Generation and the Politics of Memory in China: Sociologist Bin Xu on Chairman Mao’s Children

Back in September 2017, I interviewed Emory University sociologist Bin Xu about his first book, The Politics of Compassion: The Sichuan Earthquake and Civic Engagement in China (Stanford University Press, 2017). At the end of our exchange, Xu told me about his next project—an examination of collective memory among the zhiqing, or 17 million “educated youth” who were sent from cities down to the countryside in the later years of the Mao era. The goal of the book, Xu said, was “to understand how this important generation’s personal experience has been intertwined with historical processes and sea changes in the past forty years in China.” It’s my pleasure now to interview Bin Xu about his second book, Chairman Mao’s Children: Generation and the Politics of Memory in China (Cambridge University Press, 2021; selected as a 2022 Outstanding Academic Title on China by Choice).

There’s no more famous zhiqing than China’s paramount leader, Xi Jinping, who has frequently spoken about his time in the countryside as a character-building experience that helped him learn about the “real” China. Not everyone shares Xi’s positive evaluation of their zhiqing days, however. Bin Xu interviews dozens of former zhiqing and recounts their varying views of the send-down program: for some, like Xi, it was a short-term interruption to the expected arc of their lives. For many others, time as a zhiqing derailed their plans and led to feelings of belonging to a lost generation.

Such feelings, and memories of the zhiqing days, are difficult to explore when the Chinese Communist Party has not officially issued an evaluation of the sent-down program—too much public negativity about the past might provoke a political rebuke. Yet as Xu describes, a number of authors, filmmakers, museum curators, and researchers have found ways to navigate this treacherous landscape of memory, sharing the story of the zhiqing era while carefully toeing the Party line.

“This generation of ‘Chairman Mao’s children,’” Xu writes, “are still caught between the political and the personal, past and present, nostalgia and regret, pride and trauma.” Their youth is not their own; personal memories of the past can easily become fraught political issues in the present. Through interviews, participant-observation experiences (including a memorable “Long March” tour with hundreds of zhiqing), and close readings of various cultural texts, Bin Xu has gone beyond the dominant story of Xi Jinping’s zhiqing years to explore the effects of that time on the other 17 million “educated youth” who participated in the sent-down program.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham: Bin, please accept my (very belated!) congratulations on the publication of Chairman Mao’s Children. It’s exciting to read a previous interviewee’s second book, so I thought we could start with how you moved from one topic to the next. I noticed that in both The Politics of Compassion and Chairman Mao’s Children, your narrative explores the intersection of high politics and personal experience. Are there other connections you see between the two projects?

Bin Xu: Thank you very much, Maura, for your kind words and invitation. It’s great to be on #AsiaNow again. You are absolutely right. Both books explore the intersection between politics and personal experience. In The Politics of Compassion, I examine how the volunteers contributed to the rescue and relief effort after the devastating Sichuan earthquake in 2008, how they understood their actions, how they viewed the local people’s suffering, and how all these were shaped—sometimes enabled but eventually restricted—by the political context. What happened after the Sichuan earthquake was extraordinary. Millions of volunteers, driven by their tears and compassion, went to Sichuan to help people they had no connections with before. Their act of compassion took place under an authoritarian State, which sometimes needs ordinary people’s volunteering for political and ideological purposes but is deeply worried about the potential risks of a self-organizing civil society.   

Similarly, in Chairman Mao’s Children, I also explore the intersection between the personal and the political but in a different event in a different context, the send-down program, a large-scale forcible migration, which involved millions of young participants in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of the “zhiqing” were enthusiastic; they wanted to change the frontiers and the villages and contribute to the revolution. But others were forced to leave home. Decades later, their memories have been intertwined with the State’s policies that dealt with the long-term impacts of the send-down program, as well as the State’s attitudes toward this difficult past.

The two projects, however, are connected in a fundamental way. I regard myself as one of those scholars driven by some big questions rather than what’s going on in a subfield. So, I sometimes appear to be hopping from one field to another. These two books are situated in two different fields—civil society and collective memory—but address the same set of questions about human suffering: How do people understand and act on human suffering? How do politics shape their understanding and action?

The volunteers to Sichuan saw people’s suffering from afar, on TV or online, cried, and went to Sichuan to help. But they soon encountered a political and ethical dilemma: if they volunteered to help people with suffering, then what should they do when they knew the suffering was caused by a big, political problem? The most important issue at the time was the collapse of numerous schools in Sichuan, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of students. If they chose to take action to address the problems and investigate the reasons for the collapse, they would get into trouble with the government. Their life and career would be seriously impacted. But if they did not take action, a sense of guilt painfully gnawed at their conscience.

In the zhiqing generation case, they experienced, understood, and remembered their suffering. Most of them did not go down voluntarily; rather, they were forced to leave home at the age of 16, 17, or even younger as participants of one of the largest forcible migration programs in human history—17 million youths from the early 1960s to late 1970s. They saw and experienced the poverty and desolation of Chinese rural areas. They did all kinds of rural work they had never thought about before being sent down. This experience lasted not for a year but for 6-10 years. “How could we make of this suffering?” was a big question they asked themselves. Some viewed the years in the countryside as a complete waste of time and, even worse, with no education and job opportunities in the rural areas, their suffering had lasting experience on their later job and life. Others, like Xi and other “winners” from this group of people, regarded the rural years as a step leading toward their later success—suffering “redeemed” into success. Apparently, as you may imagine, the winners sometimes attribute the losers’ suffering to their own lack of work ethic, perseverance, etc., rather than structural reasons. These diverse views of their past suffering are intersected with their family backgrounds (chushen), the current politics, and other factors. One thing I also emphasize in the book is that the sent-down youths have been too obsessed with their own suffering to pay attention to the local peasants’ suffering, which had been there for hundreds of years, whereas the sent-down youths only stayed for several years.    

MEC: As you explain in the book, the Chinese Communist Party seems to have settled on a course of celebrating the experiences of individual zhiqing (most prominently Xi Jinping) while not making official statements about the zhiqing program itself—though it was clearly seen as a failure even at the time. How does this political limbo affect both the memories and actions of the former zhiqing you interviewed?

BX: In the book, I analogize the Chinese government’s political ambiguity about the send-down program to the American South’s “lost cause” narrative about the Civil War—that is, reaffirming the ideological rhetoric of the event but downplaying the negative side of the event. The “Lost Cause” narrative about the Civil War emphasizes the South’s liberty but shuns difficult questions about slavery. Similarly, the Chinese government’s official narrative about the send-down program praises the practical and ideological goals of the program, such as to develop the frontiers and the rural areas, to build youths’ character, and to sacrifice their best years for a higher goal, etc., all of which remain very much the core of the official ideology today. Nevertheless, the government remains silent on the forcible nature of the program and its exorbitant costs, especially its long-term impacts on this generation’s later life and career.

You can call this kind of narrative a political façade. It is. But its ambiguity and ambivalence have also allowed various memories to grow. In other words, memories of the send-down program are not like those of the Cultural Revolution or the Tiananmen incident, which are seriously restricted or even completely forbidden. Rather, as I describe in the book, from the crevice in the official narrative, many forms of memories—literature, museums, commemorative events, etc.—have been booming in the past decades. Even the government joins the chorus, certainly in a quite different way—for example, the narrative about Xi’s seven years as a zhiqing emphasizes the character-building effects of his experience and celebrates his, and China’s, upward trajectory from a low point to a high point. Debates over the program can still take place in public discourses; some negative opinions are expressed.

Certainly, all these happen within certain political limits. Politically savvy people know where the limits are. For example, one of my interviewees, also the founder of a zhiqing museum, articulated his strategy of dealing with the political delicacy in his “theory of survival on the surface”: do not try to dig deep into the painful history, only to talk about the people’s contributions; and therefore his museum provides a place for the people to visit, talk about their youth, and have fun.

This strategy of dealing with the difficult past is quite prevalent in many forms of memory. I call this pattern of memory “people but not the event”—talking about the zhiqing, especially their positive dimensions, but not evaluating the send-down program as a historical event, let alone the Cultural Revolution, which heavily overlapped with the program. To some extent, this pattern of “people but not the event” is the minimum consensus among people with different views of the event—who does not want to talk about the good things about themselves? On the other hand, this pattern of memory tends to highlight those who are successful and happier but neglect those whose past suffering still continues—for example, those former zhiqing who are still petitioning the government to change the policies about pensions and hukou that seriously affected their current life due to the forcible migration. In a nutshell, this popular pattern is a political narrative that takes on an apolitical pretense.

MEC: The middle chapters of your book are devoted to cultural representations of the zhiqing experience, both fictional and not. In what ways have such cultural products changed over the years regarding their treatment of the send-down program? Are younger authors (or filmmakers, artists, etc.) with no direct experience of the zhiqing era now looking to that time as source material for their work?

BX: These cultural products change over time in their forms and contents. Their forms have changed from literature and TV dramas in the 1980s to exhibits in the 1990s and museums and memorials since the 2000s. Their contents also have changed from the most critical and traumatic narratives in the novels in the 1980s, as part of the “trauma literature,” to more positive representations in museums and memorials. Of course, if official narratives count as cultural products, they are even more positive in recent years, such as biographical narratives about Xi’s zhiqing years. The reasons for these changes, as I have detailed in the book, include not only ideological and political reasons, which are easy to identify and understand, but also other reasons, such as the life course stages of the zhiqing, the development of the cultural markets, and resources that the leading zhiqing possess. For example, the booming zhiqing literature in the 1980s could be explained by the zhiqing’s life course stage—returning from the countryside and having difficulty rejoining the urban labor force—and the literature market opportunities for amateur writers’ biographical writing.

Are younger cultural creators with no direct experience of the zhiqing years interested in this topic? Generally, such interests are very limited, almost nonexistent. Even if a few of them are interested, their products are insignificant and do not sell well. I am sure you haven’t heard of any of these products. In the book, I describe a young movie director who made a zhiqing film but was broke. And then he slept in a zhiqing magazine’s office, on a few chairs, when he was screening the film in Shanghai.

This lack of interest in the zhiqing experience among the younger cultural creators is just an example of the general diminishing influence of the zhiqing memory and culture. The reasons are many, but one of them has to do with this generation’s cultural repertoire, which was formed in the Mao years and does not attract many people besides themselves. A deeper reason was that the younger generation did not understand why the zhiqing were forced to go down, lived miserably, but now still want to celebrate their misery. This is certainly a simplistic impression. As my book reveals, there are lots of nuances in the zhiqing’s memories, some of which are painful and defiant. But the general public are not sociologists; they pay little attention to the nuances. The main narratives in their parents’ or grandparents’ memories just don’t resonate with them. Over time, the memory boom of the zhiqing past becomes a memory of the zhiqing, by the zhiqing, and for the zhiqing.

MEC: Shortly after finishing your book, I was reading Homelands: A Personal History of Europe, by Timothy Garton Ash, in which he quotes a line of poetry by James Fenton: “How comforting it is, once or twice a year,/To get together and forget the old times.” It made me chuckle because that seems such an apt description of the zhiqing reunions and excursions you describe. What do you think continues to bring former zhiqing together when there seems to be such an aversion to engaging with their shared past experiences?

BX: The poem describes a quite general phenomenon. On the one hand, even a painful, controversial past can bring people who experienced the past together because even misery could lead to commiseration and commemoration. On the other hand, if a certain past is too controversial and could instantly provoke debates among those who experienced the past, then the best way for them to get together is not to talk too much about the past. Rather, as described in my book, downplaying and even forgetting the past is the obvious choice. Therefore, “happy together” rather than “never forget” becomes their slogan.

I also want to emphasize that this “happy together” pattern has its political and social limits. Some groups do not have the luxury of forgetting the past because their past still lives in the present; they feel the pain on a daily basis. They are still regularly petitioning the authorities to change various kinds of problems related to their pensions and hukou. For example, they were forced to migrate from Shanghai to a much less developed province and retired there. Now, they return to Shanghai but have lower pensions because of the regional difference, and more importantly, much of their medical insurance simply does not work in Shanghai. One big factor that causes these problems is their hukou, which remains in their sent-down provinces if they retire there. Their claim hinges on a narrative about the painful past: “the government forced us to go down and now should be responsible for all these problems caused by the migration program.” Are they happy? No. Can they forget the past? No. Moreover, if such claims are the main narratives in the commemorative activities, then such commemorative activities would be strictly watched and even forbidden by the government. The case of Xinjiang zhiqing’s years of commemorations and protests is a typical case of this kind of “historically remaining issues.”

MEC: Since you published Chairman Mao’s Children, there’s been a lot of media coverage about the employment difficulties and general ennui among Chinese youth today, and Xi Jinping has called on them to “eat bitterness” in the way that he did during his zhiqing days. How do you read this reference to the past amid the politics of the present?

BX: Before the youth unemployment problem became dire recently, Xi—or, more precisely, the official narratives about his youth experience in a Sha’anxi village—had already repeatedly urged young people to build their character through “eating bitterness” and toughing out difficulties. It is not surprising to see the State draw on an old experience, at least symbolically, to find a way to mitigate a similar problem (one of the goals of the send-down program was to solve the youth unemployment problem in the 1960s), especially, as I mentioned earlier, “eating bitterness” and other ideological elements were in the “lost cause” of the send-down program. The program failed, but the State has been trying to salvage some useful things from the catastrophe.

Will this invoking of the past succeed? I do not think so. The most obvious reason is that such propagandistic narratives do not and cannot sustain another large-scale migration program or something similar. Such a program is simply impossible in today’s diverse, market-based society, although many are worried about the so-called “revival of Maoism.” Some elements from the Maoist period will come back, including the zhiqing-related ideological rhetoric. Yet, Chinese society has changed so much that any anachronistic effort will encounter much stronger resistance and even be botched. The youths today are completely different. Some are nationalistic, but most young people watch K-dramas, follow TFBoys, and pursue personal success and pleasure. The leaders should not expect an enthusiastic response to their years of calling for eating bitterness. A simple rehash of the zhiqing rhetoric and narrative will not work well.

MEC: Finally, I know you’re spending the 2023-24 academic year on a fellowship in Berlin. What is the project that you’ll focus on during your time there, and what else do you hope to do while in Europe?

BX: In my fellowship year at Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin), I plan to work on a couple of concurrent projects. The one I proposed for the fellowship was about the relationship between silence, forgetting, and memory with the 1989 Tiananmen incident as a case. Put it in plain English, silence is not forgetting, although people tend to use them interchangeably. When people are not talking about a certain event, you cannot just say “they have forgotten” the event. Rather, they may not be able to talk due to some political pressure. Or, they don’t want to talk because they think of the event as a shame or an insignificant happening. Or, they simply don’t know about the event because their textbooks in schools or public sources of information do not present the event—this is a lack of knowledge but not “forgetting.” All these diverse nuances are not effectively addressed by the empirically vague and ethically questionable term “forgetting.” This project will be a combination of theoretical contemplation and empirical research.

Another project I plan to work on in my Berlin year is about death, mourning, and commemoration in the COVID crises. I examine important mourning events, such as mourning for Dr. Li Wenliang in China and public mourning rituals in the United States for the COVID victims. I also investigate hundreds of cases of grassroots mourning and commemorations, including memorial sites, rituals, artistic works, online memorials, etc. I examine whether and how both the Chinese and American governments demonstrated their sympathy toward people’s deaths and suffering and how both governments want people to forget about millions of deaths or try to silence those who keep reminding us that we should remember.

How are these two projects related to my previous work? Of course, they are both in the field of memory, but they are deeply connected to each other because they all address cultural and political interpretations of human suffering and death, as I mentioned at the beginning of this interview.

In addition to research projects, in my spare time, I will visit many commemorative sites in Germany and adjacent countries. You probably know that Germany is one of the most important “sites” for collective memory. Scholars working on German memories produce many of the most important works on memory. The Germans’ public concerns about its difficult past have been revolving around many physical memorial sites. So, the fellowship is also a wonderful learning experience for me.    

MEC: Once again, Bin, congratulations on publishing a wonderful and important book!

Historian Ghassan Moazzin on Foreign Banks and Global Finance in Modern China

Cover image of Foreign Banks and Global Finance in Modern China

Solid, stately buildings line Shanghai’s waterfront Bund, their ornate facades standing in stark contrast to the sleek skyscrapers of Pudong across the Yangtze River. Today, Pudong is the city’s financial district, but a century ago the heart of Shanghai’s financial sector beat on the Bund. One by one, foreign banks arrived in the late 19th century to set up operations on the thoroughfare: HSBC, Deutsch-Asiatische Bank, Yokohama Specie Bank, Banque de L’Indochine, Russo-Chinese Bank, and many more that failed to find a foothold in the Chinese market. 

Historian Ghassan Moazzin (University of Hong Kong) examines the history of those enterprises in his 2022 book, Foreign Banks and Global Finance in Modern China: Banking on the Chinese Frontier, 1870-1919 (Cambridge University Press). Concentrating on the rise and fall of the Deutsch-Asiatische Bank (DAB), Moazzin moves beyond an institutional history to consider the role that the DAB and other foreign banks played in integrating China into the global economy as they facilitated trade and underwrote Chinese government debts. Highlighting “processes of conflict, cooperation and competition,” he argues that this story is a far more nuanced one than has been previously told. “China’s integration into the global web of capital flows and the making of the first global economy,” Moazzin writes, “was always a process of negotiation between indigenous and foreign actors, markets and institutions, and not a one-way imposition of Western capitalism.”

After reading Foreign Banks and Global Finance in Modern China, I interviewed Ghassan Moazzin through email about his deeply researched and thoroughly engaging work.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham: First, I’d like to ask how you got interested in the history of foreign banks in China. What pulled you into this project, and specifically what drew your focus on the Deutsch-Asiatische Bank (DAB) as a case study?

Ghassan Moazzin: As is often the case with historians, I think, my interest in the topic started with primary sources I found. In my case, these were files related to the DAB’s history in the archives of the Historical Institute of the Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt. Before that, I had not been specifically interested in foreign banks in China in general or the DAB in particular. However, when I started reading about the business of the DAB in these files, I got really interested and wanted to learn more. While I had no background in finance or economics before starting graduate school, reading about business, finance, and commercial transactions in modern China fascinated me right away. In a sense, finding these sources not only led me to the DAB and the history of foreign banking in China, but also towards economic and business history more broadly, and this interest in economic and business history has stayed with me even after the completion of the book and research project.

MEC: China, of course, had a banking sector prior to the arrival of foreign banks in the nineteenth century. What were the characteristics of those domestic banks that created a space for the operation of foreign institutions? What were the practices of the DAB and its counterparts that Chinese banks subsequently adopted in their own operations?

GM: In the book, I trace the important role foreign banks came to play during the late 19th and early 20th centuries back to the fact that they filled what scholars of business and business history call an “institutional void.” In the case of late Qing China, I argue that the absence of Chinese banking institutions that could fulfill certain economic functions, like the remittance of money across the globe, the financing of trade with the West, or the cheap provision of big sums of money, provided foreign banks with an important opening. As the conclusion of the book explains, the flipside of this argument is that once this institutional void started to shrink in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s due to a mixture of factors, including the rise of modern Chinese banks, that also meant that the importance of foreign banks and the pace of financial internationalization (which had been rapid between the 1890s and World War I) decreased.

MEC: Banking, especially a foreign bank operating in a (semi-)colonial environment, is often regarded as exploitative. I was struck, therefore, by your focus on the interactive nature of the banking relationship, especially the instances in which you note the agency of Chinese actors. Were you surprised to see this exchange emerge in your research? What are one or two examples of times when foreign banks found themselves working a bit harder than anticipated to come out ahead in a transaction?

GM: I still very vividly remember several times when I was sitting in a library or archive and had profound aha moments when reading primary sources that clearly did not fit much of what I had read in the previous literature. One of the most important examples probably was the ability of Chinese officials to shake down their foreign counterparts and win good loan terms during the waning years of the Qing dynasty. Similarly, for the Chinese banking sector, the book also explain how Chinese bankers often had the upper hand in their relationship with foreign banks.

MEC: Reading Foreign Banks and Global Finance in Modern China, I learned so much about state finances in late Qing China. After initially resisting the idea of taking out large foreign loans, some Chinese officials became like teenagers with a credit card once they realized the amount of money available to them overseas—and bankers were only too happy to issue the loans. How do you seek to write this history into discussions about the fall of the Qing?

GM: In Foreign Banks and Global Finance in Modern China, I explain that by the time of the 1911 Revolution, Chinese officials had become reliant on foreign borrowing. At the same time, Chinese public finance was in a critical state when the revolution broke out. The book traces the critical role of foreign bankers throughout the immediate events of the 1911 revolution and thereafter. Both the Qing and their adversaries sought financial support from foreign financiers. The book highlights that the decision by foreign bankers to initially withhold such financial support from both sides helped shorten the revolutionary conflict. Moreover, their subsequent support for Yuan Shikai after his ascendancy to the presidency cemented his grip on power. The eventual floating of the large Reorganization Loan in 1913 with the help of the bankers allowed Yuan to solidify his position and deal swiftly with the upheaval against him in the same year. Another facet of the bankers’ involvement in the 1911 revolution that the book stresses is their role in maintaining the credit of the Chinese state on Western markets through a variety of measures they took after the outbreak of revolution. It was the success of foreign banks in safeguarding China’s credit that enabled the new republican government to continue to tap foreign capital markets and finance itself.

