WEAI Author Q&A: Christopher Rea’s “The Age of Irreverence”

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We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in Chinapublished by the University of California Press. The book’s author is Christopher Rea, associate professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia.

In his book, Professor Rea tells the story of why China’s entry into the modern age was not just traumatic, but uproarious. As the Qing dynasty slumped toward extinction, prominent writers compiled jokes into collections they called “histories of laughter.” In the first years of the Republic, novelists, essayists and illustrators alike used humorous allegories to make veiled critiques of the new government. But, again and again, political and cultural discussion erupted into invective, as critics gleefully jeered and derided rivals in public. Farceurs drew followings in the popular press, promoting a culture of practical joking and buffoonery. Eventually, these various expressions of hilarity proved so offensive to high-brow writers that they launched a concerted campaign to transform the tone of public discourse, hoping to displace the old forms of mirth with a new one they called youmo (humor).

Professor Rea argues that this period—from the 1890s to the 1930s—transformed how Chinese people thought and talked about what is funny. Focusing on five cultural expressions of laughter—jokes, play, mockery, farce, and humor—he reveals the textures of comedy that were a part of everyday life during modern China’s first “age of irreverence.” This new history of laughter not only offers an unprecedented and up-close look at a neglected facet of Chinese cultural modernity, but also reveals its lasting legacy in the Chinese language of the comic today and its implications for our understanding of humor as a part of human culture.

In addition to its endorsements by scholars, Professor Rea’s book has been hailed by famed comedian Eric Idle, who provided the blurb: “I am confident that it is the finest in its field to include a lyric by me.”

We thank Professor Rea for taking the time to discuss his book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove the project. 

Why did you decide to write a book about laughter in China?

Funny you should ask. Partly because I watched a lot of Monty Python and the Marx Brothers growing up. I loved their mix of silliness, absurdism, and zaniness, and I later came to appreciate the esoteric jokes and double entendres. So I like comedy that works at multiple levels. When I started studying Chinese in college I found it to be a fabulously funny language, with all the pithiness and punning. In graduate school I read early twentieth-century writers like Ding Xilin, Lin Yutang, Lu Xun, and Qian Zhongshu who are hilarious because they’re such meticulous stylists. Then I discovered that period’s vast humor industry of tabloids, cartoons, amusement halls, plays, novelty photographs, films, and the like. Popular culture was quite vaudevillian back then, and it convinced me that hacks and entrepreneurs can be taste-makers too. So it was really a process of discovery. My goal then became to weave it all into a readable cultural history.

Why do you characterize the time period covered in your book—the 1890s to the 1930s—as an “age of irreverence?” 

Because nothing seemed to be sacred anymore. Some people wanted to dump China’s cultural traditions and others clamored to save or reform them, but they all agreed that the old authorities weren’t being taken as seriously as before. The popular press was democratizing public opinion. Thousands of people were moving to the cities, and all the new magazines and newspapers were hungry for content that would catch readers. So they offered a steady stream of jokes, parodies, and cartoons, and raucous commentary. Public figures became objects of open contempt. The Manchus were vermin, President Yuan Shikai was an ape, and Cao Kun, who bribed his way into the presidency in 1923, became known (for reasons I explain in the book) as the “sperm president.”

Was there much censorship?

Censorship was uneven. The press was frothy in part because governance was so chaotic. All the derision, flippancy, and farcicality in public debate also fed into literary culture, since most literary works appeared first in magazines or newspapers. But it wasn’t a pure free-for-all. Writers and cartoonists who offended powerful people were frequently assassinated. In the 1920s and 1930s, the writer Lin Yutang began promoting youmo (humor) partly as a self-deprecating mode that would allow him to criticize the government without getting shot. At the same time, he wanted this new comic sensibility to supplant those he considered to be less civilized.

What kinds of sources did you use in your research? 

The early twentieth-century Chinese humor market was international and multilingual—cartoonists read Punch and filmmakers produced slapstick shorts with English subtitles and foreign actors—so my sources reflect this. I mostly relied on a few dozen periodicals, in Chinese, English, and French, published in China, Japan, Singapore, Australia, Europe, and North America. I read novels, essays, scripts of stage plays, joke books, and mixed-genre humor collections. Some of these were canonical works of literature; others were ephemera often thought of as sub-literary. I also looked at films, cartoons, and photographs printed in magazines and on postcards. Databases have been making materials from this period more and more accessible, but I sought out originals where available, which led to some important discoveries.

You organize your book around five “cultural expressions of laughter”: jokes, play, mockery, farce, and humor. Why?

I wanted to write a history of Chinese comedy from the inside out, so I focused on a few key terms that had particular resonance during one era. All of the chapter titles are bilingual, and with the exception of maren (mockery), each of the key terms—xiaohua (jokes), youxi (play), huaji (farce), and youmo (humor)— at one time stood for “humor” or “comedy” in a general sense. That’s the broad map. But the fun is in the details of how, for example, late Qing writers tried to modernize the joke. Or why popular writers in Shanghai were so obsessed with hoaxes. Or how polemicists in the 1920s and 1930s tried to discredit opponents by claiming that their criticism and satire was really just invective. The book’s in English, obviously, but I try to give readers a sense of how comic categories have been defined, blurred, and policed in Chinese.

How would you describe youmo—the concept of humor that highbrow writers promoted in the early decades of the Republic?  How successful were they in spreading youmo in Chinese popular culture? 

