New Books in East Asian Studies
Summary: Discussions with Scholars of East Asia about their New Books
Since the “taiko boom” of the closing decades of the 20th century, taiko drumming has arguably become Japan’s most globally successful performance medium. Shawn Bender’s recent book takes us through the history and spaces of this art, from the stretching of animal skins to make its instruments through the seemingly incongruous sounds of taiko in The Scorpion King. Taiko Boom: Japanese Drumming in Place and Motion (University of California Press, 2012) is a wonderfully rich study that will satisfy readers completely unfamiliar with the medium, as well as taiko aficionados. Based on years of fieldwork with a number of groups and extended experience living and working with taiko performers, Bender’s work focuses on the ways that the history and ethnography of taiko can help us understand how living and performing in modern global societies transforms our experience of the local, and how the performance of locality is embodied in the muscles and bones of human flesh. In the course of our conversation we spoke of many aspects of the work and of taiko, including the marathon-running drummers of Kodo, Pierre Cardin’s taste for loincloths, and interesting recent attempts to standardize taiko drumming through printed textbooks. Enjoy!
What is the relationship between language and the emotions? Where ought we look for evidence of emotion in historical and literary texts? Is it possible to talk about the emotional states of entire cultures or groups of peoples, and if so, how should that level be reconciled with that of the emotional experience of the individual? Are there categories of emotions that are shared across cultures? Embracing a multidisciplinary approach to these questions and others, Concepts and Categories of Emotion in East Asia (Carocci editore, 2012) collects essays that range over time and space, each investigating some aspect of the discourse and experience of emotion in East Asian history. When taken together, the contributions explore several major thematics in the history of emotion. Some investigate the ways that collective emotions are expressed in documents, or the ways that a document’s genre might shape the way emotions are expressed by it. Some look at the ways that sources can manipulate a reader’s emotions. Some propose or work within a schema for classifying and organizing the language of emotions across a wide range of materials within a particular cultural context. In our conversation about the volume and the major issues it raises and engages with, editor Giusi Tamburello spoke about the genesis of the project and of her own contributions to and interests in it. I very much enjoyed talking with her, and I hope you enjoy the interview!
Using the example of pingtan storytelling to reexamine the history of cultural reform in the People’s Republic of China, Qiliang He’s new book integrates political history and performance studies to challenge some widely-held assumptions about the history of the arts in modern China. In Gilded Voices: Economics, Politics, and Storytelling in the Yangzi Delta since 1949 (Brill, 2012). He asks us to reexamine our assumptions about the extent to which the CCP succeeded in making cultural products into tools of propaganda under Mao’s rule. Ultimately, the book argues, the role of the state has been overemphasized, while that of the market has been largely overlooked in the scholarship on cultural reform before the Cultural Revolution. Incorporating rarely-seen archival materials with a series of interviews with storytellers, Communist cadres, and pingtan writers and their fans, Gilded Voices introduces an art form that became an important instrument of political activism and propagandizing, and traces the transformations of the genre into new physical spaces, markets, and visual and aural media. The book offers a fascinating case study that informs broader histories of censorship and theater, and explores the important ways that economic concerns helped shape cultural reform and political activism in China in since 1949.
With prose that is as elegant as the argument is clear, Amy Stanley’s new book tells a social, cultural, and economic history of Tokugawa Japan through the prism of prostitution. Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan (University of California Press, 2012 ) undermines our assumptions about seemingly basic categories like marriage, freedom, and sex. It also maps the ways that the spaces of prostitution in early modern Japan transformed together with the rise of a market economy, leading us from major cities like Edo and Nagasaki, through mining towns and ports, to pilgrim sites in the Inland Sea. While the increasing commercialization of the Tokugawa economy was liberating for some, creating new opportunities for travel and leisure, Stanley shows that this new “freedom” was actually oppressive for many women. Initially understood as filial daughters embedded in families and communities that they worked to support, by the 19th century women who worked in the sex trade were increasingly seen as autonomous economic actors. As their bodies became commodities, prostitutes became symbols of the destructive influences of urban culture in the villages to which they increasingly came to work. Stanley’s book introduces these women and their world in a book that is rich with case studies that bring us into the lives of individual prostitutes, their families and employers, and the fascinating documents that allow us a glimpse into their stories.
