinese history. In early chapters describing the origins of and mythology surrounding the Yijing (or I Ching, or Book of Changes, or Classic of Changes, among other names by which we know the text), Smith also introduces us to the intricacies and beauty of the text’s language, and some surprising ways that it engages the histories of animal sacrifice and natural history. We watch as the text metamorphoses from a primarily divinatory to a rhetorical organism, seeing it grow Wings (Ten Wings, in particular) and mature into a classic, moving into and out of relationships with various commentators and analysts, emperors and officials, scholars and fortune tellers soon after. Smith offers tales of the text’s travels in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Tibet, and its translation into Western languages. He describes some of the many ways that the text was reborn in the counterculture movements of the 1960s and 1970s, by writers and musicians and myriad artists and scholars. It is a fascinating life story, and one well worth reading. In the course of the interview, Rich mentions this piece for the Huffington Post: His book Fathoming the Cosmos and Ordering the World: The Yijing (I-Ching, or Classic of Changes) and Its Evolution in China..
Gene Cooper’s new book is a multi-sited ethnographic study of market and temple fairs in the region of Jinhua, a city on the east coast of China and the home of Hengdian, “China’s Hollywood.” The Market and Temple Fairs of Rural China: Red Fire (Routledge, 2013) weaves together historical and ethnographic methodologies in a spirited account of the genealogies and contemporary practices of a variety of forms of performance at these local gatherings. After providing an extended background of the region, its religious institutions and perspectives, and on the history of temple fairs in general in Part 1 of the book, Part 2 moves into the economic, cultural, religious, and political dimensions that contribute to the “red fire” of temple fairs in Jinhua today. Cooper shows how the local fair can serve both as a Bakhtinian carnivalesque atmosphere (replete with elements of freak show and circus) and a site of everyday forms of resistance. The book also features a wonderfully detailed account of the arts of popular performance at the fairs, from small-cymbal narrative (xiaoluo shuo) to opera (wuju) competitions, and looks closely at the religious dimension of secular temple gatherings. Cooper’s lively voice infuses every page of the book and each moment of the interview.
I bet you’ve never heard of the “Smash the Baltic Fleet Memorial Togo Marshmallow.” I hadn’t either, before reading Barak Kushner’s lively and illuminating new book on the history of ramen in Japan. Grounded in ample research that incorporates archival and ethnographic methods, Slurp!: A Social and Culinary History of Ramen – Japan’s Favorite Noodle Soup (Global Oriental, 2012) takes us from the early history of noodles and breadstuffs in China and Japan to the styrofoam bowl of instant ramen on modern grocery shelves. In Kushner’s able and playful historical hands, this genealogy of foodways is interwoven with strands of Buddhist history, urban and colonial studies, and a detailed account of the emergence of a national cuisine in nineteenth and early twentieth century Japan, memorial marshmallows and all. Kushner’s book explores the ways that military influence, the rise of “nutrition” as a health concern, and prevailing conditions of hunger and starvation created a social and political context out of which ramen emerged along with new ways of eating alone and away from home. As if all of that wasn’t enough reason to read the book, you’ll also learn about the Ramen Philosophers Hall and the technology behind making those crispy instant ramen noodles. Slurp!
After coming to power in a series of violent and deceptive acts, including tricking his father into cuckolding the Emperor, Li Shimin went on to become a ruler whose reign as Emperor Taizong has been hailed as a model of good government throughout East Asia. Jack W. Chen’s recent book explores the ways that Taizong shaped the representations and meanings of his empire by shaping the literary representations of power as he and others embodied it. The Poetics of Sovereignty: On Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty (Harvard Yenching Institute, 2010) is a journey through those articulations of sovereignty in the course of a masterful analysis of the literary world of early medieval China. Several fascinating themes run through this highly transdisciplinary work, which contributes meaningfully to larger histories of corporeality and the body, of historiographical practice, of experiences and articulations of space and movement, and of the historical ethics and rituals of rulership. It is a treat for the scholar of literature and the historian alike.
How did the authors of the one of the most important Confucian ritual texts in early China recognize, explain, and cope with mistakes and dysfunction in ritual? The Dysfunction of Ritual in Early Confucianism (Oxford University Press, 2012) brings readers into the intricacies of the text of the Liji. Michael Ing respects the diversity of perspectives in the text while paying close attention to the ways that its authors shared a central concern with failures in ritual practice. Fluent ritual agents in the Liji were able to open and transform the script of a ritual to suit the changing contexts of a changing world. Rituals, however, could still fail, as a result of either preventable mistakes by these ritual agents or unavoidable failures inherent in the ritual script itself. The authors of the Liji attempted to help readers cope with a deep anxiety over this dissonance in ritual practice: though rituals were meant to construct an ordered world, they could fail to bring about such a world, and the reasons for that failure were not always clear. Ing proposes a tragic theory of early Confucian ritual practice in which the Liji authors embraced ambiguity in their depictions of whether ritual failures were or were not preventable. He suggests the creative and therapeutic opportunities that emerge from these anxieties, and ultimately situates this tragic theory of ritual in the Liji within the broader field of ritual studies.
