History

Widow’s Memorial Arch – Sichuan

Widow's Memorial Arch in Sichuan, China. Photo by Wilson Edward Manly, courtesy USC.
Widow’s Memorial Arch in Sichuan, China. Photo by Wilson Edward Manly courtesy USC.

Reading Gail Hershatter‘s The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past for a class this week and I was piqued by the mentions of the memorial arches (牌坊) that were erected under imperial decree for women who had stayed faithful to their long-deceased husbands. (They’re also extensively mentioned in Sex, Law, and Society in Late Imperial China, by Matthew Sommer.

I found this image on USC’s International Mission Photography Archive. The main heading reads 一門三節 yī-mén sān-jié – “one family, three chaste [widows]”. Must have been a particularly great honor in those days.

Hu Shih on the Fall of the Roman Empire

Working on a piece about Chinese historiography, and I came across this piece by Hu Shih on Rome in 1912 – clearly showing signs of Gibbons’ influence:

「忽念及羅馬所以衰亡,亦以統一過久,人有天下思想而無國家觀念,與吾國十年前同一病也。羅馬先哲如 Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius 皆倡世界大同主義。。。又耶教亦持天下一家之說,尊帝為父而不尊崇當日之國家,亦羅馬衰亡之一原因也。」

“I suddenly recall that the reason for Rome’s demise was that it too had been unified for too long. People had a “world-mindset” but no conception of their country, a sickness just like that of our country ten years ago. [1] Early Roman philosophers like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius all promoted the principle of the “Great World Unity”… Furthermore Christianity also supported the notion that the world was one family and respected God as the Father but did not respect the country of the day. This too, was a reason for Rome’s demise.”

[1] Perhaps a dig at Kang Youwei?

“The Principal Varieties of Mankind”

"The Principal Varieties of Mankind"

Came across this illustration in the course of my research for Sylvia Wynter‘s Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument. Published on May 3, 1850 by James Reynolds, it’s credited to John Emslie, who also wrote and illustrated the New Canterbury Tales.

This need to classify and to sort humanity into differing levels of “civilization,” “culture”, and “advancement” is perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of the last new centuries. Even worse is the fact that it was presented in rational, almost self-evident terms.

Two Daikons in Meiji Japan

The Meiji Emperor's silver anniversary (by Nobukazu Yosai 楊斎延一)
The Meiji Emperor’s silver anniversary (by Nobukazu Yosai 楊斎延一)

I was reading Takashi Fujitani‘s excellent Splendid Monarchy: Power and Pageantry in Modern Japan when I came upon this golden anecdote of two “daikons”:

“Quite outrageously, at the time of the emperor’s silver anniversary, which was often referred to as the Great Wedding (daikon 大婚), the people of at least one neighborhood in the provincial town of Saga made a visual pun and placed a giant radish (daikon 大根) on a festival float. Forty neighborhood residents of all ages danced to the rhythms of festive music (hayashi 囃子) as they paraded to the Saga prefectural office with what would appear to be a fairly explicit sexual symbol.” (228-229)

Mendocino State Hospital and Foucault’s “Panopticon”

Mendocino State Hospital 123 Building

We recently read Foucault in our Historical Methods class; specifically, his chapter on Discipline. At the end of the chapter, Foucault raises the specter of the Panopticon and a society so throughly infused with self-regulated discipline. What makes discipline insidious is not that it can be seen, but rather, it cannot be seen. The supervision can be constant and yet, incorporeal.

Which brings me to Mendocino State Hospital, which is now of course the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas and where I spent most of my childhood. One of the largest wards in the former mental hospital is the 123 Building in the back (I’m not sure if it ever had a proper name). After reading Foucault, I suddenly realized that each ward had a small booth for observation and supervision, and all the light switches were in that room. If the observers turned off the booth’s light and kept the ward’s on, they could not be seen. It was a pretty heavy thing to consider the physical manifestation of Discipline in a building I have been in and around since my childhood.

My sister helped me take the picture above to illustrate the view of the supervisor from that booth.

Mendocino State Hospital Patient Board

Items from the old  Hospital at a Grace Hudson Museum exhibit a couple years ago.
Items from the old Hospital at a Grace Hudson Museum exhibit a couple years ago.

“Comfort Women” in Californian Textbooks

The L.A. Times on the new proposal to teach the issue of “comfort women” in Californian history textbooks:

The new language on “comfort women” marks the first proposal to teach what has been a long-contentious political issue in East Asia in high school classrooms in the U.S. It has the potential to widely influence how textbooks address the topic.

The guidelines recommend that the subject of “comfort women” be taught to high schoolers “as an example of institutionalized sexual slavery, and one of the largest cases of human trafficking in the 20th century.”

Personally, I hope that secondary school history teachers spend more time encouraging students to understand the complex nature of history rather than essentializing an incredibly complicated time period down to one or two paragraphs. Yes, it’s important that more Americans know about the issue, but no one’s going to get a good understanding from the small side blurbs Asian history is usually reduced to in American history textbooks. Furthermore, it ignores the long and intimate relationship wartime soldiers had with prostitution and potentially coerced sexual services.

On “Ancient China”

I was reading The Cambridge History of Ancient China yesterday for an independent reading seminar and stumbled upon this golden quote from Princeton’s own Robert Bagley (unfortunately, I did not get to take any classes with him while I was there):

“No student of fifth-century Athenian culture would be content to describe it as an early stage in the rise of Byzantine civilization, but this is exactly the sort of backward view that shapes the study of China before the Zhou period.”

There’s a pervasive preoccupation with defining what “ancient China” is; indeed, it’s a preoccupation that is arguably misleading. Perhaps we believe the Xia and Shang dynasties are the progenitors of “Chinese” civilization simply because Sima Qian said so. And given that he lived centuries after their putative existence, why should his determination be the final word on the matter?

Anti-Chinese Rhetoric, Late 1800s

“[Chinese] places could and should be filled with worthier immigrants — Europeans, who would take the oath of allegiance to the country, work both for themselves and for the commonwealth, fraternize with us, and, finally, become a part of us. All things considered, I cannot perceive what more right or business these semi-barbarians have in California than flocks of blackbirds have in a wheat field; for, as the birds carry of the wheat without leaving any thing of value behind, so do the Confucians gather the gold, and take it away with them to China, without compensation to us who opened the way to it.” * Hinton Rowan Helper (1829-1909)

(Funny thing, given that Helper was a noted abolitionist. The number of times I’ve had to remind people today – just because one was opposed to slavery did not mean one did not harbor prejudicial views.)

Thwarted Plans, An American Formosa

I recently learned that Taiwan’s entanglement with the United States dates to well before President Truman ordered the USS Valley Forge to patrol the Taiwan Strait on June 26, 1950  – in fact, there was a scheme in 1857 to annex Formosa to the U.S. That year saw an effort led by the missionary and doctor Peter Parker (not Spiderman, unfortunately) and merchants Gideon Nye and William Robinet to annex the island, though their ambitions were obviously frustrated in the end. (University of Arkansas Professor Emeritus) Shih-Shan Henry Tsai’s Maritime Taiwan: Historical Encounters with the East and the West chronicles the intrigue very well. There’s also Harold D. Langley’s Gideon Nye and the Formosa Annexation Scheme.