Patricia Ebrey’s beautifully written and exhaustively researched new book introduces readers to an emperor of China as artist, collector, father, ruler, scholar, patron, and human being. Emperor Huizong (Harvard University Press, 2014) explores the person and the reign of the eighth emperor of the Song Dynasty, who ascended the Song throne in 1100 (at age 17) and ruled almost 26 years until 1125. Huizong is perhaps best known as a ruler who was so caught up in a sensual life (painting, calligraphy, Daoism, etc.) that he failed to properly govern and left the dynastic door open to invading Jurchen forces. Ebrey offers us a much more complex and even-handed account of this fascinating figure and his world, following the life and rule of Huizong in intricate detail to try to understand the circumstances that ultimately led this man to pretend to have a stroke so that his son could ascend the throne and try to succeed where the father had failed to avert a Jin takeover. (Both were unsuccessful, and as Jurchen forces sacked Kaifeng the remnants of the Song fled southward while Huizong and his son were taken into captivity.) We learn not only about Huizong’s childhood and family life, but also about his negotiation of reforms (political and musical) at court, his faith in and relationship to Daoism, and his practice and patronage of the arts of medicine, architecture, painting, and calligraphy. Ebrey brings a masterful reading of a diverse archive of sources to bear on creating this imperial portrait, which is both an incredible feat of careful scholarship and an absolute pleasure to read.
In The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema (Duke UP, 2013), Daisuke Miyao explores a history of light and its absence in Japanese cinema. A commentary on the history of modernity, the book considers how an aesthetics of shadow emerged from a Japanese modern that was fundamentally transnational. A fascinating history of film, the book guides readers through the emergence and transformations of new dramatic genres and new ways of being a movie star in modern Japan. A corrective to the tendency to valorize directors in cinematic histories, the book gives voice to the cinematographers and other craftsmen of light and shadow who shaped the cinema of Japan through the mid-twentieth century. It is a wonderful story of flashing swords, sensual glances, battling movie studios, and tensions between technologies and aesthetics of illumination that alternately concealed and revealed. The Aesthetics of Shadow also treats us to close readings of some wonderful Japanese films that were a revelation for this reader: have YouTube handy as Miyao introduces you to Crossways (Jujiro) and That Night’s Wife, guiding your eye to visual traces that reveal broader histories of blindness, surveillance, and the tactile. Enjoy!
Joshua A. Fogel’s new book is a carefully researched and wonderfully thoughtful exploration of the transformations of an artifact as read through the transformations in the way that artifact has been understood historically. Japanese Historiography and the Gold Seal of 57 C. E.: Relic, Text, Object, Fake (Brill, 2013) follows the biography of a gold seal that was purported to have been given by Emperor Guangwu, the founding ruler of the Later Han dynasty, to an emissary from what’s now Japan in the year 57 CE. If we believe in the veracity of its provenance (and not everyone does), this object is both the only seal of original Chinese provenance that’s been found in Japan, as well as the oldest extant material object (at least, the only one for which we have corroborating evidence) that passed from the mainland empire to what is now the Japanese archipelago. Fogel guides readers through more than two centuries of debate that have surrounded the seal in Japan, using the case of the seal to make a much larger point about historical epistemology. By following debates around this particular object, we come to understand the ways that the bases for scholarly debate and the nature of what constitutes believable evidence have changed (and continue to do so) over time. The book thus is a history of history, and a history of conceptions of evidence, as much as it is a history of the transformations of a seal from relic, to text, to object, and finally to (purported) forgery. Japanese Historiography and the Gold Seal of 57 C. E. is thus a fascinating work for anyone interested in the histories of material culture, international relations, epistemology, Japan, and history itself.
