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 mcunningham@asianstudies.org 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 (albert.park@cmc.edu, asherif@oberlin.edu). 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 mcunningham@asianstudies.org.


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.

Q&A with Jennifer Altehenger, Author of Legal Lessons

Jennifer Altehenger is Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Chinese History at King’s College London (Associate Professor in Chinese History at the University of Oxford from September 2019) and author of Legal Lessons: Popularizing Laws in the People’s Republic of China, 1949–1989 (Harvard University Asia Center, 2018). In Legal Lessons, Altehenger surveys how knowledge about the law was disseminated among ordinary people in Beijing and Shanghai between the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 and the mass demonstrations and brutal crackdown of 1989. In the early 1950s, she explains, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) quickly implemented a new legal regime for the PRC, one of many ways that it sought to establish a definitive break between the “New China” and the “old society” that had come before. Though China’s leadership asserted that the country’s new laws were created by and for its citizens, most people in fact knew very little about these statutes. Thus, the CCP initiated campaigns focused on mass legal education, intended both to spread knowledge about the letter of the law and also to make citizens aware of the rights and duties assigned to them.

At various times over the following years, the CCP oversaw campaigns to study and discuss the New Marriage Law, different iterations of the PRC constitution, and other regulations. The PRC, Altehenger writes, “stands out in the history of the modern state for its repeated attempts to mobilize China’s citizens to learn laws.” The efforts of the CCP to disseminate legal knowledge among the country’s citizens took place in fits and starts, encountering many obstacles and often resulting in unintended consequences—yet this project continues up to the present day. Mobilizing a source base of archival documents, newspaper articles, and works of popular culture, Altehenger traces the history of mass legal education over four decades of modern Chinese history and explains why law propagation, despite its challenges, has been a recurring element of CCP governance since 1949.

To learn more about Legal Lessons, I interviewed Jennifer Altehenger via email.

MEC: Why was the popularization of laws important to the CCP after it came to power in 1949? How did the genre of law propaganda differ from other types of propaganda in the early PRC?

JA: Getting word out about new laws that affect citizens and/or require citizens’ participation is important to any state and especially to a young state that seeks to establish legitimacy. In this sense, the CCP followed in the footsteps of imperial and Republican governments before it, and also in its own footsteps of work conducted in border regions before 1949. How the CCP went about popularizing laws, however, was remarkable. The CCP’s basic premise was that laws were a product of the mass line; that is, that they were written in response to the concrete needs of the masses. Once promulgated, laws would then have to be returned to the masses by way of dissemination and education. Only then would people be able to use laws as a “weapon” (wuqi) in the struggle to create a “new society.” For this to work, legal language would have to be as simple and accessible as possible. “Legalese” was criticized as a “bourgeois” tool to limit legal knowledge and interpretation to elite circles.

In the course of the early 1950s, the popularization of laws, often called law propaganda (falü xuanchuan or fazhi xuanchuan), became a part of the CCP’s larger propaganda and education system. In many ways, law propaganda did not differ from other types of propaganda: for example, the same genres were used, from posters to songs, dances, stories, drama and opera, and exhibitions. In some respects, however, law propaganda was significantly different and this caused all sorts of difficulties for government and party officials at all levels. For example, propaganda was meant to reliably explain how laws should be implemented. Laws could of course be read in different ways. Yet propaganda was not meant to interpret laws, and where the difference between explanation and interpretation lay was a constant source of discussion and worry. Cultural workers in different cities and institutions designed propaganda materials while censors [not only] in Beijing but also in local government and party offices scrutinized them. Some had previous legal experience, but many did not. Still, they all assumed some of the roles of legal professionals and became arbiters of what laws meant; a challenging position to be in. These kinds of problems were less of an issue in propaganda for public health, for example.

MEC: The first mass campaign focused on dissemination of legal knowledge was one carried out in 1953 to spread understanding of the New Marriage Law promulgated in 1950. How was this distinctive from other political campaigns in the first years of the PRC, and what lessons did government officials draw from it?

JA: The CCP strove to popularize laws right from the start, with varying intensity. But it was only in 1953 that the popularization of law, in that case the Marriage Law, was organized into a national “mass campaign” (qunzhong yundong). The term “mass campaign” was significant. It signaled that the CCP had elevated law dissemination and implementation to the same status as selected other early ‘50s mass campaigns; the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries, Land Reform, and the Three- and Five-Anti Campaigns. According to the CCP’s own directives, the Marriage Law mass campaign was meant to be different from these other mass campaigns because it would be completely focused on education, propaganda, and careful implementation. It was to be a campaign dealing with matters among the people (unlike the other four campaigns that dealt with enemies of the people). That distinction worked well on paper, but less so in practice. When people—officials and ordinary residents alike—learned or were told about this new mass campaign, they of course connected it to what they knew about other mass campaigns. The distinctions were too fine for many, and the focus on propaganda and education often confusing. Some people tried to organize the usual mass campaign events, including public accusation sessions and trials, only to be instructed to reorganize everything because these were inadequate kinds of propaganda for Marriage Law dissemination. Other people thought that a campaign that focused on education only wasn’t a big deal and wouldn’t need much attention. These are two examples that highlight two extremes, but the result was that the CCP spent as much time trying to manage misunderstandings about what this campaign would do, as it did actually implementing the law.

What lessons government officials drew depends on where we look. For many, the early years of law propaganda suggested that law was somehow different from other kinds of policy. Some tried to avoid it for that reason. For some, the lesson was that law propaganda would need much more supervision, and that party and government had to develop better ways to ensure laws were understood correctly. What understanding exactly was “correct” could be a contentious question. Documents, moreover, often discussed “incorrect” understandings in terms of “left” and “right” errors. Being too harsh in implementing laws was usually seen as a “left” error, while being too lenient towards “bad elements” in society was a “right” error. But of course, what made for harsh and lenient implementation was again a matter of interpretation.

MEC: Determining how audiences received anything is always difficult, but what were some of the responses to these law popularization campaigns that you were able to find in historical documents?

JA: The available documents—from archival records to different kinds of “internal” publications (issued by propaganda departments, public security bureaus, etc.)—reflect the broad range of responses we might expect to find anywhere upon circulation of a new law. Many welcomed learning about new laws, for different reasons. Some reasons were naturally very personal because these laws opened new possibilities for legal redress or guaranteed new rights. Many people welcomed the laws but didn’t really see a connection to their own life, and some didn’t want to participate in legal learning because it seemed irrelevant to them personally. Take the example that opens the book: a man in Wuxi who sarcastically complained in 1954 that with so many new laws there should really be a law to stop it from raining.

Many, meanwhile, thought laws were not needed. Many more were confused by the intensity of law propaganda or the way it was carried out. One 1953 report from Beijing, for instance, notes how residents criticized local cadres for being too simplistic in their approach to the Marriage Law; those residents thought that it was not at all easy to say what behavior or what legal interpretation was definitely right and wrong. These kinds of responses, by the way, were not limited to the 1950s. Archival documents of the 1970 and 1982 constitution discussions noted similar reactions. Report writers, meanwhile, tried to categorize the people’s diverse responses within ideologically-driven frameworks. Official documents recording responses are therefore most useful as a mirror of what officials thought was worth recording, and raise questions about what was not noted down. That is interesting because it can help reveal how government and party officials at different levels conceptualized laws and popular legal education, at least for official purposes.

