In two recent books, Gregory Smits offers a history of earthquakes and seismology in Japan that creates a wonderful dialogue between history and the sciences. Seismic Japan: The Long History and Continuing Legacy of the Ansei Edo Earthquake (University of Hawai’i Press, 2013) is a deeply contextualized study of the 1855 Ansei Edo earthquake and its reverberations into the twenty-first century, arguing that the quake not only played an important role in shaping ideas about politics, religion, geography, and the sciences in Japan, but also generated new ways of thinking about human agency and earthquakes that continue to be influential today. When the Earth Roars: Lessons from the History of Earthquakes in Japan (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) is a synthetic account of earthquakes along the Sanriku coast of Japan from early modernity to now, offering a deep contextualization of the 3/11 disaster and some important lessons for how we might cope with the possibilities of further seismic activity (in Japan and beyond) in the future. Both books build on Smits’ expertise in the documents of Japanese history to inform and create a history of science that speaks beautifully to contemporary issues of profound global importance. Enjoy!
Tine Gammeltoft’s new book explores the process of reproductive decision making in contemporary Hanoi. Haunting Images: A Cultural Account of Selective Reproduction in Vietnam (University of California Press, 2014) develops an anthropology of belonging, paying special attention to the ways that women and their communities understand and make decisions based on ultrasound imaging technologies. In the course of making life-and-death decisions, the subjects of Gammeltoft’s book confronted ethically demanding circumstances through which they forged moral selves. Inspired by the work of Emmanuel Levinas, Haunting Images considers their reproductive choices as acts of collective belonging, producing the subjectivities of both mother and fetus. The book considers these choices in light of the extended repercussions of Agent Orange in Vietnam, the local specificity of biopower, national concepts of “population quality,” and the precarity of individual attachments to social collectives. The second half of the book follows the experiences of women who were informed via 3D ultrasound scans that the children they expected would be anomalous, tracing their choices, questions, contexts, and encounters with childhood disability. It is a powerful and deeply affecting study
Known primarily as a travel writer thanks to the frequent assignment of her Diary in high school history and literature classes, Nun Abutsu was a thirteenth-century poet, scholar, and teacher, and also a prolific writer. Christina Laffin’s new book explores Abutsu’s life and written works, taking readers in turn through her letters, memoirs, poems, prayers, and travel diary, among others. Each chapter of Rewriting Medieval Japanese Women: Politics, Personality, and Literary Production in the Life of Nun Abutsu (University of Hawai’i Press, 2013) looks at one of Abutsu’s literary products and considers how and why the document was produced and what it can tell us about the literary environment for thirteenth century Japanese women. Rewriting Medieval Japanese Women is careful to read these sources not as transparent guides to fact, but instead as narrative forms that were shaped by conventions of their respective genres. From the diary Fitful Slumbers to the poetry manual The Evening Crane and beyond, Laffin also pays special attention to Abutsu’s scholarly interpretations of The Tale of Genji. Laffin’s book is a fascinating and carefully-wrought story, and in re-situating Abutsu’s work within Japanese literary studies it also opens a space for renewed attention to medieval women’s writing more broadly conceived.
Craig Clunas’s new book explores the significance of members of the imperial clan, or “kings” in Ming China. A king was established in a “state” (guo), and mapping the Ming in terms of guo’s is a way of mapping Ming space in units that had centers, but not boundaries. (In having many guo’s, the Ming thus had many centers.) A wonderfully and productively revisionist account of Ming history and its artifacts, Screen of Kings: Royal Art and Power in Ming China (University of Hawaii Press and Reaktion Books, 2013) explores this poly-centric kingly landscape as evidenced by documentary and archaeological traces of material production, while paying special attention to the history of practices that did not leave abundant traces. In doing so, Clunas shifts our attention in several ways. In addition to reorienting our focus to kingly figures in the Ming (an often-overlooked but deeply significant historical group), Screen of Kings also moves us away from the oft-trod historiographical territory of the Jiangnan region and toward regions that boasted a significant kingly presence but don’t usually earn a significant place in our histories of Ming China. The kingly cityscapes in Clunas’s beautifully-written book are full of buildings, gardens, tombs, calligraphic texts, paintings, jewelry, poems, bronzes, and musical instruments. The book situates these objects in an innovative way, emphasizing the importance of Ming kingly courts as sites of cultural innovation, production, and reproduction, and of kings as producers, collectors, and patrons of the arts. This is a must-read for anyone interested in Ming history, the history of the arts in China, histories of locality, or the history of relationships between art and power more broadly conceived. It is also an absolute pleasure to read.