It’s always a joy when I have the opportunity to talk with the author of a book that is clearly a game-changer for its field. In The Bamboo Texts of Guodian: A Study & Complete Translation (Cornell University East Asia Series, 2012), Scott Cook has given us a work that will change the possibilities of researching, writing about, and teaching the history of early China and beyond. The book is a massive two-volume study, transcription, and translation of the bamboo texts recovered in 1993 from a tomb in the village of Guodian in Hubei Province. In an extensive introduction to the volumes and the project, Cook discusses the challenges and processes of sorting and arranging the texts, reading and interpreting the characters in Chu script, transcribing and interpreting the graphs, and translating the texts for Anglophone readers. The book considers some of the ways that the texts (individually and collectively) contribute to the history of Chinese philosophy in some exciting ways. It offers both a detailed transcription, translation, and introduction to each text complete with an extensive scholarly apparatus that situates the text in its intellectual and textual context, as well as a running translation of all of the Guodian texts (unencumbered by the extensive scholarly apparatus) for ease of use in an undergraduate classroom or for a casual reader. It’s an incredible accomplishment and a tremendously useful resource. Over the course of our conversation, we talked about the project as a whole, many of the individual texts, and the relationship between music (one of the themes emerging from some of the texts) and language. Enjoy!
So many history books take for granted that a story about the past needs to focus on change (gradual or dramatic, transformative or subtle) as its motivating narrative and argumentative core. In A Sense of Place: The Political Landscape in Late Medieval Japan (Harvard University Asia Center, 2013), David Spafford gives us a beautifully different kind of story. The five main chapters of the book each explore how provincial elites in the Kantō region of late medieval Japan considered and produced space, with each chapter focusing on a particular sphere – that of literature, law, patrimony, war, or governance – in which this occurred, and together weaving an account of richness and depth.
Focusing on the years between 1455-1525, Spafford argues that a kind of “persistent medieval” shaped the discussions, debates, and decisions made over space and spatiality by the people living in this context of widespread armed conflict. As memoir-keeping monks, itinerant poets, and members of politically important families concerned themselves and each other with the changing flows of local, familial, and institutional prestige, those concerns directly shaped (and were in turn shaped by) changing configurations of the landscape. From the grasses of Musashino to archaeological excavations of old military encampments, the spaces of A Sense of Place are wonderfully varied and Spafford’s account of them is careful to emphasize the productive tensions that helped sustain them. Together they offer an unparalleled view into the spatial lives of late medieval Kantō. Enjoy!
08 January 2014 – Here’s a brief addendum care of the author:
In the course of interview I referred to a number of literary scholars who have worked on poetry in late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Japan. Among them, I erroneously and regrettably named Professor Paul Carter. While Paul Carter is the author of a work cited in the same chapter, I meant to cite the authority on late medieval Japanese poetry, Professor Steven Carter. – David Spafford
Globalization is locally specific: global connectivity looks different from place to place. Given that, how are global connections made? And why do they happen so differently in different places? In Environmental Winds: Making the Global in Southwest China (University of California Press, 2013), Michael J. Hathaway explores these questions in a rich study of Yunnan’s engagement with environmentalism and the World Wildlife Fund. As celebrated in the book’s title, Hathaway introduces the notion of changing “environmental winds” as a tool for understanding the transformative power of social formations in Yunnan and beyond. The narrative emphasizes the agency of many different kinds of actors in the co-creation of environmentalism in Yunnan, from humans to elephants, and pays special attention to the importance of Chinese intellectuals and local Yunnan people in incorporating China into a global conservation circuit. The story ranges from the global 1960s, touching on China’s role in the anticolonial movement in Africa and feminist movement beyond, through the establishment of the first transnational conservation efforts in Yunnan in the 1980s, and into the shaping of global environmental efforts by an indigenous rights movement in the 1990s. It is a fascinating story that will be of interest to both Chinese and environmental studies. Enjoy!
By any measure, David Tod Roy’s translation The Plum in the Golden Vase or, Chin P’ing Mei, Vol. 1-5 (Princeton University Press, 1993-2013) is a landmark achievement for East Asian Studies, translation studies, and world literature. Comprising 100 chapters rendered across five volumes, including more than 800 named characters and supported by more than 4,000 endnotes, Roy’s work is a massive accomplishment of textual analysis, writing, research, and translation. Luckily for readers, it’s also a huge pleasure to read. If you, Gentle Reader, are anything like me, you will regularly pause in your poring over the pages of The Plum in the Golden Vase to admire the subtlety and deftness with which Roy has chosen render vernacular Chinese into corresponding English prose, whether one of the characters is claiming to be “a real dingdong dame” or another is being called a “ridiculous blatherskite.” (Blatherskite!) Yes, there is a great deal of explicit sexual description in the work, but it’s a treasure-house of so much more than that, including detailed descriptions of aspects of daily life in the late 16th century that cover everything from food preparation to medicinal recipes to funerary procedures. It was a deep honor, and a pleasure, to talk with David Roy about his masterwork. I hope you enjoy listening to him and reading his translation as much as I did.