Cosima Bruno’s new book asks us to consider a deceptively simple question: what is the relationship between a poem and its translation? In the course of Between the Lines: Yang Lian’s Poetry through Translation (Brill, 2012), Bruno helps us imagine what an answer to that question might look like while guiding us through the sounds and spaces of contemporary Chinese poet Yang Lian. Between the Lines proposes an innovative way to read a poem through and with its translations, using a “triangular comparative analysis” that juxtaposes the original poem with a number of its translations to identify shifts in the lines of the poem that serve as landmarks in the conceptual and textual world of the poet. Bruno uses this translation-focused methodology of reading to reveal fascinating dimensions of time, space, and subjectivity in Yang Lian’s work, and to guide our attention to the performative importance of rhythm, blank space, punctuation, and sound in his verse. Readers who are interested in Chinese poetry will find much to absorb and transport them in these pages, and readers interested in the theory and practice of translation will find a clear articulation of a set of methodological tools that could potentially bear fruit when rendering texts across many different genres and languages. Enjoy!
Orientalism, the ideograph, and media theory grew up together. In Ideographic Modernism: China, Writing, Media (Oxford University Press, 2010), Christopher Bush offers a wonderfully trans-disciplinary account of modernism through the figure of the ideograph, or Chinese writing as imagined in the West. The beginning of the book introduces the ways that modernism wove together speculations about Chinese writing and responses to technological media. The following four chapters develop this set of ideas by looking at different conceptions of the ideograph and the uses to which they were put in texts ranging from the late nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century. Each chapter explores a particular author or authors’ engagement with China (or with an idea thereof) through a specific understanding of what Chinese writing was and how it related to a given technological medium. Bush thus takes us from Ezra Pound and Paul Claudel’s imagistic ideograph and photography, to Victor Segalen’s inscriptive ideograph and phonography, to Walter Benjamin’s mimetic ideograph and cinematography, and finally to Paul Valéry’s historical ideograph and telegraphy. Bush’s work is particularly fascinating not just in integrating media theories into the history of thinking of/with China, but also in its attention to the ways that China was central to how modernists refashioned their ideas of time and space. It is a wonderful work that helps scholars of East Asia understand an important period in the history of engagement with one of the central objects of our field. Enjoy!
Jini Kim Watson’s book links literature, architecture, urban studies, film, and economic history into a wonderfully rich account of the fictions of urban transformation in Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. Ranging from the colonial period to the late 1980s, The New Asian City: Three-Dimensional Fictions of Space and Urban Form (University of Minnesota Press, 2011) introduces fictional, poetic, and cinematic texts that reflect the different but concordant ways that writers in these newly industrializing cityscapes of the Pacific Rim negotiated new built environments and experiences of modern space. Watson expertly guides us through a historical and theoretical account of colonial urban development and the literature that emerged from it, before moving to the postwar and postcolonial context of the mid-late twentieth century. Individual subjectivities, as we encounter them in a series of fascinating literary texts, are reimagined in cities full of high-rise apartments, construction sites, and spatial forms that grow in tandem with forms of urban labor. Watson’s book considers the refiguring of interiors and exteriors, collectivities and persons, men and women, points and routes. Several chapters offer a comparative analysis of nationalist discourses and fictional forms in light of a new urban space pulsing with flows of commodities and laboring bodies. By the end of the book, the reader leaves this wonderful collection of stories and analyses inspired to think about and experience built space anew. (This reader certainly did!)
Shih-Shan Susan Huang’s beautiful new book explores visual culture of religious Daoism, focusing on the tenth through the thirteenth centuries. Picturing the True Form: Daoist Visual Culture in Traditional China (Harvard University Asia Center, 2012) is divided into two sections, devoted loosely to esoteric and exoteric realms of knowledge. The “Inner Chapters” of Part I of the book consider esoteric Daoist images associated with meditation, visualization, and breathing practices. These chapters take readers into a world of Daoist cosmography, considering images of the body and the cosmos and the relation between these realms. Ranging from body worms to star voyages, from images of heaven and the underworld to bird forms in True Form Charts, from maps of paradise to forms of writing, the images and objects in Pt. I collectively create an archive of Daoist imagery while being very careful to explain how particular forms of image did very specific types of work. The “Outer Chapters” of Pt. II of the book examine exoteric Daoist works, including the material culture and spatial design of Daoist ritual space, ritual performance, and liturgical paintings. These chapters bring our attention to the materiality and ephemerality of some Daoist images, introducing the production and interpretation of Daoist paintings and offering us a basis for comparing the Daoist context with that of Buddhist imagery. It is an exceptionally rich study that will no doubt influence many fields in East Asian studies. Enjoy!
Christopher Nugent’s wonderful recent book will change the way you read. At the very least, Manifest in Words, Written on Paper: Producing and Circulating Poetry in Tang Dynasty China (Harvard University Asia Center, 2010) will transform the way we think and write about medieval poetry in China. Nugent’s book urges readers to reconsider what we can assume about the authorship and authorial control of Tang poems, showing us the ways that our understanding and appreciation of literature can be radically altered when we reconsider poems as material objects. The analysis begins with a story of textual variation in a set of manuscript copies of a long narrative poem, preserved together in the Dunhuang caves, that reads the material history of the poem through traces of scribal practices and errors. The book then moves through a discussion of memory practices in medieval China, offering a useful comparative perspective from the scholarly literature on memory arts in medieval Europe, and shows how memorial practices shaped the circulation of Tang poetry. This is followed by chapterlong reflections on the functions and meanings of orality and writing in Tang poetic culture, as poems were circulated, were inscribed on public walls, and were stumbled upon in postal stations. A final chapter looks closely at Tang practices of compiling and collecting the poetic works of a single author, and relates these practices to the very different collecting strategies of the Song period. With broad-ranging implications for scholarship in history and religious studies, as well as literature, Nugent’s book is exceptionally rich and was the basis for a great conversation. Enjoy!