It was really quite audacious: China had all of these rich comic traditions, and then along comes Lin Yutang, who launches a bilingual campaign to change everyone’s sense of humor. To Lin, China’s jokesters were trivial, its mockers beyond the pale, and its farceurs buffoonish. Writers who took themselves seriously, on the other hand, tended to be insufferable moralists. The result was a polarized cultural climate that neither understood nor had room for humor. To be humorous was to be reasonable and tolerant. It was to catch fancies in flight and ground them, and to respond to human folly with an “understanding smile.” Virtually everyone who was anyone in 1930s China had something to say about Lin’s modest proposal, and I spend some time on these polemics, which are fascinating in themselves. But in the short run, “humor literature” carried the day, and in the long run, youmo became the word for humor in Chinese.


What findings surprised you most in the course of your research?

I was impressed by the variety of comedic styles and techniques I came across, a lot of which are still popular today. There’s an existing humor canon from the period, but it’s a rather tame one. Edgy, vulgar, and obscene works rarely got anthologized. Reading some of those now requires a strong stomach (as does revisiting, say, American minstrel shows from the same period). I also was struck by how many A-list intellectuals like Wang Guowei, Liang Qichao, Wu Zhihui, and Lu Xun became humorists or humor theorists. And as the humor collections I dug out got into the hundreds, I became more and more surprised that no one had studied them, so I ended up cataloguing them in an appendix. There’s a treasure trove out there for future researchers.

How did the cultures of laughter you describe in the book change after 1949?

I’m working on a new book called The Unfinished Comedy, which I hope will answer that question. It’ll pick up the story in the 1930s. War with Japan in 1937 scattered China’s humorists, and many of them ended up roaming the interior or fleeing overseas. You have guerrilla satire taking off during the Anti-Japanese War and a lot of pulp publishing (especially of comic books) during the Civil War. Then, after the communists took over in 1949, humorists were literally institutionalized by being folded into the new cultural bureaucracy. Not a recipe for edgy humor, to be sure, but top-down control was imperfect in the 1950s and some funny stuff did slip through the cracks. Scholars did important research on classical joke collections during the Mao era and translated a lot of western humorists, like Mark Twain. And—this surprised me too—not all of the government-sponsored humor sucked.

Finally, how did you get Eric Idle to endorse the book?   

Eric Idle has always been a great fan of mine. He loved my films, such as Christopher Rea and the Holy Grail and Christopher Rea’s The Meaning of Life, and he’s watched every episode of my TV show, Christopher Rea’s Flying Circus. When he heard that I was writing a book, naturally he wanted to be the first to endorse it. So, the simplest answer would be: a polite request, followed shortly by a gracious response.


WEAI Author Q&A: Reto Hofmann’s “The Fascist Effect”



We are pleased to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: The Fascist Effect: Japan and Italy: 1915-1952published by Cornell University Press. The book’s author is Reto Hofmann, who currently teaches at Monash University. In this book, Professor Hofmann uncovers the ideological links that tied Japan to Italy in the interwar period, drawing on extensive materials from Japanese and Italian archives to shed light on the formation of fascist history and practice in Japan and beyond. Moving between personal experiences, diplomatic and cultural relations, and geopolitical considerations, Professor Hofmann shows that interwar Japan found in fascism a resource to develop a new order at a time of capitalist crisis.

We thank Professor Hofmann for taking the time to discuss his book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove the project. 

How did you become interested in the topic of the transnational exchange between Japanese thinkers and Italian fascists? What questions drove your research?

It was the result of a more or less coincidental meeting of Italy and Japan on Australian soil while I was an undergraduate. I had focused on Italian history but a creeping interest in Japan led to a thesis on diplomatic relations between Rome and Tokyo in the late 1930s. Interest in high politics subsided, not so the desire to study Japan through Italy. My familiarity with Italian fascism made me see fascist ramifications throughout prewar Japan. Existing histories of fascism in Japan, though, barely noticed the commonalities. Did contemporary Japanese notice them, I wondered. They did. Some basic research revealed a vast debate on fascism in general and Italian fascism in particular, from the 1920s to the end of the war. The question, then, was to examine how Japanese, ideologues, politicians, educators, and writers wove fascism into their political anxieties and aspirations. If, as I argue, fascism was simultaneously national and global, what was the effect of the encounter of fascisms?

What kinds of archives and sources did you consult in your research? Did you encounter any challenges in researching this subject?

Over the thirty years covered in this book, the debates on fascism unfolded on all kinds of levels—not just politics, but also mass culture, literature, philosophy, and international relations. This spectrum meant that I had to familiarize myself with a broad range of texts housed in libraries and archives in different countries. In my experience, Japanese government archives can be navigated effectively once one overcomes their bureaucratic quirks and aura. But the attempt to trace the relations that certain individuals entertained with Italians also meant conducting research in Italian archives. While one could hope for no archive that is more scenic or eccentric than that of Gabriele D’Annunzio overlooking Lake Garda, or more charming than a Neapolitan palazzo, or more evocative for this topic than the fascist architecture of the Archivio Centrale dello Stato in Rome, archives and libraries in Italy were often underfunded, messy, or simply closed.

Could you provide an example or two of ways in which Italian fascist ideas were transmitted (and possibly adapted) in Japanese intellectual and political circles? What made those ideas powerful in the interwar period in Japan?