MEC: Something that comes up frequently in Legal Lessons is that the circulation of legal knowledge was a double-edged sword for the CCP: it wanted people to understand the country’s laws, but that knowledge often led to public demands that the Party-state enforce those laws or uphold the rights of citizens in ways that it had not been doing. How did CCP officials deal with this dilemma?

JA: This dilemma is central to the book and it is important also because it is not restricted to a communist or authoritarian system. We can probably find examples across history, in China but also elsewhere. That being said, it certainly gained enormous importance in China after 1949 because the CCP tied the popularization of law to its mass line policy and the claim that its legal system would work better for the masses than previous legal systems. The resulting dilemma is similar to the one that emerged from promises of a material plenty after 1949. CCP officials dealt with it in different ways. Already in 1952, Zhou Enlai and others repeatedly stressed that law implementation would take a lot of time. Meanwhile, the “pedagogical state” assumed a crucial function. Put simply, mass legal education served two purposes: to disseminate legal knowledge widely, but also to control and manage how people understood laws. When people interpreted laws in ways that did not align with party policy, or even at times more simply with what a local official was interested in doing or not doing, they were often told that they had misunderstood the law. Common explanations were that people interpreted laws too personally and too individually. Sometimes, officials framed people’s criticism as a product of their class background and lack of political consciousness. There were huge variations across localities, moreover, depending also on personal circumstances and interests. That makes it so interesting to trace the popularization of laws.

MEC: Your book is distinctive among works of history for covering a topic from the early years of the PRC through the 1980s, rather than stopping with Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. Why did you decide to write about such a lengthy period of time, and what were the challenges in doing so?

JA: The popularization of law is an established component of CCP governance today. This is the result of the CCP’s decision in the 1980s to bring law propaganda back and turn it into a regularized practice subject to five-year plans. I wanted to trace this development and official thinking about why and how to popularize laws from the early days after 1949 to the 1980s. During the 1980s, many people who learned about laws or who were told that they had to learn about laws were old enough to have participated already in earlier law propaganda waves. They made connections to what they knew from previous decades. A focus on the Mao Era (1949-1976) would have imposed an artificial divide and suggested that the period associated with the Cultural Revolution was more divisive in the case of law propaganda than it actually was. Moreover, we now have some access to archival documents from the 1970s and 1980s, so the sources also did not necessitate such a divide.

The challenges of covering a longer period were plenty, and some things had to give. The book came to focus on state-led education efforts, with some but not much analysis of popular understanding and just about no discussion of the practice and application of laws. I could not include two aspects in particular. The book does not say much about the period of the Cultural Revolution. Until 1970 there was little law propaganda and even then there was not much until the mid-1970s. Writing about this time would have required more systematic engagement with popular uses of law and grassroots legal work, for which there was unfortunately no space. To anyone interested in this, I warmly recommend the volume Victims, Perpetrators, and the Role of Law in Maoist China, edited by Puck Engman and Daniel Leese. I also had to drop a final chapter on China’s exchanges with other socialist countries on the subject of law propaganda (though that will hopefully follow as an article at some point).

MEC: You’ve been vocal about the value of utilizing archives outside of China and have written for the PRC History Review about the benefits of casting a wide archival net. How did you come to explore the resources available elsewhere, and do you have any tips for researchers who would like to do the same but aren’t sure how to start?

JA: A comparative perspective made sense for this project because I wanted to know how to evaluate China’s law propaganda efforts in the larger socialist and post-war context. When I started, there was little research on this topic. I speak German, sadly not Russian, so that took me to German archives. In the German Federal Archives I found materials that historians of the GDR had not made much of yet. Read in conjunction with other sources, these documents revealed more than the familiar story of China learning from foreign countries. That story was certainly there, most obviously in the CCP’s study and adaptation of the 1936 Stalin constitution discussion. But there was another dimension: of the PRC having advanced experience in law propaganda that other socialist countries wanted to learn from during the 1980s. As a result, I was able to argue for the significance of Chinese law propaganda in post-war history more generally.

As for tips, I’d say explore. It is always fun to check out new archives wherever I go. Sometimes I don’t get in. Sometimes I do and there’s nothing interesting. But quite often unexpected places have intriguing holdings related to China. Casting the net broadly can lead to pleasant surprises and new research questions. And many archivists and librarians who do not usually work on China are enthusiastic about exploring parts of their collection they don’t know so well.

MEC: Finally, what are you spending your time on now that Legal Lessons is published?

JA: Stuff. Literally. I am working on a project that explores the history of everyday industrial design and materials in twentieth-century China, mostly post-‘49. So I am spending my days looking through sources on the design, production, use, and re-use of furniture, lighting, plastic goods, and so on. I am learning a lot about different materials such as wood, engineered wood, bamboo, rattan, plastic, metal, and glass, about material sciences, chemistry, architecture, design and other subjects. It’s wonderful; at times positively mind-boggling and also quite humbling when I listen to people’s stories. It brings me to new places and new museums, and I don’t think I will ever look at any object and material in the same way again. And I am seriously considering taking up carpentry classes. That whole discussion about the significance of “practice” has left its mark. The project has great “side effects” too: I know much more about DIY now, and I could make my own fiberboard (though our London flat is too small, so that had to be postponed).

“The Invention of Madness”: A Q&A with Historian Emily Baum

When did “madness” become transformed into “mental illness”? How did this affect the treatment of those afflicted by such conditions? And how did it change the way those deemed mad—or mentally ill—were viewed by their families, as well as by the state, society, and medical professionals around them? Historian Emily Baum, associate professor at the University of California, Irvine, considers these questions in her recent book, The Invention of Madness: State, Society, and the Insane in Modern China (University of Chicago Press, 2018). In her work, Baum examines how people’s understandings of madness and mental illness changed in early 20th-century China and how treatment of those afflicted with such conditions moved from the home to different types of institutions.

Focusing on the city of Beijing, Baum explores how doctors, government officials, social workers, and ordinary people all participated in the transformation of ideas about madness during the first decades of the 20th century. Baum shows that this evolution was far from a top-down imposition of imported Western ideas; instead, different actors blended traditional Chinese understandings of madness with those from abroad. Again and again, “madness” was (re-)invented in response to quotidian circumstances and resource limitations. While mental health professionals and state officials sought to achieve an abstract ideal of “psychiatric modernity,” Baum argues that their efforts resulted in a story without a smooth arc—the process was, instead, contested, halting, lengthy, convoluted, and ultimately incomplete.

In the interview below, Baum explains some of the book’s findings and places it in dialogue with other works on similar topics. For more about The Invention of Madness, listen to an interview with Emily Baum at the New Books in East Asian Studies podcast, and read an adapted excerpt from the book at Aeon magazine.

MEC: Prior to the early 20th century, how was madness generally understood in China? What sort of treatment options were sought out by the families of those who had gone mad, and to what extent did the imperial state deal with the insane?