Wensheng Wang’s new book takes us into a key turning point in the history of the Qing empire, the Qianlong-Jiaqing reign periods. In White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates: Crisis and Reform in the Qing Empire (Harvard University Press, 2014), Wang re-evaluates how we understand this crucial period in light of the eruption of major social and political crises and the consequences of imperial response to those crises for Qing and world history. The book opens on New Year’s Day in 1796, with the ceremony by which the Qianlong Emperor abdicated the Qing throne and his successor, the Jiaqing Emperor, took over. Days into the Jiaqing reign, the new emperor had to contend not only with the White Lotus rebellion, but also with a series of large, well-organized and well-connected pirate fleets attacking the southeast coast of China. While previous scholars have treated these two crises as a collective watershed marking the beginning of the end of Qing rule, White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates instead argues that these crises actually improved the Qing by instigating a major reorganization of the state and better preparing the dynasty for later challenges. Along the way, Wang reframes conventional understandings of both the Qianlong and Jiaqing reign periods, introduces some major historiographical concepts that might be used to understand the roles of crises and “sustainable political development” more broadly, and brings a wonderfully trans-disciplinary social sciences toolkit to bear on the study of Qing politics. This ambitious work stands to make a significant contribution not only to the historiographies of China and the Qing, but to how we understand and analyze political history more generally.
Jay Carter’s new book follows the life of one man as a way of opening a window into the lived history of twentieth-century China. Heart of Buddha, Heart of China: The Life of Tanxu, a Twentieth-Century Monk (Oxford University Press, 2011; paperback edition 2014) is less a traditional biography than a life of an emergent modern nation as told through the experiences of a single individual whose relationships embodied the history of that nation in flesh, bones, and blood. Born in 1875 as Wang Shouchun, the man who would become Tanxu worked various jobs as laborer, minor government official, fortune-teller, and pharmacist before finding his calling, leaving his family, and setting off on a journey to become a Buddhist monk. His travels spanned the physical and spiritual worlds – one of his earliest voyages took him beyond death to the underworld and back. After leaving home, Wang experienced treaty-ports in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War, the Boxer uprising, and Russo-Japanese tension over Manchuria. His life unfolded in a series of Chinese cities that were administered by foreigners, and the transformative power of Sino-foreign relations in this period becomes a recurring trope throughout his story. Ranging north and south, he eventually studied to become a Buddhist monk and, as Tanxu, helped to found temples across China. Carter’s own travels took him from the Bronx (to meet with a Dharma heir disciple of the monk) through more than a dozen Chinese cities, taking Tanxu’s own memoir and itinerary as guidebook and route-map. The resulting book is a beautifully written, historiographically self-reflexive, and humane account of the lived history of modern China.
Stephen R. Platt’s new book is a beautifully written and intricately textured account of the bloodiest civil war of all time. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War (Vintage Books, 2012) is a deeply international history of the Taiping Civil War that situates the story of modern China within a broader, global history of civil war in the US and beyond. Platt refocuses our gaze on the crucial role of a cast of characters who shaped the war and its aftermath but are often overlooked in its histories. Rather than echoing previous accounts of the Taiping that focus on the visionary Hong Xiuquan, Platt thus highlights Hong’s lesser-known cousin, Taiping “Shield King” and keeper of pickles Hong Rengan; the long-haired and wily Frederick Townsend Ward with his tight-fitting black uniform and army of filibusters; and the reluctant and toothache-suffering general Zeng Guofan and his “Confucian scholar’s vision of an army.” (Though he appears only briefly, look out also for Queen Victoria’s unfortunately-named dog “Looty.”) Platt is equally at home when bringing readers into the theater of sieges and political treaties, and while developing very affecting and humane accounts of men and women in the midst of making very difficult decisions in exceptionally challenging circumstances. This award-winning book is well worth reading, both as a masterful history of modern China and a model of evocative and gripping historical writing. Enjoy!
[Cross-posted from New Books in Education] Robert A. Rhoads, Xiaoyang Wang, Xiaoguang Shi, Yongcai Chang are the authors of China’s Rising Research Universities: A New Era of Global Ambition (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). Dr. Rhoads is the Director, Globalization and Higher Education Research Center at UCLA. Dr. Wang is Director of the Higher Education Institute at Tsinghua University. Dr. Shi is Director of the Center for International Higher Education Research in the Graduate School of Education at Peking University. Dr. Chang is Professor of Comparative Education and Cultural Anthropology and Psychology in the School of Education at Minzu University.
