There is a wonderful quote in a book I otherwise think is fair-to-middling (if that – Edvard Radzinsky’s The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II):
Nicholas kept a diary for thirty-six years without interruption. He began it at the age of fourteen, in 1882, in the palace at Gatchina, and ended it as a fifty-year-old prisoner in Ekaterinburg ….
This diary contains no reflections, and opinions are rare. He is terse – this taciturn, retiring man. The diary is a record of the principal events of the day, no more. But his voice lingers on its pages.
The mystical force of genuine speech.
The revolution punished him without trial, not allowing him a final say. The portrait of this puzzling man was created only after his death – by his opponents and his supporters. Now he himself can speak in the words he himself once wrote. I leaf through his diary. One experiences an eternal yet banal sensation in the archive: one feels other hands, the touch of hands across a century.
Archives in China are doubly funny places: even when your materials are merely the detritus of a somewhat bloated bureaucracy, there’s a shroud of secrecy drawn over them. Talk to a China scholar who has spent any time in PRC archives, and you’re likely to get an earful about some horrific experience or another. While my project isn’t precisely Shanghai-centric, topic-wise, I made a strategic decision in doing most of my work in the city. The archives there are pretty mellow, and access is quite open. We all know there are files nobody but Party historians are getting access to, but at least at the SMA, the stuff that’s out in the open is there for the taking. It’s a downright pleasant place to work – the fact it’s tucked on one end of the Bund and overlooks Pudong doesn’t hurt.
I hauled home a not insignificant chunk of photocopies, and I’m in the process of sorting and scanning them (well – the hundreds of pages of statistics are joining the hundreds of pages I already have; scanning adds an extra step as it is, no reason to be a masochist about it). It’s entirely banal yet somehow extraordinary. As much as putting the pieces of my narrative together is driving me batty at the moment, there is something really wonderful about wallowing around in sources and feeling those ‘other hands’ – even if they are unseen hands of an unknown bureaucrat, and not those of a highly mythologized ex-tsar.
In summer the nights [are most beautiful]. Not only when the moon shines, but on dark nights too, as the fireflies flit to and fro, and even when it rains, how beautiful it is! (Sei ShÅnagon, The Pillow Book, trans. Ivan Morris)
Summer in Shanghai is draining – it’s hot and very humid, and it hasn’t been raining as much as one would expect in the summers (or at least, as much as I was expecting). Nights are not particularly beautiful either, and there are no flitting fireflies, just mosquitos – though evenings are at least a respite from the sun. I’ve survived heat and humidity before; Virginia is no cool paradise come August, and Taipei is on par (at a minimum) with Shanghai temperature and humidity-wise – but it seems particularly unrelenting here. Rain storms were a near-daily occurrence in Taipei, which makes summer more bearable, and Virginia at its worst was the equivalent of a normal day in Shanghai. Which is to say, I’ve felt like doing precious little other than hibernating in air conditioning. I think the weather has contributed to my terrible case of incompletitis – the inability to finish anything. Oh, I’ve met immovable deadlines when I’ve come up against them, but it’s all that more flexible stuff: for instance, I have no fewer than five unfinished blog entries languishing in my queue. I’ll get around to finishing them … maybe.
In any case, it’s the home stretch here (I booked my tickets to fly back to the US in October – and I’m thrilled to bits at the prospect of being back in California in a smidge over two months!), and I’ve been good and working a lot. I was lucky enough to host a good friend who came down to use the wonderful Shanghai municipal archives (ä¸Šæµ·å¸‚æ¡£æ¡ˆé¦†) and soak up some of the French Concession atmosphere. It was a delight to have someone else to go archiving (after we had our morning coffee & breakfast, of course) and try new restaurants with, squeal over sources to, and gossip. I’m not used to having roommates, having had my last one at the age of 20 or so, but it’s a nice change for a few weeks – mostly because I am not used to being alone for extended periods, and in truth, it’s been one of the most difficult things about this year abroad.
