Half-formed thoughts

Manuscripts don’t burn

Last week, I was the final speaker in our department’s grad student association speaker series (which also marked the last day of classes for AY 2015-2016, hooray!), called “Rough Cut” – designed to expose current grad students to research-in-progress. I had signed up much earlier in the semester, and as the date drew closer, I wondered: did the grad students really want to hear about my interventions into PRC history and the cultural history of 20th c. China? Sure, listening to how fully (or semi-fully) fledged scholars are working through projects-in-process is useful – but most of me was saying ‘This has very little overlap with what most of our grad students do, and they will listen politely and ultimately leave not having learned a whole hell of a lot of useful stuff.’ They’re a very nice bunch, but subjecting people I like to 20 or 30 minutes of talk on something they have little background in seemed … selfish, to say the least. So I decided to do something a little different – instead of talking through the intricacies of my research in process, I’d walk them through how I got from a 2nd year research paper, to a dissertation, to a manuscript in progress. At the very least, I might be able to drop a few pieces of advice that might prove useful – even to people doing work that’s radically different than mine, in area and in emphasis. It was quite possibly just as useless as talking about my research, and only my research; but the intent was, at the very least, to be a bit broader and more useful.

It went OK. Luckily, I was the only speaker on the agenda, because I blathered on for 40 minutes (the ‘ideal’ time was 15 or 20 – I’m usually much better at reining myself in, although I did know I’d be the only speaker). While chewing my nails and worrying at a colleague afterwards, she said: ‘You managed to sum up your entire grad career in 40 minutes, which is pretty good!’ I did gallop through quite a lot, both in terms of explaining my own research and (the more important bit) talking about process and what I wish I’d known when I started writing a dissertation.

Preparing the talk provided a nice bit of reflection and perspective, which I badly needed at the end of a semester (academic year, at that) that left me feeling pretty demoralized and defeated. I’ve been in pretty bad headspace since last fall & have been making concerted efforts to get myself out (not the easiest thing, but I’m glad some healthy habits are starting to stick!), and it’s easy to get trapped in those negative feelings. So throwing together a PowerPoint on my grad school career helped refocus me on my mss (and this is the ‘Summer of the Book,’ since the mss needs to be done & ready to go out by August), and think about all the good stuff I’ve done since I got to grad school in 2007.

In any case, amongst all the other stuff I talked about – the need to be strategic, the need to think about how you’ll sell your project to scholars in a variety of fields, the necessity of getting critical (and sometimes painful) feedback – I talked about having talismans for your work. Things you can brush up against while in the thick of things, that have meaning for you, but not necessarily for the work as a whole. This may not be a necessity for many people, but it’s necessary for me. My talismans, as I explained to the seminar room, are literary: I showed them the epigraphs from my dissertation, which include a line about archives from a not-terribly-distinguished book on the murder of the Russian imperial family in 1918, a line from the terribly distinguished Lantingjixu by Wang Xizhi, and a good clip of T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” from Four Quartets (I’ve written a bit about the latter – well, hell, the other two, as well – at various points in this blog). I don’t think talismans need to be literary, but mine are – they help me recenter myself when I’m lost in the chaos of research, writing, and editing.

poster.behemoth.art_.zoom_I ended the whole presentation with another, newer talisman – one of the most famous quotes from Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, “Manuscripts don’t burn.” At the end of my first year at MSU, a colleague recommended the novel to me – I’d never read it, and in truth, have shied away from fiction for years (that goes for films, too). Documentaries, non-fiction, non-Chinese-history-monographs and the like, fine – I have consumed a lot of those since I started grad school, but my affection for fiction had really waned. The Master and Margarita was one of the first novels I’d read in years, and I loved it. Part of it was the description of life in the Soviet socialist literary system: the first few chapters were so on point! I recognized all of it. I remember sending an email at 3 AM – having been up a good chunk of the evening and wee hours reading – to the colleague who had recommended it, saying how fabulous it was. The rest of the novel was just magical, and absurd, and utterly wonderful. I recently passed it off to a friend who just finished her dissertation a few weeks ago – she said she was overwhelmed with choices of novels to read now that she had time, and so I handed over my copy of Bulgakov’s masterpiece.

In any case, since “Manuscripts don’t burn” is such a famous line, it feels trite to pick it as a talisman, and yet – it’s oh-so-appropriate. I use it to remind myself that as much as I love my wonderful intellectuals, they wrote and said and did things that (whether I agree with it or not) ran afoul of powerful elements of the CCP. Those “manuscripts” don’t burn. I owe it to them to tell their stories, warts and all; you can’t expunge the flip side of the ‘brave intellectuals standing up in the face of Mao’s vision run amok,’ which is, ‘Oh my god, what were they thinking, criticizing the ’emperor.” Often when I’m writing through the 1960s, I find myself cringing as one does when watching a horror film: ‘Oh no, don’t do that, don’t say that, oh god.’ Obviously I come down on one side of that particular history, but their story is more compelling by the fact that they must have known what they were saying and doing. To render Meng Chao’s ultimate fate evidence of nothing more than the capriciousness of Mao et al. is ultimately, I think, a disservice to someone who wrote and published (in multiple versions!) lines like:

My worry is for the bitterness of refugees of disasters,
My worry is for the resentment of those forced to wander.
The lakeside scene glitters,
But the howling of the people of Lin’an is more desperate than the howling of ghosts.
Under the hand of Jia Sidao,
Even after death, it’s difficult to find peace!

Even if we’re going to play the whole ‘Oh, they were talking about the prime minister, not the emperor, ergo weren’t talking about Mao himself!’ game, putting into public writing (and performance!) – even just a few lines - worrying about starving people who are in desperate situations while government officials take pleasure in partying at West Lake is pretty provocative in the early 1960s, during and after the disaster of the Great Leap Forward & resulting famine.

So that manuscript doesn’t burn. None of them do. That’s not a bad thing.

However, I didn’t end my talk on that morose note; I ended it on a slightly more upbeat, worthy-of-a-bad-motivational-poster, yet still melancholy note. Our manuscripts don’t burn, and that’s also not a bad thing. It’s worth reflecting on failures, and remembering that every misstep along the way to a journal article, dissertation, or mss (or job entirely out of the academy) has something to offer. I have spent so much time writing things that wound up shuffled into a file somewhere; so much time reading sources that didn’t pan out (bad enough in English; triply painful in Chinese, at least for me); so much time roughing out projects that don’t pan out as you anticipate. Time spent building courses that don’t work. Time picking out readings that don’t work for courses that kinda do. Etc. etc. etc ….

Every academic career is, in some measure, a history of failure. Some more so than others – often, as has been frequently discussed, due to nothing other than the vagaries of the market. But a Princeton professor’s recent “CV of failures” made some traction on my lists in various places, and it is potentially useful to meditate on, I think (of course, as a follow-up oped in the same paper pointed out, “Only successful people can afford failures” – which is also true, and deserves as much rumination. It’s a lot easier to publicize your failures when safely ensconced in a tenure-track position (having come from a position of relative Privilege) at an elite university – or a non-elite one, for that matter). But ultimately, few people come out of the gate and have no stumbles, in any career. As much as I feel like a bad motivational poster for saying so, I have learned a lot from my failures, big and little. I have been blessed in my career since starting grad school, but I’ve fallen flat on my face plenty. The successes I’ve had have generally felt like completely bizarre, totally unexpected bright spots in the midst of disaster. And that’s not just my anxiety speaking: there were several times when senior people expressed some measure of surprise of ‘Oh, that worked out for you!’ at critical points in my career.

But. Manuscripts don’t burn. The history of my career doesn’t burn, the mistakes I made haven’t, and ultimately – while I don’t think they’ve made me the historian I am, they made me the Chinese historian I am.

It’s finals week, so I’ve been catching up on grading, getting a lot of work done, and also tried to wind down from a far0-039stressful year by watching documentaries and other things that make me happy. There’s a wonderful line in the documentary Elusive Muse (the subject of which is Suzanne Farrell, the last great Balanchine muse – I’ve written about that a bit here, too), which I watched a few days ago while zoning out on the couch. The choreographer Maurice Béjart, who took Farrell and her husband in after they left the New York City Ballet, had this to say on why Farrell was one of the great dancers of the 20th century (and probably ever):

She was different … and she was even different from the Balanchine girls … she was completely different, and – I was very surprised – she had a freedom of movement, with a very clear technical power. But you never felt the technical, you felt the freedom and the musicality. I mean, she’s like – she’s like a violin, I mean, the music comes out from her body.

I’ve heard Béjart utter those lines – and they are memorable ones, I’ve quoted them (badly) to people at several points – any number of times, but something clicked for me in the past two weeks. I want to be technically skilled; but I don’t want people to see it necessarily, because I want to weave a great story. I want it to come out from my writing; I want to be an instrument of a sort – I want the story to come out, which relies on the technical power, while rendering that relatively invisible.

Talismans: they’re important, no matter what you do. And … manuscripts don’t burn. Farrell was great partially because she simply – after a point – wasn’t afraid of making mistakes, which made her highest highs (which were supreme!) possible. A useful lesson, hard as it is to remember when tenure and the judgment of various people (the vast majority of whom aren’t in your field & want to know what you’re not doing XYZ to contribute in ABC ways) are breathing down your neck.

And the days are not full enough

The past month has been conference season for this Asianist – and a pretty exciting one, at that! I am feeling both rejuvenated intellectually & yet also melancholy. I relish the opportunity to reconnect with old friends & acquaintances and make new connections, but it reminds me how much I miss some things (and many people). However, it’s been a generally good cap to an almost-over-academic year that has been pretty upsetting for me, personally and professionally – I’m ready to have a summer of work and relative silence, one that I hope will be an opportunity to recenter.

In March, I went (for the first time) to the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) conference, where I was lucky enough to participate in a really cool panel called “Retelling Fantastic Tales.” Luo Liang organized a really diverse & interesting group of papers, most focused on East Asia, but also some forays into other parts of the globe. Strangely, it was my first opportunity to sit and talk fantastical tales with other China specialists – ever! I absolutely loved the ACLA format, which is much more like a workshop. I wish more major conferences would follow it; it made for a much more positive experience presenting than the usual ‘2 hour panel with some commentary & audience questions.’ I was also excited to have the opportunity to get feedback from literary scholars on my work – one thing I’ve always loved about my project on ghost opera is that it really does lie at the intersection of several fields. Although my work is very much for China specialists (transnational? What’s that?) – unapologetically so – I do hope that it will be of interest to non-historians, and it sounds like it is. I made some great connections & came home feeling pretty good.

Boston wasn’t too bad, either (also my first time there). The weather was pleasant & I had some really good food – and bad Americanized Chinese food for the first time in, uh, years, but that can be fun, too. And I had a wonderful night out with a friend I hadn’t seen in 9 (!!) years, not since I’d left Taiwan before starting grad school in 2007. It was great to pick up where we left off & to catch up after all that time.

I just returned from the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) conference in Seattle. I wasn’t presenting this year, but I’ve determined that – barring unforeseen financial difficulties – it’s a really important few days for me & I need to make the effort to go, even if I’m not getting a line on my CV. I skipped last year’s meeting in Chicago, and spent the whole conference feeling sorry for myself that I was alone in Bozeman. AAS is not so much about the conference portion for me (though I do like dropping in on interesting-sounding panels, and of course – the exhibit halls, with university presses running great sales on both new titles and old!), but having the opportunity to reconnect with old friends and meeting new ones. This year was particularly fun, as the American Society for Environmental History was also going on, so my first night in Seattle – when I was feeling a bit grumpy for having some plans fall through – I finally got to meet a Twitter friend for real. We had some amazing food and cocktails and hours of great conversation. We had Skyped previously for work-related reasons, but it was a real delight to have a nice evening out with someone I always thought I’d get along brilliantly with & to no great surprise – I did. I also got to meet up with Nick Stember (aka the translator of that little Star Wars thing) for a quick chat – I hope next time, we’ll have a little more time to talk. But it’s always good putting a real face to the name, especially for someone that had a lot to do with the internet success of the lianhuanhua.