MEC: How did the DAB in China link up or interact with foreign banks elsewhere in Asia? What sort of regional flows of banking knowledge and practices do you see circulating prior to World War I? Is there other scholarship on this topic that you’d recommend to those interested in looking at banking beyond China?

GM: While most of its branches were located in China and the focus of my book is very much on China, the DAB did not just operate in the Chinese market but also had branches in other economic hubs in Asia, such as Singapore or Yokohama. There is quite a lot of good research on internationally operating banks in Asia. Most importantly, I would highlight the work of a group of Japanese historians led by Nishimura Shizuya and Suzuki Toshio, who have produced important work that focuses on the technicalities of the workings and practices of such banks in Asia. I should also mention Michael Schiltz’s excellent recent book Accounting for the Fall of Silver, which deals with trade finance between the West and East Asia.

MEC: And to finish, what’s occupying your time and attention now, in life and/or work?

GM: In my new research project, I move away from finance somewhat but stay very much within the history of business in modern China. Specifically, I plan to write a history of the Chinese electrical and electronics industries since the late 19th century. While I am still very much at the beginning of this project, the idea is to historicize China’s rise as a major manufacturer and exporter of electrical and electronics products in recent decades. Besides this research project, together with my HKU colleague John D. Wong, I am also building a larger research group on Chinese business history at HKU. Having already worked on this through a range of activities and events over the past two and a half years, we hope to gradually build a platform that brings together business historians working on China.

Reproductive Realities in Modern China: An Interview with Sarah Mellors Rodriguez

Cover image of "Reproductive Realities in Modern China," by Sarah Mellors Rodriguez

Sarah Mellors Rodriguez is Assistant Professor of History at Missouri State University and author of Reproductive Realities in Modern China: Birth Control and Abortion, 1911-2021 (Cambridge University Press, 2023). Many readers will be familiar with the politics of reproduction in contemporary China, via media stories about the One Child Policy in effect from the late 1970s until 2015, and the Party-state’s efforts to increase birth numbers in the years since the policy’s rollback. In Reproductive Realities, Rodriguez moves beyond politics and widens the timeframe to consider the lived experiences of Chinese citizens—particularly women—as they managed reproduction and birth control from the early 20th century to the present.

Building on a rich archival base of legal cases, mass media, and government family planning records, Rodriguez adds depth to her study with details gathered through oral histories conducted with 80 men and women in Shanghai, Tianjin, and Luoyang. While state documents often depict a strictly enforced, top-down approach to regulating reproduction and birth control, Rodriguez found in her research that “Approaching sexuality and contraception from a grassroots perspective highlights the role that ordinary people played in shaping their own reproductive futures and the diversity of their experiences with reproduction.” More often than we might expect, and in many different geographic and temporal contexts, the story of Reproductive Realities is one of resistance.

The following interview with Sarah Mellors Rodriguez about Reproductive Realities was conducted via email.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham: Let’s start with the origin story of Reproductive Realities. How did you develop a dissertation project on reproduction and contraception in modern China, and then what sort of revisions or additions did you make to the project in its transition to book form?

Sarah Mellors Rodriguez: I became interested in reproduction and contraception in China nearly 15 years ago. In 2009, I started teaching English at a suburban middle school in Guangdong province. I had heard about the One Child Policy’s harsh enforcement and that transgressors were sometimes forced to undergo abortion and sterilization surgeries. To my surprise, I had a number of students in my classes with as many as eight siblings. My pupils often teased each other, joking that one student had cost his parents an additional 1,000 yuan in fees or that another had managed to evade the policy altogether.

In 2011, I was teaching English and history at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Jiangsu province when I was asked to teach a compulsory class for university faculty and administrators. As I grew closer to my adult students, they invited me to their homes and confided in me about their personal lives. Like their parents decades earlier, some students admitted that they had known very little about sex or birth control when they were married in the 1980s and 1990s. Many of my students, then in their 40s and 50s, had undergone multiple abortions in accordance with the One Child Policy, the violation of which could lead to heavy fines or even expulsion from the university. This led me to research human rights violations associated with the One Child Policy for the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, a bi-partisan U.S. government agency that monitors rule of law issues in China.

It was this series of events, revealing the vast degree of variation in policy enforcement and the enduring gaps in sex education and birth control use, that piqued my interest in studying the history of contraception. I wondered how these contemporary stories fit into the longer narrative of birth control use in China.

As for revisions I made to my dissertation, although my books covers the period from the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 to the present, my dissertation actually began in the 1920s and stopped with the conclusion of the One Child Policy in 2015. I quickly realized that I was ascribing insufficient importance to American birth control activist Margaret Sanger’s 1922 trip to China and that I needed to spend more time discussing how her visit sparked broader conversations about modernity, women’s rights, and public health. Situating Sanger’s visit within the context of the Republican period also required me to rethink the periodization of my book and thus I decided to start with the establishment of the Republic of China. Reworking the dissertation into the book also meant that I had to return to China, which I did in the summer of 2019, to conduct additional interviews that specifically addressed experiences under the One Child Policy. Those interviews allowed me to reflect more deeply on issues related to the One Child Policy that had been given less scholarly attention: namely, sex education and eugenics.

MEC: While there’s a large body of literature on women in 20th century China, most of that scholarship sticks to one side or the other of the 1949 divide between Republican China and the People’s Republic of China. Why did you decide to work in a broader timeframe, and what were some of the benefits and challenges to doing so?

SMR: I decided to frame my work in terms of the longue durée because I realized that crossing the 1949 divide yielded new insights that would not have been apparent if I had focused on a narrower timeframe or confined my analysis to just the Republican or Mao era. For instance, the emergence of overtly eugenic ideas and language in the 1980s is noteworthy in itself, but it is even more telling that Chinese eugenicists first promoted many of these same concepts during the May Fourth/New Culture Movement of the 1910s and ’20s. Although I feel that the benefits of using a broader timeframe outweighed the disadvantages of this approach, I was not able to provide as granular of a history as I might otherwise have. It was also a challenge to foreground contraception and abortion while not losing sight of the numerous significant political, economic, and social changes that occurred between 1911 and 2021.

MEC: I was struck by the many examples in Reproductive Realities of the disconnect between official discourse and on-the-ground reality: national conversations about birth control and abortion focused on socioeconomic and political factors, but individual behavior was driven by pragmatism and resources. If you could get Reproductive Realities into the hands of China’s family-planning officials today, what lessons would you hope they’d draw from history?

SMR: I hope that family-planning officials would realize that, as in the past, people make reproductive decisions for practical reasons linked to their personal circumstances. If the government wants people to act in a particular way with regard to childbearing, state policies need to make the desired reproductive behavior beneficial to individuals in the target demographic. To provide a concrete example, in light of the low birth rate, since 2015 the central government has repeatedly relaxed the national population policy and is now urging married couples to have more children to augment the workforce and care for the elderly. Rather than restricting access to abortion (something that was proposed in 2021), the government should address the structural factors that make having children difficult. Providing generous leave allotments for parents regardless of gender, industry, or migration status would do a lot to encourage childbearing. Guaranteeing access to low-cost childcare and education would also help ameliorate the financial burden of raising children. Ultimately if state policies are at odds with individual needs and wants, people won’t abide by them.

MEC: You emphasize the intensely gendered nature of state surveillance over reproduction, with women subject to far more scrutiny than men. What made this a “women’s issue” in the eyes of the Chinese state?

SMR: Reproduction, and by extension contraception, is viewed as a “women’s issue” for two reasons. First, childbearing is linked to women’s social and biological roles as mothers. The natal connection between mothers and babies makes childbearing of greater consequence to women and therefore renders their bodies particularly vulnerable to policing. Second, historically women in China have been viewed as responsible for duties related to the family, and reproduction often falls under this rubric. In this way, both women’s biological connections to babies and their social roles as wives and mothers make them the primary targets of state reproductive surveillance.

MEC: Though I have shelves and shelves of books waiting to be read, I’m always looking for more. So, if someone liked Reproductive Realities and wants to read further about gender history in modern China or reproduction and birth control elsewhere, what are a few of your top recommendations? What are the books that inspire you?

SMR: One of my all-time favorite books about gender history in China and a significant inspiration for my book is Gail Hershatter’s The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past. This book, which has now become something of a classic, charts the experiences of “doubly marginalized” rural women from the founding of the People’s Republic through the Reform era. As a graduate student, reading The Gender of Memory demonstrated to me more clearly than any other work how centering gender can destabilize and reframe conventional historical narratives. The way in which Hershatter (and her co-author, Gao Xiaoxian) seamlessly integrated life stories into the book’s analysis also left a lasting impression on me. Some of my other favorite readings on the history of reproduction in China are “Jihua shengyu de kaiduan – 1950–1960 niandai de Shanghai” 计划生育的开端—1950–1960年代的上海 (The Beginnings of Birth Planning in Shanghai in the 1950s and 1960s) by Masako Kohama (in Chinese) and “Under the Shadow of the Collective Good: An Ethnographic Analysis of Fertility Control in Xiaoshan, Zhejiang Province, China” by Hua Han. Although Kohama is a historian and Han is an anthropologist, both authors use ethnographic methods—including “thick description” (à la Clifford Geertz)—to expose Chinese women’s reproductive agency and local contraceptive practices.

MEC: Finally, what else has captured your attention lately—as a reader, writer, historian, professor, or person living in the world?

SMR: I find myself thinking a lot lately about the fact that many countries in Asia and Europe are facing significant demographic shifts as their populations age. Even in the best of circumstances, negotiating eldercare can be challenging for everyone involved, and this is an increasingly dire issue in Mainland China. According to official estimates, by 2050, half a billion people—more than one-third of China’s population—will be 60 or older. Yet state efforts to meet the needs of the swelling senior population have not kept pace with the demand for eldercare services. My next book-length project, “Growing Old in China: A History of Aging in the People’s Republic,” uses archival research and interviews to investigate how the rollback of the (albeit limited) collective-era social safety net, uneven economic development, and limited access to healthcare have shaped experiences with aging in China since 1949. My goal is to shed light on the experiences of individuals who represent a substantial portion of the Chinese population in absolute terms but whose stories have largely been overlooked. If you are reading this and would like to get involved with this project or know of potential source material, I would be delighted to hear from you!

Uncertainty in the Empire of Routine – An Interview with Maura Dykstra

Cover image of Uncertainty in the Empire of Routine, by Maura Dykstra

As the Qing dynasty wrested control over the Chinese empire from Ming rulers in the mid-1600s, officials in Beijing needed information. Administering a state both geographically large and bureaucratically deep, the central government relied on reports from below to ascertain events outside the capital city and assess the performance of officials who operated beyond its immediate reach. Quickly, however, the Qing state began to recognize the problems of relying on these reports from below: the empire only worked as well as the information it received. In response, the imperial court began developing more rules, deadlines, and reporting requirements; this, in turn, created more need to monitor and punish those who did not comply. The result? Paperwork. So, so, so much paperwork—a good portion of which is now held in archives in mainland China and Taiwan.

Historian Maura Dykstra has delved into that paperwork in writing her new book, Uncertainty in the Empire of Routine: The Administrative Revolution of the Eighteenth-Century Qing State (Harvard University Asia Center, 2022). Dykstra, who will take up a position at Yale University later this year after teaching at Caltech since 2015, examines the first century of Qing rule to understand how the dynasty’s archive developed. Officials at the top pored over reports from the provinces and fretted that they weren’t getting a complete picture of the situation, which led them to worry about the health of the empire. As Dykstra argues, “The more the Qing state learned about itself, the more uncertain it became.” It responded to that uncertainty by demanding ever-greater amounts of information from below.

Uncertainty in the Empire of Routine reveals how many small procedural changes amounted to a greater administrative shift in Qing China, resulting in concerns about the solidity of the state itself. Those piles of paperwork that might appear to be the standard product of any bureaucracy are, more significantly, a tangible manifestation of the anxiety Qing rulers felt about the security of their rule.

Over email, I interviewed Maura Dykstra about her work.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham: You write at the outset of the book that Uncertainty in the Empire of Routine was originally intended to be an article, but then grew into a book project that you pursued rather than revising your dissertation. Can you talk about how that happened, and the factors you weighed in making the decision to put your previous work aside and focus on something entirely new?

Maura Dykstra: I remember feeling despondent upon the occasion of my first book workshop, when I was a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Fairbank Center. I had sent out the [dissertation-based] manuscript to several friends and admired colleagues, and although I felt that each one of them captured something really important about the dissertation, the big picture—what I wanted to say about the workings of the late imperial state—seemed to get lost for the trees. We concluded, as a group, that the dissertation was actually three separate books. So before I tackled the task of revising my dissertation into the first of these three separate monographs, I wanted to take just a few insights about the operation of the late imperial state that I felt were truly important prefatory points to my larger project and write them up in an article, since people seemed very confused by my assumptions and claims about the evolving character of late imperial administration. The deeper I got into that article, the more I was drawn into the subject. By the time I came up for air, the article had ballooned to over 90 pages. It had developed a momentum of its own.

By the end my first term at Caltech, I realized there was no way I could put it down. So I announced that my first book would be something completely different and the revision of the dissertation would have to wait. When my advisers and mentors told me that I couldn’t possibly do such a ridiculous thing, the deal was sealed. I didn’t choose this career to be bored with what I was reading and writing, so I went down the rabbit hole.

Friends and mentors still ask me, sometimes teasingly and sometimes with dismay, whether and when I’ll revise the dissertation. But this project, the next project, and the one following are all in conversation with the theory of the late imperial state that emerged from reading commercial disputes in the Ba County archives. I am still realizing, researching, and hammering out the implications of what I began exploring as a graduate student.

MEC: Your book looks at not only the contents of the archives Qing historians consult, but also at how those contents came to be. One of the most fascinating aspects of the story is how central government requests for information spiraled into ever-greater demands for documentation from below—leading to those stacks of paper in the archives. You term this “an administrative revolution,” but note that it was a gradual and subtle one. How did you see that revolution take shape in the archives? Or in other words, what prompted you to take a meta approach in thinking about the Qing archive?

MD: At first, as a legal historian working in a local archive, I went to Beijing merely trying to figure out what the central state knew about litigation at the county level, as I discuss in this blog post for the Journal of the History of Knowledge. But, after spending a very short period working in the First Historical Archives (FHA), I suddenly became able to place a document in time simply by looking at it, without even starting to read. Any scholar with time in the FHA can probably do this. And the patterns go below the surface level, to the structural and the formulaic as well. There is simply something different about a Qianlong-era document and its Guangxu-era counterpart.

Those moments—when I realize that, at some point, somewhere, a switch has been flipped and I don’t know where or why—those are the moments I live for, as a historian. I become fascinated with figuring out the story behind an obvious but unexplained change. I became curious about the documentary formalism that one sees emerging by the nineteenth century and why it mattered. What’s in a document? What lies below the phenomena discussed in our texts, or before them? How is the content, format, or subject of a document shaped by its purpose? How do we think we know what we claim to know, and what does that have to do with what the Qing was trying to learn, in an effort to grapple with the problems it understood? There were too many interesting questions. I couldn’t stop thinking about them in relation to one another.

MEC: As I read Uncertainty in the Empire of Routine, I kept mentally pairing it with The Magistrate’s Tael by Madeline Zelin for the ways that you both show how the 1722-1735 reign of the Yongzheng emperor served as a pivot point in the arc of the Qing dynasty. What was it about Yongzheng’s time on the throne—less than a decade and a half, in an era before phones and email!—that resulted in so many reforms? How did his reign then set the course for emperors who followed?

MD: One of the things I’m most excited about in the years to come is how people interact my work with Zelin’s work on the Yongzheng era. What her monograph beautifully established was the Yongzheng emperor’s role as a centralizing administrator. Where I think my project furthers the discussion is in focusing on what administrative centralization means in the case where central authorities rely on textual information to govern large and diverse spaces. I hope that, after my book, some of the earlier scholarship on autocracy in the Qing may be reconsidered in light of the distinction between centralizing processes and actually gaining power or control. This may help historians start to re-imagine the space between the two wildly-diverging narratives we have of the Qing: was it a dynasty of extreme control, or lack thereof? What if it was both? How would that help us refine the ways in which we ask questions about authority in the late imperial context?

MEC: Thinking more broadly in terms of time and/or place, how does this history of bureaucracy in Qing China add to our understanding of the administrative state and its growth? For someone interested in exploring this topic, what are some of the other works you recommend they read?

MD: I’m very curious to see how readers engage this question, as my work is in conversation with earlier monographs on comparative history such as Alexander Woodside’s Lost Modernities, R. Bin Wong’s China Transformed, Kenneth Pomeranz’s Great Divergence, Wong and Rosenthal’s Before and Beyond Divergence, as well as works on progress, development, and modernity from beyond East Asia and history, like Immanuel Wallerstein’s The Politics of the World-Economy and Robert A. Nisbet’s Social Change and History. What do theories of modernization—whether we confront them head-on or as they operate in the background of historical narratives—presume about what activities must be measured, or what institutions must develop, to establish whether and when a society or an institution becomes modern?

Working on my manuscript in the wake of the 2016 U.S. election, I developed a compelling—almost obsessive—curiosity about the relationship between information, control, and crisis. This paired interestingly with some conversations I had in the summer of 2019 at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, where I participated in a working group on the history of bureaucracy. We talked a lot about the relationship between the rationalization of bureaucratic processes and the interplay between complex realities and the “facts” processed by these organizations. In researching the Qing, I felt like James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which presumes that this tension fuels a push towards high modernity, could not quite describe the “information trap” that I was seeing in the case of the Qing. I guess, if I were to put it more simply, I’d say: the Qing teaches us that, although more information is almost always desired by rulers and administrators, it’s not as straightforward a commodity as historians and rulers tend to assume. Centralization does not necessarily entail control. Information does not necessarily result in better or more useful knowledge.

MEC: It seems like the Qing central government’s attempts to get more information from lower levels created a textbook example of formalism (xingshizhuyi), with local officials producing endless routine documents that failed to satisfy the recipients in Beijing. As you write toward the end of the book, “Emperors became skeptics; supervisors became scrutinizers; bureaucracy became the enemy of the empire.” Can you carry the story forward a bit and briefly share how the conflict between bureaucracy and empire played out over the remainder of the Qing, prior to its fall in 1911?

MD: I can’t! It’s the subject of the next book! But I can tell you: the story gets even wilder. In the upcoming monograph, I’ll be tracing how the connection between central imperial offices and the archives of the territorial yamen, after the administrative revolution, completely transforms case-making practices at the local level. The resulting story is one of intensive local state-building, culminating in the late nineteenth-century era of local self-governance. I hope to completely re-write the history leading up to the moment of institutional efflorescence in the late nineteenth century by re-centering it in earlier Qing practices (rather than the standard response-to-the-West model). Stay tuned!

MEC: Finally, what else has captured your attention lately—as a reader, writer, historian, professor, or person living in the world?

MD: One of my current fascinations is the moon jar form. I’ve been working in a ceramics studio for about three years now, and I’m finally starting to throw larger vessels. My house is slowly filling up with these ceramic orbs. Between studio sessions, I’m plugging away on a book that will continue the story from this first monograph into the nineteenth century and down to the local level, as well as polishing up a few articles in legal and economic history. And I’ve just started a working group based out of the Max Planck Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory, which will take five years to discuss the evolution of a Chinese Legal Tradition. I also just hit a new personal record at a 100-lb bench press. There’s always something to keep me moving.

MEC: Congratulations on both the bench press and seeing Uncertainty in the Empire of Routine in print, and good luck as you move to Yale!

Americans in China: Encounters with the People’s Republic — An Interview with Terry Lautz

Cover of Americans in China: Encounters with the People's Republic, by Terry Lautz

When historian and lifetime AAS member Terry Lautz arrived in mainland China for the first time in December 1978, he visited a country that had been slowly mending ties with the United States after a rift of more than two decades. By the time he departed the mainland three weeks later, Sino-American relations had undergone a momentous shift: Lautz’s trip had coincided with President Carter’s announcement that the United States would establish “normalized” relations with the People’s Republic on January 1, 1979. This pivot ushered in a new—though still often fraught—era of contact and exchange between the countries.

Lautz’s 1978 trip straddled the move from unofficial to official American recognition of the PRC, but as he makes clear in his recent book, Americans in China: Encounters with the People’s Republic (Oxford University Press, 2022), there was never a time when contact entirely ceased. Even in the depths of the Cold War, Sino-American ties were maintained by individuals, and it is that people-to-people engagement that Lautz highlights in this volume with profiles of thirteen Americans whose life and work have intersected with various aspects of the U.S.-China relationship. Those personal connections ensured that links between the countries could always be restored, even when high politics caused a breakdown in formal diplomatic relations. Across the ups and downs of more than seventy years, Lautz’s book tells personal stories to illustrate how “America’s bond with China is volatile, unpredictable, and complex”—and also unable to be broken, even when it frays.

