Excerpt: Beyond the Book

Beyond the Book cover

AAS Publications is pleased to announce the newest volume in our Asia Past & Present monograph series. Beyond the Book: Unique and Rare Primary Sources for East Asian Studies Collected in North America is edited by Jidong Yang (Stanford University) and includes chapters from over twenty contributors, writing on nonbook sources such as “manuscripts, archival materials, photographs, sound and video recordings, maps, and so on.” Beyond the Book originated from a conference by the same name, held in July 2015 at Stanford University’s East Asia Library, that brought together librarians, scholars, and archivists who presented lesser-known collections of materials and described the value those resources would have for scholarly research. Offering new angles on foreign missionary activity in China, events of the Sino-Japanese War, film and music in Korea, and manuscript culture in Edo Japan, the articles are complemented by high-quality photographs, many reproduced in color.

Below, we share an excerpt from Jidong Yang’s preface to Beyond the Book for #AsiaNow readers. Visit our AAS Publications distribution partner, Columbia University Press, to order your own copy, with a 20% discount on the list price for AAS members.

Just like all other disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, the scholarship of East Asian studies is shaped, defined, and limited first of all by the scholarly resources that are available and accessible to researchers. To put it simply, the type and quantity of primary materials that a researcher can gather is oftentimes the deciding factor in the quality of his or her research. East Asian peoples and their civilizations have survived for thousands of years, but the vast majority of information about those peoples and civilizations, especially in the premodern age, has been lost forever. History, as historians have pointed out over and over again, is never a comprehensive account of all the things that happened in the past. Instead, it is a collection of fragmentary human memories that have survived in written and various other forms. Generation after generation, East Asian studies scholars have lamented the scarcity of primary sources for their research. Taking Chinese history as an example, while China has perhaps the world’s longest continuous tradition of state-sponsored history writing, its recorded past is almost an exclusive account of the events that took place inside the capital city and between the emperor and his closest ministers. From the so-called twenty-four dynastic or official histories, modern scholars can scarcely draw anything useful when they attempt to restore the daily lives of ordinary Chinese people living in the provinces, especially those far from the capital. In the case of early Japanese history, to take another example, although today’s researchers are fortunate enough to have classical historiographies such as the Nihon Shoki and Kojiki, they are very clear in their view that all those texts are a mixture of legends, myths, and historical facts. To find the true origin of a country’s civilization, one cannot rely on those sources alone and so must look for new materials.

If we take an overview of the history of East Asian studies over the past one and a half centuries—starting in the mid-nineteenth century when Sinology and Japanology were gradually transformed from Christian missionary learning into college academic programs in Europe and modern humanities and social sciences began to be introduced into East Asia—we can confidently conclude that the discovery of new research materials has played an essential role in the development of the field. During the period, large numbers of ancient sites in East Asia have been scientifically and systematically investigated by archaeologists; thousands of premodern texts have been excavated from underground; numerous government archives have opened their doors to the public; and many private writings, such as diaries, manuscripts, and correspondences, have also been made available to researchers. As the scholarship has been transformed, the very notion of “primary sources” has also undergone dramatic changes. Materials in nonbook formats are now being equally valued by scholars. Needless to say, all these changes have greatly expanded the frontiers of East Asian studies. Taking a quick look at the fields with which I am most familiar, namely, the history of premodern China and the Silk Road, we can see that they were fundamentally reshaped and redefined thanks to the abundance of newly discovered research materials. Beginning with the last years of the nineteenth century, a vast number of ancient manuscripts and inscriptions in Chinese, Tibetan, Tangut, Khitan, Sanskrit, Tocharian, Sogdian, Khotanese, Old Uighur, Old Turkic, and many other languages and scripts were discovered first by European explorers and then by Chinese archaeologists in Northwest China. Those manuscripts and inscriptions, dated from the third century BCE to the twelfth century CE, completely transformed our knowledge of ancient China and the Silk Road, which was previously reliant entirely on the official histories written by Chinese court historiographers. They have allowed scholars around the world to understand the local societies and economies of the medieval Chinese empire and the international and intercultural exchanges between China and other parts of the Eurasian world, as well as the languages and literatures of many historical Sino-Tibetan, Indo-European, and Altaic peoples who used to live in the territories now belonging to the People’s Republic of China, and whose traces would have been utterly lost without the discovery of their written records. In the study of Korean and Japanese history, the same kinds of breakthroughs have also been brought about by numerous exciting discoveries. The uncovering of the Goguryeo Kingdom inscribed steles in Manchuria, for instance, has thoroughly rewritten the early history of the Korean people and their civilization. In short, new resources are the life support for East Asian studies, and the development of the discipline depends on the continuous supply of fresh primary sources. Only against this background of academic history from the nineteenth century on can we fully comprehend the significance of the cause we are pursuing throughout this volume.