In this book, the authors explore the Chinese universities system, keying on research institutions and professor experience in this rapidly changing higher education environment. While the book provides an overview and history of the entire Chinese higher education sector, the research focuses on four universities—Tsinghua University, Peking University, Renmin University, and Minzu University. Beginning in the late 90s, the Chinese government began a concerted effort to create “world-class” universities by pumping funding into a select group of universities, through Project 211 and Project 985. All of the listed institutions were included in the funding projects, which have led to wide reform and transformations. Extensive faculty interviews were conducted at the four universities, providing an insight into the change, pressures, and culture at each institution. Dr. Rhoads joins the podcast to talk about this collaborative project.
“[All] I want to eat is a rice ball.”
This was the last entry in the diary of a 52-year-old man who starved to death in an apartment he had occupied for 20 years. His is just one of many voices of the precarity of everyday life and death that populate Anne Allison’s new ethnography of pain, struggle, and hope in modern Japan. Precarious Japan (Duke University Press, 2013) considers the transformations of the relationship between work and life in Japan that followed its social and economic fall after the financial bubble burst in 1991. The structural unit of the family and the meaning and spaces of “home” were consequently reconfigured. In her study of the spaces and voices of the resulting “precarity” of contemporary Japan, Allison introduces us to a broad range of people working to help themselves and others cope with the consequences of these social transformations, from hikikomori (youths who withdraw into solitary existences), to men and women staving off loneliness in collective meeting spaces like the “Nippon Active Life Club, ” to performers and activists working to help the young and old avoid poverty and suicide. A palpable materiality of this socially precarious existence emerges from Allison’s chapters, the pages of which are sprinkled with mothers’ bones and robot hearts, liquid and chocolate. In a particularly arresting opening and closing, she shares her experience volunteering after the 3.11 tragedy, suggesting a new sense of hope and belonging that has blossomed in the mud of the disaster. It is an important, thoughtful, and moving ethnography that deserves the attention of a wide audience.
1949 was a crucial year for modern China, marking the beginning of Communist rule on the mainland and the retreat of the Nationalist government to Taiwan. While many scholars of Chinese literature have written 1949 as a radical break, Xiaojue Wang’s new book takes a different approach. Modernity with a Cold War Face: Reimagining the Nation in Chinese Literature across the 1949 Divide (Harvard University Asia Center, 2013) offers a new perspective on mid-twentieth century Chinese literature by situating it within the international context of the Cold War. After introducing the cultural and political policies of the 1940s and 1950s as espoused by Mao Zedong, Chiang Kaishek, and the New Confucianists, Wang guides readers through a series of chapters that each explore the work of an author who was busily imagining a modern nation while writing from mainland China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan. These case studies introduce a collection of fascinating writer-characters that include a historian who had a job writing labels for museum collections, a born-again revolutionary whose feminist writing had material consequences that followed her (and her corpse) after death, a translator of Rilke and Goethe, a compulsive re-writer who created a Nightmare in the Red Chamber, and many more. In the culmination of the study, Wang suggests a “de-Cold War criticism” as a way of thinking beyond the typical boundaries of literary history. Enjoy!
In Songs of Seoul: An Ethnography of Voice and Voicing in Christian South Korea (University of California Press, 2013), Nicholas Harkness explores the human voice as an instrument, and object, and an emblem in a rich ethnography of songak in Christian South Korea. In Songs of Seoul, the voice is deeply embodied. It is also shaped by an aesthetics of progress, as songak singers cultivate a “clean” voice that becomes an emblem for that progress in terms of Christian and national advancement. Part 1 of the book introduces readers to the vocal practices enacted by songak singers to cultivate clean voices, situating these practices in the histories and spaces from which they emerge and considering the relationship between singing and evangelism in modern Korea. Part 2 considers the voice as a nexus of social relations, considering how singers navigate between church and university, home and abroad, peers and superiors. It analyzes the (simultaneously public and intimate) ritual performances of songak singing, paying special attention to the role of singing in creating affective bonds among members of Christian Korean communities. Harkness’s book is an inspiring, thoughtful ethnography that contributes to a wide range of fields, and will be of special interest to anyone who enjoys reading about modern Korea, sound studies, music history, religion, and performance studies.