After reading Americans in China, I interviewed Terry Lautz by email to learn more about his work.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham: Your previous book was a focused look at the life of John Birch, an American missionary who fought in China during World War II prior to his death in 1945. How did you move from writing one extended biography to a book that contains thirteen short profiles?

Terry Lautz: It was actually the other way around! During a fellowship at the Wilson Center, I was planning to write short biographies of Americans who had lived and worked in China when I stumbled on the unlikely story of John Birch. How did a missionary-turned-soldier in China become the namesake for the right-wing, anti-communist John Birch Society? Researching and writing his story was a fascinating five-year detour before I returned to the profiles featured in Americans in China.

MEC: As you explain in the introduction to Americans in China, the topic and format parallel those of To Change China, by Jonathan Spence, while you also note some of the shortcomings of that book. In what ways did you regard To Change China as a model for your work, and in what ways did you develop your own approach and style?

TL: Jonathan Spence was a brilliant scholar and a masterful writer who brought Chinese history to life through stories centered around people. I had always admired To Change China: Western Advisers to China for this reason and because it shed light on Sino-Western interactions from multiple perspectives. Americans in China picks up pretty much where Spence left off with the advent of the PRC. My approach was different because Westerners were suddenly confronted by a united Chinese nation that was no longer beholden to outsiders—although the Soviet Union had tremendous influence during the 1950s. So the key question for me was not how Westerners sought to “change China” but how they were changed by an anti-imperialist Communist China. My approach was also different because I wanted to include women and Chinese Americans; Spence wrote only about white men.

MEC: As I read Americans in China, I kept thinking that it would be an excellent book to use or excerpt in an undergraduate course. The life stories you tell are compelling and illustrative of major moments in U.S.-China relations over the past seven decades, and I can imagine students really connecting with them. If you had to recommend only one or two chapters to use in course materials, which ones would you suggest, and why?

TL: If I could only choose two chapters, I’d contrast Joan Hinton and Sid Engst with Elizabeth Perry. Hinton, a nuclear physicist, and Engst, a dairy farmer, were both in China when the Communists came to power in 1949. They married, became devout Maoists, and stayed in the PRC for the rest of their lives. I wanted to know how they became true believers and why they stayed that way even after the horrors of the Great Famine and Cultural Revolution.

Elizabeth Perry was born in China, where her parents were missionaries, and grew up in Japan. She teaches Chinese politics at Harvard and is a former AAS president. In her youth, she idealized the Chinese revolution but was disenchanted when she finally was able to see China with her own eyes as a visiting scholar at Nanjing University in 1979. Her story led me to ask why she and others romanticized the Chinese Communists only later to be disillusioned. These two chapters reflect the bipolar thinking that has characterized American responses to the PRC.   

MEC: I expect that one of the most difficult aspects of writing a book like this one is selecting the figures to include and deciding who will be left out. Which profile was the most difficult to develop? Were there any people you wanted to profile but couldn’t get enough material on? Is there a person or group not represented in the book that you would have liked to include?

TL: After consulting with a number of friends and colleagues, I selected people whose stories represented some of the key themes in Sino-American relations: politics, diplomacy, science, law, business, culture, journalism, scholarship, human rights. All of them had spent significant time in China, which ruled out some influential figures like Michel Oksenberg. Among many others, I considered the architect I.M. Pei and the missile scientist Qian Xuesen, but their stories were already quite well known.

Perhaps the most difficult but interesting chapter was writing about two of the twenty-one American Korean War POWs who voluntarily went to “Red” China when the war ended. Their largely unknown stories highlighted the ideological confrontation between China and the United States—which is still very much with us today. One of the men I wrote about, Clarence Adams, was an African American who wanted to escape U.S. racism and accepted the idea that the Communist system was superior. He went to Wuhan University, married a Chinese woman, had two children, and worked at the Foreign Languages Press. So he had more opportunities in China than would have been possible in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.

I would have liked to include profiles from a younger generation of Americans who have experienced a more prosperous, cosmopolitan, and confident PRC. I did write, in my introduction, about the long-forgotten story of a American youth group that visited China in 1957, defying the opposition of the U.S. government. Their meeting with Zhou Enlai, singing “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More,” is featured on the cover of Americans in China.

MEC: In an email to me, you mentioned that you’re now working on a follow-up volume to Americans in China. What can you tell #AsiaNow readers about that book?

TL: Deborah Davis, emerita professor of sociology at Yale, and I are co-editing a sequel to Americans in China that will present profiles of individual Chinese who have lived and worked in the United States and then have returned to the PRC. We’ve enlisted authors to write about diplomacy, education, civil society, business, science, sports, music, culture, and American studies. Chinese Encounters with America, our working title, asks why Chinese citizens came to the United States, what they discovered, and in what ways their experiences changed the trajectories of their lives.

MEC: In addition to your next book project, what else is occupying your time and attention these days?

TL: I’m enjoying my affiliations as a Fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), an advisor to the Public Intellectuals Program of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations—where you and I first met—and the advisory council of ASIANetwork consortium of liberal arts colleges.

MEC: Terry, congratulations on the publication of Americans in China, and thank you so much for sharing it with #AsiaNow!

TL: Thank you for this opportunity, Maura.

Agents of Subversion: A Q&A with Author John Delury

Cover of John Delury, Agents of Subversion

On March 12, 1973, John T. “Jack” Downey walked across the Lo Wu Bridge from mainland China into Hong Kong—a crossing more than two decades in the making. In November 1952, Downey had been a young CIA agent tasked with a covert mission near the border between China and Korea. Chinese forces, however, had prior knowledge of the planned infiltration, and shot down the plane carrying Downey and his CIA colleague Dick Fecteau. Downey and Fecteau were taken into custody by the Chinese government, their imprisonment soon becoming a long-running point of negotiation in U.S.-China relations. Not until the thaw occasioned by Richard Nixon’s visit to the PRC would the two men receive their freedom.

Jack Downey returned to the United States, attended Harvard Law School, and settled down in Connecticut with his wife and family. When Downey died in 2014, a long obituary appeared in the New York Times—which is how historian John Delury (Yonsei University) first learned of his story. Delury quickly realized that Downey’s secret mission, capture, and years in Chinese custody shed light on a much more expansive history, involving domestic politics in both the United States and China as well as diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Delury intertwines these narratives in his new Cornell University Press book, Agents of Subversion: The Fate of John T. Downey and the CIA’s Covert War in China. In Agents of Subversion, Delury blends the intellectual history of the early Cold War years, stories of intelligence operations, and the arc of U.S.-China foreign policy from the 1940s to 1970s. Throughout it all, Jack Downey sat in a Beijing jail cell—one man whose fate was subject to forces far beyond his reach.

After reading an advance copy of Agents of Subversion, I interviewed John Delury via email about his work.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham (MEC): I’d like to start with the evolution of your scholarly work. You trained as a historian of the early Qing and wrote your dissertation on the political thinker Gu Yanwu, who died in 1682. The action in Agents of Subversion, however, covers the 1940s through early 1970s. How and why did you make the leap from the 17th century to the 20th?

John Delury (JD): First of all, thank you so much, Maura, for doing this. I’m a huge #AsiaNow fan! And thank you for bringing up my old pal Gu Yanwu. In fact, by the time I entered graduate school right at the end of the 20th century, I already thought of 17th century China and China today as existing on a continuum. No doubt this was the influence of my undergraduate teacher and doctoral advisor Jonathan Spence, whose class on modern China, 1600 to the present, framed my basic conception of Chinese historical time, and whose writings ranging across that period inspired me to one day do the same. In other words, I’ve always thought of it more as a hop, skip, and a jump, as opposed to a leap, from early Qing to early PRC.

Also, in between the dissertation and this book, I co-authored an intellectual and political history of 19th and 20th century China (Wealth and Power, with Orville Schell), and in the course of that project I found myself drawn to certain decades—including the 1860s (a future book one day, I hope!) and the 1950s, which is the anchor point of Agents of Subversion. I wouldn’t push the comparison too far, but perhaps there is a similarity in being a time felt by those in it as one of shifting world order. For thinkers during the transition from Ming to Qing dynasties like Gu Yanwu, it felt like one epoch giving way to another. Similarly the post-WWII years had that feeling of a hingepoint in history. As someone interested in the history of political thought, I’m naturally drawn to those sorts of moments, which tend to nurture a rich debate over the fundamentals of how the polity is ordered.

MEC: The political thinkers of the 1940s and ‘50s, of course, grappled with the lessons of World War II and struggled to understand the Cold War world that was emerging around them. You profile two groups, the realists and the China Hands. What were some of the arguments that these thinkers put forth, and how did they gain traction within the foreign-policy establishment of the early Cold War?

JD: You know that feeling when you hit send on your manuscript submission to your editor thinking, “No way they will let me keep that part in”? That was my trepidation sending in the chapter on “the realists,” and I was ready to do battle to defend keeping them in the book. To my delight, my editor seemed to love it as much as I did.

So yes, there’s a healthy dose of the history of early Cold War American political thought in this book, which might surprise readers. I drill down on a quartet of exceptional thinkers: Hannah Arendt, Reinhold Niebuhr, Hans Morgenthau, and George Kennan. They published seminal works in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, trying to instill some humility in their readers, to get Americans to recognize the perils of their newfound “superpower” status. They also, quite presciently, alerted readers to the danger of being afraid of the wrong thing—specifically, they saw the fear of Communist subversion [think Joe McCarthy] as a more dangerous threat than the actual force of Communism (although none of them were pollyannish about Stalin, to say the least). I didn’t choose them for this reason per se, but I couldn’t help thinking that the realists’ message had something to say to our own moment, as well.

Interwoven with the realists, my book takes a close look at the China Hands, including prominent figures like the post-war “founder” of modern Chinese studies in the U.S., Harvard’s John King Fairbank, and the first high-profile target of Senator McCarthy’s witchhunt, Owen Lattimore at Johns Hopkins. Drawing on deep knowledge of and experience in China and bordering lands, Fairbank and Lattimore staked out positions on U.S. “Far Eastern” policy that echo and reinforce the more general arguments being made by the realists. My cast of China Hands includes lesser-known figures as well, some of whom are on the opposite side of the ideological and policy debate, who are equally fascinating—experts like the Yale political scientist David Nelson Rowe, for example.

I don’t want to include any spoilers here, Maura, but let’s just say that a treat for the reader who reads to the end is how these realists and China Hands, many of whom were ostracized from mainstream foreign policy discourse, make a dramatic return in the context of the national debate over the Vietnam War, setting the stage for the breakthrough in U.S.-China relations in 1971. I’ll leave it at that. 

MEC: One of the key terms in Agents of Subversion is “Third Force,” which seems to have been an idea even more than it was any sort of coherent or unified entity. What was the Third Force, in the context of the early PRC and the China-U.S.-Taiwan triangle?

JD: A simple definition of the Third Force might be anyone who hated Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party as much as they did Mao Zedong and the Communists. And you are right, it never quite came together as an organized entity, although there was a compelling idea at its core.

When I first heard the term in a CIA context it sounded like a delusional fantasy, a projection worthy of The Quiet American (which Graham Greene wrote after hearing about Third Force on a reporting trip to Vietnam). But the Third Force was a powerful idea on a global scale in the post-war years, and its roots in Chinese thought can be traced back to the public intellectual Liang Qichao, who tried to carve out a moderate, centrist path through the divisive early years of the Republic of China. Liang’s protégé Carsun Chang carried the torch for the liberal cause into the even more tumultuous and violent years of the Chinese Civil War, which ended in 1949 with Chiang Kai-shek and his followers on Taiwan. Many Third Force intellectuals—as well as anti-Chiang Nationalist soldiers and generals—ended up in Hong Kong, where they tried to persuade American contacts that the Third Force represented a more viable alternative to Mao than did Chiang. Between the disillusionment with Chiang in Washington, DC and the impetus of the Korean War to support anyone who opposed Mao, the Third Force possibility gained traction. Their weakness had always been, especially as compared with both the Nationalist and Communist Party, that the Third Force was unarmed, and the CIA looked for ways to fix that problem for them.

MEC: Many of the American intelligence operations you discuss led to terrible outcomes—the capture and deaths of countless Third Force operatives, the decades-long imprisonment of Jack Downey and Dick Fecteau—and it doesn’t appear that Chinese intelligence agents fared much better. It seems like both governments took aggressive action based on the belief that the opposition was on the brink of carrying out massive and successful intelligence operations, when the reality was that everyone was floundering around. Was the CIA ever actually effective? Or did it just have good PR, capitalizing on the popular image of spies as slick James Bond characters?

JD: Well, the answer depends on how you define “effective.” For the first few years, the CIA struggled to find its place in the emerging Cold War “national security” apparatus of which it was a part. When the Korea War erupted, U.S. intelligence as a whole did not perform well—failing to anticipate Kim Il Sung’s invasion in June 1950 and Mao’s willingness to send massive reinforcements that fall. But you can’t blame it all on the CIA; military intelligence made egregious mistakes and the political analysis in State Department circles suffered from a lack of understanding of the countries and leaders involved. McCarthyism magnified the problem by sidelining experts who were deemed insufficiently loyal. Overall, I think the track record of intelligence on China was not good throughout the period covered by the book—there is probably a cautionary moral there as the U.S. and China drift back into a relationship with thinner ties and increased hostility. The moral might be something like: “Do not underestimate the ability to misread one another!” As far as the Korean War-era covert operations are concerned, it’s hard to argue those achieved any larger goals, and the human, individual cost was great.

All that said, I think you can make the case for CIA success as far as intelligence analysis and even clandestine operations, just maybe not vis-à-vis China. I came out of the research impressed by Sherman Kent, for example, who left his job teaching 19th century French political history at Yale to run the analytical directorate at the CIA for over a decade. And during the Eisenhower-Dulles years, the CIA scored some remarkable achievements in subverting governments deemed a threat to U.S. interests or values or propping up “friendly” ones. But again, a lot depends on how you define “effective.” The Agency was proud of its role in tipping elections in Italy and France and toppling governments in Iran and Guatemala, but were those not Pyrrhic victories?

MEC: You write that this book explores “the perilous linkage between subversion abroad and repression at home.” What’s the relationship between the two that you found in the past, and how do you see it playing out in the present? What lessons can current-day foreign policy actors or domestic policymakers find in Agents of Subversion?

JD: One of the unnerving similarities between the United States and China in the early 1950s is how strong the forces of reaction and repression grow in both places. Mao launches his first nationwide mass campaigns to root out and “suppress counter-revolutionaries” at the same time that McCarthy abuses his senatorial powers and manipulates public fears into an American equivalent. While McCarthy fanned flames of a Red scare, the U.S. government was taking active measures to subvert the People’s Republic of China, which do nothing to weaken Mao’s grip but did help justify his calls for a stronger “public security” state. You could even say the covert subversion against China was hidden only from the American public. Meanwhile the United States was being targeted by Soviet (not so much Chinese) espionage, but the repressive measures taken in response made the U.S. a less open society, not necessarily a more secure one. Subversion and repression generate a feedback loop—and the fact that Owen Lattimore was the first name leaked/made up by Joe McCarthy as the leading Soviet agent in America dramatizes the tragic absurdity of how China experts were sucked up into the engine of the national security state and its demands for loyalty. I should add that racism against Asians played into the equation as well, channeling fears of subversive forces into suspicion of Chinese-Americans based on their ethnic background.

I certainly hope folks concerned about subversion-repression dynamics will read the book. The fear of subversion has been rising toward China as its power and influence have grown, and some of these fears seem, like in the 1950s, more dangerous than their objects. At the same time, the apparatus of repression grows stronger and net of control tighter year by year in Xi Jinping’s China, a tragic and ominous trend. I’m sure policymakers don’t want to be told what to do by a historian. So I think more in terms of what we can all do as citizens and civic activists to be constructive (not subversive) while standing firmly on the side of openness (against repression). The more that individuals and groups in the U.S. and PRC can act together in solidarity on those principles, the better for us and the world. But I too struggle to identify the concrete ways to achieve that solidarity, and at the policy level, the challenge is really daunting going forward.

MEC: Finally, where have you focused your attention lately—as a reader, writer, historian, professor, or person living in the world?

JD: The number one focus of my attention in life is our three kids, who are extremely talented at finding ways to attract attention. So there is a lot of focus going into being a Dad, which is a blessing. My “pandemic hobby” was learning to surf, and I’ve found few places in this world that cultivate paying attention better than being out on the water, waiting for a wave—let alone those blissful moments of actually riding a wave. As far as reading, writing, teaching, and being a historian, my attention is definitely moving back in time—to my roots, as you put it in this interview. Am I too old to convert my dissertation into a book? I hope not, because I find Ming-Qing China calling out to me. It is a lot of fun going back to texts I studied twenty years ago, and seeing them in a new light. So that’s where my scholarly attention is focused for the time being.

MEC: Thank you, John, and congratulations on seeing Agents of Subversion in print!

AAS Elections, Then and Now

A typewritten draft of the 1952 election ballot for the Far Eastern Association.
Image 1: A draft of the 1952 election ballot for the Far Eastern Association. Source: Association for Asian Studies archives, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

There are forty-five candidates running in this year’s AAS election—a far cry from the eight names that appeared on the 1952 ballot (Image 1) of the Far Eastern Association (FEA, which became the AAS in 1956). This increase in the number of nominees is not solely due to the fact that the organization has grown significantly since its founding in 1948, although that is certainly part of the reason. More importantly, the way we as an association think about and handle elections has changed in dramatic, and democratic, fashion over the decades.

For the first twenty years of the association’s life, our elections involved little in the way of contestation. A Nominating Committee of five members (all men, with very few exceptions) spent the late summer and fall of each year drawing up lists of potential candidates and debating which ones they should ask to stand for election. November and December involved a flurry of letters and telegrams (many of them preserved in the AAS archives at the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library) between the Nominating Committee, candidates, and the AAS Secretariat as they raced to finalize a ballot and distribute it to members of the association. “GLADLY ACCEPT NOMINATION HAPPY NEW YEAR TO YOU BOTH FROM US AND CHRISTINE AND INGRID,” wired one candidate on December 29, 1951, his acceptance message delivered on Western Union’s New Year’s stationary (Image 2). An election ballot went out to all current members for voting by mail, and results were announced at the Annual Meeting in the spring.

A telegram, sent December 29, 1951, accepting nomination to the FEA ballot and wishing the recipient a happy new year, printed on Western Union's New Year's stationary.
Image 2: A telegram, sent December 29, 1951, accepting nomination to the FEA ballot and wishing the recipient a happy new year. Source: Association for Asian Studies archives, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

Only five to seven offices in the leadership changed hands each year: President, Vice President (for a period of time in the 1960s there were two VPs), and three or four spots on the 12-person Board of Directors (BOD). The President and Vice President(s) ran unopposed, essentially giving the Nominating Committee the power to choose who would lead the organization. While this approach stemmed in part from pragmatism, there also seems to have been a sense that asking scholars to go against each other for the top positions was un-sporting. Knight Biggerstaff, one of the FEA founders, explained to the Nominating Committee in a 1952 letter that “It is hard enough to persuade one person to accept nomination for the vice-presidency—which means the presidency the following year—without asking him to compete with someone else for the office.”

Not everyone accepted this explanation without question. In a 1953 letter to Nominating Committee Chair Hugh Borton, FEA Secretary Robert E. Ward made mention of “a few criticisms recently received of our ‘Soviet type’ system of presenting but a single candidate for the presidency and vice-presidency.” In 1955, the committee toyed with holding a true contested election for the vice presidency, putting forth two candidates, but this experiment was short-lived. Well into the 1960s, the Nominating Committee retained its control of the top spots in AAS leadership.

The competition for spots on the Board of Directors, on the other hand, posed its own set of problems. A clause in the AAS Bylaws at the time expressed that the ideal was to have a Board reflecting the diversity of regional and disciplinary specialties held by the membership at large. Yet the seven or eight candidates for the BOD all ran against each other in an open competition; the four who garnered the most votes took the available BOD seats.

Then, as now, association membership was unevenly divided by area and field, so a historian of China was likely to receive more votes than a philosopher of India simply by virtue of having more connections and greater name recognition among those who cast ballots in the election. The relative scarcity of established Asian Studies programs in universities at the time also meant that representatives of only a few schools (Harvard, Yale, Michigan, Chicago, Stanford, etc.) played a dominant role in early AAS leadership. Numerous Nominating Committees struggled with the question of how to create a balanced slate of candidates that would yield a balanced group of Board members, but year after year, they saw the scales tip out of alignment when election results came in.