I really liked Seattle – another place I’d never been. A friend took us out to his family’s beach house on Vashon Island – an opportunity to get out of the city – and it was just gorgeous. But it also made me terribly homesick: the combination of a few days of running around AAS & seeing people I hadn’t seen in years, having a big UCSD program get together (where I stood up and said I had always appreciated how special our program was, but I really recognize it now that I’ve moved to being faculty, and how lucky I felt to be a part of such a strong, talented group of scholars), and seeing scenery that was so familiar. I thought of all sorts of little moments of years past, and really mourned the fact that it will never be like that again. I mourned who I used to be (as a friend said a bit wonderingly while we were walking around Somerville in Boston, ‘Taiwan seems like it was just yesterday! But it wasn’t. You were twenty-three once!’ I was. I was … we all were), since I feel like I’ve lost a sense of myself the past year – I wake up sometimes and am not sure who I am, other than a historian of modern China who does mostly serviceable work and stresses about everything. I wanted a few more days, the opportunity to cram in more time with people who matter to me & who I don’t get to see enough, a few more hours to catch up with people who have seen my ups and downs over the years and still love me, despite the fact I’m a giant ball of stress prone to emotional meltdowns and a pervasive sense that I’m just never going to be enough for anyone, or any institution, or any press. I missed people who weren’t in attendance – my faithful editrix most of all – and a wonderful little conference we had in Santa Cruz the summer I finished my dissertation ….

I’m still mourning. But life doesn’t stop, of course, and we keep moving forward: for now, looking towards the end of the semester, I have a book manuscript to worry about, and adventures to plan for the dog (more popular among my friends than I am!), and a long summer that will inevitably feel too short.


And the days are not full enough
And the nights are not full enough
And life slips by like a field mouse
Not shaking the grass

Ezra Pound

青蛙的眼睛: Winter Thoughts on New Beginnings

The last time I bothered to sit down and write a post was last summer (over 6 months ago!), when Leigh Alexander wrote a beautiful piece that moved me to write (for once, it landed me on the Critical Distance year-end round up, which tickled me). There have been things since that I would have liked to have written about, perhaps, but professional writing (e.g., manuscript stuff, editing stuff, article stuff – everything else stuff) has stopped that. Actually, the past fall semester has been pretty traumatizing from multiple perspectives, and my ability to get anything done other than what is Absolutely Required has been somewhat compromised. I haven’t been reeling from any particular event – and I have been most thankful for the wonderful people in my life, both here in MT and elsewhere – but just a general sense of being unsettled, and various minor issues, have left me feeling rather defeated on the whole.

But it’s a new year and – more importantly, from my perspective – a new semester is about to kick off. One thing I love about the rhythm of academic life is that things change. Anyone who knows me knows well might find this a weird comment: I generally don’t deal with change and upheaval very well. But there’s something nice that, at least where teaching is concerned, the slate is wiped clean on a regular basis. It does mean I occasionally find myself missing dynamics from classes and students past, but I really love trying new things, making new connections, reading new books – even if it doesn’t always work precisely as I’d want.

When I started my PhD, I had two thoughts that stuck with me for years: (a) I don’t like teaching much and (b) I will never be good at this. I remember – my first year, before I was an ‘official’ TA (just a ‘reader’) – my very first time being placed in charge of a classroom without a professor’s watchful eye. I paced in front of a room & clutching my battered copy of Diary of a Madman and Other Stories (Lu Xun), which included the assigned readings for the week, practically begging the students to say something – ANYTHING! To this day, I don’t think I do a terribly good job teaching Lu Xun (even though all of my students know I adore him). My advisors commented in a year end review my first or second year that I would “probably turn out to be a very good teacher - if her students can keep up with her” (a nod to my motormouthedness, among other things. I thought of that comment when I caught myself at dinner a few weeks ago – in response to a question of ‘When did foot binding start?’ – animatedly carrying on at mach 10 (‘Oh, well, it goes back to this story, but actually if you look at the archeological record it seems that it started here, perhaps, and they were actually binding the feet to be narrower – not the shape we think of – well, we think, we don’t know, but wouldn’t it be weird to wear socks that didn’t match the contours of your feet?’), before saying with a bit of embarrassment: ‘Well, I could go on for ages, this is something I teach about, so stop me if I’m getting pedantic.’)

Golden Chopsticks

I did a lousy job teaching Lu Xun, but at least I looked good at the quarter-end award’s ceremony for the course

The first class I taught on my own (“Women and the Chinese Revolution”), in my fifth year of grad school, was, to put it lightly, not very successful. It was unsuccessful for a variety of reasons, but it was one hell of a learning experience. And then I didn’t teach again for nearly 18 months. While my first semester at MSU was a bit bumpy (to say I was ‘a little nervous’ heading into it would be an incredible understatement), I started to hit my stride – by the spring of my first year, I really started to enjoy it. Academics sometimes treat teaching as that thing we have to do between doing things we want to be doing; but I tend to get a fair amount of energy from teaching (at least when it’s going well), and it helps me structure my days. The least productive periods of my academic life have coincided with having the most “freedom” (i.e., no teaching responsibilities). I spent a lot of time staring at walls and panicking.

1187087_897055990701_389960682_nIn any case, coming off a semester that was a bit of a downer from multiple angles, I’m eager and ready to get back to the classroom. I am teaching one of my perennial favorites – Gender in Asia (pre-modern edition!) – and am so excited to be teaching with some of my very favorite things: the Kagerō nikki, my beloved, battered Chinese women writer’s anthology (dog eared and marked up, a purchase I made in Taiwan before I even started grad school – for the then-princely sum of 1225NT, around $35), Chunhyang, Sei Shōnagon, Susan Mann and Dorothy Ko’s scholarship …

But just as exciting as revisiting old friends (and getting to introduce them to a new crop of students) is a brand new (for me) seminar I’m teaching, History of Mountaineering (Greater Ranges edition). One of my colleagues – who also works on the history of mountaineering – got the seminar on the books a few years ago. As it turns out, Montana is a great place to offer classes on things like “mountaineering” (who would’ve thought?) & it was really popular. I found presenting the bare outlines of my next research project at the mountain studies conference last spring really exciting and stimulating, so when I found out my colleague would be on sabbatical this year, I begged to teach the class. Since he’s an all-around awesome colleague (and human), his answer was ‘Sure, I just put it on the books – it’s not my class.’ Since we come at mountaineering from two different angles (he is most interested in the history of European & American mountaineering; I am most interested in high-altitude mountaineering and mountaineering in the Greater Ranges of Asia), there’s some nice cross-pollination that happens when we talk mountaineering history & the classes are pretty complimentary.

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 2.42.41 PMIn any case, I am really really really really really excited about this class (really. Really!). We have a whole whack of cool things to read, from classic narratives of first ascents and Western derring-do in exotic locales, to fascinating academic work like Sherry Ortner’s Life and Death on Mt. Everest. And a whole bunch of other things besides – Daphne du Maurier’s haunting novella “Monte Verità,” news articles, academic articles on … eating and shitting on Mt. Everest? But one of the most novel things about the course is that – for once – I actually have the opportunity to really blend my research and teaching lives.

Colleagues often say to me ‘Oh, you just need to leverage classes for your research!’ In my case, this really isn’t possible – most of the stuff I do is flat-out inaccessible in English, and while I would like to think I could hang on to students with a course built around Serious Academic Tomes on 20th Century Modern Chinese Cultural Production, I’m not delusional and do try to be somewhat appealing. But the ‘mountain class’ – as I’m already affectionately referring to it as – is a chance for me to read some things I haven’t read, ponder some stuff (very important background stuff for my next research project) from perspectives I haven’t, and get some intellectual stimulation in a seminar setting once a week. I’m thrilled.

Of course, it’s possible things are going to crash & burn (not all classes turn out well!), but I have a good feeling & I’m going with it. I’m looking forward to Wednesday – the first day of spring semester – and a fresh start. I’m looking forward to a favorite person arriving for a visit to Bozeman on Tuesday, and flinging myself at them for a long-overdue hug (and boy, is the dog going to be beside herself). I’m looking forward to my birthday next week. I’m looking forward to my annual celebration, featuring a true Montucky fusion experience: venison and elk bulgogi (last year we just had venison!).

A close friend has said that I’m ‘one of the most sentimental people’ she knows, and I have said – with little shame – that I’d be right at home with Victorian sentimentality. I thought of that the past few weeks when – being sick with a nasty, lingering cold, tired and sore, but unable to sleep – I went back to some of my favorite music from years past, Taiwan’s Betel Nut Brothers (檳榔兄弟 Binlang xiongdi). The group was (is?) a producer of wonderful traditional, folksy-bluesy, music from the Pangcah (Amis) people, one of the indigenous groups in Taiwan. I listened to a couple of their songs, as I have many times over the past six or seven years, while trying to fall asleep – especially my favorite, 青蛙的眼睛, “Eyes of the frog,” which makes me think of well-loved people who are far away. But when awake, all I wanted to do was share it with new people.

I spend a lot of time looking back; not necessarily being mired in the past, but reminding myself of good stuff that has happened so I can hopefully look forward to good things that will happen (I hope. If I can get out of my own way). I’ve been a little melancholy the past week, so it’s nice to remind myself that I do look forward to and get very excited about change and new things, at least in one part of my life.

Onwards, comrades.

Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 9.26.13 PM


Remembering hearts

IMG_1352I have a whole whack of backlogged posts-to-write that I haven’t gotten around to: the end of spring semester (the end of my second year as a full-fledged assistant professor!) was full and busy. Two conferences, including a trip to Canada, thoughts on teaching an experimental-for-me course, other assorted bits of my life. Frankly, as summer slides by – as it’s wont to do when you’re an academic, I was at the dentist a few weeks ago & the hygienist said to me ‘It must be so nice to have the whole summer off!’, and I could only laugh, because it’s not quite that simple – every day means it’s less likely for me to go back and write those posts, or finish the half-written ones in my queue. I may sit on quiet, cool nights and tap through my phone, looking at photographs and little snippets of video that make me smile, but I don’t really want to write about them. But a past of mine that passed into history long ago: well, that’s a little easier to write about. A little more like writing proper history.

I don’t pay much attention to games writing these days, and honestly haven’t for a long time – certainly not for the past year or so, since there’s been so much hateful stuff directed at people I know and respect. It’s easier – as a person no longer connected to any of that, except in the most tenuous way – to get my news in snips here and there on Twitter, on Facebook. I don’t have to watch E3 because it’s my job, so I don’t. I don’t have to pay attention to GDC or the latest press releases, so I don’t – except when it’s already been filtered through people I know and trust, who have had to go through all that shit first. The first game-related thing I’ve felt strongly enough to post about in a while was Leigh Alexander’s wonderful essay on FFVII. It was beautiful. It was worth sharing.

This past E3, the long-begged for Final Fantasy VII remake was announced. FFX was my first ‘real’ FF (I have written about that), though I had played 7 & 8 & 9 prior to that. But I had a different relationship with those games than many people my age: though I played them close-to-or-shortly-after-their-release, it was still in a sort of second hand way, not in the excitement of playing the new thing that’s just come out. I was just starting to play videogames again – and really play them in more than a ‘7 year old with a GameBoy’ way – when these games were the latest thing; I didn’t even know what a JRPG was, never mind that I loved them. But I was close enough to 7 that I can understand why people have these bigger life memories bound up in it. It is of my generation, even if it wasn’t mine. I am currently replaying FFVIII (not one of my favorites in any case, but there’s a certain amount of comfort and nostalgia in its crazy junction system and story). I remember sitting on the floor of a friend’s cramped little room that I spent a lot of hours in as a high school student, watching him play the game. I remember how that room smelled and looked and felt.