But, having caught a summer cold and piled loads more activity than I’m used to on top of it, I’ve taken a few days off to lounge around the apartment, recover, contemplate cleaning (and do a bit of actual tidying), and play some videogames. I’ve been flip flopping between a few things, but currently I’m playing through ÅŒkamiden, the recent ‘sequel’ to ÅŒkami. It’s cute, though the graphics can get a bit choppy at times – but I do think the drawing mechanic is quite suited to the DS. It works better (for the most part) than it did on the PS2 or Wii, even. Still, mostly I’ve been playing through and wishing I could pick up the original again.
ÅŒkami is – and will probably always be – the only game I played (not once, but twice) because I found the aesthetic experience so damn pleasurable. It was the look that got me interested in the first place, and it was the environment that kept me playing a game that wasn’t always very good. But I was so impressed with the visuals and the idea of the gameplay linked to the tactile pleasure of writing. I loved the way the ink (‘smoke’) pooled at the tip of the brush, and the way mountains were simple outlines on the sky.
There was a certain joy of movement in the Wii version. I generally dislike the ‘Wii waggle,’ and find it excruciating when it pops up where it just doesn’t fit (particularly awful execution of Wiimote action in one game I played caused me to put the game aside totally rather than face 30+ hours of waggling my way through a JRPG). I flicked my wrist in the middle of an ÅŒkami battle, and the wolf dodged smoothly. It was elegant – more importantly, there was a connection between that little flick of the wrist and the movement on screen. It was the first time I had played anything on the Wii and gone ‘Oh, well. That was nicer than I would’ve gotten out of my standard controller.’ This is a bit funny, of course, because a lot of people criticized the lousy control scheme. I found that the learning curve was sharper, but once I got the hang of it, it worked brilliantly for me.
I liked touring the countryside; it was a pleasure to go galavanting about scenery that struck a balance between drab realism and candy-coated fantasy. There was a solidness to Amaterasu’s movements, but it never turned stiff and clumsy. Animals so frequently come off poorly in games – most representations of equids leave me aghast at the fact that anyone could think any horse-like creature could ever look like that – it was nice to see one that verged on believable. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the believable wolf was set in an unbelievable setting? The world of ÅŒkami is not ‘realistic,’ but maybe that’s why Amaterasu’s mannerisms and movements were often so real (and delightful): she was totally unburdened by the need to be ‘realistic,’ as were the things that surrounded her.
When games were more abstract-simple designs and massive worlds with yawning gaps in between each fragile plot point-they engaged us more, because they became worlds we could own. When all of the work of creation is done for us, when every element of lore is written in, when every object in the game world is explicable and available for interaction, there’s nothing for our hearts and minds to do except ride along. And that’s beautiful and well, but it’s just not very engaging.
Now, Leigh is speaking to the structure and plot and characterization, but some of the underlying issues here are the same, I think. It’s the gaps that capture our attention (how many people have hated big screen versions of favorite books, where someone else’s vision is played out – partially or wholly at odds with the world and characters you’d built in your head?) and allow us to fill in the blanks. The fact that ÅŒkami‘s art style was somewhat literally fuzzy around the edges is what let her become ‘real’ (at least in my eyes). Those yawns, side flops, ear scratches, tail wags, and countless other minute movements could have become bogged down in details in a game striving for realism.
All of this got me thinking about a conference presentation I saw over a year ago, at a conference I also presented at. The presentation was on early 1960s “ink painting animation” (shuimo donghua æ°´å¢¨åŠ¨ç”»), in particular two films from the noted animator Te Wei ç‰¹ä¼Ÿ. We watched clips from the 1960 release Tadpoles looking for Mama (Xiao kedou zhao mama å°èŒèšªæ‰¾åª½åª½) and 1963’s The Cowherd’s Flute (Mu di ç‰§ç¬› – the Youtube title below is wrong regarding the date). I won’t bore with details of the political maneuvering that make these two films resonate with my research on early ’60s drama, but beyond their historical significance, I found them absolutely enthralling. I’d never seen anything like it.
Except in ÅŒkami.
