September 12 Event “Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien:” Photos and Audio


Photographs are available here from the September 12, 2014 event Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien, which featured acclaimed writer and academic Ian Buruma, Columbia University film studies professor Richard Peña, and Bard College professor Richard I. Suchenski.  Suchenski organized the international retrospective “Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien,” which screens at the Museum of the Moving Image through October 17 and travels the globe through 2015.  The event was co-sponsored by Columbia University School of the Arts-Film, the Museum of the Moving Image, Taipei Cultural Center of TECO in New York, and the Center for Moving Image Arts at Bard College.

Audio for the event (split into two parts) is available on iTunes here:











A New Retrospective on Hou Hsiao-hsien: A Discussion with Organizer Richard Suchenski

HHH Book Cover


On Friday, September 12, 2014, the Museum of the Moving Image will launch a retrospective of the films by Taiwan’s celebrated director Hou Hsiao-hsien.  The internationally-touring series, titled “Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien,” runs through October 17 in New York and includes all of the director’s seventeen feature films. The retrospective will also showcase Hou’s short movies as well as a number of related films and documentaries.  

In the interview below, Bard College professor Richard I. Suchenski, the organizer of the retrospective and the editor of the new book Hou Hsiao-hsien (available here), talks with the Weatherhead East Asian Institute about the remarkable experience of watching Hou’s films. 

In conjunction with the retrospective, Professor Suchenski will join Columbia film scholar Richard Peña and acclaimed writer and academic Ian Buruma in a public discussion about Hou’s films on Friday, September 12, 2014,  from 3:00 PM – 4:30 PM in Kent Hall 403 on the Columbia University campus. 

-What makes Hou Hsiao-hsien’s filmmaking distinctive?

Salient features of Hou’s cinema include elegantly staged long takes, the precise delineation of quotidian life, and a radically, even vertiginously, elliptical mode of storytelling. His films place unusual demands on the viewer, but their sophistication is understated and their formal innovations are irreducibly bound up with the sympathetic observation of everyday experience. In the book, I argue that by combining multiple forms of tradition with a unique approach to space and time, Hou has created a body of work that, through its stylistic originality and historical gravity, opens up new possibilities for the medium and redefines the relationship between realism and modernism.

One often has the peculiar sensation when watching Hou’s films of looking backwards and forwards simultaneously, continually refining an understanding of preceding scenes even when immersed in the unfolding present. He goes furthest in this direction with “The Puppetmaster” (1993), but there are already extraordinary examples in his breakthrough film “The Boys from Fengkuei” (1983).


The Boys from Fengkuei (1983)

-What inspired you to study Hou’s films? 

For a cinephile of my generation, Hou is a key reference point and the new Taiwanese cinema that began in the 1980s has a special status as a cinema that was (and is) in the midst of introducing an innovative sensibility and a fresh perspective. Hou is the most important Taiwanese filmmaker and his sensuous, richly nuanced work is at the heart of everything that is vigorous and genuine in contemporary film culture. This made him an ideal subject for the first integrated book and retrospective project coordinated through the Center for Moving Image Arts (CMIA).

-What is the significance of the title “Also Like Life” for the retrospective?

The title is a reference to the film that I consider Hou’s greatest, “The Puppetmaster.” A puppetry group is given this name because “puppets in performance are like people, so puppet plays are also like life.” Hou’s creative experiments are always connected to his deep commitment to realism, and the phrase suggests some of the subtleties of his approach to representation.


The Puppetmaster (1993)

-How does Hou’s work illuminate the history of Taiwan and China?

Hou was born in 1947 to a Hakka family in Guangdong that immigrated to Taiwan in 1948. One year later, the People’s Republic of China is proclaimed and Chiang Kai-shek declares Taipei the provisional capital of the Republic of China. Hou has a strong sense of Chinese cultural identity as well as a profound attachment to his adopted home.

When I first started watching his films, I was struck above all by his prismatic treatment of Taiwanese history and the way in which he links that – formally and thematically – to questions of point of view. His sensitivity to character, location, and geopolitical nuance has enabled him to explore very complex issues with a remarkable degree of perspicuity and deftness.


A City of Sadness (1989)

-What films would you first recommend to a person who is not yet familiar with Hou’s work?

The most important films, in my view, are “A City of Sadness” (1989) and “The Puppetmaster.” These are also the hardest to see on film. “Dust in the Wind” (1986) and “A Time to Live and a Time to Die” (1985) are excellent introductions to his work, and the new prints of “Good Men, Good Women” (1995) and “Flowers of Shanghai” (1998) that were struck for the retrospective are not to be missed.

Richard I. Suchenski (Ph.D. Yale University) is the Founder and Director of the Center for Moving Image Arts and Assistant Professor of Film and Electronic Arts at Bard College.  He organized “Also like Life:  the Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien,” an international retrospective traveling to seventeen cities worldwide through 2015, and is the editor of Hou Hsiao-hsien (2014).

Apply to Columbia’s MARSEA Graduate Program


Interested in furthering your study of East Asia by learning from the world’s leading scholars of the region?  Apply to Columbia University’s Master of Arts in Regional Studies–East Asia (MARSEA) program: 


Columbia University‘s Weatherhead East Asian Institute administers the Masters in Regional Studies—East Asia (MARSEA) through Columbia’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The MARSEA program is perfect for students wishing to focus on a social science approach to the modern politics, international relations, modern history, and cultural and social formations of the region with a country focus.  The program, completed in two full-time semesters, is tailored to meet the needs of individuals entering professional careers, mid-career professionals, students preparing for entry into doctoral programs, and those pursuing a professional degree, such as the J.D. or M.B.A., who want to gain regional expertise.  Information about applying is available here.

Here are two perspectives from MARSEA alumni:


“One of the most valuable aspects of the MARSEA program for me was the amount of flexibility its structure allowed, even within its 30 credit requirement.  I was continually impressed with how the MARSEA faculty and administrators were willing to work with me to craft a program that best fit my own needs, interests, and goals, while also keeping the scope of focus from becoming too narrow.  I was able to parlay an internship with a local Chinese-American theater company into an independent study, which had a direct influence on the work I am doing now at a Chinese language and culture institute here in New York.  The fact that the program is smaller in size is also a great asset.  I feel it is easier to reach out to a fellow MARSEA alum even if we were were not in the same cohort.  Being a MARSEA grad feels like being part of a special, unique group.”

-Lindsay Bennett, MARSEA ’11, Program Manager, Confucius Institute, Pace University


“The MARSEA program’s great strength is its flexibility. Rather than focusing on one subject and one country, MARSEA students are required to pursue a multi-national and multi-disciplinary course of studies, creating graduates with a mind keyed to interconnectivity. As a journalist working in the U.S. for the Japanese market, the ability to find these intersecting threads has been invaluable to my work and career.”