Games always conjure up memories of where I was in life when I play them. That doesn’t mean I don’t have memories, important & emotional ones, attached to other kinds of media – music is particularly evocative, of course, and I can go through my library and give you a run down of where I was in life when I first read this book or that (even academic monographs). They have feelings attached to them. I hauled a bunch of books into my office today & going through them took forever, because I kept running down the hall to say to my friend ‘Look at this little memory or that! You should read this one … Oh, look at this random piece of academic dust that is living in the pages of this book I haven’t looked at in years …’, or I just sat on the floor of my little office and paged through them silently, remembering. But those memories are never as consistently complete as game memories are.

DSC00311.JPGThe game related to 7 that was mine was a PSP spinoff released in 2008, Crisis Core. It’s a beautiful little game in a lot of ways. I got it not because I was so attached to 7, but because I had played 7 & was curious about how Square was going to deal with a game where you knew the outcome before you started playing. I had also lived in Taiwan between 2006 & 2007, when FFVII prequel mania was at its height – my terrible little bathroom in my terrible (but wonderful) little rooftop one room studio with no kitchen had a FFVII prequel wall hanging in it (bathroom not shown here, but you get the idea). Crisis Core is a game where the main character is one that you know is dead in 7, the game that comes after. How does a writer deal with that? Can you write a satisfying story where everyone – well, everyone that had played the main game, which is the target audience here – playing it knows the character you’re playing is going to die? They did. I cried at the end – an end I knew I was coming. Maybe that’s why I liked it: it was like writing history with a sad end, where you know things are going to end badly.

861e3f3c6807f4d4762eff1ee6d054a6I played it on a PSP that I had bought myself on a whim the Christmas of ’07, at the end of my first quarter of grad school: I remember getting on the highway & driving down to the area with all the big box stores so I could go to GameStop. I came home with a trusty black PSP, which remained trusty and well-traveled until it was replaced with a Vita this year, long after it had become obsolete. It lives in my basement still, in its nice case, the kind that you could insert your own image into – which I carefully trimmed a photograph of the Meiji Temple in winter to fit, from my beautiful Christmas cards I used while I was in coursework. The interior simply said Peace. I still have a few in a desk drawer in my home office; I couldn’t bring myself to use all of them. I tried to find a case like that for my DS or Vita, because I just wanted to carry that beautiful image again, and I came up empty. That case (and PSP) went all over the US & to China (and various points in between), and now lives in my basement, mostly forgotten.

This past spring, I taught a seminar called “Games, Play & History,” which was basically a wonderful disaster. I had a lot of really wonderful students; we read some really wonderful stuff; I think I was trying to do something interesting. A lot of what I wanted to do didn’t happen, there were some unexpected bright spots that I was (delightedly) shocked by, and it was just a big learning experience in general. But while I was setting the course up in December and January, I was going through my archives and trying to find examples of good and interesting and different writing about games. An essay that kept nagging at me was one written by Leigh Alexander in 2008, about Crisis Core. I’ve read a lot (a lot) of Leigh’s writing, since my ‘career’ at Kotaku basically coincided with the early stages of her career, and while she’s written a lot of wonderful, smart stuff before and since – better stuff – this essay had stuck with me for a long time as a brilliant example of good writing on a contemporary game: striking a balance between nostalgic and insightful, personal and broad, a piece that talked about this cultural thing in her hands right now and how it connected to the past and spoke to it and was informed by it. It was, in short, a great piece of historical writing that wasn’t history. It’s what I try to do with my own academic work, I think: there is this thing I have right now in my hands that’s beautiful, and here’s why it matters beyond its immediate wonderful qualities.

CrisisCoreOSTI haven’t read it in years. But I remember saving a tab in my browser after it was published (where? I don’t even remember – maybe it was just on her Sexyvideogameland blog, the one that I linked to over and over when I wrote for Kotaku), and going back to look and look again, like I always do with good writing. In it, she talked about playing this game, this prequel to a game that had meant so much to her, and playing it while in the midsts of a relationship that was breaking down. And it wasn’t just that she was playing through this game where you know the main character is going to die, where the designers are deliberately making your heart stop with all these echoes of the game before, the game you are so attached to. But that original game formed the basis of that relationship that was breaking down. She wrote of this dying relationship, and silently passing the PSP between them, looking at this end-beginning – whatever one would term a prequel – that you know is going to end badly, at least for the current incarnation. And you have something here, in the right now, that is ending badly. But it’s a start, too: something new. It isn’t just the past replaying itself again and again.

It was beautiful. It was – it still is – one of the most beautiful pieces of writing on games I have ever read, partially because it was just so bloody personal and in a way that a lot of games writing, even relatively intimate stuff, just isn’t. I haven’t read it in at least six years, and I remember the way she described passing that PSP. Perhaps not in detail, but how it made her feel, because I felt it, too (and isn’t that what good writing is supposed to do?).

I don’t remember when she published the essay. Maybe it was April or May. Maybe it was June. I played through Crisis Core frantically when it first came out, in March. I galloped through it, I loved it, I finished it. I remember being glued to it, at least partially, when my boyfriend came to visit me (depressed, unhappy, freaked out, lonely me) in San Diego: it was, in many respects, easier to cling to the PSP than to him. I need to finish this. I reset it two months later, and frantically played through it again. Then took my time with the end, and maybe this is why I loved Leigh’s essay so much. I now had my own dying relationship on my hands: now I took my time in finishing it. The game, the essay, the relationship. I savored it, in a way, at the same time that it killed me to spend so much time on something where I already knew the ending. I sat in front of my shitty apartment in San Diego, on somewhat alarmingly rickety concrete steps, and smoked Camel Lights and drank Asahi, my PSP clutched in one hand. My dying relationship was different than hers, of course, but it was comforting to know that someone else had played through the same game I was now, feeling some of the same things I was feeling now.

When I pull out well loved monographs, or even novels, from my shelf, it’s hard to say that.

When I wanted to put the essay up on my course site this past January, I couldn’t find it. I wanted so badly to read it again, just for myself, even more than I wanted to be able to say to my students: This is what writing on a medium you don’t even think is very important can be. Maybe I just wanted to feel for a little bit what I had in April or May or June of 2008, when I was younger and a first year grad student and had a boyfriend I adored and still didn’t know how to handle distance. Maybe I just wanted to remember how those problems felt, the things I dealt with and survived, while I faced down new problems I don’t quite know how to manage, where I sit up late at night and whisper to myself that I don’t know if I can do this. Maybe I’m just hopeless. Maybe there is no good ending. I do know that I often find myself reading about games I loved a long, long time ago & thinking about a long, long time ago more generally (again, something that doesn’t usually happen when I read, say, book reviews of a well-loved monograph, even from years and years ago).

But it was nowhere to be found, Leigh’s essay. There is no JSTOR of old games writing.

I sheepishly sent an email to another ex-boyfriend and asked for suggestions, Where can I get this? It must exist somewhere. It has to. He gave me another email address, and said to just ask. So I did – shyly, shamefacedly. It was Leigh Alexander, after all – and who was I? Just another person cluttering up her inbox, asking for an old piece of writing she probably didn’t remember & she’d written better things since, besides. I knew that. I didn’t want her to think I thought she’d written nothing of value in the years since – not that she’d care about my opinion – it was just that this had really meant something to me.

The first time I met Leigh in person was at E3 in 2008, when we both worked for Kotaku, and as the two women on staff, had a hotel room to share. I had gotten there earlier than her, and was already set up at one of the desks when she breezed in. She was beautiful and cool and dressed so fashionably and so clearly comfortable with being Leigh Alexander. I was a shy, bumbling, nervous grad student, looking slightly ridiculous for being at a videogame event, not very comfortable with being Maggie Greene – my one photograph from that whole expedition is a selfie, showing off my E3 badge, ME with an E3 badge! How ridiculous! – and I was incredibly intimidated. We had a ‘Kotaku’ party at a bar one of the days, and I hid on the smoking porch, attached to another writer, afraid to talk to anyone. The people that did talk to me seemed shocked that I was a writer for Kotaku. I’m not sure what they were expecting, but it clearly wasn’t me. I remember towards the end of the night going up to get a drink at the bar, and seeing Leigh surrounded by people & being so comfortable. I marveled at her even as we walked back to the hotel barefooted, having taken off our pretty high heels because they were hurting our feet. I wondered if I could ever be that pretty and hip, or if I’d ever be so cool (I wasn’t, and am still not, any of those things).

I don’t think I told her then that she’d written something that I’d loved so much; in retrospect, I should have, because she probably would’ve liked to have heard that, much as I like to hear from people I know that they like my work. It means something different than random compliments, delightful as they are.

When she wrote back to me in January of this year and said that her Crisis Core essay was lost to the sands of time – worse than that, not able to be found on the internet! – it broke my heart a little bit. Oh, a piece of my past gone, I thought. And I felt bad for thinking it: she’s not writing for my pleasure. But the academic in me thought it was so sad, because – for better or for worse – all the stuff I’ve written as an academic is available, or at least findable. On the one hand, I’m glad she’s managed to make things go “poof”: it’s her writing, after all. But it’s sad to want something and be unable to find it. It’s not that we haven’t lost stuff previously. I was a Latin major in a former life, and one of my most beloved Latin teachers told us that in grad school, one of the favorite questions to sit around & discuss while tipsy was ‘If you could exchange one piece of extant writing for one piece that isn’t, what would those two be?’

My professor was talking about writers that had been lost – literally – to the sands of time, with some hope of an ancient, ragged manuscript dug up somewhere in an ancient Egyptian trash heap. I have no hope of that with a Crisis Core essay: it’s gone, just like those nights of sitting on rickety steps, chain smoking & drinking Japanese beer. Maybe that’s the wonderful and horrible thing about all these words on the internet. We talk about it as if it’s ‘simply’ disposable, but it’s ‘simply’ disposable – or becomes intangible – in the same way bits of our life do. It happened; it was; we remember; but we can’t touch it, can’t access it any more.

For now, for these little bits of digital flotsam, I just hit the ‘Paginated PDF’ button on my browser – as I did when I read Leigh’s most recent piece on FFVII – because wonderful writing might just disappear and not be hanging out in the Internet Archive for me to read, and there is no paper version. Even my own boring, run of the mill posts on Kotaku are gone, things I want now, brief records of what was important then. So I hit ‘Paginated PDF’: because you might find yourself years down the road longing to read just a certain essay, connected to nothing contemporary, since you want to remember what it felt to be like then. 

It’s yet another summer of learning how to say ‘goodbye,’ something I’m not very good at, but is a constant fact of life as an academic. And I know there are all sorts of things that are happening this summer that I’m silently telling myself to remember: remember how this feels, and that, and that. Because that’s all I’ll have soon. And I tell myself to remember those things, because invariably, something – like my class, or Leigh’s recent essay, or whatever – will crop up and remind me, whether I would like to remember or not. Pass this thing back and forth, remember together. It’s sad and beautiful. It means something. There should always be something more tangible than there was this thing that made me feel once, but often, there isn’t.

There’s a beautiful poem by Mary Ursula Bethell called “Response.” She writes of letters, and minor happinesses, and the now. Also the past. The last stanza is beautiful:

But oh, we have remembering hearts,
And we say ‘How green it was in such and such an April,’
And ‘Such and such an autumn was very golden,’
And ‘Everything is for a very short time.’