Of course, if all animation in China looked like this, or all games went for the fluid, the minimalist, the purposefully unrealistic, it wouldn’t be special. On the other hand, it’s less about the stylistic particulars and more about the idea of staunching the flow of this wanting-so-badly-to-be-real-that-it-hurts, which is in a lot of cases simply taking away space for imagination. It can become dull, stiff, and boring. There is something to the openness, the literal blank spaces – more room to maneuver. My favorite example of this is around the 2:00 mark below, where ‘water’ is not much more than totally blank space.
(Part two can be found here) I watch a lot of contemporary Chinese cartoons, and I doubt many of them will stand the test of 50 years like The Cowherd’s Flute (that’s for the commercial stuff, of course – there is a whole slew of independent animation, but I don’t think many people are watching, sadly). I wonder how many of the types of works that entirely spell out a world for you will be able to? There is a lot of flexibility in gaps, a lot of room for people to fill in their own present.
I opened with Sei ShÅnagon – her Pillow Book (finished sometime in the very early 11th century) is rightfully famous and I have loved it for over half my life. It’s absolutely contrived in some respects (parts of it were revealed at court, and there was editing, rewriting, and shuffling going on), but it’s such a great hodgepodge of stuff. She was witty, catty, and immensely talented – which is what makes her work such a fascinating historical record. But the thing I like most are her lists. Sometimes she expounds rather lengthily (here, part of a list on Hateful Things):
A lover who is leaving at dawn announces that he has to find his fan and his paper. “I know I put them somewhere last night,” he says. Since it is pitch-dark, he gropes about the room, bumping into the furniture and muttering, “Strange! Where can they be?” Finally he discovers the objects. He thrusts the paper into the breast of his robe with a great rustling sound; then he snaps open his fan and busily fans away with it. Only now is he ready to take his leave. What charmless behavior! “Hateful” is an understatement.
Equally disagreeable is the man who, when leaving in the middle of the night, takes care to fasten the cord of his headdress. This is quite unnecessary; he could perfectly well put it gently on his head without tying the cord. And why must he spend time adjusting his cloak or hunting costume? Does he really think that someone may see him at this time of night and criticize him for not being impeccably dressed?
And sometimes she just offers her opinion without commentary:
A white coat worn over a violet waistcoat. Duck eggs. Shaved ice mixed with liana syrup and put in a new silver bowl. A rosary of rock crystal. Wistaria blossoms. Plum blossoms covered with snow. A pretty child eating strawberries.
Who among them was a robe rustler? (From the NY Public Library site; the Kokushi daijiten)
Lists, observations, opinions, records of a life. An eleventh century LiveJournal, if you will.
One reason Sei ShÅnagon has stood the test of time so well is because her writing is ‘fuzzy around the edges.’ It isn’t that there aren’t tons of particulars that alert you to the fact that we are in the past (where, to quote L.P. Hartley, ‘they do things differently’). That’s one key to its enduring popularity: the time capsule effect. But somehow, the Japanese noblewoman who lived over a thousand years ago wrote passages that seem as though they could have been pulled from today. It’s the fuzzy bits that can’t be tied to specific periods, the parts that make you want to ask questions (what was so elegant about duck eggs? has been one of my perennial, flippant favorites) and make you think. That’s the other key, and probably the more important one, at least in terms of keeping translations of her work on shelves across the world. She resonates with today (whenever that today may be).
Even if she did leave one important thing off her list of why in summer, nights are the most beautiful: cicadas and roosters shut up for a few hours!
One of the delightful things about living in China is the shopping (despite inflation worries, there are still a lot of goodies to be had on the cheap). Â For a bibliophile like myself, who likes to own every bit of material related to my research that I can get my hands on, book shopping in China is an unparalleled paradise. Â I was introduced to the wonders of the incredible Chinese book site kongfz.com in 2009 by a classmate, who kindly offered to pick up some purchases for me when she returned home to Guilin. Â My spoils from that first foray included a 1960s practice edition of Li Huiniang used by the Northern Kun Opera Troupe (Beifang kunqu tuan åŒ—æ–¹æ˜†æ›²å›¢) in the first performance of the opera Â – mimeographed, torn cover, printed on appallingly bad paper (that I now realize is pretty standard issue for mimeographed anything from 1950s and 1960s China), and with old school brads holding the whole thing together (and putting nice rust stains on the cover). Â I think I paid a whopping 20RMB for it (a little less than $3 USD). Â I was hooked – it was like the Chinese Alibris, but cheaper!