Our articles focus on resources collected by North American institutions. As relatively young countries, both the United States and Canada have a shorter history of cultural communication with East Asia than Europe does. When Jesuit missionaries arrived in East Asia in waves and began to bring Chinese and Japanese woodblock-printed books back to Europe in the sixteenth century, French and Spanish expeditions to the North American coastlines and inland valleys had only just begun. When the Chinese and Japanese styles became a major theme of European decorative arts and architecture during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, colonial America’s imagination of East Asia was still limited to the fine porcelains imported from South China by way of Europe. Entering the nineteenth century, however, North America’s interest in East Asia grew quickly. Soon after the country gained its independence, and especially after the War of 1812, a growing number of US citizens, most of whom were Protestant missionaries, embarked on the long journey to East Asia. Sailing mostly from New York, they had to endure more hardship than the Asia-bound Europeans because they had to overcome the heavy seas of the North Atlantic before entering the maritime route along the African coastline. The American Oriental Society, the first learned society in the United States devoted to a particular field of scholarship, was founded in 1842 to promote the study of Asian civilizations. After California joined the United States, America’s distance from East Asia was significantly reduced. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as the United States became an economic and political power on a global scale, succeeding generations of Americans displayed a much stronger interest in other parts of the world and began to collect East Asian books and arts on a large scale. Several vivid examples of that booming interest can be found right across the street from the East Asia Library of Stanford University in the exhibition hall under the Hoover Tower. They are the Chinese vases collected by President Herbert Hoover, one of the first graduates of Stanford, and his wife Lou Henry, both of whom spent several years in China and were fluent in Mandarin. During the entire first half of the twentieth century, East Asia was in constant turmoil. With their rapidly accumulating wealth, the United States and Canada played an important role in collecting and preserving the cultural heritages of the East Asian peoples. After World War II, thanks to the generous funding support from both public and private sources, East Asian studies flourished in North America. Meanwhile, the collection of primary sources for the field underwent the fastest period of development ever seen in the history of the West.

Scholars’ interests are always changing. Raw research materials collected by insightful archivists and librarians do not necessarily draw scholarly attention right away. Over time, precious materials can end up being buried in dust-covered boxes in the corner of the storage room. It is hard to estimate how many such boxes of East Asian materials are still waiting to be discovered and studied across North America, but I can tell from my own career that quite a lot of them are out there. Several years ago, when I was working for the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, I found quite a number of interesting and valuable items among unprocessed materials, such as a textbook of the Shanghai dialect written in the Latin alphabet and published in 1860. It was clearly used by Christian missionaries to teach the local language to their coworkers. Today it is an important piece of primary source material for studying the language of Shanghai, my hometown, during the nineteenth century when the city underwent dramatic social and cultural changes. I made an even greater discovery at Penn when I noticed that quite a few old Chinese and Japanese books displayed a bookplate bearing the name “the McCartee Library,” which does not exist in Penn’s library system today. After conducting some research, I found that D. B. McCartee was a Presbyterian missionary born in 1820. After graduating from Penn’s medical school, he arrived in China in 1842 and spent the better part of his life in China and Japan. As one of the very few Americans in the nineteenth century who mastered two East Asian languages, McCartee left numerous legacies in China and Japan. He donated more than a thousand East Asian books to Penn to establish one of the earliest East Asian libraries on this continent. As part of my research on McCartee, I visited a number of institutions in Philadelphia, including the University of Pennsylvania Archives, the Academy of Natural Sciences, American Philosophical Society, Presbyterian Historical Society, and the Free Library of Philadelphia. In all of those places, I found exciting new materials related to East Asia and worthy of scholarly research. It is my firm belief that, throughout North America, treasures like these are everywhere, and we do not need to look too far away from each of us to find some of them.

That is why we held the conference at Stanford in 2015 and are publishing this book today. By presenting a whole set of little-known yet valuable materials at once, we are showing the scholarly world that the potential for digging out new East Asian studies resources is still endless and that we librarians and archivists are fully behind scholars to help them in developing groundbreaking research ideas. The vast majority of the resources presented in this volume are in a nonbook format. I believe this will make them even more special and meaningful in pushing the boundaries of East Asian studies.