EB: One of the first things I usually explain when asked about my research is that “mental illness” is a relatively recent concept in Chinese medical history. Prior to the early twentieth century, mad people weren’t generally believed to be suffering from an illness of the brain or “mind.” More typically, madness was thought about as a transitory condition that could have been caused by any number of factors: physical imbalances, such as an accretion of mucous in the chest; environmental influences, such as laboring too intensely on a hot day; supernatural causes, like the curse of a deceased ancestor; or simply cognitive and emotional issues, such as studying too hard for the civil service exams or being heartbroken over a lost love. Because madness was believed to derive from so many different sources, people were practical when it came to its treatment. They sought the help of physicians, who may have prescribed an emetic, purgative, or cooling remedy depending on the perceived origins of the illness; but they also looked to faith healers, shamans, and religious agents. In most cases, the insane were kept at home and the imperial state didn’t intervene in their management unless they happened to commit a serious crime. Unlike France and England, which had established an elaborate state-run asylum system in the nineteenth century, no such facilities existed in imperial China. 

MEC: What changed in the way people viewed madness around the beginning of the Republican Era? How did doctors and government authorities get involved in treating those deemed mentally ill?

EB: As any student of Chinese history knows, the first decades of the twentieth century were a time of tremendous change. Even before the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, governing regimes began to experiment with different approaches to managing the massive populations over which they ruled. In Beijing, the Qing opened several institutions that, in the words of the historian Janet Chen, served both disciplinary and charitable purposes. At poorhouses, workhouses, orphanages, and asylums, individuals were given food and shelter—but  they were also kept off the streets and put to work. For the first time, government authorities like policemen were given the task of rounding up the homeless insane and putting them into public institutions. One consequence of these actions was that madness became more explicitly associated with poverty, deviance, and the potential for civic disorder. Nevertheless, there weren’t any strikingly new treatments for the insane during this transitional period; for the most part, the mentally ill who were housed at the Beijing Municipal Asylum were treated with the same remedies that would have been used throughout the late imperial period.

MEC: You discuss several institutions—the Beijing Municipal Asylum, the municipal poorhouse, and the Peking Union Medical College psychopathic hospital. How did these institutions differ in their treatment of the people placed (or forced) into their care?

EB: The Beijing Municipal Asylum and the municipal poorhouse were both established in 1908, and for a while they were treated as more or less the same institution: they occupied the same physical space, their residents hailed from the poorest social classes, and there wasn’t always a clear bureaucratic demarcation between those who were mentally ill and those who were simply struggling to make ends meet. The reason for the overlap had much to do with the fact that both institutions were managed almost entirely by the Beijing police force. As a disciplinary organization, the police tended to approach insanity as a primarily social concern, and their main goal was therefore to keep the insane and the indigent off the street and out of trouble. Although the police certainly wanted their mentally ill charges to convalesce while they were institutionalized, they didn’t have a lot of time or money to spend on medical treatment or rehabilitative care. As a result, most people simply remained chained up in the asylum until their families came to collect them.

Twenty-five years after the municipal asylum was established, the Beijing government replaced the institution with a cutting-edge psychopathic hospital. While the book goes into more detail about the specific details behind this institutional shift, suffice it to say that the psychopathic hospital—which was managed and staffed by the state-of-the-art Peking Union Medical College—attempted to invalidate just about everything the asylum had done. Rather than stressing incarceration, the psychopathic hospital instead emphasized rehabilitative care, and it did so through a variety of ways: occupational therapy, calisthenics, surgery, and sedatives. Underlying this veneer of medical modernity, however, the psychopathic hospital nevertheless perpetuated many of the practices it condemned about the earlier asylum—it just did so in a more “acceptable” way. For example, while physicians at the psychopathic hospital criticized the police for physically restraining their charges, the hospital did so as well, but used a straitjacket instead of a rope or chain.

MEC: One point you make is that ideas about modernity and mental illness were not simply imposed on Chinese citizens by an expanding bureaucratic state; ordinary people also took up these ideas and deployed them. What caused the popular spread of new understandings about madness?

EB: A lot of these new ideas were spread through the help of the news media. The early twentieth century was a time when the Chinese popular press was really taking off, and discussions of madness were found in highbrow and lowbrow publications alike. The Beijing police posted missing persons notices in local newspapers, and there were frequent reports about local policemen managing cases of madness—either by returning lost madmen to their families or by subduing mad people when they were causing a public disturbance. The continuous insistence on mad people as troublesome, combined with the prominent role that the police played in these media reports, introduced new associations about madness as a “social problem” that hadn’t necessarily existed before. But new ideas about madness also managed to penetrate the popular imagination in ways that weren’t so obvious or straightforward. For example, the sheer existence of new spaces for the insane, such as asylums, hospitals, and psychiatric wards, necessarily conveyed novel ideas about how madness could be handled in an institutional setting. Meanwhile, ordinary interactions—among city folk, between policemen and families, and between social workers and patients—also worked to circulate new discourses of madness in ways that weren’t always consciously didactic or aligned with the modernizing goals of the republican state.

MEC: In the mid-1920s, we see the emergence of a figure you dub the “psychiatric entrepreneur.” Who were these people, and what role do they play in the story you tell in The Invention of Madness?

EB: The psychiatric entrepreneur refers to a class of individuals who made a living by—to put it bluntly—profiting on the treatment of madness. Some established private psychiatric hospitals for elite patients, while others produced patent medicines that claimed to “cure” madness in only a few doses. What’s so interesting about psychiatric entrepreneurs was that, in their effort to monetize madness and its treatment, they were particularly effective at introducing new discourses about what madness was and who the disorder could affect.

One of the ways they did so was by promoting new categories of mental illness like neurasthenia. Although most people probably aren’t familiar with neurasthenia today, it was a wildly popular diagnosis throughout the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries. Referring to a whole host of symptoms including depression, anxiety, or even moodiness, neurasthenia became a catch-all diagnosis for upper-class men suffering from otherwise inscrutable psychological woes. In China, psychiatric entrepreneurs played a decisive role in introducing the concept of neurasthenia (shenjing shuairuo) to interested readers. They were so successful at doing so that even well-known intellectuals like Lu Xun and Xu Zhimo apparently consumed anti-neurasthenic medications!

MEC: Thinking about historiography, two books that feed into yours are Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China, by Ruth Rogaski, and Janet Chen’s Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900–1950. What other works—about China, social history, the history of medicine, or urban history—would you recommend be read in conjunction with The Invention of Madness?

EB: One of the things that was so satisfying about working on this project was that it gave me the opportunity to read transnationally and across disciplines. In terms of urban history, David Strand’s Rickshaw Beijing has always been extremely influential for my own thinking, not just because of his pivotal role in bringing the social dynamics of 1920s Beijing to life, but also in the way he was able to add a sympathetic human dimension to otherwise historically voiceless individuals. I was fortunate to have been writing The Invention of Madness at a time when two long-awaited works on Chinese medical history were published, Sean Hsiang-Lin Lei’s Neither Donkey Nor Horse and Bridie Andrews’s The Making of Modern Chinese Medicine, both of which are exceptionally useful for understanding the historical vicissitudes of early twentieth-century Chinese medical practice. And Arthur Kleinman’s early works, in particular Patients and Healers in the Context of Culture and Social Origins of Distress and Disease, provide an anthropological lens for understanding the cultural dimensions of mental illness in China and Taiwan.