By the middle of the 1960s, changes in the AAS membership, the Asian Studies field, and society at large were bringing these aspects of the AAS election process up for debate. In 1964, John Harrison at the University of Florida led a petition to place Ardath Burks of Rutgers as a second nominee on the ballot for the spot of Second Vice President, where he would run against John Whitney (Jack) Hall of Yale, whom the Nominating Committee had selected as its candidate. Harrison explained the reasons behind his support for Burks’s nomination:

AAS is a good and fruitful organization—one of the best of the learned societies. But in the last few years, it has been run through a peculiar feedback system. The officers name the Nominating Committee and the Nominating Committee names the officers. This has tended to concentrate on a few schools. This is beginning to seem obvious. Not only to me but to the thirty men who sent me their signatures and also sent twenty more names for me to address should I wish to. The tone of the response was not just one for Ardath. It was one against the growth of any establishment.

(Source: April 16, 1964 letter from John Harrison to Pete Gosling, Jim Morley, and Hy Kublin; Association for Asian Studies archives, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan)

Ardath Burks, however, thwarted this attempt to make a statement, refusing to accept the nomination and go up against Hall in an election. “Jack Hall is an old and dear friend,” Burks wrote to AAS Secretary L.A. Peter Gosling on September 29, 1964, and “I am convinced he would make a superb president.” Burks sympathized with the sentiments of Harrison and others who sought to disrupt “a so-called establishment,” but was not willing to compete with a close friend and colleague like Hall as a means of pushing the issue forward for discussion. Change was on the horizon, but it would have to wait until later in the decade.

The continued growth of Asian Studies, while good for the field, also made elections more challenging. In 1966, a number of Korean Studies specialists petitioned for their sub-field to have guaranteed representation on the AAS Board of Directors; clearly, Koreanists did not feel that their candidates fared well in an open election system. (The petition appears to have withered on the vine.) The following year, the AAS Executive Committee decided that the ballot needed to include a short biographical sketch for each candidate, indicating that the Asian Studies community had grown large enough that voters could no longer count on recognizing candidates by name alone.

In March 1968, Nominating Committee Chair G. William Skinner turned his data-analysis skills from marketing and social structure in China to the AAS Board of Directors. In a detailed memo to Jack Hall entitled “Electoral reform,” Skinner outlined the problems of representation inherent to the BOD election process and the resulting imbalances in BOD composition. Through a quantitative evaluation of election results over the preceding years (Image 3), he confirmed that “the present system unduly favors nominees working in areas with a larger number of specialists,” and also determined that “nominees who have done work in more than one of the Association’s four customary areas have a head start in any election.”

A table of AAS election results broken down by region and specialty, from a 1968 report by G. William Skinner
Figure 3: A table of AAS election results from 1960 through 1968, broken down by area and disciplinary specialization of nominees, from G. William Skinner’s “Electoral reform” memo to John Whitney Hall. Source: Association for Asian Studies archives, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

Skinner recommended that AAS move away from having all candidates compete against each other for Board seats, suggesting instead “that the membership be presented with four slates of two or three nominees each … Each slate would, of course, be restricted in the disciplinary and areal range of the nominees.” He envisioned elections in which one BOD slate would pit historians of China against each other, while a separate one would feature social scientists working in South or Southeast Asia. Skinner’s system would give each AAS member three votes to distribute as they wished among the four sub-competitions. It would be the Nominating Committee’s job to consider the current composition of the BOD each year and decide which regions/disciplines required representation in the upcoming election.

When change did come, it took a more formal shape than what Skinner had designed. In 1969, the BOD released a revamped version of the AAS Constitution and Bylaws that completely restructured the leadership of the organization. Most significantly, they created four Regional Councils (China & Inner Asia, Northeast Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia) to represent and promote the interests of the members who specialized in each area. Ratified on January 30, 1970, the new documents relieved the Nominating Committee of the struggle to ensure that all regional specializations would receive room on the election slate. The Chair of each Regional Council (which we now call Area Councils) would take a seat on the AAS Board of Directors—resolving, to a certain extent, the lopsided elections of the past. (Disciplinary diversity remains a problem: it’s still possible to wind up with fewer anthropologists than historians on the BOD, for example.) The establishment of those four nine-member Regional Councils also added thirty-six people to AAS governance, enlarging the number of people involved in setting the direction of the organization and creating a more diffuse power structure.

The AAS also, finally, moved to true elections for the office of Vice President, with multiple candidates appearing on the ballot. Our campaigns, at least in my time with the AAS, have been gentle ones, featuring none of the conflict stemming from competition that earlier leaders of the organization seemed to fear.

There is still, and likely always will be, room for improvement. The AAS includes a remarkable number of constituencies, and achieving balance in some areas often means creating an imbalance in others. But as the electoral reforms of the late 1960s demonstrate, our rules and processes are not set in stone; changes that seem inconceivable to one generation of members can feel natural, even inevitable, to the next.

What remains key to the election process is the active participation of the AAS membership in it—through speaking up, proposing new ideas, and participating in elections. When a ballot for the 2022 AAS elections arrives in your inbox next month, I urge you to take a few minutes and cast your vote.

Dream Super-Express: A Q&A with Jessamyn R. Abel

Cover image of Jessamyn R. Abel, Dream Super-Express: A Cultural History of the World's First Bullet Train

Interviewed for #AsiaNow by Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

When two blue-and-ivory “dumpling-nose” engines departed from Tokyo and Osaka train stations and started racing toward each other at 6:00am on October 1, 1964, the world’s fastest train officially became a reality. Japan’s bullet trains took the old-fashioned railroad industry and updated it with new technology and a sleek Space Age design, uniting the past and the future in one impressive infrastructural project.

As historian Jessamyn R. Abel describes in her absorbing new book, Dream Super-Express: A Cultural History of the World’s First Bullet Train (Stanford University Press, 2022), the launch of the high-speed railway did not represent an unqualified victory for Japan. Construction of the New Tōkaidō Line had sparked protests among communities displaced by the project, and in time it would contribute to an increasing homogenization of the region it ran through while also rendering outlying areas secondary to those along the route. Abroad, admiration for the country’s technical accomplishment blended with apprehension stemming from memories of World War II and concerns about a Japan again on the rise.

Abel, who is Associate Professor of Asian Studies at the Pennsylvania State University, covers all these topics and much more in Dream Super-Express, in which she recounts both “the dreams and nightmares of the bullet train.” While it is now as much a shorthand representation of Japan as cherry blossoms and samurai, the origins of the train were contested and complex, the project sparking debates and divisions at the local, regional, and national levels.

Jessamyn Abel and I discussed the complicated history of the bullet train in the interview below, conducted via email.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham (MEC): I’m always interested in learning about the origins of projects like this one. Did the idea of studying the bullet train come from your own travels on it, or did you encounter something that kindled your curiosity in its history?

Jessamyn R. Abel (JRA): Having relied for many years on New Jersey Transit, I have a great appreciation for Japan’s high-speed rail system, but I didn’t think of studying the Tōkaidō Shinkansen until I was researching the 1964 Tokyo Olympics for my first book. Since its inaugural run was just days before the Olympic opening ceremony, the news at the time was full of breathlessly excited reporting on the new line, and references to it kept popping up in my research materials. Only a brief mention of the new railway made it into that first book, but I still wanted to know why people were so excited about a train at a time when the world was turning to faster and more technologically advanced transportation infrastructures, and in Japan, as well, the government was working to expand international air travel and starting to get into space exploration. So the beginning of my research on this book came from just trying to understand the reasons for that popular fascination.

MEC: I was surprised to read that the bullet train actually had its roots in wartime Japan. How did that earlier version of the rail line influence the one that eventually came to fruition? And how did Japanese rail officials give credit to their predecessors in the 1930s and ‘40s for their technical achievements, while not appearing to endorse the politics or actions of the Japanese empire?

JRA: I had read a bit about the wartime plans for a high-speed line nicknamed the “bullet train,” but I was surprised how much people looked back to that failed project when the Tōkaidō Shinkansen was being built. Rail officials definitely gave credit to the original “bullet train” where it was due, which was not so much in technical achievements but rather in mapping out and preparing the route. For instance, Japanese National Railways (JNR) still owned a fair amount of land along the route, which the government had acquired during the war. That gave postwar planners a good head start and helped speed up preparation and construction. But probably more important in terms of public perceptions was the treatment of the wartime bullet train in popular culture. In particular, there was a 1964 television series made up of fictional stories about the bullet train that included a double episode about the wartime start on construction of the New Tanna Tunnel. The digging for that tunnel was used for the postwar line; in fact, the opening ceremony for construction was held at its entrance. So the tunnel is the most significant material connection between the two projects, and stories like the one on the TV show likely had the effect of knitting them together in the public imagination.

On the question of avoiding the appearance of endorsing a success of imperial Japan, those who emphasized the connection steered clear of that pitfall by focusing in closely on the specifics of planning and construction, so that the contexts of war and empire were left largely outside the frame. JNR officials treated the wartime bullet train plans purely as a matter of infrastructural development, stripped any political or military significance. Similarly, the television show I just mentioned celebrated the wartime progress on the tunnel as a symbol of the Japanese people’s perseverance and connected that directly to the growing prosperity of the 1960s. (This is along the lines of the memory construction that has been described by other scholars, such as Yoshikuni Igarashi, Kerry Smith, and Mariko Asano Tamanoi.) And at the same time, elements of the dialog and plot work hard to separate railway construction from the war needs and imperialist goals that propelled it.

MEC: As you discuss in the book, residents of Kyoto caused considerable headaches for JNR: city officials campaigned hard for a stop on the New Tōkaidō Line, but then many groups protested plans that would displace their communities. Although those protests were ultimately unsuccessful, how did they nevertheless change the landscape of local politics in Japan?

JRA: This was one of my favorite but most difficult chapters to write, simply because of the challenge of finding out about people who tended not to record their own thoughts and activities. So I had to glean protesters’ stories from others who wrote about their activities with varying levels of detail, sympathy, and credibility. This patchwork of sources came together to provide a view of protests that were only partially successful in their most immediate goal of ameliorating the dislocation caused by the new line (through assistance in getting new housing or higher levels of compensation, for instance). But they also present early instances of the kind of local, issue-focused protest movements that gained traction over the subsequent decade, not only in Kyoto but throughout the country.

MEC: Foreign coverage of the bullet train expressed admiration for Japan’s accomplishments in building the line. Often, however, it also included a strong undercurrent of techno-Orientalism, in which East Asia is imagined to be futuristic and advanced, but also robotic and menacing. How did the bullet train fit in with other elements of this narrative in the early 1960s?

JRA: International displays of the bullet train show Japanese leaders’ contribution to American techno-Orientalism through their efforts to present Japan as exceptionally adept at technological innovation and industrial production. For instance, considering the Japan Pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, we can see government planners, Japanese industry representatives, and American Fair-goers working at cross-purposes in a way that produced a techno-Orientalist view of Japan. Government planners’ primary goal of representing Japan in terms of its advanced technologies and rapid industrialization informed three different displays of the bullet train. But that goal was undercut by the need to attract viewers by satisfying American consumers’ desires to see the “exotic Japan” that they expected. The result was that they inadvertently reinforced the old view of Japan as the “land of geisha and Fujiyama,” but also turbo-charged it with the technological spectacle of the world’s fastest train, as well as computers, cars, and rockets.

MEC: Almost sixty years after its launch, how is the bullet train viewed in Japan today? With the expansion of high-speed rail across China and elsewhere, does Japan’s bullet train still stand out in any special way, or do people simply regard it as utilitarian, unexciting transportation?

JRA: I think there’s still some excitement about the bullet train, in part because it is continually upgraded and expanded. The trains that ran on the New Tōkaidō Line in 1964 were replaced by a series of newer models with ever-sleeker designs and higher average running speeds, and the introduction of a new model is always accompanied by a great deal of fanfare and clamor. The regional Japan Rail companies that now operate the system also make purposeful efforts to increase fascination (and ridership) with special trains, like a shinkansen showcasing contemporary art, promoted as the “World’s Fastest Art Gallery.” If the planned Tokyo-Osaka maglev train is ever completed (and resistance to construction by Shizuoka Prefecture truly makes me wonder if it will), then perhaps the old “new” Tōkaidō main line will seem stodgy by comparison. That said, the original train, now visible only in railway museums, rather than exuding a feeling of speed, instead inspires nostalgia.

MEC: If people who read Dream Super-Express want to explore some of the topics you touch on in more depth, what other works do you recommend they pick up?

JRA: Wow, I want to recommend a huge library of books, but I’ll try to limit myself to just a few. If people read just one other book on railways, it should be Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century. On the development of the bullet train, Takashi Nishiyama’s Engineering War and Peace in Modern Japan, 1868-1964 is great for its connection of wartime engineering to the postwar railway industry. For a more general treatment of several aspects of the high-speed rail system, Christopher P. Hood’s Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan is a great resource. On a more theoretical level, the work of anthropologists like Brian Larkin, Penny Harvey, and Hannah Knox is essential for understanding the social significance of infrastructure.

MEC: Finally, what has captured your attention lately—as a reader, writer, historian, professor, or person living in the world?

JRA: Recently I returned to a cache of materials I had collected a few years ago at the Gordon W. Prange Collection with the intention of including a chapter on Occupation-era railway reconstruction in this book. Ultimately, I decided that the topic didn’t quite belong, so the folder containing everything I’d photographed at the Prange was just collecting dust (metaphorically) on my computer. Unable to travel to Japan during the pandemic, I had the time to read more carefully through these materials, a grab-bag of anything filed under “Transportation: rail” at the archive, from instruction manuals for new JNR employees to poetry by railway laborers. I was surprised to find a drumbeat repetition of an unexpected theme: the role of the railways in helping to build democracy in Japan. I am currently working on writing an article about the connection that people involved in the railway industry made between their workplaces and the broad social changes taking place in Japan. I am also curious about what other ways Japanese people in all walks of life rethought their own work and other activities in terms of the national goal of democratization, and I am beginning to envision this as a book.

Carbon Technocracy: An Interview with Historian Victor Seow

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Cover image of Carbon Technocracy, by Victor Seow

Discussions of how to address climate change frequently note that one of the most important factors will be breaking China’s “addiction” to coal. Coal-fired power plants have provided electricity to the country’s manufacturing sector and growing cities for decades, while at the same time creating toxic air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions. Shifting from coal to wind or solar power for China’s energy production is a crucial step toward reducing greenhouse gases, but also poses significant challenges—both practical and political—for Chinese Communist Party leaders.

The centrality of coal in Chinese energy production was by no means inevitable. Rather, it came about through what historian Victor Seow (Harvard University) terms the “carbon technocracy” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Seow is author of a new book, aptly titled Carbon Technocracy: Energy Regimes in Modern East Asia (University of Chicago Press, 2022), that analyzes the development-fueled dreams of Chinese and Japanese states as they sought to extract ever-increasing amounts of coal from below the earth’s surface. Seow’s deftly written narrative moves back and forth from Northeast China to Japan, always returning to the open-pit mine at Fushun, Manchuria’s “Coal Capital,” east of Shenyang. Generations of laborers toiled at Fushun, overseen by the Japanese South Manchuria Railway Company (Mantetsu) until 1945 and then, in succession, by Soviet, Chinese Nationalist, and Chinese Communist officials. Regardless of the leaders in charge, Fushun’s miners carried out difficult and dangerous work, their efforts subject to the same “technologies of extraction” as the coal they brought above ground.

In Carbon Technocracy, Seow explores how political power and the fossil fuel economy became inextricably linked in the modern technocratic state. A conviction that the production and consumption of coal could serve to measure growth and modernity drove government bureaucrats to seek higher and higher output from mines like Fushun. Officials from the various states that oversaw Fushun across the decades would likely not have welcomed comparisons to their predecessors. They all, however, shared a belief in the importance of capitalizing on China’s coal resources to make their respective regimes stronger. And they all, in ways large and small, helped create the addiction to coal that China’s leaders now grapple with quitting.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham (MEC): I always like to start by learning how the idea for a project came about. What were the questions or circumstances that led you to the topic of coal mining in Fushun?

Victor Seow (VS): As with many other scholars and their first projects, I took a somewhat long and winding path to Fushun and coal mining.

The short version of this story is that I came to study it through an interest in Chinese labor migration to Manchuria. I had been intrigued by this movement of people for several reasons, most of all the extent to which it persisted even after Japan invaded the region and set up its client state of Manchukuo there. What had been an internal migration became ostensibly an international one, and I wanted to find out more about these migrants and how they navigated the shifting political and institutional landscape between the Chinese nation and the Japanese empire.

I began with some preliminary research in Shandong province, where many of these migrants came from. The archival record was, however, quite fragmentary, and I thought that it may be better to pick a point on the receiving end and work backwards from there. So I got on a boat in Yantai and sailed across the Bohai Gulf to Dalian. I proceeded to go around several archives and libraries in Northeast China looking for materials on the industries where the migrants labored, and the Fushun colliery came up again and again. After searching through the catalogs of libraries and archives in Japan and finding out about the wide range of sources on Fushun from the decades that its coal mining industry was under Japanese management, I made my choice and selected this site.

As I started digging further into Fushun’s history, though, I soon realized that there was a complex and fascinating story that one could tell about the coal itself. Influenced in part by the materialist turn and how an attention to the physicality of things might yield insights into social processes, I decided that I wanted to tell that story. One of the things I then did was to enroll in an economic geology course that was offered in the earth and planetary sciences department here. Through this course and its various components, which included a petroleum geochemistry lab and a field trip to a working colliery, I learned a ton about coal and other fossil fuels, which helped me to better make sense of the sources I was collecting and reading and to write slightly more textured narratives about these energy resources.

MEC: It’s now fairly common among China historians to “cross the 1949 divide” and point out continuities between the Chinese Nationalist and Chinese Communist states. What I’ve seen less frequently is also bringing the period of Japanese rule into the story and knitting the three together, as you do. How does the concept of “carbon technocracy” enable you to draw a throughline in the history of these three governing regimes?

VS: Perhaps a good place for me to start is by laying out what I mean by “carbon technocracy.” So I use this term to describe a modern regime of energy extraction that is defined by a statist commitment to industrial development based on access to cheap and abundant sources of carbon energy and a desire to marshal science and technology toward this end. It is both an ideal and a sociotechnical system that the ideal helps bring into being.

Although the three states I looked at differed from each other in various ways, from professed political ideology to capacity, they each take up carbon technocracy in one way or another. And at a basic level, the book seeks to underscore this common denominator.

At the same time, one major point that the book makes is that the technological and infrastructural legacies of the Japanese empire in Manchuria served as an important foundation for the post-1949 Chinese state’s pursuit of carbon technocracy and socialist industrialization. Here I join scholars who have advanced a similar argument such as Ramon Myers, Matsumoto Toshirō, Daqing Yang, Amy King, and Koji Hirata.

But I stress that this is not necessarily something to celebrate. For one, the industrial edifice that Japan raised in the region was built upon the backs of Chinese labor and almost certainly not for the benefit of ordinary Chinese. And the large-scale, coal-fired industrial expansion that this fraught inheritance enabled did not yield positive outcomes for much of the local population and absolutely not for the environment here and elsewhere. Hence, I argue that we can recognize that “contribution” without thinking of it as such.

MEC: One element of your book that I really appreciate is how you play with scale. A good portion of Carbon Technocracy examines big-picture politics and events, and you depict the mine at Fushun as a massive endeavor that inspires awe, embodying what you term the “technological sublime.” Yet you never lose sight of the individual, especially those laboring in the mines. What was the human factor within carbon technocracy, and how did miners themselves promote or resist the imperatives of the state’s endeavors?

VS: Thanks so much for that observation. Moving between those scales was something I really aspired to do as I wrote and revised this book, and so I am particularly grateful that you picked it up. Because of the size of the extractive operations at Fushun, it consistently featured in discussions and decisions about fuel and energy in the corridors of power, whether in Beijing, Nanjing, or Tokyo. But while I wanted to follow those developments, I also wanted to keep Fushun and those who labored there at the core of the story.

In regard to the human factor in carbon technocracy, this is, to me, one of the idealized fictions of this energy regime. Carbon technocracy promotes the use of fossil-fueled machines for productivist purposes and imagines a diminished reliance upon labor, which its adherents often deemed unreliable at best. The massive open-pit mine that came to represent the Fushun colliery was, in a sense, a materialization of these notions. Still, as the demand for output continued to grow and operations further expanded, so too did the dependence on workers and their human energy.

In terms of resistance, this was something I tried to bring up at points in the book to show how carbon technocracy was seldom the well-oiled machine that proponents imagined it to be. I highlight both episodes of collective action and instances of everyday resistance. As it often is the case with social history, this required some reading against the grain of sources. For instance, one source I enjoyed using was a set of bilingual Chinese-Japanese textbooks that the company put out to help Japanese managers and supervisors learn Mandarin so as to communicate with the Chinese who worked under them. They contain a series of dialogues across multiple work settings, and many of these involve a Japanese superior admonishing a Chinese worker or accusing him of some infraction, such as not properly maintaining a machine. On the one hand, this points to a form of scripted distrust that reinforced the many inequalities between Japanese and Chinese at this workplace. On the other hand, it also suggests that the devices in this increasingly mechanized site still needed Chinese workers for upkeep and were vulnerable to their inaction.

