New Books in East Asian Studies
Summary: Discussions with Scholars of East Asia about their New Books
Luke Roberts‘ Performing the Great Peace: Political Space and Open Secrets in Tokugawa Japan (University of Hawai’i Press, 2012) is a gracefully-written study of the performance of authority in Tokugawa politics. It is also one of the most thoughtful historical studies that I’ve had the pleasure to read in a long time. In the course of rereading Tokugawa documents to propose a wonderfully fresh way of thinking about political space in history, Roberts challenges us to rethink our assumptions about how to read evidence of such seemingly basic categories as life and death, truth and secrecy. A boon for scholars of Japan and non-specialists alike, Performing the Great Peace is worth a read for anyone interested in what it means now, and what it has meant across space and time, to understand and write about the past.
Xiaofei Tian‘s Visionary Journeys: Travel Writings from Early Medieval and Nineteenth-Century China (Harvard University Asia Center, 2011) is a model of comparative history. A study of travel writing in early medieval and nineteenth-century China,Visionary Journeys uses this juxtaposition to tell a surprising, rich, and beautiful story of travelers and their experiences of dislocation over land and sea, in heaven and hell, in poems and prose, in China and beyond. The book uses a wonderfully trans-disciplinary humanistic practice to weave diaries, images painted in words and pigment, Daoist writings and Buddhist scriptures, ethnographic and travel accounts, and other kinds of text to understand the ways that individuals dealt with profound social, political, and cultural change at different moments in China’s history. In a way, it’s a story that any traveler will be able to identify with and learn from. There is so much in this book – explorations of race, gender, family, urban life, ideas of the family, personal identity, practices of experiencing oneself in a changing world – and it rewards a close and joyful reading.
Taylor Atkins‘ recent book is both an important contribution to East Asian Studies and an absolute delight to read. Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze, 1910-1945 (University of California Press, 2010) opens with a movie theater commercial in 2004 and closes with a metaphorical decapitation. In the intervening chapters Atkins develops a series of sophisticated and masterfully defended arguments about the ways that colonial Japan was transformed by its engagement with Korean society and culture. Integrating critical literature on empire and colonialism, Japanese and Korean cultural history, and epistemological studies of loss and of observation, Primitive Selves is a model of careful, elegant, and responsible historical work lightened by a wonderful sense of humor. It was my sincere pleasure both to read the book, and to talk with Atkins about it. As Atkins mentions in the course of his book and our conversation, all of the proceeds of the book are donated to the Tahirih Justice Center, which can be found here.
Many of us try to be thoughtful about the ways that we incorporate (or try, at least, to incorporate) different modes of evidence into our attempts to understand the past: objects, creatures, words, ideas. Rowan Flad‘s Salt Production and Social Hierarchy in Ancient China: An Archaeological Investigation of Specialization in China’s Three Gorges (Cambridge UP, 2011) stands as a beautiful case study of what it can look like to do so. Flad juxtaposes texts, bamboo slips, ceramic sherds, animal remains, and other lines of evidence to offer an exceptionally rich account of the technology of salt production in early China, offering glimpses at comparative archeological practices, ideas of spatiality, and the diversity of uses of animals in early China along the way. Reading the book inspired, for me, new ways of thinking about the conceptual role of fragments in the work of the historian, and our conversation was similarly inspiring.
In telling a clear story about the emergence of ethnic categories in modern China, Tom Mullaney‘s Coming to Terms With the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China (University of California Press, 2011) ranges across Saussurean linguistics, census reports, oral histories, and the historiography of laboratory science. Mullaney uses a careful, focused study of the practices of the Yunnan Province Ethnic Classification Research Team to open a much wider set of questions about the ways that key concepts (including ethnic potential, linguistic intelligibility, consent) both shaped and were produced by a project to create and map the 56 minzu of today’s China. In addition to being an inspiring model of what a truly trans-disciplinary study of Chinese history can look like, Coming to Terms With the Nation is also a darn good story and a fascinating read. Give the interview a listen to learn more about the importance of language and linguists in shaping modern notions of ethnicity, the history of the 56-minzu model in China, and the idea behind Tom’s ideal bookstore.