Fascism was both national and global—and the relationship between the two was complex. In the 1930s we notice fascist movements, ideas, and regimes a bit everywhere, all of which emerged in relative independence from one another. I say “relative” because to the extent that fascism responded directly to the crisis of liberal capitalism, often trying to prop up liberal institutions of power, it emerged organically in different national contexts. But, as the book shows, Italian Fascism (capital “F”) played a globalized, ready-made role, presenting a set of motifs, aesthetics, and strategies that travelled around the world. As the globalized Italian version of fascism encountered other fascisms all kinds of things happened. In Japan, for example, we see attempts to appropriate selectively certain aspects of Italian Fascism. Shimoi Harukichi did precisely that, redeploying the Fascist narrative of heroism and its aesthetics of sacrifice in a Japanese patriotic register. Later, in the early 1930s, when Japanese fascism had come into its own, thinkers and activists negated Italian Fascism, but not so much in the sense of disavowing it as in trying to supersede it. Recognizing these entanglements and clashes of fascism means to move away from a straightforward notion of fascist influence and reception; we can focus on the limits and contradictions of fascism, explaining why it is that we often see fascism without recognizing it.


What findings surprised you most in the course of your research?

The gradual removal of fascism from the history and memory of twentieth-century Japan, and its demotion to a marginal problem the country faced in the 1930s. This view, consolidated after the war, jars with the sense so many Japanese had until defeat in World War II, namely that fascism was a problem of the present in which they were deeply involved. There was a consciousness that Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany were linked—for good or bad, that depended on the point of view.

How would you like your book to affect or complicate people’s understanding of the history of Japan and the history of fascism?

The evidence presented in this book reveals the multiple levels of engagement with fascism in Japan; it also shows that the ideological production and political praxis in interwar Japan was intertwined with those in Italy and Germany. In other words, Japan played a part in the global history of fascism. As far as fascism is concerned, the lesson from Japan is that it can be more open-ended than we previously assumed. There is a whole literature on fascism that relies on models and definitions taken from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. But if we look at the debates in Japan we understand that the goal of fascism was to restore social and political order and that there was no scripted way to doing so. Japanese tried out a variety of fascist strategies, some of which resembled those in Europe, others didn’t.



WEAI Author Q&A: Federico Marcon’s “The Knowledge of Nature and the Nature of Knowledge in Early Modern Japan”



We are pleased to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: The Knowledge of Nature and the Nature of Knowledge in Early Modern Japanpublished by the University of Chicago Press. The book’s author is Federico Marcon, an Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies and History at Princeton University. In his book, Professor Marcon chronicles how, between the early seventeenth and the mid-nineteenth century, the field of natural history in Japan separated itself from the discipline of medicine, produced knowledge that questioned the traditional religious and philosophical understandings of the world, and developed into a system (called honzōgaku) that rivaled Western science in complexity—and then seemingly disappeared. Or did it? The Knowledge of Nature and the Nature of Knowledge in Early Modern Japan recounts how Japanese scholars developed a sophisticated discipline of natural history analogous to Europe’s but created independently, without direct influence, and argues convincingly that Japanese natural history succumbed to Western science not because of suppression and substitution, as scholars traditionally have contended, but by adaptation and transformation.

We thank Professor Marcon for taking the time to discuss his book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove the project. 

How did you first learn about and become interested in honzōgaku in Japan’s history?

I first became interested in this field of learning quite early, during a period of study in Japan between 1999 and 2001, before I applied to Columbia University’s Ph.D. program. I was fascinated by the lavish illustrations of plants and animals I first admired in a Jinbōchō’s used bookseller, Toriumi Shobō, that specialized in naturalistic publications—a dusty place on the third floor of an unsteady building crammed with birdwatcher manuals, animal encyclopedias, botanical textbooks, and so on. However, I started to seriously think at honzōgaku as a possible topic of research quite late. Initially I wanted to write a dissertation on the social history of scholars in Tokugawa Japan and focusing on the formation and eventual (apparent) disappearance of a discipline seemed to me a good strategy to approach such a gigantic issue. I remember my friend Ian Miller supported this idea from the start.

Can you give some examples of how modern Japanese science incorporates honzōgaku?

This is a difficult question to answer in brief. The first generation of Japanese biologists, in the early decades of the Meiji period, had all received an early training in honzōgaku. I don’t spend too much time on this in the book, but the best source to see the continuation of honzōgaku styles and methods are the notebooks of many Meiji biologists like, for example, Minakata Kumagusu and Shirai Mitsutarō. Tokugawa honzōgaku was soon disavowed by Meiji intellectuals, who were eager to show their modern attitude by abandoning their Edo past. So, at the end honzōgaku had a double destiny: on the one hand, it lost its name (honzōgaku) but translated many of its practices, institutional framework (i.e., state sponsorship), and goals (economic growth) into the language of the new sciences (seibutsugaku, “biology,” hakubutsugaku, “natural history,” shokubutsugaku, “botany,” dōbutsugaku, “zoology,” etc.); on the other, it kept its name at the cost of two century and a half of Tokugawa developments and became the label of an antiquarian movement that aimed to recover the traditional knowledge of “authentic” honzōgaku, now polemically antagonistic to the modernization process and its allegedly “foreign” origins.

What kinds of sources and archives did you consult in researching this book? What kind of challenges did you encounter in researching this subject?

Working on a topic that stretches across different fields and styles (social history, intellectual history, history of science, etc.) presents a series of difficulties that ranges from the choice of your analytical toolkit to the selection of material to focus in the final version of the book. This is true for many other topics, but the greatest challenge of honzōgaku was that the large majority of secondary sources were written by former scientists who wanted to rediscover a tradition of nature-study that was autochthonous of Japan but whose major concern was to correct all mistaken assumptions of that discipline from the perspective of modern science. This literature was fundamental for my initial navigation of the field, but soon I decided to just read a number of Tokugawa manuals and encyclopedias and come up with my own narrative that addressed different questions from those of Japanese historians. I was particularly lucky to find in the collection of Waseda University Library most of what I was looking for. A second challenge was that many of those texts where handwritten manuscripts, but the help of my Waseda advisor, professor Fukaya Katsumi, who otherwise was utterly uninterested in my project, was indispensible to acquire the rudiments of kuzushiji deciphering.