Although I had said I’d be in a buying frenzy as soon as my feet hit Shanghainese earth, it actually took me a couple of months before I remembered the wonderful treasure trove I had been introduced to. Â While I mentioned the site to a number of friends, general skittishness about dealing with the Chinese banking system and other pressing concerns put book shopping on the back burner until this month.
When I finally started poking through the offerings from book stores all over China, I had a hard time reining myself in. Â Everything was fair game – old journals? Â Check. Â Old practice editions used by Chinese opera troupes in the 1950s and 1960s, like that very first one I had bought? Absolutely. Â Picture book editions (lianhuanhua è¿žçŽ¯ç”») of classic plays? Well, I have been looking to start a book collection of some type for a while …. Â Even less thrilling finds were still exciting. Â Secondary sources I’d found useful for 8RMB including shipping (that’s about $1 USD), books I didn’t even know existed (the collected poems of a 17th century woman poet I adore).
Packages arrive every day – usually little ones, but sometimes big ones. Â Today, a set of the important drama magazine Xiju bao æˆå‰§æŠ¥ arrived, marking the first part of my acquisition of all issues from 1955 to 1966 (which will later be rounded out with late 1970s and early 1980s issues). Â Despite the availability of the magazine in libraries (both here and back in the US) and online, I find there is something so useful about flipping through hard copies of journals and newspapers. Â Our databases make it easy to find every occurrence of a search term with a few keystrokes. Â But it’s so hard to replicate the experience of simply paging through a source and seeing what leaps out when one is dealing in links and PDFs, and I’m thrilled to have my very own copies now.
A lot has changed since my advisors were doing their dissertation research. Â The fact that we now have access to libraries and archives in the PRC is something that was only a pipe dream for a few decades. Â Fantastic online databases mean we can access journals, books, and newspapers from the late Qing on (and, in some cases, things much older than that). Â But I can’t help thinking that one of the coolest things, and certainly quite different, is the fact that I can hop online, type in a few search terms, and get kicked back a list of potential sources – sources that I can buy with my trusty USB key card from ICBC, and that will arrive at my house in a few days, carried by my harried post person (who still screams out my Chinese name at the top of her lungs upon arriving). Â In the past few days, things have shown up on my doorstep that I didn’t even know existed before I found them on the world’s best second hand book website.
I always sit down with my new-to-me books, look through their sometimes crisp, often battered pages, and write my name and date of acquisition on the inside cover. Â It’s an insipid ritual, but there is something that is so wonderful about handling these bits of history (even if I, as a PRC historian, only handle things that are at most 60 years old). Â I’ve always liked the Japanese historian E.H. Norman’s description of the pleasures of the historian (as related by John Dower in Origins of the Modern Japanese State: Selected Writings of E.H. Norman):
On the most simple and intimate level, he spoke (in “History: Its Uses and Pleasure”) of “the magical pleasure that the reading of history can give” – the realization that there is no last word on any given subject; the recognition that when written by the greats, history has the pathos of a Greek tragedy; the dimensions of irony, mystery and poetry; and this: “that peculiar pleasure of reading in the calm of one’s study of turbulent events, of great triumphs and failures or simply of the everyday life of people in bygone ages. To cast one’s mind into the past and to have described vividly for one the passions and ambitions, the hopes and disappointments not only of great men, but of people like ourselves, is to feel an intimation of man’s immortal spirit. (5)
… and can’t help thinking that it’s all the more delightful when kicked back with an aged book that has somehow survived long enough to fall into my hands – here, now, in 2011.
[A revised version of this post appeared on The China Beat on 22 February, 2011. Â It includes more in-depth nitty-gritty on how to shop with Kongfz.com (and illustrates the wide variety of materials you can get for a wide variety of prices!)]