Extraterritoriality was not grafted whole onto East Asian societies: it developed over time and in a relationship with local precedents, institutions, and understandings of power. Grounds of Judgment: Extraterritoriality and Imperial Power in Nineteenth-Century China and Japan (Oxford University Press, 2012) uses a trans-regional and transnational focus to explore the history of extraterritoriality and the treaty port system in nineteenth century societies. Eschewing the kinds of teleological narratives that privilege current nation states, Pär Cassel locates late Qing, Tokugawa, and Meiji debates in a deep history of legal pluralism, notions of “foreign” identity, and inter-ethnic relations. Cassel uses an impressive range of press accounts, legal texts, and other sources to unfold the ways that the very different trajectories of extraterritoriality in China and Japan had very different consequences for the two countries. Cassel’s book ranges across some fascinating case studies from the histories of opium, counterfeiting, and the police. In addition to being required reading for anyone working in the history of modern China or Japan, Grounds of Judgment is also of special note to readers interested in the ways that language, dialect, and translation have shaped modern history, legal reform, and international relations. Enjoy!
Alan Christy We don’t often make the chance to properly acknowledge the importance of translation to the understanding of history, let alone to talk about it at any length. Alan Christy has done a wonderful service in his careful, elegant, and accessible translation of Amino Yoshihiko’s Rethinking Japanese History (Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2012). Originally a two-volume Japanese text published in the mid-1990s, Amino’s work is a clearly written account of major themes in Japanese historiography. It is full of the evidence of his self-reflexivity as a scholar who was perpetually learning and transforming his own understanding of history, and simultaneously eager to share that knowledge to help others forge their own paths through the history of Japan and beyond. The chapters range across many topics – pirates and bandits, maritime history, the nature of writing, the assumptions of “agrarian fundamentalism,” pollution, women in history – all the while keeping a thematic cohesion around key points that were central to Amino’s work as a historian. In our conversation, Christy and I spoke about many of these key themes, as well as the practice of translating Amino’s work and the importance of a historiographical mode that is in conversation with ethnographic practice. It is a fascinating work that deserves wide recognition, and it was a great pleasure to talk with Christy about it. Enjoy!
Miryam Sas’ Experimental Arts in Postwar Japan: Moments of Encounter, Engagement, and Imagined Return (Harvard University Asia Center, 2011) is an exceptionally rich study that has a great deal to offer scholars across the humanities. The book looks at the experimental arts in postwar Japan in a study that ranges across works of experimental theater, film, video, dance, photography, poetry, essay, and other forms of text. Much of the study focuses on close readings of the work of artists who were experimenting with different modes of performance, and different ways of relating language, image, materiality, and time, to explore the possibilities of encounter from many different frames. Scholars of embodiment will find much of interest here, as will readers interested in the histories of intimacy, of collectivity, and of materiality. There are also some fascinating characters along the way, including experimental theater troupes that set fire to cars and gave audience members drugs during performances, and characters that experimented with a “self-spanking machine.” The artists in Sas’ book consider the relationship between performance texts and mapping, experiment with darkness and blindness to challenge the notion of a performance as a fully perceptible experience, and use collective activity as a space to explore relationships, and to challenge assumptions about truth and power. In the course of these fascinating accounts and close readings, Sas introduces us to ways of thinking about crimes as “contagious,” and invites us to consider notions of the “Japanese body,” “Japan,” the “Orient,” and even “home” as counterfeit coins. It is an immensely stimulating study and will leave you with much to think about.