It reminds me of those fleeting moments: devouring Crisis Core on my lousy San Diego steps; walking back to a hotel near the convention center in LA, barefoot because my feet hurt; walking home with a person I adore so fiercely my heart could burst; laying on my couch, half-asleep, listening to a dog dreaming loudly; all those moments from Shanghai or grad school or or or ….. I think we get accustomed to the idea that our lives online stretch on and on, last forever (after all, isn’t that what all the news articles say?). They are for such a very long time -  but really, the bits that make it up can be (or are) such slippery things, and everything is for a very short time.


“No, YOU’RE a bad Marxist” – On Debates & Things

Well, the semester is well & truly underway here. I’ve been having (anxiety-ridden) fun with my seminar – a topic I’ll come back to in a few weeks – and (completely anxiety ridden) not-so-fun with my manuscript, although I have been making forward progress. On the one hand, I’ve enjoyed getting back into my sources, trawling various databases, and the like; on the other, I keep bumping into walls that remind me I’m Not Very Good at some of this stuff. By which I mean: I have a lot of talents as a scholar (I think), but I also work on a kind of weird topic that’s at the intersection of several different disciplines and sub-disciplines, which often is going to make one feel like an idiot (“Why don’t I know everything about, well, everything“). There have been tears and angry tirades – and the grownup equivalent of temper tantrums directed at one’s self, which in my case usually means stalking off to soak in the bath for a good long while & having some comforting, juvenile dinner, like beer and croutons. But it hasn’t been unproductive, and once I yank myself out of a funk, I usually realize I am making progress!

The past few weeks, I’ve been revisiting/rewriting & doing some fresh work on one of my favorite little interludes from my research – a 1951 debate on drama adaptations of the famous Chinese story, “The Cowherd and the Weaving Maid” [niulang zhinü 牛郎织女]. The story is one of two celestial lovers, who wind up so engrossed in each other & having passionate, celestial sex that they (a) stop herding the celestial cows and (b) stop weaving celestial cloth. This makes other denizens of the celestial realm pretty angry, both because the cows are wandering everywhere and they have no new fabric for clothing. So – in the interests of the greater celestial good – the lovers are forcibly separated, only allowed to meet once a year. This is the basis for the Double Seven Festival – Qixi 七夕, or Tanabata in Japan: the stars Vega and Altair “meet” on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month (this does Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 11.13.43 PMactually happen – another star serves as the “bridge”). This has, as far as I know, turned into some bizarre Valentine’s Day spin-off (at least partially), but originally, it was a celebration of women’s work (one of its alternate names is the Qiqiaojie 乞巧节, the ‘Begging for Skills Festival,’ referencing domestic skills & the practice of qiqiao 乞巧, making offerings to the Weaving Girl and holding competitions related to domestic tasks, like threading needles only by the light of the moon) & also one hoping for love or celebrating bonds. Or for missing lovers who were absent – not uncommon, at least among the poetry-writing literati, when husbands were not infrequently off on far-flung bureaucratic assignments and the like. In any case, it’s always struck me as a good deal mopier than Valentine’s Day, for the coupled and singled alike.

Regardless of its mopey (or not) character, it’s an important story & one that has been rather beloved on Chinese stages. Thus, the 1951 debate: to the consternation of many people, some particularly enthusiastic playwrights had been remaking the story to better speak to contemporary events. After all, art was supposed to be drawn from and speak to the people, and that included contemporary concerns, not abstract star lovers. In 1951, this largely meant the Korean War, so there were versions where Harry S. Truman (yes, Truman) was represented in the guise of the King of Demons, supporting characters become helpmates of feudal morality & the patriarchy, the Cowherd & the Weaving Maid actually didn’t mind being separated because it left more time for work (my title for this chapter is actually “The Weaving Maid as Labor Hero”), and the like. Some intellectuals liked this: it was taking art and really making it serve the present! But many intellectuals (the winning side of this debate, actually – both in the short term, and on the whole, at least until 1963/1965) emphatically did not like the idea of Harry Truman (or much of anything else) intruding on a classic, beloved Chinese story, and objected. Loudly. Very loudly. On the pages of People’s Daily, the CCP’s print mouthpiece.

It’s a very interesting debate, and pretty fun (I take particular glee in quoting some of the more snippy parts of it) – I discovered it more or less by happenstance, but it has a lot of things to say about drama reform in this early period, as well as theoretical issues. It’s largely been read solely as a theoretical debate (one on “formulism,” “subjectivism,” and “historical materialism” – the primary concerns here being approaches to historical material). I’m more interested in the actual subject matter of a few key essays, which are fundamentally, I think, addressing questions about how best to handle China’s “traditional” culture and explicating the relationship between art and socialism. There’s theory, to be sure, but we’ve generally looked past all the rest. It’s also simply pretty fun: a spicy, snarky argument between brilliant people – and there’s a certain casualness I don’t usually associate with my sources. It really does remind me of fans debating the particulars of a plot point – just really, really smart fans, deconstructing their perceived enemies in really smart ways. I described it recently on Twitter like this:

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I had a realization at some point while writing my dissertation, while tracing these kinds of debates between 1949 and 1963. For the most part – with very few exceptions – even these pretty violent debates (the subject of the Weaving Girl debate received a serious dressing down on the pages of People’s Daily – it can seem laughable in retrospect, especially some of the words hurled from this side to that, but there was someone who had to read this stuff written about them and their work in the CCP mouthpiece) look less like hardened ideological adversaries than people who are more or less on the same side, just have some quibbles with execution, interpretation, etc. (Kirk Denton points this out regarding Hu Feng & Mao, at least on some subjects, and certainly it’s been noted in a lot of more recent scholarship). From the distance of 70 years, minor stuff: and after all, most of them – with very few exceptions – wound up on the wrong side of the Party during the Cultural Revolution. In the end, time – and Mao – were the great equalizers.

frontWhen I started looking more seriously at older parts of the historiography, I realized the field had spent some time sorting many of these people into various categories. “Establishment” intellectuals, for instance, or “revolutionary” intellectuals. These divisions can be useful, to a point; but they can also obscure a larger point, which is there was frequently a lot more similarities between these people than sorting them into different “camps” would lead you to believe. I don’t mean to imply I think there weren’t differences, or that seemingly minor differences don’t have an impact. As the political trials and travails of the 1950s and early 1960s – never mind the Cultural Revolution – indicate, there were camps, and your opinion on certain matters could have deadly consequences. But at the same time, from a distance of 70 years, there are a lot more similarities than differences. All of the people in my 1951 debate, for instance, agreed that China’s traditional culture was important and should be preserved. They disagreed on what that preservation should look like (among other things). But they agreed on one of the most important things of all: that this was worth arguing about, fighting over.

Largely because I was bound up in trying to understand some of the more theoretical terms of this debate, I missed much of a more recent debate, on the subject of formalism and games. The fact that I was trying to figure out WTF subjectivism-formUlism (subjective-formulism? subjectivism & formulism?) encompassed – and fighting with autocorrect, which kept inserting “formalism” for “formulism” – while people on Twitter & in the blogosphere were viciously arguing about formAlism & games was a weird coincidence. Perhaps it was the spelling similarity in these -isms that made me ponder the similarity between the nature and shape of these debates.

I’m won’t rehash everything here – partially because I haven’t read everything (though I’ve looked at a lot), but partially because I’m less interested in the particulars than the shape of the debate – but I couldn’t help but read through everything and think that some historian, 70 years hence, would be sitting and reading the posts and laughing her head off, in much the same way that I laugh and laugh and laugh when reading my Weaving Girl debates. Not because the stakes were laughable, or the subject, or the writing, or anything else: but because that historian 70 years hence is going to know how things play out, and it’s entirely possible (likely, even) that the denouement will make what came before seem minor in comparison. But also that you’re witnessing – by virtue of being removed from it – people who more or less fall on the same side of an issue argue in a manner not entirely befitting their lack of an ideological gap. I don’t mean everyone falls on the same side of the “formalism” debate. What I mean is that everyone agrees games are important and worth talking about and studying. 

The most striking thing I read, while trying to catch up on some of this, was actually Ian’s comments on game studies as a discipline – found at the bottom of this post. Largely because it struck me as a pretty self-reflexive comment on a field that he has obviously had a large part in, and also has a lot of investment in. And it summed up why I found this all so achingly reminiscent of those “ancient” Weaving Girl debates: ultimately, if game studies is the academic joke Ian sketches it as, the people on both sides of this debate have a lot more in common with each other – at least where games are involved – than they do with the rest of the academy. This isn’t a “can’t we all get along” plea – Ian’s right, I think, in that debate is good in the long run (history hasn’t died as a discipline because we fight like cats and dogs over approach and theory, for instance. Plenty of people have serious disdain for the kind of history I do, and I have my own preferences when it comes to how to do history. That hasn’t stopped each of us from doing our thing – sometimes vicious repartee in major journals, monographs & edited volumes notwithstanding - and I daresay that kind of discussion and debate means the field’s a lot healthier than it would be if we all had the same approach to everything).

And, perhaps (well, almost certainly) ill advisedly, I’ll comment on what’s perplexed me most: the characterization of the “old guard” that says they’re involved in a “power grab” and/or some evil hegemonic power. Game studies has been, in my experience, the most open academic group I’ve been a part of. The idea that there’s essentially an evil cabal denigrating and trying to shut down points of view or research that don’t match their own really, really does not square with my own experience. Yes, I speak from a position of Privilege on multiple levels & that of course colors my perceptions. I “got into” game studies as a grad student because I wrote for Kotaku; I am now a tenure-track professor (of history). But I’m a serious outsider on a disciplinary level: my primary work is on the high socialist period of the PRC, for crying out loud. Even if I wanted to, I’m not equipped to do research on games in the way that much of the “old guard” is. And I don’t want to. And that’s been A-OK – I’ve never been cold shouldered, ignored, told to “kiss the ring” of important scholars, or belittled for being a cultural historian who doesn’t even do games as a primary subject of research. On the contrary, I’ve rubbed shoulders with a lot more luminaries – the “old guard,” I guess – at game studies conferences than I ever have in my home discipline. Doesn’t mean I always agree with them, or them with me, but it’s been a field made up of people (including the powerful and privileged) who have been really welcoming – I dare say encouraging – of different approaches. To be blunt, I’m a lot less freaked out about being a cultural historian when I go to a game studies conference than I am when interfacing with some members of my own field.

At FDG 2014, I was asked for the first time ever “What are you doing here?” (valid question, as it’s a conference where a Chinese historian is going to stick out more than at, say, DiGRA – which was the person’s point). But from that question, which I guess I could’ve taken as sign of latent hostility, flowed a really interesting, productive discussion, one that actually gave me an epiphany about my manuscript. Being in a relatively alien environment, with neither area studies nor history (nor games, for that matter) to fall back on as some kind of disciplinary common ground, I had to articulate my work in a way that made sense for someone whose academic context looks very, very different than mine. Experiences like that one are a reason I still make an effort, however small, to keep in the game studies milieu.

Happy (research) birthday

Meng Chao (Republican period)

Meng Chao (Republican period)

Six years ago – give or take a week or two, I can’t remember when the semester started – I found one of the great intellectual loves of my life. I suppose I often think of the real birth of my research life as being tied to my actual birthday: it was at some point around the time I turned 26 that I discovered someone who would have been, had he been living, 107. A bit of an age gap, then.

My grad program was structured in a very clear way, so that during coursework, you knew exactly what was going to be on your plate: a historiography seminar in the fall, then a two-quarter research seminar. In the winter quarter, we researched (including our famous “Bataan Death Research March” to the Bay Area to hit Stanford & Berkeley – trial by fire, and what I suspect was partially designed as a real bonding experience. You get to know your classmates on a whole new level when you’re going through 10 hour days in a library after catching a 6 AM flight). In the spring, we wrote, with the final product being a journal-length essay that was hopefully up to standards for good journals in our field (indeed, many of us published at least one of our essays; some published all of them!).

