Tag Archive for china

Recent research and … Star Wars (of course)

Since moving to Montana, I’ve come to the general conclusion that academics are like wolverines (well, at least academics in my fields): we like our space. We really, really like our space. One might say we’re ridiculously, fiercely protective of that & may in fact get pretty damn grumpy when we don’t get it. I’m currently knee-deep in a week that is making me want to crawl under a blanket and not come out – in the midst of a month that’s doing the same – mostly because my calendar app looks like someone else’s calendar got imported on top of mine. It’s forcing me to be really productive, which I appreciate (I’ve gotten TONS done in the past couple of days!), but I’m also realizing how loosey-goosey my week must look to a person on the usual 9-5.

In any case, amidst generalized work insanity & some personal nonsense, some recent stuff of import:

Jeff Wasserstrom (UC Irvine) was kind enough to think of me (well, more accurately, the Star Wars lianhuanhua) when the world was abuzz with speculation on the latest Star Wars premiere in China. While it’s a little weird to have a random purchase be my calling card since 2014, I’ve just gone with it – Jeff interviewed me for the Los Angeles Review of Books China blog, in the hilariously titled “Darth Vader and the Triceratops,” which came out a few days before my birthday (nice little birthday present, a new line on the ‘Press Appearance’ section of the CV. Thanks, Jeff!). There was also an amazing article in the Japan Times that a fellow UCSD Modern Chinese history-er pointed me towards, on the artist behind the lianhuanhua! Entitled “Red ‘Star Wars’: How China used pirate comic to promote science in 1980s,” I was a little sad to see no mention of a little post that went viral, but still – cool to discover more history about this thing that I will apparently be dealing with forever.

Shortly after that came out, my first academic article in eons came out – relating to stuff I’ve already yammered about a lot here in a much more casual format. “The Game People Played: Mahjong in Modern Chinese Society and Culture” is available at Cross-Currents (open access!). A quick plug: the Cross-Currents editorial staff were models of efficiency & great to work with, and the whole process was really pleasant. It’s not necessarily the article I dreamed of publishing, but for something that was mostly a hacked back version of a 3rd year grad school research project, I did OK. Thanks to Amanda Shuman, Chris Bateman, and Reed Knappe for a lot of good feedback while I was getting it ready for publication. And of course, that seminar from oh-so-many-years-ago – it makes me a little misty eyed remembering it!

I did want to include a couple of images I couldn’t in the article – paired below with the relevant portions of the article.

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 12.42.04 AMScreen Shot 2016-01-26 at 12.41.52 AMScreen Shot 2016-01-26 at 12.41.59 AM

The association between mahjong and baser social elements was not confined to Chinese observers alone. In 1925, the Japanese professor Aoki Masaru commissioned a series of paintings—later published as Pekin fuzoku zufu [Illustrations of Beijing customs]—depicting many aspects of life in Beijing. One series of three images illustrates some pleasurable (and morally suspect) pastimes: sandwiched between two well-dressed gentlemen inspecting beauties spilling out from behind a curtain in a “tea house” and opium smokers lounging while puffing on their pipes is a lively game of mahjong (Aoki 1964, unnumbered plate). It doesn’t seem accidental that mahjong is slotted alongside a teahouse of ill repute and opium. And yet, by the twentieth century, mahjong not only was attracting players from the upper echelons of Chinese society, but had fans in Japan and the West, as well. Despite being a trifling matter, mahjong was a concern for reformers because it cut across class, gender, and geographical boundaries.

And on one of my favorite cartoons:


At the same time, some writers recognized that mahjong was merely a symptom, not the cause, of problems faced by urban residents, particularly women. In a compelling Women’s Voice article from 1947, the reader is drawn to a cartoon labeled “Still Comrades” (“Naiyi” 1947, 18). Four women hunker down over a mahjong game, complaining about their husbands. “My husband’s a refrigerator,” one says. “My husband is as cold as the snow of the Himalayas,” grouses another, while the next states that her husband is like a block of marble. “My husband is hot as a volcano,” declares the last, “but he only uses his heat on the body of his secretary.” Mahjong is simply a facilitator for the conversation happening at the table, and it is this social quality that the article takes up in discussing mahjong clubs.

“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:

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 10.27.44 PM

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 10.27.51 PM

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 10.27.58 PM

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 10.27.28 PM

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.

New Year, New(ish) Look

2014laomo300Well, 2014 was a pretty exciting year for this blog: my little post on a Chinese lianhuanhua version of Star Wars went viral (and is still garnering a pretty astonishing number of page views for a not frequently updated, kind of boring blog. It’s far surpassed even my best post at Kotaku!). I was also selected as one of Danwei’s 2014 Model Workers, which made me feel pretty good – I’m in excellent company. Similarly, I was put on the “China Twitterati 100” list of Jon Sullivan, a fellow China scholar at the University of Nottingham (admittedly, 2013 was the year with all the big guns, but considering my Twitter feed is often full of dog photos, random photos of Montana, and not much else, I was pleased nonetheless). I often feel a bit disconnected from my field, but I do try and take advantage of the Twitter ecosystem, which has proven a pretty good way to build connections with people I’d otherwise not get to interact with a whole lot (or at all).

The new year brought another amazing digital thing, though this one had nothing to do with stroking my ego: The Freer & Sackler (where the Asian art collection of the Smithsonian is housed) released their collection digitally. I was practically beside myself with excitement – the F&S was one of my favorite places to pop in for a visit when I still lived in northern VA, and it’s so nice to be able to look at their collection (all of it, not just pieces on display) “up close” and in high resolution. It’s not quite the same as seeing these things in the flesh, but I’m really delighted that even in the wilds of the frozen north, I can have some access to a wonderful collection.

I use a lot of images in my teaching, so I’m excited to have a treasure trove of painting, sculpture, ceramics, etc. to draw from (again, in high resolution!). I was also thrilled to have expanded, pretty unfettered access to one of my favorite themes (equine art!), so I finally upgraded my site theme to take advantage of multiple, randomized headers so I could have all the pretty ponies on my site, not just one at a time. Unfortunately, I’m still working some kinks out in the transition, but everything is here & I think the headers are just beautiful (I may be a touch biased here). Spending the first day of the new year poring over images both new to me and very familiar was actually pretty wonderful & inspiring. As frustrated as I sometimes get with life as a Chinese historian (what was I thinking! Couldn’t I have picked some easier field?!), it’s good to be reminded that I do love a lot of stuff outside my narrow little window of scholarship, and do enjoy teaching & writing about it.

As I clicked around and perused image after image, I was reminded of one of my favorite poems, “The Gathering at Orchid Pavilion” (a reference to depictions of the poetry gathering immortalized by Wang Xizhi 王羲之) by Shin Yu Pai. This doesn’t replace the physical – I still long to press my nose up against glass when taking in a beautiful object or painting – but it is something. A starting point. A wonderful & generous gift from the museum that houses some of my favorite pieces of Asian art (like the totally charming “Sheep & Goat” by Zhao Mengfu 赵孟頫, several gorgeous Japanese Lotus Sutras, and the spectacular “Tartars Playing Polo” by Kano Jinnojo): thank you, F&S!