If New Books in East Asian Studies were an All-Powerful Force of Good In The Universe and if one of the perks that came along with being an All-Powerful Force of Good In The Universe were to ensure that certain books got major awards, then we would exercise that perk in the case of Ken Brashier’s Ancestral Memory in Early China (Harvard University Asia Center, 2011). Brashier’s book is a meticulously-researched, clearly organized, and compelling account of the ancestral cult of early China. Brashier focuses his arguments on the “cognitive aspects” of the cult, and in this respect the book offers a way to think about metaphor, remembrance, and forgetting in time that potentially extends well beyond the context of early China. After an introduction that lays out the arguments of the book and introduces the structural metaphors of lineage, tree, and watershed that will recur throughout the study, Part I introduces the basic ritual prescriptions of ancestral remembrance through the lens of performance theory. From prescriptions, the book then proceeds to descriptions of actual practice in Part II, focusing on case studies of exemplary moments in the practice and adaptation of ritual throughout early China. Part III then shifts from the sacrificers to the ancestral spirits themselves, proposing a spectrum with which to think about the range of ideas about the agency of ancestral spirits and the degree to which their existence was dependent on the memory of the living. The final two Parts of the book return to the themes of performative thinking and tie the entire book together in a study of the symbolic language and practice of ancestral memory in ancient China in terms of ritual and altar, time and space. It is an astoundingly powerful and erudite study that also makes for an enjoyable reading experience. I ad a wonderful and inspiring time talking with Ken Brashier about this book and his future projects. Enjoy!
Roel Sterckx’s book Food, Sacrifice, and Sagehood in Early China (Cambridge University Press, 2011) had me at drunken séances. (Drunken séances! Do you really need another excuse to read it?) It is a compelling and engaging read, and a wonderful resource for anyone interested in early China, the history of food, ritual studies, or the history of sensation. Sterckx’s work explores the culture, philosophies, and practices of sacrificial religion in early China, focusing on the ways that food and consumption at the dinner table and ritual altar helped shape ways of thinking about human sagehood and the relationships between the human and spirit worlds. The book ranges from the practices and language of cooking to the spiritual sensorium, from sacrificial procedure as a search and a multimedia event to the portrayal of Confucius in early texts about dining and sacrifice, from lively butchers to bland stews. In a particularly fascinating chapter on the economy of religious sacrifice, Sterckx considers how the demands of the spirit economy may have undermined that of humans in early China. Also, there are drunken séances. *Listeners will notice that the connection was a bit spotty at the very end of the interview. Stick with it! It’s worth it.
Roger Hart’s The Chinese Roots of Linear Algebra (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011) is the first book-length study of linear algebra in imperial China, and is based on an astounding combination of erudition and expertise in both Chinese history and the practice and history of linear algebra. Alternating among an interdisciplinary array of materials and ideas that range from the Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Arts to modern matrix theory, Hart argues for the importance of visualization to the solution of linear algebra problems in China in the years before Leibniz. In the course of a detailed and exhaustive account of fangcheng practice, Hart explores issues of primary importance to the history of science broadly writ, including the relationship and distinction between popular and elite knowledge, the challenges of inferring and extracting historical practices from the textual record, and the challenges of translating scientific terminology across the languages and cultures of the past and present. Hart’s book is a unique and standout contribution to the history of science in what have been called “non-Western” cultures, and our conversation touched on both the specifics of his study and the broader historiographical issues that his work speaks to. Enjoy!
Using materials that range from poetry and fiction to historiography and film, China and Orientalism: Western Knowledge Production and the P.R.C. (Routledge, 2011) proposes a sharp critique of the way that China’s history from 1949-1979 has been understood and written in a wide variety of texts. Daniel Vukovich argues that there is a new, Sinological form of orientalism that characterizes the China field, characterized by a shift in orientalist logic from a discourse of difference to a cultural logic of sameness that describes China as being in the process of becoming-the-same as the USA and the West. It is a bold and ambitious book that takes on scholarly and popular writings on many key themes in modern Chinese historiography, from the Tiananmen protests to the Cultural Revolution, from the dominance of numeracy in the historiography of Great Leap Forward to the dominance of crowds and mass-belonging in fictional representations of Mao, from the pedagogy of Chinese-language film studies to the scholarly appreciation (or lack thereof) of the dimensions of Maoist discourse. It is a pointed and spirited book that incorporates a remarkably transdisciplinary range of approaches and texts. Enjoy!