I was panicked my first year & selected what turned out to be a difficult subject, compounded by my general incompetence. I decided that for my second year, I was going to research something that I knew made me happy: The Peony Pavilion (Mudan ting 牡丹亭), one of the most famous of the “marvelous tales,” a big sweeping epic of a ghost play. It has undergone quite the revival in the past 15 or 20 years: how did it get to that point, I wondered?

As it turned out, it really was in need of revival – I was doing some preliminary work with Chinese theatre yearbooks (nianjian 年鉴), which include all sorts of statistics on plays performed by troupes and so on. Peony was basically nowhere to be found; I knew enough to know this would be a very tall order to research, and I needed to find some other angle. In desperation, I brought a typed up spreadsheet – listing years, troupes, plays performed – I had made to the wonderful professor who helped us once a week with our documents. “Can you just look at this really quickly and tell me if something pops out? I just don’t recognize most of these plays.” She immediately hit upon one and asked “What is this doing here?” I looked, and said it had apparently been a very popular play in the early 1980s. “Do you know about this one? It’s also a guixi [鬼戏, ghost play], but it was criticized during the Cultural Revolution – like Hai Rui [Wu Han’s Hai Rui Dismissed from Office, Hai Rui baguan 海瑞罢官].” She told me she remembered seeing big character posters in Beijing as a girl, criticizing the play and the author. How interesting, then, that it was so popular in the early 1980s.

I had never heard of it, or the author. And sure enough, when I trotted off that day to do a quick search of the literature, barely anything turned up. Rudolf Wagner, whose The Chinese Historical Drama remains a more or less unparalleled study of the “new historical play,” a quarter century after its publication, had this to say:

Among Western scholars, considerable attention has been given to Wu Han’s play, much less to Tian Han’s, and very little to Meng Chao’s. (80)

Indeed, as I noted with no small bit of wonder a little later, so little attention had been given to Meng Chao’s play that this Kun opera (kunqu 昆曲) was consistently misidentified as Peking opera (jingju 京剧). I’d discovered something - Li Huiniang – and someone – Meng Chao – and that has more or less driven my fledgling career since, even as the topic has spiraled outwards and sucked in more and more angles and more and more people and more and more stuff, as projects are wont to do. I always come back to him and his ghost – it’s hard not to, given the subject of my work, but partially because I have spent so much time with “him” (rather, the literary detritus of his life). When I’m having trouble writing, I will often turn to the parts of my manuscript that deal with him – a story I know so well, and something that can often get me over a case of writer’s block.

Over the years, I’ve collected bits and pieces of his life – I look a bit longingly at a book I otherwise wouldn’t want on the site Kongfz, which has an inscription he wrote (having Meng Chao’s writing in his own hand on my bookshelf!! I can only imagine). I’ve come to know him through his own writing, but mostly the writing of others; they flesh out the erudite, but distant, man who appears to me otherwise. An exception is reading his early zawen (sharp, satirical essays) published in the early ’40s (admittedly, he was around 40 at the time, so not quite young); I was warmed to read him discussing his work habits, his custom of working mostly at night. A friend recalled he always seemed to be running everywhere in the early 1940s, in Guilin; he had no trouble writing, and could write a zawen without thinking of it. He was also a poet. He later wrote elegant, dense prose. He – like so many of that generation of Chinese intellectuals – seems, at least from this distance, to inhabit (somewhat comfortably) strange territory between great classical traditions and new Marxist ones.

Meng Chao (r) with family (late C. Revolution)

Meng Chao (r) with family (late C. Revolution)

He’s not handsome, not even when comparing him to the two other men his name is indelibly linked with. In his Republican-era photograph (which, admittedly, came when he was already middle age: perhaps a younger Meng Chao would be a handsomer Meng Chao), he has neither the round-faced, amenable look of Wu Han, nor the lean, dapper appearance of Tian Han. Any idealization of him I have in my head is not because I’ve been presented with a fine specimen of manhood; it’s his literary acumen I find so appealing. It’s hard to find photographs of him; I have seen only three. One – my favorite, even in the higher resolution version that makes him look older and more bewildered (it reminds me that this man had been through a lot by that age, impressive family background or no!) – shows him as a man in his late 30s or early 40s, with a face a bit like a basset hound. He looks very earnest. The next was taken sometime in the 1950s, and is a typical cadre photograph – large glasses (ridiculously so, from the vantage point of 2014), much older than the first. The last is the saddest, and shows a very old man with a daughter and two granddaughters. He looks much, much older than his 73 or 74 years. That one was taken very late in his life, after over a decade of persecution and campaigns, after being branded a niugui-sheshen 牛鬼蛇神, an ox ghost-snake spirit. There’s no trace of that earnest young man in the Republican-era photograph. What would that old man say to the young figure, I wonder?

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 4.19.23 PMOne of the most important commandments as a historian is “Do no violence to your sources”; treat them carefully, analyze them thoughtfully, be aware of what you are bringing to your interpretation. It seems that much more important when dealing with a life, especially a life that has been so little looked at in comparison to his peers. Knitting together these disparate pieces of a literary life makes me nervous, and I wonder sometime if I’m too likely to sympathize with men like Meng Chao (after all, Li Huiniang or not, he was part of The System that took root; surely he – and his compatriots – shoulder some of the burden for the disasters that came later, even if they themselves were swept up in them?). But he’s a very human actor to me, one that reminds me that all these other names and people (and scores of anonymous people besides) were people, and these were lives, and ultimately that’s the important part of the story – not abstract ideology or theory. One of my favorite pieces I ever wrote was for The Appendix, called The Woman in Green – the story of Li Huiniang, from 1981 all the way back to 1381. I loved writing it because I got to imagine, on a scale that I can’t when writing purely academic work, scenes from a life I’ve written again and again.

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 9.43.29 AMHe reminds me, while teaching, to impress that fact on students: that these were once living, breathing humans – not just names or faceless individuals.  I show my students a page from a theatre yearbook announcing the rehabilitation of opera people in the late 1970s (lists like this were published all over the place), and I talk them through the jumble of (to them) unintelligible characters – representations of lives lived, good and bad. Here, a luminary who died in prison; there, a star who was beaten to death by a gang of overzealous teenagers; sprinkled throughout, people who committed suicide, fearing what would happen if they didn’t. And there (in two little characters; ones that I recognize the shape of no matter how small the image I’m looking at), a man who died in a Beijing hutong, his family suffering from being attached to someone who produced a so-called fandang fanshehuizhuyi 反党反社会主义 - anti-party, anti-socialist thought – poisonous weed; broken, old, sad, and bitter. They’re simply recognizable names, poster children for all those other lives lived (and ended) in much greater anonymity. But human, concrete: not just names.

I am not so cocky as to think I’ve done some great, field-changing service by highlighting the life of this elite (but run of the mill elite!) intellectual, though I do think his story adds something to our understanding of the time that simply highlighting stars like Tian Han and Wu Han doesn’t.  But at the same time, there’s something nice about having a person to attach yourself to. He’s “my” Meng Chao, an anchor for many other things. He’s even turned my attention to subjects far beyond the bounds of opera (the 1960 conquest of Mt. Everest, for instance!). I worry often that I’m not going to be able to do him justice, but wanting to do him and his story justice is a constantly driving force.  I am doing my best for a man I’ll never meet.

Coming ’round full circle

I took the first week and a half of winter break to go on one of my every-nine-months-or-so gaming binges – doing the media consumption equivalent of gorging one’s self during the holidays on delicious treats with little thought to anything or anyone else (or your waistline). I played through Tales of Xillia, having played about 3/4s over spring break last year, and its sequel, Tales of Xillia 2. I do love a good JRPG – it’s one of the few genres I’ve been playing consistently – and consistently seek out – since I started “really” playing games in the late ’90s – and it occurred to me that I’ve actually played a lot of the Tales of series. They feature a pretty frenetic battle style that isn’t actually my preferred way of play (boring, old school turn based battle is my favorite!), but there’s a pleasant rhythm and often plenty of game-sanctioned grinding via side quests. I’m one of those people that loves to grind, although not if I feel like I have to do it to progress in the game; but generally, I play games to put myself into a happy space, and low-stress, repetitive-task activities (cross stitch! Organizing things! Fixing footnotes! Grinding in an RPG!) do that for me.

image-newsIn any case, I liked both the Xillia entries. I was a little suspicious of the second installment when I first started, since I don’t particularly like a silent protagonist, which Xillia 2 mostly has. My concern was perhaps heightened by the fact that I find random grunts, sighs, and other vocalizations – in absence of any other sort of voice acting – a bit irksome; at least in Persona, say, or Suikoden, the silent protagonist is, well, silent. After playing a game, I usually go poke around review sites, discussion boards, etc., just to see what conversation surrounding the game is like (I don’t tend to be playing the latest & greatest – or even popular – so thoughtful, focused criticism can be hard to find). I did so with the Xillia games, and was most interested in chatter surrounding the plot/ends of Xillia 2. There are three endings, which I guess are never officially named as “true,” “good,” and “bad,” but do seem to have some ranking, based on the kind of end credits given to each – well, the “bad” ending is rather clearly not the intended ending, since you never get to the end, and the battle to get to that ending is monstrously hard – far more difficult than the “final boss” in either of the other endings.

JRPGs often get castigated for being totally predictable, and it’s generally true (although I don’t know that most other genres aren’t equally as predictable) – you know you’re probably going to be facing down some big evil with a motley collection of people, there’s going to be criticism of organized religion and/or environmental destruction and/or technology, there’s probably going to be some kind of betrayal along the way, one of the good guys will turn out to be bad or vice versa, things are probably going to resolve well for our band of heroes, and so on. I actually don’t mind the repetitive nature, but this may be somewhat linked to what I study. Drama in China was recycled from generation to generation; the same source material provided inspiration for centuries worth of cultural production. Consider the proliferation of Romance of the Three Kingdoms-themed games in East Asia: the medium may be new, but the popularity is not. There are patterns of narrative that can be comfortably inhabited; they don’t tend to be “shocking” or introduce anything new, but if the writing is good & characterizations are on point, well – a solid story is a solid story, even if it is rehashing ground we’ve been over before. I’m also willing to suspend my disbelief at everything if I like the gameplay and other elements (there are limits though: once, after Final Fantasy XIII was released, I was talking to a friend about the skill leveling system, which seemed a little ridiculous and over the top to me, and finally said “Are we just getting too old and jaded for this stuff?” “Yes,” he responded, not missing a beat, “Yes, we are.” But had I liked everything else about the game, I probably could’ve – would’ve – forgiven the “Crystarium”).

Li Huiniang (not a datuanyuan!), from Judith Zeitlin's The Phantom Heroine (158)

Li Huiniang (not a gentle maiden!), from Judith Zeitlin’s The Phantom Heroine (158)

Xillia 2 wasn’t surprising exactly, but it was quite a bit darker than I was perhaps expecting. I was intrigued that none of the endings were really “fan service” endings – meaning happy in the sense of everything being resolved perfectly and easily. Many people liked this (it seems more mature, more realistic), many other people seemed to find it unsatisfying (where’s my happy ending, dammit!). In Chinese literature, there is a plot structure called datuanyuan 大团圆 (the “grand denouement,”  “big and happy reunion,” a version of “… and they all lived happily ever after.”): the perfect, full-circle ending where the boy gets the girl, and the job, and everything else. No loose ends anywhere, and we all walk away with the warm fuzzies. I’ve been pondering the appeal of traditional literature – rife with datuanyuan, among other things – in high socialist China, and something about these Xillia 2 endings (somewhat happy, in some cases, or moving, perhaps, but not perfect in the sense that some fans long for: any option means cutting off some possibility, some person) spoke to my intellectual side a bit. Funnily enough, the “good” (but not “true”) ending in Xillia 2 is “round” in many respects, largely because of the game’s plot point about “alternate dimensions”: there is a certain amount of “things coming full circle” due to the alternate timelines and overlapping histories. But it’s not “round” in the sense of a datuanyuan - things don’t entirely work out as they “should” for a clear cut, unimpeachably happy ending.