Outside of China, too, there is a wealth of historical, sociological, and anthropological literature on madness, social deviance, stigma, and the invisible ways in which disciplinary institutions function. Andy Scull, a sociologist of enviable productivity who was also one of my mentors in graduate school, shaped my thinking from an early stage; insights from his book The Most Solitary of Afflictions, which discusses madness in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England, run throughout my work. Finally, Erving Goffman’s Asylums, David Rothman’s The Discovery of the Asylum, Roy Porter’s Mind Forg’d Manacles, and Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady are useful for readers interested in the institutional, social, and gendered dimensions of madness.

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

EB: Academically, I’ve been looking forward to my next project on fortune telling and divination in contemporary China. I tend to gain most of my intellectual inspiration from books that have nothing to do with Asia, so I’ve been spending a lot of time reading about enchantment, magic, and the occult in Germany, France, and the United States. Outside of academics, I’ve developed a fascination with exercise physiology and have been thinking about (though will probably never follow through on) getting certified as a personal trainer. I’ve finally started listening to podcasts and am now quite obsessed with them; for anyone interested, I highly recommend In The Dark; Terrible, Thanks for Asking; and Bear Brook. And I’m totally not embarrassed to admit that I detox intellectually by watching reality television. (I will not, however, reveal which programs fill my Hulu queue.)    

Q&A with James L. Huffman, Author of “Down and Out in Late Meiji Japan”

James L. Huffman is Professor Emeritus of Japanese history at Wittenberg University and the 2017 recipient of the AAS Distinguished Contributions to Asian Studies award. A journalist-turned-scholar, Huffman is author of several studies of the history of journalism in Japan, as well as Japan in World History (Oxford University Press, 2010), Modern Japan: A History in Documents (Oxford University Press, second edition 2010), and Japan and Imperialism: 1853–1945 (AAS “Key Issues in Asian Studies” series, second edition 2017).

Huffman’s latest book, Down and Out in Late Meiji Japan, was published earlier this year by University of Hawai’i Press. In this wide-ranging work, Huffman examines the lived experiences of the hinmin (urban poor) during the last decades of the Meiji Era (1868–1912), a time when Japan saw enormous growth in both wealth and poverty as the country industrialized. Near the end of the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of rural residents fled rising taxes and falling commodity prices in the countryside for the hope of achieving economic security in Japan’s rapidly growing cities. When they arrived in Tokyo, Osaka, and other burgeoning metropolises, however, many of the new urbanites struggled to achieve a foothold, joining the ranks of the urban poor. Estimates of this group’s size vary widely, but the most conservative numbers place 12 to 20 percent of Tokyo’s 2.3 million people in the ranks of the poor and destitute by the early 1900s.

Contemporary journalists, government officials, and social scientists lamented the plight of the country’s impoverished citizens, and Huffman does not downplay the struggles experienced by the hinmin. At the same time, he casts light on the remarkable capacity for resilience demonstrated by most poor families, and takes care to point out moments of joy that hinmin found for themselves. Huffman does not claim to speak for the Meiji-period hinmin in his work, but seeks to understand how they experienced day-to-day life and the ways in which the urban poor exercised agency despite structural and institutional obstacles.

Down and Out in Late Meiji Japan should be read by scholars interested in social history, urban studies, and modern Japan. For more about the book, please see my interview below with James L. Huffman, conducted via email.

MEC: After focusing on the history of journalism and journalists in Japan for much of your academic career, what compelled you to move in a new direction and study the lives of the urban poor in late Meiji Japan?

JLH: I find it hard to plumb my own motivations, but I always have had a special interest in people or groups who are ignored by mainstream society. This may be the result of growing up on a Midwestern farm, or of feeling marginalized by my pietistic (though deeply nurturing) religion, or of being at the University of Michigan in the 1960s when the fight for justice was so passionate among students. Even when studying the press, I was interested most keenly in journalists as outsiders. After writing for years on that topic, I decided to turn to one of the Meiji era’s most completely overlooked groups, the urban hinmin. I should mention too that my wife Judith played a crucial role in my shift in focus. She was even more passionate than I about paying attention to the silent and the oppressed, and after her death of cancer in 1996, it somehow seemed right to take up a topic that mattered deeply to her.

MEC: One of the most common problems encountered by historians seeking insight into the lives of the working poor is the paucity of sources—middle- and upper-class subjects are far more likely to have left diaries, letters, and other materials that provide direct narrations of their experiences. What are the sources you used to construct the history of Japan’s hinmin?

JLH: That is the question I get asked most often; the answer is that there were three kinds of sources. First was journalism. To my surprise (and delight), I found that late Meiji reporters were obsessed with the “shakai mondai (social problem),” the label they attached to the cities’ exploding poor population. As a result, they wrote constantly about life in the hinminkutsu, or slums. The second source was surveys and records, which government bureaus produced systematically and, in typically Japanese fashion, profusely; I found those especially helpful in examining topics such as crime, illness, and disasters. The third source was literature: short stories and novels by writers such as Higuchi Ichiyo who were reared in poverty. While I could not rely on literary works for factual accuracy, I found them terrific in providing texture. It bears note too that sources often had to be read against the grain: recognizing, for example, that stealing a boss’s charcoal chips—described as a crime by middle-class journalists—could just as well be seen as a salutary sign of agency and survival.

MEC: You frequently note how poverty affected different groups in different ways. How was poverty a gendered experience in the cities of Japan around the turn of the 20th century? How did it affect the very young and very old?

JLH: Gender had a huge impact on the urban hinmin. We already knew, from studies by scholars such as Patricia Tsurumi, that girls and young women made up the majority of factory workers well into the twentieth century. It also was true, I found, that males were paid much more than females, even when the women did more and better work. Moreover, women had to balance wage-earning with care of the home. The pattern in a typical family was that women prepared the meals, ran the household, cared for children—and then did several hours a day of piecework, wrapping cigarettes, making match boxes, etc. If they worked part time at a factory, they had to take their small children along (if bosses permitted that) or leave them home without care. When no other option was available, some women did sex work in the evening, to pay for special medical needs or simply to put food on the table.

Age mattered too. The infirm elderly, of course, were often dependent on their adult children; the fact that they might require medicines often stretched household budgets beyond the breaking point. Older rickshaw men were especially challenged, as aging bodies made it more and more difficult to pull passengers for long hours. Suicide stories were numerous among elderly hinmin. The situation for the very young may have been hardest of all. They were the ones most often sent by desperate parents into the streets to beg or, sometimes, to pickpocket. The worst plight for children surely was that they were deprived of education because they had to earn income. Inhumanly low wages meant that great numbers of families could not eat unless the children worked for wages, and government officials in collusion with profit-focused industrialists exempted poor families from compulsory education so that the pool of cheap labor could be maintained. The result was low school attendance and low literacy rates among urban children. That, of course, doomed those same children to a poverty-stricken adulthood.