-Daniel De Simone, MARSEA ’09, Senior Staff Reporter, Asahi Shimbun




Professor Lydia H. Liu on Human Rights Pioneer and Columbia alum P.C. Chang



Columbia University‘s list of illustrious alumni includes many graduates from China whose achievements have been widely celebrated.  Columbia alumnus Peng-chun “P.C.” Chang (1892-1957), the Vice-Chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and one of the architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has received relatively less recognition–until now. 

Lydia H. Liu, the Wun Tsun Tam Professor of the Humanities at Columbia and a faculty member of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, has published an article in the Summer 2014 Critical Inquiry titled “Shadows of Universalism: The Untold Story of Human Rights around 1948″ that sheds light on P.C. Chang’s central role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Chang was instrumental in the creation and passage of the 1948 declaration and the later International Bill of Human Rights, documents  that helped define human rights and that included all people regardless of their nationality. Professor Liu talked with the Weatherhead East Asian Institute about her new article (available here) and why Chang’s importance in the history of human rights has yet to be given its due.

Who was Peng-chun “P.C.” Chang?

P.C. Chang was not actually a career diplomat. He was a literary scholar, a playwright, and a poet. He received both his master’s and doctoral degrees at Columbia in the Teachers College.  People say he studied with John Dewey; a lot of Chinese students who came to Columbia in the 1920s and 1930s said that they worked with Dewey. Of course, they took classes with lots of professors. The detail about Dewey we don’t know.

P.C. Chang’s education had nothing to do with diplomacy or international relations.  He was studying literature in the 1920s. This is right in the period that I have studied for a long time. He was a founding member of this literary association in the 1920s called the Crescent Moon Society, which consisted mostly of students who came back from English-speaking countries—mostly the United States and England—where they had been educated.  The Society published a literary journal.  Chang was also the person who introduced and interpreted Mei Lanfang, the Chinese opera singer who visited the United States.  Chang was very active and he produced a number of plays for Broadway when he was a student.  He produced  the  play “Mulan” in the 1920s in New York. We now think of Maxine Hong Kingston’s rewriting of Mulan in The Woman Warrior and the 1998 Disney film version.  With Chang, we’re looking at someone whose education and upbringing probably would not take him in the direction that he would take when he became the Vice-Chair of the Human Rights Commission, which was tasked for the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


P.C. Chang

What was Chang’s path to the United Nations?

It’s quite interesting: a person’s life will take unexpected turns often at the mercy of the times. For instance, Chang received his degree from Columbia and he then went back to China to teach. He briefly served as an administrator at Tsinghua University, where I run my center.  He was basically an educator, a teacher, and also a drama reformer. He taught Cao Yu, who is now considered the twentieth century playwright of China. Some of Cao Yu’s plays have become classics in modern Chinese literature. Chang was doing all of these things: introducing reforms in Chinese opera; editing; encouraging new literature; participating in interesting enlightenment reforms in China. This was all until the Japanese attacked in 1937.

I should note that P.C. Chang’s brother, Chang Po-ling, (1876-1951) had founded Nankai School in Tianjin—which is now Nankai University.  Chang Po-ling was known for his pedagogical emphasis on sports, and  when China was granted the privilege of hosting the 2008 Olympics, his name was everywhere in the media. Chang Po-ling was credited for introducing modern sports to China–a thing of national importance. P.C. Chang came from a background very closely associated with university education. But when the Japanese attacked Northern China, they bombed Nankai University. A lot of intellectuals and university educators went into exile. Many went to the south. The professors had to decide whether to move south or serve under the puppet government under colonial occupation. Chang chose to leave—he lost  the university.

As it turned out, these English-speaking, American-educated Chinese educators could go abroad and organize campaigns against the Japanese aggression. It was the anti-war efforts mounted by the nationalist government that drew P.C. Chang into this campaign. He travelled around to raise funds and raise consciousness about Japanese attacks against China. This was way before the United States became involved in World War II. He was an eloquent speaker, a very passionate intellectual—erudite and learned. He was thoroughly bilingual and bicultural. China’s government thought he was very useful. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs appointed him to a post in a neutral country, Turkey, during World War II. He served in the embassy in Istanbul for some time before he was dispatched shortly before the end of the war to Chile, which was another neutral country, to serve as the Ambassador of the Republic of China.

After that, the Allies were preparing for the founding of the United Nations. P.C. Chang was selected by his government to represent China to the United Nations and became one of the early founders of the U.N. This was all by accident: a senior diplomat couldn’t come for some reason, and Chang was asked to go from Chile to San Francisco to help found the U.N. He then became a very vocal and prominent figure in the organization’s early days. Chang was active in the Economic and Social Council, under which they organized the Human Rights Commission. Because of his prominence at the U.N., Chang was elected to be Vice-Chair of the Human Rights Commission. Eleanor Roosevelt was the chair. The two of them worked very closely together.

I looked into Chang’s work not just because of his fascinating biography but to rethink some issues connected with how we even talk about human rights.

Chang Po-ling

Chang Po-ling

Why is Chang’s role in the history of human rights less known?

I’ve been wondering about that. One of my colleagues said “I’ve been teaching human rights for so long but, somehow, I’ve never come across his name.”  That’s the question I had when I started the research:  how come the memory was erased of someone who was such an important player in the drafting of such an important universal document? You might attribute it to a few factors. I think, number one, most people think of “human rights” as a Western idea.  Many people can’t contemplate that after World War II–especially through the mediation of the Human Rights Commission and the drafting of the Universal Declaration– the idea of human rights had already been transformed by many non-Western cultures and histories.  Chang was one of the most important figures in that mediation, but there were other non-Western nations that were represented.  The first factor is that people simply have this knee-jerk reaction when you talk about human rights: “Oh, it’s a Western idea. You can trace human rights back to some European theological notions of natural rights.” That’s probably the most central factor. How do you get around this mental block that “this is Western and that is not-Western?” How do you get around this proprietary genealogy of ideas? People do claim ideas, saying: “I own this idea. You take this idea from me and I influence you.” That’s the usual way of thinking about ideas. It’s curious how people take possession of ideas.  If you tell them that “perhaps you don’t possess this idea,” they will probably panic. We’ll see if people panic.

It’s not as if people have not already discussed P.C. Chang’s contribution; a number of human rights scholars, especially historians, have pointed out his work.  I’ve mentioned them in my footnotes. It is not that he’s entirely forgotten. But, still, that information about P.C. Chang’s role on the Human Rights Commission would not change the deeply rooted idea that the West possesses the idea of human rights. It’s especially true if the idea is a good one—you don’t let other people take it over: “it’s my idea, not your idea!” I’ve done a lot of work in the past on the possibility of approaching ideas through translingual practices. I’m very curious about the meeting of minds and the circulation of ideas. I want to see if there’s a way to get around the mental block of “I own this; you own that” and the policing of boundaries—usually linguistic boundaries—and to free ourselves of all these inherited ways of possessing ideas and then see what happens. It was an experiment for me, methodologically, to not just bring P.C. Chang to light, but also to make most people see the history that he helped fashion.  It’s not just the document—the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—that’s important, but also Chang’s participation in various debates as one of the third-world intellectuals.