山雪蘭亭図_208CJS_flyer copy

Entering a darkened room
to pass between sixteen pillars
of equal height and depth,
ten feet high and one foot square,

I place my hand against the grain
hold my ear to a pillar
listening for something
like the sound of trees.

Across the room
six folded screens
colored ink and gold on silk

the specks of turquoise in those mountains
glimmering points of light
from a distance
the shine of moss

in memory like the lights
of houses in the hillsides
lanterns in the sea
of winter nights.

Mist erases crags and peaks.

Bearded scholars on blankets
read to one another
calligraphing poems
under shade of bamboo and plum

as servants fill cups
with rice wine
floated downstream
on lotus pads.

My breath clouds the casing
as I think of humidity
and the desire to touch things.

The door of the gallery opens.
A father and his daughter

I think we’ve seen this one before, the girl says.
They look for the place where the story begins.
The girl kisses the glass.

Where does the story begin?
Father insists gently.

In the mountains, the girl cries.

Traces of handprints left on the glass.

It starts here, she says

From Equivalence (2003)

On a silly note, doing these headers has been by turns interesting and really amusing. Here are my two favorites. One is a “formerly attributed to Han Gan 韩干 ” (my favorite Chinese painter of horses, though few of his works survive in the original – I was lucky enough to see Herding Horses 牧馬圖, my very favorite piece of art, at Taipei’s National Palace Museum) with the most charming inquisitive look (“Why, a blog? You don’t say!”), the other a woodblock from the Edo period – proving that wacky JRPG hairstyles are not, in fact, some crazy invention of the contemporary age (everything old is new again?). It’s been fun to see tiny details!

Screen Shot 2015-01-02 at 9.14.07 PM

Screen Shot 2015-01-02 at 9.15.09 PM

Giving pleasure, not a political lesson

Darth Vader lianhuanhuaWell, the Star Wars comic has proved shockingly popular; I’ve been keeping up on both where it’s going & the sorts of discussions its been stimulating with great interest. I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised that there’s been a lot of delight (and trying to figure out where the references are coming from), versus generalized grousing about shanzhai culture in China; the timbre of the discussion also seems a bit different from the usual ‘point and laugh at bizarre Chinese shanzhai whatever.’

I was burbling to a colleague about its spread & he asked why I was cordoning it off from my ‘actual work’ (‘This is your actual work!’ was basically his response), but I suppose I’ve looked at it as an idle curiosity, with barely any connections to my research topic of the past few years – especially with some of the grandiose titles authors have come up with, discussing its rarity and my “unearthing” of it (I feel as though I unearth things from the archives; this was a cheap purchase on the fly!). Unlike Nick Stember (who has been posting translations of the comics on his site, and did a wonderful post on lianhuanhua adaptations of Western movies), say, or any number of other academics, I don’t primarily study visual culture. I certainly don’t deal with interpretations of Western culture in the PRC (at least, not of this sort) - Li Huiniang (a lot of the great ghost operas, really) is about as classically Chinese, in form, language, and content, as one is going to get.

But a comment on the Star Wars post got me thinking. The comment noted:

So this is a story of a rebel faction (written as 造反者, no less) fighting against the tyranny of a great empire, and it was just so casually published in China back then? I find this rather interesting.

In contrast, a translated Japanese light novel “No Game No Life” was recently banned in China, because the protagonists won a (modified) chess game by inciting a coup in the opponent’s (chess-piece) camp, and the book was deemed to promote subversion, blah blah blah,

Actually, I find this very unsurprising; of all the things that have crossed my mind, the “rebel faction fighting great empire” being problematic was not one. Perhaps if Star Wars had premiered in 1963; but 1980? The post-Cultural Revolution “thaw” of the very late 1970s/early 1980s looks remarkably like the post-Great Leap Forward thaw of the early 1960s. My research concerns opera in particular, but the relative relaxation of both periods was seen elsewhere, and for very similar reasons (and, I would guess, opera was generally considered more of a bureaucratic priority than lianhuanhua: regulation would have been stiffer for opera). The present, of course, is a different kettle of fish altogether; who knows what would be said about this presentation of Star Wars right now?

The Star Wars comic may seem a strange thing to try and compare to traditional Chinese opera (xiqu 戏曲), but consider the fact that (quoting from my Appendix piece on Li Huiniang through the ages) there is a very beloved plot structure in Chinese theatre, going something like this:

It is a time of great crisis for China, a period when peasants break under the strain of government pressure and foreign armies agitate on the borders. A cruel or impressively incompetent ruler is in power, a person who cares for little but his own pleasure. At best, he ignores pressing political issues and the unhappiness of his people; at worst, he makes the lives of the people worse through draconian punishments and inhuman land requisitions and taxation. Weak and corrupt lackeys and subordinates surround him. But there is somebody—there is always at least one person—who finally stands up to him. It may be an official with a sharply honed sense of right and wrong, or perhaps a gutsy young scholar who burns with righteous fury. And sometimes there is an innocent bystander who meets a gruesome, unjust end.

Little guy against the big guy (even in Hai Rui Dismissed from Office [Hai Rui baguan 海瑞罢官] – by Wu Han 吴晗 – you’re dealing with an important minister versus an even more important person – the emperor); the big guy is invariably doing something wrong (usually really, really wrong). In the case of Li Huiniang 李慧娘, one of the ghost plays I study most intensely, it’s a combination of gutsy young scholar & a powerless concubine. The scholar stands up for himself in the face of the evil prime minister (who is cavorting by West Lake while the peasants starve and barbarians mass on the northern borders: callous and incompetent), the concubine remarks admiringly on it, and she winds up dead at the hands of the prime minister (and returns as an incredibly righteously indignant ghost, at least in the version by Meng Chao 孟超).

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.

Li Huiniang script used by the Beijing Kunqu Troupe, marked “poisonous weed” above the crossed out title – below is noted that it is “evidence for criticism.” From my personal collection.

Until 1963 – and, for plays like Hai Rui, until 1965 – these sorts of story lines weren’t read as subversive, at least not in official channels. They were celebrated for encouraging a “resisting spirit,” “spirit of revolt” [fankang jingshen 反抗精神] in their audiences; naturally, they were not talking about the spirit of resisting the Party, but of everything else that needed to be resisted (America, capitalism, revisionism, landlords, Confucianism, the patriarchy, whatever: the list is practically endless).  Some of this is simply part and parcel of the game of Marxist showmanship, where intellectuals and artists trotted through a pretty standard set of narratives to justify why certain types of culture – often the things Mao had said (at Yan’an) ought to be “totally destroyed” – were perfectly appropriate for socialist China. On the other hand, I’m not keen to dismiss all of that kind of talk as meaningless: I think there was a kernel of truth underneath all those claims (that is, I think a lot of the writers did believe in the power of art, and did think it could be “educational” without being over the top, and did think “the masses” probably had something to learn from watching well-loved classics).