The datuanyuan  is not some minor point for children’s fairytales (something I think we tend to associate the “and then they lived happily ever after” endings with – “grownup” media should be grittier, or more complex, and not so happy against all odds); it’s actually quite an important thing in Chinese literature, including some of the greatest things ever written in any language.  The English translation doesn’t convey the cultural significance of roundness (as Zhang Zhen notes in An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: Shanghai Cinema, 1896-1937, the significance of datuanyuan goes way beyond a cliché, and points to a kind of cultural conditioning – she mentions, for instance, the importance of visual cues like the typical round table used for family meals, as well as cosmological symbols like the full moon, in early Chinese cinema that had a tendency to rely on the “big reunion” as a plot structure). Cultural resonance or not, forcing a datuanyuan sometimes leads to bizarre results, like in the 1926 film A String of Pearls (Yi chuan zhenzhu 一串珍珠), based loosely (and I do mean “loosely”) on the famous Guy de Maupassant short story “La parure” (The necklace), where the emotional punch of the story is more or less removed by an effort to ensure the happy ending. I suppose this is one complaint with happy endings in games; they can seem contrived or leave massive plot holes.

There are also old examples of “fanfic,” intended to write the wrongs of an original narrative, or flesh things out (often appending a datuanyuan) – the ones I think of are related to Dream of the Red Chamber [Honglou meng 红楼梦], the 18th century novel by Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹. The first printed version (in 1791) included 40 extra chapters that don’t exist in earlier  manuscripts, and there’s been a great amount of debate about what the ending should have looked like, who wrote the extra 40 chapters, the role of the editors of the printed version, etc (indeed, there is an entirely discipline dedicated to study of this novel – called Hongxue 红学 in Chinese, “Redology” – a tidbit that I still delight in passing on to students). The 19th century saw all sorts of new endings put forth, though as Jin Feng points out in Romancing the Internet: Producing and Consuming Chinese Web Romance, these have not generally been looked at from the angle of fan activity, but simply as part of pre-20th century literary production.

But of course, it’s not just fans who write happy, perfect endings. One argument about the datuanyuan – and it is a pretty constant feature of a lot of Chinese fiction over the centuries – is that Chinese fiction was initially “meant to entertain the writer himself more than his readers” (Gu Mingdong, Chinese Theories of Fiction: A Non-Western Narrative System). On this, brilliant intellectuals pointed out in the 1950s and 1960s that even the heyday of Ming chuanqi produced works that were generally self-indulgent on the part of the author (the translator Yang Xianyi commented in the early ’60s that “feudal period literati” paid little attention to coherence or overall structure, instead weaving together a bunch of disparate plots into one sprawling mass of a story: in essence, writing what they wanted to write, regardless of the effect it gave their audience). Owing to the unlikely chances of truly succeeding in the civil service system, literati – the producers and consumers of fiction – used these cultural products to daydream; they daydreamed not of “realistic” endings, but of spectacularly perfect ones. In some respects, it’s a more ancient and literary version of fan fiction, though in this case, the source material is generally historical in nature.

In truth, I like most datuanyuan-type endings, at least in games. I don’t seek them out – and often, designers are more than happy to give us one, so it’s interesting when one doesn’t appear – but there’s something pleasing about them, even if they’re ridiculous. I loved Final Fantasy X – which did not have a datuanyuan denouement (I cried! I snuffled lightly at all three endings of Xillia 2, but I actually cried at the end of FFX), and it’s possible I loved it because it didn’t have a perfect ending – but at the same time, I loved Final Fantasy X-2 because it tacked a company-sanctioned happy ending on to everything. I got my bittersweet ending and everything being tied up in a neat, if not entirely logical, package at the end. This is one reason for multiple endings, I suppose (that and the illusion of choice) – give the people what they want, make everyone happy! Bittersweet, sad, happy? We’ve got you covered.

kunqunr03_03_clip_image001_0001This is much harder to do in literature, for obvious reasons, although a single work can encompass all those moments. In drama, this is helped by the fact that the sprawling Ming tales were not performed in their entirety, and were instead seen in excerpts. Some of the most enduring parts of Tang Xianzu’s 汤显祖 masterwork The Peony Pavilion (Mudan ting 牡丹亭), or at least the ones that get trotted out the most, are not, in fact, the end, where everything works out – they are the beautiful and rather tragic (or at least bittersweet) early scenes. Considering the fears of moralists that chuanqi like Peony would drive women to madness, suicide, or worse, it seems that even having a happy ending was no guarantee your audience would gravitate towards that! Instead, portions of the reading audience seemed to fixate on the somewhat depressing (perhaps more realistic?) chapters – an acknowledgement that the datuanyuan was simply a fantasy, impossible in real life? The famous “Walking through the garden, waking from the dream” [Youyuan jingmeng 游园惊梦] section is rather wondrous – and it does feature quite the fantastic dream! – yet it’s simply that: a dream. And yet the (male) authors seemed to love writing the fantastical ending, no matter how improbable, even if those weren’t the parts segments of their audience gravitated towards. Perhaps this is partially a difference in producing and consuming; I wonder if fan-produced writing and art geared towards alternative paths or endings, fleshing out what happened after, writing a “perfect” scenario, whatever that might mean for an individual, often focuses more on the perhaps improbable yet perfect because it’s created largely to entertain one’s self and not really for an audience (publishing on fandom specific sites and the like notwithstanding) – not unlike some of the great fiction and drama in China.

LHN2I’m interested in literary production as self-entertainment. While I don’t think my Marxist intellectuals were generally writing to entertain themselves (though I do think sinking one’s self into the full capabilities of classical Chinese – worlds away from rote Marxist language, more “understandable” vernacular – must have been a pleasure), I do think they were writing to entertain each other, at least in some cases – something that gets lost when we focus on ideological squabbles and high politics to the total exclusion of thinking about writing and consuming literature. I’m also interested in the fantasy of it, at least as applied to the historical dramas c. 1960 I write about. We focus so much on their political meaning – the coded, yet sharp, rebukes of a system that wasn’t working for vast amounts of the Chinese population – but what about their function as escapes? As daydreams? To be sure, “righteous phantasm raining down hellfire on cruel and unjust prime minister” (as in this image from Li Huiniang) is lacking a bit of the romance of “dead maiden revived for love of talented scholar, and everything works out in the end.” But on the other hand, it’s a fantasy of a very particular kind, well-suited for a specific moment. The act of creating or consuming such a fantasy in that moment could be quite powerful, I think. Consuming the fantastical can be powerful at any moment.

We sometimes act like a story with a “fairytale” ending is necessarily simplistic, juvenile, or unsophisticated; the history of the datuanyuan in China illustrates that such things can be quite sophisticated in terms of aesthetics and artistic value. I suppose I don’t place a huge amount of value on a “round” ending in the sense of datuanyuan (though the fangirl inside me does like them in games where I’m attached to the main characters), but I do place value on an ending feeling “round,” fleshed out, and coming to a conclusion in a graceful, logical way. Games are a bit of a fantastical daydream for me, or that’s how I use them – I suspend disbelief for so many other things, a happy “round” ending is just one more thing. Not so unlike my playwrights, I suspect – they were willing to suspend disbelief for that chance of escape and daydreaming, if only for the duration of a performance. Those few hours of being thrilled at the turn of events, of imagining some other path were worth any logical gymnastics they subjected themselves to.

Searching for ways to express your [fill in the blank]

Mary Magdalene Playing the Lute

Mopey lute music: soundtrack to my academic life

The semester is (finally) winding down here: it’s been a strange one on a number of levels, one that’s sharing a startling number of parallels with the fall quarter of my second year of grad school. It certainly hasn’t approached that level of misery, but I do find myself taking odd comfort in the similar patterns. I don’t consider myself a particularly superstitious person, but sometimes the universe just seems to be telling you something … one might as well turn an ear towards it, even if you’re only listening half-heartedly.

While feeling like I’ve been balanced on the edge of a nervous breakdown, I’ve been sallying forth with teaching (largely a great joy, if one that still makes me anxious here and there) and fussing with my dissertation-cum-manuscript in preparation for getting down to business with it after the semester is over. I’ve been ordering in books on inter-library loan, sorting through archival documents, shuffling pieces of the dissertation around in new Word docs prepared for eventual chapters, and the like. I’ve been mentally steeling myself for the slog of revision in general, and in particular having to dive back into writing about topics that often make me incredibly upset and depressed. I spent the past year or so concentrating on everything & everyone but myself, or so it seemed at times, so I’ve been trying to recenter and think about what would make me happy, and then just do that (uh, within reason, of course). I’ll need those reserves for getting through some of my more trying materials.

I had a philosophical debate with a good friend over iMessage the other day, the gist of which was whether or not being unhappy – I guess “depressed” would be a better clinical term – did make us better scholars, or just made us feel that we were better scholars. I said that I think of myself as a pretty sensitive person in general, prone perhaps to feeling more about things than is warranted (that goes for history and personal life), and while I would like to be able to shed some of that, I won’t ever give up my conviction that the fact I’ve spent a not insignificant amount of time weeping over dusty sources does, in fact, make me a better historian than if it just rolled off of me (I conceded that it’s possible I’m overstating the positive impact of this on my prose, but I still feel like there’s some kind of power derived from those deep emotions). It would be nice to be less sensitive to stuff, but I wouldn’t give up being sensitive over my things, my research, my intellectuals even if it meant the vagaries of life would just roll off of me (I am endeavoring to get life to roll off my back more easily, though. Still!). That doesn’t mean I think it’s inherent to being a talented scholar; just that for me to get my best work out, I think there needs to be some of that powerful – often painful – emotional connection.

An edition of Li Huiniang used by the Beijing Kunqu Troupe; it is marked "poisonous weed" above the crossed out title - below is noted that it is "evidence for criticism." From my personal collection.

An edition of Li Huiniang used by the Beijing Kunqu Troupe, marked for criticism during the Cultural Revolution. From my personal collection.

A few weeks ago, in the midsts of feeling pretty physically terrible (never a good position to be in if one is having to do mentally taxing things), I was preparing a lecture on the Cultural Revolution & idly going through documents in my database. I like showing my students the detritus of my research – generally images of this, that, or the other, something where I can spin a good, quick narrative and show them some piece of the past that I have, that I’ve laid my hands on. In this case, I hit upon Meng Jian’s heartbreaking post-Cultural Revolution reflections on her father, Meng Chao, and his famous ghost that brought so much grief to the family. The whole essay is powerful, but the end often moves me to tears (and I have read it many, many times since I first saw it in 2009):

For a long, long time I did not dream; the strange thing is that recently, I’ve dreamt often. In dreams I see my father, wearing a half-length Chinese padded jacket, a long, camel-colored scarf wrapped around his neck three times; he rests on a walking stick, his body short and thin and weak. As before, his back has a bit of a hunch to it, he drags his leg that was hurt during his persecution, and in his mouth he keeps the end of a long, long cigarette – one, then following that, another. He hobbles towards me, but is always, always unable to reach me …..

Waking up, I know that it’s simply a pipe dream. But – I miss him, I really miss him.