P.C. Chang and Eleanor Roosevelt

In the United Nations, P.C. Chang argued strongly against what is called the “classical standard of civilization”—a standard in which certain nations or peoples are considered “civilized” or “uncivilized” and the “uncivilized” are excluded from international organizations and laws.   

My central problem in writing this article was to look at the moment when the classical standard of civilization first confronted human rights discourse. This is not how people usually look at human rights.  I spent some time in this essay explaining what the classical standard of civilization is; a lot of current international relations protocols still preserve the classical standard of civilization. For instance, international law is practiced by “civilized nations.” That very expression excludes some other nations. You begin to ask: where did this standard come from? This rule of law, when it’s practiced among nations, would then stipulate that certain people would be excluded—not because they don’t practice the rule of law but because they belong to the lower strata of stages of society. These usually colonized people are what international law would define as “non-self-governing people.” The idea is: “Can people govern themselves? If not, we will go and govern them.” This is the second factor in why P.C. Chang’s contribution has been erased.

In the articulation of the universalism of human rights, I wanted to emphasize the “shadows of universalism.”  The classical standard of civilization belongs to the shadows of universalism. The universalism sets certain parameters as to how far any good universal idea could be applied. Certain people are excluded. To see this, I focused on one of the central debates in 1950 at Lake Success in New York.

You note that many scholars examine history by looking at the words people had used. Can you explain your approach in looking at “shadows” in the debates over human rights?

Most scholars in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences—they take words as a sort of focus when they want to analyze ideas.  Intellectual history often does this. I am often skeptical of this equation between words and concepts.  Verbal fetishism gives people the illusion that words are stable and self-evident. To the extent that they exist, they are more or less stable and prominent, especially in print as opposed to speech. Words are discrete and repeatable. You can focus on them. They can be mobilized as evidence. Whether you argue about the continuity or the discontinuity of ideas, you focus on words. Words are seen as positive evidence. But, once you begin to ask questions about gaps and silences and repressions that do not appear as positive signs—which words often stand for—what would you do? How do these shadows that exist in silences, gaps, and repressions determine or govern how the positive signs—words—operate? I wanted to ask these questions. Once you ask these questions—for instance, when people discuss human rights and its genealogy and history, they don’t pay attention to the classical standard of civilization.  But, when you look at the debates—especially in 1950 on the floor of the General Assembly—you see how the classical standard of civilization structured some members’ understandings of human rights and how this relationship was brought into the open in the debate and how people like Chang contested that.

Can you discuss the presence of those shadows in the 1950 contestation over the addition of “self-determination” as a human right–which Chang supported–in Article One of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights?

For a long time, scholars of human rights complained that when “self-determination” was written into the International Bill of Human Rights, this was an unfortunate event. They believed that human rights simply meant the political and civil rights of individuals. The individual is often taken as the unit.  And they take that story of the individual all the way to European natural rights theory. They view this strange insertion of “self-determination” as a human right as a distortion, as a misunderstanding, as a mistake. I take issue with that. I think that if they studied the 1950 discussion among member states of the United Nations, they will see that the countries that insisted on writing “self-determination” into human rights were not the ones who initiated this.

What happened was, in October 1950, the General Assembly started to debate the covenants of the International Bill of Rights and representatives of Belgium, France, England, and the U.S. supported adding a special clause to exclude non-self-governing people or colonial people from the application of human rights. This came as a surprise to people who had, two years before, approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  That document, passed in 1948, was a moral document, not a legally binding document. These colonial powers were concerned that the automatic application of the Universal Declaration would empower the colonized people, then they would also demand universal human rights. It made sense for them to propose a clause because their governments didn’t want to see trouble in their colonial territories.  The clause alleged that the colonized people had not reached the high standard of civilization. This is the language of the classical standard of civilization saying that these people should not be automatically included in the covenant and that they must acquire sufficient progress to be considered entitled to human rights. This came as a surprise.

I looked through the minutes—what they call the Summary Reports—of the General Assembly and read fascinating debates back and forth about whether colonized people and non-self-governing people should be entitled to human rights.  The document they passed two years before would have entitled them—regardless of their stages of progress—but the colonial powers wanted to block that. All of sudden, the colonial powers advanced an argument of cultural relativism: “they are different from us and they are inferior to us, so they should not be included. “ All of a sudden, their universalism became cultural relativism. I was fascinated by how universalism and cultural relativism became the battleground between those nations that had colonial possessions and those that either were newly independent nations or those that were not colonial powers. It’s fascinating to see how their opposition was defined by this encounter between the classical standard of civilization and the universalism of human rights—a very new universalism.

P.C. Chang was very clear minded about what the stakes were when people proposed the “self-determination” clause. He saw a larger picture. He was attacking the classical standard of civilization; he said, “Whenever the Europeans proposed the idea of the civilized, they actually meant European rule.” He saw politics where the Europeans saw “civilization.”


How did P.C. Chang introduce and translate Chinese or Confucian concepts through his contributions to the Commission?

It’s very interesting how P.C. Chang tried to revise the meaning of “human” in human rights.  There were many drafts and discussions about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I compared the Geneva draft and the Cassin draft and several other drafts.  In the example of Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that I use to show the intellectual intervention P.C. Chang wanted to make.  There are philosophical implications in his intervention—I wanted to insist on that. I’m not the first one to point out that P.C. Chang wanted to bring Confucianism into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I wanted to point out that whatever Chang tried to do, in appealing to a Confucian concept, it happened on precarious intellectual ground.

His colleagues didn’t understand what he was trying to do. A very good example is this concept of “ren,” which is written with the Chinese radical for human and for the number two.  Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ended up stating: “All men are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with dignity and conscience and should regard each other in the spirit of brotherhood.” That’s the approved version.  But, in some of the earlier versions there was no mention of “conscience.”   They were simply endowed with “reason.” Chang had suggested that perhaps that reason alone was not adequate. He then suggested that Article One include another concept—“ren”—that, next to reason, is also an essential human attribute. Human beings are endowed not just with reason but with something else.

What is this something else? Chang came up with a literal translation of a concept from Confucian moral philosophy which he calls “two-men-mindedness.” When you write it out, it’s that Chinese character pronounced as “ren” but that can be glossed as “two-men-mindedness.” It’s kind of awkward—no one understood Chang. So, he said it’s like sympathy—conscience for other people. He couldn’t quite find an equivalent because there was no equivalent in English or French that would help his colleagues understand what he was going after. They decided that they would translate it as “conscience,” which is kind of misleading.  If you go back to the archival material, you begin to understand why it was a precarious move. Chang tried to introduce one idea but it was substituted by another idea. I wanted to point it out because I wanted to show how he tried to philosophically revise the notion of “human.” I translate “ren” as the plural human, not literally as “two-men-mindedness.” The human radical is not about men, it’s not gendered.