MEC: Government officials and social reformers often fretted about the growing population of urban poor, but as you explain in the book, there was no systematic attempt to address poverty from either the government or private sector. Why not? And what resources did hinmin have to draw on for assistance during especially tough times?

JLH: The short answer is that the government’s—indeed, the nation’s—focus was on industrial growth and national power rather than individual welfare; there was little concern about preventing poverty. In keeping with pre-Meiji traditions, it was expected that families and local communities would take responsibility for their own needs. The problem, of course, was that the urban poor had left their villages and had no community networks to turn to in the period that I studied. There were a few charitable organizations, and the wealthy (including the imperial family) doled out one-time gifts when disasters such as floods or earthquakes hit. But there was neither a general public assistance program nor a significant demand for one. Between 1895 and 1901, the number of people receiving public assistance in Tokyo averaged 128 per year! In other words, hinmin had nowhere to turn in dire circumstances, except to get loans at usurious rates or pawn their valuables. Some would pawn a futon in the morning, in the hope that they could redeem it before night came.

MEC: You take care to call attention to the agency exercised by the urban poor in different situations. In the workplace, for example, how did hinmin engage in collective actions that resulted in change?

JLH: It is important to me that people realize, first, that dire and degrading poverty did not prevent the urban poor from engaging life fully. They went to temples on festival days; they gossiped and strategized in the public bath and in line at the leftover food shop; they celebrated cherry blossoms in the spring. Even survival was a dramatic illustration of agency; one journalist said hinmin either graduated “with honors” from poverty’s school or died. One of the things that surprised me was how ambitious large numbers of poor families were.

Another was the frequency and vigor with which they took action to better their lots. While there was no generalized labor movement, protests and strikes in individual factories were frequent—and usually effective. Even the notoriously independent rickshaw pullers occasionally protested, and factory strikes resulted in better wages and improved working conditions. During the “era of urban riots” (1905-1918), the poor made up a majority of those arrested for protesting. Their massive rallies brought down cabinets and caused officials to at least delay tax and streetcar fare increases.

MEC: Chapters 7 and 8 move away from Japan’s cities to contrast the experiences of the urban poor with those of the rural poor and Japanese migrant workers on Hawaii’s sugar plantations. Why did you decide to include the stories of these two groups in a study of urban poverty?

JLH: The answer to that lies in the way my goals changed as my research went along. When I began this study, I intended to look at poor people more broadly, dividing the book into equal sections on the cities, the countryside, and the world of outsiders such as burakumin, miners, and emigrants. With that in mind, I did considerable research early on into the lives of Japanese workers in Hawaii. Later, deciding the work was going to be much too broad for any editor, I decided to narrow my focus to the urban poor. The question then arose: what to do with the Hawaii material, discard it or use it? The more I thought about it, the more I was persuaded that I should keep it and add a chapter on hardship in the villages, for comparative purposes. That decision was fortuitous, because looking at farmers and sugar plantation workers gave me insights I never would have expected into the way setting and environment affected the way poverty felt. I’ve written an article on that recently for Education About Asia (“Poverty in Late Meiji Japan: It Mattered Where You Lived,” Fall 2018).

MEC: And finally, what’s next on your plate now that Down and Out in Late Meiji Japan is finished?

JLH: This last year has surprised in this regard. Being in my mid-seventies, I told myself that once I finished this book I would leave Japanese history behind and turn toward some personal writing, including a novel I have had in mind (who doesn’t have one!) for decades, as well as doing more volunteer work, particularly with undocumented immigrants in the Chicago area where I live. I started that transition as soon as I sent my book manuscript to the publisher. But after accepting an invitation several months ago to take part in a Meiji history conference at the University of San Francisco, I found myself responding to one project after another (talks, articles, reviews, a collected works request), and deciding I was not quite ready to lay aside Japanese history. I likely will not take up new book-length projects, but my intent now is to stay involved in a mix of the personal and the professional. I’ll also feel less guilty than I once would have about taking time out to have my family and friends come for dinner or simply to stand at my balcony, as I did last night, and watch a full moon cast its reflections on Lake Michigan.

Conducting Fieldwork in Authoritarian States: Advice for New Researchers

Image via Pixabay user StockSnap and used under a Creative Commons license.

Political scientists Lee Morgenbesser (Griffith University, Australia) and Meredith L. Weiss (University at Albany, SUNY) have collaborated on a new article for Asian Studies Review, “Survive and Thrive: Field Research in Authoritarian Southeast Asia.” In this helpful survey, Morgenbesser and Weiss provide an overview of the challenges that researchers—particularly those new to the field, such as graduate students—can encounter as they conduct fieldwork in countries under authoritarian regimes where civil liberties and political rights are not guaranteed. Offering useful advice and examples from their own time in the field, Morgenbesser and Weiss have prepared a guide that should be read by all new researchers who anticipate similar constraints, regardless of their academic field or country of specialization.

To learn more about their work, I interviewed Lee Morgenbesser and Meredith L. Weiss by email for #AsiaNow.

MEC: You note at the outset of your article that scholarship on field research is “a limited genre, at best,” as very few academics study the act of research itself. What prompted you to write an article on fieldwork, and what gap in the literature were you trying to fill?

LM/MLW: We had two motivations for writing this article. In a professional sense, when we began doing field research within Southeast Asia, we did it somewhat blindly. Before heading to the region, neither of us had read a “step-by-step guide” on accessing archives, conducting interviews, and carrying out participant observation. The aim then was to offer such a guide (as best we could) to graduate students, early career academics, and anyone else seeking to conduct field research in Southeast Asia. In a scholarly sense, the literature on the ins and outs of field research methods is almost exclusively limited to democratic settings. We also felt there was a need to emphasize the advantages of field research as a methodology, especially its capacity to show how statistical data points cannot always be taken at face value. Given the distinct challenges and opportunities of doing research in authoritarian regimes, this sizeable gap needed to be filled in the context of Southeast Asia and hopefully other regions of the world.

MEC: “You can’t be over-prepared” is a theme running below much of the advice you offer to new field researchers. For those who have focused more on their academic preparation—conducting literature reviews, mastering survey tools and computer programs, learning languages, and so forth—what are some of the pragmatic preparations they should make before departing for the field?

LM/MLW: Some of the key preparations are actually the most obvious. Having a prospectus or plan that clearly specifies what needs to happen—how many interviews, with what mix of people; what archives to explore, for how long; how many focus group discussions or how large a survey; or whatever else the research requires—is necessary. At the same time, that plan needs to leave room in the schedule and budget for improvisation. Those mandates apply to any field research, but all the more so where the work is difficult to pursue. Too often, though, PhD students in particular get caught up in their literature review, research questions, and enumeration of methods, and skimp on details of what they will actually do in the field. And especially useful for such readiness is at least one preparatory research trip, to facilitate setting realistic targets.

In addition, particularly in illiberal or otherwise dicey settings, researchers should make sure they have insurance if it seems possible they might need to exit quickly, that they have registered their presence with their embassy or high commission, that they have ensured key people in their lives have their local contact details; basic equipment like a MiFi with low-cost international data (Singapore’s telecoms offer some good options for Asia) might also be really useful to acquire in advance, particularly given the imperative of being able to backup data online at frequent, regular intervals. Such steps are quickly accomplished, but often overlooked. 