During your research, did any of your findings surprise you or change the way you thought about the history of thought in Japan during this era?

Yes, I confess that as my research proceeded, I had to readjust my views on the intellectual world of Tokugawa Japan quite often. First, I was at first really surprised to find so many prominent scholars among those who dealt with natural history in the period. Second, I was surprise how marginal in honzōgaku texts were information from Western books. At first I thought of honzōgaku as a field close to rangaku, or Dutch Studies. I hope that in my book I was able to persuasively demonstrate how late in the period Western natural history began to have a substantial influence in the discipline. It was not until Siebolt, in the 1820s, that European natural history started to affect the research methods, the forms of presentation, and the classificatory system of natural knowledge in Japan. Third, I was quite surprised to find a discipline that, autonomous as it was from European “philosophy of nature”, was similarly sustained by the state for its economic importance. If we juxtapose the writings of Carl Linneaus with the texts left by many honzōgaku scholars, we find similar conceptualizations of the “dominion of nature” quite at odds with Meiji ideas of Japanese’s “love for nature.” In a sense, I hope my book will be seen as the prehistory of later developments that scholars like Julia Thomas, Brett Walker, Ian Miller, Robert Stolz, and others have written about. It is a case of “surprising convergence” that I hope will interest historians from different areas and fields.

How did Japan’s natural geography affect the development of its natural science?

In the introductory chapter of the book I state that I wanted to write a non-reductionist critical materialist history of ideas—a quite oxymoronic expression that emphasized my intention to write a history that showed how cognitive practices and ideas are products of the material conditions of their producers, where “material” here means both material proper (i.e., geographical, environmental) and social. So, of course Japan’s natural geography affected the development of honzōgaku, but we cannot reduce the historical development of honzōgaku to the natural geography of Japan—as, for example, some studies on resource scarcity do. Tokugawa Japan was a country rich of vegetal and animal diversity, but it was the social, political, and economic developments contingent and specific of Tokugawa Japan that favored the growth of a specialized field of nature study.

How would you like your book to affect or complicate people’s understanding about Japan’s history?

Although I followed all requirements of archival and philological precision that East Asian studies publications require, I confess that I wrote this book for an ideal reader who is not an expert in the field of East Asian Studies. Of course, the book takes issue with a number of questions that characterize the historiographical debate on early modern Japan, such as the problem of change vs. continuation after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the question of cultural consumption and the alleged development of a “public sphere” in early modern Japan, the professionalization of scholars, the role of samurai elites in the economic growth of Tokugawa Japan, and so on. But the theoretical concerns that sustained the writing of the book did not originate in my “home discipline,” East Asian Studies. My theoretical questions that motivated me are more general, and I tried to address them from the particular perspective of Japanese honzōgaku: what is the complex dialectical relation between ideas and society? Or, more precisely, what kind of social dynamics determine the development of specific forms of knowledge, which, in turn, influences the changing structure of that society? What are the relation between knowledge, economic growth, modernization and the dominion of nature? In addressing these and other questions through the adventures of honzōgaku scholars I maintain that there are no universal answers, which have instead to be searched for in historical specificity. I like to think of my own method of historical research as a combination of material history of ideas and conceptual history of things.

WEAI Author Q&A: Chuck Wooldridge’s “City of Virtues”



We are pleased to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: City of Virtues: Nanjing in an Era of Utopian Visionspublished by the University of Washington Press. The book’s author is Chuck Wooldridge, an assistant professor of history at Lehman College, the City University of New York, and an associate research scholar at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute. In his book, Professor Wooldridge examines the ways a series of visionaries, drawing on past glories of the Nanjing, projected their ideologies onto the city as they constructed buildings, performed rituals, and reworked its literary heritage from the late 18th century until 1911. Encompassing the Opium War, the Taiping occupation of the city, the rebuilding of the city by Zeng Guofan, and attempts to establish it as the capital of the Republic of China, City of Virtues shows how utopian visions of the cosmos shaped Nanjing’s path through the turbulent 19th century.

We thank Professor Wooldridge for taking the time to discuss his book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove the project. 

How did you first become interested in this particular period in Nanjing’s history?

When I first heard about the Taiping, I was taking a course on Chinese history my junior year at Swarthmore.  The circumstances were extraordinary.  Most of the students in the seminar had been in China or Taiwan during Tiananmen, and Lillian Li, the professor, had a tremendous ability to highlight ways the past might give insight into questions about China at the time.  We would hang out after class, and I would just listen to my classmates’ stories about China. We also baked cookies; it was a good time.

I remember reading about the Taiping and it’s leader, Hong Xiuquan, and just not understanding how it was possible that a man could claim to be the younger brother of Jesus and still gain millions of supporters.   At the same time, all through 1989 and 1990, extraordinary things seemed to be happening, in particular the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union. I got interested in how people can imagine that transformations might happen, and I found that I just kept returning to the Taiping.

Were “utopian visions” realized in Nanjing? Why or why not?

I should make clear that the book is about “utopian visions,” attempts to create what adherents claimed would be a wonderful and harmonious state.  Even if the visions had been fully realized, I doubt the result would have lived up to the claims.