Southern Medicine for Southern People: Vietnamese Medicine in the Making (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012) gives me hope for the future of edited volumes. Not only is it a fascinating and coherent treatment of the history and practice of Vietnamese medicine, but it’s also a wonderfully interdisciplinary collection of approaches that incorporates work by social scientists, humanists, and medical practitioners. The essays collectively challenge some pervasive assumptions about “traditional” versus “scientific” modes of knowledge, inviting readers to rethink our assumptions about traditional medical practices in Vietnam while offering a set of wonderful case studies to think with. This collection is a must-read for anyone working on the humanistic or social studies of medicine, but it’s also full of wonderful insights and for readers broadly interested in science studies, Asian studies, and colonial studies. I spent a very energizing hour talking with Ayo Wahlberg, one of the volume co-editors. Our conversation ranged broadly from ethnographic practice in history and anthropology, to an inspiring journey across laboratory and countryside to find a local treatment for opium withdrawal, to the ways that “our medicine” took shape in the modern history of Vietnam.
“To think of Shanghai is to think of its nightlife: the two are synonymous.” From here, Andrew Field takes us on a dance across modern Chinese history, through its nightscapes and ballrooms, into the sprawls of its settlements and the pages of its pictorials. Based on a wide range of sources from architectural blueprints to oral interviews, Field’s book succeeds in both showing us new sides of characters we thought we knew, and in introducing a new cast of historical actors who helped shape the rise of urban modernity in Shanghai. Picking up Shanghai’s Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919-1954 (The Chinese University Press, 2010), readers join Field to listen to the jazz of expatriate Whitey Smith at the wedding of Chiang Kai-shek and Song Mei-ling, to learn dance hall etiquette along with “dance empresses” anointed in annual competitions, and to follow the gangsters, activists, politicians, and entrepreneurs through the Dancer’s Uprising of 1948 and beyond.
Tim Brook‘s The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties (Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 2010) rewards the reader on many levels. Though it provides an excellent introduction to Yuan and Ming history for both students and advanced scholars, it’s not merely a dry textbook: The Troubled Empire also succeeds in a provocative re-conceptualization of many central concepts in Chinese history. Beginning with soaring dragons and ending with rats on a bookshelf, Brook offers us what is simultaneously an ecological history of early modern China, a comparative account of the Yuan and Ming in global history, and an exemplary case study of transdisciplinary history at its most engaging. I learned a great deal reading it, and we had a great time talking about it.
Carol Benedict‘s Golden-Silk Smoke: A History of Tobacco in China, 1550-2010 (University of California Press, 2011) is many things at the same time; among other things, it’s both an exceptionally rich account of an object (or set of objects) that were crucial to the history of China in the world, and an engaging journey through the history of modern China on the leaves and flowers and stalks of a plant. Benedict’s book traces the narrative of tobacco in China from early modern encounters to the “cigarette century” of today. In addition to situating Chinese history within a larger global framework, it is also very sensitive to the multi-sited and trans-regional story of tobacco within China, showing change and continuity across the late imperial/modern divide. This is a work that is profoundly trans-disciplinary in scope, and as a result it rewards readers interested in any number of disciplines, including the histories of commodities, disease, China, modern literature, gender, global encounters, and trade.
First things first: this is an outstanding book. In the course of The Paper Road: Archive and Experience in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet (University of California Press, 2011), Erik Mueggler weaves together the stories of two botanists traveling through western China and Tibet in a lyrically-written story that treats the nature of writing, bodies, beauty, images, violence, and history in creating experiences of the earth. The characters are compelling, the story is important, and the work speaks to readers well beyond the field of East Asian Studies. Listen to Mueggler’s comments, and then read the book. You will learn much, as I certainly did.