MEC: As you point out in several places, conducting research in countries under authoritarian regimes often requires creativity and circumspection, such as finding alternate ways to describe a research project without using politically sensitive words. In my own career, I’ve heard dozens of China scholars recount war stories about presenting “gifts” of tea and cigarettes to archive staff members to pave the way for access. A young scholar might think that finding ways to work the system is simply par for the course in fieldwork. But when does flexibility and creativity go too far, in your opinion? What are the red lines that inexperienced researchers need to guard against crossing?

LM/MLW: The red lines for researchers arise when they place themselves (or those helping them) in an ethically uncertain situation, which raises unnecessary mental and physical risks. This boundary can exist in a formal sense (such as the laws of a country) or informal sense (such as social customs of a population). On many occasions, gaining access to archives, interviewees, and participants demands nothing more than a respect for balancing local customs with the standards of university ethics review boards. Instead of offering monetized gifts, a donation to local institution such as a school or pagoda goes a long way. To anticipate risk, however, researchers—especially graduate students working in the region for the first time—need to seek prior guidance from experienced scholars, embedded journalists, and other individuals with knowledge of these explicit and implicit expectations. This requires them to build networks many months—or sometimes years—in advance of working in authoritarian Southeast Asia.

MEC: You acknowledge that disseminating research findings can require a scholar to balance competing personal interests: they want to share their work widely (and need to, for career advancement), but doing so might invite scrutiny from the country where that research was conducted and result in a loss of access. How can a researcher attempt to resolve this dilemma?

LM/MLW: There is no easy solution to such a dilemma—beyond leaving work likely to garner negative attention until late in one’s career, which is hardly an optimal solution. A partial workaround is to publish critical but balanced short pieces in readily, widely read open-access online venues such at the ANU’s New Mandala. Having established a reputation as thoughtful and fair, however also pointed in one’s analysis, can go a long way, especially since such pieces are far more likely to be read in-country (or anywhere else) than more involved academic pieces.

For doctoral students, the thesis is itself an issue, though. Students who have reason to worry about access or other problems should their work circulate widely may ask their university not to make their thesis openly available through the university or repositories such as UMI or ProQuest. The student’s referees or other advisors/readers can then speak to the work in greater detail than might otherwise be the case in their letters, to lend potential employers or others assurance of the work’s focus and quality.

Finally, researchers at any stage might consider different angles to their work. For instance, they might publish empirically rich, but less risky (whether that means less normatively loaded, or focused on/excluding specific types of material) work in the local language, to make sure at least a reasonable proportion of their work can help inform wider scholarly and/or policy conversations, but publish work more likely to get them in trouble in English, in non-open-access academic outlets. Clearly, this approach is neither failsafe in terms of avoiding scrutiny nor ideal in terms of owning one’s critiques, but being able to continue the research is a necessary part of the goal.

Also, despite publisher pressure and emerging norms of circulating any and all work on social media, researchers worried about their work’s being read by the wrong people should avoid doing so, especially given the deep and increasing penetration of Facebook and other social-media platforms across Asia—and might consider minimizing their presence on social media altogether.

Q&A with Denise Y. Ho, Author of Curating Revolution: Politics on Display in Mao’s China

Denise Y. Ho is assistant professor of history at Yale University and a specialist in modern China. She recently published her first book, Curating Revolution: Politics on Display in Mao’s China (Cambridge University Press, 2018), an examination of the exhibitionary culture of the People’s Republic between 1949 and 1976. In Curating Revolution, Ho explores different ways that exhibitions brought revolution to the masses and taught Chinese Communist Party (CCP) narratives about the past, present, and future to them.

The six case studies of Curating Revolution are all located in Shanghai—itself a living exhibition, a former treaty port undergoing a socialist transformation under CCP oversight, and thus the embodiment of the contrast between the pre-1949 Old Society and Mao’s New China. Visitors to Zhabei District’s Fangua Lane, for example, toured both thatch huts that had provided shelter to the area’s dwellers in the late 1940s and modern five-story apartment buildings constructed to replace them in the early 1960s. Fangua Lane residents were on hand to describe their lives before and after the CCP victory, providing testimonials about the improvements in material conditions that had come under Communist rule.

The “Love Science, Eliminate Superstition” Exhibition (1963-64), the Class Education Exhibition (1965-66), and the Exhibition of Red Guard Achievements (1966) discussed in Curating Revolution were all temporary displays assembled to accompany political campaigns of the moment. But two of Ho’s case studies cover exhibitionary sites still in operation today: the Site of the First National Congress of the CCP (now surrounded by the glitzy Xintiandi neighborhood) and the Shanghai Museum (previously housed in the former Race Club building, now located in People’s Square). When writing about these two long-standing exhibition sites, Ho recounts in fascinating detail how museum curators and local officials were regularly compelled to tweak the content of their displays to accord with shifts in the political winds.

Curating Revolution will be of interest to specialists in museum studies and political culture, as well as all scholars of 20th-century China. To learn more about the book, please see the interview below, which I conducted with Denise Y. Ho over email.

MEC: You describe museum work and exhibitionary culture in Mao’s China as operating in two modes: that of a state in power, and that of a state in revolution. What do these terms mean, and can you provide an example of each?

DYH: To describe these two modes of exhibitionary culture, I borrow two terms used by historical actors themselves. Shanghai museum curators used the phrase “socialist museum” for New China’s institutions, like the Shanghai Museum, which was established in 1952. “Socialist museums” denote the kinds of institutions of a state in power, which in turn curated exhibitions that lent legitimacy to the regime: displays of historical narratives or revolutionary origins. The term “new exhibitions” comes from grassroots displays that began during land reform. I trace the exhibits that accompanied political campaigns—like the Socialist Education Movement or the Cultural Revolution—to their origins in “new exhibitions” that taught ideological lessons about class and modeled how to participate in political movements. An example of the “new exhibition” would be showcases put on by Red Guards, which—I argue—suggested to visitors how they might also identify and struggle against class enemies.

MEC: Although the focus of Curating Revolution is on the period between 1949 and the late 1960s, you point to some continuities in museology and exhibition culture that carried over from the Republican era (1912-1949). What were some of these similarities across 1949, and what changed with the transition in government from Nationalist to Communist?

DYH: The “socialist museums” I examine—despite declaring their discontinuity with “old China”—actually drew from pre-1949 museology. The Nationalist government, for example, had its own exhibitions of the revolution and displays about revolutionary martyrs. Likewise, museums of art and history were established during the Republican era; perhaps most famously, the Palace Museum opened its doors in 1925. Another kind of inheritance came from individuals—collectors and art historians—who were employed by “socialist museums” to teach a new generation about art history, appraisal, and connoisseurship. Of course, “socialist museums” had other influences, including and especially, the Soviet Union. At the same time that the Shanghai Museum’s young workers were learning from artists and collectors from “old China,” its designers were studying with Soviet specialists and its leaders were going to the Soviet Union to visit its museums. And certainly, there are aspects of “socialist museums” that come from “new exhibitions,” such as class education displays. These were grassroots and class-based in ways that pre-1949 Republican period exhibits were not, and while “new exhibitions” taught a Maoist ideology of class, one of the things I argue is that some of the techniques came from traditional Chinese culture.

