Miriam Kingsberg’s fascinating new book offers both a political and social history of modern Japan and a global history of narcotics in the modern world. Moral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History (University of California Press, 2013) locates the emergence of a series of three “moral crusades” against narcotics that each accompanied a perceived crisis in collective values and political legitimacy in nineteenth and twentieth century Japan.
In the first moral crisis after the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5, opium became a symbol of difference between Japan and an “Other” epitomized by Qing China, as Japan sought to “leave Asia” and “enter” the West. Here, Kingsberg traces a series of attempts to regulate drug use in Taiwan in the wake of Japan’s transformation into a formal empire. Between the end of WWI and Japan’s defeat in WWII, Japan saw its second moral crisis as it navigated the most protracted and intense moral crusade against narcotics in its history. The central chapters of Kingsberg’s book trace this second crisis, paying special attention to Japanese colonial rule in Korea and in the Kwantung Leased Territory (KLT) in southern Manchuria as Korea became the “global capital of morphine” and the KLT port handled “the second-highest volume of banned drugs in the world.” The third moral crisis brings us to the end of Moral Nation and the thick of the “hiropon age” of the 1950s, when methamphetamine production and usage skyrocketed in postwar Japan and the nation saw its first full-fledged domestic drug plight. Kingsberg locates a changing cast of “moral entrepreneurs” who motivated these three crises, shedding light on the formative roles of merchants and mass society in this chapter of global narcotic history. It is a wonderful, meticulously researched book that contributes significantly to the histories of Japan, of drugs, and of global politics. Enjoy!
Tobie Meyer-Fong’s beautifully written and masterfully argued new book explores the remains (in many senses and registers, both literal and figurative) of the Taiping civil war in nineteenth-century China. Often known as the “Taiping Rebellion” in English, the war is most often narrated as the story of a visionary (Hong Xiuchuan) or the movement he inspired. What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in Nineteenth-Century China (Stanford University Press, 2013) transforms how we understand a civil war that deeply marked the physical and textual landscapes of modern China. In a series of chapters that move us through the texts and bodies (living, dead, and commemorated) of the war, Meyer-Fong simultaneously introduces readers to a world of fascinating source materials into which these bodies are inscribed. Thus a moving and incisive narrative also becomes a historiographical lesson on the significance of bringing a subtle and nuanced reading of gazetteers, martyrologies, newspapers, diaries, and memoirs to bear on understanding the everyday experiences of life, death, and violence in modern China. It is a book not to be missed, and it will change the way we understand and teach this formative period of nineteenth-century history.
For Meyer-Fong’s recent article in Frontiers of History in China, see Tobie Meyer-Fong, “Urban Space and Civil War: Hefei, 1853-1854,” Frontiers of History in China 8.4 (2013): 469-492.
Andrea Bachner’s wonderfully interdisciplinary new book explores the many worlds and media through which the Chinese script has been imagined, represented, and transformed. Spanning literature, film, visual and performance art, design, and architecture, Beyond Sinology: Chinese Writing and the Scripts of Culture (Columbia University Press, 2014) uses the sinograph as a frame to look closely at the relationships between language, script, and media and their entanglements with cultural and national identity. In a structurally meticulous and brilliantly articulate guide through the corpographies, iconographies, sonographies, allographies, and technographies of her study, Bachner introduces fascinating cases that span Malaysian-Chinese literature, film, Danish architecture, Mexican fiction, “Martian Script,” and the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. This reader came away from Bachner’s book wonderfully inspired, thinking of writing in a completely new way and with a mental basket brimming with new things to read and watch. Enjoy!