MEC: You carried out the research for this book in a variety of far-flung libraries and archives across China, Taiwan, Japan, and the United States. Was there any part of the story that you hoped to tell but didn’t find documentation for? Anything you did find that you’d like to explore further (or see another historian pick up and continue in their work)?

VS: This connects back to my response to the question you raised right before this, but I do wish that there were more sources written by or from the standpoint of Fushun’s Chinese miners, especially before 1949. Much of what I say about these workers in that period is based on reports that Mantetsu produced about them in the aggregate, oral histories that were collected with individuals over the decades after the revolution, and certain documents that had to be read against the grain, as with the example I mentioned earlier. Again, this is a common challenge in social history, and we ultimately have to make the best use of the sources that we can get our hands on, but I do wish I could have said even more.

As for something that I would love to see someone explore further, in my chapter on Manchukuo, Japan, and World War II, I tried to place developments in Fushun and Manchuria within Japan’s “empire of energy” by providing a quick account of what was going on with the coal sectors in the home islands and in the other occupied territories of Taiwan, Korea, Karafuto, and North China and how these were all interconnected in what I term a “warscape of intensification” (an adaptation of energy historian Christopher Jones’s idea of “landscape of intensification”). I do think, though, that there is much more one could write on the subject and would be eager to read work on this front.

MEC: You bookend Carbon Technocracy with accounts of your visits to the mine at Fushun, where there’s now a museum that celebrates the history of coal extraction there. I’ve also been to a coal mine museum in Central Pennsylvania, where I would sum up the narrative presented as “Coal mining was a dirty, dangerous job and thank goodness we’ve now progressed beyond it.” But, of course, there’s still lots of coal mining going on in the world, and many people continue to work in dirty, dangerous conditions. What are some of your thoughts on coal mines as tourist sites, and how they deal with the past and present of the industry?

VS: For many coal mines across the world, tourism has become an established (and some may say the expected) direction to take after operations wind down. Here I am thinking of former sites of extraction from the Big Pit in Blaenavon, Wales, to Yubari in Hokkaido, Japan. From the ones I have been to, the narrative has tended to be a mix of celebration and nostalgia. For sure the difficulty and danger of mine work would be emphasized, but such is often offset by accounts of how coal mining built both the local community and national economy and by a sense that much has been lost with the decline or disappearance of the industry in the area (even if coal mining persists elsewhere).

In the case of Fushun, I think that those elements are there. But the establishment of the coal mining museum also fits neatly within the frame of local industrial museums that have been springing up across China in the past few decades. Such museums typically chart the evolution of a particular industry over time while claiming its continued importance for the locale in the present. Here, my sense is that the company built the museum as a monument to reassert how central coal mining has been to Fushun and to the country more generally, but this museum ended up becoming instead something more like a tombstone for the industry in the area, which had been flagging for some time. To me, the main feature of the museum is not the exhibits inside but the observation tower toward the back from which one can view the workings in the enormous open pit below. A few years after the museum went up, operations at that site came an end.

MEC: Finally, what has captured your attention lately—as a reader, writer, historian, professor, or person living in the world?

VS: I care a lot about writing as a craft and love delving into the nuts and bolts behind how we get words onto a page. I am by no means the only one who feels this way, but I think that we as historians and as scholars in general could afford to spend more time discussing how we write and how we might do so better. In science studies, we often talk about the black box, in which we have a technoscientific artifact or system whose complex inner workings remain hidden from view and require unpacking by the intrepid scholar. As I see it, there are few things in our line of work that are as tightly blackboxed as writing.

That was a rather lengthy preface to my answer to your question. Something that has captured my attention recently is a new podcast by Kate Carpenter, a historian of science who is currently completing her Ph.D. at Princeton. It is called Drafting the Past, and it features historians who come and chat about various aspects of their writing process. To date, the guests on the show have all been highly skilled writers of history with varying styles and approaches. And Kate is a terrific host. She asks great questions, and something she does that I enjoy is to pick an excerpt of the guest’s writing, read it out, then have the guest walk us through the choices they made as they pieced together the selected prose. But yes, highly recommend.

And I have been giving additional thought to writing of late because of the work I am doing on my next book. This is a history of industrial psychology in China from the 1930s, when the first study in this subfield was carried out, to the present, in which it exists, as elsewhere, in its contemporary form as industrial-organizational psychology. By tracing this history, I seek to examine how work becomes and functions as an object of scientific inquiry and how the sciences of work intersect with larger social discourses about the nature and value of labor.

As to where writing comes into the picture, this has to do with just how different a book this will be from my first. While Carbon Technocracy is very much grounded in site and setting, this new book, provisionally titled The Human Factor, will be centered on a circle of characters, the psychologists who were engaged in this work of the workplace. To me, this shift in focus is going to involve a reworking of how I typically tell stories, which might be a bit of a challenge, but one I am excited about and readily embrace.

MEC: Thank you, Victor, and congratulations on the publication of Carbon Technocracy!

VS: Thank you so much, Maura! This has been a real pleasure!

Mediums and Magical Things: An Interview with Laurel Kendall

Laurel Kendall
Laurel Kendall

Laurel Kendall served as President of the Association for Asian Studies in 2016-17 and is Curator of Asian Ethnology and Acting Curator of African and Pacific Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. Kendall also chairs the AMNH’s Division of Anthropology and is Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University. An anthropologist of Korea, Kendall is author of numerous books on shamans, popular religion, and gender. Her most recent publication is Mediums and Magical Things: Statues, Paintings, and Masks in Asian Places, published by University of California Press in 2021. In this volume, Kendall visits research sites in Vietnam, Myanmar, Korea, and Bali to explore the interplay between human actors and religious objects that are understood to be “ensouled, animated, blessed, or otherwise numinous.” Following statues, masks, and paintings from creation to religious use to disposal, Kendall illuminates points of commonality and gaps of difference in beliefs about such objects in different Asian contexts.

I interviewed Laurel Kendall about Mediums and Magical Things via email.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham (MEC): We’ll start with a question as big as this book. What I immediately found most striking about Mediums and Magical Things is the breadth of this work, which covers South Korea, Vietnam, Bali, and Myanmar. What compelled you to embark on such a wide-ranging comparative project? On a very practical level, how were you able to make it happen? What were some of the benefits of this approach, and in what ways did it prove challenging?

Laurel Kendall (LK): There was a MacGuffin to the whole project, a statue in a museum in Vietnam and the imbroglio that ensued when the spirit medium who had gifted the image encountered it in close proximity to the floor. Anxious to learn more, my Vietnamese colleagues and I embarked upon a research project about temple statues, how they were made, ensouled, and tended, and what they meant to the spirit mediums and their community. At the same time, I was reminded of things I had heard but never fully understood regarding uncanny happenings attributed to the god pictures that hang in Korean shaman shrines. These stories from South Korea, shared with carvers, mediums, and temple keepers in Vietnam, probably made it easier for my interlocutors to share their own stories about the magic of things. The work in Vietnam fed my preexisting curiosity about the shaman paintings in Korea and led to an appreciation of the distinction between how temple statues are expected to “work” and how paintings, as tools of a shaman’s practice, are the site of an ongoing and intense engagement between the shaman and her gods, a site lacking the relative certainty of the god’s being ensouled in a wooden or metal container.

Cover of Mediums and Magical Things: Statues, Paintings, and Masks in Asian Places, by Laurel Kendall

I’m not sure what moment of extreme presumption prompted me to add Myanmar and Bali to the study. As I became aware of a growing literature that described statue ensoulment in Buddhist and Hindu worlds, as I felt my work enriched by a dialogic engagement between popular religious practices in Korea and Vietnam, and as I experienced the pleasures of joint research, I felt emboldened to broaden the conversation. I have always thought of Asian Studies as a big tent where a lot of interesting things are going on; I began my career as an exchange student in Hong Kong which I experienced as an incredible crossroads. We all invest a lot in our careers as specialists, but looking, reading, and thinking beyond one’s specialty can be invigorating. I was encouraged by anthropologist Webb Keane’s asking why it is that, given the innately comparative nature of anthropology, anthropologists are so squeamish about doing comparative work. I was also well positioned; my job title is “Curator of Asian Ethnographic Collections” broadly defined inside a classically encyclopedic Natural History Museum. It was museum work that gave me an opportunity to establish valuable professional relationships in Vietnam in the first instance. More generally, the museum encouraged and supported broad-based research. I make no conceit for what I am able to do outside my Korean comfort zone; the book is a dialogic patchwork of previously-published projects done in collaboration with good partners who were equally invested in the work: several colleagues from the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology; Erin Hasinoff, who shared her knowledge of Myanmar and a brief stint of fieldwork with me; and Ni Wayan Pasek Ariati, who has been my research partner in Bali. These experiences also prompted me to broaden the disciplinary perspective of my work on Korean shaman paintings, happily combining forces with folklorist Jongsung Yang and art historian Yul Soo Yoon. Stepping outside one’s comfort zone also assumes a rigorous scouring of the existing literature and a great deal of humility.

MEC: As you discuss in the book, a non-practitioner of one of these religions might consider the statues, paintings, and masks simply part of temple decoration. What distinguishes these objects, in the eyes of practitioners, from decoration? Are they art, but also more than art?

LK: “Art” is in the eye of the beholder; museums and formalist connoisseurship rehabilitated what the Western world initially responded to as “heathen idols” usually described as “hideous.” But the rehabilitation of magical images as art elided the work that these things were originally intended to do. The treatment of religious statues and masks in most museums, until very recently, is akin to the display of Catholic reliquaries in European museums, a celebration of the skill and aesthetic accomplishment evidenced in the container that, in the case of a reliquary, elides the bits of bone or scraps of cloth that were once the raison d’être of the piece. I realized, rather late in life, that the imposing Buddha images I had been paying my respects to in temples all over Asia were considered not just as artistic representations but as literal presences, carefully crafted and ritually ensouled to make a site of encounter and efficacy. A great deal of effort, a mingling of magic and craft, is invested in making this happen, and there were sometimes disagreements among my interlocutors about what was required to make a proper image. I also found an abundance of cautionary tales regarding the mistreatment of magical images. In Vietnam, the legacy of recent anti-superstition campaigns and their associated iconoclasm was particularly strong, but it was not difficult, in any of the places where I worked, to find accounts of images striking back against breeches of image propriety.

MEC: I was fascinated by your discussions of the crisscrossing worlds of religion and the market. These objects are sacred, but at the same time they can be reproduced, commodified, and sold—and today we often see versions of them available as tourist souvenirs. What are some of the perspectives that you heard on this topic of objects as souvenirs during your interviews with interlocutors?

LK: Producing sacred images on commission in a workshop is an old practice across the breadth of Eurasia. The idea that religious images are items of commerce produced in standardized forms is not new. What is new is the explosion of domestic markets in many Asian societies, the greater accessibility of religious goods to expanding Asian middle classes, and the attendant debates about whether rationalized production and cheaper or more easily worked materials compromise the efficacy of a sacred object.

To the other side of your question, expanding global and domestic tourist markets encourage markets in souvenirs, decorative art, and faked antiquities, some produced by carvers originally trained in making sacred images. Everywhere I worked, interlocutors made a clear distinction between the sacred commodity and the pure commodity. And yet, things sometimes become more complicated on the ground. In Bali, where firm distinctions are made between sacred and secular masks, I also heard of masks that, in the words of one Balinese interlocutor, “became sacred by accident.”

MEC: A point that comes through at various times is the importance of an object’s genealogy. Religious practitioners might seek out a statue carved by a particular artist, for example, if they regard that artist as one who creates particularly beautiful and efficacious statues. Toward the book’s end, you talk about what is lost when museums add these objects to their collections without knowing their genealogy. Has the research for Mediums and Magical Things affected how you approach your work as a museum curator, or how you think about museum collections more broadly?

LK: It is often said that early anthropological collecting was more concerned with typology—both object type and typicality for a particular ethnic group—and less interested in the identity of the man, woman, or child who made or used a particular object. Our cataloguing systems reflect this. Also, many objects come to museums through trade, networks of runners and dealers with layers of obfuscating trade secrets. That said, the American Museum of Natural History maintains a careful archive such that any scrap of supporting information is carefully preserved in an acid-free envelope for future researchers. Sometimes old fieldnotes will reveal the story of the shaman who wore the robe or the performer who danced the mask. The weight of that enterprise makes a curator attentive to recording what is known and getting it into the folder. With respect to some of the Korean god pictures in our collection, names of painters and previous owners are known, but not the story of a particular shaman’s relationship to a particular god, the kinds of relationships I described in The Life and Hard Times of a Korean Shaman. The best I could do here is note what we are missing.

MEC: As would be expected for a book about four different research sites and one that engages with scholarly literature on many different topics, the size and scope of your bibliography rival those of a graduate student preparing for their qualifying exams. Among the many works that you read, can you pick out a few that provided special inspiration, and/or which you’d recommend readers pair with Mediums and Magical Things?

LK: Alfred Gell’s notion of the “agentive object” was a formative influence, once my encounters with statues in Vietnam and god pictures in South Korea helped me to understand the premises of his Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (Oxford University Press, 1998). This was a work of contemporary anthropology that I could also share with my Vietnamese colleagues as something that accommodated their own understandings of temple statues. Richard H. Davis’ The Lives of Indian Images (Princeton University Press, 1997) is an important work that takes seriously the many social ramifications of an image. Angela Chiu’s The Buddha in Lanna: Art, Lineage, Power, and Place in Northern Thailand (University of Hawai’i Press, 2017), Donald K. Swearer’s Becoming the Buddha: The Ritual of Image Consecration in Thailand (Princeton University Press, 2004), and Sarah Horton’s Living Buddhist Statues in Early Medieval and Modern Japan (Palgrave, 2007) are useful case studies of related phenomena. To broaden the discussion in time, space, and discipline, see a recent special issue of Ars Orientalis (50, 2021) on “Miraculous Images,” guest edited by Dorothy Wong.

MEC: Finally, what has captured your attention lately—as a reader, writer, ethnographer, or person living in the world?

LK: The human form is at the center of Mediums and Magical Things, a project that went to press as controversies were roiling around public statuary, non the least the now-departed equestrian statue of Teddy Roosevelt which, until very recently, graced the main entrance of my place of employment. I have found myself returning to David Freedbergh’s The Power of Images (University of Chicago Press, 1989) with its claim for the uncanny power of human images. Museum mannequins would seem, in many quarters, to be ripe for an iconoclastic purging, often characterized as stereotypic, frozen in time, and sometimes downright racist. With my Columbia University Museum Anthropology students, I am exploring the different backstories associated with mannequins in AMNH’s Hall of Asian Peoples, to surprising and less-easily generalized results.

AAS 2022 Call for Volunteers

The Association for Asian Studies (AAS) seeks energetic and enthusiastic volunteers to work at our 2022 Annual Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii, March 24-27. Volunteers must be present on-site at the Hawaii Convention Center and will be compensated for their time:

  • Work one shift – Receive free conference registration
  • Work two shifts – Receive free conference registration plus a one-year AAS student membership (includes these member benefits)

This is a great opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students to get acquainted with scholarly conferences, meet others interested in Asian Studies, and learn more about the AAS!

Volunteers are needed to work in the following areas:

  • Registration assistance
  • Virtual conference room monitors (Virtual session room monitors must possess a general understanding of Zoom, including how to start a meeting, assign hosts, record a meeting, and chat with participants. A virtual training session will take place prior to the conference for volunteers.)
  • Room monitors/badge checkers

Sign up for volunteer slots is now open—please contact if you have any questions. Thank you for your support of the AAS!

Digital Fieldwork: A New Site for Scholars

Header image from the Digital Fieldwork website
The Digital Fieldwork website

Many Asian Studies scholars are familiar with what we might call “traditional” fieldwork, such as on-site interviews, archival research, and participant-observation studies. In doctoral programs, it’s common for advanced students to disappear from campus for a year or more as they journey to research sites and collect materials and data to write up into a dissertation. In recent years, however, it has become more difficult to carry out international fieldwork, due to a number of factors: a global pandemic, tightened research budgets, uncompromising visa regimes, uncertain political environments, and more. Family life and concerns about how travel contributes to climate change also lead scholars to seek out research projects that can be conducted remotely.

But there’s still a tendency in the profession to treat on-site fieldwork as legitimate and remote research as a second-best substitute. A group of scholars at Indiana University (IU) and Georgetown University (GU) are fighting these outdated ideas with a new website, Digital Fieldwork. Offering first-person reflections and advice for new researchers, they hope the site will provide resources and support for those embarking on digital fieldwork projects.

To learn more about the Digital Fieldwork initiative, I interviewed Lahra Smith (Georgetown University) by email.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham (MEC): Thanks so much for your willingness to share more about this new resource with #AsiaNow readers. To begin, how did you and your IU-GU colleagues get the idea for Digital Fieldwork? Does the site have its origin in the pandemic experience, or is there a longer history to your work?

Lahra Smith (LS): It does have its origins in the pandemic experience, but as you note, other scholars have been working on this much longer. Our own collaboration and the work that initiated the website came from the pandemic-related shutdowns, however, and the resulting delays and disruptions to some of our own plans for fieldwork, as well as that of graduate students in our PhD programs. We initially held a workshop at Georgetown in the summer of 2020 and then realized that there was this great work already out there by scholars who, as you note, had been unable to “get to the field” because of limitations of funding, visa restrictions, family or care obligations, health or disability, and conflict or political restrictions. In addition, within a few months of the pandemic-related shutdowns, there were folks sharing resources and hosting talks on how to make transitions to new methodologies and maximize existing resources. We wanted to create both a platform to share the news about these workshops, conferences, and talks, as well as their own projects, but also generate new reflections on the process of Digital Fieldwork. The “Reflections” page is a really important part of the site because it is where we hope the community can share experiences and insights into these transitions.

MEC: What sort of feedback have you gotten on the project so far?

LS: The feedback has been heartening. We have heard from graduate students, junior researchers, and seasoned scholars, all of whom have been thinking about what is lost and also what is gained by these changes. We know people are visiting to read these reflections, as well as to search for new reference materials and resources. We have had suggestions and new ideas from individual scholars, as well as from those that are teaching classes on Fieldwork.  

MEC: We’ve learned so much more about the possibilities opened up by platforms such as Zoom and WhatsApp in the past two years. Despite concerns about surveillance and privacy in online spaces, it seems to me that more and more researchers will be conducting at least some amount of digital fieldwork as we move forward. What are some of the approaches you’d like to see graduate programs teach their students to prepare them for this kind of work?

LS: Recently two of our team were able to share thoughts about this at a “methods roundtable” for a professional association and several graduate students were in attendance. It does seem to me that there will need to be more explicit training in these methods. Not surprisingly, all of us in the Zoom room at that conference shared experiences and opinions about the various available platforms related to safety of participants and surveillance.

But what strikes me and what our team talks about a lot is that the ethics of research has always been a critical component of graduate fieldwork preparation, or at least it should be. That has not changed, and all this means is adding a new repertoire of questions to the existing ones. We have always asked—how will I ensure the anonymity and safety of my research participants, and how is that determined by the context in which I am doing the research and the tools that I use for that (audio recording, notebooks, laptops, etc.)? Now we may be adding Zoom vs. WhatsApp vs. Signal etc., but the interplay of the practical and the ethical has always been extremely important for field researchers and will remain so in a digital context, though it is altered for sure.

MEC: How would you like to build out the Digital Fieldwork site in the future? What are some of the resources you hope to add?

LS: We have several goals. We want to build the reach of the site to researchers working in different world regions and using different types of tools and platforms, so we are always looking for contributions and resources that can showcase the range of what constitutes Digital Fieldwork. In addition, the team is eager to collate and publicize talks, workshops and trainings on all things related to Digital Fieldwork, so making sure that we are doing that is a key goal. We will also be introducing a periodic email “Update” that will point readers back to the site to share what is new on the site.

MEC: Finally, how can #AsiaNow readers get involved in Digital Fieldwork?

LS: We would welcome multiple types of involvement. #AsiaNow readers can become a contributor by posting a resource, reference, or reflection. This means any reference or resource material that you think other scholars or practitioners doing Digital Fieldwork would benefit from. We would particularly welcome original Reflections, which are 1,000-2,500 word pieces that reflect on how to carry out, manage, or address challenges in conducting digital fieldwork or offer intellectual reactions to the experience of conducting digital fieldwork. If you have altered your fieldwork in some way, during the pandemic or previously, what choices did you make and why? What trade-offs were there and how did you weigh those? What ethical questions are raised? We welcome contributions from your community!

MEC: Thank you, Lahra, and best of luck to the Digital Fieldwork team!

The Environments of East Asia: All About This New Open-Access Book Series

The Henry Luce Foundation has recently awarded Professors Albert L. Park (Claremont McKenna College) and Ann Sherif (Oberlin College) a $240,000 grant to establish an open-access book series, The Environments of East Asia, with Cornell University Press. This award builds on a previous Luce grant that funded EnviroLab Asia, an initiative Park participated in at the Claremont Colleges (read more about EnviroLab Asia in this 2017 #AsiaNow post) and the LIASE initiative at Oberlin College. Park and Sherif will serve as co-editors of The Environments of East Asia, which will publish works blending environmental studies with East Asian studies. They plan to release ten titles in the series, beginning with an edited volume, Forces of Nature: New Perspectives on Korean Environments, in fall 2022.