However, there was undoubtedly an element of modern “indirect remonstrance” regarding the Great Leap Forward by senior intellectuals who were writing these revamped classical tales. But that (like the story lines themselves) is a grand tradition. Tian Han 田汉, the famous playwright who also write a revised historical drama along the same lines (Xie Yaohuan 谢瑶环), supposedly told Meng Chao that Li Huiniang‘s great fault was that opera (qǔ 曲) should be “bent” or “indirect” (qÅ« 曲); Li Huiniang was too “unyielding,” or “not bent,” or “direct” (buqū 不曲).1 As it turned out, they were considered “too direct” – an attack on the Party, or on Mao himself – after 1963; Li Huiniang, Xie Yaohuan, Hai Rui, and their authors were savaged in the early days of the Cultural Revolution, the first casualties of that long decade. I’ve written about all of this in my Modern Chinese Literature & Culture article, “A Ghostly Bodhisattva and the Price of Vengeance: Meng Chao, Li Huiniang, and the Politics of Drama, 1959-1979.”

But the terror of the Cultural Revolution was not foreordained in 1961, and it was a period of relative relaxation, insofar as parts of the cultural realm were concerned. Who could have seen 1966 coming when Chen Yi 陈毅 (at the time the Foreign Minister) commented on the profusion of crappy, didactic dramas that flourished during the Great Leap Forward: “Plays,” he said, “should give us pleasure and artistic satisfaction, not a political lesson.” The reasoning was, of course, that having come through such a dreadful period, people just needed to be entertained; to smile and be happy; to forget. Zhang Zhen 张真, a staunch defender of traditional drama throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, wrote in 1956 on the overzealous application of certain rules regarding drama (in this case, the dictate that the masses should not be made the butt of jokes):

… the clowns have all washed their faces clean [referring to the traditional makeup style of clown characters] …. This is most odd. Can it Screen Shot 2014-05-31 at 11.25.24 PMbe that there are people who believe that the construction of socialism and laughing are incompatible? Some people think these little comedies have no didactic purpose, but I think in regards to [them], we should just want them to give the audience a healthy laugh, and this is enough.

The tension between didactic drama and artistically valuable drama (or just entertaining drama) is felt throughout the period. But in the short thaw of the early 1960s, although playwrights and intellectuals didn’t back away totally from the need to justify their work on socialist merits, they weren’t tied to producing works of often questionable creative and artistic standards (indeed, the performance of contemporary-themed revolutionary works – never terribly robust – drops to practically nil in the period between 1960 and 1964).

In any case, the Cultural Revolution didn’t kill these plays (their authors were another matter entirely); in the period following Mao’s death and the fall of Jiang Qing’s clique, known as the Gang of Four, in 1976, drama journals resumed publication, photographs of ballerinas with bayonets and opera singers dressed in the dull olives and blues of military uniforms were replaced (gradually) with those of plays that hadn’t seen a stage for a decade or more – actors in beautifully embroidered robes, actresses resplendent in glittering headdresses. Li Huiniang returned in 1979, one audience member recalling that when the curtain went up on the first performance in Beijing, the audience’s nervous, excited energy was palpable.

Part of this was due to the political situation, no doubt – a sign that other, more recent specters of the past were at least locked in jail – but it’s also a testament to two things: one, the enduring power of these types of classical tales (and their incredible adaptability); two, to a much more relaxed atmosphere of cultural production, one that hadn’t been seen since the early 1960s (again, this is all relative).

So, in a climate that was downright encouraging of plays like Hai Rui and Xie Yaohuan and Li Huiniang – not just plays that could be read as subversive, but had been actively criticized as attacking Mao and the Party (it’s probably a testament to how neutered traditional drama has become that it’s now pretty much in the camp of “safe and glorious national product,” ghosts or no ghosts) – plays that celebrated the long odds of the little guy versus overwhelming (usually state) power, Star Wars would’ve fit right in. Sure, it was American in origin, but it’s not like it was set in America – it’s science fiction (frankly, I’d think this less dangerous in many respects than classical Chinese tales set in China – never mind classical Chinese tales set in China that have already been accused of trying to bring down the Party). So many of the Cold War-era, space racey elements “could have” been read as us (China, the little guy!) versus them (American capitalists! The Soviet Union!) – without venturing into us (the masses) versus them (the CCP). Even more topically, it could be read as us (the masses) versus them (the Gang of Four & the excesses of the Cultural Revolution).

Besides, there were much more vicious critiques that were allowed to be published. One of my favorite essays is one I’ve written aboutI think of Meng Chao” 我怀孟超 by Lou Shiyi 楼适夷 – published in 1979, where he says (in a not terribly subtle, extraordinarily sarcastic manner – and this was published in People’s Daily!) of the period of early Li Huiniang criticism:

At the time I didn’t really understand – how could “anti-Jia Sidao” count as “anti-party”?  Don’t tell me our great, righteous, glorious, and honorable party was harboring a Jia Sidao?2

A fantastical space opera tale, no matter what kind of resistance it was encouraging, looks pretty tame in comparison to some of the cutting remarks of senior CCP members who had been through the gamut & had had it. So I suspect it was “allowed” because, as Chen Yi & Zhang Zhen discussed drama in the ’50s and ’60s, it could entertain people, and the people desperately needed to be entertained. Further, there were much more important things to keep an eye on. Just as bureaucrats had in the wake of the Leap, attention was turned towards getting the economy and society back on track, and away from tighter control of the cultural sphere. Policing lianhuanhua must have been pretty low on the list of things to take care of.

Besides … if I were looking for rebellion-fomenting culture c. 1980, I’m pretty sure Darth Vader & a triceratops would not be tops on my list of dangerous media. I mean, really: just look at it!

Screen Shot 2014-06-01 at 12.15.52 AM


Show 2 footnotes

  1. Clever bit of word play from a clever man; unfortunately, none of them were clever enough to get themselves out of the trouble they inadvertently created for themselves by writing historical dramas.
  2. Surprise: it was!

A Long Time Ago in a China Far, Far Away …

A few of my lianhuanhua (the Li Huiniang - a reprint - is unusually large)

A few of my lianhuanhua (Li Huiniang – a reprint – is unusually large)

As much as I don’t miss large swaths of life in China, I do look longingly at kongfz.com, the world’s best secondhand book website, and remember with pleasure being able to purchase a lot of sources and other bits of historical detritus with a minimum of effort. These days, getting ahold of things that catch my intellectual fancy requires contacting several friends, a good bit of guilt on my part for imposing, a wait of months, shuffling money in between international bank accounts, etc. And in addition to online book shopping, there’s a lot of other places to buy secondhand books and other types of sources – places like flea markets (which have proven to be a real boon for a number of PRC historians – documents that seem like they ought to be in an archive, and sometimes were previously in the hands of work units or other official places, sometimes show up) and book fairs. In Shanghai, the Confucian temple – Wen Miao 文庙 – is a beautiful, tranquil gem in the middle of an enormous, bustling city; it also happens to host a nice book fair each week. The sellers, spreading out on tables and on blankets, have everything – from foreign language books, to text books, to expensive coffee table art books, to generic publications of a more recent vintage, to old things of many types.