Nanjing was never actually a utopia.  Sometimes it was quite the opposite.  At the end of the Opium War, the British threatened to bombard the city, and throughout the Taiping period it was under near constant siege.  In 1864 most of the city lay in ruins following the defeat of the Taiping.  Yet throughout the nineteenth century, different people tried to make Nanjing a place where one could see the true nature of the cosmos, could experience a form of government that perfectly reflected the reality of the world, could learn to understand the world, and could come to act in a way that would bring about utopia.  Writing about the city, constructing buildings in the city, and performing rituals, especially rituals to the dead, were the strategies employed again and again to convince people that this time would really be great.

What is the significance of the title “City of Virtues?”

Let’s say you want to bring about some radical political change.  In nineteenth-century China, you would have a number of strategies available to you.  You could, for example, try to convince the imperial court to issue edicts. You could try to create incremental change by solving particular administrative problems (for example, some scholars devoted a lot of energy to try to promote a new way of transporting grain to the capital because they thought the old system was inefficient and corrupt).  Later in the century you could study abroad, or seek help from foreigners in other ways.

In Nanjing, however, a number of groups chose a different path.  They tried to transform politics by claiming that the current world was completely out of alignment with the true nature of the cosmos.  The Taiping claimed that demons had taken over, preventing people from seeing that the world was actually a part of God’s Heavenly Kingdom.  Other thinkers, borrowing in particular from Song Dynasty Learning of the Way interpretations of Chinese Classics, argued that personal selfishness had spawned a host of problems, including an imbalance of qi in the universe that helped spawn corruption, natural disaster, and troubled relations with foreigners.  Later in the century, inspired by the writings of the visionary Confucian thinker Kang Youwei, others imagined an eventual “Great Harmony.”

These various groups had radically different visions of the cosmos, but they shared a common strategy for communicating their ideas.  They claimed that only truly virtuous people could effect meaningful political transformation. The truly virtuous could see the true nature of the cosmos, and thus knew the right things to do.  So to win adherents to your political cause, you created models of virtuous action.  If people followed these models, they would come to see your political program as true, and in so doing, they would condemn the politics of your opponents. As a result, as Nanjing is destroyed and rebuilt several times in the nineteenth century, each time allows leaders to use the city to depict the true nature of the cosmos and the kind of actions that would bring about a utopia.

Chuck Wooldridge-Scholars

What kind of sources and archives did you consult in writing this book? What kind of challenges did you encounter in researching this subject?

The sources for this book are quite diverse. First I created a database of everybody I could identify as having Nanjing as their native place, and I tried to track down all their extant writings.  Then I made a list of gazetteers of the city, and went through them.  Then I located accounts of the Taiping in the city. Then I went to Taipei and Beijing to go through the archives there.  And after all that, I still didn’t really have the story down.  The period of rebuilding the city after the Taiping was still a big blank.

It took me a long time to fill the hole.  Natives of Nanjing had mostly been too poor after the war to contribute much to rebuilding, and there was very little recorded in Qing government archives.  It turned out that Zeng Guofan, the architect of the Taiping defeat, had not used official channels to manage the rebuilding, but had instead employed an extensive, informal network of logistical support.  So a lot of people were involved who, at first glance, seemed to have no connection to Nanjing.

Then there are a lot of odds and ends: poetry, ritual manuals, and letters. I had a good time reading prefaces to different books to figure out how certain manuscripts had survived the Taiping War.  My favorite source is a catalog of the archive of the governor-general’s office.  Apparently the archive was extant as of 1937, and the catalog lists all kinds of different bureaus responsible for different aspects of urban administration. Sadly, the archive itself seems to be lost, and I could only make very limited use of the catalog.

Are there any cities – whether in China or elsewhere – that you think are being shaped by utopian visions today?

I argue in my book that all the individual elements of nineteenth-century political strategies are still around, but people have not thus far combined them.  I don’t know that promoting a vision of cosmic harmony would be desirable, but I do think it is still possible.  Groups promoting religious visions of change have mostly been suppressed, and therefore have not been able to shape contemporary cityscapes in quite the same way.  Protests, as for example recently in Hong Kong, have made use of urban geography, but not linked it (so far as I know) to cosmology.

The most powerful vision of the future shaping China today, including Nanjing, is neoliberalism.  Most of the neighborhoods I visited while the research for this book have been torn down in the name of economic development, which promises a future of prosperity with a vehemence that I find utopian.

WEAI Author Q&A: Lee Pennington’s “Casualties of History”



We are pleased to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Casualties of History: Wounded Japanese Servicemen and the Second World Warpublished by Cornell University Press. The book’s author is Lee K. Pennington, an associate professor of history at the United States Naval Academy. In this book, Professor Pennington relates for the first time in English the experiences of Japanese wounded soldiers and disabled veterans of Japan’s “long” Second World War (from 1937 to 1945). He maps the terrain of Japanese military medicine and social welfare practices and establishes the similarities and differences that existed between Japanese and Western physical, occupational, and spiritual rehabilitation programs for war-wounded servicemen, notably amputees. 

We thank Professor Pennington for taking the time to discuss his book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove the project. 

How did you become interested in the topic of wounded Japanese soldiers?

Studying the visual historical record of the Second World War sparked my interest in depictions of combat and its consequences that existed within Japanese wartime culture.  I came to realize that wounded soldiers commanded a prominent presence within the wartime mass media, and as such, began to investigate the realities that lay behind such representations.  While mucking about in archives in Japan, the world of the wounded serviceman began to grow more apparent and more consequential than I had previously thought!

What kinds of archives and sources did you consult in your research? Did you encounter any challenges in researching this subject?