Marta Hanson‘s book is a rich study of conceptions of space in medical thought and practice. Ranging from a deep history of the geographic imagination in China to an account of the SARS outbreak of the 21st century, Hanson’s book maps the transformations of medicine and healing in late imperial China that accompanied transforming geographies of empire. Speaking of Epidemics in Chinese Medicine: Disease and the Geographic Imagination in Late Imperial China (Routledge, 2011) is both the biography of a disease and a masterful tour through the history of medical practice and knowledge in later imperial China. Over the course of our discussion, we talked about the people and ideas that inspired Hanson’s work, the importance of “eureka moments,” and the SARS epidemic in Beijing. The author has generously shared a discount on her book for listeners of New Books in East Asian Studies. To order a copy of the book through the Routledge Press website at a 20% discount, visit http://www.routledge.com/9780415602532/ and enter discount code SECM11 at the checkout to claim your discount. Offer expires 28th February 2012.
We tend to take for granted that we have bodies, that these bodies are knowable and measurable, and that we understand how to relate our own bodies to those of the people around us. To put it more simply: if I were to ask you how tall you were, how much you weighed, or what year you were born, while you might balk at providing an honest answer you wouldn’t be flummoxed by the question. We are modern bodies, and as such we are walking, talking, identifiable, and countable collections of facts. Tong Lam’s A Passion for Facts: Social Surveys and the Construction of the Chinese Nation-State, 1900-1949 (University of California Press, 2011) explores the practices through which this became possible in the context of China during the first half of the twentieth century. Lam’s book looks closely at the construction of the Chinese nation-state through censuses, social surveys, and other social and political technologies. His sources range from census forms, to diaries, to fiction in a rich and focused work that will appeal to anyone interested in the ways that the concept of the modern nation is shaped by the histories of science, soulstealing, society, and sentiment. A Passion for Facts also poses a particular methodological challenge: what can it look like to trace the emergence of categories that change the way we understand the world?
Mark Rowe’s new book Bonds of the Dead: Temples, Burial, and the Transformation of Contemporary Japanese Buddhism (University of Chicago Press, 2011) is a fascinating study of the life of Buddhism in Japan by looking at the many facets of death in modern Japanese Buddhism. Rowe guides us from the early background of the temple-parishioner system in Tokugawa Japan to a modern context in which the emergence of new funerary forms has re-defined what post-mortem embodiment means, in terms of relationships, fear, materiality, and nature. In this exceptionally rich an sensitively wrought study, Rowe re-conceptualizes what it looks like to study Buddhism in modern Japan by weaving an account from texts, objects, voices, and personal experience. It is also a fascinating read, full of surprising stories and insights. We covered many topics in the course of our wide-ranging interview, including the changing conception of the “family” in Asian studies, what it’s like to be the head of parking at an eternal memorial grave, the physicality of death, and why choosing a head temple priest both is and is not like Donald Trump’s The Apprentice.
Simply put: you should read Andrew F. Jones’s new book, Developmental Fairytales: Evolutionary Thinking and Modern Chinese Culture (Harvard UP, 2011). It is both an immense pleasure to read, and a truly brilliant study of the ways that a discourse of development was taken up from evolutionary works of Lamarck, Darwin, Spencer, and Huxley and translated or vernacularized into narrative forms of modern Chinese literature. Jones guides us through magic shows, children’s primers, films about toys, science fiction, and many other sources for understanding the ways that development emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a mode of narrating history in China. In the course of our conversation, we ranged from x-ray technologies that could detect qi, to a natural history museum including peng birds, to a man who was, for me, easily The Most Awesome Historical Figure In Recent Memory. Here’s the “Modern Sketch“ visual archive at the MIT Visualizing Cultures website that Jones mentions in the interview.
Daqing Yang’s Technology of Empire: Telecommunications and Japanese Expansion in Asia, 1883-1945 (Harvard University Asia Center, 2011) is a gift to both historians of East Asia and scholars of science and technology studies (STS). Yang’s book dissects the body of the Japanese empire from 1853-1945 to reveal its pulsing “nerve system” in a network of communication technologies that extended well into Northeast and Southeast Asia. This extraordinarily rich and well-documented account moves from the first public demonstration of a working electric telegraph with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry, to the Japanese acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration. Along the way, Yang’s book offers wonderful glimpses of a range of sources that include the North China Telegraph & Telephone Co. company song, an adventure-action-romance film about telecommunications-enabled espionage, and experiments in early fax technology. We spoke for an hour (and could have spoken for many more) about this fascinating history of techno-imperialism.