Well, I guess I must have looked pretty awful while reading the Chinese I know well enough to have memorized over and over, because my Wonder TAâ„¢ wandered by my office, then came back and stuck his head in the door. What’s wrong with you? (What isn’t wrong with me is the question I’ve been asking all semester, but never mind). I was rather overwrought, wept into my scarf, and said I just didn’t think I could get through a whole lecture on this stuff without blubbering like a fool. I’m not sure what it was about that particular day that made me feel so miserable, but to talk about something that can make me upset under the best of circumstances – well, I was dubious about managing it. I warned my students before launching into the lecture that the subject made me emotional, because I felt so tied to it through these dead people – these people I study – that it can be hard to view things without bringing those feelings up.

As it turns out, the lecture went fine – better than fine. I was in rare form indeed; while I like to think I’m a relatively engaging lecturer in general & don’t bore my students to tears, I suppose the fact I was clearly invested in the material made it so much the better (a student commented the next week that it seemed that I was “struggling” – not, he hastened to add, in terms of content mastery, but to keep my emotions in check). A student who has taken several of my courses (and has seen me lecture on the Cultural Revolution twice, albeit in different circumstances) wrote me a brief, but very touching, email the next day, saying that it was clear I cared deeply about the material and it really brought the history alive. One of the highest compliments, I think, a student can give a teacher. I think it’s good for students to see that we’re attached to this stuff (that doesn’t mean I have any desire to blubber through a lecture, but illustrating that this isn’t ‘just’ dead history is important to me!).

We are lucky at MSU to have a ridiculously talented Japanese environmental historian in the form of Brett Walker. I still remember reading his first book (Conquest of the Ainu Lands) my first year of grad school, in my Japanese history seminar. I was quite surprised when I flipped the book over & it noted that he was (at the time of publication) an assistant professor of history at Montana State University. “Montana State has Japanese historians – of the caliber that we’re reading in seminar?” (little did I know). One thing I particularly like about his work is how strongly the I comes through. We are so used to erasing ourselves from our scholarship, in some respects: not I did this and I felt that and I have this relationship to my subject (that would be biased!). Of course scholarship needs to be more than the I, but many of us shy away from putting the personal in our narrative. Brett is not ashamed to weave personal experience into history, and he also doesn’t pretend to be totally neutral on the subject. In his book Toxic Archipelago, he speaks of watching video of patients with Minamata disease (a neurological syndrome caused by mercury poisoning), and says:

When I observe the footage, rather than search for dispassionate objectivity, as historians are supposed to do, I search for ways to express my rage.

Meng Chao (Republican period)

(My) Meng Chao (Republican period)

I read that line for the first time while tucked up in bed, rather sick, in a fancy San Francisco hotel room in 2013. It has stuck with me since. I hope I will be brave enough one day to really put the I in my scholarship. And even if I cannot bring myself to write in such frank terms, I hope my affection and deep respect for these people – forever out of physical reach to me – comes through in my words.

I think I will always be a bit melancholic while getting my best writing done: I write best at night, at quiet, dark hours. It’s just having a personal witching hour of sorts, I suppose. I can sort through dull archival documents in the daylight just fine, but when it comes to writing through them, I want to be seized by inspiration and have the world just feel right for spinning those kinds of stories (selfish, I know – and probably not the “most” productive way to work). I would find it downright strange not to get a bit sad when trying to figure out how to draft narratives of largely-forgotten lives that came to bad ends. Perhaps that just makes me a mopey person, but I think I am better for feeling rather invested in these people I write of: if that means the occasional crying fit or wandering the house listening to music that is by turns happy and sad, well, I’ll take it.

With thy needle and thread (and dictionary and word processor)

A few weeks ago, Maura Cunningham wrote a fun post for GradHacker called “My Dissertation Sweater.” In it, she compared her experience writing a diss to knitting her first full sweater; although I don’t knit, I read it & nodded – both for the feelings about being a grad student in those final throes, as well as for the feelings evoked when I thought of the embroidery I do (and how it relates to my professional life). I also just finished an enormous (by my standards: 21″ x 10″ or thereabouts) embroidery project, which I’ve been working on in earnest between teaching, editing, writing, researching, and general living since July – something that’s made me reflect in general on Big Projects (like manuscripts – I’ve been throwing myself seriously into my first the past few months).

I’ve been cross stitching since I was 4. A great aunt taught me during the Thanksgiving holiday; I have the product of that first foray into needle, thread, and Aida cloth (it’s a Christmas ornament, a rocking horse with somewhat sloppy stitching – but, I was four!). I’ve drifted back to it over the years, going through periods where I finished (or almost finished) pretty big projects, periods where I would put a few hours of effort into something & then give it up, etc. I did some cool stuff in grad school – like a Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex OST album cover (this was given to a  then-SO), or a logo from Final Fantasy X (this still resides in my office). I wrote a how-to guide for Kotaku on charting & creating non-sprite cross stitch. When I got back from my research year in China, the sister of my significant other at the time was about to have a baby, and I wanted to embroider some kind of “birth announcement.” Now, if you have any familiarity with the types of kits available at your average craft store, they’re pretty sickly sweet (if you’re lucky, it’s a relatively non-saccharine version of Noah’s Ark. If you’re not, well …). So I started looking for something … interesting. Something that someone could conceivably hang on their wall at a much more advanced age & not be embarrassed of (e.g., not blocks, bears, or Noah’s Ark; something that perhaps had more intrinsic artistic value, at least as I defined it).

10550813_10100117091973801_5877238373363768657_nAnd so I discovered the world of what I refer to as “high-end” cross stitch: patterns and fibers that are stocked at specialty shops, not your local chain craft store. This includes a pretty wide variety of patterns, from antique reproductions to super-modern patterns (I tend to gravitate more towards the “antique” side of things; perhaps this is lesson 1: historians often like old things); there are beautiful linens in addition to the more typical Aida cloth; fibers go way beyond plain cotton DMCs (I myself have a great love of hand dyed, over dyed cottons and silks, where one of the real draws is the often subtle variation in shade). It’s the one part of my life where I find myself consistently drawn to the high-end, the slow-made, the handmade, the produced-in-small-quantities. The one place I will consistently shell out for the luxury of something artisan crafted (a skein of mass produced DMC cotton thread generally runs about 30 cents; hand dyed cotton, $2 or more; silks – luscious and bouncy and just wonderful feeling, a real splurge! – $6 or $7). Well, that and artisan goat cheese.  But to set aside smart-ass commentary, spending a lot of time with needle & thread has taught me a lot about myself & the ways I prefer to work, as well as some of my deep-seated anxieties and concerns.

Lesson 1: If you spend enough time with something, you’re going to constantly pick apart its flaws. 

Every time I post pictures of my embroidery on Facebook or Twitter, friends invariably comment on how pretty it is! Meanwhile, I’m sitting at home going “OH MY GOD, I can’t believe I was so lazy that I let that stitch slip by … Doesn’t anyone notice that weird blending there? Why didn’t I rip out those flattened stitches? WHY did I leave this sitting in a frame for too long, I’ve ruined it.” When you spend a long period of time with your nose pressed up against something, you’re bound to notice its shortcomings and have a hard time viewing it objectively. Although I recognize this (with research, too: I’ve played the genuine cheerleader while a friend has commented negatively on their own work, seeing that they’re just too close to view it objectively), it’s hard to get over. I’m trying hard to get over it (as I am with all these things). I am (frankly) too lazy when it comes to embroidery – something I do for fun and relaxation – to fret too obsessively about it, but my perfectionist tendencies can really stymie getting good writing done, because I’m often afraid of making a mistake.

Lesson 1.5: Getting some distance is good, and will help you see past those flaws.

Cross stitch often looks a lot better from far away than it does close up. Is anyone going to see those slightly smushed stitches when this is hanging on my wall & they’re glancing at it? Probably not. A better example is my Final Fantasy X logo, where I tried the “blended thread” technique (using two different colored threads in one needle). As it turns out, I really (really) don’t like the effect, but it’s a lot more muted (and more harmonious) when viewed from a distance, and I’ve never had anyone look at it and go “My god, that’s hideous.” I suppose it’s possible they thought it, but more likely is: they saw it from a distance and thought it looked nice, because they haven’t spent a million hours mired in it. Even I – now that it’s been many years since I spent many hours mired in it – think it looks nice from a distance. The first six months after I defended my dissertation, I couldn’t open it without crying. I was ashamed of myself for producing such a half-baked, horrible piece of scholarship (and the typos! Oh my god, the typos). With some distance, I’ve managed to come around to seeing its good points and its flaws. I needed some time away from it before I could appreciate what I had done.

wachet backLesson 2: Getting from nothing to completed work often looks kind of ugly on the backend.

There are some kinds of embroidery that are designed to be viewed from both sides equally. The “Holbein stitch” – so named because it appears in a lot of Tudor-era Holbein portraits – is one such stitch; it needed to be the same on both sides, since it shows up on collars and cuffs that didn’t just sit in one place. My embroidery, on the other hand, goes on a wall, or on an ornament, or on some other object that is going to be viewed from one side and that’s it. I try to keep things as neat as possible (carrying threads too far, or leaving excessively long tails of thread, or making knots does have an impact on the final impression from the front), but I could frankly care less whether or not it looks the same on the front as it does on the back. Some people can in fact do ultra-neat embroidery that could be displayed equally on the front or the back, but I am not one of those people. Likewise, I am not a perfect researcher or historian. I have bad habits. I am often a disaster in progress on the backend, and often feel perilously close to nervous breakdowns (friends who have been on the receiving end of one of my tear-filled ‘I am incompetent & I’m never going to be able to do this!‘ meltdowns can attest to this). But when it comes down to it, I get the job done, and get it done well (even if I do have to tell my students “Do not follow my example! Don’t do it! I’m telling you from experience!”). I’m always looking for ways to be a little “neater,” but it’s never going to be a totally smooth process and that’s OK.

Lesson 3: Mistakes happen. They’re not the end of the world, though they sure can seem like it.

10552518_10100117848058601_4105017966663198818_nI’ve had to rip out an insane number of stitches in my years of stitching. It’s inevitable: you get motoring along, you stop counting as carefully as you should, and the next thing you know, you’re half a count off and the whole project is in danger of being off kilter. In embroidering on linen, I most often count over two, which means that mistakes are not always immediately apparent (part of the image at left is half a thread off: can you see where?). It is downright painful to spend hours ripping out many hours worth of stitching (as I did on the section shown), but sometimes you can fudge and redirect, sometimes you can’t. It’s usually not the end of the world. I suppose one of the nice things about being a historian is that often, when you run into a wall, it means a shift or redirect – not a “failure.” Kind of like figuring your way out of a half-thread mistake on a piece of linen. Sometimes it means a few hours of ripping out those stitches you so carefully put in … sometimes it means figuring out where you can shift a little here, shift a little there, and …

Lesson 4: Things sometimes look stitched together to you, but it’s often not that noticeable … and just part of the process.

10623351_10100165843724901_3606760155800218901_oThe latest piece I finished was a band sampler – different horizontal bands put together vertically. In retrospect, the smart way to do this would have been to embroider each horizontal band, moving down the sampler. I didn’t do this for a variety of reasons. This means that there’s a pretty clear dividing line running through the middle of my project … or is there? I mean, it’s definitely there, but going to point 1, I’m not sure how many people would really notice (some time with an iron also seems to help this). I’ve read academic work and been able to see the “seams,” but most often, the author needs to note those for me. And when it comes down to it, few projects just spring fully formed from someone’s head – particularly a first project, often based on one’s dissertation and article(s). The author (you) is going to notice the Frankenstein aspects of how everything fits together, but the average viewer isn’t going to see those seams – or at least not to the degree that you do. And pulling things together is just part of the process.

Lesson 5: Your stash can be the best motivation to get through something.