Learn more about The Environments of East Asia in this Q&A with Albert L. Park and Ann Sherif.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham: Congratulations on both this important new book series and the Luce grant to support it! Can you share the background story of how The Environments of East Asia came about and how you connected with Cornell University Press?

Albert L. Park & Ann Sherif: Thanks for the interview. We appreciate you reaching out to us. We have been overseeing environmental studies initiatives on Asia at our campuses that have been funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, and we have been seeing a surge in studies on environmental issues in East Asia, especially at the graduate level. These studies have extensively covered human/non-human relations, the systems and beliefs that have mediated those relations, and other environmental issues in East Asia from the past to the present and from a variety of disciplinary angles. We believed there should be a new space of publication dedicated to supporting and featuring these stimulating works. It should be a comprehensive space curated specifically to bring these works into a dialogue with the larger conversations on environmental issues and to help deepen and direct these conversations. In our minds, creating a new book series would be a vehicle for not only widening Asian Studies, but also forging new theoretical and methodological grounds on how to approach and study ecology, the environment, and other themes and concepts.

We approached Cornell University Press (CUP) about developing a new series. That was after Emily Andrew, a Senior Editor at Cornell University Press, reached out to Albert to talk about his new manuscript on the origins of environmentalism in modern Korea. Emily immediately saw the potential and scholarly value in a series like this and worked with us to get it off the ground. Everyone at CUP supported this project because of its prospects of shaping so many different fields. It made sense to locate this new series in CUP because of its extensive record of publishing outstanding books on Asia and different areas of the environment. Above all, we wanted to work with CUP because it has a thorough infrastructure for editing, producing, and promoting high-quality books.

MEC: Both environmental studies and Asian studies are already interdisciplinary fields. How do you anticipate creating a new line of multidisciplinary books? What are some of the benefits and challenges you anticipate in doing so?

Park & Sherif: We noticed that most existing Environmental book series tend to publish lists heavy on only one of the many disciplines represented in Environmental Studies. For example, there are a number of series about environmental history. In contrast, this series will expand beyond a single discipline in order to forge a space where theories and analyses from the humanities and social sciences and concepts and methodologies from the sciences can be deployed together to identify and interpret diverse processes and intersections. It will be a space to produce layered and varied perspectives that would not otherwise be possible from a single disciplinary angle.

The challenge of creating this multidisciplinary series is to maintain balance in both disciplinary coverage and geographical focus. Specifically, because we plan to include books with a scientific perspective on environmental issues in East Asia, we need to make sure that the series ties together the books well to tell clear, nuanced stories about the environment. This is so readers can gain better understandings of the layered complexities and relationships in the environment, especially the intersections between humans and non-humans and the systems of mediation that structure these relationships. The diverse background and expertise of the editorial team, especially the Editorial Board, which is made up of scholars from different disciplines and with different geographical focuses, ensures that this series will maintain strong balance in its coverage and approaches and produce a diverse array of studies that will meet the interests of readers from a variety of fields.

MEC: Why did you decide to make The Environments of East Asia an open-access project? What will this look like for authors and readers?

Park & Sherif: Simply put, we wanted to help this push to democratize and expand readership. Open-access gives everyone the opportunity to read books in our series without any constraints, especially in Asia and other parts of the world where the price of books by university presses are quite high. Authors in the series will also have more people reading their books in light of the fact that studies have shown that open access books have high rate of downloads globally. This way of publishing increases opportunities for authors to have their works shared, discussed, and used widely. Fortunately, our drive to make this series open access aligned well with the mission of the Henry Luce Foundation, which has been pivotal in boosting Asian Studies under the direction of Helena Kolenda, the Program Director for Asia. There would have been no way to make this series open-access without her and the foundation’s support because there are still high publication costs to sustain this series.

This series will be like any other book series in that every book will undergo a rigorous peer-review process and will also come out in hardcover and paperback editions that can be purchased. Yet, unlike other book series, this series not only provides valuable support to authors, such as resources for manuscript review sessions, editorial costs, and image-making, it also lets readers freely access any of the books in this series.

MEC: The first title in the series, Forces of Nature, is already in the works. What can you tell us about this volume?

Park & Sherif: Edited by Albert L. Park, David Fedman, and Eleana Kim, Forces of Nature is a collection of essays from different disciplines on environmental issues in the Korean peninsula, including geochemistry, history, media studies, food security, anthropology, and art history.

The essays came from a conference on the environment in Korea that was organized by EnviroLab Asia at the Claremont Colleges and the University of California, Irvine. We think that this is an appropriate book to launch the series because of its multidisciplinary approach to studying the environment and ecology in premodern, modern, and contemporary Korea. There are very few books on environmental issues in Korea, and we expect this book to help shape the conversation on larger themes and topics being discussed in a number of fields such as Korean, Asian, and Environmental Studies.

MEC: Finally, if a reader of this Q&A is interested in submitting a proposal to The Environments of East Asia, what should they know? How can they get in touch with you to discuss possible projects?

Park & Sherif: Just like any other series, prospective authors can draw up a book proposal and send it to CUP and us for review. We will carefully review and discuss the next steps with the authors. Prospective authors are always welcome to contact us if they have any questions about the series (, We expect to be at major conferences to talk with anyone, so we are happy to meet in person too.

MEC: Thank you, Albert and Ann, for your time—and congratulations again! I look forward to hearing more about The Environments of East Asia in the future.

Modern Chinese History: An Interview with Author David Kenley

Modern Chinese History cover image

AAS Publications is pleased to announce that the second edition of Modern Chinese History by David Kenley is now available. Part of our Key Issues in Asian Studies series, Kenley’s book is a rapid-fire introduction to China’s past from the seventeenth century onward; its concise form and straightforward prose make Modern Chinese History the ideal text for a high-schooler or undergraduate seeking an introduction to the country. In this interview, David Kenley discusses his book, how it has evolved in its second iteration, and another AAS Publications project he has recently completed—the edited volume Teaching About Asia in a Time of Pandemic, now available for pre-order from our distribution partner, Columbia University Press.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham: You published the first edition of Modern Chinese History in 2013. Why a second edition now, and what are some of the major changes or updates you’ve made to the text?

David Kenley: Since the first edition of Modern Chinese History was published in 2012, much has changed in China. President Xi Jinping has consolidated power to levels unseen in a generation and Beijing is playing an uncharacteristically assertive role in North Korea, India, the South China Sea, and elsewhere. Furthermore, historians have continued to amend the orthodox interpretations of China’s past. Recently, scholars have readdressed such topics as Chinese regionalism, nationalism, labor movements, the Sino-Japanese War, and the Communist Revolution. Because of all these changes, a revised second edition of Modern Chinese History is warranted.

MEC: You organize the book around two main themes: cosmopolitanism and Chinese exceptionalism. Why do you find those to be especially useful concepts for students getting acquainted with modern Chinese history?

DK: China has a long history of foreign interaction. Nevertheless, some contemporary Chinese leaders argue that the international community should leave China alone to pursue its own path. Modern Chinese History tries to make sense of these apparent contradictions. The volume’s first theme, cosmopolitanism, highlights the role of international, cross-cultural encounters in Chinese history. During the modern era in particular, the Chinese have continuously engaged with their Asian neighbors and the larger world. The second theme critically evaluates the concept of Chinese exceptionalism, meaning the belief that China somehow does not conform to widely accepted norms or patterns for nation-states. An example of this might be the so-called “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” implying that China’s march toward economic liberalization will be unique from Russia’s, Britain’s, or any other nation’s. Exceptionalism is not necessarily the opposite of cosmopolitanism, but the two do seem to be in apparent tension at times. Understanding this tension, I believe, is an important key to understanding modern China.

MEC: Modern Chinese History covers a tremendous amount of temporal ground in under 100 pages. What are some of the benefits to this concision, and what do you wish you could have discussed more in the text?

DK: When I was first invited to write this text, I thought it would be impossible to cover modern Chinese history in such a succinct volume, especially since I contend that China’s modern period began at least three centuries ago. At the same time, I really had to consider carefully what are the more enduring trends in modern Chinese history, and what are the seminal turning points. The result, I believe, is an easy-to-read volume that avoids getting bogged down with ephemera. Of course I would love to expand on many of the chapters within the book, including the important period between the Qing and the People’s Republic, but that is largely a reflection of my own intellectual interests.

MEC: What are a few of your favorite books, movies, primary sources, etc. to recommend to people just getting acquainted with the field of Chinese history?

DK: There are so many from which to choose! Of course there are many wonderful Chinese fiction writers that I would recommend to everyone, including Lu Xun, Lao She, and more recently Ha Jin. There are several astute foreign observers of modern China writing for the general public, such as Peter Hessler and Scott Tong. Some of my favorite films include To Live and Shower, which sympathetically portray everyday life in the People’s Republic, or Eat Drink Man Woman and In the Mood for Love, which are set in Taiwan and Hong Kong [respectively]. Many talented writers and directors provide wonderful perspectives for people just getting acquainted with Chinese history.

MEC: You’re currently editing another volume for a different AAS Publications series. Can you tell #AsiaNow readers a bit about that project and what they can expect from it?

DK: When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, countries around the world responded by closing borders, shutting down market access, and stoking xenophobic nationalism. At the same time, schools were going online and streamlining their curriculum. I worried that Asia-related topics would be cropped from many teachers’ syllabi just at the time when the study of cross-cultural difference was so desperately needed. For these reasons, my colleagues and I decided to produce a volume titled Teaching about Asia in a Time of Pandemic. It contains chapters written by skilled educators working at the high school and university levels. Some chapters analyze how to teach Asian history, politics, culture, and society using examples and case studies emerging from the pandemic. Other chapters discuss how to adapt our teaching methods in light of our new socially-distanced realities. I believe the pandemic will fundamentally change the way we teach about Asia and therefore the volume’s impact will extend well beyond the advent of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Register now for an AAS Digital Dialogue session on December 14, 2020 with David Kenley and contributors to Teaching About Asia in a Time of Pandemic. GET MORE INFO

MEC: Finally, you’ve recently moved from a faculty position at Elizabethtown College into an administrative role at Dakota State University. How is that transition going, and what have you enjoyed the most about getting to know a new school and state?

DK: After spending most of my life in the mid-Atlantic, I am enjoying a new adventure in the upper Midwest. Just as I started this new position, South Dakota’s coronavirus cases skyrocketed, reminding all of us that we are one interconnected world. It should come as no surprise that a virus that originated in Wuhan, China (population 11 million) would eventually show up in Madison, South Dakota (population 7,500). South Dakotans are wonderful, welcoming people, and they are eager to learn more about their counterparts in Asia. While I miss my colleagues on the East Coast, I know I am going to be very happy here and look forward to continuing the important work of teaching about China.

Historian Jeremy Yellen on the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere

Jeremy A. Yellen is an assistant professor in the Department of Japanese Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and author of The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere: When Total Empire Met Total War, published by Cornell University Press in 2019. Yellen’s work is a thorough investigation of Japan’s vision for the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, a frequently misunderstood (or insufficiently understood) concept promoted by leaders in Tokyo between 1940 and ‘45. Under the banner of hakkō ichiu (“the whole world under one roof”), Japanese officials sought to establish a regional bloc in which subsidiary territories would support Japan as the leading power; how, exactly, such a sphere would operate in practice proved to be a stumbling block, especially given the exigencies of war.

The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, the first monograph-length treatment of the topic in English, is impressively transnational in its perspective. Yellen spends the book’s first half in Japan, examining the various depictions of the Co-Prosperity Sphere that circulated among leaders there and analyzing how ideas about the Sphere changed with time and circumstance. He then shifts focus to Southeast Asia for the book’s second half, exploring how nationalist elites in the Philippines and Burma sought to use the Co-Prosperity Sphere for their own ends even as they cooperated, to varying degrees, with Japanese rule over their nominally independent countries.

Ultimately, Yellen argues, we must take the Co-Prosperity Sphere seriously and regard it not as a cynical or abstract slogan, but as the central focus of Japan’s wartime policy. Though Japanese leaders never fully realized their ambitions for the Sphere—and, indeed, never articulated those ambitions in a coherent final form—it was a meaningful concept at the time and left behind lasting effects in both Japan and the countries that fell under its control during the war.

Yellen shared his thoughts on The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere with me in the Q&A below, conducted via email.

MEC: Many discussions of the Pacific War quickly mention the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, dismiss it as Japanese propaganda, and move on to other topics. What led you to investigate the Sphere in greater depth?

JAY: I have always been interested in political and diplomatic history, international relations, and questions of war and peace, so I naturally gravitated toward writing a history of World War II in Asia. I found Japan’s wars to create a new order for the region all the more fascinating because they were waged in the face of huge logistical challenges and a striking weakness vis-à-vis Japan’s major enemies. As I read more about wartime history, I began to notice a huge gap in research. Few authors dealt in an authoritative way on the question of why Japanese leaders declared the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and what they hoped to achieve. Why declare it at all? Did leaders really believe they could implement it? Was it more than propaganda? Were there any detailed visions or plans behind it? The more I read, the more interested I became, especially because (as you say) most discussions tend to dismiss the concept outright as mere propaganda. I found the topic even more intriguing once I realized that Japanese leaders themselves were not always clear about what the Co-Prosperity Sphere was. Owing to this, I believed I had an opportunity to make an intervention into historical studies of World War II.

Two other factors influenced my decision to explore the Co-Prosperity Sphere. I recognized that such a book had the potential to become a transnational study of Japan’s wartime empire. This, I believed, would be more interesting and potentially reach a broader readership than focusing on Japan alone. And I was excited by the opportunities to travel across Asia and to eat a lot of great food!

Finally, I was fascinated by the Sphere’s long afterlife, and how the term has become an epithet for imperialism in Asia. In the 1980s, yen-wielding Japanese businessmen along with government bureaucrats were welcomed across East and Southeast Asia as a driving force for the regional economy. But at the same time, commentators fretted that after failing in war, Japan was seeking to establish a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere through peaceful economic means. The fact that the Sphere was used to emphasize distrust of Japan’s postwar rise as an economic power, despite the overall excitement at Japanese investment, was proof positive that the ghosts of Japan’s wartime empire were difficult to exorcise. Lately, even the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and its “community of common destiny” is seen as the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere 2.0.” The idea of the Co-Prosperity Sphere thus lives on in the politics of the present.

MEC: You write that “The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere is best understood as a contested, negotiated process of envisioning the future during a time of total war.” Who were some of the actors attempting to see into the future, and how did their visions differ?

JAY: I discuss a wide variety of actors, both in Japan and across Southeast Asia. More than half of the book focuses on Japanese elites: policymakers, political intellectuals, research associations, and wartime ministries. What fascinated me was the constant clashes over what the Sphere stood for. Although all saw it as a regional order led by Japan, they could not agree on the specifics. Matsuoka Yōsuke, Japan’s bombastic foreign minister who announced the Sphere in August 1940, saw the Co-Prosperity Sphere as an attempt to reorder the world. He sought a return to what I call the “sphere-of-influence diplomacy” of late-nineteenth century imperialism. Yet Matsuoka often clashed with members of the army general staff who saw the Co-Prosperity Sphere as serving Japan’s “self-existence and self-defense.” Many political intellectuals complained that the Sphere was “banal” or “unrealistic,” or simply noted that they could not understand what it was. The cabinet planning board and the ministry of commerce and industry clashed over the future regional economy the Sphere was supposed to encompass. And Prime minister Tōjō Hideki clashed with foreign minister Tōgō Shigenori over the creation of Greater East Asia ministry—an organ that was supposed to direct policy for the Sphere—leading to the foreign minister’s dismissal. Initially, then, the Sphere was little more than a process, wherein Japanese leaders were groping in the dark for a new way forward.

It was only in 1943, during the lead up to the Greater East Asia Conference, that the Tōjō government came to a consensus about a new, liberal-internationalist vision for the future. Japan gave independence to select countries (Burma and the Philippines; and helped establish the Provisional Government of Free India) and signaled a new commitment to ideals of independence, equality, and cooperative regionalism. This new vision was less the result of high-minded ideals than it was a pragmatic effort to escape the war with empire intact. But by mid-1943, Japan was so weakened that this new vision was next to impossible to implement. The closer Japan came to defeat in war, the more leaders paired their Pan-Asian mission with liberal internationalist norms.

Finally, my book discusses Southeast Asian nationalist actors in Manila and Rangoon. Aside from Filipino President Jose P. Laurel, few nationalist elites gave serious thought to what the Co-Prosperity Sphere was. Instead, they saw the Sphere as an opportunity. To many of them, the Sphere was the backdrop against which they imagined futures of national independence that might arrive after war’s end. 

MEC: In writing about those nationalist elites in Burma and the Philippines who viewed working with Japan as a means to an end, you describe them as “patriotic collaborators.” How did you come up with this category? Do you think that adding the descriptor “patriotic” serves to mitigate the weight of the often fraught term “collaborator”?

JAY: I found it strange that the term “collaborate,” or to work together, has come to mean high treason. Collaborators = traitors. Why is this the case? Why is collaboration with an occupying foreign power always seen in such starkly negative terms? Even in the case of a nation-state’s relationship with an invading foreign power, it is not always clear that collaboration always needs to be read this way. Robert O. Paxton, for instance, noted in his classic book, Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944, that French collaborators like Philippe Petain, Pierre Laval, and François Darlan saw defeat and occupation as an opportunity to enact a revolution in institutions and values. To these French collaborators, Nazi domination was the price they had to pay to restore French greatness. Although Paxton did not use the term “patriotic collaborators,” after reading his book I began to see collaboration in less simplistic terms. 

More pointedly, I wondered why such a value-laden term as “collaboration” applied at all to Southeast Asia. The Philippines and Burma—the cases I use in my book—were not nation-states. They were colonial territories. In this sense, they were caught between two empires (the original colonial power and the invading Japanese). Nationalist elites in those countries had to collaborate with at least one foreign power. Moreover, the collaboration of those at the helm of the colonial state was in many senses part of an attempt to ensure greater political freedoms or national independence. The more I thought about their attempts to secure or preserve longer-term goals of freedom and independence, the more I associated their collaboration with patriotism (granted, my book only talks about the nationalist elites in the centers of power of Manila and Rangoon—the story looks quite different if you shift your gaze to the provinces, where the meaning of collaboration shifts).

This is why I decided to foreground the patriotism of collaboration. The term “patriotic collaborator” was part of an effort to mitigate the weight of the term “collaborator.” The baggage that comes with using this new term, however, is that it appears I argue that patriotism was the only reason for collaboration. I am most certainly not doing so. My goal was simply to highlight the ends for which World War II-era collaboration took place, and to explain why some wartime collaborators in Southeast Asia are now seen as national heroes.   

MEC: We’re often quick to write off “puppet regimes” as unimportant, as if their lack of autonomy means that we shouldn’t regard them as major historical actors. In this book, you push readers to consider the lasting effects of such governments in Burma and the Philippines. What are some of those effects, and how did the Co-Prosperity Sphere play a role in their creation?

JAY: I show how cooperation with Japan was in part an effort to co-opt Japan’s Co-Prosperity Sphere for nationalist ends. Both the Philippines and Burma received nominal (and significantly constrained) independence in 1943. This independence was in many ways a sham, but even sham independence brought opportunity. I highlight efforts by Filipino and Burmese collaborationist governments to use their independence to engage in state-building processes. Both governments created institutions their countries lacked in the colonial era. Both established functioning diplomatic establishments, creating new foreign ministries as well as embassies in Tokyo. Both regimes created new central banks that ultimately had no time to make any impact. And Burma was unique in the institutionalization of a fully functioning defense establishment, symbolized by the Burmese army and headed by a ministry of defense. These institutions provided hands-on training and gave valuable experience in governmental affairs. This is why Burmese leader Hla Pe later argued that “civil servants began to share with politicians a pride in what Burmese could accomplish on their own.”

I try not to overstate the postwar impact of wartime state-building. That said, there were important legacies in both countries. For the Philippines, the main impact of the Co-Prosperity Sphere was in the training of diplomats, many of whom went on to serve in the postwar department of foreign affairs. For Burma, the main legacy was military in nature. The war years witnessed the rebirth of the Burmese army, which stood as the most visible sign of its new sovereignty. After 1942, it was military men, not politicians or colonial officials, that would dominate the political stage. This was most dramatically realized with General Ne Win’s coup d’état in 1962 and Burma’s subsequent rule by military junta.

I am lucky that I had the chance to build off an already rich tradition of scholarship on individual Southeast Asian countries. My biggest contribution here was to connect the individual stories of Burma and the Philippines more squarely to the overall story of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. In the process, I hoped to tell a regional story of Japan’s wartime empire that gave agency and voice to nationalist elites in Southeast Asia.