In addition to owning a lot of 1950s and 1960s publications of various stripes, I have a small collection of lianhuanhua 连环画, picture storybooks, or comic books (though they’re a different format than the ones commonly seen in the West). They are readily available, and at the Wen Miao, several sellers had heaps and heaps of them every time I went. They tend to be cheap – with a few exceptions, Cultural Revolution-era ones being rather desirable and thus, more expensive – and tiny, and come in a pretty diverse variety of topics. I collect ones related to opera, of which there are a great many. Some of them are actually quite beautifully done – I have a few versions of Li Huiniang 李慧娘, one in particular has drawings that are lovely and evocative. Sometimes, popular movies would receive the lianhuanhua treatment, with the text illustrated by movie stills. These I find much less interesting than their drawn companions, but does indicate something about the relative reach of certain kinds of films.



They don’t really have anything to do with my research, but it’s interesting to see how different stories have been interpreted, which stories have been popular over the years, and so on. I don’t go out of my way to acquire them (unless they are related specifically to one of the few plays I pay a lot of attention to), but at the Wen Miao, it was easy to buy them by the handful. Once, a seller who queried me about what I was looking for in somewhat halting English reacted with surprise when I responded in Chinese that I was looking for opera lianhuanhua, especially anything with ghosts. He dragged a few things out (most of which I bought), then pointed to another one, which was neither opera nor ghost related.

It was Star Wars. In lianhuanhua form. From 1980. It was simply so incongruous I couldn’t leave it behind. It also cost about a dollar (which is one reason I’m not terribly discerning with what lianhuanhua I pick up on whims!).


I’m always very interested in how culture circulates and changes through time and space – although my current research focuses on culture being reiterated and refashioned over time, more simultaneous instances are also of great interest to me (if not quite an issue with 16th c. Chinese ghost plays). I suppose one of the defining features of modern Chinese cultural production (or perceptions of it, at least) is rather rampant IP violations. But at the same time people are amazed by the speed with which Chinese pirates hop on all sorts of (re)production, I think we often forget how quickly culture circulated before the internet. My students, for instance, are often surprised to discover how hip audiences in Shanghai were to Western films in the 1920s and 1930s, or music; and how these things flowed back and forth across the Pacific. Considering the delay in getting from point A to point B in an era where air travel – never mind the internet – was not the primary way of moving people and goods, it’s really pretty impressive.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that in 1980, an enterprising press in Guangzhou put together a lianhuanhua of a popular Western movie – one that had come out three years before in the US, and a year after that in Hong Kong (my guess as to where the “libretto” and stills, etc. came from: it seems pretty obvious from the drawings that the artists weren’t always working from an actual film, or really much at all). But we’re very accustomed to thinking of China at this point-or-slightly-before as being so very cut off from outside influences. And it’s true to some degree, the Cultural Revolution had just ended in 1976, shortly after Mao’s death, and China was culturally isolated (from Hollywood, at least) in a way it hadn’t been in, say, the 1930s.  So I admit that Star Wars popping up amidst the classical tales and stories of brave revolutionaries did surprise me a little bit, and I’m supposed to know better! But one presumes this wasn’t exactly the sort of thing Deng Xiaoping was really gunning for with reform and opening (gaige kaifang 改革开放).

The actual lianhuanhua is a fascinating document, with weird bits sticking out here and there; but it’s also a fanciful imagining (I think) of American – or generalized Western – life, especially evident in the dinner scene where a duck (?) is being stuck into a toaster oven (!) & the table has not only a little hot plate, but a crockpot (or rice cooker) there, too. The artist also makes some amusing flubs – Chewbacca appears in some scenes in a relatively credible way, in others looking like an outtake from Planet of the Apes. It also often looks like something out of a Cold War-era propaganda poster, at least where the details are concerned. Were the actors really garbed in Soviet looking space suits? Was Darth Vader really pacing before a map bearing the location of the Kennedy Space Center?

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 5.04.55 PM Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 5.05.09 PM

I was reorganizing my bookshelves the other day and found part of my lianhuanhua stash, this little gem among them – I posted a few pictures on Twitter & Facebook, and a couple of people there begged me to put up the whole thing, so here it is. I just got a Doxie Flip scanner, since I realized (during the same bookshelf organizing session that turned up Xingqiu dazhan) that a lot of my precious 1950s and 1960s publications are disintegrating (they are usually quite tiny – about postcard sized – so hauling out my big flatbed scanner seems like kind of a waste) & I should digitize them posthaste, which made it easy to scan this sucker, too. As a bonus, Doxie has one of the best, most user-friendly scanning interfaces ever – including a nice stitch function, which I made good use of – so while it took me a bit of time to put together the scans, it was a smooth process (Doxie also has amazing customer service – a few months ago, I whined on Twitter about my relatively young Doxie One workhorse crapping out & they sent me a brand new one right away – for free!). Click below for the PDF scans (broken into 4 sections)

星球大战1 星球大战2 星球大战3 星球大战4

I’ve also written some extended thoughts on the post-Cultural Revolution cultural context of “rebel force vs. tyrannical empire.”

(Brendan O’Kane also kindly cleaned up & OCR’d my scans – there’s some loss of detail, but it’s a much smaller & more manageable package - which can be found on his site)

As a further update, some people have dug up other Chinese versions, linked to in this lengthy forum post. It looks like this 1980 version is pretty competent artistically, all things considered!

Susan Fernsebner, a fellow Chinese historian, put up some related musings on vintage science fiction covers.

Nick Stember, a grad student at UBC, has put together a fantastic post: Chinese Lianhuanhua: A Century of Pirated Movies. Nick is also posting a full English translation of the comic over at his website – Part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4

Jeremy Blum of the South China Morning Post also did an article on lianhuanhua – this one in particular.

We’re also on io9! … And the Hollywood Reporter. And Rolling Stone. And the BBC.  And a lot of other places, including (paper) newspapers! Who knew a humble shanghai Chinese comic book would get so much attention?

Thoughts on our 2014 AAS Roundtable, Part II

As I mentioned in my general ramblings on our AAS roundtable, the general theme was “access.” Although Alan & Nick in particular focused on issues of accessibility in regards to sources (mostly for teaching), Amanda & I riffed on the theme of accessibility of sources (mostly for research). I spoke for a very short period of time – hoping, I think, that there would be more discussion in the comments period of some of the points raised regarding research (and there was a comment – tied, actually, to Nick’s discussion of the Japan Disaster Archive – about issues related to IP). As it turned on, the teaching portion was apparently of much greater interest to everyone, but I wanted to scribble down some thoughts beyond my short comments at the panel.