Thinking about “Noise” in the history and practice of music means thinking in opposites. Noise is both a musical genre, and is not. It both produces a global circulation and emerges from it. It has depended on the live-ness of embodied performance while flourishing in the context of “dead” recordings. In Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation (Duke University Press, 2013), David Novak offers a wonderfully engaging and subtle narrative of noise, Japan, and their confluence. A series of chapters each bring the reader into a crucial scene of the production of “Japanoise,” from the No Fun Fest to the Nihilist Spasm Band, in each case using an exploration of the history and culture of noise to think carefully about conceptual tools that potentially extend well beyond the binding of the book, including the model of “circulation” as an explanatory frame, the importance of feedback, the spaces and experiences of listening and producing, and the intimacies of human and machine. It is a fascinating story and has changed the way I think about listening, making, and sound. Enjoy!
[Cross-posted from New Books in History] The story opens with a closing and closes with an opening. The closing is the sale of the map of Martin Waldseemüller, “America’s birth certificate,” for $10 million to the Library of Congress. The opening is the illumination of a grave as you, the reader, turn on a light to read the sunken stone. In the space between these two moments, each centered on a thing displayed (a map on a wall, a body under your feet), the story of a third object emerges from amid the threads of the people, languages, relationships, wars, and seas with which it has been entangled for more than 400 years.
Mr. Selden’s Map of China: Decoding the Secrets of a Vanished Cartographer (Bloomsbury, 2013) explores the secrets of a map in the Bodleian Library of Oxford University. In a beautifully written historical mystery, Timothy Brook follows the map from its arrival at the Library after the death of a late owner, a scholar who helped found the field of international law and found himself jailed by two kings along the way. Brook takes us backward through the historical currents that informed the visible features of this map, those features including a compass rose, a gourd with Coleridgian resonances, a network of sea routes, a pair of Gobi Desert butterflies, and much more. As it changes hands among a host of characters that include a business man trading in cloves and pornography from Japan to England, an unlikely teacher and student of the Chinese language, Samuel Purchas of Purchas his Pilgrimage, and a trouble-making layer, the map traces a global history of the seagoing world before it comes to rest on a wall next to the flayed tattooed skin of a Pacific Islander, and ultimately on two library tables before the gaze of a curious historian. It is a wonderful story and a fascinating mystery.
Before the twentieth century, opera was a kind of cultural glue: it was both a medium of mass-communication, and a powerful shaper and reflector of the popular imagination in the way TV and film are today. In Opera and the City: The Politics of Culture in Beijing 1770-1900 (Stanford University Press, 2012), Andrea S. Goldman explores the history, urban culture, and gender dynamics of opera in the Qing capital of Beijing (a locality with empire-wide influence) from about 1770 to 1900. Goldman’s book traces the ways that the state and different urban populations manipulated opera performances as a means to various ends, including pleasure, moral education, and political commentary. Along the way, Goldman offers sensitive close readings of some fascinating historical sources, including a form of hybridized connoisseurship-cum-city guidebooks (“flower registers,” or huapu) and playwrights’ desk copies of operas. In this extraordinarily rich and carefully-wrought story, we learn of the spaces and markets of operatic performance and the varied attempts (some successful, others not) at state regulation of late Qing opera. We learn of the intricate tracings of gender and class in the selective staging of scenes from literary operas on the commercial stage, as this selective performance could dramatically change the meanings that audiences gleaned form operatic performances. In this book full of brothers, adulterous women, boy actresses, and sugar daddies, Goldman has managed to make the social and cultural history of opera feel not just relevant, but deeply necessary for understanding the politics and society of the Qing. Enjoy!