I show that the plural human is not just a Confucian idea; it’s also a twentieth century intellectual engagement with a Confucian idea. Intellectuals tried to change the definition of human in the larger international context in the 1920s and 1930s when there was this discussion of political pluralism in political theory.  Confucianism was part of that discussion. Chang was simply bringing that intellectual tradition into the discussion of Article One. We can’t just conclude that this is a Confucian idea; it’s a Confucian idea that was in the process of being refashioned in the twentieth century by a lot of intellectuals. I pointed out that German philosopher Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political had a footnote that refers to the Fabian society group who tried to promote a liberal concept of political pluralism. One of the theorists in that group was from China—this was in the 1920s. Chang’s Crescent Moon Society journal was very much involved in the human rights and civil rights debates when they criticized the nationalist government. Human rights activists were arrested by the Guomindang for engaging in this kind of criticism.

So, human rights had already been part of the political reality and practices in China before World War II. Scholars have studied this but I wanted to bring in this connection with the nature of the philosophical work that P.C. Chang was trying to bring to the conversation. It’s very complicated. In the early 1930s, human rights and civil rights discourse in China was primarily targeting fascism.  The Guomindang government was perceived as a fascist. So, you see, we have a twentieth century international scenario which led to the ways in which P.C. Chang made his intervention—political and philosophical—in the drafting of the document.

What became of P.C. Chang after his time in the United Nations?

It’s really unfortunate. P.C. Chang died in 1957 of a heart attack. He lived on the East Coast in New Jersey. He had retired from the U.N. What’s so tragic about his career was that the nationalist Chinese government and the Communists engaged in a civil war while he was serving in the United Nations– especially at the time when he was closely engaged in the covenants of the International Bill of Human Rights.  When historians emphasize his role, I think they’re right in pointing out that P.C. Chang himself played a very important role. Normally, delegates from some countries would have to telegraph their governments about their position before they make a proposal.  This was the norm. Even in the Human Rights Commission, the Soviet delegate, the British delegate, the French delegate would all have to follow the orders of their governments. But Chang was an exception. Why? Because his government was in disarray. He would send telegraphs asking for instructions and he would receive none. It was just the circumstances that gave him a lot of freedom. He made almost all of these interventions on the Human Rights Commission on his own initiative because his government ignored him.

And, what’s so tragic about him is that his government—the government that sent him to the United Nations—lost China; they moved to Taiwan. He didn’t go back to Taiwan. He simply stayed. You see how torn he was.

Unfortunately, there are not many surviving testimonies as to how he viewed the civil war in China and how he made the decision to stay in the United States. There’s only one volume of collected documents of his speeches at the U.N. and some of his early works. We have very little information about that crucial period of time about how he reacted when the civil war in China broke out. He was cut off, essentially, from communication with his government; he was essentially an open-minded liberal, probably left-leaning. His government was right-wing and it was determined to exterminate the Communists. You can see how torn he was. The only possible trace I could get was from the diaries of John Peters Humphrey, a distinguished lawyer from Canada who was in charge of the Secretary of the Human Rights Commission. Humphrey left behind a detailed diary of what happened. I consulted the diary and the entries near the time after the civil war in China broke out suggested that Chang was often in a bad mood and was not his normal self. Chang would lose his temper; before, he was an excellent, smart negotiator who could deal with people’s difference and make them cooperate together. After the civil war in China, he became a different person. You could sort of tell from Humphrey’s diary that the rapidly changing circumstances must have taken a toll on Chang’s psychological state. Chang died just a few years after he retired from the United Nations.

Chang is not usually thought of as one of Columbia’s most distinguished Chinese alums. If you’re not interested in human rights, you don’t hear about him. As a Columbia alumnus, he actually made more of a contribution than some of the other well-known Chinese graduates. A lot of other alums are mentioned for shaping history, especially Wellington Koo, who had a long life and international career, or, Hu Shih, who played a role in China’s May Fourth Movement, and Feng Youlan, who created the modern discipline of philosophy in China. We look at these famous intellectuals who are Columbia alums. You don’t think of P.C. Chang at all. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has had far reaching impact around the world. He was a major player and so, in the long run, he should be more remembered than any of those people for the very interesting interventions he made. I put him above all of these people in terms of his learning, in terms of his political vision, his determination to create something that people in his time could not even imagine creating: that is a truly universal world. Not turning human rights into another standard of civilization—saying “We have human rights; you don’t have it”—but, rather, something else. I think P.C. Chang is a Columbia alumnus that people should pay attention to.


Lydia H. Liu is Wun Tsun Tam Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. Her publications include The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious (University of Chicago Press, 2010); The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making (Harvard University Press, 2006); and, as co-editor, The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory (Columbia University Press, 2013).

Photos from the 2014 MARSEA Convocation and the WEAI’s MARSEA/SIPA Graduation Reception



On May 18, 2014, the Weatherhead East Asian Institute celebrated the convocation for its Master of Arts in Regional Studies–East Asia (MARSEA) students. Three days later, on May 21, the Institute hosted a graduation reception for MARSEA students and for students in Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs with regional specializations in East Asian Studies. Below are photos from both events:


2014 MARSEA graduates

Convocation photo

2014 MARSEA graduates

Group Toast 2

2014 MARSEA graduates

Alexandra, Waichi

MARSEA graduates and WEAI Executive Director Waichi Ho

Family taking photos

MARSEA graduates and family


Shuo Yan Tan, SIPA ’14

Sonya +Family

Sonya Kuki, SIPA ’14, and family

Yuan Zhi Lau + Professor Zelin

Yuan Zhi Lau, MARSEA ’14, and Professor Zelin

Professor Lu + MARSEA graduates

MARSEA graduates and Professor Lü

Reception food

MARSEA and SIPA graduate reception


WEAI Director Myron Cohen


Leslie Paisley, SIPA ’14, and Vivian Coyne, SIPA ’14

Lauren Sprott, SIPA DRA-East Asia Region Specilization + Mary

Lauren Sprott, SIPA DRA-East Asian Regional Specialization, and Mary Trieu


Christine Swanson, MARSEA ’14, and Alexandra Tirado, MARSEA ’14

Caitlin hopping + Family

Caitlin Hopping, SIPA ’14, and family


MARSEA graduates and Mary Trieu

Chris, Ranming, Alex, Sungoh, Chrisine, Daniel

MARSEA graduates and current students

Howard W. French discusses his new book about the massive Chinese migration to Africa



Howard W. French, a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, has spent years reporting about the massive migration of Chinese people to Africa.  Alfred A. Knopf  has just published the results of his work:  China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in ChinaFrench, who has served as the bureau chief in Japan, China, West and Central Africa, and the Caribbean for The New York Times, spoke with Columbia’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute about his new book. 

How did you conceive of and organize such a geographically expansive project?

There’s a lot of writing on this topic that tries to take an analytical approach—the cliché of the 30,000- foot view of the scene—and that tries to draw very sharp conclusions. The most common question one encounters is: “Who is winning?” People want to know if the West is winning or losing, China is winning or losing, or Africa is winning or losing. I did not want to start and end on that thought. There’s been a lot of that and I’m not really sure how far any of that gets us. I decided to take a different lens for this story. I tried to determine “What are the pieces that haven’t been described or explained very well before?” I concluded that the actual human experience hasn’t been explored very much. You know, you have this winning and losing stuff that’s written all the time, but there are very few Chinese and very few Africans speaking in that kind of writing.  That’s very striking if you stop to think about it. I decided that I wanted to go and see who these Chinese migrants are and who these Africans they are dealing with are and to get as close to that story as I could. I wanted to explore that world at the ground level as opposed to the 30,000-foot level. That’s essentially the organizational conceit of the book.

Where I ended up going was determined by a few things: first of all, I made a common but arbitrary separation of Africa into two parts: sub-Saharan and North Africa. I decided I would limit myself to sub-Saharan Africa. I then decided I wanted a good geographic spread, so I wanted countries in east, west, central, and southern Africa—I chose more than one country from each of those regions. I wanted big countries and I wanted small countries. I wanted countries that are famous for natural resource-based economies, because that is the presumed driver of Chinese interest in Africa. I also wanted countries that are not primarily known for their natural resource production because it struck me that there’s a world of Chinese people in those places that tells a very different story. I wanted countries where Chinese migration has been more recent and relatively more ancient. That’s how I chose my countries. The book has me bouncing around from one of these countries to another. It’s not like each chapter has a different, specific theme; it’s basically me wandering this landscape, explaining what I’ve found there.

What was China’s relationship with Africa prior to this massive migration?

There’s a much longer history of China’s involvement with Africa. The most immediately relevant time is during the revolutionary period under Mao, especially during the Cultural Revolution.  Zhou Enlai, the Premier of the People’s Republic of China, visited Africa. China built an iconic project crossing Tanzania and Zambia called the TAZARA Railway, which linked those two countries and gave landlocked Zambia, which is one of the world’s leading copper producers and which is located near South Africa, access to the sea via Tanzania. This was significant, because at that time South Africa was ruled under Apartheid and was hostile toward Zambia because Zambia was supporting South Africa’s liberation. This was a big revolutionary initiative under Mao. There are modest-sized older communities of Chinese migrants who have lived in different places—South Africa especially—in Africa for generations. But, the migration that I write about in my book is large-scale and it is a new phenomenon, taking place during the past decade or so.

What spurred the massive move of Chinese people to Africa and the cooperation between China and Africa in the 1990s?

I know that China pitches this as “cooperation” and I don’t mean to say that there’s no aspect of cooperation involved here, but I would not choose that word to characterize it myself. I think that China in the 1990s was making a very astute reading of the state of the world and the future of the global economy and its own place in the global economy.  It recognized a few things: it recognized that, as a country whose main vocation is manufacturing and export on a very large scale, China needs markets. The traditional markets that China had targeted in the reform and opening period—Europe, the United States, and Japan—are what are called “mature markets,” where the populations are aging and where debt levels are rising. So, China, with great foresight in the Jiang Zemin presidential period, saw that it needed to develop markets that would pick up the baton from the traditional markets. And, so, Jiang Zemin and his collaborators looked out around the world and prospected, in effect, for places where China could engage with or even create newer, younger, fresher markets for themselves. Africa became very attractive because Africa had the most dramatic demographic prospects in the world.  The population of Africa is set to double by the middle of this century and perhaps triple by the end of this century. It’s almost a truism now that Africa is very fast-growing and that it has very fast-growing middle classes. The middle classes in Africa as a continent are larger than the middle-classes of India today, for example.  It was a matter of great prescience in the 1990s for a country like China to have identified this and to have built a strategy on this basis.

Jiang Zemin had a great amount of foresight in these matters. He saw Africa as a place of the future for Chinese products, for Chinese exports, for Chinese investment.  The other attractive aspect of Africa for China was, of course, that in the early post-Cold War phase, Africa was perceived as being very much neglected by the traditional western powers that had previously been influential there. And so China saw Africa as this part of the world that not only had good demographics and economic prospects and a strong natural resource portfolio—all of which it desired–but that also was this place that was sort of off the radar of the more sophisticated and richer economies of the world. Jiang Zemin and his collaborators understood, I think, very smartly, that Africa was this place where Chinese companies and Chinese individuals could go and cut their teeth at fairly low risk—without having to go up against the strongest western and Japanese competitors. They could gradually transform themselves into global players in this playground called Africa where the competition was pretty mild.


How did China encourage Chinese companies and people to make the move to Africa?

I don’t think the Chinese state explicitly told Chinese people “go, move to Africa.” There may have been a little bit of that but I don’t think it’s been the primary motor of this kind of movement. I think what happened was something a bit different in which the Chinese state under Jiang Zemin set the watchword, which was “Go out”—literally that phrase. Jiang Zemin and others who followed him were very explicit about the opportunity that Africa presented for China. The way China works is that once the central government sets an objective, it then delegates execution of those sorts of objectives to provincial governments and it sets up a reward system where it says to provincial governments: “So, we’re going to twin you with a country in Africa and we will measure you on how well you do.” The provincial governments that take this objective most seriously and achieve the best results will be rewarded with profitable business in Africa and the central government will find other ways to reward them with various kinds of incentives. This led to a gold rush, if you will, of Chinese companies—usually provincial state-owned companies—going out into the African environment to seek projects. The Chinese central government usually serves as the funder or financer of those projects—we’re talking about infrastructure, typically.

The way that Chinese begin migrate to Africa in large number is that once these projects begin to fill the pipeline—and lots of Chinese companies are going to do project work in Africa—you could have anywhere between 300 and 2,000 Chinese workers at a time working for a year or two years on a given contract in a given country somewhere in Africa.  Well, once you start moving those numbers of people into a new environment like this, it’s taken for granted that a certain number of them are going to decide “Hey, this is actually an interesting place. There are all sorts of other opportunities here. I might have had a very bad image of Africa before, but now I see this as being a very happening environment where I can do business once my contract is over.” You begin to see Chinese workers staying on in Africa after their contracts expire and setting themselves up in new businesses on their own with their own funds and under their own auspices. The next phase of what you see is once a certain number of those people began to succeed, there is a kind of “pull effect” because inevitably the people have positive experiences in Africa spread word back to China. Often, they begin to tell their friends and relatives “Hey, I never knew that Zimbabwe, or Zambia, or Nigeria, or Senegal, or wherehaveyou, was a place of such opportunity. I am doing great business here. Why don’t you come join me?” Sometimes, simply the news spreads of these people going off to these relatively unknown places and doing well for themselves. The news gets around in China so people who had never had a prior thought about Africa of any note then decide, on that basis: “If so-and-so can succeed there, then I can succeed there too. I am going to try my hand.”

What are the backgrounds of people who make the move from China to Africa?

Project work—primarily construction work–has been the primary driver of this sort of movement of the Chinese to Africa. You would expect that this would determine the class level of the people. The people who work for construction companies, except for the engineers and high-level managers, are working-class people by definition. That’s who this first big wave of people comprised for the most part. The people to whom they conveyed news of their success would have been, usually, people of comparable class to them. You see lots of working-class people moving from China to Africa as the result of these phenomena. I’ve encountered people of other classes as well and I don’t think anyone has hard numbers on this—but I think, anecdotally, we’re talking about, in the bulk sense, working-class people who are coming from all over China. Since Chinese provinces were encouraged by the central government to compete to “go out,” you would expect people from lots of different provinces to have had this kind of experience.

There’s a person in your book named Hao who is open about the fact he knows little about the history or geography of Africa. How much do Chinese migrants usually learn about the African countries in which they’ll be living?

Hao was a very striking case and a very colorful figure. That’s why I begin the book with him. I don’t mean to say he’s atypical—it’s fairly accurate to say that the great majority of people who migrate to Africa don’t have a terribly rich picture of African history or even of the political and economic background of the countries to which they’re migrating.  I’ve met all kinds: I’ve met people who have researched Africa carefully; I’ve met people who have bounced from country to country. Specifically, I knew a guy who went to Madagascar first and did business there—he did okay—but found it not to his liking for a variety of reasons. He continues to switch from country to country and winds up in Senegal and becomes very successful there.  Madagascar is in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa and Senegal is as far west in Africa as you can go. So, he’s made his way clear across the continent on the basis, basically, of trial and error. You find all kinds of stories.

Do many Chinese people eventually become citizens of African countries?

Some of these migrants are seeking to acquire land and often, to acquire land, you are required to be a permanent resident.  Sometimes, in certain African countries, you even have to be a full citizen to acquire land. If your motivation as a Chinese migrant is to acquire land, that will determine your approach to immigration and the status you seek. Some will become permanent residents, some will try to become citizens, and some people play it by ear on a shorter term basis but, nonetheless, wind up spending a very long time in Africa. I’m not aware of any useful statistics on this, but my anecdotal sense is that few Chinese people surrender their nationality whether or not they plan to stay in Africa for a long time or indefinitely.  My own anecdotal sense is that most people remain legally Chinese.

Hao, in your book, talks about wanting to marry his son to a woman from Mozambique in order to secure his family’s land ownership. Have many Chinese people begun families with African people?

Chinese people come to America and they marry American people. Chinese people go to Africa and a certain number of them will wind up marrying African people and having children by African people. It’s a universal story. It’s a question I get asked a lot, but I think that if one pauses to think about what happens when people from different backgrounds mix, certain outcomes are fairly predictable. Some people will be repelled by the other, and some people will be attracted by the other and that’s what happens in this regard too.  I have a number of stories of Chinese people marrying—or having significant relationships—with Africans in my book. Clearly, this is something that is growing and is going to take on a dimension of its own in the future.

As the population of Chinese people in Africa grows, are Chinatown-like communities popping up?

The future of Chinatowns in Africa, in my opinion, is somewhat uncertain.  There are small versions of what one might call Chinatowns in various places, but, in many African countries I’ve been to, it seems that the Chinese have generally avoided that pattern, unlike in the long history of Chinese migration in the West, where Chinatowns are a standard model.  In other words, Chinese people in Africa do not seem to have all decided to congregate in one place and to have something they would call—or resemble—a Chinatown.  In a few places, I saw embryonic versions of Chinatowns, but, in most of the countries I visited, the Chinese people were relatively dispersed.

How do Chinese communities develop in Africa?

In my experience, the clustered communities of Chinese are very often based on place of origin in China. You can see a cluster of people from Fujian, or you can see a cluster of people from Hunan. These people, across clusters, recognize each other as Chinese but also see each other often as competitors and people to be somewhat wary of.

How are people in Africa addressing the environmental impact of Chinese development?

One thing that people unfamiliar with Africa—including many migrants from China–are likely to be surprised by is the fact that, in many African countries, civil society is very well developed. It’s kind of an unexpected thing according to many of our common assumptions. You think: low economic development would mean that you would have poorly organized and not sophisticated civil societies. Well, Africa, for a variety of reasons, in many cases has very sophisticated civil societies.  Chinese newcomers, looking to make money for themselves and prospecting for opportunity—often collide with these civil societies, and often unexpectedly.  That’s one of the things I explore in the book. The environment is one of the themes that has caused friction—or even conflict—between Chinese newcomers seeking opportunity and the Africans who are the citizens of the countries where they’ve been landing.

The example I will mention in Ghana took place essentially after I had finished the reporting for this book—there are other things like this on a smaller scale in my book. In Ghana, a country in West Africa, there was, in the last year or so, a major conflict between Chinese people—almost all of whom came from a specific county in Fujian Province–showing the word of mouth pull-factor that’s involved here—who learned there was great alluvial gold deposits in Ghana that were easy to prospect. People from this county in Fujian arrived in Ghana, setting themselves up as gold miners—doing so by a variety of processes that are not, strictly speaking, legal, such as bribing their way into the country and giving payoffs to local law enforcement people. This led very quickly to a friction with the local population for a variety of reasons. One of the reasons is that alluvial gold mining is very polluting. That kind of mining involves cutting down forests and polluting rivers and streams with dangerous chemicals like Mercury.  There were conflicts and protests and a lot of noise by civil society about this. Ghana’s government was forced to act and a lot of the Chinese people wound up getting deported. You see this kind of thing in a variety of scales all over the continent and you will continue to see it.

Has the arrival of so many Chinese migrants led to much conflict in Africa?

I have to say that even though there are some instances of conflict in the book, if you take a step back and look at the big picture here—and if the numbers that are reflected in the book title of a million Chinese migrants (and I think the numbers are greater) are accurate—it’s hard not to be impressed that, given the scale of this phenomenon, there has not been more conflict. I think the bigger story really is that perhaps two million Chinese migrants have streamed into the African environment in a very short period of time and, other than the odd protest and the odd skirmish here, there hasn’t been a whole lot of hubbub about this. It’s only been in a very few countries where the Chinese presence has risen to the level of an important national political issue—one that political parties campaign about or that presidential campaigns turn on. This is not to say that the arrival of the Chinese people and their economic and other practices do not raise serious issues—they definitely do, almost everywhere. We have to be careful not to be overly alarmist about this.

How does China work to build a positive image of itself in Africa?

The Chinese state is trying to catch up in many regards. One of the ways it’s trying to catch up is competing in Africa, where the North Americans and Europeans have long experience and great roots in terms of corporate presence and political relations. The Chinese are coming in very late but with big ambitions. They are climbing uphill. One way the Chinese state is trying to buy its way into the game is by doing highly visible prestige projects that are meant to build goodwill and to convey the message—I think, rather crudely and not always very effectively—that China is here to do good things for Africa. How well this will work in the long run is unclear to me. My own sense is that Africans are not overly impressed by that. They recognize that a stadium is a stadium and it’s not going to change their economic circumstances in the long run and it’s not going to solve their problems. Meanwhile, China is perhaps extracting twenty years of cobalt or oil production in exchange for a gadget that will break before twenty years are over.

How have Chinese people—as outsiders–forged stable businesses in Africa?

I don’t think the Chinese state has much to do with relations between Chinese migrants and Africans. Chinese embassies in African countries have not been terribly proactive or useful for the migrants I’m describing. These migrants tend to regard the Chinese state with great skepticism—even cynicism. The migrants tend to be very plucky, very resourceful people, and, if you’ve come some small town in Sichuan and you’ve pulled up your stakes and decided to build an ice cream factory in Malawi, you made a big bet and you’re going to do everything you can to make sure that bet pays off. “Everything you can” can mean a lot of stuff: it can mean learning how to speak the local language; it can mean marrying yourself or your family members to people in the local environment to help make this thing work; it can mean making all sorts of payments to all sorts of people to grease your way through. It means, at the basic level, applying every bit of human intelligence and wit that you have in terms of navigating this new environment and coming to terms with the people and figuring out how to operate and avoid trouble. By and large, this has been a story of success at that level—many of these people, without the Chinese state behind them, are making huge bets as individuals.  Because of that, they are scrambling and applying every bit of smarts that they have to figure stuff out in a hurry. Many fail, but I think the reason this hasn’t caused a grand disaster on a larger scale is that many have succeeded, relatively speaking. They have been great problem solvers in terms of figuring out how to navigate this new environment for themselves. In a way, I think it would be even worse if the Chinese state was perceived as being in their corner or behind them. Then, Africans would often be quicker to conclude that this was a matter of exploitation or a matter of imperial strategy on the part of China.

Columbia’s Gregory Pflugfelder on Godzilla’s Global History



Advertisements for the new “Godzilla” are ubiquitous this summer. Weatherhead East Asian Institute faculty member Gregory Pflugfelder is well acquainted with such images.  Pflugfelder, a professor of Japanese history at Columbia University, has collected around five thousand posters and promotional materials for Godzilla films and other Japanese monster flicks. His archive of advertisements is intended to help us understand how these globally circulated movies were received in different countries during the Cold War era. We recently sat down with Professor Pflugfelder, who teaches a popular course on “The Cultural History of Japanese Monsters,” to discuss the origins of Godzilla and the insights his collection provides into the dynamics of globalization. 

GodzillaKingWhat led you to build your 5,000-piece collection of advertisements and promotional materials about Godzilla and other Japanese monster movies?

Around 2003, I began thinking of organizing an event to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the original “Godzilla,” which was released in 1954. To mark the anniversary, I tried to think of ways to illustrate the global impact that made-in-Japan monster movies had in Cold War culture—not only in the so-called Free World but also behind the Iron Curtain. I began to collect examples of posters and publicity materials that were created to market these made-in-Japan films to audiences under very different cultural and political circumstances around the world. I curated an exhibit called “Godzilla Conquers the Globe” in 2004 at Columbia and created a website as well. I have since gathered a variety of additional materials from all continents, aside from Antarctica, and have begun to explore the ways in which we as scholars can understand some of the dynamics of globalization as well as the less commonly explored byways of Cold War culture. With the current interest in Godzilla due to the new movie, I am putting these materials online for all people interested in Godzilla movies, Japanese monster movies, and Japanese popular culture more generally.

Before I began collecting these materials, I had started thinking that it was not literally true that the first kind of Japanese culture that came my way was the Japanese court poetry I studied in college—in fact, there were these Japanese monster movies I watched as a kid in suburban Pennsylvania. I was not terribly conscious that they were Japanese at the time. That became interesting to me: why were those movies marketed not to seem Japanese? What is the larger cultural history of Japanese popular film in international circulation? Another personal aspect was that—because I have a complicated background—I speak and read about a dozen languages. My parents actually arrived in the U.S. in 1954, the year “Godzilla” came out. My mother’s family is from Russia and Ukraine. My father’s family is from Germany. I assumed that my multicultural background could not help me in Japanese studies. But when I began working on Godzilla, I learned it can actually be helpful to read Slavic languages. If you look at the scholarship in Japan and the U.S. on the first “Godzilla” film, it’s usually told as a story of U.S.-Japan relations from World War II to the new geopolitical alliance. If that is what the film is all about, then what did the movie mean to people watching it in, say, communist Poland in 1957? I want to begin the process of understanding the Godzilla films outside of how U.S. and Japanese viewers watched them. I want to tell a more global and variegated story about Godzilla’s significance. We don’t yet have the data—even with IMDB—about when Godzilla was released in each country. The dialogue and editing in each country is different, too.

Godzilla-film-posterI also wanted to go back into global cultural history and look at the 1950s and 1960s with the unsentimental eye of an archaeologist. This is a time, if you’re growing up in the U.S., when Japan was not seen as “cool” or sophisticated. In my youth, Japan was not regarded as being on the cutting edge but as a place that, at best, copied the cultural products of other places and was perceived as doing so in a relatively crude matter. We watched “Speed Racer” and shows like that on TV without being aware they were products of Japan. American distributors disguised or erased their Japanese origins to make them more palatable to audiences in the U.S. This has come 180 degrees in my lifetime—now we see American TV and movie producers affixing marks associated with Japanese culture to their own films and series to enhance their appeal. I want to recover the “uncool” Japan—a time in global cultural history when Japan supplied much popular culture to the world but was still struggling with its own cultural and political history. Of course, the 1950s were a time when it was a recent memory in the U.S. that the two countries had been at war. It required a deliberate marketing effort to make the products of Japanese culture enjoyable to American audiences without historical and political barriers.

Why study Godzilla? 

Godzilla is instructive because he has lasted over decades. You can see in very clear ways how the single genre or vehicle that is the kaiju (monster) movie gets mobilized to generate public opinion on a variety of social ills. Of course, in the 1950s, nuclear danger and nuclear proliferation were things that were of great concern to the Japanese public and the original “Godzilla” movie provides a very subtle vehicle for raising awareness and creating opinions regarding nuclear issues. When one moves into the 1960s—what one called the era of high economic growth—the dangers of rampant capitalism and crass commercialization then get increasingly picked up on as social dangers that monster movies can speak effectively about.


I don’t think we should look at the makers of the Godzilla films as saying, “How will we mobilize public opinion?” I think it’s more a matter of the culture industry being very sensitive to public sentiment. The ways that kaiju eiga (monster movies) come to figure their monsters as battling against economic evil are actually picking up on themes and anxieties that are already out there among the public. The culture industry uses them to generate profits—that’s the very first goal. All these kinds of ethical and political meanings are secondary in the long run to the process of generating profit by appealing to the anxieties of your audience. Filmmakers use the monster movie as a vehicle for them to satisfyingly engage these anxieties in ways that produce not just anxiety but viewing pleasure. In the 1970s, as public discussion over pollution expands, the creators of kaiju eiga very deftly switched from imagining Godzilla’s enemies as nuclear warriors or as amoral businesspeople. Instead, the new antagonist for these existing monsters increasingly became environmental degradation, as seen in “Godzilla versus the Smog Monster.”  I don’t think it’s a historical accident that there has been a conspicuous revival of interest in the kaiju eiga (monster movie) genre in the past few years.  On a certain level, although we’re accustomed to thinking of monster movies as being somehow removed from serious political concerns, in fact, they take on directly-–in allegorical form—the pressing issues of any moment in time.


What is the origin of the Godzilla story?

In March 1954, Japanese fishermen on a boat called (ironically enough) the Lucky Dragon Number Five were irradiated by a particularly large nuclear explosion caused by American testing. The men were not fishing in a restricted area but were nevertheless exposed to massive amounts of radiation—leading to one death. News spread around the world. It was particularly disturbing to Japanese because Japan was the only country on earth to experience atomic bombing. It’s curious that this incident didn’t leave as prominent a mark on the historical record as some others have. If you were a member of the Japanese reading public in 1954, you would probably have regarded the Lucky Dragon incident as Japan’s third experience of atomic bombing. The incident also led to the emergence of a very active anti-nuclear citizens’ movement in Japan. By 1955, anti-nuclear conferences were being held in Japan yearly. The Lucky Dragon fishing boat was eventually relocated to a park in Tokyo that you can now visit. This unfortunate history was the inspiration for the first “Godzilla” movie. The film was planned entirely after the Lucky Dragon events. Toho Company, Ltd.—the major Japanese studio—was supposed to do a war picture, but problems came up in Indonesia, where it was going to be filmed. The producer was in a bind around March 1954 and was looking for a theme for a new movie just around the time the Lucky Dragon incident made huge headlines. By November 1954, “Godzilla” was in Japanese theaters.


How does Godzilla fit in the history of monsters in Japanese culture?

Godzilla fits into a lot of different categories—that may be part of his popularity. It’s possible to view Godzilla as a descendant of much older dragon lore. There are long folkloric traditions surrounding sea monsters; there are also new understandings of biological life and zoology circulating in Japan from the late nineteenth century onward that Godzilla is made to conform to in ways that traditional monsters did not have to do. I’m interested in the generic differences between monstrosities but I place a lot of emphasis on continuities over time.

There is an array of imaginary creatures that have had a variety of roots—whether from the religious imagination or from popular folklore—by the early-modern Tokugawa period (1600-1868). Japan historically provides one of the earliest examples of a “monster industry.” Already, in the publishing world of the Tokugawa era, a great deal of profit is being generated and a great deal of ingenuity is being exercised for the purpose of producing monsters and producing knowledge about monsters and their imaginary existence. Edo—today’s Tokyo—was the largest city in the world in 1700. Bustling metropolises like Edo, Osaka, and Kyoto harbored large numbers of urban commoners who were willing to part with their cash in order to purchase visual representations of monsters, or view staged spectacles of monstrosity in the Kabuki theatre or in sideshows, or acquire knowledge about monsters through the medium of print. The monster industry is the most profitable industry in the world in the sense that its raw materials cost nothing—they are entirely imaginary.

Japanese cultural producers were quite adept early on at producing an ever-expanding inventory of monster representations and monstrous knowledge. That tradition—that history—is what the kaiju eiga (monster movie) picks up on and perpetuates. It’s one of many ways in which these kaiju—though they may look and behave very differently from traditional monsters—nevertheless are being spawned from the same cultural matrix and the same culture industry. Pokemon cards are produced by Nintendo, which descended from a company that made other playing cards. The special effects for which Japanese monster movies were renowned or notorious in the 1950s and 60s are aligned with the history of special effects on the Kabuki stage. People in Japan had been used to watching eye-opening spectacles. The technologies producing them may have changed, yet there’s a direct link between World War II propaganda and the kaiju eiga. Tsuburaya Eiji—who did the special effects of the early Godzilla films—honed his craft staging battle scenes, like Pearl Harbor, in miniature. I’m trying to connect the dots between kaiju culture and the various forms of monster culture that had preceded it in Japan.


 How has Godzilla been received in different countries? 

We like to think that “Godzilla” is a U.S.-Japan story. That’s not really what was going on in the world if you cast your eyes more broadly. I’m just starting to look into how Godzilla was marketed in Eastern Europe. The fact that the films are made in Japan does not dictate how they’re received elsewhere. In the 1970s, a Japanese-made film called “Legends of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds” finally got shown in the Soviet Union. It became a cult classic in Russia. For many Russian viewers, this was a rare glimpse into everyday life in a capitalist economy. People were not taking note of the dinosaurs and monster birds—it was the Polaroid cameras! People came away talking about the camera that could take instant pictures. That’s one example.

In Eastern Europe—the satellite states—the version of the first “Godzilla” movie that people were watching was the one adapted by Hollywood—the Raymond Burr 1956 “Godzilla: King of the Monsters!” However, publicity for the film in Eastern Europe insists that it was the product of Japanese studios so as to take away the political unsavoriness of showing audiences an American-made film.

Another example is when the Germans get “Godzilla” in 1955. They’re watching a German-dubbed version of the Japanese version. In that German version, an entire plot point is retained even though the American version would minimize it: in the original film, one of the central characters—a physicist—had been involved in research with Nazi Germany during the war. This is something Hollywood decides is not useful for its own purposes. For a German audience, a whole recent history is being invoked that is still very meaningful to German audiences. If you focus on the Japanese version and the American version of the film, you miss a large part of how a German viewer would interpret the story. Similarly, the German poster for “Godzilla” is dominated by this fiery urban conflagration and it must have been a visually powerful thing for audiences in a nation subjected to firebombing. You have to think beyond the U.S.-Japan level. The U.S.-Japan relationship is central to the Godzilla story—but to stop there is to miss much of the power of that icon in world history.

Gregory M. Pflugfelder (Ph.D. Stanford University) is associate professor of Japanese history in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures and the Department of History at Columbia University. He is also on the faculty of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University.   His books include JAPANimals: History and Culture in Japan’s Animal Life, co-edited with Brett L. Walker (Michigan Monograph Series in Japanese Studies, 2005), and Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600–1950 (University of California Press, 1999). His short video about the 1954 Lucky Dragon Number Five event is available on the Criterion Collection‘s “Godzilla” (1954) DVD and Blu-ray.