In speaking of access, I was specifically referring to the problem of getting into important, subscription-based repositories of digitized sources, databases like Duxiu, ChinaMAXX, China Academic Journals (CAJ), and the like. In some respects, this is the dullest manifestation of anything related to “the digital”: we’re talking about paper sources that have been scanned, OCR’d, and put up on subscription-based sites. We’re not talking world-changing, discipline-transforming use of technology here, are we?

Not exactly, no, but you’d be surprised. During our research seminars in grad school (and at other points, of course), my advisors would occasionally comment on the changes the field had undergone since they did their research decades ago. The ability to do keyword searches of Chinese-language materials has changed the way we research – for one, it means that you (very easily) can find references in the most scattered of places. The example I usually point to is my discovery of a poem one of my playwrights, Meng Chao, published in Xin tiyu 新体育, the premier sports & physical culture magazine of the 1950s and 1960s. I’d been thinking of getting something going on Chinese mountaineering, but turning up this little gem while running a usual search (in hopes of turning up something from one of the theatre or literary journals) really made me sit up and take notice. Now, I did have a similar experience after I purchased a 1967 newspaper article on ghost opera off of the second hand book website, kongfz.com (I’ve written about the glories of online book shopping in China before). There, I noticed a strange line about a 1962 spoken language drama titled Mount Everest. But that was happenstance on a whole different level – the kind of thing that is tremendously difficult to replicate.

My advisors commented on the change – the ability to really drill down on a narrow set of terms or people and have hundreds or thousands of articles at your fingertips is quite different from spending ages paging through paper documents by hand, looking for scattered references. On the one hand, there’s a lot that can be gleaned from perusing hardcopy sources while you look for references here, there, and everywhere. On the other, databases can turn up references in the least likely of places – like Meng Chao in a magazine that I would never otherwise pick up while researching opera!

The accessibility of these databases, with enormous stores of documents, hasn’t lessened my reliance on hardcopies; for instance, I own a fairly complete run of Theatre Report 戏剧报 for the years between 1955 and 1966. This is one of the primary sources for my work on opera reform & it was a fairly expensive (and space-consuming) thing to purchase. I did so because I like being able to browse hardcopies, and it is different from “browsing” digitized issues on CAJ, or doing specific keyword searches on Duxiu. I also own a lot of very minor regional drama publications from the 1950s, most of which don’t exist in libraries or digital archives. But there’s simply no denying that one reason I managed to cough up a dissertation that was reasonably solid is because I had the tools at my disposal to make wading through thousands and thousands of articles feasible. These tools are simply part of doing research these days – important parts of research.

And unfortunately, because I didn’t land at a school that has a large Asian studies program & the resources to devote to it, it’s access I’m scrambling to maintain after this year. Access that my work in large measure depends on. Before this gets taken out of context as a “poor me, I didn’t land a job at an Ivy” whine, let me say that I’m quite happy where I am, and this is problem that extends to what I suspect is most of us in this field (at least in the US). I realized that this was a bigger problem than I had first thought when a friend, who is installed at a very well-respected private institution (although one with – again – a relatively small body of Asianists) emailed to ask what I was doing about access; I was shocked that my friend’s school didn’t subscribe to these kinds of resources. So even places that look like they have more money to fling at research sources than my land grant institution often can’t justify it for a handful – if that – of faculty members.

My advisors may have commented on the way this changes how their grad students approached research topics, but no one is talking about how access – or not – to these sorts of materials are important for the field as a whole. Most of us don’t wind up at institutions with a large population of Asianists, and anyone in academia can speak to the trimming of budgets that make every penny really count. In today’s climate of reduced funding for libraries, and the fact that many more schools have at least one Asianist (if not more) on the faculty than was probably the case forty years ago, what happens to those of us outside the realm of a relative handful of institutions that can afford subscription services?

Here’s what I sort of feel like my field is telling me, mostly by not saying anything at all (that’s Duxiu, by the way, my most oft-used database):

Screen Shot 2014-03-29 at 3.49.54 PM


This is a really, really important issue, and it’s something I feel like our (inter)national organization dedicated to Asian studies could actually facilitate discussion on – and maybe even solutions. Database companies are not set up to cater to individual scholars seeking access; they negotiate contracts with individual universities and consortiums (many UC campuses, for instance, buy in to online resources together). Some companies, like East View (which handles CAJ and other Chinese materials, as well as databases of Russian & Arabic sources), specifically request you go through your libraries – and based on their pricing structure, my university would fall into the same category as, say, Harvard or Berkeley (which certainly have a lot more Asianists than we do!).  I am definitely exploring my options, including getting in contact with institutions that have (in theory) service to neighboring areas like Montana as part of their mission. But wouldn’t it be nice if people – including independent scholars, and people in more populated areas – had an easy way to buy in to subscription services?

In my presentation, I mentioned the German system, which is brilliant, wonderful, and inclusive. Individuals – and institutions – can subscribe to CrossAsia, which provides access to a wide variety of subscription services. All an individual needs is a Berlin Staatsbibliothek card (which is acquired for a very reasonable yearly fee); those affiliated with institutions can get access in that way. Over dinner, Hilde explained a little more about how CrossAsia came into being – basically, an individual librarian marshaled the entire effort and managed to pull all German universities into the system. For small outposts, it actually made it affordable to get their Asianists access to a huge number of databases. For much bigger programs, it wound up being cheaper for them to both maintain access to the things they already subscribed to, and gain access to new resources. Put into American terms, it’s a system that made sense for the Montana States or Mary Washingtons of the world and the Harvards and UC systems.

It would be delightful if this could be replicated nationally, but the US isn’t Germany. Still, I can’t help but feel there’s more we collectively could do as a field to make inroads in ensuring access to vital resources. I chatted with a colleague after this panel, and mentioned the access issue – he said that it was funny (though not surprising) that a lot of the promise of digitization & popularization, etc. has wound up reinforcing old elitist boundaries (this is someone who left one of those Old Elite Schools to come to a land grant institution, so it’s not bitterness on his part). No institution could afford to replicate today the kinds of collections found in the bastions of area studies – not even the bastions, as the price of (print) sources is simply astronomical in many cases. And yet, very often, access to these things which should help spread the wealth around a little more is still limited to places that can afford to cough up very expensive yearly fees, negotiated by individual institutions. It’s just gatekeeping of a different manner.