What do walking backward, water calligraphy, and belting out popular songs in public have in common? All of them can be conceived as techniques for cultivating life, or yangsheng, and they are all featured in Judith Farquhar and Qicheng Zhang’s wonderful new book. Ten Thousand Things: Nurturing Life in Contemporary Beijing (Zone Books, 2012) explores life as a process through an ethnographic and philosophical study of everyday life activism in contemporary Beijing. It is a remarkably wide-ranging book in its conception and methodologies, exploring forms of modern self-help (or self-health) via discussions that range from the changing nature of long underwear to the meaning of life, from popular health literature to the films of Ning Ying, from urban politics leading up to the 2008 Olympics to the circulation of common sense. Farquhar and Zhang bring the reader along for morning and evening walks through the public spaces of West City District of Beijing, and into the private spaces of yangsheng practitioners in their homes, inviting us to listen in on a dinner conversation that concludes the study. It is a marvelous, creative, and inspiring book that manages to balance careful analysis of philosophical texts with humor and liveliness.
What did money mean to the people of medieval Japan? In Coins, Trade, and the State: Economic Growth in Early Medieval Japan (Harvard University Asia Center, 2011), Ethan Segal takes readers through a fascinating exploration of the politics, society, and culture of pre-1600 Japan. One of the wonderful things about this book is the extent to which Ethan Segal very carefully contextualizes early medieval Japan within a broader global history, situating this economic history in a network of relations with the Mongols and China. East Asianists, take note: Segal’s work is of great interest to those working beyond the field of economic history, and speaks to the history of foreign policy and relations, ideas of virtue, and social history as well. Written in a very fluid and accessible style, Coins, Trade, and the State is an excellent read for anyone interested in cultures of exchange and their histories.
Merry (Corky) White’s new book Coffee Life in Japan (University of California Press, 2012) opens with a memory of stripping naked and being painted blue in an underground coffeehouse, and closes with a guide to some of the author’s favorite cafes in Japan. This framing alone is worth the price of admission. In addition to being an extraordinarily spirited, witty, and enjoyable book, however, Coffee Life in Japan is also a thoughtfully argued and exhaustively researched account of the history and ethnography of coffee and cafes in modern Japan. This wide-ranging and trans-disciplinary work explores the spaces of the modern café, be they social, solitary, or occasionally silent and sprinkled with stuffed animals. White introduces readers to chaptersful of fascinating characters, including passionate coffee experts who train like dancers to learn to create the perfect cup. This is a surprising book, a pleasure to read, and a treasure for anyone interested in the history of drink, of global commodities, and of Japan.
Patricia Maclachlan’s recent book The People’s Post Office: The History and Politics of the Japanese Postal System, 1871-2010 (Harvard University Asia Center, 2011) is a fascinating political and institutional history of the postal system in modern Japan. Over the course of a story that takes us through the development of road and rail and into elections and workers’ unions, Maclachlan introduces us to an institution responsible for far more than simply delivering the mail, incorporating health consultation, filling prescriptions, helping the elderly and infirm deposit money into accounts, and providing life insurance at various points in its history. We follow postal workers through the ups and downs of their careers, through earthquakes and elections, watching as they develop a powerful influence in Japanese policymaking and navigate the crossroads of tradition and modernity. Many readers (myself included) will be surprised to find that the postal system in Japan has deep political roots, let alone a history that has been so central to helping shape the electoral system of modern Japan. The People’s Post Office will enrich the way its readers understand the politics of Japan of today, and it was a pleasure to talk with Patti about it. Enjoy!