MEC: The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere began life as your dissertation project. Undertaking transnational scholarship as a graduate student can be a daunting prospect, given that it requires reading a wealth of scholarly literature about multiple locations, dealing with multiple languages, and finding the time and funding to carry out fieldwork in multiple sites. How did you manage these challenges, and what advice do you have for anyone (especially a graduate student) considering whether or not to embark on this path?

JAY: I am not sure how to answer this, partly because I never saw the multiple locations as a stumbling block to my research. Far from it, they were always opportunities to learn something new, to go someplace new, or to eat new food (yes, I’m serious). Also, I was lucky in that I went to an institution (Harvard) that had so many resources to send its students abroad for summer research and language training. It was that summer research that really helped launch my project and helped me realize what historical interventions I could try to make. A more dauting challenge for me was figuring out how to narrow down my topic to make it more manageable, and to figure out what stories I should tell. But I had a sense that if I was going to bite off more than I could chew, then graduate school was the time to do so.

I have three pieces of advice for future graduate students. First, work on your grant-writing skills. Whether you can explain the importance of your project to a non-specialist audience can make or break your project even before it gets off the ground. Like it or not, funding is what makes the academic world go round, so learning how to sell your ideas is a skill you need to master. This is also a skill you’ll continue to use throughout your academic career. Second, meet and learn from as many specialists as you can. They can introduce you to the best historical research on your topic, guide you to new or existing documentary collections, and provide introductions to major figures in the field. Third, and finally, it is okay (even exciting!) to work in a different field from your specialty. Go where your project takes you. Know that even if something is not your specialty, you may still have important points to make.  

MEC: Finally, what are you spending your time on now that this book has been published?

JAY: The weird thing about publishing is that the book is basically done over a year before it finally comes out in physical form. After finishing, I took a brief break and started to read novels again, which I hadn’t been able to do while in the throes of writing. My father had always told me how much he loved Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev. That was the first book I read to detox after writing—and I am truly glad to have finally found the time to do so (as well as read a number of other novels on my list). Now, I am back to work on two projects—a short book on Japan’s empire from World War I, and a biography of the infamous Japanese general and prime minister, Tōjō Hideki.

Turning on a Dime: Resources and Advice for Taking Classes Online

Many AAS Members in the United States and Europe are course instructors who find themselves in the unexpected position of teaching remotely for the coming weeks or months due to the spread of COVID-19 around the world. Making this abrupt switch when a course has been carefully planned and partially completed face-to-face is a significant challenge—one that demands flexibility, creativity, and clear communication between faculty and students.

To support AAS Members in their efforts, we’ve compiled a variety of resources and words of wisdom from colleagues sharing their own experiences with teaching remotely. We’ll continue to add to the list below; if you have a link you’d like us to consider, please tweet it at us (@AASAsianStudies) or email it to

The University of Hong Kong’s Gender Studies Programme has launched an Online Pedagogies page to collect reflections from faculty on their online teaching experiences. Elizabeth LaCouture writes about the lessons she learned in “Managing the Switch to Online Learning,” and Jason Petrulis shares his thoughts on “Teaching a Large Lecture Class Remotely, due to Coronavirus.”

The Center for Education Innovation at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology has compiled an extensive guide for those new to teaching via Zoom: “Zoom Teaching Good Practices and FAQs.”

At Inside Higher Education, Stephanie Moore and Charles B. Hodges have a step-by-step guide to moving a lecture-based class online.

Twitter user @fultonhistory: “Not sure who needs this, but Don’t overthink moving online. Keep it simple. Set basic expectations, go with the content and tech you know and have comfort with, be flexible and check your ego on due dates/times—you may need to caffeinate a little more, but you’re gonna be ok.”

In “Transforming Your Online Teaching From Crisis to Community,” Cathy N. Davidson and Christina Katopodis discuss the importance of “engaged” learning: “understanding the condition of our students’ lives and finding the best ways of teaching within (rather than in spite of) those conditions.”

A few Twitter threads of advice from faculty members who have taught classes online:

HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) co-director Jacqueline Wernimont shares “Thoughts & Resources for Those About to Start Teaching Online Due to COVID-19” at the interdisciplinary organization’s website.

Not all students are prepared to make a quick pivot to online classes, as Catherine J. Denial reminds readers in a Houston Chronicle op-ed piece.

This is also the message of a blog post by Rebecca Barrett-Fox, who pleads with instructors, “Please do a bad job of putting your courses online.”

Twitter user @EGonzaba: “Sharing a tip I learned years ago from the brilliant folk who teach exclusively online: I try to end my all my class emails with a “P.s. here’s a funny photo” bit. Students tend to gloss over our usual dry emails, but these photos show them we’re not always stoic robots”

Additional Links – March 13, 2020

Duke Kunshan University switched to online teaching in February; read advice from faculty there in this article at Ithaka S+R, “Duke Kunshan University: A Case Study of Implementing Online Learning in Two Weeks.”

Making all online course materials accessible is vitally important. Get advice on how to ensure your class meets these standards in this post by Aimi Hamraie, “Accessible Teaching in the Time of COVID-19.”

Update — March 16, 2020

Inside Higher Ed has posted a number of essays and resources for instructors who are making the switch to remote teaching, including “As Human As Possible,” by Colleen Flaherty, and  “Your Suddenly Online Class Could Be a Relief,” by Alexandra L. Milsom.

Get loads of tips and tricks in “How Hong Kong Teachers Have Been Moving Learning Online Amidst COVID-19,” by Shirley Lee.

Duke Kunshan University professor Andrew Field shares his thoughts on taking a small face-to-face seminar online.

“Nothing will be perfect. Everything will be okay,” reassures Georgetown Learning Design Specialist Lee Skallerup Bessette in a new post at her blog.

Railroads and the Transformation of China: A Q&A with Historian Elisabeth Köll

Foreign visitors to China today often remark with fascination and no small amount of wonder on the country’s extensive high-speed rail network. Constructed only in the last decade or so, the lines form a spider’s web across the map of China, stretching from the industrial northeast to Hong Kong in the south and westward to Ürümqi. Taking a ride on one of the sleek white trains whooshing along the tracks is faster, cheaper, and more futuristic than anything offered by the creaky Amtrak system in the United States.

China, however, wasn’t always such a leader on the rails. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, revolutionary figures such as Sun Yat-sen dreamed of building an expansive train network that would facilitate national unification and economic modernization. Sun and others found these dreams foiled by financial constraints, a shortage of Chinese engineers, and political fragmentation. The railroads that China did have were built under the oversight of semicolonial foreign powers that mostly controlled territory along the country’s eastern seaboard and in the northeast, limiting the growth of lines. When Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power in 1949, they inherited a railroad system that had never been robust to begin with, and was even less so after the ravages wrought by more than a decade of war. The railroads were soon restored and expanded under CCP rule, though upheavals during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution strained the system’s capacity.

University of Notre Dame historian Elisabeth Köll traces these stops and starts in her new Harvard University Press book, Railroads and the Transformation of China. Though her chief interest is in the development of railroads as business and administrative institutions, Köll sprinkles the book’s lively prose with many enjoyable anecdotes and interviews with former railroad employees that demonstrate how trains increasingly became an integral part of life in China during the twentieth century.

Chinese railroads faced a multitude of challenges over the years, yet Köll disputes the tendency of previous historians to treat China as “a historical case study of failure in railroad development” during the late Qing and Republican eras. She argues instead that Chinese railroad growth followed a unique trajectory, one shaped by both the institutional practices of the various foreign powers that played a role in early railroad construction and the political considerations of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government in later years. Köll’s work also offers the first significant study of railroads post-1949, as she examines the ways in which Mao and the CCP built on existing institutional structures but imbued railways with new symbolic importance.

Railroads and the Transformation of China is an important read for anyone interested in the political, economic, and social history of railroad development. Please see my interview with Köll below to learn more about her work.

Cunningham: Let’s start with the book’s origins. How did you come up with the idea of writing a history of Chinese railroad development, and how did the project evolve over the years?

Köll: I think there were two major reasons that made me want to write this book. First, as a historian of modern China, I am interested in the development of economy and society from the late Qing dynasty to the present. Exploring history as a transformative process, I am eager to find out which concepts and structures change, stay the same, or get adapted over time. As you know, many important studies of railroad development in the U.S., Europe, India, or Japan analyze its impact on the rise of the modern nation-state, industrialization, and capitalism. I always regretted that we didn’t have a comprehensive study for China, which does not have a very long history of railroad construction compared to other countries, but whose railroad history is nevertheless significant. I wanted to fill this gap and trace China’s railroad development from the beginning of serious construction efforts around 1900 through the Republican period, its survival during the Japanese occupation and civil war, its integration into the PRC after 1949, and the changes in the wake of the post-Mao reforms.

My second motivation was probably influenced by my personal experience as a rail traveler in China. When I studied there as an undergraduate in the late 1980s, railroads were the most important tool of passenger transportation. I traveled a lot across the country, getting to meet people from all walks of life on and off the train. I was always impressed by the fact that this huge network was able to cover large parts of the country, employ so many people, and provide a system that moved millions of passengers in a pretty efficient manner. Today China is the leader in high-speed rail development, and I thought it might be interesting to explore to what extent China’s historical experience in the construction, management, and operation of railroads provides the background to the more recent trends.

Cunningham: Other historians have written about negative public reactions to late-Qing railroad construction, often depicting Chinese farmers as superstitious technophobes. What did you find in your research that led you to counter that image and assert that many Chinese were in fact quite pragmatic about the arrival of railroads?

Köll: Archival evidence related to the Tianjin-Pukou line and local history material made me realize that Chinese public reactions, financial incentives, and negotiating power challenge the traditional narrative. When the early railroad syndicates began to buy up land, feng shui concerns among the local Chinese population often concealed the purely economic interests connected with securing high land prices. For example, farmers along the Shandong section of the Tianjin-Pukou railroad classified their fields as sites of multiple graves and thus were able to sell their land at above-average prices. Also, railroad syndicates wanted to avoid any negative publicity and protest before the construction process (which needed local labor) had even begun. In the case of other rail lines, landowners were compensated per grave “for the disturbance of each dead ancestor,” which generated new business opportunities for local entrepreneurial land speculators who offered their services as brokers to the original landowners and the railroad company for a hefty fee. Not surprisingly, many Chinese government officials with knowledge about the future course of the tracks benefited financially by buying up land in advance, especially in urban areas, and reselling it to the syndicates with exorbitant profit margins.         

Apart from taking advantage of their negotiating power and financial opportunities in the land transaction process, many Chinese also demonstrated their pragmatic approach toward the new technology and infrastructure as unsentimental and eager passengers. As soon as the completed section of a line opened, passengers used the railroads for personal mobility and goods transport, even in the absence of proper freight cars and train service. As I show in the book, short-distance travel in third or fourth class became the main passenger revenue stream for many lines and reflected a high demand from the Chinese public who wanted to reach local and regional markets, transportation hubs, and educational institutions.

Cunningham: In places like the United States and England, railroads were the catalyst for industrialization and urbanization. Why do you argue that, in contrast, Chinese railroads had their greatest impact on the agricultural sector?

Köll: Railroads in China had a significant role in the development of urban space and its socio-economic dynamics during the Republican period. In terms of industrialization, railroads did not create large industrial centers unless they were directly related to the operational facilities of a line, like the industrial workshops and transfer hub at Pukou. Instead, their most significant economic contribution was to the growth in commercial agriculture. This is not a new argument, as Ernest Liang, Thomas Rawski, and Kenneth Pomeranz have addressed the connection between improved transportation/communication and the stimulation of commercialized agriculture in their earlier work. My book contributes to that interpretation by adding the institutional perspective of Chinese railroad companies. I show how individual lines developed and managed their business operations, such as freight services or storage facilities, and responded to strategic demands from the market, i.e. producers, logistics companies, brokers, etc.

For example, in the 1910s and 1920s China’s emerging rail network stimulated the commercial cultivation of peanuts, tobacco, and other cash crops along the rail corridors in Huabei. Now fast shipment of precious cargo was possible with transshipment to international markets via Shanghai and Qingdao. Companies such as BAT (British American Tobacco) invested in storage and processing facilities in Shandong and Jiangsu provinces along the Tianjin-Pukou line and ran advertising rail cars to educate farmers in agricultural methods for growing tobacco. As a result, stations like Bengbu developed into commercial trade centers, serviced by new logistics companies that underwrote freight insurance and facilitated the use of commercial paper. These new hubs also attracted branches of modern Chinese banks and brokerages. I argue that Chinese railroads encouraged and supported economic activities within regionally defined boundaries, which were often driven by local incentives. However, it is important to note that despite the link of the agricultural sector to international markets, railroads did not create a unified national market during the Republican period.

Cunningham: From an institutional perspective, one of the pivot points seems to have been the 1928 creation of the first Ministry of Railways, under Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government in Nanjing. How did the establishment of a centralized railroad bureaucracy change things, both at the time and in the decades that followed?

Köll: Although the founding of the Republic of China in 1911 brought the de facto nationalization of all railroads, it did not lead to a centralized system right away due to the unstable political situation of fragmented government power. The Nanjing Decade from 1927 to 1937 brought about a brief period of consolidation when the Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-Shek established the Ministry of Railways with a strong, centralized bureaucracy.

The centralization of the bureaucracy happened in the context of the railroads’ successful contribution to education and the proliferation of science and engineering in the first half of the 20th century. From the beginning, railroad companies and their nationalized successors had trained their staff and skilled labor in schools and workshop facilities on the rail compounds, and railroads also operated schools for the children of their employees. The Nationalist government supported the expansion of scientific and engineering education, especially the University of Communication and Transportation, Jiaotong daxue, which still exists today and whose graduates joined the academic and professional elite of the Republic, many of them in positions at the Ministry of Railways.

We need to remember that the introduction of engineering into the curriculum of the universities and training colleges began to take off only in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Railroads as business institutions and bureaucracies created a demand for professionals and skilled workers, which led to the rise of engineers with a very distinct professional identity of working for the railroad in government service. This trend continued even after 1949, when working for the railroad was still considered one of the most prestigious jobs because it offered good remuneration, welfare and health services on the rail compounds, access to a number of free train tickets every year, and a more secure food supply in times of scarcity. Until recently, China’s railroad system also operated with its own legal system, the so-called railway transportation courts, which were integrated into the national court system only in 2012. The Ministry of Railways thus had been able to function almost as “a state within a state” with a relatively high level of autonomy and administrative power compared to other ministries.

Cunningham: One of your main points is that despite this centralized Ministry of Railways, regional railroad bureaus enjoyed a surprising degree of autonomy and did so regardless of which government ruled China. How did those bureaus attain and maintain that degree of power?

Köll: The beginning of railroad construction in China was extremely fragmented and messy, because the lines were built by different Sino-foreign syndicates consisting of a foreign consortium partnering with the Chinese government. It took a while for these syndicates with British, German, Japanese, French, Belgian, etc. investment to get off the ground, and all these nations had, of course, their own economic and political interests in China. As I show in my book, this means that building a unified railroad network evolved out of different technological, managerial, and operational standards. For example, it took until the mid-1910s for English to emerge as the “lingua franca” for railroad terminology across China.

After the 1911 revolution the railroad bureau (tieluju) system began to evolve as an administrative system that centralized these diverse railroad lines. Under direct jurisdiction of the Ministry of Communications and Transportation, the system divided responsibility for the Chinese national railroads according to the geographical scope covered by the major lines. Each railroad bureau became the managerial and operational headquarters of a specific trunk line, usually headquartered in the city of the departure terminal. Because railroad bureaus had to deal with inherited, line-specific financial arrangements and cope with physical damage from warlord battles at a time of political fragmentation and severely limited network connectivity, they managed their own lines without any operational synergies at the national level. Supported by a weak ministry run by political appointees without railroad expertise in the early Republic, this regionally divided system empowered the railroad bureaus to put their operational and financial priorities first, from the head of the bureau down to the stationmaster.

A China Railways DF2 locomotive. Photo via Wikimedia user 桂段, used under a Creative Commons license.

Cunningham: What administrative challenges did the CCP face in the railway sector when it came into power, and how did the railroad industry change under the Communists?

Köll: After 1949, the PRC’s rail network expansion became possible due to the role of the state setting new economic and political priorities and transferring railroad construction to the PLA’s newly founded railroad army corps (tiedaobing). At the same time, I argue that the relatively quick recovery of the war-damaged rail network and its integration into the socialist state were possible due to the bureau system, which already possessed many characteristics of the work unit (danwei) system. In short, while the PRC’s rail expansion would not have been possible without the central role of the state and its allocation of resources in terms of capital and labor, the bureau system afforded a relatively smooth transformation of its administrative system into the new political framework and easy integration of new lines into the network. The fact that the railroad bureau system continues to this day demonstrates surprising institutional resilience—it even survived the Ministry of Railways, which was abolished in 2013.

After 1949 we can also observe the adaptation and integration of railroad culture into the CCP’s ideology. During the 1920s and 1930s the image of the railroad had signaled modernity through economic and social mobility, both for individual, mainly urban affluent residents, and the nation. Apart from speed, convenience, and safety of travel, railroads meant social mobility (for example, students, especially female students, being able to take the train to study in education hubs like Shanghai) and represented time discipline and a new behavioral order of what it meant to be a passenger on the train. As I show, these progressive “railroad values” were easily incorporated and adapted by the Communist Party after 1949 and transformed into socialist values: time discipline, technological progress, professional dedication, and hard work were still important, but were now interpreted as revolutionary values necessary to create the new China under socialism. With the already existing structure of railroad compounds and rail yards, the system of railroad bureaus was easy to integrate into the new system of work units after 1949. Of course, the political agenda during the Great Leap Forward and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution caused great damage to the rail system, especially because expert knowledge and professionalism were considered anti-revolutionary and ignored, with severe consequences for passenger safety and operational efficiency.

Cunningham: Finally, what are you spending your time on now that Railroads and the Transformation of China has been published?

Köll: Well, I have a new project of a very different nature, both in terms of topic and approach. I am going to write a short book for my undergraduate students and a more general audience on the life and work of an American sales manager for British American Tobacco, who spent time moving around northern China during the 1920s. My narrative is based on his diaries, letters, and photographs, which are great fun to work with. My goal is to show what doing business in rural China during the early Republic looked like from a Western and a Chinese perspective, i.e. the foreign salesmen, the managers at the headquarters, the Chinese colleagues, distributors, competitors, and consumers. Writing in a very different style and format for a new audience will be a welcome change for a while. And I hope that writing this story will not take as long as the railroad book. In any case, I will continue to ride the rails wherever my next field trips and travels will lead me!

AAS 2020: Program Trends and Highlights

Since we don’t offer a theme for our AAS Annual Conferences, we never know exactly what to expect when proposals start rolling in. We generally anticipate at least a few sessions focused on major anniversary dates or placing recent events in a broader context, and we know that some topics are, at least in their broadest incarnations, evergreen. But for the most part, it’s a surprise to see what the Call for Proposals yields: from year to year, the key themes and areas of study that appear most frequently in the conference program are subject to change as trends in scholarship wax and wane. 

As I look over the 441 sessions that will appear on the AAS 2020 program in Boston next March, there’s no question that gender studies will feature very prominently in the conference conversations, with 41 panels that either have gender in their title or as a keyword. This is, of course, very exciting for those scholars who work at the intersection of gender and Asian studies. The downside, as always, is that having a lot of panels on one topic makes it impossible to avoid some scheduling conflicts, as those 41 panels must be distributed among 11 session timeslots. There will, inevitably, be some overlaps, and conference attendees will have to make some tough choices about which panels to attend and which to forsake. We know that this is always difficult—“too many similar sessions in the same timeslot!” is a recurring comment on our post-conference surveys—but it’s also the logical outcome of growth in the field, which on balance I see as a positive development.

Gender studies is also the focus of two special sessions sponsored by the AAS. First, the Journal of Asian Studies has invited Judith Butler for its Thursday evening JAS-at-AAS roundtable, “Revisiting Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Reflections and Critiques from Asian Studies.” Former AAS President Mrinalini Sinha will chair this conversation, which will feature Asian Studies scholars Gail Hershatter, Tamara Loos, and Geeta Patel offering comments on Butler’s pathbreaking 1990 book, with Butler responding to their remarks. Second, one of our #AsiaNow panels will be a roundtable on the topic of “Promoting Gender Equity and Fair Practices in Professional Development and Mentoring.” Many thanks to the Gender Equality in Asian Studies (GEAS) group for suggesting and organizing that session; the panelists will be announced next month.

The second major theme that I identified as I perused the AAS 2020 program is far less cohesive, involving not one keyword but several; I jotted down in my notes, “Borders, Mobility, Identities, Space.” These words appeared again and again—either directly or by implication—as I read through the session titles. Across many disparate disciplines, regions/countries of study, and time periods, Asian Studies scholars are grappling with questions of boundaries, of place, and of belonging. This feels appropriate in late 2019, when so many news headlines are dominated by similar topics: Brexit and border walls, refugee policies and religious identities, claims to sovereignty and crises over autonomy.