I’m not asking to simply leech off schools with better endowed libraries than my own, for free; I would cheerfully pay my own money – far more than the cost of a Berlin Staatsbibliothek card – every year to ensure I had access to materials to continue doing my research with a minimum of muss and fuss. At the same time, I am not in a position to negotiate as an individual with CAJ, with Duxiu, with the People’s Daily database. If the German case proves anything, it’s that not just smaller institutions won by coming together in a consortium: even the big, elite Asian studies institutions got something out of the deal (the same thing smaller institutions got, actually: more & better access, cheaper). The more people – or institutions – you have bargaining with database companies (who really have a lot leverage in this situation, just as companies like JSTOR have in providing access to academic journals), the better.

Bigger programs are already subsidizing my research, to some extent – every time I order materials on inter-library loan (things like microfilm – the type of sources that are often available, at least for my period, online through databases), that costs everyone money: my library, their library. Does ILL really make more sense than providing some kind of buy-in to subscription services for a reasonable fee? I’m not a librarian – and don’t know the economics of everything – but I think we need to at least start having a conversation (between academics, librarians, and database companies) about how we could all work together. Both the elite institutions, and those of us who have left the elite nest at the conclusion of our graduate training.

I’ve been encouraged to talk to our library about subscribing to at least one critical database, and I’ll probably broach the subject with our librarians (and see what suggestions they have). But truthfully, I am at a land grant institution, one without massive resources or a wonderful Asian studies collection. I’m a lot more interested in making sure my students have access to books, so I can stop lending out my personal copies of tomes I consider basic acquisitions for an academic library. The thousands and thousands of dollars a year it would cost to negotiate access that would benefit only me are, in my opinion, better spent on acquisitions that would benefit a lot more people. 

I’m not ashamed for holding a TT position at a school without a history of being a hotbed of Asianists. Really, that describes most of us – few of us will wind up at institutions that look like the universities where we trained as grad students. Even a relatively lateral move – say, from one UC to another – is not going to mean a total equivalency in regards to resources (for one thing, different schools – even the bastions – have different emphases in their collections). Isn’t this the kind of discussion we should be having? The debate over open access to academic publications acknowledges that databases are a relatively new, very important issue – and access to those resources is incredibly important. The accessibility of primary source databases should be part of that discussion. And, just like bigger conversations on teaching and research, this is something that I want my field to be participating in. Keeping an eye on AHA discussions is great, but there are some specific issues here that we need to be discussing, not just skirting the edges of in broader, discipline-wide conversations.

Things have changed a lot since my advisors did their training. I just hope that it doesn’t take another forty years for us to collectively figure out how to manage the changing landscape of the past ten.

Thoughts on our 2014 AAS Roundtable, Part I

Chinese typewriterI just returned from a rousing Association of Asian Studies annual conference in Philadelphia, which is the annual gathering to wallow (in the most wonderful way) in Asian studies for a few days with old friends & new friends. What follows are some (probably confused and somewhat random) thoughts on the panel I was part of (part I) & some expansion on things I only touched on in a few minutes (part II) – I think we’d all like to keep a conversation going & I hope this year’s AAS (and our panel) was a piece in getting that conversation going and sustaining it.

I was part of a roundtable called “Charting the Digital in Asian Studies: Promises, Realities & the Future of Teaching and Research.” It was spearheaded by one of my best friends in the field, Amanda Shuman (PhD candidate in East Asian history at UC Santa Cruz) – we talked last spring about getting a panel on “digital humanities” together (because we’re not really doing as much discussion as a field about tools & methodologies for teaching & research as we should) & Amanda did the legwork. To our great surprise, we were actually accepted. Amanda was unable to attend in person this year because she was recently delivered of child, but she Skyped in to the panel (the technical issues are a story for another day, I suppose).

I was really delighted to be included with a very experienced panel of fellow Asianists doing some really amazing work. Hilde de Weerdt (professor of Chinese history at Leiden) was our discussant & also introduced her own very new course aimed at getting students both working with classical Chinese sources & using digital tools to map those sources (in this case, correspondence). We also had Alan Christy (professor of Japanese history at UCSC), who I met for the first time (having heard a lot about him from Amanda) last year when he graciously allowed me to tag along to a workshop in Santa Cruz set up to discuss a long-running UCSC course with a significant digital component (Eternal Flames: Living Memories of the Pacific War). This go-round, he discussed another project with students involving a large collection of photographs of Okinawa in the 1950s, also under the auspices of the Center for the Study of Pacific War Memories at UCSC. Sue Fernsebner (professor of Chinese history at University of Mary Washington) – my undergrad mentor who I’ve written about here – talked about her experiences designing and implementing an undergraduate methods course with digital components (she posted some links & description over on her blog). Finally, Nick Kapur (post-doc at the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard) discussed his involvement in Harvard’s Digital Archive of Japan’s 2011 Disasters.

It was in one respect a little disappointing (having absolutely nothing to do with my fellow panelists or our discussion!): it seems a shame that there are so few panels at the “premier Asian studies conference” dealing with the practical matters of teaching & researching concerns (related to the digital or not; but bluntly, I think the issues we were talking about were largely just as useful for people who have no interest in “the digital” or computational tools). Ian Bogost, one of my favorite (and grumpiest) people in academia, has written a fair amount about the problems inherent in these “digital humanities” discussions (and certainly, a lot of other people have, too). I’d like to think we weren’t simply (in Ian’s words) “pat[ting] ourselves on the back for installing blogs and signing up for Twitter” – I am always keenly aware of the general lack of knowledge among historians at large. The general theme of our roundtable was access (in various permutations), and in its teaching manifestation, one even the technophobes among us should be interested in: how do we, as Asianists, get our students into sources – beyond the limits of those available in translation – when our students generally don’t have the capability to read those languages?

This isn’t a “digital humanities” problem, it’s a “we teach things in languages other than English” problem. Alan described the types of discussions he’s had with students who come in wanting to research a variety of topics. “Do you read Japanese?” he queries. Of course they don’t. “Well, there are all sorts of things in Japanese; nothing in English; sorry, pick something else.” I’ve only been installed in a faculty position since last August & I’ve had this same conversation multiple times. “Great idea!” I say, when a student trots out an interesting research topic, but one I know that’s simply not feasible given linguistic limitations. “But you can’t.”  I jealously look at my Americanist colleagues, who can cull from their plethora of English-language sources to find things their senior capstone students can work with. It’s not that I don’t have sources; I have tons of them! But they’re in Chinese. I would love to find ways to introduce my students to sources that are not only in my general area and happen to have found their way to English translation (to have a useful collection of sources – in English – like this is rare enough; one reason Sue’s methods course was based on the Taiping Civil War, since there is a weighty 3 volume set of documents/documents in translation), but things I have worked with extensively in my own research.

It’s really inspirational (I hate using that word; it sounds schlocky in the context of teaching, but it’s true) to listen to Alan talk about taking students who don’t read Japanese into Japanese archives in Japan and having them really get into sources. Obviously, they can’t read them, but he noted that students’ abilities to suss out relevant sources is really quite impressive – particularly considering their lack of linguistic skills. How might we use digital tools to facilitate that sort of experience? Who doesn’t want their students to be excited about research – excited about archives – and to have them being excited about doing work in a foreign language they don’t know? Wow!