MEC: A number of scholars have written about the propaganda posters of the Mao era and the role they played in promoting political campaigns through visuals and slogans. How does your focus on exhibitionary practices interact with the work of those scholars? Were there any differences in the Party’s use of propaganda artwork versus exhibitions?

DYH: There is certainly a lot of overlap between the use of visual material like posters and the use of material objects as in these “new exhibitions.” In fact, some propaganda posters illustrate exhibitions like Anren’s Rent Collection Courtyard and these same posters also feature artifacts that could be used to incite class hatred. For example, this poster from the Revolutionary Committee of Nanjing’s Film Studio has a worker in front of the Rent Collection Courtyard holding both gun and the archetypical bloodstained shirt, which as an artifact was frequently used to stand in for “revolutionary martyrs.” Both posters and exhibitions are part of the propaganda universe of the Mao period. At least two things are different about exhibitionary practice, however. First, exhibits occupy a formal space, so they are consumed in groups and under the eyes of others; they also become a space for political rituals like “recalling bitterness,” shouting accusations or making denunciations, and even a narrative reenactment of something like a house search. Second, exhibitions rely on the use of real, tangible things—which are at least presented as authentic. In this way, the objects on display are presented as proof, as evidence, and—I argue—as class.

MEC: In the chapter about the Shanghai Museum, you write about how museum staffers embarked on a series of “rescue missions” during the “Smash the Four Olds” campaign in 1966; they sought to protect cultural relics (wenwu) from groups of Red Guards intent on destroying any object imbued with a capitalist or feudalist past. How did curators distinguish between wenwu and objects that could “legitimately” be destroyed in the campaign? It seems like their protective actions could potentially be viewed as counter-revolutionary—did any museum workers face Red Guard accusations of being feudal or reactionary?

DYH: This question can be answered on a number of levels. On the one hand, cultural relics were and are defined as objects with artistic, historical, revolutionary, and scientific value. Immovable cultural relics, like temples and other buildings, were labeled wenwu and protected by their administrative level and that immediately above. So cultural relics had already been defined and had their own status. On the other hand, that status was linked to the bureaucracy that gave them that status. You see cultural officials in the 1960s, for example, sent to temples and asked to extricate the wenwu from “superstitious things.” So what is or isn’t a cultural relic is fluid even before the Cultural Revolution.

But the cultural officials I write about were experts in their own right; they had been training for years and were trained to identify a painting, the artist who made it, and the reasons for its value. For their part I think there was no question about what was wenwu and what should be protected. One tension that such officials describe is the difference between wenwu—from the Qianlong reign and before—and what was handicraft (gongyipin). This was the more important distinction, because wenwu had to stay in China and handicrafts could be exported. The cultural officials saw themselves as there to educate: first Red Guards who didn’t know the difference between “four olds” and wenwu, and then higher-level officials who didn’t realize that objects from after Qianlong were part of China’s art history too.         

MEC: When looking at museums or exhibitions in the PRC today, what similarities and differences do you see with those from the Mao period that you discuss in Curating Revolution?

DYH: I’ve structured my book in such a way that each chapter concludes in the present, as an opportunity to reflect on the legacies of each theme: I look at the First Party Congress Site in the reform era and today, I trace the exhibition of “ordinary” homes to the Shanghai Expo in 2010, I examine the revival of “anti-superstition” exhibitions around contemporary cults, I draw links between the “class education exhibitions” and the Red Guard exhibits and today’s anti-corruption exhibitions. Finally, I illustrate how the Shanghai Museum became an institution for reform-era diplomatic exchange and present day cultural nationalism.

For the most part, museums in China today follow the exhibitionary culture of the state in power. That is, they provide narratives that support the political legitimacy of today’s party-state. These narratives remain revolutionary: think of Xi Jinping bringing his new Politburo Standing Committee to the First Party Congress Site last October. They are also clearly national: think of the renaming of the Museum of the Revolution as the National Museum of China in 2003. The exhibitionary culture of the state in revolution, however, reemerges when China is in political campaign mode: in 1989, for instance, or more recently with Xi’s anti-corruption exhibitions. But there is a key difference: today’s “new exhibitions” are not calls for revolution. They too, support—and reinforce—the authority of the state.    

MEC: Finally, what are you working on now?

DYH: I’m starting work on two interrelated projects: a border history between Hong Kong and China, and a history of Shenzhen as China’s reform-era city. I’m excited to revisit some of my earlier interests in urban history and planning, and also to think more globally and to expand my temporal scope. I had the good fortune of living, for almost three years, right next to the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border, so this new direction also allows me to explore South China and its relationship to the world.

When Are We Going Back to Hawaii? And Other Conference Site Selection Questions

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Since joining the AAS staff in late 2016, I’ve noticed that the question I hear most frequently from association members is “When are we going back to Hawaii?” The 2011 conference in Honolulu, a joint meeting with the International Convention of Asia Scholars, attracted over 5,000 participants and exhibitors and remains an AAS highlight for both attendees and staff.

Trust me—my Secretariat colleagues and I are just as eager to return to the Waikiki beaches as you are. But the decision of where to hold our annual conference is a complicated one and involves weighing multiple variables, not all of them obvious. For a future AAS conference to be held in Hawaii—or New York, or Austin, or any of the other locations our members ask for—a lot of stars need to come into alignment.

(I should note that the process described below only applies to our North American conference; the site selection for AAS-in-Asia depends far more on finding a strong local university to serve as our partner and co-host.)

Our Conference Manager, Robyn Jones, begins the process to secure future conference locations four to five years in advance. She first consults with ConferenceDirect, an event-planning company, to draw up a list of potential host cities based on a loose rotation schedule (East Coast—Midwest—West Coast), transportation networks, and the presence of suitable meeting and lodging facilities. Honolulu’s extra-large size aside, AAS conferences generally draw between 3,000 and 3,800 attendees and exhibitors, and in recent years we’ve averaged about 375 panels per conference. We also need 40 or more rooms for business meetings/receptions, a large exhibit hall, and ballrooms for plenary events, such as the keynote address.

The AAS has traditionally selected sites where we could hold all conference activities in a single hotel. Splitting the conference across multiple locations risks creating confusion and stress as attendees rush from place to place, so we try to avoid doing that as much as possible. In recent years, though, our attendance and space needs have expanded so much that finding one hotel to accommodate everything is more difficult than it used to be. We experimented with holding panels in a convention center for the first time at the 2016 conference in Seattle, and while those spaces can present their own challenges and expenses, it worked so well that we’re returning there in 2021.

Through ConferenceDirect, Robyn puts out a request for proposals (RFP) outlining our conference requirements. The RFP gets disseminated to the convention and visitors bureaus of our target cities, which then work with potential host hotels to write up formal proposals that outline what the hotels can offer (dates, lodging rates, amount of meeting space) and what they expect from the AAS in return (a guaranteed number of sleeping rooms reserved each night, plus a certain amount of money spent on conference food and beverage, such as at the student and member receptions).