In global narratives of modern legal history, Asia tends to fall short relative to Europe and the US. According to these narratives, while individuals in the West enjoyed political participation and protection, people in Japan did not, and this was due largely to the absence of a distinction between public & private law. In Public Law, Private Practice: Politics, Profit, and the Legal Profession in Nineteenth-Century Japan (Harvard University Asia Center, 2013), Darryl E. Flaherty upends this narrative in a fascinating story of nineteenth century legal culture in Edo Japan. Early nineteenth-century Edo society already had a vibrant legal culture of engaged private practitioners, and by the late century they had paved the way for a codification of public and private law, and a transformation in the social meaning of law in Japan. Flaherty guides readers through the spaces of private legal practice in pre-Meiji society, and the careers of individual legal advocates who practiced in the midst of a transforming legal landscape in the early Meiji period and worked to reconcile their notions of morality and law. The book traces the formation of a legal profession in the nineteenth century, the ways that associations of legal advocates paved the way for the first political parties, and the emergence of the first private universities and law schools in Japan. It is a carefully wrought story that informs both the history of Japan and the global history of law. Enjoy!
A new understanding of animals was central to how Japanese people redefined their place in the natural world in the nineteenth century. In The Nature of the Beasts: Empire and Exhibition at the Tokyo Imperial Zoo (University of California Press, 2013), Ian Jared Miller explores this transformation and its reverberations in a fascinating study of the emergence of an “ecological modernity” at the Ueno Zoo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Miller considers how imperialist expansion reshaped what the “natural world” was and how it was represented in the context of the zoo. He also looks carefully at the transformations of the zoological garden in wartime, when the core mission of the Ueno Zoo shifted from public education and imperial entertainment to mobilization for total war, including a “Great Zoo Massacre” in which the zoo’s most famous and valuable animals were systematically slaughtered in the summer of 1943. The zoo was reimagined in the postwar period, including the establishment of a new children’s zoo and a repopulation with gift animals from China, the US, and beyond.
In addition to its compelling arguments and affecting narratives of Japan’s modern animal ecologies in the context of empire and beyond, The Nature of the Beasts also offers a paper bestiary of dancing bears, Bactrian camels proudly displayed as war trophies, horses that served as “animal soldiers” in wartime, a chimpanzee named Suzie who met the emperor, pandas who functioned as “living stuffed animals” and biotechnologies, and two beloved elephants that were deliberately starved to death as part of a series of wartime animal sacrifices. It is a wonderful book and it was a pleasure to talk with Ian about it. Enjoy!
Two main questions frame Sienna R. Craig’s beautifully written and carefully argued new book about Tibetan medical practices and cultures: How is efficacy determined, and what is at stake in those determinations? Healing Elements: Efficacy and the Social Ecologies of Tibetan Medicine (University of California Press, 2012) guides readers through the ecologies of mind, body, and society within which Sowa Rigpa is practiced, understood, and transformed from rural Nepal to New York City. The first two chapters each chronicle a day spent in one of the main ethnographic sites featured in the book: a rural clinic and school in Mustang, Nepal; and a major medical institution in urban China. After this grounding in the wide varieties of experience that might collectively fall under the category of “Tibetan medicine,” the following chapters explore how associated people, objects, and practices engage with the opportunities and challenges posed by encounters in very different contexts. These contexts range from warehouses meant to prepare drugs for the global pharmaceutical market, to government-supported medical facilities in Nepal and China, to dissertation defenses, to private clinics in a variety of towns and cities, to fields in which medicinal drugs grow wild, to randomized clinical drug trials. It is a fascinating story, a moving and engaging narrative, and a pleasure to read.
We tend to understand the modernization of Japan as a story of its rise as a techno-superpower. In East Asia: Technology, Ideology, and Empire in Japan’s Wartime Era, 1931-1945 (Stanford University Press, 2013), Aaron Stephen Moore critiques this account in a study of the relationship between technology and power in the context of Japanese fascism and imperialism. Moore traces the emergence of a “technological imaginary” in wartime Japan, exploring how different groups (including intellectuals, technology bureaucrats, engineers, and state planners) invested the term “technology” with ideological meaning and power in the course of discussing and shaping national policy. Paying careful attention to the ways that technological and colonial development co-produced and challenged each other, Moore’s story respects the archives of both text and practice: the book deeply cuts into into the intellectual history of technology in the context of Japanese empire, while also following the activities, material difficulties, and large-scale products of many thousands of engineers as they traveled to Korea, Taiwan, Manchukuo, and China to build roads, canals, ports, dams, cities, irrigation, sewage and water works, and electrical and communications networks. It is a fascinating case study that informs a larger global historiography of the modern technosciences, while also using the social study of technology to extend the historiography of Japanese empire.