That’s why it’s disappointing to me that we had a somewhat sparsely attended panel at our “premier” conference, because I really think this is the sort of discussion that is most fruitful at a place like AAS. Sue mentioned that the American Historical Association conference had a lot of panels concerned with teaching & research methodologies; I’d like to hear from historians in other areas (and I do like hearing what methods, tools, and approaches my colleagues are using), but honestly, I want to hear from people who teach classes in areas like me. I want to hear Alan, Hilde, Sue & Nick (and others) talk about how we get students into foreign language materials in productive ways – and yes, that often involves what falls under the heading of “digital humanities.”

I think Ian’s criticisms from a few years ago of “digital humanities” are well taken, but one reason that I occasionally feel a little defensive is that a great many other people aren’t trying to lead undergrads through a very foreign history, where the tools of our trade are things in foreign (and very difficult!) languages. Can you blame us for getting a little excited about what must seem very pedestrian tools and oh-so-twenty-years-ago methods to academics in compsci or other “computational” fields? Ian talked, in a 2011 post, about the problems of “digital humanities” borrowing, rather than inventing, tools:

… the digital humanities more frequently adopt rather than invent their tools. This is a complicated issue, related to the lack product development and deployment experience in general among humanists, and their lack of computational and design abilities in particular. (By contrast, most scholars of physics or biology learn to program computers, whether in FORTRAN or MatLab or with even more advanced and flexible tools.) As a result, digital humanities projects risk letting existing technologies dictate the terms of their work. In some cases, adopting existing technology is appropriate. But in other cases, the technologies themselves make tacit, low-level assumptions that can’t be seen in the light of day. While humanists can collaborate or hire staff or otherwise accomplish technical novelty, it’s often at a remove, not completely understood by its proponents. The results risk reversing the intended purpose of the humanities as public spies: taking whatever works from the outside world un- or under-questioned.

This is all very true (and a good cautionary point – Alan & Sue both talked about their efforts at learning more of the ‘under the hood’ stuff); on the other hand, most scholars of physics or biology don’t learn Chinese, Japanese, Korean (on top of much more pedestrian European languages, of course) and their classical antecedents in some combination. On some level, griping at us because we don’t also program is just dumping salt into the wound of language acquisition (which we already have to do a lot of). How can we design tools – or even know what we’d like to accomplish – if we haven’t mastered the basic tools of our historical trade? On the other hand, when do we learn how to program? During grad school? While scrambling to get tenure? After tenure? Never? Since I do hang around the edges of game studies, I know a lot of people (including Ian) who are incredibly technically proficient and I never forget that I’m barely competent in the most basic of ways when it comes to using technology. But do I really have to try and catch up to them, on top of just trying to be the best Chinese historian I can be? Is anything less than this just feeding the problem – am I one of those people patting myself on the back for being barely technologically competent? I’d like to think not, but I don’t know.

In any case, some of this is very specific to certain subsets of the historical discipline, which is precisely why I’d like to see more discussion and debate at our conferences (and our big conference in particular). It would sure beat seeing yet another person stand up and read us a 10 page paper in a flat monotone, don’t you think?

Speaking of patting ourselves on the back for using Twitter, the live tweeting at AAS is pretty dismal (and that’s being generous), much to my chagrin; but (not surprisingly), all of my fellow panelists can be found there:


“Unfortunately China is very hard to change”

Lu Xun posterI just finished my second week of school as an assistant professor, and while there is a lot of new happening in my life right now on all fronts (particularly professionally), I’m traversing a lot of relatively well known ground in my two courses. I haven’t gotten to the fun bits of my introductory course on modern East Asian history, but we’re trucking along in my “Modern China” course (which is, in point of fact, a course on the history of the PRC) and I’m coming back to old friends after a long time away from them.

This week, my students read bits of Li Dazhao, Chen Duxiu, and Lu Xun. As I admitted to them, the Lu Xun – “What Happens After Nora Leaves Home?” 娜拉走后怎样?- was a semi-selfish choice for me. It was a slightly out of place essay (we haven’t covered “the question of woman” in depth, unlike like the last time I taught the essay – which was on women in modern Chinese history). But I knew we wouldn’t have much time to spend on my favorite Republican writers, and really, while I would’ve liked for them to have read all sorts of things from Lu Xun (and a lot of others) – “Nora” was a ridiculously influential essay in my own life, and one that I think shows Lu Xun off to some of his best advantages.  I’m not really overstating the case when I say that this one essay – actually a talk given at the Beijing Women’s Normal College in 1923 – is one of the primary reasons I became a Chinese historian. It was Lu Xun and Dorothy Ko’s account of Jiangnan women in the Ming-Qing period  (Teachers of the Inner Chambers) that I really glommed on to – things that, for whatever reason, I connected with in a particular way that I hadn’t before in my other history classes. I later realized the incongruity of those two influences, but it probably has something to do with the way I’ve turned out as an historian.

“Nora,” perhaps because it’s an essay I’ve been reading for a long time, encapsulates for me the reasons I love Lu Xun: his pessimism, his snarkiness (is it any wonder that the man helped lift zawen into an art form?), his tendencies towards “There are these problems, here they are. Now you figure out how to fix them.” He’s not an optimist at all, nor does he claim to have all the answers (or any). I actually like that about him, especially considering the period he lived and worked in; it’s also interesting hearing how students respond to him. So many of the sources I give them have eternal faith and optimism in this inexorable march of progress – I think it’s a bit refreshing to hand them something that says: “Great, ‘modernity.’ And? Where exactly are we going with all this?”

The first time I “taught” Lu Xun (the first time I ever stood in front of a class of undergraduates as The Person In Charge, actually), I was left in charge of an upper division class for a day while the professor was at a conference. I had no idea what to do when told “Well, just go over ‘Diary of a Madman’ and ‘Ah Q’ and go from there,” and I’m sure many of those students still have no idea what to-do over Lu Xun is (maybe this is one reason I come back to “Nora”: I know what to do with the essay, and it’s one that I love talking about). I paced in front of the classroom, clutching my battered and coffee-stained copy of Lyell’s Diary of a Madman and Other Stories, begging the students to say something – anything. It was my first time realizing that dealing with fiction (or visual culture, or films, or whatever) in a historical manner is not as straightforward as I had thought it to be.

I still don’t know that I can adequately convey how much I love Lu Xun, and why, to my students, but I try. I show them my propaganda poster from 1974/5 (above), which has watched over me throughout grad school. I impress upon them how important he’s been in modern China, how revered – but also how dangerous his writings have been perceived as. One of my Chinese teachers in Taiwan related how she came to know Lu Xun, read surreptitiously in the period when his works were banned.