It was very important for me to examine not only the institutions created to support wounded servicemen but also the views and experiences of those men as depicted in their own words.  Also, I wanted to include popular images of battle casualties as well as official discussions of them.  Important archival sources included the National Diet Library and the Japan College of Social Work.  Then, the Shokeikan archive opened in Tokyo during the later stages of my research and I benefited from its vast collection of historical materials related to wounded Japanese servicemen and Japan’s disabled veteran community.

Could you provide an example or two of ways in which Japanese cultural norms created a different experience for returning soldiers than for American soldiers?

A key difference was that local communities in wartime Japan energetically rallied themselves in support of wounded servicemen.  That’s not to say that such did not happen in the United States during the war years, but in Japan providing aid to battle casualties was in many ways a grassroots rather than a national endeavor.  To tell the truth, I was more struck by the similarities rather than the differences between the two national contexts.  No community wants to see its men (and women!) in uniform suffer, and both Japan and the United States mustered great resources for the benefit of wounded servicemen and disabled veterans.


What surprised you most in the course of your research?

I went into this project expecting to find little in the way of support services for repatriated battle casualties in wartime Japan, but I discovered that historical conditions differed greatly from my preconceived ideas.  I think that for too long we have bought into the wartime propaganda produced in Japan that asserted that it was disgraceful for Japanese servicemen to do anything but die in battle.  In actuality, the same state that spouted such jingoism also created a sophisticated social welfare system that trumpeted the heroism of war-wounded men.

How would you like your book to affect or complicate people’s understanding of Japan’s wartime experience?

One hope that I have for Casualties of History is that it leads readers to reconsider many of their beliefs and assumptions about how Japanese society experienced war and reacted to its effects.  Years ago, during my first year at Columbia as a graduate student, I remember Professor Carol Gluck stating one day in class that we need more social history about Japan during the Second World War.  As I found out during the course of my own research, there’s much about wartime Japanese society that we historians have yet to explore.  A lot of valuable material is out there in the archives, just waiting to be uncovered and unpacked!

WEAI Author Q&A: Akiko Takenaka’s “Yasukuni Shrine”



We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Yasukuni Shrine: History, Memory, and Japan’s Unending Postwarpublished by The University of Hawaii Press. The book’s author is Akiko Takenaka, an associate professor of  history at the University of Kentucky. Professor Takenaka’s book offers the first extensive English-language study of Yasukuni Shrine as a war memorial. It explores the controversial shrine’s role in waging war, promoting peace, honoring the dead, and, in particular, building Japan’s modern national identity. It traces Yasukuni’s history from its conceptualization in the final years of the Tokugawa period and Japan’s wars of imperialism to the present.

We thank Professor Takenaka for taking the time to discuss her book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove the project. 

What is the significance of the Yasukuni Shrine in Japan? How did you become interested in focusing your book on it?

Yasukuni Shrine is one of the main focal points in the international debates on how Japan remembers its wartime past. It is also deeply intertwined with Japan’s domestic politics in the postwar decades as a result of the strong ties that the Liberal Democratic Party has forged with the shrine and all its meanings.

But most writings on Yasukuni Shrine treat it as a political problem rather than a war memorial and an actual space, an actual shrine, with a long history. I wanted to examine its history as well as the spatial practices that took place within the shrine grounds as a way to think about how it became such a complex political issue. I was also interested in the ways the shrine contributed to the making, strengthening, and transforming of Japan’s national identity.

Brian Connors Manke Photography (c) UK College of Arts & Sciences

Brian Connors Manke Photography (c) UK College of Arts & Sciences

What kinds of archives and sources did you consult during your research for the book? Did you encounter any challenges in researching this history?

Key primary sources include publications by the shrine, including a number of photo albums produced for bereaved families’ visits, newspaper and magazine articles, and memoirs. I conducted interviews and held discussions with numerous people who lived through the Asia-Pacific War in order to better understand the experience of a total war and of the loss of a family member on the battlefront. I also interviewed shrine personnel, and visited the shrine grounds and the Yūshūkan museum numerous times for fieldwork. Secondary sources are countless and continues to appear. I find that they are driven by politics for the most part, but wanted to make sure that I incorporated the arguments that had been made previously. Weeding through as many of them as possible was an enormous task.

How would you like your book to affect or complicate people’s understanding about Japan’s postwar history?

I think that a key contribution that my book can make is its coverage of the entire history of Yasukuni Shrine from its pre-Meiji conceptualizations to the present. I attempted undertake the history in a way that would highlight the varying roles and meanings the shrine has had for different people, and how the meanings have transformed over time. My goal here was to demonstrate why Yasukuni Shrine became, and still is, such a political problem, rather than to offer critique or solution, which is what most publications on the topic do. This attempt also involves a critical understanding of the reasons why both supporters and critics of the shrine strongly believe what they do. I took this approach because I believe that a resolution to such a complicated and contentious issue must involve an understanding of beliefs of the other side. I hope that this approach will also be useful in thinking about other pressing matters that Japan faces, including the recent controversies over the “comfort women” issue.

WEAI Author Q&A: Jessamyn Abel’s “The International Minimum”



We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: The International Minimum: Creativity and Contradiction in Japan’s Global Engagement, 1933-1964published by The University of Hawaii Press. The book’s author is Jessamyn Abel, an assistant professor of Asian Studies and history at Pennsylvania State University. Professor Abel tells the history of internationalism in Japan from the 1930s to 1960s, shedding light on the deep connections between modes of diplomacy during times of aggressive imperial expansion and of peaceful cooperation. Her book traces the evolution of the internationalist worldview in Japan by examining both official policy and general discourse surrounding epochal moments such as Japan’s withdrawal from the League and admission into the United Nations, the failed and successful attempts to host a Tokyo Olympiad, and wartime and postwar regional conferences in Tokyo and Bandung, Indonesia.