Our inaugural Digital Technologies Expo at the 2019 Denver conference was a definite success, but several participants commented that it was confusing and not always convenient to have the expo as a separate event running in parallel to the rest of the conference. My colleagues and I agreed, and decided that in Boston the digital technologies sessions would be incorporated into the main conference program. In addition, we invited proposals in the new category of digital lightning presentations—very short introductions (5-8 minutes) to digital topics or questions. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on these changes, and thank the Digital Technology sub-committee of Hilde De Weerdt (Chair), Leiden University; Song Chen, Bucknell University; Paula Curtis, Yale University; and Debashree Mukherjee, Columbia University, for their time and work in organizing this segment of the conference.

As we explain in the Call for Proposals, the AAS has long conceived its Annual Conference as one primarily focused on organized sessions, with only a small percentage of individual paper submissions accepted to the program. In the breakdown of session proposals, however, South Asia receives relatively few—most likely because many scholars choose to attend the Annual Conference on South Asia in Madison, Wisconsin.  At this year’s Program Committee meeting, the South/Southeast Asia sub-committee members decided to form more South Asia individual paper sessions than in the past, as they were impressed by the large number of high-quality individual paper proposals submitted for this region. Instead of the three such sessions that past conferences have featured, the Boston meeting will include eight individual paper sessions for South Asia.

Finally, AAS 2020 attendees who are interested in learning more about Boston’s ties with Asia will have a number of opportunities to do so. The conference program includes two sessions on Asian holdings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston—“Museum Gallery as Public Classroom: Experimenting with Virtual Technologies and Japanese Buddhist Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston” and “Asian Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: The Next 150 Years.” We have also revived the institution of the Local Arrangements Committee, which had been discontinued (for reasons no one currently working at the Secretariat knows) after the 1990 conference. Merry White (Boston University) and James Robson (Harvard University) will co-chair this committee, joined by members Marie Abe (Boston University), David Odo (Harvard University), Sarah Pinto (Tufts University), and Eve Zimmerman (Wellesley College). The Local Arrangements Committee is working on setting up multiple performances, walking tours, museum tours, and more. We will post information about these opportunities as soon as it is available.

These are, of course, only a few of the highlights of the AAS 2020 program, and the conference will, as always, be chock-full of special events in addition to the panel sessions I’ve mentioned above. My colleagues and I at the AAS Secretariat all look forward to a busy but productive conference in Boston next March, and we hope to see you there.

Fieldwork in the Outfield: William W. Kelly on The Sportsworld of the Hanshin Tigers

Baseball tickets as a research expense? Nice try. It’s no surprise that a funding agency expressed skepticism when anthropologist William W. Kelly included a $900 “purchase of baseball game tickets” line item on his proposed grant budget. Kelly, however, had a legitimate reason for requesting the support: he was conducting an ethnographic study of Osaka’s Hanshin Tigers and needed to attend baseball games—for fieldwork. (He got the grant.)

Kelly, professor emeritus of anthropology and Japanese studies at Yale University, began that fieldwork in 1996 and has recently wrapped up the project with publication of The Sportsworld of the Hanshin Tigers: Professional Baseball in Modern Japan (University of California Press, 2019). American baseball fans might recognize the name of Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants, which are the Japanese equivalent to the New York Yankees in terms of their popularity and record of championships. The Hanshin Tigers, on the other hand, are not as well-known outside Japan, and their club history is marked by “five decades of loss, frustration, and perennial infighting.” (As a longtime Philadelphia Phillies fan, I smiled in recognition at this line in Kelly’s introduction.) But the Tigers are nevertheless the second-most-popular team in the country, and the fervent fandom despite Hanshin’s poor performance led to Kelly’s central ethnographic question: “What was it about the Hanshin Tigers?”

Kelly’s answer is that a “sportsworld” existed around Hanshin, encompassing not only the players on the field but also the club’s senior management, the fan organizations cheering in the bleachers, the sportswriters who covered the team’s soap opera-worthy personnel dramas, and the television viewers watching Tigers games at home or in bars. All of these participants contributed to the construction of a sportsworld that helped the team remain at the center of media attention and retain the loyalty of its fans, even when it languished in the cellar.

In The Sportsworld of the Hanshin Tigers, Kelly examines the many elements of that matrix, analyzes how his observations during fieldwork between 1996 and 2003 relate to episodes further back in the history of the Hanshin Tigers, and explains how events in the years since his fieldwork ended have caused that sportsworld to dissipate. His book captures the Tigers world at a turning point, shortly before they shed their reputation as perennial losers and became regularly competitive, as well as before digital journalism and social media changed the ways both sportswriters and fans interacted with each other.

Learn more about The Sportsworld of the Hanshin Tigers in my interview with William Kelly, conducted over email, below.

Cunningham: There’s certainly no rule saying that scholars must stick with one subject or time period, but how did you shift from studying water control in Tokugawa Japan to baseball at the end of the 20th century? What were the origins of this research project, and do you see any connecting threads between your earlier books and this one?

Kelly: I would like to imagine a connection between rice paddy fields and baseball playing fields, but in fact there wasn’t any! The real motivation for my baseball project came instead from my general undergraduate course on Japanese society. Back in the 1980s, popular fascination and fear of Japan’s booming economy drove student interest and enrollments to high levels, and students with sports interests kept asking me about Japanese baseball. They shared the general stereotype that the U.S. and Japan played totally different versions of the same sport—the daring American individualistic player swinging for the fences versus the timid, self-sacrificing Japanese player grinding out bunts for the team and his domineering manager. I spent a number of years in the course trying to debunk these stereotypes (not hard to do!), but I realized that I actually didn’t know much about baseball in Japan to offer a different view. Finally, in the mid-1990s, I had the time to begin some actual fieldwork, and that is what led to this book. What are the real conditions of playing and watching (and reporting on) baseball in Japan?

Cunningham: At several points in the book, you tackle those stereotypes about Japanese baseball: that it’s “samurai baseball,” a stern, mechanical version of the sport, and/or continuation of the “Japan, Inc.” corporate culture made famous in the 1960s. What do you see as the inaccuracies of those descriptions, especially when compared with how the game is played in the United States?

Kelly: Sports are actually a very instructive place to question national character stereotypes. Might we wonder about the U.S., what kind of schizophrenic country is it that valorizes three such disparate sports as football, baseball, and basketball! For Japan, the selectively fabricated figure of the samurai has been an all-purpose label in modern Japan (to inspire and coerce students, workers, soldiers, and others), and it has made its way into some commentaries about baseball and other sports. But over 20 years, I have found virtually no one who really talks that way, on the field or in the stands, in the everyday life of baseball. Guts, teamwork, giving your all—the idioms of sports talk among elite athletes are surprisingly universal.

Take the matter of tie games, which can occur in Japanese pro baseball but not in U.S. pro baseball. There are those who link it to some samurai sense of honor and the importance of saving face, but that is bunk. Most pro baseball games are at night, and almost all fans take public transportation to the stadium. If the league allowed extra-inning games to run on past the last bus or subway, it would have a massive logistical problem on its hands. That, plus neighborhood ordinances against noise around most stadiums, is why there is an innings limit that occasionally produces a tie.

Cunningham: One element of the Hanshin Tigers sportsworld that you examine at length is that it offered observers “a compelling melodrama of workplace life and regional rivalry.” How did those two factors draw people in and contribute to their fascination with the team?

Kelly: Both of these attractions relate to the nature of Osaka and the Kansai region. Osaka has been famously a city of smaller companies, often corporate subsidiaries or independent businesses. So too is Hanshin, the team within and below the front office, the club within and below that parent company. Part of the fascination with Hanshin has not been the ideal forms of legitimate authority and smooth workplace relations that has burnished the modern image of Japan, Inc. Rather they are drawn to the more common reality of rivalries and office politics, of unpredictable and sometimes undeserved success and adversity—in short, conditions of work familiar to the team’s followers in their own lives. They savor the tragicomedy that is the Hanshin Tiger soap opera.

This connects to a second source of fascination and affiliation. One reason why the Osaka regional economy had become so characterized by medium-small businesses is that so many of the major corporations that used to be headquartered in Osaka moved up to Tokyo, beginning in the 1960s. Like France, Greece, and Mexico and many other nations, Japan has become decidedly unipolar, and Osaka and the Kansai region more broadly have slipped to second-city status—with a second-city mentality that is alternately proud, defiant, and resigned. By the 1980s and 1990s, as the only Kansai area team in the Central League, the Hanshin Tigers had to carry the full weight of Kansai struggles against the national center through the season, particularly in the two dozen games they played each year against the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants.

Kōshien Stadium. Image via Wikimedia contributor 百楽兎 and used under the Creative Commons license.

Cunningham: How did a sense of place help to create the sportsworld of the Hanshin Tigers during the time of your fieldwork—specifically, why was the environment at Kōshien Stadium important to the team’s popularity?

Kelly: Kōshien Stadium is not only Japan’s oldest and most storied stadium but also its most raucous stadium. Americans coming to watch Hanshin baseball here are fascinated by the spectator garb, the chanting, trumpets, banners, balloons, and other elements of the festive atmosphere, but as baseball fans many of them are equally appalled that all of this noisy spectacle makes it hard to “properly” appreciate the subtleties of the game. This is a rather ethnocentric dismissal by fans who have apparently never been to a European soccer game, or even an American college football game! Hanshin fan behavior at the stadium is passionate, choreographed, and collective, but, I soon discovered, it is also more complex and variegated than its first assault on the senses. The exuberant passions and elaborate social organization of the fans in the stands often exceed those of the players on the field. They perform as spectators.

Cunningham: As you note in the book’s appendix, nearly 15 years elapsed between the conclusion of your fieldwork and publication of The Sportsworld of the Hanshin Tigers. You regard that passage of time as beneficial to your analysis, as it enabled you to put your observations within a longer context. How did your original thinking about the Tigers and their sportsworld change during that period?

Kelly: When anthropologists do fieldwork for one or two intensive years, we necessarily create an extended “ethnographic present,” as research moment and as time frame for a resulting book. But we don’t know what will happen subsequently in and to that small lifeworld, and sometimes the present tense we use in our writing conveys the impression of an unjustified permanence to our account. In following the Hanshin Tigers for over a decade since active fieldwork, I have seen fundamental changes in that sportsworld, which I tried to incorporate and account for. In a sense, the book converts an ethnographic present into an ethnographic past.

Cunningham: Can you share any memorable moments or favorite anecdotes from your fieldwork that didn’t make it into the book?

Kelly: Until recently there were several hundred fan clubs spread across the outfield bleachers at Kōshien Stadium, organized into two broad associations. The entire choreography of cheering was controlled by the head of the senior association, who sat every night in the lower corner of the right field stands and whose subtle hand gestures set in motion the collective cheering of 55,000 spectators. For all the time I followed Hanshin, the position was held by a single individual, who helped fashion the organization 30 years before, deeply dedicated, and, I must say, quite generous in educating me to the fan organization. Beyond the stadium, though, he and his wife owned a tiny, unpretentious neighborhood bar next to one of the local train stations. One night after a crucial game against the Yomiuri Giants, he invited me back to the bar. Of course, his wife actually ran the bar during the season while he sat in his place of privilege at Kōshien, the most influential person in the whole stadium, which rocked to his beat. We walked in to the bar, he introduced me to his wife, she told me to sit down at one of the eight seats at the bar and she brusquely told him to go back and start washing up dirty glasses—which he did without a whimper.

Cunningham: Finally, what are you turning to now that The Sportsworld of the Hanshin Tigers has been published?

Kelly: My main project at the moment returns me to the rice fields of northeastern Japan, or rather what is left of rice agriculture in early 21st century. I have been going frequently to the Shōnai region in the decades since the 1970s and have witnessed considerable change to what had been one of the country’s most productive rice plains. The mean age of farmers now is 67 years old, and only 5 of the 90 households in the settlement in which I stay do any significant farming. Like much of rural Japan, Shōnai is rural but no longer really agricultural, and I am fascinated by the question of what might be the grounds for its regional reconfiguration. This is certainly a question of broad salience across much of the developed world.

The Other Milk: A Q&A with Historian Jia-Chen Fu

In the 1980s, American children were subject to a deluge of advertising punctuated by the tagline “Milk: It Does a Body Good.” The campaign, funded by the dairy industry, encouraged kids to drink milk by emphasizing its contributions to physical development—the calcium and protein contained in the beverage, the ads stated, would help youths grow into big, strong, healthy adults.

This ad campaign could have just as easily been dreamed up by nutritional activists in 1920s China, though they would have put a patriotic twist on the slogan: “Milk: It Does a National Body Good.” As Emory University historian Jia-Chen Fu shows in her new book, The Other Milk: Reinventing Soy in Republican China (University of Washington Press, 2018), Chinese nutritional scientists and child welfare advocates held a fervent belief in the power of milk. Worried that the country’s children lagged behind those of the United States and Europe in respect to physical growth and strength, nutrition scientists pointed to lower milk consumption as one significant way in which the Chinese diet differed from those in the West. Getting youngsters to drink more milk, packed with proteins and vitamins, was how they hoped to help Chinese children—and, in turn, the Chinese nation as a whole—thrive.

Promoting cow’s milk in China, however, was not realistic: raising dairy cows took too much land and resources, and there were difficulties with safely transporting fresh milk to places beyond major coastal cities. Tinned milk and imported milk powder were far too expensive to be within reach for the vast majority of Chinese citizens. Instead, nutritional activists turned to soybean milk as an economical and readily available alternative.

In The Other Milk, Fu recounts how Republican-era reformers, scientists, and commercial milk producers all spread the gospel of soy. Through advertisements, articles, and milk-distribution campaigns, they taught parents that soy milk was the modern, scientific beverage of choice to give their children. When war broke out with Japan in 1937, resulting in large numbers of refugees around the country, nutritional aid committees distributed soy milk to displaced children, an act that Fu describes as “alimentary defense in the face of national crisis.”

I interviewed Jia-Chen Fu, who received an AAS First-Book Subvention Award for The Other Milk, via email.

MEC: To begin, why did concern about the Chinese diet emerge in the late 19th century, and what did scientists and nutritionists think was wrong with it?

JCF: One of the things I find fascinating about the process of doing historical research is how one’s assumptions going in shift and transform over time. That was the case with the Chinese diet. What I had thought of initially as coherent and self-evident, i.e., “the Chinese diet,” became increasingly amorphous, pliable, depending on who was concerned and when. What makes a diet Chinese? And what counts (or does not count) in a Chinese diet? In the late 19th century, concern about the Chinese diet arose as part of a broader intellectual attempt to understand the composition of everyday life in China. Chinese scientists such as the biochemist Wu Xian used the notion of a “Chinese diet” as a kind of framing device to understand and talk about the deficiencies they saw as rife in the foods that Chinese people ate (and didn’t eat), the ways in which they ate them, and how such foods were produced.

This sounds simple enough, and by the 1920s when Wu Xian was lecturing and researching, it had become increasingly common to encounter talk in newspapers, and popular and scientific journals about the Chinese diet with some regularity. But what would the Chinese diet have been in practice across all regions and among the vast variety of different communities knitting together the geopolitical body of China? Chinese scientists needed the Chinese diet to be both a practicable concept and an analytical framework. It had to be something that was accountable, quantifiable, and comparable, because those were the preconditions of modern legibility. And although it may sound a bit childish, they needed the Chinese diet, because every other modern nation seemed to have one.

Of course, once they had a Chinese diet in this sense, they became very vexed by all the various deficiencies that seemed to characterize the Chinese diet: its over-reliance on grains, its paucity of meat and dairy, its failure to promote growth, its inability to protect against illness and disease, etc., etc. The lack or inadequate amount of protein was especially worrisome, because Chinese nutrition scientists, intellectuals, and social reformers were convinced that a lack of protein had caused Chinese people to be small, weak, and uncompetitive.

MEC: As you signal in the book’s subtitle, the work of Republican-era nutritional activists involved reinventing soy milk in the mind of the Chinese public, since the beverage had been consumed in China for centuries. What was the old image of soybean milk, and how did the scientific and commercial sectors seek to rebrand it in the 20th century?

JCF: Republican-era nutritional activists reinvented soy milk by making it meaningful in new and perhaps unexpected ways to the dictates of modern life. They reinvented it by making it do social and cultural work it hadn’t been obligated to perform. I don’t want to suggest there was a sharp divide between old and new images of soybean milk, wherein the new supplanted the old entirely, but what emerges in the early twentieth century is this idea that soybean milk, because it is high in protein, can solve various nutritional problems plaguing the country’s young. What we see is a redirection and assignment of new importance. Soybean milk as a tonifying drink best served during the winter to nourish ailing, aging bodies became an integral food of childhood consumption, one that might orient a modern bourgeois family as well as strengthen growing bodies. For example, by the late 1920s, we start seeing Chinese physicians and nutrition scientists talking about soybean milk as an infant food or an especially important food that children and adolescents should have. 

MEC: How were government actors involved in promoting the consumption of soy milk, especially among children?

JCF: By the 1930s, we see various local municipal programs in Beiping, Nanjing, and Shanghai promoting soybean milk as infant food, food for the poor, food to combating malnutrition, but in contrast to, say, rice, government involvement in promoting soybeans and soybean milk drinking was less systematic and far from comprehensive. Having said that, the Nationalist government looked to and relied upon the participation of elite scientific personnel who maintained both public- and private-sector identities and connections with the international scientific and philanthropic communities. Doing so allowed the Nationalist government to attach itself to nonstate activism without necessarily having to pay for it.

MEC: You detail the work of the Refugee Children’s Nutritional Aid Committee, which successfully distributed soy milk and soybean cakes to displaced children in Shanghai during the winter of 1937-38. When the committee expanded its work to Southwest China in 1939, however, it ran into difficulties not encountered in Shanghai. What were some of these impediments, and why did activists have trouble raising soy consciousness across the country?

JCF: There were several impediments. In Shanghai, their work was more contained. Refugee camps were discrete sites with a clearly identified population. The Refugee Children’s Nutritional Aid Committee had to figure out how to make and distribute their soybean milk and biscuits to the various campus located throughout the International and French Concessions, but they did not worry about how to identify their intended targets, how to get them to drink or eat, or how to get them to come back.

In contrast, once the committee expanded its work to Southwest China they had all these questions and more. They had to think seriously about what kind of intervention they were seeking to make to people’s everyday lives and habits. Was it enough to get some children in some place to drink soybean milk once, or were they hoping to create a more lasting effect? Was this effect one of routine, i.e., every morning have a bowl of soybean milk before classes begin, for example; one of consciousness, i.e., every morning have a bowl of soybean milk before classes begin, because soybean milk is high in protein and other nutrients; or perhaps one of economy? Did they want children to be the primary targets? If so, how would one reach and appeal to them? Did they want their soybean production and distribution programs to be self-sustaining? How much should they charge per bowl? Should they make accommodations for those without resources to pay?

These are all very practical problems, but they are also social, cultural, linguistic problems that speak to the complexity of institutionalizing new ideas and practices. It was not enough for activists to see themselves and the communities within which they worked as “Chinese”; nor was it enough to assume that science speaks for itself—identity, sympathy, and common cause had to be knitted together bit by bit, and in many instances, certainly with respect to soy consciousness, attempts to shape how people think and act were endeavors fraught with misunderstanding and dissatisfaction.

MEC: In recent decades, the Chinese government has taken up the promotion of milk and framed it as a nation-building project—but instead of soy milk, it’s encouraging citizens to drink cow’s milk (with potentially dire environmental consequences). How does the current campaign represent both continuity and change from what you describe in your book?

JCF: I think we see continuity in a certain line of nutritional thinking. The idea that children must have dairy to grow tall, strong, and fit has not just persisted, it’s become conventional wisdom. This idea was powerful, and continues to be powerful, because of the ways in which nutrition science folds together “scientific” questions with moral judgments about what foods are good and good for you to eat. What we see in the early twentieth century was an attempt to produce a counter-narrative in which soybean milk was as good and moral as cow’s milk. It didn’t work, but that doesn’t make the attempt any less worthwhile or fascinating for what it suggests about our different moments in time.

MEC: Finally, what are you spending your time on now that The Other Milk is completed?

JCF: I did not set out to write food history, as my original interests were tied with histories of medicine and nutrition, but working on The Other Milk has gotten me into food history and questions about how should we think about the field of Chinese food history. It’s been more than forty years since K. C. Chang published Food in Chinese Culture: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives, and the research that has come out since then is incredible. I, Michelle King (UNC-Chapel Hill) and Jakob Klein (SOAS) are organizing a conference that will revisit Food in Chinese Culture with the goal of mapping out a companion volume whose focus will be on modern Chinese food and foodways. To prepare, I’ve been rereading Food in Chinese Culture, which I never read cover to cover before, and its construction and organization has got me thinking a lot about what makes certain texts durable and long lasting.

I have also begun working on a project about wartime (1937-1949) Chinese psychology, children, and the history of emotions. The beginnings of a project are always so exciting, but diving headlong into a new project now is quite different from when I was a graduate student. I’m learning how to do research with children, more family responsibilities, greater teaching and professional demands, and it’s challenging. It probably sounds trite, but much of my day is spent trying to navigate and organize these different parts of my life.