As it turned out, this was a good week to talk about Lu Xun – he’s back in the news again, because he’s continuing to disappear from textbooks on the Mainland. It’s interesting to watch this from a distance, and while I have no doubt that concerns over the government’s stance that “middle school students shouldn’t be doing too much deep thinking” are well founded, I also think it’s a little ridiculous to expect middle school students – Chinese or not – to “get” Lu Xun.

I once had an enlightening conversation with a friend – who was educated in the Chinese system through secondary school – about Lu Xun. I was bubbling enthusiastically about why I enjoyed reading him and how I always found something new when I came back to well-loved essays like “Nora.” “Oh,” she said, in a pretty bored manner, “I read that stuff when I was eleven.” I was a little taken aback, and a bit offended – of course I couldn’t be so blasé about having read Great Authors of Modern China at a young age, what American school kid could? – but a professor, also educated in China, said thoughtfully when I relayed this to him: “Well, don’t feel bad; he really is a giant & he’s said things that no one has said better since,” and also this, which I thought of when reading the recent kerfluffle. “It’s hard to appreciate it when the stuff is shoved down your throat from an early age.” I had a fundamentally different relationship with Lu Xun, and not just because I was American.

In sixth grade, we read Le Petit Prince. The joys of Saint-Exupéry were lost on me at that tender age; I thought it was an utterly stupid book. I mean, really – talking foxes and boys from outer space and bitchy roses? I read the book again as a senior in high school, this time in French, and I adored it – I “got” it in a way I couldn’t have, probably shouldn’t have, when it was being crammed down my throat, as it were. Of course, it was a children’s book in a way that Lu Xun’s works are not and never have been. But I think that general arc of needing a certain amount of maturity to really “get” something is rather similar.

Perhaps the government – in a scramble to prevent middle schoolers from thinking “too deeply” – is actually doing them (and all of us) a favor. Who, I wonder, got more out of Lu Xun: the 11 year old who had him and his status as a Great Writer force fed to them from a young age, or my Chinese teacher from Taipei who read him (with all the thrill of nibbling on forbidden fruit) at night, under the covers with a flashlight (OK, embellishing a bit there – but still! Forbidden or discouraged often equals desirable!)?  I’ve watched American college students struggle with “Ah Q” and “Diary” and other writings of Lu Xun (and many other authors). I still struggle with him, much as I love him. I can only imagine what a 12 year old does when presented with one of these essays. Do they laugh at his wit and sarcasm? Ponder his pessimism? Or just consume him as they’ve been taught: reverently, or with sheer boredom? I’ve watched college students (even those, like many of mine here at MSU, who have very little experience with Asian or Chinese history and literature) ask thoughtful questions – deep questions – about his writing that I don’t think the average (or even the exceptional) eleven or thirteen or fifteen year old anywhere is ready to ask, or even think of.

My students asked questions about the very same things Lu Xun brings up in his most recently removed story, “The Kite”: forgetting, historical memory, and consequences. They also asked about dreaming for the future, holding on to the promise of Something Better if we just get through the terrible now (I was delighted with this, since it presages one of the more difficult texts I’m asking them to engage with this semester, Ci Jiwei’s Dialectic of the Chinese Revolution: From Utopianism to Hedonism). They were the kinds of questions with no easy answers, things that aren’t really designed to be answered right then – the type of response I want my students to have to him.

Lu Xun, and a lot of his compatriots, are special (I do not hang posters of average people on my walls, after all). I wonder if this process of moving Lu Xun back to that realm of the exceptional – the off-limits – won’t do more for his legacy than continuing to flog him to students at a young age. And do more for his would-be modern readers, at that. The great whip he wrote of will come; who knows, he may be a spark for that whip. But probably not if he’s continuously relegated to the heap of “boring crap we had to read in middle school.”

Unfortunately China is very hard to change. Just to move a table or overhaul a stove probably involves shedding blood; and even so, the change may not get made. Unless some great whip lashes her on the back, China will never budge. Such a whip is bound to come, I think. Whether good or bad, this whipping is bound to come. But where it will come from or how it will come I do not know exactly.

And here ends my talk. 1

Show 1 footnote

  1. Lu Xun, “What Happens After Nora Leaves Home?”, in Hua R. Lan & Vanessa L. Fong, eds., Women in Republican China: A Sourcebook (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1999), 181

Placeholder & recent writing

From Benjamin Breen's interpretation of a 1981 photo of Hu Zhifeng as Li Huiniang

From Benjamin Breen’s interpretation of a 1981 photo of Hu Zhifeng as Li Huiniang

As I’m currently in the frantic final stages of writing my dissertation (for a 26 July defense – grad school is almost over! I still can’t quite wrap my head around it) as well as trying to get my life in order for a big move to beautiful Bozeman, Montana to take up an assistant professorship at Montana State University (I really can’t quite wrap my head around that – even though I’ve known since December, it’s still baffling and quite wondrous, and I’m thrilled with how things panned out this year), I’ve had less time to write than I’d otherwise like. But I have cranked out two pieces I was rather pleased with & they have both appeared in the past month:

The first was a reworked excerpt on a Chinese proposal, c. 1904, to “reform” the game of mahjong. The piece was pulled from my third year research paper (on mahjong & its social/cultural standing from the late Qing through the Republican period), which I have written about a few times here already. I was delighted to be included in Zoya Street‘s new effort, Memory Insufficient, an e-zine that hopes to encourage high-quality historical writing on games. With Zoya at the helm, we can look forward to a lot of good material & I hope the effort really takes off (it’s off to a splendid start, so I can’t wait to see how it develops). In any case, my piece “Mahjong as edutainment” can be found in the second issue, which is on Asian histories in games.

The second is a piece I’m particularly pleased with, on an important subject of my dissertation: the literary figure of Li Huiniang. I hardly ever say I’m happy with a piece of my own writing, but I’m really tickled with how well my recounting of the tale of Li Huiniang – moving from 1981 all the way back to 1381 – came out in “The Woman in Green: A Chinese Ghost Tale from Mao to Ming, 1981-1381.” Ages ago, Maura Cunningham put me in touch with Christopher Heaney, one of the founders & editors of a new journal of experimental and narrative history out of UT Austin (The Appendix). Chris was fantastic to work with, especially considering I was in a particularly flakey period, and the whole staff is putting out such a fantastically creative publication (I absolutely adore Benjamin Breen‘s take on one of my favorite photographs of Hu Zhifeng as Li Huiniang – a bit of his version is seen above, the original is below). I hope the piece was worth it in the end, and just like Memory Insufficient, I am really looking forward to seeing how The Appendix develops – they have already gathered some really impressive, very creative pieces in their first two issues. I hope I’ll have more fun things to contribute in the future. Getting out of the formal “academicese” box is so very valuable for us (and a blessed break from the dissertation for me).

And with that, it’s back to the grindstone. Where has the time gone?

Hu Zhifeng胡芝風 as Li Huiniang

Hu Zhifeng胡芝風 as Li Huiniang