I have a giant stack of projects I’ve stashed in anticipation of getting to them … someday. I sort through them occasionally just to give myself an idea of what comes next (and to stop myself from adding to the stash). But really, one of the biggest motivators in getting through a piece in progress is the idea of starting something new – something that’s really exciting, and has caught my attention! While I guess it would be great to take all the time in the world to see my dissertation through to its (hopeful) conclusion, I have things in my academic stash – projects I’m incredibly enthused about, but can’t get started on until this one is done.

Lesson 6: Appreciate the fact that there are wondrous things that only you are going to notice.

10155660_10100158462551831_1018454225360675027_nI ran out of a dye lot of thread halfway through the project. As it turned out, the new dye lot (of the same “color” thread) had the most glorious shade of lavender in it: I mean, really spectacular. I spent a long time just looking at the thread when I started using it (even though it didn’t “match” exactly – going back to point 4). I tried to photograph it and failed (though you can probably see a little of the variation). I loved the way the pale blue ran into darker blue then into pale purple – just exquisite. I was thrilled with the way it stitched up, and thought it added a nice pop to the project. It’s something I think most people wouldn’t even notice. But I know it’s there, and I take delight in that subtle shade shift. In much the same way, everyone’s work is sprinkled with things they – experts on whatever it is they are writing on – are going to notice, and the rest of us won’t. Friends often query after I read a draft: “Oh, did you think such-and-such part was funny? What about this? Did you notice that turn of phrase? Did you like it?” I usually answer: “Ah … no? I didn’t notice? Was I supposed to? I’m not saying it’s not clever, just that it flew right by …” Most of the time, I’m just not in on the joke, because I’m not the one that has spent a billion hours with the sources and subjects. In much the same way, I still take an unholy amount of pleasure in some of the stories I relate (“Isn’t this spat between high level Marxist intellectuals over this minor point of historical materialism as applied to the Cowherd and the Weaving Girl just HILARIOUS?”), and I just have to come to terms with the fact that they make me smile (because I’m the one that’s been wallowing in them for a period of years), and that’s enough.

Lesson 7: Take pleasure in the mundane joys of work.

Cross stitching is fundamentally pretty boring work. By which I mean: it’s repetitive. I have a pattern. I have one stitch. It is not thrilling from the perspective of changing from moment to moment. There are color changes … and the patterns can be complicated … but it’s not some crazy exciting process. And yet I take great joy in it on a number of levels. It’s productive (you can see progress!). It’s pretty. It’s soothing. It’s comfortable, and something I enjoy. Research, to me, is much the same: sometimes it’s wildly exciting, often it’s not, and sometimes it can be one hell of a horrible slog. But there’s something comfortable about it, and it is something I really enjoy (even when I’m grinding my teeth in anticipation of the end). As I’ve dug into my manuscript, I’ve found myself reminded that I do enjoy the mundane process of nosing around sources (not even things holding exciting finds: just filling in holes here and there), and I especially enjoy writing. It’s a terrifying process, but also one that reminds me of why I’m doing it in the first place – I enjoy this. I’m good at this. For all the inevitable flaws, I’ll be able to do this. It’s just a matter of transferring some of those lessons from needle and thread to dictionary and word processor.

I often feel oddly bereft after finishing large projects, be they embroidery, research, or editing - what do I do now? I like keeping projects around for a little while after finishing, so I can take a peek back and look at all the hard work I’ve done, before moving on to something else. I’ll be taking this latest piece down to the framer’s next week, but until then, I’ll keep it in a safe place to look at and touch now and again. I’m a very tactile person, though it’s not something I often get to indulge in with my research. But there’s something about running my fingers over the surface of an embroidered piece (even though you’re not supposed to; skin oils are bad for fibers!) – it’s a nice sensation, something I can’t quite describe – or feeling the peculiar weight of the fabric once a large design is mostly or entirely stitched onto its surface. It’s a wonderful, heavy feeling – the weight of progress, I guess.


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Those happy golden years (?)

10653510_10100150925336471_1539700535619140759_nThe semester is back in full swing here in Montana, and I’ve been feeling like I’m drowning on multiple levels (though I have had the time for some nice hikes the past two weekends, which has made me and the dog super happy!), but still trying hard to keep my head above water. It’s good for reminding myself that I can cope with stressful situations with (relative) aplomb, but has made those precious hours at home where I can just veg out, embroider, or watch mindless TV all the more magical. I preordered the latest Theatrhythm months ago & had completely forgotten about it, so when it showed up late last week, I was totally delighted (more low-stress, repetitive task activities to distract myself with!) – despite being completely & utterly disgusted with the whole cultural edifice of “videogames.”

The past two months (give or take a week or two) have been utterly insane on the internet, at least in the world of videogames. I was going to describe it as a ‘kerfluffle,’ but the campaign of harassment and vitriol has been totally appalling (this is too light a descriptor) to watch from a distance. Although I don’t write about games much anymore – and even then, write only here, sporadically – I still have a number of friends and acquaintances who are involved in the “games criticism/journalism” community in some capacity or another, and I spent several years pretty close to it on account of my then-significant other. The past few months have been pretty bad, with a lot of talented writers (particularly women) exiting the space for a number of reasons, anger from freelancers over their working conditions (similar in many respects to the adjunct crisis), many things just seeming pretty untenable as writers scramble for limited Patreon dollars to try and support themselves, etc etc. A lot of these issues aren’t new, but they have reached a boiling point. The past couple of weeks have just added to that, and it’s hurt to watch people I care about be targeted, one after another (and just when it seems to be dying down, it comes back with a vengeance …).

At some point, while watching crazier and crazier things be retweeted (my only contribution was replying to people I know: “These people can’t be serious. They CAN’T.” If it were satire, it would be brilliant and cutting – but sadly, I think it was (is) all being spoken or typed with the utmost seriousness), I had this weird thought: My “career” happened during a golden age. I’m teaching a course on “memory & culture,” and talked early in the course about the development of Chinese historiography; we pondered the mythical “golden ages” discussed by ancient historians in various places. Of course, it’s not only an ancient impulse (the “Back in my day” or “Kids these days” – or, more elegantly phrased by Cicero, O tempora o mores – point of view is something every generation needs to come up with). Part of the strange thing about the way people (namely, those who seem to think that the current state of games journalism is Really Awful and Something Needs to Be Done) are talking about games journalism now – or criticism, or blogging, or the Twitterverse, or whatever – is that they seem to believe there’s some amazing mythical past where everything was fine and to their liking. I’m not sure when they’re talking about – four years ago? Seven (when I was writing)? Ten? Twenty? Never? I tend to slot this mythical age of Perfect Games Journalism in the same category as the Yellow Emperor.

It’s made me sad to watch: all of this, but particularly this latest outburst. Things didn’t used to be like this. I don’t think the period I was writing was really a golden age – there is so much smart writing on games now, and much easier ways to connect with people who are interested in the same sorts of things you are! – but on the other hand …. I got the job at Kotaku after Brian Crecente made a post specifically looking for women writers. I don’t remember any hue and cry over this, and Kotaku did in fact hire not one, but two women (I was deemed – justifiably – a bit too dull for weekday rotation, but was offered a weekend spot). I wonder what would happen now? Would a major site put out such a call (based on the recent hires, I’m going to go with ‘no’)? Would there be rants, raves, and death threats over a perceived “social justice warrior” agenda? Probably, is the sad answer. The toxicity that makes it so that I don’t even want to look at games-related tweets on my Twitter feed, for example, just wasn’t such an issue. Oh, sure, there were grumpy, sexist, asshole comments even then (Ian Bogost’s constant wise counsel was ‘Don’t read the comments!’) – but a coordinated harassment campaign? No. I don’t mean to imply that my experience was the norm; but considering the targets of these recent campaigns, I have a hard time imagining I would’ve escaped unscathed were I still writing – and it quite simply never occurred to me that someone would be threatening my life & make me move out of my house due to what I was publicizing in whatever way. And I was pretty paranoid about putting myself out there on the internet!

Theatrhythm LogoCompared to the average history professor, I suppose I’m something of an “insider” as far as games go, but I recognize that for game studies – never mind the enthusiast group – I’m on the fringes, at best. Even when I was writing about games, I didn’t play everything; these days, with time at a premium, I’m far less likely to do so. JRPGs are my poison of choice, and I plink away at a couple of games of a far more casual variety on my iPad when I just need to be distracted. Chances are, if I’m going to invest significant time into a game, it’s going to be something already known and loved (i.e., old). In a word, I’m boring, behind the times, and not a particularly good example of a person who plays a lot of AAA games (or indie games. Or, really, ANY kind of games). I’m never going to be a “games writer” ever again; on the other hand, I do love videogames (some of them, at least).

I don’t love them because of the shit that’s happened the past 2 months. I don’t want to teach with them because of the incredibly toxic community that’s grown up around them – truly, far and away more toxic than I remember anything being 7 years ago. I’ve been playing the latest Theatrhythm release for 3DS (I do haul that around with me everywhere, even though Bozeman is a terrible place for streetpassing!) & reliving “Great moments in gaming past.” Just hearing the music from well-loved titles from many years ago has sent me on a nostalgic bent – it’s not something exclusive to games (I certainly get the same feelings with the right kind of literature or non-game-related music, for instance), but it is a bit funny how bound up certain game memories are with bigger life memories. That’s why I will always play games in some capacity or another.

I remember watching the end of Crisis Core (which I sorely wish would be re-released!) at some point during my first year of grad school, on a PSP I’d bought myself as a Christmas present on a total whim. I loved it. I loved the gameplay, and the story, and the music. I really loved the music (despite not being much for dramatic guitar riffs – but damn, is that a good theme). As I often do, a few months later, I once again clocked through the game after that first frantic playthrough. It was good (more than good). It came at a difficult point in my personal life, and I remember sitting out on the concrete steps of my crappy apartment in a so-so San Diego neighborhood, with my big wonderful black dog keeping watch from inside the steel security grate, while I was drinking canned Kirin Ichiban and smoking cigarettes, playing through the ending (again!), and thinking how sad it all was.

I had weird intimations of that moment this week, as I motored through Theatrhythm & was delighted to discover songs from Crisis Core were included (along with a lot of other things). I love that feeling. It’s why I still bother to buy games (chasing that particular high of wanting to play more more more!), add to my console collection, still have game music in my collection, still have old consoles and handhelds hanging around. I remember how this made me feel, or that, or that. Those feelings often come burbling up at incredibly appropriate times.

Mambo GirlMy office tea mug is known as Mambo Girl (曼波女郎), after the film that graces it. It’s a “homemade” mug – the kind that screws apart so you can put whatever you’d like inside as the decoration – the image trimmed from a DVD cover. I have had it since 2006, and it’s older than that – my friend carried it for some length of time in Taiwan. The night she, her partner, and their Shiba Inu left Taiwan, we were frantically stuffing things into suitcases and bags in that last panicked sweep of their apartment. I caught sight of Mambo Girl – “Cindy! It’s Mambo Girl, you can’t leave her here!” – but there was no room to bring her back to the US, so I took her & have carried her ever since. The lid has chew marks from that Shiba in his younger days (he is much older now – he even has arthritis!), and I’m sure most people would look askance at using a mug that’s pretty ancient, as far as these things go, and has been chewed on by a dog. But I get a kick out of those youthful chew marks, and remember watching the actual Mambo Girl film in Berkeley on my first trip out there, and every time I pour some tea into her (uh, it), I feel warm and fuzzy with the weight of happy memories. Not unlike when I return to well-loved game worlds.

Things like the past few months make me glad I’m happier returning to the past than excitedly looking towards the future, at least insofar as games are concerned; unlike many people I know, I can ignore this stuff these days. I’ve gone through periods wishing I were more involved in the writing community, but having watched what my friends and other people I think highly of have gone through, I’m happy I haven’t. That’s a sad, sad statement of affairs.