In The Real Modern: Literary Modernism and the Crisis of Representation in Colonial Korea (Harvard University Asia Center, 2013), Christopher P. Hanscom explores literary modernism in the work of three writers who were central to literary production in 1930s Korea. After introducing a useful critique of the standard approach to literary history and realism therein, the book unfolds in three pairs of chapters that each introduce a major figure in the study and offer a close reading of their work as a way to open up a larger theme and aspect of the book’s argument. Hanscom thus expertly guides us through the literary criticism and fictional work of three members of a modernist collective known as the Group of Nine: Pak T’aewon, Kim Yujong, and Yi T’aejun. Each of them was struggling with a larger “crisis of representation” and taking a skeptical stance toward the capacity of language to correspond to the world beyond. In Pak’s work we were a concern with a colonial “double-bind;” in Kim’s work we see an ironic discourse and a critique of empiricism in science, love, and aesthetics; and in Yi’s work we see the emergence of a hybrid form of prose lyric that experiments with what it means to “write speech.” In conclusion, Hanscom uses the example of Korean modernism to open up the way we think of comparative literature and literary history more broadly. It is a fascinating study.
Benjamin A. Elman‘s new book explores the civil examination process and the history of state exam curricula in late imperial China. Civil Examinations and Meritocracy in Late Imperial China (Harvard UP, 2013) is organized into three major sections that collectively provide a careful, deeply researched, and elegantly written account of the Ming and Qing exam systems. Part I looks at the construction of “Way Learning” from its Southern Song institutionalization as a form of mainstream classicism through its emergence as political orthodoxy during the early Ming. Part II considers the consequences (both positive and unintended) after 1450 of an empire full of well-trained civil exam failures, and Part III traces the many ways that the civil exams were transformed in response to changing times. There are gripping stories along the way, from a history of early Ming exam curricula that’s traced in blood, to the examination dreams of a rising cult figure who would launch the Taiping Rebellion. Though set in late imperial China, Elman’s narrative also has wide-ranging implications for thinking about education and examinations today.
In contemporary China, the game of Weiqi (also known as Go) represents many things at the same time: the military power of the general, the intellect and control of the Confucian gentleman, the rationality of the modern scientist. In Go Nation: Chinese Masculinities and the Game of Weiqi in China (University of California, 2013), Marc L. Moskowitz considers these aspects of Weiqi, treating the game as a lens through which to observe what it means to be a child, a university student, or a senior citizen in contemporary China, and how different modes of masculinity are constructed within those spheres. Moskowitz’s fascinating study is based on extended ethnographic research in Beijing that included studying Weiqi with children in series of school programs, playing in parks with retired construction workers, and playing alongside intensely committed university students in the Peking University Weiqi Club. Rendered in wonderfully clear and accessible prose, the account focuses on the masculinities emerging within those groups but pays ample attention to women Weiqi players at all levels who also work within these social structures. Go Nation pays close attention to aspects of Weiqi culture that reflect broader nationalistic, ethical, historical, and social discourses within contemporary China, and it is both a pleasurable and enlightening read.
You can find out more about Moskowitz’s film Weiqi Wonders here.
Emma Teng’s new book explores the discourses about Eurasian identity, and the lived experiences of Eurasian people, in China, Hong Kong, and the US between the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 and the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943. Eurasian: Mixed Identities in the United States, China, and Hong Kong, 1842-1943 (University of California Press, 2013) situates this history within a broader frame of competing scientific, cultural, and political notions of racial hybridity as a detrimental or positive force, as a transformative power leading to racial degeneration or eugenic improvement. Placing special emphasis on the importance of self-narratives of some of the main figures of Teng’s account, Eurasian is built around the stories of families who lived through and contributed to early debates over Chinese-Western intermarriage in the US and China, tracing the histories of many of these families through the experiences of their children and the transformations they help shape, and understanding these stories alongside larger social and political discourses of Eurasian identity. It is a fascinating, sensitively wrought, and carefully argued book that both engages and shifts debates in the many fields that intersect in this modern history of Eurasian identity and its many voices, and offers a polyvocal accounting of the many ways that Eurasian identity was claimed by individuals and communities from British Columbia to Hong Kong.
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!