Those proposals generally knock at least a couple of cities out of the running. Often, the hotel room rates aren’t low enough—we’re aware that conference travel can strain the wallets of our members, so we look for reasonable prices and check for any hidden fees (a hotel might offer a room rate within our range, but state and local taxes can push the actual per-night cost far beyond that zone). Sometimes the food and beverage minimums are too high for the AAS to meet; for example, hotels in Las Vegas (a city that regularly crops up in discussions of conference sites) ask for a guaranteed F&B expenditure that far exceeds our budget. Or the hotels and meeting space simply aren’t available during our range of dates.

Robyn reviews the remaining proposals and settles on a short list of candidates. In most cases, especially when we have a proposal from a new hotel or a city where the conference has not taken place in the past, she conducts a site visit to check it out and form a first-hand impression of whether the location could work for the AAS. Beyond the hotel itself, Robyn also looks at the surrounding area, keeping a number of questions in mind: Is public transit available within a reasonable distance? Is the hotel located in a safe, walkable section of the city? Are there plenty of convenient restaurants, at a variety of price points? What’s the local nightlife scene like? How easy is it to access other parts of the city? What are the nearby attractions that might interest our conference attendees? The conference is, of course, the main event, but we don’t want participants to feel that we’ve trapped them in an isolated location for the weekend.

After that, Robyn and AAS Executive Director Michael Paschal are ready to make a decision. They consider the proposals, Robyn’s on-site observations, and location preferences expressed by AAS members, then discuss which city represents the best choice and make a final selection. After the contracts are finalized and signed, we announce the future conference location to the AAS membership and all (especially Robyn!) breathe a huge sigh of relief that the process for another year is complete.

We always know that no conference location—even Hawaii—will satisfy 100 percent of our membership. Some cities are always more popular than others. Historically, for example, conferences in Boston and Washington, D.C. are our strongest draws, due to the large number of universities in close proximity, while Chicago (prone to inclement weather) and Atlanta (not enough local Asianists) yield much smaller attendance figures. We’ve had many requests for “destination” sites, such as Orlando and Las Vegas, and just as many requests that the AAS never, ever consider holding its conference at one of those locations. Since our conference falls in the early spring, when many northern locales are still cold and even snowy, there’s a natural desire to head south in search of warmth. (And the Michigan-based staff of the AAS feels the same!) But searching out warmer climes can mean running into sky-high hotel room rates and expensive airfares. Sometimes a city can offer first-rate meeting facilities at great prices, but doesn’t have the reputation of being an attractive or interesting destination so we know it might be a hard sell to the AAS membership.

In short: name a city, any city, and the AAS staff can give you an extensive pro-con list about its suitability as an annual conference site. We spend a lot of time discussing potential new locations, as we know that the association’s members would like to see a greater variety of conference destinations. This is an ongoing process and one that we take very seriously; our goal is always to ensure that we offer our members an engaging, collegial conference in the best location possible. And if at some point that “best location possible” just happened to be Hawaii again … well, I certainly wouldn’t complain.

Learn from My Past Mistakes: Tips for First-Time AAS Attendees

My first time attending an AAS conference was in 2010, when I was a second-year PhD student, and I’ve only missed two since then. Even before I began working for the association, I frequently told people that AAS is my favorite scholarly meeting: it’s my intellectual home and also gives me the chance to catch up with friends whom I might only see once every few years.

But much as I enjoy AAS, I’ve also found that it’s easy to burn out before the conference is half over (this is especially true if, like me, you’re an introvert—four days of social interactions can be wearing). There are plenty of guides out there that offer advice on conference networking, presenting, and other professionalization topics, so I won’t duplicate those recommendations here. Instead, I’m sharing a few tips and strategies that I’ve developed over the years to keep my energy levels high throughout the weekend and thus have the best AAS experience possible:

1. Pack lots of snacks. It’s way too easy to spend the conference running on a diet of caffeine, carbs, sugar, and alcohol. I enjoy all of those in small quantities, but consuming too much of them gives me a headache, interferes with my ability to focus, and makes me cranky. What I’ve learned over the years is that my mother is right: always pack snacks. I buy most of my AAS rations before I even leave home, so I can plan ahead and look for sales; nuts, crackers, jerky, a couple of energy bars (convenient, but I get tired of them quickly), and other small pick-me-ups don’t take up much space in my suitcase. If your hotel room has a fridge—those at the Marriott Wardman Park all do—you can also make a grocery store run after arriving and grab pre-cut or portable fruits and vegetables, hummus, cheese, and more.

2. Similarly, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. A lot of us fall into an AAS pattern of staying up too late, hitting the snooze button a few times the next morning, and then either skipping breakfast entirely or picking up coffee and a pastry and hoping those will carry us through until lunch. Again, some planning ahead can help you avoid this: try to have some more filling foods on hand in your hotel room so you can grab them as you run out the door. When I go out to dinner during the conference, I’ll often order an appetizer and entrée, then eat the entire appetizer and half the entrée so I can take the rest to go for breakfast the next morning.

3. Make time to go outside. If you’re staying at the main conference hotel, it’s entirely possible for a day or two to pass before you realize you haven’t left the building since the conference started. Nothing invigorates like fresh air! If a friend asks you to coffee, suggest a quick walk around the block instead (weather permitting, of course). Taking just 10 or 15 minutes to stretch your legs can be restorative.

4. Don’t expect to get anything else done. I learned this lesson the hard way: again and again, I’ve packed multiple books that need to be read, agreed to deadlines either during or immediately after the conference, and told myself that I’ll “get up early” to take care of emails. Inevitably, none of this actually happens as planned and I come out of the weekend feeling anxious and hopelessly behind. To the best of your ability, try not to make any other work-related plans or promises for the days of the conference (and one or two after, if you can manage it, though that’s a stretch). Being at the conference is your work during AAS; the hours when you’re not participating in it are meant for sleep, exercise, socialization, and relaxation, so don’t set yourself up for failure by thinking that you’ll get other work done.

5. If/when you need a break, take it. With over 440 sessions, the film expo, exhibit hall, keynote address, special panels, receptions, and more, there’s a lot to do at AAS 2018, and chances are you’ll want to go to as many panels and events as possible. And you should! But you also need to keep in mind that “as many as possible” is going to be a different number for everyone, and no one gets a perfect attendance award if they attend a panel in every timeslot. If you’re tired, overwhelmed, or feeling off your game, forcing yourself to sit in a session because you think you “should” isn’t going to improve the situation. Try to build breaks into your conference schedule, and be open to the possibility that you might need to add a spontaneous time out here and there. This year we’re pleased to introduce a Quiet Room for conference participants in search of a meditative space—you’ll find it at Park Tower 8209 on the lobby level of the Wardman Park.

All of these tips are things that I’ve worked out through trial and error over the years—some of them more recently than I’d like to admit! I hope it doesn’t take new AAS attendees as long to learn their own personal dos and don’ts for the conference.

But seriously, pack snacks. Lots of snacks.