We thank Professor Abel for taking the time to discuss her book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove the project. 

What is the significance of your title “The International Minimum?”

This phrase refers to a central idea of the book: that, after the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, countries aspiring to become or to remain great powers had to engage in a minimum level of international cooperation.  The internationalist imperative meant that when Japan withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933, political and intellectual leaders could not abandon the forms and rhetoric of Wilsonian internationalism that had taken hold during the 1920s, but instead twisted both the ideals and policies of internationalism to accommodate the realities of aggression and imperialist expansion.  Though postwar Japan has been neither militarily aggressive nor territorially expansionist, the patterns of international cooperation developed during the wartime period (such as non-governmental cultural exchanges and regional frameworks) continued to shape foreign policy in the decades after the war, even to the present day.  In order to adhere to what had become the “international minimum,” Japanese leaders had to be creative in their foreign policy-making, which sometimes resulted in seemingly contradictory policies.

What drew you to the topic of Japan’s international cooperation and to the time period that this book covers?

I came to the field of Japanese history via international relations, where the tensions between Japan’s strong economic position and constrained international contribution captured my curiosity.  I planned to study the historical background of contemporary Japanese foreign policy in the postwar period, but when I learned about Japan’s continued cooperation with the League of Nations for several years after its withdrawal from the organization, I began to wonder about the fate of internationalism and its proponents in wartime Japan.  A closer look at the wartime period revealed many fundamental continuities with the postwar years, and I decided to do a transwar study in order to highlight those continuities and consider their significance for our understanding of internationalism in the twentieth century.


What kinds of archives and sources did you consult during your research for the book? Did you encounter any challenges in researching this history?

The Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Archives (Gaikō Shiryōkan) is probably the archive I used the most for this book, as it contained materials for almost every chapter.  Other archives were very specific to a single chapter.  For instance, I used the archives of the Kokusai Bunka Shinkōkai (Society for International Cultural Relations), now housed in the Japan Foundation Library, for the chapter on that organization.  In order to get at general views of international relations (as opposed to official government policies or efforts by a specific organization), I read a lot of the popular journals of opinion of the times, to see what people would have been reading about the big international questions of their day.  And this gets at my biggest challenge in researching this topic.  It’s very difficult to get a sense of the regular person’s view of a topic like international relations, because it’s not something that people tend to write about in their diaries or letters to the editor or that sort of material.  For the most part, the people who wrote about theories of international cooperation were intellectuals or government officials.  Of course, these are the people most involved in making policy, so their voices certainly matter.  But what I think brought me closest to a grassroots view was the concept of cultural internationalism, which involved international exchanges and ideas that (though mostly controlled by elites) made their way into everyday life via textbooks, poetry, films, music, and sports.

What surprised you most in the course of your research?

There weren’t surprises so much as a steady shift in my approach to the question.  I started off wanting to know about how internationalists continued their activities, so I was looking for things like that initial point that captured my attention, the continued participation in the League of Nations after withdrawal.  I gradually realized that the things I was pegging as internationalist were neither antiwar nor anti-imperialist.  So I had to realize that the people who claimed to be and sounded very internationalist were not that different from the ones whom historians usually label as imperialist or militarist.  And the question became, really, what aspects of internationalism continued through the war, and how did they change the ways in which the Japanese government and people pursued internationalist activities?

 How would you like your book to affect people’s understanding about Japan’s diplomatic history?

I hope the book will change people’s understanding of Japan’s diplomatic history in a few ways.  First, I hope to provide a sense of Japan as contributing to the internationalist imagination.  The black-and-white sense of wartime Japan as acting unilaterally obscures the creative policy-making that took place in the various efforts of Japanese internationalists to remain engaged with the world in the context of imperialist war.  Second, I am joining several other scholars in working to soften the sense of 1933 as a disjuncture in Japan’s international relations.  While  the rift with the League of Nations had a powerful impact on Japanese foreign policy, there was not a clear turn from internationalism to isolation, but rather a variegation of internationalism to suit national circumstances and goals.  The continuities across 1933 are at least as important as the changes.  Third, beyond the field of Japanese diplomatic history, I am contributing to trends in international history more broadly by bringing cultural materials into the study of diplomacy and by linking the international and domestic realms.

WEAI Author Q&A: Shellen Wu’s “Empires of Coal”

We are pleased to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Empires of Coal: Fueling China’s Entry into the Modern World Order, 1860-1920published by Stanford University Press. The book’s author is Shellen Xiao Wu, an assistant professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. In this study about the international battle over control of China’s coal reserves, Professor Wu argues that the changes specific to the late Qing were part of global trends in the nineteenth century, when the rise of science and industrialization destabilized global systems and caused widespread unrest and the toppling of ruling regimes around the world.

We thank Professor Wu for taking the time to discuss her book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove the project. 

What first drew you to the topic of Western interests in China’s coal reserves?

I first read the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen’s writings years ago and found them fascinating. Here’s a Prussian aristocrat traveling extensively in China right after the Taiping Rebellion in the 1860s with his Indian tea (he didn’t like Chinese tea, thought it too weak) and American whiskey and writing down all his impressions, as well as long reports on mineral deposits in the interior to send to the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce. His expeditions took place at a time when very few Westerners went beyond the legation quarters of Beijing. Richthofen eventually coined the term “silk road” and correctly hypothesized the origin of loess in the North China Plains, the two things for which he is most known for today.  He also wrote a lot about coal in China.

I made the connection between Richthofen and the turning point in Western interest in Chinese coal, and realized that he was pivotal to a changing perception of China by the late nineteenth century. We know the expression “not for all the tea in China.” Richthofen and his writings led many in the West to see China not just as a source of luxury goods like tea and silks, but also as a place with vast reserves of coal. This shift in view in turn led to a Great Race between European and American companies and Chinese interests to be the first to develop these mineral reserves and reap the profits.

What kinds of sources and archives did you consult in researching this study? Did you encounter any challenges in researching this topic?

I used a number of archives and published documents, including the Number One Historical Archives in Beijing, the Hubei Provincial Archives, eight volumes of Qing documents related to mining published by Academia Sinica in Taiwan, and the German Foreign Ministry Archives. It turns out that the Germans kept extensive documentation of expats in China and records of German engineers who worked at one of the earliest iron foundries and modern coalmines established in China. Everyone, the Germans, the British, and Qing officials, were keenly aware of the importance of coal to the process of industrialization.

Doing these kinds of new global histories requires language skills and a lot of travel. Research for the book took me to three continents, Europe, the US, and Asia, and turned up massive amounts of materials. The very abundance of archival and published document sources turned into the main challenge. Mining engineers’ reports don’t make for the most exciting reading. It was a very unwieldy process to weed through all this material and distill it into a 200 -page monograph.


During your research, did any of your findings surprise you or change the way you thought about the history of China—or about the history of the West–during this era?

We take for granted now that we live in an age of globalization, but it’s quite surprising how much ground people covered in the nineteenth century. Europeans and Americans traveled extensively in China before the railroads were built; at a slightly later period, Chinese students and Qing officials traveled abroad to Europe and North America. Far from one sided, everyone was observing and studying everyone else and people were open minded in a way that I don’t think many of us are even today.

How are the global trends detailed in your book relevant for our contemporary times? 

I detail in my book the process of industrialization and the creation of a new mindset necessary for China’s switch to a coal based economy at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. It was apparent to officials, intellectuals, and writers then that if they didn’t seize control of Chinese mineral resources, they might lose it to the acquisitive expansion of Western imperialism. Today we are living with the consequences of that transition. The intensive exploitation of coal and other natural resources to fuel the Chinese economy has resulted in extensive environmental damage. Even studies conducted by the Chinese government show that up to 20% of the farmland in the country to be dangerously polluted, much of it from heavy metals and the run-off from ecologically damaging mining practices. The global trends begun during the period covered in book are extremely important to understanding these contemporary problems.

How would you like your book to affect people’s understanding about China’s history?

I’ve always found China to be similar to the US in that it’s a very big country and a place where it’s very easy to focus exclusively on local and, at a stretch, national concerns. My book is part of a growing movement taking place in Sinology. More and more of us are examining the various connections both within and beyond China’s borders, as part of particular global turns in history. I would like my book to help open up the horizons of people’s understanding of Chinese history and to see China in the context of global changes in the way we use and exploit natural resources to produce the energy that makes modern life possible.

Meet the WEAI Authors Event: Emily T. Yeh and “Taming Tibet”




A Report on the Meet the WEAI Authors event featuring Emily T. Yeh, author of the Study of the WEAI  Taming Tibet: Landscape Transformation and the Gift of Chinese Development, on March 25, 2014:

Emily T. YehAssociate Professor of Geography at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and moderator Robert Barnettdirector of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University, discussed Yeh’s new book Taming Tibet: Landscape Transformation and the Gift of Chinese Development, a Study of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute published by Cornell University Press.

During her lecture, Emily T. Yeh provided a brief overview of the key findings and arguments in her book, along with a more in-depth discussion of the book’s final chapter on the New Socialist Countryside housing projects. Her book traces the landscape transformation in Lhasa and the Tibetan Autonomous Region from the 1950s to the present. Specifically, the book follows the changes in Tibet’s “material landscape” and, accordingly, organizes its chronology into three types of development: soil, plastic, and concrete. Yeh argued that the changes represented in those three categories reveal tensions in Tibet about how Tibetans should be incorporated into–and how they should appreciate–the Chinese state’s development of their landscape.

In the book, soil refers to the introduction of scientific agriculture. Many soldiers in Tibet in the 1950s were involved in this process. They recruited poor Tibetan men and women. This period saw a shift from an expectation for the Tibetan people to express gratitude towards socialist liberation to gratitude towards Chinese aid in Tibetan development.

For Yeh, plastic represents the covering of the landscape in plastic by Han migrants engaged in vegetable farming. This material shift was marked by Han migration through family ties, many descended from the soldiers previously stationed there. Officials believed the migrants would help transfer skills to local Tibetans by virtue of residing in the same geographic area. However, instead, Tibetan and Han became segregated residentially and economically. Additionally, many migrants became resentful of the vast amount of money the government invested in the Tibetan economy. They viewed Tibetans as ungrateful for this gift.

Finally, concrete represents urban expansion and the development of housing projects. This material shift is embodied by the rapid urbanization of Lhasa and the New Socialist Countryside housing projects, which have been carried out across Tibet and the surrounding area. Yeh argues that housing has been tied to a broader idea of development as a gift, for which the Tibetans should be grateful.  Yet, a gift is never really free. Yeh noted  that the act of giving forces Tibetans to recognize the role of the state as a “giver,” making Tibetans recognize their relationship with the state as “receiver.” Development projects have a genuine goal of wanting to improve society, but these gifts are also linked to notions of indebtedness.

Audio for the event is available on iTunes here: